As we have all become accustomed to, every Tuesday the First Minister provides an update on the current Covid-19 restrictions. The Scottish Government is required by law, passed by the Scottish Parliament, to provide updates on the measures.
Although we are still living under immensely tough restrictions, we do have light at the end of the tunnel – vaccines. Scotland’s vaccination roll-out has been incredible, and it has been heartening to hear of the thousands of local residents receiving doses at their GP, at the NHS Louisa Jordan, the facility in Fernhill, or elsewhere.
As at 8.30am today, 1,288,004 people in Scotland had received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 32,814 since yesterday. That means that we have now given a first dose to 28 per cent of the adult population.
Scotland has also met our mid-February target to offer the first dose of the vaccine to everyone over 70, and to everyone with extreme clinical vulnerability i.e. those that were previously shielding.
Vaccination has not simply been offered to everyone in those categories; almost everyone in those groups has had the first dose of the vaccine. We have administered first doses to virtually all residents in older people’s care homes, and to more than 90 per cent of residents in all care homes. Virtually all over-80-year-olds living in the community have received the first dose, as have 94 per cent of those in the 70 to 79-year-old age group.
In addition, although it was not part of the mid-February target, we have also now vaccinated 58 per cent of 65 to 69-year-olds, who form the JCVI’s priority group 5.
It is important to be clear that there are, in any large-scale programme, bound to be some hiccups. If you, or anyone you know, is over 70 or who has extreme clinical vulnerability but have not yet heard about their vaccination, then please contact me if I am your local MSP (live in Rutherglen, Cambuslang, Halfway or Blantyre).
Public Health Restrictions and Current Covid-19 Prevalence
In the first week of January, an average of more than 2,300 new cases a day were being recorded in Scotland – the most recent figure is 810 cases. As such, there has been a significant and sustained fall.
As a result of that we are now seeing fewer Covid patients in hospital and fewer patients requiring intensive care treatment, although it is important to be clear that our health service remains under very severe pressure.
Of course, we already know from our experience last autumn and in December just how easily the virus can run away from us when there is already a high baseline of transmission within the community. That all means that the situation that we are in just now, although it is better and significantly improved, is still very fragile.
I know that that this remains very frustrating. Over the past few weeks, the sacrifices that everyone has continued to make have helped to bring about the good progress. The news has all been very encouraging. However, our room for manoeuvre remains limited. Even a slight easing of restrictions now could cause cases to start rising quite rapidly again.
All that being said, we know that we cannot continue in lockdown indefinitely, so we need to balance all the different factors and plan a gradual phased return to as much normality as possible, as quickly as possible.
At the moment, the Scottish Government is deliberately choosing to use the very limited headroom that we have right now to get at least some children back to school, because children’s education and wellbeing is such an overriding priority. However, being able to get children back to education might mean the rest of us living with some other restrictions for longer. That is a trade-off that we need to be willing to make, at this stage.
The First Minister confirmed today, that the Scottish Government is currently preparing a revised strategic framework, which will set out in much more detail when and how we might gradually emerge from the lockdown. The First Minister hopes to publish the new framework next week following discussions with the other parties in Parliament and with business organisations, trade unions, third sector bodies and others.
It will set out as far as possible the conditions that we think need to be met, in terms of the data, for us to start lifting restrictions, and it will detail the broad order of priority for reopening, including what a return to a geographic levels approach might look like in due course.
The First Minister confirmed that the Scottish Government is likely to advise against booking Easter holidays, either overseas or within Scotland, as it is highly unlikely that we will have been able to fully open hotels or self-catering accommodation by then. For the summer, although it is still highly unlikely that overseas holidays will be possible or advisable, staycations might be, but that will depend on the data nearer the time.
The Scottish Government has always made it clear that education remains the top priority. Today, the First Minister confirmed that first phase of the reopening of schools will go ahead as planned on Monday.
That means pre-school children, pupils in primary 1 to 3, and a limited number of senior phase students who need access to school for essential practical work will return from Monday 22 February.
The First Minister also advised that the Scottish Government will need to monitor the impact of the change carefully before taking any further decisions, but she hopes that in two weeks’ time, we will be able to set out the second phase of school reopening.
Nonetheless, to give as much clarity as possible at this stage, particularly for parents, the First Minister pointed out that the need to properly assess the impact of the limited reopening means that, at this stage, we think it unlikely that there will be any further return to school before 15 March.
The success of this limited reopening and the prospect of getting, we hope, more pupils back into school later in March very much depends on all of us continuing to abide by the wider restrictions. The evidence suggests that the key risk in reopening schools is not transmission of the virus within schools; instead, the risk comes from the increased contact that the reopening might spark among the wider adult population. The risk is that schools going back might lead to parents socialising more, at the school gates for example, or returning to the workplace rather than working from home.
The Scottish Government is therefore asking parents and employers to make sure that that does not happen. If you are an employer, please understand that employees who were working from home while their children were being home schooled should still work from home next week, even if their children are back at school.
For now, though, the most important priority is to continue to firmly suppress the virus – that means sticking to the current lockdown rules.
Thank you for sticking with it.