Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's speech 20 August 2020

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Thursday 20 August.

Presiding Officer, the Scottish Government is required by law to review lockdown restrictions every three weeks.

The latest review falls due today, and I will shortly report on the decisions we have reached.

First, though, I will report on today’s statistics and other developments.

Since yesterday, an additional 77 cases of COVID have been confirmed - that represents 1% of those newly tested yesterday, and takes the total number now to 19,534. 

This is the highest number of new cases in almost three months, which underlines the need for continued caution.

A total of 249 patients are currently in hospital with confirmed COVID, which is a increase of 1 since yesterday.

And 2 people are in intensive care which is the same as yesterday.

And in the past 24 hours, 0 deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed through a test as having the virus.

The total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement therefore remains at 2,492.

However yesterday’s figures from National Records of Scotland – which reported three COVID deaths during the previous week – showed that the total number of deaths is higher than that, and of course it showed that people are still dying from this virus. 

And we must never lose sight of the grief and heartbreak caused by every one of those deaths. And I want again to send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to this illness.

Let me turn now to the review of lockdown restrictions.

I am not able to indicate, today, a move from phase 3 of our route map out of lockdown to phase 4.

We will remain, for now, in phase 3 and I must give notice today that this may well be the case beyond the next review point too.

For us to move to phase 4, we would have to be satisfied , and I’m quoting from our routemap, that “the virus is no longer considered a significant threat to public health”.

As today’s figures have demonstrated, and as has been confirmed to me in advice from the Chief Medical Officer, this is definitely not the case.

Today’s update therefore sets out which phase 3 restrictions will be changed in the coming weeks, while other necessary restrictions remain in place.

This has of course involved some difficult and delicate decisions.

The figures we have been reporting in recent weeks show that incidence and prevalence of the virus continue to be at low levels in Scotland as a whole.

However, the range for our R number has recently increased, and our most recent estimates suggest that it could currently be above 1. Of course, this is partly because, when prevalence is generally low, localised outbreaks have a bigger effect on the R number. That said though we must continue to monitor it closely.

We are also recording more positive cases than three weeks ago. When we last reviewed the lockdown measures, we had recorded 14 new cases a day, on average, over the previous week. We are now recording 52 new cases a day on average.

And in the past three weeks we have seen one significant outbreak of the virus in Aberdeen, and a number of smaller clusters in locations across the country.

We are also now dealing with a significant cluster in Coupar Angus, linked to a 2 Sisters food processing plant. And that is no doubt reflected in the fact that 27 of today’s 77 cases are in the Tayside health board area.

In total, 43 cases have been so far identified as part of that outbreak – that is 37 people who work in the plant, and 6 contacts of theirs. This number will almost certainly grow. We are stressing the importance of all workers at the plant self-isolating and getting tested. A mobile testing unit remains on site, and the factory has been closed down for a two week period. Given the nature and potential scale of this outbreak, we are considering carefully and urgently whether further restrictions are necessary. I will chair a further meeting of Scottish Government’s resilience committee later this afternoon.

In addition, there are several cases linked to schools which are worth noting. A total of 8 adults at Kingspark school in Dundee have tested positive, which has prompted the decision to temporarily close that school.

In addition, the number of cases in the cluster in north east Glasgow now stands at 16. There is also a separate but linked cluster of 9 cases in Coatbridge. A number of the cases in these clusters are school children, although there is no evidence that they contracted the virus in school. Greater Glasgow & Clyde Health Board are also carrying out contact tracing around several other schools in Glasgow.

Finally, on clusters, there were 12 new cases in Grampian yesterday. On the latest figures available, a total of 407 cases have been identified in the Grampian Health Board area since 26 July.

237 of these are associated with the cluster linked to Aberdeen pubs, and 1,185 contacts have now been identified from those 237 cases.

As I said yesterday, there is evidence now that the original cluster of cases linked to pubs is coming under control, but in recent days we have continued to see new cases which do not seem to be linked to that first cluster. Because of that, restrictions in Aberdeen have been extended, but they will be reviewed again on Sunday, with a view to setting out - if possible - a firm timetable for lifting the restrictions.

All of these outbreaks are being tackled by our test and protect teams, and current evidence on their performance suggests that the vast majority of contacts are being identified, and most of them are being identified quickly.

However, the clusters and new cases highlight a continued need for caution – especially since our priority continues to be to keep schools safely open.

Of course, these clusters are not completely unexpected. We have always known that reopening more services and premises – especially indoor bars, restaurants and cafés – might lead to an increase in cases.

And indeed two major risk factors have stood out in reports of recent clusters. As we expected, indoor hospitality - bars and restaurants – is one. The other is social events and gatherings in people’s homes. 

We have already tightened some of the rules in relation to the indoor hospitality sector – for example by putting guidance on a statutory footing, and making it compulsory now to collect customers’ contact data.

