By First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
My statement will set out our next steps out of lockdown and back towards a way of life that is much closer to normality. I intend to set out in some detail how, and in what order, we hope to ease restrictions between now and the middle of May. I will also set out, albeit in more general terms, our expectations beyond that. I must stress, of course, because it is simply an inescapable fact, that being able to deliver on the plans that I outline today is dependent on continued progress in suppressing the virus and rolling out vaccines. However, I hope that this statement will provide welcome reassurance that brighter days are ahead of us.
Before turning to the detail, I will provide some context on the state of the epidemic. I will start with a summary of today’s figures. There were 597 positive cases reported yesterday, which is 3.8 per cent of all tests carried out. That takes the total number of cases to 210,605. There are 440 people currently in hospital, which is seven fewer than yesterday, and 42 people are in intensive care, which is two more than yesterday.
I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further seven deaths have been registered. The total number of deaths under that measurement is now 7,517. Once again, I send my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one. One week today, when we mark the first anniversary of lockdown, the whole nation will be invited to share in a minute’s silence, as we reflect on those we have lost and on the painful sacrifices that have been made by so many over the past year.
We are currently recording an average of 570 new Covid cases each day in Scotland. Two points about that are important to make. The first is positive: case numbers have fallen sharply since the early part of this year, as a result of the tough restrictions that we are all living under. In January, we were recording more than 1,000 cases a day on average. Just three weeks ago, the average number of new cases each day was 815. We have seen a significant reduction since then, which indicates the progress that has been made in suppressing the virus.
The second point is slightly less positive. The 570 cases per day on average over the past week is up slightly from an average of 490 the week before. That is not a massive increase, but it is clearly not the direction of travel that we want to see, so we will be monitoring it carefully and taking it as a reminder that we have no room for complacency. Care and caution in the face of the virus continue to be essential.
What is unambiguously positive so far is the progress of the vaccination programme. We have now vaccinated virtually all over-65-year-olds; 59 per cent of 60 to 64-year-olds; 41 per cent of 55 to 59-year-olds; and 34 per cent of 50 to 54-year-olds. In total, as of 8.30 this morning, 1,943,507 people in Scotland had received their first dose of the vaccine. That is already more than 40 per cent of the adult population, and it is an increase of 34,516 since yesterday. We expect around 400,000 vaccinations to be administered this week, and we hope that that level can be maintained through April—subject, as always, to vaccine supplies.
It is not just the scale of the vaccination programme that is positive; what we are learning about its impact is also hugely encouraging. We can already see that it is having a significant impact on the number of deaths. According to National Records of Scotland, the number of Covid deaths has more than halved in the past two weeks. There are now positive indications from research, including a study last week by Public Health Scotland indicating that the vaccines reduce transmission of the virus. That is significant.
That now provides us with greater confidence than we could have had previously about the impact of the vaccine on suppression of the virus. That, in turn, gives us more confidence about mapping a path out of lockdown, with a firmer indicative timeline for lifting restrictions.
We have, of course, announced and implemented some significant changes already. Last week, the restrictions on outdoor gatherings and activities were eased slightly. As of yesterday, all primary-aged children are back in school full time, and the phased return of secondary schools is also under way. After the Easter break, which, for some, will be on 12 April, we hope that all children will be back in school full time.
Obviously, we will continue to monitor the impact of the changes. However, I am now able to set out some further changes that we hope to be able to make in early April. I can confirm, first, that we expect to lift the current “Stay at home” rule on 2 April. Initially—we hope that this will be for no more than three weeks—“Stay at home” will be replaced by guidance to stay local: in other words, for people not to travel outside their own local authority area unless for an essential purpose. People will continue to be able to meet up outdoors, including in private gardens, in groups of no more than four from two households.
Our other changes in early April will take effect from Monday 5 April. On that day, we expect contact sports for 12 to 17-year-olds to resume. We also expect that, from 5 April, more students, particularly those in further education, will be allowed to return to on-campus learning. Colleges will prioritise those students whose return is essential, including those who are most at risk of not completing their courses. That includes those who are taking qualifications in construction, engineering, hairdressing, beauty and related courses.
We also expect to begin the phased reopening of non-essential retail on 5 April. Click-and-collect retail services will be permitted to reopen from that date, along with homeware stores and car showrooms and forecourts. Garden centres will also be able to reopen on 5 April, which I know is important as we head towards the summer. Last but, for some of us, definitely not least, we expect hairdresser and barber salons to reopen for appointments on 5 April, too.
