Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement – 16 November 2021

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Tuesday 16 November 2021.

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Presiding Officer,

I will give an update today on the latest Covid situation and also provide an assessment of the current course of the pandemic.

First, though, today’s statistics.

2,771 positive cases were reported yesterday – 12.8% of all the tests that were carried out.

779 people are currently in hospital with Covid – which is 8 more than yesterday.

And 57 people are receiving intensive care, which is the same number as yesterday.

Sadly, a further 17 deaths have been reported over the past 24 hours and that takes the total number of deaths registered under this daily definition, to 9,406.

And again, I want to send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

More positively, the vaccination programme continues to make very good progress.

I can confirm that 4,331,574 people have received a first dose and 3,930,317 have now had both doses.

In total, 88% of all those over 18 are now fully vaccinated with two doses.

In addition, 76% of 16 & 17 year olds, and 56% of 12 to 15 year olds, have had a first dose. Until now, of course only a single dose has been recommended for these age groups.

But, following yesterday’s updated advice from the JCVI, we are now preparing to offer second doses to 16 & 17 year olds.

I will say a bit more about the progress of the booster programme later.

However, it is worth pointing out that on first, second and booster and third doses, Scotland is currently the most vaccinated part of the UK.

That is down of course to the incredible hard work of everyone involved in organising and delivering the programme and I want to record my thanks to each and every one of them.

Today’s weekly update of course coincides with the latest three-week review point for the remaining Covid regulations.

And so I can confirm that at our meeting earlier today the Cabinet agreed to keep the current regulations in place, with no immediate changes.

However, we also considered - though we have not yet reached final decisions on - the possibility of future changes to the Covid certification scheme and I will say more about that shortly as well.

The numbers reported in recent days here in Scotland - which I’ll come on to talk about in more detail - illustrate the need for continued precautions.

So too does the challenging situation being experienced again across Europe.

Several European countries are currently dealing with a sharp increase in cases.

Infection rates in Germany have reached their highest level since the pandemic started. The Netherlands reintroduced some Covid measures last week. Ireland has done so today. And Austria has just introduced extremely tough restrictions on people who are not fully vaccinated.

All of this is a reminder that governments everywhere are grappling with the same issues and dilemmas that we are.

The threats posed by Covid are very much still with us - even though they have been mitigated by vaccination - and the race between the virus and the vaccines has not yet been won.

The situation in here in Scotland also bears that out.

However, before I give an update on the overall trends in Scotland, I want to say a few words about the impact of recent events in Glasgow.

I will reflect more generally on COP26 in a further statement to parliament later this afternoon..

However, while we can’t yet draw final conclusions, I can confirm now that there is no sign so far of any significant spike in cases associated with COP26.

Rigorous measures were put in place to minimise the risks of transmission.

For example anyone entering the main summit site - the Blue Zone - had to provide evidence of a negative lateral flow test result.

Information published earlier today by Public Health Scotland suggests that of the people officially affiliated with COP26, approximately 4 in every 1,000 tested positive for Covid through routine lateral flow testing.

This contrasts with survey data for the Scottish population as a whole which suggests that last week 12 people in every 1,000 had Covid.

And in total, since 15 October, 291 people with Covid across Scotland reported attending a COP-related event – that includes satellite meetings and demonstrations, as well as the main summit itself. That represents less than half of one per cent of all those who tested positive for Covid over the past month and reported through Test and Protect.

All of this at this stage, Presiding Officer, suggests that the mitigations that were put in place for COP were effective.

And I want to put on record my thanks to delegates for their compliance and indeed to everyone who worked so hard in the run up to and during COP 26 to secure the safest possible environment.

More generally across Scotland, we have seen a gradual increase in cases over the past two weeks – from just over 2,500 new cases a day, to approximately 3,000 cases a day as this stage.

It is important to note though that this headline figure masks some distinct variations between different age groups.

For example, cases amongst under 60s increased by 14% during the past week.

And much of this increase was in people under the age of 20.

By contrast, cases in the over 60 age group fell over the past week - by 11%.

Now this is likely to be due, at least in part, to the success of the booster programme, which of course is prioritised amongst the older population and I’ll say more about that shortly.

The decline in cases amongst older people may also explain why – despite the overall increase in cases - the numbers in hospital with Covid have reduced slightly in recent weeks.

Three weeks ago, 917 patients were in hospital with Covid. Today, there are 779.  And the number of people in intensive care has fallen although very slightly during that time – from 59 to 57.

However all of that said the number of patients in hospital with Covid is still extremely high. If cases continue to increase then, notwithstanding the age profile, we are likely to see hospital admissions and occupancy start to rise again.

