By First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
This will be my final full parliamentary statement on Covid before Parliament rises for the election.
As Richard Holloway noted in his thoughtful and moving remarks, today marks exactly one year since the country first entered lockdown. A year ago today, we all felt scared and uncertain. We did not know exactly what lay ahead or how long it might last, but we knew that we had to come together to save lives. I know that I will never be able to adequately express the depth of my gratitude for all the sacrifices that have been made by so many over the past year.
Today, I want to reflect on the anxiety, isolation, loss and grief that have marked the past 12 months, but I also want to acknowledge the compassion, solidarity and love that has brought hope and light to these darkest of times.
Before I do any of that, I will, as usual, give an update on today’s [Covid] figures. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 495. That is 3.6 per cent of all the tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases to 214,383. As of this morning, 2,214,672 people had received a first dose of the vaccine. That is almost half of the whole adult population of Scotland, so we are approaching an important milestone. We remain on course to offer first doses to the nine priority Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation groups, which is everyone over 50, all unpaid carers, and all adults with particular underlying health conditions, by mid-April.
I can also report that 341 people are now in hospital, which is 12 fewer than yesterday, and 28 people are receiving intensive care, which is five fewer than yesterday.
However, I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further seven deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive during the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measurement is now 7,559. Tomorrow, however, National Records of Scotland will publish its weekly update, which uses a wider definition. That will show that almost 10,000 people in Scotland have now died of Covid.
Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy. Each one has left a gaping hole in the lives of the people who loved them. Yet again today, I want to pass on my condolences to all those who are grieving.
Yesterday, I met representatives of families who have been bereaved as a result of Covid, and I pay tribute to their strength and resolve. In that discussion, I acknowledged, as I have done before, that the Scottish Government did not get everything right in our response to the pandemic; I do not think that any Government did. It is vital that we reflect on that and learn lessons, which is why I also confirmed that establishing a statutory public inquiry will be a priority for this Government if we are returned at the election.
Returning to this sad anniversary, today has been designated a national day of reflection, and I know that many people will be thinking about those whom we have lost during the past year, whatever the cause of their death. Earlier today, I stood with others to observe a minute’s silence, which was, I know, observed by many thousands across the country. Later this evening, Scottish Government premises and many other public buildings will be lit up in yellow.
The Scottish Government is also helping to fund the creation of a national memorial garden in Pollok park in Glasgow as part of an initiative led by The Herald newspaper. We have also confirmed today that we will support Covid community memorial projects in locations across the country. Artists from Greenspace Scotland will work with community groups, faith groups and those hit hardest by the pandemic to develop projects such as commemorative gardens, memorials and public artworks.
Those acts of collective remembrance are especially important because one of the cruellest aspects of the pandemic has been its impact on our ability to grieve. When someone whom we loves dies, it is a natural human response to gather with others to mourn our loss and to celebrate their life. The fact that this shared ritual has not been possible has, I know, been an additional source of grief for many during this most difficult of years. I hope that today’s day of reflection and the memorials that communities will plan will help. They are a way in which we can begin to pay those whom we have lost the tribute that they deserve.
Of course, today is also a time to mark the sacrifices that so many people have made during the past 12 months. Many of us, I know, will be thinking especially about our health and care workers. We have been reminded once again just how much we owe to their dedication, expertise and compassion. I am acutely aware that no words of thanks can ever be sufficient for the service that has been given over the past year, but I am sure that I speak for everyone in the Parliament and across the country in stressing once again how deeply grateful we are for everything that they have done and, indeed, continue to do.
Other public servants have also played a crucial role. Our police officers and their support staff have enforced tough restrictions proportionately and sensitively. Our teachers and all those who work in schools have done an outstanding job in difficult and regularly changing circumstances. Other local authority staff, too, have provided vital help and support to those who most need it and in some cases—for example, in the speed with which they helped to protect homeless people—they have provided us with valuable lessons for the future.
I also pay tribute to Scotland’s diverse business community. Many companies have met specific needs relating to the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, for example, some distilleries started making hand sanitiser. We have also been able to develop a personal protective equipment supply chain in Scotland, which did not exist before the start of the pandemic.
