Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Tuesday, March 15, 2022
Official Report 1137KB pdf
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19 Update, Fisheries Management, Conversion Practices, Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework, Business Motion, Decision Time, Marie Curie Great Daffodil Appeal 2022
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Covid-19 Update
- Fisheries Management
- Conversion Practices
- Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- Marie Curie Great Daffodil Appeal 2022
Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-03617, in the name of John Swinney, on “Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework Update”.17:11
This debate will deliver on the First Minister’s commitment to seek the approval of Parliament for the Scottish Government’s updated strategic framework, which we published on 22 February.
Earlier, the First Minister announced that, from next Monday, 21 March, the remaining domestic legal measures—with one temporary precautionary exception—will be lifted and replaced with appropriate guidance. We will lay in Parliament tomorrow regulations to implement those changes.
The requirement to wear face coverings on public transport and in certain indoor settings will be retained for a further short period, due to the current spike in case numbers. That decision is consistent with our evidence-based approach to managing the pandemic. We will review that again in two weeks—before the Easter recess—and our expectation now is that that regulation will convert to guidance in early April.
For the debate, I will set out the key strands of the new framework and explain what it will mean for our collective response to Covid-19 in the coming months and years.
However, before I do that, I am sure that colleagues throughout the chamber will want to join me in offering our condolences to everyone in Scotland who has suffered a loss during the pandemic. Everyone in our society has been affected by the pandemic, and there have been some very dark times, but our country has demonstrated significant resilience over the past two years.
I also express my gratitude to all those who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much during the pandemic to enable our society to make the recovery that we have been able to make from the challenging circumstances that we have faced.
Despite the on-going presence of the pandemic, we believe that we are now able to look forward to the rest of 2022 with increased optimism. That has been made possible by the remarkable progress on vaccinations and new treatments. Indeed, at the heart of our framework is an increasing confidence in our ability to achieve a sustainable return to a more normal way of life, even as we remain prepared for any future threats that Covid-19 might present. That is important, because there are many issues other than Covid-19 that we need to tackle as a society.
In the early stages of the pandemic, we focused our strategic intent on suppressing case numbers. Now, with widespread vaccination and immunity, we are more focused on reducing and mitigating wider harms than we were able to be previously. Our new strategic intent is therefore to manage Covid-19 effectively, primarily through adaptations and health measures that strengthen our resilience and recovery, as we rebuild for a better future.
The Deputy First Minister mentioned the First Minister’s announcement this afternoon that the legal requirement to wear a face mask would continue for some weeks. Can he tell us how many people have been sanctioned for breaking that law over the past six months?
I cannot tell the member that. However, I can say that, when one looks at the data on compliance where there is a legal requirement for face coverings to be worn and the data on where there is a voluntary approach, the difference in the numbers can be quite considerable. Where there are legal measures in place, compliance tends to reach a high of 80 per cent, whereas with voluntary measures it tends to be about 60 per cent.
We know—this is well-established information from the World Health Organization and various other clinical advisers—that the wearing of face coverings is a significant impediment to circulation of the virus. Just now, as members will know, we are currently seeing significant spreading of the virus. That provides the rationale that has led the Government to take the decision that we have taken, and which the First Minister set out to Parliament today.
It is important, as we look at adaptations and health measures, to understand that the approach that we are taking in the strategic framework does not mean that we will allow the virus a free hand, regardless of the harm that it might cause. Instead, the framework will help us to ensure that our overall approach, and any future use of protective measures should we face a significant new threat, is, as always, proportionate and consistent with our broader purpose of protecting public health and creating a more successful, sustainable and inclusive Scotland.
I make it clear that the Government will aim to convert the remaining domestic legal requirements for wearing of face coverings into guidance as soon as it is safe for us to do so. That will help us to promote good public health behaviours, while retaining the ability to regulate in the future, should the public health situation require that. Despite the planned shift away from legal requirements, we will still need to manage Covid-19 effectively, because the virus remains a threat. We are likely to continue to see outbreaks in Scotland over the coming years, and we can expect new variants to appear globally.
We have, therefore, set out in the framework a system of threat levels and potential responses that enables us to provide as much clarity as we can for planning purposes, while retaining the crucial flexibility to ensure that responses are both effective and proportionate to the threat level.
We do not believe that an approach that relies on predetermined automatic triggers for a response would be appropriate. We have seen, throughout the pandemic, that clinical and scientific advice and data, legal and equalities considerations and many other factors need to be combined to inform our decision making, and that all that must be overlaid by experience and judgment on the right steps to take. As we go forward, we will manage Covid-19 on the basis of measures that are commensurate with the assessed threat.
At this point, it is right to note the need for collaborative management of Covid-19 to be shared by central Government, local government, wider public services, the third sector, communities and individuals. We have achieved remarkable levels of co-operation in managing the harms of the pandemic; that will be essential for managing the challenges that lie ahead.
A report that Glasgow Disability Alliance published this week looks at the experience of disabled women during the pandemic. One of the issues that it highlights is that
“Many universal approaches, pandemic responses—perhaps unintentionally—ignored the needs of disabled people, creating inequalities, injustices and eroding human rights for disabled people and disabled women.”
That is quite difficult to hear. Can the cabinet secretary set out how the Government intends to address those concerns, which were raised this week?
Those points have to be taken very seriously. They indicate the challenge that policymakers and decision makers face in enabling us to deal with a widespread public health emergency across our whole society, while taking approaches to address the specific circumstances of individuals with disabilities, as Pam Duncan-Glancy has highlighted.
The identification of targeted and focused support for individuals is, as part of the wider response to managing the pandemic, crucial in order to address people’s given circumstances. That will need to be at the heart of the response that public authorities take forward to address the issues that Pam Duncan-Glancy has fairly put to me.
We will continue to consider the needs of everyone in society—this relates to the point that Pam Duncan-Glancy made—in developing future adaptations, mitigations and protective measures, because there is clear evidence that harm has been felt unevenly across our society. The Government has published separately the detailed impact assessments that informed the content of the framework and that will inform our decision making.
We will ensure that any continuing or new measures do not exacerbate inequality, which is why equality, inclusion and human rights remain at the heart of our on-going response and, indeed, at the heart of our Covid recovery strategy. We know that an uncertain time lies ahead for those who remain at the highest risk and that not everybody in society welcomes the removal of protective measures. We will continue to provide advice and guidance, informed by our clinicians, as we support the people who are on the highest-risk list, while we get back to a more normal way of life. The strategic framework update therefore outlines a wide range of concrete actions that are designed to improve outcomes across society and that are consistent with our Covid-19 recovery strategy.
Before I bring my remarks to a conclusion, I wish to put into context the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) Scotland Bill, which supports the strategic framework and will ensure greater resilience against future public health threats. Although we intend to rely much less on legal requirements in response to Covid in the future, the framework is clear that our legislation must be kept up to date in order to support our ability to manage future outbreaks. We hope that that will not be needed in the future, but it is only right that Scotland has permanent public health protection powers, as have been available in England and Wales for more than a decade. There is a crucial distinction between having appropriate powers available to respond to public health threats and actually using them in given circumstances.
The strategic framework sets out what we must all do as we come to rely much more on positive behaviours and actions to manage Covid-19 effectively and sustainably. We have set out how we plan to respond effectively and proportionately, should the virus again pose an acute threat to our health, to enable people and organisations to plan for the future with greater confidence.
We will listen to the developing lessons and research, which can help us to navigate better through future pandemics and other emergencies, to protect our people and to ensure that we are able to build a fairer, resilient and more prosperous Scotland as a consequence of our response to the pandemic that we have faced.
