RESTRICTIONS: Lifting them by gradual but steady steps out of lockdown and back towards a life in which we can all interact with our loved ones

By First Minister Nicola Sturgeon 

I will update Parliament on some changes to the lockdown restrictions that are currently in place across most of Scotland. The changes relate to outdoor meetings and activities. I will also announce a change that I hope will be welcomed by Scotland’s faith communities. Although the changes that I will set out are relatively minor, they are important for our well-being. They represent gradual but steady steps out of lockdown and back towards a life in which we can all interact much more freely with our loved ones. Next week, I will set out a firmer indicative timetable for reopening the economy, including shops, hospitality, hairdressers, gyms and parts of our tourism sector.

The ability to announce even limited changes at this stage is possible only because of the hard sacrifices that the majority of people across the country continue to make each and every day. At the outset, let me acknowledge, and be clear that I share, the anger and despair that the vast majority of people—including, I am sure, the majority of football fans—felt at the weekend towards crowds of supporters flagrantly breaching rules that the rest of us are following every day at great personal cost. The behaviour that we witnessed at the weekend was disgraceful and selfish.

It is natural that some of the anger that people feel is directed towards the Government and the police—I absolutely understand that. All of us must reflect on what more could have been done and what more we need to do to avoid any repeat in the future. However, those at fault are those who breached the rules.

How the police manage such situations is, of course, an operational matter—the Government cannot and should not direct policing operations. I will, though, be speaking to the chief constable later this afternoon to consider what further action might be necessary to avoid any repeat of the unacceptable scenes that we saw at the weekend. However, no one should doubt the deeply invidious situation that such behaviour puts the police in as they discharge their responsibility to protect public order and safety.

We will be having further discussions this week with the football authorities and certain football clubs which, in my view, need to show much more leadership. Let me be clear that, in making these comments, I do not care about the colour of the shirts. I said some harsh things about Celtic’s decisions at the start of this year and, as far as I am concerned, in this case, Rangers Football Club could have done more to help avoid the situation arising at the weekend. The fact is that elite sport is being allowed to continue just now so that fans—who are deprived, like all of us, of so much else in life right now—can continue to watch and support their teams. It would be deeply unfair if a minority spoil that for the majority, and I hope that that will not be the case.

Given the fragility of the situation that we face right now, we cannot simply turn a blind eye to what happened at the weekend, and we will not. We will report back in due course—and certainly ahead of the old firm match that is scheduled for 21 March—on the various discussions that are taking place this week.

Finally on this subject, I completely understand why people who were watching what unfolded at the weekend might wonder why they are bothering to do the right thing. The fact is that the vast majority of us are doing the right thing because we know that it really matters—it matters for our own health and the health of our loved ones. It is about saving lives, and it is working. As I will set out shortly, we are firmly on the right path. No matter how legitimately angry we feel, let us not allow the irresponsible behaviour of a minority to set us all back. Let us stick with it as we make our way, slowly but surely, back to normality.

Let me turn to the substance of today’s statement. I will give an overview of the latest statistics and the state of the epidemic, and then I will provide the detail of the initial changes that we are proposing.

First, I will give today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 466, which represents 3.3 per cent of all tests that were carried out and takes the total number of cases to 206,465. There are 614 people in hospital, which is 40 fewer than yesterday, and 50 people are receiving intensive care, which is nine fewer than yesterday.

However, I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 19 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measurement is, therefore, now 7,441. Yet again, I send my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.

A week ago yesterday was the anniversary of the first confirmed Covid case in Scotland. This Saturday will be the anniversary of the first confirmed death in Scotland of someone with Covid. In two weeks’ time—on 23 March—we will reach the first anniversary of lockdown. The Scottish Government has been in contact with a number of organisations to discuss how we can best mark that day. On 22 March, I will meet representatives of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK.

Current plans for 23 March include a national silence. We are also discussing how communities can be supported to develop their own commemorative activities over the coming year, as part of longer-term plans for remembrance. I will set out more detail of all that over the next fortnight. In addition, I know that Parliament will wish to consider how it marks the occasion. I am sure that all of us will want to remember all those who have been lost over the past year and to offer our continued thoughts, solidarity and support to the bereaved.

The figures that I have just reported for new cases, people in hospital and, of course, deaths are still higher than we would want them to be, but they are not as high as they were just a few weeks ago, so it is worth reflecting on the positive trend that we are now seeing. Two weeks ago, we were recording an average of 815 new cases a day across the country. Last week, that number had fallen to 657 new cases a day and, this week, it has fallen further to an average of 490 new cases a day. The average test positivity rate is now just above 3 per cent, admissions to hospitals and intensive care units are also falling, and the number of deaths—although still heart-breakingly high—has almost halved since the third week of January.

