NICOLA Sturgeon has warned that rising Covid-19 cases and a new variant of the virus that “may be more transmissible, with a faster growth rate” could force her to change plans to relax social distancing rules over the Christmas period.
The First Minister told MSPs she was considering reducing both the number of days people can get together, and the overall numbers of people allowed within one “bubble”.
While Sturgeon said she hoped for a joint approach across the UK, she also made clear that Scotland could go its own way.
Last night a call between Michael Gove and ministers throughout the UK in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast ended without a decision.
Talks are set to continue today. At the moment, three households, containing no more than eight people over the age of 11, will be allowed to mix, between December 23 and 27.
Travel restrictions have also been lifted.
The plan to ease the rules for the festive period – that was agreed in November – is coming under increasing pressure.
In their first joint editorial for 100 years, the BMJ and the Health Service Journal called the decision “rash” and “a major error” that could ultimately overwhelm the NHS and wipe out 20 years of progress in bringing down waiting times.
Responding to a question from Green MSP Patrick Harvie in Holyrood yesterday, the First Minister defended the initial decision.
She said: “People have different views on what we should do over Christmas, and I don’t think the decision was rash. I know from my point of view, I can’t speak for others, it was not rash, it was carefully considered, agonised over. These decisions are always agonised over, because they are not straightforward and there is no easy answer or black and white, absolutely right and wrong.”
She said it was important that any discussion about the rules was across the four nations, “given family patterns across the UK”.
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Sturgeon added: “I do think there is a case for us looking at whether we tighten the flexibilities that were given any further, both in terms of duration and numbers of people meeting,” she told MSPs.
Sturgeon said she hoped to that it would be possible to “come to a four nations agreement” but if that could not be done “then of course we will consider within the Scottish Government what we think is appropriate”.
Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, said he would not “lightly” abandon the relaxation.
He told the Welsh parliament: “The choice is a grim one, isn’t it? I have read in my own email account over the last couple of days heart-rending pleas from people not to reverse what we have agreed for Christmas.
“People who live entirely alone, who have made arrangements to be with people for the first time, they say to me that this is the only thing that they have been able to look forward to in recent weeks. Yet we know, if people do not use the modest amount of additional freedom available responsibly, then we will see an impact of that on our already hard-pressed health service.”
According to YouGov, 57% of people across the UK say the relaxation of rules should be dropped, with current rules maintained. Just 31% say the relaxation of rules at Christmas should go ahead.
Meanwhile, the First Minister has confirmed East Lothian, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire will move into level 3 next week. All of Scotland’s other 29 council areas will be remaining in their current levels. Given increasing cases across several local authority areas, the First Minister said the levels will be reviewed again next week.
The Scottish Government revealed that another 24 people in Scotland have died after testing positive for Covid-19. A total of 13,142 new tests were carried out in the previous 24 hours with 7.4%, – 845 – of these returning positive results.
Across the UK there were 506 deaths in total, up from 385 deaths confirmed last Tuesday.
Yesterday, Sturgeon also told MSPs that nine cases of the new variant had been discovered in the Greater Glasgow health board area.