By First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Wednesday, February 16, 2021
I can confirm that the phased and gradual return to school, which I said we were hopeful about when I updated Parliament two weeks ago, will go ahead from Monday, as planned. I will say more about that, and about the importance of carefully implementing and monitoring that change, later.
In addition, I will give an assessment of the current state of the pandemic. I will also signal when and how we hope to give an indication of the criteria for beginning our exit from lockdown, and the order in which we will aim to do so, when the time is right.
First, though, I will briefly recap today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 773, which represents 6 per cent of all the tests that were carried out, and means that the overall number of cases is now 193,148. Currently,1,383 people are in hospital, which is 45 fewer than yesterday, and 100 people are in intensive care, which is two fewer than yesterday.
I regret to report, however, that over the past 24 hours another 49 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that daily measurement is now 6,764. Once again, I send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic.
I now turn to an update on the vaccination programme. As at 8.30 this morning, 1,288,004 people in Scotland had received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 32,814 since yesterday. That means that we have now given a first dose to 28 per cent of the adult population. We have also met our mid-February target to offer the first dose of the vaccine to everyone over 70 and to everyone with extreme clinical vulnerability. There will be some overlap between those groups, but in total they represent groups 1 to 4 on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s priority list.
That is extremely good news. However, expressing it in the way that I have just done actually understates the scale of the achievement. Vaccination has not simply been offered to everyone in those categories; almost everyone in those groups has had the first dose of the vaccine. Uptake rates have been exceptional; we have administered first doses to virtually all residents in older people’s care homes, and to more than 90 per cent of residents in all care homes. Virtually all over-80-year-olds living in the community have received the first dose, as have 94 per cent of those in the 70 to 79-year-old age group. In addition, although it was not part of the mid-February target, we have also now vaccinated 58 per cent of 65 to 69-year-olds, who form the JCVI’s priority group 5.
It is important to be clear that there are, in any large-scale programme, bound to be some hiccups. To anyone watching who is aged over 70 or who has extreme clinical vulnerability but who has not yet heard about their vaccination, I say that it might be that their letter has gone astray or that some other administrative problem has occurred. I ask them to get in touch with their general practitioner, call the helpline or, as a last resort, to email me. The address for that is email@example.com.
Overall, however, progress so far in the vaccination programme has been outstanding. I thank everyone who has been involved in planning and delivering the programme, and all those who have come forward to be vaccinated. However, I urge people to remember that even if they have now had a first dose of the vaccine, they must still follow all the lockdown rules. The protection from the first dose does not kick in for two or three weeks and, even then, we do not yet know exactly what impact vaccination will have on transmission of the virus.
However, we are very hopeful that vaccination will, in the weeks ahead, start to have a significant impact in reducing the number of people who die from Covid. In fact, we think that it is already having an effect in care homes, where vaccines started being administered in the first half of December. At the end of December, more than a third of all Covid deaths—34 per cent, to be precise—were in care homes. However, in the most recent figures, the proportion had fallen to 18 per cent.
As I have said before, we are in a race between the virus and the vaccine. We have much more reason now than we had just a few weeks ago to be hopeful that we can—and, ultimately, will—win that race, if we are prepared to stick with it.
In the past few weeks, as the figures that I have just reported show, we have been speeding up our vaccination programme. At the same time, we have been slowing down the virus. Lockdown has been working. In the first week of January, an average of more than 2,300 new cases a day were being recorded in Scotland. The most recent figure is 810 cases. There has been a significant and sustained fall.
As a result of that—again, we can see this in the figures that we have been reporting in recent days—we are now seeing fewer Covid patients in hospital and fewer patients requiring intensive care treatment, although it is important to be clear that our health service remains under very severe pressure. Test positivity has also declined significantly—from around 11 per cent at the start of January to around 6 per cent now.
Together with the progress on vaccination, that is all extremely good news, but of course—as always—it has to be seen in context. Case numbers have been falling because we have been in lockdown and, even after six weeks of that lockdown, they have only just returned to the levels that were being recorded back in early December.
In addition, we think that we are seeing some signs that the number of cases is falling more slowly now than it was a few weeks ago. A key factor is likely to be that the new and more infectious variant of the virus is accounting for an increasing proportion of all new cases: as of now, the new variant is responsible for more than 80 per cent of all the new cases that are being identified.
Of course, we already know from our experience last autumn and in December just how easily the virus can run away from us when there is already a high baseline of transmission within the community. That all means that the situation that we are in just now, although it is better and significantly improved, is still very fragile.
