Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th January 2021.

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Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Before I begin, I would like to mark with great sadness the passing of one of the former members of our Parliament, Kay Ullrich.

Kay was one of the original class of 1999, and she was hugely respected across the chamber. She was a Scottish National Party member of 55 years standing and a lifelong, extremely passionate campaigner for the cause of Scottish independence. However, for many of us, she was first and foremost the dearest of friends; somebody whom we loved. She was one of the biggest influences in my life, and was literally the first person I met and campaigned for when I joined the SNP as a 16-year-old. We will all miss her hugely and, in paying tribute to her today, I send my love and condolences to her husband, Grady, and her children, John and Shelley. I also say to her beloved grandchildren that you really were the light of her life. Your granny was a very special person, and she was extremely proud of all of you.

I will turn now to my statement. First, I thank the Presiding Officer for this recall of Parliament and join him in wishing everyone all the very best for a new year that we hope—despite its difficult start—will bring better times.

The Cabinet met this morning to assess the up-to-date Covid situation—which, I must say at the outset, is extremely serious—and discuss what further action is necessary to minimise further spread of the virus. Shortly, I will set out the decisions that we reached. However, I can confirm now, in summary, that we have decided to introduce from midnight tonight, for the duration of January, a legal requirement to stay at home except for essential purposes. This is similar to the lockdown of March last year.

Before I set out cabinet’s decisions in more detail, I want to explain in some detail why they are so necessary.

During the past few weeks there have been two significant game changers in our fight against this virus. One—the approval of vaccines—is hugely positive and offers us the way out of this pandemic. However, the other—the new, faster-spreading variant of the virus—is a massive blow.

Possibly the simplest way to explain the challenge that we face right now is to compare it to a race. In one lane we have vaccines, and our job is to ensure that they run as fast as possible. That is why the Government will do everything we can to vaccinate people as quickly as possible, and I will say more about that later. In the other lane is the virus, which—as a result of this new variant—has just learned to run much faster and has most definitely picked up pace in the last couple of weeks.

To ensure that the vaccine wins the race it is essential to speed up vaccinations as far as possible. However, to give the vaccine the time that it needs to get ahead, we must also slow the virus down. Because it is now spreading faster, that means that even tougher restrictions are necessary.

The evidence is now compelling that the new variant is up to 70 per cent more transmissible than previously circulating strains, and that it may add as much as 0.7 to the R number. According to recent analysis of polymerase chain reaction test samples, it appears that the new variant already accounts for almost half of all new cases in Scotland. That increased and faster spread is undoubtedly driving the very serious situation that we now face.

Today’s case numbers—1,905 new cases, with 15 per cent of tests being positive—illustrate the severity and urgency of the situation. No new deaths were reported today, because yesterday was a Sunday and registration offices were largely closed, but 289 deaths have been recorded in the daily figures since I updated Parliament before Christmas. That again reminds us of the continuing grief that the pandemic is causing.

However, I stress that this is not just about one day’s numbers—we are now seeing a steeply rising trend of infections. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that I am more concerned about the situation that we face now than I have been at any time since March last year. In the week from 23 to 30 December, the seven-day incidence of cases per 100,000 of the population increased by 65 per cent from 136 to 225 per 100,000. Test positivity has risen sharply, too.

The next update on the numbers of Covid patients in hospital and intensive care will be published tomorrow. I would expect that update to show that, nationally, the total number of Covid patients in hospital is close to its April peak. In some boards, the pressure is already very real. For example, in terms of hospital beds, NHS Ayrshire and Arran is currently at 96 per cent of its Covid capacity and three other health boards—NHS Borders, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and NHS Lanarkshire—are above 60 per cent of their capacity.

The number of people in intensive care is still significantly lower than the April peak, which partly reflects the fact that the treatment of Covid has improved significantly, but even so, the total number of patients in intensive care in Scotland is already above normal winter levels. Indeed, all mainland health boards have now exceeded their normal intensive care unit capacity.

It is important to be clear—this is a key point—that people who are in hospital and intensive care now are likely to have been infected 10 days to two weeks ago, which means that those numbers reflect what the level of new cases was around two weeks ago. Given that the number of cases has increased significantly since then, we can expect to see significantly increased pressure on the national health service over the course of this month.

