Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement – 21 December 2021

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on 21 December 2021.

Presiding Officer,

I will give an update on COVID, and provide the latest data on Omicron.

I will report on progress with boosters.

I will again appeal to everyone across the country to reduce contacts and stay at home as much as possible in the run up to Christmas Day, and then again after this Christmas weekend, and also reiterate the steps we can all take to make family celebrations this weekend as safe as possible.

I will also confirm Cabinet’s decision to propose some additional protections in relation to large scale live events and indoor public places..

We judge these to be necessary to further slow the spread of the virus so that we can protect health, the National Health Service, and the economy as we work to complete booster vaccinations.

And I will set out further support for the many businesses affected by the advice we feel duty bound to give in the interests of protecting public health.

First, though, today’s statistics.

5,242 positive cases were reported yesterday – 14.9% of all tests carried out.

515 people are in hospital with COVID – one fewer than yesterday.

37 people are in intensive care, also one fewer than yesterday.

Sadly, a further nine deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 9,790.

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

Presiding Officer

In last week’s statement, I reported that cases had increased by 25% in the preceding seven days, and that we would in all likelihood see a further increase in infections as Omicron became the dominant strain circulating in Scotland.

Omicron has now firmly established itself as the dominant strain.

We know from the S gene drop out indicator that it now accounts for 62.9% of all cases – that’s compared to 27.5% this time last week.

Omicron is significantly more transmissible than previous variants and we estimate its R number is well above 3.

It is currently spreading rapidly across Scotland, and so the steep increase in infections that was predicted last week has now started to materialise.

Cases increased by more than 50% in the past week - from over 3,500 a day to almost 5,500 a day.

There were increases across all age groups but the biggest - of 161% - was in 20 to 24 year olds age group.

The rate of acceleration in an age cohort with, to date, lower levels , relatively speaking, of booster protection underlines the vital importance of everyone getting booster jags as quickly as possible. I will return to that later.

However, as the booster roll-out is completed - and bearing in mind that it takes around a week for immune protection to take effect in individuals - we must also act to slow down the spread of cases.

And I want to explain why that is so vital.

Firstly, the toll that a rising wave of infections will have on health, and on health and social care. is considerable.

We don’t yet know if the proportion of Omicron cases needing hospital care will be lower, higher or the same as with Delta. However, there is still no compelling evidence that Omicron is intrinsically milder than previous strains.

However, even if the proportion of cases needing hospital care is lower, as we all hope it will be, a smaller proportion of a much larger number of infections, will still have a deeply damaging impact.

As well as the suffering caused to individuals and families, the additional pressure on our already stretched National Health Service will be extremely difficult to manage.

In addition to that, if large numbers of people become infected - even mildly - the impact on the economy and critical services through sickness and isolation absences will be crippling.

Indeed we are already starting to see this impact. 100 Scotrail services were cancelled yesterday due to staff absence. Theatres are already being forced to cancel shows due to COVID cases amongst cast and crews.

And - even more seriously - staffing shortages are already being felt across the supply chain, and they are exacerbating the intense pressures that the NHS and emergency services are working under.

So this is why we must act.

And let me be clear again - this is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy.

If we don’t stem the spread of the virus, both health and the economy will suffer.

Now before I set out again the action we must take, let me address one further point.

Some ask why we can’t wait until we have more data and know exactly the impact Omicron will have on the NHS.

I totally understand the temptation to delay; to hope, after two long years of this, that further steps might not be necessary.

But, firstly, as I said a moment ago - we are already seeing a significant impact from staff absences across the economy and public services. We must do what we can to stem this.

And secondly, we know from experience that if we wait until the data tells us conclusively that we have a problem for example with hospital admissions, it is already too late to act to avoid the problem.

We must act quickly - in so far as we are able given our financial constraints - and must get ahead of the data if we can.

So the obligation of government is to take difficult decisions to keep the country as safe as possible, no matter how unpopular these decisions might be.

Let me now set out the steps we all must take.

Firstly, we are not changing the advice for Christmas that I set out last week.

It is important that with just a few days to go, there is certainty about family gatherings on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

I am not asking anyone to change these.

However - and I can’t stress this enough - please do follow advice to keep family celebrations as safe as possible.

Keep gatherings as small as your family circumstances allow.

Make sure everyone does a test shortly before getting together. Anyone who tests positive should not mix with others. And given how infectious Omicron is, you should assume that if one member of a household is positive, the others are likely to be so too.

Follow hygiene advice and keep windows open.

And, crucially, between now and Christmas Day, cut your contacts with people in other households as much as possible. Minimise socialising with others, either at home or in indoor public places. Indeed, stay at home as much as is feasible.

