As you can imagine, the fact that I am speaking to you at 5:30pm on the Saturday before Christmas, having just chaired an emergency meeting of my cabinet and spoken to the leaders of the opposition parties, suggests a serious situation.
And it also suggests a situation that necessitates action. The information that I and my Cabinet have received today about the new variant of the Covid virus that has been identified in the UK suggests to me that we do now face a very serious situation.
It is in fact probably the most serious and potentially dangerous juncture we have faced since the start of the Covid pandemic in February and March.
And that means we have to take this seriously, and it means that we have to act accordingly and appropriately.
Now, the upside – although I appreciate that given what I am about to set out to you it may seem inappropriate to be talking about upsides – but the upside is that if we do act now, and if we act firmly now, we can prevent that serious situation materialising.
And the advantage that we have in Scotland, unlike some other parts of the UK right now, is that we still do have the chance to act on a preventative basis.
So I want to set out clearly to you today what, for Scotland, the current situation is.
I will also set out why, in light of an assessment of that situation, I consider that very firm preventative action is necessary, and I will outline to you the action that the cabinet has agreed this afternoon to take.
Now, as I set out in Parliament earlier this week, Covid cases in Scotland had been falling in recent weeks as a result of the tough restrictions that everybody has been living under.
But in the most recent week, those cases had started to rise again in parts of the country. It was as a result of that that a number of local authorities were put into tighter level 3 restrictions – and that took effect yesterday…
..and a larger number of others were required to stay in level 3 restrictions. However, notwithstanding that, it is also the case that the situation in Scotland right now at this moment in time, is not as severe as it is in other parts of the UK.
Cases per 100,000 of the population in Scotland are around half the number that we currently see in England, and around a third of the numbers being experienced in Wales.
And our statistics today, which of course were published earlier on this afternoon – 572 new cases representing 4% of all tests carried out yesterday – suggests a broadly stable position.
So all things being equal, while we had no room for complacency, we had hoped that we might get through the next few weeks, at tleast in many parts of the country, without significantly more severe restrictions being necessary.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with this virus, all things are not proving to be equal.
Last week it was confirmed that a new variant of the virus had been identified in the UK and on Tuesday I advised Parliament that a small number of cases of that new strain had already been identified in Scotland.
Now over last night and today, the governments of the four nations across the UK have received further scientific briefing on the impact of this new strain.
The UK Chief Scientific Adviser updated a four nations meeting that I participated in this morning and the Chief Medical Officer, who you’ll hear from shortly, has updated the Scottish Government Cabinet this afternoon.
NS: Now firstly, it’s very important for me to be clear that, at this stage, there is no evidence to suggest that this new strain of the virus causes more severe illness.
And there is no evidence at this stage to suggest that the new strain will affect the effectiveness of the vaccines that are being developed, or indeed the vaccine that is currently in use in Scotland. And all of that is reassuring, although further analysis is underway.
However, there is strong evidence now that the new strain is spreading substantially and significantly more quickly than the strains of the virus that we have been dealing with up to now.
And that evidence suggests that it could be up to 70% more transmissible than previous strains of the virus. And it may increase the R number by up to 0.4.
Now, it is believed that this faster transmission may be driving the rapidly deteriorating situation in the South of England, including London, and in Wales, where we already see cases rising quickly and hospitals under very severe and growing pressure.
Now, we do not yet know how widely this new strain of the virus is circulating in Scotland. The latest information is that 17 cases have been identified in Scotland through genomic sequencing.
But I think we have to be realistic that that is likely to be an understatement of its true prevalence right now. So all of that tells us that the strain, albeit that it may still be at lower levels than in some other parts of the UK, is present here already in Scotland…
..and therefore it does pose a real risk to us if we do not act and do not act firmly. And while further analysis is required to establish this one way or another…
..we do already have a concern that this strain may be driving what appears to us already to be faster transmission of Covid in some hospitals and in some care homes.
So given that this strain is circulating, we know, widely already in some parts of the UK, and given we know already that it is seeded in Scotland and is already circulating, albeit perhaps at a lower level in Scotland, the bottom line we face right now is this.
If we don’t act firmly and decisively now to stop it transmitting, it will take hold here. And if that happens, the very serious and the rapidly worsening situation that we see unfolding now in Wales, in London, and in the South East of England, will develop here, too.
And that would mean many more people getting Covid in the weeks ahead, and it would mean that, by January, our NHS could potentially be overwhelmed, which, of course, we have managed to avoid at every stage so far of the pandemic.
