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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 March 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Scottish Parliamentary Elections 2021, Business Motion, Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Defamation and Malicious Publication (Scotland) Bill, Code of Conduct Rule Changes, Reimbursement of Members’ Expenses Scheme, Decision Time, Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2021, Correction


Topical Question Time

Covid-19 (Brazilian Variant)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the detection of the so-called Brazilian variant of Covid-19 in Scotland. (S5T-02690)

Three cases of the Covid-19 variant of concern, which was first identified in Japan but which is associated with Manaus in Brazil, have been identified in Scotland. They relate to three individuals who travelled from Brazil to Aberdeen via Paris and London. As members would expect, contact tracing has been undertaken and close contacts have been followed up and offered testing, as usual.

In an additional precautionary step, the close contacts of those contacts have been identified and followed up. That additional step is being taken to ensure that all possible precautions are under way. Passengers on the Heathrow to Aberdeen flight on the afternoon of 29 January, flight BA1312, are being contacted. However, because not all the data that we have received about its passengers is correct, we are asking anyone on that flight who did not provide up-to-date contact details to call the national health service national contact tracing centre on 0800 030 8012.

There is currently no evidence of community transmission, but that is of course being closely monitored by Public Health Scotland and the public health team at NHS Grampian, with our national clinical advisers in close contact with both.

The variant is of concern because of the possibility that it is more contagious than the current dominant Covid-19 strain in Scotland and because of how it responds to current vaccines. The extensive and detailed work to reach a confirmed expert view on both those aspects continues.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Brazilian variant has now been found in 15 countries that are not on the United Kingdom Government’s red list. Does the cabinet secretary accept that current border restrictions cannot adequately protect people in Scotland from this concerning strain of Covid-19?

I absolutely do, as does the Scottish Government, which is why we want much tougher protections on our international borders, around the whole UK, for all international travellers. As Ms Johnstone rightly says, the variant has been detected in other countries that are not currently on the red list.

It is important to recognise that, although we have advanced genomic sequencing capacity in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, that is not necessarily the case in countries around the globe. Therefore, it is difficult for those countries to know whether they have any particular variant, which makes it difficult for the global position to be understood. One of the key ways that it can be understood—with citizens here and elsewhere therefore protected—is to have that managed isolation system and the testing that is part of it, so that genomic sequencing can be carried out and variants can be identified.

As Ms Johnstone knows, the point of the virus, like all viruses, is to mutate whenever it is given the opportunity, and it is those mutations that we need to be able to identify quickly and against which we can then act in order to protect our citizens.

Can the cabinet secretary advise us what proportion of samples are currently being sequenced to detect strains of concern? Does Scotland have access to an adequate proportion of UK capacity? What action is the Scottish Government taking to increase genome sequencing capacity in Scotland?

Genomic sequencing is carried out by COG-UK, as the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium is known, which has two partner organisations in Scotland, and by NHS Scotland’s sequencing service.

A representative number of positive polymerase chain reaction samples in Scotland are genomically sequenced. That number can be increased when we have situations such as this one, where a variant is identified. The figure is around 4 to 5 per cent in normal times, but it can be increased. Additional testing and sequencing provisions are in place for people returning from travel abroad.

As recently as yesterday, I had a further conversation with our chief medical officer, who will pursue the option of further increasing genomic sequencing capacity in Scotland. As we look ahead, we can undoubtedly see, alongside our increased testing capacity, additional precautionary and protective steps, in that further genomic sequencing on the basis of an increased sampling of positive PCR tests might give us further protection measures.

Having read about the circumstances surrounding the three people from the north-east who came back from Brazil with the new strain, I have concerns about the risk of new strains being brought in by people who start their journeys in high-risk areas but travel via airport hubs in countries that are not currently deemed to be high risk. I am concerned that people are not being required to quarantine at their point of entry into the UK, to prevent them from spreading infection as they make their way to their final destinations.

Given that new strains can take time to be identified, is it not time that the UK Government followed Scotland and adopted the same policy of quarantine for arrivals from every country and not just those that are deemed to be high risk at a certain point? I would be interested to hear what conversations have been had with the UK Government on all those points.

I completely agree with all the points that Ms Martin made. The instance that we are talking about exemplifies why our Scottish Government approach of requiring much tighter controls on all our international borders is so important. Ms Martin is right, in that the ideal and correct position, on which we continue to press the UK Government, is that, at the very least, passengers whose final destination is Scotland should be required to quarantine at their point of entry and should not come through any of the hubs south of the border to travel to Scotland, which obviously creates a gap in the protective measures that we need to put in place.

My colleague Mr Matheson has those conversations regularly with his counterpart and I know that the First Minister has raised the issue, certainly on more than one occasion. I raise the issue at the regular four-nations health ministers meetings that I have, which are at least weekly at the moment, and I know that my colleagues elsewhere share those concerns. Even if we stick with the red list, the question is how quickly countries that should enter the red list can be identified—the answer is not very quickly, which is a particular concern. The more straightforward and protective approach, which would guard against inward transmission in a better and more proportionate way than is currently the case, is to say that all international arrivals—with the exemptions that are already there—should have to enter managed quarantine.