This is the best way of avoiding getting COVID and having to isolate over Christmas, or inadvertently spreading infection when you do meet up with others.

I am really grateful to everyone who has followed this advice over the last week.

It will be making a difference, and I want to stress this point, the steep increase in cases over the past week would have been steeper still but for people complying with this advice. So I hope we may already be collectively slowing the spread.

It is important that we stick with it.

So my first new request of everyone today is this.

From 27 December - as we come out of the Christmas weekend -  and at least until the end of the first week in January when we will review this advice again, please go back to limiting your contacts as much as you possibly can.

Please stay at home as much as is feasible. When you do go out, please maintain physical distancing from people not in your group.

And difficult though it is, please follow this advice over New Year - minimise Hogmanay socialising as much as you can.

If we all follow the advice to minimise the contact we have outside our own households, we will help limit the spread of infections.

So this is the bedrock of our plan for the immediate period ahead.

However, while our core advice is to reduce socialising and stay at home as much as feasible, the Cabinet’s judgment is that we must also take some further steps to make the places where people might still gather as safe as possible.

That is why we are proposing some additional protections.

None of these are being proposed lightly, but we do consider them necessary to help stem the increase in cases, safeguard health and protect the NHS, the emergency services and the economy while we complete and get the full effect of the booster programme.

First, from 26 December - inclusive of that date - for a period of three weeks, we intend to place limits on the size of live public events that can take place. This does not apply, let me stress, to private life events such as weddings.

For indoor standing events the limit will be 100; for indoor seated events it will be 200; and for outdoor events 500 seated or standing.

Physical distancing of 1 metre will be required at events that go ahead within these limits.

This will of course make sports matches, including football, effectively spectator-free over this three week period. A situation similar to that in Wales from Boxing Day.

And it will also mean unfortunately that large-scale Hogmanay celebrations - including that planned here in our capital city - will not proceed.

I know how disappointing this will be for those looking forward to these events, and for the organisers of them.

But I want to underline why we think this difficult decision is necessary.

Firstly, we know that the much higher transmissibility of Omicron means large gatherings have the potential to become very rapid super-spreader events, putting large numbers at risk of getting infected very quickly. Limiting these events helps reduce the risk of widespread transmission.

It also cuts down the transmission risks associated with travel to and from such events

And second, and this is not an insignificant point, these large events put an additional burden on emergency services, especially the police and ambulance services.

At a time when these services are already under severe pressure and also dealing with high staff absences, limiting large scale events will help them focus on delivering essential services to the public. 

So I would ask the public - despite the disappointment I know this decision will generate - to please understand the reasons for it.

Secondly, we intend to issue guidance to the effect that non-professional indoor contact sports for adults should not take place during the three week period from 26 December. This is because these activities, where physical distancing is not possible, also create a heightened risk of transmission.

Finally - from 27 December, again for up to three weeks - we intend to introduce some further protections in hospitality settings and other indoor public places to reduce transmission risk in what are, through no fault of those who run such venues, higher risk environments.

I can confirm that a requirement for table service only will be reintroduced for venues serving alcohol for consumption on the premises.

And we will also ask indoor hospitality and leisure venues to ensure 1 metre distance, not within, but between groups of people who are attending together.

We will continue to advise people that if they are attending indoor hospitality or leisure venues - and remember our core advice remains to minimise this - there should be no more than three households represented in any group.

Presiding Officer

I know how unwelcome this will be for everyone - but we believe these precautionary steps will help us navigate a difficult period more safely.

I am also acutely aware that these decisions - and the advice we are giving the public -  have significant financial implications for many businesses.

Last week, I announced £100m of support from within our existing resources for affected sectors. I can also confirm eligibility and guidance for the hospitality sector will be published on the Scottish Government website today.

Since then, the Treasury has given approval for money that would have come to us later to be allocated now.

As I have said, we had already budgeted for most of that money and so we cannot allocate it now without causing significant shortfalls anywhere, including in the health budget. Money simply cannot be spent twice.

However, we estimate that the Treasury announcements do give us additional spending power now of £175 million. I can confirm today that we will allocate all of this to business support.

The Treasury has in the last hour or so just announced additional funding for business. Unfortunately, it would appear that this announcement generates no further funding for Scotland and that any consequentials are contained within previous announcements by the Treasury.

I can, however, announce that the Scottish Government will allocate a further £100 million from elsewhere in our budget between now and the end of the financial year.

This will involve difficult really decisions but the impact of the current crisis on business is such that we consider it essential.

Taken together, this adds up to a fund of £375 million that will help support business for the unavoidable impacts of our decisions over the next three weeks. This is significantly more - proportionately - than the Chancellor has just announced for businesses in the UK.

