By Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister
The statistics that we have been reporting each day for the past three weeks demonstrate the progress that we have made. Incidence and prevalence of the virus are, as of now, at very low levels in Scotland. Three weeks ago, we estimated that 1,000 people in Scotland had been infectious with the virus in the week before. Our estimate for last week is that 300 people in Scotland were infectious.
In addition, our latest modelling suggests that the R number remains below 1, so our progress is real and substantial, and it has been very hard earned by everybody across the country, but—I am afraid that this is a necessary “but”—the virus has not gone away. It is still circulating in Scotland, and it remains highly infectious and very dangerous. That is why I am not able to indicate today a move from phase 3 of our route map out of lockdown to phase 4.
A move to phase 4 would require us to be satisfied that the virus “is no longer considered a significant threat to public health.”
Unfortunately, that is far from being the case. For that reason, the Cabinet decided yesterday that we will remain in phase 3 for now, and although we will consider this every three weeks, it is possible that phase 3 will continue even beyond the next review point.
That decision—and the fragility of our progress against the virus—means that changes over the next three weeks, beyond the two significant ones that I will come on to, will be minimal. However, I will give some indicative dates for when we hope additional activities and services can resume.
Although we cannot move to phase 4 today, the progress that we have made does allow two important changes to happen in the next two-week period. I am very pleased to confirm that, from 1 August, we will pause the advice for people to shield. For those of you who have been shielding, that means that, from this Saturday, you can now follow the guidance for the general population, but please be especially careful about face coverings, hand hygiene and physical distancing.
The pause also means that children who have been shielding will be able to return to school and that adults will be able to return to work. Of course, our advice not simply for shielding people but for everyone remains that you should continue to work from home whenever and wherever that is possible. If you are returning to work as a shielded person, please know that guidance is available for you and your employers on the Scottish Government’s website.
That guidance allows you to calculate an individual risk score to help you and your employer to make your return to work as safe as possible. It was developed by clinicians and occupational health experts, and we have worked with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, trade unions and business organisations to make sure that it is quickly adopted by employers.
I know that the pause in shielding will be an enormous relief to many, but I strongly suspect that it will also be making you feel anxious. Please be assured that we are pausing shielding now because we do believe that it is safe to do so. However, if circumstances change, our advice will also change. We will continue to put your safety first.
I think it is really hard for those of us who have not been shielding to fully comprehend how hard the past few months have been for those of you who have been doing so. I want you to know how deeply grateful I am to all of you for your patience and sacrifice. By following the advice, you have protected yourselves, reassured your loved ones and helped our health and care services immensely. I thank each and every one of you for that.
The other major change that I can confirm today relates to schools. It is a moral and educational imperative that we get children back to school as soon as is safely possible. In fact, a key reason for our cautious approach to lockdown easing over the past two months—and, indeed, over the next few weeks—is the determination to drive the virus down as low as possible and keep prevalence low so that schools can reopen safely in August.
I am therefore very pleased to confirm today that schools will return from 11 August. Given how long children have been out of school, some local authorities may opt for a phased return over the first few days, but we expect all pupils to be at school full time from 18 August at the latest. I realise that earlier confirmation of that would have provided more certainty for schools and for parents to get ready for the new term, but we had to be very sure that the latest evidence supported the decision.
Last Friday, the education recovery group agreed guidance to support the safe return of schools. That guidance, which is being published today, draws on scientific advice from our advisory group on education and children’s issues. The guidance makes it clear that, in general, physical distancing between pupils will not be required while they are on the school estate, although distance should be maintained between pupils in secondary schools, where possible, provided that that does not compromise the return to full-time schooling. Distancing should also be maintained between staff members and between staff and pupils.
The guidance also sets out the risk mitigation measures that must be introduced in all education settings. They include ventilation, good hygiene practices and improved cleaning regimes. It is absolutely vital for the safe reopening of schools that those measures are applied rigorously in all settings.
In addition, important public health measures will be in place for schools. They include test and protect and fast, priority access to testing for any symptomatic staff and pupils. We will also establish an enhanced surveillance programme in schools, which will allow us to identify any impact of the virus on pupils and staff in schools across the country.