And if all of that happened it would mean many more people dying from this virus than would otherwise be the case.
Now, to those who will understandably look at our case levels right now in Scotland and say, this action is not justified because our current case levels are relatively low, I would say this.
Four weeks ago, London’s cases were very low too, and now they are running out of control. And that is what we face, unfortunately if, in the face of this very severe warning that we have been given today, we do nothing.
And that is why the cabinet has decided today that further action is necessary and that that action requires to be firm. It is true to say that this action is not solely in response to the severity of our current situation…
..nor even is it simply a worry about greater interaction in the Christmas period in and of itself. It is very firmly action designed to prevent things getting worse, potentially very quickly, getting worse as a result of this new strain.
And I know that accepting greater restrictions on this basis, not as a result of what is happening in the here and now but to stop a situation deteriorating, is hard for people to accept – I really understand that.
But the most important thing we have learned through this pandemic is that failing to act quickly, decisively and preventatively in the face of this virus is always a mistake. If I could have my time all over again, I would act more quickly in February and in early March.
And it’s important that we do take the warning we are being given now very seriously, and make sure our actions are appropriate in the fact of that.
So my judgement is if we do nothing now, or do too little now, knowing what we now know about this new strain, things will get worse and get much worse than they need to be.
But if we do act now, we have a chance of keeping the situation under control while the vaccination programme continues to make progress, and get case numbers back to very low levels again. So that’s why we have decided to act, and to act firmly.
Now, the action we proposed, and I’m about to set out, is designed to do two things, and both of these things are important.
Firstly, the action is designed to prevent more of this new strain entering Scotland, from parts of the UK where we know it is already circulating more widely.
And second, given that we know it is already present in Scotland, albeit in lower numbers right now, this action is designed to reduce the risk of it spreading any further here within Scotland. So let me set out what the Cabinet has decided.
Firstly, we are asking everyone to redouble your personal efforts in sticking to the rules, and following FACTS. That may sound obvious but it is really important.
That means staying out of each other’s houses, it means abiding by travel restrictions, it means keeping a safe distance from people in other households, and it means following all of the hygiene advice really, really strictly.
If you have been letting your guard down which, given what we have all lived under now for so long, might be understandable, please lift your guard again. It is as important now as it was back in February, March, that we follow all of that advice very, very strictly.
Secondly, in order to reduce the risk of more of this strain being imported into Scotland, we intend to maintain a strict travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
Unfortunately, and I am genuinely sorry about this, that ban will remain in place right throughout the festive period. We simply cannot risk more of this new strain entering the country if we can possible avoid it.
That means people from Scotland not visiting other parts of the UK and vice versa. Cross-border travel, for all but the most essential purposes, is not permitted.
We’re also asking Police Scotland and transport operators to consider how the enforcement of this can be strengthened in the period ahead, though of course how that is done is an operational matter for the Chief Constable.
We’ll also be reviewing urgently, over the next day or so, the position on international travel, and I will update on that early next week, but in the meantime my strong advice continues to be against non-essential foreign travel.
Thirdly, we have already advised that, were possible, people should celebrate Christmas at home, in their own household, and meet with others outdoors only.
The five-day flexibility from the 23rd to the 27th of December was planned to recognise the impact of loneliness and the difficulty I know we all feel in leaving loved ones alone this Christmas.
However, earlier this week we advised that people should meet indoors with other households, if at all, on no more than one day over the five-day period.
Given the concern we now have about this new strain, we now intend to change the law to allow indoor mixing in a bubble on Christmas Day only. From midnight, or a minute past midnight on Christmas Day, to midnight going into Boxing Day.
In large parts of England, as the Prime Minister has just announced, that will not even be allowed. We will allow Christmas Day to go ahead, but as we have said from the start, only use this flexibility if you really, truly need to.
This new strain makes that message all the more important. Our advice is still not to meet indoors – even on Christmas Day – with other households if you can possibly avoid it.
If you had people travelling to join you for Christmas from elsewhere in the UK, that will no longer be permitted. Equally, it will no longer be permitted for any of us to travel anywhere else in the UK for Christmas.
We simply cannot take the risk of this strain travelling from different parts of the UK. IF you decide to travel within Scotland, that will be allowed on Christmas Day only. If you can’t make it there and back on the same day, please don’t go.
And we’re asking you not even to do that unless you feel there is genuinely no alternative. Finally, on Christmas Day, the hosuehold limits will still apply as we had set out for the five-day period…
..a maximum of eight people form three households will be the law, but again, advice will be to minimise those numbers as much as possible.
