Thank you Presiding Officer,
Today, as usual, I will report on the current course of the pandemic.
I will also set out the latest data and outline some further changes that we intend to make in the period ahead.
These will include an update to the guidance on working from home, and also a change to requirements for overseas travel.
And finally, I will summarise what we can all continue to do in the immediate future to keep cases on a downward trend, and reduce pressure on the National Health Service and also the economy.
First, though, today’s statistics.
8,022 positive cases were reported yesterday, either through PCR or lateral flow tests.
1,392 people are in hospital with COVID - 43 fewer than yesterday.
49 people are in intensive care - four fewer than yesterday. This figure includes 15 patients who have been in ICU for more than 28 days.
Sadly, a further 23 deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 10,222.
And once again, my condolences go to everyone mourning a loved one.
Although cases do remain high – as indeed in many countries around the world – the data from this past week paints another broadly positive picture.
In the seven days prior to last Tuesday’s statement, almost 70,000 positive cases were identified through PCR and lateral flow testing – just under 10,000 a day.
In the most recent seven days, however, there have been just over 50,000 cases – slightly more than 7,000 a day. So reported cases have fallen by just over a quarter.
There have been significant reductions in every age group, except the under 15s - in this younger age group, cases have increased by 41%.
This will, at least to some extent, reflect the impact of the return to school. We will continue to monitor cases in this age group closely. We will also study the data carefully in coming days to see if the increase in cases amongst younger people is followed by any uptick in older age groups.
The weekly survey data from the Office of National Statistics, though less up-to-date than our case numbers, nevertheless indicates a similar trend. According to the ONS, in the week to the 15th January, the percentage of people in Scotland infected with the virus declined.
As we would have expected, the decline in new cases is now reflected in a fall in the number of people being admitted to hospital with COVID.
In the week to 14th January, 1,026 patients with COVID were admitted. In the following week this fell to 704.
Hospital occupancy has also fallen. This time last week, a total of 1,546 people were in hospital with COVID. Today, it is 1,392.
And the number of people with COVID in intensive care has also reduced - from 59 this time last week to 49 today.
This significantly improved situation gave us the confidence yesterday to lift most of the remaining protective measures that were introduced before Christmas in response to Omicron.
I will have a little more to say about COVID statistics before I finish but, following the lifting of restrictions on outdoor events last week, yesterday marked a significant return to normality with the lifting of all of the following measures - limits on attendance at indoor public events; nightclub closures; the requirement for one metre physical distancing between groups in hospitality and indoor leisure premises; the requirement for table service in hospitality venues serving alcohol on the premises; and the guidance against adult indoor non-professional contact sport.
On Thursday last week, we also confirmed changes to the recommendations on self-isolation for people in care homes, and lifted the recommended limit on the number of households able to visit care home residents.
Visits from loved ones are, of course, hugely important for the wellbeing of care home residents, and I want to be clear that we expect care homes and local health protection teams to support visits other than in genuinely exceptional circumstances.
The welcome progress of the past week or so has been made possible by a combination of booster vaccination, the proportionate measures introduced in December, and of course the willingness of the public to adapt behaviour to stem transmission. All of that made a difference and has helped, I’m glad to say, send Omicron into reverse.
This progress is real and I am very hopeful that it can be sustained.
That said, we know there are still uncertainties ahead and this virus, of course, continues to be unpredictable.
All of this means that while our return to more normality can be made with confidence, we should still exercise some caution and I will return to that point in a moment.
But, firstly, I can confirm that on the strength of the latest data, Cabinet concluded this morning that some further easing of measures is possible.
Firstly, as indicated last week, the current guidance on working from home - strengthened in response to Omicron - will be now be updated.
Instead of recommending home working whenever practical, the new guidance will pave the way for a phased return to the office.
It will recommend that, from Monday 31st January, employers should consider implementing hybrid working – following appropriate guidance - with workers spending some time in the office and some time at home.
Now, we would not expect to see a wholesale return to the office next week – indeed, given that the level of infection, though falling, remains high, a mass return at this stage is likely to be counter-productive and indeed to set progress back.
But we know there are many benefits to both employees and employers, and to the economy as a whole, in at least a partial return to the office at this stage.
Indeed, many businesses successfully implemented hybrid working last autumn.
And so as part of a phased return to the office, we will again encourage employers to consider hybrid working, and look to them to determine how best to manage this transition in consultation with workers and trade unions.
I can confirm two further changes.
In December, in response to Omicron, a requirement for two metre physical distancing was introduced for indoor settings where people have a specific exemption from the need to wear a face covering. Such exemptions apply, for example, to people leading religious services or carrying out some receptionist duties.
