Thanks, Presiding Officer,
I will give an update on the latest COVID situation, and our best assessment of the current course of the pandemic.
I will also - following on from last week’s statement - set out a proposed change to the current COVID certification scheme and our rationale for all of the decisions reached this morning in relation to the scheme.
First, though, today’s statistics.
2,527 positive cases were reported yesterday – 11.6% of tests carried out.
743 people are currently in hospital with COVID – seven fewer than yesterday.
And 60 people are receiving intensive care - one more than yesterday.
Sadly, a further 17 deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours, which takes the total number of deaths registered under this daily definition, to 9,495.
And, once again, I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
More positively, the progress of the vaccination programme continues to be very good.
4,340,162 people have now had a first dose and 3,940,314 have had both doses.
In total, now, 88% of all those aged over 18 are double vaccinated.
In addition, 77% of 16 and 17 year olds, and 58% of 12 to 15 year olds, have had a first dose.
And in line with updated JCVI advice, we are now preparing to offer second doses to 16 and 17 year olds.
As of now, on first, second, third and booster doses, I’m pleased to say that Scotland is still the most vaccinated part of the UK.
And I want to again record my thanks to everyone involved in organising and delivering the vaccine programme.
Looking across Europe, we can see very clearly that the COVID situation is deteriorating again.
As a result, COVID measures are being tightened or re-introduced in many countries - for example, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and Slovakia.
At the most severe end of the spectrum, Austria is back in full lockdown and also mandating compulsory vaccination.
All of this is a stark reminder that the threat of the pandemic unfortunately is not yet behind us.
COVID is continuing to force governments everywhere to take really difficult and invidious decisions.
And of course that is also true here in Scotland.
While, thankfully, we are not at this stage seeing the rapid rise in cases that others are experiencing, the situation does remain precarious.
Cases are on the rise, to a greater or lesser extent, in countries all around us - including here in the UK.
And we are also entering a period when - understandably - people will be socialising and mixing more than normal.
So even though our position now is relatively stable compared to some other countries, we must continue to take care and we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into any false sense of security.
So let me give some more detail on the recent trends we are seeing here.
Last week, I noted that cases had increased gradually over the previous fortnight from just over 2,500 new cases a day, to just over 3,000.
Since then, the situation appears to have stabilised again.
In the past seven days, the average number of new cases being recorded each day has fallen from just over 3,000 to just under 3,000 – it’s been a fall of around 3%.
However, there continues to be quite a marked variation between different age groups.
In the over 60s, cases fell by 19%. And this, at least in part, is very likely to reflect the good progress of the booster programme.
In the under 60s, though, there was only a very slight decline. A small fall in cases in those aged under 25, was almost balanced out by a very small increase in the other age bands under 60.
So in younger age groups, cases have been broadly static over the past week.
That said, a number of different factors will be at play over the next few weeks and the combination of these makes it quite difficult to be certain about the course the pandemic will take over the festive period and into January.
On the one hand, the booster programme will continue to gather pace; and more people in younger age groups will receive their primary vaccinations.
So we can expect the combined effects of vaccination to bear down on transmission and also, we hope, reduce the numbers who will become seriously unwell as a result of getting the virus.
On the other hand, we can also expect more indoor mixing to take place - as the weather gets colder, and of course as we head towards the festive season. In addition, there is likely to be some waning of vaccine immunity - which, of course, is why booster jags matter so much.
And these latter factors will increase risks of transmission.
And, of course, while the cases are broadly stable just now, it is also the case that infection rates remain too high and higher than we’d want them to be .
All of this is putting significant and sustained pressure on the NHS.
In the past week, the number of people in hospital with COVID has fallen only slightly - from 779 to 743.
And the number of people in intensive care has risen very slightly – from 57 to 60.
So the number of patients in hospital with COVID is still high.
The NHS is also dealing with the backlog of care created by earlier phases of the pandemic.
And of course, the peak of the winter flu season, coupled with other winter pressures, possibly still lies ahead of us.
Taking all of this into account and adding the fact that the R number is hovering at or slightly above 1 leads us to this conclusion; our situation is definitely more positive than we might have expected it to be at this point, but it is still precarious.
We need to get the R number back below 1.
And that means having in place a range of proportionate protections to keep the country as safe as possible while we continue to live as freely as possible.
That is why the Cabinet decided this morning to retain for a further period all of the remaining legal protections, such as the requirement to wear face coverings and - subject to a change I will set out shortly - to keep in place the COVID certification scheme, and also to intensify our public information campaign in the weeks ahead.
I want to now set out and really emphasise today the range of protections that we judge to be essential – and I want to stress that word, essential - if we are to navigate this winter as safely as possible and, crucially without the need to re-introduce more onerous restrictions.
