Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, I will shortly set out the conclusions of the Government’s weekly review of the allocation of levels of protection to each local authority area. However, I will start with a brief summary of the statistics.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 754, or 7.3 per cent of all tests carried out. The total number of cases stands at 95,811. One thousand and twenty-one people are in hospital—a decrease of 20 from yesterday—and 70 people are in intensive care, which is 5 fewer than yesterday.

However, I regret to say that, in the past 24 hours, a further 34 deaths have been registered of patients who had tested positive in the previous 28 days, and that the total number of deaths, under that measurement, is now 3,759. Those figures remind us of course that the virus is still taking a toll across the country and, again, my thoughts and condolences are with everyone who has been bereaved.

At the outset, I confirm that the Scottish Government is not today proposing any immediate changes to the levels that currently apply to each local authority area, although, as I will outline in a moment, there are some areas that we are monitoring closely. Overall, though, the latest data shows that the restrictions that are in place are, we believe, having a positive impact.

Three weeks ago—in the seven days to Friday 13 November—an average of 1,116 new cases a day was being recorded. By last Friday, that had fallen to 863 new cases a day, which is a reduction of more than one fifth. Independent estimates also continue to place the R number slightly below 1; again, that is indicative of a decline in infections.

We are also now starting to see a fall in the number of people who are in hospital and intensive care units with Covid. When I updated Parliament three weeks ago, 1,239 people were in hospital with Covid—102 in intensive care.

Today, as members just heard me report, 1,021 people are in hospital and 70 are in intensive care. The figures are coming down, which means that—taking all of that into account—I can say with some confidence that we are making good progress at this stage.

It is important to stress that, because I know that for some people whose area has been in the same level of restrictions for some time, and who are still hearing us report high numbers of deaths and new cases each day, it can sometimes seem as though the restrictions are not working. It is important to stress that that is not the case. The sacrifices that everyone is making are making a difference. They are getting case numbers down, reducing the numbers who get ill and need hospital care and therefore protecting the national health service and saving lives.

That said—and I have made this point previously—the level of the virus overall, particularly in some parts of the country, is still higher than we need it to be. There are still pressures on the health service, which any increase in rates of infection would quickly intensify. As we go deeper into the winter, a number of factors might well push transmission up again, and we could see cases and resulting illness and deaths start to rise again. That means that we have an interest in driving cases as low as we can now. That necessitates continued caution.

In summary, therefore, although we are encouraged by the impact that the current restrictions have had, the need to strengthen and solidify that progress means that we should continue to take care and err on the side of caution. For all those reasons, the Cabinet, when it discussed the matter earlier today, concluded that we will not propose any changes to the levels this week.

I remind members that it is also the case that the level 4 restrictions that are in place in 11 local authority areas will be lifted a week on Friday—11 December—so, as we decide the levels into which each of those areas will go, we will have an opportunity at next week’s review to look at the allocation of levels across the country more generally. I flag up right now that it is likely, therefore, that next week’s review will be more substantial than today’s.

For now, though, I can confirm that Highland, Moray, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles will remain in level 1.

Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and East Lothian will remain in level 2. However, I need to be clear—I indicated this earlier—that we have been looking and will continue to look carefully in the days to come at Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire. Cases in both local authority areas have increased sharply in the past week—by 68 per cent in Aberdeen City, and by 42 per cent in Aberdeenshire. That means that case numbers in those areas—although it is important to stress that in both areas case numbers are still below the national average—are higher than in some level 3 areas, such as Angus. Case positivity has also increased in both areas.

However, there is a need to understand more deeply the extent to which those increases are driven by specific outbreaks that are being actively managed within food processing plants and care settings, for example, versus a wider and more general increase in community transmission, which would obviously be a concern, especially as we go further into the winter. I have therefore asked that the data for Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire be considered in more depth over the next couple of days by the chief medical officer and the national incident management team and then discussed with both local authorities and the NHS Grampian director of public health.