That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Strategic Framework Update on 22 February 2022; offers its condolences to everyone in Scotland who has suffered loss and its gratitude to all those who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much during the pandemic; notes that Scotland is now able to look forward to the rest of 2022 with increased optimism, made possible by the remarkable progress on vaccination and in new treatments; supports the new strategic intent to manage COVID-19 effectively, primarily through adaptations and health measures that strengthen resilience and recovery, as the country rebuilds for a better future; acknowledges that the threat from COVID-19 has not gone away and that the approach is to manage COVID-19 going forwards on the basis of four broad response categories that reflect the assessed threat; notes that the Scottish Government will aim to convert remaining COVID-19 regulations into guidance to promote good public health behaviours, while retaining the ability to regulate in future should the public health situation require it; agrees that there is a need for collaborative management of COVID-19 to be shared by central and local government, wider public services, businesses, the third sector, communities and individuals, and notes that the pandemic has also exacerbated inequalities, poverty and disadvantage and that the Strategic Framework outlines a wide range of concrete actions that are designed to improve outcomes across society, consistent with the COVID-19 Recovery Strategy.17:22
I welcome this opportunity to debate the updated strategic framework for Covid recovery. It is hard to believe that we are now two years on from Covid first appearing on our shores. I do not think that any of us expected at that time that, two years later, we would still be dealing with a deadly virus. I join the Deputy First Minister in remembering all those who have lost their lives as a result of the virus. We offer our condolences to their families, and we express our gratitude to all those, in the public sector and elsewhere, who have worked over the past 24 months to protect the public. In particular, we should recognise the tremendous success of the United Kingdom’s vaccination programme in providing a level of protection to the public that is the envy of many other countries and that has enabled us to get back to ordinary life.
That said, the impacts of Covid continue to be felt, not just directly but indirectly, with a worryingly high number of excess deaths from other causes and with much more to be done to restore our public services to where they should be. I will say more about those issues a little later.
In relation to the question of on-going legal restrictions, we have argued for some weeks that we, in Scotland, should be following the lead of all other parts of the United Kingdom, with all major restrictions removed. First Wales, then Northern Ireland, then England announced the end of restrictions, and Scotland is the outlier in lagging behind. We were hoping that the First Minister might come to the chamber today to confirm that all legal restrictions, including the wearing of face masks in certain settings, would be dropped from Monday, but she disappointed us by saying that that would be extended by some weeks yet.
We know from all the evidence that has been produced that, despite the fact that we have had stricter restrictions in Scotland, and for longer, than elsewhere in the UK, outcomes in terms of Covid infections and impacts have been virtually identical across all parts of the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is now more than six months since the legal requirement to wear face masks in public places was removed entirely in England, while that law has been maintained in Scotland. However, the evidence tells us that the rate of Covid infection in Scotland has been at least as high as it has been in England throughout that period. Indeed, over the past few weeks, it has been substantially higher, so the case for on-going legal restrictions is simply not supported by the evidence.
Will the member advise me on whether all Covid infections in Scotland are home grown? They could be coming into Scotland from other parts of the UK or from abroad. He is making a false argument without the evidence.
The evidence tells us the rate of infection, but I am not sure that we can drill down to the source of the infections. Of course, there are as many people going in and out of other parts of the UK as there are going in and out of Scotland—probably more so—so I am not sure that the argument that the member has made takes us very far.
It is also worth making the point that the claim that is made in some quarters that the UK has the worst Covid death rate in Europe is simply untrue. According to a paper that was published in The Lancet last week on the first peer-reviewed global estimates of excess deaths over the first two years of the pandemic, the UK’s death rate is actually 29th in Europe, below the western European average and at the same level as that of France and Germany. That paper also makes the case that there is no clear relationship between levels of excess mortality and different levels of restrictions. What does make a difference is vaccination, on which the UK, including Scotland, has done well.
That is not to say that we should throw all caution to the wind. Public health advice should still advise people to take reasonable precautions, including exercising good hygiene, distancing from other individuals and wearing face masks where they deem it appropriate to do so.
The Scottish people have demonstrated in spades their willingness to adhere to public health advice. For example, there has never been a requirement in law in Scotland to self-isolate following a positive test for Covid, yet, on the whole, people have adhered very strictly to that instruction. I believe that we can move to a position of personal responsibility and health guidance; we should not use the law to force people to act in a particular way.
Nor do we need to have the Scottish Government’s extraordinary and emergency powers entrenched permanently. There is overwhelming public opposition to the proposed Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill, with 85 per cent of those who responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation being against it.
The member knows as well as the rest of us who sit on the COVID-19 Recovery Committee that, if the Scottish Government does not extend the powers beyond 21 March, all the powers that it currently has will fall with the parent legislation. That would mean that, were there to be another rise in Covid numbers in Scotland, we would be left without the ability to put in place legal restrictions.
There are two responses to Mr Fairlie’s point. First, the Parliament has already demonstrated its ability to legislate extremely quickly in the event of circumstances changing. Secondly, he did not listen to the point that I made a few moments ago: a paper in The Lancet last week makes the case that there is no relationship between levels of excess mortality and different levels of restrictions. He needs to bear that in mind, too.
I will go back to what I was saying about the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill. Scotland’s children’s commissioner has been clear that, in his view, the plans to restrict children’s education breach human rights and, on that basis, might well be defeated in the courts. The bill is an unwarranted and unnecessary power grab by Scottish ministers, and we will resolutely oppose it.
Let us look instead at where the future focus should be. The COVID-19 Recovery Committee has heard alarming evidence about the level of excess deaths over the past two years. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine claims that, in 2021, 500 people died as a result of delays in being admitted to hospital.
That is 10 people per week dying because an ambulance does not turn up on time or because of a delay in getting them from the ambulance into the emergency ward. That statistic alone shows that much more needs to be done to get our national health service back to the point at which it is safe for all patients. That is not to take account of all the undiagnosed cancer—according to evidence that we heard in committee last week, 17,000 people have been diagnosed too late, with potentially serious outcomes for them—and all the other undiagnosed conditions, such as heart disease and stroke.
Already the NHS across Scotland is struggling to cope and that problem is likely to get much worse. That is why an NHS recovery plan—and, in particular, a workforce plan—is so important. The focus must be on training for the future enough doctors and nurses to replace those who are currently retiring or leaving the professions.
Much more needs to be done and my colleagues will highlight some of those points during the debate. Covid is not yet over, but it is time to move towards a new approach that is based on personal responsibility and not continued legal restrictions.
I move amendment S6M-03617.2, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:
“notes the publication of the Strategic Framework Update on 22 February 2022; offers its condolences to everyone in Scotland who has suffered loss and its gratitude to all those who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much during the pandemic; notes that Scotland is now able to look forward to the rest of 2022 with increased optimism, made possible by the remarkable progress on vaccination and in new treatments; acknowledges that the threat from COVID-19 has not gone away but believes that the public in Scotland can be trusted to act responsibly and follow guidance promoting good public health behaviours and that, accordingly, ongoing regulations are not required; notes the overwhelming public opposition to the Scottish Government’s proposals to permanently hold emergency powers to make health regulations; agrees that there is a need for collaborative management of COVID-19 to be shared by central and local government, wider public services, businesses, the third sector, communities and individuals; notes that the pandemic has also exacerbated inequalities, poverty and disadvantage, and calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward credible proposals to tackle the NHS backlog, and invest in a national tutoring programme and school catch-up premium to support children and young people who have suffered from two years of disrupted learning.”17:30
I, too, pay tribute to all the people who worked hard to protect us during the pandemic, and I send my condolences to everyone who lost loved ones.
