Website survey

We want your feedback on the Scottish Parliament website. Take our 6 question survey now

Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Loading…

Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Health and Sport Committee 15 December 2020

Agenda: European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, Subordinate Legislation, Covid-19 (Impact on Sports Clubs and other Local Recreational Facilities), Subordinate Legislation, Scrutiny of NHS Boards (NHS Borders), Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Covid-19 (Impact on Sports Clubs and other Local Recreational Facilities)

Agenda item 4 is an evidence session as part of our short inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on sports clubs and sports and leisure venues. Our inquiry has a particular focus on reductions in or cessation of community-based activities that are undertaken by sporting organisations, including the mental and physical health impacts of that.

However, this morning’s session is specifically concerned with the correspondence between the committee and the Government in relation to the impact on Scottish professional football clubs and their links to community hubs and delivery of other types of community support. We will have a further evidence session on other aspects of the inquiry in the new year.

Members will know that we received a response from Joe FitzPatrick, the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, whom I welcome back to the committee. This time he is accompanied by Andrew Sinclair, who is the head of active Scotland, and Stewart Harris, who is the chief executive of sportscotland, whom I welcome.

Again, the minister wants to say a few words to begin the discussion.

Thank you, convener. I am pleased that the committee is holding this inquiry. It is really important. We recognise that this has been an enormously challenging time for the sports sector, as well as for the country as a whole, and we appreciate its support over the past months to help us to tackle the virus.

Our approach throughout the pandemic has been to permit as much sport and physical activity as possible. We have taken that decision because of the broad physical and mental health benefits that it brings, at a time when those are especially needed. That has included prioritisation of under-18 sport and physical activity, with exemptions to travel restrictions being in place for activity outdoors and indoors. In addition, under the strategic framework we have provided travel exemptions for people living in level 3 and level 4 areas to enable access to local green space for sport and physical activity.

From the beginning of the pandemic, we have prioritised communications to encourage people to stay active within the restrictions. Our “Clear your head” mental health campaign to help people to cope during the pandemic has encouraged people to keep moving or to get outside, as we recognise the benefits of activities on mental health. The physical activity resources that are attached to that campaign have been widely utilised by the public.

09:15  

We have worked closely in partnership with sportscotland to support the sports sector during this time, which has ensured the development of overarching national guidance to support development of sport-specific guidance by Scottish governing bodies of sport. That has permitted a large number of sports to continue to operate in communities across Scotland in a Covid-safe way.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, many sports clubs and community organisations have supported their communities by supplying food provisions to those who are most in need, thereby demonstrating how sport can go above and beyond to aid Scotland’s recovery during this unprecedented time. Active schools Inverclyde, Stenhousemuir Football Club and Dundee West Football Club are just three of many examples.

The principles of equality and inclusion run through our active Scotland outcomes framework and sportscotland’s corporate strategy, “Sport for Life: A Vision for Sport in Scotland”. We recognise that Covid has exacerbated existing inequalities, so our focus on that will be key in our recovery from Covid. The Scottish Government’s programme for government reflects that approach, with an increased focus on improving population health and tackling health inequalities, particularly in the context of the pivotal role that sport and physical activity will play in our recovery from the pandemic. We will continue to work in partnership with sportscotland and the wider sports sector on that critical future work programme.

I thank the committee again for its interest in this vital area, and look forward to collaborating with the committee in taking matters forward.

Thank you, minister.

At the end of last week, the Government announced additional funding of £55 million, which is made up of loans and grants, for sports clubs that have been affected by the Covid crisis. I will ask about the loan element of that fund—in particular, in relation to premiership football clubs, of which there are 12, and for which the funding on offer appears to be £20 million entirely of loan funding. How will the package operate in general, and in relation to the premiership clubs?

You are right; the £55 million is made up of a mixture of grants and loans, and we are providing £20 million of loan funding for the premiership teams. The basic principle of the loan fund is that the interest rate needs to be within state aid rules, which is roughly the base rate. We are in discussions with the Scottish Football Association about exactly how the fund will be distributed. On the face of it, we would expect the fund to be divided equally across the 12 clubs, assuming that all 12 clubs want to access the loan fund. If one or two clubs were to feel that they do not require that level of support, other clubs might be able to access more. We have allocated £20 million for the premiership, which is a significant amount of money, and I hope that it will ensure that all the clubs can be sustained through what is such a challenging time.

From my home-town club—Aberdeen Football Club—I know that £20 million might, as a headline, sound like a significant sum, but once it is applied to the financial losses that premiership clubs are facing through the loss of gate money, hospitality money and sponsorship, it might not go terribly far. How much have you consulted individual clubs in deciding on the total of £20 million for the loan fund?

In identifying the funding of £55 million that we are providing across sport, active Scotland and sportscotland did a piece of work to identify all the challenges. As the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, the biggest challenge for me has been that, when we finally got clarity about the Barnett consequentials from the UK fund, the amount was something like £4.5 million of revenue. Had we spread that out across Scottish sport, it would not have made the impact that is necessary to ensure sustainability of sports. That is why I am pleased that we have managed to significantly increase the package.

