I will update Parliament today on some changes to the lockdown restrictions currently in place across most of Scotland.
These changes relate to outdoor meetings and activities.
I will also announce a change which I hope will be welcomed by Scotland’s faith communities.
Now while the changes I set out today are relatively minor, they are important for our wellbeing.
And they do represent gradual, but I hope steady, steps out of lockdown and back towards a life where we can all interact much more freely with our loved ones.
Next week, I will set out a firmer indicative timetable for re-opening the economy, including shops, hospitality, hairdressers, gyms and parts of our tourism sector.
The ability to announce even limited changes at this stage is possible only because of the hard sacrifices that the majority of people across the country continue to make each and every single day.
So let me at the outset acknowledge, and be clear that I share, the anger and despair that the vast majority of people - including, I am sure, the majority of football fans - felt at the weekend towards crowds of supporters flagrantly breaching rules that the rest of us are following every day at great personal cost.
The behaviour witnessed at the weekend was disgraceful and it was selfish.
Now it is natural that some of the anger people feel is directed towards the government and the police - I absolutely understand that. All of us must reflect on what more could have been done, and what more we need to do to avoid any repeat in the future.
But those at fault are those who breached the rules.
How the police manage situations like this is, of course, an operational matter - government cannot and should not direct policing operations.
I will though be speaking to the Chief Constable later this afternoon to consider what further action might be necessary to avoid any repeat of the unacceptable scenes we saw at the weekend.
However, no one should doubt the deeply invidious situation that behaviour like this puts the police in as they discharge their responsibility to protect public order and public safety.
We will also be having further discussions this week with the football authorities and with certain football clubs who, in my view, do need to show much more leadership on occasions like this.
Now let me be clear, in making these comments, I really don’t care about the colour of the shirt. My comments on these matters are in no way partisan.
I said some harsh things about Celtic’s decisions at the start of this year.
And as far as I am concerned in this case, Rangers Football Club could have done more to help avoid this situation arising at the weekend.
The fact is that elite sport is being allowed to continue just now so that fans – deprived like all of us of so much else in life right now - can continue to watch and support their teams.
It would be deeply unfair if a minority spoil that for the majority, and I very much hope that will not be the case.
But given the fragility of the situation we face right now, we cannot simply turn a blind eye to what happened at the weekend and we won’t.
So we will report back in due course - and certainly ahead of the Old Firm match scheduled for 21 March - on the various discussions taking place this week.
Now finally on this subject, I understand, completely understand, why people watching what unfolded at the weekend might wonder why they are bothering doing the right thing.
The fact is the vast majority of us are doing the right thing because we know it really matters – it matters for our own health and the health of our loved ones.
It is about saving lives. And it is working. As I will set out shortly, we are firmly on the right path.
So, no matter how legitimately angry we feel, let’s not allow the irresponsible behaviour of a minority to set us all back.
Let’s stick with it as we make our way, slowly but surely, back to normality.
Let me turn then to the substance of today’s statement - with an overview of the latest statistics and the state of the epidemic, and then the detail of the initial changes that we are proposing.
Firstly, today’s statistics.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 466.
That is 3.3% of all tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases now to 206,465.
614 people are now in hospital – 40 fewer than yesterday.
And 50 people are receiving intensive care, 9 fewer than yesterday.
However, I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further 19 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days.
And the total number of deaths, under this measurement, is therefore now 7,441.
And yet again, I send my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.
Now a week ago yesterday was the anniversary of the first confirmed Covid case in Scotland.
This Saturday coming will be the anniversary of the first confirmed death in Scotland of someone with Covid.
And then in two weeks’ time – on 23 March - we will reach the first anniversary of lockdown.
The Scottish Government has been in contact with a number of organisations to discuss how we can best mark that day, and on 22 March I will meet representatives of UK Covid Families for Justice.
Current plans for 23 March include a national silence.
We are also discussing how communities can be supported to develop their own commemorative activities over the coming year, as part of longer-term plans for remembrance. And I will set out more detail of all of this over the next fortnight.
In addition, I know that parliament will wish to consider how it marks the occasion.
And all of us, I am sure, will want to remember all those who have been lost over the past year, and to offer our continued thoughts, solidarity and support to the bereaved.
The figures I have just reported for new cases, people in hospital, and of course deaths, are still higher than we would want them to be.
But they are not as high as they were just a few weeks ago. And so I think it is worth reflecting on the positive trend that we are now seeing.
Two weeks ago, we were recording an average of 815 new cases a day across the country.
Last week, that had fallen to 657 new cases a day.
This week, it has fallen further to an average of 490 new cases a day.
The average test positivity rate is now just above 3%.
