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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Thursday, October 28, 2021

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Offshore Training Passport, Portfolio Question Time, National Health Service Endowment Funds, Covid Recovery Strategy, Points of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time


Contents


Covid Recovery Strategy

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place, and that face coverings should be worn while moving around the chamber and the Holyrood campus.

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-01803, in the name of John Swinney, on the Covid recovery strategy.

15:25  

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery (John Swinney)

On 5 October, I set out to Parliament the Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy. The strategy sets out the Government’s vision for recovery and our commitment to supporting those who have been most affected during the pandemic. I very much hope that members across the chamber will support the strategy and this Government’s wider efforts to bring about a fairer future for the people of Scotland.

As we look towards an uncertain and challenging winter period ahead, it is clear that the pandemic is not yet over. We must all continue to take the appropriate steps to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe, and I warmly thank all those who are continuing to play their part to protect Scotland. However, because of the measures that we have taken to control the virus and the incredible success of the vaccination programme, life for many will feel much more normal than it has done for quite some time. As a consequence, while we continue to focus on responding to the pandemic, the Government is able to take the necessary steps to support and enable a fair recovery from the pandemic. I will set out today how the Covid recovery strategy will bring about that fairer future, particularly for those who have been most impacted during the pandemic.

As I set out in my previous statement, the pandemic has dramatically affected every aspect of our lives. The Government has asked people to change where and how they work, conduct business and socialise with friends and family. Although the past 18 months have taken a significant toll on people across the country, there have been positive examples of collaborative working and people solving problems in creative and imaginative ways in all the communities that we have the privilege to represent. Alongside addressing the harms of the pandemic, the Government will learn from and build on the positives that have emerged from it.

Although it is true that the pandemic has affected us all and required much sacrifice from many, it is not the case that all have been impacted equally. The pandemic has highlighted and worsened inequalities across our country, and for many, the past 18 months have been incredibly challenging. People who were disadvantaged before the pandemic have been hardest hit during it. Those individuals—our neighbours, friends and constituents—were more likely to become seriously ill and, sadly, to die from Covid, and they were the hardest hit socially and economically as a result of the necessary restrictions that were introduced to control the spread of the virus.

People living in low-income households have been able to save less, have taken on more debt and have been significantly impacted by labour market pressures. Our children and young people have been affected through school closures and uncertainty about their learning, training and employment. We also know that many unpaid carers have faced added pressure during the pandemic and it has been an incredibly difficult time for them. We are in regular touch with carers’ representatives, including Carers Scotland, to make sure that we understand carers’ concerns and can act accordingly. We have invested an additional £28.5 million for local carer support in this year’s budget, bringing total investment under the Carers (Scotland) Act 2016 to £68 million per year.

The pandemic also resulted in an unprecedented shock to Scotland’s economy and job market, and existing job market inequalities have been exacerbated, with Brexit reinforcing those inequalities.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

One of my concerns is that people may look at the increase in vacancies and think that there are no issues with unemployment. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that it is possible to have both increasing unemployment and increasing vacancies, because there is not an efficient interaction between those two factors?

We have quite a bit of time in hand this afternoon, cabinet secretary, so you will be reimbursed for your time.

John Swinney

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I agree whole-heartedly with Mr Johnson—he makes a substantial point that poses a challenge to Government and to a variety of institutions around the country to ensure that the interventions that we put in place can directly and satisfactorily address the issue that he cites. There are vacancies in the labour market; Mr Johnson will know from speaking to businesses in his constituency, as I speak to those in my constituency and around the country, that they are facing real challenges around vacancies.

Equally, however—as Murdo Fraser and I discussed at portfolio question time yesterday—there will be individuals who are unemployed or whose jobs have come to an end after furlough but who may not have the ideal skills to enable them to move into another sector. Our colleges and institutions, and our training interventions such as the young persons guarantee and the transition training fund, must all be efficient and focused in order to address the issue that Mr Johnson fairly puts to me. I give him an assurance that the Government is constantly addressing those questions.

In addition, we must also focus—I made this point to Mr Fraser yesterday—on people in our society who are currently economically inactive and who, with appropriate levels of support, assistance and perhaps additional public services, could be assisted to enter the labour market. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has regularly raised concerns about the availability of the social care workforce, which is critical to ensuring that the demand for care packages in our community is satisfactorily met—a point that I discussed with Jackie Baillie at question time yesterday.

We can potentially enable some of those economically inactive individuals to gain access to the labour market with the proper support that they require. Indeed, ministers were wrestling yesterday with some of the issues in respect of wraparound childcare, which I recognise to be a significant issue. In closing the debate today, the Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights will talk about housing supply issues, which are material to ensuring that individuals can find the stability to enable them to enter the labour market. Mr Johnson makes a very fair point.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I recently visited the Raploch centre in Stirling, which is funded directly through the Scottish Government. It is a brilliant project that is trying to reach those people who are furthest away from the labour market. How do we ensure that we start to get funding going directly into community organisations that are able to deliver the kind of success that we see from the Raploch centre?

John Swinney

Mr Rowley puts his finger on an important point. He highlights the Raploch centre, which is a perfect example of exactly the point that I tried to make to Mr Johnson. However, I acknowledge that Raploch-style centres do not exist in every part of the country. We have to ensure that best practice is shared around the country and that we encourage different institutions and community planning partnerships at a local level to adopt those techniques, because it is clear that the Raploch centre model can assist individuals to enter the labour market with the necessary support. I commend that initiative, and I give Mr Rowley an assurance that, as part of the wider Covid recovery strategy, we are trying to ensure that more of those interventions are available around the country to support individuals.

We cannot return to how things were before the pandemic, when some people, because of their income, health, disability, race or gender, were less secure and less able to protect themselves and their families from circumstances beyond their control. Our recovery from the pandemic must be focused on creating a fairer future for everyone. It is critical that we deliver the type of recovery that people want and need.

During the summer, the Government heard from people that they wanted a recovery that addresses the harms caused by the pandemic; supports health and wellbeing; supports economic development; and provides financial security. The Government has listened to the valuable messages that have been shared through the Citizens Assembly of Scotland and the social renewal advisory board. I am grateful to all who have shared their views and experiences so openly and honestly. The message is clear: the people of Scotland want a fairer future for all fellow members of our community. That message is central to the Covid recovery strategy, which has a clear vision that will bring about a fairer future. We will address the inequalities that have been made worse by Covid, make progress towards a wellbeing economy in which our success is based on more than gross domestic product, and accelerate inclusive, person-centred public services.

The strategy details three outcomes that are central to achieving that vision of a fairer future: to increase financial security for low-income households; to enhance the wellbeing of children and young people; and to create good, green jobs and fair work. Those three outcomes are supported by an overarching ambition to rebuild public services and ensure that they are person centred in design and delivery. That very much relates to the point that Mr Rowley made about the approach that is taken at the Raploch centre. There are already examples of public services being delivered in that way. The Government’s ambition is that every person in Scotland should be able to access and benefit from public services in a way that meets their individual needs.

Our renewed and enhanced collaboration and partnership with local government, business organisations and the third sector will be critical to achieving our vision. We must build on the spirit of collaboration, urgency and flexibility that characterised our collective response to the pandemic. The challenge that I have put to Government, which we are sharing with our colleagues in local government, business organisations, the third sector and our communities, is that, if we can move so fast collectively and collaboratively to tackle a pandemic that was a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of all of us in March 2020, surely we can deploy the same collaborative energy and focus in tackling poverty in our society and in the delivery of a fairer future.

The Covid recovery strategy details how the Government will work with partners to prioritise, co-ordinate and target actions most effectively over the next 18 months to meet the needs of those most affected during the pandemic. To ensure financial security for low-income families, we will roll out the Scottish child payment to children under 16 by the end of next year and double the payment to £20 a week per child as soon as possible in this parliamentary session. We will also commence work to expand funded early learning and childcare to children aged 1 and 2, and we will design a system of wraparound childcare in which the least well-off families will pay nothing. That can perhaps address some of the issues that Mr Johnson raised about supporting people into the labour market.

To further reduce the costs of the school day, we will expand the provision of free breakfasts and lunches and increase the school clothing grant each year.

To enhance the wellbeing of our children and young people, we will invest at least £500 million over this parliamentary session to create a whole family wellbeing fund. That fund will provide universal and holistic support services that will be available in communities across Scotland and give families access to the help that they need where and when they need it.

