Scotland’s opposition leaders have backed plans to impose tighter restrictions over Christmas, but called on Nicola Sturgeon to close schools immediately and publish the evidence for the decision.
The First Minister announced that indoor household gatherings would only be allowed on Christmas Day and a “strict travel ban” would be imposed between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Schools will continue to open as normal until the start of the Christmas break, with the holiday being extended until January 11 for most pupils.
Online learning will resume for at least the first week of term, although schools will be open for the most vulnerable and children of key workers.
Responding to Sturgeon’s announcement, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “The Scottish Government must make decisions based on public health advice and solid evidence.
“To win public confidence behind this significant tightening of restrictions requires persuasive evidence to be published, transparency and openness, and a substantial rise in testing, otherwise not only will there be disappointment there will be a heightened risk of non-compliance.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “When the science speaks in such stark terms, the leadership of the country must listen and act.
“Shutting down mainland Scotland for three weeks will have a great impact on people’s lives, but it is the response that is necessary to match this new threat.
“However, the Scottish Government should act earlier by closing schools next week.
“The new strain of the virus is already here and pupils and teachers who are infected in school next week could pass it on to vulnerable relatives on Christmas Day. Let’s be safe and close the schools early.”
Scottish Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie said the First Minister’s caution was “necessary”.
He added: “If this is going to work, we need to step up the support for people self-isolating, especially for those on insecure income.
“This means widening the criteria for receiving financial support and offering accommodation where it is urgently needed.
“The staggered school return is also a sensible approach, one we had already been advocating.
“But it must be accompanied by the regular, routine Covid-19 testing in schools which parliament has voted for and which teachers are demanding, and clinically vulnerable staff must not be forced to put their lives on the line by coming into schools.
“Many people will be baffled that the government is still insisting on opening schools for two days this week, and I would urge local authorities to close early to keep staff, pupils and communities safe.
“Pressures on the NHS are already on the rise, as it deals with winter workload and the roll-out of the vaccine.
“The last thing we all need is for a surge in cases, just as we can see light at the end of the tunnel. Gatherings of friends and family will be all the more sweeter when this is all over.”
Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross said: “Families across Scotland will be devastated at these new measures, especially so close to Christmas.
“However, given the rapidly increasing spread of the virus across the UK, and until our scientists know more about the transmission of this new variant, it is understandable why these restrictions are necessary at this time.
“None of us want this, but these sacrifices will save lives.
“We would expect the Scottish Government to ensure a return to regional levels of restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “Given the very real and present threat to public health, it is impossible to understand how there can be any justification for schools to remain open as normal in the run up to Christmas.
“While the First Minister has rightly agreed to delay the return to schools in January for the majority of pupils, the Scottish Government must go further.
“While the level of risk of virus transmission is severe and increasing, immediate preventative action is needed now to protect lives.
“The Scottish Government should accept that moving immediately to remote learning for pupils could help to protect more lives and ensure the safety and welfare of pupils and teachers who remain at risk of catching the virus and passing it to their families over the Christmas holiday period.”
General secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) union, Larry Flanagan, welcomed the announcement of online learning from the start of the new term.
He added: “With a large number of schools already closed for the break, this late decision will once again create planning challenges for teachers but schools are much better prepared for remote learning than was the case in March.
“Given that the EIS has been calling for a ‘firebreak’ around the Christmas break, we view this announcement as being the correct one. It would make sense for those schools which are still open to move immediately to remote platforms.”