Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement - 15 December 2020

Parliamentary statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday 15 December 2020.

Presiding Officer

Earlier today, the Cabinet concluded the weekly review of the levels of protection for each local authority area.

I will shortly confirm the outcome of that review in detail.

However, in summary, I can confirm that no local authority will move to level 4 this week.

However, 3 local authorities that are currently in level 2 will move to level 3 from Friday.

All other local authorities will remain in the same level as now.

I had previously indicated that this week’s review would be the last one before Christmas, with the next scheduled review taking place on Tuesday 5 January.

However, in light of the rising or volatile case numbers being recorded in some parts of the country, I can confirm that Cabinet decided this morning - as a precaution - to review the levels again next week.

I have also asked the Minister for Parliamentary Business to work with the Business Bureau to agree contingency arrangements so that if we require to increase the level of protection in any area over the recess period, we will be able to notify Parliament accordingly.

I will now turn to the context of this week’s review and then to the outcome of it.

But first I will give a brief summary of the latest statistics.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 845.

That is 7.4% of all tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases to 107,749.

996 people are currently in hospital – a decrease of 16 from yesterday.

45 people are in intensive care, a decrease of 1 from yesterday.

And I am sorry to say that in the past 24 hours, a further 24 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive for Covid over the previous 28 days.

The total number of deaths, under that measurement, is now 4,135.

These figures remind us again of the grief and heartbreak that this virus is causing and again, my condolences are with all those who have lost a loved one.

Today’s statistics, behind which of course are real people, provide an important and indeed a difficult context for this week’s review.

In recent weeks, the levels of protection applied across the country have helped to reduce prevalence of the virus.

I reported last Tuesday that, in the space of three weeks, the number of cases had fallen from 142 per hundred thousand of the population to 99.

However, over the most recent week, we have seen a slight rise in case numbers – from 99 per hundred thousand to 110 per hundred thousand.

Test positivity has also increased from 4.8% to 5.3%.

So while we remain in a much better position than in late October/early November, and as of now in a better position than many other countries, the most recent data is a reminder that our position - like that of countries across the UK and Europe - remains extremely precarious.

It is also appropriate for me to update Parliament today on what we know so far about the new variant of Covid that has been detected in the UK.

I have now been advised that, through genomic sequencing, 9 cases of this new variant have been identified in Scotland. All of these cases were in Greater Glasgow & Clyde.

It is important to stress that there is no evidence at this stage to suggest that this new variant is likely to cause more serious illness in people.

And while the initial analysis of it suggests that it might be more transmissible, with a faster growth rate than existing variants, that is not yet certain. It may instead be the case that it has been identified in areas of the country where the virus is already spreading more rapidly.

Further analysis is necessary to understand this new variant better, and that analysis is being conducted through Public Health England.

In the meantime, we are considering whether any additional precautions are necessary in light of what we know so far - including whether there should be any change over the Christmas period because of this or indeed the wider context - and I will discuss all of this later this afternoon with the other UK governments in a four nations call that we requested yesterday. I will, of course, keep Parliament fully updated on any changes.

Presiding Officer

All of what I have just reported makes the context for this week’s review particularly challenging and underlines the need for continued caution.

Before I confirm the outcome of the review, though, let me also inject a more positive note. The vaccination programme is now underway in Scotland. Last week, health and care staff started to receive the vaccine and yesterday of course the first care home residents were vaccinated.

I can confirm that we will publish the first of the new weekly progress reports on the vaccination programme tomorrow.

Over the course of next year, we firmly believe that vaccines will allow us to return to a much greater level of normality. There is, as we have reflected previously, light at the end of this tunnel.

However, as I said a few weeks ago, the road ahead of us may still have dips in it.

And, at times, that means the light will be hard to see.

The next few weeks may well be one of those dips in the road.

But even if it is obscured at times, we must remember that the light is definitely there, and that we will get through this.

Presiding Officer,

Turning now to today’s decisions -

These have as always been informed by input from the National Incident Management Team and our senior clinical advisers.

As our strategic framework requires, we have assessed the level of restrictions against all four of the harms that Covid causes – the immediate health harm of the virus; the wider impact it has on our health service; the social harms caused by restrictions; and the economic damage that the virus – and our measures to suppress it – cause to people’s livelihoods.

As part of that assessment process, we consider the data for each local authority very carefully. However we also, by necessity, apply context and judgment to that data.

