Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd December 2020.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Today’s statement is a bit different from those that I have made in recent weeks, mainly because the most important decisions for the period ahead were set out on Saturday. I will, of course, reiterate those decisions and the reasons for them in the course of this statement. I will also share with the chamber the latest information that we have on the new strain of Covid that is causing us such concern, and I will reflect on the on-going impact of the closure of the United Kingdom-France border to accompanied freight.

However, I will start, as usual, with a brief summary of the latest Covid statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,316. That represents 7.5 per cent of all tests carried out, and the total number of cases now stands at 114,366. There are currently 1,045 people in hospital, which is a decrease of 33 from yesterday, and 60 people are in intensive care, which is one more than yesterday.

I also regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 43 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measurement is now 4,326. Those figures continue to be a sharp reminder of the grief, heartbreak and overall toll that the virus is causing. Once again, my deepest thoughts and condolences go to all those who have lost a loved one.

Today’s statistics, like those that we have been reporting over recent weeks, underline a couple of points. First, Covid is still circulating in Scotland at a higher level than we would wish. However, and I appreciate that this may be less obvious, the case data from recent weeks also shows that the levels system has until now been effective. In late October, Scotland was recording more than 160 new cases of Covid per 100,000 people on average every week. Two weeks ago, that had fallen to around 100 and it is now around 116 per 100,000. That level of incidence is significantly lower than the level in other parts of the UK; for example, it is around half that of England and around a fifth of the current case incidence in Wales.

However, after a sustained period of decline, our case numbers are now more volatile again and have risen by around 15 per cent in the past couple of weeks. The number of people with Covid who are in hospital and the number in intensive care have also risen slightly again, after a period of quite marked decline.

In any circumstances those trends would be a cause for concern and merit close analysis, but they would probably not on their own justify the actions that I announced on Saturday. What has changed our thinking and approach significantly is the information that we have received over the past eight days or so about the presence and impact of a new variant of Covid. It is important to stress again that there is no evidence at this stage that the new variant causes more severe illness than previously circulating strains, nor is there any evidence so far that it will undermine the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments.

However, the new variant seems to be much more transmissible—perhaps up to 70 per cent more transmissible—which means that it can spread far more quickly and easily. As a result, there is now a significant degree of confidence among experts that it increases the R number and that the scale of increase could be 0.4. Given that the R number in Scotland is already hovering around 1, that is obviously a very real concern. Analysis was published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics of the results of the weekly ONS Covid infection survey, which uses polymerase chain reaction testing on a random sample of people in Scotland, looking for a proxy marker known as the S-gene dropout.

There is continuing technical work under way on the use of the S-gene dropout as a marker for the new strain and it is not absolutely definitive that every case with that marker will be the new variant. However, the analysis suggests that, in the week beginning 9 December, around 14 per cent of positive cases in Scotland already had the S-gene dropout, which compares to just 5 per cent at the end of November. It is not unreasonable to assume that the proportion may be higher by now; Public Health Scotland is carrying out further analysis.

Fourteen per cent is, of course, still a significantly lower level than the level in England, where it is thought that the new variant already accounts for 36 per cent of cases, and that may be even higher in London and the south-east. The very rapid spread in London and the south-east serves as a warning of what we could face here if we do not take firm action to suppress the virus.

We have a real concern that, without significant counter-measures, we could be facing another period of exponential growth as we enter the new year. That would mean many more people catching Covid and, even without the new strain causing more severe illness, that would result in many more people needing hospital and intensive care treatment, which would put an enormous strain on the national health service and lead to much more loss of life. To be blunt, that is what we have to act now to stop. In an ideal world, it would be good to wait a few weeks until preliminary analysis becomes more concrete and confidence intervals narrow. However, if the concerns that we have now prove to be well founded, by then it would be too late—we have learned that we must act firmly in the face of the virus. That is why we announced significant additional measures on Saturday. I know how tough those are, but we believe that they are essential to avoid an extremely serious deterioration in the situation as we move into the new year.

Let me recap now on what those measures are. First, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and the other relatively remote islands that have had restrictions relaxed in recent weeks will move to level 3 from 1 minute past midnight on boxing day. At that point, the rest of Scotland will move to level 4 for a period of 3 weeks. There will be a review after 2 weeks. That means, for example, that hospitality will require to close, with the exception of takeaway services, and so too will non-essential retail.

There are three further points that it is important for me to make today about level 4 restrictions. First, given the severity of the situation that we face and the need to limit interactions as much as possible, we intend to define essential retail more narrowly than we have done recently. In short, that means that homeware stores and garden centres will be classed as non-essential and will therefore require to close, with the exception of click and collect. Secondly, in level 3 and level 4, the law currently prohibits non-essential travel outside your local authority area. However, for those who are living in level 4 areas—which from Saturday will be the vast majority of us—our strong advice is to stay as local as possible and at home as much as possible. We will be considering in the days ahead whether we need to place that advice in law.