The concerns about the Brazil variant of Covid-19 are that it potentially spreads more easily and that it can evade the immune system, leading to re-infections. Two cases of the variant have been found in south Gloucestershire. There, people are doing surge testing, including door-to-door testing of people who live in particular postcode areas. There are three cases in Aberdeen, so I would be interested to know what the Scottish Government is doing. We have previously raised the need to use all available testing capacity. Is the Scottish Government testing everyone who was on the plane? Will it use surge testing to stop the spread of this much more infectious virus?

I welcome Ms Baillie to her new portfolio and look forward to our constructive engagement in the remaining weeks of the parliamentary session.

What we are doing around the three cases in Aberdeen is targeted testing. Let me take that in steps. Two of the individuals required hospital treatment. All staff who were in contact with those individuals have been tested—that is in addition to the regular testing that our national health service staff undergo, of course. There is a connection with a local school, so there is testing for the people involved there. Testing is also offered to close contacts who have been experiencing symptoms and to passengers and crew from the Heathrow to Aberdeen flight, whom we are contacting, should they experience any symptoms—remembering the time lag between the date of that flight and now. That is the basis on which that work is being undertaken.

My understanding from Public Health England is that what is happening potentially relates to a later flight, which arrived from Brazil via, I think, Zurich. Because those cases were not initially isolated in the way in which our cases were, I can understand the sense of surge testing in that regard.

The decision about testing and how it is used is, of course, clinically led by our colleagues in public health.

Legal Advice (Publication)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will publish the legal advice that it received regarding the judicial review into the handling of harassment complaints against the former First Minister, Alex Salmond. (S5T-02691)

The maintenance of legal professional privilege is routine and is an essential part of good government. No Administration since devolution has disclosed legal advice in the context of litigation, and I have expressed my concern about setting a precedent that could hamper future Administrations in receiving candid legal advice. The Government has taken unprecedented steps to share with the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, in confidence, a summary of the legal advice that it received during the judicial review, supplemented by oral evidence by the Lord Advocate.

However, in recent days, a number of accusations have been raised that, if not responded to, could undermine confidence in the Parliament, the Government and our independent justice system. In light of those developments, I have concluded, in line with the terms of section 2.40 of the Scottish ministerial code, that the balance of public interest in these exceptional circumstances now lies in releasing to the committee and for publication the contents of legal advice received by the Government during the judicial review, and in particular the advice from external counsel. The law officers have provided their consent that there are compelling reasons for disclosure in the specific circumstances.

Subject to the completion of the necessary legal notifications, we aim to release the material to the committee this afternoon. In order to address the desire for the information to be available as soon as possible, we have focused on providing information that charts the development of the judicial review and, specifically, the changes in prospects that emerged during that process.

This episode demonstrates the contempt that the Government holds for the Scottish Parliament. For months, the committee has been calling for publication of the legal advice, and there were two votes in Parliament last year calling for it to be published. Only now, at the very last possible moment, when a metaphorical gun is held to the head of the Deputy First Minister and he is threatened with a vote of no confidence does he finally agree to release some legal advice.

We have not yet seen the documents that Mr Swinney refers to. However, last night, Mr Salmond’s lawyers told us that the material that the Scottish Government proposes to release is, in their words,

“highly selective and based on what will cause the least embarrassment to the Government”.

Can the Deputy First Minister therefore assure us that the committee’s request for publication of all relevant documents will be met, or will he continue to cover up the truth?

I will first say that, if I heard Mr Fraser correctly—I might have misheard him, and if so, I will apologise—he said that a gun had been metaphorically held to my head. I do not think that that is appropriate terminology for one member of Parliament to use to another. Nor was the language that other Conservative MSPs used appropriate—it is wholly inappropriate for one human being to express something in that way to another human being, never mind one member of Parliament to another. I simply say that to get it off my chest.

My second point is that Mr Fraser, as well as being a member of Parliament, is a trained solicitor so, from his professional background, he knows the importance of the principle of legal professional privilege. He knows how central it is to the foundations of the Scottish legal system and to the relationship between clients and advisers, and that, for Government, in litigation, it is central. The Government has wrestled with that difficult issue and we have concluded that, in the public interest, it is right to act in the way that we are now acting.

Finally, Mr Fraser has raised comments made by the solicitors for the former First Minister. I simply encourage Mr Fraser to wait until he sees the information that we publish, and then I am sure that he can apply the independent judgment with which we normally associate him to the material that he sees before him.

Frankly, we can do without Mr Swinney’s manufactured outrage. He and his Government have behaved disgracefully in this whole affair, and he should be apologising to the Parliament for his conduct throughout the episode.

The legal advice that we are now being offered will not be made available to the committee before the First Minister comes to give us evidence at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning. How does the Deputy First Minister propose that members of the committee will be able to pursue with the First Minister or indeed anybody else in the Government questions that might arise from the legal advice, given that it is being produced so late in the day?

The information will be available later on this afternoon, so unless Mr Fraser goes to his bed at 5 o’clock, he can read it tonight.

Friday’s evidence session was extraordinary, to say the least, and it threw up many questions. I wonder whether the cabinet secretary can answer this question. Which of these is the most serious: a failure to declare a £950 campaign donation; a muddle over an office sublet; or withholding up to 40 documents that have been requested by the police under a search warrant?

It is not for me to offer legal advice across the parliamentary chamber. What is important is that the Government has fulfilled its obligations in providing information to the committee, and we will complete that task this afternoon.