We will also deliver our young persons guarantee by providing up to £70 million this year so that every person aged between 16 and 24 has the opportunity to study or take up an apprenticeship, employment or work experience. That will include targeted measures to support care-experienced young people, disabled young people and those from low socioeconomic groups. The Government will also provide £120 million of further funding through the mental health recovery and renewal fund, which includes increased support for child and adolescent mental health services.

To create good, green jobs and fair work, we will support the creation of more jobs through the green jobs fund and the green jobs workforce academy. The forthcoming 10-year national strategy for economic transformation will set out plans for strengthening Scotland’s economy, recognising that a strong and sustainable economy goes hand in hand with a fair and equal society.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

The point about a strong and sustainable economy is a really important one as we come out of the pandemic. The third sector makes about the same contribution in terms of employment and economics to the country as the national health service does. On that basis, will the cabinet secretary include the third sector in the next Scottish Government economic strategy, given what we have seen that it has been able to do at short notice and under pressure in the past year?

You should begin to wind up reasonably soon, cabinet secretary.

John Swinney

Yes is the short answer to Pam Duncan-Glancy’s question, because I am struck by the opportunities. I was looking at material on that the other day from some of our social enterprise organisations, for example. Some of those ideas might be able to assist in the challenge of expanding the social care workforce, which the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has clearly been actively focused on addressing, because of the reach of some of those organisations into our communities in delivering locally based employment, which perhaps saves transport costs for individuals. I very much welcome that. I have just agreed to meet Social Investment Scotland and Social Enterprise Scotland to continue some of the discussions with them that I greatly enjoyed when I was the finance secretary to establish how they can contribute to the Covid recovery strategy. I look forward to those discussions.

The strategy must be viewed as a national effort. Therefore, it requires collaboration. I have signalled in it the Government’s willingness to work closely with our local authority partners. We intend to establish a joint oversight board with local government to share in the implementation and application of the strategy not through any form of top-down approach but by engagement and collaboration involving the third and private sectors, to ensure that we put as much effort into tackling poverty and delivering a fairer future as we put into tackling a pandemic that was a threat to all our lives.

I encourage the Parliament to support the Government’s Covid recovery strategy.

I move,

That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Covid Recovery Strategy, published on 5 October 2021, which sets out the Scottish Government’s ambitious vision for a green recovery and details the actions that will be taken in partnership with local government, business organisations, the third sector and others across Scotland to address systemic inequalities made worse during the pandemic, make progress towards a wellbeing economy, and accelerate inclusive person-centred public services by focusing on improving financial security for low-income households, supporting the wellbeing of children and young people, and creating good, green jobs and fair work.

15:41  

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

When the Scottish Government publishes a new strategy, the first question to ask is always, what is new here? In this case the answer is, not a lot. We have an extensive document that runs to 47 pages. There are a lot of reannouncements of existing policies but there is little in the document that is new. Nor is there much in the way of timescales for the delivery of many of the initiatives that are being announced or reannounced.

We should be united in the Parliament by a shared ambition for Covid recovery to be as quick and comprehensive as possible. In that respect, there is little that I would disagree with in what the Deputy First Minister just said. However, I will focus on two key areas in which the Scottish Government needs to do more as a matter of urgency.

The first is the situation in the NHS, which is covered in the strategy document. We have long argued, and it is now well understood and agreed, that the best route out of the pandemic is through the vaccination programme. That is why it has been so important. Its success up to now has been instrumental in allowing us to make progress and relax restrictions. However, we are undeniably now encountering challenges with the programme.

We learned this week that more than 100,000 people who should be receiving their booster jags are still waiting. Those boosters are essential, particularly for reassuring the older population that they are safe. Indeed, we heard at First Minister’s question time some examples of the situation on the ground. We also heard in the COVID-19 Recovery Committee examples of older people who expected to get the booster jag and were very concerned that it had not yet been forthcoming.

Today, we learned from NHS Fife that one fifth of people aged over 80 in that health board area, which I represent, who are eligible for a booster and the flu vaccine have still to receive an appointment. That is a stark illustration of the point that I am making. Older people are worried. They have been told that they need to get the booster to give them crucial extra protection over the winter months but are still waiting to hear when they will get one. That needs to be the focus of attention for the Government.

That is only one aspect of the wider issues that affect the NHS. It is now well understood that we are at a crisis point within the NHS in Scotland, with hospitals bursting at the seams and record waits at accident and emergency departments. This week, we again heard shocking statistics, which show that there is now a wait of up to 40 hours at some hospitals for A and E admissions.

This week, NHS Lothian told people not to attend A and E unless their condition was life threatening. That is a really concerning line for the NHS to put out to the general public. How is any individual with a serious injury or sudden chest pains supposed to know whether what they face falls in the category of being life threatening? There is a real danger that lives could be lost as a result of that sort of messaging. If an elderly person falls over and breaks their ankle, their life might not be at risk but, clearly, they are in a lot of distress. What are they then supposed to do? Are they not meant to call an ambulance or try to attend an accident and emergency department?

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

On the other hand, would the member accept that, in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 32 per cent of those turning up at A and E were reckoned to have minor ailments, so there is a bit of space for people not to go to A and E?

Murdo Fraser

I do not disagree with the statistic that the member has quoted, which I am sure is accurate. The danger is that we could effectively be asking people, through a public message from an NHS board, to self-diagnose, which I think is really concerning. There is then a real risk that people who have a very serious injury or something life threatening do not attend A and E. We need to be very careful about that message.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

This is not the be-all and end-all, I accept that, but the Scottish Ambulance Service has helpful guidance on its website as to where people can call if they have certain injuries. I am not saying, “Don’t ever call an ambulance,” but there is some guidance so that, if people are in doubt, they can check. The website directs them to other services if necessary.

I can give Murdo Fraser the time back.

Murdo Fraser

I thank Christine Grahame for that intervention, but the difficulty with all of this is that people will often see only one message. They might see a message on social media, in this case from NHS Lothian, which is telling people, “Do not attend A and E unless your condition is life threatening.” That is all that people see. That is really concerning, and the Government needs to be very clear about the message that it is sending out to people. We will end up with people in much worse health situations than would otherwise be the case, and lives might be lost.

John Swinney

There is a substantial issue here. I hope that Mr Fraser understands that the Government and health boards have to say to people that there must be good and appropriate reason for individuals to use accident and emergency. They are not called “accident and emergency” departments for any casual reason; they are for when people have had an accident or for a situation that is an emergency. There are many other aspects of healthcare available.

I encourage Mr Fraser to take a considered view—which is the point that both Christine Grahame and John Mason made—as to the judgments that people should make in seeking the appropriate healthcare for the circumstances and difficulties that they face.

Murdo Fraser

That message needs to be given to health boards such as NHS Lothian, which is putting out messages to people, saying “Do not attend A and E unless your condition is life threatening.” How are the public supposed to know what a life-threatening situation is? If somebody has chest pains or thinks that they might be having the symptoms of a stroke or has suffered a serious injury, how do they know whether it is life threatening? That is the message that the Government needs to take away.

I have taken up a lot of time on that, and I wish to move on to discuss an important economic issue, specifically, support for business.

Throughout the lockdown, we saw generous financial support to the business community, to the self-employed and to workers through the furlough scheme and other initiatives. There was also extensive grant support. That is now mostly coming to an end, as the economy recovers and businesses are allowed to reopen.

There are still sectors of the economy under pressure, however. The introduction of the vaccination passport scheme in Scotland is unique in that, unlike in any other part of Europe, it does not allow a negative Covid test as an alternative to vaccination as the price of entry. That is having a negative impact on the night-time industry. According to the Scottish hospitality group this week, turnover is down at some premises by 40 per cent, following the introduction of the vaccination passport scheme, and there have been reports of a growing level of abuse towards door staff, some of whom are walking off the job as a result.

Will the member give way on that point?

Murdo Fraser

I have already taken three interventions. Mr Fairlie will forgive me, but I need to make some progress.

I have made the case to the Scottish Government on numerous previous occasions that, if it wants to have a vaccination passport scheme, it needs to offer the alternative of a negative test. If it is not going to do that, there will continue to be a negative and substantial economic impact on businesses, which have already been suffering due to 18 months of restrictions and closures, and the Government will then need to step up with financial compensation.

In the budget yesterday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extension of rates relief for businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sector at a rate of 50 per cent for a further year across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Yesterday, the Scottish Tourism Alliance called on the Scottish Government to follow suit. I hope that it will. We need to consider how those businesses that are directly affected by the vaccination passport scheme might also be supported.