In addition, the NHS is currently treating people who are in hospital for care which had to be delayed by earlier Covid countermeasures.

And of course as we go further into winter, we can expect other seasonal pressures - for example, flu - to increase.

All of this means that the NHS is under extreme pressure. And we continue to work closely with health boards to address and mitigate these pressures as far as we can.

The vaccination programme, of course, continues to be critical in reducing the direct health harm caused by the virus.

I mentioned a moment ago that the decline in Covid rates in older age groups – and the fall in hospital admissions - may well reflect the impact of the vaccine booster campaign.

I can confirm that more than one million booster jags have now been administered.

And over 70% of the over 70s have now had a booster.

We know that a booster jag significantly increases the effectiveness of the vaccine – so this high level of uptake is extremely important, and we will continue to push it up as far as possible.

The programme took a further step forward yesterday with the launch of the online booking portal.

Everyone aged 50 to 59 - together with unpaid carers and household contacts of the immunosuppressed and anyone eligible for a vaccine who has not yet had an appointment - can now book online at NHS Inform.

Since yesterday morning, more than 54,000 people have made online bookings. 

And more than 8,000 people have made bookings through the national helpline, which can be called on 0800 030 8013. That’s 0800 030 8013.

It is of course important to remember that boosters can only be given 24 weeks after someone’s 2nd jab.

Therefore, for many in the 50 to 59 age group, appointments will only be possible from December onwards.  

It is also worth pointing out that people living in Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and the NHS Highland health board areas will not use the online booking system, but instead receive information direct from their health board about local appointment arrangements.

As I mentioned earlier, the JCVI updated its advice yesterday.

In addition to recommending second doses for 16 & 17 year olds, it also recommended booster jags for people in their 40s.

I very much welcome this and the Scottish Government will now move to implement this new advice as quickly as we can. And we continue to work with health boards to ensure that the overall programme is delivered as rapidly as possible.

However it is worth taking stock of the situation as of now.

This winter vaccination programme is the largest and the most complex ever undertaken in Scotland.

However, since the first week in September more than 3 million flu and booster jags have been administered.

Take up rates have been encouraging. And this is providing vital protection as we head into winter. So, once again, I am hugely grateful to everyone helping get jags into people’s arms as quickly as possible.

And I also want to take this opportunity again to urge every single person who is eligible for vaccination - whether for a first or second jag, or a booster or 3rd jag - to take up the offer without delay. And get the flu jag too if you are eligible.

Getting vaccinated remains the single most important thing any of us can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.

It is impossible to overstate how important it is to get vaccinated - so if you haven’t already, please do so now.

You could be saving your own life or the lives of your loved ones.

You will be reassuring others, including those most at risk – some of whom have clinical conditions that mean that they cannot get vaccinated themselves.

You will be helping those working in the NHS.

And you will be maximising our collective chances of getting through this winter without the need to re-introduce any restrictions.

Presiding Officer, in my view, choosing, without good reason, not to be vaccinated is deeply irresponsible.

Getting vaccinated, on the other hand, is a civic duty and it is the most precious gift we can give to others at this time.

The vaccine programme is and will continue to be the bedrock of our efforts to control Covid.

However, other baseline mitigations remain in place and they are also important.

Lateral flow testing, as I mentioned earlier, appears to have been effective in limiting transmission during COP.

That should remind all of us that these tests are a really important way of detecting infection particularly in those without symptoms and therefore preventing onward spread.

So I would again encourage everyone to do a lateral flow test at least twice a week - and especially if you are attending events or mixing with people in other households.

The tests can be ordered free through NHS Inform, or collected from test sites and local pharmacies. 

Face coverings also continue to be a simple and important mitigation - and remain a legal requirement on public transport, in shops and when moving around in hospitality settings.

Please also continue to work from home when that is practical.

I am today asking all employers to look again at whether more workers could be supported to do more work from home over the winter period.

Lastly, good ventilation is vital.

If any of us are having people visit our homes, we should open a window, even slightly, to let some air flow through the room.

Within the public sector we have taken significant steps to improve ventilation – for example funding for carbon dioxide monitors in schools.

And in September we announced the establishment of a £25million fund to help businesses improve ventilation.

This fund opens for applications next week. Businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms will be able to claim back costs of up to £2,500 for measures like the installation of carbon dioxide monitors or improvements to windows and vents.

More information on eligibility has been published today on the Find Business Support website.

All of these basic mitigation measures are really important at this stage.

But of course, some of them are also valuable long-term investments.

For example, better ventilation won’t just reduce the spread of Covid - it will also help reduce the spread of other airborne viruses, now and in the future.

And there’s an important point here which is worth stressing.