And, Presiding Officer,
As we approach the festive season, I am appealing fresh to everyone across the country to comply with all of these protections with renewed care and commitment - to keep ourselves safe but also to show our solidarity to those around us.
The duty of government is to deliver the vaccine programme - especially, at this stage, boosters - as rapidly as possible.
Right now, that is my government’s top priority.
More than 1.4 million people - just over 30% of the total over-12 population - have so far had a booster or third dose.
Within the most vulnerable groups, 87% of over 70s and 76% of those at highest clinical risk already have the protection of a booster or third dose.
As I mentioned earlier, we are already seeing the positive impact of boosters in the case numbers.
So the programme is going exceptionally well but we are doing everything possible - and will continue to do everything possible - to speed it up further.
Delivering the programme as quickly as possible is of course the government’s responsibility - although of course we are reliant on and eternally grateful for the commitment of NHS workers in delivering it.
The duty and responsibility though of all of us as citizens is to get vaccinated as soon as we are able.
So if you haven’t yet had a dose of vaccine that you are eligible for, please make arrangements to get it now.
This is even more vital if you are planning to socialise at all over the festive period.
If you are meeting up with loved ones and you are not as fully vaccinated as you could be, you are putting them at unnecessary risk.
To be blunt, you could be putting their lives in danger.
The most precious gift we can give anyone this Christmas is to be vaccinated - and also tested which I’ll say more about shortly - before we meet, hug or spend any time with them.
So, if you haven’t had a first or second dose yet, it’s not too late – so please do so now.
And please also get your booster as soon as you are able.
A booster jag reduces the risk of symptomatic infection by more than 80%. So – let me stress this – it’s not just a small top up – getting your booster is every bit as important as the initial vaccinations.
If you are aged over 50, or are in one of the higher risk groups - and are over 24 weeks from your second jag - you need to book an appointment online via NHS inform or via the helpline. The helpline number is 0800 030 8013.
If you live in many parts of the Highland area, or on one of the island areas which doesn’t use online booking, you will be contacted separately by your health board.
But for everyone else, please use NHS inform, or call the helpline. And please book the booster for as soon as you are eligible – which is 24 weeks after your second dose. Don’t, for example, wait until after the Christmas holiday period is over.
For those aged 40 to 49 who are next in line for boosters - and for 16 and 17 year olds who will now be offered a second dose - information on booking appointments will be available very soon.
Above all today, I want to reinforce this vital message to every person eligible for vaccination, including pregnant women - whether for a first, second, third or booster jag, please book an appointment without delay. And get your flu jag too if you are eligible for that.
Getting vaccinated does remain the single most important thing any of us can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities.
You could well be saving your own life, and the lives of your loved ones.
You will be helping the NHS.
And you will be maximising our chances of getting through this winter, without the need for further restrictions.
The vaccine programme is the bedrock of our fight against COVID.
But other protections are vitally important too.
The Scottish Government will be intensifying our public awareness and information campaigns over the winter period to make sure everyone knows what is being asked of us.
So when you see those ads, please take a moment to listen and remind yourself of the protections that will help keep you and others safe.
What are these other protections?
Firstly, as well as vaccination, we are asking everyone to take regular lateral flow tests.
We have been asking people to do this routinely twice a week.
However, over the festive period, we are asking for extra effort - and so this next request is vitally important.
On any occasion that you are socialising with others - whether that is going out for drinks or dinner, visiting someone at home, or even going shopping somewhere that might be crowded - please take an LFD test before you go.
And if it is positive, do not go. Instead get a PCR test and self-isolate while you wait for the result.
This way, you are minimising the risk of inadvertently passing the virus on even if you don’t have symptoms. Also, please continue to wear face coverings on public transport, in shops and when moving around in hospitality settings. This remains a legal requirement. But it is also a vital protection - a study published just last week suggested that face coverings may reduce the risk of transmission by over 50%.
And remember, good ventilation also reduces risks in indoor spaces. So please open windows if you have people round.
And lastly, please do continue to work from home whenever possible.
I know this isn’t always easy for workers – nor is it convenient always for employers. But it does make a difference and it will help us navigate our way through this difficult winter period.
The average number of contacts people are having in the workplace has doubled in recent weeks, and as we head deeper into winter, this will create an increased risk of transmission. The virus transmits, as we know, when people interact. And when people go to work they interact in a number of ways – including through travel, during lunch breaks, and after work. So support for homeworking, whenever possible, remains one of the most effective protections we have at our disposal just now.
Let me turn now to the COVID certification scheme which Cabinet also discussed this morning, and set out the decisions we reached and the rationale for them.