Contingency plans remain in place to double and then treble ICU capacity if necessary, and the NHS Louisa Jordan continues to be available to help meet demand, as indeed it has been doing in recent months—12,000 patients have attended there for scans and out-patient appointments, nearly 5,000 NHS staff and students have been trained there and it is currently being used for Covid vaccinations.

In short, NHS services are coping at present, although the pressure on front-line staff is considerable, but already in some areas the position is fragile and getting more challenging. If the rate of increase in case numbers that we have seen in the past two weeks was to continue unchecked, there would be a real risk of our NHS being overwhelmed—even with contingency plans in place. In fact, our modelling suggests that without further intervention, we could breach in-patient Covid capacity within three or four weeks. Of course, a sharply increasing number of cases means, in human terms, many more people becoming ill and dying.

All that explains why we have to act quickly and decisively. The situation in some other parts of the United Kingdom, where case numbers are already much higher than here and where the contribution of the new variant is already greater, shows what may lie ahead if we do not act. As things stand, we estimate that we are possibly about four weeks behind the position in London and the south-east of England. The rapid acceleration in London began when it was at about 160 new cases a week for every 100,000 people. That is the level that Scotland was at a week ago. London is now seeing 900 new cases a week per 100,000, its test positivity is around 27 per cent and pressure on NHS services is acute.

We have an opportunity in Scotland to avert the situation here deteriorating to that extent, but we must act quickly. The advice of our clinical advisers is clear that the increased transmissibility of the new variant means that the current level 4 measures may not be sufficient to bring the R number back below 1. Therefore, it is essential that we further limit interaction between different households to stem the spread and bring the situation back under control while we vaccinate more people. In short, we must return for a period to a situation much closer to the lockdown of last March.

I will, therefore, set out in more detail the decisions that the Cabinet reached this morning. It is important to stress that those decisions were not taken lightly. I am acutely aware of the impact that they will have and I know that they will not be welcome, but we judge them to be essential.

Our clear and overriding duty as a Government is to act quickly to save lives and to protect the NHS. We know that any delay or prevarication in the face of the virus almost always makes things worse, not better, even if that stems from an understandable shared desire to wait for more data or evidence.

I will speak later about our decisions on schools. Those will apply to all parts of Scotland. The other decisions that I am about to outline will apply to those parts of Scotland that are currently in level 4—which is all of mainland Scotland—and are effectively an enhancement to level 4. The island areas currently in level 3 will remain there for now, although we will continue to monitor them carefully.

The additional level 4 restrictions—which essentially return us to a position similar to the lockdown of last March—will be in place for the whole of January. We will keep them closely under review. I cannot, at this stage, rule out keeping the restrictions in place for longer or making further changes. Nothing about the current situation is easy.

The first measure is that our fundamental advice to everyone is to stay at home. That is the single best way of staying safe. We consider that stay at home message to be so important that, from tomorrow, it will become law, just as it was in the lockdown last year. That means that it will only be permissible to leave home for essential purposes. Those will include, for example, caring responsibilities, essential shopping, exercise and being part of an extended household.

In addition, anyone who is able to work from home must do so. It will be a reasonable excuse to leave home to go to work only if that work cannot be done from home. We are asking people and businesses to take that really seriously—as we all did during the first lockdown in March—because the situation is at least as serious now as it was then.

The law already requires many businesses in certain sectors to close if they are in level 4 areas. We now need every business to look again at its operations, and to ensure that every function that can be carried out by people working at home is being done in that way.

Businesses have already shown tremendous capacity for adaptation during the pandemic, and I am grateful to them for that. We need them to consider their operations again, as we all work together to reduce transmission. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture will speak to business organisations about that, starting later this afternoon. We will also engage with trade unions on the issues and we will continue to consider whether more regulatory action is required.

We are also providing new guidance for people who are shielding. Our clear advice now is that people who were shielding and cannot work from home should not go into work at all. The chief medical officer is writing to everyone who falls into that category and his letter will count as a fit note for those who need it.

