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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 16, 2021

COVID-19 Recovery Committee 16 December 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Ministerial Statement and Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Good morning, and welcome to the 15th meeting in 2021 of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee.

We will take evidence at stage 1 on the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill. I welcome to the meeting John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery; James Wilson, the head of contact tracing and supporting isolation policy; Michael Tighe, the team leader for Covid-19 legislation and daily contact testing; and Marie Penman, a solicitor in the Scottish Government legal directorate. Thank you for your attendance.

Deputy First Minister, would you like to make any remarks before we move to questions?

Thank you, convener. I would like to briefly set out the purpose of and background to the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-Isolation) (Scotland) Bill.

At the start of the pandemic, we took steps to suspend the duty on health boards that is set out in the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 to pay compensation to people that they ask to self-isolate. As it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would require a very large number of people to self-isolate, the measure was vital to ensure that health boards were not subject to significant financial and administrative resource impacts.

The suspension of the duty is contained in the United Kingdom Coronavirus Act 2020. Many provisions in the 2020 act are due to expire in spring 2022, and the bill takes steps to ensure that the suspension of the duty to pay compensation remains in place. Given the recent increase in cases of omicron, that is vital to ensure that health boards are not subject to additional financial and administrative impacts as they continue to provide key public health and health services.

Members will be aware of the existing support for isolation, which includes the self-isolation support grant. That is a one-off payment to those earning the real living wage or less who are notified to self-isolate. That vital support to those on lower incomes helps them to financially weather a period away from work.

Other forms of practical and social support are available, including the local self-isolation assistance service, which provides help to those who need it with things such as essential medicine and food delivery at a local level, and the coronavirus national assistance helpline, which is available to help with any queries relating to Covid-19.

Scottish Government analysts have estimated the cost of reverting to the 2008 act’s power while we are experiencing high levels of cases to be about £380 million, which is 20 times the budget for the self-isolation support grant. For that reason, and to prevent financial and administrative burdens on health boards as they seek to exit the pandemic, the Scottish Government believes that the bill is a necessary step to ensure that we can continue to provide support and protect health boards as they provide essential care.

The cost estimate was undertaken prior to the recent emergence of omicron and will be revised in line with updated modelling. It is likely that the estimate will increase significantly. At this vital time, it is important that we protect our health boards and ensure that that vital support continues.

I look forward to answering questions from the committee.

Thank you, Deputy First Minister. I will ask the first question. In light of omicron, the guidance for those who should self-isolate was last updated on 11 December. Could you please explain exactly what has changed?

The material change is that, when an individual in a household has tested positive for coronavirus, we require all those in the household to self-isolate for the required period. Previously, if an individual in a household tested positive, others in that household could take a PCR—polymerase chain reaction—test. If they tested negative, they could leave self-isolation. Under the new rules, we have changed that to the position that I have just stated.

Unlike in England and Wales, in Scotland, there has never been a legal obligation to self-isolate. Instead, those rules are explained in guidance. Can you explain why that is the case?

We take the view that we are inviting individuals to co-operate and collaborate with us on this agenda. We recognise the importance of self-isolation, but we also recognise the importance of public consent in the work that we take forward. We listen carefully to behavioural scientists in relation to many aspects of the pandemic, and the behavioural analysis that we have undertaken indicates that it is best in that respect to work closely with and invite the collaboration of individuals in our common endeavour to control the spread of the virus.

I have a fairly technical issue to raise about the bill, which was raised with us by the Law Society of Scotland. For completeness, I should say that, as my entry in the register of members’ interests discloses, I am a member of the Law Society. The society’s point relates to section 4, which sets out the process by which ministers can make regulations. It states that,

“If the Scottish Ministers consider that regulations under section 3(2) need to be made urgently”

and come into effect immediately, they must be accompanied by a “statement of their reasons”. The Law Society believes that that statement of reasons should also explain why it is necessary to make the regulations urgently before they are approved by Parliament.

In what scenarios might the emergency legislation be used, and what safeguards will be put in place to ensure effective parliamentary scrutiny?

The circumstances in which we may have to move at pace are demonstrated by the experience that we have had with omicron. I have rehearsed some of this with the committee previously and in various media interviews. Three weeks past Tuesday, the Cabinet concluded that the coronavirus situation was in what I would describe as a reasonably steady state. Cases were high but stable and the vaccination programme was performing extremely well, so we considered the pandemic to be in a reasonably stable position. Within 48 hours, we were being briefed about the emergence of omicron in South Africa. It is three weeks today since we got that first briefing, so you can see the scale and pace of change that has happened. I use that sequence of events to illustrate why we have to be able to move swiftly with legislative change if required.

Having said that, it is important that we handle any issues about the making of legislation with great care and maximise the availability of scrutiny. The Law Society makes a reasonable proposition in relation to the statement of reasons, and I have asked my officials to explore that point. I suspect that the committee might well reflect on the issue in its stage 1 report. I will read with care what the committee says in the report and respond accordingly. I am asking for the Law Society’s point to be considered. Events are moving quickly in relation to the pandemic and we may have to act swiftly.