Virtually all companies have made immense efforts to create safe conditions for staff and customers. They have supported home working for employees, complied with regulations that have often stopped them from trading normally and shown a sense of social responsibility through all the concerns that they have faced about their own businesses. The Scottish Government has done everything that we can to support the business sector and we will continue to do that, but I know that this has been the most difficult year that many employers and their workforce have ever faced. Again, I am immensely grateful for all of those efforts.
I am also grateful to Scotland’s faith groups, which have helped their communities and have found new ways of reaching out to their followers. I am pleased to confirm that, from Friday, collective worship will again be permitted in groups of up to 50, if the premises can support such a gathering with appropriate physical distancing. That is an important change and I hope that it will be especially welcome as we head towards important religious festivals over the next few weeks.
Community groups and third sector organisations have also rallied round, helped by the support of hundreds of thousands of people across the country. In fact, the great outpouring of community spirit that we have seen has been a source of light in an otherwise dark year. Last March, when we launched the Scotland cares website to help find roles for people who wanted to volunteer, it received more than 80,000 sign-ups. There are many more people who might never have registered formally as volunteers, but have gone out of their way to support others by helping out with shopping, calling on friends and neighbours who needed company and providing essential care for those in need.
All of us have really struggled in the past year with the paradox that the virus has created. We have had to stay physically apart from each other—from those we love most—at a time when we have never needed each other more. None of us should be surprised that this year has been filled with difficulty, anxiety and, for too many people, grief, but we can and should also take some heart from the extent to which it has been filled with compassion and love.
That is true, also, of one of the most important ways in which we have all tried to look after each other. By sticking to incredibly tough rules and restrictions, all of us have helped to save lives. We have helped to keep the virus under control and to create the situation that we are now in, where we can start to plan our route out of lockdown.
The final point that I want to make today about our collective efforts during the past year is directed towards our young people. To children—if any children are watching this, which I doubt—I say that I know how difficult it has been for you to spend time out of school and to have strict restrictions placed on how and when you can see your friends. You have been truly magnificent during these strange and worrying times. You have stuck to the rules, done your home schooling—I am sure, most of the time—and helped out your parents and carers. Everybody across the country is incredibly proud of you. Thank you for everything that you have done.
I also acknowledge the impact of the past year on young adults. Many young people have been furloughed; many have lost their jobs. Anyone who has been studying at college or university has had significant restrictions placed on how they study, and in some cases on where they live, at one of the most formative times in any young person’s life. Although the restrictions on socialising are difficult for all of us, they are especially tough for people in their late teens and early 20s. By sticking to the rules, as the vast majority have done, you have protected yourselves, but you have also helped to protect older adults. I hugely appreciate that, as does the entire country.
For all those reasons, one of my overwhelming emotions on looking back over the past year—which is why Richard Holloway’s remarks resonated so strongly—is gratitude. I will never be able to thank people enough for the sacrifices made and everything that they have endured over the past 12 months.
In addition to gratitude, all of us—perhaps politicians in particular—should feel a sense of resolve. As we recover from the pandemic, as we will, we must create a better and fairer country for everyone. The way in which people have responded to the pandemic has been defined by solidarity, compassion, love and sacrifice, but the way in which people have been affected has been defined by the inequalities that still scar our society. Inequality has massively affected people’s quality of life during lockdown, and deprivation has significantly increased some people’s chances of getting Covid and of dying from it. None of us can be satisfied by the idea of returning to life exactly as it was before.
That is why, for example, the Scottish young persons guarantee makes it clear that our young people must not pay the price of the pandemic throughout their lives. All of them must get a fair shot at education, employment or training as they start out in life.
It is also why we are working to establish a new national care service. The past year has powerfully reminded us of the importance of care and of the dedication of our care workers, but the death toll in care homes has been a national tragedy. We must consider, reconsider and reimagine how we support our care workers and look after our older citizens.
