Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's speech 7 October 2020

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Wednesday 7 October.

Presiding Officer,

I will update the chamber today on the current position in relation to Covid.

I will give an assessment of the current course of the pandemic; propose difficult but important temporary measures to stem the increase in cases; set out how we will support businesses affected by them; and update the chamber on the longer term work we are doing to further improve our ability to live with Covid.

In all of this, I will be very frank about the challenges we face and the difficult balances we must try to strike.

None of this is easy, I am acutely aware that in every decision we take lives and jobs are at stake and I want to assure, not just the chamber but the country, that none of these decisions are taken lightly.

First, though, I will provide a summary of the daily statistics that were published a short time ago.

Since yesterday, an additional 1054 cases have been confirmed.

That represents 13% of the people newly tested, and takes the total number of cases to 34,760.

A total of 319 patients are currently in hospital with confirmed Covid-19, which is an increase of 57 since yesterday.

And 28 people are in intensive care, which is an increase of 3 since yesterday.

I regret to report that 1 further death has been registered of a patient who had been confirmed as having the virus.

The total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement is therefore now 2,533.

National Records of Scotland has also just published its weekly update, which includes cases where COVID is a suspected or contributory cause of death.

Today’s update shows that by last Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid was 4,276.

20 of those deaths were registered last week. That is the highest weekly number of deaths since late June.

Every single one of these deaths represents the loss of an irreplaceable individual. 

So once again, I want to send my deepest condolences to all those who are currently grieving.

These figures illustrate the rising challenge we again face from this virus.

That challenge is also set out - starkly - in an evidence paper published today by the Scottish Government’s senior clinical advisors – the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Nursing Officer and the National Clinical Director.

It assesses our current situation in relation to Covid.

And it explains – as I will try to do in this statement - why we need to introduce additional measures to control the virus; why it is urgent that we act now; and why we have decided upon the specific actions that I am setting out today.

Before I come onto that let me emphasise some of the more positive elements of our current position.

It is important - for the morale of all of us - that we don’t forget that progress has been made. It might not feel this way, but the situation now is better than it was in March.

We are benefiting from the sacrifices we made over the summer. By driving the virus to very low levels then, we have helped to ensure that - even after several weeks of increases - the estimated total number of cases is currently just 13% of the peak level back in March.

Cases are rising, but they are not rising as quickly as they were then.

In addition, and most importantly of all, we now have Test & Protect teams across the country, who are doing exceptional work. Test & Protect is now bearing a lot of the strain of controlling the virus.

And of course we understand more now about how to reduce the risk of transmission - for example, by meeting outdoors rather than indoors if possible, wearing face coverings, cleaning hands thoroughly, and keeping our distance from people in other households.

So while there are significant restrictions still in place - and they are hard and painful - we are living much more freely now than in the spring and early summer.

We are determined - if at all possible - that this will continue to be the case.

So let me be clear. We are not going back into lockdown today. We are not closing schools, colleges or universities. We are not halting the remobilisation of the NHS for non-Covid care. And we are not asking people to stay at home.

So while the measures I announce today will feel like a backward step, and in many respects I know they are, they are in the interests of protecting our progress overall.

It is by taking the tough but necessary action now, that we hope to avoid even tougher action in future.

Let me turn now to more detail to the state of the virus.

The need for action is highlighted by the daily figures I reported a moment ago, more fundamentally, in the evidence paper published today.

It’s worth remembering that when I updated Parliament just over two weeks ago, the average number of new cases being reported each day was 285. That was up from 102 three weeks previously.

Now, we are reporting an average of 788 new cases each day.

In addition, I can report that in the 7 days up to Monday, the number of people in hospital with Covid increased by almost 80%.

And the number of people who died with Covid last week was the highest for 14 weeks.

In fact, there was the same number of deaths in the last week alone as in the whole of the previous month.

The increase in the numbers of people in hospital with, and sadly dying from Covid reflect the rise we are now seeing in new cases among older age groups. In the second half of September, cases were rising most rapidly in the younger age groups.

However, in the past week, cases in people over 80 years old increased by 60%, and cases in the 60 to 79 year old age group more than doubled.

And we are seeing geographic as well as demographic spread.

Without a doubt - and by some distance - the highest levels of infection are across the central belt.

We are particularly concerned about Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire & Arran, Lothian and Forth Valley – and that will be reflected in some of what I say later.

But that should not obscure the fact that numbers are rising across Scotland.

The majority of our health board areas are now recording more than 50 new cases per 100,000 of their population each week.

And virtually every heath board area has a rising number of cases. The only exceptions are Orkney and Shetland, and even they have had cases in recent weeks.

There is also, as we speak, a significant outbreak in the Western Isles.

So the need to act - and to act across the country - is clear.

What is also clear is the need to take additional action now.

I mentioned earlier that prevalence of the virus is currently around 13% of its March peak.

However, we estimate that the number of new Covid cases is currently growing by around 7% each day.

So without action - and this is perhaps the starkest warning in today’s evidence paper - we are likely to return to the peak level of infections we had in the Spring by the end of this month.