From Friday, in light of the improving situation, this requirement will revert again to one metre.
And second, there will be a change to the guidance on organised activities for children. This currently states that adults attending such activities should wear face coverings when indoors, unless they are leading the activity.
However, from Friday, face coverings will no longer be required for any adult taking part in organised activities when they are directly interacting with children under the age of five.
This change will bring the guidance for indoor activities into line with that for early learning and childcare settings, and it will be of benefit, of course, to younger children and to those working with them.
We are not, at this stage, recommending any immediate change to the Reducing Risks in Schools guidance.
However, this is being kept under close and regular review for schools and for the early learning and childcare sector.
The Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues is meeting again today.
We will consider carefully any recommendations it makes, and we will continue to seek its advice on issues such as groupings within schools, and the requirement for secondary school pupils to wear face coverings.
On the issue of face coverings, I know young people, like many adults, want to see the back of them as soon as possible. But I also know that many young people understand and agree - especially when cases in the younger age group are rising - that face coverings do provide important protection.
So this is a matter that requires and will receive very careful ongoing consideration.
Finally, further changes to international travel requirements were agreed yesterday by all four UK governments.
As a result, from Friday 11th February, fully vaccinated travellers will no longer need to take a test after they arrive in Scotland – though they will still be required to complete a passenger locator form.
Travellers to Scotland who are not fully vaccinated will still be required to take a pre-departure test no more than two days before they board their plane, and also take a PCR test on or before day two of their arrival here.
Now, for international travel purposes, people are deemed to be fully vaccinated if they have completed at least a primary course of vaccination – for most people, that means at least two doses. This international definition, which doesn’t currently require boosters or third vaccines, will be kept under review.
The four UK governments also agreed to work on a new surveillance system to identify any future variants of concern.
The Scottish Government would have preferred this system to be in place before removing the need for vaccinated people to take tests – however, as we have done in the past, we do recognise the wider benefits of adopting a common approach where that is possible.
While these changes will be very welcome to travellers and, of course, to the travel industry, it is important and I think responsible to point out that no government can completely rule out having to tighten travel requirements again if certain circumstances - most obviously another new variant - were to arise.
But for now - and hopefully for the long term - it is really positive that these measures can be lifted. It opens the way for family reunions, the prospect again of holidays overseas and, of course, much needed support for the travel sector.
I am hugely grateful to everyone who has complied with the tighter protective measures that have been in force over the past month or so.
Our collective efforts have made a huge difference. I know that many people now, and rightly so, will be looking forward to getting back to concerts, shows, sporting occasions and other events. Many others will be looking forward to meeting up with larger groups of friends, or having a pint at a bar without the need for table service.
Whatever it is you are looking forward to doing again, do enjoy it. And also know that in the process of enjoying it, you will be supporting businesses and organisations that have been through the mill.
However, to make sure we sustain our progress, please continue to exercise appropriate care and caution.
The level of infection, though declining overall, is still high, with around 7,000 cases a day being confirmed just now. Indeed, the decline may be starting to plateau and also, as I reported earlier, cases in the under 15s are actually rising.
Also, hundreds of people with COVID are still being admitted to hospital each week, which means the NHS is still under immense pressure. We can say without fear of contradiction, I think, that this is the toughest winter the NHS has ever faced.
And we know that - however welcome - any lifting of protective measures that have helped stem transmission, can lead to an uptick of cases in the weeks that follow.
So all of this demands a degree of continued caution, even as we do enjoy a return to pre-Omicron normality.
So, for the rest of the month, at least even though there are no longer any recommended upper limits, do try to keep indoor social gatherings as small as circumstances allow.
And please continue to comply with all of the baseline protective measures that remain in force.
Continuing, for example, to wear face coverings indoors, and on public transport, can help all of us to stay safe while we travel and meet up more. So will taking lateral flow tests before meeting up with others. Please continue to do this.
All of these basic measures help us protect each other, while getting on with daily life. And, of course, they are especially important for the protection of those at highest clinical risk from COVID.
Indeed, this week marks the introduction of a further initiative designed to help people who need extra support to get out and about with more confidence.
The Distance Aware scheme is intended to help people who might be worried about going out. Badges and lanyards with the Distance Aware logo will be available to anyone who wants one, and will indicate to other people that the person wearing the logo would like a bit of extra space, and a bit more care taken around them.
The badges and lanyards are available – free – at mobile and community libraries across the country this week, and badges are also available in most ASDA supermarkets. They are also available online from some participating charities.
