COVID RESTRICTIONS: Our watchwords continue to be caution and patience at this stage

By FIRST MINISTER NICOLA STURGEON

I will provide a quick update on vaccinations. As of this morning, 1,465,241 people have received a first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 19,753 since yesterday. That means that almost a third of the adult population in Scotland has received a first dose, which is extraordinary progress. The headline number includes virtually everyone in the top four clinical priority groups that were identified by the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation—a milestone that is already saving lives.

We are also well on the way to reaching everyone in group 5. As of today, 82 per cent of people aged 65 to 69 have had a first jag and, as of this week, we are offering first doses to people in priority group 6. Group 6, which includes unpaid carers and people with underlying health conditions, makes up more than a fifth of the adult population.

As we anticipated, the daily rate of vaccination has slowed in the past week, due to a temporary dip in supply, the higher than expected uptake so far and the need to reserve stock so that second doses can be offered to people who received a first dose in December. However, as supplies pick up again, the rate at which we are offering first doses will accelerate once more. Indeed, if supplies allow, we will now aim to reach key vaccination targets earlier than previously planned.

Our intention, supplies permitting, is to have offered first doses to everyone on the JCVI priority list by mid-April. That includes everyone over the age of 50 and all adults with underlying health conditions, and it accounts for more than half of Scotland’s population. Beyond that, again assuming that we receive adequate supply, we will aim to have offered first doses to the entire adult population by the end of July, rather than September as we previously anticipated.

Our confidence in our ability to achieve that is testament to how the vaccination programme has progressed so far. I want again to thank everyone who has been involved in planning and delivering the programme, and everyone who has come forward to be vaccinated.

I also want to say a few words directly to people who are on the shielding list. They have all been offered a first dose, and the vast majority of them have had one. I know that some in that group are uncertain about whether being vaccinated changes the advice to them. Unfortunately, it does not do that yet. At the moment, we are advising all on the shielded list—whether or not they have had their first dose—to keep following the advice that the chief medical officer sent in recent letters. Those letters, and other information, are available in the shielding section of the mygov.scot website.

The chief medical officer’s advice means that anyone who is on the shielding list and lives in part of Scotland that is currently in level 4—that, of course, includes the whole of mainland Scotland—should not go into work, even if they have had one dose or, indeed, both doses of the vaccine. We will, of course, provide an update as and when the advice changes.

Last week, I mentioned that we believe that vaccination is already helping to reduce the number of people dying with Covid in our care homes. Last week’s report from National Records of Scotland provided early evidence for that view. Yesterday, the University of Edinburgh reported the initial results of a survey into Covid hospitalisations. It found that, by the fourth week after a first dose has been administered, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines reduced the risk of hospitalisation from Covid by 85 per cent and 94 per cent. That is extremely welcome and encouraging news. The early evidence on the impact of vaccination on transmission of the virus, including that which has been published by Public Health England yesterday, is also extremely encouraging.

Although our watchwords continue to be caution and patience at this stage, there is little doubt that we now have much firmer grounds for optimism that vaccination, and the other tools at our disposal, offer us a route back to greater normality. Of course, it is by being cautious, careful and patient for the next period, while the vaccination programme has time to progress, that we will make that route as safe and sustainable as possible. Taking off the brakes too quickly will allow the virus to get ahead of us again and put our progress out of lockdown into reverse. I appreciate that that can be—indeed, that it is—a frustrating message, but it is an essential one.

The point is underlined when we consider the current state of the pandemic. On the one hand, we can and should take heart from the fact that the lockdown measures that were adopted after Christmas have had an impact. In the first week of January, an average of 300 new cases a week were being recorded for every 100,000 people in the population. That figure has fallen by almost two thirds and is now just above 100 cases a week. We are also seeing lower test positivity rates and fewer Covid patients in hospital and intensive care.

However, on the other hand, there are some signs that the decline in case numbers is slowing down. Last week, in fact, we recorded hardly any reduction at all. That is likely to be linked to the fact that the more transmissible new variant of the virus now accounts for more than 85 per cent of all cases. In addition, the new variant’s greater transmissibility means that it is harder to suppress. Therefore although the reproduction number is currently below 1, it might not be very far below 1 and it would likely not take very much easing right now to push it back above 1.

As I have said, we are very hopeful—indeed, increasingly hopeful—that vaccination will have a significant impact on the R number. However, that will take a bit more time, so the bottom line—and this is the clear message from our clinical advisers—is that at this stage we have quite limited scope for easing restrictions.

Of course, we have just made one significant relaxation of lockdown. Yesterday, children returned to early learning and childcare settings and pupils in primary 1 to 3 returned to school. Some secondary school students are also now going back to school for essential practical work. It is therefore important that we see what impact that has on transmission before we commit to further relaxation.

