Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement - 23 February 2021

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Presiding Officer, I will set out to Parliament details of the updated strategic framework on tackling Covid that the Scottish Government is publishing today.

I will also give an assessment of the current state of the pandemic.

And I will set out our initial priorities, and an indicative timeframe, for cautiously easing restrictions and restoring greater normality to our lives, just as quickly as it is safe and sustainable to do so.

First, though, a brief summary of today’s statistics.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 655.

That is 4.8% of all tests carried out, and the total number of cases is therefore 198,839.

1,076 people are currently in hospital – 65 fewer than yesterday.

And 93 people are in intensive care, 6 fewer than yesterday.

I regret to report however that in the last 24 hours, a further 56 deaths were registered.

The total number of deaths, under that measurement, is now 7,006.

As the Moderator of the General Assembly has just reminded us in his Time For Reflection, behind every one of these statistics is a life and a name. The Moderator’s father in law Micky Wylie and thousands of other names beside. So I want to send my condolences again to all those who have lost a loved one.

I can also provide an update on vaccinations.

As of this morning, 1,465,241 have received their first dose of the vaccine.

That is an increase of 19,753 since yesterday and it means that almost 1/3 of the adult population in Scotland has now received the first dose of vaccine. Which is quite extraordinary progress.

The headline number includes virtually everyone in the top four clinical priority groups identified by the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation - a milestone that is already saving lives.

We are also well on the way to reaching everyone in group 5  – as of today, 82% of people aged 65 to 69 have had a first jag.

And, as of this week, first doses of vaccine are now offering first doses to people in priority group 6.

Group 6, which includes unpaid carers and people with underlying health conditions, makes up more than 1/5 of the adult population.

As we anticipated, the daily rate of vaccination has slowed in the past week, due to a temporary dip in supply, the higher than expected uptake so far, and also the need to reserve stock so that second doses can be offered to people who received their first dose in December.

However as supplies pick up again, the rate at which we are offering first doses will accelerate once more.

And indeed if supplies allow, we will now aim to reach key vaccination targets earlier than previously planned.

Our intention - supplies permitting - is to have offered first doses to everyone on the entire JCVI priority list by mid-April.

That includes everyone over 50 and adults with underlying health conditions, and accounts for more than half of the Scottish population.

Beyond that - again assuming we receive adequate supply - we will aim to have offered first doses to the entire adult population by the end of July, rather than September as we previously anticipated.

Our confidence in our ability to achieve this is a testament to how the vaccination programme has progressed so far. I want once again to thank everybody involved in planning and delivering the programme, and everyone who has come forward to be vaccinated.

I also want to say a few words directly to people who are on the shielding list – all of you have now been offered a first dose, and the vast majority have had one.

I know some of you are uncertain about whether being vaccinated changes our advice to you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet do that.

At the moment, we are advising all of you – whether or not you've had your first dose – to keep following the advice the Chief Medical Officer sent in recent letters. Those letters, and other information, are available at the shielding section of the website.

The Chief Medical Officer’s advice means that if you are on the shielding list, and you live in part of Scotland currently in level 4 lockdown – that of course includes the whole of mainland Scotland – you should not go into work, even if you have had one or both doses of the vaccine.

We will of course update you as and when this advice changes.

I mentioned last week that we think that vaccination is already helping to reduce the number of people dying with Covid in our care homes.

Last week’s report from National Records of Scotland provided early evidence for that view.

And yesterday the University of Edinburgh reported the initial results of a survey into Covid hospitalisations.

It found that by the fourth week after a first dose being administered, the Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines reduced the risk of hospitalisation from Covid by 85% and 94% respectively.

That is extremely welcome and very encouraging news.

The early evidence on the impact of vaccination on transmission of the virus  - including that published by Public Health England yesterday - is also extremely encouraging.

So while our watchwords at this stage continue to be caution and patience, there is little doubt that we now have much, much firmer grounds for optimism that vaccination, and the other tools at our disposal offer us a route back to greater normality.

Of course, it is by being cautious, careful and patient for the next period - while the vaccination programme has time to progress - that we will make that route as safe and sustainable as possible.

Taking the brakes off too quickly will allow the virus to get ahead of us again and put our progress out of lockdown into reverse.

I appreciate that this can be, indeed is, a frustrating message - but it is an essential one.

The point is underlined when we consider the current state of the pandemic.

On the one hand, we can and should take heart from the fact that the lockdown measures adopted after Christmas have had an impact.

In the first week of January, an average of 300 new cases a week were being recorded for every 100,000 people in the population.

That has fallen by almost 2/3. The figure is just above 100.

We are also now seeing lower test positivity rates, and fewer Covid patients in both hospital and intensive care

But, on the other hand, there are some signs that the decline in case numbers is slowing down. Last week, in fact, we recorded hardly any reduction at all. 