So if you or anyone you know is nervous or worried about being out and about again, and if you would feel safer with a bit more space around you, please do get a Distance Aware badge or lanyard.
And for everyone else, if you see someone wearing this badge or lanyard, do give them the space and consideration that they are asking for.
This is, I think, another small but really important way of helping each other through this situation that does remain difficult, challenging and stressful for many.
Finally, let me stress again that vaccination continues to be the cornerstone of our battle against COVID.
The very high vaccination rates achieved so far have helped us considerably on our path back to normality.
From this week, five to 11 year olds with specific medical conditions are being invited for vaccine appointments.
Parents and carers will either receive a letter inviting them to call the national phone line, or a letter direct from their local health board.
The types of medical conditions that make children eligible for the vaccine are set out at NHS Inform, and a leaflet will be made available in advance of appointments with answers to questions that parents and carers might have.
There is also, as I indicated last week, a self-help guide on the NHS inform website which young people, parents and carers can use to check eligibility for the vaccine.
In addition, reminder letters have been sent to 12 to 17 year olds who are yet to complete their primary course of two doses.
And we are preparing to send scheduled appointments for February to any remaining 18 to 59 year olds who are yet to be boosted.
16 and 17 year olds can also book boosters as soon as they approach 12 weeks from their second dose.
I would take this opportunity again to urge anyone who is eligible for a primary dose or a booster who hasn’t yet had it, to please get it as soon as possible.
Hospital data continues to show – even when it’s adjusted for age - that someone not fully vaccinated is considerably more likely to require hospital treatment than someone who has had a booster or third dose.
Being fully vaccinated is the single most important thing any of us can do to protect ourselves, protect others and, of course, to protect the National Health Service.
We are also, as I set out last week, continuing to consider the adaptations that might be necessary in future to help us manage the virus more sustainably and less restrictively.
We will consult on and publish the updated Strategic Framework in the coming weeks.
In doing so, we will take careful account of the developing international evidence as well as the data here.
I was struck by remarks made by the head of the World Health Organization yesterday. He said - and I quote - “learning to live with COVID cannot mean that we give this virus a free ride”.
He also warned - and again I’m quoting - that “globally, the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge”.
It is clear, therefore, that we must continue to learn from experience and we must be prepared to adapt to a range of different circumstances.
And on that point, I want to address directly a claim made in recent weeks by some opposition members, to the effect that the protective measures here introduced in response to Omicron were unnecessary, and that data shows that Scotland’s more cautious approach achieved no more than England’s less protective approach.
In response, I told Parliament last week that – and again I quote - “The ONS figures this week show that infection levels in England are over 20 per cent higher than those in Scotland”.
Willie Rennie issued a furious press release on the back of this, saying that I had ‘twisted’ the data. He also reported me to the impartial Chair of the UK Statistics Authority.
I am pleased to say that he has now written back to Mr Rennie.
Oddly, as far as I am aware, Mr Rennie has not press released the reply.
Sir David Norgrove, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority says in his reply that I - again, quoting - “correctly stated that the figure for England was more than 20 per cent higher than the figure for Scotland.”
But he goes further than that.
While acknowledging that there are other equally accurate ways to cite the statistics he concludes as follows: “the data does suggest that the rate of infection is lower in Scotland than in England”.
To me what matters is that Scotland is doing better now than we were doing before Christmas, and better now than we might have been doing had we not taken action to stem transmission. That is what is important.
How we are faring relative to England or anywhere else is not, in my view, the key comparison.
But given that others have sought to draw that comparison - inaccurately - in an attempt to undermine confidence in the Scottish Government’s decisions, I hope all members will now accept the conclusion of the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority that the data I cited was indeed accurate.
At this stage, as protective measures ease, and we head into spring, there are very good grounds to be optimistic that we are again on the cusp of a calmer phase of the pandemic.
We can all help ensure that the waters remain calm by taking the sensible steps we know help stem transmission.
First, please do get fully vaccinated as soon as you can.
Second, continue to take care when socialising. We are no longer suggesting a limit for the number of households who meet indoors, but for the rest of this month try to limit as far as you can the size of indoor gatherings that you do have.
And please take a lateral flow test before you go, every time.
Finally, please take the other precautions that we know make a difference.
Keep windows open when meeting indoors.
Continue to work from home from now - but talk to your employer about a return to hybrid working from the start of next month.
Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, and when moving about in hospitality.
And please follow all advice on hygiene.
These measures are making a difference. So please do stick with them to protect yourself, to protect others and to protect the National Health Service.
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