I think that the revenue support across sport is about eight times higher than the Barnett consequentials. The loan element is also significantly higher. I am really pleased that we can, because of how we have managed to profile the grants and loans, make available £20 million for the 12 premiership clubs, which is just over £1.6 million for each club, should they require it. I think that a couple of clubs will not require a loan, which might mean that there is a little bit more for others. The discussions are on-going.

Andy Sinclair will say a little bit more about discussions with the SFA about distribution of the support.

The minister has comprehensively covered the position. Our intention was always to focus on the lower leagues, where we believe need is greater, while giving the premiership clubs the ability to access loans, if and when they need them.

As the minister said, we carried out a consultation process with the Scottish FA to gather all the financial data in advance, so that we really understood the financial position across all tiers of football before we made decisions.

I want to understand the situation in relation to the premiership clubs. Have you discussed each club’s financial position directly with them, or have you had discussions only with the SFA, which clearly has a wide remit that covers all football at all levels?

We dealt principally with the Scottish FA and the Scottish Professional Football League to gather the data. We have had individual discussions with clubs, but we tend to go through the governing body in order to collect such information.

Minister, is the intention that the loans will be provided directly to premiership clubs, or will they be provided through a third party?

We are working with the SFA to finalise the detail. Clearly, the loans must meet state aid rules, and we are looking at providing them at the Bank of England interest rate. The detail is being discussed with the SFA, which will, I think, meet the SPFL clubs this week.

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as the chair of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle Trust and a season ticket holder of Inverness Caledonian Thistle Football Club since it was formed in 1994.

The convener has already covered one of the issues that I was going to flag up about football clubs facing a perfect storm. When Richard Leonard and I met Neil Doncaster last week, he confirmed the problem: with few or no fans, match-day revenue has fallen off a cliff, and Covid-19 compliance costs are sky high. My view is that, regrettably, clubs will go to the wall early next year. Therefore, I support the package that the Government has come up with.

After talking to clubs, my view is that the package needs to be quick, understandable and non-bureaucratic. How do the clubs apply? How quickly can the Government make a decision on the applications?

You mentioned that £10 million is available outwith the Scottish premiership. Are you allocating that to specific divisions—that is, to the championship, league one and league two? How is the £10 million split between grant and loan?

I recognise Mr Stewart’s interest. It is helpful to have someone on the committee with that interest, and I know that others on the committee have particular interests in other football teams. It is useful for us to tap into that.

The member is absolutely right about what would happen if we did nothing, particularly to the clubs at the lower levels, which have really challenging income streams and do not have access to some of the funding that is available and still streaming through the premiership. We took the decision to focus the grant side of the funding on the Scottish championship and below, because I think that that will for some clubs—which are so important to their communities—really make the difference between them surviving and going under. My job as the minister for sport is to do what I can to make sure that no clubs go under—that is my aim.

Clearly, it is not just football that is impacted; other sports are, too. However, we cannot overstate the particular importance of football to our society.

In principle, we would be looking at dividing the £10 million between all the lower leagues, starting with the championship, with equal division of funding within each league. The need for support is not the same in all the leagues, from the championship down, because the losses are less. That will be part of our calculation: what funding are the clubs missing from spectators and what funding streams are they still managing to acquire funding from? That is part of the detail that we are finalising with the SFA; David Stewart is absolutely right that we need to do that as quickly as possible. I understand that, elsewhere, money has perhaps not flowed as quickly as clubs would have liked after announcements. I hope that the huge amount of effort that active Scotland and sportscotland have put into understanding the financial challenges means that we can get the money flowing to the clubs as quickly as possible, which, as Mr Stewart says, is so important.

I welcome the minister’s comments. I think that he understands the real cash-flow problem that clubs are facing. The minister will know this, but for people who are watching, I spoke to senior members of banks this week, and they told me that the majority of football clubs do not have an overdraft facility—they do not have financial support from banks. The UK Government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme is excellent, but the problem is that, as far as I can detect, no club in Scotland has got a loan because no club meets the viability test, which is crucial. The only institution that has got a loan is the SFA, which has managed to put Hampden up as collateral. There is a real problem here, minister, so I emphasise that getting the money out quickly and having a non-bureaucratic process and early decisions will be vital.

You touched on the issue of the pyramid in Scotland. As a Highlander, I have a particular interest in the Scottish Highland Football League, but I am obviously aware of the South of Scotland Football League and of the crucial role that women’s football plays. Will the £10 million package, which is for clubs outwith the premiership, be all grant money or is there a mixture of grant and loan money?

I recognise all Mr Stewart’s points, which are robust and well made. Outwith the premiership, all the funding is in the form of grants. It is important that the funding supports football at all levels—the women’s game, amateur games and the Highland league. I am pleased that most Highland league teams are now able to have some fans back at matches, which will help them, but Covid has had an impact on all levels of the game, so it is important that all levels of the game get grant support.

There is £10 million for all football outwith the premiership. What do you estimate the likely available grant would be for, let us say, a league one football club in the SPFL? What are we talking about in real terms?

That is a discussion that we are having with the SFA. Prior to making the announcement in Parliament last Thursday, it would not have been appropriate to talk to the SFA about any numbers. We are having discussions about distributing that £10 million pot. Of course, it would always be better if it were more. I ask people to remember that the Barnett consequential from the entire sport budget would be roughly £4.5 million, and we have managed to secure £10 million for football. It is a sizeable pot of money, and we need to ensure that we split that correctly so that it has the appropriate effect at every level of football. Andy Sinclair and his team are doing that work with the SFA.

