Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland’s Strategic Framework - First Minister's statement

Opening statement by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Tuesday 27 October for the debate on Scotland's Strategic Framework.

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Presiding Officer

I will begin by moving the motion in my name and also confirm that we will also consider each opposition amendment carefully.

While we don’t necessarily agree with all of them in their entirety, there are good suggestions in each of them and so, regardless of how the votes go this evening, we will seek to take these forward constructively.

The Scottish Government published our new strategic approach to tackling COVID on Friday. This included the proposed 5 levels of intervention.

I will not repeat all of the detail today.

But I will set out some changes we are proposing as a result of our considerations since Friday.

And I will give a very preliminary indication of the levels that we think might apply to different parts of Scotland from next Monday.

I would draw members’ attention to a technical paper that we have published today giving more detail of the data and wider factors that will guide these decisions.

Firstly, though, I will just briefly summarise today’s statistics, which were published a short time ago.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,327.

The total number of confirmed cases in Scotland is now 59,201.

The number of positive tests reported yesterday was 8.7% of the total.

1,100 people are currently in hospital – an increase of 48 from yesterday. I think it is worth noting Presiding Officer that for those who think we are being too tough with the restrictions right now.

The number in hospital right now is just 400 short of the number of hospitalisations at the April peak.

82 people are in intensive care, which is 8 fewer than yesterday.

And in the last 24 hours, I’m sorry to report that 25 additional deaths have been registered.

Which takes the total number of deaths, under this measurement, to 2,726.

I want to send, again, my deepest condolences to all those who are grieving a loved one.

The rise in cases that we are seeing in Scotland is part of an international pattern.

It is reflected elsewhere in the UK, Europe, and around the world.

Indeed, many countries across Europe in particular face a much more severe situation than we do currently.

However, it is to try to avoid that kind of deterioration and to try to avoid mounting pressure on our National Health Service that we are acting firmly at this stage.

It is why we acted back in September to stop household gatherings, and then took further action earlier this month to restrict hospitality.

The positive news is that we believe the restriction on household gatherings may already be having an effect.

The number of new cases is growing more slowly than at the start of the month, and we have not seen the 9 day doubling of cases that was predicted earlier this month.

We hope that the effect of the difficult, and I know unwelcome, restrictions on hospitality, which have been in force now for just over 2 weeks, will soon start to be seen as well.

Our hope is that the rate of increase in new cases will slow even further and we will then see a decline in the number of new cases.

And if we do see that progress, it is important to stress that that will be down to a reduction in our interactions with each other as a result of the restrictions in place.

It’s important to bear that in mind as I run through some of the detail of the new levels because, while this is difficult for all of us and it is difficult for many businesses, it is by reducing our interactions with people - in other households, and in environments with higher risks of transmission - that we will continue to make progress.

All of that said our position just now is still fragile, and it is too early to draw firm conclusions.

Cases are still rising, and that is not a stable position to be in.

And given that we are entering winter, COVID is likely to present a significant, continued challenge for us - with higher numbers of cases than we would want to see - for some time to come.

In addition, given the lag effect associated with the incubation period of the virus and how it affects people over time, we know that we are also likely to see hospital and ICU admissions and unfortunately deaths rise for some time yet, even as we hope the rate of increase in cases continue to slow.

So all of this means we must continue to be very cautious – and we must take the action necessary to suppress the virus to the lowest possible levels.

But given that we are likely to be living with this virus for a while, it also means that we must try be as proportionate and as targeted as possible in the actions that we take.

As I was saying the virus, we know, does direct harm to human life and health and that must be minimised.

But we also know that the actions we take to do this also cause harm - to the economy and living standards and to wider health and wellbeing.

So the difficult task that all countries have is to balance all of that and minimise the overall harm of the pandemic.

The strategic framework - and the 5 levels - are designed to help us do that.

Having 5 levels does not prevent us from applying restrictions consistently across the country if that is deemed necessary.

But it means we can avoid a one size fits all approach if it is not. It will enable a part of the country with relatively low transmission to live with fewer restrictions than an area with much higher transmission.

