Meeting date: Wednesday, February 3, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 February 2021
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Brexit, Universal Support for Self-Isolation, Unexplained Wealth Orders (Donald Trump), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Universal Support for Self-Isolation
- Unexplained Wealth Orders (Donald Trump)
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon. We begin with First Minister’s question time but, before we turn to the questions, the First Minister will update us with a short statement on Covid.
Before I give an update on today’s statistics, I will take this opportunity to express my sadness at the death yesterday of Captain Sir Tom Moore. During the toughest of times, he inspired millions of people and, of course, he also raised millions of pounds for the national health service. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all of us when I say that our thoughts and condolences are with his family and friends.
A total of 978 new cases were reported yesterday, which is 5.1 per cent of all the tests that were carried out. The total number of cases, therefore, now stands at 182,269. There are currently 1,871 people in hospital, which represents a decrease of 63 since yesterday, and 128 people are in intensive care, which is 12 fewer than yesterday. However, I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 88 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days, and the total number of people who have died under that daily measurement is now 6,269.
National Records of Scotland has just published its weekly update, which includes cases where Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death, and today’s update shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid under the wider definition was 8,347. Some 440 of those deaths were registered last week, which is 12 fewer than in the previous week. Of those deaths, 301 occurred in hospitals, 97 in care homes, 38 at home or in other non-institutional settings and four in other institutions. Yet again, I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one during the pandemic.
I can also report that, as of 8.30 this morning, 649,262 people had received their first dose of vaccine. That is an increase of 38,484 since the figure that was reported yesterday. That is the highest daily total so far and is 59 per cent up on the same day last week.
As I said yesterday, the total figure includes 98 per cent of residents in older people’s care homes who have not just been offered the vaccine but have been vaccinated with the first dose. In addition, 87 per cent of people aged over 80 living in the community have also now had the first dose. That figure is based on our original estimate of the number of over-80s but, as I said yesterday, work that is being done with health boards to refine that estimate suggests that that percentage might now be higher. I can report that, as of this morning, 20 per cent of people aged 75 to 79 have also had the first dose.
I thank everyone who is working across the country to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible, and also the public for the quite extraordinary uptake so far.
Finally, there is one other issue that I want to draw briefly to Parliament’s attention. The independent review of adult social care has just published its report, and I thank the chair, Derek Feeley, and the advisory panel of experts for their work over the past five months. I also thank everyone who took the time to share their experiences. Today’s final report covers all aspects of adult social care services and, among its 53 recommendations, it calls for the creation of a national care service. The Government will respond to its recommendations in due course, and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has requested a parliamentary debate on the report later this month. The pandemic has shown us more starkly than ever before just how much our care services matter, and the review’s report provides us with a basis for significantly improving those services and, of course, is a vital first step towards the creation of a national care service.
I will conclude with a reiteration of the key ask of all of us right now: please stay at home, except for essential purposes. Staying at home remains essential to getting and keeping the virus under control as we vaccinate more and more people. The sacrifices that are being asked of everyone are hard, but they are working, so please stick with it. Remember FACTS when you are out but, unless it is essential to be out of your home, stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.
The First Minister will now take questions. Members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button early.
I associate myself and my party with the sentiments that the First Minister expressed regarding the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore. The word “hero” is overused, but he definitely was one, and our thoughts are with his family.
The Government has finally accepted that Scotland’s vaccine roll-out is lagging behind the rest of the United Kingdom’s and that the pace needs to be picked up. Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman, told Parliament that we need to vaccinate faster in Scotland than we have been doing.
It is in all our interests that the programme works well, so let us focus on what the First Minister is going to do to accelerate it. For consecutive weeks, numbers of vaccinations have dropped substantially on Sundays, which is at risk of becoming a consistent pattern. A seven-day service was promised, and will be essential if we are to meet targets. Has the First Minister identified what the problem is on Sundays, and can she tell Parliament what has been done since last Sunday to make sure that the situation improves this coming weekend?
I will come on to seven-day working in a second. I say first that, as I set out yesterday, the Scottish Government approach deliberately concentrated on vaccinating the most clinically vulnerable groups first, and on achieving the highest possible uptake in those groups. Ninety-eight per cent of older residents in care homes have now been vaccinated with their first dose, as have 87 per cent—although we think that the figure is probably now above 90 per cent—of over-80s who live in the community. That is really important, because that is how to make the quickest impact on reducing serious illness and the number of people who are dying.
On the radio this morning, I heard Michael Gove not being able, or willing, to give a figure for how many residents in care homes in England have been vaccinated, as opposed to having been offered the vaccine. That is a deliberate choice that the UK Government has made. It is a legitimate choice to focus first on overall numbers, but if that is at the expense of uptake in the groups that are most clinically vulnerable, it is not a choice that I would want the Scottish Government to make.
However, as we see in the figures yesterday and today, we are accelerating the programme for younger age groups in the wider community. The figure that I reported yesterday was 55 per cent higher than that for the previous Monday. The figure that I am reporting today, which is the figure for yesterday—Tuesday—is 59 per cent higher than the figure for Tuesday last week was. Our figure yesterday was proportionally 28 per cent higher than the figure for vaccinations that were done yesterday in England. Therefore, we can already see acceleration; it is our job to make sure that that continues.
The health secretary and the vaccination team have been working to ensure that capacity is fully utilised every day of the week, including Sundays. This afternoon, I will meet the chief executives of health boards to hear from them the steps that they have taken to ensure that the overall pace is accelerating in the wider community, and that there is consistent performance seven days a week.
The vaccination programme is going well because of the efforts of people across the country, but also because of the public’s willingness to come forward in huge numbers to be vaccinated. I am very grateful to them for that.