Do you know the total number of clubs that will be beneficiaries of that grant support across women’s football, the Highland league, the Scottish Lowland Football League and the lower leagues of the SPFL?

It will be hundreds of clubs. Andy Sinclair has the best chance of being able to answer that, but it is a huge number.

09:30  

[Inaudible.]—the Scottish football pyramid down to tier 7. That includes the women’s game, the junior game, the Highland and lowland leagues, East of Scotland Football League, West of Scotland Football League and South of Scotland Football League. It is almost every semi-professional league in Scotland. A huge number of clubs will be supported.

Are we talking 200 or 300 or more?

Andrew Sinclair

It is probably about 200—there are 240 clubs under the auspices of the SFA.

Okay, thank you very much.

How do clubs apply for funding?

That is one of the things that we are finalising with the SFA. Andy Sinclair’s team has been involved in those discussions.

That work has been done. The information gathering and the financial information gathering have been concluded. We do not expect the process to be particularly bureaucratic and we expect to be able to move quickly. It will be a case of agreeing the allocations with the Scottish FA and then getting the money out of the door. It should be a fairly rapid process.

I am sure that clubs such as Newton Stewart, St Cuthbert Wanderers and Threave Rovers will be happy to hear that it will not be bureaucratic and will, hopefully, be easy.

How much funding will be provided for women’s football?

It is really important that we ensure that the money reaches all parts of the game, including the women’s game. I met representatives of all levels of the women’s game last week. I heard how the top level of the women’s game is continuing to play, but there are still challenges. I also heard about women’s football at community level and how some clubs in levels three and four are working really hard. Teams are not able to play but they are coming together to do something for the community, such as deliver food packages, and to continue their training. It is really important that we support all levels of the game.

We are emphasising the women’s game—as the committee has been doing—because it is important that we ensure that it is supported. I apologise for the pun, but there was such a bounce in the game after the women’s team qualified for the world cup. Regardless of the disappointment of the final result, it was really exciting. We want that excitement to continue, to encourage more girls to get involved in football, whether that is in a semi-professional and competitive role or just for fun and to keep fit, which is equally important.

My final question is Covid related. It is important that grass-roots football continues. Parents are desperate to watch their kids play and that is really important as we move forward. Luckily, in the south-west, we are in tier 1. Will there be further announcements about how we can get parents involved again and ensure that fans get to see the weans play? I look forward to that.

You are absolutely right. As areas move down the tier system, that provides opportunities, which we must grasp in a way that is safe, because it would not be good if relaxing rules around football resulted in an increase in Covid numbers and an area having to move up a level. We need to do it carefully, and football clubs across Scotland are alert to that. A huge amount of work has been going on in football with the Scottish Government and SFA joint response group, to make sure that, whatever we do, we do it as safely as possible. As prevalence comes down in areas, it offers opportunities for us to safely bring a number of activities back.

With regard to South Scotland, which Emma Harper represents, Queen of the South is already in discussions with Inverness Caley Thistle—as Mr Stewart will be pleased to know—to discuss its experience and make sure that, as football opens up and prevalence goes down, we share that knowledge in order to do everything as safely as possible. As we move forward, we will be able to learn a number of lessons from the Highlands.

Good morning, minister and everyone else. I also declare my interests; I am the convener of the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association. It has a 28 per cent share in St Mirren Football Club, which will be fan owned by this time next year. I am also honorary president of Paisley Pirates ice hockey club, which is one of the oldest clubs in Scotland.

Minister, when you were developing the funding package, what discussions did you have with clubs and governing bodies in advance? I know how difficult working with the SPFL can be, in particular, with its chief to have flights of fancy from time to time.

If we think back to when prevalence was getting so high that, across the United Kingdom, all Governments took the decision that the pilots that we were taking forward had to stop, it was clear that we needed a package to support football and other sports with spectators. At that point, I quickly met the SFA and SPFL to discuss concerns and hear their views; I have met them on a number of occasions. The most important piece of work has been carried out by active Scotland and sportscotland officials working with the SFA and others to try to understand the challenges that individual clubs at all levels have faced.

One of the challenges in meetings with football authorities is that the premiership is understandably but disproportionately represented, so we have to make sure that we hear from all levels of football. I understand why the premiership is so important to Scottish football; the Sky Television contract is a huge income resource, which is really important to all levels.

Although we are not quite there yet, I hear noises from a number of senior members of football organisations that suggest that, because of the pandemic, people increasingly recognise the need to look at football in the round and, rather than take an insular view related to their own club, to think about the wider game. If football as a whole is stronger, that will benefit all teams, including the 12 teams in the premiership.

Minister, if you find a way to get clubs the length and breadth of the country to work together in that way, you are a better man than I am.

From my discussions, I am of the view that an increasing number of people at senior levels, including the premiership, recognise the importance of football at all levels, so I think that a shift is happening, which is good.

That is encouraging to hear, minister, because I also want to ask you how your decision process worked with regard to splitting the funding payments. I am a football fan, and you have put in £30 million for football. My father-in-law is a massive rugby fan, and he will probably hate me for saying this, but it seems strange that there is £20 million for rugby. How did you go about splitting the funding among the various sports?

