Meeting date: Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 02 September 2020
Agenda: Point of Order, First Minister’s Question Time, United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, Programme for Government 2020-21, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Point of Order, Business Motion, Decision Time, Correction
- Point of Order
- First Minister’s Question Time
- United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill
- Programme for Government 2020-21
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Point of Order
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
We move to First Minister’s questions. The First Minister will begin with a short statement updating us on the Covid situation.
I will give a brief update. An additional 156 cases of Covid were confirmed yesterday; that represents 1 per cent of people who were newly tested yesterday, and the total number of cases is now 20,788. A total of 86 of the new cases are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 26 in Lanarkshire, 16 are in Lothian and six are in Ayrshire and Arran. The remaining 22 are distributed across six other health board areas. Some 258 patients are in hospital, which is six fewer than yesterday, and five people are in intensive care, which is one fewer than yesterday.
I am sorry to say that, in the past 24 hours, one death of a patient who had tested positive was registered. The number of deaths under that measurement is now 2,495. In addition, National Records of Scotland has just published its weekly update, which includes deaths of people in whom Covid has been confirmed through a test and cases in which Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death. That latest update covers the week to Sunday 30 August. It shows that the total number of registered deaths with either a confirmed or presumed link to Covid is now 4,228. Six of those were registered in the previous week, which is the same number as the week before. Two were in care homes, which is two fewer than in the previous week. Once again, my condolences go to everyone who has lost a loved one.
In the interest of public and parliamentary information, I will briefly mention two other matters. Last night we announced that Greece has been added to the list of countries that are subject to quarantine restrictions. Test and protect has found in recent days that a number of new Covid cases can be connected to individuals returning from that country. The new restrictions apply from 4 o’clock tomorrow morning. Anyone who arrives in Scotland from Greece after that time must self-isolate for 14 days. Anyone who has returned from Greece in the past few days should be particularly careful about social interactions and follow all the FACTS advice particularly carefully.
Given the uncertainties that are inherent in a global pandemic, I also want to repeat my advice for people to be very cautious about non-essential foreign travel right now. There can be no guarantee that the rules on quarantine will not change while you are away and affect you on your return.
Secondly, let me briefly remind people who are living in Glasgow City, East Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire of the new guidance in place. The level of Covid is particularly high and rising in those areas. Given the toll that we know Covid can take, doing nothing was not an option.
The data that we now get from test and protect allows us to be much more targeted in the measures that we take. We know that, unlike in the pub-based cluster in Aberdeen a few weeks ago, the data so far suggest that transmission in the west of Scotland is happening not exclusively, but mainly, in people’s homes.
The guidance is now, first, that if you live in Glasgow, East Renfrewshire or West Dunbartonshire, you should not host people from other households in your home, and you should not visit someone else’s home, no matter where that is. There are exceptions for emergencies and providing care or shopping to vulnerable people, and for extended households. Further guidance and a Q and A can be found at www.gov.scot.
Secondly, if any member of your household is identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive, we will now ask the whole household to isolate for 14 days. Local authorities are stepping up their support arrangements.
Lastly, visits to care homes in those three areas are now restricted to outdoors only, and hospital visiting will return to essential visits only.
Those restrictions will be in place for two weeks, and will be reviewed in one week. They have not been put in place lightly. They are necessary and, we believe, proportionate, and we hope that they will allow the spread to be contained at an early stage, without the need for further measures later.
The measures apply only in those three council areas now, but I think that they should be a wake-up call for all of us. If we let it, the virus will spread rapidly. The good news is that, if we stick to some basic rules and continue to make some sacrifices, we can stop it. To be blunt, however, that only works if we all do those things, so please make sure that you are aware of what the rules are, that you stick to them, and that you follow the FACTS rules: face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m distancing; and self-isolate and book a test if you have symptoms. Doing all that is more important now than it has been at any stage of the pandemic so far.
Thank you, First Minister. I remind members that we are sticking to the format in which all supplementaries to the First Minister will be asked at the end of all the questions, which today is after question 7.
Yesterday, the First Minister announced plans for a referendum bill. Why is that more urgent than an education bill?
The Government has a well-known, well-established and well under way programme of improvements and reform in education. We have taken additional steps to make sure that pupils catch up with the education that they lost during the Covid period. We have given additional funding to local authorities for that, and we are providing additional funding specifically to recruit additional teachers. Education, and improving education, remain the priority for this Government.
However, on a basic matter of democracy, I believe that it is for the people of Scotland to choose their own future. I will argue that case in a democratic election. People will be able to decide in how they vote. If they endorse my view that there should be a referendum on independence, they will then have the right to choose Scotland’s future.
Fundamentally, I believe in democracy. We now know that Ruth Davidson does not.
The First Minister does not believe in democracy when she does not like its answer.
This year, Scottish school pupils missed an entire term of classroom teaching. We know that that loss of time will have fallen hardest on pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds—the very pupils whose communities have been left devastated by the pandemic. We know that thousands of Scottish pupils will need to self-isolate during the coming months, and will lose more crucial classroom time.
In the face of the pandemic, the Government had no choice but to close Scotland’s schools, but it does have a choice about mitigating the effects of that classroom shutdown on those who suffered most from it. The Scottish Conservatives have already called for extra tuition for the most disadvantaged. Will the First Minister guarantee that the additional money that she has confirmed is available will go directly to the schools and headteachers who need it most?
The money’s purpose is precisely to allow local authorities, teachers and schools to decide on the different ways that they think are appropriate in order to help students to catch up. Money is available specifically to recruit extra teachers to help with that catching up and to improve resilience, as we continue to go through the Covid pandemic.