It’s also instructive to consider the experience of other countries. Our modelling suggests that we are approximately four weeks behind France and six weeks behind Spain in the resurgence of the virus.

Their resurgence, like ours, was initially concentrated among younger people. However it spread to other age groups and they are now seeing significantly more hospital admissions, more people in intensive care, and more deaths.

It is to interrupt that trajectory that we must act now.

Of course, we have already taken perhaps the most important - and certainly the most painful - step we can to reduce transmission.

For the last 12 days, apart from certain limited exceptions, we have not been able to meet up in each other’s homes.

That should already be making a difference to infection rates even if, because there is always a time lag between introducing new measures and the impact they have, we are not yet seeing it reflected in our figures.

And let me take the opportunity to emphasise again today how vitally important it is that we all stick to that rule. It’s incredibly hard for all of us not to visit friends and family, or have them visit us. But it is the single most effective measure we can take to stop Covid passing from one household to another.

So please stick with it.

That measure is vital, but the clinical advice I have received now is that it is not sufficient. We need to do more and we need to do it now.

And to those who may wonder and ask, understandably, if the measures I set out today go too far, let me be clear about this.

If this was a purely one-dimensional decision – if the immediate harm from Covid was all we had to consider – it is quite likely that we would go further.

But, 7 months into this pandemic, I am acutely aware that this is not and cannot be a one-dimensional decision.

We have a duty to balance all of the different harms caused by the pandemic.

We must consider the direct harm to health from the virus - which must be reduced – but do that alongside the harm being done to jobs and the economy, which in turn has an impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

And we have to consider the wider harms to health and wellbeing that the virus - and the restrictions deployed to control it - are having on all of us.

For all of these reasons, we are applying a far more targeted approach than we did in March – one which reduces opportunities for the virus to spread, while keeping businesses and other activities as open as possible.

And we are not recommending that people who shielded over the summer, should return to staying completely indoors. We know how damaging that is to your wellbeing. But we do recommend that you take extra care – especially if you live in the central belt. You can now access information about infection levels in your local neighbourhood on the Public Health Scotland website.

Presiding officer, let me now set out the additional measures that we are proposing.

The measures on hospitality are intended to be in force for 16 days, from Friday at 6pm to Sunday 25 October inclusive - in other words across the next two weeks and three weekends.

So, firstly, with the exception of the five health board areas I will talk about shortly - pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes will be able to operate indoors on the following very restricted basis only:

During the day, from 6am to 6pm, for the service of food and non-alcoholic drinks only.

Hotel restaurants will be able to operate beyond 6pm, but only for residents and without alcohol.

The reason we are not closing indoor hospitality completely is that we know the benefits, in terms of reducing loneliness and isolation, of giving people - particularly those who live alone - somewhere they can meet a friend for a coffee and a chat.

But the restrictions will be strictly applied. And all the current regulations and the limits on meeting a maximum of 6 people from 2 households in indoor public places will still apply.

Again with the exception of the central belt areas I will mention shortly, bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes can continue to serve alcohol outdoors up to the existing curfew time of 10pm, and subject to the 6/2 rule on group size.

There will be an exemption to these rules - in all parts of Scotland – it’s important to stress this, for celebrations associated with specific life events such as weddings that are already booked and funerals. The current rules for those will continue to apply.

These are the new measures that will take effect nationwide.

However, because of higher levels of infection in the central belt, we are introducing stricter restrictions in the following five health board areas - Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire & Arran, Lothian and Forth Valley.

In these areas, all licensed premises - with the exception of hotels for residents - will be required to close indoors and outdoors, though takeaways will be permitted. Hotels will remain open for residents.

Cafes which don’t have an alcohol license will be able to stay open until 6pm to support social isolation.

In addition, snooker and pool halls, indoor bowling alleys, casinos and bingo halls will close in these areas for two weeks from 10 October.

Contact sports for people aged 18 and over will be suspended for the next two weeks – with an exception for professional sports.

And indoor group exercise activities will not be allowed – although the current rules will remain in place for under 18s.  Gyms can remain open for individual exercise.

Outdoor live events will not be permitted in these five regions for the next two weeks.

And finally, we are asking people living in these 5 health board areas to avoid public transport unless it is absolutely necessary – for example for going to school or to work, if home working is not an option.

We are not imposing mandatory travel restrictions at this stage, and specifically, we are not insisting that people cancel any half term breaks they have planned.

However, in general, we are advising people living in Greater Glasgow & Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire & Arran, Lothian and Forth Valley not to travel outside the health board area they live in, if you don’t need to - and likewise people in other parts of Scotland should not travel to these areas if they don’t need to.

More detail of all that I have just set out will be available on the Scottish Government website.

I now want to set out some of the reasoning behind these decisions, and the focus on hospitality.

I know that the vast majority of pubs, bars and restaurants have worked exceptionally hard over the last few months to ensure the safety of their staff and customers. I am grateful to them for that.

However the evidence paper published today sets out why these settings present a particular risk. The R number seems to have risen above 1 approximately three weeks after the hospitality sector opened up. We know that more than 1/5 of people contacted by test and protect, report having visited a hospitality setting.

