Can I begin today with an update on the current situation.
Firstly, we are still in the process this morning of verifying the numbers of confirmed cases, so I’m not able to give you a number right now. But that will be published at two o’clock in the normal daily briefing.
However, I can tell you, and do so with sadness as always, that there have been a further six deaths of patients who have tested positive for coronavirus, which takes the total number of deaths in Scotland to 22. And I want to extend my condolences to all of those who have lost loved ones.
I can also give an update today on the numbers in that we know are being treated in Intensive Care. As of last night, there were 51 patients with Covid or suspected Covid symptoms in our Intensive Care units. Of course that is a number that we would expect to see rise in the days and weeks to come, and that also underlines the importance of the work that is being done to increase the capacity of our National Health Service.
And let me take the opportunity now again to thank our NHS staff who are working incredibly hard, doing an incredibly courageous job in these circumstances, and continuing to care so well for people suffering from the virus.
I also want to take the opportunity to thank the many other people whose work is so vital at this time of crisis. For example, to thank those who are caring for people in care homes and in the community at an immensely difficult time.
And, of course, there are many other people – the staff in supermarkets and other essential stores are an obvious example – whose work is absolutely critical right now to keeping the country going. All of your efforts are hugely appreciated.
As we have been saying over the past few days, it is clear that we are now seeing a rapid rise in Coronavirus cases in Scotland, and we have sustained evidence of community transmission. So I want to make clear to people again across Scotland that it is vitally important that these unprecedented measures that we’re asking people to comply with are complied with and that people observe and follow the advice.
So could I thank people across Scotland who are cooperating and showing support in what is a very difficult time for everybody.
And to give some evidence of that co-operation, I can tell you that bus companies have reported a fall of over 70% in concessionary travel journeys. And I will also confirm today that to support these companies at this time, the Scottish Government will pay them for the concessionary travel that they were forecast to provide, rather than the concessionary travel they do actually provide. And that will deliver support worth tens of millions of pounds to bus companies at a very challenging time.
I also want to say thank you to parents. There has been a lot of coverage in the last few days highlighting examples where people are still coming to terms with the virus and the implications of the lockdown. We’ve seen trains that have just been too busy; supermarket shelves that are empty.
But we should also remember that the vast majority of people have listened to advice and are acting responsibly in the interest of the whole country.
Last week we announced school closures, and said that only vulnerable children and children of key workers would get a place in childcare.
At that time we were, I can tell you, deeply worried that the numbers seeking places would mean that we would find it difficult to stay within the health guidance. We were worried therefore about the safety of pupils and teachers.
So we asked people to be creative in finding solutions without using a childcare place and asked people to help us keep them and their children safe.
And the result of that has been extremely positive.
Initial estimates, and I would stress initial estimates – this number will doubtless grow a bit as the days and weeks pass – but initial estimates show that there are only around 1% of people who are taking up these childcare places.
That is, I think, good news, and it is a positive sign that people are complying with these necessary restrictions, and everyone who is following this advice and behaving in this way is helping us. Every single person following this advice is helping us to slow down the spread of the virus and ultimately save lives.
At all times, the Scottish Government’s actions have been guided by the best and most up-to-date expert scientific advice – working closely, of course, with governments across the UK.
But as the number of cases increases, it is ever more important that we have the fullest possible understanding of exactly how the virus is spreading in Scotland.
We need to be certain that the decisions we are taking are the most effective ones possible and we need to know whether there are more steps that are required to be taken.
So for that reason, I can confirm today that we are now seeking to supplement the advice from the UK-wide Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, or SAGE as it is known, and we are establishing a new Scottish Government COVID-19 Advisory Group.
It will be chaired by Professor Andrew Morris of Edinburgh University, who is Director of Health Research UK.
He will be supported by vice chair Professor David Crossman, the Dean of Medicine at the University of St Andrews, and the Chief Scientific Advisor for Health at the Scottish Government. The Chief Medical Officer can say more about that shortly.