For context, it is worth bearing in mind that COVID certification is far from unique to Scotland. Similar schemes are in in place in many other parts of the world.
In fact, in recent weeks, certification schemes have been announced, reintroduced or extended in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Many cover a wider range of premises than Scotland’s does.
However, we must reach decisions based on our own circumstances and so I can confirm that the judgments we arrived at this morning are as follows.
Firstly, for at least a further three week period, we will retain vaccine certification for the venues and events currently covered by the scheme - that is late night licensed premises with a designated area for dancing; unseated indoor events of 500 people or more; unseated outdoor events of 4,000 people or more; and any event with 10,000 people or more.
Given the current state of the pandemic, it is our judgement that it would not be appropriate at this stage to remove this protection against transmission.
Secondly, however, we have decided that from 6 December it will be possible to access venues or events covered by the scheme by showing either proof of vaccination, as now, or a recent negative lateral flow test result.
When we first launched the scheme, one of its primary objectives was to help drive up vaccination rates. This is still important, obviously, but actual and projected uptake rates mean we judge it possible now to include testing.
Doing so will also ensure that the scheme remains proportionate going forward, and also help our wider efforts to stem transmission through greater use of LFD tests more generally.
And, finally, as I indicated last week, Cabinet also considered the possible extension of the scheme to a much wider range of premises, including indoor theatres, cinemas and other hospitality venues.
Let me stress, this was a very, very finely balanced decision.
However, I can confirm that at this stage we have decided not to extend the scope of the scheme.
We have taken account of the fact that - although our situation is precarious - cases are currently stable and indeed slightly declining; and we have considered the inevitable impact vaccine certification has on the operation of businesses; and concluded that, at this stage, extension would not be proportionate.
We were also mindful of the need over the coming weeks, as I’ve already alluded to, of getting across the message that it is important to be vaccinated and tested ahead of socialising in any setting - including in homes and shopping centres, for example - not just in those that might be covered by a certification scheme.
I said last week that we would take this decision with the utmost care and that is what we have done.
It is important to stress, however, that we must keep it - as we do all possible protections - under review.
If our situation does deteriorate, it may yet be that extending COVID certification is a more proportionate alternative to the re-introduction of more onerous restrictions on, for example, hospitality.
We will continue to liaise closely with businesses about this and about what they must do in the coming weeks to minimise that risk.
To begin to conclude, it is an understatement I am sure to say that all of us are sick and tired of this virus and the impact it, although less than in previous months, it is nevertheless still having on our lives.
I understand that and indeed I share that sentiment.
I am also deeply grateful for all the sacrifices everyone has made and continues to make.
Thanks to those sacrifices, we are in a much stronger position now than I would have dared hope for just a few weeks ago.
But I can’t emphasise strongly enough that our position is still precarious.
The next few weeks do pose risks.
Cases are rising in countries around us. And the festive period will bring more travel and more socialising.
Of course, that is to be welcomed. We all desperately want a more normal Christmas than was possible last year.
But we must - all of us - take sensible, proportionate measures to reduce the risk of a new year hangover of surging cases, more pressure on the NHS, and an inevitability of renewed restrictions.
We can all play our part in avoiding this.
So to everyone watching, my request in a nutshell, is as follows - and please pass this on to your friends and family as well.
This is what all of us, government, businesses and individual citizens, must do together - as part of a social compact - to keep each other as safe as possible and allow us all to live as freely as possible.
So over these next crucial weeks, please wear your face coverings and follow all advice on hygiene and ventilation - wash your hands and surfaces and keep windows open when you have people round.
If you have eased up on this recently - as I know many of us will have – now is the time for all of us to tighten up again. Work from home if you can. If you think you could be working from home and you aren’t, raise this with your employer.
And to employers, please facilitate home working for a bit longer, as far as possible.
To all of you, make sure you get any and all vaccine doses you are eligible for, including flu.
For my part, I will continue to make sure that the government keeps rolling out the vaccination programme just as quickly as possible.
And, finally, on any occasion that you intend to socialise or mix with people from other households - whether that is in a pub, a restaurant, a house or a shopping centre - do an LFD test first.
If it is positive, do not go. Self-isolate and get a PCR test instead.
Government has made sure you can order these tests free through NHS Inform or get them at a local test site or pharmacy.
If you don’t have them already, now is the time to order some and keep your supply topped up over the next few weeks.
All of these precautions really matter. They are part of our social compact. They will help protect us and all of those around us. And they will help us protect our NHS and all of those working so hard on its frontline right now.
So please, I ask everybody across the country to stick with these protections - so that we can, I hope, have a more normal Christmas, but do so without jeopardising our prospect of a much brighter new year as well.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
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