Today, I will set out our latest assessment of the COVID data and its impacts.
I will also give brief updates on some key issues - the ongoing consideration of guidance for schools and early years settings, surveillance of the BA.2 sub-type of Omicron, and the progress and current focus of vaccination efforts.
And I will conclude with a reminder that there are still basic steps we can and should continue to take - even in an improving situation - to curb transmission and thereby reduce pressure on the NHS, economy and wider society.
I will start though with a brief account of today’s statistics.
6,630 positive cases were reported yesterday through PCR and lateral flow tests.
950 people are in hospital with COVID – eight fewer than yesterday.
31 people are in intensive care - five fewer than yesterday. This includes 13 patients who have been in ICU for more than 28 days.
Sadly, a further 14 deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 10,447.
Once again, my condolences go to everyone mourning a loved one.
Over the last fortnight, case numbers have remained broadly stable.
Last week, I reported that cases had risen slightly - by around 2% - in the preceding seven days.
By contrast, over the past week, reported case numbers have declined again, from around 7,400 cases a day to just over 7,000 - a fall of 5%.
While that continues a positive overall trend, it is important to note that it does mask some significant variations between different age groups.
Amongst under 15s – which remember is the age cohort in which cases have been rising in recent weeks, even as they declined overall but in the most recent week there was a fall of more than a quarter amongst the under 15s.
Cases also fell - by 6% - in the 25 to 44 age group, and by more than 10% in those aged 75 and over.
However, in other age groups, recorded cases have increased in the past week. The biggest increase - of more than 50% - was amongst 15 to 24 year olds.
As I have noted in recent weeks, it was always likely that we would see some uptick in recorded cases as a result of the return to work and school after Christmas and, more recently, the lifting of protective measures that had played a part in stemming transmission.
So we should not be overly surprised by the increase in some age groups - nor, at this stage, unduly concerned.
However, we will continue to monitor these trends and any associated impacts from them.
In addition to the daily data, we continue to pay close attention to the findings of the ONS weekly survey.
While it is not as up to date as the daily data, it does offer reliable information. The most recent report suggests that in the week to 29 January around 1 in 30 people in Scotland had COVID.
While this is an improvement on the earlier part of January - and the lowest level of infection of all four UK nations - it also represents something of a plateau compared to the week before and is broadly in line with what the more recent daily data has been indicating.
The decline and subsequent plateauing in recorded cases in recent weeks is being reflected in a slight easing of the direct COVID pressure on our hospitals.
In the week to 27 January, 682 patients with COVID were admitted to hospital. In the following week this fell to 550.
Hospital occupancy - the number in hospital with COVID at any given time - has also fallen.
Around mid January, more than 1,500 people were in hospital with COVID. This time last week, that had fallen to just under 1,200. Today, it is back below 1,000.
The number of people with COVID in intensive care has reduced too - from a recent peak of 70 in January, to 42 last Tuesday, and 31 today. Indeed, the number in intensive care is at its lowest now since early July of last year.
We are also now, thankfully, starting to see a decline in the number of deaths of people with COVID. So, these are all positive trends that we hope to see continue in the weeks ahead.
Finally on data, I want to flag an imminent change to the rhythm of our reporting.
This coming weekend will be the last - at least for now - that we report data for new cases, vaccinations and hospitalisations on Saturdays and Sundays. In future, figures for Saturday and Sunday will be published on Monday.
This reflects the move – we hope – into a calmer phase of the pandemic, and so less of an urgent requirement for immediate data over weekends. However, we will be able to move back to weekend reporting should that become necessary at any stage in the future.
The situation now remains much more positive than it was at the turn of the year – I think that is evidence from all of the data and that of course is thanks to a combination of vaccinations, targeted protective measures and the responsible reaction of the public, and of course the situation is much more positive now than we feared it might be at this stage.
It seems reasonable based on the data to conclude that we are now through the worst of this wave of Omicron.
That has enabled the removal of virtually all the additional measures that we introduced in December and a return to normality in much of everyday lives.
In particular, the updated guidance on home working has supported a partial return to the office in recent days, with hybrid working where appropriate.
These changes have all been very positive for individuals and for businesses and mean we are on a good track at this stage.
To stay on this track, though, continued care and caution remains necessary and prudent.
While much more stable than it was, the virus is still widespread. 1 in 30 remains a high level of infection.
And although the number needing hospital care is reducing, it is still in the hundreds each week and pressure on the NHS remains significant.
So continuing to take basic precautions will help us keep the virus under control while enjoying the return to normal life.
That is why some baseline protective measures – such as COVID certification and the requirement to wear face coverings in certain settings - will remain in force for now.
And it is also why we continue to recommend that we all take lateral flow tests before mixing with people from other households.
As well as reducing our own individual risk of getting COVID and therefore helping to stem transmission overall, these basic measures will also provide some reassurance for those who are at the highest risk of serious illness if they get COVID.
It is important that everyone benefits from a return to greater normality.
Collective behaviours that could force those at highest risk into effective isolation while the rest of us get back to enjoying normal life would not be acceptable.
