Let me give the usual update on today’s statistics.
798 positive cases were reported yesterday.
Which is 3.9% of the total number of tests, and takes the overall number of confirmed cases to 199,637.
1,018 people are currently in hospital – 58 fewer than yesterday.
93 people are in intensive care, which is the same as yesterday.
And I’m sorry to say that 47 additional deaths were registered in the past 24 hours, and that takes the total number of deaths registered, under that measurement, to 7,053.
National Records of Scotland has also just published its weekly update - that includes cases where Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death in addition to deaths were Covid is confirmed through a test.
Today’s update shows that by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid - under the wider definition - was 9,347.
290 of those deaths were registered in the past week, that is 35 fewer than in the previous week.
And of those deaths, 235 occurred in hospitals; 34 were in care homes; 1 occurred in another institutional setting; and 20 occurred in people’s homes or in a non-institutional setting.
Care home deaths have now fallen by 69% in the past 4 weeks, and in the most recent week, they accounted for just 12%, in fact just under 12% of the overall number of deaths from Covid. And that is – with one weeks exception - the lowest proportion recorded in any week since the very start of the pandemic.
And that obviously provides further evidence and extremely welcome evidence that vaccination is already reducing the number of people dying from Covid particularly the most vulnerable people in our care homes.
With that said the virus, as we can see from today’s report, is still causing heartbreak on a daily basis to families across the country. So again, I want to send my condolences to everybody who is grieving.
Turning now to the update on the vaccination programme.
As of this morning, 1,488,077 people have now received a first dose.
That is an increase of 22,836 since yesterday.
In addition, 6,918 people yesterday received the second dose, meaning that a total yesterday of 29,754 vaccinations were administered.
84% of 65 to 69 year olds have now received a first dose which means that we are well on course to offer the first dose to everybody in that age group by early March.
And as I confirmed yesterday, we now expect to be able to offer a first dose to everybody over the age of 50 and to all adults with an underlying health condition by the 15th April, which is earlier than our previous estimate of when we would complete all in those categories.
I am joined today by Jason Leitch, who will help me answer questions shortly.
Before then, I want to cover two points.
The first is adult care home visiting which I know is hugely important to many people across the country and the inability to visit loved ones in care homes has been the source of anxiety, stress and new trauma over the past year.
We are publishing today new guidance on how friends and family can start to visit residents in care homes again.
The guidance recommends that from the start of March onwards, all care homes that can, should support residents to have up to 2 designated visitors each.
Now, that might not sound like much – and we obviously hope to get back to more normality in the weeks to come but I know for many across the country, even that is a big step back to a more normal way of life.
It is not a complete return to normal yet – because there will be a lot of Covid safety measures in place, face coverings, rigorous hygiene and the availability of testing - but it is nevertheless a really important move forward.
And having listened to the views of those who have family in care homes, I know that it is a change that has been much longer for and will be cherished by many people - who have not been able to properly be with, or care for, their loved ones during this pandemic.
The change has of course been made possible, in large part, in very large part, because of the exceptionally high uptake of vaccines in care homes.
And we believe therefore that with additional safeguards, in place that I’ve already mentioned, this is now the time to take that step.
Obviously we want to see care home visiting re-start as quickly as possible across all care home groups so we are currently speaking with all care home groups to understand and address any concerns that they might have.
And we will also work with care homes to safely increase the frequency with which people can visit.
I am grateful to everyone in the care home sector, who has worked with us to make the resumption of visiting possible.
And I want to say a big thank you to those working in care homes who have had a very torrid time over the past year but who have also during the past year have gone the extra mile to try to fill the gap that has been left in many residents’ lives by the absence of visits from their own family over the past year, and I know there will be families across the country that are deeply grateful to all of you for doing that.
The other issue I want to address today is the update to the strategic framework that we published yesterday.
Let me say at the outset that I know how desperate everyone, people, businesses, everybody across the country is for more certainty and to be able to see as far ahead in to the future with as much clarity as possible - and so I’ll say a little about why I don’t think it’s right, or possible to do everything that we all desperately want, but also about how we intend to get to that longer term position as quickly as possible.
The framework provides indicative dates for the next six weeks, because that’s the timeframe that right now we can be most confident about. It is harder at this stage, this will change as we go through the coming weeks but at this stage it is harder to know the likely course of the pandemic after that period.
The main reason for that is that we don’t yet know how the new, more infectious variant of the virus will behave as we start to lift restrictions.
Because it is only the restrictions that are keeping it at bay right now.
So what that means is we have to monitor the first few steps out of lockdown we take very carefully, so we are building our confidence at the speech of what we are able to go.
Over the next couple of weeks that means looking particularly closely at the impact of the first phase of school return that started on Monday - and at the impact of the next phase of school return that will happen on 15 March, when we hope to get as many more young people as possible back to school.
