- 21 Sep 2021
I will give an update today on the latest Covid situation.
As part of that, I will summarise changes to the rules on international travel - some of which will take effect tomorrow and others in early October.
I will also provide an update on development of the Covid certification scheme, ahead of further details being published later this week.
Firstly, though, I will give a summary of today’s statistics.
2,870 positive cases were reported yesterday – 11.7% of all tests carried out.
1,107 people are in hospital with Covid – 19 more than yesterday.
And 94 people are in intensive care, 3 fewer than yesterday.
Sadly, a further 18 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours, which takes the total number of deaths registered under the daily definition, to 8,396.
As always, I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
Good progress continues to be made on the vaccination programme.
As of this morning, 4,160,835 people have received a first dose and 3,813,547 have now had both doses.
That includes 96% of people aged 40 and over, 74% of 30 to 39 year olds; and 62% of 18 to 29 year olds.
As I indicated last week, more than 3/4 of 18 to 29 year olds have had a first dose, so the proportion in that age group becoming fully vaccinated will continue to increase.
In addition, 70% of 16 and 17 year olds have now had the first jag - 5 percentage points higher than at this time last week.
Additionally, the programme of booster vaccinations is now underway, in line with the advice received from the JCVI.
Care home residents started getting booster jags yesterday.
From the end of September, people aged over 70, and those on the highest risk list – previously the shielding list - will start to get booster jags. Notification of appointments will be either by letter or from GPs.
Vaccinations for 12 to 15 year olds also started this week. They were available at drop-in centres in 6 health board areas yesterday, and will be available in all mainland health board areas from tomorrow.
Appointment letters will be sent next week to all 12 to 15 year olds who haven’t already been vaccinated. Parents and carers will be encouraged to accompany their children to appointments.
I would again encourage all 12 to 15 year olds, and parents or carers, to read the information about vaccination that is available online, so that an informed decision can be made about getting the vaccine.
Also, any questions or concerns can be raised and addressed with vaccinators when attending appointments.
All of this reflects our determination, as I stressed last week, to make sure that the programme for 12 to 15 year olds is based on the principle of informed consent.
Last week, I indicated that we were seeing early signs that the number of new cases might be starting to fall.
I am glad to say that I am even more confident about this now. The early signs I spoke about last week have become much firmer over the last 7 days.
Members will recall that in the week to 28 August new cases increased by more than 80%.
In the week after that, the rate of increase slowed to 11%.
And last week, we were able to report that cases had fallen by 12% over the previous 7 days.
In the most recent week, up to 18 September, new cases fell further - by 31%.
This is, of course, a very encouraging trend.
In addition, and in contrast to previous weeks, the fall in cases is spread across all age groups - with declines of more than 10% in every age group.
One interesting point is that the steepest fall in cases has been in the 20 to 24 age group. Cases in that age group have fallen by around three quarters in the past 3 weeks.
It’s always hard to clearly identify cause and effect for changes like that – multiple factors may well make a difference.
But it is worth noting that a significant proportion of people in this age group received their second dose of the vaccine during August and early September. It is likely that we are now seeing the positive impact of vaccination in that age group as we have seen it in older age groups previously.
In any event, I am very grateful to everyone – organisations, businesses and individuals – who have taken extra care in recent weeks to try to halt and then reverse the spike in cases.
It does seem that these efforts are making a significant difference.
Of course, despite this welcome improvement, it’s important to point out the position does continue to be fragile.
New cases remain high, higher than we want them to be, and still above the previous peak of early July.
In addition, universities have been returning for the new academic year, and it may be too early for any impact of that to be evident in the data – although it is also the case, as I set out last week, that universities, colleges and of course students themselves have been working really hard to reduce the risks of transmission on campus and in student accommodation.
More generally though, as we move into autumn and winter there continues to be a risk as there is in all countries that cases will rise again. That’s a risk we must do everything possible to guard against and seek to mitigate as much as we can.
The NHS is of course already under considerable pressure. As I’ve indicated many times before, vaccination has significantly weakened the link between new cases and serious harm to health - but it has not broken that link, either here or in any country.
The recent surge in cases has caused a rise in hospitalisations.
On 20 August, there were 312 people in our hospitals with Covid. Today, as I have just reported there are 1,107.
The number of people in intensive care has also increased, from 34 on 20 August to 94 today.
As we know, fluctuations in the number of people in hospital tend to lag behind - by around two weeks - any rise or fall in the number of new cases.
So we would hope that the recent fall in cases will, over the next couple of weeks, start to ease the pressure that Covid is placing on the NHS.
