By Bill Heaney
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today outlined in the Scottish Parliament the steps the SNP government is taking to slow its spread and to curb transmission of the virus..
She also outlined the steps being taken to slow its spread and to curb transmission of the virus more generally.
The FM confirmed the presence of the omicron variant here in Scotland and that there are nine confirmed cases in Scotland: five in Lanarkshire and four in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which includes West Dunbartonshire.
She said: “None of the people who have tested positive for the new variant has so far required hospital care. All nine were tested on or around 23 November and, because they had tested positive, they have all been self-isolating. A surveillance look-back exercise had identified that the polymerase chain reaction test results in those cases showed what is called the S-gene dropout.
“That is not conclusive evidence of the omicron variant, but it is indicative of it. However, whole genome sequencing of those positive samples has now confirmed that they are indeed the omicron variant.
“They all trace back to a single private event on 20 November. Indeed, over the coming days, we fully expect that more cases will be identified that are also linked to that event.
“The lack of any known travel or overseas connection to the cases suggests that some community transmission of omicron is already happening in Scotland.
“However, the fact that all known cases so far are linked to a single event suggests that community transmission might still be limited. Indeed, so far, there is nothing in the wider look-back exercise that Public Health Scotland has undertaken to suggest that community transmission of the new variant is either sustained or widespread.
“The look-back exercise has examined PCR test samples dating back to 1 November to identify any that have the S gene dropout. A number have been identified and, where the sample makes it possible, subjected to whole-genome sequencing. The exercise has resulted in the nine cases that we have reported.
“Given the nature and scale of the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—the surveillance work that Public Health Scotland is doing is also looking at any potential links to it. At this stage, however, there is no evidence whatsoever of any such link. Although it is not impossible that one will emerge, the timelines that are involved make it improbable.
“In short, Public Health Scotland is working hard to identify any and all cases of omicron in Scotland as quickly as possible. I am very grateful to PHS for its efforts.
“Given the nature of transmission, I consider it highly likely—indeed, almost certain—that more cases, perhaps many more cases, will emerge. However, the enhanced surveillance gives us the best possible chance of identifying cases quickly and then, through the isolation of index cases and close contacts and targeted testing, of breaking transmission chains and containing spread while we learn more about the variant. That is key. While so much about the new variant is unknown, it is important that we act on a highly precautionary basis.
“That is certainly true for the steps that Government must take, and it is equally true for all of us as citizens. We all have a part to play—this has been true throughout the pandemic—in stemming transmission of the virus in general. Let us not forget that, although we are talking right now about nine cases of a new variant, 2,500 cases of the delta variant are still being recorded each day. Suppressing the transmission of delta remains important, and it is now important to suppress and contain transmission of the new variant, in particular.
“Some of the protections that the UK Government announced at the weekend in relation to England, for example a requirement to wear face coverings in some settings, are already in place and more extensive here in Scotland.
“Therefore, at this stage, rather than introducing new protections, we are asking people to significantly step up and increase compliance with existing protections such as face coverings, hygiene, home working, ventilation, vaccination and regular testing.
“Enhanced domestic compliance will complement the UK-wide travel restrictions that were confirmed over the weekend, which aim to reduce the risk of additional cases of the new variant entering the country. Ten countries in southern Africa have been added to the travel red list so far. Anyone travelling back to Scotland from any of those 10 countries must enter managed quarantine for 10 days on their arrival. In addition, anyone arriving in Scotland from anywhere outside the common travel area is now required to take a PCR Covid test on or before the second day of their arrival—we advise that that should be on the second day—and to self-isolate until they get the result of that test back.
The public are being asked to wear masks whenever they think it’s necessary.
“Given the incubation period of the virus, the Scottish Government’s judgment is that it would be sensible on a precautionary basis for the travel rules to be tightened further on a four-nations basis. Yesterday, the First Minister of Wales and I suggested to the Prime Minister that, until we know more about omicron, people arriving in the UK from overseas should be asked to self-isolate for eight days and to take a PCR test on day 8 after their arrival, as well as on day 2. We look forward to discussing that further. We suggested to the Prime Minister that the convening in early course of a COBR meeting to discuss that and other issues would be appropriate.
“Although certainty is not possible at this stage and will not be possible until we know much more about the new variant, my strong hope is that, beyond temporary travel measures, no additional restrictions will be required. However, that will depend partly on what information emerges about omicron in the days to come. It will also depend, significantly, on all of us complying rigorously with all the protections that are currently in place to stem transmission.
“Of course, it remains the case that our first and most important line of defence against the virus is vaccination. Yesterday, we received updated advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Its recommendations are as follows: all adults over the age of 18 should be eligible for a booster; the gap between second doses and boosters should be reduced from six months to three months; people who are immunosuppressed and who have already had three doses should also now be eligible for a booster; those who are immunosuppressed and have not yet had a third jag should get that now, regardless of when their second dose was administered; and, finally, 12 to 15-year-olds should now be offered a second dose. The JCVI had, of course, already recommended second doses for 16 and 17-year-olds and, as I said, from today, anyone in that age group can book an appointment online for their second dose.”