We continue to make excellent progress with the vaccination programme. As of 8.30 this morning, 1,789,377 people in Scotland have received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 14,718 since yesterday. The number of vaccines being administered each day has fallen during the past week or so because of a dip in supply, which I have spoken about previously and which we have been expecting and planning for. However, from about the middle of this month onwards, we expect supplies to pick up again and for that to allow for a very significant acceleration in the vaccination programme. It is worth noting that some of the supplies will be of short-dated stock—in other words, they will be of vaccines that must be used very soon after they have been received.

At the moment, the vaccination programme is working through priority groups 6 and 7, which include 60 to 64-year-olds, unpaid carers and people with particular underlying health conditions. For example, unpaid carers who are not registered with the Scottish Social Services Council will be able to self-register for vaccination from next Monday onwards.

However, I can confirm that we are now in a position to start scheduling appointments for people in groups 8 and 9, which include people who are 55 to 59 years old and people who are 50 to 54 years old. I should point out, of course, that many people in those age groups—30 per cent of 50 to 54-year-olds and 36 per cent of 55 to 59-year-olds—have already had the first dose due to their having an underlying health condition. However, by now scheduling appointments for those age groups generally, we can ensure that no vaccine goes to waste and that we meet our target of offering first doses to everyone on the initial Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list—everyone over 50, all unpaid carers and all adults with an underlying health condition—by mid-April.

The good progress that we are making on vaccination is, of course, important context for today’s statement. Almost 40 per cent of the entire adult population has now received a first dose of the vaccine.

There is already strong evidence that the vaccination programme has significantly reduced deaths in care homes, and studies are also showing that vaccination can—as well as reducing illness and death—significantly reduce transmission of the virus.

We therefore do not have absolute confidence yet, but we have increasing confidence that as more and more people acquire some protection through vaccination, we will be able to ease restrictions while still keeping the R number below 1.

In addition to vaccine protection, continued international travel restrictions and the work of test and protect will help us to keep the virus under control as we—I hope—return to much greater normality in our everyday lives.

The prospects are now very encouraging indeed. That said, getting the timing of it all right remains essential. If our easing of restrictions gets ahead of our progress on vaccination, the virus will run out of control again. That is what we must avoid and that is why, notwithstanding all the positive news, caution is still essential, at this stage. Case numbers, although they are much lower than they were at the start of the year, are still high, and although we are confident that the R number is currently below 1, it is probably not very far below 1.

We also know that the more transmissible variant of Covid that was identified before Christmas now accounts for almost 90 per cent of new cases in Scotland. We have no real experience of just how far and fast that variant will spread as we start to emerge from lockdown. Indeed, it is possible that some of the very significant steps we are already taking to get children back to school could push the R number back above 1. If that happens, as we know all too well, case numbers will start to rise again.

Even though older people, who are more likely to die from the virus, now have stronger protection as a result of the vaccine, no vaccine will provide absolute protection for our most vulnerable citizens.

In addition, we know the virus can cause significant long-term harm to people of all ages. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s make up a significant proportion of those who are currently in hospital with Covid, and there are people who have never been in hospital who are still suffering from what is known as long Covid.

In addition, if we allow more people to get the virus, we also increase the risk of new variants emerging. We also need to show continued caution about the risk of new variants entering Scotland. A possible—although still unconfirmed—further case of the P1 Brazil variant has now been identified in Scotland. It involves an individual who travelled to Scotland from Rio de Janeiro via Paris, and arrived on 19 February. The individual followed the procedures for managed self-isolation, and we currently have no reason to believe that that case presents any risk to the wider community. However, we are, of course, continuing to undertake all necessary follow-up work.

The point that I am making is that even though we are heading firmly in the right direction—I strongly believe that we are—we cannot afford to take our foot off the brake too soon. We still need to keep the virus under control if our hopes for a much more normal summer are not to suffer a setback.

If we continue to prioritise children’s education—as I believe we should and must—our scope to make further changes will be limited while we are still rolling out vaccination.

We intend to ease restrictions as soon as we safely can, and we will do so quicker than has previously been anticipated, if that proves to be possible. As I indicated, when I update Parliament next week, I will set out a firmer timeline for our exit from lockdown.