There is a need to go beyond that, with wider support for economic recovery. I was surprised to see that, in the 47 pages of the recovery strategy document, there is not one mention of the Scottish National Investment Bank, a flagship policy to assist with sustainable economic growth that is now seemingly slipping off the radar.

It is all too reminiscent of the much-vaunted public energy company, launched once with great fanfare, but then delivering nothing. What is the role of SNIB in relation to Covid recovery? Should it not be there to address market failures in the provision of finance to all types of enterprises that deliver beneficial outcomes for the public good and Covid recovery?

For example, I have been engaging with The Growth Partnership, which is promoting social impact investment bonds, an innovative and imaginative initiative delivering real benefits for the public sector and helping progress towards a wellbeing economy, but it is struggling to attract commercial support. Groups in that sphere could benefit substantially from support from SNIB, but at present it is unclear whether SNIB has a role in providing that level of support. That is one clear area where the strategy is lacking and could be improved.

In his remarks earlier, the cabinet secretary talked a lot about the role of the third sector in reply to an intervention from the Labour benches and made it very clear that he prizes the third sector. I have just given a good example of a third sector initiative that could help with Covid recovery but currently cannot because it is not getting support. However, it could get support from SNIB. I hope that the cabinet secretary will look into that.

I am well over my time, Presiding Officer, so I will conclude. Although there is little in the strategy that we would object to, overall it fails to meet the challenge before us, particularly the immediate pressures that face our NHS and economy.

I move amendment S6M-01803.2, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:

“notes the publication of the Covid Recovery Strategy, published on 5 October 2021; regrets the lack of new policy or clear timeline within the strategy, and calls on the Scottish Government to take immediate steps to accelerate the vaccine booster roll-out, tackle the current crisis within the NHS, and to bring forward a detailed recovery strategy with specific proposals for businesses, including widening access to full fibreoptic broadband, and a comprehensive suite of measures to allow school children to catch up swiftly, such as a national tutoring programme.”

15:51  

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

In 2016, within weeks of the election, the newly appointed education secretary published a plan for education that set out a number of detailed milestones backed by detailed analysis of where we needed to improve our schools. Five years on, we have that minister now in charge of Covid recovery, a job in every way more important, urgent and profound, but the plan took months to publish and, in my view and that of other Labour members, it is less specific and, in some ways, less ambitious. As Mr Fraser pointed out, many of the initiatives in the plan are simply repeats from not just the election but before the election.

I profoundly believe that Mr Swinney is a serious politician and that the mission that he has been charged with is a serious one, but I believe that by his own yardstick, the plan is not ambitious enough and nor does it contain the detail that the recovery requires. Further, I do not believe that we have recovery plans of sufficient detail within portfolio areas. So far, we have had an education recovery plan that seems to commit to little more than glacial implementation of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report and a health recovery plan that is already in tatters.

We need a recovery plan that reflects the time that the recovery will take, the ambition required and the complexity of the potentially permanent impact that Covid has wrought in Scotland. That is what, fundamentally, our amendment proposes. Like the Conservatives, we do not fundamentally disagree with the Covid recovery strategy as set out, but it does not go far enough. It does not have the concrete milestones or the concrete analysis that is required if we are to recover from the consequences of the pandemic. Without those specific targeted actions being set out, the Government motion is largely meaningless.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

I am sure that Mr Johnson recognises that the Scottish Government is fatally constricted by not having borrowing powers. When we are faced with a crisis such as the current one, being able to borrow in order to grow the economy is utterly fundamental. Will Mr Johnson join me in asking the UK Government to grant those powers?

Daniel Johnson

Even by the standards of our own Government, the plan does not go far enough. It contains the same level of ambition as the one set out for education in the previous session of Parliament. The budget is coming up in a matter of weeks and we will have consideration of the processes around the fiscal framework. I am happy to have the debates on those issues, but there is scope within the envelope of the Scottish Government to go further. Funds were announced in the budget just yesterday that have yet to be allocated. There is sufficient scope to go much further and be much more ambitious than the plan set out by the Government.

I will set out three elements whereby Labour would seek to go further. First, as is suggested in our amendment, we need to do much more to contain and suppress the virus. Throughout the autumn, Scotland had one of the highest infection rates in the whole of Europe. We must stop using the benchmark of the hopeless Conservative Government in Westminster. We know what works, and we should be comparing ourselves to what other countries, such as Germany, have been doing. Germany’s excess death rate has been roughly half that of Scotland, because it invested properly in testing and in track and trace. We must contain the virus by resourcing such systems to stop it in its tracks.

Likewise, the vaccination programme has done an amazing job, but we must now redouble our efforts to complete it, taking jabs to where people are—in schools, colleges and universities. What is most important, as has been alluded to by Murdo Fraser, is that we must recognise the severe challenges and issues in the booster and flu vaccination programmes. I have constituents who were vaccinated more than six months ago and who have no idea when their booster is meant to take place. Likewise, constituents are being asked to make two-hour round trips to get their flu shots. Quite simply, not only is that not good enough, but it represents a failure to learn the lessons of the first vaccination programme.

Secondly, we must address the issues that are faced more broadly in our public services, because they are on the front line in dealing with the pandemic and for delivering that recovery. However, the challenges that are faced by the health service are profound. As has been pointed out by NHS Lothian, and as we know from other areas, that is being exacerbated by a lack of capacity. That is why, in our amendment, we have put forward the call for a plan for £15 per hour for care workers—raising their pay immediately to £12 an hour and working in short order towards that £15 an hour mark. That would boost recruitment, improve pay and secure the conditions of care workers. It is a disgrace that those who are doing such an important job are being paid little more than pennies above the minimum wage.

Thirdly, it is important to realise what the economic impacts of the pandemic are. As I stated in my intervention, they are complicated, in that we can have vacancies and unemployment. Indeed, 93,900 people were still on furlough when that scheme ended, yet the programmes that have been announced by the Government for reskilling and retraining address little more than a third of those people. We need to literally double our efforts to reskill and redeploy people. Entire sectors have changed permanently. Those people and industries need action from Government in order to transition. That is why we need to increase our provision for job creation schemes and retraining.

We need to stop name checking recovery and start taking steps to deliver it. We need a clear analysis of what recovery requires, clear targets to track our progress and a defined timetable for delivery. We need a recovery that focuses on jobs and that reinforces our public services.

I move amendment S6M-01803.1, to insert at end:

“; considers that failure to contain and suppress the virus will risk undermining Scotland’s recovery; insists that the Covid Recovery Strategy be backed up by interventions to prevent long-term economic scarring, and so calls on the Scottish Government to bring forward a plan to increase pay for social care workers to £15/hr, and to increase access to the national transition training fund and jobs guarantee scheme to ensure that places are available for all those impacted by the end of furlough to find employment.”

15:58  

Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

We must put the recovery from Covid first. The pandemic has disrupted everything, from schools and shopping to weddings and the Parliament. It has highlighted great pre-existing divides in our society and has made them worse. What is worse still, almost 10,000 Scots have lost their lives, leaving behind grieving families and broken friends. For some of us, it is hard to imagine the feeling of losing someone close due to Covid; for others among us, it is a reality.

My constituents are still contacting me about long Covid symptoms and queries; still asking for financial assistance, given the impact on their businesses; and still facing restrictions that impact on their finances and entitlements as they travel to the mainland.

I make a plea for an island-proofed recovery. Throughout the pandemic, there has been frustration that island needs have appeared to be an afterthought in some Scottish Government decision-making processes. Announcements that were made with a wealth of detail about restrictions that affected central belt communities often failed to include any mention of important differences for island communities that were working under different rules. That created confusion. As we look ahead to dealing with the impacts of the pandemic and shaping the recovery, it is important that that work fully reflects the islands dimension.

We must make the country unrecognisable from where we are. We need to repair the damage to our economy, communities and public services and focus on jobs, mental health, our NHS, schools and the climate crisis. We must create a liberal country where every individual is able to achieve their potential.

As others have said, we have seen great uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine in Scotland and across the UK, but we cannot be complacent, because having the vaccine does not mean that people cannot catch and spread Covid. Covid has had a significant impact on young people, with schools closed, qualifications disrupted and job prospects shattered. University, which should be an exciting prospect, turned into hotspot chaos, and students experienced endless isolation and classes online. We must work hard to ensure that the Covid generation are not stuck with that label as an unfortunate description of lives forever impacted.