I will announce further measures intended to aid compliance at the end of this statement.

Understanding the risks of these indoor settings, has also made us think carefully about further changes and the need to ensure rigorous compliance with guidelines.

On balance, taking account of the different harms that COVID and the restrictions imposed to tackle it are inflicting on the country, we have decided that the re-openings pencilled in for the 24 August can proceed. I must stress though that such re-opening should only happen when the appropriate guidance covering that activity or setting has been implemented. We will also monitor the impact carefully and, as with everything else, we will not hesitate to reimpose restrictions should that prove necessary.

Full details will be available on the Scottish Government website but the 24  August changes include some outdoor live events - with physical distancing, enhanced hygiene and restricted numbers.

Organised outdoor contact sports will also resume for people of all ages. But for outdoor coaching sessions, there will be a cap of 30 on the total number of people who can be coached at any one time.

Driving lessons will resume.

And indoor face to face advice services - for example Citizens Advice – can also open to provide financial advice when necessary.

We have given particularly careful consideration to premises like bingo halls, because these share some obvious similarities with the indoor hospitality sector.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that guidance is strictly adhered to and we will be monitoring that carefully.

Let me now turn to the reopening of gyms, swimming pools, and indoor sports courts. Three weeks ago, I indicated that they could reopen from 14 September, but I also said then that we would consider if that date could safely be brought forward - especially given the wider physical and mental health benefits of access to these facilities.

Having done so, I am now able confirm that these facilities can reopen - subject to guidance being in place - from 31 August.

For indoor sports courts - which includes dance studios and gymnastics - it is worth stressing that for people aged 12 and over, the reopening on this date applies to non-contact activity only.

These are the only key changes to restrictions that we plan to make within this review period.

However, we hope that further changes will be possible from Monday 14 September, in line with what is currently set out in the routemap.

However, I must stress these possible changes are at this stage indicative only.

And given the volatility we face in transmission of the virus, there is a very real possibility that some or all of these plans could change.

However, with that significant caveat, we hope that from 14 September, sports stadia will be able to reopen, though only for limited numbers of spectators and with strict physical distancing in place.

Some professional sports events might be arranged for spectators before then - with Scottish Government agreement - to test the safety of any new arrangements.

We also hope that from 14 September, indoor contact sports activities can resume for people aged 12 and over.

And we hope that entertainment sites and cultural venues - such as theatres and live music venues - will be able to reopen from that date too, but with strict physical distancing in place. To facilitate that, these venues can re-open for preparation and rehearsal from 24 August.

Finally, we hope that from 14 September, wedding and civil partnership receptions and funeral wakes will be able to take place with more attendees than at present, although numbers will remain restricted. We intend to set out more detail on this, including on permitted numbers, shortly.

These are the activities and premises for which we are currently setting indicative dates - but I want to stress again that these are indicative dates at this stage.

We are unfortunately not yet setting a date for the reopening of non-essential call centres and offices. We will review this again at the next review point.

For now, working from home will remain the default position.

I know that many office workers miss seeing their colleagues, and many are keen to resume a more normal daily routine.

I also know that some businesses – however well they may be managing to work virtually – will want more of their employees to meet and work together.

And I am acutely aware of the impact of home working on services – like cafés and restaurants – which are based in areas with lots of office workers.

However a full return to office working - given the numbers involved - would significantly increase the risk of indoor transmission.

It would also make buses and trains significantly busier and increase transmission risks there too.

Our conclusion therefore is that a return to working in offices - unless that work is essential and cannot be completed at home - presents too great a risk at this time.

The impact it could have on community transmission would also make it more difficult to keep schools open.

And so this does unfortunately come down to difficult judgments about priorities.

We have made clear that our priority is to enable children to be safely back at school. And with the virus at its current levels, that means we cannot do everything else we would like to do – like bring back non-essential offices.

Now I know people will ask why their kids can go to school but they can’t go to the office, and that might seem like an inconsistency.

But that logic is back-to-front.

It is because you cannot go to the office – and because of the other restrictions we are keeping in place – that we are able to send children back to school.

If we opened everything up right now, the overall impact would simply be too great. The virus would run away from us - and we would, in all likelihood, be forced to reintroduce restrictions none of us want to see. We have only been able to relax some restrictions because others have remained in place.

There is one final issue I want to cover today.  It relates to the risks I mentioned earlier - of transmission inside people’s homes, and the risks of transmission in pubs, cafés and restaurants.

We have considered very carefully what further enforcement actions we can take to minimise the risk of transmission in those settings. 

For the indoor hospitality sector, I am grateful to the many pubs, restaurants and cafés who have opened responsibly - and who have gone to great lengths to stick to the rules and guidance on ventilation, hygiene, face coverings, contact details and physical distancing. Their efforts are hugely appreciated.

However we also know that not all hospitality businesses have implemented the guidance effectively.

We therefore intend to strengthen the power of local authorities to act in these circumstances.

