Scotland could be forced to follow England into lockdown this month or risk going it alone without the UK’s full job retention scheme if national restrictions are required further down the line.
Ministers are facing a furious stand-off with Downing Street after the Treasury said it would not foot the bill for a shut down in Scotland after December 2, despite making cash available as England enters new coronavirus measures from Thursday.
Scotland will push ahead with plans to roll out its new five-tier coronavirus alert system on Monday but deputy first minister John Swinney said it would be “foolish” to rule out following England into a full national lockdown in the weeks and months ahead.
Scotland’s finance secretary, Kate Forbes, held crunch talks with the Treasury on Sunday but was told that if the country does decide to lockdown again from next month, it will need to do so without the support currently made available south of the border.
Ms Forbes said: “Despite discussions today, UK Treasury continue to deny our request that full furlough at 80% be made available for businesses and employees in Scotland at any point we need it, suggesting that it is only available for the duration of a lockdown in England.
“While clarity that it will be available to businesses whether open or closed is welcome, the lateness of the announcement means many businesses have already taken devastating decisions.
“We also received no clarity on whether we will receive additional Barnett consequentials as a result of increased UK support for English local government and whether the unlimited payments for business support in England, funded by Treasury borrowing, will be made available on a similar demand-less basis to enable the Scottish Government to match that long-term commitment.”
The UK Government has confirmed the job retention scheme will be extended until December 2, the preliminary date restrictions to be lifted in England, and will be available to workers in Scotland.
Ms Forbes said the Scottish Government has requested “urgent discussions” with Treasury ministers and “will continue to press for a fair deal for Scotland and to ensure that Scotland has the fiscal support it needs”.
Second national lockdown for Scotland can not be ruled out
Speaking on the BBC’s Politics Scotland programme earlier in the day, Mr Swinney said a further national lockdown in Scotland could not be ruled out but he hoped existing measures would be enough to avoid such a move.
“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 said. “We took the scientific advice that was given to us in September, and we applied restrictions right away.”
Mr Swinney said efforts to “bear down on the virus” over the past two months had left Scotland in a “stronger position compared to the situation that prevails in England” and insisted the levels system was still “the correct position for us to take”.
Calls for furlough talks ‘disregarded’
The Perthshire North MSP, who revealed his government only found out about the furlough extension through newspaper reports, said it was a “matter of concern” that calls for such a move from devolved administrations had been “disregarded” by the UK Government until England was sent into lockdown.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has admitted England’s lockdown could be extended beyond December 2 if coronavirus infection rates do not significantly fall.
Nicola Sturgeon has urged Scots not to travel to England, with deaths south of the border predicted to reach 500-a-day within weeks, but Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for a new UK-wide approach to tackling the surge of infections.
Sir Keir said he would “ideally” like to see all quarters of the UK lockdown together, despite Boris Johnson already facing a rebellion from his own backbenches over the “disastrous” impact his restrictions could have on the economy.
Asked about the prospect on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, he said: “Ideally, yes, and I have said for months that it ought to be a four nations approach. It is for the prime minister to lead on that and get people round the table.”
A fight on all fronts
But Mr Johnson is now facing a battle on all fronts, with Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross set to call on the UK Government to “immediately” guarantee the furlough scheme will be extended in Scotland for any second lockdown.
During a speech to the Police Exchange on Monday, in which he will also admit that devolution has been “found wanting” during the coronavirus crisis, Mr Ross will tell Downing Street to “treat Scotland the same way as England”.
He will note the Scottish Government and the other devolved administrations “have been forced to look for detail on announcements from publicly available press releases”.
Mr Ross will say the furlough scheme has been a “lifeline” for hundreds of thousands of Scottish jobs and was a “real and tangible reminder of the economic security of the Union” between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
“Now that the scheme has been extended to cover the impact of a second lockdown in England, how could a Unionist government not restart the scheme if a second lockdown is required in Scotland?” he will ask.
“We all hope that by following the guidance and doing the right thing, a second Scottish lockdown will not be necessary. But if it is, the UK Government must treat Scotland the same way as England. That guarantee has to be made immediately.”