Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out sending Scotland into an early lockdown this week as she insisted the country would not be thrown off course by the “chopping and changing position” of the UK Government on furlough.
The first minister refused to preclude some areas being moved into the highest level of the Scottish Government’s five-tier coronavirus alert system when the situation is reviewed on Tuesday but said there was cause for some optimism in the latest data.
Ms Sturgeon indicated on Monday that questions over whether the UK Government’s job retention scheme would be extended for a Scotland-specific lockdown in the future could force her into introducing tougher measures before they are needed.
The Scottish Government is still seeking clarification on whether statements made by Boris Johnson mean the furlough scheme would continue to fund 80% of wages but the SNP leader said she would stick to the scheduled review period “if we can”.
Ms Sturgeon insisted she was trying to steer Scotland on a “sensible and rational path” and that it was in “nobody’s interest for public health decisions to be distorted by the need to effectively try to game a financial system”.
“If we do not get that commitment translated into practice, then clearly that has implications for the length of time that we would have access to the more generous furlough scheme,” she said.
The prime minister indicated on Monday that the job retention programme would be available to businesses in Scotland beyond the four-week lockdown in England but his comments have since been repeatedly rowed back on by his own ministers.
Scotland’s finance secretary, Kate Forbes, has now written to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, seeking “urgent clarification” on the situation and has requested an early meeting with Mr Sunak or the chief secretary, Steve Barclay.
First minister keeps options open
Speaking at her daily media briefing on Tuesday, after the country recorded a further 999 Covid-19 cases and 28 new deaths, Ms Sturgeon said it would be “stupid for any leader” to rule out moving to tougher restrictions when numbers remain so high.
Dundee and most of the central belt, including Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Edinburgh and the Lothians, were put into level three when the Scottish Government’s new tiered system came into force on Monday but no area has yet been in level four.
Under the highest tier, non-essential shops would be forced to close and socialising with other households would be banned indoors.
The first minister said the rate of increase in coronavirus cases appeared to have slowed in recent weeks but she warned officials need to be confident not just that the situation isn’t deteriorating but that it is “improving significantly” under existing measures.
“If we are not confident of that, it may be that we can’t move areas down a level, and it may also be that we have to move some areas up a level,” she said.
“While we hope this will not be the case, that analysis means we cannot rule out having to move some areas of the country to level four for a period.
“We haven’t reached those decisions yet. This is a judgement we’ll be considering as we assess the data in the days ahead.”
Ms Sturgeon said the country could not take comfort in a situation where cases are continuing to rise, even if they are rising at a slower rate now than they were a few weeks ago.
“A high level of cases, even if they were quite steady or growing only slowly, would not be a stable position,” she said.
“It would mean that if the R number was to rise at all during the winter, which with more people inside is quite likely, it would start to drive increased transmission from a high baseline.
“That risks the situation, very quickly potentially, running out of control. And that would mean more deaths, and a possible overwhelming of our NHS.”