We have also heard from the health secretary that there is evidence that some parts of the country are getting the vaccine faster than others. A month ago, we raised concerns that a postcode lottery was possible, unless local data was published to help to identify and address problems as soon as they emerge.
Currently, the data that is being published by health boards varies wildly; some boards update weekly, some update in arrears, some appear not to publish at all and others update their websites every few days. There is a simple way to help to restore public confidence that the speed of roll-out will eventually catch up in every part of the country. Four weeks on, will the First Minister now commit to publishing daily breakdowns for each health board area?
Yes, we will do that when we can ensure that it can be done robustly. If I am getting it wrong, I will be the first to concede that, but I think that I can say without fear of contradiction that the Scottish Government already publishes daily data that is much more detailed than that which is published in other parts of the UK. I can stand here and give the figures, not weekly but daily, for how many people in our care homes, in the over-80s group and in the 75 to 79 age group have been vaccinated. We will continue to develop that, as the vaccination programme works down through the age groups.
I will go back to a point that I made earlier; I make it only because UK Government ministers have been critical of the Scottish Government. Michael Gove could not, or would not, give the equivalent figures on how many older people in care homes in England have been vaccinated. It is important to know how many people have been offered a vaccination, but I suggest that it is much, much, much more important to know how many people have been given the vaccination. We already publish daily information on different groups of the population; information with such detail is not being published elsewhere.
We will, as we have always said we would, provide much more granular breakdowns, including geographic breakdowns, when we are in a position to ensure that the data is robust for publication.
I thank the First Minister for agreeing to publish daily the data by health board area, which I asked for four weeks ago. That will help us to track exactly where the hold-ups are in the country.
Looking at the issue nationally, I think that the whole country will have been delighted that more mass vaccination centres have begun to operate this week. The Scottish Government’s vaccination plan, which was published three weeks ago, states that six mass vaccination sites will be
“capable of administering in excess of 20,000 vaccinations per week each”.
People understand that it will take time to get up to that level. It is projected that the event complex Aberdeen—TECA—will administer 6,000 vaccinations this week. When are all six sites due to hit the target of 20,000 per week? Does the First Minister believe that the six mass vaccination centres, along with the community vaccination sites, are enough, or is there an opportunity to provide more, as we attempt to speed up the programme?
First, I note that I have not just agreed to publish daily figures on the regional breakdown. Perhaps Ruth Davidson did not hear me or was not paying attention, but I have been saying all along that we will publish more figures daily, when we are able to do so robustly. I have also said—I do not think that this is unreasonable—that we will ensure that, overall, we do not put too great a burden on people to collect and publish data, so that they can get on with the job of vaccinating people, which is the most important thing of all.
On mass vaccination centres, there are a number of centres across the country, in addition to the Edinburgh international conference centre and TECA, which have come on stream this week, and NHS Louisa Jordan, which has been operating for a couple of weeks. Given the geographies of towns and villages in our country, those centres are not all at the scale of TECA and the EICC, but they are vaccinating people daily. We will open bigger centres as and when supply allows such throughput.
The vaccination programme is flowing well. We have been candid and have always said that we would, as we reached the uptake figures in the most clinically vulnerable groups, accelerate progress in the wider groups. Let us focus on the numbers that I have given over the past two days. Yesterday’s figure was a record high; it was 55 per cent higher than the figure for the corresponding day in the previous week and 28 per cent higher, proportionally, than the figure for vaccinations that were carried out in England. Today’s figure is another record high; it is 59 per cent higher than the figure for the corresponding day last week. I do not yet know England’s figure for today.
We are on track to vaccinate everybody in the over-70s group and everybody in the clinically extremely vulnerable group by the middle of February. We have, by any objective standard, exceeded what anybody thought would be decent uptake among the over-80s. We set the target of achieving it this Friday, but we have probably already reached more than 90 per cent of over-80s in the community.
The programme is going well; it is going well because of the huge efforts of the health secretary and the team in Government with which she works, and of vaccinators the length and breadth of the country.
I thank the First Minister for that answer, but it would be good to hear when the six sites are projected to reach 20,000 vaccinations per week, as was promised.
Yesterday, I asked the First Minister whether she would accept further help from the armed forces, which has been offered to aid Scotland’s Covid response. She did not answer, but as she sat down she suggested that she would cover the issue later, but did not do so. Since then, the Secretary of State for Scotland has written to offer the support of the UK Government and UK health bodies, so I ask the First Minister again: will she accept further military assistance—[Interruption.] I am not quite sure why that is getting such a derisive response from members in a seated position—[Interruption.] I think that the people of Scotland would like to hear whether the First Minister will accept further military assistance and the mutual aid that the UK Government has offered, in order to catch Scotland’s vaccination programme up with those of the other parts of the UK.
The really good progress that has been made in our vaccination programme seems, for some reason that I cannot understand, to be irritating Ruth Davidson today. I would have thought that it would be great news for the country.
We are already drawing on assistance from the armed forces, as we have been doing throughout the pandemic. There was a period last year when representatives of our armed forces were based in St Andrew’s house with the rest of the team, and I am hugely grateful to them.
However, I point out that help that the armed forces give Scotland, whether it is on vaccines or—as was the case earlier—on personal protective equipment and the logistics associated with setting up NHS Louisa Jordan, is not a favour from the Secretary of State for Scotland. They are our armed forces, too, which the people of Scotland pay for through taxes, so let us forget the suggestion that the UK Government is somehow doing Scotland a favour. We will continue to draw, as appropriate, on the help of the armed forces. Again, I take the opportunity, as I did a moment ago, to thank them.