The attainment fund puts money directly with headteachers, and we have confirmed attainment funding for schools for the next period. We have, during the past few years, invested hundreds of millions of pounds of funding in tackling the attainment gap, and it has gone directly to teachers. We will continue to make sure that there is investment, and we will continue to support teachers, schools, young people, and parents—not just to catch up on the education that has unfortunately been lost during the Covid pandemic, but to make sure that effort on the objective of closing the attainment gap continues to be the priority.
This week, it was revealed that the Scottish Qualifications Authority has planned for schools to cover less ground in the curriculum in key subjects, including English and maths. Instead of building our pupils back up, the Government seems to be content to accept second best. I do not think that less teaching, less learning and less knowledge this year for young people who lost out last year are acceptable, and I doubt that many parents across Scotland will, either.
Parents expect the Government to have the ambition to deliver the same standards of teaching as in any normal school year—and nothing less. Will the First Minister ask the SQA to think again?
The SQA will do the work that it is required to do. We have established the independent review in order to make sure that we learn all the lessons about what was put in place because we did not have exams this year. It is right that we allow that work to be done. The SQA will look closely at the curriculum, and will listen carefully to the views that are being expressed.
Such debates are on-going across the United Kingdom right now. Especially given the mistakes that were made—I take responsibility for the mistakes that were made by the SQA with this year’s results—it is important to take time to ensure that we get it right, while continuing to support young people through the on-going virus situation that has not ended. We will continue to take those decisions carefully.
To come back to the core challenge that we all face at the moment, I say that we have, thankfully, seen Scottish young people returning to schools earlier than most other young people across the UK because of our different term dates. Our current objective is to make sure that they can stay at school full time, and that there is no further disruption to their education. That is why all the advice that we are giving and all the difficult decisions that we are making in order to suppress the virus remain so important. We have to keep absolutely focused on all that.
The SQA will do what “is required”. Is that acceptable to the First Minister, when she knows that the SQA is planning to cover less ground this year, and is planning to tell our parents and children that the children will be taught less and will learn less? I am sorry, but I am not sure that that is good enough.
I know that the First Minister does not like to be asked questions about her record, but she deserves to be challenged on this matter. It was she who said that education would be her number 1 priority—not us. It was she who said that a flagship education bill was needed to fix Scottish education—not us. It was she who said that closing the attainment gap was what she wanted to be judged by, but her record simply does not stand the test.
There are warnings already ringing out about this school year. Parents, pupils and teachers have all sounded an alarm about the SQA’s plans. Should not that be her focus?
All those things are my daily focuses. Not only am I perfectly willing and happy to have questions asked of me about my record, my policies and my plans, but I am happy to allow the Scottish people to judge them in an election. Ruth Davidson, however, wants to continue to be a politician, but without the consent of a single person in this country. She is heading to an unelected chamber, but has the brass neck to lecture the rest of us about scrutiny and accountability. No ermine robe in the world will cover up that hypocrisy.
On education, we decided not to take the time to pass legislation, but instead to get on and do all the things that would have been in the bill, but without the need for legislation. We are investing record sums in closing the attainment gap, we are supporting young people through this difficult period, and we will work with the SQA. Unlike other Governments, we will not blame bodies such as the SQA; we will take responsibility, and we will work with the authority to ensure that young people are supported in catching up with their education. That crucial work to close the attainment gap and to raise standards for all continues. We will be accountable for that before the Scottish people in just a few months.
Discharge of Patients into Care Homes
I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, especially my trade union membership.
We now know that, in the early days of the pandemic, not only were untested patients discharged into care homes, but patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 were sent into care homes. The Scottish Government can continue to wait for the data from Public Health Scotland, but those are undisputed facts, even if they had to be uncovered by freedom of information requests and journalistic digging.
The review that was announced yesterday into the future of social care is welcome, and a national care service is something for which Scottish Labour has been calling for a decade. However, we cannot go forward without looking back at what went wrong in care homes during this pandemic.
This morning, I spoke to Alan Wightman, a member of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group. He told me that his mother was in a care home in Fife. He has no complaints about the care that she got in the home but, sadly, she died from Covid-19 on 6 May. She had just turned 80.
Alan is angry. He says that the Government
“seeded the virus into care homes”
without considering the consequences. He told me that he does not want compensation; he just wants to prevent other families from having to suffer. He told me that, as well as a human rights-based full public inquiry, we need an urgent review and, in his words, “we need it fast.”
For Alan’s sake and for the sake of all those other grieving families, will the First Minister instigate an urgent independent review of what happened? Scotland’s bereaved families deserve answers, they deserve justice, and they should not have to wait.
First, my condolences are with everyone who is in Alan’s position, and they specifically go to him for the loss that he and his family have suffered. As I know everybody does, I deeply regret every single loss of life in this pandemic overall and, particularly because of the vulnerability of the people involved, the loss of lives in care homes.
My job right now is to continue to take decisions with my colleagues to steer the country as safely as possible through the remainder of this pandemic, and none of us knows how long that will take. I have a duty to the country to ensure that our undivided focus is on that task, which is what I intend to do.
We learn lessons as we go and take a range of advice about the steps that we require to put in place, which is why we have changed our position on a range of things, from the guidance in place through to testing and care home visits, as we learn more about the virus and the experience that people have had. We will continue to do that.
Although I am not complacent, and every single death is one too many, we have seen the situation in care homes improve over a number of weeks, with a reduction in cases and—thankfully—a vast reduction in the number of older people losing their lives, which says that the arrangements that have been put in place around care homes are effective. There will be a full public inquiry into all aspects of the matter, to which care homes will be absolutely essential, and we will continue to take steps to learn as we go.
It is important that we do not lose focus on continuing to take the best decisions that we can. I know that there is a sense—a real desire—on everybody’s part to think that we are through this crisis. We are not through it; we are about to go into winter and we must remain focused on doing all the things that are required to keep the country as safe as possible.