As I said earlier, we did a piece of work to try to understand the challenges that different sports and clubs had, at all their levels. That involved looking at reduction in income and the ability to reduce spend—for example, the ability to furlough—plus what existing and continuing streams of money were coming in. That was the basis of the recommendation that came to me.

The most important thing for me was that we were able to make the case that the size of the envelope was significantly larger than the Barnett consequential. We would be having a very different conversation if I had had to make a decision on how to divide £5 million of grant and maybe £20 million of loans across all sport. I would not have been confident that we had put in place a package that will sustain sport through the pandemic.

I can see the logic, minister. Taking ice hockey as an example, the ice is always the most expensive thing for clubs to deal with. You have put in £2.2 million for ice hockey and ice rinks, and £2 million of that will go to the ice rinks alone. That makes sense, because that is the largest cost for those clubs.

Are you aware of the possibility of any football club going out of business because of the pandemic? Are any close to the line? To use my club as an example, surprisingly, St Mirren has been a well-run club for 30-odd years. We are doing really quite well, considering the challenges that we have had. Are you aware of smaller clubs that might be struggling at this stage?

That takes me back to the point, which Dave Stewart made, that if we did not have the package, some important community clubs would be at risk. That is partly why we have made sure that the grant funding for football reaches all levels of the game. It would be devastating if we came out of the pandemic and, just when we really need to get people physically active, part of the resource that our football teams provide was not there. We would have to rebuild from scratch to give people the opportunity to take part in physical exercise and sport.

Different football clubs have different needs, and the funding will be used for different things, depending on the size of the club. For example, the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association had a project to pay for the upgrade of the Astroturf in our training academy. Are any strings attached to the funding, or can clubs use it for community hub projects and capital spend that they could not otherwise afford at this stage, which would make things a lot easier for them?

The purpose of the fund, as an emergency fund, is to ensure the survival of the football clubs. I am keen that it has as few strings attached to it as possible, because I think that ultimately the teams will be best placed to know what is going to ensure that they are able to sustain themselves. Andrew Sinclair might be able to add something about the discussions that we have had.

As the minister said, we are trying to make it as unbureaucratic as possible. We recognise that clubs are in trouble, so this is an emergency fund. The more strings and conditions that we attach to that money, the more difficult it becomes for the clubs and the more diluted the impact becomes. We are keen to make it as much up to the clubs as possible to meet their needs and costs.

09:45  

Before I ask my questions, I highlight that I have spoken to my local club, Kilmarnock Football Club. As Dave Stewart said, a lot of clubs function without debt. However, Covid testing is costing Kilmarnock up to £20,000 a month and it has made cuts by not running a second team. Bizarrely, it loses money on pay-per-view when it has a televised game; and if fans come back in limited numbers, the club will lose money on that, too. Although the support offered to clubs is welcome, a lot of them may not want to take a loan because they do not run a debt. They are under extreme pressure. When I asked Kilmarnock when it thinks that it will get back to normal, the club told me that that will take a considerable time.

My question for the minister concerns other sport. I am looking at the table in the committee paper that shows Scottish Government financial support by sport. I welcome the support but note that quite a few sports whose members I have spoken to are not represented on the table. That includes my own sport of track and field; squash—squash clubs have highlighted to me that a lot of them are under extreme pressure because squash is designated as a contact sport; martial arts; and badminton.

As the minister highlighted, sport has a hugely positive impact on individuals and communities. My concern is about the widening of the inequality gap. Where is the funding for those sports? What were your considerations in deciding to support some sport but not others?

That is an important question because, on the face of it, one would come to that assumption. The fund is specifically for sport that is particularly impacted by the loss of spectator income, with the exception of the ice sports—curling, for example—which have a particular issue that I think that we all recognise, which George Adam mentioned.

However, Brian Whittle is absolutely right in saying that a wide range of other sport has been impacted by Covid-19. We took an early decision to plan for that challenge and those sports have been supported by sportscotland. I will ask Stewart Harris to outline the approach that sportscotland has taken to supporting sport as a whole.

We have a good relationship with all governing bodies, as Brian Whittle will know. At the beginning of the pandemic, we took a decision to advance £32 million to the national governing bodies and local partners. That had no strings attached and was based on protecting jobs and supporting the survival of each sport and its infrastructure. We have kept in contact with each sport and set aside another £1.5 million, so should track and field, for example—I know that that is close to Brian Whittle’s heart—experience any further difficulty, we will make sure that we are able to use those resources, in discussion with those involved.

Equally, as the pandemic progresses, and depending on the timescale, we will continue to examine how we support each governing body nationally and locally. Our relationship with all 32 local authorities is key in that respect. There is a lot of support in place and we have asked each governing body to keep us posted on the state and readiness of their clubs, so that if there are difficulties—infrastructure problems or issues with jobs, particularly the professional leadership jobs—we will be ready to help and look at providing additional financial support.

