Thank you Presiding Officer,
I will give a general update on COVID today, and share the latest information we have on the Omicron variant.
I will also set out the further protective measures we consider necessary to help slow its spread while we accelerate the pace of booster vaccines.
Firstly, though, today’s overall statistics.
3,177 positive cases were reported yesterday – 11.3% of all tests carried out.
The number of PCR tests yesterday was actually slightly lower than in recent days, and I therefore want to appeal to people not to put off going for a PCR test if you have symptoms or a positive lateral flow. I know no-one wants to test positive or isolate at Christmas - but testing is a really vital part of our defence and there is no shortage of capacity. So, please do get tested.
541 people are in hospital with COVID – 20 fewer than yesterday.
But I can also confirm that we now know of two confirmed Omicron cases who are in hospital. Sequencing of other possible cases continues, and the actual total is likely to be higher.
38 people are in intensive care with COVID generally, which is one fewer than yesterday.
Sadly, a further six deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 9,725.
And I want again to send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
On Omicron specifically, our assessment is that it is spreading very rapidly.
The best indicator of this is the proportion of cases showing what is called the S Gene dropout.
For about 95% of all cases in Scotland, tests are currently processed in a way that allows us to know if the S gene is present or not.
This shows that Omicron cases are increasing exponentially - faster than any variant that has gone before.
When I made a statement to Parliament last week, around 4% of cases showed the S Gene drop out. By Wednesday it was 7%, on Friday it was above 15%.
Today, it is 27.5%
We estimate that the doubling time is two to three days - more rapid than anything experienced in the pandemic so far.
And we expect Omicron to become the dominant strain circulating in Scotland within days.
This matters because Omicron is significantly more transmissible than Delta.
The R number associated with Delta is around 1.
But the R number for Omicron appears to be well over 2 and it is possibly above 4.
Cases in Scotland in total have increased by a quarter in the past week.
They have risen in all age groups, except the over 85s. Omicron is already contributing to that increase.
But as it becomes the dominant strain, its much higher R number will also dominate, and that will drive a much steeper increase in cases.
That is why I warned on Friday that we are facing a likely tsunami of cases in the weeks ahead.
Now some are suggesting that Omicron may be milder in its impact on individual health than Delta.
Obviously, we all hope that is the case.
However, we don’t know it yet. Indeed, there is some initial evidence from Denmark that may suggest otherwise.
But even if it does prove to be milder, simple arithmetic means the challenge it poses will still be very significant.
Let me illustrate that.
In recent months, the proportion of Delta cases needing hospital care has been around 2%.
That means an average daily case number of around 2,700 - as has been the case in recent weeks - will result in around 400 hospital admissions a week.
But if cases rise significantly to, say, 10,000 a day because of Omicron’s greater transmissibility - and this is well within the modelled estimates in the evidence paper we published on Friday - then even if the hospitalization rate turned out to be half that of Delta’s at just 1%, we would see 700 hospital admissions a week.
The basic and very fact is this: a much more transmissible infection - even if milder in terms of severe illness - can still place a much bigger burden on the NHS.
More people infected will result in more severe illness and, tragically, more people will die.
A surging level of infection will also result in many more people being off work due to mild illness and isolation - so the impact on the economy and our ability to deliver critical services will also be severe. Indeed, we are starting to see these impacts already.
All of this explains why we must take Omicron extremely seriously. This is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy.
So let me turn to what, in the government’s judgment, we need to do now to mitigate this challenge.
In doing so, I ask everyone to think again in terms of a race between the virus and the vaccines.
Our vaccination programme is running fast - we are currently the most vaccinated part of the UK.
46% of the over 12 population have had booster jags already.
However, just as vaccines started to win this race, the virus learned to run faster.
That means we must deliver boosters even faster.
This is all the more important in light of early data telling us that the protection we have against Omicron infection with just one or two doses is significantly lower than it is for Delta - we need a booster jag to ensure a substantial level of protection against Omicron.
So we are taking steps now to get boosters into arms much faster.
Getting fully vaccinated is the best thing any of us can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the country. So please, book your booster jag as soon as possible.
Speeding up vaccination is essential and I want to assure the nation today that it is the government’s top priority.
I will shortly set out more detail on exactly how we are going about doing it.
