Level 4 Covid warning for large swathes of central Scotland
Large areas of central Scotland may be placed in the strictest Covid restriction - level four - to drive down unacceptably high case numbers, Nicola Sturgeon has warned.
Teaching unions now say they will push for schools to close and the re-introduction of “blended learning” under such a scenario, while business leaders also warned it would devastate many struggling firms.
The First Minister set out minimal changes to the levels of restrictions across Scotland, with just three areas - Fife, Perth and Kinross and Angus - being moved up from level two to three, in the first weekly review of the five-tiered system. People in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland will also now be allowed to enter another household.
But Ms Sturgeon warned that many parts of the Central Belt could face level four restrictions as a result of "stubbornly high" case numbers and a sudden spike in cases.
The SNP leader insisted that progress was being made to bring cases under control as a result of restrictions imposed in recent weeks. But with winter approaching, the case numbers are not coming down fast enough in Glasgow, North and South Lanarkshire, as well as West Lothian and West Dunbartonshire.
"That stabilisation is positive news - without the sacrifices everyone has been making, the situation would be much more severe" Ms Sturgeon told MSPs.
"However, while cases have stabilised in these areas, they have stabilised at a stubbornly high level.
"I have set out previously the risks of going further into winter with a high level of cases, even if it has plateaued.
"So the difficult question we must consider in the next days is whether more time in level three will start to reduce cases in these areas, or whether that will require more action."
There is also concerns over a "sharp increase" in some level three areas, including Inverclyde and Stirling, and to a lesser extent South Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire. These areas will now be monitored on a "daily basis", the SNP leader added.
"Given the severity of the level four restrictions, we will not take a decision to move any part of the country to that level lightly," the First Minister said.
"But nor will we shy away from it if we think it necessary to limit the damage the virus can do, or if we think a short period at level four may be less harmful overall than a prolonged period at level three."
The warning came as another 39 deaths were reported in Scotland today from the virus, although many of these are likely to be a lag from the weekend when register offices are closed. The number of positive tests was down to 832 and hospital admissions have been falling over the past week.
Level four would mean a return to something closer to the national lockdown conditions of earlier in the year. All pubs, restaurants, hotels and other accommodation would be forced to close down, along with all non-essential shops. Hairdressers and beauticians would have to shut their doors again, along with all visitor attractions and entertainment venues.
Schools would stay open under the Scottish Government criteria. But teaching unions now say they want a return to the home learning approach from the spring lockdown in the strictest level.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said: “The EIS Executive believes that level four of the Scottish Government Strategic Framework should trigger blended or remote learning contingencies.”
The union has now launched a consultation with members about continuing to work as infection levels rise, including the prospect of “safety strikes” where they feel their health could be at risk.
Business leaders also warned against a move to level four amid fears it will have a devastating impact on an already fragile economy.
Andrew McRae, FSB’s Scotland policy chair, said: “A move to the tightest level of restrictions across Scotland’s Central Belt would have driven a wedge through the high street. So called non-essential independent shops would have been forced to shut their doors while many of their competitors – like the online giants – would have been allowed to keep trading. Ahead of Christmas, we’d urge the First Minister to avoid this scenario.”
Business firms called for stimulus to be provided to those in areas where measures increased.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “Businesses and communities will be greatly relieved that a national lockdown has not been imposed across Scotland.
“However, as soon as evidence shows the growth of the infection is reducing, we expect restrictions to be eased sooner rather than later, enabling our economy to reopen.
“Meanwhile, those areas that are moving up a level and those in level three face devastating consequences unless rapid and effective business stimulus is put in place.”
She added: “Progress on a vaccine is greatly welcome.
“We expect the Scottish Government to be working out a detailed roll-out plan as an urgent priority as soon as a vaccine is approved.
“However, until it becomes widely available, we still need to live with and manage the virus whilst keeping our economy open.”
The changes for the three areas moving up to level three will come into effect from Friday.
It means that more than two-thirds of council areas in Scotland - 22 out of 32 - are now in level three restrictions. There are five at level two and a further five in level one. None are in the lowest level zero.
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