Many thanks, Presiding Officer,
I will give a further update today on the latest COVID situation.
I will provide an assessment of the current course of the pandemic in Scotland - and in light of that confirm that there will be no immediate changes this week to the remaining, albeit fairly limited, COVID regulations that remain in force.
I will then give a reminder of the new arrangements for international travel which took effect yesterday.
And, finally, I will provide an update on the implementation of the COVID certification scheme so far - including the progress made in resolving the initial difficulties that many people experienced in accessing the COVID Status app at the end of last week.
Firstly, though, I will report on today’s statistics.
2,056 positive cases were reported yesterday – 10.3% of tests carried out.
998 people are currently in hospital with COVID – which is three fewer than the figure yesterday.
And 65 people are receiving intensive care, that’s two fewer than yesterday.
Sadly, though, a further 21 deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours, and that takes the total number of deaths registered under the daily definition, to 8,687. And of course my condolences yet again go to everyone who has lost a loved one.
More positively, the vaccination programme continues apace and it is making good progress.
4,223,719 people have so far received a first dose and 3,849,656 have now had both doses, and of course that means they are fully vaccinated.
In total, 92% of the over 18 population is now fully vaccinated with two doses.
That includes 96% of the over 40s, 75% of 30 to 39 year olds, and 64% of 18 to 29 year olds.
In addition to that, 72% of 16 and 17 year olds, and 26% so far 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 currently recommended.
Most 12 to 15 year olds only became eligible for the vaccine two weeks ago, and appointment letters were sent out to them last week.
So the fact that more than a quarter in that age group have already received the vaccine is highly encouraging.
I would again encourage all 12 to 15 year olds, and of course their parents and carers, to read the online information about vaccination so that they can take an informed decision about getting the jag.
I’d also remind those in that age group, and their parents and carers, that there is also the option of asking further questions when attending an appointment and I would urge anyone with concerns to do so. I am confident that our experienced vaccinators will be able to answer any questions and address any concerns.
As I indicated last week, the programme of booster vaccinations is also underway.
Those over 70 – and those on the highest risk list – are now receiving booster jags.
People on the highest risk list who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised are being invited separately for a third dose.
This weekly update coincides with the latest three-week review point for the remaining COVID regulations.
And so I can confirm – indeed as I indicated earlier - that at our meeting earlier today the Cabinet agreed to continue in force, with no immediate change, the current regulations.
That decision reflects, firstly, that the number of cases is continuing to fall and so our judgement is that there is no need to introduce any tighter restrictions; but, secondly, that the level of infection, though falling, does remain relatively high and so we consider that it is prudent at this stage, as we approach winter, to keep in place the remaining mitigations, face coverings for example, for a further period.
I will give a bit more detail now of the trends that we are seeing in cases and in the associated impacts.
In the past seven days, the number of cases has reduced by more than one fifth.
And cases are now more than 60% lower than they were at the peak of this latest wave of infection back in early September.
Although there are daily fluctuations, the trend in test positivity is also firmly downwards – from a peak of more than 13% in late August to just over 8% now.
Significantly and positively, the fall in cases continues to be apparent across all age groups.
The most significant decline this week, again, has been amongst 15 to 24 year olds.
Cases in that age group have fallen by almost 40% in the past seven days – and by more than 80% in the last five weeks.
It is also worth highlighting that in the 0 to 14 year old age group – which currently accounts for almost 30% of all new cases - there has nevertheless been a reduction of more than a fifth in the last week, and of more than a half in the last three weeks.
And that is important because although children are much less likely to fall seriously ill from COVID than older people, they can of course fall ill, and also they can and do pass on the infection to others – who may be more vulnerable to serious illness.
So this reduction is positive - though we should of course continue to guard against any complacency.
The Advisory Subgroup on Education and Children’s Issues is meeting this afternoon, and it will be considering the mitigations which are currently in place in schools – including the requirement to wear face coverings in class.
It may well be that they recommend keeping the current mitigations in place for longer given the risks of the winter period.
However, should they advise that any easing is possible following the October half-term, the Government will consider this carefully and advise schools of any changes as soon as possible.
Now, I speculated last week that the recent fall in cases is likely driven by two factors and that remains our view this week.
The first factor is an increasing level of immunity as a result of high vaccination rates and, albeit to a lesser extent, infection with the virus itself. This underlines, again, the critical importance of all of us getting vaccinated if we are eligible. That includes of course getting a booster jag when invited.