I know that that is frustrating and I know that it can seem counterintuitive. Over the past few weeks, the sacrifices that everyone has continued to make have helped to bring about the good progress. The news has all been very encouraging. However, our room for manoeuvre remains limited. Even a slight easing of restrictions now could cause cases to start rising quite rapidly again.
Even if the older and more vulnerable people in the population now have additional protection through the vaccine, we know that more virus circulating in the community would still put huge pressure on the national health service. It would also cause many more people to fall ill. That includes younger people, and we know that they can be vulnerable to what is called long Covid. In addition—this is, perhaps, the key point—we know that when community transmission is high and rising, the risk of the virus mutating and new variants emerging is at its most acute.
That all means that, notwithstanding the good progress that we have made, we need, for a period yet, to continue to be extremely cautious. We need to continue to work hard to drive infection rates down as low as possible and then to keep them low.
Of course, all that being said, we know that we cannot continue in lockdown indefinitely, so we need to balance all the different factors and plan a gradual phased return to as much normality as possible, as quickly as possible. That is what the Government is now focused very much on doing.
However, as we do that, there are two things that are important to stress. First, we must be driven much more by data than by dates. I know that that is difficult, given how desperate we all are to get back to something that is closer to normality, but if we open up too quickly to meet arbitrary dates, we risk setting our progress back. Indeed, because of the new and more infectious variant, our exit from lockdown is likely to be even more cautious than it was last summer.
Secondly, 100 per cent normality is unlikely to be possible for a while yet. In a world where we cannot do everything immediately, we will need to decide what matters most to us. That is why people will hear me and other ministers talk increasingly about trade-offs. I will offer two immediate examples to help to illustrate that.
As I will discuss shortly, we are deliberately choosing to use the very limited headroom that we have right now to get at least some children back to school, because children’s education and well-being is such an overriding priority. However, being able to get children back to education might mean the rest of us living with some other restrictions for longer. That is a trade-off that we need to be willing to make, at this stage.
Also, if we want to return as much normality in life as we can within Scotland, the need to live for a longer period with significant restrictions on our ability to travel overseas is likely to be inescapable.
“What matters most?” is a question that we will have to ask ourselves often in the weeks ahead, and it will be important for me and the Government to be very up front about the choices that we face.
I am talking today in general terms, but I can confirm that the Scottish Government is currently preparing a revised strategic framework, which will set out in much more detail when and how we might gradually emerge from the lockdown. We hope to publish the new framework next week, probably at this time, following discussions with the other parties in Parliament and with business organisations, trade unions, third sector bodies and others.
The framework will aim to set out how we will use and balance all the tools at our disposal—restrictions and advice, vaccination, test and protect, and travel restrictions—to restore, on a phased basis, greater normality to our everyday lives. It will set out as far as possible the conditions that we think need to be met, in terms of the data, for us to start lifting restrictions, and it will detail the broad order of priority for reopening, including what a return to a geographic levels approach might look like in due course.
Again, I emphasise that if we want to keep moving in the right direction and avoid setbacks, caution will be necessary, which is why the framework will also try to be clear about what we do not think will be possible for a while longer.
To give just one example of that, we are likely to advise against booking Easter holidays, either overseas or within Scotland, as it is highly unlikely that we will have been able to fully open hotels or self-catering accommodation by then. For the summer, although it is still highly unlikely that overseas holidays will be possible or advisable, staycations might be, but that will depend on the data nearer the time.
Given the risks that are posed by new variants of the virus, it is hard for me to overstate the necessity of being careful, cautious and gradual as we exit the lockdown if we want to avoid another lockdown later this year. That means, for now, all of us continuing to abide by the stay-at-home requirement. Indeed, doing that for a further period is essential to permit the headroom that is necessary for the change that I am about to confirm.
In terms of the order in which we exit lockdown, the Government has always made it clear that education should be the top priority. Two weeks ago, I announced our preliminary decision that pre-school children, pupils in primary 1 to 3 and a limited number of senior phase students who need access to school for essential practical work would return from Monday 22 February. I also said that, from the same date, we hoped to enable a limited increase in the provision for vulnerable children—specifically, those with the most significant additional support needs—where schools believe that that is essential.
I am pleased to confirm today that, in keeping with the advice of our expert group, that first phase of the reopening of schools will go ahead as planned on Monday. We will need to monitor the impact of the change carefully before taking any further decisions, but I hope that in two weeks’ time, we will be able to set out the second phase of school reopening. However, to give as much clarity as possible at this stage, particularly for parents, I point out that the need to properly assess the impact of the limited reopening means that, at this stage, we think it unlikely that there will be any further return to school before 15 March.
