Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 8th December 2020.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

As the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has just discussed, I am pleased to begin by confirming that, earlier today, the first vaccines against Covid were administered in Scotland. That 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 the pandemic. I want to thank everyone involved, now and in the months ahead, in delivering what will be the biggest vaccination programme in our history.

Today, we should all allow ourselves a smile—this is a good day and a good moment—but we must not drop our guard. For now, the virus and the risks that 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 national health service 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 still have every good reason to do everything that we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

The levels approach is one of the main ways that 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 review. 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 per cent of all tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases to 101,475. There are now 983 people in hospital, which is an increase of nine from yesterday, and 57 people are in intensive care, which is a decrease of two from yesterday.

I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further 33 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the past 28 days. The total number of deaths, under that daily measurement, is now 3,950. Those figures remind us yet again of the toll that Covid continues to take right across Scotland. Once again, my deepest condolences go to all those who have lost a loved one.

Let me turn to the outcome of this week’s review. In summary—I will come on to the details shortly—I can confirm today that all 11 local authorities currently in level 4 restrictions will move to level 3 from Friday. I also confirm that five other local authority areas will move down to a lower level from Friday. Before I set out those changes in detail, I will briefly update the chamber on some of the additional measures that 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 eight different locations across west and central Scotland. Early results from those trials will be published tomorrow, with further detail available next week. The purpose of that testing 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. Further detail on that testing will be published tomorrow. We have also considered how and when students should return to campus after the holiday period, and the Deputy First Minister will set out details of that in a statement to Parliament later this afternoon. Walk-in testing centres continue to be established in towns and cities across Scotland, and by the end of next week, 22 walk-in centres will be in place.

As we expand 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 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 United Kingdom-wide Lighthouse laboratory programme, will be 65,000 tests a day.

I 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 the age of 11.

All those 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 remain essential for some time yet.

Our levels approach ensures that the restrictions that apply in different parts of Scotland are proportionate to the prevalence of the virus in each area. Over the past three 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 100,000 people in its population, and 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. In both North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire, case numbers have fallen by well over a third.

The fall in infection rates in those areas, which are the most highly populated in the country, has contributed to an improvement in the situation across Scotland. In the week to 13 November, we recorded 142 new cases of Covid for every 100,000 people. Last Friday, that figure had fallen below 100—for the first time in a long while—to 99. Although it fluctuates daily, the national average for test positivity in the week up to last Friday was back under 5 per cent—the threshold that the World Health Organization uses to determine whether an outbreak is under control.

I am relieved to say that that progress is 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 just reported, those figures are 983 and 57 respectively.

All that puts us in a much better position to cope with the inevitable difficulties of winter. I thank people across the country for their compliance in recent weeks. However, although the improved position is positive, it does not remove the need for a cautious approach. The risks and challenges of the next few months are clear. 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.

I turn to the detail of the decisions. I remind the Parliament that all the decisions 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 Covid rates across the level 4 areas, I confirm that Glasgow City, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian will all exit level 4 on Friday.

We hope that case numbers in those areas will 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 the light of that, we have decided to take a cautious approach and apply level 3 protections to all those local authority areas for a period. We will observe the data carefully before determining in the weeks ahead whether and when those 11 local authorities should move to level 2.

When we introduced level 4 restrictions, we said that they would be lifted at 6 pm on Friday 11 December. That remains the case, with one exception. Retail premises that have been closed under the level 4 restrictions will be permitted to reopen from 6 am on Friday. That is intended to help stores and shopping centres better manage the flow of customers after the period of closure.

I appeal to everyone who lives in level 4 areas to continue to exercise care and caution. As we know from our experience of Covid so far, progress can easily go into reverse, so please continue to abide by the rules—in particular, that means not visiting other people’s houses. As I will confirm later, travel restrictions will remain in place for the next period, so travel into and out of level 3 areas will still not be permitted.

Ten local authority areas are in level 3—Angus, Clackmannanshire, Dundee, the City of Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, Midlothian, North Ayrshire and Perth and Kinross.

Seven of those areas will remain at level 3. They are Clackmannanshire, Dundee, the City of Edinburgh, Fife, Midlothian, North Ayrshire and Perth and Kinross.

