Today, I will report on the current course of the pandemic.
I will assess the latest data, and set out our tentative view that although significant uncertainties do remain in both the data and the immediate period ahead, there are nevertheless some grounds for cautious optimism that a combination of the protective measures introduced before Christmas, the responsible action on the part of the general public, and the rapid delivery of booster vaccines have had a positive impact.
As a result, I will indicate that from next week we will begin to lift the measures introduced before Christmas - but that we will do so in a phased and careful way, starting with the removal of attendance limits on live outdoor events from Monday.
First, though, I will run through today’s statistics.
10,392 positive cases were reported yesterday as a result of PCR tests – which is 27.7% of all PCR tests carried out.
1,479 people are in hospital with COVID. That is 47 more than yesterday.
65 people are in intensive care, 11 of them have been in intensive care for more than 28 days.
Sadly, a further 16 deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 9,950.
And again I send my condolences to everyone mourning a loved one.
The increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant is still causing very high levels of infection here in Scotland, across the UK and in many cases around the world.
However, while the situation - not least for the NHS - does remains very challenging, there are some early indications in the data that offer some encouragement.
Firstly, while it is always difficult to prove a direct causal link between any specific action or measure and subsequent outcomes, there is reason to be optimistic that protective measures, the behavioural response of the general public and the vaccine programme have helped mitigate to some extent the impact of the Omicron wave.
For instance, our central projection last month was that new infections could reach 50,000 a day by early January. This has not so far materialised. Instead we estimate that the total number of new infections a day in early January - not just those recorded through positive PCR tests - may have been around 30,000.
In other words, it is very likely that the situation we face now, though serious, would have been even more challenging without the renewed sacrifices made by people across the country over these past few weeks.
Further, while we need to be cautious in our interpretation of the daily case numbers at this stage - for reasons I will set out shortly - we can see from these and also from hospital data, some early indications that the situation might be starting to improve.
Over the past week, an average of just over 12,700 new cases a day were confirmed through PCR tests.
However, this is down by 17% compared to the daily average in the preceding seven days.
Indeed, on this measure, cases have fallen in the past week across all age groups, except the over 85s.
So this is encouraging and does give us some hope that cases may be at or close to the peak.
However, as I said a moment ago, caution is required in interpreting these figures.
The changes to the guidance on testing set out last week - to the effect that those without symptoms testing positive with a lateral flow device no longer need to get a confirmatory PCR test - mean that the current daily numbers are capturing fewer positive cases than before.
To address this, Public Health Scotland will augment its daily reports in future.
I can advise parliament from Thursday, in addition to reporting the number of people testing positive for COVID through a PCR test, it will also report a combined figure for the number of people who have recorded a first positive PCR or a lateral flow test.
Given the increased complexity - not least the need to avoid duplication - there will initially be a time lag in this reporting.
So the data released on Thursday will cover the period up to today. However, Public Health Scotland will be working to reduce this time lag in the coming period.
This additional data will allow us to assess the trend in cases more accurately than now.
Of course, this is dependent on all of us actually recording our lateral flow results - whether positive or negative - so let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that this can and should be done through the UK Government website – and you can find the page easily by searching for how to report a lateral flow test.
There is one further piece of data that gives us some grounds for optimism at this stage.
While the number of people in hospital with COVID has continued to increase over the past week - putting significant additional pressure on the NHS - there are signs that the rate of increase may be starting to slow down.
The number in hospital with COVID increased from 594 two weeks ago to 1,147 this time last week– an increase of 553.
Since then, it has risen further to 1,479 – a smaller increase of 332.
It is important to note however that number of people with COVID in intensive care has increased more rapidly in the past week than in previous weeks. However this is likely to reflect the time lag between people becoming hospitalised, and them requiring intensive care.
So in summary, the situation just now is undoubtedly serious but perhaps less so than it might have been, and there are also some signs that we may be starting to turn a corner.
That said, the position is still fragile and significant uncertainties remain.
I have already explained the uncertainties in the data which mean that the picture is not yet quite as clear as we would like it to be and as clear as we hope it will be in the next week or so.
And, of course, we don’t yet know what impact the post-Christmas return to work and school will have on the level of infection.
What we do know is that staff absences resulting from high levels of infection are causing disruption in the economy and in critical services and also the NHS remains under very severe pressure indeed. Continuing to slow down transmission therefore remains a vital imperative.
The conclusion of all of this, in my view and the view of cabinet, is as follows.
It is reasonable and right to be hopeful on the strength of the latest data. However, for the period immediately ahead, it is also prudent to remain careful and cautious.
