Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement 22 December 2020

Parliamentary statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday 22 December 2020.

Presiding Officer

Today’s statement is slightly different to those that I have made in recent weeks - mainly because the most important decisions for the period ahead were set out on Saturday.

I will, of course, reiterate those decisions and the reasons for them in the course of this statement.

However, I will also share with the chamber the latest information we have on the new strain of Covid that is causing us such concern.

And I will reflect on the ongoing impact of the closure of the UK-French border to accompanied freight.

However I will start, as usual, with a brief summary of the latest Covid statistics.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,316.

That represents 7.5% of all tests carried out, and the total number of cases now stands at 114,366

1,045 people are currently in hospital – that is a decrease of 33 from yesterday.

And 60 people are currently in intensive care, 1 more than yesterday.

I also regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further 43 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days.

The total number of deaths, under that measurement, is now 4,326.

These figures continue to be a really sharp reminder of the grief, heartbreak, and the over all toll that this virus is causing.

Once again, my deepest thoughts and condolences go to all those who have lost a loved one.

Today’s statistics – like those we have been reporting over recent weeks – underline I think a couple of points.

Firstly, Covid is still circulating in Scotland at a higher level than we would wish it to be.

However – and I appreciate this may be less obvious – the case data from recent weeks also shows that the levels system has until now been effective.

In late October, Scotland was recording more than 160 new cases per hundred thousand people an average every week. Two weeks ago, it had fallen to 100, and is now around 116 per hundred thousand.

That level of incidence is significantly lower than in other parts of the UK - for example, it is around half that of England and around a fifth of the case incidence currently seen in Wales.

However, after a sustained period of decline, our case numbers are now more volatile again and indeed have risen by around 15% in the past couple of weeks.

The numbers of people with Covid who are in hospital and ICU have also risen slightly again, after a period of quite marked decline.

Now, in any circumstances, these trends would be a cause for concern and they would merit close analysis.

But they would probably not – on their own – justify the actions that I announced on Saturday. 

What has changed our thinking and approach significantly is the information we have received over the past eight days or so about the presence and impact of a new variant of Covid.

Now, it is important to stress again today that there is no evidence at this stage that this new variant causes more severe illness than previously circulating strains, nor is there any evidence so far that it will undermine the effectiveness of either vaccines or treatments.

But this new variant does seem to be much more transmissible - perhaps up to 70% more transmissible - which means that it can spread far more quickly and easily.

As a result, there is now a significant degree of confidence amongst experts that it increases the R number - and that the scale of increase could be 0.4.

Given that the R number in Scotland is already hovering around 1, this is obviously a very real concern.

Analysis was published yesterday by the Office of National Statistics of the results of the weekly ONS COVID Infection Survey which uses PCR testing on a random sample of people in Scotland, and looked for a proxy marker known as the ‘S-Gene dropout.”

There is continuing technical work underway on the use of the S-Gene dropout as a marker for this new strain and it is not absolutely definitive that every case with this marker will be the new variant.

However, this analysis suggests that in the week beginning 9 December around 14% of positive cases in Scotland already had this S-Gene dropout.

This compares to just 5% at the end of November.

And it is not unreasonable to assume that the proportion may be higher by now. Public Health Scotland is carrying out further analysis.

14% is, of course, still a significantly lower level than England, where it is thought that the new variant already accounts for 36% of cases, and maybe  even higher in London and the South East.

However, the very rapid spread in London and the south east serves as a warning of what we could face here if we do not take firm action to suppress the virus.

We have a real concern that, without significant counter measures, we could be facing another period of exponential growth as we enter the New Year.

That would mean many more people catching Covid and, even without this new strain causing more severe illness, that would result in many more people needing hospital and intensive care treatment. And that would put an enormous strain on the NHS and of course it would also lead to much more loss of life.

To be blunt, Presiding Officer, that is what we have to act now to stop.

In an ideal world, it would be good to wait a few weeks until preliminary analysis becomes more concrete and confidence intervals narrow.

But if the concerns we have now prove to be well founded, it would by then be too late. We have learned that we must act firmly in the face of this virus.

That is why we announced significant additional measures on Saturday.

I know how tough these are, but we believe they are essential to avoid an extremely serious deterioration in the situation as we move into the New Year.

Let me recap now on what those measures are.

Firstly, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and the other relatively remote islands that have seen restrictions relaxed in recent weeks will move to level 3 from one minute past midnight on Boxing Day.

However, the rest of Scotland will move at that point to level 4 for a period of 3 weeks. There will be a review after 2 weeks.

This means, for example, that hospitality will require to close - with the exception of takeaway services. And so too will non-essential retail.

There are three further points I think it is important for me to make make today about level 4 restrictions.

Firstly, given the severity of the situation we face and the need to limit interactions as much as possible, we intend to define essential retail more narrowly than we have done recently.