In short, I would summarise our current position as extremely positive and promising, and we should all take heart from that. However, it is still quite precarious and, if we are to sustain our progress, we will need to exercise care and caution. If we are to minimise the impacts of Covid while maximising our ability to live unrestricted lives, we must get the virus to as low a level as possible and try to keep it there. That is not some kind of ideological goal. We know from experience that it is when the virus is allowed to simmer at relatively high levels in the community that the risk of its accelerating out of control and causing more illness is most acute. It is also when the risk is greatest of the virus mutating and new variants emerging that could undermine our vaccines. Therefore maximum suppression is important for our chances of getting back to normal.

That is the context in which we are today publishing the updated strategic framework. The framework has been discussed with business organisations, trade unions, the third sector and others. I know that other parties took part in discussions on it at the weekend. There will be further discussions over the next couple of weeks as we put further flesh on the plans that we are setting out today.

We intend to publish a further document in mid-March, which will give more detail, beyond what I am able to set out today, on the sequencing of reopening the economy from late April onwards. However, today we set out the overall approach to, and an indicative timescale for, easing restrictions over the next few weeks with a view to more substantial reopening, particularly of our economy, from late April.

In considering the framework, it is helpful to bear this point in mind. At the moment, and for a bit longer, we need to rely very heavily on restrictions to suppress the virus. That is essential when it is so transmissible and when case numbers are still quite high. In time, though, once the vast majority of the adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, we hope that vaccination will become our main tool for suppression.

However, the months between now and then will be something of a transition as we gradually rely less and less on restrictions and more and more on vaccination. In order to manage that transition successfully, and so that we can start easing restrictions before the full impact of vaccination kicks in, we will need to use a range of other measures, too. For example, our test and protect system will continue to be vital in breaking chains of transmission as they arise. That is why we are supporting more people to self-isolate when they need to. It is also why we are expanding testing capacity, so that we can test more people at work—especially those in key public services and critical infrastructure roles—and so that we can use targeted community testing more, especially in areas where there seems to be a stubbornly high prevalence of the virus.

Travel restrictions are also essential and are likely to remain so for some time yet. Over the summer, we saw how new cases were imported into Scotland after the virus had almost been eliminated here. We do not want to have that happen again if we can avoid it. In particular, we want to guard against importation of new variants of the virus that could be more resistant to the vaccines that we are currently using. The strategic framework therefore rightly emphasises the importance of travel restrictions and the test and protect system, both of which will help us to ease restrictions safely.

I turn now to the priorities and indicative timeframe for easing restrictions. As I have already emphasised, the strategic framework is deliberately cautious at this stage. However, I want to be clear that, in the coming weeks, if the data allows and positive trends continue, we will seek to accelerate the easing of restrictions.

However, the framework today provides details on what—as of now—we expect our next changes to be. First, it confirms that, if all goes according to plan, we will move fully back to a levels system from the last week in April.

At that stage, we hope that all parts of the country that are currently in level 4 will be able to move out of level 4 and back initially to level 3, possibly with some revision to the content of the levels, and afterwards to levels dependent on the incidence and prevalence of the virus at that time. The advantage of the levels system is that it will allow us to let some parts of the country move faster than others, if the data supports that. Moving back to the variable levels system at that time will also be contingent on us having vaccinated all JCVI priority groups 1 to 9, which—as I said earlier—we hope to have done by mid-April.

That matters not only because those groups will be more protected but because we believe that vaccinating around half of the population will have a significant effect on reducing transmission across society as a whole; although we do not yet know exactly how big an effect there will be, we hope and believe that it will give us the headroom to carefully ease restrictions. It is therefore from the last week of April that we would expect to see phased but significant reopening of the economy, including non-essential retail, hospitality and services such as gyms and hairdressers. Of course, the more of us who are vaccinated and the more we all stick by the rules now, the faster that safe pace is likely to be; if we all stay in this together, our progress will be greater.

As I said earlier, we will set out more detail in mid-March on the indicators that will guide our decisions on levels, as well as on any revision to the content of each level, taking account of our experience and of sectoral views and the order in which we expect those parts of the economy that have been restricted to start reopening from the last week of April.

Now, though, I want to set out the journey from here to the end of April. We envisage a progressive easing of the current level 4 restrictions that apply across most of the country at intervals of at least three weeks, along with changes nationally on education and care home visiting. The immediate priority will continue to be the return of schools. All those easings will of course depend on an assessment that it is safe to proceed.?

The first easing started yesterday, with the partial return of schools.??In addition, universities and colleges are able to bring back a small number of students—no more than 5 per cent of the total—where face-to-face teaching is critical. We will also ease restrictions on care home visiting from early March and guidance on that was set out at the weekend.