I can also confirm that, in addition to the £45 million that has previously been announced, we will make available a further £30 million to support recruitment of additional teachers. We anticipate that that total investment of £75 million will enable recruitment of about 1,400 extra teachers.
In addition, we will invest a further £30 million, on top of the £20 million that has already been announced, as part of a £50 million education recovery fund for local authorities. That will support extra cleaning, facilities management, school transport and other practical measures that are absolutely vital in ensuring a safe return to schools.
I must be clear, and I emphasise the point, that at this stage no one—not me, nor the education secretary: no one—can absolutely rule out the possible need for blended-learning arrangements in the future, either at national level or locally, if there are significant increases in the incidence and prevalence of Covid. However, the current low prevalence of the virus, together with all the safety measures that we are putting in place, gives us as good a basis as we could have hoped for to get children back to school in August.
I take the opportunity again to thank children and young people for the way that you have coped with the considerable disruption to your lives. I think that I speak for the whole country when I say that we could not be prouder of you, and I promise that we will do everything that we can to get things back on track for you as quickly as possible. I am sure that none of you will ever forget Covid, but we are absolutely determined to make sure that you will not bear the legacy of it later in your lives.
Finally on education, I confirm that we are today publishing updated guidance for childcare providers. The new guidance will come into effect from 10 August. It does not represent a return to complete normality for childcare providers, but it reduces the current restrictions while setting out age-appropriate measures to minimise risks for staff, children and families, and wider communities. We know how important stable childcare is to families; the changes will help to make it more accessible.
I am sure that the two main changes that we are confirming today—a pause in shielding and full-time reopening of schools—will be welcomed by people across the country. They are significant steps back to a less restricted way of life. They also support a return to greater normality for the economy. The changes have been made possible only because the prevalence of Covid is currently so low in Scotland. In fact, in many ways, Scotland is now in a better position in relation to Covid than I would have dared to hope for a few weeks ago. However, as I have said already, that position is very fragile. We have seen a slightly higher level of new cases in Scotland in recent days, although some fluctuation is to be expected. We are also seeing clusters and outbreaks, such as NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is experiencing right now—although, again, they are to be expected.
Nonetheless, the situation around the world and across Europe, and even in England, gives us some cause for concern. We know from our experience in late February and early March just how rapidly the virus can take hold and run out of control. The fact is that if we are not very careful now, we could, in two or three weeks’ time, easily be facing, here in Scotland, some of the very difficult issues that we are currently hearing about in the news from other parts of the world.
It is also the case that we cannot yet fully assess the impact of the changes—they are really significant changes—that have been made over the past three weeks, such as the reopening of tourism and indoor hospitality. We must also—this is really important—allow some time for the impact of reopening schools to be assessed before we make further major changes. For that reason, only a small number of further changes are planned to take place during the next three weeks. I will now confirm what they will be.
From Monday, routine eye-care services, including regular eye examinations, can be carried out in community optometry premises and, where necessary and appropriate, in people’s homes. Counselling services such as drug and alcohol support groups will be able to provide essential services, following relevant guidance and with physical distancing.
In addition, sports coaches will be able to meet groups from more than four households in a single day, and we will shortly confirm when they can work with larger groups.
From 17 August, a wider range of dental care procedures can resume. In particular, aerosol procedures, which create a fine mist through use of a high-speed drill, will be allowed to restart if they are necessary for urgent dental care.
Those are the only changes that we currently expect to make during the next three-week period. However, I want now to provide some indicative dates for late August and September, to help businesses to plan. Full detail of those will be available on the Scottish Government website. However, people should, please, remember that at this stage the dates are indicative and remain subject to change.
From 24 August, we hope that live events such as concerts and comedy will be allowed outdoors, with physical distancing, enhanced hygiene and restricted numbers.
We also hope that organised outdoor contact sports will resume for people of all ages and that from 24 August some other indoor facilities, such as bingo halls and similar venues that are mentioned in the route map, can reopen with physical distancing.
We also intend that funfairs and travelling funfairs can reopen from 24 August, and we hope that driving lessons will resume from that day, too.