This is the balance of judgment that has informed the decisions Cabinet reached this morning.
As I indicated earlier, we will begin to lift the protective measures announced before Christmas from Monday but we will do that in a phased way that will allow us to form in the days ahead a clearer picture of the trends in infections and the associated impacts.
As a quick reminder, the measures I am specifically referring to here are limits on attendances at live public events, the requirement for distancing between groups in public indoor places, and the requirement for table service in hospitality venues serving alcohol on the premises.
I expect to confirm further dates next week. However I can confirm today that the attendance limit of 500 at large-scale outdoor events will be lifted from Monday, 17 January.
That means, for example, that spectators will be permitted again at major outdoor sporting events, including football fixtures scheduled for early next week, and the forthcoming Six Nations rugby matches.
The COVID certification scheme will remain in place for these and other events and venues previously covered, but with two important changes.
Firstly, our guidance will now stipulate that the organisers of large events of 1000 or more people should check the certification status of at least 50% of attendees, rather than the current 20%, or at least 1,000 people - whichever figure is highest.
And, second, from Monday the requirement to be ‘fully vaccinated’ for the purposes of COVID certification will include having a booster if the second dose was more than four months ago.
The NHS Scotland COVID status app for domestic use will be updated from Thursday so that its QR code includes evidence of booster vaccination.
It will also be possible to order updated paper and PDF copies of vaccination status, which are now valid for three months.
And it will still be possible to gain admission to events and venues covered by the certification scheme by providing proof of a recent negative lateral flow test.
Cabinet will next review the data at our meeting a week today.
And I hope this will allow us to lift the other protective measures - limits on indoor live events, table service in hospitality and distancing in indoor public places - from 24 January.
However, I will confirm this in my statement next week.
There is a related point I want to draw to Parliament’s attention today.
As we do lift these other protective measures, it will be necessary to consider again if extending the scope of COVID certification to other venues might be a necessary protection.
To be clear, we have not yet taken any decisions on this and it will require careful judgment. But I want to be clear to Parliament today that it is something we feel bound to give appropriate consideration to.
What I have just set out gives our direction of travel in relation to the additional measures set out before Christmas in response to Omicron.
The baseline measures that were in place before the emergence of Omicron – such as the requirement to wear face coverings in indoor public places and to work from home when possible – will remain in place for now.
So too – for at least the immediate period ahead – will the advice to the general public to try to limit contact with people in other households, and in particular to limit the number of households in any indoor gathering to a maximum of three.
We are not advising or asking people to cut all social interaction. That simply isn’t practical, and also has a serious impact on mental health and wellbeing.
But trying to limit social interactions remains a sensible step at this stage.
It helps stem to some extent increases in transmission - and so has a collective benefit.
But it also helps protect us as individuals. At a time when one in 20 of us could have the virus, the risk of becoming infected when we mix with others is at this moment in time is a significant one.
So cutting back on contacts where possible and prioritising those that are most important to us helps reduce that risk.
And if we make sure there are no more than three households in any indoor gathering we do have and take lateral flow tests before we go, we further reduce the risks.
So all of that remains important for now.
There are four further issues I want to touch on today before I conclude.
The first is to underline again as I eluded to earlier that staff absences caused by the virus are right now having a very significant impact, obviously on the NHS and indeed on the wider economy, but also on other vital public services. And most notably for the purposes of my comments today I would refer to social care.
We are working very closely with local partners to maximise the resources available for social care so that vulnerable people get the care they need.
In order to give priority to social care, some local authorities and partners may require to make difficult choices that involve temporarily pausing or reducing other services.
These decisions – which will be taken by frontline partners - will only be made when absolutely necessary, and the recent changes of course to self-isolation rules will help alleviate some of the pressure.
However, where such decisions do prove necessary, I hope members and indeed the wider public will understand that they are driven by the needs of those who depend on social care services.
My second point is about ventilation in schools and in early years settings.
Before Christmas, we published revised guidance for these settings which included updated material on ventilation which – amongst other things - made clear the circumstances in which use of air cleaning devices may be appropriate.
To assist local authorities with this I can confirm today that we will allocate an additional £5 million of capital funding to local authorities and to fund early learning and childcare providers. This of course is in addition to the money previously provided for CO2 monitors and will support any remedial work that councils need to do to improve air flow and comply with the new guidance.
The third issue I want to cover is the continued importance of vaccination and in particular of booster vaccination. The programme of course continues to go exceptionally well.
Scotland as of now continues to be the most vaccinated part of the UK in terms of first, second, third and booster doses.
But there are right now still too many eligible people not yet fully vaccinated.
