Christmas plans have been thrown into doubt for families after a surge in Covid-19 cases and fears of a fast-spreading variant of the virus circulating in the UK.
At a meeting between the leaders of the devolved nations last night, Nicola Sturgeon said there was a case for tearing up plans to allow three households to come together for five days over Christmas in favour of more limited gatherings over a shorter period.
Talks between the four nations will continue today but Ms Sturgeon has warned she will act unilaterally if common UK rules cannot be agreed.
The first minister has scheduled an emergency review of coronavirus restrictions on December 22, giving families three days’ notice of the household gathering regulations in their regions.
The short window risks creating chaos for people who have already made travel plans over Christmas.
Renewed caution has arisen from an increase in cases throughout Scotland and fears that a variant of the virus may be circulating quickly around the UK.
Public health experts in Scotland have detected nine cases of the same virus that is spreading in London, leading some to speculate that a mutation may empower the virus to circulate more easily.
In a statement to parliament, Ms Sturgeon advised families to exercise “the utmost caution” over Christmas regardless of the restrictions. She said: “If you can avoid mixing with other households over Christmas, especially indoors, please do. If you feel that it is essential to meet, please reduce your unnecessary contacts as much as possible between now and then and follow all the sensible rules and mitigations.
“The next few weeks are likely to be the toughest part of the whole experience so far for many of us. The thought of staying away from loved ones over Christmas is difficult for any of us to bear. I hope that, by this time next year, all of this will be starting to fade into a bad memory.” Ms Sturgeon added that avoiding social gatherings was “no doubt the best gift that we can give our family and friends this year”.
The Health Service Journal and British Medical Journal said jointly yesterday that relaxing restrictions over Christmas was “rash” and “will cost many lives”.
Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Green Party, said: “Now that we are seeing an increase in infections again . . . it does look pretty clear that the editors of those health journals are right.”
Ms Sturgeon denied she had made a “rash” decision to relax Christmas restrictions last month — when it was impossible to know how widespread the virus would be so many weeks in advance. She said: “It was carefully considered and agonised over . . . there is no easy answer and there is no black and white, absolute right or wrong.
“In our actions against the virus, it is important that we retain the ability and the willingness to be flexible on everything.”
She stressed that coronavirus was not spreading as rapidly in Scotland as in other parts of the UK but warned “this might not continue to be the case” as Christmas approached.
Ms Sturgeon said that the public “must not over-react” to reports of a new mutation of the virus, as there was no evidence that it was any more deadly than other variants and speculation that it could spread more rapidly remained inconclusive.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, demanded full compensation from the Scottish government for the continuing restrictions over the busiest period in Scotland’s trading calendar.
“For hospitality businesses across Scotland, today’s decision will be devastating at what would have been a time of hope and opportunity for vital trading in the lead up to the festive period,” Dr Cameron said.
“Compensation has not been enough to keep our doors open. The Scottish government needs to substantially increase the level of financial compensation.”
Teachers in Glasgow, Fife and West Dunbartonshire launched a formal dispute with councils last night, claiming that schools were becoming increasingly unsafe as cases escalated.
Ms Sturgeon has refused to close schools, even in Level 4 areas, insisting that the risk of long-term damage to children’s health and wellbeing from a loss of education outweighed the immediate risk to teachers of infection with coronavirus.
Larry Flanagan, general-secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said: “The first minister cited rising infection levels in parts of the country and hinted that some areas may have to move back to Level 4, which is all the more likely if there is a post-Christmas spike in infection levels . . . teachers want to see schools open but not at all costs.”