The vaccination programme is making good progress, and my job and the job of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is to ensure that that continues. Of course, we will continue, as we draw on lessons from elsewhere in the UK—which we have never shied away from doing—to share our experience of having lower infection rates and making good progress in suppressing the infection. We will continue to work with others to ensure that, collectively, we get through the pandemic as safely and quickly as possible.
I, too, send my condolences to the family of Captain Sir Tom Moore and to all those families who have lost loved ones.
Progress with the vaccination programme is always welcome, but some people in earlier priority groups are being left waiting for their first dose while vaccinations proceed for over-65s in places such as Glasgow, Dumfries and Galloway, and Lothian. One example is Kate, who lives in Fife and is 96. She lives in her own home and has carers in four times a day, but she has not received a vaccination invite. Her family do not live close by and she is unable to contact the general practitioner herself because she has dementia.
Also in Fife are Margaret and Bill. Both are over 70 and Margaret has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but they, too, have yet to receive a vaccination invite. Their GP has no information, as the practice is not administering the current tranche of vaccines.
Last Friday, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport said that all over-70s would have their appointment by the end of the week. When that did not happen, people started to worry. Can the First Minister explain what has gone wrong to leave people such as Kate, Margaret and Bill in the dark?
Nothing is going wrong. I will say two things. Any MSP on any side of the chamber who has individual cases of people not getting a letter should pass those on.
Perhaps Jackie Baillie might want to turn her mobile phone off while I answer her question.
MSPs should pass those details on, and we will look into them. Anyone who is in a priority group and who is worried about not having had an appointment yet can contact the vaccination helpline. I think that the information has already been given to all MSPs, but I repeat it for the benefit of people watching. If anyone is worried about their appointment or not having had their letter yet, they can phone the helpline on 0800 030 8013.
The letters for the 70-plus age group and those in the clinically extremely vulnerable group will go out by the end of this week. Most will already have had them or will be getting them as we speak. All of that group will be vaccinated with the first dose by the middle of February.
I wondered how long it would take for MSPs in the Opposition parties to start to criticise this. In order to vaccinate faster, some health boards are grouping those in the 65 to 69-year-old age group in with the over-70s. They are not waiting to vaccinate them sequentially—they are doing them all as one group. There will therefore be cases in which somebody in that age group is vaccinated a few days before somebody in the older age group, but the over-70s will all be done by the target date, and we are on track to meet that.
It is not a criticism. It is about the lack of information that is causing confusion out in our local communities. I will not be alone. My inbox is full of similar cases to the ones in Fife that I described. Those examples are not one-offs but part of a growing postcode lottery in vaccine roll-out that is slowing Scotland’s recovery from Covid.
The weekly Public Health Scotland figures show huge variation across the country in the proportion of the population receiving the vaccine. Some parts of mainland Scotland, such as Moray and Angus, have vaccination levels of more than 10 and 13 per cent, but areas where the virus levels have been persistently high, such as Glasgow, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, have only reached levels between 6 and 8 per cent. Meanwhile, Edinburgh is lagging far behind, with only 5 per cent of its population receiving a first dose.
The figures published today have had the percentages removed, so we cannot easily monitor progress. Whether that is a deliberate lack of transparency or a genuine error, it is not acceptable that people are penalised by their postcode when it comes to vaccination. What is the First Minister doing to fix that?
People are not being penalised because of where they live. There will be differences in speed because of geographies and how different health boards are organising the programme to take account of the differences between urban and rural areas and the different sizes of communities, but all health boards are making progress. As I think I said earlier, I will be meeting the chief executives of all health boards this afternoon to make sure that they all have plans in place to allow them to make fast but steady progress through the programme, which is a matter of daily monitoring.
On transparency, as I said to Ruth Davidson, we are publishing more daily information with greater breakdowns than any other part of the United Kingdom is and we will continue to supplement that as we go along. I readily say, as I did yesterday, that I welcome the scrutiny and pressure from Parliament on vaccination, because it is important that we go as fast as we can to protect as many people as possible.
On information, we set up the helpline for which I gave the number a moment ago so that there is a point of contact. I get lots of emails about vaccination, as I am sure other members do. We address any concerns in those but, increasingly, the emails that I get each day are from people who say, “I have had my vaccination and I am really pleased about it.”
There is lots to do and there are lots of people yet to vaccinate, both in the 70 to 80 age group and as we get into the younger age groups. However, we can see from the figures for this week that, having achieved high uptake rates in the most vulnerable groups, the programme is accelerating through the other groups as well. We will keep an absolute focus on making sure that that continues.
I welcome the acceleration of the programme, but people across Scotland expect to be treated equally, not to have their chance to have a vaccination determined by where they live. It is becoming harder to work out how the Scottish Government measures success in the vaccination programme. Our roll-out is much slower than those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The First Minister says, rightly, that it is not a competition between nations, but it is a race against the virus and we are not going fast enough.
The First Minister says that we are following the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list, but in different parts of the country there is a postcode lottery. That is not the fault the vaccinators. They are doing a tremendous job. However, general practitioners tell me that they are simply not getting enough supply and that supplies are erratic.
Even by the First Minister’s own promises, we are falling behind. First, it was 1 million vaccinations by the end of January, but there have been fewer than 600,000. Then it was all adults over 18 by spring; now it is for just the over-50s by May. We were told that the vaccination programme was ramping up, but on Sunday we recorded our lowest daily rate so far. For the First Minister to meet her next promise of vaccinating all over-70s and the clinically vulnerable by 15 February, our daily rate needs to increase immediately to at least 40,000. Does the First Minister expect her latest target to be met, or will it be her latest broken promise?
