Warning Scotland could be hit by summer 'surge' of COVID cases
Scotland’s chief medical officer, Gregor Smith, told MSPs on Holyrood's COVID-19 committee high levels of infection could quickly re-establish if "we lose the sense of caution that we've so carefully guarded for so many months".
Nicola Sturgeon said she hoped any surge could be avoided but warned that it couldn't be guaranteed.
On Tuesday, England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, told MPs that modelling carried out by scientists at the University of Warwick and Imperial College London predicted there could still be a further 30,000 coronavirus deaths in the UK.
Whitty told MPs the modelling reflected the fact that it was a common virus and "even if you have a relatively small proportion of people still remaining vulnerable, that still equates to a very large number of people overall".
Asked about Whitty’s comments at a meeting of Holyrood’s Covid committee, Sturgeon said: “I think he's right to be quite blunt about the risks that still lie ahead. This pandemic is not over, the virus is still there, it is still a matter of how we keep it under control.
“Right now, we're controlling it largely through people staying away from each other. And the more you ease restrictions so that people are coming into contact more with each other, cases will increase.
“And that is just a truism and just a reality of how infectious viruses spread. Every restriction we ease and lift we will increase the ability of the virus to transmit.”
She said the “suppressive effect of the vaccine” could help.
“Now, we still don't understand enough about how much immunity that will give, how much it will suppress transmission. All of the early indications are promising and positive. So hopefully, as we ease lockdown over the next few months, the vaccine, even as we start to live more normally, will keep the virus suppressed.
“Getting all of these moving parts in perfect equilibrium to avoid it running out of control again is not easy, which is why we need to be very, very careful about it.
“I really hope we can avoid a surge because we get all of these bits working as well as possible together but nobody can guarantee that.”
Smith said: “I just have to strongly associate myself with (Whitty’s) remarks yesterday. I think it is a possibility still that we will see a further surge later in the summer, most likely. I've seen modelling which shows the path towards that and so much is dependent on how all of us respond to this gradual reopening of society that we're undertaking just now.
“If we lose the sense of caution that we've so carefully guarded for so many months, then it is very quickly going to re-establish high levels of infection again.
“We have to remember just the proportion of the population that remains susceptible to this virus and its infections just now. We've provided protection to those of who are most vulnerable within society, that doesn't mean to say that we've given that protection to everybody yet who could be susceptible to this virus.”
Asked about coming out lockdown, the First Minister said she hoped restrictions could initially be eased “as one country“. And then, “in future, if we have outbreaks or flare-ups we can use the levels system to deal with that.
"But I hope at least some of and some substantial parts of the easing of lockdown can apply all across the country."
However, she added: "It may very quickly be possible for some parts to go faster - and I'm talking of island and rural communities perhaps in particular."
The First Minister also defended the part-time return to schools for some secondary pupils next week.
The number of hours in the class depends on local authorities. Some children in S1-S3 could be offered as little as two hours of face to face teaching time per week.
On Wednesday morning, Jim Thewliss, of teachers' group School Leaders Scotland, told the BBC: “You would be hard-pressed to find any teacher in Scotland who thinks this is a good idea".
He added: "We understand and appreciate the support required for young people in their health and wellbeing. But this is not the way to do it.
"This is counterproductive in relation to the systems we have set up for remote learning and engaging people in their remote learning. This destroys a great deal of that and distracts school leadership teams from doing that to put a cobbled-together process in place for two weeks."
Pushed on Thewliss’s comments by Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, Sturgeon said: "I appreciate there will be different views.
"There will be those who want all young people back in school straightaway, but I don't think that would be the right approach, because it could potentially lead to an increase in transmission that could see things start to run out of control again.
"We want to get young people back into school full-time. We achieved that in August and we think it can be achieved again - our aim is for that to be possible after the Easter holidays."
She continued: "The judgement we had to make was whether there would be no in-school provision for the lower secondary school until after Easter, or try and get some limited time between now and Easter.
"We opted for the latter because, we can all see not just the educational impact of being out of school, but the wellbeing impact as well.
"We always said it would be limited, and there would be local flexibility in how it would be delivered. I appreciate the pressure that puts on teachers and local authorities."
Labour’s Monica Lennon asked the First Minister what her intentions were for the regular COVID briefings during the election period.
“Will they be led by you and ministers or will that be passed on to officials and advisors,” she asked, pointing to a recent Citizen’s Assembly report which warned it could be “undemocratic” to have the First Minister lead the sessions.
Sturgeon said: “During a health crisis we have to have the ability to communicate directly with the public but, again, [some members of the committee] will be more sceptical about this than others, I am a democrat, I understand the importance of level playing fields in elections, and I will act appropriately.
“So you will undoubtedly not have me doing daily briefings every day the way I have been doing them previously, but if there are big decisions that we are having to make during the election period, then I have a duty to communicate to the public what they are
Meanwhile, the latest figures from the National Records of Scotland (NRS) show that COVID deaths have falled for the sixth consecutive week.
Between Monday March 1 and Sunday March 7, 141 deaths were registered that mentioned COVID-19 on the death certificate.
That is a reduction of 89 deaths from the previous week.
Hospitals saw 84 per cent of the deaths over this week, representing 119 deaths, 14 deaths occurred in care homes – accounting for 10 per cent, eight at home or in non-institutional settings and one in another institution.