If I can turn now briefly to the economy, I want to again say thanks to businesses who have heeded our advice over the past couple of days to close and to allow their staff to remain at home.
Although the vast majority of businesses have behaved responsibly and heeded the advice to put the health of their workforce first, I do remain concerned that some workers have been put under unnecessary and unacceptable pressure regarding their terms and conditions.
So we have prepared further guidance for employers which is being published today and follows the statement I gave in Parliament yesterday.
Now, it can’t practically or reasonably seek to answer every specific question that a business might have, but what it does do, as I did in Parliament yesterday, is set out clear principles that will help businesses navigate these difficult decisions.
Of course, there will be some exceptional, nuanced, or difficult cases, so we are also establishing a central Scottish Government resource, and doing that urgently, to provide advice and direction to businesses on these cases.
But fundamentally, most businesses should and will know whether they should be closed. And we are relying on them to be responsible at this time of emergency, and to act on the basis of the precautionary principle and put the health of their workers first.
We have also been in dialogue in recent days with trade union representatives to consider how we best support the workforce.
We need a partnership, working in the national interest, to get through the next few months – one that involves the public sector, trade unions, businesses, third sector organisations, and all workers and managers.
We are hugely appreciative of the many cases where this is already in place.
But to cement that best practice, I can confirm that the Scottish Government and the STUC have signed a joint statement of Fair Work.
This sets out our shared objectives for supporting employees, and ultimately their employers, through a difficult time.
The statement outlines our shared belief that employers should be
- Protecting the health and safety of all workers – particularly frontline or key workers who have particular risks
- Ensuring all workers are provided with clear and comprehensive information on work-related risks
- Ensuring that all workers follow health protection advice on isolation – either as individuals or in their households
- Paying workers while they are sick or self-isolating
- Supporting those with caring responsibilities
- Facilitating home working
- And protecting the position of contracted workers, as well as core staff.
The Scottish Government, of course, takes our own responsibilities as an employer very seriously, and we are working to ensure that these standards are upheld here, but also across the public sector, and indeed right across the workforce.
Lastly today, before I hand over to the Chief Medical Officer and then open for questions, I want to say something about mental health and wellbeing.
The last couple of weeks have brought probably more uncertainty and anxiety than many of us have ever known in our lifetimes.
Many people, many of you watching, are feeling anxious about your own economic situation as well as about the virus, and you are anxious about how such enormous upheaval is going to affect all of us in the long term.
Most people are spending almost all of their time at home, and whether that means being on your own or with your immediate families, being in a relatively confined space brings unexpected challenges for all of us.
So it will be some time before life returns to normal, and therefore it’s important that we all continue to look after ourselves and look out for each other.
And – more than ever – we all need to be kind to each other.
I can’t praise people across Scotland enough for the way in which the country and communities have rallied round.
And for all of our young people who are spending their first week away from school, it’s probably already becoming clear that it can be a bit tougher to stay at home and off school than perhaps you were anticipating.
So if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with everything that’s going on, remember that Young Scot has an excellent website which is full of resources on how you can help yourself to cope.
And for parents, there are also lots of resources available to you.
Parent Club, the Scottish Government’s advice site, has all sorts of material to help with ideas and activities, as well as techniques for staying calm, and solving problems.
And if you are feeling under stress, Parentline Scotland, which is organised by Children First, is also a really good source of emotional and practical support.
And for older people, I visited Age Concern last week, and saw the outstanding support they provide through their helpline, and you can phone that on 0800 12 44 222.
I’ll end by making the obvious point. None of us, including me and the Scottish Government, are going to get everything right in the weeks and months ahead, and none of us are always going to feel fine or okay as we go through this really challenging period.
But if we continue to support each other, and keep on learning and finding new ways of doing so, then as I have said before, we can and will get through this very difficult period.
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