Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's speech 21 December

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at a media briefing in St Andrew's House, Edinburgh on Monday 21 December 2020.

Thanks for joining us. Before I start today, can I say mainly for the benefit of the journalists on the line that I will require to end this briefing by 13:30, at the latest, even if we haven’t got through all of the questions, which I will obviously try to do. I understand that the COBR meeting planned for today is likely to take place from 13:30, at any time from 13:30 onwards. Obviously, I have to be free to participate in that.

I will speak in a few moments about the announcements I set out here on Saturday evening and I will also reflect on some of the decisions that have been made and intimated over the weekend by other countries in respect of closing borders with the UK but first of all, let me begin with today’s statistics.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,504.

That represents 6% of the total number of tests carried out, and the overall number of confirmed cases is now 113,050.

As you will have noticed, today’s figure represents a significantly higher number of new cases than we have seen in recent times.  

We think that this may be, in part, down to a processing backlog last week within the UK Lighthouse system.

So please be aware that today’s figures may be affected by that backlog of cases now coming through the system and being reported on. However we are doing further analysis of these case numbers to confirm that.

I can also confirm that 1,078 people are currently in hospital – that is an increase of 17 from yesterday.

59 people are in intensive care, which is 1 more than yesterday.

No additional deaths have been registered in the last 24 hours, of a patient who first tested positive over the previous 28 days.

However, as you know, registration offices tend to be closed at weekends - and so the figures we report for deaths on Sundays and Mondays can be artificially low as a result of that.

In total, since Friday’s update, 44 deaths have been registered.

That takes the total number of deaths, under this daily measurement to 4283.

Every single one of those deaths is obviously a source of heartbreak. And yet again, I want to send my thoughts and my condolences to everyone who has been bereaved as a result of this pandemic.

I am joined today by the Chief Medical Officer, and by the Chief Constable. The Chief Constable will talk about Police Scotland’s approach to enforcing Covid regulations as we head into the Christmas period.

For my part, let me stress again, how much I and the Scottish Government values the hard work, professionalism and public service of Scotland’s police officers and the staff who support them. Those qualities are always appreciated, but have been particularly important and valued during the last few difficult months.

The main thing I want to do in my remarks today, is to reflect a bit more on developments over the weekend.

I’m going to spend a bit of time on these, because I do know and I understand how upsetting Saturday’s announcements, in particular, were for so many of you.

The first thing I want to do is reiterate the point that none of the actions I announced on Saturday were taken lightly.

The analysis so far of this new variant of Covid that has been identified in the UK does give us real cause for concern - because the indications at this stage are that it is much more transmissible than previous strains of the virus.

Let me stress through that there is no evidence so far that this new strain causes more severe illness and I think that is reassuring.

Further analysis of this new strain is being carried out, so there is much we still have to learn, but given what we have been advised so far, it is essential to take the risk seriously and act accordingly.

The key lesson of the last ten months is that if we are complacent in the face of this virus, or if we act too slowly, or if we wait for all possible information before making decisions, the virus can run away from us very quickly - with very serious consequences.

So that is the context for the strong precautionary and preventative action we announced on Saturday.

Let me now turn to some of the detail and consequences of that.

Firstly, I will address the announcements yesterday that several countries – including France – have instituted travel bans to prevent people from the UK entering their countries.

Our advice for individuals here is already that you should not travel to or from Scotland, unless it is absolutely essential. 

Indeed, travel to and from other parts of the UK without an essential reason is prohibited by law for now.

This is a decision we do not take lightly - but one that is necessary to prevent more of this new strain entering Scotland.

In terms of international travel, most of the attention overnight, of course, has been on the decision by France to put in place a ban on accompanied freight traffic, essentially lorry traffic, entering France.

France has said this morning that they hope to establish a protocol to enable movement to resume – something that we very much welcome. However we do not yet know exactly when that will take effect.

We hope the current situation will improve over the course of the day - but of course for as long as it pertains, it has significant implications for many businesses in Scotland.