In short, that means homeware stores and garden centres will be classed as non essential and will therefore require to close, with the exception of click and collect.

Second, in level 3 and level 4, the law currently prohibits non-essential travel outside your own local authority area.

However, for those living in level 4 areas - which from Saturday will be the vast majority of us - our strong advice is to stay as local as possible and to stay at home as much as possible.

We will be considering in the days ahead whether we need to place that advice in law.

And, third and more generally, as more evidence of the impact of this new strain becomes available, we will consider whether there is a need to strengthen level 4 restrictions any further.

Again, I need to be blunt with Parliament and the public, the current level 4 restrictions are not as stringent as the March lockdown, and that up until now has been a good thing.

However, it does seem that we maybe facing a virus that spreads much faster now than in March, so we need to consider whether the current level 4 restrictions will be sufficient to suppress it in the weeks ahead.

This will be analysis that the Government undertakes urgently as our understanding of the new strain of the virus develops, and I will, of course, keep Parliament updated as necessary, including over the recess period, if that is necessary.

The second decision we took on Saturday was to maintain the current ban on travel to and from Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Again, this was a decision we did not take lightly.

But as we seek to suppress this new strain here in Scotland, we must also guard against importing more of it from areas where it is already circulating more widely.

This travel ban will therefore remain in place right throughout the festive period, including unfortunately on Christmas Day, and as the Chief Constable has set out, the police will be enhancing their enforcement of it.

We also, regrettably, tightened other restrictions for the Christmas period.

It is now possible to meet in a bubble of up to 8 people from three households on Christmas Day only and within Scotland only, rather than over a five day period across the UK.

However, our strong advice remains not to meet indoors at all if possible. When it comes to indoor celebrations this year, by far the safest option is to stay in your own house with your own household.

If you do plan to see people from other households on Christmas Day, please try to stay outdoors if you can.

But if you are indoors, please keep the numbers as low and the duration as short as possible, keep as safe a distance as far as possible, wash your hands and surfaces regularly, and keep windows open.

Presiding Officer, I cannot tell you how sorry I am to be standing here saying these things, and there is no part of me oblivious to the impact of this.

I don’t just understand that impact, I feel that impact as everybody else does. But this is necessary to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, at this extremely difficult and challenging time.

And I want to thank everyone today from the very bottom of my heart for making these sacrifices.

The final - but extremely significant – decision announced on Saturday relates to schools.

Keeping schools open has been a priority for the Scottish Government since August and it remains a priority as far as possible.

However, these recent developments, and all aspects of them, mean we need to take a precautionary approach and we also need to give ourselves some time to further assess the situation.

As a result, we have taken the difficult decision, difficult decision for us to take but more difficult for the young people and parents affected,  to delay the start of the new school term.

Schools, of course, had been due to reopen from 5 January onwards. Now, they will reopen from 5 January for children of key workers and for particularly vulnerable children only.

Local authorities identified key workers at an earlier stage in the pandemic and updated guidance was published last night. 

For all other pupils, the school term will start on 11 January.

However, the first week of term, at least, will take place online.

At this stage, our intention is that schools will get back to normal from 18 January - but of course we will require to keep this under review.

Presiding Officer

I know all of these measures are harsh and they extremely difficult for people and businesses.

For so many businesses, I know that these announcements represent a horrible end to a terrible year.

Financial support will remain available for businesses affected and the Finance Secretary is urgently assessing what more the Scottish Government can do, particularly for the sectors most acutely affected.

I also know that the developments of the past few days, while worrying for everyone, will cause particular anxiety for those who are shielding.

The Chief Medical Officer has written to everyone on the shielding list who will enter level 4 on Saturday setting out the advice that applies to you. This advice has also been sent by SMS text message, and is available on the government website. 

The level 4 advice is of course restrictive - but it still encourages you to find a balance that is right for you.

Among other things, the letter will advise that if you are on the shielding list, and you cannot work from home, you should speak to your employer, who must put precautions in place to keep you safe.

However the letter also serves as a fit note which can be used to obtain statutory sick pay if you cannot safely go to work.

The letter also provides details of how to get help – for example if you have difficulties accessing food or groceries, or other supplies in this period. Please don’t hesitate to ask for support if you need it.

Finally, Presiding Officer on this matter, I know many people may question if these measures are strictly necessary, especially given Scotland’s relatively low level of prevalence, compared to other parts of the UK.

My firm judgment is that they are absolutely necessary.

They are not simply at this stage a response to our current situation, but they are necessary, precautionary measures to avoid a significant deterioration in our situation, caused by this new strain of the virus over the next few weeks.

In short, these measures are essential to protect our NHS and save lives.

I do not expect a single person to be happy about them. But I do ask everyone to try to understand that these decisions would not have been taken if we did not consider them to be essential.

Presiding Officer

Before I close today, I want of course to address the impact of the decisions by a number of other countries to close their borders to the UK in response to the new strain of the virus.