Standing here, saying this, actually makes me want to cry, as I’m sure listening to it will make you want to cry. Because I know how harsh this sounds. I know how unfair it is. But this virus is unfair. It doesn’t care about Christmas.
It doesn’t care about anything other than spreading itself as far and wide as possible. And it has just become, unfortunately, a lot better at doing that.
Now, one other point I want to make – if you have caring responsibilities, you can, as has always been the case, still visit somebody else and travel to do that on any day, if it is essential to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person.
That will not change. But for everyone else, my message is please, stay home, and stay safe this Christmas. That is in your own interests and in the interests of everybody you love.
Now, beyond Christmas, because of this new strain, we also need to make some changes, and this is my fourth point today.
To limit, as far as we can, the risk of this strain spreading further than it has within Scotland, we intend to apply level 4 measures to all of mainland Scotland for a period of three weeks from one minute after midnight on Boxing Day morning.
The exceptions to that will be Orkney, Shetland, and the Western Isles, and the other island communities where we have reduced restrictions in recent weeks. These areas will go to level 3 with strict restrictions on who can travel to and from them.
All of these levels will be reviewed after two weeks. To be clear, that means that, from Boxing Day morning – so this includes Boxing Day – non-essential shops will close, as will pubs, cafes and restaurants. Takeaway food will continue to be allowed.
Finally, since the summer, we have been determined to keep schools open – and that remains our determination as far as we possibly can – and we’ve asked people, adults, to bear a greater burden of restrictions so that we can afford to keep pupils in our classrooms.
The situation of this new strain, though, means that, until we are sure that we have that firmly under control – until we are sure that we are not facing the same situation as in the South of England or Wales…
we must slightly change our plans for how schools will operate after the Christmas period. Schools will still open next week and will close on schedule as previously planned. We are not changing that.
They were then due to reopen from the 5th January with all council areas back by the 7th of January. Instead of that, here is what we are now going to do. For the children of key workers – nurses in our hospitals, for example, schools will stay open as previously scheduled.
They will also open as normal for the most vulnerable children. All teachers will also return to work as scheduled and as planned.
However, for the majority of pupils, the holiday period will be extended until the 11th of January, and starting on that date, learning will be online until at least the 18th fo January.
After that, assuming we are confident we have the virus under control, we will aim to reopen schools fully but at least until the 18th of January, schools will go online only, other than for the children of key workers and the most vulnerable.
Thank you for bearing with me. I’m going to ask the Chief Medical Officer and the National Clinical Director to say a word or two after me. But I’ve taken a bit of time to set all of this out because I know how difficult this is, and that’s where I want to conclude.
I know this is difficult because it’s Christmas. I know it’s difficult because it is involving greater restrictions for a period after Christmas.
And I know it’s also difficult because right now, as of right now, our case numbers look as if they are not as bad as elsewhere and therefore I understand that people will be thinking ‘is this necessary’.
Please believe me when I tell you, with every fibre of my being, I would not be standing here on the Saturday before Christmas announcing this if I did not think this was necessary.
I have spent, as all of you have, many anxious and worried days over the course of the past few ten months. But I’ve rarely felt more worried since much earlier in the year as I have today.
If we don’t act now, firmly and decisively, this new strain is transmitting so quickly that it will very quickly overwhelm us.
I want to do everything I can to reduce that possibility, and that is why these very difficult but very necessary measures are being outlined today. I briefed the leaders of the opposition parties earlier on.
I will set out to Parliament as and when the Presiding Officer thinks that is necessary. But I didn’t want to leave any time before setting out to you, the public, what these plans are – particularly given the proximity to Christmas.
I know how difficult a Christmas this was always going to be, but now, in particular, it will be even more difficult. I’m genuinely sorry about that. But we must take care, collectively, to stop this virus overwhelming us.
To keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and stop people dying unnecessarily. And therefore I ask you to bear with us as we try to navigate the next stage of this pandemic.
My final point is this. I said a couple of times in recent weeks, in fact I’ve said many times in recent weeks that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It has not gone out.
The vaccination programme will pick up pace as we go into January. But I’ve also said there will be times, because we’re in this pandemic, where the light will be difficult to see. That’s the stage we’re at right now. We can’t see the light at the moment.
It’s obscured because of this difficult phase. But it hasn’t gone out. It is still there.
We do have brighter times ahead, but in order to get us safely or as safely as possible to those brighter times, I need to ask you for more sacrifices for a period. Thank you so much for listening.
Speech delivered on 19th December 2020.