Scotland’s coronavirus infection rate may have risen above one for the first time in months, Nicola Sturgeon has announced, as public health officials tackle multiple local outbreaks across the country.
The first minister confirmed clusters have emerged in Glasgow and Orkney, in addition to the one that sent Aberdeen into Scotland’s first local lockdown, and experts are probing whether the virus may have spread from the Granite City to the island.
Health authorities in Orkney are currently dealing with nine positive cases, and a “household cluster” that led to the closure of Peterhead Central primary school is also being investigated as a number of staff self-isolate.
Speaking at the Scottish Government’s coronavirus briefing in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon said provisional figures indicate the upper estimate for the R number – the average number of people infected by each person – could have been as high as 1.3 last week.
The R number being below one was seen as a critical factor for easing lockdown restrictions because scientists believe any higher number could indicate the virus is spreading exponentially.
The figure was previously estimated to be between 0.6 and one but Ms Sturgeon stressed the low number of cases means the latest increase should not elicit the same level of concern as when the infection rate was high earlier in the pandemic.
“When the prevalence across the country is low, the R number will be disproportionately affected by outbreaks on the scale of the one in Aberdeen,” she said.
“While we shouldn’t be unduly alarmed, it is equally important that we’re not in any way complacent. Covid is still present and it will spread really rapidly if given an opportunity”.
The Scottish Government estimates around 250 people were infectious with the virus last week, a significant drop from recent months.
Ms Sturgeon said it was important to keep the R number in perspective but it served nevertheless as a “further reminder of the fragility of our position, and of the need for all of us to do all of the things that are required to keep the virus under control”.
A total of 300 cases has been identified in Grampian since July 26 and 182 cases have so far been linked to the Aberdeen outbreak associated with pubs and other nearby venues, with 961 close contacts being identified.
The NHS Grampian area accounted for 26 of the 47 new confirmed cases in Scotland overnight, taking the total to 19,173, with three being attributed to Orkney and 10 being linked to NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.
Ms Sturgeon said such outbreaks are “inevitable” and the public “should become more used to hearing about several different clusters because the virus hasn’t gone away”.
The first minister also spoke of her concern over house parties, warning they could pose “considerable risk” in spreading coronavirus.
Ms Sturgeon said test and protect data had flagged up house parties as a particular problem and she did not want to be in the position of having to introduce tighter restrictions on indoor gatherings.
“I can’t make this point strongly enough, these rules should not be seen as optional, they are absolutely vital,” she said. “In many respects, they are the most important part of our first line of defence.
“What people do within their own houses is harder for any enforcement action to work against, so more than ever it relies on the good sense and judgement of all of us.”
Current guidance states no more than eight people from a maximum of three households should meet indoors and they must stay two metres apart.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I make a really strong appeal today, particularly to young people – let me stress again, I’m not trying to single out young people or blame young people. I just understand the things that young people with a bit more freedom now, as we have started come out of lockdown, want to do. Please, take great care. House parties really are not sensible things to do right now.”
No new deaths of people who tested positive for coronavirus in the past 28 days were reported, meaning the total remains at 2,491.
Ms Sturgeon said there are 258 people in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, a decrease of seven in 24 hours.
Of these patients, three were in intensive care, no change from Wednesday.