But while this is necessary, our judgment is that in the short term it will not be sufficient.
While we are speeding up vaccination, we must also try to slow down Omicron.
That is why we are also proposing today, albeit very reluctantly, some further protective measures.
I am appealing to everyone to follow today’s advice, to help slow Omicron down while more of us do get our boosters.
Let me clear, we do not do this lightly.
I know how hard it is.
Please believe me when I say I would not be asking for yet more sacrifice if I did not genuinely consider this to be necessary in the face of a threat that is very real.
So let me set out now what is being asked.
Firstly, we want to keep businesses open but to help achieve this we are asking them to step up the protections in place in their premises.
We intend to amend regulations to put a legal requirement on those running businesses or providing services to take measures which are reasonably practicable to minimise the risk of transmission.
We will issue guidance this week to make clear what that means for different sectors.
For example in retail, it will involve a return to the kind of protections in place at the start of the pandemic - for example measures to avoid crowding and bottlenecks.
This will include physical distancing, measures to control the flow of customers and protective screens.
For hospitality, it will mean, for example, measures to avoid crowding at bars and between tables, and a reminder of the requirement to collect contact details of customers to help with contact tracing.
For employers more generally, the guidance will make clear that enabling staff who were working from home at the start of the pandemic to do so again is now a legal duty.
I am hugely grateful to employers who are already allowing staff to work at home where possible, but we are not yet maximizing the impact of home working to reduce the overall number of contacts we are having.
We recognise of course that there are people who cannot work from home – for example those who work in manufacturing, hospitality and key public services.
We are asking anyone in this position to test regularly before going to work.
We have extended the workplace testing scheme, which delivers lateral flow kits twice a week to all businesses who have signed up to it. I would encourage, urge indeed, any business with 10 or more employees to join up, and encourage staff to test regularly.
We will also be reinforcing the rules and public health messaging on the importance of wearing face coverings, and wearing them properly.
My hardest request today is of the general public.
I want to be clear, I am not asking anyone to ‘cancel’ Christmas - but in the run-up to and in the immediate aftermath of Christmas, I am asking everyone to reduce as far as possible, and to a minimum, the contacts we have with people in other households. I will say more about Christmas Day in a moment.
We are not banning or restricting household mixing in law as before. We understand the negative impact this has on mental health and wellbeing.
But we are asking everyone - and we will issue strong guidance to this effect - to cut down as far as possible the number of people outside our own households that we are interacting with just now.
This will help break transmission chains.
So my key request today is this - before and immediately after Christmas, please minimise your social mixing with other households as much as you can.
However, if you do plan on socialising - either at home or in indoor public places - we are asking that you limit the number of households represented in your group to a maximum of three. And make sure you test before you go.
I know this is a tough thing to ask people to do, especially at this time of year. So I want to be clear why we are making this request.
One of the things we have already learned about Omicron is that it has a very high attack rate.
That means if just one person in a gathering is infectious, that person is likely to infect many more people in the group than is the case with the Delta variant.
So by reducing the numbers of people and households gathering together, we help limit the extent of its spread.
Turning to Christmas Day specifically – or Christmas Eve or Boxing Day or whenever you have your main family celebration - we are not asking you to cancel or change your plans, and we are not proposing limits on the size of household gatherings.
Places of worship will also remain open, with appropriate mitigations.
But we will issue guidance to help you make Christmas safer.
Reducing your contacts in advance of and after Christmas as I have just strongly advised will help do this.
Keeping your celebrations as small as your family circumstances allow is sensible too.
Make sure everyone in your gathering is vaccinated and has done a test in advance.
Keep rooms ventilated and follow strict hygiene rules.
I know how much I am asking of everyone today, after a difficult and painful two years.
I would not be doing so if I did not believe it to be absolutely necessary.
Indeed, it could be argued that we should be going further - which is why I need to also explain a significant limitation on our ability to act in the way we think necessary to protect public health.
In this context, I am not seeking to make a political point - simply to set out the factual position.
Many of the protections that help curtail COVID come at a financial cost to individuals and businesses - so wherever we can, we put in place financial packages to protect people’s health, jobs and livelihoods.
However, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments do not have the ability to borrow to meet the COVID funding challenge.