When we talk - as many do these days - about ‘living with COVID’, it is important that we don’t think of this as simply giving in to the virus.

Instead, it is about making sensible changes that allow us to return both to greater normality and to better health.

Presiding Officer,

The final mitigation measure I want to talk about today is the Covid certification scheme.

It is the strong view of the Scottish Government that this - together with the other measures still in place - makes an important and proportionate contribution to stemming Covid transmission.

The value of certification is also recognised in other countries, many of which require certification for access to a much wider range of services than is currently the case in Scotland. 

Wales, for example, expanded the scope of its own scheme yesterday. It now applies to theatres, cinemas and concert halls, in addition to the same range of venues as in Scotland.

The Cabinet discussed possible changes to the current certification scheme at our meeting this morning.

We intend to take a final decision next Tuesday in light of the most up to date data.

In the meantime, later this week, we will publish an evidence paper and consult businesses on the practicalities of implementation should changes be made.

However, while final decisions have not yet been reached, I want to provide an update on the issues under consideration.

I should also say that we would provisionally intend for any changes we do decide to make to the scheme to take effect from December 6.

When the scheme launched on 1 October, we judged that it was not appropriate at that time - given the imperative to drive up vaccination rates - to include testing as an alternative to proof of vaccination. But we indicated that this would be kept under review.

So we will be assessing in the coming days whether, on the basis of current and projected vaccination uptake rates, we are now in a position to amend the scheme so that in addition to showing evidence of vaccination to access a venue, there will also be the option of providing evidence of a recent negative test result.

That is already a feature of many other countries’ certification schemes.

We are also considering whether an expansion of the scheme to cover more settings would be justified and prudent given the current state of the pandemic.

Again let me stress that we have not at this stage taken a decision to extend the reach of the scheme.

However, to allow us to engage openly with businesses in the coming days about the pros, cons and practicalities, I can confirm that the kinds of settings that might be in scope would be indoor cinemas, theatres, and some other licensed and hospitality premises.

We would, of course, retain exemptions for those under 18; for those who cannot be vaccinated or tested for medical reasons; for people on clinical trials; and for those who work at events or in venues subject to the scheme. Exceptions would also be retained for worship, weddings, funerals and related gatherings.

I will give a further update on this in next week’s statement. And if we decide to propose any amendments to the regulations on certification, Parliament will have the opportunity to discuss and debate these amendments.

Presiding Officer,

I am acutely aware that many businesses want us to remove mitigations - including certification - not extend or tighten them.

I understand that. But all of our decisions are and must be motivated by a desire to keep people safe but also to get through what will be a challenging winter without having to re-introduce any restrictions on trade. We want if possible businesses to stay fully open over Christmas and through the winter, while also keeping Covid under control.

If an expansion of Covid certification can help us do that, it would be irresponsible not to consider it.

Presiding Officer

As the detail of this statement makes clear – and as the situation across Europe also shows – the need to carefully manage this pandemic still deprives us of any easy options.

While we hope very much to get through winter without re-introducing any further restrictions, as some other countries are now starting to do, we do have a duty to keep proportionate options under review and we will do so.

To assist with and give an insight into the factors guiding our considerations, we are also publishing an updated strategic framework today.

This covers in more detail many of the issues I have already summarized.

One of the points it reiterates is that all of us across society - individuals, businesses and other organisations - must continue to play our part in helping curb the spread of the virus.

For that reason, Cabinet Secretaries are continuing to work with COSLA, individual local authorities and businesses on the actions we need to take to reduce transmission – preferably without additional restrictions.

And I will close again by reiterating what we can all do to protect ourselves and each other.

So firstly, please do get vaccinated if you are eligible and haven’t yet done so. As I mentioned earlier, that includes going for a booster jag when you are invited.

It is never too late to get vaccinated. And it remains the single most important thing any of us can do right now.

Second, please test regularly with lateral flow devices. These, of course, can be ordered through the NHS Inform website, or collected from a local test site or pharmacies.

If you test positive, or are identified as a close contact, or have symptoms of the virus, please self-isolate and book a PCR test.

And third, please comply with the mitigations still in place.

Work from home when that is possible, wear face coverings in indoor public places - shops and public transport and when moving about in hospitality.

Wash hands and surfaces thoroughly.

And meet outdoors if that is possible. That obviously gets harder through the winter - but it is the case that outdoor environments are safer than indoors.  

And when you are meeting indoors, try to open windows – anything to improve ventilation will help.

All of these precautions do still make a difference. They will protect us and those around us, and they will help to ease the burden on our NHS.

So I ask everyone to continue to stick with them and thank everyone for doing so.

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