Nicola Sturgeon has banned cross-Border travel between Scotland and the rest of the UK in the hope of stopping the spread of the new more transmissible strain of Covid-19.
The First Minister said she was “very, very sorry” but the “harsh” ban was needed to prevent any more of the new strain entering Scotland and would apply over Christmas.
A cross-Border travel ban has been in place in recent weeks but it was due to be lifted for five days from Dec 23.
Ms Sturgeon also warned that Police Scotland would “strengthen” enforcement of the “strict” ban at the English border, with the force deciding the operational details of how this is achieved.
Although 17 cases of the new strain have been recorded in the Central Belt, she said this was likely to be an underestimate but Scotland could still act in a “preventative” manner to try and stop it.
As with England, Ms Sturgeon said the five-day window for households to mix over Christmas would now just be reduced to Christmas Day only.
1/ I know this is tough. But this new virus strain is spreading much faster, and so we must act quickly to stop it taking hold. That means even tighter restrictions through January to prevent the serious situation currently faced by places like London & save lives.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 19, 2020
She said that from Boxing Day all of mainland Scotland will be placed in Level 4 restrictions – the highest tier in Scotland’s system and the equivalent of almost full lockdown – for three weeks.
Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and other Island communities will move to Level 3 of her system, which means non-essential shops will remain open but restaurants and pubs can only open until 6pm and are barred from serving alcohol.
Schools are to shut for an additional fortnight, until Jan 18, with online lessons supposed to start from Jan 11.
Ms Sturgeon said case numbers in Scotland were broadly stable, with Covid rates around half the level of England and half that in Wales.
But she argued the draconian measures were needed until more is understood about the new strain and the speed at which it can spread meant this was “probably the most serious and potentially dangerous juncture we have faced” in the pandemic.
The travel ban means Scots planning to spend Christmas with relatives from the rest of the UK can no longer do so.
Speaking at an emergency press conference, the First Minister said: “In order to reduce the risk of more of the [coronavirus] strain being imported into Scotland, we intend to maintain a strict travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
“Unfortunately, and I am genuinely sorry about this, that ban will remain in place right throughout the festive period.
“We simply cannot risk more of this new strain entering the country if we can possibly avoid it. That means people from Scotland not visiting other parts of the UK, and vice versa.
“Cross-border travel for all but the most essential purposes is not permitted.”
She urged people not to base their travel decisions on whether they will get caught, comparing the ban to wearing a seatbelt.
Assistant Chief Constable Alan Speirs said: “Our officers will continue to engage with the public, explain the legislation and guidance, and encourage compliance. We will use enforcement as a last resort where there is a clear breach of the legislation.”
He added: “We have been very clear that we will not be routinely stopping vehicles or setting up road blocks. However, officers may in the course of their duties come across people who are travelling from one local authority area to another.
“Where travel restrictions apply, officers will continue to use the common sense, discretion and excellent judgement that they have applied since the crisis began.”
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories’ Holyrood leader, said: “The news today will be particularly devastating for those with plans to finally see family across borders and boundaries after months of absence. The situation surrounding this new strain is plainly serious and needs us all to take extra care and stay safe.”
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, 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.”
Tracy Black, the CBI Scotland director, said: “With a more infectious strain of the virus in circulation, mostly in other parts of the UK, it’s understandable the Scottish Government wants to prevent a sharp spike in our own case numbers.
“But news that all of mainland Scotland will come under Level 4 restrictions will be hard to take for many businesses already struggling badly.”
Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, 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.”
Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, 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.”