Nightclubs in Scotland have been ordered to close for at least three weeks unless their owners introduce table service and physical distancing.
John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, told Holyrood’s Covid-19 committee that the SNP-Green coalition government had decided to shut clubs from Dec 27 to try and slow the spread of omicron.
With financial support on offer, he argued the move may "reduce losses" for the affected businesses and said he hoped they would only be closed for a "short period." His announcement will affect around 150 clubs and will be reviewed after three weeks.
However, nightclub premises will have the option of opening to operate with table service and one-metre physical distancing between groups, in line with the requirements for pubs and restaurants.
The shutdown came the day after the first real-world data, from Scotland, disclosed that people infected by the omicron variant are up to two-thirds less likely to end up in hospital.
The research by Edinburgh University suggested omicron caused far milder illness than the delta variant and that the booster jab provided "substantial" extra protection against symptoms.
The findings appeared to raise questions over whether Ms Sturgeon, and her Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, had jumped the gun by this week unveiling a series of tough new restrictions on household gatherings and hospitality.
But Mr Swinney told the committee the additional transmissibility of the variant could still heap pressure on the NHS if it resulted in a much higher number of overall cases.
Ms Sturgeon tweeted:
Worth a listen as Prof Sheikh outlines the v encouraging data published y’day on Omicron hospitalisations – but also reminds us that we must act to slow transmission while boosters completed. Otherwise higher transmissibility could outweigh lower severity and still overwhelm us. https://t.co/OBhu3VwuQd
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 23, 2021
An amendment to Scotland’s coronavirus regulations ordered clubs to close, unless they could operate "within regulation". It had no end date, meaning the restrictions could be lifted earlier or later than first intended.
Mr Swinney made the surprise announcement about nightclubs only three hours before MSPs went on their Christmas holidays, prompting complaints there was no chance for them to properly scrutinise the decision.
"Having engaged with the sector, we now propose to require that nightclubs should not operate as such for this three-week period," he told the committee.
"While it would be open to them to operate with distancing and table service and that option will remain, we consider that closure in regulation, combined with financial support, may reduce losses and help these businesses weather what we hope would be a short period until they are able to operate normally again."
The Deputy First Minister said the Scottish Government would work with the industry to develop "targeted financial support."
He admitted there were "early signs" from the Edinburgh University research that "lower levels of hospitalisation may be likely" from the omicron variant.
However, he said the findings were only "one factor" in the decisions over restriction, arguing: "Even if the proportion of cases needing hospital care is lower, a smaller proportion of a much larger number of infections will place a significant burden on the National Health Service."
Mr Swinney added: "The dilemma that ministers face is that if, for example, we do not take early enough action to suppress the circulation of the virus within our society, we will find that we have a problem that is too big to erase and it will all too late and our health service will be overwhelmed.
"The ministers in the Scottish Government have constantly taken the attitude and the view that we need to intervene early to try to take preventative action to avoid a situation running away from us."
Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Tories’ Shadow Covid Recovery Secretary, said: "This news is a further setback to a sector already on its knees as a result of previously-announced restrictions to tackle the spread of omicron.
"I understand that this is a fast-moving situation but, when announcing this enforced shutdown, John Swinney should have spelt out the exact details of the support package that will be given to nightclub businesses, rather than merely promising an update on allocation ‘as soon as possible’.
"That’s not good enough – businesses on the brink need to know now exactly what financial support they will receive, and when."
He pointed out the Chancellor has recently handed the Scottish Government an extra £440 million to help tackle omicron and provide more financial support to business.