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Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement – 18 January 2022

Statement given by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, on 18 January

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Presiding Officer,

Today, I will report on the current - and at this stage, much more positive - course of the pandemic.

I will set out the latest data and explain why, although significant pressures and uncertainties do remain, the data nevertheless gives us confidence that we have turned the corner on the Omicron wave

I will then confirm our next steps in lifting the protective measures introduced before Christmas.

I will also indicate what we can all continue to do in the immediate period ahead to keep cases on a downward trend and reduce the pressure on the NHS and the wider economy.

And finally, I will provide a further update on the vaccination programme.

First, though, today’s statistics show that:

7,752 positive cases were reported yesterday through both PCR and lateral flow tests.

1,546 people are in hospital with Covid. That is 21 fewer than yesterday.

59 people are currently  in intensive care, including 17 who have been in ICU for more than 28 days - 1 more than yesterday.

Sadly, a further 31 deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 10,093.

Once again, I send my condolences to everyone mourning a loved one.

As we can see from the data Presiding Officer, Omicron is continuing to infect large numbers of people here in Scotland, across the UK, and indeed in many other countries around the world. Hospital admissions and overall hospital occupancy associated with Covid also remain high.

However, notwithstanding the very real challenges Covid continues to present, the evidence I set out last week suggesting that the situation was beginning to improve, has significantly strengthened over the past 7 days.

A combination of booster vaccinations, the willingness of the public to adapt their behaviour to help stem transmission, and the temporary protective measures introduced in December, has helped blunt the impact of the Omicron wave.

Last week, I said that the data indicated cases were falling across most age groups and I can report today that this trend has continued. 

Now there still needs to be some caution applied in interpreting case data at this stage given the recent changes to guidance on PCR and lateral flow testing.

However data for the past 13 days, taking account of both PCR and lateral flow tests, shows a significant fall in the number of new positive cases.

And to put some detail on that - on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of last week, 36,526 new positive cases were recorded through PCR and lateral flow tests.

This week - over Sunday, Monday and today Tuesday, 20,268 cases have been reported, so quite a significant drop.

And if you look just at PCR tests – although I would ask everybody to bear in mind the limitations now in doing so - we have seen cases fall from an average of almost 13,000 a day to just over 4,600 . That is a decline of 64%. And cases have fallen across all age groups.

Test positivity in PCR tests has also declined – from almost 30% in early January to under 20% now.

The most recent Office of National Statistics data - which covers the week to 7 January and so it does have a time lag associated with it - reinforces this more stable and positive assessment. It indicated that the number of people with Covid in that week, around 1 in 20, was broadly the same as in the previous week.

So taking all of this into account - and triangulating the various sources of data - allows us to say with some confidence that the rise in cases driven by Omicron peaked in the first week of January and that we are now on the downward slope of this wave of cases.

This assessment is also reflected in the data on hospital admissions.

Hospital occupancy - the number of patients in hospital at any given time with Covid - is higher than it was 7 days ago, increasing from 1,479 to 1,546 today. However the increase – of 67 – is significantly smaller than it was in the previous 7 days.

And - encouragingly - admissions to hospital of people with Covid though still too high, are nevertheless now actually falling. In the week to 7 January, 1,040 were admitted. In the week to 14 January that was down to 960.

The number of people in ICU, which this time last week was rising, has also now fallen slightly over the last 7 days – from 65 to 59.

So all of this is very positive news and comes as an enormous relief I am sure to all of us.

Of course, we do need to recognise that there are still some uncertainties ahead, and so throwing all caution to the wind at this stage would be a mistake.

For example, the full impact of the return to work and school after the festive break won’t be apparent yet in the data. So it is possible that we will see case numbers tick up again in the next couple of weeks.

Also, just as the introduction of some protective measures may have helped slow down transmission, it stands to reason that the lifting of these measures could have the opposite effect. Indeed, that is exactly why it makes sense to lift measures on a phased basis.

And lastly, although cases are now falling, the NHS remains under acute pressure and staff absences are still causing some disruption across the economy and our critical services.

So while we can take great heart from the latest data, we know from experience  how important it is to be responsible and appropriately cautious in the face of this virus.

And that is the context then for the decisions that Cabinet reached this morning.

Yesterday of course the limit on attendances at outdoor public events was lifted.

The remaining statutory measures introduced in response to Omicron are as follows; limits on attendance at indoor public events; the requirement for 1 metre physical distancing between different groups in indoor public places; the requirement for table service in hospitality premises serving alcohol on the premises; and the closure of nightclubs.

Given the improving situation - and as I said last week we hoped to be able to do - I can confirm today that all of these measures will be lifted from next Monday, 24 January.

We will also from Monday remove the guidance advising adults against non-professional indoor contact sports, so that these can resume as normal.

