A travel ban is being put in place between Scotland and the rest of the UK, with Christmas plans to ease the country’s Covid restrictions reduced to one day, due to the spread of a new strain of the deadly virus.
Speaking at an emergency briefing in Edinburgh, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also confirmed Scotland will enter a three-week period of “level four” lockdown measures, effective from one minute past midnight on Boxing Day. Island communities will enter tier three restrictions.
Schools will go “online-only” until at least January 18, but will remain open for the children of key workers and to vulnerable youngsters. Teachers will be required to return to work as normal.
Ms Sturgeon said “very firm preventative action is now necessary” following an emergency meeting of the cabinet on Saturday afternoon.
She said the UK now faces a “serious situation” due to the new variant of Covid-19 which is spreading “substantially” in parts of the country. Seventeen cases of the new coronavirus variant have been identified in Scotland so far.
Ms Sturgeon confirmed a five-day easing of Covid-19 restrictions between December 23 and 27 has now been reduced to just Christmas Day.
‘Strict travel ban’
She also confirmed a “strict travel ban” will be in place between Scotland and the rest of the UK over the festive period.
She added: “We intend to maintain a strict travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Unfortunately that ban will remain in place right through the festive period.
“We simply cannot risk more of this strain entering the country if we can possibly avoid it.
“This means people from Scotland not visiting other parts of the UK and vice-versa.”
She said cross-border travel will not be permitted for all but “the most essential purposes”.
Travel within Scotland will be allowed on Christmas Day only, but only if there is no alternative.
Five-day festive easing slashed to just Christmas Day
Ms Sturgeon added: “The five-day flexibility from December 23 to 27 was planned to recognise the impact of loneliness and the difficulties I know we all feel in leaving loved ones alone over Christmas.”
She confirmed indoor mixing of a bubble will now only be permitted “from midnight or a minute past midnight on Christmas Day to midnight going into Boxing Day”.
On the level four measures being put in place, Ms Sturgeon said: “We intend to apply level four measures to all of mainland Scotland for a period of three weeks from one minute after midnight on Boxing Day morning.
“The exception to that will be Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, and the other island communities where we have reduced restrictions in recent weeks.”
These islands will enter level three measures.
The levels will be reviewed after two weeks.
She said: “If we do act now and if we act firmly now we can prevent that serious situation materialising.”
‘Scotland has chance to act on preventative basis’
Ms Sturgeon told the press conference Scotland is facing “probably the most serious and potentially dangerous juncture we have faced since the start of the Covid pandemic in March”.
She said: “We have to take this seriously and act accordingly and appropriately.
“If we do act now and if we act firmly now we can prevent that serious situation materialising.
“The advantage that we do have in Scotland, unlike in other parts of the UK, is we do still have the chance to act on a preventative basis.”
She added: “It is very important for me to be clear at this stage there is no evidence to suggest this strain of the virus causes more severe illness.”
She also said there are no signs the new variant will have implications for the “effectiveness of the vaccines” that are being developed or the one currently in use in Scotland.
Speaking on the new measures as a whole, Ms Sturgeon added: “Standing here saying this actually makes me want to cry as I’m sure listening to it will make many of you want to cry because I know how harsh this sounds.
“I know how unfair it is. But this virus is unfair. It doesn’t care about Christmas. It doesn’t care about anything other than spreading itself as far and wide as possible.
“And it has just become, unfortunately, a lot better at doing that.”
1/ I know this is tough. But this new virus strain is spreading much faster, and so we must act quickly to stop it taking hold. That means even tighter restrictions through January to prevent the serious situation currently faced by places like London & save lives.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 19, 2020
Prior to Saturday’s decision, Scots were being asked to adhere to strict new guidance throughout the Christmas period.
Christmas bubbles of up to three households, and no more than eight people, were to be permitted between December 23 and 27 as a way of reducing “loneliness and isolation” over the festive period.
Earlier on Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a dramatic scaling back of festive pandemic plans, saying he did so “with a very heavy heart”.
He said the new variant strain of Covid-19 may be up to 70% more transmissible and could increase the R value by 0.4.
London and large areas of south and eastern England are entering a Tier 4 lockdown restrictions from Sunday, with non-essential retail closed and Christmas bubbles cancelled due to concerns around the spread of the new coronavirus variant.
The PM did not confirm whether police would be told to stop people travelling home over the festive period or knock on doors on Christmas Day.