We must learn other lessons from this pandemic, too. That includes reflecting on our mistakes: the timing of the first lockdown and the decision to ease travel restrictions last summer. It also includes ensuring that we are prepared for future public health emergencies.
More generally, there is a lesson for all of us in never seeing any change that we want to make as unthinkable or unachievable. The past 12 months have shown us that, when it is necessary, human beings can achieve quite incredible and extraordinary things. Scientists across the globe have developed vaccines at record speeds. Testing infrastructures have been established from scratch. People have changed their behaviour and their way of life at a moment’s notice to protect and care for each other.
The conditions that the Scottish Parliament will face in the next session will, I hope, be nothing like the ones that we have encountered and endured over the past year, but the Parliament in the next session will have an even greater responsibility than in this and previous sessions to tackle inequality, support economic recovery and achieve a just transition to a net zero society. I hope that, if we can all summon just some of the urgency, resolve and solidarity that we have shown in the face of the virus and bring that to bear in tackling those big issues and others, we will not simply return to normal, but instead will create a better and fairer normality for the future.
Those choices will, of course, be for the Parliament in the next session and for the next Government. For today, the focus for everyone is on remembrance and reflection but, given that this is the last time that I will speak about Covid in the chamber before the election, I want to say a few words about the weeks ahead. Covid updates will obviously be much less regular during the pre-election period, but the Government will still be monitoring the pandemic constantly. I will be doing so on a daily basis, taking and announcing decisions as required. That is vital because, although we can now see a route out of lockdown, difficult judgments still lie ahead.
In the past three months we have significantly reduced the number of Covid cases in Scotland. We know that the vaccination programme is now reducing deaths, and recent research gives us confidence that vaccination will reduce transmission rates. That opens up the fantastic prospect that we can come out of lockdown on a sustainable basis.
Indeed, I can confirm that, from 6 pm tomorrow, the Western Isles will move from level 4 restrictions to level 3—the level that currently applies to Orkney, Shetland and some of Scotland’s other islands. That reflects their success in reducing transmission in recent weeks.
Across the country, we hope to reopen parts of the economy during April, with more retail services reopening on 5 April, and a full reopening of shops on the 26th. We hope that hospitality will start to reopen on 26 April as well, and that travel restrictions in mainland Scotland will come to an end on the same date. Above all, we hope to see all children back in school after the Easter holidays. We also look forward to it becoming easier for all of us to meet up with each other again, particularly loved ones, initially in outdoor settings but then, we hope, indoors as well.
As vaccination proceeds and we go further into spring, life should feel a bit less restricted and a bit more hopeful than it has done for some time. As a higher and higher proportion of the population gets their first dose of vaccine, we hope to be able to relax restrictions even more.
As I indicated last week, we have real hope that, later this year, gigs can be allowed again; nightclubs can reopen; social gatherings can be permitted; and family reunions can take place so that we can all enjoy simple pleasures such as hugging our loved ones—pleasures that I am sure none of us will ever take quite as much for granted again.
However, although that point may be in sight, the end is not quite here yet. Hundreds of people in Scotland are still getting the virus every day; it is still highly infectious and dangerous, including for many younger people; and many countries across Europe now appear to be on the brink of a third wave. All that should remind us of the need to be careful and cautious.
As we emerge from lockdown, we must do so steadily and surely, in a way that does not allow the virus to run out of control. We must keep in place other measures—for example, travel restrictions—for as long as they are needed. In order to lift restrictions in the future, we need to keep suppressing the virus now. I say to everyone across the country: please continue to stay within the rules, for your own safety and the safety of everyone else. Stay at home for now, except for specific purposes; please do not meet people from other households indoors; and remember to follow the FACTS advice when you are out and about.
By doing that for the past 12 months, we have all helped each other to get through what has been, for all of us—certainly the majority of us—the most difficult, challenging and exhausting year of our lives. By continuing to do all that in the coming weeks, we can and will continue to look after each other. We can also start to look ahead to the future, not just in hope, but in increasing expectation of the better and brighter days that lie ahead.
I offer my sincere thanks to everyone across the country for all the sacrifices of the past 12 months.