COVID: Tightening and extension of existing restrictions and rules in West Dunbartonshire

West Dunbartonshire – Vale of Leven from the air looking towards Dumbarton. Picture by Craig Jump, UTR photography

By First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

It must still be our aim to keep prevalence of the virus as low as possible, so we have taken the precautionary decision to pause some changes that we had previously scheduled for slightly later this month.

There will be a tightening and extension of some existing restrictions and rules as part of our efforts to slow the rise in the number of cases as we enter winter.

And today will confirm that the Protect Scotland app—the significant enhancement of test and protect that I signalled in the programme for government—is now up and running.

First, I will report on today’s statistics. Since yesterday, an additional 161 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed. That represents 1.9 per cent of newly tested people and takes the total number of cases to 22,039. Sixty-five of today’s cases are in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, 46 are in Lanarkshire, 12 are in Lothian and eight are in Ayrshire and Arran. The remaining 30 are spread across eight different health board areas.

A total of 266 patients are currently in hospital with Covid, which is eight fewer than yesterday. As of last night, seven people were in intensive care with Covid, which is one more than yesterday.

In the past 24 hours, no deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed as having the virus. The total number of deaths under that measurement therefore remains at 2,499. I again send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to this illness.

It is not possible at this stage to indicate a move from phase 3 to phase 4 of the route map out of lockdown. I therefore confirm that we will remain in phase 3 for now, and it is important to stress that that is likely to be the case for some time yet.

For us to move to phase 4, we must be satisfied that the virus is no longer considered a significant threat to public health.

As is obvious from the figures that I have reported in recent days—and as confirmed to me in advice from the chief medical officer—that is definitely not the case. When we reviewed lockdown measures six weeks ago, we had recorded 14 new cases a day on average over the previous week. Three weeks ago, the average daily rate had risen to 52 new cases a day, and in the seven days up to yesterday, the average daily rate was 155. Our latest estimate of the R number is that it is now above 1 and possibly as high as 1.5.

Over the past week, we have had to impose additional restrictions on people living in five local authority areas including West Dunbartonshire.

Therefore, rather than the threat to public health receding, the pandemic at this stage is accelerating again, albeit—thankfully—from a low base and not as rapidly as it was back in March and April.

It is worth stressing that the position is not entirely unexpected. In recent weeks, we have reopened significant parts of our economy. Though many will be operating below full capacity, approximately 96 per cent of businesses in Scotland are now trading again. Children have gone back to school, and we have eased many social, leisure and travel restrictions. People are meeting up more, going out more and travelling more, and all that is positive.

However, as we released ourselves from lockdown, we also released the virus. We gave it more opportunities to spread, so it was always likely that there would be a rise in cases. Indeed, the reason why we focused so firmly over the summer on suppressing the virus was to ensure that any increase was from a low base, and to give our test and protect teams the best possible chance of keeping outbreaks under control.

It is important, even in a period of rising cases, that we do not lose sight of the objective of keeping infection levels as low as possible. That approach has been important. Since late July, for example, Spain’s weekly level of new cases per 100,000 of population has increased from 34 to 126, France’s level has risen from 11 to 60 and Scotland’s rate has increased from two to just under 20. We have come out of the summer with a relatively low prevalence of the virus.

Of course, without test and protect, and the efforts of so many across the country, the virus would already have spread considerably further and faster. I am very grateful to everyone for the collective effort so far. It has made a difference.

However, cases are now rising again. By looking around Britain, Europe, and the rest of world, we can see just how difficult it is to keep the virus under control when, globally, the pandemic is still accelerating. Even New Zealand, which at one stage reached zero Covid, has now reimposed some restrictions.

In Scotland, having reopened schools, we are now welcoming students back to our colleges and universities. That is a necessary and positive development but, because it involves people moving around the country and mixing, it undoubtedly brings further risks.

One point that is frequently commented on is that the recent rise in cases has not been mirrored by an equally large rise in hospital admissions or deaths. That may partly reflect the fact that many of the new cases are among younger people. Although that can provide some comfort, it should not, and must not, lead to complacency. Although Covid kills relatively few younger people, we know that it can still be harmful to their health. It is not a virus that anyone should be relaxed about getting.

In addition, if Covid spreads too widely in the younger, healthier parts of the population, it will inevitably reach older and more vulnerable people. That could then lead to an increase in hospital admissions and fatalities, as is happening now to some extent in countries such as France. It is also worth noting that, although numbers in Scotland are still low, there has been a rise in hospital admissions over the past couple of weeks.

Let me make one point very clear: I understand how hard this is for everybody, but perhaps for young people in particular, and it is not their fault. Younger adults are more likely to work in public-facing jobs, to have to use public transport and to live in shared accommodation. That is simply a fact of life for so many young people in our society. It also makes it more likely that they will be exposed to the virus and, therefore, all the more important that we stress the ways in which they can protect themselves and others.

Taking account of all the most up-to-date information that we have, the Scottish Government’s judgement is that we cannot at this stage risk the new opportunities for transmission of Covid that reopening further services and facilities would entail. In my statement on 20 August, I set out several changes that were provisionally scheduled for 14 September. At that time, I stressed:

“Given the volatility that we face in transmission of the virus, there is a very real possibility that some of, or all, those plans could change.”—[Official Report, 20 August 2020; c 4.]