Yes, I expect the target to be met, because the target that we have been working to for the past couple of weeks for the over-80s has been exceeded, not just met, by the target date. It is interesting. I have said before and say again that I welcome the scrutiny, but Opposition parties could occasionally try to hide the fact that they are obviously deeply irritated at the fact that the programme has been accelerating. It is perfectly legitimate to mention Sunday, but today we have reported the highest total of vaccinations in the whole programme so far and there is not a lot of mention of that.
Jackie Baillie asked me how we measure success in the programme. Here is one indicator: 98 per cent of the most clinically vulnerable people in the whole country—older people in care homes—have already been vaccinated in Scotland. In addition, 90 per cent or thereabouts of the next most vulnerable group—the over-80s—have already been vaccinated with the first dose of the vaccine. I cannot tell Jackie Baillie what the figures are in England for those groups because, to the best my knowledge, they are not being published on a daily basis and Michael Gove could not tell us what they were when he was interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland this morning.
That is a measure of success. Why is it a measure of success? We had good news yesterday in the early indications about the impact of the Oxford vaccine on transmission, but what we know most about the vaccines right now is that they have a positive impact on suppressing the illness and death figures. Why does it matter that we have such a high uptake among those elderly groups? Because it is the people in those groups who are most likely to become seriously ill and die. The way we have done the vaccination is the way to save the maximum number of lives most quickly, which I think is very important, and now we are accelerating progress in the other groups.
Jackie Baillie talked about things that the health secretary said in November. Yes, she said those things in November, but in November we did not even have an authorised vaccine for use, so we were estimating. However, we are now working on actual supplies and predictions of supplies to get the vaccine into the arms of as many people as quickly as possible. Vaccinators across the country and the team in the Government working on vaccination are doing an excellent job, and we should all back them 100 per cent to get on with it
Vaccination (Vulnerable Teachers)
We all know how important it is that we prioritise the needs of children and young people but do so as safely as possible for them, school staff and the wider community. Yesterday’s announcement posed significant challenges for school staff. Yesterday, the First Minister said of senior pupils who will be physically present in schools to complete coursework:
“Initially ... it is intended that there will be no more than around 5 to 8 per cent of a secondary school roll physically present at any one time”.—[Official Report, 2 February 2021; c 15.]
We now know that that is in addition to the vulnerable young people and those from families of key workers who are already attending school. That will make adequate social distancing difficult or impossible. Occupational priority groups for the vaccine programme will be considered only in the next phase. The Greens have long said that we want school staff to be included in the programme, but that is still some time away.
The First Minister is no doubt aware that many teachers continue to be extremely concerned at the prospect of a return to in-person teaching. Will she at least give them an assurance that vulnerable teachers will not be expected to return to class before they are vaccinated?
Yes. I would expect local authorities, which are the employers of teachers, to make sure that they put the safety of vulnerable teachers at the top of their agenda. We will not compromise the safety of teachers, other school staff or young people in schools. All the steps that we are taking to get children back to school—I make no apology for doing that, as I think that it is important to get children back to school as quickly as possible—and all the decisions that we have taken so far and will continue to take are informed by the advice of our expert advisers after looking at the data on the state of the epidemic and the scientific information. We make careful and cautious decisions.
What I announced yesterday for senior-phase pupils in secondary schools is important because, without that access for some of those pupils to in-school, face-to-face practical learning, there will be a question mark over the certification of their national qualifications. That would not be fair to the young people concerned, so we must avoid it.
Taking what we set out yesterday regarding a maximum of 5 to 8 per cent and combining that with the young people who already have access to school premises, we are talking about in the region of 11 to 12 per cent of the school roll in mainly large secondary schools being present. That is a reasonably cautious way to approach getting older pupils back to school.
We continue to listen to teachers and I understand their concerns. That is why we set out the plans for twice-weekly testing for school staff as well as senior-phase pupils, as I spoke about yesterday, and why we will continue to look at all possible ways to ensure that schooling is as safe as possible. However, we know the increasing impact that being out of school is having on our young people, which is why getting them back as quickly as possible is such a priority.
I think that we all recognise the difficulty of making decisions in this area, but teaching unions continued to urge caution yesterday in reaction to the First Minister’s announcements.
Teachers will face workload challenges because of dealing with a mix of pupils in school and pupils staying at home, with unpredictable numbers needing to self-isolate—as well as teachers’ additional workload for test and trace. Teachers cannot reasonably be expected to teach some pupils in person and others online at the same time, so they need to know what arrangements will be put in place. That challenge is exacerbated by unequal access to home learning among pupils for whom digital access is a challenge and among pupils who have had issues with accessing resources.
How many children and young people still do not have access to remote learning because they do not have a laptop or other device, or because they have an insufficient broadband connection?
We work with local authorities on an on-going basis, as I said in response to a question yesterday, to ensure that they are identifying them—and we are helping them to fill those gaps. We did a data analysis at an earlier stage of the pandemic, which showed, from memory, that about 70,000 families across the country did not have that access. We have therefore made funding available to make 70,000 devices and internet connections available. We will continue with local authorities to ensure that any young person or family who does not have that is catered for.
On the overall thrust of the question, I genuinely recognise how difficult the situation is for teachers; that is why we have funded 1,400 extra teachers to help with the workload issues. That is why, not long ago, the Deputy First Minister announced an additional £45 million for local authorities, enabling them to provide resources to help further, as they see fit.
