By FIRST MINISTER NICOLA STURGEON
Yesterday, 5,951 cases were reported, and 45.4 per cent of cases now show the S-gene dropout that is indicative of omicron. It therefore seems likely that, by tomorrow, omicron will be the dominant strain circulating in Scotland. Omicron’s much higher transmissibility will drive an even more rapid increase in cases.
Omicron is spreading exceptionally fast—much faster than anything experienced so far in the pandemic. I am profoundly concerned by the scale and immediacy of the challenge that omicron poses. In response, we are already rapidly accelerating the delivery of boosters, and we will continue to do so. Yesterday, 59,437 boosters or third doses were administered—a further increase on the day before.
We must understand that omicron is currently running faster than even the fastest roll-out of vaccines. A key point is that the immune protection from vaccination is not immediate; it takes a few days. As we speed up the delivery of vaccines, we must also act to slow the virus down. If we do not, the consequences will be significant. Even if omicron’s impact on individual health is milder than that of other variants—let me stress that we have no evidence of that yet—many people will still become severely unwell and die, and the sheer number of people infected will present a massive challenge. Indeed, in London, where transmission of omicron is currently the highest in the United Kingdom, hospital admissions are now rising sharply. If we do not act now, what we have feared all along but so far avoided—the overwhelming of the national health service—could happen.
Let me be clear: this is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy. A surge in infections will cause—indeed, is already causing—staff absences that will cripple the economy and other critical services.
This is a really serious situation and we must respond accordingly. I therefore strongly underline the advice that I gave on Tuesday. Please reduce your contact with people from households other than your own as much as you possibly can. For now, please stay at home much more than you normally would and as much as is feasible. Right now, the risk of getting Covid from interactions with others is high and it is rising. Before doing anything that you might have planned over the coming days, ask yourself whether it is as safe as it needs to be and whether it is vital enough to you to justify that risk.
I suspect that what is most important to most of us, over the next couple of weeks, is having time with our families at Christmas. Every interaction that we have before then increases the risk of our getting Covid and so possibly losing that.
More generally, I suspect that what matters most to us—this is strongly my view—is protecting children’s education. By acting to reduce community transmission, we will also be helping to keep schools open—and open safely.
Given what I am being advised about the risk that omicron poses to health and the economy, if I failed to give that advice, I would not be fulfilling my duty or acting in good conscience. I am acutely aware of and deeply concerned about the considerable impact of that advice on businesses, but I repeat that businesses will also suffer if we do not act to slow the virus. Business now needs the type and scale of financial support that was available earlier in the pandemic, but no mechanisms are available to the devolved Administrations to trigger the scale of finance that is needed to support such schemes. We need the UK Government to act urgently and in the same way as some other countries are already doing.
I made that point again yesterday at a COBR meeting, which was chaired by Michael Gove and attended by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but it now needs the urgent engagement of the Prime Minister and the chancellor.
We must not sleepwalk into an emergency that, for both health and business, will be much greater as a result of inaction than it will be if we act firmly and strongly now. Therefore, this morning, I wrote to the Prime Minister, appealing to him to put the necessary support schemes in place. Such is the urgency, I have asked to speak directly to him later today.
None of us wants to be in that position, but omicron presents a renewed and very real challenge for the whole world—the World Health Organization could not be clearer about that. Once again, the duty to protect the NHS, lives and livelihoods must be uppermost in our minds and it must drive our actions. All of us—Governments and citizens—must do what is required. I ask everybody across the country to play their part again by following the advice that we are giving.