As the Health Secretary has just been discussing I am pleased to begin today by confirming that, earlier on, the first vaccines against Covid were administered in Scotland.
This is a milestone we have all longed for. It offers hope, at long last, that we may now be at the beginning of the end of this pandemic.
I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone involved, now and in the months ahead, in delivering what will be the biggest vaccination programme in our history.
I think today we should all allow ourselves a smile. This is a good day and a good moment, but we mustn’t at this stage drop our guard.
For now, the virus and the risks it poses to health and life, unfortunately, remain with us. Indeed, we can expect the winter period ahead to be especially tough.
As the vaccination programme rolls out across the country, the NHS will be coping with the impact of Covid and other winter pressures.
And of course we may also be dealing with any disruption caused by Brexit, the terms of which are still unclear.
So we have no grounds at all for complacency about the months ahead – and we have every good reason, still, to do everything we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
The levels approach is of course one of the main ways in which the Scottish Government seeks to achieve that.
We have just completed our weekly review of the levels of protection for each local authority area, and I will shortly confirm the outcome of that process.
However I will start with a brief summary of the latest Covid statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 692. That represents 5.5% of all tests carried out and takes the total number of positive cases now to 101,475.
983 people are in hospital – that’s an increase of 9 from yesterday and 57 people are in intensive care, which is a decrease of 2 from yesterday.
I also regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further 33 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive over the past 28 days. And the total number of deaths, under this daily measurement, is now 3,950.
These figures of course remind us yet again of the toll Covid continues to take, right across the country so once again my deepest condolences go to all those who have lost a loved one.
Let me turn now to the outcome of this week’s review. In summary, I will come onto the detail later, but in summary I can confirm today that all 11 local authorities currently in level 4 restrictions will move out of level 4 to level 3 from Friday.
I can also confirm that 5 other local authority areas will move down to a lower level from Friday.
Before I set out those changes in detail, though, I want to briefly update the chamber on some of the additional measures the Scottish Government is putting in place to help us manage the pandemic in the months ahead.
Community mass testing has been, or is being, trialled in 8 different locations across West and central Scotland.
Early results from these trials will be published tomorrow, with further detail available next week. The purpose of this testing of course is to identify cases of Covid in people with no symptoms - or before they display symptoms - to help break more chains of transmission.
University students are also being tested, using lateral flow devices, to help them return home more safely at the end of term. And there will be further detail on that testing published tomorrow as well.
We have also been considering how and when students should return back to campus after the holiday period and the Deputy First Minister will set out details of this in a statement to parliament later this afternoon.
Walk-in testing centres continue to be established in towns and cities across the country. By the end of next week, 22 walk-in centres will be open. And as we expand the accessibility of testing we are also extending NHS Scotland’s laboratory testing capacity.
The first of three new NHS Scotland regional hubs for processing tests is due to become operational on Saturday and this will be located at Gartnavel in Glasgow.
By the end of this month, NHS Scotland’s testing capacity will have increased from almost 12,000 tests a day at the moment, to almost 30,000 tests a day.
And our total daily testing capacity – including Scotland’s share of the UK wide Lighthouse programme – will be 65,000 tests a day.
In addition, and lastly, I can confirm that from next week, the Protect Scotland app – which is currently available for use only by people who are 16 or over - will be available to everyone across Scotland from age 11.
All of these developments will be important in the months ahead in helping us to manage the pandemic as effectively as possible.
But unfortunately, restrictions on how we meet and interact will also remain essential for some time yet.
Our levels approach seeks to ensure that the restrictions that apply in different parts of Scotland are proportionate to the prevalence of the virus in each area.
Over the past 3 weeks, 11 local authority areas have been under the very severe level 4 restrictions.
I am pleased to say that prevalence in all 11 of those areas has fallen significantly.
For example in the week to Friday 13 November, Glasgow recorded 281 new Covid cases for every hundred thousand people in its population. By Friday 4 December, that number had fallen to 150.
In East Dunbartonshire, case numbers per 100,000 of the population have more than halved - from 224 to 104.
And in both North and South Lanarkshire, case numbers have fallen by well over a third.
The fall in infection rates in these areas – which of course are the most highly populated in the country - have contributed to an improvement in the situation across Scotland as a whole.
In the week to 13 November, we recorded 142 new cases of Covid for every hundred thousand people. Last Friday, that figure had fallen below 100 for the first time in a long while to 99.
And, although this fluctuates on a daily basis, the national average for test positivity, in the week up to last Friday, was back under 5% - which of course is the threshold that the WHO uses to determine if outbreaks are under control.
And I am relieved to say that this progress is also reflected in our hospital and intensive care statistics. When I made a statement to parliament three weeks ago, 1,249 people were in hospital with Covid and 95 people were in intensive care. Now, as I have just reported, these figures are 983 and 57 respectively.