Recovery does not have to look like anything in the past. We have had time to think about what we want, assess what would be better and invest in ourselves, so let us invest in one another as well. We should invest in mental health treatment provision so that it is comparable with physical health treatment, and in an education bounce back to allow the next generation to step forward. We should invest in our public services to thank our front-line workers for all that they have done.

We have shown what we can do when we all pull together. We stayed at home and we clapped in the street. Let us not lose that sense of community and common purpose. Let us make the next decade and beyond be about not only what unites us but what makes our lives better and fairer. Let us put the recovery first.

16:02  

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

The past 19 months have been difficult for everyone, but they have been extremely difficult for some people. Certain groups in society suffered much more during Covid than others did, and generally those were people who were already disadvantaged—for example, those who are less well off financially, women and ethnic minorities.

As we seek to recover from Covid, we have the opportunity to do things differently. I very much want to see a fairer society, and most of us here would probably agree. However, the question remains whether the majority of people in Scottish society are willing to pay the price for that.

During Covid, people were willing to make a lot of sacrifices—they did not go on foreign holidays, go out for meals, shop as much or meet friends, family and work colleagues, because they understood that we faced an emergency. The question now is whether people are willing to make such lifestyle changes in the longer term—for example, having fewer foreign holidays or not buying clothes as often for the good of the environment. Changes might also be required so that income and wealth are shared around more equitably. Maybe those of us who are well paid, such as members of the Scottish Parliament, should make do with a bit less in the next few years so that those with less can get a fairer deal.

There are still many things that we do not know about the future. Will office workers go back to city centres or will they work partly or entirely at home? The answer could mean that we need fewer shops and restaurants in our towns and city centres for those office workers, and we might need fewer commuter trains to take them to work and back home.

When the chancellor delivered the UK budget yesterday, he certainly seemed upbeat. It is good that forecast unemployment is lower and that the economy seems to be recovering faster than many of us expected less than a year ago. Inflation is rising, which is a concern, but we need to see whether that is a temporary blip—we do not know.

My gut instinct is that money will be tight in the next few years. Glasgow City Council and Glasgow Life have lost a considerable amount of income because of the pandemic and cannot afford to reopen all the services that they previously offered. Passenger numbers on railways are still well down, which means that the budgeted income is just not there.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Would John Mason accept that Glasgow Life has also made representations to the First Minister and the Scottish Government, asking for more money so that it can open the remaining libraries, for example, and other remaining services in Glasgow, and that so far it has not been given that money?

John Mason

I accept that a lot of sectors—that certainly includes Glasgow City Council and probably all other councils in Scotland, Glasgow Life and the railways—have needed and are needing more money; so, too, is the NHS, in order to catch up with its backlog. That is what I am just coming on to. It is great that we got a bit more money from yesterday’s budget, but it will still be limited and we will have to choose priorities over the coming years.

I was talking about the railways, where income is well down and passenger numbers are only about 50 per cent of previous levels. The Scottish Government cannot plug all those gaps. That is not possible. I think that we are all sympathetic to the people who worked extra hard during the pandemic and put themselves at risk, and we would say that many people in the NHS, local government, public transport and so on deserve a pay increase, but the question still is where the money will come from for all that. As I said, the NHS has a backlog and other sectors will probably need support for longer—tourism and other sectors that will take longer to get back to full strength.

Therefore, we will have to choose priorities in the coming years and there will be some difficult decisions to make. Should the aviation sector return to where it was and keep growing, or should we accept that it should remain smaller in the longer term? Immigration, or the lack of it, is a problem for Scotland. It is hard to grow the economy if the population is not increasing. That has been a challenge for many years, not just because of Covid, and leaving the European Union has made it worse.

Overall, we face many challenges in the coming few years. Some people want things to go back to the way they were before, because they were doing very nicely. However, I, for one, do not want a repeat of the past. I want to see a fairer and more inclusive society, and I believe that we can achieve that.

16:06  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The Deputy First Minister, Murdo Fraser and Daniel Johnson all said in their opening remarks that the key priority has to be minimising the Covid threat and addressing the many other health issues arising from it, and that is right. However, I am just as certain that the second priority for the public and the Scottish business sector is to ensure that we have a strong economic recovery—one that is sustainable in the future, not just in the short term, and we have to be mindful that predictions are showing that growth rates may well slow in that future.

The good news, as we saw in yesterday’s budget, is that the current economic forecasts on growth are much better than was previously thought might be the case. However, as the chancellor said yesterday, that needs to be set against the inflationary pressures, the rise in the cost of living and the rise in national insurance charges, even if it is generally accepted that those have a part to play in addressing the huge issue in health and social care spending.

Those inflationary pressures are strong—we only have to look at the petrol prices over the past 10 days to realise how strong they are—so growth is critical not just for jobs, investment and tax revenues, but to encourage greater economic optimism. One thing that would immediately provide some optimism is for the Scottish Government to continue to provide business rates relief for the retail and hospitality sectors for longer. The Scottish Government was very generous in the past financial year and it would be good to hear from the Deputy First Minister what it intends to do now.

The overwhelming message from the retail and hospitality sectors, and from some of the witnesses who have appeared at the Finance and Public Administration Committee, is that business continues to need considerable support. The Scottish Retail Consortium tells us that footfall is still 20 per cent below the pre-pandemic level and that serious questions remain about the viability of some businesses. Many of them have incurred substantial debt burdens and this is a difficult time for them, wondering whether they will continue in the future. That is why the Scottish Government’s business rates waiver was very welcome. I urge the Government to concentrate on that for the immediate future, because business is crying out for it.

We have also been told by several key stakeholders that much more has to be done to stimulate local economies. That, of course, is the main reason why we have the levelling-up programme, and it was good to see more detail about that yesterday. It was also good to hear Kate Forbes welcoming that funding on the radio this morning.

This Parliament may be united in its support for schemes such as the Scotland Loves Local fund, but if our local economies are to be truly successful, a lot more must be done. The Conservatives persistently argue for much more to be done to encourage our schools, hospitals and other public bodies to procure more local produce. Yesterday, the higher education rankings came out. Those were interesting not only for the usual reasons, but because they looked at the wellbeing aspects of our universities. It was good to see two Scottish universities high up the table in relation to the measure on improving local procurement. There are lots of lessons to be learned from them.

One of the biggest issues is labour. Unemployment has not risen in the way that it was expected to and job vacancies continue to be very high. That tells us that there is a mismatch of skills and problems with flexibility in the labour force. I was interested to hear the Deputy First Minister’s comments about education and skills. He is absolutely right in that regard, but we need to look in much greater detail at what to do, and at the timeframe in which to do that work, because the issue is crucial.

Finally, the provision of greater “certainty and stability”—I use those words because they are the words that Kate Forbes used—is critical when it comes to taking a much more coherent and holistic approach to economic policy making and ensuring that Scotland remains fully competitive with other economies. That is most especially the case in relation to England’s economy, given just how important it is, as we know from last week’s export statistics.

The Scottish Government, as it knows, was recently criticised for not listening sufficiently well to business, whether on the broad scope of economic policy, difficulties with vaccination passports or the ability to access available support.

Ms Smith, could you bring your remarks to a close, please?

The criticism focused on the weakness of detail, policy timescales and significant contradictions in Covid recovery policy, which is one of the reasons why our amendment focuses on those aspects.

We had a bit of time in hand, but we have almost none now. If members take interventions, which is entirely up to them, those will need to be absorbed into their speaking time.

16:12  

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I will refer to two planks of the Covid recovery strategy: addressing the systemic inequalities that have been made worse by Covid, and progress towards a wellbeing economy. Those aspects go hand-in-hand in a socially just society, from cradle to grave.

Some policies are already in train. I applaud the focus on early years, with substantial investment for learning in the broadest sense, including investment in free school meals. I applaud the £100 minimum grant for families for school clothing, which will help 120,000 families. I applaud the fact that no Scottish student pays tuition fees—by comparison, fees in England are at least £9,000 a year. I applaud free personal care for the elderly.

Covid has propelled us towards a national care service. We know that getting there will not be easy—the integration of health and social care was not easy—but it is a target that we must aim for.

What does the term “wellbeing economy” mean? Does it mean regenerative development, a circular economy or an economy for the common good? I rather prefer the latter, which must also mean “for the good of the planet”.

Of course, we need to generate revenue to fuel Government policies and initiatives, but questions are linked to that. How do we do that? For whose benefit will it be? What is that benefit?

Post war, in the 1950s, the UK Government, which was up to its neck in debt, focused on building social housing and infrastructure, broadening access to university, including free university education, which I benefited from, and undertaking basic health initiatives. All those were, first and foremost, policies that were about not just rebuilding physically after a devastating world war, but rebuilding priorities.

