Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 15th December 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Earlier today, the Cabinet concluded the weekly review of the levels of protection for each local authority area. I will shortly confirm the outcome of that review in detail. However, in summary, I can confirm that no local authority will move to level 4 this week. However, three local authorities that are currently in level 2 will move to level 3 from Friday. All other local authorities will remain in the same level as they are now.

I had previously indicated that this week’s review would be the last one before Christmas, with the next scheduled review taking place on Tuesday 5 January. However, in light of the rising or volatile case numbers being recorded in some parts of the country, I can confirm that this morning, the Cabinet decided, as a precaution, to review the levels again next week.

I have also asked the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans to work with the Parliamentary Bureau to agree contingency arrangements so that, if we require to increase the level of protection in any area over the recess period, we will be able to notify Parliament accordingly.

I will turn now to the context of this week’s review and then to the outcome of it. First, I will give a brief summary of the latest statistics. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 845. That represents 7.4 per cent of all tests carried out and takes the total number of cases to 107,749. There are currently 996 people in hospital, which is a decrease of 16 from yesterday. There are 45 people in intensive care, which is a decrease of one from yesterday. I am sorry to say that, in the past 24 hours, a further 24 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive for Covid over the previous 28 days.

The total number of deaths under that measure is now 4,135.

Those figures remind us once again of the grief and heartbreak that the virus is causing. Once again, my deepest condolences go to all those who have lost a loved one.

Today’s statistics, behind which are real people, provide an important and difficult context for today’s review. In recent weeks, the levels of protection that have applied across the country have helped to reduce prevalence of the virus. I reported last Tuesday that, in the space of three weeks, the number of cases in the population had fallen from 142 per 100,000 to 99 per 100,000. However, over the most recent week, we have seen a slight rise in case numbers—from 99 per 100,000 to 110 per 100,000. Test positivity has increased from 4.8 per cent to 5.3 per cent.

Although we remain in a much better place than where we were in late October and early November—and, as of now, in a better position than many countries—the most recent data reminds us that our situation, like that of other countries across the UK and Europe, remains precarious.

It is also appropriate for me to update Parliament today on what we know so far about the new variant of Covid that has been detected in the United Kingdom. I have now been advised that, through genomic sequencing, nine cases of the new variant have been identified in Scotland. All those cases were from Greater Glasgow and Clyde. It is important to stress that there is no evidence at this stage to suggest that the new variant is likely to cause more serious illness in people. Although the initial analysis of it suggests that it may be more transmissible, with a faster growth rate than existing variants, that is not yet certain. Instead, it may be the case that the variant has been identified in areas where the virus is already spreading more rapidly. Further analysis will be necessary to understand the new variant better, and that analysis is being conducted through Public Health England.

In the meantime, we are considering whether any additional precautions are necessary in light of what we know so far, including whether there should be any change over the Christmas period because of the new variant or the wider context. I will discuss all that later this afternoon with the other UK Governments in a four-nations call that we requested yesterday. I will, of course, keep Parliament updated on any changes.

Everything that I have just reported makes the context for this week’s review particularly challenging and underlines the need for continued caution. Before I confirm the outcome of the review, though, let me also inject a more positive note. The vaccination programme is now under way in Scotland. Last week, health and care staff started to receive the vaccine and, yesterday, the first care home residents were vaccinated. I can confirm that we will publish the first of our new weekly progress reports on the vaccination programme tomorrow.

We believe that, over the course of next year, vaccines will allow us to return to a much greater level of normality. As we have reflected previously, there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, as I said a few weeks ago, the road ahead of us may still have dips in it and, at times, that means that the light will be hard to see. The next few weeks may well be one of those dips in the road. However, even if it is obscured at times, we must remember that the light is definitely there and that we will get through this.

I now turn to today’s decisions, which have, as always, been informed by input from the national incident management team and our senior clinical advisers. As our strategic framework requires, we have assessed the level of restrictions against all four of the harms that Covid causes: the immediate health harm of the virus; the wider impact that it has on our health service; the social harms that are caused by restrictions; and the economic damage to people’s livelihoods that is caused by the virus and our measures to suppress it.

