STURGEON ON RESTRICTIONS AND RAPID SPREAD OF OMICRON VIRUS

By Bill Heaney

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has denied being “indecisive” in the way she is dealing with the Covid pandemic restrictions.

Tory leader Douglas Ross, pictured right,  said the fact that Ms Sturgeon could not make up her mind about where this crisis is going was one of the main problems which had caused widespread public discontent about the issue.

However, at a special meeting of the Scottish Parliament, Ms Sturgeon hit back: “What Douglas Ross describes as indecision is actually responsibility.

“The most important burden on my shoulders is to be as responsible and measured as possible in taking such decisions.

“I know that businesses are struggling—critical services are struggling, too—with staff absences. If case numbers continue to rise, the situation will become more difficult, which is why we need to try to slow down the increase.

“It is the virus, not self-isolation that is the cause of the problem.  However, the self-isolation rules need to be proportionate, so that they are not exacerbating the problem.

“I do not argue in any way with the central premise of the question, but an element of common sense needs to be applied as well. That is where careful judgment comes into play.

“If we ease up too quickly on the self-isolation rules and do not take sufficient care, even though we would be doing that for good reasons, all we would do is contribute to the spread of the virus and increase the overall number of infections.

“Therefore, the problem that businesses are suffering will get not better, but worse.”

She added: “I confirm that there are no immediate changes to the protections that are currently in force or to the advice that we are giving the public.

“We will be monitoring closely in the days ahead, as we assess the likely impact of this wave of infection and the continued necessity and proportionality of our response.

“I will briefly summarise the protective measures that took effect earlier this week to help to slow the spread, and I will provide some further detail on the support that is available to businesses. Finally, I will report on delivery of booster vaccinations.

“Yesterday 15,849 positive cases were reported. That is 28.9 per cent of all tests that were carried out. It is worth noting that the much higher test positivity that has been experienced over recent days might be partially explained by people being more selective about when to go for a test over the Christmas period.

“However, it is, by some margin, the highest overall daily cases number that has been reported in the pandemic to date.  Six hundred and seventy-nine people are currently in hospital with Covid—that is 80 more than yesterday—and 36 people are in intensive care, which is one fewer than yesterday.

“I will say more about the numbers of people with Covid in hospital, and about why that is an important indicator, as we judge what will be the most proportionate response, going forward.

“Sadly, however, a further three deaths have been reported, which takes the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 9,836.

“It is clear from those figures that the wave of omicron that has been predicted is now rapidly developing. Omicron now accounts for around 80 per cent of all cases and, over the past week, the number of reported cases of Covid overall has increased by 47 per cent.

“We should also bear in mind that any transmission over recent days will not yet be fully evident in the reported figures. It is therefore reasonable to assume that we will continue to see steep increases in cases in the days and, possibly, the weeks ahead.”

The First Minister stressed: “That said, it is also important to remember that our individual and collective behaviour will influence how fast, or otherwise, the virus spreads. The current surge would almost certainly be even higher but for so many people following the advice to cut down on social interactions in the run-up to Christmas.

“Given the speed and extent of transmission that we are experiencing, it is vital that we continue to take sensible precautions and limit social interactions for a further period, as we learn more about the likely impact of this wave of infection and as we complete the booster vaccination programme.

“Obviously, one of the factors that we are looking at most closely is the proportion of omicron cases that require hospital treatment. That will tell us more about the severity of omicron for individuals and about the overall impact that it is likely to have on the national health service. It will, therefore, inform our on-going response.

“It is worth emphasising that there are other reasons to do all that we can, at this stage, to slow down the spread. “

She added: “First, whatever the overall impact of omicron turns out to be, we know that the virus will cause serious illness and death for some people.  We also know that, for others, long Covid will cause on-going suffering.  Secondly, we know that high levels of infection and, therefore, sickness absence will be disruptive to the economy and to delivery of critical services.

“As things stand, none of us should be complacent about getting Covid. We should take steps to avoid it if we can.  There is no doubt, however, that the data that we are looking at most closely is on conversion of cases into hospital admissions; there are, in that respect, some grounds for optimism.