It is precisely because we are going into winter that we need transparency around the lessons that we need to learn from that first wave and the awful death toll that took place in Scotland’s care homes.
I move again to yesterday’s announcement. I said that Scottish Labour has long called for a national care service, so to see the First Minister come around to our way of thinking—not before time—is welcome. A commitment to a social care review is different from a commitment to wholesale reform. My concern is that the First Minister does not seem to know what a national care service should look like. She should not need an independent review to tell her the basic principles on which such a service should be built.
We know that private providers, which have higher rates of staff vacancies and turnover, currently run three quarters of Scotland’s care homes. HC-One, the largest provider, receives substantial amounts of public money but is owned by holding companies that are registered in offshore tax havens such as the Channel Islands and the Cayman Islands. We believe that a national care service must remove the profit motive from the delivery of care. That is not a technical matter but a political and moral question. Why cannot the First Minister bring herself to agree?
I do agree and think that I have done so before. Before I come to that point, I will complete the point about transparency around care homes, because I agree with that point, too. It is the reason why we take certain steps and why, for example, we have asked Public Health Scotland by the end of this month to produce validated statistics on patients who were tested prior to discharge into care homes, which include the outcome and the date of that test, so that we know exactly what happened and are able to ensure that we learn the appropriate and proper lessons. As we focus on the decisions that lie ahead of us, we learn as we go and will ensure—unlike any other part of the United Kingdom so far—that validated reports allow Parliament to properly scrutinise the matter, which is important.
On the issue of a national care service, I agree with the principles that Richard Leonard has enunciated. However—I say this as a statement of fact; it is not intended as a pejorative or a political point—there is a difference between a call for something in opposition and the delivery of it in government. One has to work out not just the vision that one seeks to achieve but the detail of how one gets from here to there, which is why it is really important that we do that properly and systematically, and that we understand all the practical issues around the employment of staff, structural integration, consistency of standards, funding and charging for care homes and how that has to be funded.
My job—the Scottish Government’s job—is not just to say what we want to have happen but to put in place the plans that can deliver it. That is the serious work that we are committed to undertaking, helped of course by the independent review that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced yesterday. That is the responsibility of Government, which I take seriously every day, and on which I will be judged at the election in a few months’ time, as I said to Ruth Davidson.
Of course, the concern is that experience tells us that, when the Scottish National Party Government resorts to reviews, it often means kicking things into the long grass. There are steps that could be taken now that would show that the Government is serious about improving social care. Will the First Minister give a commitment today to appoint trade union representatives and representatives of care users to the review panel that was announced yesterday, so that the voices of those who deliver care, and those who receive it, are at the centre of the review? Will the First Minister establish collective bargaining in the care sector, as recommended by her own fair work convention? Finally, will she act to ensure that the extraordinary staff who deliver social care are given the status that they deserve, the security at work that they need, and the pay and conditions that they have long merited?
On the composition of the independent review, we will listen to suggestions, and if there is a feeling that we want to add people to it, we will consider that. Trade unions and the voice of the trade unions are vital to everything that we do, and I think that most people who look at how we do our business would see that as being the case.
On the point about the voice of care users, Ian Welsh—who, in the dark and distant past, was a Labour MSP—from the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland is on the review representing care users. Malcolm Chisholm, the former Labour Minister for Health and Community Care is also a member of the review. We have cast the net widely to get people who have experience of the issues that we are dealing with, from across the political spectrum. I hope that that is welcomed.
Richard Leonard has absolutely illustrated the point that I am making about the difference between calling for something in opposition, and delivering it in government. He asks us to make sure that the dedicated people who work in the care sector—and they are dedicated people who have my eternal gratitude, particularly after the past few months—have the pay, conditions and status. There is a practical problem with my giving that guarantee right now, as we do not directly employ a single one of those people. Therefore, we have to look at how we reform the system to allow all that to be delivered. It is not enough for me as First Minister just to wish something into reality—I have to take steps to bring it into reality, and that is what I am committed to doing.
We want to move quickly, which is why we have asked the independent review to give us a report by January, although I am not sure whether Richard Leonard will still be standing in his place by then—we will wait and see. By January, we will have the first report of the independent review that will allow us to take actions in the short term, and also continue the work in the longer term. It is a big opportunity for us all, and I give Richard Leonard a lot of credit for arguing the case for it. Let us pull together and make sure that we seize the opportunity to turn the goal into reality. None of us does a service to that goal if we simply try to gloss over the real complexities of achieving it. It is really important that we get it right, and I hope that Richard Leonard will engage with the independent review in the constructive way in which I am sure he intends to.
Coronavirus (Local Measures)
The Scottish Greens have consistently supported a precautionary approach with the aim of eliminating coronavirus. Although we all regret the need for the introduction of extra measures in Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire, we know that it is necessary if we are going to stop local outbreaks as rapidly as we can.
The First Minister has recognised that many people find it hard to see why rules that apply to homes do not apply to other places where more people from more households are mixing, and communicating that message will be a bigger challenge as new students arrive in Glasgow in the coming weeks for the start of term. Included among them will be a substantial number of international students. How will the Scottish Government support clear communication about the measures at a local level, what steps will be taken to ensure that young people arriving in Glasgow understand the new restrictions, and what role will testing play in ensuring that the start of term will not increase the risk to communities or university staff?
Many of those questions are addressed and answered, as Patrick Harvie will be aware, in the updated guidance for further and higher education that was published yesterday by the Deputy First Minister.
In terms of international students, the key and most effective measure is to ensure that quarantine responsibilities and obligations are being adhered to. In the guidance, we have made clear our expectation that education institutions will ensure that their students understand and comply with the restrictions.
