Last week I updated parliament on the Scottish Government’s strategic framework.
When I update Parliament next week, I hope to be able to confirm some changes to Scotland’s level 4 restrictions.
Between now and then - and in light of the positive data that I will report on today - we will be considering if it might be possible to accelerate the exit from lockdown in any way, consistent of course with the care and caution that we know continues to be necessary.
Later today, the Public Health Minister will support the resumption of competitive football in Scottish Leagues 1 and 2, the Scottish Women’s Premier League 1 and – for the purposes of playing Scottish Cup ties – certain Highland League teams.
I hope this news will be welcomed by football fans across the country.
The focus of my statement today, however, is education.
In particular, I will update the parliament on plans to get all children back to school on a full time basis as soon as possible.
First, though, I will give a brief summary of today's statistics.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 542.
This represents 4.4% of all tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases to 203,012.
784 people are now in hospital – 40 fewer than yesterday.
And 71 people are in intensive care, the same number as yesterday.
However, I regret to report that in the last 24 hours, a further 33 deaths have been registered and the total number of deaths, under this measure, is now 7,164.
Once again, I send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.
Yesterday saw the anniversary of the first case of Covid being confirmed in Scotland.
The Scottish Government is currently talking to health charities and family organisations about how we intend to remember all those who have lost their lives – and also mark the many sacrifices people have made. We intend to say more about this soon.
I can also provide a short update on our vaccination programme.
As of 8.30 this morning, 1,634,361 people in Scotland have received their first dose of the vaccine.
That is an increase of 22,783 since yesterday.
There is of course good and increasing evidence that vaccination is already reducing the number of deaths – particularly in care homes. In time, as a growing proportion of the population gains protection through vaccination, it should also start to have an impact on hospitalisations, and on transmission rates.
And there was further positive news yesterday with the report from Public Health England that a first dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine reduces the chance of needing hospital treatment by more than 80%. This of course confirms research published last week in Scotland by the University of Edinburgh.
We remain on course to offer a first dose to all over 50 year olds, all unpaid carers, and all adults with an underlying health condition by mid April. We may face some supply issues next week which could affect appointments, but we are working hard to avoid that – and I want to stress these issues will not affect our mid-April target.
In addition to our progress on vaccination, we are also making good progress at suppressing the virus.
I said last week that the decline in case numbers had appeared to slow down and that this was a concern.
However I am pleased to report this week that more recent data has been much more encouraging. It strongly suggests that cases are still declining.
This time last week, we were recording an average of 815 new cases a day across Scotland.
That has now fallen to 657 new cases a day on average - and this is the lowest level since the first week of October last year.
The average test positivity rate is now below 5%.
Hospital admissions are also falling. In the first half of January, more than 1,000 Covid patients a week were being admitted.
In the week to 23 February, that had fallen to 468.
The number of people in intensive care has also continues to decline.
So the sacrifices we are all making are undoubtedly having an impact.
Collectively, we are suppressing the virus, and saving lives as a result.
There is more reason to be optimistic now than at any time since early autumn last year.
That said, we know we need to take care to avoid sending progress into reverse.
657 new cases a day is the lowest level for five months – but it is still 13 times higher than the numbers in mid-August.
The reduction in hospital admissions is very encouraging - but hundreds of people every week are still falling seriously ill.
We know that the new variant - which now accounts for more than 85% of new cases - is highly infectious.
And we were reminded over the weekend of the significant risk we face of other new variants - such as the P1 Brazilian variant - being imported into Scotland.
So the news - on vaccines and on suppression - is overwhelmingly positive.
But we must be sensible - and this can be harder to do when things appear to be going in the right direction - in the decisions we take over the next few weeks if we want to make sure we keep going in the right direction.
And that provides important context for the decisions that we have taken this week, and Cabinet confirmed this morning, about our next steps in enabling children to return to school.
Those decisions follow consultation with COSLA and local authorities; discussions with the Education Recovery Group; and scientific advice from the advisory subgroup on education and children’s issues. That advice will be published tomorrow.
Children in primaries 1 to 3 are of course already back at school full-time. We continue to monitor the impacts of that but it is too early to be certain. Some secondary school students have returned to take part in essential practical work for national qualifications. And childcare and early education premises are also now open for children below school age.
The next phase of reopening education will take place on 15 March.
And I can confirm today that from that date, 15 March - unless new evidence or new circumstances force us to reconsider, which we of course hope will not be the case - all children in primary 4 to 7 will go back to school on a full-time basis.
All primary school children will also be able to return to regulated childcare, including after school and breakfast clubs.
We will also take the next steps in a phased return to secondary school from 15 March - with a clear expectation that all secondary school pupils will be back in school on a full time basis following the Easter holidays.