My hope is that the more we learn about the impact of the early changes, the more confidence we will then have that we can go further and faster, without risking a resurgence of the virus that would set us all back.
In the meantime though, we will move forward carefully.
But over the period between now and the start of April, we will move forward.
We will support the full return of schools - with as many pupils as I’ve just said as possible back on 15 March – we will also support the return of care home visiting that I have just spoken about.
We will let young people return to outdoor sports, to help their mental health and to give them opportunities to be with their friends.
We will let communal worship re-open - and let me be clear, I clarified this in Parliament yesterday but not everybody would have heard that, let me be clear we intend to allow that reopening of communal worship in time for the Easter weekend and for Passover.
And we will lift the stay at home restriction at the start of April - which compares, I think, to a target date for England of the very end of March, so not much difference there.
And we will also re-open some parts of retail.
So that is what we can be reasonably confident about doing between now and the start of April. There’s always caveats in that because we can’t be absolutely certain about what’s going to happen with the virus but we have a reasonable degree of confidence in that six week timeframe.
And if we become confident over next few weeks that we can do more, then we will do more.
And then, from the last week in April, on current planning, the expectation is that the rest of retail will start to re-open, as will holiday accommodation, hospitality, gyms and hairdressers for example, and on that last one – I’m as desperate as anybody to see hairdressers open.
Now that will involve at that stage all of Scotland going down to at least level 3.
But there might be parts of the country - perhaps more rural communities - that are able to go straight to level 2, meaning the opening up can happen faster.
And of course all parts of Scotland, we hope, could move to lower levels of restrictions fairly quickly over May and June.
Now, again all of this is cautious - because we don’t yet know exactly what will happen with the new variant when we do start to open up - but as we get a better handle on that, we will move faster if we can.
And the factor that may open the way for us to move further and faster is greater confidence about the impact that vaccination is having on transmission. That is absolutely the area where we have every reason right now to be really optimistic.
Now inevitably and understand, and this has been the case since day one of the pandemic, comparisons are made with what’s happening in England.
Sometimes people want us to follow what’s happening in England, sometimes people don’t.
My view has always been that what we should just try to do, in fact what my duty as First Minister to do is to try our hardest to get it right for Scotland.
That’s what we have done in schools, for example - so right now we have some children back to school already. That’s not yet the case in England.
But two other points. Our approach here is not an outlier - it’s broadly in line although, there are differences, with Wales and Northern Ireland.
And in terms of re-opening the economy, the plans we set out yesterday are roughly two weeks behind the plans for England.
But it’s worth pointing out that last year, as we came out of lockdown, the dates we set out then were also a little behind those in England - and that caused the same understandable frustrations in some quarters - but looking back our approach enabled more of the country to remain open and trading for longer before new restrictions became necessary.
So that underlines what I really strongly feel must be the priority now - getting to a sustainable position that protects people’s lives, and protects the NHS, but also gives people and business the opportunity to rebuild and recover without hopefully facing further shutdowns in the future.
Now the final thing I know people want to hear is the end date for all of this. When will it all be over so that we can do all of the things we all miss doing.
I desperately want that too. And I’m more confident with every day that passes that we are getting closer to that.
The emerging evidence makes me more hopeful than ever that the days of being able to hug loved ones and socialise on a normal or close to normal basis might not be too far away and the reason for that confidence, as I said a moment ago, the emerging evidence on vaccination.
But in terms of being able to put a hard and fast, specific date on that right now?
It would certainly make my life a lot easier to do that – or at least it would make my life easier in the short term. I’m not sure it would make it easier if I had to tell you later on that I’d got it wrong.
And that’s the point - if I was to give you a fixed hard and fast date now, I would pretty much be making it up. I don’t think that is the approach I should take with you.
So I’m not ruling out any specific dates. I want it to be as soon as possible. And we have every reason to be hopeful that come the summer will be much, much better than it is now.
But when I stand here and give you what I think the actual date when all or most restrictions come to an end will be, I want to be as sure as I can be that is real and that it can be delivered.
So I don’t just understand the frustrations that people have, I feel those frustrations.
As has been the case all along, I will have to take decisions sometimes that you agree with and sometime you disagree with.
But I can assure you that the Scottish Government will continue to do our very best to lead the country country as quickly - but also as safely and sustainably - through this horrible ordeal and out the other side of it.
But one thing, and this is my final point, I know beyond any doubt is that the more we all stick with this now, keeping the virus suppressed, getting it more suppressed while the vaccination does it’s work then the faster that day when we get out the other end of this will be.
So for now, difficult though I know, I really know it is, please for now stay home and follow all the other guidance because that is what is working right now and that is what is bringing that day when we are out of this pandemic that bit closer.
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