Given the degree of uncertainty in the information that we have so far, and in recognition of the economic and social impact for any area of a move up to level 3, we have decided to await that further analysis before reaching a firm conclusion. If the information justifies a move to level 3 for one of or both those council areas, we will set that out at next week’s review—or earlier, if the situation merits it.

The other level 2 council that I want to make particular mention of is Dumfries and Galloway. The data there is indicative of a move to level 1 soon. However, the concern right now, in addition to the general winter factors that we are considering across the country, is that Dumfries and Galloway is bordered by areas that have significant, higher levels of infection. That is why the strong public health advice, which the Cabinet accepted this morning, is for the area to remain in level 2 for now.

Angus, Clackmannanshire, Dundee, the City of Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, Midlothian, North Ayrshire and Perth and Kinross will remain in level 3 for now. Last week, I expressed some concern about rising case numbers in Clackmannanshire and Perth and Kinross, but I am pleased to note that numbers in both those areas have stabilised and are improving.

Finally, as I indicated, 11 local authority areas will remain in level 4 for one further week. Those are Glasgow City, East and West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian. We will confirm next week the levels that those areas will move into when level 4 restrictions end on 11 December.

I will update Parliament on three further points. First, I want to highlight the changes that we announced yesterday and will make from next Monday to eligibility for self-isolation support grants. Those changes mean that potentially eligible individuals no longer have to be receiving universal credit to claim the payment if their local authority believes that they would qualify for universal credit if they applied. In addition, the grants are now available for people on low incomes who have to stay at home while their children are self-isolating and who would otherwise lose out as a result. Ensuring that people self-isolate is an essential part of tackling the virus, so the extension of support payments is an important way in which we can help more people to do the right thing.

The second point is to report briefly on the continued expansion of the testing programme. The mass testing of students has started successfully, and all students who are planning to return home for Christmas are advised to take two lateral flow tests a few days apart. Many students have already done that, and many more are booked in for those tests.

In addition, testing is now available for people without symptoms of Covid in several communities across the country where there has been high prevalence of the virus. For example, test sites opened yesterday in Dalmarnock and Pollokshields in Glasgow; in Stewarton in East Ayrshire; and in Girvan in South Ayrshire. Another site opens tomorrow in Johnstone in Renfrewshire. Those trials are important, not only for their own sake, but because they will inform our plans to expand community testing early in the new year. We hope that that will be a useful additional tool in reducing prevalence of the virus in areas with high rates of transmission.

Finally, I reiterate that—subject to regulatory decisions—we remain hopeful that, even before Christmas, we will be in a position to start vaccinating people in Scotland against Covid. The Cabinet reviewed the plans for vaccination this morning and I can confirm that we are ready to begin that process as soon we receive the first supplies of vaccine. We hope that, by the spring, a significant proportion of the people who are most vulnerable to Covid will have been vaccinated. Over time, vaccination will help us all to return to a more normal pattern of life, which means that a possible route out of pandemic for Scotland is in sight. We therefore have all the more reason to keep ourselves and each other safe, as we head towards—we hope—that end point.

Perhaps now more than ever, sticking to the rules continues to be the way in which we can do that. I ask for continued compliance in the weeks ahead. Outside of the three island authorities, none of us should meet in each other’s homes. Meetings outdoors or in public indoor places should stay within the limits of six people from two households. I ask everyone to continue to abide by the important travel restrictions. If you live in a level 3 or level 4 area, do not leave your local authority area unless for an essential purpose; if you live elsewhere, do not travel into a level 3 or level 4 area. Everyone must also avoid non-essential travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK.

Finally, remember FACTS, the five rules that help to keep us all safe in our day-to-day lives: wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m distance; and self-isolate and book a test if you have symptoms. If we all stick to those rules, I hope that we will be able to see the progress that I have been able to report today continue in the days and weeks to come, which will pave the way for more parts of the country to come down into lower levels of restrictions in the future.