Nicola Sturgeon has warned that plans to ease Christmas Covid measures may have to be scaled back, as four-nations talks failed to reach a conclusion on how to handle the festivities.
The fate of Christmas hung in the balance after discussions between the UK Government and devolved nations stalled without making a formal decision.
Talks will resume in a few hours when ministers continue their deliberations amid growing concern that loosening the restrictions will trigger a further resurgence of the virus.
Ms Sturgeon discussed Christmas strategies in a call with Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and representatives of the Welsh and Northern Irish administrations.
Previously, the first minister has announced that between December 23 and 27 people in Scotland will be able to form a bubble to celebrate Christmas.
Under the current plans, the Christmas bubble can be up to three households, including one extended household, up to a maximum of eight people – not including under-12s.
The advice states that people can travel anywhere in Scotland and the rest of the UK to form a bubble but local rules should be observed once in situ.
There is a case for us looking at whether we tighten the flexibilities that were given, in terms of duration and numbers of people meeting. I will consider the views of the other nations. If we can come to a four-nations agreement, that would be preferable. If that is not possible, the Scottish Government will consider what we think is appropriate.”
New Covid strain
But the inter-governmental talks were held as concern grows about a new strain of the Covid virus that was first detected in the south of England but has since been discovered north of the border.
Ms Sturgeon also announced that Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and East Lothian would face tougher restrictions from Friday – moving from level two to level three of the Scottish Government’s tier system.
South of the border, the second wave has resulted in millions of people in London and parts of Hertfordshire and Essex moving into England’s toughest tier of coronavirus rules this week.
Further concerns about Christmas triggering an acceleration of the virus were raised by two leading medical journals. The Health Service Journal and the British Medical Journal warned people might see the lifting of restrictions “as permission to drop their guard”.
Speaking ahead of her call with Mr Gove, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she will not be entering the discussions with a “fixed view”.
But the first minister signalled that shortening the period for relaxing restrictions or further limits on the size of bubbles was under consideration. She also said the Scottish Government would not shy away from taking a separate approach to the rest of the UK, if it was felt to be necessary.
“There is a case for us looking at whether we tighten the flexibilities that were given, in terms of duration and numbers of people meeting,” Ms Sturgeon said. “I will consider the views of the other nations. If we can come to a four-nations agreement, that would be preferable. If that is not possible, the Scottish Government will consider what we think is appropriate. Of course, I will update parliament as soon as there is anything to update parliament on.”
Ms Sturgeon has argued that easing restrictions would be a pragmatic response to people’s desire to meet up over the festivities. Although she has urged people not to do so if they possibly can, warning that meetings carry a risk of transmission.
UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for an urgent review of the Christmas arrangements.
After the call, a Welsh Government spokesman said: “The leaders of the devolved administrations and Michael Gove met this evening to discuss the arrangements over the Christmas period.
“They will reconvene tomorrow to confirm the position.”
But earlier Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford had said he would “not lightly put aside” his administration’s Christmas plans, which he described as a “hard-won agreement”.
A spokeswoman for Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said they would discuss the situation with medical and scientific advisers.
“It is expected that an update will be brought to the Executive on Thursday,” she added.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The four-nations call was a good opportunity to review the position on Christmas and discuss whether the messaging or guidance requires to be reinforced. These discussions will continue tomorrow.”