Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement – 28 September 2021

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Tuesday 28 September 2021.

Presiding Officer

I will give an update today on the latest Covid situation.

As part of that, I will recap on the decisions made at the end of last week in relation to international travel.

I will also announce some additional support to help businesses improve the ventilation of their premises.

And I will give an update on the introduction of the Covid certification scheme following a discussion at Cabinet this morning.

Firstly, though, I will cover today’s statistics.

2,370 positive cases were reported yesterday – 10.6% of the tests carried out.

1,027 people are in hospital with Covid – four more than yesterday.

And 73 people are receiving intensive care, which is three fewer than yesterday.

Sadly, a further 16 deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours, and that takes the total number of deaths registered under the daily definition, to 8,551.

The number of deaths reported in recent days is a reminder of the grief the virus continues to cause families across the country. And I send again my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

On a more positive note, the vaccination programme continues to make very good progress. 

Over the weekend, the milestone of eight million vaccinations in Scotland was reached.

As of this morning, 4,185,574 people have received a first dose and 3,832,498 have now had both doses.

In total therefore, 84% of the over 16 population is now fully vaccinated with two doses.

This includes 96% of the over 40s, 75% of 30 to 39 year olds, and 63% of 18 to 29 year olds.

In addition, 71% of 16 and 17 year olds have had a first dose – it’s important to remember of course that, at this stage, only a single dose is recommended for this age group.

These are exceptionally high uptake rates – but as we go into winter we are obviously keen to push them even higher and I’ll return to that point later.

However, we are also now implementing the next stages of the programme.

Vaccinations for 12 to 15 year olds started last week at drop-in clinics. Appointment letters are being sent out from this week to everyone in that age group who hasn’t already been vaccinated.

I would again take this opportunity encourage all 12 to 15 year olds, and indeed their parents and carers, to read the online information about vaccination so that informed decisions can be taken.

And if there are questions or concerns, please do raise these with vaccinators when attending appointments.

The programme of booster vaccinations is also underway now, in-line with JCVI advice.

Care home residents started getting booster jags last week.

And from this week, those over 70 years of age and also those on the highest risk list will also start to get booster jags too. People in these groups will be notified of appointments by GPs or by letter.

People on the highest risk list who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised are being invited separately for a third dose.

Presiding Officer,

The figures reported over the past week show that although Covid cases do remain at a high level, they are continuing to fall.

To put current case numbers in context, in the five weeks between 2 August and 6 September, the increase in average daily cases was more than five-fold – from an average of 1,115 new cases a day to 6,438.

Since then, average daily cases have halved – to 3,119 new cases a day on average.

The numbers now are also below the previous peak of early July.

Indeed, in the last week alone, there has been a fall of almost one-fifth.

The steepest falls – of more than a quarter – have been in the 15 to 19, and in the 20 to 24 age groups.

However it is important to note that there have been significant declines in all age groups.

What is obviously extremely positive is that this overall reduction in cases has happened without the need to reintroduce any lockdown restrictions – which of course all of us were, and are, very keen to avoid.

We consider that the fall in cases is being driven by a number of factors.

A key one is likely to be the increasing level of immunity – which is now relatively high in Scotland.  This comes mainly from vaccination, although also to some extent from infection with the virus, and indeed in some cases from both.

And so I will return to my earlier point about the need to drive the already high vaccine uptake rates even higher. The current downward trajectory of cases underlines again, the vital importance of getting vaccinated if you are eligible. That includes taking up the opportunity of a booster jag when it is offered.

Getting vaccinated undoubtedly remains the single most important thing any of us can do to help keep cases under control.

However other factors are also likely to have contributed to the fall in cases.

These include obviously the performance and the hard work of those in Test and Protect, and also all the considerable efforts made by individuals, businesses and other organisations to step up compliance with the basic mitigation measures that remain in place.

I’m very grateful to everyone who has taken extra care in recent weeks in an attempt to halt and then reverse the spike in cases.

That includes students and staff at our colleges and universities.

This time last year, we were experiencing a rapid increase in cases – albeit from a much lower base level than is currently the case – and back then this was, at least in part, down to the start of the new university term.

However, so far this year – although it is still early in the new term – there has not been an increase in cases coinciding with the return of universities.

Indeed, at this stage, it could tentatively be argued that the reverse is true. As I said earlier, cases in the 15 to 24 year old age groups - which of course include many students - have actually been falling.

That will be due in part to the impact of vaccination.

However I also know how much effort has gone into making student campuses and accommodation as safe as possible – and I am deeply grateful for all of those efforts.

