Before turning to COVID today and with your permission, I’d like to give a very brief update on our efforts to welcome refugees from Ukraine.
The response of the public across the UK in offering support has been truly outstanding and I want to thank everyone who has volunteered.
Under the UK scheme though - with the exception of people who already know someone seeking refuge - it may be some time before most of those offering help will be able to actually welcome someone from Ukraine.
The Scottish Government’s ‘super-sponsor’ proposal is intended to short-circuit this and allow Ukrainians to get here and be safeguarded and supported more quickly.
I am therefore pleased to advise that the UK government has now indicated support for this proposal in principle, and has committed to working with us towards its immediate launch alongside the wider UK scheme.
This is a positive development and I hope - assuming we can agree the details - that, as a start, it will allow Scotland to welcome 3,000 Ukrainians to Scotland very soon.
I will update Parliament more fully on these matters tomorrow.
Turning now to COVID, I will confirm Cabinet’s decisions on lifting the limited measures that remain in law, and set out our intentions for the testing programme.
Firstly, though, a brief overview of the state of the pandemic.
Public Health Scotland has had server problems over the past 24 hours, so no daily figures were published yesterday. And of course figures are no longer published at weekends.
The case number being reported today therefore - 38,770 - is a cumulative total for the past four days.
For context, the total for the equivalent four-day period last week was 36,051.
These figures reflect the recent increase in cases.
The ONS survey suggests that in the week to 6 March, one in 18 people in Scotland had COVID.
Three weeks ago, an average of 6,900 new cases a day were being reported. The average now is just over 12,000 a day.
There has also been a rise in the number of people who are in hospital with COVID.
Three weeks ago, that stood at 1,060. Today it is 1,996.
The increase in cases over the past three weeks has been driven by the BA.2 sub lineage of the Omicron variant, which is estimated to be significantly more transmissible - with a growth rate since mid-February perhaps 80% greater than original Omicron.
BA.2 is now in Scotland our dominant strain, accounting for more than 80% of all reported cases.
BA.2 has become dominant in Scotland earlier than in England and Wales, hence the more rapid increase in cases here than south of the border in recent weeks - although cases and hospital admissions are now rising sharply again in England too.
Encouragingly, there is no evidence that BA.2 causes more severe illness than BA.1, or that it is more effective at evading natural or vaccine immunity.
Indeed, immune protection means that the recent rise in cases and hospital admissions has not translated into a commensurate increase in cases of severe illness requiring intensive care.
In other words, even though weight of numbers of infections is putting significant pressure on hospital capacity – which is a real concern - we do continue to observe strong evidence that the link between infection and serious health harm has weakened considerably.
However, it is likely that this is due to immune protection, not least from vaccines, more than it is to Omicron being inherently milder.
That is borne out by current experience in Hong Kong, where relatively low rates of vaccination, particularly in the older population, mean that Omicron is causing very significant levels of severe illness and death there.
This therefore underlines the continued vital importance of vaccination.
So if you haven’t yet had doses that you are eligible for, please do get them now.
Extension of the programme is ongoing, in line with JCVI advice.
Letters inviting five to 11 year olds not in higher risk groups for vaccination started arriving at the end of last week. First vaccinations are scheduled for Saturday.
Additional booster jags for older adults in care homes started last week, and appointments will start next week for everyone aged 75 and over.
Additional boosters for those who are immunosuppressed will start from mid-April.
I know people who are immunosuppressed - and indeed others on the highest risk list - are concerned about high case rates at a time when regulations are being eased.
It is important to stress, therefore, that very significant protection is provided by vaccination.
The higher transmissibility of Omicron does pose challenges.
However, protection from vaccines and the increasing availability of effective COVID treatments are also important factors.
Using the approach set out in our revised strategic framework, and based on clinical advice, our assessment is that the virus continues to present a medium threat.
However we remain optimistic that it will move from medium to low over spring.
As a result, we consider that the overall transition signalled in the strategic framework remains appropriate.
We should - and will - continue the transition away from legal requirements, to advice and guidance instead.
