LAST week marked two years since the first Covid lockdown.

Many of us took part in a National Day of Reflection to remember all those who have died during the pandemic and support those who are grieving loved ones.

Two years on, Covid infections are running high in Scotland, and while vaccines give most of us protection against serious illness, the sheer volume of cases due to the more infectious BA.2 variant is still putting a significant strain on our NHS.

Controlling Covid and turning the tide on the number of infections will be key to alleviating the pressure on our NHS, so I would ask everyone to please continue taking care when in public spaces, and please wear a face covering in indoor places and on public transport if you are able to.

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And to anyone who hasn’t had their first vaccine, or booster doses yet, please do make sure get it to protect yourself and your loved ones against serious illness.

With Covid still with us, hundreds of thousands of people across the UK are also worrying about the serious and increasing cost of living crisis. As the Office for Budget Responsibility warned last week, living standards are about to take their biggest plunge since the 1950s.

To tackle the cost of living crisis, the Scottish Government has already announced an additional package of measures, including a £150 payment to households in certain council tax bands. This is in addition to continued investment of over £120 million in the Scottish Welfare Fund and the Discretionary Housing Payments scheme.

There is no single policy that will effectively tackle poverty, especially at a time like this, but the new Scottish Child Payment – hailed as “game-changing” by charities – is already making a difference to families and children across the country. That is why, given the times we are living in, we have decided to extend it further.

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We had already confirmed extension of the Payment to children under 16 in low income families by the end of this year. However, instead of increasing the value of the payment from £10 to £20 per week, we now intend to take it to £25 per child per week by the end of 2022.

The Scottish Government will also increase the value of eight Scottish social security benefits, including the Best Start Grants, by 6% from April. It is the failure of the UK government to increase benefits by an amount more in line with inflation that will hit the incomes of the poorest hardest.

Indeed, while the SNP in Scotland is taking action with the limited powers and resources we have, the UK Government – which actually holds the important policy levers and has access to more resources – is doing the opposite.

Its removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, for example, is taking £1000 a year out of the pockets of low-income households.

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The Chancellor had the chance to make a real difference to those hardest hit by the cost of living crisis in his Spring Statement last week.

He missed that chance by miles.

There was virtually nothing in the Spring Statement to help the poor and provide real support to those on the lowest incomes, which I think was shameful.

The Tories are showing a callous disregard for the genuine hardship people face. They simply must do more and the SNP will keep pressing this case.

Before I close, I also want to say a huge thank you to those in Scotland who have been working to welcome refugees from Ukraine, including those who have offered to open their homes and their hearts to people seeking sanctuary from war.

And to those who have already arrived in Scotland from Ukraine, including the so-called ‘Dnipro Kids’, who came here last week, I extend the warmest of welcomes.

I know that all those who come here would much rather be at home in a peaceful Ukraine but, while they are here in Scotland, it is important that they are surrounded by love, care, and support. Scotland will be a home for people from Ukraine for as long as needed.

The Scottish Government is working with a range of partners to ensure that support is in place for all displaced people who arrive here in Scotland.

Those who come from Ukraine will have a right to work, and access social security benefits and public funds. They will also be able to access NHS services at no charge on the same basis as people living in Scotland, including specialist treatment and care.

We all continue to be horrified by the illegal war in Ukraine, and by the war crimes of Vladimir Putin. We all hope that the war will end and that peace will be restored as soon as possible. But in the meantime, we will extend the warmest of Scottish welcomes to those fleeing the war.

We will do everything possible to make sure they arrive at a place of safety and security, and that they are able stay here for as long as they need to.