I should declare that I am still an active coach. One of the things that concerns me is that we have lost the ability to recruit during this period—that is, for a year. Also, during the time when sport was unable to keep going, people will not have come back to the sport, if I can put it that way. In my view, we must consider how to support sport in bringing people back and how we backfill those people who have not been recruited into sport because we have lost a whole year. How is the Scottish Government planning to do that? I know that it is not the priority right now, but it is coming down the line, and sport is going to be so important.

Your question is one of the most important ones that we need to answer as we get through Covid. You are absolutely right: there will be a host of people who would have signed up to sport and clubs but have not done so. If we are to tackle the physical and mental health issues and inequalities that Covid has exacerbated, we need to meet that challenge.

When I met representatives of women’s football last week, we discussed not just how Government, but how all the sport governing bodies in Scotland—perhaps the committee can help us with this—can take a national approach to encouraging people to get involved in sport. You are right to suggest that now is not the right time to do that, but that time will come soon. It might be about offering tasters in different sport, to help people to find the right sport for them rapidly—otherwise, someone might join a club and then decide that that sport is not right for them and try something else.

We need to work together throughout Scotland to make the process much faster. There is a particularly important role for all the sport governing bodies, the folk who are involved in sport and those who run clubs in considering how they can make their pitch. There is also a leadership role for Government and a role for the committee. I am really keen to consider how we can work together. After Covid, we will get back to some sort of normal, and we will need to get Scotland moving. Sport is so important in encouraging people to take part in physical activity.

I want to make sure that the global sums in the sport support package are understood and on the record. The table of the breakdown shows that there is £25 million in loan funding, of which £20 million is for Scottish premiership football clubs and £5 million is for rugby. There is also £30 million in grants or resource funding, of which half is going to rugby and the rest is being distributed among football and all the other supported sport. Given that grant funding is intended to make up for loss of income as a result of Covid, are you maintaining that half that loss of income is felt by rugby rather than other sport?

The fund is an emergency fund to ensure that all those sports are sustainable during the pandemic. I would not for a second suggest that it will replace all the lost income; it cannot do so, and the scheme is not designed to do that. The Barnett consequentials are something like £4.5 million, so we are massively increasing that figure to support sport.

I am pleased that, by having a £55 million fund, the Government is recognising the importance of all sport, in the context not just of physical activity, but of the wider economic and social aspects.

Working out where the loans and grants should go was about ensuring that all sport could be sustainable. For premiership football in particular, the resource that was required to make a difference at that level was substantial. The £20 million is about £1.6 million per club, which is a substantial amount of money. Compared with what is happening elsewhere, what we have done is significant.

I am a little surprised that 200 football clubs are receiving £10 million in grant support, whereas rugby is receiving £15 million. How many professional and semi-professional clubs are there in the Scottish rugby envelope, which is receiving £15 million of resource funding?

I can give a bit of detail on that. The way in which the two sports are governed is completely different, which makes them quite difficult to compare. Scottish Rugby is the owner and operator of the two professional rugby teams—Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh Rugby—as well as being the owner and operator of the BT Murrayfield stadium. It also supports, to the tune of about £7 million a year, the grass-roots infrastructure in rugby. Given the increased transmission risk, playing rugby has essentially been suspended at grass-roots level. The funding will ensure the future of the men’s and women’s national teams and the Edinburgh and Glasgow clubs, and aims to protect that investment in grass-roots rugby across the country.

There is no comparison. There are hundreds of clubs and thousands of players involved in semi-professional football, but there is a relatively small number of rugby players.

Andrew Sinclair

That is correct.

My question is not just football related; it is about everyone in the whole scenario. Come January, when the transfer window opens, there is a good chance that smaller clubs, because of their financial circumstances, will let some players go. Those players might find it difficult to move to another club. Back in the day, when things were okay, it would have been slightly easier to find another club, but, post-pandemic, there might be some redundancies. Does the Scottish Government have any plans to mitigate those potential employment impacts?

When we talk about the economic impact on football clubs, it is important to recognise that that is much wider than just the players on the field. Most clubs are likely to have people who are still on furlough. It is good to know that that option is available for a bit longer. We will encourage the UK Government to ensure that that continues to be available to football clubs and other businesses for as long as it is required.

We are all hoping that the situation will turn around and that we will reduce the prevalence of the virus. The vaccine roll-out is one of the bright lights at the end of the tunnel. That light is getting a little bit brighter. We are all desperate to get back to as much normality as possible.

My job as the minister for sport is to ensure that the clubs are able to survive until we get to that point, after which we will have, I hope, a positive future, and clubs can get back to focusing more on the football than on the politics.

This is my final question. During lockdown, many of the clubs’ community development departments and charities did a lot of great work. I am not saying that all roads lead to Paisley and St Mirren—let’s not kid ourselves; I am saying that—but the whole point is that we were very good at working with the community and dealing with young people and so on. Over the past 10 years, youth community development departments have become thriving parts of their communities. Has the minister had any indication that some of those departments might be closed because they will not be able to work as they did before?

No, I do not think that I have had any indication of that. However, I am aware that the work that George Adam talked about happening in Paisley is happening in clubs all over the country and at all levels. Football clubs have really stepped up as really important parts of their communities.

Football clubs are integral parts of their communities, and they engage with a wide range of age groups. As George Adam mentioned St Mirren, I will mention Raith Rovers Football Club, which is also a great example, with its walking football programme for all ages, as well as for women. Does the minister recognise that losing community clubs would have a real effect on the physical and mental health of the local population?