I have huge sympathy on the difficulties that teachers face, just as I do for people who are working in other roles during this pandemic, but all of us have a duty to operate and take decisions to get through the pandemic in a way that prioritises the health, wellbeing and development of our young people, which have been hugely impacted. In the midst of the pandemic, I do not think that there is a greater priority than getting young people back into face-to-face education in schools and operating normally with their peer group and their friends. That is why the Scottish Government will do everything that we can to accelerate that as fast as safety—I emphasise that point—allows.
Vaccinators (Recruitment and Training)
This is from someone who wants to be a vaccinator:
“I am currently entering week five of the recruitment process, with a possible induction start date for the 10th of February subject to Occupational Health clearance, with further online training required.”
He has been a senior registered professional in the national health service for 30 years, but he is still required to go through the extensive NHS recruitment process all over again. He asks:
“why did the recruitment process only really get going in December when it was clear that mass vaccination was on its way by late Summer?”
I want to know why it is taking six weeks to get experienced NHS staff ready to vaccinate. Why did the process start so late? Are those some of the reasons why we are still so far behind the rest of the United Kingdom on the vaccine roll-out?
The answers, in order, are no, no and no. Right now we have more than 9,000 vaccinators registered on the national vaccination management tool. We are working towards having the capacity, by the end of this month, to do 400,000 doses a week. That requires a daily workforce of around 1,700 whole-time equivalent vaccinators and 970 support staff, so we have already identified and registered the numbers that we need in order to deliver the programme at the scale that we need.
On the process that people have to go through, as with people who are asking questions about their vaccination appointment, if there are cases that any member wishes us to look into, we are happy to do that. I am obviously not a clinician, and I am not saying that it is the most complicated clinical process known to us, but equally it is not something that should be treated lightly.
There is a process to go through, which varies depending on whether someone has previous vaccination experience. Some people will have done flu vaccinations every year, so their training requirements will be much less; others might have lots of clinical experience but might never have vaccinated someone before. From the point of view of safety, it is right that we train people appropriately. We have taken steps, as have health boards, to streamline the training process as much as possible—we do not want unnecessary bureaucracy—but if we did not do so and there were then patient safety incidents because we had people carrying out vaccinations who had not gone though the right processes, I have a sneaky suspicion that one of the first people who would be up here criticising us for that might just be Willie Rennie.
Dearie me. That it is taking six weeks to register an NHS professional does not sound like progress to me, especially when they have had 30 years’ experience in senior positions.
Pennywell all care centre has been designated as a vaccination hub, because it is located in the middle of one of Scotland’s most deprived communities. Scottish Liberal Democrats have learned from local general practitioners that appointments there have been given to people from elsewhere but that people from Muirhouse who can see the building from their living-room front window are being sent to Edinburgh international conference centre, which is two bus journeys away. That makes no sense to those doctors, who think that such an approach is bound to have an impact on the uptake of the vaccine. The First Minister knows that that is also happening elsewhere. What on earth is going on with the appointments system?
Even if I do not always respond in a way that suggests that I think so, Willie Rennie often asks very legitimate questions. However, I have to say that I am not sure about those ones. I will take him through them.
Let us talk first about the training of vaccinators. For someone with previous vaccination experience the process takes about three and a half hours. There will be people with lots of clinical experience who do not have previous experience of vaccinating, for whom the process will, rightly, take longer. Willie Rennie’s proposition seems to be founded on the idea that because the process is supposedly so long and bureaucratic, we do not have enough people to do it. We have 9,000 people already registered on the vaccination management tool. As we reach the capacity for giving 400,000 doses a week, we will require about 1,700 people. We have lots of people registered, and there is absolutely no suggestion that a lack of vaccinators is an issue in the delivery of the programme.
I turn to the geographical issue. I do not pretend to know in detail every part of the geography of Scotland, but I stress that we must prioritise. We cannot have GPs carrying out the whole programme. Given its scale, if we were to ask them to do so they would not have time to see patients for any other reason, which would not be good or sensible. We are therefore trying to prioritise GPs’ time. Health boards will be taking different approaches to that, based on their experiences and their geographies. However, the position is largely that older and more vulnerable people will be seen by GPs whereas younger, fitter people will be asked to go to the bigger vaccination centres. Therefore sometimes people will be asked to go to a centre that is further away than their own GP practice. However, that is so that we can get through more people more quickly, which I thought was what everyone here wanted right now.
Lastly, Willie Rennie said that all that must be having an impact on uptake. We have record-high uptake figures right now. We have vaccinated 98 per cent of people in care homes, which admittedly represents a different model. However, if someone had told me just a few weeks ago that we would now be at the stage of having vaccinated 90 per cent of over-80s—that we would have even got close to such an uptake figure—I would have struggled to believe it. The evidence does not say that anything that we are doing is depressing uptake; on the contrary, so far the uptake for the programme has been brilliant. That is a real tribute to the people in our communities who want to come forward to help in our collective national effort to beat Covid.
Pandemic (Cost of Lost Schooling)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the Institute for Fiscal Studies report that was published on 1 February, which suggests that the cost of lost schooling in Scotland due to the pandemic is at least £2.8 billion. (S5F-04784)
As I have mentioned both today and yesterday, we know that Covid is having a negative impact on the attainment gap and is affecting the learning of all children and young people. That is why, as part of our pandemic response, we have invested significantly in teachers and support staff as well as in measures to extend digital inclusion and improve remote learning. We also continue to target additional support at those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the draft budget for next year, more than £127 million in pupil equity funding will go towards supporting them, and a further £30 million is being invested to support schools to cope with the on-going effects of Covid.
Covid will have both an immediate and a long-term impact on education, so we will always be looking for opportunities to do more to support the learning of children and young people. Ultimately, that is why we are so determined to give priority to the return of schools and why I was pleased to announce the start of a phased, albeit very gradual, return to full-time schooling later this month.