And from Monday we will also lift the guidance asking people to stick to a 3 household limit on indoor gatherings.

However, it is important I think to stress this point: notwithstanding the improving situation, the level of Covid infection circulating in the community is still high.

So to minimise the risk of us getting the virus it would be sensible for all of us to remain cautious in our social interactions at this stage.

Even though from Monday we will no longer recommend a fixed upper limit on numbers of households, if we all continue to keep gatherings as small as our circumstances allow for now – I would suggest until the end of this month - we will reduce our risks of getting infected.

And, of course, we should continue to take lateral flow tests before meeting up with people from other households.

Please also remember to record test results - whether positive or negative - through the UK government website.

Let me stress this is even more important now that we are no longer advising confirmatory PCR tests for those without symptoms who test positive through lateral flow devices.

Recording these results ensures that we are able to make better assessments of the trends in infections.

Finally, we will continue to ask people to work from home whenever possible at this stage - and for employers to facilitate this. However, we will engage with business now about a return to a more hybrid approach from the start of February.

The baseline mitigation measures that were in place before Omicron - and the requirement for businesses, service providers and places of worship to take reasonable measures to minimise the spread of Covid on their premises - will be retained at this stage to help keep Covid contained as this wave recedes.

That means face coverings must still be worn in public indoor settings and on public transport.

Businesses and other organisations should continue to have regard to guidance, and take reasonable steps to minimise the spread of Covid.

And hospitality premises should continue to collect contact details for customers –which is of course important for the effective operation of Test & Protect.

In addition, the Covid certification scheme will continue to apply for now to large indoor and outdoor events, and to late night venues - all settings where transmission risks can be higher.

As of yesterday, guidance stipulates that organisers of events with 1000 or more in attendance should check the certification status of at least 50% of attendees or 1,000 people, whichever is higher.

Now I indicated last week that Cabinet would decide today whether or not to extend the certification scheme to other premises, such as licensed hospitality venues.

This was undoubtedly the most difficult decision we faced this morning and, yet again, the judgment we have arrived at was finely balanced.

On the one hand, extending Covid certification could offer public health benefits - ensuring that people attending certain venues are vaccinated or tested reduces to some extent the risks of transmission and also the risk of serious illness should an individual contract the virus in one of these settings.

On the other hand, we understand that extending certification could create additional costs for businesses at an already very challenging time - and of course the smaller the business, the more difficult these costs can be to bear.

So the task for Cabinet today was to weigh these considerations and decide what - in the current circumstances - would be proportionate.

Given that cases are now falling quite rapidly, and the current wave is receding, we decided that we will not at this stage extend the Covid certification scheme to other premises.

We will, of course, reconsider this should circumstances - and therefore the balance of judgment - change in any significant way.

If cases were to start to rise very sharply again, extension of certification may well be a more proportionate alternative to other, more restrictive measures.

However, our conclusion today - given the improving situation - is that extending certification would not be proportionate at this stage.

There is, though, one reasonably minor change to the certification regulations that we will propose.

At the moment, nightclubs and other late night venues must apply the scheme if they have, in use, a designated area for dancing.

We intend to amend the definition here to provide greater clarity and prevent premises from avoiding certification simply by having tables on a dancefloor - and therefore claiming it is not a dancefloor - but nevertheless permitting dancing around the tables. This change will take effect from Monday when late night venues are able to reopen.

Finally, Presiding Officer, let me say a few words about the updated rules on self-isolation after a positive Covid test. These rules, confirmed two weeks ago, remain in place.

If you test positive, you will be advised to self-isolate for 10 days. However, if you don’t have a fever, and take two negative lateral flow tests - more than 24 hours apart - on day 6 and day 7, you can end self-isolation on day 7.

Last week, the UK government announced further changes to self-isolation for England. This was publicised as allowing people to end self-isolation after day 5.

Essentially, however, this change simply brings England’s rules into line with those already in force in Scotland.

This is because in Scotland, we count the day of a positive test as day 1 of isolation - in England, this is counted as day zero. In addition, in England, you can end self-isolation after day 5. In Scotland, you can end it on day 7.

So the slightly different ways of defining the beginning and end of the self isolation period has given the impression of difference.

But the substance - the period people are actually required to self isolate for - is in fact the same in Scotland and in England – and I think it is important that people are clear about that.

Presiding Officer, the lifting, from Monday, of the protections introduced in response to Omicron is possible, in part, because of the efforts everyone has made, voluntarily and as a result of guidance and statutory measures, to help stem transmission – and I want to put on record again today my thanks to people across the country.

But it is also of course down to the success of vaccines

At this stage of the vaccination programme, we continue to offer boosters, and also implement the latest advice from the JCVI.