That is likely linked to the fact that the more transmissible new variant of the virus now accounts for more than 85% of all cases.

And the greater transmissibility of the new variant means it is harder to suppress.

And so although the R number is currently below 1, it may not be very far below it.  And it would likely not take very much easing right now to push it back above 1.

As I said, we are very hopeful, indeed increasing hopeful, that vaccination will have a significant impact on the R number, but that will take more time.

So the bottom line - and this is the clear message from our clinical advisers - is that we have quite limited scope at this stage for easing restrictions.

And of course we have just made one significant relaxation of lockdown.

Yesterday, children returned to early learning and childcare settings and pupils in primaries 1 to 3 returned to school.

Some secondary school students are also now going back to school for essential practical work.

It is important to see what impact this has on transmission, before we commit to further relaxation.

In short, our current position I would summarise as extremely positive and promising - and we should all take heart from that.

But it is still quite precarious and if we are to sustain our progress, we do need to exercise care and caution.

If we are to minimise the impacts of Covid, while maximising our ability to live unrestricted lives, we must get the virus to as low a level as we can and try to keep it there.

That’s not some kind of ideological goal. We know from experience that it is when the virus is allowed to simmer at relatively high levels in the community that the risk of it accelerating out of control and causing more illness is most acute.

And it is also when the risk of the virus mutating and new variants emerging - which could undermine our vaccines - is greatest.

So maximum suppression is important for our chances of getting back to normal.

This is the context in which we are today publishing the updated strategic framework.

The framework has been discussed with business organisations, trade unions, the third sector and others. I know that the other parties took part in discussions at the weekend.

There will be further discussions over the next couple of weeks as we put further flesh on the plans that we are setting out today.

We intend to publish a further document in mid-March giving more detail, beyond that that I am able to set out today, on the sequencing of re-opening the economy from late April onwards.

However, today we set out the overall approach to and an indicative timescale for easing restrictions over the next few weeks, with a view to more substantial re-opening, particularly of the economy, from late April.

In considering the framework, I think it is helpful to bear this in mind.

At the moment, and for a bit longer, we need to rely very heavily on restrictions to suppress the virus. This is essential when it is so transmissible, and when case numbers are still quite high.

But in time -  once the vast majority of the adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccine – we do hope that vaccination will become our main tool for suppressing the virus.

However, the months between now and then will be something of a transition – as we gradually rely less and less on restrictions, and more and more on vaccination.

In order to manage that transition successfully – and so that we can start easing restrictions before the full impact of vaccination kicks in – we need to use a range of other measures too.

Our test and protect system will continue to be vital in breaking chains of transmission as they arise.

That is why we are supporting more people to self-isolate when they need to.

And it’s why we are expanding testing capacity, so that we can test more people at work – especially in key public services and critical infrastructure roles - and so that we can use targeted community testing more, especially in areas where there seems to be stubbornly high prevalence of the virus.

Travel restrictions are also essential and are likely to remain so for some time yet.

We saw over the summer how new cases were imported into Scotland, after the virus had almost been eliminated here. We do not want that to happen again if we can avoid it.

In particular we want to guard against new variants of the virus, which could be more resistant to the vaccines that we are currently using.

And so the strategic framework rightly emphasises the importance of both travel restrictions and test and protect. They will both help us to ease restrictions safely.

So let me turn now to the priorities for and indicative timeframe for easing restrictions.

As I have already emphasised the strategic framework is deliberately cautious at this stage but I want to be clear in the coming weeks, if the data allows and positive trends continue, we will seek to accelerate the easing of the restrictions.

However, the Framework today provides details on what - as of now - we expect our next changes to be.

Firstly, it confirms that - if all goes according to plan - we will move fully back to a levels system from the last week in April.

At that stage, we hope that all parts of the country currently in level 4 - will be able to move out of level 4 and back initially to level 3 - possibly with some revision to the content of the levels - and afterwards to levels dependent on incidence and prevalence of the virus at that time.

The advantages of the levels system of course is that it will allow us to let some parts of the country move faster than others, if the data supports that.

Moving back to the variable levels system at that time will also be contingent on us having vaccinated all JCVI priority groups 1-9 which, as I said earlier, we hope to have done by mid-April.

That matters not only because those groups will be more protected but also because we believe that vaccinating around half of the population will have a significant effect on reducing transmission across society as a whole. And though we don’t yet know exactly how big an effect this will be, we do hope and believe it will give us the headroom to carefully ease restrictions.

It is therefore from the last week of April that we would expect to see phased but significant re-opening of the economy, including non-essential retail, hospitality and services like gyms and hairdressers.

