In giving an update on the latest COVID situation I will provide an assessment of the current course of the pandemic.
in light of that, I will confirm that no immediate changes are being proposed to the mitigations that remain in place.
I will also report on the progress of the vaccination programme and provide a brief update on international travel, and lastly, give a summary of the mitigations that are being deployed to minimise, the risks of transmission at or around COP26.
First, though, I will report on the most recent statistics.
2,262 positive cases were reported yesterday – 11.5% of all tests conducted.
917 people are currently in hospital with COVID – 15 more than yesterday.
59 people are receiving intensive care, two more than yesterday.
And, sadly, a further 20 deaths have been reported over the past 24 hours. That takes the total number of deaths registered under this daily definition, to 9,072.
Once again I want to send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
More positively, the vaccination programme continues to make good progress. And I will provide more details on the booster programme later.
However, at this stage I will confirm that 4,309,932 people have received a first dose. 3,897,133 have had both doses.
In total, 87% of the over 18 population is now fully vaccinated with two doses.
This includes 96% of the over 40s, 76% of 30 to 39 year olds, and 67% of 18 to 29 year olds.
In addition, 75% of 16 and 17 year olds, and 53% of 12 to 15 year olds, have had a first dose. And, of course, for most people in these age groups, only a single dose is recommended at this stage.
This weekly update coincides with the latest three-week review point for the remaining regulations.
And so I can confirm - as indicated a moment ago - that at our meeting earlier today the Cabinet agreed to make no change to the current regulations that are in place.
This reflects our assessment that, although the situation is greatly improved since August, it does remain fragile as we head into the winter period.
In my statement before the recess, I reported that case numbers had fallen by more than 20% in the preceding week, and by more than 60% in the preceding five weeks.
The fact that cases had declined so steeply – without the need for tougher restrictions – was extremely welcome.
It showed that increased compliance with mitigations, together with increased immunity through vaccination, previous infections, or, in some cases, both, had been capable of stemming even the Delta variant.
However, over the past three weeks, while cases remain much lower than the previous peak, the decline has levelled off.
Indeed, in recent days, we have been reporting a very slight increase in cases.
To illustrate that further, three weeks ago, there was on average just under 2,500 new cases being reported each day. Now, the average is just over 2,500 cases a day.
It is, of course, important to see this in a wider context.
Having had the highest rate for a period, Scotland currently has the lowest COVID case rate of the four UK nations.
And the increase in cases is, at this stage, relatively small – around 2%.
We are certainly not experiencing a surge in new cases of anything like the magnitude of late August.
However, as we know from experience, there is never any room for complacency with this virus. We can’t ignore the fact that case numbers have started to creep up again.
And, of course, even before this recent increase, they were at a level higher than we would have wanted.
One consequence of the continued high number of cases, is that the NHS remains under significant pressure. Indeed, although case numbers are lower than in early September, we are seeing a slightly different age distribution - with increases in the older rather than the younger populations.
That, in part, helps to explain why the steep reduction in case numbers has not been mirrored by an equally steep decline in hospital admissions.
COVID-related hospital occupancy – which is the number of patients in hospital with COVID at any given time - is lower than it was three weeks ago. 917 today, compared to 998 three weeks ago. But it has increased slightly again in the past week.
Hospital admissions also remain high. There are more than 600 people with COVID still being admitted each week just now. And admissions to ICU have also increased.
So what all of this means is that NHS staff are dealing with significant numbers of COVID patients, alongside other patient care, while also preparing for wider winter pressures, and dealing with the backlog of care built up in earlier stages of the pandemic.
In fact, the entire health and care system is currently under considerable pressure – as all members are aware - arguably more pressure now than at any previous stage of the pandemic.
Across the country, hospitals are at, or close to, capacity. And the social care system is also under pressure.
These pressures are, of course, likely to intensify during the winter period.
We know that with people meeting indoors more often during winter there are more opportunities for a virus to circulate. And that could lead to a further rise in cases.
We are also approaching the winter flu season, which could also add to the pressure on the NHS.
We are therefore working closely with health boards as they deal with these pressures, and of course the Health Secretary has already confirmed a package of winter support.
In addition, I can confirm today that a further £482 million is being allocated to the NHS and to integration authorities. This includes more than £120 million to support Test and Protect, more than £130 million also to support further the vaccination programme. The balance of funding will cover additional COVID-related costs such as staffing and equipment.
The pressures on the NHS are a reminder that COVID is still a threat – to our individual health, and also to the capacity of our health and care services.