International students might come from countries where the public health advice is not exactly the same as it is here. It is a core part of the guidance to ensure that universities and colleges are doing everything that they need to, whether that is providing information in induction packs or providing on-going information, so that students know the advice that is in place here, in Scotland, and comply with it.
As with a whole range of issues, we continue to keep testing under review and take on-going clinical advice on it. The balance of judgment that we have reached on students coming from countries that are deemed to pose the highest risk is that quarantine is the most effective measure. If testing is seen to be an alternative to that, that could inadvertently increase the risk through a student arriving, getting a negative test and not quarantining although they might test positive later in the incubation period. Quarantine is what we have said is the most important measure in that regard.
More widely, we want to ensure that a student—like any member of the population—who has Covid symptoms goes quickly for testing and has good access to testing. As I have said before on the new walk-in testing centres that we will establish over the next few weeks, a key and principal priority for their location is where there are student populations. Indeed, it is no accident or coincidence that the first of the new walk-in centres is located in St Andrews.
We will continue to take an overview of all the issues. I am confident that the universities sector understands the importance of its responsibilities and will take the steps that it needs to take to keep students safe and ensure that the student population does not pose a risk to the rest of the country.
I appreciate that detailed answer. We all understand that there are complexities around using testing as effectively as we need to. However, the First Minister will know that there are university staff who share some of the same concerns that were felt by school staff ahead of schools reopening, and they want to have clarity about how the issues will be addressed.
We also need to be especially aware of the impact that lockdown has had and that the new restrictions will have on our most vulnerable citizens. We need unity and collective spirit across society if we are to recover from the crisis, and that cannot be achieved when vital support services are being lost.
In Glasgow, citizens advice bureaux, Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis, Glasgow Women’s Aid, the Lodging House Mission and Drumchapel Money Advice Centre, among others, have been placed under threat. In just the past hour, they have been given a short-term lifeline, but they still face long-term uncertainty.
Does the First Minister accept that those are essential services, that they already struggle to meet demand and that demand is only likely to grow over the coming months? Does she agree that the Scottish Government must share with councils the responsibility of ensuring that those vital services in Glasgow and elsewhere are saved for the long term?
Yes, I agree. Not only do I think that those services are essential, but, as I used to work as a lawyer in Drumchapel Money Advice Centre, as Govan Law Centre is in my constituency and as Castlemilk Law and Money Advice Centre provides services in parts of my constituency, I see the importance of those services every day. Patrick Harvie is right: the demand for and reliance on services will only grow and is certainly not likely to decline.
I very much welcome Glasgow City Council’s announcement this morning of a £4 million transition fund, which gives welcome relief to some of the services that were concerned about proposals over the past few days. It gives an opportunity for Glasgow City Council to work with services and the Government to work with local authorities to consider the best arrangements for long-term support. This morning’s announcement not only is welcome in a practical sense but demonstrates that Glasgow City Council’s administration is listening and attuned to concerns.
We all want to see those services protected, and we all fully understand—I know that Patrick Harvie, in particular, understands—the constraints on the Scottish Government’s budget and, by extension, the constraints on local authority budgets, but there is a strong sense of the importance of those services. I certainly want them to continue and go from strength to strength.
Test and Protect
I, too, share the First Minister’s concern about the recent outbreaks. Infection rates in the west of Scotland are now higher than in most of England or in countries such as Greece and Portugal, for which we have just imposed quarantine measures.
I am worried that we do not seem to be on top of it. First, we locked down Aberdeen, with city-wide measures. Now, we are restricting a whole region of almost 1 million people. What are we not getting right? Test and protect was supposed to drive the virus out before it spread. Why has that not happened in Aberdeen or Glasgow? Is it really up to the job?
Yes, it is. I would encourage Willie Rennie to learn a little bit more about how test and protect operates in order to understand the importance of such systems not just in Scotland, not just across the United Kingdom, but in every country.
I think that Scotland has probably one of the best systems anywhere, because it is built from the bottom up, on our well-established health protection workforce. The way in which it works is not new, and we have scaled it up significantly.
If we had not used test and protect, we would not have been able to contain the outbreak in Aberdeen or to contain as effectively as was the case the outbreak in the 2 Sisters food processing plant in Coupar Angus. It is because of test and protect that those outbreaks have not seeded more widespread community transmission.
I have said right from the start—and I am not the only one—that test and protect is not the first line of defence and cannot do everything on its own. Test and protect is there when an outbreak starts, to make sure that it does not spread more widely and to give us crucial intelligence and data, so that we know where to target additional actions. We have taken certain actions in Glasgow that we did not take in Aberdeen because the problem with which we are dealing right now is not identical in nature to the problem in Aberdeen.
The first line of defence is all of us. Not only is Scotland not unique, but we are in no way out of sync with what is happening right across Europe, where transmission is rising. The numbers that I have announced today show a positivity rate of around 1 per cent, which is lower than the rate that will be found in many other countries right now, and it is well below the 5 per cent threshold that the World Health Organization says is the sign of an outbreak being under control.
All of us have to play our part in keeping it under control. When we do not stick to the rules, outbreaks and clusters will happen, and then test and protect’s job is to try to contain them. It is doing that job very well.
I target my final sentence at us all, myself included. We all have to do our job maybe just a bit better, because we are all perhaps thinking that it is over and not being as stringent, but this is the moment for us all to tighten up how we abide by all those really important rules.
I am sorry if the First Minister does not like my asking such questions, but it is important that Opposition members challenge the Government on its performance, and I am deeply worried that we are not on top of the virus. If we have to restrict the activities of almost a million people, I have a duty to ask what the Government is doing. The First Minister should accept that.
