The purpose of today’s briefing is to report progress on a number of matters, but also to advise you of a change - I hope, a positive change - to the planned easing of lockdown restrictions in relation to travel and to outdoor meetings and I'll come back to that later.
Firstly, though, I will report on today’s Covid statistics.
The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 221.
That's 1.6 per cent of the total number of tests, and takes the overall number of confirmed cases in Scotland to 222,382.
133 people are currently in hospital – that is 21 less than yesterday.
20 people are in intensive care, which is a reduction of one from yesterday.
Unfortunately three further deaths were reported yesterday, and that takes the total number of deaths registered, under that daily definition, to 7,633.
And once again, I want to send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.
Let me also give a quick update on the latest vaccination figures.
As of 7:30 this morning, 2,682,706 people have received their first dose of the vaccine.
That is an increase of 13,983 since yesterday.
In addition to that, 14,952 people received their second dose yesterday, that brings the total number of second doses to 605,126.
So now virtually all over 60-year-olds have now received a first dose of the vaccine.
So we have:
96 per cent of 55 to 59 year olds;
and 84 per cent of 50 to 54 year olds.
Overall, we have now given a first dose to almost 60 per cent of the whole adult population.
And we have effectively met our target of offering a first dose by the middle of this month to everyone over 50 year olds; all unpaid carers; and all adults with particular underlying health conditions.
Significantly, these groups account for 99 per cent of all Covid related deaths, so that is quite a significant milestone.
We have also made significant progress in reducing the number of new Covid cases that we are seeing now reported in Scotland.
That is partly due to the success of the vaccination programme.
But it is also, and we shouldn't loose sight of this, because so many people have stuck so well to the all of the really difficult rules over past month.
To put the reduction we are now seeing into some context, in early January we were recording more than 2,000 new cases, on average, every day in Scotland.
We are now recording fewer than 300 a day.
The figures we are seeing now represent the lowest level since late September last year.
In fact, it is a decline of more than 85 per cent since early January.
And a fall of well over 40 per cent just in the last two weeks.
We've also seen the number of people in hospital and intensive care continue to reduce and thankfully the number of deaths has fallen sharply as well.
So all of that is really good progress, but that said – and you would expect me to say this – we do still need to be cautious. We can see why we still need to be cautions by looking quickly around many other countries across Europe and the world.
Here in Scotland for the last few weeks – and this was a concern for a period – we’ve had rates of infection that were a bit higher than in some other parts of the UK – though as I have just said, we are now starting to see case numbers falling more markedly and more consistently.
That is one reason to be cautious, but we have also seen over the past week or so some easing of restrictions, so last week we saw the re-opening of hairdressers and some retail outlets.
And, of course, over this week and next week, there will be a much more significant change as all secondary schools return full time.
So we have to be careful – and that has always been the way with this virus – not to do too much all at once. We don’t want the virus quickly gaining ground again, particularly as we know this new variant is more infectious, and then setting us all back.
All of that said, because the data in the last two weeks in particular has been so encouraging, we can now give a bit more certainty to individuals and businesses about the way ahead – and indeed accelerate one aspect of the exit from lockdown which I think is important for our personal wellbeing.
First of all, while of course we will continue to monitor the data, we are now extremely confident that those parts of the country currently in level 4 will move to level 3 on April 26. That's now less than two weeks away.
That means, among other things, that on that day shops will fully reopen.
Pubs, cafes and restaurants will be also able to fully open outdoors on April 26 – and indoors on a more restricted basis.
It is worth noting that the restricted indoor opening of hospitality on April 26 will be actually three weeks ahead of the indoor opening of hospitality in England.
Let me say a word now about our island communities.
Several of our islands – including Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles – are already in level three.
That partly reflects the fact that they have had lower rates of Covid than the mainland, although there have been outbreaks that again show the need for caution even in our more remote communities and on our islands.
I set out previously that we would consult with island communities about whether, from April 26, they wanted to move down to level two – which the data would justify – even though that would necessitate keeping travel restrictions to and from the mainland in place to avoid the risk of cases being imported to and spreading within the islands;
Or, alternatively, whether they preferred to stay at level three with the rest of the country for a further three weeks to enable the lifting of travel restrictions and the opening of tourism and hospitality to visitors.
It is fair to say there is no universal opinion here, so I know neither option will please everyone.
However, based on the balance of opinion, we have decided on the latter option – aligning islands with the rest of the country for a period so that travel, and therefore parts of the economy that so many islanders rely on, can operate more normally from April 26.
To those who would have preferred to see the islands move to level two at the end of April, let me reassure you that we do expect at least a move to level two to happen three weeks later on May 17.
So this is not long in the context of what we have been dealing with over the past year, where every day feels like an eternity, but it's not an unending period of time.
In the meantime, as a result of staying in level three for a bit longer, it will be possible for islanders and visitors to travel to and from the islands and I know that will make a difference to individuals and businesses on the islands.
More generally, we currently expect the whole country to move to at least level two on May 17, to level one in early June; and to level zero in later June.
Updated levels tables are also being published on the Scottish Government’s website later today – to help people to see what the changes will mean in practice.
Amongst other things, it means we should be able to meet up in each other’s homes indoors – all be it in small groups – from the middle of May onwards. This is something I know we all look forward to.
I’ve just mentioned that we expect to reach level zero at the latter part of June.
However I’m well aware that level zero – although a vast improvement on where we are now – still involves some significant restrictions in some respects.
So I want to be clear again as I was earlier when I set out the revised route map, that reaching level zero is not the extent of our ambitions.
