Media briefing 23 March, St Andrew's House, Edinburgh
Good afternoon everybody, thank you for joining us today. If I can begin, today, with an update on case numbers.
As of 9 o’clock this morning there have been 499 positive cases confirmed in Scotland, which is an increase of 83 from yesterday. And as always, I want to be very clear that these numbers are likely to be, and almost inevitably are, an underestimate.
It is with sadness that I also have to report today that there have been four further deaths of patients who had tested positive for coronavirus, taking the total number of deaths to 14. All of our thoughts are with their families at this time.
And I want to, again, thank the NHS staff who continue to care for those who are suffering from this virus.
These figures – even as underestimates – underline the scale of the challenge that we face – and the importance of the steps that we are taking, as a country to slow down the spread, reduce the peak and crucially save lives.
So I want to repeat the advice that we are giving to people, and I have used the term advice, but I want to repeat the message I gave yesterday. This is not to be seen as optional. What I am about to set out should be considered rules that we are expecting people to comply with.
And that is important because if we all comply with these measures we will help to protect ourselves, we will help to protect our families and loved ones, we will help to protect our National Health Service and the country as a whole. And we will reduce the number of people who die from this virus.
So if you have had symptoms of coronavirus – which again is a new and persistent cough or a fever – you must isolate yourself for seven days.
In addition, if you are in a household where someone has symptoms, you must isolate for 14 days.
For everyone, you must stay at home unless it is absolutely essential to go out, and that includes working from home, wherever possible.
Stay away from crowded places - even out of doors. And when there are other people around, stay two metres distant from them.
That advice is for everyone, but it is especially vital if you are over 70, eligible for the flu vaccine, or pregnant.
And at all times, follow the advice on washing your hands, using tissues and not touching your face.
I said yesterday and I want to repeat again today; life should not be carrying on as normal right now. That is not an easy thing to say, it is not something I say lightly. But life should not feel normal for you right now. So if it is, then you are not doing the right things. And I want to ask you today to please put that right.
I’m very grateful to everyone who is complying with the advice. It’s clear that the vast majority of people are making very serious efforts to limit their social contact.
I also want to thank the pubs, restaurants, gyms, cafes and cinemas that have closed. And again make clear to any that are thinking about not complying with that advice, we will within days have emergency powers and we will use them. But nobody should rely on that, please do the right thing now.
Many shops have also taken the decision to close, and I thank them for that. My message today to shops that are still open is this and it is clear, if you are not providing essential items like food and medicines, then please also close now.
However, today it has been clear to me that there are still too many people across our country who are being expected to or expecting to go to work as normal.
And that presents a serious and unnecessary risk of spreading the virus.
So I want to reiterate that if you run a business, and if the nature of your business makes it difficult for you or your workers to work from home or to practice safe social distancing, then you should close for the period of the efforts to combat this virus.
If you are an employee, and your workplace is not abiding by this, I would urge you to speak to your employer and ask that they take action. This morning I was specifically asked on the radio about building sites and hair salons, and my advice would be to close.
I know this is a difficult situation for businesses and I know difficult judgements are having to be made.
I have therefore asked for additional guidance to be drawn up urgently by government for businesses that will make clear exactly what we are expecting of them and how they can make the right judgments about what is essential and what is not essential.
The UK government has put in place measures to pay wages, even when workers are not at work – and we are pushing for, and very hopeful of seeing very soon, further measures to support freelancers, the self-employed and contract workers. So, this support is rightly in place and it should enable businesses now to do the right thing for themselves and for their workers.
I repeat again, I know these decisions are not easy, but they are necessary. They are necessary for us to slow down what is now becoming a rapid acceleration of this virus. That is necessary in order to reduce the peak of the number of people infected and we need to do that to prevent our National Health Service being overwhelmed. If our National Health Service becomes overwhelmed then people will die needlessly and avoidably. And that is what we are seeking to prevent. This is, and I can’t say this strongly enough, this is about saving lives.
I want to turn to a number of announcements today aimed at improving advice and support for patients, and also relieving some of the other pressures on our NHS.
As of today we are now operating new community hubs, a new model of service provisions. And the Cabinet Secretary will say a bit more about this in a moment. But what it means is that from today, if patients with coronavirus symptoms need additional advice, they should dial NHS24 on 111 - in and out of hours – not phone their GP.
Callers to the 111 helpline will be assessed and, if necessary, they will be transferred to a community hub. These hubs will be staffed by senior clinicians from across the healthcare system, and they will ensure that patients get the best possible advice at the right time.
It means that anyone who has coronavirus symptoms and needs additional help or advice can now call the same number any time, day or night, seven days a week.
And as a result of that it will help to free up GP practices, to treat and care for all non-coronavirus related conditions. Because unfortunately while we are dealing with coronavirus people will still be getting unwell with other things too.
As an aside, and this is an important aside, and I want people to take careful note of this, if you need a sick note right now, those are available on the NHS Inform website. You should go there to access a sick note, please do not call the 111 number, because that is putting NHS 24 under unnecessary pressure.
As well the changes we are making around the community hub model, I can announce that we are empowering community pharmacists by extending the Minor Ailment Service. Community pharmacies are doing an incredibly important job and I want to thank them for that. And it is important that they are able to work together to ensure that between practices services and hours are extended.
These two additional steps will help to make it easier for patients to access advice and support. And that is vital, but they will also help relieve some of the pressure on our frontline NHS staff.
In addition and finally, we have now provided all local authorities with an assurance, an important assurance, that government will meet all of the extra costs they are incurring as they help to adapt the care system to the increased pressure placed on it by coronavirus, with many people requiring continued support for daily living, whether or not they have contracted the virus. So I hope that gives local authorities the comfort they need to get on and make the changes in social care that will be required in the weeks to come.
This weekend has been incredibly difficult for people the length and breadth of the country. It has been the most unusual weekend in my lifetime, and that is true for all of us. And that is tough. The measures we’re asking people to take right now are not easy. They are profoundly and fundamentally for the moment changing the way we live our lives.
But I cannot stress enough how important it is that people do what we are asking them to do. We are not asking it lightly. We are not asking people to do things that we don’t consider to be absolutely necessary.
What we are asking you to do is vital to slow down this virus, to reduce its peak impact, protect the ability of our NHS to provide the care and treatment to those most seriously ill and to save lives. And that I ask everybody, if you, as all of us will in the days and weeks to come, feel frustrated that the things we take for granted in our normal lives can’t be done or aren’t there for us, whether that is your cup of coffee in Starbucks in the morning through to your visit to the pub on a Friday night with a whole multitude of things in-between, many of them of course more important than that.
Any time you are feeling frustrated about that, just remember we are all going through this necessary period to save as many lives as possible.