By Health Secretary Jeane Freeman

As 11 local authority areas in Scotland have moved to Level 4 this week, I know how deeply frustrating this will be for those affected. Although it doesn’t make it any easier for you, please know these are not decisions we have taken lightly.

Across the country we – you – have made real progress. And you have my very grateful thanks for that. But while infection rates in most of these areas have become stable, they remain stubbornly high. That means if we don’t take further action now, more people will fall ill or tragically lose their lives.

Infection rates at that level, if we don’t act, would stretch our hospitals and intensive care units even more through the winter, drastically reducing our ability to treat Covid patients and those with other illnesses.

All of us need infection rates to come down more to help our NHS and to give us the chance of, we hope, a Christmas that could be just a bit more relaxed than it seems right now.

We know that Christmas in any year brings extra pressure on our health service. This is far from any year. But if we can reduce the number of people who have the virus, we reduce the risk of many more being infected over Christmas and significant extra pressure on the NHS. We can’t guarantee zero risk, so we must be careful about how far we relax the rules. But, together, we can bring that risk down.

That is why we’re asking people in 11 council areas to follow Level 4 restrictions for a period of three weeks – until 11 December.

We know this will affect businesses, large and small. That’s why we’ve put in extra support – on top of the UK-wide furlough scheme – to help them through this period. Full details of the help available can be found on the website.

But we won’t help any business if infection rates don’t come down. So this must be our priority. To everyone in Level 4 areas, please stay at home as much as possible, please don’t visit other people’s homes or have them visit you in your home. If you must see other people, make it outdoors in groups of up to six from no more than two households.

Apart from certain circumstances – including childcare, caring for the vulnerable, exercise, or shopping for essential goods – I am asking you not to go out.

There will be no non-essential retail. And close-contact services like hairdressers and beauty salons will now be closed, along with many leisure and entertainment settings.

I really do know that this is hard. And I know how much you have sacrificed already. But here in Scotland like the rest of the UK and across the world, we’re all facing the same challenges and we’re all being asked to make sacrifices.

This won’t last forever and after what has undoubtedly been an extremely tough year, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

From December we expect to see the first delivery of vaccines to Scotland.

We’re hopeful that as we move into 2021, we will have more than one vaccine available to us, and that will let us vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

There are a number of challenges to rolling out the new vaccines because of how they have to be handled and stored. But if the vaccine arrives in December, we’re ready to start the national effort to vaccinate everyone over 18 in Scotland.

The first vaccine available has still to be approved, and when it is supplies will start to arrive. We need to see more vaccines become available and to understand the delivery schedules for each.

Vaccinating the adult population in Scotland, of anyone aged over 18, is 4.4 million people. Undertaking a vaccine programme this size is unprecedented but right across Scotland people are ready to help make that happen.

So, please hang in there. As science brings us hope, keep acting to protect yourselves and others for just a little while longer – by washing hands, wearing face coverings, and keeping two metres distance.

For a little while longer. Keep to the rules, look out for each other, protect our NHS and we will save lives. Together we really are stronger and together, we will get through this toughest of times.