RESTRICTIONS: This is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy.

By First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

A total of 5,242 positive cases were reported yesterday, which is 14.9 per cent of the tests carried out; 515 people are in hospital with Covid, which is one fewer than yesterday; and 37 people are in intensive care, which is also one fewer than yesterday.

Sadly, a further nine deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 9,790. I again send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

In last week’s statement, I reported that cases had increased by 25 per cent in the preceding seven days and that we would, in all likelihood, see a further increase in infections as omicron became the dominant strain circulating in Scotland. Omicron has now firmly established itself as the dominant strain. We know from the S-gene dropout indicator that it now accounts for 62.9 per cent of all cases. That compares with 27.5 per cent this time last week.

Omicron is significantly more transmissible than previous variants, and we estimate that its R number is well above 3. It is currently spreading rapidly across Scotland, so the steep increase in infections that was predicted last week has now started to materialise. Cases have increased by more than 50 per cent in the past week, from more than 3,500 a day on average to almost 5,500 a day. There have been increases across all age groups, but the biggest—an increase of 161 per cent—has been in the 20 to 24-year-old age group. The rate of acceleration in an age cohort with, to date, lower levels of booster protection, relatively speaking, underlines the vital importance of everyone getting booster jags as quickly as possible. I will return to that later.

As the booster roll-out is completed, and bearing in mind that it takes around a week for immune protection to take effect in individuals, we must also act to slow down the spread of cases. I want to explain why that is so vital.

First, the toll that a rising wave of infections will have on health and social care is considerable. We do not yet know whether the proportion of omicron cases needing hospital care will be lower, higher or the same as with delta, but there is still no compelling evidence that omicron is intrinsically milder than previous strains. However, even if the proportion of cases needing hospital care is lower, as we all hope that it will be, a smaller proportion of a much larger number of infections will still have a deeply damaging impact. As well as the suffering caused to individuals and families, the additional pressure on our already stretched national health service will be extremely difficult to manage.

In addition, if large numbers of people become infected—even mildly—the impact on the economy and critical services through sickness and isolation absences will be crippling. Indeed, we are already starting to see that impact. One hundred ScotRail services were cancelled yesterday due to staff absence. Theatres are already being forced to cancel shows due to Covid cases among casts and crews and, even more seriously, staffing shortages are already being felt across the supply chain. They are exacerbating the intense pressures that the NHS and emergency services are working under. That is why we must act.

Let me be clear again: this is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy. If we do not stem the spread of the virus, both health and the economy will suffer.

Some ask why we cannot wait until we have more data and we know exactly the impact that omicron will have on the NHS. I totally understand the temptation to delay and to hope, after two long years of the virus, that further steps might not be necessary. However, as I said a moment ago, we are already seeing a significant impact from staff absences across the economy and public services. We must do what we can to stem that. We also know from experience that, if we wait until the data tells us conclusively that we have a problem—for example, with hospital admissions—it will already be too late to act to avoid that problem. We must act quickly in so far as we are able, given our financial constraints, and we must get ahead of the data if we can.

The obligation of Government is to take difficult decisions to keep the country as safe as possible, no matter how unpopular those decisions might be. Let me now set out the steps that we all need to take.

First, let me stress that we are not changing the advice for Christmas that I set out last week. It is important that, with just a few days to go, there is certainty about family gatherings on Christmas day and boxing day. I am not asking anyone to change those. However—I cannot stress this enough—please follow advice to keep family celebrations as safe as possible. Keep gatherings as small as your family circumstances allow. Make sure that everyone does a test shortly before getting together. Anyone who tests positive should not mix with others. Given how infectious omicron is, you should assume that, if one member of a household is positive, the others are likely to be so, too. Follow hygiene advice and keep windows open.

Crucially, between now and Christmas Day, cut your contacts with people in other households as much as possible. Minimise socialising with others, either at home or in indoor public places—indeed, stay at  home as much as is feasible. That is the best way of avoiding getting Covid and having to isolate over Christmas, or inadvertently spreading infection when you meet up with others.

I am grateful to everyone who has followed that advice over the past week. It will be making a difference. I want to stress that point. The steep increase in cases over the past week would have been steeper still but for people complying with that advice. I therefore hope that we may already be collectively slowing the spread.

