Thanks Presiding Officer
I will set out the Cabinet’s decision on the timescale for converting the legal requirement to wear face coverings in certain indoor settings into guidance.
Firstly, though, and to set the context for that decision, I will give a brief update on the current Covid situation.
The most recent ONS Covid infection survey - for the week ending 20 March - indicated that 1 in 11 people in Scotland had Covid.
That is the highest level of infection so far recorded by this weekly survey - and it does reflect the impact of the highly infectious BA.2 subvariant of the virus.
The daily case numbers also show a very high, though perhaps stabilising, level of infection.
Today, 9,610 new cases identified through a PCR or lateral flow tests will be reported.
Again though, it is important to set these figures in some context. Two weeks ago, there were on average just over 12,400 new cases being reported each day. One week ago, the average case number was still high, at around 12,000 a day.
But over the past week, it has fallen to 10,200 a day, which is a 15% reduction in the past 7 days, and the reduction is fairly consistent across all age groups.
So that does gives us grounds for optimism that this latest wave of infection may now have peaked.
Of course, the daily numbers on their own need to be treated with a degree of caution.
But the result of wastewater sampling – which is an important strand of our ongoing surveillance - also gives some cause for optimism.
It is not yet indicating a fall in the level of infection - but it does suggest that the situation has stabilised since mid-March.
We will therefore continue to assess the data closely – including, of course, the results of the latest ONS survey which are due later this week.
But we are hopeful that this wave has peaked or is now peaking. Indeed, this is being observed already in Northern Ireland which, unlike England and Wales, appears to have been ahead of Scotland in the transmission of BA.2.
Although the BA.2 variant is highly infectious - indeed more so than the original Omicron variant - it is important to stress that vaccination continues to provide strong protection against serious illness, which of course underlines the importance of getting all doses of vaccines that we are offered.
The programme of additional boosters for certain groups started three weeks ago in older people’s care homes and, from last week, appointments are being offered to everyone aged 75 and over.
People with suppressed immune systems will have appointments for additional boosters scheduled during spring and summer, starting from 18 April and appointment letters will be issued by post.
Anyone who is unsure about eligibility for an additional booster should of course contact their doctor for advice.
In addition, the vaccination programme for 5 to 11 year olds is underway.
Children in that age group with specific medical conditions, and those who are household contacts of someone who is immunosuppressed, were already being vaccinated in line with JCVI advice.
Vaccination of the wider 5-11 year old age group started on 19 March, and will continue over the coming weeks. Older children are being given appointments first - but families are being invited to get vaccinated together whenever that is possible.
Obviously, with case rates being as high as they’ve been recently, some young people who are invited for a vaccine will recently have had Covid, so I want to briefly summarise the guidelines for those circumstances.
Those aged 5 to 17 who have specific medical conditions or who are household contacts of someone who is immunosuppressed, should wait four weeks after first testing positive, or from the onset of symptoms, before being vaccinated. 4 weeks is also the recommended gap for adults who get the virus.
All others aged 5 to 17 should wait 12 weeks after having the virus before being vaccinated.
Parents or carers of children who have been unable to be vaccinated due to having Covid should call the helpline – on 0800 030 8013 – to reschedule appointments when that is necessary.
The advice to everyone of course remains as important as ever - please do take the opportunity to get vaccinated as soon as you are able and make sure you get all doses of the vaccine that you are eligible for. This remains the most important thing any of us can do to protect ourselves and others. And of course it is never too late to get vaccinated.
Despite the effectiveness of vaccination, the high level of infection has put the NHS under even more severe strain in more recent weeks. We are seeing the impact of that in all parts of the NHS, not least in our accident and emergency services.
The number of people in hospital with Covid reported today –2,344 – is I’m pleased to say 39 fewer than the number yesterday. But yesterday’s figure was the highest it has been since the start of the pandemic. So today’s number is still exceptionally high, and it is significantly above the previous peak of hospital cases, which was 2053 back in January 2021.
More positively - and again this is evidence of the power of vaccination - the number of patients in intensive care with Covid remains relatively low – 26 on today’s figures. Which is a fall of 15 in the past two weeks.
Nevertheless, the volume of people in hospital with Covid is causing very significant pressure for a health service that has been dealing with the pandemic for more than two years now.
That means we cannot be complacent and shouldn’t be complacent. For the period up until Easter, therefore, we are continuing to ask everyone to take a lateral flow test twice a week; to take a test daily for 7 days if you are a close contact of someone who has tested positive case; and to take a test 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.
And if you test positive, you should isolate and follow the advice from Test and Protect.
Using the approach set out a few weeks ago in our revised strategic framework, and based on the governments clinical advice, our assessment is that the virus at this stage continues to present a medium threat.
However, we remain optimistic that it will move to being a low threat during the course of the spring.
We have of course already largely moved away from reliance on legally imposed protective measures.
And are now relying instead on vaccines, treatments, and sensible public health behaviours and adaptations.
Indeed, 9 days ago we lifted all bar one of the remaining Covid legal requirements.
However we did at that point retain in law the requirement to wear face coverings on public transport, and in certain indoor settings.
I said two weeks ago that we would review this requirement before the Easter recess, which we have now done.
We have taken account of the very high level of infection and the pressure on the NHS, and also the fact that face coverings do provide an important layer of protection against transmission of the virus from one person to another.
However, we are also mindful that the data may now be indicating a peaking of this wave of infection which should hopefully become more pronounced over the next couple of weeks.
We have therefore concluded – subject as always to the state of the pandemic - that the legal requirement to wear face coverings will be replaced with guidance on the following phased basis.
From next Monday 4 April, it will no longer be a legal requirement to wear a face covering in places of worship or while attending a marriage ceremony, a civil partnership registration, or a funeral service or commemorative event.
And then the wider legal requirement - applying to shops, certain other indoor settings and public transport - will be converted to guidance two weeks later on 18 April.
We will, of course, continue to encourage the wearing of face coverings in certain indoor places, especially where significant numbers of people are present.
This phased approach strikes I think a sensible balance between our desire to remove this one remaining legal measure, and the common sense need for continued caution - not least for the sake of the NHS - while this wave of infection does subside.
I recognise that face coverings are an inconvenience. However, given all the sacrifice of the past two years, and in view of the current pressure on the NHS, I believe the vast majority of people will accept that for a further two weeks this is a proportionate precautionary measure while we pass the peak of this latest wave. It also of course provides some additional protection to those who are most at risk from the virus.
In conclusion, I want to take this opportunity again today to thank the public for the patience and the responsibility that continues to be demonstrated by the overwhelming majority of people across the country.
Life has returned to normal for most of us. But Covid hasn’t gone away - indeed, there will be very few of us in recent weeks who have been untouched by this virus, either ourselves or within our families or networks of colleagues. That in itself is a sign of how infectious the virus continues to be.
So, while the level of infection remains as high as it is, I would ask people to continue to please take sensible, basic steps in order to protect yourself and others.
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