By far the most serious impact derives from the closure of the UK/French border to accompanied freight.

I took part in a COBR meeting on this issue yesterday and also chaired our own resilience committee. I was hoping there would be another COBR meeting again later today but at the time I came to the chamber that was not yet confirmed but I do hope that will happen.

The situation is serious, it is urgent and, for our food exporters, it is rapidly deteriorating.

It needs the UK government to reach agreement with France, without delay, to get freight moving again. There is simply no time to lose.

I want to stress at the outset that we have no concerns about medicine supplies at this stage. That was something covered in detail both at COBR and at the Scottish Government resilience committee yesterday.

And we have no immediate concerns about food supplies. Supermarkets are well stocked. And so there is absolutely no need for anyone to buy more than planned in the run up to Christmas.

Of course, if the situation is not resolved in the next day or so, we may start to see pressure on some fresh produce after Christmas - but that is not a concern right now and I hope it will not arise at all.

However, what is of real and immediate concern is the impact on our food exporters, especially the Scottish seafood sector.

This is the peak time of year for seafood exports and the Christmas export trade is now almost certainly lost. That is devastating for our world class seafood businesses and they do need and will get our support.

We are liaising with the sector on the need for immediate financial support and I also raised the issue of compensation at COBR yesterday.

However, what the sector needs most of all is for the UK government and France to agree a protocol to get freight moving again without delay.

If that doesn’t happen almost immediately, the sector stands to lose its New Year export trade too.

I very much hope a protocol will be agreed between the UK and France today - indeed I hope we may even get movement during this statement - but that is not yet certain.

And what is even less certain is how long any agreement will take to then be put into operation.

The Scottish Government is and will continue to press the UK Government to give this the utmost priority and we stand ready to help in any way we can.

Since any solution is likely to include mass testing of freight drivers, that willingness to help includes, if the terms of the agreement allow, to provide testing facilities for our sector here in Scotland.

I want to assure the sector, Parliament, and the public generally that I and my ministers will remain fully and actively engaged on these matters until they are resolved.

Presiding Officer

Let me conclude.

We are now of course just three days away from Christmas, and I am acutely aware that today’s update has not had a festive feel to it at all.

We have known that our path out of this pandemic would not always be smooth and straight forward, and that it would bring dark days and challenging periods.

Saturday, I know, felt like a very dark and difficult day for all of us.

And I know it’s not possible for me to take away the heavy burden we all feel just with some hopeful words.

But I do nevertheless want to end on a hopeful note - because, hard though it is to feel it just now, there is hope on the horizon and we must try not to lose sight of it.

First, it is possible that we have found out about this new variant of Covid, at an early enough stage to take effective preventative action. By moving quickly, we may be able to minimise its worst impacts.

And all of us have a role to play that.

I know that it sometimes seems as though we are powerless in the face of this virus – but we’re absolutely not.

None of us can guarantee that we won’t get or transmit it – but all of us can make choices that make it less likely.

That remains true of the new variant.

It seems to transmit more easily – but it can still be stopped in its tracks by the FACTS advice we have emphasised so many times before.

  • face coverings
  • avoiding crowded places
  • cleaning your hands and surfaces
  • keeping two metres distance from people from other households
  • and self-isolating, and getting tested immediately, if you have symptoms.

All of these things still work in reducing the transmission of this new strain.

The new variant has made them more important than ever and they are how we keep each other safe.

So wherever you are I would ask everyone to assume that the virus and especially this new strain of it is there with you and to act in a way that will minimise the chances of spread.

That’s especially important because – and this is the real reason for hope – tens of thousands of people in Scotland have already been vaccinated against COVID.

The updated figures will be published tomorrow.

Of course they include many of the people who were most at risk of dying from this virus.

And as we do the difficult things in the weeks ahead to suppress the virus all over again, this time we are buying time for the vaccination programme to pick up pace.

Though it might feel in the next few weeks that things are getting worse - and I know that in terms of health, jobs and living standards, that will be a reality for many - the fact is that things will also be getting better.

The vaccines will be making sure of that and they really do promise a route back to greater normality for all of us.

In the past nine months or so we have come through a lot together, and I know the realisation that we have tough times still to come is really hard to bear – it is hard emotionally, it is hard practically and, for so many, it is very hard financially.

The Scottish Government will continue to do all we can to offer help and support.

But brighter days will come.

Yesterday, in fact, was the shortest and darkest day of the year.

From now on, the days get longer and lighter. Spring is on its way. Let’s try to hold on to that.

And for the moment, let’s remember that the best gift we can give this Christmas to  those we love is to keep them safe.

So please – follow the rules, remember FACTS, and look out for each other.

At Christmas, just as we have done throughout this year, let’s treat each other with kindness, compassion and love.

I fully appreciate that this may not be the happiest of Christmases for everyone but I do want to take the opportunity today, Presiding Officer, to wish everyone a peaceful and a healthy Christmas.

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