Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: First Minister's speech 17 April 2020

Statement given by the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at St Andrew's House, Edinburgh on Friday 17 April 2020.

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you again to all of you watching at home for joining us for this daily breifing.

I will start as I always do with an update on some of the key statistics in relation to COVID-19 in Scotland.

As at 9 o’clock this morning, I can report that there have been 7,409 positive cases confirmed – which is an increase of 307 on the numbers reported yesterday.

A total of 1,799 patients are currently in hospitals across the country with either confirmed or suspected COVID-19 - that is the same as the number yesterday, although I would point out that is not necessarily the same patients.

A total of 189 people last night were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. And that is a decrease of 7 on yesterday’s figure.

However in the last 24 hours, I am afraid that 58 deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed as testing positive of COVID-19 – that takes the total number of deaths in Scotland, under that measurement, to 837.

As I have said before and I know all of us have in our minds at these moments, it’s important that that we never ever lose sight of the human reality behind these statistics. Each and every death represents an individual, somebody who is right now being mourned by the people they have left behind. And so – once again – I want to extend my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one and I know we all think about them at these times.

I also want to express my thanks – as I always do because it’s important that we always do this – to all health and care workers across the country. You are doing a quite extraordinary job and you are doing it in the most difficult cirucumstances imaginable. And I hope that last night’s applause showed you – once again in a small but important way – the deep gratitude that all of us feel for the work that you are doing right now.

Now there’s a couple of issues that I want to cover today before handing over to the Chief Medical Officer and the Cabinet Secretary and then taking questions.

As you know, COBRA met yesterday afternoon. Following that meeting, all four of the governments across the UK agreed to extend the current lockdown rules, for at least three more weeks.   Here in Scotland of course, that decision is based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, and our scientific advisory group.

And they have advised me and the government that the lockdown restrictions have resulted in a slowing down of the rate of community transmission of the virus. That is positive news. And while we can’t be complacent and should never be complacent when dealing with this virus, that slowdown seems to be reflected in a stabilisation of the numbers being admitted to hospital, and intensive care. And again I think we can see that in the figures I’ve reported to you today.

In short, we believe that these restrictions are working. And I therefore again want to thank every single one of you for complying with these rules - and for the sacrifices you are making in doing so.

However, despite these positive signs and they are positive signs, we are not yet confident that transmission has slowed sufficiently to allow us to ease up in anyway on these restrictions.  

The advice to us is very clear that lifting the restrictions now could risk an immediate and a potentially exponential resurgence of the virus. That would very quickly if it happened result in our NHS being overwhelmed, it could lead also to many more outbreaks in our care homes, and it would almost certainly lead to much more loss of life.

It could also necessitate the introduction of even stronger restrictions in future – with substantially more damage to the economy as a result.

So in short, if we were to lift these restrictions now or if we lift them at any time prematurely, all of the progress that we’ve achieved together in the past few weeks would be lost. We can’t take that risk and I hope you agree that we simply can’t take that risk because the price of it in human life and human suffering is not one that any of us should or would be willing to pay.

That said, I know and I’m accutely aware that people also want an idea of what might lie beyond the next three week period. And, while the burden of this works falls rightly on government, we do not - and I’ve said this repeatedly – we do not have a monopoly of wisdom. And that is one reason why as we think through these decisions I want to be as open and as transparent as possible.

So over the next week, we will begin to set out the work we are doing to try to plot a way forward – let me be clear that this won’t give definitive answers yet because no government has those definitive answers but it will set out the factors that we must consider, the process for assessing the different options and the framework through which we will reach these decisions in due course.  

I want to emphasise one key point that will underpin these considerations and it’s not an easy point to make – this virus is not going to simply or magically disappear.

While of course we hope that scientific advances - ultimately, of course, a vaccine - will offer some solutions - we are going to in the meantime have to get used to the fact that this virus will be with us for some considerable time to come.

