- 1 Sep 2021
Thank you, Presiding Officer,
I will update Parliament today on the state of the pandemic in Scotland.
I will discuss the recent surge in cases - and give our best assessment of the current situation.
And I will outline the additional action we are taking to try to slow transmission and reduce the spread of the virus.
I’ll start though with the latest daily statistics, albeit in summary form as they were published around an hour ago.
6,170 positive cases were reported yesterday, 11.5% of tests carried out.
629 people are in hospital with COVID – 44 more than yesterday.
59 people are in intensive care - five more than yesterday.
And, sadly, a further nine deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours, taking the total number of deaths, under the daily definition, to 8,127.
And, my condolences as always are with everyone who has lost a loved one.
Turning now to vaccination.
4,108,804 people have received a first dose. 3,691,066 have now had both doses of vaccine.
That includes 95% of people over the age of 40 who are now fully vaccinated, as well as 71% of 30 to 39 year olds, and 51% of 18 to 29 year olds.
However, 74% of 18 to 29 year olds have had a first dose, so we do expect the proportion becoming fully vaccinated to continue to increase in the days ahead.
Finally, almost exactly half of all 16 and 17 year olds have so far had the first jag. Vaccination in this age group started relatively recently, and of course work to increase uptake further is ongoing.
All 16 and 17 year olds who haven’t yet had a first dose should have received a letter yesterday inviting them to an appointment.
As members are aware, we still await advice from the JCVI on vaccinating all 12 to 15 year olds and I very much hope the evidence will allow the JCVI to give a positive recommendation very soon, and we stand ready to implement that if it is the case.
I will talk more about the importance of vaccination later, but I want to now address the surge in cases that we have experienced over recent weeks.
Case levels are 80% higher now than they were last week, and they are five times higher than four weeks ago.
Test positivity has also risen – from around 5% at the start of August to 11.5% today.
Now, as we indicated at the time, it was always likely that as restrictions were lifted, we would see cases rise.
This is a highly infectious virus, so as people mix more together it will take the opportunity to spread. And indeed cases are rising across all of the UK - and in many other countries too.
In Scotland, though, unlike England and Wales, schools have been back for some time, and we also expected that this would create a further pressure - not just as a result of increased interactions within schools, but also because we know there are certain ways, school drop offs for example, in which adults tend to mix more when schools are back.
However, despite expecting to see some increase in cases, the scale of the increase in recent weeks has been extremely concerning.
There is no doubt that this underlines the fact that the Delta variant is significantly more transmissible than previous strains.
Just as vaccines have changed the game for us in a very good way, Delta has changed it in a very challenging way. And that has been very evident to us in the past few weeks.
That is why we have been reminding the public in recent days that - if we are to avoid any re-imposition of restrictions, even in a limited way, as of course we all want to do - we must all play our part to slow down transmission.
We have been urging everyone to comply with all the basic mitigations still in place - face coverings for example - and to follow carefully all public health advice.
If we all do that - and I will again set out exactly what we are asking people to do later - I am hopeful that we can turn the corner without having to re-impose any restrictions.
But – I must stress – that the next few days will be crucial in our assessment.
What is inescapably the case is that we must turn that corner and see the sharp increase in cases level off and then come down.
Let me now explain again why that is so important. Even with vaccination levels as high as they are
It absolutely remains the case that vaccination has significantly reduced the link between cases of COVID and serious health harms from COVID.
The proportion of people with the virus who end up in hospital is much lower now than it was pre-vaccine. Indeed that’s why the record number of new cases reported in recent days has not caused a record number of hospital admissions.
And that is positive – very positive - but it must not make us complacent.
Although the link between new cases and serious health harm is now much weaker, it has not been completely broken - either here or anywhere else in the world. Many countries are grappling, like us, with the Delta variant.
And we can see that very clearly in the recent data.
On Friday 20 August, there were 312 people in hospital with COVID. Today, there are 629.
The number of people in intensive care has risen more slowly - but it has risen. On 20 August it was 34 - today it is 59.
And of course hospital figures don’t capture all of the health harm caused by COVID.
For example they exclude people who don’t require hospital treatment, but still go on to suffer long COVID.
So there is a matter of basic arithmetic at play here.
If the recent surge in cases was to continue – if, for instance, we were to see cases continuing to rise to 10,000 or more a day, something I hope won’t happen, but is by no means impossible – that will have serious consequences.
A lot of people would fall seriously ill, and obviously some people would die.
And the NHS will come under even more severe pressure.
To reiterate, this is a matter of basic arithmetic. At the start of the year, daily reported cases peaked at around 2,600 and at that time – pre-vaccines - around 13% of cases were ending up in hospital.
Today, and this is good news - only around 2 to 3% end up in hospital. But of course, 2 to 3% of 10,000 cases a day will cause similar pressure on our NHS as 13% of 2,600.