“Over the past week, published studies have suggested that the risk of hospitalisation from omicron is lower— possibly significantly lower—than it is for other strains of the virus. What is not yet fully understood is why that might be the case— whether it is because omicron is inherently less severe, or because of its greater ability to infect people who have had prior infection or have been vaccinated, which would mean that more of those who get it carry a level of immunity that protects them from serious illness.”

Ms Sturgeon said that we do not yet know the answer to that but, either way, if it is the case that a much lower proportion of people with omicron than of those who have other strains of the virus need hospital care, that is really good news—especially as omicron is now the dominant strain—in terms of individual health and overall impact, and it would inform how we will respond in the weeks ahead.

She added: ” All in all, I expect that we will have a clearer picture within the next couple of weeks, which will help us to reach informed judgments about the most proportionate response, going forward.

“In the meantime, however, while we better understand the impacts, and while more and more of us get the added protection of booster vaccinations—which will help to reduce the impact of omicron—we must try to avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases. That is why it is prudent—indeed, I say that it is essential—that we act to slow transmission as much as possible.”

The FM said that is why additional protections have been and advice given that, over Hogmanay and New Year’s Day, and for at least the first week in January, to stay at home more than normal, to reduce contacts with people outside our own households, and to limit the size of indoor social gatherings that take place so that they do not include people from more than three households.

She added: “People should try to ventilate indoor spaces as a much as possible. It also remains our strong advice that lateral flow tests should be taken just before meeting people from another household. If that test shows a positive result, it is vital that people immediately isolate and book a polymerase chain reaction test.

“You should also isolate and book a PCR test if you have symptoms that might be Covid. I know that following that advice is difficult and frustrating at the best of times, and is even harder at this time of year.

“However, it really does help, and it will be helping already, notwithstanding the very high case numbers, so please stick with it for now.”

Events such as the Celtic v Rangers match have been postponed until February 2

In addition to that general advice to the public, the new protective measures relating to hospitality, public indoor places and live events that I set out last week are now in force. We will review those on an on-going basis, but at this stage our expectation is that they will be in force until 17 January.

“That means, for now, that there are limits on the size of live public events, although private life events,such as weddings, are exempt. For indoor standing events the limit is 100, for indoor seated events it is 200, and for outdoor events it is 500, seated or standing.”

Ms Sturgeon explained that the higher transmissibility of omicron means that large gatherings have far greater potential to become rapid super-spreader events and that there are transmission risks associated with travel to and from such events.

Also, they place significant demands on emergency services, including the police and the Scottish Ambulance Service at a time when emergency services are already dealing with high levels of staff absence due to the virus.

Not having large-scale public events allows those services to focus on delivering core services to the public — “As well as the limits on large events, further protections are now in force for hospitality and other indoor public places.

“A requirement for table service has been reintroduced for venues that serve alcohol for consumption on the premises.  Guidance has been issued to the effect that indoor hospitality and leisure venues should ensure 1m distancing between groups of customers. A group—whether it is made up of one, two or three households—should be physically distanced from other such groups in the same venue.

“Finally, nightclubs are unfortunately now closed until 17 January, unless they have decided to remain open, without dancing, as hospitality premises, in which case they will be required to follow the same rules and guidance as other hospitality venues.

“All those protections are important to help us to deal with and to reduce the impact of the public health challenge that Covid represents. However, they also have a significant impact on businesses.

“Two weeks ago, I announced £100 million to support businesses that are affected by the advice to minimise contacts over the festive period. We have already detailed the allocation of that funding.

“Last week, I announced a further £275 million of support. The first £100 million of that additional support is being allocated. Of it, £16 million will be made available to support public transport providers through existing Covid support schemes, £27 million will go to the culture sector and another £17 million will go to the events sector.

“A further £32 million will be allocated to hospitality and leisure businesses, with an additional £10 million for the parts of the hospitality industry that are being most severely impacted by the requirement for table
service only. Up to £5 million will be allocated to nightclubs that are required to close.

“We are also working closely with the sports sector. Sporting events are, obviously, affected by the limit on the number of spectators and by cancellations that are due to Covid absences.