Ms Sturgeon, pictured right, added: “The Scottish Government has accepted the JCVI’s updated recommendations and we will now put its advice into operation as soon as possible. Urgent modelling work is being done to inform the operational response—for example, that involves assessing the additional capacity that will be needed in terms of workforce and facilities.
“As the JCVI has advised, we will continue to prioritise booster jags on an age and clinical risk basis. However, the bottom line is that many more people than was the case last week—at least 1 million more—are now eligible for a booster, and that is good news in our fight against the virus.
“Information will be provided as soon as possible for those who have become newly eligible. However, I say to those who are already eligible that, if you have not had your booster yet, please book to get it as soon as possible. Uptake in the over-60s is now at 84 per cent, which is high, but we want to get it higher still so, if you have yet to get your booster, please do so now. Similarly, if you are aged between 40 and 59, please book online at NHS inform.
“I know that there is a concern that the vaccines will be less effective against the new variant. I stress that we do not yet know whether that is the case but, even if it is, vaccination will still matter. Less effective does not mean ineffective. Of course, the vaccines will remain just as effective as they are now against the delta variant, which is still the dominant one circulating in Scotland. A booster will significantly improve our protection against all variants. It really is the most important thing that any of us can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Similarly, if you still have not yet had your first or second dose, please arrange to get that. It is now more important than ever to get an appointment and to get the protection that vaccination will offer you.
“In addition to getting vaccinated, as I said, all of us should now step up and significantly increase our compliance with existing protections such as face coverings, ventilation and hand hygiene. We are also strongly encouraging everyone who can work from home to do so. We are asking everyone, from now through the festive season, to do lateral flow device tests on any and all occasions before mixing with people from other households, whether that is in a pub, restaurant, house or shopping centre.
“From Monday, subject to Parliament’s approval this week, proof of a recent negative lateral flow test or vaccination will be accepted by venues and events that are covered by the Covid certification scheme.
“It is already very easy, and free, to get lateral flow tests. They can be ordered online or collected from pharmacies and test centres. For secondary school pupils or members of staff at schools or early learning centres, test kits are available free of charge from schools and early years centres.
“I can confirm today that, in the run-up to the festive period, local authorities will make lateral flow tests available in many more locations. Obviously, the locations will vary in different parts of the country, but they will include shopping centres and supermarkets, garden centres, sports grounds and Christmas markets. We are also working with transport partners to provide access to tests in transport hubs.
Although it is already easy to get lateral flow tests, we are taking steps to make it easier still. Please make sure that you get a supply, keep it topped up and use it. It is worth mentioning that the newer devices are much easier to use than the older ones, as they require nasal swabs only rather than nasal and throat swabs. Therefore, if you have previously tried lateral flow tests and given up because you found them too uncomfortable to use, please try again now. Remember also to report the result of tests online and, if a test shows positive, isolate at home until you have had a confirmatory PCR test and got the result of that.
“If we all do that over the next few weeks, it will make a big difference, because we will all massively reduce the risk of infecting others, particularly if we have the virus but would not otherwise know about it because we do not have symptoms. Please test yourself before mixing with others and on every occasion when you intend to mix with others.
“There is no doubt that the emergence of the new variant is a blow, or certainly a potential blow. It is potentially the most concerning development in the pandemic in recent months. However, even if our developing knowledge about the variant confirms some of our worries—let us hope that it does not—we are still in a much better position than we were in this time last year, thanks to the vaccines. We know what we need to do to stem transmission, because we have done it before and we know that it works. It is down to all of us to make sure that we do it.
“If, in recent weeks, we have been sticking a bit less strictly to the public health advice, now is the time to follow it rigorously again. First, get vaccinated. That is the single most important thing that we can do. Secondly, test regularly and before any occasion when you will be socialising or mixing with other households. Finally, comply with all existing protections. Please wear face coverings on public transport, in shops and when moving about in hospitality settings. Keep windows open to improve ventilation. Follow all advice on hygiene. Wash hands and surfaces. Work from home if you can.
“The discovery of the new variant makes those measures more important than ever before. If we treat the news of the new variant as an opportunity to raise our guard again, I hope that we will protect the progress that we have made in recent weeks, and we will give ourselves the best possible chance of enjoying not just a more normal Christmas, which we all want, but a safer Christmas too, and of avoiding any tighter restrictions in the weeks ahead.
“Please get vaccinated, get tested and comply with all the protections that are in place. If we all do that, we will play our part in slowing the spread of the virus generally and the new variant in particular.”