Thanks Presiding Officer,
I will start with a brief summary of the latest Covid statistics that were published a short time ago.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 771.
That is 8.6% of the tests carried out yesterday, and takes the total number of cases to 90,081.
1,197 people are in hospital – a decrease of 11 from yesterday.
84 people are in intensive care, that is the same as yesterday.
And I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further 41 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days.
The total number of deaths, under that measurement, is now 3,544.
Of course, those figures remind us of the grief that this virus has and continues to cause and again I want to send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.
Turning now to the allocation of levels. With the exception of East Lothian, which this morning moved from level 3 to level 2, I can confirm the Scottish Government is not proposing any changes today to the levels that currently apply to each local authority area.
The latest data shows that - across the whole country and within most local authority areas - the restrictions in place are having an impact.
The number of new cases across the country has stabilised in recent weeks, I have reported that over the past few weeks, but we now have grounds for cautious optimism that numbers may be declining.
There is also evidence that admissions to hospital and ICU are declining now too - though it is important to note that these figures tend to fluctuate on a day to day basis.
Independent estimates also place the R number between 0.8 and 1 - that again is indicative of infections now declining.
However, as I set out to Parliament last week, the national picture, which is positive, masks some regional variations.
That is why we took action last week to put eleven local authority areas into the toughest restrictions - to try to ensure that case numbers in those parts of central and western Scotland would fall more markedly.
At the time, I indicated that these restrictions would remain in place for 3 weeks – until December 11 - and therefore there are no changes for those local authorities proposed this week.
That means that the City of Glasgow, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian will all remain in level 4.
People living in these areas should stay at home as much as possible until 11 December and should not travel outside their own local authority area unless for an essential purpose.
We have also adopted a cautious approach to the levels in the rest of Scotland this week.
Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, Moray and the Highlands will remain in level 1. All of these areas continue to have low levels of infection.
Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, the Borders, Dumfries & Galloway, and Argyll & Bute will remain at level 2 for now.
In both Dumfries and Galloway and Argyll and Bute, the prevalence of the virus continues to fall or to stabilise at low levels. If this progress is maintained, we will take a view in the coming weeks as to whether they should move to level 1, and we are hopeful that will be possible.
There have been recent rises in case numbers in both Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City. But we have been able to attribute these in large part to specific outbreaks, which are being managed by local public health teams, and so our judgment at this point is that these do not require a change in levels, although we continue to monitor them carefully.
In addition, the City of Edinburgh, Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, Dundee, Fife, Perth & Kinross and Angus will remain at level 3 for now.
Of these, I should advise Parliament that we are monitoring Clackmannanshire and Perth & Kinross particularly carefully given recent increases in cases in these areas.
The two local authorities I want to say a little bit more about are Midlothian and East Lothian. I indicated last week that both those areas would move from level 3 to level 2, unless data suggested that the epidemic in those areas was becoming worse.
In East Lothian, as I have already indicated, I am pleased to say that case numbers have continued to decline. East Lothian therefore moved from level 3 to level 2 at 6am today.
But in recent days we have seen an increase in case numbers in Midlothian – from 61 new cases per hundred thousand, to just over 97. Now it is important to say that is still well below the national average but a 50% increase in one week is obviously a source of concern.
Test positivity has also increased to 5.7%.
As a precaution, therefore, we have decided that Midlothian should not move down a level right now, but instead should stay in level 3 for a further period.
I realise that this will be disappointing for individuals but also for businesses which will have made preparations for reopening, or for extending their hours of opening.
But we do believe that adopting a cautious approach is preferable to a situation where Midlothian moves to level 2 now while cases are rising, only to face a move back again almost immediately if they were to continue to rise.
Discretionary funding was made available last week to local authorities - and any business in Midlothian that needs to, should approach the council to find out what support is available to them.
That concludes our assessment of the levels for each local authority for this week.
However our approach to managing this virus is of course not simply about applying different levels of restriction. It also involves measures to improve compliance, expand testing and, as soon as possible, distribute and administer vaccines.
Last week the Health Secretary updated Parliament on our plans for a population wide vaccination programme. And yesterday, we heard more good news from the Oxford University/Astra Zeneca clinical trials. I want to take the opportunity today to congratulate the team there for the quite exceptional progress that has been made.
There is no doubt that the light at the end of the tunnel that we have been talking about for the last couple of weeks is getting brighter.
For now, though, we must continue to do all we can to keep the virus at bay as we navigate our way through what will be a tough winter.
As part of that, the Health Secretary will set out to Parliament tomorrow our plans to extend asymptomatic testing.
I can confirm that we are now working with the 11 councils and five health boards in Level 4, to develop and deliver targeted geographical testing in a number of communities.
The Health Secretary will also give an update tomorrow on our plans to extend testing to designated visitors to care homes, to care at home workers and to further groups of NHS staff.
And she will give an update on the ongoing preparations to start testing students – through the use of lateral flow devices - to support their return home for Christmas.
All students who wish to return home for Christmas, will be offered two Covid tests a few days apart.
I can confirm that the student testing programme will get underway next week.
I would strongly recommend that any student who is due to return home over the holiday period gets tested first.
In addition, students should take extra care in the two weeks before travel – for example by reducing social contact and going out only for essential reasons.
By taking extra care – and getting tested before travel – students can help to make the Christmas period as safe as possible for themselves and their families.
And that issue – of ensuring that Christmas is safe - is the final point I want to touch on today.
The Christmas period, as the chamber has just been hearing from the Deputy First Minister, is the subject of ongoing discussions among the four UK nations. I will take part in a COBR meeting later today, where it is hoped that we will agree a common framework - albeit that some details, for example on the precise definition of household, might differ to reflect the different circumstances in each nation.
I know everyone has a desire to see loved ones over the festive period - however, there is also a very real, and a very legitimate, anxiety that doing so could put these we love at risk, set back our progress as a country, and result in unnecessary deaths and suffering.
That would always be a worry, but it is perhaps especially acute, when we also know that we might be within weeks of being able to vaccinate a significant proportion of the population.
The arrangements that we put in place for the festive period will seek to balance those concerns.
Any easing of restrictions will be temporary; it will be limited; and it will be accompanied by advice on the precautions that we should all take to minimise risk.
And we will continue to ask people to err on the side of caution. Our overall advice will be for people to use any flexibility carefully and only if they believe it right and necessary for their personal circumstances.
That advice will recognise that all of us now have an even greater incentive and motivation to make the months ahead as safe as possible.
As I indicated earlier, we have all been heartened, in recent days, by the increasingly positive news about vaccine development.
There is now a very distinct possibility that the first vaccines could be administered before Christmas, and that by the spring of next year we will have vaccinated our way back to something much closer to normal life.
But although an end to the pandemic may now be in sight, we have not reached that end point yet. The winter period ahead will be difficult.
At the moment, Covid is still widespread; it is still highly infectious; and it is still causing heartbreak to families each and every day.
And so while it is hard, we must continue to do what is necessary to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
So please, continue to stick to the rules.
Do not meet in each other’s homes. If you do meet outdoors or in public indoor places, please stick to the limit of 6 people, from 2 households.
Abide by the travel restrictions that are now in law – if you live in a level 3 or 4 area, do not leave your local authority area unless for an essential purpose. And if you live elsewhere, do not travel into a level 3 or level 4 area.
And remember FACTS – the five rules which will help keep all of us safe in our day to day lives:
Wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep two metres from anybody in other households; and self-isolate, and book a test, if you have symptoms.
By sticking to all of these difficult rules now, we can protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities. We will also help to protect our NHS over the winter. And we can all look forward to the better days that do lie ahead.
So please, stick with it.
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