It may be two years on, but I note that the pandemic is not over. The latest strain of omicron, BA.2, is more infectious than previous strains, as is demonstrated in the extraordinary rise in case numbers. Over the past four days, 38,770 positive cases were reported and there were 1,996 people in hospital. The increase in hospital cases is the greatest single rise in 24 hours since the start of the pandemic. NHS Lanarkshire reports that its three hospitals are overflowing and the Queen Elizabeth university hospital was on the brink of declaring a code black last Thursday. The pressure on the NHS remains intense and, of course, lots of staff are themselves off ill with Covid, which causes further strain to the service.
Although it goes without saying that we all support measures to control the virus and save lives, there are many lessons to learn now and for the future in the handling of Covid. That is why I genuinely find the Covid-19 strategic framework a little disappointing. It appears to contain a number of reheated Scottish National Party promises and pledges and it fails to give any of the real detail that the public and businesses need. After almost two years of the pandemic, I am puzzled as to why the Scottish Government does not have a better idea of what should happen.
The Government says that it wants to help people and organisations to manage Covid-19 effectively and sustainably. I could not agree more with that sentiment, but the Government needs to have credible plans. I will give members an example. If the Government wants to improve air quality and ventilation in classrooms, it should organise high-efficiency particulate air—HEPA—filters, make sure that windows are not painted shut and not chop the bottoms off classroom doors. A five-year-old could have told the Government that.
The First Minister announced earlier that whole-population testing, isolation and self-isolation payments end in April. I am surprised at the speed of that. In accepting it, I say that it is important that further detail is provided for the two categories for which testing will continue: in health and social care settings and for people with underlying health conditions.
The Scottish Government has already been busy withdrawing contracts for the test and protect service and the people who did such a tremendous job staffing call centres are already being made redundant on a Microsoft Teams call. That is not the way that it should be done. What will be left for the testing that needs to continue and what surge capacity will be built in? It would be helpful to know that, because it is not possible to administer antivirals within a five-day window to people who test positive and have underlying health conditions if we remove the capacity of the test and protect service to get to people quickly. Assurance on that point is important, as is a convincing response on the availability and administration of antiviral medication.
The Royal College of Nursing Scotland has called for FFP3 masks to be the default in any care of Covid or suspected Covid cases. It has also outlined concerns that risk assessments are still not being offered to staff. As hospitals begin to come under increased pressure and staff absences start to grow, that is critical to protect staff. I hope that the Deputy First Minister agrees.
What about vaccination? We know that it is key to reducing the impact of the virus but that protection is wearing off. As we begin to offer a fourth jab for the immunosuppressed and the over-75s, what will the Scottish Government do to address the fact that half a million Scots have still not had their first booster, and will it finally outline a sustainable workforce plan for the vaccination programme?
Here is another example of what is missing from the framework: according to figures from the Office for National Statistics, 119,000 people in Scotland are living with long Covid, but, despite an announcement in September, not one penny has reached health boards. Services are thin—in fact, I am probably being kind; services are non-existent. Businesses that have been at the sharp end of the pandemic need certainty about what support will be in place if there is the need for any further restrictions in the future.
We cannot have a system of ad-hoc, last-minute decisions. It is vital that the big decisions on future restrictions are discussed in and voted on by Parliament, to allow the public the chance to have its voice heard on the issues that impact it. The shameless power grab that is being sought by the SNP must be rejected. The Parliament has demonstrated that it can scrutinise legislation quickly and robustly, so there is no need for the Government to have sweeping powers. The people of Scotland deserve a strategic framework that will aid recovery, but this plan falls short of what is needed. Scotland deserves better.
I move amendment S6M-03617.1, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:
“notes the publication of the Strategic Framework Update on 22 February 2022; offers its condolences to everyone in Scotland who has suffered loss and its gratitude to all those who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much during the pandemic; notes that Scotland is now able to look forward to the rest of 2022 with increased optimism, made possible by the remarkable progress on vaccination and in new treatments; supports the new strategic intent to manage COVID-19 effectively, primarily through adaptations and health measures that strengthen resilience and recovery, as the country rebuilds for a better future; acknowledges that the threat from COVID-19 has not gone away and considers that there is a need to maintain Test and Protect infrastructure, including free access to testing, to help monitor and contain future outbreaks; agrees that there is a need for collaborative management of COVID-19 to be shared by central and local government, wider public services, businesses, the third sector, communities and individuals; believes that future closures of businesses and services should only ever be a last resort, and that businesses should have clarity in advance about the financial support that they will receive in such a situation; further believes that all future restrictions should be subject to a vote in the Parliament; notes that the pandemic has also exacerbated inequalities, poverty and disadvantage, and agrees that addressing these areas must be the priority of delivering a successful recovery.”17:36
I associate myself with the condolences that are offered in the motion by the Deputy First Minister and that have been offered by others in the chamber today.
During the peak of measures, people were unable to be at the side of their loved ones at the end of their lives, and saying a final farewell at a funeral was strictly limited. It was the knowledge that we all had a part to play to limit Covid’s spread that enabled many of us to make those necessary sacrifices.
The First Minister addressed the rising case rates in the past few weeks. I note that the wearing of face masks will be retained as a precaution for a short time, and I hope that that contributes to flattening the upward turn in cases. Legal requirements will become guidance, but we should all be mindful that Covid is still around. There are mitigations that we can use to limit the spread, including vaccination; hands, face, space; and ventilation. As we transition away from requirements, we must remember that some people are not as comfortable as others are.
We have all just lived through a collective trauma, and the ramifications are yet to be fully understood. I am pleased that, throughout the strategic framework, the issue of mental health is raised. Addressing the long-term aftermath of Covid will be fluid, and services must be flexible to adjust to that.
Investment in and the expansion of child and adolescent mental health services, as laid out in the framework, are welcome, as is a commitment to providing accessible mental health support directly through doctors’ surgeries. Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for that for many years, because CAMHS waiting lists were long even before the pandemic. Providing money to local authority partners to ensure that every secondary school has access to counselling services is also welcome.
Support in Mind Scotland points to the 1 million or so Scots who live in rural, remote and island communities. The strategic update only mentions “rural” once, when discussing scaling up new digital treatments and therapies to ensure that they are also accessible in rural areas. Mental health support and services should be accessible to everyone in rural and island Scotland, and not just digitally. More needs to be done to build resilience in rural and island communities and to provide accessible, face-to-face services in the places where people live.
Long Covid is also addressed in the framework. The condition is still new to medical professionals, and the healthcare system will need all the support that the Scottish Government can provide to help the estimated 119,000 people who are affected to get treatment and support. Many have had their lives turned upside down, which also impacts on those around them. I met a constituent who has long Covid. They are constantly breathless and can hardly walk up the stairs. They can no longer run around with their football-playing son, who turned to his parent and said, “I wish you’d never got Covid.” The eldest child has, in effect, become a young carer. To hear the telling of that family’s Covid experience was heartbreaking.
Scottish Liberal Democrats would like swifter action to have been taken to make comprehensive adaptations to the ventilation in schools and classrooms. Rates in schools have now risen, and air filters in every classroom could have helped to stem that rise. I note that the Covid-19 ventilation short-life working group will report back by the end of March with its recommendations on next steps for healthier buildings.
Lastly, we would like to see an end to the domestic vaccination passport scheme. We now know that, although vaccines provide high levels of protection, vaccinated people can still pass on the virus, so we should focus on continuing to encourage people to keep testing. It will soon become guidance for people to stay at home when they have any symptoms of a respiratory infection. That advice should become the norm, so that we continue to help protect each other. As others have said, Covid has not gone away.17:40
As we discuss the Covid framework this afternoon, we are reminded that Covid is still very much with us. The First Minister’s statement this afternoon highlighted the fragility of the position that we are still in, hence the flexibility.
