The First Minister has said she faces “a dilemma” over whether to impose another national lockdown in Scotland as she called for furlough flexibility.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnston announced that England would go into a second month-long lockdown on Thursday following a surge in cases.
As a result, the furlough scheme – which pays 80% of wages for employees who can’t work – has been extended across the UK, with businesses in Scotland able to apply for funding.
However, the devolved governments want the support scheme to be available for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales when it’s needed.
If it’s only available while England is in full lockdown, Nicola Sturgeon admitted similar measures might be needed now north of the border.
Following a UK-wide meeting of crisis committee Cobra, she said: “At this stage, the indication is that the more generous funding scheme is only going to be available for the next month during the period of England’s lockdown.
“We continue to press the case that it should be available to devolved administrations whenever it is needed and I think most reasonable people would think that is the fair position and I – with colleagues in the Welsh and Northern Irish governments – have pressed that point, really friendly, at the Cobra meeting which has just concluded.”
During Monday’s coronavirus briefing, on the day Scotland’s new five-level Covid-alert system began, Sturgeon said she faced a “dilemma” over whether to introduce a full lockdown.
She said: “I made clear last week, when I set out the levels that would apply initially, that we might yet have to go further and that we can’t rule out – and shouldn’t rule out – a move to level four for all or parts of the country.
“And while that decision would never be easy, there is no doubt that the availability of a more extensive furlough scheme of the kind that the Prime Minister announced on Saturday would make it slightly less difficult because workers would have more of their wages paid.”
The calls for furlough cash for Scotland whenever it goes into full lockdown has also been backed by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who described it as an “absolute must”.
The First Minister added that introducing a level-four lockdown in Scotland now could offer more “breathing space” over the festive period.
She added: “The decision, we have to weigh up in coming days is this one – should we take the opportunity of more generous financial support to step harder on the brakes now, to try to drive infection rates down faster and more firmly?
“The potential benefit of that would be suppressing Covid further and faster, at a time when financial support is available and possibly – I don’t want to overstate this – but possibly opening up a bit more breathing space over the Christmas period.”
Johnson later said the furlough scheme would be available to other parts of the UK, now and in the future, if they implement measures requiring it.
Speaking in the Commons, in response to a question from Ross, the Prime Minister said: “The furlough is a UK-wide scheme.
“If other parts of the UK decide to go into measures which require the furlough scheme then of course it’s available to them, that has to be right and that applies not just now but of course in the future as well.”
Sturgeon tweeted: “If this bears out, it is very welcome. However Scottish Government is seeking urgent confirmation from Treasury that it will be exactly as we asked for – furlough beyond 2 December, non time-limited and on same basis as available through Nov, inc on eligibility and 80% wages paid.”
Finance secretary Kate Forbes added: “The Prime Minister appears to have agreed – at last – that the furlough scheme will be available to Scottish businesses after December if required.
“While this is welcome, it has followed two days of completely unnecessary confusion which has left thousands of people fearing for their jobs at an already anxious time.
“We are seeking urgent clarification from the Treasury as to the exact terms under which the furlough scheme will be available to us.”
The five-tier system of localised restrictions in Scotland came into force at 6am on Monday.
The latest figures show there are 1225 people being treated for coronavirus in Scottish hospitals, with 93 of those in intensive care.
The First Minister said no deaths had been recorded in the past 24 hours, but stressed that was down to fewer registrations taking place at weekends.
However, a total of 951 new cases of Covid-19 have been recorded in that period.