Foreword from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
We’ve been on a long and difficult journey since COVID-19 was first detected in Scotland around this time a year ago. Though we have suffered tragic losses in lives and livelihoods over these long months, our collective effort, resilience and sacrifice have also saved thousands of lives. We have pulled together in a spirit of solidarity, and adapted to new ways of living to fight this deadly virus and to keep our country going.
Since the publication of our original Strategic Framework in October 2020, there have been two highly significant developments: one positive; one negative.
Firstly, a new, much more transmissible and potentially more harmful variant of the virus (known as B117 or the ‘UK’ or ‘Kent’ variant) was detected and has now come to be the predominant strain of the virus in Scotland. It played a major role in the sharp deterioration in the pandemic observed in December, placing the NHS under extreme pressure, and has had fundamental implications for the way that we need to manage the epidemic. The detection of this new variant was significant in and of itself - but it also served as a warning that the emergence of other new variants in the months ahead could be one of our biggest challenges.
Secondly, we began the rapid roll-out of our vaccination programme, which we believe will reduce illness and deaths from COVID and also, ultimately, when a high proportion of our population has been vaccinated, let us return to a more normal way of living.
The evidence now shows that the additional restrictions imposed since Boxing Day are helping to reduce COVID case numbers, which should progressively ease the extreme pressure on our health and social care services. However, this is only happening thanks to people adhering to these protective measures. So, for the time being, we must all continue to be patient and to stick with it.
Our vaccination programme is making very good progress. Indeed at one point recently we were delivering the fastest roll-out of vaccines in Europe.
However, with a long way still to go - and unanswered questions remaining about the impact the vaccines will have on transmission of the virus (although the initial indications are very encouraging) - we must be careful not to ease restrictions too quickly. If we do move too quickly, transmission could quickly rise and that would lead again to significant mortality and morbidity and risk overwhelming our NHS.
On the other hand, we know that we cannot continue in lockdown indefinitely, or even until the point – possibly still some months away – when the entire adult population has been vaccinated.
So we must plot our emergence from lockdown now, while recognising that our immediate room for manoeuvre remains very limited - and that presents us with some very difficult choices.
It is within this context that we are updating this Strategic Framework. Our aim continues to be to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there, while we strive to return to a more normal life for as many people as possible.
It is important to be clear that the aim of maximum suppression is not some ideological goal. We know from experience that it is when the virus is allowed to circulate at relatively high levels within the community that the risk of it accelerating out of control is at its highest. And community transmission also increases the risks of the virus mutating and new variants emerging. So, while there can be no guarantees, a strategy of maximum suppression now is our best hope of avoiding a third wave and a further lockdown.
So in order to protect the progress we have made so far, our reopening of society and the economy will be cautious and gradual and informed by the latest evidence and data, not by dates. If we open up too quickly to meet arbitrary dates, we risk setting our progress back.
I understand that people, organisations and businesses want certainty for the future.
But to set dates that are too definite now would be irresponsible. There are far too many uncertainties such as the impacts of both new variants and of vaccinations.
However what we can and must do is; firstly, explain the measures that will be needed to suppress the virus, and how the tools we have to hand – adherence to protective measures including FACTS, vaccination roll-out, expansion of our testing programme and stronger border measures – can all work together in the most effective way to restore, on a phased basis, greater normality to our everyday lives.
Secondly, we can start to set out what we need to see in the data for that phased return to normality to begin and then make progress.
Thirdly, we can be open about the choices and trade-offs that will need to be made. “What matters most?” is a question we will require to ask ourselves regularly as we move through the next few months.
For example, I believe there is already a broad consensus, which I firmly support, that the education and well-being of our children are paramount and should be prioritised above all else when easing restrictions. This means that adults will have to be prepared to live with some restrictions for longer in order to enable the safe return of children to school.
However, for adults too, there is a need to prioritise. We know that opening up care homes visiting is vital – and will publish guidance to enable that to happen in a careful and safe way from early March.
Getting to see our loved ones is something we all want. So our next priority is likely to be allowing more mixing between different households, initially outdoors.
And on the economy, we want to start opening up when it is safe to do so - but it won’t be possible to do everything at once, so again prioritisation will be necessary. It is likely, here, that some elements of non-essential retail will start to re-open first.
For any of this to happen, though, we need to see case numbers fall further. This document - drawing on WHO advice - sets out the broad indicators that will guide our decisions. But, just as was the case when we introduced the levels system, we must recognise that this will never be an exact science - judgment will be necessary.
Getting the data to where it needs to be, and keeping it there, depends on us using all the tools at our disposal to maximum effect and this document sets out how we will seek to do that.
The mass vaccination programme is the largest, the most ambitious and undoubtedly the most significant logistical operation in Scotland’s post-war history. We should be proud of the progress we’ve made targeting those most at risk from the effects of the disease. I would like to thank all those who have accepted an invitation to come forward and be vaccinated so far, and all those involved in the vaccination roll-out programme. You are helping to protect your families, friends and communities.
It is also critically important to reduce the risk of new cases and strains coming into Scotland from elsewhere, which is all the more essential as the virus mutates. Therefore, restricting travel continues to be a regrettable but vital part of our overall strategy.
Throughout the coming months, Test and Protect will continue to run and help combat the disease, learning, developing and improving as we go. It will remain important for everyone who is asked to self-isolate to do so, to protect friends and family and also society more generally.
And where we place necessary but regrettable restrictions on citizens and businesses to help protect against the spread of the virus, it will be vital that we all continue to comply.
In being open and transparent about the challenges ahead I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that some protective measures, such as physical distancing and face coverings, are likely to be necessary for some months yet, including for those who have been vaccinated.
Of course, for as long as there are restrictions on our way of life, the Scottish Government must and will use the resources available within our devolved powers to provide support, and where necessary we will press the UK Government to use its reserved powers to do the same.
I hope this update provides some further clarity on the way ahead. I can never thank people across the country enough for continuing to bear significant sacrifices and for doing all of the things necessary to keep ourselves, our loved ones and Scotland safe.
And I am extremely grateful, as I’m sure we all are, for the continued efforts of our NHS, social care and other key workers.
COVID-19 is a cruel disease. Too many have lost their lives to it – and the impact it has on all of us is severe – but we must be determined to emerge from this crisis as a stronger and fairer society, building on the common purpose, sense of community and good practice that has been so evident within our COVID response.
Though difficult and trying days still lie ahead, better times are now in sight. Let’s stick with it and build a better future, together.