However, it is important that we stick with it, so my first new request of everyone is that, from 27 December, as we come out of the Christmas weekend, until at least the end of the first week in January, when we will review the advice again, please go back to limiting your contacts as much as possible; please stay at home as much as is feasible; and, when you go out, please maintain physical distancing from people who are not in your group. Difficult though it is, please follow that advice over new year. Minimise Hogmanay socialising as much as you can.

If we all follow the advice to minimise the contact that we have outside of our own households, we will help to limit the spread of infections. That is the bedrock of our plan for the immediate period ahead.

 

Party time – cool your jets and keep the party Covid clean this Christmas.

However, although our core advice is to reduce socialising and stay at home as much as is feasible, the Cabinet’s judgment is that we must also take some further steps to make as safe as possible the places where people might still gather. That is why we are proposing some additional protections. None of those is being proposed lightly, but we consider them necessary to help to stem the increase in cases, safeguard health and protect the NHS, the emergency services and the economy, while we complete the booster programme and get its full effect.

First, from 26 December inclusive, for a period of three weeks, we intend to place limits on the size of live public events. I stress that that does not apply to private life events such as weddings. For indoor standing events, the limit will be 100; for indoor seated events it will be 200; and for outdoor events it will be 500, whether seated or standing. Physical distancing of 1m will be required at events that go ahead within those limits.

That will, of course, in effect make sports matches, including football, spectator free over that three-week period. That is similar to the situation in Wales from boxing day. Unfortunately, it will also mean that large-scale Hogmanay celebrations will not proceed—including the one that is planned here in our capital city.

I know how disappointing that will be for those who are looking forward to such events, and for their organisers. I will underline why we think that that difficult decision is necessary. First, we know that the much higher transmissibility of omicron means that large gatherings have the potential to become very rapid super-spreader events, putting large numbers at risk of getting infected very quickly. Limiting such events helps to reduce the risk of widespread transmission. It also cuts the transmission risks that are associated with travel to and from such events. Secondly, and not insignificantly, such large events put an additional burden on emergency services, especially on the police and ambulance services. Given that those services are already under severe pressure and are dealing with high levels of staff absence, limiting large-scale events will help them to focus on delivering essential services to the public. Despite the disappointment that I know the decision will generate, I ask the public to understand the reasons for it.

Secondly, we intend to issue guidance to the effect that non-professional indoor contact sports for adults should not take place during the three-week period from 26 December, because such activities, in which physical distancing is not possible, also create a heightened risk of transmission.

Finally, from 27 December, again for up to three weeks, we intend to introduce some further protections in hospitality settings and other indoor public places, to reduce transmission risks in what are, through no fault of those who run such venues, higher-risk environments. I can confirm that a requirement for table service only will be reintroduced for venues that serve alcohol for consumption on the premises. We will also ask indoor hospitality and leisure venues to ensure 1m distance not within but between groups of people who are attending together. As I set out last week, we will continue to advise people that, if they attend indoor hospitality or leisure venues—and people should remember that our core advice remains to minimise that—no more than three households should be represented in any group.

I know how unwelcome this will be for everyone, but we believe that those precautionary steps will help us to navigate a difficult period more safely.

I am also acutely aware that those decisions and the advice that we are giving the public have significant financial implications for many businesses. Last week, I announced £100 million of support from within our existing resources for affected sectors. I also confirm that eligibility criteria and guidance for the hospitality sector will be published on the Scottish Government website today. Since that announcement, the Treasury has given approval for money that would have come to us later to be allocated now. As I have said, we had already budgeted for most of that money and, therefore, cannot allocate it now without causing significant shortfalls elsewhere, including in the health budget. Money simply cannot be spent twice. However, we estimate that the Treasury announcements give us additional spending power now of £175 million. I confirm that we will allocate all of that to business support.

The Treasury has also, in the past hour or so, announced additional funding for business. Unfortunately, it appears that that announcement generates no further funding for Scotland and that any consequentials are already contained in previous announcements by the Treasury. However, the Scottish Government will allocate a further £100 million from elsewhere in our budget between now and the end of the financial year. That will involve difficult decisions, but the impact of the current crisis on business is such that we consider it essential.

Taken together, that adds up to a fund of £375 million that will help to support business for the unavoidable impacts of our decisions over the next three weeks. That is proportionally significantly more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer has just announced for businesses elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Although that is significant funding, I understand that it will not fully compensate business. As I said last week, my view is that the scale and urgency of the omicron challenge requires financial support for business on a scale similar to that at the start of the pandemic. However, current UK funding arrangements mean that only the Treasury has the borrowing powers to provide support on such a scale and that financial support at scale is triggered only when the UK Government takes decisions for England. All that means that our ability to act to protect public health, and to compensate individuals and businesses affected, is curtailed. That cannot be right in a public health emergency.

