England will this week become the only part of the UK without a nationwide ban on household social visits after Scotland followed Northern Ireland and Wales by announcing restrictions on gatherings at home.
The curbs on home visits highlight the more cautious approach to coronavirus the devolved governments have taken during the pandemic, despite efforts to forge a cross-UK consensus on what all leaders agree is a dangerous rise in infections.
The different approach of the devolved administrations is likely to fuel debate about the role of gatherings at home in the rise in infections in recent weeks.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, told the parliament in Edinburgh on Tuesday that her government would match the nationwide 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants in England announced earlier in the day by Boris Johnson, UK prime minister. Wales and Northern Ireland are also expected to introduce similar measures.
But Ms Sturgeon diverged from closer policy alignment with England when she said Scotland would follow Northern Ireland in introducing restrictions on household gatherings.
Under measures that took effect on Tuesday evening, the power-sharing administration in Belfast has banned households from mixing indoors in private homes.
Wales has not allowed mixing of households at home, except extended household “bubbles”, since broader lockdown was imposed earlier this year and has also maintained a 2 metre rule for social distancing, rather than the 1 metre plus applied in England. It will also now impose the 10pm pubs and restaurants curfew.
“The overall message is socialise outside and keep your distance,” said one Welsh official, contrasting it with England’s more relaxed approach.
Ms Sturgeon said it was much more difficult to maintain physical distance and ensure good ventilation inside peoples’ homes than it was in pubs or restaurants. Restrictions on household social visits in Glasgow and surrounding areas in recent weeks had already had an impact, she said.
“Any serious effort to reduce [the spread of Covid-19] must take account of this key driver of transmission,” the first minister said.
In signals of possible further divergence from the UK approach, Ms Sturgeon made clear she was considering introducing “circuit breaker” or temporary tighter restrictions, possibly during school holidays in October.
The first minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National party pointedly waved aside Mr Johnson’s warning that new restrictions could be in place for six months. “By acting early and substantially, our hope is that these new measures will be in place for a shorter period,” she said.
Despite such differences, there has been closer co-ordination between the UK and devolved governments on this week’s new restrictions, with their leaders all taking part in a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on Tuesday.
Mark Drakeford, Welsh first minister, welcomed Mr Johnson’s “commitment to having a regular and reliable rhythm to UK-wide decision making” with devolved governments having a “clear and important role in that process”.
Mr Drakeford’s Labour government and its relations with the Conservative UK government have been strained and the first minister suggested Cardiff had led the way on some restrictions.
“Many of the things the prime minister is talking about doing today we have already done in Wales,” he told the Welsh parliament.
He also announced those asked to self-isolate would be eligible for a £500 payment to encourage them to do so
A person linked with Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive said further restrictions there were now “inevitable”, but that Belfast would seek to broadly match the approach taken by the UK government in England.
“I don’t think there’ll be any significant difference,” the person said.
Belfast’s review of hospitality opening hours comes just ahead of the reopening of non-food pubs in Northern Ireland on Wednesday for the first time since lockdown. Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, has also suggested students may be stopped from returning home at weekends.
Almost 10m people in England are living with a ban on household mixing indoors under a number of local lockdowns.
In London, mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the measures after what he described as a “constructive” call with Mr Johnson on Tuesday. But he said he had made it “clear that London has unique needs and challenges, and additional measures now need to be examined”.
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