“However, we know that some of that impact will be alleviated by rescheduling of events. We want to ensure that the support that we provide is effectively targeted.

“We have now reached decisions on the allocation of, in total, £207 million of the £375 million that is being made available for business support.”

The First Minister emphasised that local authorities such as West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute Councils are now working to get that money into bank accounts as fast as possible.

She added: “Money is flowing and will flow to businesses as quickly as possible. From the money being announced and then being made available through to, just days before Christmas, leaders of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities meeting to agree that they would disburse the funds, right up to the cheques being written right now to get the money out of the door, everything is being done at pace, and money will start flowing to businesses in the days to come. “

Dumbarton Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, right,  raised the issue of shielding. She told the First Minister: “We know that antiviral medication reduces the risk of people becoming severely ill with Covid. For the 180,000 people in Scotland who are currently shielding and their families, that is welcome.

“However, I understand that the eligibility criteria for the medication, which were decided by the four chief medical officers, do not cover all those who are currently shielding and miss out key vulnerable groups.

“Will the First Minister urgently review the criteria so that no one who is shielding is left out? Will she also ensure that the process is streamlined?

“Having to access a PCR test and then to wait for test and protect to phone, when case numbers are rising, can waste valuable time. Some people have been contacted beyond the five-day window—too late to allow them to get the medication. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that we must act more quickly.”

Ms Sturgeon told her: “I am not sure whether Jackie Baillie is suggesting that I, as a politician with no clinical
qualifications, should substitute my judgement about eligibility for that of the four chief medical officers. It is right that questions about eligibility for antiviral treatment, particularly at this stage, should be for clinicians and our clinical advisers.

“We want to see the number and range of people who access antiviral treatment expand as the number and availability of those treatments increase, but I genuinely believe that those decisions are best informed by clinical advisers, not politicians. I will continue to listen carefully to what they say.

“The point about the speed of access to PCR tests is an important one.  So far as the prioritisation in the PCR testing system for essential workers is concerned, I also said that we are making priority slots available for those who are clinically vulnerable and those who are eligible for the new antiviral treatments, to ensure that they get their test results timeously and do not lose out on access to treatment.”

Cllr Marie McNair MSP, pictured left,  who doubles for the SNP as a West Dunbartonshire councillor and Member of the Scottish Parliament, presumably from the same sofa, told parliament: “The omicron variant has meant that some public health measures have had to be reintroduced to protect the public and our national health service.

“Those measures ask that social contact be limited. The First Minister will be concerned about the impact that those measures could have on social isolation.

“What efforts is the Scottish Government making to give advice and support to the people who might be impacted most by social isolation?”

The First Minister replied: “There is no doubt that the advice that we are giving has an impact on isolation and loneliness. It will be exacerbating that for many people, and that is one of the reasons why I hope that we do not have to give this advice for very long.

“The more we all stick to it now, the quicker we will get through this. A range of support is available. I highlight the national assistance helpline, which is available Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm. That can assist
with practical support, such as that which people need while they are self-isolating, and it can also link individuals to local support services to help reduce social isolation. The number for that is 0800 111 4000.

“We have also committed to additional investment to tackle social isolation and loneliness, and have already made an additional £1 million available to support the work of organisations that are involved in that area.

“Lastly, support is available through a range of different organisations. I highlight Breathing Space, Clear Your Head, the Scottish Association for Mental Health and Samaritans, which, of course, has a 24-hour phone line.

“This is a tough time for everybody, and I recognise that it is particularly so for those who are living alone and are already isolated. Support is out there if they need it, and I ask people please to make sure that they use it.”

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One comment

  1. Does anyone believe a word Sturgeon utters.

    Only a few weeks ago the City of Glasgow and environs hosted over 20,000 folks from around the world with Sturgeon’s blessing.

    Now a few weeks on we’re going in to lockdown.

    So what is it Nicola. Something doesn’t gel. Your time as the COVID Queen is being exposed.

    COP26 and then this? Not enough doctors to deliver basic health care, the BMA know it, COVID is being used to mask the SG’s under resourcing of the NHS

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