By Bill Heaney
After a year when all our lives have been put on pause, there is finally a growing sense that it might be over soon, Conservative interim leader Ruth Davidson told the Scottish Parliament today.
She said: “Although it is too early to declare anything like victory, we are starting to win the race between the vaccine roll-out and the spread of the virus, and we are grateful to all who are delivering the vaccine programme.
“A University of Edinburgh study that was published this week found that getting the jab can cut hospital admissions by up to a remarkable 94 per cent, which is better than we could have hoped.
“The success of the vaccine programme means that it is now possible to start to have those important conversations with friends and family about reconnecting, making plans and getting all our lives back on track.
“We welcome the information that is contained in the statement today, particularly the details on school return and care home visits. However, there is much that is not in the statement. There is nothing for the thousands of Scots who have had medical treatments, tests or operations cancelled about when and how services will get back up to speed.
“There is nothing for those who have already postponed huge life events for a year. For example, for those who have postponed weddings, there is nothing about when they can walk down the aisle in front of family and friends. There is nothing about when measures such as social distancing will end so that we can do something as basic as give a loved one a hug.
The statement relates almost exclusively to the time between now and 26 April, when the First Minister intends to move the whole country to level 3 restrictions, pandemic permitting. To be clear, under current rules, that would still prevent people from leaving their council area. However, there is nothing about what happens after 26 April.
“This is not a route map out of Covid; it is a holding document for the next eight weeks. Everyone understands that we might not be able to give people absolute certainty, but people were expecting the First Minister to give them some kind of hope.
“Many will have tuned in today precisely because they were expecting to receive that; they did not tune in today expecting to be told to tune in again in three weeks’ time, and they have a right to be disappointed.
“Why will the First Minister not let the people of Scotland know the plan to get them fully out of lockdown and back to their lives?”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon replied: “On national health service operations and treatments, NHS remobilisation is under way. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport keeps Parliament updated on that, and I will ask her to write to members to give a further update on that as soon as she is able to.
On weddings, I hope that, as we go into the period after the end of April, weddings with greater numbers of people—although the likelihood is that numbers will still be restricted—will be able to take place.
“As I have always done, I am trying to be frank with people. I think that we can all be much more hopeful today than we have been able to be throughout the entire pandemic, not just because we have evidence that lockdown is suppressing the virus, but because we have growing evidence that we have an alternative to lockdown restrictions that will suppress the virus instead of lockdown restrictions over the longer term—and that, of course, is vaccination.
Jackie Baillie (Labour) Ruth Davidson (Tory) and Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) in debate at Holyrood.
“That allows us to say that we think that, by the time we get to April, we will be able to start to open up the economy and that, between now and April, we will be able to open up in a gradual and phased way some aspects of the current restrictions that are in place.
“However, we must balance that with the reality—which is not one that I or anybody enjoys—that there is still uncertainty. There is still uncertainty about the impact of the vaccination on transmission, although all the evidence that is now emerging on that is positive, and we need to make sure that we do not open up while the virus is still hovering and simmering at levels that are too high for us safely to do that. Therefore, the further into the future we go, the more arbitrary any dates that we give at this stage will be. It is like putting your finger in the wind and coming up with a date that is not firmly based in the evidence. That is the balance that we are seeking to strike.”
She added: “By mid-March, we will have evidence of the impact of the early return of some pupils to school, and I hope that we will have more evidence on the impact of vaccination, so by then, we will be able to go forward a little bit more and give more detail on the period from April into May. Everything is going in the right direction, but this is the moment when we have to be optimistic and positive but also patient and sensible.
“The last thing that I want to be doing—the last thing that any of us wants to be doing—at any point this year is going backwards. This must be a firm and sustainable route out of lockdown, and that is what I believe that we are putting in place.”
Dumbarton MSP and Labour’s interim leader Jackie Baillie told the chamber: “Most people make the reasonable assumption that, once they have had their vaccination—the second dose, in particular—they are, in effect, good to go, but the reality is that they can still get Covid, albeit, we would hope, in a much milder form and avoiding hospitalisation. That means that testing is critically important so that we can quickly identify and contain any future outbreaks.”
She asked the FM: “Will the First Minister issue a revised testing strategy that includes mass community testing, where that is appropriate?
“I want to be optimistic and I am equally patient, but I would like to ask the First Minister what the ultimate goal is, because it is important that people understand what lies ahead. Is it suppression of the virus, using testing, tracing and vaccination, but accepting that there is some risk, as we do with flu each year, or is it elimination—zero Covid—and the prospect of continuing restrictions over a longer period, including further lockdown?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “If my memory serves me correctly, I think that the document says this explicitly, but if it does not, it is certainly the intention to publish a revised testing strategy to take account of our increased capacity and the new strategic objectives for testing as we come out of lockdown.
“With regard to Jackie Baillie’s point about vaccination, there is more than one unanswered question about the impact of vaccination, but the biggest unanswered question—although it is less unanswered than it was a week ago—relates to exactly what impact the vaccines have on stopping people getting and transmitting the virus. The evidence that was published yesterday and the evidence that is emerging from the pharmaceutical companies is really positive, but we still need more data to be certain about that.
“The fact that it reduces hospitalisation and deaths is clearly good. That is the principal objective of the first phase of the vaccination programme. However, if the virus is still transmitting, the risk of long Covid and people becoming ill will still be there. We need to have more data that heads in the same direction as the data so far, because that will give us confidence that the vaccine is reducing transmission. The more confident we become about that, the more confident we can be that the vaccine will do the job that the rest of us have been doing for the past year in living under restrictions in order to suppress things.
“On the point about elimination versus suppression, the point is that we have to try for as close to elimination as possible in order to keep the virus as low as possible. Even if we do not achieve absolutely no Covid, the very act of trying to do that will keep it at levels at which it is safer for us to open up.
“There is a problem, I think, with the flu analogy, although I know what people mean when they use it. We live with flu every year and we will have to live with the fact that Covid is a virus that exists. The problem is that we know that Covid, at the moment, can be more severe for some people, particularly in the shape of long Covid, so being complacent about it would be a really dangerous thing to do.
“I had a conversation with the chief medical officer this morning, and he said—I have heard other people say this, too—that a better analogy is perhaps with measles. That is kept firmly under control, but there are outbreaks from time to time that we have to deal with. We keep it really contained and suppressed and we deal with outbreaks. Vaccination or immunisation does the main job of keeping it under control. I do not think that that is a perfect analogy any more than the flu one is, but it is perhaps more accurate.
“What is our goal? Our goal is to get back to normal life. Our goal is to be able to hug loved ones and go about our business in the way that we all want to do. I think that we are much closer to that, largely because of the vaccination programme, than we have been at any point in a year.
“We just need to make sure that we are doing this sensibly and with an appropriate degree of caution so that we do not send ourselves backwards before vaccination is doing all the work that we think it may ultimately do.”