It was reported that some of the infections may have come from holidaymakers who returned home with the virus. Last week, I asked the Cabinet Secretary for Justice why the quarantine spot checks had lost almost 700 people. He did not know the answer. Do we have the outbreak in the west of Scotland because those quarantine spot checks did not work? If not, why do we have the outbreak?
I do not mind anybody asking me questions. I have probably answered more questions on Covid than any other leader anywhere in the world. I have no objection to that. However, there is a duty on all of us—not just in government, but in opposition as well—to make sure that we understand how all these things are working, so that we give the proper advice to people across Scotland.
Across the UK, the restrictions that are now in place in the west of Scotland have been in place for some weeks in the north-west of England, in places such as Manchester. Many parts of Europe have restrictions that are even more stringent. It is—and this absolutely is counterintuitive—because we are on top of this that we are acting preventatively, through early intervention, to try to stop these outbreaks running out of control, and it is test and protect that is giving us the information and data that allow us to target outbreaks as effectively as we can.
On quarantine, we have put in place regulations for countries where we think that there is a particular risk, and those arrangements are in place across the UK. We know from test and protect that a number of cases have come in from Greece, which is why we have acted earlier than other parts of the UK in placing that country on the quarantine list. Public Health Scotland then does the job that it has been tasked with, doing sample checks to ensure compliance.
Those systems are working, but we will always keep their operation and efficacy under review. I come back to the fundamental point that it is down to every single one of us to abide by all the rules. That applies whether someone is coming back from a country overseas, having people in their house or going out and about. People must ensure that they are following all the rules. The Government has the lead responsibility here, but the Government cannot do this on its own; we all have to do the right things, and the good news is that, if we all do the right things, we can keep the virus under control.
Although the numbers that we—in common with many countries—are seeing right now are causing concern again, I come back to the point that, given the vastly increased number of tests that we are doing, we are still at a positivity rate of around 1 per cent. That should allow us, while being vigilant and not complacent, to keep this in perspective.
Covid-19 (Face Coverings)
To ask the First Minister, in light of the approach of colder weather, reports of an increase in the Covid-19 transmission rate and concerns regarding some people not wearing face coverings in shops and public transport, how many fines have been issued for failing to comply with the face covering rules since they became mandatory and enforceable by the police. (S5F-04336)
Enforcement of the coronavirus regulations is a matter for the chief constable of Police Scotland. Police Scotland has indicated that, to date, the vast majority of people are complying with the regulations, as we would expect. In the approach that Police Scotland has taken, enforcement has always been a last resort; engagement, explanation and encouragement to comply are the first priorities and enforcement action is taken when those fail.
The latest data available on Police Scotland’s website shows that 20 fixed-penalty notices were issued between 10 July, after face covering regulations came into force, and 25 August. The published figures are not broken down to show the reasons for issuing the fixed-penalty notices; it is, of course, Police Scotland data, the presentation and format of which is an operational matter for the chief constable.
I emphasise that I am not blaming the police. However, with Covid creep all too evident, bus drivers, store managers, shop assistants and the public often feel helpless about and exasperated by the flouting of the rules on using face coverings by what is, in my view, a growing minority.
Is the Scottish Government considering upping the ante by requiring individuals to provide evidence of exemption—if asked, and discreetly; I am not suggesting general practitioners’ notes, by any means—and providing for stiffer fines? Both approaches would deter non-compliance, assist the police and provide added protection for the travelling and shopping public, thereby releasing shop managers, shop assistants and bus drivers from the pressure that is sometimes put on them to do something.
The police must continue to act with discretion, as they have been doing. On Christine Grahame’s question about amending the enforcement regime, we will keep that under review in a general sense. We have changed areas of enforcement on previous occasions and we will always consider doing that if we think that it is necessary. Levels of fixed-penalty fines for non-compliance are something that we can consider.
We have to continue to respond sensitively to people who have health reasons for not wearing face coverings—I know that Christine Grahame agrees with that.
We can and will have enforcement regimes in place, but the fundamental point is that we all have a duty to do the right things for the right reasons and not simply because the law says that we have to do them. Given that we have been living with Covid for six months now, I think that it is harder for all of us—and I include myself in that. These things are a real pain to have to comply with, and perhaps some of us, at times, do not take as much care as we should take.
We all have to remind ourselves of why these things are being advised and make sure that we comply at all stages. The vast majority of people are complying on face coverings, but I would urge anybody who is not complying without a good reason to really think about it, because wearing a face covering protects other people and other people wearing a face covering protects you. It is one of the best expressions of the collective solidarity that will get us through the crisis.
Lockdown (Severe Mental Distress)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that police call-outs for people experiencing severe mental distress have increased by up to 25 per cent during the lockdown. (S5F-04341)
Police Scotland officers are very often the first to respond to urgent situations involving people with mental health issues, and as such they have an important role in providing support as part of a multi-agency approach. That includes their role in the distress brief intervention programme, which takes referrals from emergency responders, including the police, to support individuals in distress. During the Covid pandemic, the Scottish Government has provided more than £1 million to expand the DBI programme nationally.
We have also provided an additional £2.1 million to enable the NHS 24 mental health hub to expand to a 24/7 service. As well as providing immediate help and advice, the hub can now refer individuals in emotional distress but who do not need emergency clinical intervention to the distress brief intervention programme for further support.
Third sector organisations are our main interface with the most vulnerable in society, especially during the current crisis. Those organisations are telling me that they are struggling with the severe lack of resource. There are reports of a rising suicide rate, there is a rising death rate among those suffering from addiction—of up to a third during lockdown—and a rising issue with adult and child poor mental health. It is little wonder that our front-line police are having to pick up the pieces.
The concern is—and I understand this—that there is a fixation on the effects of Covid-19 to the detriment of those in our society who mostly go unseen. Will the First Minister’s Government look again with urgency at an offer of support to our third sector, and does she recognise that the crisis should give us the opportunity to look again at how we fund our third sector?