Unlike during the lockdown last year, the frequency of outdoor exercise is not being limited. It is important for physical and mental health that we get outdoors for fresh air and exercise as much as possible. However, from tomorrow, the rule on outdoor gatherings will change. As of now, up to six people from two households can meet outdoors. Given the greater transmissibility of the new variant of the virus, we consider it necessary to restrict that further. From tomorrow, a maximum of two people from up to two households will be able to meet outdoors. Children aged 11 and under will not be counted in that limit, and they will also be able to play outdoors in larger groups, including in organised gatherings. However, for everyone else—including 12 to 17-year-olds—outdoor exercise should take place only in a way that is consistent with the two people from two households rule.

In addition, strict travel restrictions remain in place across Scotland. From tomorrow, if you live in a level 4 area, as the majority of us do, you cannot leave your home except for an essential purpose. When you do go out, stay as close to home as possible and stay away from crowded places. I stress that it remains the case that no one is allowed to travel into or out of Scotland unless it is for an essential purpose.

A number of other measures will come into effect on Friday. It is with real regret that we consider it necessary for places of worship to close during this period for all purposes except for broadcasting a service or conducting a funeral, wedding or civil partnership. I am well aware of how important communal worship is to people, but we believe that the restriction is necessary to reduce the risk of transmission. Although up to 20 people will still be able to attend funeral services, wakes will not be possible during January, and a maximum of five people will be able to attend wedding and civil partnership services. I know how devastating such restrictions are, and I give an assurance that we will not keep them in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary.

There will also be additional measures in relation to businesses, in addition to the tightening of the “essential retail” definition that took effect from boxing day. The current 1m exemption for workplace canteens will end, so canteens will have to ensure that employees sit 2m or more apart, rather than 1m.

The number of non-essential services that remain open will be further restricted. Premises that will need to close as a result of the changes will include, for example, ski centres, the showrooms of larger retailers and clinics that offer cosmetic and aesthetic procedures.

I know that many businesses have already been hit by the restrictions that were put in place on boxing day, and of course I know that the vast majority of businesses have taken their responsibilities seriously and invested in Covid safety measures. In addition, the move to home working has brought challenges for workers and employers, and I am hugely grateful for the way in which businesses and their staff have responded to those challenges.

Grants are, of course, available for businesses that are required to close as a result of restrictions. That support is in addition to support through the UK-wide furlough scheme. The Scottish Government’s financial support for businesses during the pandemic currently totals more than £2.3 billion, but we will continue to assess what more we can do, either through closure grants or other forms of support, to help businesses and those who work for them. We will also work with councils to ensure community and social support for those who need it, including for parents balancing work and online learning. We will confirm additional resources for those purposes later this week.

The final substantive issue that I want to address, before giving an update on vaccination, relates to schools. Before Christmas, we announced that most school pupils would learn remotely, rather than in school, until Monday 18 January. I can confirm that we have now decided to extend that date and keep schools closed to the majority of pupils until 1 February. We will review that again in mid-January. The change will apply to all pupils, except vulnerable children and the children of key workers, and it will include nursery schools as well as primary and secondary schools.

There is no doubt at all that, of all the difficult decisions that we have had to take today, that was the most difficult of all, and its impact is, of course, the most severe. The evidence to date makes it clear that, thanks to the hard work of school staff and pupils, schools in Scotland have been low-risk environments for Covid. We will work with partners to ensure that that can remain the case. That will include on-going work on testing in schools and discussions about when, in the context of the overall programme, it will be possible to vaccinate school staff.

I want to be clear that it remains our priority to get school buildings open again for all pupils as quickly as possible, and then to keep them open. However, right now, two factors mean that it is not consistent with a safety-first approach for all children to attend school in person. First, the overall level of community transmission is simply too high. We need to get transmission down before schools can safely reopen. A period of online learning will help us to do that. The second reason is that there is still significant uncertainty about the impact of the new variant on transmission among young people.