10:00  

David Torrance is absolutely right about the importance of football clubs, particularly for smaller communities. Their reach is far wider than just football. Some of the work that football trusts in particular are doing is not just about physical activity; it also covers employment and helping young folk get the confidence to go to college. In football clubs across Scotland, the Government supports the football fans in training programme, which is an evidence-based approach that encourages those fans who may be a little overweight to get physically active. There is evidence that the programme works with that audience where other interventions have not.

I cannot overstate how important the work that football clubs across the country are doing at all levels, including in the premiership. The convener will be aware of the great work that Aberdeen Football Club is doing, which reaches beyond the city into the shire. That is replicated by other groups across the country. That is why it is so important that we support our sport and football clubs.

David Torrance?

I do not have any other questions, convener.

You mentioned community trusts. Aberdeen Community Trust is a good example of what can be done. Is it your expectation that the loan funding that is being made available to premiership clubs can be used to maintain not only the professional game but community activity?

The funding that we are providing is more likely to be used to make sure that clubs are sustained. Community trusts and football clubs are separate entities, but there is a synergy—the Aberdeen Community Trust, for example, would not exist if it was not for the football club. What brings those folks together is their passion, like yours, convener, for Aberdeen FC and wearing the red. I do not expect the money to flow that way, but I think that activity is very important.

That is a nice segue from the passion for wearing the colours to our final area of questioning about the return of fans to Scottish football.

This session has been helpful. We are coming to one of the key areas: the safe return of fans to football stadia. In my discussions with football teams, they have argued that they want a hand up rather than a handout. When can we have a safe return of fans to football stadia?

I will flag the position in England, which is not always a good argument for me to put to the minister. However, he will know that, under tier 1 in England, stadia are allowed 4,000 fans and that, under tier 2, they are allowed 2,000 fans. In my club, in a stadium that has a capacity of around 7,000, 300 fans are currently allowed under level 1.

Of course, we have to follow the science, but the same science is governing England and Scotland. I know that Jason Leitch, who frequently cites football, often argues that outdoor is much safer than indoor. Can we look again at the issue? By allowing fans back, we can enable teams to trade out of the financial problems that they have. However, I emphasise that we need the fans back safely.

The last word that Mr Stewart used—“safely”—is so important. We have seen up to 4,000 fans in stadia in England. I watched some clips of one of those games—I think that it was in London. As I understand it, that approach will now cease, and clubs in a whole section of England will not be able to have any fans at matches.

I would be hugely worried if what I saw in those clips happened in stadia in Scotland. At the start of the game, fans were practising social distancing and being really careful, but that changed as the game became exciting. That does not always happen, but when it does, it becomes difficult for us all to remain mindful of the rules, and, in those clips, I saw social distancing going out the window. There was lots of shouting, which increases aerosol generation.

We need to be really careful, because the virus is still out there. Given the prevalence of the virus in some parts of Scotland, we must be careful about doing anything that increases the possibility of transmission between households, resulting in further community spread of the virus, with all the implications that that would bring.

We have a route map for getting fans back to matches. We need to get the prevalence of the virus down and get areas down to level 1, as we have done in the Highlands, where it is now possible on Saturdays to have 300 fans at Inverness Caledonian Football Club, 300 fans at Ross County Football Club and hundreds of fans at Scottish Highland Football League clubs across the local authority area. That is the way that we want to go to get more fans back into more stadia across Scotland.

It is no use to me, as a Dundee United Football Club fan, that there are fans at Ross County. Dundee United fans want the chance to see a Dundee United game, preferably a derby. However, we need to be really careful and mindful of the fact that we have seen the levels of the virus go down and then go up again. Every time that we relax the regulations, there is a real risk that we allow the virus to get a grip again and spread. The Highlands are doing really well, and it would be awful if we did something that resulted in the spread of the virus across the Highlands and a move to level 2.

We can, perhaps, argue about the English situation another day, minister. However, on next steps, why do we not continue the model of having pilot games? I think that Ross County and Aberdeen did that at one stage. Why not look at having more pilot games in the championship? Obviously, I have a bias, given my interest in the Highlands, which is in level 1. For example, Caley Thistle offered to host the Scottish cup final, which was an innovative suggestion.

The point that I am making about level 1—I hope to see all the other areas move to level 1 eventually—is that 300 fans out of a capacity of 7,000 is an extremely small proportion. Therefore, we can still have safe attendance at games, but with a more realistic income flow for clubs. As the minister will know, the bulk of those 300 people, whether at Ross County, Elgin City Football Club or Inverness, will be season-ticket holders anyway, who have already paid their money and therefore do not provide any extra income flow to the clubs.

I totally understand how difficult it is—I am the minister for sport, and I saw the smiling faces of the Aberdeen fans who got one of the golden tickets to watch the pilot game. What politician would not want to give that to more people and be a really popular sports minister? However, dealing with the virus is so difficult, and we need to be so careful that we are not doing anything that inadvertently causes the virus to spread.