As part of that assessment process, we consider the data for each local authority very carefully. However, we also, by necessity, apply context and judgment to that data. Our decisions are not arrived at via a simple algorithm or on the basis of indicators alone. We require to take account of other factors including whether the number of cases is rising or falling in a given area, and the wider risks of transmission that might arise from, for example, the festive period. We then reach cautious and balanced judgments that, in our estimation, are most likely to minimise the overall harm of the virus.

Given the overall context to our decisions this week, which I have set out, care and caution continue to be essential. As a result, I can confirm that all 18 of the local authorities that are currently at level 3 will remain at level 3. Although we still see progress across much of the central belt as a result of the recent level 4 restrictions, there are some areas—for example, East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire and Fife—where the number of cases has increased quite sharply in the past week. Although the changes in those areas do not warrant a move to level 4 at this stage, we will monitor the situation very closely over the next few days.

I turn specifically to the situation in Lothian. Last week, I confirmed that the City of Edinburgh Council and Midlothian Council areas would remain in level 3. That decision was subject to considerable scrutiny—understandably so—given that the raw indicators suggested that those areas should be at level 2. However, having observed an increase in the number of cases in the days leading up to last week’s decision, and after applying our wider judgment, we concluded that easing restrictions would not be sensible. Unfortunately, the continued rise in the number of cases since then suggests that that was the right decision, although I understand how difficult it was, and is, for the people and businesses that are most affected by it.

In the past week, case numbers in the City of Edinburgh Council area have increased by more than 40 per cent, from 70 cases to 100 cases per 100,000 of the population. The numbers in Midlothian have risen even more sharply, from 88 cases to 147 cases per 100,000 people. Test positivity has also increased in both areas.

Therefore, our judgment remains that it would be deeply irresponsible to ease restrictions in either Edinburgh or Midlothian at a time when the number of cases is rising sharply. Instead, our focus, and that of local partners, must be on encouraging maximum compliance with the restrictions to assure ourselves that, in the period ahead, level 3 is capable of containing and reversing the increase.

To complete consideration of Lothian, I turn to East Lothian. Case numbers there have increased by more than 50 per cent in the past week, from 69 cases to 126 cases per 100,000 people, and that is on top of increases over the previous two weeks. Unfortunately, therefore, and with obvious regret, the Cabinet has decided that East Lothian will move back to level 3 from Friday. That is a difficult but essential decision to seek to avoid a further deterioration in the situation and to keep people across Lothian as safe as is possible.

I can confirm that the Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council areas will also move from level 2 to level 3 from Friday. As I have reported to the Parliament, we have been monitoring the situation in both areas very closely, and we have concluded that tougher restrictions now need to be applied. In the past week alone, case numbers in Aberdeen have increased by more than 50 per cent, from 76 cases to 122 cases per 100,000 people. Case positivity has also increased from 3.9 per cent to 6.1 per cent.

The increase in Aberdeenshire has not been quite as sharp as the increase in the city, but the number of cases is still rising. It is therefore our judgment that level 3 restrictions are necessary to bring the situation in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire back under control.

I know that the move to level 3 for East Lothian, Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, and the continuation of level 3 in many other areas, involves real and continued difficulties for many people and businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector. However, in our view, these measures are essential to get and keep the virus under control.

It is also worth pointing out that we are not alone in Scotland in facing these challenges now. In large parts of England, hospitality is closed completely, and the whole of Wales is now under restrictions that are similar to our level 3. Further afield, many countries across Europe are reimposing lockdowns as the winter months start to take their toll.

However, I know that that brings no comfort to those who are directly affected, so it is essential that Government continues to do all that we can to provide support. In addition to existing packages of support, last week the finance secretary set out a further package of business support, which is intended to provide extra help over the winter. I encourage all eligible businesses to make full use of that.

The other councils that are currently in level 2 will remain there this week. Those are Angus, Argyll and Bute, Falkirk and Inverclyde. I am pleased to report that the situation in Inverclyde has remained broadly stable. However, there have been recent increases in cases in Angus and Falkirk. We will be monitoring both those areas very carefully over the next week, and I cannot rule out a return to level 3 for one or both of them.

