Presiding Officer, I will update Parliament on Cabinet’s review of the current lockdown restrictions.
The review took place earlier today.
Let me say at the outset that - with a limited but very important exception in relation to some early years and school education that I will come on to later - the Cabinet has decided that the current lockdown, including the stay-at-home except for essential purposes requirement, does need to remain in place until at least the end of February.
In the course of this statement, I will give an update on the current state of the epidemic, which provides the context for that decision.
I will also give an update on the vaccination programme.
And I will set out some of the additional measures we intend to take to get and keep the virus under control in the months ahead.
And finally, I will set out how and when we hope to begin the process of getting children back to school.
Firstly, though, let me cover very briefly the latest statistics.
There were 758 positive cases reported yesterday. That is 7.4% of all tests carried out, and means the overall number of confirmed positive cases is no 181,291.
1,939 people are currently in hospital, which is a decrease of 19 from yesterday.
And 143 people are in intensive care, the same number as yesterday.
I also regret to report that over the past 24 hours, a further 69 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths, under this daily measurement now stands at 6,181.
Yet again, I want to send my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
The level of Covid infections clearly remains too high. That is evident from these figures.
However, the most recent figures provide further evidence that the lockdown restrictions are working to improve the situation. And that is, I believe, positive.
Average daily case numbers have more than halved in the past three weeks.
In the most recent week, up to 29 January, an average of 1,062 confirmed new cases were reported each day.
3 weeks ago, the average daily number was more than 2,300.
Weekly case numbers per 100,000 of the population have also fallen – from 302 in week ending the 8th January to 136 in the most recent week.
Test positivity has reduced as well. In the seven days up to 29 January it averaged 6.6% - that is still higher, but it is closer than it has been in recent weeks, to the 5% that the WHO considers to be indicative of an outbreak being under control.
Pressure on the National Health Service does continue to be severe. The number of Covid patients being treated in hospital remains around 30% above the high point of the first wave back in April last year.
However, hospital admissions in this wave do appear to have peaked on 12 January. They have now stabilised and are starting to reduce, albeit slowly.
ICU numbers at this stage are more volatile, but they did not reach the peak of the first wave and they also appear to have peaked in this wave and to have done so on 18 January.
So all in all, the statistics do show real progress.
However, this progress is down to compliance with the lockdown restrictions. And I want to thank everybody across the country for that compliance.
However, the situation does continue to be fragile.
Case numbers remain higher now than they were in the week before Christmas.
That means that if we were to ease restrictions too quickly, there is a real risk that infections would rise again very quickly.
That risk is of course increased by the fact that the new variant of Covid, which is more infectious, now accounts for, we estimate around 73% of all new cases in Scotland.
I can also advise Parliament that Public Health Scotland is examining evidence suggesting that there may be an increased risk of hospitalisation of people infected with the new variant.
However, at this stage, there is no statistically significant evidence of any increased risk of death.
Public Health Scotland is continuing to analyse the evidence on both of these points and we will keep Parliament updated.
I can also advise Parliament that to date there have been 5 cases of the new South African variant identified in Scotland. However, all of these have links to travel which means that there is no evidence so far of community transmission of that variant.
All of what I have just set out underlines the need for continued and very extreme caution in our fight against Covid, especially if, as I think we all do, we want to get some children back to school later this month.
That is why Cabinet has reached the conclusion that the lockdown restrictions must stay in place until at least the end of February.
However, if our progress continues, then I am cautiously – and I stress cautiously – optimistic that, as more and more people get vaccinated, and with the protection of some of the additional measures that I will set out shortly, we may be able to begin looking towards a careful and gradual easing around the start of March.
I will give an update on that in two weeks’ time.
Let me now report on the progress of the vaccination programme.
I can confirm that, as of this morning, we have now given a first dose of the vaccine to 610, 778 people in Scotland.
That includes 98% of all residents in older care homes – which is a truly extraordinary uptake – and 83% of the number of over-80s we estimate to be living in the community. I am going to return to that point shortly.
In addition, I can advise that 21% of over 75-year-olds have already received their first dose.
And we are on track to have vaccinated, with the first dose, all over 70 year olds, and all adults who are classed as being especially clinically vulnerable, by the middle of this month.
Vaccination of the 65- to 69-year-old age group is also underway from this week.
And those aged 60 to 64, and unpaid carers, will start to receive appointments from the third week of February.
So we are making good progress in protecting those who are most at risk from Covid.
Nevertheless, I expect there will be legitimate questions today about the overall number of vaccinations in Scotland compared to other parts of the U.K.
That is reasonable. However, I would make two initial points at this stage.
Firstly, we have been very deliberately trying to achieve as high an uptake as possible in the top priority groups – and we believe we are achieving a higher uptake than elsewhere.