Case rates are increasing across all age groups. That increase is driven by the now dominant BA.2 variant, and 85 per cent of cases in Scotland are thought to be of that variant. Here and globally, Covid is still a public health risk and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
In the short time that I have to speak, I will focus on the need, as we emerge from the pandemic, to reduce the health inequalities that are mentioned in the framework.
We urgently need to address the health inequalities that were already present. The pandemic has worsened the impact of those inequalities across a range of groups, including households on low incomes or in poverty, low-paid workers, children and young people, older people, disabled people, minority ethnic groups and women. Those groups also overlap.
Reducing health inequalities must be at the heart of our Covid-19 recovery strategy. It is also a key consideration in the remobilisation and redesign of our health and social care system. There is much to do, and we need to take the opportunity to address many of the deep-rooted health inequalities. The impact of the pandemic is driving demand and complexity across all services and particularly in the most deprived areas.
The “Report of the Primary Care Health Inequalities Short-Life Working Group”, which was published yesterday, was very welcome. Key recommendations included the potential creation of a new health inequalities commissioner, empowering primary healthcare workers, improving equalities data, investment into wellbeing communities and strengthening the focus on inequalities through the general practitioner contract. The recommendations will have a sustained and long-term impact on health outcomes, especially for those who face the most significant barriers to good health.
We need person-centred holistic care that considers social and financial wellbeing, and the role of the Scottish social prescribing network will be key in that delivery. That work will include community link workers, who provide invaluable support to people with issues such as debt, social isolation and housing, and who will continue to be at the forefront of our efforts to tackle health inequalities.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am sorry—I have only four minutes.
Welfare rights and money advice services are embedded in 150 general practices, and we need to build on those successes by creating a network of 1,000 additional staff, to help grow community resilience and direct social prescribing. Providing people with the right support locally and connecting them to the right services is crucial to our recovery.
Other approaches need to go hand in hand with those initiatives, such as legislation to restrict promotions of less healthy food and drink, tackling alcohol consumption and harms and refreshing the tobacco action plan. The pledge to double investment in sport and active living to £100 million a year by the end of this parliamentary session, so that more people can enjoy active lives, is also very welcome.
The factors that impact on people’s health and wellbeing go beyond what the health and social care system can deliver. Socioeconomic inequalities drive health inequalities. The best way to tackle those inequalities is to support actions that end poverty and increase fair access to the employment, education and training commitments in the plan. The scale of the problem is seen by the massive increase in the use of food banks in my constituency, which, year on year, is up by 40 per cent, 28 per cent and 54 per cent over the past three months.
A place-based approach to tackling inequalities at a local level is key. Local communities are best placed to cultivate person-centred approaches that are aimed at preventing ill health and reducing inequalities by addressing their root causes. In East Lothian, I have already held a poverty workshop to look at health inequalities.
We need to support our local health and social care providers to become active anchor institutions and build wealth in their communities. The recovery from the pandemic will be tough, and reducing health inequalities must be one of our core objectives.17:43
Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of the Prime Minister’s address to the nation when he introduced the first national lockdown. Since then, it has been a rocky road but, along the way, extraordinary efforts have led to the development and distribution of life-saving vaccines and antivirals, which have allowed us to open up and pursue a normal life.
Like many members in the chamber and people across the country, I look forward to the lifting of most of the restrictions on Monday, although I find myself asking why it has taken so long to do so.
Murdo Fraser has already talked about masks and the other measures that have been imposed on the Scottish people for what has turned out to be little benefit. The First Minister and her Cabinet are fond of claiming that their approach has been evidence led. However, as we have heard, the decision taken to delay the ending of the prolonged requirement to wear face masks flies in the face of that basic evidence. England moved past mask wearing weeks ago and there has been no great surge in infections. There is certainly no evidence that the Scottish Government’s continued mandate has led to less transmission in Scotland. The Government should look at that again.
Many difficulties have been caused by the pandemic. Education, health and social care have all been affected. I am sure that others will comment on those during the debate. As we heard in an intervention, it is Scotland’s disabled and older people who have been most affected. For two years, the services that older and disabled people rely on, such as day centres, have been closed and have been unable to serve those who desperately need them.
Day centres not only provide welcome support and respite for carers but offer and foster a community for disabled people to join. It is therefore imperative that those centres reopen as they were two years ago. Sadly, that is not the case in many local authority areas across Scotland. There is no clear guidance or timeline for when those centres will reopen. How will they continue to be funded? What support will they be given by the Scottish Government and local authorities?
I urge the Scottish Government to work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and with local government to get those centres open and functioning as they were before the pandemic. Those who have suffered are disabled people and their carers, many of whom have not one day off in the past two years.
Lastly, I will raise an issue that we will come to later in legislation with regard to funerals and bereavement. I raise this as the convener of the cross-party group on funerals and bereavement. The issue is the registering of deaths under the current emergency legislation.
Under the emergency regulations, all deaths rightly had to be registered online. For many in the industry, that was a welcome change that brought many benefits. I understand from speaking to undertakers that, if the emergency powers continue, there will be no ability to register the death of a loved one in person. That can provide closure for many people. Will the minister reflect on whether we should keep both options open? Registering online will be fine for the majority, but for those who want to register the death of a loved one in person, that should be allowed to happen so that they can say their farewells in that way. I know from personal experience how important it was for me to do that.
We must move on. The virus is here with us. We must live as normally as we can and open services for those who are most vulnerable and who have been most affected.17:48
Managing Covid-19 effectively and getting the right balance between public health and the economy changes as we progress through the pandemic. I agree that we must adapt as the virus moves—we hope—from being pandemic to being endemic.
A minority of the public is already giving up the wearing of face masks in supermarkets. It is not always possible to sanitise trolleys or even hands. It is time to remind ourselves, weary though we all are, that Covid is alive and kicking among us. Retaining a legal requirement to wear face coverings is a small sacrifice to make in the short term.
In support of that position, I will focus on the comments of Professors Gregor Smith and Jason Leitch, both of whom recommend caution. Scotland’s chief medical officer has said that data shows that some older people are beginning to adapt their behaviour by reducing their contacts slightly, while their use of face masks is also up. But older and disabled people require other people to protect them, which means that those others should be wearing face masks. Asked what advice he would give to ministers, he said:
“I think that a cautious approach at this point in time is probably the right approach.”
Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, has spoken about his worries about the state of the pandemic in Scotland, but he added that he was “not panicking” about increasing case numbers. He said:
“You should still be cautious, particularly around those who are vulnerable”.
Therein lies the rub. Who are “those who are vulnerable”? Being in the older age group, I am thankful, like others, for the vaccinations. Wearing face coverings helps, but not if the majority are not wearing them and keeping their distance. Goodness knows, I find it difficult to breathe through a mask, like many other folk do, but many are complying for the time being.
We can tell when somebody is elderly, but there are also folk who have underlying health conditions and are therefore especially vulnerable to Covid. When we wear a face mask, we are protecting them, not ourselves. We might pass them in a shop or sit beside them on a bus or train and we will not know about their vulnerability. That is the point. Some of those people have been isolating for years, and they should be free, even if some of us have to give up some freedoms.
I know that Christine Grahame feels really strongly about face coverings. Are there any circumstances in which she would get rid of the legal requirement to wear them and rely on guidance?
Law works by public consent, and that is how it has worked so far. We just have to remind people that this is a legal requirement. Enforcement should not really be necessary. We want people to comply because they see the good reason for the rest of the community to comply. Circumstances may arise where it is not necessary, but I do not think that we are there yet.
I have a little more to say, so I hope that I will get a little more time. In the early days of Covid, my email inbox exposed the huge differences between the haves and the have-nots—between those who were stuck in flats with children and no easy access to outdoors and those who could find comfort in their gardens, and between those who could ride out the economic deprivation and those who could not. Covid threw a harsh light on the divisions in society.