Admissions to hospitals and intensive care units are also falling.
And the number of deaths – although still heartbreakingly high – has almost halved since the third week of January.
We are also continuing to make excellent progress with the vaccination programme.
As of 8.30 this morning, 1,789,377 people in Scotland have received their first dose of the vaccine.
That is an increase of 14,718 since yesterday.
Now the number of vaccines being administered each day has fallen during the last week or so.
That is because of a dip in supply that I had spoken about previously, and which we have been expecting and planning for.
But from about the middle of March onwards, however, we expect supplies to pick up again. And for that to allow for a very significant acceleration in the vaccination programme.
It is worth noting that some of these supplies will be of short-dated stock - in other words, they will be of vaccines that must be used very soon after they have been received.
At the moment, the vaccination programme is working through priority groups 6 and 7, which includes 60-64 year olds, unpaid carers, and people with a particular underlying health condition.
For example unpaid carers who are not registered with the Scottish Social Services Council will be able to self-register for vaccination from next Monday onwards.
However I can confirm that we are now in a position to start scheduling appointments for people in groups 8 and 9 – that is, people who are 55 to 59 years old, and people who are 50 to 54 years old.
I should point out, of course, that many in these age groups - 30% of 50 to 54 year olds and 36% of 55 to 59 year olds - have had the first dose due to having an underlying health condition.
However, by now scheduling appointments for these age groups generally, we can ensure that no vaccine goes to waste, and that we can meet our target of offering first doses to everyone on the initial JCVI priority list - that is everyone over 50, all unpaid carers and all adults with an underlying health condition - by mid-April.
Now the good progress we are making on vaccination is of course important context for today’s statement.
Almost 40% of the entire adult population has now received a first dose of the vaccine.
There is already strong evidence that the vaccination programme has significantly reduced deaths in care homes.
And studies are also starting to show that vaccination - as well as reducing illness and death - can significantly reduce transmission of the virus.
We therefore have not absolute confidence yet but increasing confidence that as more and more people acquire some protection through vaccination, we will be able to ease restrictions while still keeping the R number below 1.
In addition to vaccine protection, continued international travel restrictions, and the work of test and protect, will help us keep the virus under control as we hopefully return to much greater normality in our everyday lives.
So the prospects are now very encouraging indeed.
That said though, getting the timing of all of this right remains essential.
If our easing of restrictions gets ahead of our progress on vaccination, the virus will run out of control again.
That is what we must avoid and that is why, notwithstanding all the positive news, caution is still essential at this stage.
Case numbers, while much lower than at the start of the year, are still high.
And although we are confident that the R number is currently below 1, it is probably not very far below 1.
We also know that the more transmissible variant of Covid which was identified before Christmas, now accounts for almost 90% of new all cases in Scotland.
And we have no real experience yet of just how far and fast that variant will spread as we start to emerge from lockdown.
Indeed, it is possible that some of the very significant steps we are already taking to get children back to school could push the R number back above 1.
If that happens, as we know all too well, case numbers will start to grow again.
And even though older people, who are more likely to die from the virus, now have stronger protection as a result of the vaccine, no vaccine will provide absolute protection for our most vulnerable citizens.
In addition, we know the virus can cause significant long term harm to people of all ages. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s make up a significant proportion of those who are currently in hospital with Covid.
And of course there are people who have never been in hospital who are still suffering from what is known as long Covid.
In addition, if we allow more people to get the virus, we also increase the risk of new variants emerging.
And finally, we also need to show continued caution about the risk of new variants entering the country.
A possible - although still unconfirmed - further case of the P1 Brazil variant in Scotland has now been identified. It involves an individual who travelled to Scotland from Rio de Janeiro, via Paris, and arrived on 19 February.
The individual followed the all the procedures for managed self-isolation, and we currently have no reason to believe that this case presents any risk to the wider community. However we are of course continuing to undertake all necessary follow-up work.
The point I am making presiding officer is that, even though we are heading firmly in the right direction right now and I firmly believe we are, we cannot afford to take our foot off the brake too soon.
We still need to keep the virus under control if our hopes for a much more normal summer are not to suffer a setback.
And if we continue to prioritise children’s education – as I believe we should, and indeed must – our scope to make further changes will be limited while we are still rolling out the vaccine.
We do of course intend to ease restrictions as soon as we safely can - and we will do it quicker than previously anticipated if that proves to be possible.
As I indicated earlier, when I update the parliament next week, I will set out a firmer timeline for our exit from lockdown.
Today, however, I want to set out some changes that we believe can be made safely more immediately.
In considering this, we have very deliberately prioritised changes which might improve our general well-being and quality of life, without having too big an impact on infection rates.
