Schools in Scotland will remain closed to most pupils until 1 February at the earliest to help contain the spread of coronavirus, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
The First Minister recalled Scottish Parliament to state that a new lockdown “similar to March” will take place from midnight tonight.
The decision to close schools will hit businesses, as many parents are forced to make new childcare arrangements.
Responding to questions from Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard on preparations for remote school work, Sturgeon said “significant steps” have been taken with the national e-learning offer – a programme with improved provision for live lessons, recorded lessons and supported learning.
She added that provision would be improved on an ongoing basis, reiterating that the government will aim to keep school closures to as short a period as possible.
Federation of Small Businesses’ Scotland policy chair Andrew McRae, commented: “Working parents across Scotland now face the stress of juggling childcare with their professional responsibilities.
“While we know that small employers will be as flexible as possible, this change heaps pressures on workers and firms alike – ministers must look at their options at the earliest opportunity.”
Sturgeon explained that anyone who is able to work from home must do so, asking that people and businesses take the new law as seriously as in March last year, as the situation is “at least as serious now as it was then”.
She added that if people were shielding and cannot work from home, they should not go into work at all. The chief medical officer will write to those concerned.
New cases in the past 24 hours dipped below 2,000 – 1,905 positives were reported – however, the positivity rate still stands at 15%. On Hogmanay, a record 2,539 were logged, the highest in a single day since mass testing began.
In the week from 23 December, the seven-day rate increased by 65%, from 135 per 100,000 to 225 per 100,000.
Sturgeon told Parliament that there is “compelling evidence” that the new virus variant is 70% more transmissible, and it already accounts for almost half the new cases in Scotland.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, called the lockdown another blow to the private sector’s recovery from this pandemic.
“Whilst we fully appreciate the need for the Scottish Government to act in response to the worrying rise in Covid cases, we cannot ignore the direct impact this will have on business and livelihoods.
“It is vital that the Scottish Government puts in place measures which will provide a springboard to private sector recovery when this latest round of restrictions is lifted – support for businesses which have already been through so much and survived 2020, must be expanded and all cash support paid out urgently.’’
CBI Scotland director Tracy Black said: “Throughout the pandemic, businesses have adapted quickly to protect their customers and staff, they also know how difficult home schooling can be for working parents and will continue to support their people.
“There’s now an urgent need for existing financial support to be unlocked, so companies can survive the Spring and beyond, and for Holyrood to clarify guidance on what constitutes an essential business.
“Ultimately the best way to call time on this damaging cycle of restrictions and double down on efforts to protect people’s lives and livelihoods is through effective vaccine roll-out and widespread rapid mass testing.”
The recently approved Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccine started being administered today.
It is the second to be approved and more than 100,000 people in Scotland have now received their first jabs.
The Scottish Government said its priority is to vaccinate as many people with their first dose as quickly as possible, with the second dose to be given within 12 weeks.
It will be given first to care home residents and their carers, people over the age of 80 and frontline health and social care workers.
The programme will then be rolled out to the rest of the population, starting with people aged 75 to 79, followed next by those aged 70 to 74 and the clinically extremely vulnerable.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman MSP said: “Seeing the Astrazeneca vaccine being administered to people in the community aged over 80 is a good way to start the New Year and I’m grateful to everyone in NHS Tayside and boards across the country for their work in preparing for the delivery of this newest vaccine.
“When it is your turn to be vaccinated you will be contacted by your local health board and I urge you to please take up the offer.”