Indeed, there is already some evidence that the rise in hospital occupancy is beginning to level off. Today’s figure of 1,107 people in hospital with Covid is an increase of 43 from last week.
In the previous week, the increase was 259.
And given that cases have been falling for more than a week now, we would hope to see a fall in Covid related hospital occupancy soon.
However, admissions and occupancy remain high and the need to avoid that pressure intensifying is why we need to keep cases on a downward track, or at least one of the reasons we need to keep cases on a downward track.
Also – and it is important to keep stressing this point – looking only at hospitalisations does not take account of the harm that Covid does in other ways, for example, through long Covid.
So the virus, although again retreating somewhat, is still causing health harm to a significant number of people.
In addition, NHS staff are dealing with a large number of Covid cases at the same time as they are gearing up for winter - and also while dealing with the backlog that has built up during the pandemic.
As the Chief Medical Officer highlighted over the weekend, this level of activity is exhausting for people who work in the health service - especially when it follows on from everything that has been asked of them since March last year.
Later, I will stress again the need for all of us as individuals to do what we can to get and keep the virus under control.
However I want to emphasise just now that when we do that, we aren’t simply protecting ourselves and those we love from Covid – although that is important.
We are also helping those who work so hard in the NHS, and protecting their capacity to provide care and treatment to anyone who needs it.
That should provide all of us with an extra incentive – if needed - to get vaccinated, to test regularly, and to keep complying with all the measures necessary to get and keep the virus under control.
Cabinet Secretaries are continuing to engage on all of this with representatives from business, the public sector and wider civic society.
I am, once again, grateful to all businesses and organisations for the all of the efforts being made to follow and promote measures such as the wearing of face coverings; good ventilation; and wherever possible, continued home working.
These efforts are making a difference – we can see that in the most recent data - so please let’s all stick with them for the period ahead.
We are also continuing to assess the appropriateness and effectiveness of measures on international travel – and that is the first of the two substantive issues I want to update on today.
Last week, the UK and Scottish Governments confirmed that from 4am tomorrow, eight countries will be removed from the red list. Those eight countries include Turkey, Egypt and the Maldives.
Those countries will move onto the amber list – meaning that fully vaccinated travellers will not need to self-isolate when they return from those countries. However people who are 18 or over, and who have not been fully vaccinated, will still need to isolate for 10 days.
We also confirmed that from 4 October, the range of countries covered by the eligible vaccinated traveller programme will be expanded.
At the moment, someone is recognised as vaccinated – for the purposes of travel regulations - only if the vaccination took place in the UK, the USA, or in a country which is a member of the EU or EFTA.
However from 4 October, 17 countries will be added to the list of countries recognised in this way. They will include Canada, Australia, Israel and New Zealand.
This change recognises the reliable standards of vaccine certification that apply in these countries – and will make it easier for people who have been fully vaccinated in those countries to travel to and from Scotland.
From 4 October we will also - and again this is consistent with changes being made by the UK Government – amend the traffic light system for international travel.
The green and amber lists are effectively being merged so that there will, from the 4 October only be two categories of country – those on the red list, and all others.
The current amber list rules will apply to all countries not on the red list.
As I mentioned earlier, that means that only people who have not been fully vaccinated – and are over 18 - will require to self-isolate on returning from those countries.
The UK Government has also announced that for people travelling to and from England, it intends to change the requirements on taking tests before and after international travel.
Scotland - like Wales and Northern Ireland – has not yet taken a final decision on this, though we will do so within the next couple of days.
We do have real concerns about easing the requirements on tests. That’s because we still need to guard against new variants of the virus being imported into the country - and also have a way of identifying quickly if a new variant does enter the country.
Testing – both before someone’s departure to travel to Scotland, and soon after their arrival – can help us to do that. Without that, we will have much less ability to pick up the presence of new variants.
We also believe that the PCR tests – and other highly sensitive tests – currently required for testing, are more effective at guarding against the risk of new variants than alternative tests.
They are more likely to identify positive tests than most lateral flow tests – although lateral flow tests are valuable - and PCR tests also make it easier for new variants to be sequenced and identified.
However, on the other hand in terms of this consideration, we also fully understand and agree with the desirability wherever possible of adopting a 4 nations approach to travel restrictions. And we have to recognise the reality, however difficult this may be for us, that if Scotland adopts more stringent requirements than England, then people living in Scotland, who want to go abroad, may decide to fly from airports based in England. In those circumstances, we would potentially face the economic cost of stricter travel rules, without gaining enough public health benefit to justify that cost.