I will always keep under review how we fund the third sector, particularly during this crisis. As we do on so many other issues, we have an opportunity to consider how we do things generally and whether we can make more fundamental improvements. I will make this point again, because for me and the Government it is inescapable: our budget is largely finite and we stretch it as far as we can, but there are limits to that.
In relation to mental health funding, it is important that we give people places to go to for help and support that do not involve them going to emergency services, or to which they can be referred when they do contact emergency services, which is why the DBI programme and scaling up the NHS 24 service are so important.
In relation to additional investment during the crisis in support of children and young people—this is relevant to the third sector—we have invested for a helpline to be delivered by The Spark counselling service, we have given extra funding to Young Scot to develop enhanced digital content for young people and we have given funding to the National Autistic Society to give more help to people with autism. We have supported third sector organisations in a range of ways, and I agree with Brian Whittle that we have a duty to make sure that we continue to look carefully at that to ensure that where further support is required, we are able to provide it, where possible.
Test and Protect System
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that the test and protect system is functioning effectively. (S5F-04344)
Test and protect is working well and doing what we need it to do: identifying positive cases early, tracing contacts so that they get the right public health advice and providing us with the detailed data to guide our response more broadly. Fluctuations in demand for testing have always been likely, and indeed, probable. Following the increase in demand for testing that we saw after schools went back, we brought additional contingency capacity online, including additional mobile testing units, and work is on-going to further increase laboratory capacity in Scotland. We will continue to make sure that the capacity to test people and the capacity to process those tests increases and has contingencies built in.
In addition, as I said yesterday, we will soon launch the proximity tracing app, protect Scotland, which will complement the proven and well-established person-to-person contact tracing that test and protect is based on.
Care workers in my constituency and across Scotland are reporting delays in receiving the results from Covid-19 tests. In some cases, the delays are for five or six days, which means that staff do not know whether it is safe for them to be at their work. The First Minister knows that pressure on testing will build over winter, so there is a need to increase capacity, particularly when there is the risk of increased transmission and local restrictions in areas such as mine, in West Dunbartonshire.
Can the First Minister advise when capacity will be increased and when the 22 local testing centres will be rolled out? I welcome the siting of the mobile army testing unit in West Dunbartonshire, because of the new restrictions in the area, but can the First Minister commit to providing permanent local testing facilities so that my constituents do not have to travel huge distances to places such as Dunoon or Edinburgh to get tested?
The mobile capacity is important, because of its mobile nature. Even in Jackie Baillie’s constituency, it allows us to take capacity to particular areas that are much closer to people. It is important not only that we have fixed capacity in strategic locations around the country, but that we keep that mobile capacity, so that we can be more flexible in terms of the response. Of course, the army mobile testing units—I express my gratitude to the army, as I did yesterday—are now being run by the Scottish Ambulance Service.
We have a short turnaround time for testing. Over the past two weeks, there have been pressures on that because of the increase in demand not only in Scotland, but across the United Kingdom. We work closely with the UK Government, which can be seen in the provision of tests by the care home portal and the throughput via the lighthouse laboratory, which is administered by the UK Government. We work constructively to ensure that Scotland’s capacity within that system is properly safeguarded. In addition, we are building national health service laboratory capacity and looking at ways in which we can use NHS resources to do tests in order to ensure that the capacity in the UK-wide system is going where it is most needed.
Testing demand and the delivery of tests will always fluctuate to some extent, given the nature of what we are dealing with. However, with regard to the so-called pillar 2 testing, the figures for 26 August—which, although they are a few days old, I will use because they allow us to give the most up-to-date comparison with other parts of the UK—show that, proportionally, more than double the amount of testing was done in Scotland than was done in England, although that was partly because of our schools going back. We need to ensure that there is an in-built flexibility and contingency to this, and that is what we are committed to doing.
Covid-19 Restrictions (West of Scotland)
As we have heard this afternoon, the recent spike in cases in Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire has led to measures being put in place to reduce the risk of a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases. Clarity of messaging is very important, and two themes have been raised with me over the past 12 hours or so. Can the First Minister confirm whether tradespeople can continue to operate in people’s houses and whether informal childcare such as a gran looking after a grandchild after school can continue to take place?
Those are the important practical questions that people always have in these situations. There is a detailed question-and-answer page on the Scottish Government website that addresses both those points.
Yes, people can still have tradesmen going into their houses to carry out essential repairs or installations or to make deliveries, but we are saying that they should take particular care to follow all the rules around hygiene and the correct wearing of face coverings while any of that is happening. Formal and informal childcare arrangements can also continue but, again, extra care should be taken with informal childcare arrangements that involve an adult or child from another household entering someone else’s home.
We are trying to be proportionate and to minimise restrictions as much as possible but, on the basis of the clinical advice, to ensure that the restrictions are targeted as effectively as possible, in order to get to the heart of where we think the risk of transmission is coming from. That is what we have tried to do in the west of Scotland.
Exam Diet 2021
To ask the First Minister what discussions are taking place between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Qualifications Authority about the timing of the 2021 exam diet.
We continue to discuss those issues on an on-going basis. We are not the only Government across the United Kingdom that is having to deal with them. I hope that normality returns to the education system and to our exam system next year, but we are in a highly uncertain situation and it is important that we respond to that. We will also want to take account of the review of the situation this year that has been commissioned; we will ensure that that informs any decisions that we take.
Glasgow Advice Centres (Funding)
There has been a lot of pain, hurt and anger in Glasgow over the past week about the proposal to cut—or, in some cases, completely withdraw—funding from lifeline last-resort and crisis services, such as citizens advice bureaux, law centres, Glasgow Women’s Aid and Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis. I welcome the £4 million resilience fund that was announced today, but it should not have taken a campaign in the city over the past week from people who are already distressed by the virus to save those vital services.