Our decisions are not arrived at via a simple algorithm or on the basis of indicators alone.

We require to take account of other factors - including whether cases are rising or falling in a given area, and the wider risks of transmission that may arise from, for example, the festive period.

And we then reach cautious and balanced judgments that, in our estimation, are most likely to minimise the overall harm of the virus.

Given the overall context to our decisions this week – that I have set out - care and caution continue to be essential.

As a result, I can confirm that all 18 of the local authorities which are currently at level 3 will remain at level 3.

While we are still seeing progress across much of the central belt as a result of the recent level 4 restrictions, there are some areas - for example, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire and Fife - where cases have increased quite sharply in the last week.

While the changes in these areas do not warrant a move to level 4 at this stage, we will be monitoring the situation very closely over the next few days.

Let me turn now specifically to the situation in Lothian.

Last week, I confirmed that the City of Edinburgh and Midlothian would both remain in level 3.

That decision was subject to considerable scrutiny - understandably so - given that the raw indicators suggested that these areas should be at level 2.

However, having observed an increase in cases in the days leading up to last week’s decision, and applying our wider judgment, we concluded that easing restrictions would not be sensible.

Unfortunately, the continued rise in cases since then suggests that this was the right decision - though I understand how difficult it was, and is indeed, for the people and businesses most affected by it.

But in the past week, case numbers in the City of Edinburgh have increased by more than 40% - from 70 to 100 per hundred thousand of the population.

And numbers in Midlothian have risen even more sharply - from 88 to 147 per hundred thousand. Test positivity has also increased in both areas.

Our judgment remains, therefore, that it would be deeply irresponsible to ease restrictions in either the City of Edinburgh or Midlothian, at a time when cases are rising sharply.

Instead, our focus - and that of local partners - must be on encouraging maximum compliance with these restrictions to assure ourselves in the period ahead that level 3 is capable of containing and reversing the increase.

To complete consideration of Lothian, let me turn now to East Lothian.

Case numbers there have increased by more than 50% in the past week, from 69 per hundred thousand people to 126 - and this is on top of increases in the 2 weeks previous to that.

Unfortunately, therefore, and with obvious regret, the Cabinet has decided that East Lothian will move back to level 3 from Friday.

This is a difficult but essential decision, to seek to avoid a further deterioration in the situation and keep people across Lothian as safe as is possible.

I can confirm that Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire will also move from level 2 to level 3 from Friday.

We have been monitoring the situation in both these areas, as I have reported to Parliament, very closely and have concluded that tougher restrictions do now need to be applied.

In the last week alone, case numbers in Aberdeen City have increased by more than 50% - from 76 cases per 100,000, to 122. Case positivity has also increased from 3.9% to 6.1%.

The increase in Aberdeenshire has not been quite as sharp as in the city but case there are still rising.

It is therefore our judgment that level 3 restrictions are necessary to bring the situation in both Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire back under control.

I know that the move to level 3 for East Lothian, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire – and the continuation of level 3 in many other areas - involves real and continued difficulties for many people and for many businesses as well, particularly in the hospitality sector.

However these measures are in our view essential to get and keep the virus under control.

It is also worth pointing out that we are not alone in Scotland in facing these challenges just now.

In large parts of England, hospitality is closed completely. And the whole of Wales is now under restrictions similar to our level 3.

Further afield, many countries across Europe are re-imposing lockdowns as the winter months start to take their toll.

However, I know that brings no comfort to those directly affected, so it is essential that government continues to do all we can to provide support.

In addition to existing packages of support, the Finance Secretary set out last week a further package of business support, which is intended to provide extra help over the winter, and I would encourage all eligible businesses to make full use of it.

Presiding Officer,

The other councils currently in level 2 will remain there this week.

Those are Angus, Argyll and Bute, Falkirk and Inverclyde.

I am pleased to report that the situation in Inverclyde has remained broadly stable.

However, there have been recent increases in cases in Angus and Falkirk and we will be monitoring both of the areas carefully over the next week. I cannot rule out a return to level 3 for one or both of them.

Finally, let me say a word about Argyll & Bute.

Last week, we reported a very sharp rise in cases there but concluded that this was down to a particularly large outbreak in one workplace, rather than wider community transmission.

That conclusion seems to have been validated this week as case numbers have now fallen again by more than 70%.

This is in line with what we expected and hoped for, given the previous low rates across Argyll & Bute.