We rightly focus on Ukraine and its people, and the devastation there, but we should also ensure that we do not just return to business as usual. Covid has shown us all that we must do better for those in Scotland who do not have equal opportunities to enjoy a healthy, happy and fulfilling life. Covid exposed that inequality to every single one of us in the chamber, through our inboxes. Let us remember that and, while dealing with Covid, let us also deal with the inequalities that it has exposed in our society.17:52
It is a great pleasure to follow Christine Grahame’s very powerful speech reminding us of the inequalities on which Covid has shone such a harsh light. I feel that some people might have tried to ignore those inequalities.
As Jackie Baillie said, the strategic framework presents a number of reheated SNP promises and commitments. It is a long document, but it is light on detail, particularly in respect of those who are suffering from long Covid. There has been much talk of what that group of 119,000 people will get, and there have been many promises, but they have seen very little of that in reality.
I will use the short time that I have in the debate to address the parts of the framework that deal with progress on schools. We now have Professor Muir’s report available to us, and it is enormously important that we address where this Government is in agreement with that report and where it is only in broad agreement. I reiterate the request that I made last week for the Government to say when it will bring a debate on that subject to the chamber.
I am curious about the development proposals for education buildings. In the framework document, reference is made to “Education Recovery: Key Actions and Next Steps”, which dates back to October last year. The document discusses
“preparatory work to ready the school estate”
“influx of new technology”,
that is hoped for from 2023-24. However, I find it disappointing that it does not contain information on how we are going to improve the estate properly with regard to ventilation.
With the emergence of Covid, there was a suggestion that windows and doors should be opened. That was sensible, because that was the only technology that was available at the time, if opening windows and doors can be described as a technology. There was then a discussion about HEPA filters. However, we are also looking forward with hope to a rebuilding of our school estate. Ventilation should play an important part in the design, so that we can future-proof our schools against any Covid or similar pandemic.
I will spend some time discussing the important matter of pupils with additional support needs. This spring—I suggest that we are into spring—I hope that we will see the updated additional support for learning action plan, and I hope that the Deputy First Minister will say when that will be published.
According to statistics that have been published today, 232,753 pupils in Scotland have ASN status—in order to engage in mainstream education or beyond, those pupils require additional support that is tailored to their very specific needs. That is the largest figure that we have ever had in Scotland. In some ways, that is understandable, because of the growth in understanding and appreciation of the challenges that some of our young folk have to confront. However, what is disappointing is the number of additional support teachers that are available to help those young people. Back in 2008, it was 858. It is now 444 just in our primary schools, and our 357 high schools are short of 120 teachers with additional support experience.
Those very vulnerable children come from groups that have suffered greatly during Covid. They suffered before Covid. They need our additional support so that, as adults, they will be able to take a full and proper part in life. Where is the real detail for those children?17:56
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”.
John Lennon is famously quoted as saying that, and no one in the world does not now fully understand the simplicity and power of that statement. What were we all planning to do on 31 December 2019, when the WHO was informed of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause that were detected in Wuhan city? I doubt whether any but a few had planned at that time for the unfolding of events that we all have been lucky enough to live through.
I say “lucky enough to live through” because, as we know, so many others have not been so lucky. It is on that point that I am happy to associate myself with the caution of my colleague Christine Grahame. Losing someone is, in itself, painfully hard to bear. However, the pain of losing someone was compounded by the need to isolate—not to be able to be with a loved one at the end or to do that most human of things: to mourn a loss collectively, to grieve together, to share memories, to laugh, to cry, to hug and to help each other through those painful and difficult days. All those things were taken away from us by a virus that we could not see, hear or smell. Not knowing where our enemy was, or what it looked like, was part of what was most terrifying.
We have also lost the big-ticket occasions. No one turns 18 twice or is born twice, and our way of celebrating the big life events has been curtailed massively—emphasising Mr Lennon’s prophetic, simple statement. It has been a hellish few years for those reasons and more. Businesses and livelihoods have been lost and, quite simply, people have had to reassess where their life is going. Many are still trying to work that out.
However, we are here, thanks in large part to the amazing efforts of those people who worked across our vital sectors to keep the wheels on the bus, and those ingenious folk who developed the vaccinations that have slowly but surely started to give us back our freedoms. We are all due them an enormous debt of gratitude. We are, however, still going to encounter new variants and the danger that they pose will have to be monitored closely, so that we can react with the efficiency and pace that are needed.
At this point, I pay tribute to the ordinary, everyday people of the country for their forbearance and fortitude in accepting those restrictions on their lives, rolling up their sleeves and getting those vaccines into their arms. That collective spirit of working as one for the greater good of us all is in large part why we are at this milestone of a positive outlook for our future. I believe that the Scottish Government’s leadership through the pandemic, its integrity of messaging and its honesty stand comparison to those of any other country in the world—and they are better than in some. There is no doubt that mistakes have been made, but they were made in good faith and with the best of intentions. Hindsight was in zero supply.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s new strategic framework, which was published last month. It is measured and appropriate, and it shows a clear route towards resuming life that is as close as possible to levels before the pandemic. The Scottish Government has already removed many of the temporary measures, but, if the experience of Covid has taught us anything, it is that we need to be able to respond quickly and nimbly to whatever threats may face us in the future.
The summary of the framework document says:
“We know, however, that while securing stability is crucial, the future path of the pandemic is uncertain and that the threat of new and potentially more harmful variants remains. We must therefore remain vigilant and ready to respond in a proportionate manner to any future threats, in order to mitigate the harm that they might otherwise cause.”
We should all support that sensible approach.18:00
This afternoon’s update from the First Minister and the recent daily case rate data are grim reminders that the pandemic is far from over.
The Government’s strategic framework recognises that many of the restrictions that we saw during the previous phases of the pandemic should now be avoidable. Obviously, we cannot say with certainty what characteristics future variants will have, so it would be irresponsible to rule out specific measures for all time. However, the combination of what we have learned about the virus, the treatments that have been developed to support those suffering from it and the success of the vaccination programme have all put us in a very different place to where we were in 2020 and 2021.
That being said, I want to question some of the recent claims about why this is the point at which we should base our response solely on the exercise of individual responsibility rather than on collective measures.
We recognise that our individual health and safety is not dictated by our actions alone but rather by a combination of our actions and the actions of those around us. That is hardly unique to Covid. Every adult in Scotland has the individual right to smoke if they want to, but they do not have the right to do that in an indoor public space because of the harm that it does to others.
I note the example of my train journey this morning. I sat opposite an individual who was not wearing a face mask. I choose to believe the best in people, so I am sure that they had a legitimate reason for not doing so. The individual clearly has a very frustrating job—certainly the work that they were doing on their laptop was frustrating them because, throughout the journey, they were repeatedly exhaling deeply in frustration at whatever it was that they were working on. It was like sitting opposite an office fan.
Jeremy Balfour rose—
I am reasonably healthy and relatively young, so although that was not exactly a pleasant experience, I was willing to accept that level of risk to come to work. However, I have far greater freedom to take that risk than many of the clinically vulnerable people and those with clinically vulnerable relatives who, rather than feeling freer and freer, are feeling more and more isolated by ever-loosening restrictions.
Like Christine Grahame, I know people who have not taken the bus or train in more than two years because of the fear of encountering someone who is not wearing a mask. That is why I am instinctively uncomfortable with the language of “living with Covid”. It implies that the experience of living in a society in which the virus is present is an equally manageable experience for all of us.
However, as the Government’s strategic framework notes, that is not the case. We have all experienced and continue to experience the pandemic, but we have not had the same experience. For disabled people, for those on low incomes—
Will the member take an intervention?
Will the member take an intervention?
I will take Mr Balfour’s point. I apologise to Mr Whittle.
