This will be the final parliamentary statement on Covid before Parliament rises for the election.
And of course today marks exactly a year since the country first entered lockdown – as Richard Holloway noted in his thoughtful and moving remarks.
A year ago today, we all felt scared and uncertain.
We did not know exactly what lay ahead or how long it would last.
But we knew we had to come together to save lives, and I will never be able to adequately express the depth of my gratitude for all the sacrifices that have been made by so many.
Today, I want to reflect on the anxiety, isolation, loss and grief that have marked the last 12 months, but I also want to acknowledge the compassion, solidarity and love that has brought hope and light to these darkest of times.
Before I do any of that, I will – as usual - give an update on today’s figures.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 495.
This represents 3.6% of all tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases to 214,383.
As of 7.30 this morning, 2,214,672 people had received a first dose of the vaccine. That is almost half of the adult population of Scotland.
We remain on course to offer first doses to the 9 priority JCVI groups – including all over 50 year olds – by mid April.
I can also report that 341 people are now in hospital – 12 fewer than yesterday.
28 people are in intensive care, 5 fewer than yesterday.
But I regret to report that in the last 24 hours, a further 7 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days.
The total number of deaths, under this measure, is now 7,559.
Tomorrow however National Records of Scotland will publish its weekly update – which uses a wider definition.
That will show that almost 10,000 people in Scotland have now died with Covid.
Each one of those deaths is a tragedy. Each one has left a gaping hole in the lives of the people who loved them. Once again, I want to pass on my condolences to all those who are grieving.
Yesterday I met with representatives of families bereaved as a result of Covid, and I pay tribute to their strength and resolve.
In that discussion, I acknowledged - as I have done before - that the Scottish Government did not get everything right in our response to the pandemic.
It is vital that we reflect on that and learn lessons - which is why I also confirmed that establishing a statutory public inquiry will be a priority for this government if we are returned at the election.
Returning though to this sad anniversary, today has been designated a National Day of Reflection, and I know many of us will be thinking about people we have lost during the last year – whatever the cause of their death.
Earlier today I stood with the others to observe a minute’s silence. That silence was, I know, observed by many thousands across the country.
Later this evening Scottish Government premises, and many other public buildings, will be lit up in yellow.
The Scottish Government is also helping to fund the creation of a national memorial garden in Pollok Park – as part of an initiative from the Herald newspaper.
And we have also confirmed today that we will support Covid Community Memorial projects in locations across the country.
Artists from Greenspace Scotland will work with community groups, faith groups, and those hit hardest by the pandemic, to develop projects such as commemorative gardens, memorials and public artworks.
These acts of collective remembrance are especially important – because one of the cruellest aspects of this pandemic has been its impact on our ability to grieve.
It is a natural human response when someone dies to gather with others – to mourn our loss and to celebrate their life.
The fact that this shared ritual has not been possible has – I know – been an additional source of grief for many, during this most difficult of years.
I hope that today’s day of reflection– and the memorials that communities will plan – will help.
They are a way in which we can begin to pay those we have lost, the tribute that they deserve.
Today is also a day to mark the sacrifices so many people have made during the last 12 months.
Many of us, I know, will be thinking especially about our health and care workers.
We have been reminded once again just how much we owe to their dedication, expertise and compassion.
No words of thanks can ever be sufficient, for the service that has been given over the last year – but I am sure I speak for everyone in the parliament, in stressing once again how grateful we are for everything they have done.
Other public services have also played a crucial role. Our police have enforced tough restrictions proportionately and sensitively.
Our teachers have done an outstanding job in difficult - and regularly changing - circumstances.
Other local authority staff, too, have provided vital help and support to those who most need it. And in some cases – for example the speed with which they helped to protect homeless people – they have provided us with valuable lessons for the future.
I also want to pay tribute to Scotland’s diverse business community.
Many companies have met specific needs relating to the pandemic - at the start of the pandemic some distilleries started making hand sanitiser.
We’ve also developed a PPE supply chain in Scotland which did not exist before.
And virtually all companies have gone to immense efforts to create safe conditions for staff and customers.
You have supported home working for your employees.
You have complied with regulations which have often stopped you from trading normally.
And you have shown a sense of social responsibility, through all the concerns you have faced about your own business.
The Scottish Government has done everything we can to support the business sector – and we will continue to do that.
But I know that this has been the most difficult year that many employers and their workforces have ever faced. Again, I am immensely grateful for your efforts.
I am also grateful to Scotland’s faith groups - who have helped their communities, and found new ways of reaching out to their followers.
I am pleased to confirm that from Friday, collective worship will again be allowed in groups of up to 50 – if the premises can support such a large gathering with appropriate physical distancing.
That is an important change– and I hope that it will be especially welcomed as we head towards important religious festivals over the next few weeks.
Community groups and third sector organisations have also rallied round – helped by the support of hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
In fact the great outpouring of community spirit that we have seen has been a source of light in a dark year.
Last March, when we launched the Scotland Cares website - to help find roles for people who wanted to volunteer – that site received more than 80,000 sign-ups.
And there are many more people who may never have registered formally as volunteers, but who went out of their way to support others – helping out with shopping; calling on friends and neighbours who needed company; providing essential care for those in need.
All of us have struggled in the last year with the paradox that this virus has created. We have had to stay physically apart from each other, at a time when we have never needed each other more.
None of us should be surprised that this year has been filled with difficulty and anxiety, and - for too many people - grief.
But we can maybe also take some heart from the extent to which it has been filled with compassion and love.
That is true also, of one of the most important ways in which we have looked after each other.
By sticking to incredibly tough rules and restrictions, all of us have helped to save lives. We have helped to keep the virus under control.
And we have helped to create the situation we are now in – where we can now start to plan our route out of lockdown.