However, while this is positive, the clinical advice is that we should allow a transmission cycle to fully elapse before moving the area to level 1.

This will allow us to make sure that there has been no wider transmission from that workplace outbreak.

I can therefore confirm that Argyll & Bute will remain at level 2 this week - but assuming no adverse change to the situation, it is likely to move to level 1 next week.

There is one change that we will make this week, though, in recognition of the geographic diversity of Argyll & Bute.

We will apply the same household rules that currently apply in some other islands, to the outer Argyll islands -  Islay, Jura, Colonsay and Oronsay; Coll and Tiree; and Mull, Iona, and the neighbouring islands of Ulva, Erraid and Gometra.

That means that, from Friday, people on these islands will be able to meet in houses in groups of up to 6, from a maximum of 2 households.

However, I would take this opportunity to remind people in the rest of the country that staying out of each other’s homes, while incredibly difficult, is the most important and effective way of limiting spread of the virus.

Finally, I can confirm that the Highlands, Moray, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, Dumfries & Galloway and the Borders will all remain at level 1.

Presiding Officer,

I can also confirm that over the next two weeks, we will also be using the experience of the levels system to date to consider whether the specific restrictions in each level remain adequate or require amendment in any way.

Broadly speaking, we think the levels approach has worked well. But we know the winter period will put it under greater pressure, indeed is already putting it under greater pressure.

And we also know - and indeed see this in some of the data I have reported today - that case numbers are rising in some areas despite level 3 restrictions having been in place for some weeks.

So the time is right to review this and I will report the outcome of that review to Parliament after the Christmas recess.

Presiding Officer,

I am aware that the outcome of today’s review – and of course the wider context of it in Scotland, across the UK, and Europe – is a very difficult one.

We have been reminded again in recent days that Covid still presents a very real risk - not just for us, but for countries around the world.

Over the weekend, we saw Germany and the Netherlands announce extended lockdowns.

And of course, as I have mentioned already, it has been confirmed that from tomorrow, the whole of London will enter England’s highest tier of protection - which includes full closure of hospitality.

Vaccination undoubtedly holds out a genuine hope for a return to something closer to normality, in the I hope not too distant future. But that point is not quite here yet.

For the moment, all of us need do everything we can, to limit the opportunities we give the virus to spread.

Most of us, of course, will now be thinking ahead about plans for Christmas. 

As I said earlier, there will be a 4 nations discussion later today to take stock of recent developments and I think that is right and proper.

But, for now, I would urge the utmost caution.

If you can avoid mixing with other households over Christmas, especially indoors, then please do so.

But if you feel it essential to do so - and we have tried to be pragmatic in recognizing that some people will - then please reduce your unnecessary contacts as much as possible between now and then and of course follow all of the sensible rules and mitigations.

For all that the last ten months have been really difficult, I know that for many of us the next few weeks are likely to be the toughest part of this whole experience so far.

For any of us, the thought of staying away from loved ones over the Christmas period is difficult to bear.

But, hopefully, by this time next year, all of this will be starting to fade into a bad memory and we will be looking forward to a much more normal Christmas.

And so this year, there is no doubt that the best gift we can give to family and friends, if at all possible, is to keep our distance, meet outdoors if at all, and keep each other safe.

And of course for all of us it remains essential that we stick to the current rules and guidelines.

The vast majority of us, with some exceptions for island communities, should not meet in other people’s houses. That is hard but it remains necessary.

If you have been dropping your guard on this recently, I ask you to please think again.

If we meet outdoors - or in public indoor places - we must stick to the limit of 6 people, from a maximum of 2 households.

Travel restrictions continue to be absolutely vital. No one who lives in a level 3 area, should travel outside their local authority unless essential.

And people from other parts of the country should not go to level 3 areas unless essential.

And finally, remember FACTS – the five rules that help keep us all safe in our day to day lives:

Wear face coverings; avoid crowded spaces; clean hands and surfaces; keep two metre distancing; and self-isolate, and get tested, if you have symptoms.

Sticking to those rules now remains the best way for all of us to protect each other.

By doing so, we will help keep ourselves safe.

We will help keep our loved ones safe.

We also help to protect the NHS.

And most importantly of all, we will help to save lives.

This year has been unremittingly horrible for everyone, but it has nevertheless reminded us what matters most - health, family, community, and love.

So let’s hold on to all of that - and a determination to keep each other as safe as possible - as we prepare to celebrate this very difficult and very different Christmas.

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