The Scottish Government has powers under emergency legislation to issue directions in respect of a class of premises - for example, directions to close all pubs in a particular postcode.

We intend to give local authorities the power to act in respect of individual, specific premises that are breaching guidelines and risking transmission of the virus.

This power would enable local authorities either to close such premises - or to impose conditions on them remaining open - where they deem that is necessary for the purpose of preventing, protecting against, or controlling the spread of infection. 

We believe this is an important - indeed a vital - but also a proportionate step, which will help local authorities ensure businesses stick to the guidelines and that action can be taken where these guidelines are being breached.

The second area we have been looking at carefully is indoor social events, like house parties.

We know from reports of our own test and protect teams – and we also from evidence from other places in the UK and indeed around the world – that these indoor events pose a major – a very significant transmission risk. And because the virus is so infectious if it is present at an event like this there is a very high likelihood that most people at the event get the virus.

That is why we advise strict limits on indoor gatherings. Right now, our advice is that no more than 8 people from a maximum of 3 different households should be gathering indoors.

The vast majority of people I know will be sticking to this, and it is not easy to do so, so I am very grateful to them for that.

But we also know that a minority don’t. And we know that large house parties pose a very real and significant risk of causing clusters and outbreaks – such as some of those we have been dealing with in recent days.

So - for use in cases of flagrant breach and as a last resort - we intend to give the police powers of enforcement to break up and disperse large indoor gatherings.

We believe that both of these new powers are necessary if we are to continue to suppress the virus, minimise the risk of outbreaks and keep it under control, which is so necessary.

We will lay the regulations for both of these measures next week and we intend that they will come into force from next Friday 28 August.

Presiding Officer, the last three weeks have given us mixed news. We have seen a rise in new cases, and a number of clusters across the country. We have also, regrettably, had to reimpose some restrictions in the city of Aberdeen.

But we still have low numbers of new cases overall. We have very low numbers of hospital admissions.

And we have strong and growing evidence that our test and protect teams and that system overall - is working well.

Given the resurgence of COVID that we are seeing in some parts of Europe - and given that we always knew that reopening more parts of the economy would be risky - the picture in Scotland could of course be better, but it could also be significantly worse.

We are still making progress in our overall fight against this virus

But we cannot take this progress for granted, especially if we are to keep our schools open; keep businesses and services open; and retain our ability to socialise and meet up in small groups of friends and family.

The fact is that COVID is still a major risk, and we must still be very cautious. We can see the evidence of that in Aberdeen, we see it in each new cluster across the country and of course we see it in reports from elsewhere in the UK, Europe, and around the world.

And that is why today’s review has sought to take a careful and a balanced approach.

I hope that the reopening of some services will be welcomed - and notwithstanding the risk that each and every reopening presents, we know it is essential to reduce the economic harm that the virus is doing. But I hope that people will also understand why – as we try to open services and keep them open – we must take firm action, when rules and guidance are not being complied with.

I also hope that everyone watching will understand that although government must and will take the lead - we make difficult decisions, we draft guidance, we propose laws – but we cannot control COVID on our own.

We are all dependent on the choices made by each and every single person in the country.

So please think carefully about whether you are playing your part as fully as you could and should be.

Please do not meet indoors in groups of more than 8 people from any more than three households – and that applies in a pub, café or restaurant, just as it does in someone’s home.

Remember physical distancing, and don’t go into crowded places where physical distancing may not be possible.

And ask yourself whether your social life feels normal – because it shouldn’t at the moment feel entirely normal.

Wherever you are, assume the virus is present and act at all times to avoid creating bridges that allow it to cross from one household to another.

I have spoken before about the importance of solidarity in how we all deal with this pandemic. And I know it is hard – especially after 5 months - but sticking to these rules is an expression of our care for each other.

It is the way in which we protect – not just ourselves, but our loved ones and our communities.

So for that reason, I will end by reminding everyone again of FACTS - the five golden rules that will help us stay safe, even as life gets back to something that is closer to normality.

  • F is Face coverings should be worn in enclosed spaces - public transport, shops and anywhere else that physical distancing is more difficult.
  • A - Avoid crowded areas, outdoors as well as indoors.
  • C - Clean your hands regularly and thoroughly, clean hard surfaces after touching them.
  • T - Two metre distancing remains the clear advice.

And S - Self isolate, and book a test immediately, if you have symptoms - a new cough; a fever, or a loss of, or a change in, your sense of taste or smell.

You can book a test at or by phoning 0800 028 2816.

Any time any one of us drops our guard, and forgets these rules, we give the virus a chance to spread. We risk turning an infection into a cluster, and a cluster into an outbreak.

But if all of us stick to the FACTS, we can continue to suppress it; we can keep schools and services open - and we can think about easing more restrictions in the future.

So my thanks go once again to everyone across the country who is helping to do exactly that.

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