So the challenge we face - it’s not an easy one but it is an importnat one - is to find a balance that allows us to control and suppress the virus and minimise absolutely the damage it can do, while also allowing life to go on. If not completely as normal then at least in as normal a way as is possible. Because, while we know that the current lockdown measures are essential and they are really essential, we also know that they bring serious consequences of their own – and these are consequences that may also be measured in lives lost, and life chances curtailed. So this is an important balance for us to seek to strike that work is underway and I will provide as much detail as I can on that in the days ahead. And I want to stress again to you today that the government will be as open as we can be.

To be blunt, I will treat you – the public – as the grown ups you are and try to share on an ongoing basis the really difficult judgements and balances that we’re going to have to strike in the weeks and months to come and I want the public at large to be as involved in that as is possible.

Now the other issue I want to talk briefly about is our response to the economic impact of this virus.

This morning, as I do every Friday morning, I chaired the Cabinet sub-committee on the economy. One of the topics under discussion was support for businesses. And there are three specific and brief updates I want to provide on that today.

On Wednesday, the Finance Secretary announced an expansion of our business support scheme. It means that in total - alongside other forms of assistance - we are now making £1.3 billion available in grants and support to businesses.

Today, I can confirm that – from that total package of support - more than 18,000 of these grants have already been awarded. That means a total of more than £215 million has been paid out, so far. And we’re continuing to work with local authorities to ensure that businesses can access the rest of that support, as quickly as possible.

The second update is about support for our seafood sector. It’s clear that the market for fish and shellfish has effectively collapsed. And that is having a very serious and immediate impact, on many of our coastal and island communities.

The government is already providing a range of support for the seafood, aquaculture and fishing industries. And that includes help for businesses with smaller vessels.

But today, I can announce that we are allocating a further £3.5 million of support for fishing vessels of over 12 metres. 

And that means that - in total – more than 1,000 businesses will now be eligible for support. And it brings our overall package of support for the seafood, fishing and aquaculture sectors to nearly £23 million. 

Providing that kind of emergency support is essential becaus it helps to deal with the immediate impact that this virus is having on the economy. But for the government, it’s also important as we do with managing the virus that we also seek now to take a longer term view.

Which brings me to the final economic point I want to touch on today. We are already thinking about how we will rebuild the economy, once the immediate intensity of this crisis starts to recede.

Now none of us should be under any illusions about the scale of that task. This is an unprecedented situation, you’ve heard me and others say that multiple times before. And as I’ve said already, no government anywhere has all of the immediate answers. But we do want to start the work now to make sure that we are able to navigate the best way possible forward. That’s why we’re announcing today the establishment of an economic recovery advisory group. It’s role will be to advise the government on actions to support economic recovery. And crucially, it will consider how those actions can contribute to our aim of building a fairer, greener and more equal society as well.

This group will bring together business leaders and economic experts. And the Economy Secretary will set out more details of it next week but I do believe its establishment will help in preparing Scotland for some of the challenges that lie ahead.

So to close today, I want to reiterate – once again – the public health rules. I know you’ve heard me say these words many, many times before, but they remain as important as ever.

You should be staying at home.

Other than for a very few specific reasons, exercise or buying essential goods, you should not be going out.

You should stay 2 metres apart from other people when you do go out.

You shouldn’t meet up with people from other households.

And, if you or other people in your household show signs of COVID-19, you should be completing isolating – you should not be going out at all, even for essential purposes. Now as I also always say I know how difficult these restrictions are. And I know that they always get much tougher and they feel much tougher at weekends, particularly for those of you with children. But they are essential.

As I said earlier, we have a long way to go – but we are beginning to see signs that the lockdown is working. The first signs of hope are already there. So it’s vital that we continue to follow these rules so that we don’t go backwards and instead keep moving forwards in the right direction.

By all of us doing that as we are already seeing, we slow down the spread of this virus, we will undoubtedly protect our NHS we see that in the stabilisation of numbers in hospital and intensive care. And while we are still sadly reporting many deaths every day, complying with these measures undoubtedly helping to save lives. And we bring ourselves by complying with these measures, everyday we do it, a little closer to the time when we can start to return to a resemblance of normality.

So let me end by thanking you all once again, for doing the right things. I hope – in these difficult circumstances – you all have the best weekend possible.

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