The second factor is our individual and collective behaviour – and I am grateful once again to everyone who has taken extra care in recent weeks in an attempt to stop and then reverse the spike in cases.
That includes the many businesses and other organisations who are continuing to implement and promote the basic mitigation measures that are still in place, such as face coverings, hand hygiene, good ventilation and, where possible, continued home working.
The significant and sustained fall in cases over recent weeks is now - I am very relieved to report - feeding through also into a fall in hospital admissions.
In the second week of September, an average of 150 people a day were being admitted to hospital with COVID.
That has now fallen by more than a third – at this point, fewer than 100 people a day are being admitted to hospital with COVID.
As a result of the fall in hospital admissions, we are also now seeing a decline in hospital occupancy – which of course is the overall number of COVID patients in hospital at any given time.
Two weeks ago, there were 1,107 patients in hospital with the virus. Last week that was 1,026. And today it is 998.
In that time, the number of people in intensive care has also fallen - from 94 to 65.
Now, given that cases are continuing to fall, we hope and expect that the number of people in hospital will decline further, and indeed that that rate of decline will pick up place. And we also expect and very much hope that the number of people dying from COVID will reduce as well given the reduction of cases in recent weeks.
All of this is positive - and it is a source of great relief I’m sure to all of us.
That said, the number of people in hospital with COVID now is still higher than it was in late August.
And the pressure on our NHS remains intense.
NHS staff continue to deal with the combined challenge of caring for significant numbers of COVID patients, preparing for wider winter pressures, and dealing with the backlog of care built up during the pandemic months.
Also, as we head further into autumn and then winter, we do know that people will be meeting indoors more often or travelling by public transport rather than walking, for example, and that this will create the conditions for the virus to circulate.
There is a risk that this will lead to a further rise in cases over the winter. And that would, of course, put further pressure on the NHS.
So for all the improvement we have seen – and indeed collectively helped to achieve - at least until we are well through the winter, we must remember that the overall position remains fragile and potentially still very challenging.
That is why we continue to stress the importance of taking basic precautions - such as good ventilation, wearing face coverings, and keeping a safe distance from others if possible.
In short, it is vital that we all continue to be mindful of the virus and its likely presence around us as we go about our everyday lives - and in light of that, continue to behave in sensible ways that can reduce COVID’s ability to spread from person to person.
If we all do this, notwithstanding the welcome fact that we are all living lives that are much more normal than was the case than this time last year, or even earlier this year, but if we all continue take these sensible precautions, we all stand a much better chance of keeping the number of cases - and the associated pressure on the NHS - under control even as winter conditions kick in.
There are two further issues I want to briefly cover today.
Firstly, international travel. Proportionate travel restrictions will of course continue to be an important baseline measure to protect against COVID.
They help reduce the risk of people coming into Scotland with the virus, but also help us to identify quickly any new variants of the virus.
However, just as we have worked hard to get domestic life back to normal as much as possible, so too do we want - in an appropriately careful way - to bring greater normality back to international travel as well.
Yesterday the arrangements for international travel changed in Scotland and indeed across the UK.
What were the green and amber lists have now been merged. This means that there are now only two categories of country – those on the so-called “red list”, which are of course the highest risk countries at any given time, and then, secondly, all other countries
Passengers travelling from countries that are not on the red list and who can show they have been fully vaccinated – or who are under the age of 18 - no longer need to provide proof of a negative test result before they travel to Scotland.
In addition, 18 countries – which includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand - have now been added to the list of countries whose vaccination programmes are recognised for purposes of travel to the UK.
It is important to note though, that – despite the change of position on pre-departure testing - there is still a requirement at this stage for passengers to take a COVID test on the second day after their arrival here.
This test must meet very high sensitivity standards, which means that in practice it is likely to be a PCR test.
We are working with the UK Government on possible future changes to the position on post arrival testing. But for now it remains the case that someone arriving in Scotland from outside the UK must take a PCR test – or equivalent – on day two after their arrival here.
We will continue to work with the UK Government, the other devolved governments, and the travel sector to ensure that the position on international travel is proportionate; that it is helping us guard against new variants; and that, as far as possible, it is consistent across all four nations of the UK.
The final point, Presiding Officer, I want to cover today is the COVID certification scheme.
The scheme came into force, as planned, at 5am on Friday - although, as I set out last week, the enforcement provisions will not come into effect until the 18 October.
I am grateful to all businesses, organisations and individuals who are working to implement the scheme.
The app which we can opt to use to show evidence of our vaccination status became available for download last Thursday afternoon.