And this pressure is building at a time when many staff have been working flat out for more than 18 months, and when the NHS is working hard to deal with the backlog of other cases which has been caused by earlier waves of the pandemic.
So the situation we face just now is fragile and serious. We must stem the rise in cases.
Obviously, it would not be responsible for any government in the face of this virus - and the harm it can still do - to rule out re-introducing any restrictions. Indeed, in my view, it would be grossly irresponsible.
However, we do not want to re-impose restrictions, even in a limited way. We know only too well how much harm restrictions themselves cause to businesses, young people’s education, and to our overall wellbeing.
But if that is to be avoided - as I very much hope it can be - it will take all of us making a conscious and concerted effort again to comply with all the basic mitigations that we know from experience can slow down transmission.
And of course that applies to both individuals and to businesses. So I want to set out briefly some of the work the Government is doing - including on one particularly significant issue - and what we are asking everyone - all of us - to continue to do.
Over the past two weeks, Cabinet Secretaries have been engaging closely with business and sectoral organisations across the country to encourage significantly increased compliance with existing baseline measures.
That of course includes the wearing of face coverings, encouraging stringent hygiene, and support for continued home working where possible.
I am very grateful to businesses across the country for the efforts being made to keep staff and customers safe. And I am particularly grateful to those businesses who are continuing to support home working.
It is vital that these efforts continue. I know they are not easy for business - but they are much less onerous than any further restrictions would be to them.
We are also continuing to support urgent measures to improve ventilation in schools – for example the purchase and use of CO2 monitors. And we are also looking urgently at options to support better ventilation in priority workplaces.
We also continue to do everything possible to drive up the already high uptake of vaccine.
Getting vaccinated remains the single most important step that any of us can take to keep ourselves safe and keep others safe. And so ensuring that as many people as possible get vaccinated remains an absolutely key priority.
As I mentioned earlier, we expect updated advice from the JCVI soon on vaccination of 12 to 15 year olds, and on booster jabs for vulnerable groups such as older people and those with compromised immune systems.
We will, and stand ready, to move to implement any extensions like this to the vaccine programme just as soon as we get the JCVI recommendations and I very much hope that will be soon.
We are also taking targeted steps to increase uptake amongst groups who are already eligible.
I mentioned earlier that an invitation letter has been sent recently to all 16 and 17 year olds who haven’t yet had a first dose.
Mobile vaccination units will be used during university and college freshers’ weeks to encourage those who haven’t already done so to get vaccinated.
And we will be concentrating further effort in the days ahead to encourage anyone in the under 40 age group who hasn’t had the vaccine yet - or who hasn’t taken up the second dose - to do so now.
It really is, Presiding Officer, impossible to overstate the importance of vaccination in getting us safely through this phase and safely through the winter months ahead.
By getting vaccinated we help keep ourselves and others safe.
But the reverse of that is equally true - not getting vaccinated, if you are eligible, puts yourself and others at greater risk and it makes it less likely that we can make it through the winter without having to reintroduce some restrictions.
So to everyone out there who hasn’t already had their jags - please do your civic duty. Please get vaccinated now - for your own sake and for all of us.
The final issue I want to address is vaccine certification – that, of course, is where entry to some venues is dependent on people being able to show that they have been fully vaccinated.
In recent months there has been a lot of discussion about vaccine certification and, as I have indicated before, the Government has been considering very carefully whether - notwithstanding the understandable equity and ethical concerns - vaccine certification could in some settings help protect public health, reduce the necessity for any further restrictions, and also of course boost vaccine take up.
The Scottish Government has made it clear that we do not believe that vaccine certification should ever be a requirement for any key services or in settings where people have no choice over attendance – for example, public transport, education, access to health services or shops. And we continue to hold very firmly to that position.
But we do consider that a limited use of vaccine certification could help to control the spread of the virus, as we head into the autumn and winter.
For any decision of this nature to have an impact before winter, we would have to take and implement it quickly. However, I recognise that it is a significant decision so, in my view, it should be expressly authorised by Parliament.
I therefore propose – subject, Presiding Officer, to your agreement - that we have a full debate and vote on this matter next week.
To help prepare for that, I will set out now what the Government - after much consideration - has concluded would be appropriate.
We propose, subject to Parliamentary agreement, that vaccination certification should be introduced later this month – once all adults have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated - for the following events and venues:
- firstly, nightclubs and adult entertainment venues
- second, unseated indoor live events, with more than 500 people in the audience
- next, unseated outdoor live events, with more than 4,000 people in the audience
- and, lastly, any event, of any nature, which has more than 10,000 people in attendance
We don’t currently consider it appropriate to introduce certification for the hospitality industry as a whole, and we hope that will not be necessary. However, we will keep that under review.