Cabinet Secretaries will continue to engage with different sectors in the weeks ahead to ensure that we are working together to support strong compliance with key mitigations like face coverings, hand hygiene, good ventilation and, where possible, continued home working.

The clear evidence of recent weeks suggests that these collective efforts are making a significant difference. So if we stick with it, I am hopeful that we will keep a downward pressure on cases as we head into the winter period.

And I can’t stress enough how vital that is.

It is extremely positive that case numbers have fallen significantly.

But they remain more than two and a half times higher than they were in early August.

And so as we move further into autumn and winter, and people meet indoors for longer periods of time, there does remain a risk that cases could rise again.

And, of course, hospital admissions and occupancy are already at high levels.

That said, in the last week, we have also seen a slight but welcome reduction in the number of patients with Covid in hospital – from 1,107 to 1,027.

That is in line with our expectations – we know that the number of people in hospital usually starts to fall about two weeks after the number of new cases begins to fall.

So with cases having fallen further, we would hope and expect that the direct Covid pressure on the NHS will ease somewhat – although we expect the service to remain under significant pressure for some time to come. We also hope that the number of people dying from Covid will start to reduce as well.

But, again, some context is necessary.

Although the slight slowdown in hospital admissions is very welcome, the number of patients in hospital today with Covid – 1,027 – is still three times higher than it was in late August.

Similarly, while there has been a gradual decline in the number of patients with Covid requiring intensive care, ICU occupancy is still far higher now than it was in late August.

Now it is worth highlighting that the hospital figures that we report daily represent the total number of people who have first tested positive for Covid while in hospital or in the 14 days prior to their admission – and these figures have always included people who, though they have Covid, have actually been admitted to hospital for other reasons.

However, I can advise Parliament that Public Health Scotland will tomorrow publish a more detailed analysis, which will seek to quantify those admitted to hospital not just ‘with’ Covid but actually ‘because of’ Covid, and I am sure this will be of interest to many.

What any analysis makes clear, though, is that the number of people in hospital, either with or because of Covid is still too high.

And that is putting immense pressure on the NHS.

NHS staff are currently trying to care for hundreds of Covid admissions every week, while also dealing with the backlog built up during the pandemic and preparing for winter. 

This is exhausting and stressful for them.

And I know we are all deeply grateful to each and every one of them.

It is therefore important to emphasise again that by all of us behaving in ways that can get and keep Covid cases under control, we aren’t simply protecting ourselves and those around us, we are also helping those who work so hard in our NHS, and protecting their capacity to provide care and treatment to everyone who needs it.

Presiding Officer,

There are three further issues I want to give an update on today. 

First, we confirmed last Friday changes to the rules on international travel.

From 4 October, the blanket requirement for pre-departure tests for people travelling into Scotland will be removed. People who have been fully vaccinated – or who are under 18 – will no longer need to provide a pre-departure test result if they are coming from countries not on the red list. 

We also hope to align our policy on post-arrival testing with that of England, although details of this UK-wide are still being finalised.

As I indicated last week, we are making these changes to the travel testing rules with some reluctance. We do have a concern that the removal of testing requirements  could hamper efforts to detect new variants.

However we have also considered, as I said last week we would, the practical consequences of not having a UK-wide aligned position.

In particular, we have to be realistic about the fact that people living here in Scotland could decide to return here via airports based in England, if different rules are in place for Scottish airports.

The result of this would be disadvantage to our aviation and travel sector, but without any significant public health advantage.

So we must be pragmatic. However, we will not be complacent. I can confirm that we are working with Public Health Scotland to develop additional surveillance safeguards to help guard against the risk of new variants. We will set out further details in due course but I can confirm now that these arrangements will not incur costs for travellers.

The second point I want to give an update on is ventilation. It is now clear and accepted that good ventilation is an important mitigation against the risk of Covid transmission.

Last month we established an expert group to make recommendations on improving ventilation. I am very grateful to the group, chaired by Professor Tim Sharpe from the University of Strathclyde, for all the work it has done so far.

In response to the group’s initial recommendations, I can confirm that we will allocate up to £25 million of funding to help small and medium sized enterprises improve ventilation.

This support, which will include grants, will help these businesses make necessary adjustments to their premises including, for example, the installation of carbon dioxide monitors or alterations to windows and vents.

The fund, which we expect to start making payments in November, will initially target higher risk sectors where people spend significant amounts of time in close proximity to each other, such as hospitality and leisure.

We will set out more details of the eligibility criteria and the application process over the next few weeks.

However, I hope this funding package will help many small and medium sized businesses make indoor settings safer, especially through the winter months.

The final issue I want to give an update on is the Covid certification scheme.

Last week, we set out further details of how the scheme will operate.