We live with flu, which has a more severe effect on older people and disabled people. Do we not have to get to a situation in which we live with Covid as we live with flu? “Living with Covid” will affect people differently, but it is terminology that they understand.
I am not objecting to the principle that we will simply have to live with Covid. The reality is that we cannot eradicate the virus. However, we have to acknowledge—as I think that the member did—that we do not all live with or experience it in the same way and that some people are more vulnerable than others.
New inequalities have emerged as a result of the pandemic, but most existed before the pandemic and have simply been widened since. That cannot be accepted as our new normal. As the strategy states, we cannot let Covid
“become established as a disease of the poor, disadvantaged or clinically high risk.”
The strategic framework is a relatively high-level document and not the place for all the details on exactly how we turn that agreeable sentiment into reality. However, we need further detail on what a society living with Covid but rightly unwilling to live with increased inequality and marginalisation of vulnerable groups would look like. We are hardly in a unique situation, so there will be plenty of best practice elsewhere to draw from.
Before closing, I want to touch briefly on the effect on front-line healthcare staff of rhetoric around the pandemic being over and of the push to get rid of all restrictions without delay. We all know of hospitals and care homes whose staff are on their knees. I know of one hospital ward that has been treating Covid patients almost exclusively and has seen six nurses hand in their notice in the past six weeks. Those nurses are not leaving to take up positions on other wards; they have simply reached breaking point. We need to acknowledge the effects of all our discussions on healthcare workers, who are still under vast pressure.
The framework broadly gets that balance right and the Greens certainly support it, but there is much more work to do if we are to undo, rather than live with, the inequalities that Covid has brought.
I call Siobhian Brown, who joins us remotely.18:05
I welcome the Scottish Government’s update to the strategic framework. This is an important moment in our recovery.
The past two years have affected everyone in Scotland, some more than others. We have all had to sacrifice a great deal, and many people have lost loved ones before their time. I join members in expressing my condolences to them.
In March 2020, when Covid-19 hit, the world was not prepared. Close to two years to the day later, we can say that lessons must be learned so that we are never again in that position. I am glad that the Scottish Government is committed to learning the lessons of the pandemic, to bolster Scotland’s response to any future crisis. That is the responsible thing to do. It is not a power grab.
Our vaccination programme has been a tremendous success, thanks to the work of the dedicated staff and volunteers. Because of that, we have a bright and optimistic future ahead of us.
The strategic framework marks the point at which we move away—I hope sustainably—from legal restrictions to reliance on sensible behaviour, adaptations and mitigations. Our return to normality must go hand in hand with a continuing determination to look out for one another.
I hope that members of all parties will welcome the transition of most of the remaining restrictions from legislation to guidance—[Inaudible.] Now is the right time to make those changes. The majority of the population is vaccinated and numbers in intensive care are low.
However, we must remember that case numbers continue to be high, due to the BA.2 variant of omicron. Only last week, the COVID-19 Recovery Committee heard that, during the week before last, more than 4,000 NHS staff members in Scotland were off work with Covid. We must acknowledge the impact of that on our services. As Jackie Baillie said, the pressure on the NHS is immense.
We must also acknowledge that Scotland is not alone in facing pressure on its health services. Countries around the globe face on-going challenges because of Covid-19.
As we transition to the new phase, I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government will continue to consider people who are at the highest clinical risk in a way that provides reassurance and support to people who feel particularly vulnerable and anxious. We all have a part to play in ensuring a safe and sustainable recovery.
At the moment, media attention is, quite rightly, largely focused on the on-going crisis in Ukraine—another development that is, frankly, heartbreaking; it is the last thing that the world needs right now. However, the emergence in December of the omicron variant showed us that we need to remain vigilant. If a new variant emerges, we will get very little warning and the Government might need to act swiftly to curb the spread of the virus. No one wants that, but it is right that the Scottish Government is vigilant and prepared to respond quickly to mitigate harm and potentially avoid the need for more stringent interventions later.
Therefore, although the future appears to be positive and we can start to work towards recovery from the pandemic, I thank the Scottish Government for its honesty in saying that it is unable to rule out negative setbacks that are outwith its control. What politician does not want a crystal ball? The strategic framework provides as much clarity as possible.
As convener of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, I particularly welcome the fact that the Scottish Government will listen to and learn from third sector organisations, to link up our thinking on how best to tackle situations. The committee has received feedback on that time and time again from the organisations that have given the committee valuable evidence. After all, the Covid-19 pandemic was not the first pandemic and it will not be the last.
I hope that I do not sound all doom and gloom. Let me finish on a positive note. A unique opportunity is ahead of us as we recover. We can decide the approach that we take, and we should not waste the opportunity. Together, we can build a fairer and more equal post-pandemic Scotland, where we can solve the inequalities that Covid exacerbated. The strategic framework will help us get to that position.18:09
It is hard to imagine that it was two years ago that we sat in Parliament and passed emergency Covid legislation, and that every party in the chamber put party politics aside for the good of the nation and backed the Scottish Government. At that point, we had watched as Covid made its way across the world from China. We had watched as Covid devastated countries such as Italy, and we were getting an idea that the most vulnerable to the virus would be the elderly and infirm, and those with an underlying health condition. Still, when Covid got here, we were unprepared for what was to come.
I want to stress that if emergency powers had been available to the Scottish Government at the time, it would have made absolutely no difference to the response. That is why the Scottish Government’s plan to make emergency powers permanent, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny, is not based on a need and is a power grab. After all, when asked, Parliament passed emergency legislation in no time at all.
Does Brian Whittle agree that the way that the Parliament operates now—with the hardware that we have in place, which was not available two years ago—means that it is in a far better position to pass emergency legislation, almost at the drop of a hat?
Absolutely. I would agree with that. We passed emergency legislation quickly last time and we can do it even more quickly now.
In asking for and receiving the backing of Parliament to take on emergency powers, the Scottish Government also took on responsibility to be open and transparent with Parliament about what actions were being taken and to share the evidence to back those decisions. That is where the Scottish Government fell down. It was almost as though it thought that being scrutinised for its decisions was beneath it. That is where most of the subsequent discourse between the Scottish Government and Parliament has arisen.
Mistakes have been made by every Government in every part of the world. When one country seemed to be doing better than us, all of a sudden that country’s approach was better and we must follow it. Another country was then the front-runner and the jump to its approach was the way to go. The truth is that nobody had the right answers. Every Government’s response was, in the main, reactionary and dependent on an analysis by its version of experts. What can be in no doubt, though, is the importance of the substantial financial support from the UK Treasury, which supported businesses and jobs in the UK, and the roll-out of the UK vaccination programme. Those were the real game changers that allowed us to get to the place we are now, with most restrictions revoked and our economy mainly intact and quickly recovering.
Being wise after the fact is an easy road to take, but the investigation into the approaches taken, if done impartially and thoroughly, can help us to develop a strategy for any future health emergency. We should, for example, be looking at the level of personal protective equipment retained at any one time. Our ability to shield the vulnerable should be scrutinised and planned for. Let us not forget the decision to move Covid-positive patients into care homes and the devastation that that caused.
If we are smart and invest in our ability to gather and analyse big data, we can learn much from our response to the pandemic. Our ability to gather and share data has always been a problem—we have always been behind the curve in Scotland. That was often discussed in the Health and Sport Committee in the previous session of Parliament. Covid has shone a light on the importance of an information technology system that can be used to gather and share data. That investment is long overdue.
More than that, though, we have an opportunity to reset how we view health. We know that more than 60 per cent of those lost to Covid were obese and that approximately one third were diabetic, and we know about all the other comorbidity issues that contributed to Covid being so prevalent on death certificates. We know that those conditions are more likely to appear in lower Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas—the same areas where Covid deaths are highest.