I remain available to appear before the committee at literally any moment that the committee would want to take evidence from me on the development of the pandemic. The committee has scheduled meetings on a Thursday morning. If it wishes to meet at any other moment in the week, with reasonable practical notice, I will appear before it for scrutiny. I appreciate the need for scrutiny—I am a parliamentarian—but, equally, I think that the committee appreciates the need for the Government to move quickly. If that requires an urgent meeting of the committee, I will be only too happy to appear before it.

Thank you, Deputy First Minister. That offer is much appreciated.

So far, most of the people from whom we have taken evidence on the bill agree that it is the right way to go and that our national health service would be overwhelmed otherwise.

I will ask about the self-isolation support grant. People will not be able to comply with self-isolation rules if they cannot afford to feed their families or pay the rent or mortgage. Are you confident that there are enough resources in the self-isolation support grant? Has any analysis been done of who is and is not accessing it? Has any analysis been done of the promotion of the grant and how the information is getting out? Are the eligibility criteria suitable, given the numbers of people who are being asked to isolate?

We have set the grant as payable to individuals who earn the real living wage or less. We judge that to be appropriate, given the fragility of income of individuals at that level.

The grant’s adequacy is an important question. We feel confident that, combined with the other financial support that is available for individuals in such circumstances, the self-isolation support grant provides an adequate and appropriate level of financial support for the 10-day period. However, we have to continue to consider and be mindful of the issue.

On promotion of the self-isolation support grant, whenever an individual tests positive, they are pointed in the direction of the grant to ensure that they are aware of its provision. Some people will not be eligible, because of the level of remuneration that they receive, but anybody who tests positive is pointed towards it. As I indicated, a range of other measures are in place that can provide assistance to families who face difficulties. However, I accept the principle of the point that Mr Rowley puts to me that the payment must be adequate to enable individuals to be prepared to comply with the requirements of self-isolation.

We received evidence that women especially were not aware of how or when to get hold of the grant. As more people might have to self-isolate over the next two or three months, might the Government make an effort to re-emphasise and reiterate the grant’s availability?

We certainly need to make sure that individuals are aware of the provision. After I did my lateral flow test this morning before I left the house, I received an email from the NHS to confirm that it was negative, thankfully. That email also gives a link to information on self-isolation support, so there is a direct connection that promotes the information regularly.

I accept that there are other avenues for us to communicate the messages. Members will hear from the advice that the First Minister gives in parliamentary and media briefings that there is a significant emphasis and attention on the provision of the self-isolation grant. However, I will certainly take away Mr Mason’s point that there might be a case for us to look in greater depth at how we can further promote the availability of the grant, and I will endeavour to do that.

10:00  

Thank you—that is helpful. The Deputy First Minister shows exemplary behaviour in the number of tests that he does. Sadly, however, not everybody in society is taking as many tests and getting the same feedback. Nevertheless, I appreciate your answer.

More generally, is it fair to say that the bill is about saving money? Most legislation leads to money being spent. The key point is that the NHS would be severely damaged if it had to pay full compensation for people’s loss of wages and all the rest of it. The bill will ensure that £500 is paid only to those people who need it most.

The central point of and necessity for the bill is that the provisions of the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 were designed for isolated requirements of self-isolation. Those were envisaged for an E coli outbreak in a small locality or a case of that nature.

In general, over the years, about 30 payments have been made under the terms of the 2008 act in those circumstances. The act was not designed for a pandemic. It requires each case to be assessed. The provisions of the act not only provide for a much larger cost to the public purse but would be administratively overwhelming for the national health service. The NHS is absolutely focused on dealing with the pandemic and the wider delivery of healthcare services. For it to then have to deploy massive administrative resources on the evaluation of cases consistent with the 2008 act would, to be frank, overwhelm it.

We have had to make a pragmatic decision to make payment available to those who require it in a way that is sustainable financially and administratively for the NHS. That is why the bill is a necessity.

I am certainly convinced by that argument, and I think that the committee probably is, too. However, does that mean that the 2008 act is not entirely fit for purpose? Do we need to revisit that legislation?

We must be clear that the 2008 act is fit for the purpose for which it was designed—that is, for isolated examples of self-isolation. It is not fit for the purpose of providing financial support in a pandemic, which is why we must put in place the new legislation. In that sense, Mr Mason’s point is valid. The 2008 act is fit for its purpose, but that purpose does not meet the circumstances of a global pandemic, with the current requirement for self-isolation.

One of our aims is to better prepare ourselves for the next pandemic. I am not suggesting that we do this immediately but, once we get through Covid, would it be worth while looking at the 2008 act to ensure that it can deal with isolated cases and future pandemics?

Ensuring that we have in place the appropriate long-term arrangements is a reasonable point for us to consider. None of us wants to have another pandemic—this one is absolutely overwhelming as it is—but we have to look at the issue of Covid recovery and the questions that arise from that, which, of course, is the committee’s purpose.

That concludes our consideration of agenda item 1. I thank the Deputy First Minister and his officials. I suspend the meeting to allow a changeover of officials.

10:04 Meeting suspended.  

10:08 On resuming—