Just before Christmas, the JCVI recommended that booster jags should be offered to 16 and 17 year olds, 12 weeks after their second jags.

So any 16 or 17 year old who had a second jag 12 weeks or more ago – or who is just approaching that point – can now book a booster appointment online through NHS Inform. They can also turn up at a drop-in centre and get a booster there.

In addition, second doses of the vaccine are now available for 12 to 15 year olds who had a first dose at least 12 weeks previously. Again, appointments can be booked online. Alternatively, young people can choose to go to a drop-in centre. Parents and carers are of course welcome to attend with them.

So far, the JCVI has recommended that booster jags should be offered only to those 12 to 15 year olds at particular clinical risk from Covid.

Any 12 to 15 year old in that position will receive a letter inviting them for a booster 12 weeks after their last primary dose. There is no need to book an appointment.

Finally, 5 to 11 year olds with specific medical conditions that put them at greater risk from Covid will be invited for their first vaccination from this week onwards.

Again, let me stress, they will be contacted directly – there is no for them, or more appropriately, their parents or carers, to book online.

In due course, 5 to 11 year olds who are household contacts of people with immune suppression will also be invited to receive vaccination.

And of course we stand ready to quickly implement any updated advice from the JCVI about vaccinating all 5 to 11 year olds.

There are good reasons why the JCVI has given different advice for different age groups – but I realise it can be confusing.

The NHS Inform website therefore now has a self-help guide for parents, carers and children, setting out what young people need to do to get vaccinated, and when they can do it.

If you can’t get online, you can also phone the vaccination hotline on 0800 030 8013. That’s 0800 030 8013. 

Now, the final point I want to make relates to vaccinations for adults. Scotland has achieved very high rates of vaccination – we are the most vaccinated part of the UK in terms of first, second, third and booster doses.

But there are still more than 600,000 people over the age of 18 who are eligible for a booster, but haven’t yet had it. And there are hundreds of thousands more who have not yet had a first or second dose.

So I would encourage anyone who falls into one of these categories to make an appointment as soon as possible, or go to a drop-in clinic.

There is plenty capacity and you will be made welcome.

The latest available data, adjusted for age, shows that someone not fully vaccinated is at least four times more likely to require hospital treatment than someone who has had a booster or third dose.

And although being fully vaccinated does not eradicate the risk, for any of us, of getting Covid, it does reduce that risk - and therefore it also reduces the risk of us passing it on to others.

If you choose therefore - without good reason - not to be fully vaccinated, you are putting your own and others’ lives at unnecessary risk.

So if you haven’t had a booster or third jag yet, please come forward as soon as possible.

And if you haven’t had a first or second dose yet, please do so without delay. It is never too late to get the Covid vaccines, and to start getting the protection that the vaccines do offer.

Presiding Officer, the situation we face today is undoubtedly much less severe and much more positive than it might otherwise have been without the sacrifices everyone has made over these past few weeks.

Despite what you might be hearing, though, we have not yet moved from the epidemic to the endemic phase of Covid, although do I hope that transition is underway.

However, we are - I hope - once again entering a calmer phase of the epidemic.

That then allows us to consider the adaptations we might need to make to build our  resilience and manage the virus in a less restrictive way in future as we do move into an endemic phase.

We have, as I have indicated in previous weeks, started work now on an updated strategic framework and will be consulting on this over coming weeks.

All of this, therefore, gives us much cause for renewed optimism.

That said, we are still in a challenging position.

The NHS does remains under very significant pressure.

Indeed, as is reflected in today’s A&E waiting time figures, the past couple of weeks have probably been the most difficult the NHS has ever faced, as Covid-related staff absences have compounded the other pressures it is dealing with.

The number of Covid cases across Scotland, although declining, also remain high.

And because Omicron is so infectious, there is still a significant risk attached to social meetings and interactions.

That is why – although we can be increasingly optimistic at this stage - we must all still play our part in helping further slow the spread of the virus.

So I close by highlighting again the steps we can all take to help do that.

First, as I have just talked about at length, please do get fully vaccinated, if you haven’t already.

Second, take care when socialising. Until Monday keep indoor gatherings to a maximum of 3 households and after that, I’d suggest for the rest of this month, keep them as small as your circumstances allow.

And test before you go, every time.

And, lastly, please take all the other precautions that we know make a difference.

Keep windows open if meeting indoors.

Continue to work from home for now if you can.

Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, and when moving about in hospitality.

And follow all advice on hygiene.

These measures do make a difference – the fact that so many people have stuck with them has helped make it possible to lift the protective measures put in place before Christmas.

So if we continue to stick with them, we can all continue to do our bit to keep each other safe, protect the NHS, and keep us firmly on the path - even if only metaphorically speaking - to a much sunnier spring and summer.

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