We are in the middle of a pandemic. Thousands of our citizens have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands of them risk losing their jobs. Our economy has collapsed and our services are not coping. How did anyone think that cutting those services now was the answer? As a fellow Glasgow MSP and someone who cares passionately about those issues, will the First Minister condemn that proposal and decision from Glasgow City Council? As First Minister, will she ensure that those services are adequately funded now and into the long term? Collectively, we should be fighting to strengthen, not decimate, those support services.
I have a huge amount of sympathy for the sentiment behind that question. As a Glasgow MSP, Anas Sarwar will have spent a lot of time looking into the issue very closely—as I have in the past week, for my constituency interests—so he knows that the fund that had been allocated was massively oversubscribed. As is the case for Governments and councils, tough decisions have to be made. A set of proposals has been put forward that, as I understand it, does not go for political consideration by the council until tomorrow. Rightly, the council has responded to understandable concerns about the impact of the proposals on the advice sector. Today, Jennifer Layden, the councillor who is responsible for that area of administration, has made a very welcome announcement. These are difficult times. Because our budget is largely finite while our decisions are still effectively governed by decisions that have been taken elsewhere, those difficult decisions cannot be escaped. However, the decision that was announced by Glasgow City Council this morning is a recognition of the importance of those services and a welcome signal that the council is listening carefully and trying to make the right decisions, given the current situation that we face.
Ravenscraig Covid-19 Testing Centre
My office received a concerning report from a constituent, who had attended a scheduled Covid-19 test at Ravenscraig regional sports centre. They arrived to find the site closed; the gates were padlocked, and there was no signage or information for those who were affected. Is the First Minister aware of that problem? What improvements can we expect, now that the Scottish Ambulance Service is assuming responsibility for test sites such as Ravenscraig in my constituency?
The mobile testing system has been working well. Having it run now by the Scottish Ambulance Service gives us greater flexibility and allows us to make sure that we are building the required resilience into that. I have not been aware of particular issues at Ravenscraig. Obviously, I would be very happy and keen to look into and understand further the issue that Clare Adamson has raised today, so if she can write with more detail of the situation that she described, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport or I will look into it and get back to her as soon as possible.
Prior to Covid-19, Scotland was losing the battle against obesity, with two in three people being overweight or obese. Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated an already serious problem, with directors of public health calling for action to tackle issues such as poor diet and lack of exercise. What measures will the Government put in place to ensure that adequate support and help is afforded to those who need it most?
All of us must ensure that we do everything that we can to address the serious issues of obesity and healthy weight. I commend yesterday’s programme for government to Alexander Stewart. If he reads that, he will see the range of work that the Government will take forward to do that.
From memory, I think that, in setting out the programme for government, I specifically mentioned the £500 million of investment in active travel over the next few years. That investment will encourage people to use active ways of getting around that help to give them exercise, which is a key part of tackling obesity and unhealthy weight.
We had to put on hold legislation on unhealthy promotions, but we want to get that back on track as quickly as possible. In a range of ways, we are seeking to support health boards and local organisations to promote the kind of behaviour that we want people to take up and which will allow all of us to get on top of what is a big issue. We have always known about the issue but, given the experience of Covid, we have been reminded of how important it is to people’s overall health.
School Exam Grades (Appeals)
The First Minister will be aware of the calls that have been made by the SQA: Where’s Our Say? campaign group, which has raised concerns from a significant number of young people who still feel that their grades are not fair and that the issue is far from resolved. The group makes two calls. The first is that individuals, not schools, should be able to submit appeals when there is evidence of performance that was not part of teacher assessment. The second is that individuals should be permitted to submit an appeal when estimated grades were lower than those that were submitted via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Earlier in the session, the First Minister claimed that she takes responsibility for the mistakes that have been made on exam grades. It is two days until university places will be fixed, so will she make good on that claim and give young people the direct right of appeal that they were promised?
The Scottish Qualifications Authority has given appeal options in the context of the position that we reached on teacher judgments being used for this year’s results. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will be happy to write to Daniel Johnson with more detail on the SQA’s reasons for coming to that decision.
I know that this has been a difficult period for all young people, but we have already given a commitment that we will fund more university places, so that young people do not lose out as a result of the issues that have been encountered this year.
Hunterston B Power Station
Hunterston B power station, in my constituency, will cease energy production in early 2022. Although defueling will mean that there will be no immediate job losses, investment in local green, clean energy is now the priority, not least through delivery of the commitments that were made through the Ayrshire growth deal. Realisation of plans to revert the neighbouring Hunterston Port and Resource Centre, with its deepwater port, to include logistics energy research is vital and must be progressed if we are to sustain and then grow North Ayrshire’s economy. Will the Scottish Government work in partnership with the United Kingdom Government and North Ayrshire Council to deliver the economic transition of the area, as part of its green new deal?
We absolutely will. The decommissioning of Hunterston B power station raises challenges, but it also raises opportunities in relation to our energy mix and community and economic regeneration. It is important that we work collaboratively to seize those opportunities. There is a real relevance here to the just transition approach that we are taking. The Ayrshire growth deal, which Kenny Gibson mentioned, has a key part to play in that regard. We look forward to working with all partners to ensure that decommissioning is done properly and in a way that has employment and the interests of local communities very much at its heart
Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill
Yesterday’s programme for government mentioned the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, but it failed to mention the bill’s costs. Submissions by the police suggest that the bill’s costs have been grossly underestimated and that several policing costs have not even been accounted for. Does the First Minister recognise the police’s concerns? Given that many other concerns have already been highlighted about the bill, will she now consider rethinking it?