In recent years, much progress has been made in raising attainment, particularly among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. That progress has inevitably been undermined by necessary restrictions that have been undertaken in response to the pandemic. The income lost to an individual over a lifetime could run into tens of thousands of pounds.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that the large-scale use of tuition in the summer holidays and extended hours could partially make up for lost classroom time. Will the Scottish Government explore all feasible options for ensuring that our pupils can catch up on their lost education, so that, by the time they leave school, any educational disadvantage suffered due to the pandemic is minimised?
Yes, we absolutely will. We are doing and will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that the impact on children’s education is minimised, and we will consider taking action beyond that which is being taken right now.
As I said a moment ago, since the start of the pandemic, we have funded the recruitment of 1,400 extra teachers and more than 200 support staff—that will be helping already. We have already invested to address digital exclusion, and, as I also said a moment ago, we have announced a further £45 million to be used flexibly by local authorities for digital devices, internet connectivity, staffing, family support or whatever they think is most appropriate and necessary. The draft budget will also involve money being invested to mitigate the impacts of Covid on learning, particularly for groups from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that patients have timely access to echocardiograms. (S5F-04777)
We recognise the importance of timely access to diagnostics, including echocardiograms for people with heart disease. We have supported the heart failure hub to define and implement diagnostic pathways. That support includes increasing access to a test that can help to rule out heart failure in patients who might be suffering from breathlessness, which reduces the need for an echocardiogram and means that patients who need one can be seen sooner. All health boards now have access to that test.
We are in the process of refreshing the heart disease improvement plan, which we expect to publish this spring. In that plan, we will ensure that the equitable access to diagnostic tests, treatment and care for people with heart disease remains a priority.
The recent British Heart Foundation draft heart disease plan for Scotland released data, which was gathered through freedom of information requests, that showed significant variation across Scotland in access to echocardiograms. It also highlighted that the Scottish Government’s investment of £1 million since 2014 in the delivery of the current heart disease improvement plan should be seen against the £4.8 billion cost of heart disease to the national health service in Scotland over the same period. Does the First Minister agree that that equates to chronic underinvestment in heart disease prevention, and will she commit the Scottish Government to adequately investing in the prevention and treatment of heart disease?
Yes, we will continue to do that to the best of our ability. I very much welcome the publication of the British Heart Foundation’s strategy document. We will work with it as we develop the refreshed plan, making sure, as I said, that equitable access to diagnostics is a key priority as that plan is developed.
However, as I said in my initial answer, I think that it is important to recognise that there is already a real focus on prevention, which is why, as an alternative to somebody requiring an echocardiogram, the test to rule out heart failure that I talked about is so important. Prevention and early intervention—across all conditions—remain very important, so we will continue to work to ensure that accessibility is as equitable as people have a right to expect.
Covid-19 Vaccine Passport
To ask the First Minister what assessment the Scottish Government has made of introducing an internationally recognised, digital Covid-19 vaccine passport. (S5F-04776)
One of the practical challenges at this stage of a certification approach is that we are still learning about the vaccines’ effect on things such as transmission of the virus. That challenge has been recognised by the World Health Organization although, as I referred to a few moments ago, we had good news yesterday about early indications of the impact of the Oxford vaccine on transmission. However, there is still much to be learned about that.
We will continue to engage in international developments, including on the subject of vaccine certification. Those discussions are led at a global level by the WHO and will include consideration of technical details, ethical and equality issues, which are important, and privacy standards. The outcome of those discussions will guide our future work in the area.
The recovery phase of the pandemic will see a weakened global economy, with our domestic tourism industry in freefall. An internationally recognised digital passport could contain details of vaccination history and the results of Covid-19 tests, which could be accessed through a QR reader. Does the First Minister agree that the United Kingdom’s presidency of the G7 is an opportunity to lead on that issue, and that it is an idea whose time has come?
I believe that there is an opportunity to lead on the discussion. Is it an idea whose time has come? Right now, I am not sure that we are at that stage, because I do not think that we know and understand enough about the impact of the vaccines to know exactly what certification would be certifying. The whole world has to learn more about that before we can take final decisions. In the fullness of time, certification might have a role. We all know that, for travel to certain parts of the world, people already require certification of vaccination for some diseases, so it is not some new and unknown idea. However, it requires a level of understanding that no country has right now.
I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, we will have a much greater level of understanding and that those discussions can continue in a more meaningful way. We have an opportunity to be in a leadership position in that.
We move to supplementary questions.
Hospital and Care Home Visits (Restrictions)
Given the good progress on vaccinating the priority groups, which include not just the over-80s and those in care homes but, in the weeks ahead, groups such as unpaid carers, when will the Scottish Government be able to review and, I hope, ease the significant restrictions that have been placed on hospital and care home visits for family members, so that they can visit their loved ones? Can the First Minister say a little more about when that might happen and what it might look like?
None of us wants the very severe restrictions on people’s ability to visit loved ones in care homes or hospitals to be in place for a minute longer than is necessary. The impact of the restrictions has been severe and distressing, and the situation has affected the mental wellbeing of care home residents and the people who love them. We all want to get to a position of normality as soon as possible, but it has to be done safely. Given the level at which the virus is circulating, and particularly the impact of the new variant that is circulating widely in Scotland and the fear about other new variants, we have to be cautious.
