Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's statement – 8 September 2021

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Wednesday, 8 September 2021.

Presiding Officer,

I will give a detailed update today on the Scottish Government’s most recent assessment of the state of the pandemic, and also on the progress with vaccination.

I will also outline the latest position on three specific vaccination-related matters, on which there has been significant developments in the past week - namely, ongoing consideration of possible vaccination of all 12 to 15 year olds; the JCVI recommendation for booster vaccination of those who are immunosuppressed; and our proposal - to be debated by Parliament tomorrow, of course, for a limited and targeted system of vaccine certification.

Firstly, though, I will summarise today’s statistics which have been published in the last half hour or so.

5,810 positive cases were reported yesterday, 10.8% of all tests that were carried out.

883 people are currently in hospital with COVID – which is 78 more than yesterday.

And 82 people are receiving intensive care, which is five more than yesterday.

Sadly, I have to report a further 17 deaths that were reported in the past 24 hours, and that takes the total number of deaths registered under this daily definition to 8,198.

And as always, my sincerest condolences are with everyone who has lost a loved one.

These figures show clearly that we are still experiencing a surge in cases and indeed a very high level of infection within the population.

However, the latest data also gives us some early, albeit tentative at this stage, indication that the rate of increase may now be slowing down.

That can be seen from an analysis of the last three weeks of case numbers.

In the week to 22 August, based on the date test samples were taken, an average of 3,374 new cases per day were recorded.

In the week to 29 August, that had risen to an average of 5,763 cases a day – an increase of more than 70%.

However, figures for the most recent week, which is up to 5 September, show a daily average of 6,304 – an increase of 9%.

The seven day average test positivity - by specimen date - has also fallen back slightly from a peak of 13.4% on 29 August to 12.7% as at 5 September.

It is also worth, perhaps, providing a bit more detail about the age breakdown of the latest case figures.

Over the past week, 75% of all cases have been in those aged under 45, and that is consistent with the broad picture that we have seen throughout this current wave of infection.

However, further analysis of the under 45s, shows variation between different age bands - and also gives scope for some very cautious optimism.

For example in the most recent week, the number of cases in the 0 to 14 year old age band has risen by 44%.

Now, while that is a significant increase, it does represent a significant slowing in the rate of increase from the previous week, when cases in that age group increased by more than 150%.

Cases in the 25 to 44 year old age band have also continued to rise, but again the rate of increase has slowed quite considerably. It was 6% in the most recent week, compared to almost 70% in the week before.

And amongst 15 to 24 year olds, cases have actually fallen in the most recent week by 18% – from just under 11,000 to just under 9,000. And that fall of around 18% compares to an increase in that age group of 29% in the previous week.

So, we can take from all of that it appears that the rate of increase has slowed - and that may well suggest that the appeal to individuals and businesses over the past two weeks to improve compliance with basic mitigations, and for all of us be more cautious in our everyday behaviours, is having some impact.

The ongoing work of Test and Protect is also vital - and hugely appreciated.

I want to take the opportunity now to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone for all of the considerable efforts and sacrifices that continue to be made - but also to issue a strong and equally heartfelt appeal to please keep it up.

The data I have just reported, showing what seems to be a slowing in the rate of increase in new cases, does give us more cause for cautious optimism than we have had for a few weeks.

But - and I’m afraid this is always the hard part - cases are still rising, week on week, and they are currently at their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.

Of course, part of this reflects the significantly higher number of tests being conducted now compared to earlier stages of the pandemic - and indeed compared to other parts of the UK.

Testing rates per head of population in Scotland recently - for both PCR and LFD tests - have been significantly higher than in England and Wales.

However, this is reflective of the fact that - since around the time of our schools returning - our levels of infection have also been higher.

And that is the key, fundamental point. The levels of infection across the country - albeit that we may be seeing some potential and very welcome signs of stabilisation now - remain far too high.

So that’s why we must continue to monitor the situation very closely and be prepared - as any responsible government must be - to take any targeted and proportionate action that we consider necessary to keep the country as safe as possible.

Keeping the country as safe as possible means, of course, doing everything we can to protect against serious illness and death.

But it also means protecting the ability of our NHS - and those who work so hard in it - to not just care for COVID patients, which they do with such skill and compassion, but also to catch up on backlogs, and give care to everyone who needs it, for whatever reason.

As I have narrated many times before, vaccination has significantly reduced the link between cases of COVID and serious health harm from COVID.

And that continues to be true. The proportion of people with the virus who end up in hospital is much lower now than it was before the vaccination programme started. And that continues to be hugely positive and reassuring.