UK funding arrangements mean we rely on the Treasury to do so on our behalf. And the Treasury has responded well throughout this pandemic.
And although Scottish taxpayers foot our share of the bill, money only flows to the devolved governments when the UK government makes decisions.
Financial support is not triggered if the devolved governments take decisions we consider appropriate for public health reasons - even though it is our responsibility to do so.
So because the UK government is at this stage not proposing any further protections - a position I do not agree with - there is no funding generated to compensate businesses for any protections we think are necessary and wish to put in place.
That is not acceptable in current circumstances and, with the Welsh and Northern Irish governments, we are pressing for a fairer approach that takes account of our devolved responsibilities for protecting public health.
But for now, this is the situation we are in, and it means our public health response is curtailed by lack of finance.
There are further steps we could and would have considered today - particularly around hospitality - had we the financial ability to do so. But we don’t.
However, I can confirm that with some considerable difficulty, we have managed to identify within our own resources around £100 million that we will use to help businesses, mainly those in hospitality and food supply, and in the culture sector, affected by our advice last week on work Xmas parties and further affected by what I have said today.
The Finance Secretary and her officials will be engaging with affected sectors immediately to consult on and confirm the details of support.
We will work to make money available as soon as possible. Businesses who previously received support through the Strategic Framework Business Fund will be contacted directly.
We have also identified an additional £100 million to ensure the Self Isolation Support Grant is available for those who need it, given the expected increase in the number of eligible people who will be asked to isolate.
Making this money available will involve difficult reprioritisation - but we recognise the importance of providing as much help as we possibly can.
However, this is the limit of what we are able to do within our own resources. I know it does not go far enough in compensating businesses for what we are asking of them now - and, of course, no government can rule out having to go further in the weeks ahead. So we are continuing to press the UK government to increase support to enable us to respond adequately to the public health challenge in the weeks ahead.
I will turn now to our actions to speed up delivery of booster vaccinations.
Anyone aged between 40 and 60 who hasn’t already booked an appointment, has now received an invitation to do so.
In addition, since yesterday, all 30 to 39 year olds have been able to book their booster jags online.
And I can confirm today that 18 to 29 year olds will be able to book online from tomorrow.
Our aim is that by 31 December everyone over 18 will have been able to book a booster appointment.
It is not possible to guarantee that absolutely everyone over 18 will have been vaccinated by 31 December. For a variety of reasons, some appointments will run into the new year.
For example, some people will not be eligible by the end of December because it will still be less than 12 weeks since their second dose. Some people have not yet come forward for a first or second dose and despite our best efforts, some will not come forward to book a booster either.
In addition, despite the strenuous work underway, we know that some capacity challenges between now and the end of the year are inevitable - for example, vaccinator staff absences due to COVID.
However, notwithstanding all of that, we are aiming to reach as close as possible to 80% uptake by the end of December, with the balance of appointments taking place in January.
I do not underestimate the challenge of this. Vaccination teams are already making a herculean effort and we are asking a great deal of them.
In addition, reaching that level of uptake depends on people continuing to come forward to get jags even over the holiday period.
So, this will not be easy - we know that - but we are working on the basis that the higher we aim, the further we will get.
Let me now therefore set out the steps we are taking to create the additional capacity needed.
Firstly, given its vital importance against Omicron, we will prioritise the COVID booster programme over the remainder of the flu vaccination programme for the next few weeks. This will allow many more booster appointments to be made available.
Let me stress, though - and this has informed our clinical advice - that for those in the highest risk groups for flu uptake of the vaccine this year is already high - for over 65 year olds, it is 88%, which is higher than last year.
Secondly, and in line with advice from the UK Chief Medical Officers, the requirement for people to wait in a vaccine centre for 15 minutes after they receive an mRNA vaccine is being removed. This will speed up vaccination times and enable many more appointments.
Thirdly, health boards are working to offer additional drop-in capacity within local centres.
Additional venues for vaccination are also being identified. This will include mass vaccination centres in areas where this is considered appropriate.
In terms of human resources, we plan to extend the number and role of volunteers, to ensure that clinical staff can spend as much time as possible supporting the administration of vaccines.
We will continue to expand the size of the overall vaccination workforce as much as possible and make full use of any military support that is available.
