Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd December 2020.

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The First Minister:

I will do what I have tried to do every day during the past 10 months, and that is give people as much clarity as I possibly can. I will do that every day over the Christmas and new year period if that is what is necessary and if there are updates that I can reasonably give people.

I have also tried to be frank. We are dealing with a virus that we have always known to be unpredictable, but only in the past few days have we discovered how unpredictable it can be. We do not yet understand everything about this new strain.

Literally as we speak, we have scientists trying to understand to what extent it is more transmissible than other strains and who it might be more likely to transmit to, and to understand—and hopefully be able to confirm beyond any doubt—that it does not cause more severe illness or undermine vaccines or treatments. During the days to come—literally days—we will learn more about that. We also have to give ourselves assurance during the next period that the restrictions and measures that we have in place are sufficient to suppress it.

It took a really strict lockdown earlier in the year to get the R number back below 1—it got to about 0.6. We now face a situation where it is at around 1 again, although it is lower in Scotland than in some other parts of the UK, and a virus strain is transmitting more quickly that might add 0.4 to the R number. That shows the scale of the challenge that we have. We have to give ourselves time to know that we are taking the right actions to suppress it. We will learn more and I will share as much as we know with the public as openly as possible.

In response to the other two specific points, I know how devastating it would have been last Saturday for everybody to hear that we were going to level 4 across most of the country this Saturday. That would have been particularly devastating for those areas that are currently in the lower levels. However, it is important for me to be clear that the action that we are taking is not in response to current rates of prevalence: this is preventative action because we see a train coming rapidly down the track at us and we are trying to get out of its way. That is why the whole of mainland Scotland has to go to level 4; it is to prevent what we think will be a rapidly deteriorating situation.

If it is at all possible, we will get schools back open again on 18 January. That has been and continues to be a priority for all the reasons that we understand and that I think we all agree on. If that means the rest of us living under more severe restrictions, we will not shy away from saying so. However, we have to give ourselves the time to understand this virus a little bit more.

Scientists are now exploring whether that strain of the virus is transmitting more easily to young people. There is no consensus or definitive conclusion on that yet, but it is one thing that the scientific community is currently exploring.

We will do everything we can to get the whole country back to normal as quickly as possible, but it is important that, in this next period, we all do all the things that can help to bring that about.

I will keep the country updated, as far as possible, throughout the Christmas period.