People in the higher risk category already carry a lot of responsibility for protecting their own health and rely on the advice of GPs and other clinicians to reduce risks of infection.
As we enter the next phase of the pandemic, regular communications from the Scottish Government will seek to support this.
However, we all have a part to play in making the environments in which we work and socialise as safe as possible for everyone.
Complying with basic protective measures helps to do this.
Employers have a particular responsibility to consider the needs of people on the High Risk List in their plans for hybrid working.
We have added specific workplace guidance for people at highest risk on mygov.scot – so anyone on the high risk list who is worried about a return to the workplace is encouraged to check that advice and discuss it with their employer.
Finally, I am pleased to say that there has already been good take up of the Distance Aware scheme that was launched two weeks ago.
The scheme provides badges and lanyards that can be worn by anyone who wants or needs additional space and consideration when they are in public places.
The badges and lanyards are available at Asda stores and in libraries for anyone who would feel safer with a bit more space around them.
And if you see someone wearing these Distance Aware badges or lanyards, please respect that and give them the space and consideration they are asking for.
There are three further issues I want to briefly cover today.
Firstly - and as I indicated last week - the Advisory Sub-group on Education is meeting this afternoon. It will consider again - based on the up to date data - whether secondary school children should continue to wear face coverings in the classroom.
The Scottish Government will consider carefully any further advice that the sub-group provides, and confirm any decisions as quickly as possible and in advance of the return to school after the February break.
Secondly, we continue to monitor the BA.2 sub-type of Omicron.
Last week, I indicated that there were 26 cases of this sub type confirmed in Scotland through genomic sequencing. I can report today that the number of confirmed cases has now risen to 103.
Not all tests are or can be genomically sequenced, so we know this will be a significant underestimate of actual prevalence.
And, indeed, in the past week there has been a further increase in the number of PCR test results showing positive for the S gene and a corresponding fall in the number which don’t have the S Gene.
This is likely to reflect an increase in BA.2 cases which, like Delta, are S Gene positive. In cases of the main Omicron variant, the S Gene is absent.
Encouragingly, there remains no evidence at this stage that the disease caused by the BA.2 subtype is any more severe than that caused by the main Omicron variant.
Nor does it appear to be any more capable of evading the immunity conferred by vaccination or prior infection.
However there is evidence, from more than one country now, of a growth advantage for BA.2 compared to the main Omicron variant, which may mean it is more transmissible.
All in all, however, there are no grounds at this stage for any significant concern about BA.2 - and no reason to change our approach in response to it. We will, though, continue to monitor it carefully.
The final issue I want to address today is vaccination.
We are continuing to offer and encourage vaccination for any 5-11 year old who has an underlying health condition that puts them at higher risk should they get COVID, and also for any 5-11 year old who is a household contact of someone who is immune suppressed.
All parents and carers of children in these categories have been contacted about vaccination.
I would strongly encourage anyone who has been contacted, and whose child has not yet been vaccinated, to book an appointment. Case rates in younger age groups, while now falling, are still relatively high - vaccination is an important way of providing better protection for children who might be at higher risk.
A new marketing campaign is also being launched today to stress again the importance of vaccination, including boosters.
Invitations to scheduled appointments have been going out to all 18-59 year olds who are eligible for the booster but haven’t yet received it.
If you are one of them, please do go along to your scheduled appointment, or rearrange it for a more convenient time. You can do that through the NHS Inform website, or by phoning the vaccination hotline.
It is beyond any doubt that getting the booster significantly reduces your chance of falling seriously ill from COVID. It is not an exaggeration to say that it could be the difference between life and death for someone who contracts COVID.
So please, go and get your booster if you are eligible. It is by far the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from COVID, and also to protect the NHS.
The ongoing use of vaccination in our efforts against COVID will be a key part of an updated Strategic Framework which will set out in greater detail our approach to managing COVID more sustainably and less restrictively in the remaining phases of the pandemic, and then as the virus hopefully becomes endemic.
We continue to engage with a range of interests on the contents of the framework.
However, I can confirm today that we intend to publish it on 22 February - immediately following the February recess.
Parliament will subsequently get a chance to debate and vote on it.
For the moment, however, I will end by reflecting again our increased optimism about the period ahead.
However, after almost two years of this ordeal, I know getting back to normal for short periods followed by further disruption to our lives, is not what any of us want.
A return to normal that is sustained is what we want and are striving for. That is what the updated Strategic Framework will be aiming to support.
However, we can all help keep things on a more even keel now by taking all the reasonably straightforward precautions that we continue to advise.
So, firstly, please get fully vaccinated as soon as you can.
Second, continue to take care when socialising. In particular, take a lateral flow test before meeting other people socially.
And, finally, please take the other precautions that we know make a difference.
Talk to your employer about a return to hybrid working, and follow the guidance and precautions they adopt to make the workplace safe.
Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, and when moving about in hospitality.
Keep windows open if meeting indoors.
And follow all advice on hygiene.
All of these measures will help us to protect each other, while we return to more normal lives and keep all of us, I hope, on the right track.
So please, stick with them.
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