But our current case numbers reflect the fact that the Delta variant is significantly more transmissible than previous strains – and just as much as vaccines have been in a very good way, Delta has been a game changer in a very bad way.

And so, of course, even a much lower percentage of a very high number of cases will - indeed, already is - put intense pressure on the NHS.

And we can see the evidence of that very clearly in the latest data on hospital and intensive care admissions and occupancy - though we must remember that there is a time-lag between case numbers and hospital admissions. It always takes a week or so before any improvement in the number of cases feeds through into hospital data.

But in the seven days up to last Friday, 785 people with COVID were admitted to hospital, and that’s an increase of almost 50% from the week before when 530 people were admitted.

As a result, hospital occupancy has also risen sharply.

On Friday 20 August, there were 312 people in hospital with COVID. Today, there are 883.

The number of people in intensive care has also increased – albeit at a slower rate - but increased from 34 on 20 August to 82 today.

And of course it’s worth pointing out, as we always do, that these figures don’t include other forms of serious illness – for example, people who don’t require hospital treatment, but suffer long COVID.

So that inescapable fact remains - if we don’t see the rate of increase slow further and then fall, many more people will become seriously ill. And, sadly, some of them will die.

And the NHS will come under pressure even more severe than it is already dealing with. And the pressure it is already dealing with - and this point simply cannot be overstated - is already very severe.

So we cannot - we must not - let up in our efforts to stem this current wave of cases.

We continue to hope - and indeed as I have just been outlining, recent data gives us a bit more of a solid basis for this hope – that we can turn the corner through continued care and caution and stringent compliance with existing mitigations and without having to re-introduce any tighter restrictions.

But to do that - as has been the case right throughout this whole experience– we need the help of every business and every individual across the country.

We need everyone to continue to stick to the basic mitigations that we know are effective in helping to slow down transmission.

Last week, Cabinet Secretaries engaged intensively with a range of representatives from business, the public sector and wider civic society.

They discussed how all of us – government, employers and the wider public - must play our full part in observing and encouraging maximum compliance with current mitigations.

These of course include the wearing of face coverings, stringent hygiene, good ventilation and support for continued home working wherever possible.

And I am, once again, very grateful to everyone – including businesses - for everything that is being done to follow and promote these measures.

This is making a difference - and, while we can’t rule anything out completely, it is also reducing the likelihood of restrictions having to be re-introduced.

The Government will also, of course, continue to do everything we can to encourage compliance – for example, through continued support for Test and Protect, ongoing investment in ventilation and carbon dioxide monitors in schools, and the provision of public information and advice.

We are also continuing to do everything possible to maximise vaccine uptake - both in the groups already eligible and through a readiness for quick implementation of any advice on the extension of vaccine eligibility.

Getting vaccinated as soon as we are able remains the single most important thing any of us can do to protect ourselves and others.

As of today, I can report that 4,130,841 people have had a first dose and 3,749,767 have now had both doses.

That includes 95% of people over 40 who are now fully vaccinated, as well as 72% of 30 to 39 year olds, and 57% of 18 to 29 year olds.

Three quarters of 18 to 29 year olds though have had their first dose, so the proportion in the age group – that age group - who become fully vaccinated will continue to increase in light, of course, of that eight week gap between doses.

In addition, 60% of 16 and 17 year olds have had the first jag already, and that is 10 percentage points higher than I reported this time last week.

We will continue to do everything we can to encourage more and more people to get their jag.

For example, just in the last fortnight, we have written to all 16 and 17 year olds who haven’t been vaccinated yet to offer appointments - though, of course, they can also attend a drop in clinic.

And we are ensuring that mobile vaccination units are deployed during university and college freshers’ weeks.

Presiding Officer,

In addition to that report on progress with the current vaccine programme, I also want to briefly update parliament on recent advice from the JCVI on possible extensions of the programme.

On Friday, the JCVI updated its analysis on offering vaccination to all 12 to 15 year olds.

The JCVI has concluded that the health benefit of vaccination for 12 to 15 year olds does marginally outweigh any risks - but because it considers children to be at relatively lower risk of serious health harm from the virus it has decided, at this stage, not to recommend that vaccination is offered all 12 to 15 year olds.

However - and significantly - the JCVI also acknowledged that it would be appropriate for governments, in coming to a policy decision, to consider any wider benefits of vaccination – for example, whether vaccinating that age group could reduce any further disruption to education.

Therefore, the four UK governments have asked our Chief Medical Officers to undertake a rapid assessment of the latest evidence and provide advice on wider benefits. We expect to receive this advice soon – I hope within days - and the Scottish Government stands ready to act in accordance with any recommendations that we receive.