It affects the ability of exporters, including our important seafood sector, to deliver to overseas markets. And it also affects our ability to import certain goods and supplies into the UK and into Scotland.

I will chair a Scottish Government resilience meeting on this later today. Before that, as I indicated at the outset, I will take part in a COBR meeting, chaired by the Prime Minister, bringing the UK Government and devolved governments together to discuss these issues and we are working very closely with the UK Government and we will continue to do so to mitigate any impacts.

I have heard calls from our food sector for the UK Government to take a number of steps to enable them to continue to export, and I support those calls.

In particular the UK has planned for port disruption as part of a no deal Brexit, and those plans should now be activated.

We have also urged the UK Government to seek to extend the current Brexit transition period, or to secure a grace period before any deal is implemented, to prevent further disruption.

I think everybody would accept that all of us have enough on our plates to deal with right now, without compounding those difficulties by the end of the Brexit transition period.

For the moment, however, I want to stress two key points.

Firstly, the stockpiles of medicines being built up ahead of Brexit are in place – and so whilst we monitor medicine supply very carefully, we have no immediate concern. We are also assured that there is no risk to supplies of the Covid vaccine.

And secondly, we have been assured by supermarkets that they are well stocked for Christmas. So there is absolutely no need for people to buy any more than you normally would.

I would ask everybody to please support each other and shop responsibly. These are difficult times we are living through but we have been served well by that spirit of solidarity and it is important that it continues over this next period.

Let me now turn to the decisions I set out on Saturday.

Some have questioned, and indeed I anticipated this on Saturday, the need for these actions given that overall prevalence of Covid in Scotland is currently quite a bit lower than in some other parts of the UK.

There is two points it’s important for me to make about that.

Firstly, Scotland’s case numbers have been volatile in recent days - and after some weeks of decline, and I indicated this earlier last week, we think they may be rising again.

Today’s numbers, indeed even with that caveat I put around these earlier on, have shown that may be the case.

Because of that, our R number has risen, and after a couple of weeks of it being slightly below one, we think it is now hovering around 1 again.

So even without the new strain we have no room for complacency as we head deeper into the winter.

However, it is the concern about the new strain that necessitated the very stringent actions I set out on Saturday.

We know this strain already exists in Scotland - though we think it is still at lower levels than in the south of England.

However, if it is the case - as early analysis suggests - that this strain is up to 70% more transmissible and that it could add up to .4 to an R number already hovering around 1, the risk of it rapidly spreading here - as it appears to be doing in some other parts of the UK - is very real.

In London and the south east of England, it is thought that this new strain might already account for between 40 - 60% of all new cases.

That’s what we’ve got to stop here in Scotland and that’s the reason for the actions that I announced on Saturday.

As I said earlier on, over the course of this pandemic, perhaps the most important thing we have learned, I know it is perhaps the most important thing I have learned, is that failing to act quickly, is almost always a mistake in the face of Covid.

If we do nothing now, we are likely to see more new infections in Scotland as a result of this variant - placing an even greater strain on our health service, and unfortunately leading to more deaths.

But as things stand, with our lower prevalence in a relative sense, we still do have a chance of keeping this situation under control while the vaccination programme continues - and while we get case numbers back to very low levels again.

That is why we announced action on Saturday on two fronts – to stop more cases of this new variant from coming into Scotland, and to stop it spreading further within the country.

In relation to the first of those, as I said earlier - we are maintaining a strict travel ban on non-essential travel between Scotland and the rest of the UK.

That ban – which will not be relaxed at all over Christmas, even on Christmas Day unfortunately - is one of the issues the Chief Constable will talk about in his remarks.

However since this variant has already established a foothold in Scotland, we also need to reduce the risk of it spreading further here.  

We have taken three key decisions to do that.

Firstly, we are now enabling indoor mixing between households only on Christmas Day itself, and only within Scotland – rather than over a 5 day period across the UK.

Fundamentally, though, my advice is not to meet indoors at all, even on Christmas day, if you can possibly avoid it. If you can, see family from other households outdoors only.

The second key decision that we have taken, is to impose tighter restrictions after Christmas.