Although today’s Treasury announcement may be a welcome acknowledgement of the crisis that businesses face, it does not go far enough. Therefore, we will continue to press the UK Government to take the threat of omicron more seriously and to act accordingly. In the meantime, we will—indeed, we must—do what we can to protect health, lives and livelihoods here in Scotland.

It remains our priority—and, I hope, the Parliament’s priority—to reopen schools as normal after the Christmas holidays. Indeed, one reason for asking adults to make sacrifices for a further period after Christmas is to help to minimise any impact on children’s education. However, to ensure that schools are safe environments for young people and staff, updated guidance based on recommendations from the education advisory sub-group was published at the end of last week. Colleges and universities are also assessing any steps that they need to take for the new term and some are returning to a default model of online learning for the start of that term.

For everyone who is involved in education—staff, children, students and parents—the past term has been another exceptionally difficult one. I say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has helped to ensure that children are well supported and, indeed, I thank children and young people themselves for continuing to endure the tough times that they face at such an important stage of their lives.

The second point that I will cover briefly relates to test and protect. The current surge in cases is putting significant pressure on that service and I am grateful to all its teams for working so hard to break chains of transmission. From this week, test and protect will flex its approach as necessary to ensure that priority is given to higher-risk settings, such as hospitals and care homes, where outbreaks can cause the most harm.

For many of us, that means that, if we test positive, our contact from test and protect teams is more likely to be by text or email rather than a phone call. I ask people to respond to those messages and complete the online form that is sent. That helps their contacts to get the right advice as quickly as possible. I also ask the contacts of someone who tests positive to follow test and protect’s advice. That will help to slow the spread of the virus.

Finally, I turn to booster jags, which are our best line of defence against omicron and which will, I believe, get us through, and out of, this difficult phase. In the past week, there has been a significant acceleration of the programme, and I thank everyone who has been involved. This week, a further two large-scale vaccination centres have opened, at Hampden in Glasgow and the Edinburgh international conference centre. Yesterday, 69,135 boosters or third doses were administered, which means that well over half the adult population has now had a third dose or a booster.

Last week, I said that our target was to have 80 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated with boosters by the time the bells strike on Hogmanay. Today, I can confirm that we are now confident that we have the capacity to meet that target. However, in order to reach it, or to get as close to it as possible, we need everyone who is eligible to come forward. If you have an appointment booked for January, please now reschedule it for December. Appointments will be available right through Christmas eve and then next week, up to and including Hogmanay, so please book an appointment now. Alternatively, you can check out the location of drop-in clinics and go there instead. Getting fully vaccinated is the best thing that any of us can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the country, so please get boosted before the bells.

In some ways, this statement feels distressingly similar to the one that I gave this time last year. Just a few days before Christmas, I am again urging people to stay at home as much as possible in order to slow down a highly infectious new variant of Covid. However, although it may not feel like it, we are in a much stronger position than we were last year. We have had far fewer restrictions in place for much of this year than was the case in the previous year, and Christmas day will be more normal than it was last year. Most importantly, a rapidly increasing number of adults are now protected by three doses of vaccine. We all, as individuals, know what to do to protect ourselves and each other.

Please make sure that you do all the following things. First, please get fully vaccinated as soon as possible. Secondly, please test regularly. Our advice is to stay at home as much as possible, but if you are meeting other people, please test before you go, every time, and test as close to when you go as possible. That is very important for family gatherings on Christmas day or boxing day.

Finally, please take all the other precautions that can help to make a difference. Please work from home when possible, and stay at home as much as you can. If you visit indoor public places, please limit the number of households in your group to a maximum of three. Please wear a face covering on public transport, in shops and when moving about in hospitality, and make sure that the covering fully covers your mouth and nose. Please keep windows open if you are meeting indoors, even at this time of year, and follow all advice on hygiene. Sticking to all that is hard, but there is no doubt that it will help to keep all of us safer.

I end my final statement before Christmas with a heartfelt thank you to everyone for everything that you have done to help us through another exceptionally tough year. I wish everyone the happiest and safest Christmas possible, and a much better and brighter new year ahead.

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