Those changes will, I hope, make a real difference to people in a number of different ways. Given the state of the virus and the extent of vaccination, what I have just set out is the maximum that we consider possible to do safely at that stage. However, during April, we expect our vaccination programme to reach an important milestone. By the middle of April, supplies permitting—that is still a necessary caveat—we will have offered first doses of the vaccine to all nine priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Those nine groups include everyone over the age of 50, all adults with particular underlying health conditions and all unpaid carers. Crucially, those groups account for a significant majority of the country’s adult population. Even more crucially, they cover groups of the population that, between them, account for approximately 99 per cent of all Covid-related deaths.
Reaching that milestone—while taking account of the fact that it takes a couple of weeks for protection from the vaccine to kick in—will give us confidence to ease restrictions much more significantly from 26 April. On that date, we expect all parts of Scotland that are currently at level 4 to move down to a modified level 3. The island communities that are currently at level 3 will have the option to move to level 2 at that stage. However, given what I am about to set out on travel restrictions, we intend to discuss that with those communities over the next couple of weeks.
Let me turn first to the position on travel. We expect that, from 26 April, restrictions on journeys in mainland Scotland will be lifted entirely. However, if restrictions on socialising and hospitality are relaxed more quickly and significantly on the islands, there might be a need to retain some restrictions on travel to and from the mainland to protect island communities from the importation of new cases. However, rather than impose that decision now on our island communities, we intend to discuss it directly with them to determine what arrangements they consider will work best for their circumstances.
We hope that restrictions on journeys between Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom and the wider common travel area can also be lifted, if not on 26 April, then as soon as possible thereafter. However, we need to keep that under review, as part of our efforts to reduce the risk of new cases being imported into Scotland, and we will update the position during April.
Reducing the risk of importing new cases and new variants is also directly relevant to the issue of international travel. We intend to discuss with the aviation sector later this week how and when non-essential travel to some international destinations might be possible again. Like the UK Government, we are certain that that will not be achievable before 17 May, and our view is that it might well not be possible for a further period after that, given the circumstances and situation with the virus in many other parts of Europe and the world. Even when overseas travel resumes, it is likely that a requirement for pre-departure and post-arrival testing will remain in place for some time, but we will keep that issue under close review.
I now turn to the other changes that we hope to make from 26 April. On that date, we expect all remaining retail premises to reopen. All tourist accommodation will be able to reopen from that date too, subject to any wider restrictions that remain in place, for example on hospitality. We expect that libraries, museums and galleries will also reopen from 26 April. Our expectation is that, on that date, indoor gyms will reopen for individual exercise and work in people’s homes will resume, as will driving lessons. We expect that the limit on attendance at weddings, funerals and associated receptions will be raised to 50 people from 26 April.
From that date, the restrictions on outdoor socialising will be eased further too, with six people from up to three households able to meet outdoors, with no mainland travel restrictions in place, as I said earlier. Twelve to 17-year-olds will be able to meet outdoors with up to six people from six households. Unfortunately, given that, as we know, the risk of transmission is greatest inside our own homes, where it is more difficult to comply with mitigations such as physical distancing, we cannot yet say whether it will be possible to have people from other households visit us indoors from that date. However, given how important that point is to all of us, we intend to keep the situation under on-going review.
The hospitality sector will also begin to reopen from 26 April. From that date, cafes, restaurants and bars will be able to serve people outdoors in groups of up to six people from three households until 10 pm. Alcohol will be permitted, and there will be no requirement for food to be served. We also hope, although this in particular depends on continued suppression of the virus, that there will be limited indoor opening of hospitality from 26 April too, which will be limited initially to the service of food and non-alcoholic drinks until 8 pm, for groups of up to four people from no more than two households. As was the case this past year, venues will need to retain customers’ contact details for three weeks after their visit.
Finally, we advise that, from 26 April, people on the shielding list can return to work; children and young people on the shielding list can return to school or nursery; and students on the shielding list can return to college or university. The chief medical officer will write this week to everyone on the shielding list to provide more detailed advice.
As is obvious, the changes that we hope to make on 26 April are significant and we will therefore need to monitor them carefully. For that reason, we do not expect to make any further changes before 17 May, three weeks later. However, from that date, we hope that all level 3 areas, or as many as possible, will move to level 2, and that indoor hospitality can return to greater normality, with alcohol able to be served indoors and within more normal opening hours, although possibly with some continued restrictions, such as a requirement for people to book in two-hour slots. The precise detail of any continued restrictions will depend on an assessment of the situation closer to the time, but we will aim for us as much normality as possible.
We hope that adult outdoor contact sports and indoor group exercise can resume on 17 May and that cinemas, amusement arcades and bingo halls will reopen from that date. Outdoor and indoor events will also restart, albeit on a small scale to begin with, and we will confirm capacity limits with the events sector in the next few weeks.