I am of course well aware that many people found it extremely difficult to use the app initially.
In particular, many found that the app was unable to locate their vaccination record from the information that they had provided. This problem was especially acute over Thursday evening and Friday.
I know this caused extreme frustration for users who wanted to download the app as quickly as possible, and also for businesses and events organisers who were planning to test their certification arrangements over the weekend, and I apologise for that.
The problem was not with the app itself but with the NHS systems that it links to.
Essentially the high level of demand after the launch of the app – combined with an error in one part of the NHS system – meant that information wasn’t being sent quickly enough from the NHS system to the app.
This also, for a period, caused problems for those requesting paper copies of vaccination certificates, or seeking to download a PDF.
However, improvements to remedy the problem were made to the NHS system on Friday evening.
Indeed, I can report that the initial backlog of people waiting for their information to be matched had been cleared by Saturday lunchtime.
We will of course continue to monitor the performance of the app.
And we will continue to engage with businesses and sectors subject to the requirement for COVID certification.
In relation to football fixtures over the weekend just past, for example, while they had agreed that no fan would be turned away if they were unable to provide evidence of vaccination status, both Hearts and Rangers tested their certification arrangements and managed to check around 20% of their crowds.
Scottish Government officials met yesterday with those clubs, together with Aberdeen, Celtic, Hibs and the managers of Hampden, to consider and learn any lessons from those weekend experiences.
We are also continuing to engage with the other sectors required to implement certification.
COVID certification remains, in the Scottish Government’s view, a proportionate way of encouraging people to get vaccinated, and also of helping large events and night-time hospitality to keep operating during what will be a potentially very difficult winter.
The scheme is now operational, and the provisions are in place which require businesses to keep data safe and to use it only for certification.
People are now able to access and use the proof required.
In addition to getting the app – as many people have now been able to do - it is also possible to download a PDF or order a paper copy of a vaccination record from the NHS Inform website.
And these will continue to be options for anyone who is not willing or able to use the app.
As indicated last week, the first two weeks of the scheme will be a grace period in relation to enforcement, while businesses and users become accustomed to the new rules.
However during this period we expect businesses to implement and test their approach to certification - and to prepare their compliance plans - so that they are fully prepared by 18 October.
At that point, the regulations will become enforceable by local authority officers.
These officers – as has been the case throughout the pandemic – will use what is called the 4 E’s approach. They will Engage, Explain, Encourage and only then - if those options are exhausted - will they Enforce.
In fact their engagement work has already started.
The Scottish Government, also, will continue to engage in the days and weeks ahead with businesses who are subject to the certification scheme and I remain grateful to them for everything they are doing to help ensure that it works effectively.
The final point I want to make is addressed to individuals, rather than to businesses.
There will be many of us who - at some point in the coming months - will want to attend a concert, or go to a big football or rugby match, or visit a nightclub or other late night venue.
So I would encourage everyone to get a copy of their vaccination record as soon as they can - either through the app, or by getting the PDF or a paper copy from NHS Inform. I know that the early experience of the app was not a good one, but it works - now - well. And the alternative options continue to be available too.
In conclusion - overall, the position we are in now is much, much better than we had feared it might be at this time last month.
Cases have more than halved in the last four weeks. And the number of people in hospital and intensive care is also now starting to decline.
The efforts that have been made by so many over the past month in particular - to step up compliance with mitigations, and to drive up vaccination rates - do seem to be working.
However as we head into autumn and then winter, we have no room for complacency.
Cases are still high. Hundreds of people each week are still being admitted to hospital with COVID. And of course, the NHS is still under pressure.
So we must seek to maintain the progress of the past few weeks.
And, of course, all of us have a part to play in doing that.
So I will close, as usual, with a reminder of the three things that we can all do to help protect each other.
First, please do get vaccinated if you are eligible and you haven’t done so yet. That remains the most important thing anybody 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, please self-isolate and book a PCR test.
And third, please comply with the mitigations that are still in place for now.
Wear face coverings in indoor public places, shops, public transport and moving about in hospitality settings.
Wash hands and surfaces thoroughly and regularly.
Meet outdoors if you can – although we all know that this is getting increasingly difficult.
So when you do meet indoors, open windows if you can. And try to keep a safe distance from people in other households.
All of these precautions do still really matter - we can see that in the data being reported each day right now. They will help protect you, protect other people, and crucially they will also help to protect our NHS.
I would ask everybody to stick with it – and let’s get cases down even further.
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