Investing in young people is at the heart of our mission to build a fairer Scotland

The last 16 months have been the hardest most of us have ever experienced. Living through a global pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, but people – young people in particular – have responded unbelievably well to the challenges. People across the country have shown adaptability, resilience and creativity.

For young people especially though it must have been dismal to miss birthdays, graduations, school trips, holidays abroad, watching big sporting events like the Euros in a stadium with other fans, going to concerts, or even just meeting up with friends and family members.

Early last year, as we were all plunged into an unprecedented crisis, we had to adapt to a new normal. Aspects of that may be with us for some time yet but I really do hope that we’re now through the worst – thanks mainly to Scotland’s world-leading vaccination programme.

We’ve now passed a significant milestone in our rollout of the Covid vaccine – giving first doses to all those over 18 who have attended their scheduled appointments.

The scientific and medical community has done amazing work to develop the vaccines, our NHS staff are working incredibly hard to get them to as many people as possible, and I’m delighted that uptake is high across the country. But we want to get it as close to 100% as possible, across all eligible age groups.

Unfortunately, there is a fair bit of misinformation circulating about the vaccine, on Twitter and Facebook particularly, which has absolutely no basis in fact – so I’d urge everyone to take extra care to make sure we aren’t taken in by, or even inadvertently spread, false information which can harm public health.

It’s also really important to remember that COVID-19 is not a disease that only affects certain age groups – younger, healthier people can’t be sure that they will not become seriously ill from the virus. And, sadly, many young people are suffering the effects of long Covid.

So, if you or someone that you know is genuinely worried about getting the vaccine, then please do take the time to look at information from trusted sources like NHS Inform, or go and speak to a health professional about your concerns at one of the drop-in vaccination centres.

Getting vaccinated is an absolutely crucial step to help the country – and the lives of young people – get back to normal as soon as possible.

As well as getting vaccinated, we are encouraging people to get tested regularly – using the free tests you can order online or pick up from a pharmacist. And remember, if you have Covid symptoms, you should definitely get tested – with a PCR test – and self isolate.

Thirdly, we are asking people to continue following all the public health advice – washing hands, wearing face coverings, staying outdoors as much as possible, sticking to the group limits for indoor gatherings, and keeping windows open.

As Scotland starts to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, we must also consider how we build back fairer and stronger. Central to that is making sure the younger generation does not suffer deep or long term disadvantage as a result of the pandemic – securing work, education or training opportunities for every young person in Scotland is key.

We have a real duty to ensure that young people have the chance to succeed and that the impact of the past year and a half doesn’t disadvantage them in years to come.

Last week, I visited a brilliant Glasgow charity, Young Movers (YoMo), to announce new funding for every person in Scotland aged 16 to 24 to have the guarantee of a job, apprenticeship, education, training or formal volunteering opportunity – and to meet some staff and young workers who have benefitted from the Scottish Government’s Young Person’s Guarantee.

Speaking to staff and volunteers about their hopes and fears for the future made me even more determined to ensure that the Young Person’s Guarantee is not simply a short-term intervention in response to COVID.

I want the Young Person’s Guarantee to help us create a fairer and more successful country by supporting every young person to achieve their potential, and offer the opportunities which are necessary for them to do so.

I and also delighted that in the last few days we were been able to confirm that from 31 January 2022, all those under 22 years old in Scotland will benefit from free bus travel right across the country.

Hopefully this will enable thousands of people to access those important work or education opportunities, or socialise with friends or family without the cost barriers that can often be prohibitive.

This generation of children and young people have experienced a year unlike anything any of us could have anticipated, and I am aware just how tough and disruptive it has been.

As Scotland rebuilds, we will continue investing in our young people as one of the best ways to bounce back from the pandemic – as a way of repaying the sacrifices they have made to keep themselves, their families and friends, and our NHS safe over the past year and a half.