Boris Johnson was wrong to reject an earlier national lockdown and to resist calls for a furlough extension, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives has said.
Douglas Ross criticised the Prime Minister’s previous refusal to impose tougher restrictions to curb a second wave of coronavirus, contrary to the advice from the UK Government’s scientific advisers.
The Prime Minister announced another national lockdown that will come into effect from Thursday in England after local restrictions failed to sufficiently reduce infections.
The measures involve closing pubs, bars, restaurants and non-essential retail for at least four weeks, but schools, colleges and nurseries will remain open.
Furlough at 80% of wages will also be extended, a move the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish Governments have been calling for since before more-restrictive measures were put in place in their countries, including a “fire-break” lockdown in Wales.
Speaking on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Mr Ross said the furlough scheme should be available for any part of the UK if it were to go into lockdown.
“The furlough scheme should be extended to Scotland if we go into those lockdown conditions and I think it’s the right thing for the UK Government to do, and that’s why I’m stressing very strongly, very clearly and very publicly, to say this is an absolute must for Scotland,” he said.
Challenged about the Prime Minister’s previous opposition to another nationwide lockdown, Mr Ross replied: “I’ve said that I don’t think anything should have been ruled out and it probably was a mistake of the Prime Minister to rule out a national lockdown, because if this virus has shown us anything it’s that you can’t rule anything out given the way it develops and how cases can go up and come back down again.
“We thought in August that in Scotland and across the UK that we’d really got on top of this virus and here we are, a few months later, clearly back into a situation where there is a concerning level of people being infected from the virus and sadly being still admitted into ICU and losing their lives as a result of Covid.”
Insisting he has not changed his position over the job retention scheme, Mr Ross added: “I supported furlough when we were in lockdown in Scotland and across the UK and I still support furlough.
“It’s been a vital tool to protect almost a million jobs in Scotland and I want that tool to be available, should Scotland have to take the difficult decision to go back into national lockdown.”
The Moray MP sidestepped a question about whether the UK Government is handling the response to the pandemic well, but said the re-imposition of lockdown had been a “difficult decision” for the Cabinet.
In his first major speech since replacing Jackson Carlaw as leader, Mr Ross told the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank that it is unacceptable to only have the furlough scheme in place when England is in lockdown.
He argued that the scheme has been a “real and tangible reminder of the economic security of the Union” between Scotland and the rest of the UK and should be available to other nations whenever it is needed during the pandemic.
Mr Ross said: “It was right that the Chancellor announced the introduction of the furlough scheme and that it would be available to all parts of the UK for the period that it is being delivered in England.
“But we have to go further.
“We simply cannot have a situation where there has to be a request for Scotland or other parts of the UK to have the furlough scheme.
“I continue to have discussions with the Treasury and other departments. I’m hopeful that we will get the right outcome with this, but I also think it was right to take a stand on it because it’s important for Scottish businesses and Scottish jobs that they get the support from the furlough scheme.”
Reacting to the speech, Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, tweeted: “Following discussions yesterday, I again call for 80% furlough to be available when Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish businesses (not just English ones) need it, now or in future. If the UK Gov insist on retaining the financial levers to extend furlough, then they must deliver.
“The irony of the Scots Tory leader discussing the union this morning is not lost, after months of UK Gov disregard for our calls to extend furlough when business needed it most, with a mini extension only granted at the 11th hour when one part of the UK needed it.”
She added: “I also call again on the UK Gov to confirm it will cover any shortfall if demand-led business support grants cost more than the funding the Scot Gov has been given.
“I don’t want to be in this position – but (a) reasonable, simple request for fiscal flexibilities have been denied.”
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