We are also very aware of the need to take account of people who - for good reason - cannot get fully vaccinated with both doses of vaccine. So for example we envisage that children and people with particular medical conditions would be exempt.
However we consider that to help protect individuals and the country as a whole and reduce the risk of further restrictions being necessary, those over 18, who are eligible for vaccination, should be required to show that they have received both doses of the vaccine before entry to the premises and events I mentioned.
It is already possible to request that a paper copy of your vaccination record be posted to you to allow you to travel.
However from this Friday onwards – well in advance of any certification scheme coming into operation - we will also provide a QR code. That means you will be able to download a copy of vaccination record to keep on a phone or print off.
The introduction of COVID vaccine certificates – even in the limited circumstances that I have set out above - is a significant move, and not one we would ever take lightly. That’s why I believe it should have Parliamentary approval in advance.
But it is worth stressing that although we have had to weigh this decision carefully, we would be in no way unique in taking this step.
The UK Government has announced an intention to introduce certification for England.
And several European countries – including France, Italy and Ireland – have already introduced certification. In fact, the certification rules in several other countries cover a far wider range of venues than the ones we are currently considering for Scotland.
Many of the events and venues that are covered by any certification scheme are important – they matter to our economy, and to our cultural and social life. That’s why we want to enable them to stay open safely.
But they are not essential services. And the nature of them, which involves bringing many people together in relatively small areas does mean that, despite their very best efforts - and I know they make efforts, their best efforts - they can continue to contribute significantly to the spread of the virus.
By ensuring that people entering these settings are fully vaccinated, we would be taking a proportionate step to help make these settings safer for everyone attending and, by extension, for all of us.
As I said earlier, I fervently hope that - vaccine certification aside - we do not have to impose any further legal restrictions.
But of course that depends on all of us making a concerted effort now, through our own behaviours, to stem transmission.
What we do know is that we cannot let cases continue to rise at the pace of recent weeks. We must slow that pace down.
That’s important for all of us as individuals, but especially for those who are most vulnerable to COVID.
We know that there are many of the people at highest risk – including many of those who were advised to shield at the start of the pandemic – who are particularly anxious right now about the current situation.
They worry that if they go out of their own homes, especially with cases so high, they could be put at risk by people not wearing face coverings, or not washing their hands or not trying to keep a safe distance.
That should be a reminder for all of us. When we take basic precautions, we’re not simply protecting ourselves – although we are, and that is important.
But we are also making life easier and safer, and helping to reduce anxiety, for many others too.
So I will close by once again stressing the actions that each and every one of us needs to take in order to do that - and to help get cases down without further restrictions.
First, as I stressed earlier, if you are eligible and haven’t yet done so, please do get vaccinated. This is the single most important thing any of us can do to keep everybody safe.
There are drop-in vaccination centres in every mainland health board area.
If you haven’t been vaccinated yet – or if you had your first dose eight weeks or more ago, and you haven’t had your second dose - you can just turn up at your nearest centre and get the jag.
Second, please test yourself regularly with lateral flow devices. If you do that, then if you have the virus but don’t have symptoms, you still have a chance of finding that out, before inadvertently passing the virus on to others.
You can get free lateral flow tests through NHS inform. They will be sent to you in the post, or you can collect them from local pharmacies or test sites.
If you test positive through one of these devices - or if you have symptoms - make sure that you self-isolate, and book a PCR test.
You might also be told to self-isolate, pending a PCR test – as I was at the start of this week - if you are a contact of someone who has tested positive.
In any of these situations, please make sure that you do self-isolate. It remains a really important way in which we can all slow down the spread of the virus.
And thirdly and finally, please follow all the guidance which is still in place.
So please remember it is still a legal requirement to wear face coverings in indoor places, such as shops, on public transport and when entering and moving about hospitality settings. That’s a simple but important way in which we can all protect each other.
More generally, please meet outdoors as much as possible – I know that gets harder as the weather moves into autumn.
If you are indoors, open windows – good ventilation makes a big difference. And avoid, if you can, crowded places.
Indeed, for the next couple of weeks, perhaps all of us should think carefully about the number of contacts we are having and perhaps reduce any that are unnecessary.
Even though it’s not the law anymore, keep a safe distance from people in other households if you can - especially indoors.
Minimise direct physical contact - like handshaking, for example.
And keep washing your hands and surfaces thoroughly.
Having to take these steps is frustrating – for us, and for people across the world - but it really does make a difference, we know that from experience. It helps to limit the spread of this virus.
And we must do that.
We must do it to keep ourselves and our loved ones safer.
And we must do it to help ensure that we can avoid the need for any further restrictions.
The next few days are crucial. The Government is doing everything it can and will continue to do so. But - as has been the case throughout - we need your help, too.
So please - get vaccinated, get tested, and tighten up again on following all of the rules and guidelines.
My thanks again to everyone across the country who is doing that.