This is why continued high compliance with existing mitigations and protections is so vitally important.
At this moment of fragility, therefore, I am asking all of us across the country to make a renewed individual and collective effort to stick to the basic protections that are still in place and help drive cases down again.
Please wear face coverings when required, ventilate indoor spaces wherever possible, wash hands and surfaces, use LFD tests regularly, and book a PCR test if one of these LFD tests shows up positive, or if you have symptoms of COVID, or if you are identified as a close contact of someone who is positive.
Please also continue to give contact details when visiting pubs and restaurants, for example. And show your COVID certificate if visiting a venue where this is required.
The COVID certification scheme has been operational now for more than three weeks and is now enforceable by law. And I’m grateful to the businesses who have worked hard to comply with the scheme.
And, last but not least, we continue to ask people to work from home whenever that is possible – and this does continue to be an important way of reducing transmission.
The Scottish Government will continue to work with business to support an appropriate, phased return to office working - but it is important to stress that, at this stage, we are still encouraging people to work from home as much as possible. And I’m grateful to employers who continue to do everything possible to provide safe environments for both their workers and their customers.
In summary, this is a moment - again - for all of us to step up our compliance with these basic protections. We do know from experience that, if we do so, and when we do so, we can stem transmission. And it is important that we do so now.
The judgement of the Cabinet today - informed of course, and as always by clinical advice - is that it is not necessary at this stage to reintroduce any tighter restrictions.
However, as has always been the case, we will keep this under review. In particular, we will consider on an ongoing basis whether any of the existing mitigations need to be strengthened in any way.
Of course, the most important tool we have against COVID is vaccination.
The NHS is currently delivering the biggest ever winter vaccination programme. Over the course of this winter, more than four million flu vaccines and more than three million COVID vaccines will be administered.
Almost 1.5 million of these have been delivered already.
The COVID booster programme commenced within a week of the JCVI advice on prioritisation being received.
And, so far, more than half a million people have had a booster jag.
Those over 70, and those on the highest risk list, are being prioritised first and these groups, together with older people in care homes and front line health and care workers, will all be offered the booster vaccination between now and early November.
Other groups - including all adults over the age of 50 - will get booster appointments through November, December and, in some cases, into early January. The portal that will allow those in younger age groups to book appointments online will open in November.
I would remind members that the main constraint on the speed of vaccination is the JCVI advice that six months must have elapsed between a second dose and a booster dose.
So, in short, we are making good progress - but every effort is being made, will continue to be made within the limits of that JCVI advice, to accelerate the pace of this programme.
For example, particularly as the programme moves down the age groups, we will be considering additional clinics, particularly at evenings and weekends.
And we will continue to support health boards to identify, recruit and train additional staff as required. We are also enabling boards to make use of healthcare students and primary care staff - including GPs, GP practice staff, dentists and pharmacists – where this is appropriate to help meet demand.
It is also important to note that for convenience - and to avoid older and more vulnerable people in particular requiring two separate appointments - COVID booster and flu vaccinations are being co-administered wherever that is possible.
Now this may mean that some people will receive their flu vaccine slightly later this year than might normally be the case. However, please be assured that the timing of flu vaccines is entirely clinically appropriate.
Now, I mentioned earlier that 53% of 12 to 15 year olds have now received their first jag. And I want to sincerely thank all of those young people who have come forward for vaccination.
I can confirm that everyone in that age group has now had an appointment scheduled, and should have received a letter telling them about their appointment.
And I would again encourage all 12 to 15 year olds not already vaccinated, and their parents and carers, to read the online information about vaccination so that they can take an informed decision about getting the jag.
And if you haven’t come forward yet, please do so as soon as possible.
As I noted earlier, the scale of the winter vaccination programme currently underway is unprecedented. And I therefore want to take the opportunity today to say how grateful I am, how grateful all of us in the Government – and I’m sure across the chamber – are to all of those across our pressurised health and care service who are contributing to the success of the vaccination programme.
And again I would urge everyone to get vaccinated - for flu, for COVID, or for both if you are eligible - as soon as you are called to do so. Getting vaccinated remains the single most important thing we can all do to protect ourselves, particularly over the course of this winter, and of course to protect each other.
The good progress in vaccinating young people is relevant to the next issue I want to briefly refer to – which is our ongoing work to ensure that schools remain as safe in this context as possible.
We confirmed last week that the current school mitigations - including the wearing of face coverings - would remain in place for a further period. This is in light of the slight increase that we have seen – and I have reported on today - in transmission of the virus.