All of this puts us in a much better position to cope with the inevitable difficulties of winter. And I want to thank people across the country for their compliance in recent weeks.
However this improved position while positive does not remove the need for a cautious approach. The risks and challenges of the next few months are clear.
And that is why, in reaching decisions today, we have had to consider the potential overall impact of moving to a lower level of restrictions at the same time as the Christmas period begins in earnest. That has led us to a proportionate, but still cautious set of conclusions. And let me turn now to the detail of those decisions.
In doing so I would remind the chamber that all of them are informed by input from the National Incident Management Team, our senior clinical advisers and an assessment of the four harms.
Given the welcome decrease in rates of Covid across the level 4 areas, I can therefore confirm that the City of Glasgow, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian will all exit level 4 on Friday.
We do hope to see case numbers in these areas continue to decline for another week or so as a result of the level 4 restrictions.
However, there is no doubt that the easing of restrictions that the exit from level 4 involves will give the virus more opportunities to spread.
In light of that, we have decided to take a cautious approach and apply level 3 protections to all of these local authority areas for a period.
We will observe the data carefully before determining in the weeks ahead if and when those 11 local authorities should move to level 2.
When we introduced level 4 restrictions we said they would be lifted at 6pm on Friday 11 December.
That remains the case, with one exception. Retail premises which have been closed under level 4 restrictions will be permitted to re-open from 6am on Friday.
This is intended to help stores and shopping centres better manage the flow of customers after the period of closure.
Presiding officer I would take this opportunity to appeal to everyone living in level 4 areas to continue to exercise care and caution.
As we know from our experience of Covid so far, progress can very, very easily go into reverse.
So please continue to abide by the rules. That means, in particular, not visiting other people’s houses.
And, as I will confirm later, travel restrictions will remain in place for the next period - so travel in and out of level 3 areas will still not be permitted.
There are currently 10 local authorities in level 3 - Angus, Clackmannanshire, Dundee, City of Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, Midlothian, North Ayrshire, and Perth & Kinross.
7 of these areas will remain in level 3. These are Clackmannanshire, Dundee, City of Edinburgh, Fife, Midlothian, North Ayrshire and Perth & Kinross.
I want to make a particular brief mention of Clackmannanshire. Case numbers there have risen sharply in recent days, although its case positivity remains well below the national average.
We are confident at this stage that the rise in case numbers can be attributed to the mass testing pilot that has been underway there. In other words, the issue is more cases being identified rather than a rise in transmission.
Obviously we will keep this under review, but we have decided that a change of level would not be merited at this point.
However, I am pleased to say that there are three areas that will move down to level 2 from Friday. These are Inverclyde, Falkirk and Angus.
All three have reduced and now have relatively lowly rates of transmission - although Falkirk’s have increased very slightly in recent days but it has not changed our judgment that all three meet the criteria for moving into level 2.
We have also looked very carefully at whether Edinburgh should move to level 2 at this stage. Edinburgh is currently recording 68 cases per hundred thousand, which is below the Scotland-wide average. Its test positivity levels are also relatively low.
However, cases in Edinburgh have risen slightly in recent days. There seems also to have been an increase in East Lothian and Midlothian.
Also the imminence of the Christmas period has had an impact on our thinking. A move to level 2 in Edinburgh, would mean opening up significantly more services in our second biggest city in the two weeks before Christmas.
That move would carry significant risk of increased transmission and for that reason, we want as much assurance as possible that the situation is as stable as possible before making that move.
For that reason, and this has been a difficult decision, we have decided not to move Edinburgh to level 2 this week, but we will consider this again next week for both Edinburgh and Midlothian.
At the moment, there are 6 local authorities at level 2 - Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Argyll & Bute, the Borders, Dumfries & Galloway and East Lothian.
Both Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders have had consistently low levels of Covid for some weeks now. In Dumfries and Galloway, there were 23 cases per hundred thousand in the last week, and in the Borders 35.
We have therefore concluded that both of these areas will move from level 2 to level 1 from 6pm on Friday.
I said in last week’s statement that we were looking closely at both Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire following an increase in cases in both of those areas.
In the last week, cases have fallen in both areas. Aberdeen has gone from 89 new cases per hundred thousand to 74. Aberdeenshire’s case numbers, by the same measure, have decreased from 95 to 80. And case positivity in both areas has also fallen, and is at or slightly over 4%.
For that reason, at this stage, we intend that both areas will remain at level 2.
It is worth stressing, however, that cases haven’t fallen in either area by as much as we would want to see.
And there is still evidence that the levels of infection are due to transmission in the community, rather than solely being due to outbreaks in workplaces and care homes. We are therefore continuing to monitor the situation in both local authorities very carefully. I cannot rule out a move to level 3 for one or both of these areas in the weeks ahead.