So for example, we haven’t just offered vaccination to all older people in care homes – we have achieved an actual uptake of 98% amongst residents and 88% amongst staff working in older people’s care homes.
That really matters in terms of reducing the burden of illness and deaths.
Similarly in the over-80s group, the 83% I reported earlier is based on a cohort number that we think is overestimated.
The work we have been doing with health boards to refine these numbers suggests that the actual uptake amongst the over-80s group is already closer to 90%.
These uptake figures are way beyond anything achieved in the flu vaccine programme.
Vaccinating the most vulnerable to the greatest extent possible is really important, even if it takes more time to do so.
It will help to save more lives.
All of that said, though, it is clearly the case that overall volumes matter too – and that leads to my second point.
As we make more use of mass vaccination centres for the younger age groups, we expect the daily rate to also increase.
The figure reported today, for example, shows just under 35,000 first dose vaccinations were done yesterday – reflecting in part the opening of new centres.
That is the highest daily number so far – and it is 55% higher than last Monday.
So having achieved greater depth in the programme so far, in the form of high actual uptake in priority groups, our challenge now, absolutely, is to accelerate on breadth, in the form of numbers overall. And that is what we are doing.
It is right though that all of this is subject to close and ongoing scrutiny. And we will continue to provide the daily figures that allow that to happen.
As we continue to suppress the virus within our own borders and increase the protection of the vaccine, it is essential that we also guard against fresh importation of cases from overseas.
This is particularly important as the virus mutates and new, more infectious and potentially more severe variants emerge.
And as we look ahead, we must learn from past experience.
We now know, for example, that by early July last year, we had almost eliminated Covid in Scotland but then allowed it to be re-seeded from, in the main, overseas travel.
We must guard against that happening again.
It is to that end that the four UK nations have already agreed that travellers coming into the U.K. from countries with a travel ban in place will be required to quarantine in hotels.
This is a necessary measure, but in the Scottish Government’s view, it does not go far enough.
Firstly, there should be very few people coming from countries with a ban in place anyway.
Second, this approach leaves open the possibility that people will travel into the UK from those countries via third countries.
And thirdly, an approach to managed quarantine that only includes countries where new variants have already been identified is too reactive – because often by the time a new variant has been identified through genomic sequencing, it will already have spread across borders.
So the firm view of the Scottish Government is that in order to minimise the risk of new strains coming into the country, managed quarantine must be much more comprehensive.
I can therefore confirm today that we intend to introduce a managed quarantine requirement for anyone who arrives directly into Scotland, regardless of which country they have come from.
Obviously, we cannot unilaterally implement immediate managed quarantine for people who arrive in other parts of the UK before travelling on to Scotland.
So we will continue to urge the UK Government to adopt a comprehensive approach.
However, if they do not wish to do so – as is entirely their prerogative – we will ask them to work with us to reduce the risk amongst people travelling to Scotland via ports elsewhere in the U.K.
We will set out more detail of how and exactly when the managed quarantine system will be operational as soon as possible.
I understand how tough restrictions are for our travel and aviation industry as well as for individuals, so we will also look to work with the UK Government to ensure the sector gets the support it needs until such time as we are able to start to ease travel restrictions
It is vital, as I’ve said, that we guard against the importation of new Covid cases.
But it is also crucial that we continue to identify cases and break chains of transmission here in Scotland
We are already increasing the accessibility of testing – for example by increasing the number of mobile test facilities that are available, creating additional local and regional test centres, and making more use of fire service stations for testing in rural areas.
Today, I can set out a further expansion of regular, routine testing of those without symptoms.
Firstly, we will from later this month widen the regular testing of healthcare workers so that it covers primary care workers in patient-facing roles – such as GPs, dentists, optometrists, and pharmacists.
From mid-February, regular testing will also be available to all staff who work directly with patients in hospices.
We also intend to expand the availability of regular testing in other health settings, such as addiction and mental health services.
We will also introduce targeted testing to support some essential public service functions, including emergency service control rooms and NHS24.
Staff and patients in certain health settings obviously face an elevated risk of transmission, which is why it is right to have such a focus on those.
However, we know that there are some industries which also have higher transmission risks, such as food production and distribution.
So we are working with businesses in those sectors, with a view to introducing routine testing for their workforces over the course of this month.
Alongside these proposals to test people whose work potentially puts them at risk, we will be expanding targeted community testing – where testing is made available to everybody in a local area, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms.
This can play a particularly valuable role in communities where prevalence is stubbornly high or where it is starting to rise again.
In recent weeks, local authorities have been submitting proposals for community testing and we have been considering those proposals in light of the lessons from the pilot projects conducted at the end of last year.
Community schemes have already been agreed across 7 local council areas within the health board areas of Fife, Grampian and Ayrshire and Arran.
By the end of this week we will have agreed community testing plans across the majority of mainland local authority areas.