And, of course, the more of us who are vaccinated and the more we all stick by the rules now, the faster that safe pace is likely to be – if we all stay in this together, our progress will be greater.

As I said earlier, we will set out more detail in mid-March on the indicators that will guide our decisions on levels, as well as on any revision to the content of each level - taking account of our experience and of sectoral views – and also the order in which we expect those parts of the economy that have been restricted to start reopening from the last week of April.

I want now though to set out the journey from here to the end of April.

We envisage a progressive easing of the current level 4 restrictions that apply across most of the country at intervals of at least 3 weeks - along with changes nationally on education and care home visiting - with the immediate priority being the continued return of schools. All of these easing’s will depend on an assessment that it is safe to proceed. 

The first easing started yesterday with the partial return of schools. 

In addition universities and colleges are able to bring back a small number of students – no more than 5% of the total - where face to face teaching is critical.

We will also ease restrictions on care home visiting from early March and guidance was set out at the weekend.

The next phase of easing will be a minimum of 3 weeks later, so indicatively from 15 March.

We hope that this will include the next phase of school return - which will start with the rest of the primary school years, 4 to 7, and also getting more senior phase secondary pupils back in the classroom for at least part of their learning.

We also hope in this phase to restart outdoors non-contact group sports for 12 - 17 year olds in this phase.

And we will also aim to increase the limit on outdoor mixing between households to 4 people from a maximum of 2 households - compared to 2 people from 2 households just now.

And then a minimum of 3 weeks after that - so from 5 April - it is our hope and expectation at this stage that the stay at home restriction will be lifted.

We would aim for any final phase of school return to take place on this date.

Communal worship will also, we hope, restart around 5 April, albeit with restricted numbers to begin with. However, in deciding the exact date for this, we will also take account of the timing of major religious festivals, for example Easter and Passover so it may be a few days earlier when communal worship can start.

And we will seek to ease the restrictions on outdoor gatherings so that at least 6 people from 2 households can meet together.

In this phase, we will also begin the re-opening of retail. This will start with an extension of the definition of essential retail and the removal of restrictions on click-and collect.

And then, 3 weeks after that as I indicated earlier - so from 26 April assuming the data allows it - we will move back to levels, with hopefully all of Scotland that is currently in level 4 moving to level 3, albeit with some possible modifications.

At that stage, we will begin to re-open the economy and society in the more substantial way that we are all so longing for.

It is important to stress, of course, that all of this depends on us continuing to suppress the virus now - and continuing to accept some trade-offs for a period, for example on international travel. But if we do so, I am optimistic that we can make good progress in returning more normality to our lives and the economy.

I know this is still a cautious approach which though absolutely essential to control the virus and protect health, is nevertheless extremely difficult for many businesses.

The Scottish government is committed to continuing support for businesses. For example, provided we receive confirmation of consequentials in the March budget, we will support the strategic framework business fund until at least the end of June.

We will also ensure that when local authority areas move out of level 4 businesses that are allowed to reopen will continue to receive payments from the fund for at least the next four weeks, as they transition back to trading more normally.

We are also considering some form of tapered support for businesses that may still face trading restrictions and reduced demand, even as they are allowed to re-open and the Finance Secretary will set out more details shortly.

We will work with business organisations on these and many other issues as we continue to emerge from lockdown.

In addition to the concerns of businesses, I also know that people across the country are anxious for as much clarity as possible.

I want to give as much as possible today - while avoiding giving false assurance or picking arbitrary dates that have no grounding at this stage in any objective assessment.

I am as confident as I can be that the indicative, staged, timetable that I have set out today - from now until late April when the economy will start to substantially re-open - is a reasonable one.

And in mid-March - when we have made further progress on vaccines and have greater understanding of the impact of the initial phase of school return - I hope we can set out then more detail of the further re-opening that will take place over April and May and into a summer when we hope, really hope, to be living with much greater freedoms than we are today.

For now, however, the most important priority we still have is to continue to suppress the virus.

And of course, for a bit longer, that means sticking to the current lockdown rules. So please continue to stick to both the letter and the spirit of them.  

Please stay at home except for essential purposes. For now, do not meet people from other households indoors. And follow the FACTS when you are out and about.

Please continue to work from home wherever possible, and for employers please continue to support your employees to work from home.

By doing all of this, we will make it easier for children to return to school more quickly. We can suppress the virus, even as we follow this path out of lockdown. And as we do all of this we can keep each other safe, and protect the NHS, while giving the vaccination programme the time to do its work.

I know how hard all of this continues to be after 11 long months of this pandemic. But the restrictions are working, the vaccination programme is motoring and we can now see a firm way out of this.

So if we all stick together and stick with it we are now able to say with confidence that we are looking at much brighter times ahead. So please, for now though, stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.

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