Covid: Nicola Sturgeon to give update as Boris Johnson axes all restrictions

The Prime Minister unveiled his “Living with Covid” plan in the Commons yesterday, which included all restrictions being lifted on Thursday and the scrapping of free tests.

From April 1, most people who want to test themselves for the virus will have to pay upwards of £20 for a box, with firms anticipated to hike prices further than the £3 per test it currently costs the Government to provide them.

The Prime Minister said the UK had passed the peak of Omicron, with falling cases and hospital admissions, and added that we could now complete the “transition back towards normality”, while retaining contingencies to respond to a Covid resurgence or a new variant.

He added that the UK Government would continue to work with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they decided how to take forward their own plans – but that they would receive no extra funding for tests. 

But the First Minister described the plans to scrap free lateral flow and PCR tests as “inexcusable negligence”, saying it would be “catastrophic” for disease monitoring.

Nicola Sturgeon will now have to decide whether to fund the continuation of free testing from April 1.

The UK Government also confirmed that devolved administrations would be receiving no further funds to continue offering free tests in their nations, meaning they would have to take money from existing Barnett consequentials.

Ms Sturgeon and Humza Yousaf have both stressed the need to maintain widespread testing for controlling spread, as well as detecting new variants.

However with no new funding coming from the Treasury, it remains to be seen whether Scottish ministers will be willing to shell out millions every month to keep free tests in Scotland.

The Prime Minister’s announcement, which is thought to have pleased the majority of Tory backbenchers, included scrapping the need to self-isolate from this Thursday, as well as removing the £500 sick pay allowance from March 24.

Free testing will end on March 31 for most people in England, with symptomatic testing remaining for people in care homes, the over-80s, those who are clinically vulnerable and for people in hospital.

Mr Johnson said last night the bill for testing last month was £2 billion, adding: “We must scale back and prioritise our resources for the most vulnerable. We will continue providing free symptomatic tests for those of the highest risk.”

SNP MP Ian Blackford accused Mr Johnson of making “dangerous choices” which were “bereft of science and consultation”.

The SNP Westminster leader suggested that Scots would be paying the price for a “purely political” decision made by Mr Johnson in an attempt to save his job.

He said: “His decisions directly affect whether Scotland has the funding required to keep its people safe. That is the ridiculous reality of devolution, but it is a reality that must be addressed.”

Mr Johnson, while being heckled by the SNP MP, replied that there had been “outstanding” co-operation “between the UK Government the Scottish authority”.

He added that if there was a desire to continue offering free tests in Scotland, the government had “ access to the £41 billion record settlement” and “to hundreds of millions [of pounds] from the health and care levy”.

Earlier, Ms Sturgeon condemned the Prime Minister’s plan to end free Covid testing, saying it was “unacceptable” for decisions taken for England to have major public health consequences for the devolved administrations.

She said it was a stark reminder of “this illogical position that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have to deal with, which is that we are responsible for public health decisions in our own countries, but it’s the Treasury who makes the funding decisions and they seem to be only triggered by the decisions Boris Johnson makes for England.

“That’s unsustainable, it’s unacceptable, but that’s the situation we’re in.”

The First Minister’s own Covid framework set out today is expected to be considerably more cautious than the one laid out by Mr Johnson.

But opposition parties demanded Ms Sturgeon lay out a clear exit strategy from restrictions.

Tory MSP Dr Sandesh Gulhane said she should set out “a detailed roadmap out of the pandemic, with a greater emphasis put on trusting the public to act responsibly”. He said: “With the data on the virus being much more encouraging, we have to move away from blanket restrictions and instead trust the public to do the right thing.”

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie stressed the need for cross-border co-operation, adding: “Both governments must make decisions that are grounded in science and in the real world. If the UK Government does not continue testing, then the Scottish Government must consider doing so in order to help contain the spread of the virus.

“The people of Scotland deserve co-operative government that puts their wellbeing before all else.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the First Minister had to deliver a “comprehensive roadmap back to normality”, with a timeline for clearing NHS backlogs and a new support package for the long Covid sufferers who had been “shamefully abandoned”.

The Scottish Greens branded the UK government’s decision to relax Covid restrictions as “reckless” and “irresponsible”., saying Westminster had “consistently failed to recognise the seriousness of the situation.”

Meanwhile, business leaders have welcomed an £80 million Covid Economic Recovery Fund, launched by Ms Sturgeon, which will be distributed by councils through existing schemes such as Business Improvement Districts and grants.

Councils will also to able to use the funding to support low income households, and there will be a further £3m allocated to a City Centre Recovery Fund.

Andrew McRae, of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, said: “Independent businesses across Scotland will take heart when they learn that cash has been allocated to accelerate local recovery.

“This funding can’t linger in council bank accounts and must be spent on projects which really benefit the smaller businesses on our doorsteps.

“Just because restrictions are being lifted, that doesn’t mean that recovery is assured.

“Governments in Edinburgh and London must look at ways to relieve the immense pressure that rising overheads are putting on firms, and at the very least avoid making matters worse.”

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