It is now seven months since COVID-19 was first detected in Scotland. Like other countries, we faced a first wave, and locked down hard to get the virus under control – recognising the risks that would bring, but also the need to take firm action. We placed our NHS on an emergency footing and quickly redesigned services to ensure our health and social care services were equipped to deal with the pandemic. Local authorities mobilised to deliver new and existing services for their communities and people particularly at-risk. We established our Test & Protect system, built the Protect Scotland app, and gave advice and support to those most vulnerable to the virus. And, through a four nations approach, we worked to provide financial and economic support, which needs to continue while the virus remains a threat.
Our collective effort and sacrifices suppressed the virus to low levels during the summer. That came at a cost: to the economy, with the loss of jobs and businesses, to education and learning, to health and care services, and to our ability to lead our lives freely and stay connected to loved ones. For many, the cost was a cruel illness; too many lost their lives.
COVID-19 threatens health and life, but also how we live our lives, and our shared prosperity. The Scottish Government, in common with other UK Nations, is committed to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level, and keeping it there, until we have a vaccine and/or effective treatments, and the virus is no longer the threat it is now. There is no acceptable number of people we are willing to let become infected.
Our approach and principles remain those we set out in our Framework for Decision-Making, based on clinical evidence, expert advice, and a balanced assessment of the risks. Over the summer and into the early autumn, we navigated the changes set out in our Route Map, restoring a fair amount of normality to our lives. But we knew that, however cautiously we acted, reopening our country would bring new opportunities for the virus to spread. We must respond appropriately.
This new Strategic Framework sets out how we will work to suppress the virus and presents an honest reflection of the decisions we will need to make, and the balance we will have to reach, and it does so rooted in tackling the four harms we know the virus causes.
The first harm is the direct attack on life and health. At its simplest, suppressing the virus means doing everything we can to make it harder for the virus to spread – by following the FACTS rules, keeping physical distancing and protections in place, and taking a firm approach to introducing protective measures when necessary, and a cautious approach to easing them.
When the virus begins to spread, we need to put in place protective measures to suppress it. To make this simpler, we are moving to a system of levels of protection which will be regularly reviewed. Ministers, with expert advice, will apply these levels, nationally and/or locally, in a proportionate way, guided by evidence on the state of the epidemic, and only for as long as necessary.
However, we must all play our part, and remain aware of what we need to do as individuals to suppress the virus. The better we do that, the more possible it is to ease protective measures and move back towards a more normal way of living. As we take forward our revised response we will ensure we review the guidance and communications we provide so that everyone has the necessary information to play their part in suppressing the virus. We will also scale up the infrastructure we have in place and, based on the recent review of our testing strategy, deploy increasing capacity to support Test and Protect and protect the most at-risk people.
The second harm the virus does is to our wider health and care services, and indirectly to our health and wellbeing. Over the summer, we began to remobilise health and care services. The winter will bring new challenges. By keeping the virus suppressed, we can protect the NHS and our care services.
We will continue our work to remobilise NHS services, ensuring everyone has access to the care they need, while safeguarding the wider system in the face of any further wave. As part of this, and recognising the additional risks posed by the winter period, we have scaled up and expanded our seasonal flu vaccination programme.
The third harm is to wider society. The virus affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. We know more about how to help the people most vulnerable to harm in society to stay safe and well, and we are doing more to support those most at risk, and most affected by the protective measures we have had to put in place. We can all help by looking out for others.
Over the summer, we have managed the challenge of reopening our schools and resuming learning in our universities and colleges. For the sake of our young people and their futures, we are determined to keep learning open and safe. We will also renew our efforts to protect the people most at-risk in our society, including a new approach to caring for those who have been, or may need to, shield.
And of course, the fourth harm is one that will have hit many individuals, communities and businesses the hardest – the damage inflicted on the economy, employment, and our prosperity. We have seen recovery starting, and we have acted to support and protect it, while keeping workplaces safe – however, we recognise that many businesses are now suffering from re-imposed protective measures. We will do all we can, at our own hand, with our partners and through the four nations approach, to protect jobs and invest in our future. But we must acknowledge that the levers at our disposal, as a devolved government, do not match the scale and consequences of the pandemic and the toll it will take. It is an unprecedented global health crisis with unprecedented global economic consequences.
During lockdown, we provided an unprecedented package of support to businesses, followed through by ensuring the necessary local support was in place. As we look ahead to a new levels approach, we will ensure, as far as we can and with the resources available to us, support for businesses required to close, or otherwise affected, by protective measures.
Suppressing the virus is a collective effort. We need to stick with it, support each other, and learn from each other. We are committed to transparency in our decision-making, to engaging with you to explain what we are doing and what we ask of you, and listening to your experience and ideas. We will undertake a period of detailed and intensive consultation and engagement with key partners on the levels we have set out, to seek a collective effort and agreement on the way forward.
If we stick with it, and with each other, a better future lies ahead.
23 October 2020