We hope that colleges and universities will return to a more blended model of learning from mid-May, which will mean that more students can be on campus. Further face-to-face support services will also resume then, as will non-professional performance arts.
Finally on 17 May, we expect restrictions on outdoor social gatherings to ease further. If it has not proved possible before that date, we also expect that people will be able to meet up inside each other’s homes again, initially probably in groups of up to four people from no more than two households. I know that the restriction on indoor meetings has been one of the hardest parts of lockdown for most of us to bear. Unfortunately, it is necessary, and I note that the easing of that restriction is not expected before mid-May in England either. However, we all yearn to meet with friends and loved ones indoors again, and I know that that is especially important for those who live alone, so we will keep that under review and seek to restore as much normality as possible as soon as it is safe to do so.
I now want to give an update on business support. In the past year, we have provided more than £3 billion of direct support to businesses in Scotland. For the entirety of the next financial year, we will provide 100 per cent rates relief for retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation businesses. When I spoke in advance of the UK budget, I said that the strategic business framework, which supports closed businesses, would continue until June, even if some businesses were able to open before then. However, a number of businesses asked us to instead adopt a model of restart grants as we emerge from lockdown, and we have decided to follow that advice. Therefore, I can confirm that, on 22 March, recipients of support under the strategic framework business fund will receive a final four-week payment. No new claims will be allowed after that date. On 19 April, recipients will receive a combined final payment comprising a further two weeks’ closure support and a one-off restart grant. For eligible retail businesses, that will mean a payment on 19 April of up to £7,500 and, for eligible hospitality and leisure businesses, a payment of up to £19,500. That will provide support that is more generous and more flexible than previously envisaged.
The steps that I have outlined today give a significant degree of clarity for the period between now and mid-May. As I hope that people can understand, the unpredictable nature of the virus means that it is difficult to give that much clarity beyond that time. However, our hope and ambition is that, from early June, all of Scotland will move to level 1, which will allow for further easing of restrictions, and that, by the end of June, all of Scotland will move to at least level 0.
Level 1 and, even more so, level 0 will be a massive improvement on where we are now. However, those levels still involve some restrictions, so we hope that we will be able to get beyond even that. As people would expect, we will continue to assess the situation, with a view to restoring as much normality as possible. It is our fervent hope—and our tentative but increasing expectation—that vaccination, continued and effective use of the test and protect system, and, probably, continued compliance with precautions, such as good hand hygiene, will allow us to keep Covid under much greater control. That will allow us to enjoy many of the things that we took for granted before the pandemic, such as normal family gatherings where we can hug our loved ones, sporting events, gigs and nightclubs.
Setting a precise date for all that now would involve plucking a date out of thin air, and I would probably be doing it to make my life easier, not yours. Therefore, I am not going to do that. However, over the coming weeks, as more and more adults are vaccinated, it will be possible to set a firmer date by which many of these normal things will be possible, and I am optimistic that that date will be during the summer. I know that I will not be the only one who is now looking forward, with a real sense of hope, to hugging my family this summer.
Three months ago—when we had to reimpose lockdown in the depths of December—was a dark moment in an unbelievably tough year. I know how difficult the past few months have been, and I will never underestimate, or stop being grateful for, the hard and painful sacrifices that everyone has made.
However, now, thanks to those sacrifices and the success of the vaccination programme, we are in a much brighter position. As we move further into spring, children and young people will be back in school full time, we hope that shops and services will reopen, we will be able to travel more widely, we will see more of our friends and loved ones, and we will start to meet again in bars, cafes and restaurants. As we move into the summer, an even greater degree of normality—I hope that it will be something much closer to actual normality, with the ability to hug those whom we love—will become possible. All that should fill us with optimism. This is certainly the most hopeful that I have felt about the situation for a long time.
However, as people would expect, I need to add a note of caution. I know that this is the bit that none of us wants to hear, but the route back to normality depends on continued suppression. Right now, things are much better, but hundreds of us are still getting the virus every day. Last week alone, more than 200 people were admitted to hospital with the virus. We are getting the virus under control, but it is still dangerous and is now even more infectious, so we must continue to suppress it to the lowest level possible as we try to get our lives back to normal.
For now, please continue to stay within the rules. Until 2 April, please stay at home, except for specific purposes. Please do not meet people from other households indoors, and please follow the FACTS advice when you are out and about. By doing all that over the past long and difficult months, we have protected one another and saved lives. By doing it in the few weeks ahead, we can make steady and sure progress back to normality, and we will continue to protect one another as we journey towards those brighter days that I firmly believe are now in sight.