Presiding Officer

While this is significant funding, I understand that it will not fully compensate business.

As I said last week, my view is that the scale and urgency of the Omicron challenge requires financial support for business on a scale similar to that at the start of the pandemic.

However, current UK funding arrangements mean, firstly, that only the Treasury has the borrowing powers to provide support on such a scale.

And second, that financial support at scale is triggered only when the UK government takes decisions for England.

All of this means that our ability to act to protect public health - and to compensate individuals and businesses affected - is curtailed. This cannot be right in a public health emergency

So while today’s Treasury announcement may be a welcome acknowledgement of the crisis businesses face, it does not yet go far enough.

We will therefore continue to press the UK government to take the threat of Omicron more seriously and to act accordingly.

But in the meantime we will - indeed we must - live up to our own responsibilities to do everything we can to protect health, lives and livelihoods here in Scotland.

Presiding Officer

Before I conclude with an update on vaccination, let me cover two further points.

Firstly, it remains our priority, I hope Parliament’s priority, to re-open schools as normal after the holidays.

Indeed, one reason for asking adults to make sacrifices for a further period after Christmas is to help minimise any impact on children’s education.

However, to help ensure that schools are safe environments for young people and staff, updated guidance based on recommendations from the Education Advisory Sub-Group was published at the end of last week.

Colleges and universities are also assessing any steps they need to take for the new term, and some are returning to a default model of online learning for the start of the new term.

Presiding Officer

For everyone involved in education – staff, children, students and parents – this has been another exceptionally difficult term. I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all those who have helped ensured that children have been well supported, and to children and young people themselves for the tough times they continue to endure.

The second point I want to cover briefly relates to Test & Protect.

The current surge in cases is putting significant pressure on Test & Protect. I am grateful to all of its teams for working so hard to help break chains of transmission.

From this week, Test & Protect will flex its approach as necessary to ensure priority is given to higher risk settings, such as hospitals and care homes, where outbreaks can cause the most harm.

For many of us, this means that if we test positive, our contact from Test & Protect teams is more likely to be by text or e-mail, rather than phone call.

Please make sure you respond to these messages, and complete the online form that is sent. This helps your contacts get the right advice as quickly as possible.

And if you are the contact of someone who tests positive, please follow Test & Protect advice. This will help slow the spread of the virus.

Let me turn, finally, to booster jags which are of course our best line of defence against Omicron. And they are what will get us through and out of this difficult phase I believe.

There has been a significant acceleration of the programme in the past week and I thank everyone involved.

A further two large scale vaccination centres have opened this week – at Hampden in Glasgow, and at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

Yesterday,  69,135 boosters or third doses were administered. That means that well over half of the adult population has now had a third dose or booster.

Last week, I said that our target was to have 80% of the eligible population vaccinated with boosters by the time the bells strike on Hogmanay.

I can confirm today that we are now confident we have the capacity to meet that target.

But of course, to reach it – or get as close to it as possible - we need everyone who is eligible to come forward.

So if you have an appointment booked for January please now reschedule it for December.

Appointments will be available right through Christmas Eve, and then next week up to and including Hogmanay. So please book an appointment now.

Alternatively, check out the location of drop in clinics and go there instead.

Getting fully vaccinated is the best thing any of us can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and the country.

So please, do get boosted before the bells.

Presiding Officer

This statement in some ways feels distressingly similar to the one I gave this time last year.

Just a few days before Christmas, I am again urging people to stay at home as much as possible, to slow down a highly infectious new variant of COVID.

But, although it may not feel like it, we are in a much stronger position than last year.

We have had far fewer restrictions in place for much of this year than was the case in the previous year.

Christmas Day will be more normal.

Most importantly, a rapidly increasing number of adults is now protected by three doses of vaccine.

And all of us, as individuals, know what to do to protect ourselves and each other.

So please, make sure you do all of these things.

First, get fully vaccinated as soon as possible.

Secondly, test regularly.

Our advice of course is to stay at home as much as possible, but if you are meeting other people, test before you go, every time. And test as close to going as possible. This is really important for family gatherings on Christmas or Boxing Day.

And finally, take all the other precautions which can help to make a difference.

Work from home whenever possible,

And stay at home as much as you can.

If you do visit indoor public places, limit the number of households in your group to a maximum of three.

Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, and when moving about in hospitality. And make sure it fully covers your mouth and nose.

Keep windows open if you are meeting indoors – even at this time of year.

And follow all advice on hygiene.

Sticking to all of this is really hard. 

But there’s no doubt whatsoever it will help keep us safer.

I want to end with a heartfelt thank you to everyone - for everything you have done to help us through another exceptionally tough year.

I wish everyone the happiest and safest Christmas possible - and a much better, brighter new year.

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