It doesn’t mean that is absolutely where they got the virus but it does show these settings pose a particular risk of transmitting the virus.

That makes sense from what we know about how the virus is spread.

Indoor environments, where different households from different age groups can mix, inevitably present a risk of transmission.  That risk can be increased, in some hospitality premises, if good ventilation is difficult, and if it is hard to control the movement of people. And the presence of alcohol can of course affect people’s willingness to physically distance. 

For all of these reasons, significantly restricting licensed premises for sixteen days temporarily removes one of the key opportunities the virus has to jump from household to household. It is an essential part of our efforts to get the R number back below 1.

It is also worth noting that many other countries are also introducing restrictions on hospitality - Ireland, France, Germany and Belgium have announced a variety of different measures over the past few days.

I mentioned earlier that one of the things we are trying to do is to balance the public health harm caused by Covid, with wider economic and social harms. 

I know that the measures we are proposing today, although they are temporary, will have a significant impact on many businesses and I am sorry for that. But since the Government is placing an obligation on businesses, we also have an obligation to help them financially.

I can announce that we are making available an additional £40 million to support businesses that will be affected by these measures over the next two weeks. We will work with the affected sectors – obviously especially hospitality – in the coming days to ensure that this money provides the most help, to those who most need it and gets to them as quickly as possible.

For the rest of this month, businesses can also use the UK Government’s job retention scheme. However, that now requires a significant contribution from employers – so one of the things we will discuss with businesses, in relation to our own support package, is how we can mitigate some or all of that contribution.

As I have indicated, our intention is that these additional measures will be in place for just over two weeks, incorporating three weekends – from 6pm on Friday to Sunday, 25 October. Of course, we will keep the situation under review between now and then, and keep Parliament updated.

We hope that the restrictions already in place and those I have announced today will stem the increase in new cases. But I can’t stress enough that is fundamentally is down to all of us.

The more we comply with all of the restrictions and advice the more effective they will be.

It is also important because we want these restrictions to be temporary that we use the next two weeks to prepare, protect and prevent - to further strengthen our resilience and our ability to live alongside this virus. So I can confirm over the next period we will also take the following steps.

Firstly, we will introduce regulations to extend the mandatory use of face coverings in indoor communal settings - this will include, for example, staff canteens and corridors in workplaces.

We will take action to strengthen compliance with the different strands of the FACTS advice - focusing on areas where we know from research that compliance is not yet high enough, for example, the need to self isolate.

I can also confirm that, from this weekend and across Scotland, we are asking shops to return to 2 metre physical distancing and asking them to reintroduce the mitigations they put in place earlier in the pandemic - for example, one way systems in supermarkets.

We will also work across all other sectors to review – and where necessary tighten – the guidance and regulation on their operating practices.

In addition, over the next two weeks, we will conduct a further review of our testing strategy - setting out the further steps we will take to further expand capacity, which is already underway, and build resilience and also the further steps we will take to extend testing to more people and more groups of people without symptoms.

And, lastly, we will finalise a strategic framework, setting out the different levels of intervention which can be adopted in future – either locally or across Scotland - depending on how the virus is spreading. We very much hope to align the broad framework with those being considered by other UK nations – although each nation will take its own decisions on implementation.

We will put, subject of course to Parliament’s agreement, put this strategic framework to a debate and vote in Parliament in the week after the recess.

Presiding officer,

I am well aware that the measures I have outlined today are disruptive to many businesses – obviously especially hospitality businesses - and will be unwelcome to many people across the country.

However although they are significant – as they need to be, to make an impact - they do not represent a lockdown. In fact, they are designed to reduce the likelihood of a future lockdown.

We are not requiring people to stay inside all day as we were earlier in the year.

Schools will stay open.  Learning will continue in our Universities and Colleges.

Shops will continue to trade, and businesses like manufacturing and construction will continue.

And these new restrictions are intended to last for 16 days. They are intended to be short, sharp action to arrest a worrying increase in infection.

Although they are temporary, they are needed.

Without them, there is a very real risk the virus, presiding officer, will be out of control by the end of this month.

But with them, we hope to slow its spread. That will help us to keep schools and businesses – including hospitality businesses - open over the winter. And fundamentally it will save lives.

So please follow these new rules. And continue to take the other basic steps that will protect you and each other.

Do not visit other people’s homes.

Work from home if you can.

Download the Protect Scotland app, if you can and haven’t already done so.

And remember FACTS.

Face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; 2 metre distancing; and self isolate, and get tested if you have symptoms.

Sticking to all of this isn’t easy, after seven long months it is harder than it has ever been. But it is essential. It’s the best way to look out for each other, and now more than ever, we all need that spirit of love and solidarity that has served us so well.

And hard through it is to believe it right now, all the hard sacrifices we are making will hasten the brighter days that do lie ahead. The pandemic will pass.

So, let’s all stick with it - and above all, let’s stick together.

My thanks, again, to everyone across the country, for all you are doing.

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