We will apply level 4 measures to all of mainland Scotland from Boxing Day morning, from one minute past midnight on Boxing Day for a period of 3 weeks although we will review these level 4 restrictions after 2 weeks.

What that means is that from Boxing Day morning, non-essential shops will close. So will pubs, cafes and restaurants, apart from for takeaways. And we will be asking everyone to work hard to reduce any unnecessary interactions with other households.

Non-essential travel to and from different local authority areas will also be prohibited from Saturday.

The exceptions to level 4 will be Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, and the other island communities where we have reduced restrictions in recent weeks. These areas will go into level 3 but, again, with no non-essential travel to and from them.

The third key decision on Saturday was to delay the return of schools after the holidays. Again, a decision we did not take lightly. Everybody knows how hard all of us have worked to keep our schools open from August.

This decision means that - with the exception of children of key workers and more vulnerable children - pupils will not return to learning until 11 January and then, until the 18 of January at least, schools will be online only.

These were all decisions I wish we didn’t have to make, and I know they were horrible decisions for all of you to have to hear.

I am well aware of the impact that level 4 restrictions in particular will have – on people’s wellbeing, and on businesses such as retailers and the hospitality sector.

I spent a fair bit of time when I went home on Saturday night after doing the media briefing here, reading the many emails I had received.

I think it is important for me to do that. And these were from people, many completely understanding of the need for these decisions - but nevertheless who wanted me to know the impact on them and their families. It is heart breaking for so many of you.

And I want you to know I do understand. And if I thought there was an alternative to any of these decisions, I would take that alternative in a heartbeat.

But I know the consequences of not acting now to stop this virus could be catastrophic.

So I am genuinely sorry to have to do these things. But believe me when I say they are necessary.

We can’t take the risk of allowing this new variant to spread as rapidly in Scotland, as it appears to be doing in some other parts of the UK.

We know that this virus, like all other viruses, it exists solely to spread to as many other people as possible, that’s how it survives. And what we unfortunately now know, is that it seems to have become much better at doing that through the new variant.

So if we don’t act now to curb it’s spread, we run the risk of cases running out of control in the early part of the new year.  

The restrictions we have put in place and that will come into effect over the weekend give us a much better chance of preventing that while we allowing more of the population – especially those who are most vulnerable to the virus - to become vaccinated. And while I know that it is very difficult to hear talk of lights at the end of the tunnel right at this moment in time, we shouldn’t forget that the vaccination does give us that hope for the future that we haven’t had at any point in these last 10 months.

The final point I want to make before handing over to the Chief Constable, is that although the new variant of the virus seems to transmit more easily  -  it can still be stopped in its tracks and the way to stop it in its tracks are through the same measures we have emphasised so many times before.

Physical distancing from people in other households, 2 metres if and when at all possible; washing hands as often as you can; wearing face masks; opening windows while indoors; staying outdoors with other households as much as possible – all of these things still work in reducing the transmission of the virus.

In fact, this new variant has made them more important than ever. So after ten months of all of us becoming really fed up of all of these measures, it is important now more than ever that we really do try to remember them at all times.

That’s why we are asking you to avoid indoor meetings on Christmas Day as far as possible, difficult though I know that is – because indoor meetings are the best possible environment for the virus to spread.

And it’s also why every single one of us should still be remembering the facts advice.

  • face coverings
  • avoid crowded places
  • clean your hands and clean hard surfaces
  • keep two metres distance from people from other households
  • and self-isolate, and get tested immediately, if you have symptoms.

I know how difficult all of this is. The last 10 months have been unremittingly hard for everybody. And I suspect this next two weeks are going to be even harder yet, it’s a time of year when we should be looking forward to spending time with our loved ones. I do know how tough it is but this is necessary. We must  do these things to get us through this next phase of the pandemic, while the vaccination programme gathers pace as safely as possible.

I can never thank you enough for continuing to bear these sacrifices and continuing to do all of the things necessary to keep yourselves and your loved ones safe. So thank you, for all of that.

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