Later on in the summer – as the number of people who have been vaccinated increases further – we do hope that a level of normality well beyond level zero will become possible.
I know that many people want venues such as nightclubs to open again, and all of us want to be able to have lots of people around to our homes. Almost all of us, if not absolutely all of us, are desperate to be able to hug our loved ones. I remain optimistic, now more than I was even a few weeks ago, that some or hopefully all of that will be possible in the months ahead and over the summer period.
Lastly, I want to set out, as I indicated earlier, a change to our existing plans.
We have always said we will keep plans under review and accelerate the lifting of restrictions if possible.
Indeed, we are legally obliged not to keep any restrictions in place for longer than they are needed.
Now, it's important to stress that the improved data, and I'm sure the CMO will underline this, does not allow us to throw caution to the wind – certainly not if we are sensible – but it does give us a bit of limited headroom.
So we have considered whether we can bring forward any changes that will particularly boost mental health and wellbeing. So we focused really on trying as far as possible to give families more opportunities to get together earlier than was planned.
In particular, we have looked at travel within Scotland to see friends and family, albeit outdoors.
At the moment, we cannot leave our own local authority areas except for an essential purpose.
That rule was due to remain in place until April 26.
But the data allows us to make a change to this earlier than that.
So, from Friday this week – April 16 – we will all be able to travel anywhere within Scotland for the purposes of outdoor socialising, recreation, or informal exercise.
We are also able to relax the rules for meeting people outdoors, again from Friday.
At the moment, a maximum of four adults from two households are permitted to meet outdoors.
From Friday onwards, that will change to a maximum of six adults, from up to six households. So that's quite a significant relaxation of that outdoor meeting limit.
So in summary from the end of this week, you will be able to meet up with family and friends who live in different parts of the country. Many of those reunions will be long-awaited and much anticipated.
But please do remember that meetings at this stage, probably until the middle of May, meetings must still be outdoors – not inside our own homes.
And I would aske everyone to please be careful and remember that due to physical distancing, public transport capacity remains relatively limited.
And remember also that travel restrictions for wider purposes – such as leisure, shopping, visiting hospitality premises or staying in tourist accommodation – will remain until April 26 when these places will re-open and all travel restrictions within Scotland will be lifted.
I can also confirm today that we do expect to lift restrictions on travel to and from England and Wales on 26 April – something which I know will be welcomed by many, and perhaps in particular by businesses in our tourism sector.
Now it may still be necessary in future to have temporary travel restrictions to and from places with high rates of Covid.
We will be very serious about mitigating any risk of importing the virus, and particularly new variants of the virus, into Scotland, so we may see some limited travel restrictions in future either within Scotland or between Scotland and other parts of the UK.
But from April 26, we intend that people in Scotland will be able to travel anywhere across Britain.
Northern Ireland is due to review its restrictions later this week, so we will review our approach to travel there before April 26 and we hope that that can be freed up to.
And travel restrictions to and from other parts of the common travel area – including the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands – will also be kept under review.
We also hope to be able to agree rules for international travel on a four nations basis.
I should stress however, and I know this is difficult, that international travel does remain a significant risk – particularly given the acceleration of spread that we are seeing in many other parts of the world and given the possibility and reality of new variants of the virus being imported into Scotland.
It may be the case that we have to endure restrictions on international travel for a bit longer, as the price we pay for much greater normality here in Scotland.
I know that's not easy and often when we talk about international travel we talk about holidays, but I'm very well aware that for many people international travel is about seeing families, so we will not keep these restriction in place for any longer than necessary, but it is important right now to protect our progress here so we don't make the mistakes we perhaps made as we came out of lookdown last time and open up international travel too quickly and then compromise and jeopardise the progress that we have made.
However, back to the positive, from Friday – we will be able to travel more freely within Scotland, and to meet up in larger groups outside.
A week later, on April 26, the retail and hospitality sectors will reopen.
And then, as the summer progresses, we do expect to see a return to much greater normality.
All of that is positive news. It’s a testament to the success of the vaccination programme, and more importantly it's down to the sacrifices all of us have made up until now. I know how tough that has been and how tough it still is, but it is those sacrifices that now make possible the easing of restrictions that lie ahead of us.
But the final point I need to make really relates to that one. It is the truth and the continuing reality that the best way to keep on making progress out of lockdown, is to continue to keep cases low.
Covid is in retreat in Scotland, no doubt about that, but it hasn’t gone away and it won't simply magically go away. It will come back if we allow it to come back.
So we must still exercise care and caution because we want our progress this time, even if it as not as fast as we want it to be, to be firmly in one direction.
That means continuing to stick to the rules that are in place.
In particular, for now, please don’t meet up with other households in your or their homes. We hope that can be eased from the middle of May.
Continue to work from home if you can for now.
And on any occasion when you do leave the house, and this becomes more important as we start to ease restrictions, remember all of the basis rules: wear face coverings; avoid places that are busy; so this weekend if you decide to travel a bit further to see a group of friends or family, if you go to somewhere that's crowded, come away and go somewhere else; remember to clean hands; use two metre distancing; and self-isolate and get a test if you have symptoms.
As I said, these precautions become more important as we open up.
One final point I just want to clarify, which I should have said earlier on the move to six people from six households outdoors, is that of course doesn't include children under 12. They don't count towards that limit.
If we all continue to do the right thing, do the sensible thing, enjoy responsibly these easing of restrictions, then there is every reason for us now to be really optimistic that we are on the right track.
So let me end by thanking you again for everything you have done to make all of that possible.