I can confirm that we will be publishing further detailed guidance for businesses later today which will demonstrate the proportionate, common sense approach we are asking businesses to take.

I would encourage businesses to familiarise themselves with this guidance, which will assist them in making the necessary preparations for the scheme coming into force.

I can also confirm that the introduction of certification means that we are able to remove the capacity limits – and the associated exemption process – which have been in place for stadia and live events. I know this will be welcomed by event planners and local authorities.

The certification scheme will apply – as previously indicated – to late night venues open after midnight with alcohol, music and dancing; to live indoor unseated events of more than 500 people; to live outdoor unseated events of more than 4,000 people; and to any event of more than 10,000 people.

This means that once the scheme starts, anyone over the age of 18, who wants to go to a large event – or to a late night venue – will be required to provide evidence that they are fully vaccinated, or evidence that they are exempt .

To facilitate this, the NHS Covid Status app will go live on Thursday. It will provide a digital record of a user’s vaccination status, including a QR code for each vaccination a person has received.

It is already possible for any of us of course to request a paper copy of our vaccination record, or to download a PDF from the NHS Inform website.

Presiding Officer

We have continued to engage with businesses as we have developed the detail of the certification scheme. I understand that many businesses have concerns about certification. However, I am very grateful to all those that have nevertheless engaged in these discussions so constructively.

The Government remains of the view that a targeted certification scheme does have a part to play in driving vaccination rates up as high as possible, and providing an additional layer of protection over the winter months as we seek to achieve the potentially difficult task of keeping Covid under control while keeping our economy fully open.

Indeed, many other countries are already demonstrating the value of Covid certification.

It is for these reasons that Cabinet decided this morning to proceed with the laying of the regulations that will bring such a scheme into operation.

However, as I have said previously, we are also determined to listen to and, as far as possible, respond to the reasonable concerns of business, so that the introduction and practical implementation of the scheme is as smooth as possible.

I can confirm therefore that Cabinet this morning agreed a change to our original plans for the scheme’s commencement.

The new, staged approach we are proposing now is designed to help businesses adapt to the requirement that the scheme will place upon them, and give them a period in which they can operationalise and test their arrangements in practice.

I can therefore confirm that after the legal obligation comes into force at 5am on Friday this week, we intend to allow a further period of slightly more than two weeks until 18 October, before any business could face enforcement action for non-compliance.

This period, effectively a grace period, will allow businesses to test, adapt and build confidence in the practical arrangements they will need to put in place to be compliant with the scheme.

As I said earlier, the government is persuaded that a Covid certification scheme will help us mitigate the risk the virus poses to all of us over the winter, and that is why we intend to proceed with it.

However, the pragmatic compromise that I have just outlined in relation to a staged introduction of the scheme demonstrates, I hope, that we are listening to business about the practical challenges they face, and that we are determined to work with them to overcome these.

Presiding Officer,

To conclude – as we move for the first time into a winter with Covid circulating but without any significant restrictions in place, we are I am pleased to say, in a much better position than we might have hoped for just a few weeks ago.

Cases have halved in the past three weeks and we hope this will be followed by an easing of at least the direct Covid pressure on the NHS.

However, there is no room for complacency about the potential impact we might face this winter.

The efforts that have been made by so many over the past month to step up compliance with mitigations and drive up vaccination rates do seem to be working.

We have, collectively, halted the surge and brought case numbers down.

But, and this is always the more difficult message, cases are still too high for comfort. And so it is vital that we don’t let up. We must maintain the progress of the past few weeks.

As ever, that has to be a collective endeavour.

All of us have a part to play in keeping transmission under control.

And so I will close, as usual, with a reminder of the three key things that we can all do to help protect ourselves and each other.

First, please do get vaccinated if you are eligible and haven’t yet done so. This does remain the single most important thing any of us can do.

Second, please test regularly with lateral flow devices. These can be ordered through the NHS Inform website, or collected from a local test site or pharmacy.

If you test positive, or are identified as a close contact, or have symptoms of the virus, please self-isolate and book a PCR test.

And thirdly, please comply with the mitigations still in place.

Wear face coverings in indoor public places, shops, public transport and when moving about in hospitality settings.

Meet outdoors if you can.  I know this will get harder, obviously, as we move into autumn and winter, but outdoor meetings are still safer.

When meeting indoors, open windows. 

Try to keep a safe distance from people in other households – especially indoors.

And wash hands and surfaces thoroughly.

All of these precautions really do matter. They will keep you and those around you safer.

And as we can see, from the data I have reported today, they are making a difference.

So let’s all stick with it – and hopefully get cases down even further.

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