- 1 Feb 2022
Today, I will give a further update on the levels of and trends in COVID infections.
I will also confirm that when Cabinet reviewed COVID protections this morning – as we are required to do every three weeks – our decision was to keep the remaining baseline measures in place for now.
I will then give brief updates on guidance for schools and early years settings; on the BA.2 sub variant of Omicron which is currently under investigation; and also on vaccination.
And I will conclude with a reminder of the basic steps it is still important to take to help curb transmission and reduce pressure on the NHS, economy and wider society.
First, though, today’s statistics.
7,565 positive cases were reported yesterday through PCR and lateral flow tests.
1,177 people are in hospital with COVID – 30 fewer than yesterday.
42 people are in intensive care - three fewer than yesterday and this includes 13 patients who have been in ICU for more than 28 days.
Sadly, a further 30 deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under this daily definition to 10,341.
And again, my condolences are with everyone mourning a loved one.
The most recent data does continue though to give grounds for optimism - the situation we are in now is certainly much less severe than we had thought it might be.
That said, case numbers do remain high.
And the significant fall in the first three weeks of January has now levelled off somewhat
Last week, I reported that the number of new cases had fallen by just over a quarter in the previous seven days.
This week, cases have actually risen, albeit very slightly, from more than 7,200 new cases a day, to just under 7,400 - an increase of 2%.
The picture across different age groups is mixed.
The biggest increase in the past week – of 7% - was in the under 15s.
That though is significantly lower than the 41% rise in that age group recorded in the previous week. And this may well, indeed I hope it does, indicate that the impact of the return to school after the Christmas break is beginning to tail off.
Cases also increased last week - by 5% - amongst 25 to 44 year olds, which is likely to reflect infections among children now feeding through into that age group – many of whom are parents or carers.
Case numbers are still falling in all other age groups, although they are falling more slowly than was the case seven days ago.
The weekly survey data from the Office for National Statistics, though not as up to date as daily case numbers, is another important measure of infection levels.
It shows that in the week to 22 January, the percentage of people in Scotland infected with the virus declined to around one in 30 from around one in 20 in the previous week. And these figures are consistent with the trends in the daily data for that period in January.
There is a further point about the daily data that I want to highlight today.
Right now, someone who is reinfected with COVID doesn’t count as a ‘new case’ in the statistical reports.
So for example, if you received a positive PCR result yesterday, you will not be included as one of the new cases reported today if you had also tested positive on a previous occasion.
As of yesterday, reinfections are being reported by the UK Government in the daily figures for England.
This means that for a short period, the daily case numbers for England will not be directly comparable with those for Scotland.
However, this will be temporary as Public Health Scotland is also planning to report on reinfections.
I can confirm that initial data will be included in the PHS weekly report tomorrow, and data on reinfections will be included in daily case figures from later this month.
This data on reinfections obviously becomes more important as the pandemic progresses and more people get COVID for a second time.
That said it is important to stress that, as things stand, the current daily figures do capture the significant majority of people who test positive each day.
To return to the most recent data, though, the decline in cases in the first three weeks of January is now being reflected in a decline in the number of people being admitted to hospital.
In the week to 21 January, 768 patients with COVID were admitted. In the following week this was down to 602.
Hospital occupancy has also fallen. This time last week, 1,394 patients with COVID were in hospital. Today, that stands at 1,177.
The number of people with COVID in intensive care has reduced too - from 49 this time last week to 42 today.
These improving trends are a result of booster vaccination, the proportionate measures introduced in December, and the willingness of the public to adapt behaviour to stem transmission.
This has enabled us, over the past two weeks, to remove virtually all of the additional measures introduced in December.
Most recently, as of yesterday, guidance on home working was updated to enable a partial return to the office, with hybrid working where appropriate.
And from the end of next week – 11th February - the requirements for overseas travel will also be eased. Fully vaccinated travellers will no longer need to take a test on their arrival into Scotland.
This return to much greater normality is of course very welcome for individuals, households and businesses across the country.
However, common sense - coupled with the very strong desire that all of us feel not to go backwards - does demand continued caution.
The NHS remains under very acute pressure. As I reported a moment ago, the number of people in hospital with COVID is falling – but it is still double what it was just before Christmas.
As I also reported earlier, the recent fall in cases is now levelling off.
And, of course, as often happens, when protective measures that have helped stem transmission are lifted, cases may start to rise again, exacerbating the already significant pressure on the NHS.
This is why Cabinet took the decision this morning to retain for at least a further three weeks, the current baseline measures. These are the COVID certification scheme, and the following requirements: to collect customer contact details in settings such as hospitality; to wear face coverings in many indoor public places and on public transport; and for businesses and service providers to have regard to guidance and take all reasonably practical steps to minimise the incidence and spread of infection on their premises.
We will also continue to ask the public to take lateral flow tests before mixing with people from other households.
Complying with these basic protective measures will help, I hope, stem infections and therefore relieve pressure on the NHS while allowing all of us to get back to living much more normally.
There are three further issues I want to touch on today.
The first is to update Parliament briefly on the sub-type of Omicron - known as BA.2 - which was recently designated as a variant under investigation.
As members will recall, with the main Omicron variant, what is called the S Gene is absent in PCR tests.