The suggestion by Caley Thistle to host the cup final was interesting. I do not think that it ever reached the Government, because it was against the rules; there are also particular reasons why that match must be held where it is. I wish that I could say, “Yes, we can do it and it will be safe”, but we need to be mindful that it is not just about the fans in stadia. It is about people getting to stadia and all the risks in that regard, including the pressures that might be put on the emergency services, such as ambulance and police services.

We need to consider all those things when making decisions. I am hopeful that we can drive down the virus and start to get the numbers of fans up before too long, but we all need to focus and work on getting the prevalence of the virus down across Scotland.

Taking David Stewart’s point about the pilots, there were pilots at Pittodrie and Victoria park in the summer. The reports, as I understood them, were that they were safely and securely conducted. Have you learned lessons from those pilots? Can you apply those lessons? Can you increase the number of fans attending a tier 1 stadium where there are sufficient seats? Can you reintroduce fans in tier 2 on the basis of the kind of precautions that were taken in those pilots?

The pilots were important, and I thank Aberdeen and Ross County football clubs for carrying them out. It is because of those pilots that we are able to say with confidence that, at level 1, we can have the fans back. On why the pilots were stopped, the prevalence of the virus across Scotland when we were carrying out the pilots was on a downward trajectory and there were plans for a pilot in Glasgow. Unfortunately, however, in the middle of the pilots, the virus numbers started to rise and we had to put a halt to the proposed pilot in Glasgow. The original proposal was that on the same day as the games being played in Aberdeen and Dingwall, there would have been a game in Glasgow. However, the prevalence of the virus started to increase and it has unfortunately gone in the wrong direction for some time.

We are now looking at a downward trajectory and do not have the levels across the country that we had in the summer. When we were doing the pilots in the summer, we had, in effect, eliminated the virus or had come pretty close to elimination in many parts of Scotland. We are looking at an entirely different situation just now but one that is going in the right direction in most parts of the country. We now have the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway in level 1 and we are able to get fans back into the games there. Hopefully, that will be seen as a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for fans elsewhere in the country and a bit of an extra boost for us all to work harder to follow the rules and do whatever we can to stop the spread of this horrible virus.

Thank you. I know that Aberdeen FC has put to the Government detailed plans for how it could manage numbers of fans in the low thousands safely in the context of the virus prevalence that currently exists, and I suspect that other clubs have done so, too. Have you considered those plans carefully and provided a detailed response or have you simply rejected them out of hand?

There is a clear route map for getting fans back into the stadia, which is to get to level 1. We have to understand in terms of having fans in stadia that nothing that we do on relaxing regulations is risk free. Clearly, the higher the prevalence of the virus in the community, the more likely it is that someone who is part of that crowd will have the virus. We need to judge the point at which that risk becomes acceptable, and the Government has been clear that we need to get the prevalence down to level 1.

One of the things that people need to recognise is that the World Health Organization has two definitions for the virus being out of control: one is that its positivity rate is above 5 per cent; and the other is that there are over 50 cases per week per 100,000 of the population. That is therefore not level 2. In Aberdeen in particular, we are now looking at around 100 cases per week per 100,000, so to do something that would potentially put people at risk in a level that has twice the number of cases that the WHO says defines the virus being out of control would be irresponsible.

Folk want to go to football, but they want to do so knowing that it is safe. They do not want to go to football thinking that they are not infected but then find out that they have infected other people or that they have come back with the virus and have passed it on to a loved one or a grandparent, for example. That is not what people want. They want to know that what we are doing is safe, and that is what we are trying to ensure. That is why we are encouraging folk to work hard to get the prevalence down. We have done it before and we can do it again.

So, if the Government route map is to get to tier 1 and take it from there, is there a route map for expanding the number of fans at a home game beyond 300 in areas such as the Highlands?

10:15  

That is something that we need to consider when we get confidence that what we have put in place—the 300-fans limit in an increasing number of clubs across the Highlands in particular—is working. We need to get past Christmas to see how the numbers flow, because there is obviously a concern about the relaxations that have been allowed and we will need to consider their impact.

The virus has not gone away in the Highlands, so there is a risk to everything that we do, which we need to manage. The worst thing that we could do for the Highlands would be to have a relaxation that resulted in the rise of the virus in rural and remote communities, which would be really challenging. Nobody wants to see the Highlands move back up to level 2.

I lied when I said that the previous question was my final one, because a couple of ideas went through my head when this one opened up. Nobody knows more than me the disappointment that is felt at the fact that the pilot will not happen, because the SMISA stadium of St Mirren FC was going to be one of the pilot areas.

The idea of a 300-fans limit is a good way to see that the process works, but for clubs to be able to work their way out of the situation, thousands of fans would need to be allowed in, which gives us another problem entirely.

On the back of what we have already said, for a safe return to football, we have to consider the game-day experience that many fans have. Many of my friends and colleagues—not so much me, because Stacey will not allow me—go into the town centre and make a day of it. I have spoken to Tony Fitzpatrick, the chief executive of St Mirren FC, about the issue. The problem with allowing in thousands of fans is that they would have a window of opportunity to go to the game from noon onwards for a 3 o’clock kick-off, for example.

Many fans could be sitting there, in the middle of winter, from half past 12 in the afternoon for a game that does not start until 3pm, which gives us logistical problems. With thousands of fans going to the game, my concern is that groups of individuals who sit in the same area or close to one another would turn up with all their friends at the one time. The worst-case scenario would be for everybody to rock up to the stadium at quarter to 3 as they normally do. Is that a concern of yours and how do we address that issue?