I 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 under way there. In other words, the issue is more cases being identified, rather than a rise in transmission. Obviously, we will keep that 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 three areas will move down to level 2 from Friday. They are Inverclyde, Falkirk and Angus. All three of those areas have reduced, and now relatively low, rates of transmission, and although Falkirk’s rate has increased very slightly in recent days, that 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 100,000 people, which is below the Scotland-wide average, and its test positivity levels are also relatively low. However, cases in Edinburgh have risen slightly in recent days, and there seem also to have been increases in East Lothian and Midlothian.

The imminence of the Christmas period has also 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 to have as much assurance as possible that the situation is as stable as possible before we make that move. For that reason—this has been a difficult decision—we have decided not to move Edinburgh to level 2 this week, but we will consider that again next week for both Edinburgh and Midlothian.

At the moment, there are six local authorities at level 2—Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, Scottish Borders, Dumfries and 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 100,000 people in the past week, and in the Borders there were 35 cases per 100,000. We have therefore concluded that both of those areas will move from level 2 to level 1 from 6 pm 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 areas. In the past week, cases have fallen in both areas. Aberdeen has gone from 89 new cases per 100,000 people to 74 per 100,000, and Aberdeenshire’s case numbers by the same measure have decreased from 95 to 80. Case positivity in both areas has also fallen and is at or slightly over 4 per cent.

For that reason, at this stage, we intend that both areas will remain at level 2. It is worth stressing, though, that cases have not fallen in either area by as much as we would want, 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 therefore continue to monitor the situation in both local authority areas very carefully, and I cannot rule out a move to level 3 for one or both of them in the weeks ahead.

My message to both areas is—as, indeed, it is for all parts of the country—that the only way to stay at the current level and then possibly, hopefully, move down further is to suppress the virus as effectively as possible. Both local authorities have assured us that they will continue to work with local public health teams to do that. The Scottish Government, of course, will do all that 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 and Bute will also both remain at level 2 for now. It is worth mentioning that Argyll and Bute has also seen a very sharp rise in cases in recent days. We are confident at this stage that that reflects a large workplace outbreak and is not indicative of wider community transmission. Again, however, we will continue to monitor that situation carefully.

Lastly, I confirm that Highland, Moray, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles will all remain at level 1—of course, from Friday, the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway will also go to that level.

From Friday, there will 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 authority areas—Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles—are the only places in Scotland where it is permitted for six people from two households to meet in houses. From 6 pm on Friday, that will be extended to other inhabited islands in the level 1 local authority areas, with the exception of islands that are connected to mainland Scotland by road, such as Skye.

However, those of us who live in the rest of the country should continue to stay out of each other’s houses. I know that that is really tough, but it remains the most effective way of stopping the virus spreading from one household to another.

The overall result of today’s changes is that 16 local authorities will move to a lower level of restrictions from Friday, and 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 that it involves real and continued difficulties for many businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector. I can therefore confirm that, tomorrow, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will set out a further package of business support, which is intended to provide additional help over the winter. In the next couple of weeks, we will also consider whether any changes to the content of different levels, particularly as they affect hospitality, can safely be made.

More generally, as I have said previously, moving any area down a level is not a neutral act. Given that it allows some restrictions to be lifted, it presents more opportunities for the virus to spread, so it presents real risks. I ask everyone—especially people in areas that are moving down a level—to continue to do everything that they can to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. Be careful and cautious, follow all the rules that are in place, and please still try to limit your interactions with others as much as possible. It might be counterintuitive but, as restrictions ease, caution 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. 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 it is for essential purposes. I am afraid that that means, for example, that people from outside Glasgow must not travel to the city to do Christmas shopping when retail premises open on Friday.

Today—the day when the first people have been vaccinated against this horrible virus—is, and should be, a day of optimism for all of us. 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.

In the weeks ahead, many of us will face choices about when or whether we meet friends indoors in a pub or cafe, 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. That is why the rules over the Christmas period recognise that inevitability and give advice on how to stay as safe as possible. However, some of us will decide to take other options—for example, by seeing loved ones outdoors or by 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 and which, I think, sums up extremely well the situation that we are in now. He said:

“If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere”.

I suspect that that sentiment 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 it has been at any time since March, and we are all looking forward to reaching that point, but we are not quite there yet, so our priority must be to do everything that we can to ensure that, when we reach that point, all 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 think 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 that 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 six people from a maximum of two households. Stick to the travel restrictions that I have just outlined.

Finally, remember FACTS—the five rules that will help to keep all of us safe in our day-to-day lives: wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and surfaces; keep a 2m 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 will 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 lie ahead.