Scotland is the unhealthiest country in Europe, and it has been throughout the SNP tenure and before. Surely, as part of our preparedness for future health emergencies, the preventative health agenda needs to be addressed at long last. In fact, what Covid has done is to shine a light on the health issues that Scotland has faced for decades. That is where the SNP Government’s focus should be, and definitely not on trying to bypass Parliament by unnecessarily retaining emergency powers.18:14
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and I welcome “Scotland’s Strategic Framework Update”. I want to be crystal clear: Covid-19 is still with us, as we heard from the First Minister earlier. Although vaccination is protecting us from the worst impacts of the virus, infected people are still requiring hospital attention, including intensive care support. Thankfully, that requirement is now less than we previously experienced.
The publication of the updated version of the Covid-19 strategic framework marks the point at which we move away from legal restrictions and instead rely on personal behaviours, adaptations and mitigations. I welcome the fact that the requirement for face coverings has been extended a wee bit, and I welcome the other measures that have been put in place. This is an important point in our national journey through and out of the pandemic, and our return to normality must go hand in hand with a continued determination to look out for and look after one another.
We all have a part to play in ensuring a safe and sustainable recovery by continuing to follow public health advice on getting vaccinated, testing as regularly as appropriate, wearing face coverings when required or recommended and keeping rooms ventilated. All of that still matters, even as we lift the remaining legal requirements. We know how successful face coverings have been in protecting one another from the virus, and it is absolutely vital that we look to support and protect people. I know that it is not as comfortable to wear a face covering as it is to not wear one, but we must ensure that people who want to continue to wear them feel that they can do so without fear of being judged. I would support any action to make available FFP2 masks, which are more secure fitting and protect the wearer more effectively than other standard face coverings.
The threat of new variants remains. In the past 14 days, we have heard of the emergence of a sub-lineage variant called deltacron BA.2, which is another variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It appears to be even more transmissible than the already highly transmissible omicron variant. Professor Adrian Esterman, who is a former World Health Organization epidemiologist, said that the BA.2 variant is “pretty close to measles” in transmissibility, and measles is
“the most contagious disease we know about.”
It is therefore right that the strategic framework update sets out how we will respond to future threats at national level. The strategic intent has been revised from a focus on suppressing cases to a focus on managing Covid effectively using adaptations and health measures, which include vaccination, treatment, surveillance, strengthening the resilience of health and social care in general, and adaptations in behaviours and physical environments.
The update sets out a clear framework of threat levels and potential responses, which provides as much clarity as possible for planning purposes and retains crucial flexibility to ensure that responses are effective and proportionate.
I highlight the Support in Mind Scotland briefing that we received ahead of the debate. We must continue to recognise how people’s mental health has been affected during the pandemic, including people who had a mental health diagnosis prior to Covid. I acknowledge that tailored direct mental health support must continue.
On vaccinations, I understand that, currently, 34.5 per cent of people in Ukraine have had a first dose of the vaccine, which compares with 73.1 per cent of people in Scotland. I would be interested to hear from the Deputy First Minister about how we can commit to helping people arriving from Ukraine—who we welcome—to access their first, second or, if appropriate based on clinical need, additional dose.
I support the motion, I welcome the framework and I look forward to the Deputy First Minister’s response.
We move to closing speeches. Alex Rowley is joining us remotely.18:19
In winding up for Labour in this debate on the updated framework, I join the Deputy First Minister, Jackie Baillie and many other members who have talked about the pain and heartache of people who have suffered throughout Scotland. Our condolences go to everyone who has lost a loved one or a friend. We recognise that many people are still struggling and need support, whether that be mental health, financial or other support.
Many members have rightly thanked front-line workers, particularly health and social care workers, for all that they have done, but, as Jackie Baillie pointed out, the pressure on our hospital staff is immense. I meet and talk with nurses, doctors and other people who work in our health services and they tell me that they are completely overrun. Therefore, priority must be given to ensuring that we deal with the issues, get proper workforce planning in place and get resources to where they are needed in the health service.
That brings to me to my next point. I note that the document talks about
“strengthening the resilience of health and social care generally”,
but I say to the Deputy First Minister that, if we do not tackle the inequalities that exist in the social care workforce and the poor terms and conditions and underpayment of care workers, the Government will not be able to fix the growing crisis in social care.
Words are one thing, but we need action on health and social care from the Government: it must act. It disturbs me that money is being put into social care, but we are talking about a review of social care. The main problems that stick out in relation to why we have a recruitment and retention issue are underfunding and the unfair treatment of social care workers. Those problems must be tackled if we are to address the crisis in social care.
In my last 30 seconds, I will mention that we must support those who are most in need. People acknowledge that levels of deprivation and poverty have grown significantly. We have to target support. MSPs, including me, will get £150 to help with the cost of living crisis. It is ridiculous that that is how we are trying to help the people who are suffering most through the cost of living crisis; we should be targeting that money much better at the people who are most in need. When I raised that with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, she told me that it was very difficult to target the money directly, but as Councillor Stephen McCabe has pointed out, the council tax system already has a means-tested rebate system in place. Why are we giving MSPs and others who earn similar wages £150 to help them with the cost of living crisis when we should be focusing all our resources on those who are most in need?
Again, I note that the document sounds good, but we need action to follow it up. Most people in Scotland will recognise that the extension of the guidance on face coverings for a few more weeks is the correct thing to do, given what we have come through. As members have pointed out, the virus is still out there and cases are rising. Everybody knows somebody who has Covid. We have to be cautious.
I will leave it at that, Presiding Officer.18:23
The Scottish Government’s motion is 236 words long and we back 112 of them. Our condolences go out to all those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. We salute the people who work hard to keep our vital services going. Let us make no mistake about it—they are still working hard today.
The vaccination programme has been a huge British success story and, going forward, government at all levels, public services, charities, businesses and communities need to work together to manage Covid-19 and its variants.
We recognise that the pandemic has hit many hard-working families and has exacerbated the problems that are faced by disadvantaged people in our communities. However, 124 words of the SNP-Green motion make the case for an illiberal Covid power grab. The Government has become so hooked on controlling people’s lives that it wants to make emergency powers permanent. It wants the powers to close schools and release prisoners early, and to do so without Parliament’s consent. Let us not forget that the alarming overreach of power can be made possible only if the Green Party remains in line and in support.
I ask this question in all sincerity, because there is no Green member on the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, so I am unfamiliar with how Conservative members have interacted with the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) (Scotland) Bill so far. Do the Conservatives sincerely commit to opposing all aspects of that bill, including the relatively benign commitments on continuing to protect people from evictions, on bankruptcy measures and so on? Are the Conservatives genuinely objecting to the bill in its entirety? Many of the proposals in it were supported by Conservative members when they were introduced. That was done not with the idea that they would be only temporary but because they just make sense.
It is not our fault that everything has been put in one bill. Things need to be separated out, which could have been done, but the choice was that it would not be done.
I am surprised to hear that Ross Greer supports the motion, because his Green Party has a guiding principle that states that individuals should control decisions that affect their own lives. With regard to the motion, I note that our amendment is what the Green Party’s principles should look like. The Scottish Conservatives’ amendment recognises that the public
“can be trusted to act responsibly and follow guidance promoting good public health behaviours”.
Is Sandesh Gulhane, as a medical practitioner, saying that there should not be a mandatory requirement to wear face coverings while Covid is on the increase in Scotland, as has been indicated in the advice of the chief medical officer and the clinical director?
I am glad that Christine Grahame brought that up, because face masks are not as effective as we think they are. That is because most people wear them with their nose out of them and they pull down their masks to talk. [Interruption.]
Can we have a wee bit less noise across the chamber?
If I am asked a question, I would be quite—
Will the member give way?