That continued into the 1960s, when there was a sense of egalitarianism, which was part real and part perception only. However, over decades, we have moved to a society—indeed, to a UK economy—that is predicated on consumerism, fuelled by cheap credit. That must have, throwaway society has widened the gap between the haves and the have nots.

There are close parallels between the post-war and post-pandemic situations. UK debt is staggering. We still need social housing, infrastructure and, for too many, the wherewithal for the basics of life and an income that provides for food and fuel. In 2021, we have food banks and folk unable to heat their homes—they can either eat or heat. What an indictment of the priorities of successive UK Governments—it is quite indefensible. Ironically, their approach has accelerated global warming, because the detritus of consumerism is filling our lands and seas. Growth cannot simply be for growth’s sake.

The built-in limitations of devolution prevent this institution from radically redirecting the priorities of Scotland’s economy. There are lessons to be learned from the 50s and 60s—I should know, because I was there—but the biggest lesson of all is that only as a nation with the economic powers that independence brings can Scotland have that socially just society. Until then, whoever is in government here, all we can do is mitigate, mitigate, mitigate. We cannot change the direction of Scottish society to go where it really wants to go.

16:15  

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

I just want to say to the member who has just spoken that when people tell me that I cannot do something, I think it is because they cannot see my potential, and we have a lot of potential in Scotland to act, so I urge the Government to do all that it can to improve the lives of people in Scotland.

We are now 17 months on from the onset of the pandemic and the extent of the damage that has been done becomes clearer with every passing day. The number of cases continues to rise, and it is clear that our fight is not yet over. However, it is important to look to the future so that the lessons that can be learned from the pandemic can be used in the big job of rebuilding that lies before us.

For too many people, things were already impossibly hard before the pandemic. Poverty and inequality were rife, insecure and precarious work was too common, and the social care system was on its knees. The pandemic has made all those things worse. As we look to rebuild, we must use the opportunity to harness the innovation that has been necessary this year, and build on it a better Scotland than the one we had previously.

To do that, it is vital that we do not just talk the talk on human rights. We need to put them at the heart of our recovery journey. Members have talked previously about a land of opportunity and, although Scotland is not yet a land of opportunity for all our fellow citizens, if we truly make that the focus and aim of our rebuild, we can get there.

There is an unprecedented moment in front of us and we in the chamber have the opportunity to grasp it and, in doing so, to create a Scotland in which we can all enjoy our human rights and live up to our potential. We have all come through the collective trauma of the pandemic and of living in lockdowns with restrictions on our freedom, and none of us liked it.

The truth is that people in our country have been living for years with restrictions on their freedoms and have been blocked by barriers that we have, so far, failed to pull down. Poverty and oppression have left disabled people, women, LGBT people, and black and minority ethnic people struggling just to get by. We came together as a country to fight back against the virus and claim back our freedoms, so now we must come together to fight back against the deep poverty and inequality that are preventing our fellow citizens from claiming back theirs.

Our vision for the future must be bold, and I support the three aims that the Government has set out today. However, that means that far more needs to be done to help us to realise those aims, and it means taking ambitious and transformative action. I welcome the fact that the Government has a plan, but it does not go hard or fast enough. It is neither bold nor ambitious enough. It will not make Scotland the land of opportunity that we all know it can be.

Tackling systemic poverty needs sustained progressive action, which is why Labour has been calling for the Scottish Government to double the Scottish child payment immediately and to do that again next year.

Christine Grahame

I share every sentiment that the member has expressed, but does she accept that, without full economic power over jobs, benefits and taxation, and without borrowing powers, we cannot really tackle systemic poverty that has come about as a consequence of successive UK Governments?

Pam Duncan-Glancy

I am sorry but I do not agree. We have a number of significant powers that we can use right here today in Scotland to challenge the poverty that many of our citizens are facing.

We cannot allow our fight against systemic inequalities to fall by the wayside either. If we want to begin to tackle those, we have to enforce equal pay, workplace inequalities must be addressed, and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 must be reformed. We can also improve the lives of thousands of young disabled people by supporting a bill that gives them a fighting chance of a future.

Progression towards a wellbeing economy will require more than just words. It will require ensuring payment of the living wage in procurement and business support, ending zero-hours contracts, and closing the disability employment gap. It needs good, well-paid, and unionised jobs through investment in areas such as care.

If we invest in our social care system—that includes paying workers £15 an hour—we can create a person-centred health and social care service that values disabled people and workers’ human rights, and takes the pressure off Scotland’s 1 million unpaid carers. We have an opportunity to support all those who can get into work and to ensure that they are well paid, valued and supported to stay in work. For those who cannot get into work, we must use all the powers and levers that we have to build a social security system that includes a guaranteed minimum income that no one will fall below.

The pandemic has been one of the worst periods of any of our lifetimes—

Ms Duncan-Glancy, could you please bring your remarks to a close? You have had a bit of extra time for taking an intervention.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

It has provided us with a unique moment for change. It is time to step back and look at how the people of Scotland want to live, and to live up to our full potential. Today, I ask the Government to be bold, not to waste the opportunity that we have and to seize the moment.

I call Paul McLennan, to be followed by Ross Greer. You have up to four minutes, Mr McLennan, and that means “up to” four minutes.

16:20  

Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

I am delighted to speak in the debate. As Christine Grahame did, I want to focus on how we move towards a wellbeing economy.

I welcome the publication of the Covid recovery strategy, which sets out our priorities as we recover from the pandemic. It allows us to take a step back and define what the Parliament is all about: what Scotland can and should be. It sets out our aspirations as a nation.

For many decades, Scotland has had systemic inequalities, which have been made worse during the pandemic. The strategy and, more important, the actions that are outlined will help us to make progress towards a wellbeing economy and will move us towards more inclusive, person-centred public services by focusing on improving financial security for low-income households, supporting the wellbeing of children and young people, and encouraging fair work.

Since my election six months ago, I have heard many comments from all parties in the chamber about how we can progress towards a wellbeing economy. I recently convened the first meeting of the cross-party group on the wellbeing economy, whose secretariat is being provided by the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. I offer an open invitation to all members to join us.

I have had several fantastic meetings with the alliance’s founder, Katherine Trebeck. It has just published a paper entitled “Failure Demand”, which states:

“Of course, governments will always need to be reactive to immediate needs. There will always be unavoidable demands on public spending. That is not in dispute. This report is concerned with demands that are avoidable: damages incurred through economic choices—the purpose and structure of the economy.”

Only today, the Office for Budget Responsibility stated that Brexit would have a bigger impact than the pandemic. Brexit was a political choice.

“Failure Demand” goes on to say:

“These are damages that necessitate deployment of a government’s financial resources, but which could have been avoided in a Wellbeing Economy scenario.

The report asks the questions: is this the best we can hope for? Is it good enough just to help people survive and cope with the current system? ... Are payments that allow us to survive all that we should be using our taxes for, rather than investments and configurations that help us to thrive?”

The research focuses on key interlinked sectors that illustrate the direct and indirect impacts on the financial resources of a state. It finds that, in Scotland, because of the existence of low pay alone, the state provided nearly £600 million in 2014-15, £635 million in 2015-16, nearly £900 million in 2016-17, £840 million in 2017-18 and £775 million in 2018-19 in welfare payments, free school meals and work-related ill health payments.

The report seeks to demonstrate that taking a wellbeing economy approach also makes financial sense, by reducing avoidable demands so that public spending has a longer-term positive impact.

The Scottish Government has set out the steps that it will take to ensure financial security for low-income families, which include rolling out the Scottish child payment to children under the age of 16 by the end of next year and doubling it to £20 per week per child as quickly as possible during the current parliamentary session; providing expanded funding for early learning and childcare for children aged one and two; and designing a wraparound childcare system to provide care before and after school.

To improve the wellbeing of children and young people, the strategy includes commitments to invest at least £500 million over the parliamentary session to create a whole-family wellbeing fund and a shift to preventative interventions.

The Scottish Government is committed to working with its partners in local government, the business community, health services, the third sector and our communities as part of an energetic national recovery endeavour.

David Hume said:

“A wise man proportions his beliefs to the evidence.”

The Scottish Government is doing so with its Covid recovery strategy.