Concerns around larger number of fans are not just about the numbers of fans in the stadim. Technically, if we were to use the whole of a stadium, we could spread people out so that, even when everybody got excited and less careful than they should be, they would not be in close proximity with somebody else.

Other issues exist with regard to people getting to the stadia. We need to take into account additional pressures on the wider system—transportation, the police, ambulances—and we have done so, which is the reason why we have come to the 300-fans limit.

We need to build confidence that that approach is working, particularly with a wider range of football teams, so it is really good that the process is happening not just for Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County, but for an increasing number of Highland league teams.

The Highland league teams are going through a process to ensure that, as they bring fans back in, they are able to do so safely. It is not as simple as me saying that it is okay: the teams are working with football authorities to ensure that they have robust plans in place, and a huge amount of collaboration is taking place.

There was a question earlier about the wider concern for football, and the reason why I have confidence is partly because of that good degree of collaboration between the teams in relation to best practice, to ensure that the smaller Highland league teams that start to bring fans back in learn from the others so that they can do that as safely as possible. I recently heard, for example, that Inverness Caledonian Thistle had discussions with Queen of the South to ensure that the latter learned from the former’s experiences.

As everyone is shouting out to their local football team, I will give a shout out to my local constituency football team, Partick Thistle, which was working hard in the community before the pandemic and has continued to do so during it. I thank the team very much for that.

I want to move on and speak about the return of football fans to stadia. We have had news that—hopefully and thankfully—we have a vaccine against Covid-19. That vaccine is apparently going to be able to be given to people in the new year. Minister, do you anticipate a large return of fans to football stadia once the vaccine becomes available, and, on the back of that, if the vaccine is available and the public are able to get it would they need a certificate to say that they had received the vaccine before they could enter a stadium?

The vaccine is good news and a positive part of what is happening in both football and elsewhere. However, could you answer those questions and tell us if you have concerns about that?

You are right: it is really good news. None of the vaccines that we currently have, or those that are on the way, have the research behind them that is necessary to tell us that when a person has been vaccinated they will not still potentially be infectious.

It is good that all of the evidence from the vaccines that are being produced—some of it is preliminary—says that they appear to be good at protecting the individual from serious illness, hospitalisation and potential death. That is good, and it is why the roll-out of the limited stocks of the vaccine that we currently have is targeted at the most vulnerable folk. We want to protect the most vulnerable. We will vaccinate all of the priority groups that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended, and that will protect 99 per cent of people who are most likely to die from Covid. That is a prize in itself, but it does not give us confidence that the people who have been vaccinated will not spread the virus to somebody else. There is good reason to think that it will probably be helpful, but the evidence is not there yet.

Therefore, we are not at the stage of providing someone with a certificate that might imply that they do not pose a risk and could somehow act differently. We should get there. As time goes on, the evidence base will build, and we are all hopeful that it will give us the certainty that being vaccinated protects not only the person who is vaccinated but also others.

One of the points that we make when we tell people to get vaccines is that doing so is not only for you, but for your granny too. We say that about the flu vaccine. We are not there yet in relation to the Covid vaccine, so the idea of issuing a certificate would go a stage further than the evidence takes us.

It is important that we clarify that issue about vaccines. I said it was good news—and it is—but the general public, particularly as we are talking about football and fans going to stadia, need to know that this is not a cure-all vaccine that means that people who get it cannot pass the virus on to anyone.

Fans from all over will be thinking, “We have a vaccine, so we will be able to go.” We have mentioned the certificate. Is there a way that you and your officials will be able to clarify the position on that?

When fans and football clubs start to ask why fans cannot return to stadia, we will need a message out there to say that it protects the person who is vaccinated but not everyone. Is there a possibility of a date in the future when we will get other vaccines that will protect others as well? I know that you do not have a crystal ball, but I wondered whether you had any indication of that?

I would be speculating if I suggested how long that will take. The issue is not necessarily having different vaccines but not having the evidence base. The deputy chief medical officer, Nicola Steedman, has done a great job of explaining the situation in a number of outlets; I appreciate her frank expression of the vaccine limitations.

The Government must not inadvertently feed misinterpretation of what a vaccine can do, which is why I instinctively oppose the idea of having vaccine certificates. Certificates imply a degree of protection for others that does not exist.

A positive for fans is that, without the vaccine, vulnerable fans probably would not have the confidence to be part of the 300 people who are at a football match. Having the degree of protection from being vaccinated means that some vulnerable people might have the amazing pleasure that we saw in Aberdeen—I am talking about that because it was on the telly. I saw the smiles on the Aberdeen fans’ faces when they got their tickets and knew that they would go in to watch their team play. The vaccine means that a few folk who might have otherwise thought that attending a match was too risky will benefit.

The minister has spotted the sunny disposition that is characteristic of Aberdeen supporters. On that happy note, we conclude the session. If the minister is content for me to do so, I will write to him in due course with further questions from colleagues. I thank the minister and his officials for their attendance. In January, we will take further evidence for the inquiry from those who deliver and participate in community sports; I know that the Government will be interested in that session, too.