However, in BA.2 cases the S Gene shows up.
In the last week, the proportion of PCR tests with an S Gene dropout - which indicates the main Omicron variant - has declined, with a corresponding increase in the proportion of tests showing S Gene positive results.
This could be accounted for by Delta cases which also show positive S Gene results.
However, it may also indicate increasing transmission of the BA.2 sub variant.
Genomic sequencing is being used to investigate this further.
So far, I can confirm that in Scotland, 26 cases of BA.2 have been confirmed through genomic sequencing - but we expect this number to increase as more sequencing results are reported. And given that not all tests are genomically sequenced, it will be an underestimate of the presence of this sub variant here.
It is important to stress that, at this stage, there is no evidence that BA.2 causes more severe disease than the main Omicron variant.
Nor, at this stage, is there any evidence that BA.2 has any greater ability to escape the immunity conferred by vaccines or previous infection.
However, BA.2 does appear to have the ability to out-run the main Omicron variant, which may indicate that it is more transmissible.
Investigations into this are ongoing, both in the UK and in other countries, like Denmark, where the sub-variant has been circulating for longer.
At the moment, therefore, this BA.2 sub-variant is not a cause for any alarm, nor a cause to change our approach, but it does warrant further study.
It also a reminder that the course of this pandemic - of any pandemic - does remains uncertain.
So even as we get back to normal life, we must take care and remain vigilant.
And we must remember that, as this is, of course, a global pandemic, developments in other countries will impact on our ability to control the virus here.
And this of course underlines the vital importance of extending the protection of vaccines to all countries as quickly as possible.
I also want to report that the Advisory Subgroup on Education met last week to review COVID measures in schools and early learning and childcare settings.
I can confirm that in light of its recommendations, revised guidance is being published today, which effectively returns schools and early years settings to the situation before the emergence of Omicron.
The revised guidance eases requirements for bubbles or groupings within schools, and it is less restrictive in its advice on visitors to school and on school trips.
The sub-group also considered the issue of face coverings last week.
It concluded that although we may be close to the time when face coverings no longer need to be worn in class rooms assuming current trends continue, we have not yet reached that stage.
No-one wants young people to have to wear face coverings in the class room for a moment longer than necessary. But given the current uncertainty about infection trends in the immediate future, and the relatively high levels of COVID in younger age groups, continued caution is prudent at this stage.
The sub-group will consider the issue of face coverings again at its meeting on the 8th of February.
The final point I want to cover relates to COVID and flu vaccination
In December, flu vaccination was paused for some groups to allow priority to be given to the delivery of COVID booster jags.
However, flu vaccinations have now resumed for higher risk groups, for example the over 65s. Uptake in these groups was already high in December but if you are in one of these groups and haven’t yet had your flu vaccine yet, the NHS Inform website will provide details of how to arrange it in your local health board area.
In terms of COVID, vaccination has now started for five to 11 year olds at the highest clinical risk and also those five to 11 year olds who are household contacts of someone who is immunosuppressed.
Parents and carers of children in these groups will receive a letter or a phone call about vaccination soon. Indeed, some will have received this already.
In addition, booster invitations are now being sent to all 18 to 59 year olds who are eligible for the booster but haven’t yet had it.
Approximately 580,000 people are in this category. Invitations to scheduled appointments are being sent in blue envelopes, with the first appointments scheduled from Monday onwards.
So if you haven’t had a booster yet - but you are eligible for one - please look out for the blue envelope, and go along to the scheduled appointment. If the appointment time you are given isn’t convenient, you can rearrange it to a more convenient time.
For anyone who has had just two vaccinations, and this is an important point, protection against serious illness from COVID does wane significantly over time. So, the booster is a vital, essential way in fact, of maintaining protection.
So please, do get boosted. It is the best way to protect yourself from serious illness, and also to protect the NHS.
Presiding Officer, in conclusion, we can continue in my view to be optimistic, as we look ahead to the spring.
Case levels are likely to remain high for some time – and they may increase further as a result of the recent easing of protections.
But there are good grounds at this stage for confidence that we are again entering a calmer phase of the pandemic.
Our revised Strategic Framework will be published following the February recess. It will set out in some detail our approach to managing COVID more sustainably in the remaining phases of the pandemic and then as the virus hopefully becomes endemic.
Between now and then, we will continue to engage on its contents and of course Parliament will get the opportunity to debate and vote on the framework.
For the moment, though, I will close with steps we can all continue to take to protect ourselves and others, while we do return to more normal lives.
Firstly, to repeat, please get fully vaccinated as soon as you can.
Second, continue to take care when out and about socialising.
In particular, take a lateral flow test every time, before meeting other people socially. And remember to take the test as soon as possible before you go out, rather than several hours before.
And finally, please take the other precautions that we know make a difference.
Keep windows open if you are meeting indoors.
Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops, and when moving about in hospitality.
Talk to your employer about a return to hybrid working and follow the guidance and the precautions that they adopt to make the workplace safe.
And follow all advice on hygiene.
These measures are making a difference. They will help us protect the NHS and help get it back to normal. And they are, of course, enabling us to keep each other safe, even while other protections are lifted.
So please, do stick with them and once again let me thank everyone across the country who is doing exactly that.