We do not currently expect to implement any other changes before 11 September. We will, of course, keep that under close review and will accelerate further changes, if that proves possible.
However, at the moment, non-essential offices and call centres should expect to remain closed until at least 14 September, and possibly until later. Even then, working from home and working flexibly will remain the default position. I know that many office workers might miss seeing colleagues—although I suspect that some might not—but by staying at home, office workers and employers are playing a vital role in helping to suppress the virus, and in ensuring that our transport network remains safe.
We hope that further changes will be possible from 14 September. Again, I say that full detail will be available on the Scottish Government website. However, I must also stress again that the dates that I am about to set out are indicative, and will not be finally confirmed until nearer the time.
For example, we hope that sports stadia will be able to reopen from that date, with limited numbers of spectators and with physical distancing in place. Some professional sports events might be arranged for spectators before then, with the Scottish Government’s agreement, to test the safety of any new arrangements.
We also hope that indoor sports courts for some activities can reopen from 14 September, with physical distancing, and we will consider whether indoor classes for children can resume earlier than that. It is also our intention that indoor soft-play facilities will reopen from 14 September.
At this point, I will make particular mention of gyms and swimming pools. I absolutely understand and share the desire for those facilities to be opened as soon as possible. However, the clinical advice that I have is that, because of their nature, those environments pose a particular risk and require a cautious approach. For that reason, but to try to give some additional clarity, I point out that the indicative date that we are giving today for their reopening is 14 September. However, I will review that again in three weeks, and if it is judged reasonable to do so, we will seek to accelerate that to the end of August.
We hope that entertainment sites and cultural venues such as theatres and live music venues will also reopen from 14 September, with physical distancing in place. I know that the challenges that these decisions pose for the cultural sector are significant, and that this further delay for arts venues will be disappointing. For that reason, we are increasing the value of our performing arts venue relief fund—which opens for applications today—from £10 million to £12.5 million, in order to provide further support for the culture sector.
More generally, I am acutely aware, that in a statement like this, in which there is a lot of ground to cover, I inevitably make many five-second references that have profound implications for businesses and livelihoods. Please believe me when I say that I fully recognise the impact of the decisions that we are taking. I know how difficult the situation is for the sectors and activities that are facing a long wait before they can resume. We do not take any such decisions lightly, but at present, we are not confident that we can restart all those activities safely within a shorter timescale. Doing so could risk a resurgence in the virus and undermine our ability to get children back to school.
Today’s statement is a cautious one, but given the nature of what we are dealing with, caution remains essential. We want to open up society and the economy as quickly as we safely can, and we do not want to have to reimpose restrictions because the virus has taken off again, or to shut down again sectors that have already reopened. That start-stop pattern can already be seen in other countries and is, in my view, potentially more harmful to the economy in the medium to long term than a more careful and slightly slower approach to reopening.
As ever, the key factor over the coming weeks, in determining our pace of recovery, will be our ability to keep the virus at very low levels. As ever—although Government clearly has the central role to play—that will depend on each and every one of us.
I therefore end by reminding everyone of the vital importance of FACTS—the five golden rules that will help us to stay safe, even as life gets back to something that is closer to normality. Face coverings should be worn in enclosed spaces—public transport, shops and anywhere else where physical distancing is more difficult. Avoid crowded areas, outdoors as well as indoors. Clean your hands regularly and thoroughly, and clean hard surfaces after touching them. Two-metre distancing remains our clear advice. Self-isolate and book a test immediately, if you have symptoms of Covid. I remind people that those symptoms are a new cough, a fever, or a loss of, or change in, one’s sense of taste or smell. People can book a test at http://www.nhsinform.scot or by phoning 0800 028 2816.
It is because so many people have done the right thing so far that we are able to pause shielding and reopen schools, so my appeal to everybody across the country is this: do not drop your guard now. Every single time one of us breaches one of the golden rules, we give the virus a chance to spread again. If we allow complacency to creep in now, it will be deadly. That is not an exaggeration. I today ask everyone instead to make a conscious effort to tighten up our compliance with all those basic but life-saving measures. They are the best ways for us all to protect ourselves, to take care of each other, to show our support for the national health service and, ultimately, to save lives.