Therefore, I can confirm - firstly - that from Friday, and in line with other UK nations, all remaining COVID-related travel restrictions will be lifted.
While we do have some concerns about this, UK travel patterns mean that diverging from the rest of the UK would cause economic disadvantage without delivering any meaningful public health benefit.
We do, of course, retain the ability to reintroduce measures if, for example, a new variant emerges.
Then, secondly, from next Monday 21 March - with one temporary, precautionary exception - the remaining domestic legal measures will be lifted and replaced with appropriate guidance.
That means on Monday:
- the requirement on businesses and service providers to retain customer contact details will end; and so too will
- the requirement for businesses, places of worship and service providers to have regard to Scottish Government guidance on COVID, and to take reasonably practical measures set out in the guidance.
The exception relates to the requirement to wear face coverings on public transport, and in certain indoor settings.
Given the current spike in case numbers, we consider it prudent to retain this requirement in regulation for a further short period.
I know this will be disappointing for businesses and service providers such as day care services.
However, ensuring maximum continued use of face coverings will provide some additional protection - particularly for the most vulnerable - at a time when the risk of infection is very high, and it may help us get over this spike more quickly.
We will review it again in two weeks - before the Easter recess - and our expectation now is that this regulation will convert to guidance in early April.
The other issue I want to cover today is testing.
Regrettably, our freedom of manoeuvre here is severely limited by the fact that our funding is determined by UK Government decisions taken for England.
However, we have sought as far as we can to reach the right decisions for Scotland.
It is important to note that we are aiming for the same long term position as England on testing. However, we consider that the transition should be longer.
In England, testing for people without symptoms ended in mid-February, and will do so at the end of this month for those with symptoms.
We intend the transition to last until the end of April. This is as far as we can go within funding constraints, but this does allow us to take account of current case numbers, and better support the shift in our management of the virus overall.
A paper has been published on the Scottish Government website setting out the detail. However, in summary:
For the next month - until Easter - there will be no change to our testing advice.
If you don’t have symptoms, you should continue for now to use a lateral flow test twice weekly; daily for seven days if you are a close contact of a positive case; and before visiting someone who is vulnerable.
If you have symptoms, you should continue to get a PCR test, either at a testing site or by post.
However, following the Easter weekend - from 18 April - we will no longer advise people without symptoms to test twice weekly.
With the exception of health and care settings, the advice to test regularly will also end from 18 April for workplaces, and for early learning and childcare settings, mainstream and special schools, and universities and colleges.
However, until the end of April, we will continue to advise using LFTs daily for seven days if a close contact, and on each occasion when visiting a hospital or care home.
And until the end of April, we will continue to advise those with symptoms to get a PCR test. Contact tracing of positive cases will also continue until the end of April.
PCR test sites will remain open during this period, though opening hours and locations may change during the transition.
Though, as with all measures, we will keep it under review, our intention is that from end April all routine population-wide testing will end, including for those who have symptoms. Contact tracing will end at this point too - although people with symptoms of respiratory illness will be advised to stay at home.
Physical test sites will close at the end of April - although mobile testing units and lab capacity will be retained for our longer term testing purposes.
We will do everything we can to support those who have worked on the testing programme during the transition. I want to thank all of them for their invaluable contribution over the past two years.
From 1 May, in place of a population wide approach, we will use testing on a targeted basis - to support clinical care and treatment and protect higher risk settings; and also for surveillance, outbreak management and responding to significant developments, such as a new variant.
Let me stress though that for any purpose for which we do continue to advise testing, access to tests will, in Scotland, remain free of charge.
Today does mark steady progress back to normal life and to a more sustainable way of managing this virus.
However, while cases are spiking, there is still considerable pressure on the NHS and there is concern amongst the most vulnerable in particular.
So I do ask everyone to be patient for a little while longer on face coverings and to continue following all advice on hygiene, ventilation, testing and, of course, vaccination.
And let me take this opportunity in concluding to thank everyone again for all their continued efforts.
There is a problem
Thanks for your feedback