Swinney cannot rule out new lockdown for Scotland despite ‘stronger situation’

Scotland cannot rule out having to follow England into a second national lockdown, despite coronavirus being at lower levels north of the border, Deputy First Minister John Swinney has said.

Mr Swinney insisted that, while Scottish ministers have “high confidence” in the country’s new five-tiered system of restrictions, which comes into force at 6am on Monday, it would be “foolish” to rule out having another nationwide lockdown.

While he stressed earlier action taken in Scotland meant the country was “in general in a stronger situation than prevails in England”, he was clear tougher action could not be ruled out.

Mr Swinney said that the current evidence showed in Scotland “we are seeing the rate of increase being reduced, we are seeing some early signs that the virus may be flattening out”.

That comes after the Scottish Government introduced a nationwide ban on household visiting in September, and imposed tough restrictions on pubs and restaurants the following month.

Speaking on the BBC’s Politics Scotland show, the Deputy First Minister said: “The time that we have taken to bear down on the virus over the course of the last two months has put us in general in a stronger situation than prevails in England today.”

But, asked if he could rule out having to impose another lockdown north of the border, Mr Swinney said: “I can’t categorically rule that out, no, and it would be foolish to do so because we do face a very serious situation.”

He added: “We have taken early steps to try to stem the increase of coronavirus based on the scientific advice that was given to us, and have acted promptly.

“But I can not rule out the possibility of further measures, or indeed a national lockdown being required, should the circumstances arise.”

Mr Swinney continued: “We hope the measures we have taken so far, the levels system, the restrictions we have put in place, tough though they are, will be enough to ensure that we can avoid a national lockdown, but it must remain one of the possibilities that exist for us.”

He said ministers “have got great confidence in the levels system that we have taken forward, because there is very significant difference in the prevalence of coronavirus in general in Scotland compared to England and a very significant difference between different parts of Scotland”.

The new system in Scotland allows for different levels of restrictions to be applied in different local authority areas, relative to coronavirus rates in these.

But Mr Swinney stressed: “The crucial thing is that everybody must comply with the restrictions in place in their own locality so we can continue to bear down on the virus.”

With the lockdown announced for England having seen the jobs furlough scheme extended across the UK for another month, Mr Swinney also called for “urgent clarity” from the Treasury on whether funding would be available for Scotland if there is another lockdown north of the border after November.

Following the PM’s announcement on further restrictions across the country we have decided to extended the furlough scheme for a further month covering 80% of employees’ wages. pic.twitter.com/qqlpu6wcI6

— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) October 31, 2020

Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have previously called for the scheme, which sees the UK Government pay 80% of workers’ wages, extended but Mr Swinney said they had been told “a very firm ‘No’” to this and that there was “no money available”.

With the scheme now having been extended, he said: “It is a matter of concern that the issues we faced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were disregarded by the UK Government.”

He continued: “What we need to know is the circumstances in which furlough payments are going to be available?

“Are they only going to be available when England has got a problem, or are they going to be available at all times in all parts of the United Kingdom when we all at different stages face difficulties and have to apply restrictions.”

Mr Swinney said the UK Government had failed to tell Scottish ministers in advance that furlough was being continued for November, as he demanded: “We need urgent clarity today from the Treasury about the circumstances in which furlough will be available, and crucially whether it is going to be available to all nations of the United Kingdom when we require to use it, rather than just when England has a particular problem.”