Last week, the JCVI also issued advice to the effect that people with certain health conditions that suppressed their immune systems, should now be offered a third dose of vaccine.

This is because two doses may not be sufficient to enable those with compromised immune systems to mount a full immune response to COVID.

We are now moving to implement this advice over the next few weeks and we will provide further information to those affected by this advice shortly.

We still await - and hope to receive it very soon - the JCVI’s final advice on a more general booster programme and, again, we stand ready to implement that as soon as the recommendation is available.

The third point I want to touch on relates to vaccine certification. Parliament of course will debate and vote tomorrow on the principle of a limited, targeted and proportionate system of certification as an alternative to the risk of further periods of closure for higher risk settings.

Ahead of that debate - and to inform it - we will publish a paper setting out in broad terms how the scheme will operate, and detailing the work we are doing in consultation with business to finalise the detail and produce sector specific guidance.

As we debate this, though, it is important to bear in mind that Scotland is far from alone in considering such a scheme.

Indeed, COVID certification has already been introduced by several other governments – of different political persuasions – in countries right across Europe. Indeed, many countries have already gone much further than the Scottish Government is proposing.

Indeed, COVID certification is becoming an increasingly common response to the exceptional circumstances we are all facing at this stage of the pandemic.

The simple fact is that neither we nor any other country has the luxury of doing nothing to keep COVID under control. The question - especially after 18 months of restrictions being in place to varying degrees - is how we do so in the most proportionate and least restrictive way possible.

In the Scottish Government’s view, COVID certification is a reasonable response to a very difficult situation, and a much more proportionate response than any of the likely alternatives.

Fundamentally, we believe that certification can help us reduce the overall harms caused by the pandemic. It will not eradicate transmission completely but it will help to reduce it in some higher risk settings, and it will maximise protection against serious illness.

And we believe - as has been seen already in some other countries, perhaps most notably in France - it will help encourage take-up of the vaccine.

It also represents a targeted way in which we can – we hope – enable certain events and venues to continue to operate, at times when rates of COVID may be high and even rising.

Now, the time I have devoted today again to vaccination reflects the fact that it remains absolutely key to our progress out of the pandemic - not just here in Scotland, but across the world.

For each of us as individuals, getting vaccinated remains the single most important step that any of us can take - to keep ourselves safe, to keep others safe, and to reduce the need for any restrictions to be re-introduced.

However, while the most important, getting vaccinated is not the only step that all of us need to take right now.

And so I will close by stressing the three key things that each of us can do – as we all play our part in getting cases back under control.

The first of these - as I have stressed already and as I will keep stressing - is to get vaccinated, if you are eligible. If you haven’t been vaccinated yet – or if you had your first dose eight or more weeks ago, and haven’t had a second dose yet - please get your jag. It is straightforward to do –there are drop-in centres in every mainland health board area, or you can book an appointment.

Second, please continue to test yourself regularly with lateral flow devices. You can order these free through the NHS inform website or collect them from a local test site or pharmacy.
The point of regular testing is this – and it really, really matters - if you have the virus, but you aren’t aware of that because you’re not displaying any symptoms, taking a test gives you a chance of finding that you have the virus, before you inadvertently pass it on to others. So regular testing is a key and really important way in interrupting chains of transmission.

Of course, if you test positive through one of these lateral flow devices; our if you are identified as a close contact; or if you have symptoms of the virus - make sure that you self-isolate, and book a PCR test.

And thirdly and finally, please continue to follow all of the remaining rules and guidelines that are still in place.

For example, it is still a legal requirement to wear face coverings in indoor public places, like shops, public transport and when entering and moving about hospitality settings. Face coverings are a simple but important and effective way in which we can help protect each other.

More generally, continue to think carefully about the number of contacts you are having and perhaps reduce any that are not really necessary.

Meet outdoors as much as possible.

If you are indoors, open the windows – good ventilation makes a big difference.

And even though it’s not the law any more, try to keep a safe distance from people in other households if you can – especially when you’re indoors.

In addition, try to minimise physical contact - like handshaking, for the time being.

And wash your hands and surfaces regularly and thoroughly.

Having to take these steps is frustrating - but we know they do make a difference and they help to limit the spread of COVID. Indeed, as I said earlier, it may well be that we are seeing the evidence of the difference these measures make in our most recent data.

So let me end by again thanking everyone who is helping us to turn the corner in this latest wave of the virus. Please keep these efforts up so that we can continue to keep each other as safe as possible.

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