Sturgeon calls for return of furlough as Omicron concerns grow

16/12/21. Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament today. PA Images.
Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament today. Credit: PA Images

Coronavirus restrictions in some sectors may be "unavoidable" due to the sharp rise in Omicron cases, Nicola Sturgeon has told the Prime Minister.

The First Minister also told Boris Johnson that failing to put financial support in place for businesses meant that risking the UK's economic recovery "becomes all but inevitable".

In the Scottish Parliament, Ms Sturgeon said Omicron is likely to be the dominant strain of coronavirus in Scotland from tomorrow. She added that 5,951 coronavirus cases were reported on Wednesday, 45.4 per cent of which were likely to be Omicron.

She said she was "profoundly concerned" by the challenge posed by the variant which is "running faster than even the fastest rollout of vaccines".

The SNP leader has written to Mr Johnson to act in the wake of record numbers of coronavirus cases - urging him to either re-establish the furlough scheme or give the devolved administrations the means to set up similar initiatives of their own.

She raised these issues as a "matter of extreme urgency" in her letter to the Prime Minister, in which she told him she was "profoundly concerned by the scale and immediacy of the threat posed by Omicron".

Ms Sturgeon has already appealed to Scots to restrict their contact with others, recommending meet-ups should be limited to no more than three households.

She adds though that this advice needs to be strengthened further, as she told Mr Johnson: "I also believe that restrictions on the operation of higher-risk settings, while of course undesirable, may now be unavoidable."

Even if further restrictions are not put in place, Ms Sturgeon warned: "If left unchecked, Omicron will deliver a significant economic shock that will see lack of staff and pressure on already stressed supply chains lead directly to business failure."

Current funding arrangements for the devolved governments in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff leave them unable to set up "financial packages on the scale needed", the First Minister said.

As a result, she told the Prime Minister: "I am therefore appealing directly to you - and urgently - to re-establish UK-wide schemes for furlough, or alternatively establish a mechanism whereby the devolved administrations, subject of course to appropriate financial controls, can trigger such schemes and to ensure we have access to the financial support needed to deploy these schemes."

Ms Sturgeon concluded: "Once again the need to protect the NHS and save lives and livelihoods must be uppermost in our minds and drive our actions.

"A lack of necessary and sufficient financial support must not be a barrier to us doing so."

Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, which is the largest opposition party in Holyrood, accused the Scottish Government of "mixed messaging". He also pointed to guidance for Scottish businesses and workplaces, which comes into force on Friday and was published today.

Businesses have been told one thing by the First Minister on Tuesday and another thing today. They now need to comply with this guidance from Friday, 24 hours earlier than they were expecting.

He said: “We all understand the situation is moving quickly. However, if the public are expected to adapt quickly, then it’s right we demand the government adapts quickly too and gives people the information they need on time.

 “This guidance has now, finally, been published. But there’s still no word on when struggling small businesses will get the funding they desperately need to survive this difficult period.