As we consider those issues, we are of course doing everything that we can to ensure that schools are as safe as possible for children and for the education workforce. As senior phase pupils, teachers and school staff start to return, we will be making at-home lateral flow tests available to them twice a week, as part of a wider package of in-school mitigations. Comprehensive testing guidance has now been issued to schools and local authorities and, as of yesterday, more than 2,200 schools had received deliveries of test kits.
We are also working with Young Scot to provide online information and support for senior phase pupils who want to take part in the testing programme. In addition, senior secondary pupils will be required to observe 2m physical distancing while in school and on school transport in the period immediately after the return. We are also publishing today updated school safety guidance, developed with the education recovery group, which sets out a range of additional safety mitigations. To help implement them, we will provide local authorities and schools with an additional £40 million, as part of a wider £100 million package to accelerate school recovery. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance will confirm the details of that investment later this afternoon.
The final point that I want to make about schools, before setting out a more general message about the phased reopening, is that the national qualifications 2021 group will soon publish further details on how qualifications will be awarded this year in a way that fairly reflects people’s experience of remote learning. We have decided that all teachers and lecturers involved in awarding national qualifications this year will receive a one-off payment of £400, which will be paid to part-time teachers on a pro rata basis. Two days will be set aside for teachers to work on assessments this year. Further details concerning the payment and the assessment support days will be provided shortly.
The steps that I have set out are clearly of great importance, but there is a more general and overriding message that I need to set out and emphasise today. The success of that limited reopening and the prospect of getting, we hope, more pupils back into school later in March very much depends on all of us continuing to abide by the wider restrictions. The evidence suggests that the key risk in reopening schools is not transmission of the virus within schools; instead, the risk comes from the increased contact that the reopening might spark among the wider adult population. The risk is that schools going back might lead to parents socialising more, at the school gates for example, or returning to the workplace rather than working from home. I know how difficult it is, but I am asking parents and employers to make sure that that does not happen. If you are an employer, please understand that employees who were working from home while their children were being home schooled should still work from home next week, even if their children are back at school. It is, of course, a legal obligation for all employers to support employees to work from home as far as is possible.
In addition, if you are a parent whose children will soon be going back to primary school, I can only imagine what a relief that will be, but please do not use it as an opportunity to meet up with other parents or friends. The hard but really inescapable fact is this: if the return to school leads to more contacts between adults over the next few weeks, transmission of the virus will quickly rise again. That will jeopardise our ability to sustain even this limited return and make it much less likely that we can get more pupils back soon. It would also set back our progress more generally.
For now—I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough—please treat Monday’s important milestone as a return to education for children only and not as a return to greater normality for the rest of us. If we all do that, I am hopeful that this return to school will be consistent with continued progress in suppressing the virus. If that proves to be the case, I am optimistic that we will soon be able to set out the next phase in the journey back to school for more young people. Although I cannot set out an indicative date for that today, I hope to be in a position to do so in two weeks’ time.
As I said earlier, between now and the next review date in two weeks’ time, we will publish the new strategic framework, plotting a gradual route back to greater normality, we hope, for all of us. The framework will continue to prioritise education, followed by greater family contact and the phased reopening of the economy, probably with non-essential retail starting to open first. It will be clear on the trade-offs, not least the continued travel restrictions that will be necessary to make more normality within our own borders possible.
For now, though, the most important priority, if any of that is to be attainable in the weeks ahead, is to continue to firmly suppress the virus. That means sticking to the current lockdown rules. I know that, by acknowledging how hard those rules are, I do not make them any easier for anybody. I desperately wish that I could be firmer now about exactly when and how we will exit lockdown in the weeks ahead, but I am acutely aware that moving too quickly or getting the balance wrong will cause cases to rise again. That would mean more people ill and in hospital, more pressure on the national health service and the prospect of more, not fewer, restrictions as we have to start all over again in getting the virus back under control.
The fact is that a cautious approach, however frustrating it is for all of us, will be more successful and sustainable. Please continue to stick to the letter and the spirit of the rules. Stay at home, except for essential purposes. Do not meet people from other households indoors. Follow the FACTS advice when you are out. Work from home whenever you can. If you are an employer, support your employees to work from home. By doing all of that, especially as children start to go back to school, we will continue to protect each other, our communities and the NHS. It will allow us, we hope, to keep the virus under control while we vaccinate more and more people, and make our way, slowly but surely and steadily, to better and brighter days ahead. I urge everyone to continue to stick with it and stick together. Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.