Today, however, I want to set out some changes that we believe can be made more immediately. In considering that, we have deliberately prioritised changes that might improve our general well-being and quality of life without having too big an impact on infection rates, and we have focused in particular on restoring a bit more normality for children.

The first set of changes relates to outdoor social interactions. We realise that meeting up—even outdoors in Scotland—can be hugely beneficial to our wellbeing. Therefore, we intend to relax the law from Friday, so that up to four adults from up to two households will be able to meet outdoors. In addition, we will make it clear in our guidance that that will be allowed for social and recreational purposes as well as for essential exercise.

Meeting will be possible in any outdoor space, including private gardens, but I ask people, please, to stick to the new rules. Gatherings must be a maximum of four people from two households, and people should go indoors only if that is essential in order to reach a back garden or to use the toilet.

For now, please stay as close to home as possible. We hope to be in a position to relax, at least to some extent, travel restrictions within Scotland in the weeks ahead, but our advice is that it would not be safe to do so just yet.

For young people aged 12 to 17, we want to be even more flexible to enable more interaction with friends, so for 12 to 17-year-olds outdoor meetings will also be limited to a maximum of four people, but the two-households limit will not apply. That means that four friends from four different families will be able to get together outdoors, which will, I hope, allow young people to see more of their friends than is currently the case.

We are also proposing some changes to the rules on outdoor exercise and activities. From Friday, outdoor non-contact sports and organised group exercise will be permitted for all adults in groups of up to 15 people. We will also ensure that there is some flexibility around the travel rules for young people, so that children are not prevented from taking part in sport because, for example, they belong to a club that is a bit outside their local authority area.

Those are minor changes—I know that—but they are important. They have been made possible by the hard sacrifices that the majority of people across the country have made. We will seek to build on them as quickly as possible, in the weeks ahead.

The other careful change that we feel able to make at this stage relates to places of worship. I can confirm that we intend, assuming that there is no deterioration in the situation with the virus between now and then, to allow communal worship to restart from Friday 26 March. That is in time for Passover, Easter, Ramadan and Vaisakhi. In addition, the limit on attendance at communal services will be increased from 20, which was the limit that was in place before lockdown, to 50—assuming, of course, that the place of worship is spacious enough to accommodate that many people with 2m physical distancing.

I know that the restrictions on communal worship have been really difficult for many people, despite the exceptional efforts that have been made by faith groups to reach out to their communities. The change is, again, relatively minor, but it is proportionate. We believe that it can be achieved relatively safely and we hope that it will enable more people to draw strength, comfort and inspiration from acts of collective worship.

All of us, I think, can see that things are getting better just now. In recent weeks, we have seen a significant fall in new cases. Deaths and hospital admissions are—thankfully—now falling, and the vaccination programme is progressing not just well, but beyond our initial expectations.

All that is excellent news that provides strong grounds for hope, but that hope must be balanced by caution. Because we have been in lockdown, it is easy to overlook the fact that the virus that we are dealing with now is much more infectious than the one that we were dealing with in the autumn. We will be reminded of that very quickly, if we try to do too much too soon, and because we are prioritising reopening of schools, our scope for lifting other restrictions—certainly, in the next few weeks—is extremely limited.

That is why the changes that I have set out today are modest; however, they are also important. They will, I hope, help people’s health and well-being by enabling group exercise and allowing for a bit more social interaction. They will also, I hope, let children see more of their friends, and let them exercise and play a bit more normally. They should also, I hope, provide some comfort for faith groups.

I expect that further more substantial changes will be possible in the weeks ahead. I will set out as much detail about that as I can in next week’s statement. As I have said before, if the data allows us to relax more restrictions more quickly than we have previously indicated, we will not hesitate to do that.

I am well aware of just how difficult continued restrictions are and I know that they get harder, rather than easier, to bear as time goes on. I also know, because I feel this too, that the progress on vaccination makes us even more impatient to reach the end of this ordeal as quickly as possible. However, I am absolutely certain that easing restrictions too quickly would be a mistake that we would regret.

Therefore, I ask people to take advantage of the relaxations that I have set out today but, please, to continue to do so within the rules. We must still stay at home except for specific purposes, which from Friday will include limited outdoor socialising and recreation on the bases that I have set out. We must not meet people from other households indoors yet—that is absolutely essential—and we should all follow the FACTS advice when we are out and about.

By doing that, we can continue to look after each other and protect the national health service, and we will all play our part in keeping case numbers down while the vaccinators continue to do their work, children get back to school and we all take tentative, but, I hope, very firm steps back to life as we once knew it. For the moment, please continue to stick with it: stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.


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