Covid Scotland: Humza Yousaf refuses to rule out further restrictions amid fears of spike following COP26
Humza Yousaf has admitted there is a risk of a spike in Covid-19 infections following the COP26 summit, and declined to rule out further restrictions amid growing fears of a winter surge in cases.
The health secretary also said he “completely rejected” accusations the Scottish Government’s booster programme was “sluggish,” despite the fact more than 400,000 people eligible for the jag have yet to receive it.
It comes as an increasing number of health boards have requested military assistance to deal with the growing crisis facing the NHS, although Mr Yousaf dismissed reports that every health board has done so.
Speaking on BBC One Scotland’s The Sunday Show, Mr Yousaf accepted the coming climate change summit in Glasgow would result in a rise in the number of positive Covid-19 cases.
Professor Devi Sridhar, a global public health professor at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the government’s Covid-19 advisory group, warned last week the event would “put stress on limited health services” and trigger the need for further restrictions.
Up to 25,000 delegates are set to arrive in Glasgow for the conference over the next week, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to take part in large-scale protests surrounding the gathering.
Mr Yousaf said the government expected there to be positive cases that are linked to COP26, but that it was “very, very assured” by the protocols in place, which include daily testing in the summit’s tightly secured blue zone.
He said: “We’ll do everything in our power to keep it to a minimum, but there’s no public health expert anywhere in the world who’d say there’s no risk in the midst of a pandemic to have tens of thousands of people descending largely on to one city.
“There is absolutely a risk of Covid cases rising thereafter and we will do everything we can to try and mitigate that.”
On whether restrictions would be necessary over Christmas, Mr Yousaf said: “If there’s one thing I have learnt about this virus, it’s that anybody suggesting we have a crystal ball would be foolish.”
He added: “We are not actively considering restrictions … I am concerned that we are going to have an incredibly challenging winter, we are going to have one of the most difficult winters.
“What are we trying our best to do, through the mitigation measures, is not to go back into restrictions, because we know the harm they have on people’s health, mental health, as well as of course wider society and the economy.”
On Sunday, there were 2,528 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 58 patents being treated in intensive care units.
A further 21 deaths were also recorded, but the figures released were for the previous 48 hours, after a “data issue” meant death numbers could not be reported on Saturday.
With the NHS facing seasonal pressures as winter approaches, an increasing number of health boards have asked for military assistance.
Pat Wynne, NHS Lothian’s director of community nursing, said: “We have requested additional support from the British Armed Forces to help bolster our resilience during this busy time for the programme.
“NHS Lothian has successfully worked with the British Armed Forces before and during the first stage of the vaccination programme, which allowed us to speed up our delivery of the life-saving vaccine.”
A spokesman for the board said "it has been indicated that we will receive five personnel plus a lead” and “co-ordinating this additional support” would begin this week.
NHS Ayrshire & Arran confirmed that it too had asked the Army for help – after being forced to cancel a booster and flu vaccination clinic for 660 patients due to staff self-isolation.
The health board’s interim chief executive, Professor Hazel Borland, said: “As part of ongoing and fluid plans to mitigate the current pressures, we can confirm we have submitted a request for short-term military assistance to support the vaccination delivery programme, which is currently under consideration.”
It follows requests for military help from NHS Grampian, NHS Borders and NHS Lanarkshire. The latter health board has moved to the "highest risk level" – known commonly as ‘Code Black’ – as its three hospitals are at maximum capacity.
The military is already providing additional support at its hospitals in Hairmyres, Monklands and Wishaw, but the health board described occupancy levels as "critical" and said the "sustained pressure" shows no signs of easing.
However, Mr Yousaf said on Sunday that he “doesn’t recognise” reports that every health board has requested assistance from the military.
“That doesn’t mean that we won’t have discussions with health boards about military support, but that doesn’t mean that an official request has come in from every single health board,” he explained.
Mr Yousaf also defended the government’s management of the Covid-19 booster programme, despite the fact only 458,000 people have received a jag out of 898,000 who are eligible.
“We only got the JCVI advice on the green light for a booster towards the end of September,” he said.
"By that point, we already had hundreds of thousands of people who were eligible for a booster vaccine. You couldn’t have given it to them any earlier than we started.
“We’re working through a backlog at pace. We’re confident that groups one to four – the JCVI priority groups – will be vaccinated by mid-November, and groups five to nine will get done over the course of the months thereafter, and absolutely by early next year.
“Any suggestion that our booster campaign is sluggish is one that I completely reject.
"We are attempting to administer 7.5 million vaccines in the space of a few months - that’s just half a million shy of the eight million we did in the first eight months.”