This will be the final 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 did know we had to come together to save lives, and I know 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 though, I will – as usual - give an update on today’s figures.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 495.
That is 3.6% of all the tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases now to 214,383.
As of this morning, 2,214,672 people had received a first dose of the vaccine and that is almost half of the whole adult population of Scotland so we are approaching a very important milestone.
We remain on course to offer first doses to the 9 priority JCVI 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 currently in hospital which is 12 fewer than yesterday and 28 people are in intensive care, which is 5 fewer than yesterday.
But I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further 7 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days.
The total number of deaths, under this measurement, is now 7,559.
Tomorrow however National Records of Scotland will publish its weekly update – which uses a wider definition and that will show that almost 10,000 people in Scotland have now died of Covid.
Every single one of those deaths is of course a tragedy. Each one has left a gaping hole in the lives of the people who loved them and yet again today I want to pass on my condolences to all those who are grieving.
Yesterday I met with representatives of families bereaved as a result of Covid, and I want to 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 don’t think any government did.
It is vital that we reflect on that we learn lessons from that - 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 though to this sad anniversary, today has been designated a National Day of Reflection, and I know many people will be thinking about those we have lost during the year – whatever the cause of their death.
Earlier today I stood with others to observe a minute’s silence. That silence was, I know, observed by many thousands across the country.
Later this evening Scottish Government premises, and many other public buildings across the country 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.
And 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.
These acts of collective remembrance are especially important – because one of the cruellest aspects of this pandemic has undoubtedly been its impact on our ability to grieve.
It is of course a natural human response when someone we love dies, to gather with others – to mourn their loss and to celebrate their life. The fact that this shared and important ritual has not been possible has – I know – been an additional source of grief for many, during this most difficult of years.
So 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 we have lost, the tribute that they deserve.
Of course, today is also a day to mark the sacrifices that so many people have made over the past 12 months.
Many of us, I know, will be thinking especially today about our health and care workers.
We have been reminded once again just how much we owe to their dedication, expertise and compassion and I am acutely aware that no words of thanks can ever be sufficient, for the service that has been given over the last year – but I am sure I speak for everyone, not just in parliament, but across the country in stressing once again how deeply grateful we are for everything they have done and indeed continue to do.
Other public servants have also played a crucial role. Our police 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 the speed with which they helped to protect homeless people – they have provided us with really valuable lessons for the future.
I also want to 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’ve also developed a PPE supply chain in Scotland which did not exist before the start of the pandemic.
And virtually all companies have gone to immense efforts to create safe conditions for staff and customers.
They have supported home working for employees, complied with regulations which have often stopped them from trading normally.
And they have shown a sense of social responsibility, through all the concerns that have been faced about their own businesses.
The Scottish Government has done everything we can to support the business sector.
But I know that this has been the most difficult year that many employers and their workforces have ever faced and again, I am immensely grateful for all of those efforts.
I am also grateful to Scotland’s faith groups - who have helped their communities, and found new ways of reaching out to their followers.
I am pleased to confirm today 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.
This is an important change– and I hope that it will be especially welcomed 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 really 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 – that site received more than 80,000 sign-ups.
And of course there are many more people who might never have registered formally as volunteers, but who have gone out of their way to support others - helping out with shopping; calling on friends and neighbours who needed company; providing essential care for those in need.
I think all of us have really struggled in the past year with the paradox that this 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 though should be surprised that this year has been filled with difficulty and anxiety, and - for too many people – with grief.
But I think we can and should also take some heart from the extent to which it has also 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 this virus under control.
And we have helped to create the situation we are now in – where we can start to plan our route out of lockdown.
The final point I want to make here today – about our collective efforts during the past year – is directed towards our young people.
For children – if there are any children are watching this, which I doubt - I know how difficult it has been for you to spend time out of school, and to have such strict restrictions placed about how and when you can see your friends.
But you have been truly magnificent during these strange and worrying times.
You’ve stuck to the rules; you’ve done your home schooling I’m sure most of the time; and you’ve helped out your parents and carers and everybody across the country is incredibly proud of you. Thank you for everything you have done.