We must therefore adopt a cautious approach at this stage, and that is why most pupils will be learning online for at least the rest of the month. On 18 January, we will review whether they can, as we hope, return to school on 1 February. I know that remote learning presents significant challenges for teachers, schools, parents and young people, and we will work to support children and parents throughout this time. The Government, Education Scotland and local authorities are working together to further improve the remote learning options that are available for schools.

It is worth highlighting that, since schools returned after the summer, more than 50,000 devices such as laptops have been distributed to children and young people to help with remote learning. More devices are being distributed by councils every week and, in total, we expect our investment, which builds on existing local authority action, to benefit about 70,000 disadvantaged children and young people across the country.

I want to stress one final point. Just as the last places that we ever want to close are schools and nurseries, so it is the case that schools and nurseries will be the first places that we will want to reopen as we re-emerge from the latest period of lockdown. They remain our priority. That is why we are considering whether and to what extent, consistent with our overall duty to vaccinate the most vulnerable first in line with Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommendations, we can achieve vaccination of school and childcare staff as a priority. I point out that many teachers will be vaccinated over the coming weeks as part of the JCVI priority list.

The fortnightly review will not simply be a choice between opening and closing schools. We will always seek to maximise the number of pupils that we can safely get back to classrooms and nurseries, so if the evidence tells us that we can get some pupils back safely, that is what we will do. However, ultimately, the best way of enabling more pupils to return more quickly is by reducing community transmission of the virus as much as possible. All of us, by accepting and abiding by the wider restrictions that I have set out today, have a part to play in achieving that.

Before I leave the issue of education, let me remind the chamber that we already had plans in place for the staggered return of universities and colleges. We will be considering this week whether any further change to that plan is necessary.

Before I close, I want to give a brief update on our current expectations around vaccine supply. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will give a more detailed update on vaccination in a statement to the chamber next week. However, I can confirm that well over 100,000 people have now received their first dose of the vaccine. The first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are being administered in Scotland today.

In total, over the period to the end of January, including the more than 100,000 already administered, we expect to have access to just over 900,000 doses of vaccine, although we obviously hope that that number will increase. Those doses will be split roughly equally between the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. However, we anticipate that some of the AstraZeneca portion will be available only in the final week of January. We do not yet have certainty on supply schedules beyond January, but we will keep Parliament updated as those become firmer.

Our current expectation, based on assumptions about supply and the new advice on doses being administered up to 12 weeks apart, rather than three, is that by early May everyone over 50, and people under 50 with specific underlying conditions, will have received at least the first dose of vaccine. That is everyone who is on the JCVI priority list and comprises more than 2.5 million people. Once everyone on the priority list has been vaccinated, we will start vaccinating the rest of the population, in parallel with completing second doses for those on the priority list. Those timetables are, of course, heavily dependent on vaccine supply and, for that reason, they are also cautious. However, I have tasked our vaccination team with exploring and keeping under on-going review all possible options to speed up the rate of vaccination and bring those timescales forward as far as possible.

I am grateful for the many offers of assistance that we have received and, although many of them may not prove possible or practical to take up, they will all be considered. The health secretary will say more about all that in her statement next week.

To conclude, this is most certainly not the new year statement that I wanted to give and I know that it is a statement that no one wanted to hear. However, as I said at the beginning, we are now in a race between the vaccine and the virus. The Scottish Government will do everything that we can to speed up distribution of the vaccine, but we must all do everything that we can to slow down the spread of the virus.

We can already see by looking at infection rates elsewhere some of what could happen here in Scotland if we do not act. To prevent that, we must act immediately and firmly. For Government, that means introducing tough measures, as we have done today, and for all of us it means sticking to the rules. It means continuing to follow the FACTS guidance and it means, above all, staying at home.

That is, again, our central message: stay home, save lives, protect the NHS. If we do that, we will give the vaccine the time that it needs to get ahead and, ultimately, to win the race. I know that the next few weeks will be incredibly difficult. I am sorry to ask for further sacrifices after nine long months of them, but these sacrifices are necessary.

The difference between now and last March is that, with the help of vaccines, we now have confidence that the sacrifices will pave the way to brighter days ahead. Therefore, for everyone’s sake and safety, please stick with it and stay at home.