We will, of course Presiding Officer, keep parliament updated on the delivery of these plans.
However, at this stage, I want to again thank everyone working so hard to design and deliver the biggest and most important logistical project in our peacetime history.
Let me also stress that, while the focus of my statement today is on boosters, if you haven’t had your first dose yet, please do book it now. It is more important than ever to do so.
In the new year, we will also complete second doses for 12 to 17 year olds.
And I hope, very much hope, that we might also, soon, get regulatory approval to offer vaccination to under 12s.
Before I close today, there are some further issues that I want to highlight.
Firstly, let me reiterate the changed advice on self isolation. For now, household contacts of a person who tests positive for COVID, are being advised to self-isolate for 10 days. This advice applies to everyone in a household regardless of age, vaccination status or PCR test result.
Businesses and organisations providing vital services can apply for an exemption to allow essential workers to return to work, subject to them being symptom free and taking certain precautions, including daily lateral flow tests.
Second, beyond this advice, we are not recommending that entire school classes are required to isolate when a pupil tests positive. The advice on school isolation will continue to be risk-based.
More generally, a key aim is to ensure that schools stay open if at all possible to minimise further disruption to education.
However, it is vital that schools are safe for pupils and staff.
To help achieve this, we continue to ask secondary school pupils and all staff to take lateral flow tests regularly – including during holidays and before returning after the break - and to wear face coverings.
In addition the Advisory Subgroup on Education is meeting today to provide further advice on how schools can operate safely in the new year. We will send this advice to schools by the end of this week.
Thirdly, we will continue to consider appropriate protective measures for people in institutional settings – such as care homes – while ensuring that visits can continue.
Last week we recommended that care staff take lateral flow tests on a daily basis.
We are also now recommending that individual visits in care homes should not involve any more than two households visiting any patient at a time. And we are asking anyone visiting a care home to test before every visit.
For hospitals, we are recommending that no more than two people visit a patient at any one time. And again, we are recommending a lateral flow test before each visit.
Finally Presiding Officer, I fully understand that Omicron will be especially concerning to people on the Highest Risk List. I therefore want to give an assarance to all of you that the Chief Medical Officer will be writing to all of you shortly with further advice and assurance.
It is an understatement to say this is not the update I wanted to be giving just a few days before Christmas.
And I am painfully aware that it’s not an update anyone wanted to hear.
However, we have a duty to take decisions - no matter how difficult or unpopular - that will get us through this as safely as possible.
I will not shy away from that responsibility.
The fact that I am asking for further sacrifice today underlines how severe we think the risk posed by Omicron might be.
So please do follow the advice I have set out today.
And while this is, without doubt, a very difficult juncture in the course of the pandemic, please remember that vaccination does still put us in a better position than last year.
Also, hard and wearying though this is, we are not powerless in the face of the virus.
We know the steps we can take to slow it down.
So I will stress again what we need to do.
Firstly, please get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.
Secondly, please test regularly.
If you are going to meet other people - and our advice, remember, is to minimise this as much as possible - take a lateral flow test before you go, every time.
The tests are easy to take and, despite an issue with online ordering yesterday, they are easy to get hold of. Tests can be collected from local pharmacies and testing centres without a booking, and the online portal is open again today.
Wear face coverings on public transport, in shops, and when moving about in hospitality settings. And make sure your face covering fully covers your mouth and nose.
Keep windows open if meeting people indoors – even at this time of year.
Follow all advice on hygiene.
Work from home whenever possible - this will soon become a requirement anchored in law.
And please follow the new advice I have outlined today.
Although it is guidance, please do not think of it as optional.
Cut down unnecessary contacts as much as possible. In the run up to and immediately after Christmas, please avoid socialising with people in other households as much as you can.
If you are socialising indoors at home or in public places, limit the number of households represented in your group to a maximum of three. And test before you go.
And please follow the advice we will give to keep Christmas Day as normal but as safe as possible.
We do face an extremely difficult period ahead - I cannot tell you otherwise.
But I know we will get through it more safely, if we do right by each other, as we have done all along.
So please – get vaccinated, test regularly, and follow all the other rules and guidance that are in place for our own protection.
Let’s pull together again, and let’s help each other through.
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