Such an approach is more proportionate but the downside is that it makes the messages we communicate more complex.

To help with that, we will be launching a new postcode checker to allow people to know what restrictions are in place in their area at any given time.

The detail within each level is intended to give people greater certainty of what to expect at different rates of transmission.

But it is important that we retain some flexibility.

I want to be clear that we will keep the detail of each level under review as the situation develops.

And that’s a point that may be particularly relevant to the hospitality industry.

Let me, Presiding Officer try to make some progress, I just want to summarise for parliament today the levels we are proposing. Members should note that levels 1, 2 & 3 of the 5 levels are intended to be broadly comparable, albeit not identical, to the 3 levels deployed in England.

I explained on Friday that the baseline level – zero – is the lowest level of restrictions.

It is similar to the state of affairs that applied in August when we had suppressed the virus to very low levels.

We consider this to be the closest to normality we can get to without better treatment or a vaccine for COVID.

Of course, we remain hopeful about the prospects of both these scientific developments over the next few months.

Level 1 is similar to the restrictions we had in mid-September, as cases started to rise again but prevalence remained very low.

Our objective, of course, is to get all parts of the country to level 0 or level 1 and remain there if we can.

The restrictions we propose for level 2 are similar to those that currently apply across Scotland outside the central belt.

Level 3 resembles the tougher restrictions which currently apply in the central belt.

And finally, level 4 – which we hope not to have to use – envisages something closer to a full lockdown. For example non-essential shops would close at that level.

However even in level 4, up to 6 people from up to 2 households could still meet outdoors; and manufacturing and construction businesses would stay open.

Levels 2 and 3 are intended to apply for short periods of time and level 4 will be deployed only if absolutely necessary as a short, sharp intervention to address extremely high transmission rates.

Under all 5 levels, we would expect schools and childcare to remain open if at all possible.

Since publishing our proposed levels on Friday, we have consulted with various stakeholders.

And as I said those consultations included discussion with opposition leaders.

Of course it is not possible to accommodate all the asks of different sectors and still suppress the virus.

But I can confirm that we have decided on some changes that will hopefully be welcomed. These relate to childcare, shared parenting and child contact centres; outdoor retail; bingo; and numbers allowed at weddings at level 4.

Full details are on the revised table circulated to MSPs earlier and will be made available on the Scottish Government website.

Before turning to hospitality in a bit of detail – because that is one of the sectors bearing the biggest impact of current restrictions - let me mention one other, hopefully temporary, change.

The table published on Friday envisaged that at level 1 we would be able to meet with 6 people from 2 households in our own homes. But it also made it clear that this might change in some circumstances.

The public health advice to Ministers is that if a decision is taken this week to move any area to level 1, the current prohibition on meeting anyone from other households in our own homes should remain in place for a period as an extra precaution.

We intend to accept this advice. But, that position will be reviewed weekly.

I want to turn, Presiding Officer, now to hospitality. I will describe the restrictions that will apply in each level and outline any changes from the current situation.

I hope the changes will be welcome but I know that the sector will have wanted to see even fewer restrictions, especially at level 3.

I will explain why that is not possible at this stage. However, I want to be clear that we will continue dialogue with the sector on the proposals it has put forward.

We also intend to establish an expert advisory group on reintroducing safe low level music and background noise.

At level 0, hospitality will operate almost normally - subject to rules on physical distancing, limits on numbers and other mitigations, such as table service only.

Level 1 will be similar but with a curfew closing time. However, that will be 10.30 rather than 10pm.

Level 2 is broadly comparable to the restrictions currently in place outside the central belt.

Currently, in these areas, hospitality can operate normally outdoors with an early closing time. I know this will get more difficult in winter. That will continue to be the case under level 2 - but the closing time will be extended to 10.30pm.

Just now premises in these areas can open indoors until 6pm for the service of food and non-alcoholic drinks only. At level 2, that will be extended to 8pm and alcohol will be permitted with main meals.

In the central belt areas under tougher restrictions just now, only cafes can open, until 6pm and for food and non-alcoholic drinks.