16:24  

Ross Greer (West Scotland) (Green)

I understand why we use the language of recovery and rebuilding when we discuss our response to the toll that the pandemic has taken on our society and economy, but I am not convinced that that captures what we are trying to do. Our goal should not be to return to what we had in March 2020. Most, if not all, of us agree on that point. The pandemic has had a devastating effect on many people’s livelihoods and on their families’ financial security, but Scotland and the UK were blighted by insecure contracts and poverty wages before the pandemic.

In sectors such as hospitality, our ambition must not be to return to the old normal. That is why growth in trade union membership should be a key indicator of the success of our recovery plans. Financial security is rightly one of the primary objectives of the recovery strategy. Whether that is shown by Unite’s hospitality branch or by the four rail unions that have won significant victories in recent weeks, there is no doubt that the most effective tool at our disposal for creating a high-wage economy is a strong trade union movement.

I am proud of the actions that were committed to in the shared policy programme agreed by my party and the Scottish Government, many of which will underpin the recovery strategy.

Will the member take an intervention?

Ross Greer

I apologise: I have only four minutes and I am the only speaker for my party.

We will triple the funding for the Scottish Trades Union Congress’s unions into schools project, which is a fantastic initiative that prepares young people for entering the workplace by letting them know their rights and what trade unions can do for them. I refer members to my entry in the register of interests and specifically to my membership of an STUC-affiliated union.

We will also expand family income maximisation and other advice services, building on the success of projects such as healthier wealthier children in Glasgow and the fantastic work of NHS Lothian. Those projects will help some of the lowest-income and most at risk families make full use the social security and other support services that they are entitled to, but that many are unaware of or do not know how to access.

As the business minister announced earlier this month, we will use the powers available to us to directly address the issue of low pay. Although we cannot yet set minimum wage rates in Scotland, we will require the many thousands of businesses that receive support from the Scottish Government or that provide services via public procurement contracts to pay their staff at least the real living wage. For obvious and understandable reasons, the private sector has received unprecedented public support in the past 18 months, but businesses should not expect to receive public money or contracts if they are simultaneously forcing Government to use the social security system to subsidise the poverty wages that companies pay their staff. If we are to achieve the objective of good green jobs and fair work, we will require more of that kind of interventionist economic policy.

One policy that does not appear in the recovery strategy paper, but that makes for an excellent example of how we will meet the paper’s headline objectives, is the introduction of free bus travel for young people. That is not technically a Covid recovery initiative—we had agreed on it during budget negotiations in early 2020 before the pandemic hit us—but the launch was delayed for obvious reasons. Now scheduled for 31 January, the scheme will provide considerable economic, social and environmental benefits. It will expand young people’s access to the workforce because it will be easier for them to get to where jobs or training opportunities are. It will reduce the financial burden on low-income families, who are disproportionately reliant on buses, and it will shift more journeys from private cars on to buses, helping to meet both our climate and local air quality targets.

I encourage the Government to consider how that strategy and its headline objectives align with the national performance framework. I highlighted to the Deputy First Minister a few weeks ago that the NPF contains almost nothing on transport. A significant shift in transport policy is essential if we are to meet the Covid recovery objectives, our climate targets and far more besides. The upcoming review of NPF indicators is an opportunity to better align that framework with the Government’s strategic priorities.

Recovery cannot mean returning to an economic system that left one in four Scottish children in poverty and that has brought our planet to the brink of catastrophe. The strategy is a strong start, but I encourage colleagues in the Government to consider at every stage whether they could go further and faster. Given what is at stake, an overly cautious approach would be a far greater threat to our shared objective of a greener, fairer society.

16:28  

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I welcome the Covid recovery strategy. It is undeniable that Covid is the greatest challenge of our time. Living and dealing with Covid and with the recovery from it has provided us with a continually changing policy platform. That is a fact.

I am sure that members from across the chamber will have heard people say that they look forward to life getting back to the way it was before the pandemic. However, as other members have said today, recovery must go further than how life was before Covid. The recovery strategy will help us to do that by working with local government, the third sector and businesses large and small.

Although the strategy is focused over the next 18 months, it includes a series of actions over the course of this parliamentary session to make significant progress towards net zero, to deliver substantial reductions in child poverty and to secure an economic recovery that is fair and green.

Those who were already the most disadvantaged have suffered disproportionately. They have been more likely to get seriously ill, more likely to be hospitalised and, sadly, more likely to die from Covid. They have also been the hardest hit socially, educationally and economically by the restrictions that were brought in to control the spread of the virus. For many people, the disadvantages that they faced have been made worse by the pandemic. Our recovery must be about how we make life better for them.

Yesterday, I asked the Deputy First Minister about his recent visit to the Belville Community Garden Trust, in my constituency, and his reply was extremely positive. I know how essential Belville was to many people, as were other local organisations. MSPs from across the chamber will be able to point to examples in their constituencies and regions, but it is clear that my constituency went through some particularly stark challenges in the earlier part of the pandemic. The community rallied round and the joint working of all partners was immense, and we, as a community, are stronger for that joint working.

Some of the social and economic challenges that my community faced before the pandemic have not gone away, and the recent Skills Development Scotland report indicated that our economy will not fully recover until 2031, which is later than the estimate for neighbouring local authorities. That is why the strategy is an important first step. A strong, sustainable economy goes hand in hand with a fair and equal society.

I am pleased that that understanding will be at the centre of the new 10-year national strategy for economic transformation, which the Scottish Government will publish later this year. I look forward to reading that document when it is published.

Some of the actions in the Covid recovery strategy will certainly help my community. Those include investing £200 million in adult upskilling and opportunities to retrain and reskill workers in areas of the economy that are particularly impacted by the pandemic and the transition to net zero; help for low-income families who are most at risk of experiencing poverty, with £8.65 million for the parental employability support fund in 2021-22 and at least a further £15 million from 2022 to 2024; and rolling out the Scottish child payment to children under 16 by the end of 2022, which will be hugely beneficial. I could go on, because there are many positive examples in the strategy.

I know that the strategy can be helpful for my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency and that its roll-out will help many people. However, it has to be rolled out properly. I am certainly happy to support it and ensure that many people in my constituency benefit from it.

16:32  

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I am still a member of Aberdeen City Council.

I welcome this debate on Covid recovery, but it is important to acknowledge that those who are working in our front-line services are still under a huge amount of pressure as a result of Covid. They do not yet feel that they are in the recovery phase, nor do they feel that they are being supported or valued by this devolved Government.

We are all aware of the pressure that care workers and NHS staff are continuing to work under. Hospitals are at capacity, and three health boards have support from the British Army. NHS Grampian has requested support but is waiting for that request to be passed on by the Scottish Government. The Scottish National Party Government and the health secretary are failing our sick, vulnerable and infirm, and it is only our NHS workers’ passion and sheer commitment to public service that are keeping our hospitals and health boards afloat.

There is little in the recovery strategy on how the Government is planning to deal with the recovery in our NHS; there is little detail on waiting times, including cancer treatment waiting times; and there is nothing on A and E waiting times or on how we will tackle the crisis in our Ambulance Service. NHS boards are telling people not to come to hospital unless their problem is life threatening, and the cabinet secretary is asking Scots to think twice about calling an ambulance. What are people supposed to do, and where are they supposed to turn?

The strategy document contains some nice words, but, after reading it, I am left with more questions than answers. An example of that is on page 4, which says that the strategy will

“address the systemic inequalities made worse by Covid.”

I have been contacted by a family who has a son at school who is deaf. There are more than 3,800 deaf children in Scotland. Deafness is not classed as a learning disability, yet a significant attainment gap continues to exist for deaf learners. The latest Scottish Government data shows that, last year, 6.5 per cent of deaf learners left school with no qualifications compared with 2.4 per cent of all pupils and that 45 per cent obtained highers compared with 59 per cent of all pupils. The continued use of face masks in our schools disproportionately affects that group of learners and risks increasing the attainment gap that already exists, and I see nothing in the strategy that tells us how that inequality will be addressed. I plead with the cabinet secretary to look at ways of addressing that issue before more deaf children are left behind.

Presiding Officer, please do not laugh, but I nearly fell off my seat when I read about partnership working with local government. The SNP Government’s definition of partnership working with local government is telling councils what to do and when to do it. That is not a partnership. When this devolved Government introduced the botched vaccine passport scheme, it was left to local authorities to enforce it—there was no debate, no discussion, just, “Go and do it.” That is not partnership working.

Aberdeen City Council has been left with a £6 million hole in its finances due to the devolved Scottish Government delaying payment of money that it asked the council to distribute to businesses during the pandemic, £1 million of which has been due since the First Minister imposed an unjustified local lockdown in August 2020. That is not partnership working. It is an absolute disgrace, and the cabinet secretary should be ashamed, as it impacts directly on the council’s ability to deliver key services to its communities.