However, it is the intention that all secondary school pupils will return to spend some time in school from 15 March until the Easter break.
Students in the senior phase of secondary school – that is years 4 to 6 – who are taking national qualifications, will have priority for face to face lessons in school.
This will ensure that they can have their hard work fairly recognized, with qualifications under the Alternative Certification Model.
However although years 4 to 6 may have priority, we expect that all children in secondary school will receive some in-school education each week up to the Easter break and then returning to full time following that.
This will allow pupils to get used to being back in school and allow them to start seeing friends again. This is important for wellbeing of young people as well as for education.
Before Easter, as this will be a blended learning model, we will also continue to ensure that remote learning is of the highest standard possible.
Reports from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education have shown that the delivery of remote learning has improved greatly between the first and second lockdowns.
I am immensely grateful to all of the teachers and other education professionals who have done so much to build on the experience of the first lockdown.
We will work with Education Scotland to ensure that enhanced online resources continue to be available over the coming month.
And we will work with local authorities to support young people’s wellbeing in other ways - for example, by providing more opportunities for outdoor learning.
Education Scotland will publish guidance for local authorities on the phased return over the next few days.
However local authorities will have flexibility in how they implement the phased return. This will allow them to take account of local factors in deciding how to make the return as safe as possible. We want to be able to ensure that they can maximise the time secondary school pupils can safely spend in school in the period up to the Easter holidays.
We recognize that the safety of staff and children must continue to be a key priority.
All local authorities will - at least until Easter - continue to observe the current requirement for 2m physical distancing in secondary schools.
And when secondary schools return, face coverings will need to be worn at all times.
The advisory group on education and children’s issues has also noted the continuing importance of good ventilation.
We have provided local authorities with £375m education recovery funding to date, and many Councils are using some of this funding to monitor and improve ventilation in schools.
In addition, we will continue to offer twice-weekly lateral flow testing for all school staff in our primary, secondary and special schools, and all secondary school pupils in years 4, 5 and 6.
I would encourage as many staff and senior phase pupils as possible to use the tests when they return to school. It is a further important way in which we can ensure that schools remain as safe as possible.
The final point I want to make here is to say thank you – firstly to all school leadership teams, and all school staff, including of course all teachers, for everything that that has been done to support our children and young people in the last few months.
I know everyone is looking forward to having children back in the classroom as soon as possible.
I also want to thank parents across the country. I can only imagine how difficult all of this disruption continues to be - but I hope, and I believe, that the end of it is now firmly in sight.
And my thanks too to children and young people. I know how hard it must be to be separated from friends and teachers.
But you have responded magnificently to all the difficulties of the past year.
I hope that you are looking forward to getting back to school later this month.
And I hope that you will start to feel life become a lot more normal very soon.
The phased approach to school return can and will be frustrating, I know. But it is necessary and it is firmly based on the expert advice that we have received.
It is the best, and also the most sustainable and enduring way to get as many children back to school as possible, as safely as possible.
There is one further issue I want to highlight today.
I can confirm that we are clarifying guidance on an issue which is directly relevant to parents of newborn children.
There are currently a number of essential purposes – for example essential care – which enable us to go into someone else’s house right now.
We are amending guidance on this today, to make it clear that those essential purposes include support for the welfare and well-being of a parent of a child who is under the age of one.
I hope that gives clarity - and enables vital support - for parents of very young children.
As we come out of lockdown, hopefully the last lockdown, we are prioritising – as we said we would – the education and well-being of our children.
In addition, although we remain cautious – as we have to be, in the face of a dangerous and highly infectious virus – I hope that people will take heart from the data I reported earlier.
It shows real, significant and sustained progress in getting the virus back under control.
Next week, I hope to confirm to parliament the other changes to the level 4 restrictions that will take effect from the 15 March.
The week after, I am scheduled to set out a firmer timetable for the period after 26 April.
And, as I said at the outset and last week, we will consider between now and then if the data allows us to bring forward any relaxation of the rules.
I have always said if we can go further and faster, then we will not hesitate to do so.
All of us want to move on as quickly as possible - and, as a priority, to see friends and family again. This will very much be the focus of our considerations over the next few weeks and I hope the day for that is not too far away.
But to make sure we don’t see any reverse in our progress that would put that in jeopardy, it is really important that, for now, we all need to abide by the lockdown rules.
So please continue to stick to their letter and their spirit.
Stay at home except for essential purposes. Do not meet people from other households indoors.
Follow the FACTS advice when you have to go out and about.
Work from home if you can – and if you are an employer, continue to support your employees to work from home.
If we do all of this, we can make it easier for children to return to school and all of us to return to more normality soon.
We will protect ourselves, our communities and our NHS. And we will keep the virus under control while vaccinations do their work.
So for the moment, please, continue to stick with it, stick together and stay at home.
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