I have already indicated that members should allow Dr Gulhane to continue. Please continue now, Dr Gulhane.
The masks that I see everyone wearing here and in public should not be reworn once a journey is completed, but 56 per cent of people reuse single-use masks and 34 per cent wear reusable masks more than four times before they wash them. That is why we oppose the SNP-Green proposals to retain emergency powers.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am sorry, but I do not think that Dr Gulhane will give way to you. Please continue, Dr Gulhane.
The SNP and the Greens are failing to read the room. There is no acknowledgment in their motion of the crisis in our NHS that must be tackled. There was a crisis before Covid, and the NHS is now past breaking point. Our treasured health service—dentists, doctors, nurses and ambulance crews—is being failed by the Government, so I ask it, please, to wake up.
Another example of shambolic SNP stewardship is in education. The Government must really get a grip and support our young people—our country’s future—who have suffered from two years of disrupted learning. I cannot fathom why the Government left healthcare and schooling out of its motion, why there is no statement of intent, and why there is only a call for more power and more control. That smacks of arrogance—or maybe the Government is deeply embarrassed by its record on health and education over the past 15 years.
Jackie Baillie asked what should be done with test and protect. In February, the Scottish Conservatives published “Back to Normality: A Blueprint for Living with Covid”. We proposed phasing out test and protect, replacing it with a smaller system and reinvesting the resources in front-line NHS services.
We also called for an end to legal restrictions, with future pandemic management through advisory public health guidance and personal responsibility. Our amendment is consistent with that position and addresses two key areas that the Scottish people care deeply about: the NHS and children’s schooling.
On the other hand, the Government’s motion is opportunist. It is a clinging on to power and it is illiberal. It is a clear message that the Government does not think that we have learned anything from the past two years and that the Government does not trust the people of Scotland to do the right thing.
Will the member take an intervention?
The member is concluding, Mr Fairlie.
To conclude, I say that if members believe that individuals should be allowed to make decisions about their own lives, they should support Murdo Fraser’s amendment.
I declare an interest: I am a practising NHS doctor.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I forgot to mention earlier that I, too, am a practising NHS employee who has been a vaccinator for the past two years, since the vaccines were introduced.
Thank you. That is now on the record.
I call the Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, to wind up for the Scottish Government.18:30
In her contribution to the debate, Beatrice Wishart said that, while legal requirements will become guidance, Covid is still very much around and not everyone will be comfortable with the relaxation of restrictions. With that, she summed up the reality of the dilemmas that exist—dilemmas that have been studiously ignored in the contributions from Conservative members—and the fact that some members of our society are profoundly uneasy about the circumstances that they now face. Those points were also made by my dear and respected colleague, Christine Grahame, who spoke about the situation that is faced by people who have vulnerabilities and are anxious about re-emerging into society.
Given the casual dismissal of those concerns by Conservative members today, and the very aggressive dismissal of them by the Conservatives’ social media feeds over the past 24 hours, in the face of overwhelming evidence that justifies the decisions that the Government has arrived at today, those points should be a stunning wake-up call for the Conservatives.
The idea is that, in two weeks’ time, the Scottish Government will remove the legal requirement for face coverings to be worn. Is the Deputy First Minister saying that people who are anxious now will not be anxious in two weeks’ time?
No, I am not. I am saying that the Conservatives disregard the feelings and opinions of those individuals, and that they do so in a casual and unrelenting fashion. Earlier today, I sat in the chamber and listened to Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, absolutely racing past that argument.
Ross Greer and Alex Rowley made a point about the pressure that national health service staff face. That is one of the realities with which the Government has wrestled in taking the decisions that we have announced to Parliament today, which we believe are proportionate, given the scale of the challenges that we face.
I want to address a number of points that have been made in the debate. Murdo Fraser overstated—not for the first time—the case that he made to Parliament, in two respects. The first relates to the effect of precautionary measures that the Scottish Government has taken. Mr Fraser asked what the evidence was for the performance of those measures. As one example of evidence, I cite the ONS infection survey, which showed that from 31 October 2021 to 5 February 2022—the period to which Mr Fraser referred in taking exception to the different positions of the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government in their application of restrictions in Scotland and in England—around 26 per cent of people in Scotland were infected with Covid, while the figure for England was 34 per cent.
I use that data to illustrate my point to Mr Fraser. I could go on to talk about the differences in deaths within 28 days of a positive test by area. The survey shows that, over the duration of the pandemic, the figure for Scotland was 200 deaths per 100,000 of the population, whereas in England it was 250 per 100,000. I use that data simply to illustrate that these decisions are not easy for any Government, in any part of the United Kingdom. However, we have tried to take measured and appropriate steps to protect the population, and I believe that the announcements that the Government has made today, and the contents of the strategic framework, are consistent with that position.
The Deputy First Minister talks about “measured and appropriate steps”. Given that 98 per cent of Scotland is rural and that 1 million people live in rural Scotland, why is “rural” mentioned only once in his whole document? It suggests that those with mental health conditions should have access only to digital treatments. Does the Deputy First Minister believe that everyone should be supported, no matter where they live, or does he think that people with mental health conditions in rural areas should get less support from services than everybody else in Scotland?
I am producing a strategic framework that is relevant and appropriate for every citizen of our country, regardless of where they live. I am proud to represent a rural area in the Parliament, and I take no lessons from Finlay Carson about how to represent rural Scotland.
The second way in which Murdo Fraser overstates his case is in relation to the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) Scotland Bill—and he was, of course, echoed by numerous others, such as Mr Whittle, into the bargain. For the sake of clarity, let me reassure Mr Balfour on the issue that he raised about the possibility of undertaking the registration of deaths in person: the bill provides for that. That removes one reason why Mr Balfour could be opposed to the bill, so I look forward to his support for it as a consequence of my directly addressing the issue about which he was concerned.
One of the familiar points that is raised with us is the importance of learning lessons from things. The Government is learning the lessons of the pandemic and wants to ensure that the Parliament and the country have in place law that enables us to react as quickly as we need to react to the challenges that we might face. We have all agreed, and everybody has accepted, that Covid is still around. It may reappear with much greater virulence than has been the case, and we must have the legislative arrangements in place to deal with that.
On any other day, the Conservatives would be coming here and telling us, “You should have learned the lessons. You should have prepared the statute book for all of this.” We now find ourselves here preparing the statute book for all of that—not for the Government to have automatic powers, but to have powers that will be able to be used only with parliamentary consent and with appropriate evidence of the gravity of the situation, as provided by the chief medical officer.
Some of the language that we have heard from the Conservatives today is completely over the top.
Murdo Fraser rose—
Brian Whittle rose—
I am spoilt for choice between Mr Fraser and Mr Whittle. Since I have mentioned Mr Fraser, I will give way to him.
On the point that the Deputy First Minister has just made about parliamentary consent, is he therefore now ruling out what is in the bill, which is the use of the made affirmative procedure, which means laws coming into force without the Parliament considering them first?
For all the years that he has been here, Mr Fraser has displayed the most appalling ignorance of parliamentary procedure. The made affirmative procedure is an accepted statutory mechanism that involves parliamentary scrutiny, so there is no bypassing of Parliament whatever involved in the Government’s legislation. If we are at the stage when I am having to lecture Mr Fraser on elementary parliamentary procedure, it is no wonder that the Conservatives are in the sorry state that they are in.
The Scottish Government is taking the necessary and proportionate steps to respond to the challenges that we face. We have done that throughout the pandemic. I am profoundly grateful to members of the public for the way in which they have supported the measures that the Government has taken, for the way in which they have embraced those measures and for the way in which they have acted responsibly to protect other members of our society. The Government intends to provide the leadership to enable that to continue in the period to come.
That concludes the debate on “Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework Update”.