I also want to 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 where they live at one the most formative times of any young person’s life.
And although the restrictions on socialising are difficult for all of us – they are especially tough for people in their late teens and early 20s.
But, by sticking to the rules – as the vast majority have done - you have protected yourselves, but you have also helped to protect older adults and I hugely appreciate that, as does the entire country.
For all these reasons, one of my overwhelming emotions, on looking back over the last 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 has been endured over these past 12 months.
But in addition to gratitude, I think all of us should feel a sense of resolve. Perhaps politicians in particular, as we recover from this 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 as I’ve said 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 of course 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’s why for example, the Scottish young person’s guarantee makes it clear that our young people must not pay the price of this pandemic throughout their lives. All of them will get a fair shot at education, employment or training as they start out in life.
It’s also why we are working to establish a new national care service. The last 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 also learn other lessons from this pandemic and that does include reflecting on our mistakes –the timing of the first lockdown, the decision to ease travel restrictions so significantly during the summer.
But it also includes ensuring that we are prepared for future public health emergencies too.
And more generally, there is a lesson for all of us, in never ever seeing any change we want to make as unthinkable or unachievable.
The past 12 months have shown us that when it’s 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 literally 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 next Scottish Parliament faces will – I hope – be nothing, nothing like the ones we have encountered and endured in the past year.
But that parliament will have an even greater responsibility than this and previous ones to tackle inequality, to support economic recovery, and achieve a just transition to a net zero society.
And if we, all of us can summon some of the urgency, resolve and solidarity we have shown in the face of the virus – and bring that to bear in tackling these big issues and others – then I hope we can ensure that we do not simply return to normal, but instead we can create a better and fairer normality for the future.
Those choices of course will be for the next Parliament and the next government. For today, I know the focus for everyone is on remembrance and reflection.
But since this is the last time that I will speak about Covid in this chamber before the election, I do 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 - and taking and announcing decisions as required.
That’s vital - because although we can now see a route out of lockdown, difficult judgements do continue to 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 prospects, fantastic prospects that we can come out of lockdown on a sustainable basis.
Indeed, I can confirm that from 6pm tomorrow, the Western Isles will move from level 4 restrictions to level 3 - the level that currently applies to Orkney and Shetland, and some of Scotland’s other islands and that reflects their success in reducing transmission in recent weeks.
Across the country, during April we hope to reopen parts of the economy – with more retail services reopening on the 5th April, and a full reopening of shops on the 26th.
We hope that hospitality will start to reopen on the 26th of April as well, and that travel restrictions in mainland Scotland will come to an end on the same date.
And of course, above all, we hope to see all children back in school after the Easter holidays.
And of course 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 perhaps it has done for some time.
And as a higher and higher proportion of the population gets their first dose of vaccine, we hope to relax restrictions even more.
As I indicated last week, we have real hope that later on this year of being able to allow gigs; reopen nightclubs; permit social gatherings and family reunions can take place – so that we can all enjoy simple pleasures such as hugging our loved ones. Pleasures that I’m sure none of us will ever take quite as much for granted again.
But although that point may be in sight – that end is not quite here yet.
At the moment, hundreds of people are still getting this virus every day in Scotland. It is still highly infectious. And it is still dangerous – including to many younger people.
And of course, many countries across Europe appear now to be on the brink of a third wave.
All of that should remind us of the need to be careful and cautious.
As we emerge from lockdown, we must do so steadily and surely - and in a way that does not allow the virus to run out of control.
And we must keep in place other measures – for example travel restrictions – for as long as they are needed.
To lift restrictions in the future, we still need to keep suppressing the virus now.
So please, to everyone across the country, continue to stay within the rules, for your own safety and the safety of everyone else.
Stay at home – for now - except for specific essential 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 this over the past 12 months, all of us have helped each other get through what has been I think for all of us, certainly for the majority of us, the most difficult, challenging and exhausting year of our lives.
By continuing to do all of this in the coming weeks, we can and will continue to look after each other.
And we can also look ahead to the future – not just in hope, but with increasing expectation – of the better and brighter days that lie ahead.
My sincere thanks to everyone across the country for all the sacrifices of the past 12 months.
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