Level 3 is broadly similar but all hospitality premises will be subject to the same rules – so cafes, pubs and restaurants will be allowed to open until 6pm for food and non-alcoholic drinks.

At level 4, hospitality will be closed.

I know the sector wants to see more activity allowed, especially at level 3 and will continue to discuss that with them.

But I must stress that areas at level 3 are the areas with the highest levels of infection.

Our judgment is that to ease up anymore at this stage - particularly as our progress remains so fragile - could risk tipping these levels closer to level 4, rather than have them make the progress we want to see towards level 2.

Assuming Parliament agrees the overall framework today Presiding officer, I will confirm on Thursday what level each local authority will be placed into initially. This will be with effect from Monday and it will be reviewed on a weekly basis.

These decisions will be based on advice from the government’s advisers and the national incident management team. We are also consulting with local authorities.

While we will initially apply levels to whole local authority areas, we will look in future at any situation where it might make sense to be more targeted - for example, a different approach for the Argyll islands than for the rest of the Argyll & Bute council area.

As I said earlier, we have published a technical paper detailing the factors and data that will guide these decisions.

We will look at actual and projected cases per 100,000 of population, test positivity rates, and projections for hospital and ICU capacity. And different thresholds for these will apply at different levels.

It is important to stress though that these decisions will not involve the automatic application of a single statistic or even basket of statistics. These will inform and guide the decisions but judgment will required to be applied to them.

As we migrate initially to this new system, we will be deliberately cautious.

As I said earlier, we are seeing signs of progress but the situation is very fragile and could go in the wrong direction - so we must take care.

I hope that over the next couple of weeks - if progress in slowing the rate of new cases continues - we will see more local authorities dropping down a level.

But initially, most are likely to stay in broadly the same category as now.

Now final decisions have not yet been taken but I want to give parliament a broad indication today of what that means.

The central belt areas currently under the toughest restrictions, are likely to be in level 3 initially.

And most of the rest of the country is likely to start in level 2.

There are however some exceptions under consideration.

Firstly, it is hoped that the Highlands, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and Moray might go to level 1.

Less positively, we believe that the escalating situation in Dundee City makes it possible it will go to level 3.

And, as has been reported, we are considering whether the very high rate of transmission and hospital admissions in North and South Lanarkshire may necessitate a move for them to level 4. These are the only areas currently being considered for level 4.

There have however been some encouraging signs in the last few days that the situation in Lanarkshire may have stabilised slightly.

So we will only take this decision if it is deemed absolutely necessary and I hope we can avoid it.

As I say, I hope to confirm these decisions to Parliament ahead of FMQs on Thursday.

For all of Scotland Presiding officer, our aim is to get to level 1, and then to level 0 of the framework as quickly as it is possible to do.

We know this is possible because over the summer, we got to the very low levels of transmission that would be needed for that.

If we can do it once, we can do it again.

But it will not be easy.

It will take action from the government to support the wider efforts.

That’s why our strategic approach doesn’t simply set out restrictions.

It also explains how we will expand testing, and the steps we will take to better support people to comply with the rules, especially on self-isolation.

We set out details of our testing expansion in the paper we published last week.

And finally Presiding officer,

We know that while government must lead, success against this virus will depend on all of us.

It is difficult and frustrating, and getting more so by the day, especially as we head towards Christmas.

But if we dig in now and get Covid under more control, we perhaps open the door - not to 100% normality at Christmas - but hopefully to more than we have right now.

We all want that.

So please stick with it.

As of Monday, make sure you check what restrictions apply in your area.

Please stay out of other people’s houses, except for the limited reasons allowed.

Follow the rules on:

  • Face coverings.
  • Avoiding crowded areas.
  • Cleaning hands and hard surfaces.
  • 2 m distancing.
  • And self-isolate, and book a test, if you have symptoms.

And all of us must try to be as patient as possible at not being able to go to the football or for a pint or out for a meal with friends.

These are hard sacrifices - but they will protect you and your loved ones. They will help protect the NHS. And they will save lives.

And right now, Presiding officer, that is what we must all pull together to do.

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