My message in both areas – as indeed it is for all parts of the country – is that the only way to stay at the current level, and then possibly hopefully to move down further, is to suppress the virus as effectively as possible. Both local authorities have assured us they will continue to work with local public health teams to do that. The Scottish Government of course will do all we can to help. And it is also vital that local businesses and local communities continue to play a full part in those efforts.
East Lothian and Argyll & Bute will also both remain at level 2 for now. It is worth mentioning that Argyll & Bute has also seen a very sharp rise in cases in recent days. However, we are confident at this stage that this reflects a large workplace outbreak and is not indicative of wider community transmission. But again we will continue to monitor that situation carefully.
And lastly presiding officer I can confirm that Highland, Moray, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles will all remain in level 1 – and of course from Friday, the Borders and Dumfries & Galloway will also go to level 1.
From Friday, there will also be a relatively small change to the rules for household gatherings on some islands in the level 1 local authority areas.
At the moment, the island local authorities – Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles – are the only places in Scotland where it is permitted for 6 people from 2 households to meet in houses.
From 6pm on Friday, that will be extended to other inhabited islands in the level 1 local authorities – with the exception of islands like Skye that are connected to mainland Scotland by road.
However, those of us living in the rest of the country should continue to stay out of each other’s houses.
I know this is really tough - but it does remains the most effective way of stopping the virus spreading from one household to another.
Presiding officer, the overall result of today’s changes is that 16 local authorities will move to a lower level of restrictions from Friday, the rest will remain at the same level.
That is good news. It reflects the fact that the number of cases in Scotland has been falling in recent weeks.
However, I know it involves real and continued difficulties for many businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector.
I can therefore confirm that the Finance Secretary will be setting out tomorrow a further package of business support, intended to provide additional help over the winter.
We will also be considering in the next couple of weeks whether any changes to the content of different levels, particularly as they affect hospitality, can safely be made.
And, more generally, as I have said before, moving any area down a level is not a neutral act. Because it allows some restrictions to be lifted, it does present more opportunities for the virus to spread. So it therefore presents real risks.
And so I would ask everyone – especially in those areas that are moving down a level – to continue to do everything they can, to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.
Be careful and cautious. Follow all the rules that are in place. And still please try to limit your interactions with others as much as possible.
It may be counter-intuitive, but as restrictions ease, caution actually becomes more important, not less.
Travel restrictions – which will remain in place - continue to be a vital part of keeping the country safe with a targeted and proportionate approach to restrictions.
So nobody in a level 3 area, or until Friday a level 4 area, should travel outside their local authority area, except for very specific purposes. And no one should travel into level 3 or 4 areas unless for essential purposes too.
I am afraid that means, for example, that people from outside Glasgow must not travel to the city to do Christmas shopping when retail opens on Friday.
Presiding officer, today – the day when the first people have been vaccinated against this horrible virus – is a day and should be a day of optimism for all of us.
But it marks, we hope, the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the end is not quite with us yet.
So all of us must continue to think about how we keep ourselves and each other safe in the meantime.
Many of us in the weeks ahead will face choices - about when and whether we meet friends indoors in a pub or café, and about how we celebrate Christmas.
Some people will decide that their wellbeing – or the wellbeing of someone they love – is best served by meeting indoors. I understand that. It is why the rules over the Christmas period recognise this inevitability and give advice on how to stay as safe as possible.
But some of us will decide to take other options - for example, by seeing loved ones outdoors or postponing a family Christmas gathering until the spring or summer of next year.
There is a beautiful statement by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, that was much quoted in the early days of the pandemic that I think sums up the situation we are in now extremely well.
“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”.
That’s a sentiment I suspect that resonates with many of us more strongly now than at any previous time in the pandemic.
The route back to something much closer to normal life is clearer and closer now than at any time since March, and we are all looking forward to reaching that point, but we are not quite there yet.
And so our priority must be on doing everything we can to ensure that, when we do reach that point, all of our loved ones are there with us.
That means taking extra care to stay safe now. So please, continue to be very cautious in the weeks ahead. All of us should be thinking about how we can avoid creating opportunities for the virus to jump from one household to another.
We must all continue to stick to the current rules and guidance. Unless you live on an island, which has no road connection to the mainland, and is in a level 1 area, you should not meet in someone else’s home.
If you meet outdoors - or in public indoor places – please stick to the limit of 6 people, from a maximum of 2 households.
Stick to the travel restrictions I have just outlined.
And remember, finally, FACTS – the five rules which will help keep us all safe in our day to day lives:
Wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and surfaces; keep two metres distance; and self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms.
Sticking to those rules continues to be the way in which we can protect our NHS, and help our health and care workers. It is how we look after ourselves and our loved ones.
And it is how we will get through the weeks and months ahead, as we look ahead to the spring and the better times that definitely do lie ahead.
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