Thirdly and more generally, as more evidence of the impact of the new strain becomes available, we will consider whether there is a need to strengthen level 4 restrictions any further. Again, I need to be blunt with the Parliament and the public: the current level 4 restrictions are not as stringent as the March lockdown and until now that has been a good thing. However, it seems that we may be facing a virus that spreads much faster now than it did in March, so we need to consider whether the current level 4 restrictions will be sufficient to suppress it in the weeks ahead.

That will be analysis that the Government undertakes urgently as our understanding of the new strain of the virus develops, and I will keep the Parliament updated as necessary, including over the recess period if that is necessary. The second decision that we took on Saturday was to maintain the current ban on travel to and from Scotland and the rest of the UK. Again, that was a decision that we did not take lightly. However, as we seek to suppress the new strain in Scotland, we must also guard against importing more of it from areas where it is already circulating more widely. The travel ban will remain in place throughout the festive period, including, unfortunately, on Christmas day, and as the chief constable has set out, the police will be enhancing their enforcement of it.

Regrettably, we also tightened other restrictions for the Christmas period. It is now possible to meet in a bubble of up to eight people from three households on Christmas day only and in Scotland only, rather than over a five-day period across the UK. However, our strong advice remains not to meet indoors at all if possible. When it comes to indoor celebrations this year, by far the safest option is to stay in your own house with your own household. If you plan to see people from other households on Christmas day, please try to stay outdoors if you can, but if you are indoors, please keep the numbers as low and the duration as short as possible, keep a safe distance as far as possible, wash your hands and surfaces regularly and keep windows open.

I cannot tell you how sorry I am to be standing here saying these things, and there is no part of me that is oblivious to the impact of it. I do not just understand that impact; I feel it, as everyone else does. However, it is necessary to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe at this extremely difficult and challenging time. I want to thank everyone from the very bottom of my heart for making these sacrifices.

The final, but extremely significant, decision that I announced on Saturday relates to schools. Keeping schools open has been a priority for the Scottish Government since August and it remains a priority, as far as is possible. However, the recent developments—and all aspects of them—mean that we need to take a precautionary approach and give ourselves some time to assess the situation. As a result, we have taken the difficult decision to delay the start of the new school term. It was a difficult decision for us, but even more so for the young people and parents affected.

Schools had been due to reopen from 5 January onwards. Now, they will reopen from 5 January for children of key workers and for particularly vulnerable children only. Local authorities identified key workers at an earlier stage in the pandemic and updated guidance was published last night. For all other pupils, the school term will start on 11 January. However, the first week of term, at least, will take place online. At this stage, our intention is that schools will get back to normal from 18 January. Of course, we will require to keep that under review.

I know that all the measures are harsh and are very difficult for people and businesses. For so many businesses, the announcements represent a horrible end to a terrible year. Financial support will remain available for businesses affected and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance is urgently assessing what more the Scottish Government can do, in particular for the sectors that are most acutely affected.

I also know that the developments of the past few days, while worrying for everyone, will cause particular anxiety for those who were shielding. The chief medical officer has written to everyone on the shielding list who will enter level 4 on Saturday, setting out the advice that applies to them. That advice has also been sent by SMS text message and is available on the Government website. The level 4 advice is restrictive, but it still encourages those who were shielding to find a balance that is right for them. Among other things, the letter will advise people on the shielding list that, if they cannot work from home, they should speak to their employer, who must put precautions in place to keep them safe. However, the letter also serves as a fit note, which can be used to obtain statutory sick pay if someone cannot safely go to work. The letter also provides details of how to get help, for example if someone has difficulties accessing food or groceries in this period. I say to those on the shielding list: please do not hesitate to ask for support if you need it.

I know that many people may question whether the measures are strictly necessary, especially given Scotland’s relatively low level of prevalence of the virus compared to other parts of the UK. My firm judgment is that they are absolutely necessary. They are not simply a response to our current situation but are necessary precautionary measures to avoid a significant deterioration in our situation over the next few weeks, caused by the new strain of the virus. In short, the measures are essential to protect our national health service and save lives. I do not expect a single person to be happy about them, but I ask everyone to try to understand that those decisions would not have been taken if we did not consider them to be essential.

Before I close today, I want to address the impact of the decisions made by many other countries to close their borders to the UK in response to the new strain of the virus. By far the most serious impact derives from the closure of the UK-French border to accompanied freight. I took part in a COBRA meeting on that issue yesterday and also chaired a meeting of our own resilience committee. I was hoping that there would be another COBRA meeting later today, but that had not yet been confirmed when I came to the chamber to speak—I still hope that that meeting will take place.