And we focused in particular on restoring a bit more normality for children.
The first set of changes relates to outdoor social interactions.
We realise that meeting up - even outdoors – even in Scotland - can be hugely beneficial for our wellbeing.
So From Friday, therefore, we intend to relax the law so that up to 4 adults from up to 2 households will be able to meet outdoors.
And, in addition, we will make clear in our guidance that this will allow for social and recreational purposes, as well as essential exercise.
Meeting will be possible in any outdoor space, including private gardens.
But please, do stick to the new rules. Gatherings must be a maximum of 4 people, from 2 households. And you should only go indoors if that is essential in order to reach a back garden, or to use a toilet.
And, for now, please stay as close to home as possible.
We hope to be in a position to relax - at least to some extent - travel restrictions within Scotland in the weeks ahead, but our advice is that it would not be safe to do so just yet.
For young people aged 12 to 17 we want to be even more flexible, to enable more interaction with friends.
So for 12 to 17 year olds, outdoor meetings will also be limited to a maximum of 4 people. But the 2 household limit won’t apply.
That means 4 friends from 4 different families will be able to get together outdoors.
And this will hopefully allow young people to see more of their friends than is currently the case.
We are also proposing some changes to the rules on outdoor exercise and activities.
From Friday, outdoor non-contact sports and organised group exercise will be permitted for all adults, in groups of up to 15 people.
We will also ensure that there is some flexibility around the travel rules for young people – so that children are not prevented from taking part in sport, if for example they belong to a club that is a bit outside their own local authority area.
These are minor changes I know that, but I do think they are important changes.
They have also been made possible by the hard sacrifices the majority of people across the country have made.
And we will seek to build on them as quickly as possible in the weeks ahead.
The other careful change that we feel able to make, at this stage, relates to places of worship.
I can confirm that, assuming no deterioration in the situation with the virus between now and then, we intend to allow communal worship to restart from Friday 26 March.
This is in time for Passover, Easter, Ramadan and Vaisakhi.
In addition, the limit on attendance at communal services will be increased from 20, which was the limit in place before lockdown, to 50 - assuming of course that a place of worship is spacious enough to accommodate that many people with 2 metre physical distancing.
Now I know that the restrictions on communal worship have been really difficult for many people, despite the exceptional, quite exceptional efforts made by faith groups to reach out to their communities.
This change is relatively minor, it is proportionate, which we believe can be achieved relatively safely, and which will hopefully enable more people to draw strength, comfort and inspiration from acts of collective worship.
All of us, I think, can see that things are getting better just now
In recent weeks, we have seen a significant fall in new cases. Deaths and hospital admissions are thankfully now falling. And the vaccination programme is not just progressing well, it is progressing beyond our initial expectations.
All of this is excellent news, and it provides really strong grounds for hope.
But that hope must also be balanced by caution.
Because we have been in lockdown, it is easy to overlook the fact that the virus we are dealing with now is much more infectious than the one we were dealing with in the autumn.
But we will be reminded of that very quickly, if we try to do too much too soon.
And since we are prioritising the reopening of schools, our scope for lifting other restrictions- certainly in the next few weeks - is extremely limited.
That is why the changes I have set out today are modest.
But they are also important. They will, I hope, help people’s health and well-being, by enabling group exercise, and allowing for a bit more social interaction.
And they will also I hope let children see more of their friends, and exercise and play a bit more normally.
And they should I hope provide some comfort for faith groups.
I expect that further, more substantial, changes will be possible in the weeks ahead. I will set out as much detail as I can about that in next week’s statement.
And of course as I have indicated before if the data allows us to relax more restrictions more quickly than we have previously indicated, we will not hesitate to do that.
I am very well aware of just how difficult continued restrictions are – and I know that they get harder rather than easier to bear, as time goes on.
I also know – because I very much feel this too – that the progress on vaccination makes us even more impatient to reach the end of this ordeal as quickly as possible.
But I am certain, absolutely certain, that easing restrictions too quickly would be a mistake that we would regret.
So do take advantage of the relaxations set out today.
But please continue do so within the rules.
We must still stay at home, except for specific purposes – which from Friday will include limited, outdoor socialising and recreation on the basis that i have set out.
We must not meet people from other households indoors yet, that is absolutely essential.
And we should all follow the FACTS advice when we are out and about.
By doing this, we can continue to look after each other and protect the NHS.
And we will play our part in keeping case numbers down while the vaccinators continue to do their work, children get back to school and we all take tentative but I hope very firm steps back to life as we once knew it.
So for the moment, please, continue to stick with it.
Please stay at home to protect the NHS. Save lives.
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