The reason for focusing on care homes first was to ensure that we gave maximum protection to that most vulnerable group and the staff members who work closely with them. I hope that the vaccine will allow us to get back to greater normality there, sooner rather than later. However, to go back to my answer to the previous question, there are still unanswered questions about the impact of the vaccine on transmission, so we have to continue to be cautious. That is why I will not put a date on it. However, I absolutely assure everybody who is watching and who is desperately missing a loved one in a care home that we will get you back to visiting as normally as possible just as quickly as it is deemed safe to do so.
I have been contacted by a constituent from my Highlands and Islands region who, instead of being offered the vaccine at the local general practitioner surgery in Keith, has been told to travel to Dufftown over dangerous and snowy roads. I have a constituent in their late 90s who, until his family contacted the national health service, had no news of his vaccination date and, as of Monday afternoon, was still to hear about that, after having been told that he will be vaccinated at home, despite the fact that he is willing and able to attend his local GP surgery. GPs in my region are frustrated at being told that they cannot vaccinate people who they would choose to vaccinate and that supplies are limited and their use is restricted. Do those examples of the inflexibility of the system and how it impacts on some of our most vulnerable cause the First Minister concern? If so, what can she do about it?
In any big-scale programme, there will always be people who perhaps get missed and do not get an appointment letter, or who do not get an appointment where it is convenient, and the system will try to be as flexible as possible. As a constituency MSP, I get emails from constituents about such matters—I have had some in the past couple of weeks—and I try to get on and fix things for my constituents as quickly as possible. We will make the system as flexible as possible for people.
I did not necessarily think that the Conservatives would move so quickly from saying that not enough people are being vaccinated to complaining about where people are being vaccinated. We are getting through the process as quickly as possible.
I know that there will be people—such people email me, too—who say, “I want to be vaccinated closer to home because of my particular circumstances.” That is perfectly legitimate. I again give the number for the helpline, although people can obviously contact their MSP. The helpline number is 0800 030 8013. That helpline is there should anyone need advice on any aspect of their vaccination. We will try to be as flexible as possible.
Covid-19 (South African Variant)
Can the First Minister confirm that, in the five cases of the South African variant that have been identified in Scotland, which have been linked to travel, the people concerned have been given the necessary support to isolate and are actually isolating, and that all those who have been in contact with those individuals are doing the same to prevent further spread? It would be good to get that assurance.
Can the First Minister also confirm that airport testing will be part of the solution as we move forward, as having a system that identifies the virus in travellers seems a sensible approach?
Yes, I can give that assurance on the five cases of the South African variant that have been identified so far in Scotland—I stress “so far”. As they all have connections with international travel, at this stage we have no evidence in Scotland of community transmission of that variant. All the individuals concerned are being treated with the utmost caution, with all the correct protocols around isolation and contact tracing in place. It is extremely important that we try to stop that variant becoming one that circulates in the community.
I am sure that testing will have a role to play in relation to international travel as we move forward but, right now, the key message is this: do not travel unless it is essential to do so. That is the most important thing that we can do to minimise the risk of new variants coming into the country. I often get asked about mistakes and what I wish that we could redo, and not being tougher on international travel last summer is one of the things that I wish I could turn the clock back and do differently. I am not prepared to allow us to make that mistake again. Do not travel right now unless it is essential.
I am sure that many of us are desperate to get away on holiday to warmer climates, but if we want to have greater normality domestically, to see our loved ones and to do the things that we all like doing, I am afraid that, at the moment, summer holidays—and holidays—may be the price that we have to pay for that. Therefore, my overriding message is: please do not travel right now.
High Streets and Town Centres (Support)
What action is the Scottish Government taking to address the serious challenges that our local high streets face in the current climate and to support regeneration of our town centres as we move out of the pandemic?
That is a really important question, because there are significant challenges for town centres as a result of the pandemic. As we know, many of our town centres were facing challenges anyway, as shopping patterns were changing. We have published the independent review of the town centre action plan, and we will continue to increase the support that we give to town centres to respond to the challenges that they face.
The review will be supported by an additional £25 million a year, as was announced in the budget, which is part of an overall five-year £275 million place-based investment programme that will build on previous investment to stimulate economic activity for regeneration in our towns and make sure that town centres, other, small settlements and business improvement districts get the support that they need to face up to those challenges.
City Centres (Store Closures)
Willie Coffey asked a good question, and I would like to press the First Minister on a specific point. Last week, Aberdeen city centre was hit by the closure of Debenhams after more than 35 years in the city. Another department store building—that of BHS—remains empty five years after it closed, and Arcadia has shut several stores in the city.
What is the First Minister doing to proactively help councils to find occupiers for empty buildings, to ensure that great cities such as Aberdeen do not come to resemble ghost towns?
I am going to resist the temptation to assume responsibility for filling individual shop units in every town and city. [Interruption.] It is an important question and I do not mean to minimise it. We work with councils to support them through funding. Of course, this is not just about not wanting it to be my or the Scottish Government’s responsibility; local economic development teams in local councils are best placed to know how to recruit—[Interruption.]
Presiding Officer, I am struggling to hear with all the chatting that is going on.
If I may say so, First Minister, the trouble was caused by the Deputy First Minister heckling members on the Labour benches. I encourage all members to behave themselves in this situation.
I will speak to him later, Presiding Officer. [Laughter.] I apologise—I have completely lost my train of thought, which probably means that I should sit down.
On the issue of town centres and working with local authorities through the action plan and the funding, the point that I was making was that it is right and proper—and probably most effective—for the local authority economic development teams to focus on who they are trying to recruit and who it is best to target for investment in their areas.
Windfall Tax (Retail Corporations)
While we see growing numbers of empty shop units across Scotland, retail giants such as Amazon and the supermarkets have seen vastly increased profits over the past year and have actually benefited from the Covid restrictions. Does the First Minister support a windfall tax on those corporations, to help to fund the recovery package for our high streets? Have discussions been held with the United Kingdom Government about that?
