Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I will give a short update on today’s statistics and a few other issues.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 2,045.
That represents 11.3% of the total number of tests, and takes the total number of confirmed cases in Scotland to 124,831.
That is a significant number of new cases, and it demonstrates the severity of the situation we face right now.
1,133 people are currently in hospital - 41 more than yesterday. And 69 people are in intensive care, which is four more than yesterday.
I’m also sad to report that 43 additional deaths have been registered in the last 24 hours of patients who had tested positive.
In total, 137 deaths have been registered in the past seven days. That takes total number of deaths, under this daily measurement, to 4,510.
National Records of Scotland have not published their usual weekly update today because not all registration offices have been open throughout the festive period. However, the figures published last week showed that the total number of deaths is now over 6,000.
Each one of those deaths is heartbreaking. And so again, I want to send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
There are three other issues I want to cover today.
The first is the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine that has today been authorised for supply in the UK by the medicines regulator.
This is really good news.
It means there are now two effective Covid vaccines available for use in the UK.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is also logistically easier to deliver than the Pfizer one.
And, crucially, the UK has secured a much higher number of doses of this vaccine.
It is also now recommended that the second dose of both vaccines can be given up to 12 weeks after the first, rather then three.
That means we can now prioritise providing a first dose to as many people as possible - rather than providing the required two doses in as short a time as possible.
This will allow more people to be vaccinated more quickly.
We have been preparing for the deployment of the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine for some time and I can confirm that it will be administered in Scotland from Monday.
As of Sunday, more than 92,000 people have already received their first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
But today’s news means that more people will get their first dose of a Covid vaccine, sooner than anticipated.
The second issue I want to touch on are the restrictions now in place across the country.
On Boxing Day, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, and some other island communities moved to Level 3 protections. At the same time, the rest of Scotland - the vast majority - moved to level 4.
This is not the way that any of us wanted to end 2020 – or start the new year. But these new restrictions reflect the severity of the threat posed by this new variant.
Analysis done by Public Health Scotland shows that, yesterday, 42.8% of positive tests processed for Scotland in the Lighthouse Laboratory Network had the S gene drop out that is indicative of the new strain.
That is a higher than the 38% suggested by ONS analysis for week beginning 14 December. And that in turn compared to just six per cent at the end of November.
So this new strain appears to be fast becoming the dominant one in Scotland.
And that is obviously a cause for real concern - given that it is thought to be significantly more transmissible.
As I indicated before Christmas, the severity of this challenge means we can’t rule out the need for restrictions that are even tighter than the current level 4.
We continue to assess the situation carefully, on a daily basis, and will keep Parliament updated should any changes be required over the remainder of the festive period.
As we learn more about the new variant, we also continue to review when pupils can safely return to classrooms.
The new strain has already made a normal scheduled return impossible but we continue to assess whether it will be possible to reopen schools as planned on 18 January.
That is what we all want and, to be clear, that remains our planning assumption. But we will continue to put the safety of pupils, teachers and staff first. And we will ensure as much notice as possible to parents of any changes we consider to be necessary.
For now, of course, it is vital that we all do as much as possible to suppress transmission.
That means limiting our interactions with people in other households, beyond those which are absolutely essential.
To remind everyone, our very strong advice is that people should stay at home just now, as much as possible. And when we do go out, we should stay as close to home as possible.
With a few limited exceptions, none of us should be visiting each other’s homes right now.
None of us should be travelling to other local authority areas – unless it’s for an essential purpose.
And there must be no non-essential travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK. That advice also applies to overseas travel.
We should also remember the FACTS advice:
- face coverings
- avoid crowded places
- clean hands and surfaces
- keep two metres distance from people from other households
- and self-isolate, and get tested immediately, if you have symptoms.
Let me stress testing centres are open throughout the entire festive period. So if you do experience Covid symptoms, please don’t wait. Book a test immediately.
It’s worth noting that the NHS 24 Mental Health Hub is also open, over the festive period.
Support of this kind is particularly vital, at a time when so many of us are missing loved ones and normal social interaction. So if you feel the restrictions are affecting your mental health – and you need help or advice – please don’t hesitate to call the number 111.
Finally today, I want to say a few words about Hogmanay.
I know most of us, and I certainly speak for myself here, will be glad to see the back of 2020.
And today’s news about the new vaccine should give all of us greater hope for the year ahead.
But for now, it is really vital to do everything we can to suppress this virus.
To keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. And to protect the NHS.
So we must mark this new year responsibly and in line with the restrictions in place.
To be clear, that means no gatherings, no house parties, and no first footing.
Instead, we should bring in 2021 in our own homes with just our own household.
This new strain is very serious - I cannot stress that enough.
And our prospects for the rest of the year will be better if we get off to a safe start.
So I urge everyone to be responsible on Hogmanay.
I know it’s hard - particularly for young people.
But it is how we best protect ourselves and our loved ones.
It helps the NHS too. And they need our help.
In Scotland, so far, the numbers in hospital and ICU are not at the peak of the first wave. But the NHS is under pressure.
So everything we do as individuals to stop this virus spreading helps reduce the number of people who will end up in hospital and ICU beds over the next few weeks.
And that really matters.
So as this awful year draws to a close, let me again thank everyone across Scotland for your sacrifice and patience, and for looking out for each other.
We do have every reason to believe that the spring of 2021 will bring better times. But we must first get through these difficult few weeks of winter.
So let’s stick with it, and keep looking after each other.
And let me wish everyone across the chamber, and at home, when it comes, a better, brighter and happier new year.
There is a problem
Thanks for your feedback