So we must weigh up the public health risks of making this change - and I will be discussing this further with the Chief Medical Officer - with the pragmatic considerations I have just frankly set out and the understandable concerns of the travel industry. It’s not an easy decision and will have implications either way.
As I indicated earlier, we will confirm our decision in the next day or so.
The final issue I want to provide an update on is the Covid certification scheme. Further details of the scheme will be published later this week – however, I will provide some information now.
Everyone under 18 will be exempt from the requirement to provide proof of vaccination.
So too will those taking part in vaccine trials; the small number of individuals, and it is a small number, who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons; and those who work at, or perform in, a venue subject to certification.
The scheme will come into force at 5am on Friday 1 October.
And it will apply – as previously indicated – to nightclubs and similar venues; to live indoor unseated events of more than 500 people; to live outdoor unseated events of more than 4,000 people; and to any event of more than 10,000 people.
We have been working in recent days to finalise the definition of nightclubs and similar settings.
I can confirm that our intention is that certification will be required for any venue that meets all of the following conditions:
- it is open between midnight and 5am;
- it serves alcohol after midnight;
- it provides live or recorded music for dancing; and
- it has a designated space - which is actually in use - where dancing is permitted.
Let me stress that certification will be required only if all four of those factors apply.
Detailed draft guidance will be published ahead of the regulations setting out clearly what each sector needs to do.
A pragmatic and sensible approach will be taken to each piece of guidance.
In legal terms, venues will be required to take “all reasonable measures” to implement the scheme – in plain terms, that boils down to using common sense.
So, for example, a venue that has a dancefloor operating after midnight – and meets the other criteria - will have to operate the certification scheme.
They won’t need to check people coming in for a pub lunch twelve hours earlier - that clearly wouldn’t be reasonable.
But by the evening, it would be reasonable to check customers as they arrive.
That’s what we mean by common sense. A pragmatic approach will be encouraged, so that businesses can make sensible judgements.
In terms of other practicalities, the NHS Covid Status App will be available for downloading from 30 September.
The app will provide a digital record of a user’s vaccination status - including a QR code for each vaccination a person has received.
Each of us can already request a paper copy of our vaccination record, with specific features to prevent it from being forged. That paper copy also provides a QR code. So anybody who does not want to use the app will be able to obtain and use a paper copy.
Once the scheme is launched, anyone going to a venue or event which requires certification will be required, if asked, to show their vaccine record.
Venue staff will either scan or visually check your QR code. The NHS Scotland Covid Check app that venues can use is already available for download.
At a venue such as a nightclub, or at a relatively small event, we expect that it will be possible to check vaccine certificates for everyone in attendance.
However at larger events, organisers will be expected to carry out a reasonable number of checks. We are currently working with businesses and environmental health officers to provide specific advice and guidance on the level of checks that should be considered both reasonable and effective to fulfil the important public health objective of certification.
I hope that this information – together with the details to be published shortly – will provide further clarity on how the scheme will operate.
However let me stress that even after the scheme has started, we will keep the operational details under review. We will be prepared to make changes in light of experience and as – for example – upgrades and improvements are made to the operation of the app.
We do however consider it an important part of the overall approach to controlling the virus to have a certification scheme operational soon.
As I have underlined, despite the recent fall in cases, the position does remain fragile; the NHS is under sustained pressure; and there is an risk that cases will rise again as we enter winter.
In our view, a vaccine certification scheme is a proportionate measure which will play a part in helping reduce transmission risks, and encourage uptake of the vaccine, while keeping nightclubs and large events open for business.
Indeed, I note that the Welsh Government has also decided to introduce a Covid certification scheme similar to that proposed here in Scotland.
Let me close by emphasising again the steps all of us can take to get and keep the virus under control.
Firstly, please get vaccinated if you are eligible and haven’t yet done so. This remains the single most important thing any of us can do.
Second, please test regularly with lateral flow devices. These can be ordered through the NHS inform website, or collected from a local test site or pharmacy.
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 thirdly, please comply with the mitigations still in place.
Wear face coverings in indoor public places, such as shops, public transport and when moving about in hospitality settings.
Meet outdoors as much as possible. I know that this gets harder for all of us as we move into autumn - but outdoor meetings do remain safer.
When meeting indoors, open windows.
Try to keep a safe distance from people in other households - especially indoors.
And wash hands and surfaces thoroughly.
All of this does make a difference and as we can see from the most recent data it is working. So please stick with it – and let’s get cases down even further.