The final point I want to make here – about our collective efforts during the last year – is about our young people.
For children – if any children are watching this - I know how difficult it has been for you to spend time out of school, and to have strict rules about how and when you can see your friends.
But you have been magnificent during these strange and worrying times.
You’ve stuck to the rules; you’ve done home schooling; and you’ve helped out your parents and carers. We are all incredibly proud of you.
I also want to acknowledge the impact of the last year on young adults.
Many young people have been furloughed, or have lost their jobs.
Anyone who has been studying at college or university has had significant restrictions placed on how they study, and in some cases where they live.
And although the restrictions on socialising are difficult for all of us – they are especially tough for people in their late teens and early 20s.
By sticking to the rules – as the vast majority of you have done - you have of course protected yourselves. But you have also helped to protect older adults. I hugely appreciate that, as does the entire country.
For all these reasons, one of my overwhelming emotions, on looking back over the last year, is gratitude.
I will never be able to thank people enough for the sacrifices made, and everything that has been endured during the last 12 months.
In addition to gratitude, however, I think all of us should feel a sense of resolve. As we recover from the pandemic, as we will, we must create a better and fairer country.
The way in which people have responded to the pandemic has been defined by solidarity, compassion and love.
But the way in which people have been affected by the pandemic has been defined by the inequalities which still scar our society.
Inequality has massively affected people’s quality of life during lockdown – and deprivation has significantly increased people’s chances of getting Covid, and of dying from Covid.
None of us can be satisfied by the idea of returning to life exactly as it was before.
That’s why the Scottish young person’s guarantee makes it clear that our young people must not pay the price of this pandemic.
All of them will get a fair shot at education, employment or training as they start out in life.
It’s also why we are working to establish a new national care service.
The last year has reminded us of the importance of care, and of the dedication of our care workers. But the death toll in care homes has been a national tragedy.
We need to reconsider and reimagine how we support our care workers, and look after our older citizens.
We also need to learn other lessons from this pandemic. That includes reflecting on our mistakes –the timing of the first lockdown, and the decision to ease travel restrictions so significantly during the summer.
But it also includes ensuring that we are prepared for future public health emergencies.
And more generally, there is a lesson for all of us, in never seeing any change as unthinkable or unachievable.
The last 12 months have reminded us that when it’s necessary, human beings can achieve incredible things.
Scientists across the globe have developed vaccines at record speeds.
Testing infrastructures have been established from scratch. People have changed their behaviour at a moment’s notice, to protect and care for each other.
The conditions the next Scottish Parliament faces will – I hope – be nothing like the ones we have encountered in the last year.
But that parliament will have an even greater responsibility to tackle inequality, support economic recovery, and achieve a just transition to a net zero society.
If we can summon some of the urgency, resolve and solidarity we have shown in the face of the virus – and bring it to bear in tackling those issues and others – then we can ensure that we do not simply return to normal.
We can create a better and fairer normality for the future.
Those choices will be for the next Parliament. For today, I know the focus for everyone will be on remembrance and reflection.
But since this is the last time that I will speak about Covid in this chamber before the election, I do want to say a few words about the weeks ahead.
Covid updates will be less regular during the pre-election period.
But the government will still be monitoring the pandemic constantly - I will be doing so on a daily basis - and taking and announcing decisions as needed.
That’s vital - because although we can now see a route out of lockdown, difficult judgements remain.
In the last three months we have significantly reduced the number of Covid cases in Scotland.
We know that the vaccination programme is now reducing deaths.
And recent research also gives us confidence that vaccination will reduce transmission rates.
That opens up the prospect that we can come out of lockdown on a sustainable basis.
Indeed, I can confirm that from 6pm tomorrow, the Western Isles will move from level 4 restrictions to level 3 - the level that currently applies to Orkney and Shetland, and some of Scotland’s other islands.
That reflects their success in reducing transmission in recent weeks.
Across the country, during April we hope to reopen parts of our economy – with more retail services reopening on 5 April, and a full reopening of shops on the 26th .
We hope that hospitality will start to reopen on the 26th as well, and that travel restrictions in mainland Scotland will come to an end on the same date.
And we hope to see all children back in school after the Easter holidays.
And we also look forward to it becoming easier for people to meet up with each other again – initially in outdoor settings, but then indoors too.
As vaccination proceeds, and we go further into spring, life should feel a bit less restricted, and a bit more hopeful, than it has done.
And as a higher and higher proportion of the population gets their first dose, we hope to relax restrictions even more.
As I indicated last week, we have real hopes later on this year of being able to allow gigs; reopen nightclubs; permit social gatherings and family reunions – so that we can all enjoy simple pleasures such as hugging our loved ones.
Pleasures that I’m sure none of us will take quite as much for granted again.
But although that point may be in sight – that end is not here yet.
At the moment, hundreds of people are still getting Covid in Scotland every day. It is still highly infectious. And it is still very dangerous – including to many younger people.
And of course, many countries across Europe appear to be on the brink of a third wave.
All of that should remind us of the need to be careful and cautious.
As we emerge from lockdown, we must do so steadily and surely - and in a way which does not allow the virus to run out of control.
And we must keep in place other measures – for example travel restrictions – for as long as we need.
To lift restrictions in the future, we still need to keep suppressing the virus now.
So please, continue to stay within the rules.
Stay at home – for now - except for specific purposes.
Do not meet people from other households indoors.
And follow the FACTS advice when you are out and about.
By doing this over the past 12 months, all of us have helped each other get through what has been for the majority of us, the most difficult, challenging and exhausting year of our lives.
By continuing to do all of this in the coming weeks, we can continue to look after each other.
And we can also look ahead to the future – not just in hope, but with increasing expectation – of the better and brighter days that lie ahead.
Thank you to all of you.
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