We are truly in unprecedented times.
It is difficult to comprehend the huge life changes we have all been asked to make in just a matter of weeks.
Not seeing our extended family of friends, birthday parties and weddings cancelled and not being able to go out to the shops, pub or local restaurants at the weekend.
I understand how challenging all this is – particularly for families – and I want to say how thankful I am to each and every one of you who is following our advice to stay at home. You really are helping to save lives.
It is natural at times of crisis like this to feel powerless and afraid. But the truth is, with this virus, we all have power – the power to slow the spread of this coronavirus pandemic rests with all of us.
By sticking to the lockdown – which means staying at home except for daily exercise and shopping for essentials, staying within your own household group and keeping more than 2 metres apart from each other when out on our daily walks – all of us will help to slow the spread of cases. And that will mean reducing the pressure on the NHS, so that it can provide treatment for those who need it.
And by finding ways to support loved ones even as we are physically separated – we will all help each other get through this.
All of you are helping to save lives and for that I am deeply grateful.
But we know that the virus and the measures we are taking to fight it, all have consequences and we are working hard to deal with them.
The Scottish Government is working with the NHS to build extra capacity so that it can meet the challenge it currently faces, and the even tougher challenge that lies ahead.
We are also working flat out to support businesses and communities across the country.
And I know that people are worried not just about the health of their family and friends but also their own finances.
I have welcomed many of the measures announced by the UK Government and whilst I recognise and appreciate the hugely complex issues being addressed, there are some further steps I would like to see taken to ensure everyone is properly supported, such as getting money to self-employed people sooner than June.
Many of you may be facing financial hardship right now and it is important to know that help and advice is there for you.
If you are an employee who has been laid off, speak to your employer about the UK Government’s salary scheme. Your employer may have thought redundancy was better so you could access benefits but they can now ‘furlough’ you instead – employers who do so will be given support to pay you 80% of your salary.
If you can no longer work for any reason, then you can apply for Universal Credit. I know there are problems accessing it right now due to numbers, but it’s important you do this as soon as possible and online if you can.
Universal Credit will pay an income replacement benefit and it also helps with child costs and housing costs. For those with a mortgage, there is no immediate help under Universal Credit – a point the Scottish Government has raised with the UK Government – but mortgage holidays are available from your bank. If you are a renter, speak to your landlord who may also be eligible for a mortgage holiday. The Scottish Government is also putting in place new laws so you cannot be evicted during this time.
In Scotland, we have provided councils with an extra £50 million to help with their hardship and resilience plans. We have also provided another £45 million to more than double the Scottish Welfare Fund. This is a Fund you can access through your local council and it is available when you are in financial crisis and need an emergency payment. Crucially, this is a grant not a loan.
These funds are part of an overall package of £350 million that the Scottish Government has made available to help support those facing financial and social risks. We also created a new £70 million Food Fund to support councils and organisations get food to those in need during this crisis.
I know many people haven’t accessed the welfare benefits system before, perhaps with the exception of child benefit, but you should not hesitate to do so. It is there to help and it’s why you pay in through taxes when times are good.
No one should be racking up unmanageable debts when these benefits are there for you. We have all collectively paid for this safety net so it is available in our hour of need. And this is our hour of need.
Help is available. So if you are suffering hardship, and you haven’t yet explored these options, please reach out. The earlier you do, the earlier you can get assistance.
And let’s not forget – this is a tough time, but it will pass. And we will get through it together. Stay safe, everyone.