I think that Liam Kerr asked that question yesterday—forgive me if I am misremembering—so I will probably just repeat the answer that I gave then. We are at the start of the legislative process. I know that concerns have been raised about the bill. I have given a commitment that we are listening carefully and that, if we require to lodge amendments, we will do so. Issues relating to the bill’s financial implications will be fully considered and taken account of as part of the legislative process. That is the right and proper way to do things in Parliament.
I make no apology for thinking that it is really important that, as a society, we do more to tackle hate crime. The pernicious impact of hate crime on groups that are often already disadvantaged is unacceptable; none of us should be prepared to tolerate or live with that.
On the other hand, freedom of speech and expression is absolutely fundamental and, as legislators, it is our responsibility to strike the right balance. These things are not easy, but we are elected to come to this place to do that difficult work. That is what the legislative process is for, and I encourage Liam Kerr to engage with it in detail—as I am sure that he will—rather than simply throwing headlines across the chamber. Let us get down to the detail of doing the hard work to get to the right outcome, which I think that most people across the country want to see.
Mesh Implant Removal
The new Scottish mesh removal service has been established with a budget of £37,000 per patient. That is almost double what it would cost if women were to make the choice to travel to the United States for removal surgery carried out by pioneering surgeon Dr Veronikis.
Women in Scotland will not return for removal surgery to doctors who recommended that they receive the implants in the first place. That trust is broken, and they do not believe that those doctors have the knowledge or training to carry out full, safe mesh removals. Therefore, in the interests of patient safety and wellbeing and, indeed, of value for money, will the First Minister agree that, if the women so choose, they can be treated by Dr Veronikis, with the national health service covering the cost of their visit for this specialist procedure?
I will make two or three quick points in response to that. As Neil Findlay knows, I have spoken directly to many of the women who are affected by mesh implants, so I absolutely understand the trust breakdown issue. I do not say this glibly or underestimate how difficult it is, but I also think that there is responsibility on the part of Government to try to rebuild that trust. That is part of the impetus of the work that we are trying to do, and it is right that we seek to do that, working with women.
We will consider options—the best options for any woman. On whether we will support women to go to other countries, we need to consider not only the procedures but aftercare and ensure that there is an integrated approach to the care of women. That has, perhaps, been one of the things that has not been sufficiently prioritised in the past.
I will not go into great detail, but as those who are close to the issue probably know more than most members do, we have worked very hard to try to get good arrangements with Dr Veronikis, but for one reason or another, those have not come to pass in the way that we thought that they might. However, we continue to be open minded and we have continued to try to persuade—facilitate is probably a better word; we have tried to facilitate Dr Veronikis coming to Scotland in a proper way that allows proper care for women.
We will continue to try to do the right things in a whole range of ways and to consider any outcome that any woman asks us to consider. The health secretary will continue to give the issue the utmost priority.
Yesterday, Opposition parties claimed that the extension of free childcare to 1,140 hours was not being delivered. Can the First Minister tell us how many of Scotland’s 32 local authorities are delivering 1,140 hours, despite the impact of Covid?
Eleven councils are currently delivering 1,140 hours in full: Angus, Argyll and Bute, Clackmannanshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Dundee City, East Renfrewshire, Inverclyde, Scottish Borders, Shetland, South Ayrshire and Stirling.
Eighteen councils are delivering 1,140 hours in some or most nurseries, and some of them are substantially delivering them. For example, 84 per cent of nurseries in Perth and Kinross are delivering them in full; the number is 80 per cent in Renfrewshire and 85 per cent in Edinburgh.
There are only three councils in the whole country that are not delivering any of the 1,140 hours provision, although, to be fair to them, they all have plans in place to progress it. The three councils not delivering any right now are Labour-led North Lanarkshire, Labour-led West Lothian and Tory-led Aberdeenshire. I hope to see progress in those three councils as we deliver that flagship commitment in full. [Nicola Sturgeon has corrected this contribution. See end of report.]
Student Paramedics (Bursaries)
Yesterday, the First Minister expressed her gratitude to the emergency services for the work that they have done during the Covid crisis, and I join her in that gratitude. She will be aware of the Pay Student Paramedics campaign. Will she agree to establish a bursary scheme for student paramedics that is similar to the scheme that is available to student nurses?
I am aware of the campaign, which some of my constituents have contacted me about. In the interests of time, I will not cover all the details, but we provide support for student paramedics in a range of ways. We intend to look at the call for a bursary. We are about to review the arrangements for allied health professionals in general and we will include the issue in that review. I am sure that members from all parties, as well as student paramedics, will make a strong case for the arrangements that they think are appropriate.
Pre-operation Shielding (Islands Patients)
The First Minister will be aware that requirements for patients to shield ahead of medical operations preclude the use of public transport. She will also be aware that patients from Orkney and Shetland who need specialist treatment in hospitals on the Scottish mainland have to take a ferry or plane to get there. Therefore, the current two-week quarantine period prior to an operation effectively prevents isles patients from getting the treatment that they need.
I understand that revised guidance that would greatly reduce that quarantine period has been developed, bringing it in line with what is in place elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Will the First Minister ensure that that guidance is urgently implemented, so that patients in my constituency have the same access to treatment as those in other parts of Scotland?
I am aware of the issue, and I know that it has had the health secretary’s attention. We are finalising the guidance to make sure that appropriate arrangements are put in place that do not make it more difficult for patients from the islands to get the treatment that they need. I will ask the health secretary to correspond with the member about the timescale for and detail of that guidance, which we hope to publish fairly soon. We will keep the member updated.
With apologies to members, we have to conclude First Minister’s questions at that point. Parliament will resume at 2.30 with a statement on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.13:31 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—
PreviousPoint of Order