If you are one of them – and if you have no good reason not to be vaccinated – the reality is you are putting yourself and you are putting others at unnecessary risk.
The latest available data, which is adjusted for age, suggests that someone who is not fully vaccinated is at least four times more likely to require hospital treatment than someone who has had a booster or a third dose of vaccine.
So whatever age you are, getting boosted is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself from the worst impacts of COVID, and in doing so to help reduce pressure on the NHS.
And even though being fully vaccinated doesn’t completely eradicate anyone’s risk of getting COVID, it does reduce that risk. And that also then reduces the risk of you if you get COVID, passing it on to others - including those who may be more vulnerable to serious illness.
In short, being fully vaccinated could save your life or could save the life of someone you love.
But the inescapable flip side of that is this: if you are choosing without good reason not to be fully vaccinated, you are putting your own life and the lives other people’s at unnecessary risk.
So if you haven’t been able to get your booster or third jag yet because you’ve been self-isolating, or because you tested positive in the past 28 days, or because you haven’t got round to it, please come forward now as soon as possible.
And if you haven’t had a first or second dose yet, please do so without delay.
Don’t run the risk of later regretting – or indeed of leaving your family to regret - that you didn’t take the opportunity to get the protection against illness and death that vaccination does offer to all of us.
There is right now plenty of capacity in vaccination centres across the country, and you will always be welcomed. So please do go along. It is not too late. It is never too late to be vaccinated against this virus.
The final issue Presiding Officer I want to touch on briefly today is the work I mentioned last week on a revised strategic framework.
This is intended to set out how we might adapt, in the medium to longer term, to living with this virus in a way that still mitigates the harm it does but without the kind of restrictive measures that we are all tired of and which we know do harm in other ways.
‘Living with the virus’ a phrase we hear more and more right now is what we all desperately want to do. But I think it is worth reflecting on what that does and does not mean.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean waking up one morning soon and finding that COVID has disappeared or that we no longer need to think at all about mitigating the harm it can do.
Hopefully, we are on a path from COVID being an epidemic to it becoming endemic - in other words, existing at more manageable and consistent levels.
But that is not a shift that any government anywhere can just declare or wish into being.
And while it seems that the impact of the Omicron variant on individual health is milder than past variants, it is not harmless. It still causes serious illness in some and it still takes lives. This virus to be blunt remains a significant threat to public health.
So trying to ‘live with the virus’ as we all want to do will involve, for all countries, careful thought and possibly some difficult choices. And it involves consideration of, and empathy for, everyone in our society – including those who are at the highest clinical risk from COVID.
We know that we cannot continually rely on restrictive measures to manage the virus because we know the harm that does.
But equally we cannot be indifferent to the continued risks that COVID poses to health and wellbeing.
So we need to consider what adaptations we can make to manage those risks in a way that is much less disruptive to our lives and of course much less of a daily presence in our minds.
These are important issues for not just government but for all of us to consider - so as we prepare the revised framework in the days to come, we will seek to consult with parliament, and also with business organisations and other partners across society. Our aim is to publish it within the next few weeks.
As that final point emphasises, we do remain in a highly challenging phase of the pandemic. Case numbers are high – and the impacts of that are severe. And of course the future trajectory as I’ve set does remain uncertain at this stage.
But – largely because of the efforts everyone has made - we are I think in a better position than I feared would be the case when additional measures were announced in December.
And I do hope we are now seeing signs of improvement.
That is allowing us to start the process from Monday of lifting the additional restrictions - and I hope that next week I will be able to confirm the further steps in that process.
In the meantime though, we can all continue to act in a way that keeps things moving in the right direction.
So I will close with a reminder of what we can all do to help stem transmission.
Firstly, get fully vaccinated as soon as you can – if you haven’t done so already, please do that and do it this week.
Second, try to limit your contacts for a further period.
With infections at such a high level just now, every interaction comes with a significant risk of catching the virus.
So prioritise the contacts that matter most to you.
Third, if you are meeting other people socially, test before you go, every time.
Take the test as close as possible to the time you will be meeting and seeing other people. And remember to record the result whether that is positive or negative.
And take all the other precautions we know make a difference.
If you are meeting indoors, limit the number of households in the group to 3 at most. And keep windows open.
Work from home whenever that is possible. And to employers, I would say again please enable your workers to work from home whenever practical.
Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, when moving about in hospitality. And of course make sure the face covering fully covers your mouth and nose.
And follow all advice on hygiene.
These steps do make a difference, they are making a difference – to each person’s individual safety, and also to the collective safety of all of us.
So I would urge people please stick with them. And my thanks again go to everyone who is doing that.
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