Discussions are held with the UK Government on all sorts of things. I have not personally had that discussion, but I am sure that there have been discussions of that nature.
I am open minded on any way in which we can make sure that those who have benefited the most from the situation that we have been living through do more to share the burden with those who have really suffered. That is why I welcomed the fact that some of the main supermarkets gave back to Government the money that they had saved from business rates relief, which is allowing us to extend the business rates relief for some really hard-hit sectors for an extra three months.
As a principle, those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden. We will continue to have those discussions, although we all have a part to play during these times in trying as far as we can to support local businesses and our high streets and give our custom to those who need it most.
What is the First Minister’s response to the figures that reveal that the number of Scottish households who are affected by the benefit cap has nearly doubled during the pandemic?
As many people are, I am deeply concerned about the benefit cap. It is just one of the pre-existing failures in the United Kingdom welfare system that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The continuation of the cap during the crisis makes neither economic nor moral sense. The benefit cap hits families with children the hardest, and 97 per cent of capped households have children in them.
At a time when we have seen the number of people who rely on benefits rise, and when economic forecasts are of increasing unemployment and fewer vacancies, all Governments—this is certainly a responsibility that the Scottish Government takes seriously—need to support families, and not to penalise them. We have called on the UK Government to scrap the benefit cap and will continue to do everything that we can to encourage it to do so.
Galloway (National Park)
Back in November 2018, in response to a question from me, the First Minister said that she appreciated arguments that I had put forward calling for a national park to be established in Galloway. She stated:
“We want to give full consideration to the proposal, and I am happy to ask the relevant minister to engage with the member and others who have an interest on how we can take the matter forward properly.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2018; c 16.]
Sadly, however, no progress has been made. In light of the biodiversity and climate change emergency and the economic crisis that we face, and given the recognised benefits that national park status can bring, will the First Minister commit today to a feasibility study on the creation of a new national park in Galloway?
For reasons that I hope Finlay Carson will understand, I am not going to commit to that today. Obviously, I need to consider the question and the proposition that he asks me to commit to, and I will certainly do that.
I remember the question that he asked me previously, although I would not have been able to say that it was in November 2018. I am sure that, for many of us, that seems an eternity ago, given what we have been through in the past year. However, the issue remains as important as it was then. I undertake to look at where things are in relation to the creation of a national park in Galloway, and to look specifically at the question of a feasibility study. I or the relevant minister will write to Finlay Carson when I have had a chance to do that.
This week, the state of Oregon decriminalised personal possession of all drugs. It will still, rightly, prosecute dealers, but it will now offer users a range of public health options to help to address drug use and addiction. That is in complete contrast to the lack of options available here. Does the First Minister accept that the war on drugs has been a disastrous failure, that we will never arrest our way to a drugs-free society, and that we now need a cross-party initiative, supported by experts in the field, to consider how we can introduce a similarly humane and effective drugs policy here?
In principle, my answer is yes. A couple of weeks ago, I set out the approach that we will take with the new dedicated Minister for Drugs Policy. We need to do things differently and better, and we absolutely need to reduce drastically the number of people in Scotland who lose their lives through drug addiction. We have committed significant extra resources to that and are open minded about different ways of working.
As, I am sure, Neil Findlay recognises, there are significant constraints. Decriminalising drugs is not something that the Scottish Parliament could do within the powers that we currently have. Therefore, for as long as we do not have those powers, we need to engage the United Kingdom Government in the discussions. The work will be led by Angela Constance, and we absolutely want consensus on how we might do things better. I absolutely agree that we should not seek to criminalise or arrest our way out of a drugs crisis. It is a public health crisis and should be treated as such.
Self-isolation Support Grant
Does the First Minister agree that it is important that we break down financial barriers to self-isolation? I welcome the extension of the £500 self-isolation support grant to people who earn less than the living wage. How many people will benefit from extension of the criteria, and how will the Scottish Government ensure that people are aware of the support that they are entitled to receive?
That is an important question. Yesterday, we announced changes to the self-isolation support grant. We will extend eligibility to everyone who earns the real living wage or less, to people who are in receipt of council-tax reduction because of low income, and to those who meet eligibility criteria and have caring responsibilities for someone over 16 who is asked to self-isolate. We have also lengthened the period during which people can apply for the grant to within 28 days of their being told to self-isolate.
The changes will further help to remove financial barriers to people self-isolating, and they will significantly increase the number of people who are eligible for the grant. We estimate that around an additional 200,000 people will be eligible as a result of the changes that I have announced. We will continue to look for ways in which to go further, in terms of both financial and practical support.
Making sure that people are aware of the changes is important, so the changes will be accompanied by national and local media campaigns to raise public awareness of the support that is available.
That concludes First Minister’s question time.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer.
The First Minister said earlier that people can contact the helpline if they have questions about their vaccinations. People are emailing me right now to say that they are trying but are not getting answers about appointments. Margaret from Fife, whom I referenced earlier, has just phoned the helpline. She was told that a letter will be sent soon, but nobody knows when. David from Glasgow was told that they could not tell him anything. Arthur from East Renfrewshire, who has cancer, has been given no information about his appointment.
The Government needs a better solution for offering answers to people who are concerned about being missed or overlooked in the vaccination programme.
That does not qualify as a point of order. It is a point of information; I am sure that it will have been noted by the Government and members.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. I suspend Parliament until 2.30. I advise members to be careful when leaving the chamber: wear your masks, follow the one-way systems and observe social distancing.13:33 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—