However, we also gave a commitment to monitor key information, including, of course, case rates, on a weekly basis, and lift these mitigation measures in schools as soon as it is considered prudent to do so.
We also know that ventilation is one of the most important ways to reduce the risk of airborne COVID transmission - and that carbon dioxide monitors can help schools assess and improve their ventilation.
That’s why we committed to provide local authorities with an additional £10 million of funding to ensure that schools and childcare settings have access to carbon dioxide monitoring.
I can confirm that the Education Secretary will be writing to the Education Committee of Parliament later this week with a full update on the progress local authorities have made in completing CO2 assessments of schools and other education facilities.
There are two other issues I want to touch on before concluding today.
The first relates to rules on international travel.
Fully vaccinated travellers, returning from non-red list countries, are currently required to take a PCR test on day two of their arrival back to or into Scotland. The UK Government announced recently that travellers arriving into England will be able to take a lateral flow test, with photo verification, instead of a PCR test.
For practical reasons, the Scottish Government will align with this change. That means from 4am on Sunday 31 October, people travelling to Scotland can also provide a lateral flow test – rather than a PCR test - on day two of their arrival.
Travellers will be able to book lateral flow tests from the list of providers on the gov.uk site in advance of arrival into Scotland from around 5pm on Friday. These tests cost between £20-£30 – which is less than a PCR test - so I am sure this change will be welcomed by travellers, and by the travel industry. However it is important to stress that if a lateral flow test is positive, a PCR test must then be booked to confirm the result.
The final update I want to give today relates to the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow which of course gets underway this coming weekend.
Indeed, some delegates are already here for pre-sessional events.
The summit, of course, is one of the most important gatherings of this century so far. It is perhaps the world’s last chance to avert future climate catastrophe.
The Scottish Government will do everything we can, working with the UK Government, to help it make it a success.
The hosting of COP would always have been a significant challenge given the scale of the event for the UK and Scottish Governments and for Glasgow City Council
However, the fact that it is happening amidst a global pandemic obviously makes it even more challenging.
And it is inevitably the case that an event of this scale poses a risk of increased COVID transmission.
However, I want to assure Parliament and the public that the Scottish Government has been working closely with the United Nations and the UK government to mitigate these risks as far as possible.
Steps have been taken to ensure, as far as possible, that delegates have been fully vaccinated before arrival.
Everyone arriving in Glasgow from outside the Common Travel Area will also need to show a negative test result before they arrive in the UK, and anyone from the seven countries still on the travel red list will be required to stay in managed quarantine for ten days.
In addition, everyone entering the core venues for COP - the blue zone – will be required to take a lateral flow COVID test every day; wear face coverings; and follow one metre physical distancing and hand hygiene guidance. The event space also has strict hygiene protocols in place.
And of course all of those attending, whether they are attending as official delegates or activists, will be required to follow the same basic COVID precautions as the rest of the population – such as wearing face masks in indoor public places and on public transport.
As we know, all of these steps will help reduce the risk of COVID transmission, and I hope they help make COP a safe event, as well as – we all hope – a successful event.
I said earlier that our position, although improved from over the summer, is still fragile.
Vaccination is still allowing us to live with far, far fewer restrictions and mitigations than was possible at earlier stages in the pandemic.
And, of course, case numbers are lower than they were in August and early September.
But they are still high – and may now be rising again.
And as we head into winter, there are factors which could drive cases up further.
So we must remember – however much we all wish otherwise – that the virus hasn’t gone away.
We all need to play our part in helping keep it under control.
So for that reason, I will close, with a reminder of what we can all do to help with that.
Firstly, as I have already mentioned today, please do get vaccinated if you are eligible and haven’t yet done so. That includes going for a booster jag when you are invited to do so.
It is never too late to get vaccinated, so if you haven’t done so previously it is still possible now to come forward and get your jags.
Second, please test regularly with lateral flow devices. I remind people that these can be ordered through NHS Inform, or collected from local test sites or pharmacies.
If you test positive, or are identified as a close contact, or have symptoms, please self-isolate and book a PCR test.
And thirdly, please comply with the mitigations that are still in place.
Wear face coverings in indoor public places.
Wash hands and surfaces thoroughly.
Meet outdoors if you can – that is increasingly difficult as we get deeper into winter. But outdoor environments are safer.
When meeting indoors, open windows – anything at all that improves ventilation will help.
All of these precautions do make a difference. We have seen that at previous stages of this pandemic. They will protect you and the people around you, and they will help to ease the burden on our NHS.
So please – stick with it.
And my thanks, once again to everyone who is doing all of that.
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