The cabinet secretary comes here today with some warm words but offers no direct action. He has some ideas but no concrete proposals—nothing that will help my constituents in Aberdeen, businesses in the north-east, the most vulnerable in our schools or our NHS. Every single group has been let down by this devolved SNP Government, despite the UK Government ploughing billions of pounds into its coffers. We need more than warm words from the cabinet secretary to tackle our recovery from the pandemic. We need direct action, and we need it now.

16:37  

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in the debate, but I have to say that, once I had read the Tory amendment to the Scottish Government’s motion last night, I became quite concerned—not, I hasten to add, because I saw something in it that was uncharacteristically supportive of the Government. The amendment is predictably negative and lacks understanding of the reality of what it takes to run Scotland’s devolved Government effectively during a worldwide pandemic.

As always, the amendment completely fails to recognise the good work that the Scottish Government—and Nicola Sturgeon, in particular—have done in leading us through the pandemic. That should come as no surprise, because, during the election campaign, the Tories made it quite clear that they had no hope or expectation—let alone intention—of trying to win and form a Government. If the Tories’ only objective was to run along the sidelines shouting, “Offside!”, folk may be forgiven for asking what the point was in standing.

Rather, my concern was for my fellow member of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, Murdo Fraser, in whose name the Tory amendment appears. It would appear, from the amendment and from Mr Fraser’s demands for the roll-out of more fibre optic broadband, that he is confused about which Parliament he is a member of. Although the Scottish Government has already invested more than £600 million in broadband roll-out, telecommunications is a reserved matter. Once again, the Scottish Government is mitigating Westminster neglect in Scottish communities.

I am pleased to report that, when I saw Mr Fraser this morning in the aforementioned COVID-19 Recovery Committee, he was his usual ebullient self—insightful, in his own Murdo way, and very clear of thought. I have concluded, therefore, that there was no need to worry that he was genuinely confused when he lodged the amendment in this Parliament. It is now clear that he is simply using the old, tried-and-tested Tory trick of failing the Scottish people so abysmally that the Scottish Government has to spend hundreds of millions of pounds mitigating that failing only for the Tories to come back and accuse the Scottish Government of not doing enough.

Were I a teacher, I would be issuing Mr Fraser with punishment homework tonight and telling him to write out 100 times: “Telecommunications is a reserved matter, and we, in the Tory party, are grateful to the Scottish Government for spending more than £600 million to mitigate a UK Government failure to provide the properly funded roll-out of broadband. We will stop trying to mislead the Scottish people with these false claims.” Perhaps, after Mr Fraser has finished those lines, he will be finished with the hypocrisy of criticising the Scottish Government for sorting out many of the Westminster failings that continue to hurt the people of Scotland.

I gently remind Mr Fairlie that the delivery of broadband services in Scotland is a devolved matter and a responsibility of the Scottish Government.

Jim Fairlie

Telecommunications is a reserved matter.

I then read the amendment in the name of Daniel Johnson. Although I can sympathise, to an extent, with the intent behind it, it again fails to recognise, as Labour amendments often do, the realities and the constraints of a devolved Government with a fixed budget. I urge Labour members to look at their continually depleting seats in this place and their near extinction in the other place and conclude that, if they want to be taken seriously as a political force ever again, shifting their dial on the democratic right of the people of Scotland to decide their constitutional future might just be the start they need to change the fortunes of their failing party. However, let it not be thought for one second that I am trying to give the Labour Party any advice—I will simply say that Len McCluskey agrees with me.

On a more serious note, we have learned some tragic lessons in coming through the pandemic, not least about how incredibly fragile we can be when nature decides to turn on us. That should be at the forefront of the mind of every world leader who attends COP26 over the next fortnight.

The Deputy First Minister has laid out some of the very positive things that are going to come forward under the strategy. Many of my colleagues have also talked about the good things that are coming, and I endorse all of them. However, as we have learned so much about the pandemic, we have also learned bits about ourselves. We have learned that, when the will is there, we can make things happen at pace and without reservation.

Mr Fairlie, will you please bring your remarks to a conclusion?

Jim Fairlie

Rough sleeping was eradicated because we had to do it, so we did.

The Scottish Government’s Covid recovery strategy is an excellent start that allows the people of Scotland to see a new beginning, and I support it in full.

We move to the winding-up speeches. I call Alex Rowley to wind up for Scottish Labour. You have up to five minutes, Mr Rowley.

16:41  

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

As Murdo Fraser, Daniel Johnson and a few others have said, “Covid Recovery Strategy: For a fairer future” contains very little with which we would disagree. The same applies to the Deputy First Minister’s motion. We lodged an amendment to add to the motion because we believe that it needs to be firmed up with some commitments.

I heard Jim Fairlie talking about fixed budgets, but the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care said to me at the COVID-19 Recovery Committee a few weeks ago that a large amount of the money that is going into the health service will go into health and social care. As Daniel Johnson rightly said, the budget announcements that were made yesterday, regardless of what we think of them, will mean that significantly more funding will come to Scotland, which can be prioritised for social care.

The baffling thing for me is this: why would we put all those resources into social care but not tackle the fundamental problem—low pay—in the sector? I have just scribbled down that if the majority of carers were men, they would be paid the rate for the job. However, as Engender often points out, the majority of carers in Scotland are women and are paid well below the rate for the job. We lodged our amendment in all seriousness because we believe that unless we tackle poor pay and low pay in social care, the recruitment and retention problems that exist in it will continue.

John Swinney

I acknowledge the line of argument that Mr Rowley is pursuing, but will he acknowledge that the Government has taken steps in recent weeks, with the announcements from the health secretary, to improve the pay of social care workers, and that we are actively involved in discussions on the issue with our local authority partners?

Alex Rowley

The steps that have been taken, although they are welcome, are not enough; we will not tackle the problem unless we do more. We need the Scottish Government to step up and introduce a national pay scale for all social care workers. If we do that, we will be able to start to tackle the recruitment and retention problems.

I am not the only person who says that. Scottish Care, among many others, has singled out low pay in social care as the key issue. Let us think for a moment about the impact that that is having. I know that in Fife the waiting lists of people who have been assessed as needing a care package in the community, but are unable to get one, are becoming longer month by month. If those people do not get support to enable them to live in the community, they will eventually end up knocking on the door of the hospital. As we know, 1,500 individuals are stuck in hospitals right now who have no medical reason to be there, but cannot get out because they cannot get a care package in the community.

As I said, the key issue is that people who work in social care are not being paid the rate for the job. We will therefore be unable to recruit, and the retention issues will get worse. If the Deputy First Minister wants Labour’s support for much of what is in the recovery strategy, he will get it, but he and the Government need to look seriously at tackling the problem of low pay and people in social care not being paid the rate for the job. We do not have two or three years to wait for a national care strategy or for a national care service to be set up. The issue must be addressed now.

Thank you for the additional time, Presiding Officer.

That is the plea: we need to address social care and we need to increase pay. It is not just desirable—it is essential that we do so if we are to tackle social care issues.

16:46  

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

I begin my summing up by speaking about some of the excellent speeches that we have heard in the debate. My colleague Murdo Fraser spoke about how much of the strategy is new. I agree with him that almost nothing in it is new; things have just been slightly tweaked. An example is the previous target of building 100,000 homes, which has been tweaked to make it 110,000 homes.

There has been a lot of debate about patients being asked not to attend A and E unless they are suffering from life-threatening conditions. The worry is what happens when people have vague symptoms. If someone has voided themselves after some minor back pain, that is not life-threatening, but it might be cauda equina syndrome, for which treatment is time sensitive. We must be careful in what we say, and we need to be nuanced and give clear alternatives. The answer cannot be self-diagnosis.

John Swinney

I am grateful to Dr Gulhane for giving way, because I could not agree more with the words that he has just said, which were exactly what I said when I intervened on Mr Fraser. There are well-advertised alternatives to appearing at accident and emergency departments that people should pursue. I am arguing not for self-diagnosis, but for people to use the available alternative routes in order to avoid presenting at accident and emergency.

Sandesh Gulhane

I wish that NHS Lothian had said that as well, because that is what I mean about being nuanced in giving out information.

Daniel Johnson spoke about patients who are struggling to get their boosters because of long journeys; I have asked the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care about that previously. I know that patients, including the most vulnerable people in our society, are waiting two or three hours in the cold and wet to get their boosters, and some arrive to find a closed vaccination centre. We must do better.