Finally, I will say a word about Argyll and Bute. Last week, we reported a very sharp rise in cases there, but we concluded that that was down to a particularly large outbreak in one workplace, rather than wider community transmission. That conclusion seems to have been validated this week, as case numbers have now fallen again by more than 70 per cent. That is in line with what we expected and hoped for, given the previous low rates across Argyll and Bute. However, although that is positive, the clinical advice is that we should allow a transmission cycle to fully elapse before moving the area to level 1. That will allow us to ensure that there has been no wider transmission from that workplace outbreak. I can therefore confirm that Argyll and Bute will remain in level 2 this week, but, assuming no adverse change to the situation, it is likely to move to level 1 next week.

There is one change that we will make this week, though, in recognition of the geographic diversity of Argyll and Bute. We will apply the same household rules that currently apply in some other islands to the outer Argyll islands—Islay, Jura, Colonsay and Oronsay; Coll and Tiree; and Mull and Iona, and the neighbouring islands of Ulva, Erraid and Gometra. That means that, from Friday, people on those islands will be able to meet in houses in groups of up to six, from a maximum of two households.

However, I take this opportunity to remind people in the rest of the country that staying out of one another’s homes, while incredibly difficult, is the most important and effective way of limiting the spread of the virus.

Finally, I confirm that the Highlands, Moray, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders will all remain in level 1.

I also confirm that, during the next two weeks, we will use the experience of the levels system to date to consider whether the specific restrictions in each level remain adequate or require amendment in any way.

Broadly speaking, we think that the levels approach has worked well. However, we know that the winter period will put it under greater pressure—indeed, it is already doing so. We also know—we see this in some of the data that I have reported today—that case numbers are rising in some areas despite level 3 restrictions having been in place for some weeks. Therefore, the time is right to review the system, and I will report the outcome of that review to Parliament after Christmas recess.

I am aware that the outcome of today’s review, and its wider context in Scotland, across the UK and in Europe, is difficult. We have been reminded again in recent days that Covid still presents a real risk—not only for us, but for countries around the world. Over the weekend, we saw Germany and the Netherlands announce extended lockdowns, and of course it has been confirmed that, from tomorrow, the whole of London will enter England’s highest tier of protection, which includes full closure of hospitality.

Vaccination undoubtedly holds out a genuine hope for a return to something closer to normality in, I hope, the not-too-distant future. However, that point is not quite here yet. For the moment, all of us need to do everything that we can to limit the opportunities that we give the virus to spread.

Most of us will now be thinking ahead to plans for Christmas. As I said, there will be a four-nations discussion later today to take stock of recent developments, and I think that that is right and proper. However, for now, I urge the utmost caution.

If you can avoid mixing with other households over Christmas, especially indoors, please do. If you feel that it is essential to meet—and we have tried to be pragmatic in recognising that some people will feel that way—please reduce your unnecessary contacts as much as possible between now and then and follow all the sensible rules and mitigations.

For all that the past 10 months have been difficult, I know the next few weeks are likely to be the toughest part of the whole experience so far for many of us. The thought of staying away from loved ones over Christmas is difficult for any of us to bear. I hope that, by this time next year, all of this will be starting to fade into a bad memory and we will be looking forward to a much more normal Christmas. There is no doubt that the best gift that we can give our family and friends this year is, if at all possible, to keep our distance, meet outdoors, if at all, and keep one another safe.

It remains essential for all of us to stick to the current rules and guidelines. The vast majority of us, with some exceptions for island communities, should not meet in other people’s houses. That is hard but necessary. If you have been dropping your guard on that recently, I ask you to think again. If we meet outdoors, or in public indoor places, we must stick to the limit of six people from a maximum of two households. Travel restrictions continue to be vital. Nobody who lives in a level 3 area should travel outside their local authority area unless that is essential; people from other parts of the country should not go into level 3 areas unless that is essential.

Finally, remember FACTS, the five rules that will help to keep us all safe in our day-to-day lives: wear face coverings; avoid crowded spaces; clean your hands and hard surfaces; keep to a 2m distance; and self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms. Sticking to those rules now remains the best way for all of us to protect one another. By doing so, we will help to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe; we will help to protect the national health service; and, most of all, we will help to save lives.

This year has been unremittingly horrible for everyone, but it has nevertheless reminded us what matters most: health, family, community and love. Let us hold on to all of that, and to a determination to keep one another safe, as we prepare to celebrate this difficult and different Christmas.