In addition to that, mobile testing units are already being used for targeted community testing in Ayrshire & Arran, Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders and Forth Valley.
These testing units, which are offering tests to people regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, are already finding cases on a daily basis that would otherwise not be identified.
The Health Secretary will in due course set out more details of everything that I have just announced today.
One of the purposes of increased testing is to help break more chains of transmission. However, that requires good support for self-isolation.
The latest available survey evidence which is UK-wide suggests that there is good compliance with self-isolation. But we know we need to do more.
I can therefore confirm today that we will intend to extend eligibility for the £500 self-isolation payment to everyone on an income below the level of the real living wage.
More details of this and the other steps we intend taking to support people required to self-isolate will be set out shortly by the Social Security Secretary.
Presiding Officer, let me turn now to education, which I’m sure for many parents in particular watching is the information they most want to hear today.
It is a statement of the obvious that all of us want to see children and young people back in full time, face-to-face education just as soon as possible.
The closure of school premises to most pupils right now is unfortunately necessary in the interests of protecting the country overall from the harm of this virus.
But evidence of the wider health, developmental and social harms being experienced by children and young people concern all of us. And I have to say – and I know this will resonate with parents in particular – they concern us more with every single day that passes.
I am also acutely aware of the pressure that school closures is putting on working parents and on family life more generally.
Now, I have to be candid that our room for manoeuvre, given the current state of the pandemic, is limited.
But I want to be equally candid, as I have been before, about the government’s determination to use every inch of headroom that we have to get children back to school – even if that means adults living with restrictions for longer.
In short, the judgment the Cabinet arrived at this morning – and this is a judgement based on, and taking account of the advice of our expert advisers – is that if we all do agree to abide with the lockdown restrictions for a bit longer so that our progress in suppressing the virus continues, then we can begin a phased, albeit gradual, return to school from 22 February, following the February mid-term break.
The decisions I am about to outline are intended to give young people, parents and teachers as much notice as possible, but of course I must stress that they are subject to continued progress in suppressing the virus and they will be subject to final confirmation in two weeks’ time.
However, as of now, our intention is that from the week beginning 22 February there will be:
- Firstly a full time return of early learning and childcare for all children below school age;
- secondly, a full time return to school for pupils in primaries 1 - 3; and
- thirdly, a part-time return, albeit on a limited basis, for senior phase pupils to allow in-school practical work that is necessary for the completion of national qualification courses. Initially though, it is intended that there will be no more than around 5-8% of a secondary school roll physically present at any one time for these purposes.
We also intend to allow small increases in existing provision for children and young people with significant additional support needs where there is a clear and demonstrable necessity.
We will hopefully confirm these decisions in two weeks’ time. At that stage, I also hope we can also set out the next phase of the gradual return to school and also at that time set out even an indicative timescale for the return of in-person learning in our colleges and universities.
Presiding Officer, before I leave education let me make one additional point.
I spoke about testing earlier on and that is relevant here too.
I can confirm that there will be a significant expansion of testing in educational settings to support the return to nurseries and schools in the weeks ahead.
It is our intention that those who work in schools, and those who work in early learning and childcare settings attached to schools will be offered ‘at-home’ testing twice a week. All senior phase secondary school students will be offered this as well.
This testing offer will be in place for schools as soon as possible to support their return on the basis that I have set out, and we will extend it to the wider childcare sector in the weeks after that.
We are, Presiding Officer – and I think I speak for everyone across the country when I say this – we are determined to get our children back to normal schooling, and by extension back to much greater normality in their lives, just as quickly as it is safe to do so. That is our overriding priority and I think it is right that is the overriding priority of all of us.
For now, I want to again thank young people and their families, as well as teachers, and school and nursery staff more generally, for the patience and understanding you are showing during these incredibly stressful times.
To conclude, we are making progress, both in suppressing the virus and in getting people vaccinated.
We need to do more on both of those fronts in the weeks to come.
But the path ahead does remain difficult. And it is important to be candid about that. This virus is still circulating, not just here but across the UK, Europe and the world. And of even greater concern just now, the virus is mutating.
So we must remain vigilant and we must remain disciplined.
To get the virus more under control, and so we can prioritise every bit of headroom we create to get children back to school, unfortunately we must all stay at home except for permitted, essential purposes for a bit longer – at least until the end of this month.
And when we are able to start the process of slowly easing lockdown, to give us all more normality in our day-to-day lives, we will have to accept that some mitigations, like physical distancing and face coverings, will be necessary for a while yet.
And I am afraid we will also have to accept that the price of greater domestic normality is likely to be – for a period at least – not going on holiday overseas.
These are not easy trade-offs. But they are essential as we continue our journey through, and hopefully out of this pandemic.
I am grateful to everyone for their continued sacrifice.
I ask everyone to please stick with it.
Please stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
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