John Mason spoke truth about ethnic minorities being disadvantaged by Covid. I question, therefore, why he supports the Covid vaccination certification scheme, which almost creates second-class citizens. People from ethnic minority backgrounds are among the most sceptical about getting the vaccine, so a vaccination passport could further entrench their position and prevent them from engaging in normal Scottish life.

My colleague Douglas Lumsden made an important point about how people being deaf has led to a widening of the attainment gap. That is simply not good enough in our modern Scotland.

Liz Smith spoke eloquently about the importance of a strong economic recovery. A strong economy means that people have money to spend, which allows us to fund vital services including our NHS.

A Covid recovery strategy for Scotland should have at its heart a credible road map that delivers sustained recovery for our NHS. There will be no Covid recovery unless our trusted NHS nurses, paramedics, doctors and support staff are resourced and supported. My colleagues joined the medical profession to deliver a world-class public service, but they are now at breaking point.

According to October’s “Understanding Scotland” survey by the Diffley Partnership, the NHS is our country’s most trusted institution. Conversely, the Scottish Government is among the least-trusted institutions. That untrusted Government is failing the NHS and failing families across the country. We know that Scotland’s health service was in crisis before the Covid pandemic. Now, under the watch of the SNP-Green Government, it is in peril. It is no wonder that, just six months into a new parliamentary session, trust has hit rock bottom.

We have heard many statements, reassurances and promises of money in relation to our NHS, but where are the improvements and the innovations, and what are the timelines? Regardless of our party membership, we would not be doing our job if we did not call that out in the chamber.

A and E waiting times continue to fall short of the Government’s targets. Public Health Scotland statistics for the week ending 17 October show that 7,000 Scots were left waiting for more than four hours for A and E treatment, 1,786 waited for eight hours, and 515 patients waited for half a day. This week, Edinburgh’s flagship hospital was so overwhelmed that there was not a four-hour wait for treatment, but a 40-hour wait.

Let us consider the Scottish Ambulance Service, whose exhausted crews are under sustained pressure and are working up to 10 hours without breaks.

I am, of course, happy that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care listened to my proposal to support specialised treatment for people who are suffering with long Covid. That is a good start; we can even say that it is a victory for patients. However, more needs to be done on that front, so I look forward to working constructively with the Scottish Government on that.

I urge the Government to grasp the opportunity to be bold and innovative in its thinking, as we recover from the pandemic. We cannot just tinker around the edges in healthcare. Scotland’s healthcare needs are growing, and we do not have enough staff. We cannot conjure up staff, no matter how much money the cabinet secretary pledges to that.

We can, of course, get staff from overseas. I understand that the UK Government is keen to relocate the best global talent in science to our shores. Organisations such as the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin provide a fellowship programme for doctors to work in Scotland. I am pleased to say that the First Minister agreed to look into that urgently, after I raised it with her.

However, more doctors is not the only solution. People are the NHS’s most valuable asset in terms of cost and skills, so the Government should be optimising our use of that valuable resource by changing our systems so that highly qualified doctors and nurses are not burdened by tasks that can be carried out by other means. That means redesigning our clinical pathways and deciding how we evaluate and deploy medical technology.

I see little in the way of details on how more patients will move through primary care. I have already proposed in the chamber that the Government focus on recruiting anaesthetists, because the shortage is causing a bottleneck. I offer another solution that many general practitioners will welcome: faster internet. Accessing patient data can be time consuming, and we simply do not have time to spare. GP surgeries should have ultrafast broadband—200 megabits per second should be standard.

In conclusion, it is clear that we have a long way to go in our recovery. We need clear plans for our NHS, our schools and our economy. We need to increase our NHS workforce with a clear plan, we need to act now to future proof our NHS infrastructure, and we need to ensure that patients get the help that they deserve.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests; I am a practising doctor.

16:53  

The Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (Patrick Harvie)

It is still a relatively new experience for me to end such a debate with all my notes about members’ speeches that I would like to respond to as well as a speech that has been written for me. I will not have time for both—I will have to let someone down. I give my apologies to members whom I do not mention and to the officials if I do not use all the words that they have provided for me.

Obviously, it is always important at any time, and more so as we face recovery from a historic pandemic, that Opposition MSPs—in fact, all MSPs—urge the Government to go further and faster and to be bolder. That is absolutely as it should be. I was really heartened by the number of speeches that showed that, although we may have our differences, many members do not want us to be distracted by those differences and do not want them to prevent us from working together where we can, being bold and taking a transformational approach to the agenda.

On Mr Rowley’s closing speech for Labour in particular, I hope and believe that every member, regardless of their political party, wants us to go further and faster on the issues that he mentioned, including properly valuing the historically undervalued care work in our society that is so critical to us. He welcomes the work that has been done on that and I welcome the passion that he and other colleagues bring to the topic. That work is best advanced by making credible, workable and costed proposals for achieving it, and I hope that the Labour Party will do that rather than making an uncosted £1.8 billion proposal in an amendment in a debate. However, we will be able to do work on the matter if we choose to work together.

Daniel Johnson

Does Mr Harvie accept that the proposal has been costed by his civil servants? I have been in a meeting where they took me through the numbers. Will he support the amendment? I am not asking him to be as ambitious as to support implementing £15 an hour for care workers but to support a plan for implementing it. Will he vote for it?

Patrick Harvie

Mr Johnson knows that when we say “costed” we mean where the money is coming from, not just where it is going. We will aim to work together. We have a budget and a national care service bill ahead of us and those are places where we will continue to make progress.

I emphasise the scale of opportunity that there is to make change, whether on financial security for low-income households or through the actions that the Government is taking on public transport costs, which several members mentioned, school meals, school uniforms, rent and housing affordability. Christine Grahame mentioned some of the work that has been done throughout the Parliament’s existence on taking a universalist approach on issues such as social care and higher education. Those are all measures that will help to address affordability and financial security, but there is much more that we need to do.

Christine Grahame went on to challenge us all. In questioning what we mean by wellbeing, she challenged us all to be ambitious, take the approach that the post-war generation took and take the opportunity to move beyond what she described as today’s unsustainable, consumerist, growth-for-growth’s-sake economy. That is the scale of ambition that we should have and should capture as we seek to build a wellbeing economy.

Pam Duncan-Glancy, in an excellent speech, talked about harnessing the innovation that has been necessary due to Covid and described us as having an unprecedented moment of opportunity. I agree and hope that we can all seek to capture that spirit while acknowledging our other differences on many issues.

Pam Duncan-Glancy’s description of marginalisation and inequality as a form of lockdown was important. It recognises the reality that the freedoms that were restricted as a result of Covid were not equally shared in the first place. If we want to overcome that, we need to do what the Government wants to do as its second core objective of Covid recovery, which is to make the wellbeing of children and young people the priority.

A number of members mentioned fair work and good green jobs. There will be a great deal more work to do on that. As members know, the Covid recovery strategy is not a stand-alone document. It will connect with many others, including the national strategy for economic transformation.

I reassure my colleague Ross Greer that we do not seek a return to the old normal. He is right to question whether recovery is always the right word. Perhaps it is not. The national strategy for economic transformation will be focused on just that: transformation. He is right that the review of the national performance framework is another opportunity to address that.

Aspects of that work will, I hope, cut across the political spectrum. For example, Liz Smith was right to raise issues in relation to the retail and hospitality sectors. A retail strategy is coming and is due quite soon, and I hope that members across the spectrum will engage with that. However, we must recognise that retail and hospitality have suffered from deep, long-standing problems of poverty wages, insecure incomes and low rates of unionisation. Those are the conditions that lead people to have precarious lives, just as precarious housing does. The actions that the Government wants to take on tenants’ rights, and the rented sector strategy that will be coming soon, will aim to address precarious living.

I thank members who have engaged with the debate in an attempt to capture the shared moment of opportunity, challenging the Government to go further and faster and be bolder. Members should keep doing that. I do not have to urge them; I know that all members will. However, the Covid recovery strategy sets out a clear, ambitious vision for Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic. We will focus on the people who have been affected most over the past 18 or so months, increasing financial security for low-income households, enhancing the wellbeing of children and young people and creating good, green jobs and fair work.

I hope that all members across the spectrum share those three goals and want to help the Government to go further and faster. Central to the recovery from the pandemic is our Government’s focus on achieving those three goals. That is the future that Scotland needs and deserves, and I believe that, together, we can and will ensure that Scotland can achieve it.