Unfortunately, due to the rise in cases since then, we have concluded that those changes must be paused for a further three weeks. The new indicative date for their resumption is Monday 5 October. However, I must stress again that that remains an indicative date and a final decision can be taken only much nearer the time.

That means, unfortunately, that spectators will not be able to return to sports stadia and other venues over the next three weeks. Two pilot events that are due to take place this weekend will proceed. However, after that, we will judge possible pilot events on a case-by-case basis in the light of the latest Covid data.

The other services and venues that are affected by this pause are theatres, live music venues, indoor soft play facilities, and indoor contact sports activities for people aged 12 and over.

In addition, outdoor events that have not yet been given the green light, such as those where a lot of people stand close together, cannot yet restart.

The reopening of call centres and offices whose staff are still working from home will be reviewed again on 1 October, but it will definitely not take place before then.

We are planning a safe phased reopening of those remaining offices which remain closed when circumstances allow. That planning will inform future route map review decisions.

However, at this stage, a full return to office working—which would substantially increase the number of people meeting indoors and travelling together on buses and trains—would risk a significant acceleration of Covid transmission.

If you are registered with the shielding SMS service and live in areas where there have been local outbreaks, you will have received text messages alerting you to changes in local advice. We have also published a guide on the website, which suggests simple things you can do to lower your risk of exposure, and you will receive an update letter soon from the chief medical officer.

We understand that the recent rise in cases will cause concern, but at this stage, we do not plan to reintroduce shielding. Instead, we will continue to give you the information you need to help you to stay safe.

We have concluded that it is necessary to tighten some existing restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus, especially between and within households. As of now, up to eight people from three households can meet indoors and larger outdoor gatherings are also permitted.

We intend to change that, so that a maximum of six people from two households will now be permitted to meet together. To help to reduce transmission, but also to simplify the rules as much as possible, this new limit will apply both indoors—in houses, pubs and restaurants—and outdoors, including in private gardens.

There will be some limited exceptions—for example for organised sports and places of worship. Also, any children under 12 who are part of two households meeting up will not count towards the limit of six people.

Lastly, given the importance of these life events and the distress caused by not being able to mark them, we intend to allow a limited exception for funerals, weddings and civil partnerships. Already, up to 20 people can attend ceremonies for those occasions and we intend to retain that limit for now. However, from Monday, that limit of 20 will also be permitted for wakes and receptions as long as they take place in regulated venues such as hotels with strict guidance in place.

I am asking people to abide by these stricter new limits on gatherings immediately. However, the regulations that will give legal effect to them will come into force on Monday, and more detail will be available on the Scottish Government website.

Of course, for now, for people living in  West Dunbartonshire, the advice is not to visit other households at all. Let me also re-emphasise that the new limit of six people from two households will also apply in restaurants, pubs and beer gardens, as well as in our homes.

We intend to make it mandatory for customers in hospitality premises to wear face coverings whenever they are moving around and not eating or drinking—for example, when entering and going to a table or to the bathroom.

Secondly, subject to some exemptions, we will also make it mandatory—rather than simply in guidance—for staff working in hospitality premises to also wear face coverings.

I am aware that the announcements that I have made so far are hard for people to hear. After six long hard months, we are still asking the public to make a lot of difficult sacrifices. That is unavoidable, given the nature of the challenge that we face. However, I want to be clear that while we still face a battle to get and keep Covid under control.

Test and protect is working well and now taking a lot of the strain; without it, the virus would be spreading further and faster and we would require to apply much stricter lockdown measures again.

Today, a significant enhancement of test and protect has gone live; the Protect Scotland contact tracing app is now available for download and use. The app does not replace our current test and protect system; it adds to it.  If you download it, you will receive a notification if someone you have been in close proximity to tells the app that they have tested positive. It will be particularly useful for settings such as public transport, where we tend to spend time in close proximity to people we do not know. It will also be very valuable as students arrive back at university or college for the new term.

The app is available now from the Apple and Google Play app stores, and more information is available on the new website. The app operates anonymously and confidentially.  I encourage everyone to download it today and spread the word to all their friends and family. This is a simple but very powerful thing that all of us can do as individual citizens to help protect Scotland as a whole.

The pause in our route map and the new restrictions that I have outlined today are not welcome; I know that, and the Scottish Government did not want to have to impose them. However, they are necessary and they reflect the fact that Scotland—like the rest of the United Kingdom, Europe and the world—is currently in a very precarious position.

We still have grounds for cautious hope and optimism, but we have no grounds whatsoever for complacency. It is vital to do everything we can to stop cases rising further before winter.

That is the reason for the decisions that I have outlined here today. These steps are necessary to help curb a virus that we know spreads rapidly whenever it gets the chance. Of course, the success of these measures depends on all of us; by necessity, it is still a collective effort.

I know that making these choices, such as keeping our distance from friends, staying in small groups and washing our hands regularly, gets harder and much more tiresome as time passes, but they are more important now than they have been for months.

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