The situation is serious, urgent and, for our food exporters, rapidly deteriorating. The UK Government needs to reach agreement with France, without delay, to get freight moving again. There is no time to lose.

I want to stress at the outset that we have no concerns about medicine supplies at this stage. That issue was covered in detail in the COBRA meeting and at the Scottish Government resilience committee meeting yesterday. We also have no immediate concerns about food supplies. Supermarkets are well stocked, so there is no need for anyone to buy more than planned in the run-up to Christmas. Of course, if the situation is not resolved in the next day or so, we may start to see pressure on some fresh produce after Christmas. However, that is not a concern right now and I hope that it is an issue that will not arise at all.

However, what is of real and immediate concern is the impact on our food exporters, especially those in the Scottish seafood sector. This is the peak time of year for seafood exports, and the Christmas export trade is now almost certainly lost. That is devastating for our world-class seafood businesses, which need—and will get—our support. We are liaising with the sector on the need for immediate financial support, and I raised the issue of compensation at the COBRA meeting yesterday.

What the sector needs most of all is for the UK Government and France to agree a protocol to get freight moving again without delay. If that does not happen almost immediately, the sector stands to lose its new year export trade, too. I very much hope that a protocol will be agreed between the UK and France today—indeed, I hope that we might even get movement during this statement—but that is not yet certain. What is even less certain is how long it will take to put any agreement into operation.

The Scottish Government is pressing, and will continue to press, the UK Government to give the matter the utmost priority, and we stand ready to help in any way we can. Given that any solution is likely to include mass testing of freight drivers, that willingness to help includes a willingness, if the terms of the agreement allow, to provide testing facilities for our sector here in Scotland. I assure the sector, Parliament and the public generally that my ministers and I will remain fully and actively engaged on those matters until they are resolved.

Let me conclude. We are now, of course, just three days away from Christmas, and I am acutely aware that today’s update has not had a festive feel to it at all. We have known that our path out of the pandemic would not always be smooth and straightforward, and that it would bring dark days and challenging periods. I know that Saturday felt like a very dark and difficult day for all of us, and I know that it is not possible for me to take away the heavy burden that we all feel just with some hopeful words.

Nevertheless, I want to end on a hopeful note, because—hard though it is to feel it just now—there is hope on the horizon, and we must try not to lose sight of it. First, it is possible that we have found out about the new variant of Covid at an early enough stage to take effective preventative action. By moving quickly, we might be able to minimise its worst effects. All of us have a role to play in that. I know that it sometimes seems as though we are powerless in the face of the virus, but we are absolutely not. None of us can guarantee that we will not get or transmit the virus, but we can all make choices that will make that less likely.

That remains true of the new variant. It seems to transmit more easily, but it can still be stopped in its tracks by the FACTS advice that we have emphasised so many times before: wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean your hands and surfaces; keep a 2m distance from people from other households; and self-isolate and get tested immediately if you have symptoms. All those things still work in reducing the transmission of the new strain of the virus. The new variant has made them more important than ever; they are how we keep one another safe. I ask everyone, wherever they are, to assume that the virus—especially the new strain of it—is with them, and to act in a way that will minimise the chances of spread.

That is especially important because—this is the real reason for hope—tens of thousands of people in Scotland have already been vaccinated against Covid. The updated figures will be published tomorrow. Of course, those who have been vaccinated include many of the people who were most at risk of dying from the virus.

As we do the difficult things in the weeks ahead to suppress the virus all over again, this time we are buying time for the vaccination programme to pick up pace. Though it might feel in the next few weeks that things are getting worse—I know that, in terms of health, jobs and living standards, that will be a reality for many—the fact is that things will also be getting better. The vaccines will be making sure of that, and they promise a route back to greater normality for all of us.

In the past nine months or so, we have come through a lot together, and I know that the realisation that we have tough times still to come is hard to bear. It is hard emotionally, it is hard practically and, for so many, it is very hard financially. The Scottish Government will continue to do all that we can to offer help and support.

However, brighter days will come. Yesterday, in fact, was the shortest and darkest day of the year. From now on, the days will get longer and lighter. Spring is on its way. Let us try to hold on to that.

For the moment, let us remember that the best gift that we can give this Christmas to those we love is to keep them safe, so please follow the rules, remember FACTS and look out for one another. At Christmas, just as we have done throughout the year, let us treat one another with kindness, compassion and love. I fully appreciate that this might not be the happiest of Christmases for everyone, but I take this opportunity to wish everyone a peaceful and healthy Christmas.