?The next phase of easing will be a minimum of three weeks later—indicatively, from 15 March. We hope that that will include the next phase of school return, which will start with the rest of the primary school years, from P4 to P7, and with getting more senior phase secondary pupils back in the classroom for at least part of their learning. In that phase, we also hope to restart outdoors non-contact group sports for 12 to 17-year-olds. We will also aim to increase the limit on outdoor mixing between households to four people from a maximum of two households, compared to two people from two households, which is the limit just now.

?A minimum of three weeks after that—from 5 April—it is our hope and expectation at this stage that the stay at home restriction will be lifted. We would aim for any final phase of school return to take place on that date. Communal worship will also, we hope, restart around 5 April, albeit with restricted numbers to begin with. However, in deciding the exact date for that, we will obviously take account of the timing of major religious festivals—for example, Easter and Passover—so it may be that communal worship could restart a few days earlier.

We will also seek to ease the restrictions on outdoor gatherings further so that at least six people from two households can meet together. In this phase, we will also begin the reopening of retail. That will start with an extension of the definition of essential retail and the removal of restrictions on click and collect.

?Then, three weeks after that, as I indicated earlier—from 26 April, assuming that the data allows it—we will move back to levels. Hopefully, all parts of Scotland that are at level 4 will move to level 3 at that stage, albeit with some possible modifications, and we will begin to reopen the economy and society in the more substantial way that we are all longing for.

It is of course important to stress that that all depends on us continuing to suppress the virus now and continuing to accept some trade-offs for a period—for example, on international travel—but, if we do so, I am very optimistic that we can make good progress in returning more normality to our lives and to the economy. ?

I know that this is still a cautious approach that, although absolutely essential to control the virus and protect health, is nevertheless extremely difficult for many businesses. The Scottish Government is committed to continuing support for businesses. For example, provided that we receive confirmation of consequentials in the March budget, we will support the strategic framework business fund until at least the end of June. We will also ensure that, when local authority areas move out of level 4, businesses that are allowed to reopen will continue to receive payments from the fund for at least the next four weeks, as they transition back to trading more normally.

We are also considering some form of tapered support for businesses that may still face trading restrictions and reduced demand, even as they are allowed to reopen. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance will set out further details of that shortly. We will work with business organisations on those and many other issues as we continue to emerge from lockdown.

In addition to the concerns of businesses, I know that people across the country are anxious for as much clarity as possible. I want to give as much as possible today while avoiding giving false assurance or picking arbitrary dates that have no grounding at this stage in any objective assessment. I am as confident as I can be that the indicative staged timetable that I have set out today, from now until late April when the economy will start to substantially reopen, is reasonable.

In mid-March, when we have made further progress on vaccines and have a greater understanding of the impact of the initial phase of school return, I hope that we can set out more detail on the further reopening that will take place over April and May and into a summer when we really hope to be living with much greater freedoms than we have today.

For now, however, the most important priority that we still all have is to continue to suppress the virus. Of course, that means sticking for a bit longer to the current lockdown rules. Therefore, I ask people please to continue to stick to the letter and the spirit of the rules. Please stay at home, except for essential purposes. For now, do not meet people from other households indoors and follow the FACTS advice when you are out and about. Please continue to work from home wherever possible and, for employers, please continue to support your employees to work from home.

By doing all that, we will make it easier for children to return to school more quickly. We can suppress the virus, even as we follow the path out of lockdown. As we do all of that, we can keep one another safe and protect the NHS while giving the vaccination programme the time to do its work.

I know how hard all of this continues to be after 11 long months of the pandemic, but the restrictions are working, the vaccination programme is motoring and we can now see a firm way out of this. We can now say with confidence that, if we all stick together and stick with it, we are looking at much brighter times ahead. Please, for now, stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.

2 comments

  1. All staff who work in schools and nurseries should be prioritised ASAP. Our children are returning to school and not only are they putting staff at risk but staff are putting pupils at risk. This needs to be addressed otherwise parents and staff will have no feeling of their worth in the Community. Every day people are saying the priority is yes we should get kids back to school and I agree but we have an opportunity to safeguard Staff and Pupils by offering the Vaccination to Staff.

  2. Does anyone listen to the spin that this First Minister spits out.

    So important is COVID that yesterday she cut short a four nations strategy meeting and cancelled her appearance at the daily performance to instead give STV a briefing about Alex Salmond and how her law officer was restricting Salmond giving evidence.

    The woman is a crook. She has traduced the reputation of Scottish Parliament to that of a parish council where the MSPs sit silent, cowed to open their mouths, but happy to take the pay and perks.

    So ask yourself this. What does Sturgeon deliver. Think about it. What has she delivered.

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