THE CHANCELLOR has handed more cash to Nicola Sturgeon to mitigate the economic strain of the Omicron surge – leaving the door open for tighter restrictions to potentially be rolled out over the festive period.
A senior UK Government minister has not ruled out further measures being introduced in England before Christmas.
Public Health experts have warned that immediate action may be needed to curb the spread of the more infectious variant with the extra cash for businesses potentially unlocking the possibility of rules being strengthened north of the border.
Professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), has raised the prospect of a circuit-breaker lockdown in the coming days.
He added: “Now, you could have it after Christmas, the problem is after Christmas it’s probably too late, it’s probably by then we will have had a huge surge of infections with all the impact upon society.”
He added: “We can’t afford to wait, but there is still the decision to make about what level of interventions.”
The Herald on Sunday reported that the First Minister could recall Holyrood before the New Year to discuss introducing further Covid restrictions if infections continue to spiral. Ms Sturgeon denied she had any current plans to carry out a recall of parliament.
Yesterday, one of the First Minister’s key Covid public health advisers, Professor Mark Woolhouse, warned “we cannot afford to wait” for action as cases of Omicron soar.
Leaked minutes from Sage suggested scientists had told UK ministers that tougher measures need to be brought in “very soon” and warned against delaying further interventions until 2022.
The First Minister will update MSPs tomorrow on whether any further restrictions will be rolled out ahead of Christmas.
Speaking in Holyrood during last week’s update, Ms Sturgeon insisted that “our public health response is curtailed by lack of finance” from the UK Government.
She added that “there are further steps we could and would have considered…had we had the financial ability to do so”, pointing specifically to hospitality.
The Treasury has now doubled the £220 million it offered the Scottish Government last week to £440 million after discussions with devolved officials.
But last night, the First Minister has warned that the initial £220 million “was not new or additional”, adding that “it was actually £48 million less than we had been expecting”.
Ms Sturgeon warned that “an infections soar and businesses suffer, we still need much urgency” in action and support from the UK Government.
She added: “To that end, it was disappointing and frustrating that neither the PM nor the Chancellor attended this evening’s COBRA.”
The Treasury said the additional cash will help ensure the Scottish Government can take the Covid precautions they feel are necessary to keep people safe.
Mr Sunak said: “Following discussions with the devolved administrations, we are now doubling the additional funding available.
“We will continue to listen to and work with the devolved administrations in the face of this serious health crisis to ensure we’re getting the booster to people all over the UK and that people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are supported.”
Scottish Conservative shadow cabinet secretary for Covid recovery, Murdo Fraser said: “This is very welcome news from the UK Government. “This money will provide vital support to Scottish businesses – especially those in the hospitality sector – that have badly hit by the Omicron variant.
“It is now up to the SNP Government to get this cash out of the door before Christmas to those struggling businesses who need it most.
“The SNP Government need to step up and start delivering, especially when there are businesses on the brink of closure and Scottish jobs on the line.
“This announcement once again demonstrates the benefits Scotland derives from being part of a strong United Kingdom.”
Deputy First Minister John Swinney said it was “pretty clear that people in Scotland are changing their patterns of activity as a consequence of the seriousness of the threat that we face from Omicron”.
He added: “The regulations came into place on Friday morning and it’s very clear and noticeable that people are following many of these restrictions.”
Asked what it would take for more measures to be introduced, he said the Government was continuing to monitor the “really aggressive” spread of Omicron.
He said: “We will, of course, be updating parliament in the course of this week, on the further views that we have about any other measures that we need to take.”
The UK Government Health Secretary has warned that rolling our new coronavirus restrictions in England have not been ruled out.
Sajid Javid said there are “no guarantees” following a “sobering analysis” from scientific advisers warning about the threat from Omicron.
The UK Government minister said while there remains uncertainty about the new variant, it is time to be “more cautious” amid the rapid spread of the strain.
His comments came as it was reported stricter measures could be imposed in light of the warning from experts that there are likely already hundreds of thousands of new infections every day.
Asked about ruling out new coronavirus measures before Christmas, he said there is “a lot of uncertainty”, but that it is “time to be more cautious”.
He told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One: “There are no guarantees in this pandemic, I don’t think.
“At this point we just have to keep everything under review.”
On Sunday, Scotland recorded one new coronavirus death and 5,924 new positive cases within the previous 24 hours.
Registry offices are generally closed at weekends, affecting the numbers of deaths recorded.
It brings the Covid-19 death toll in Scotland under the daily measure – of people who first tested positive for the virus within the previous 28 days – to 9,781.