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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 June 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Brexit, Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon. Before we begin, I remind members, as I always do, to be careful of observing social distancing guidance when we are in the chamber, particularly when leaving the chamber, and throughout the Holyrood building.

The first item of business is First Minister’s questions. Before we move to questions, I invite the First Minister to make a brief statement.

I will begin with an update on the key statistics in relation to Covid-19. As of 9 o’clock this morning, an additional 33 cases have been confirmed since yesterday. A total of 1,117 patients who are either suspected or confirmed as having Covid-19 are in hospital, which is an decrease of 51 since yesterday. The number of confirmed cases within that decreased by six. As of last night, 34 people were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, which is no change on the figure that was reported yesterday.

I am afraid that, in the past 24 hours, 11 deaths of patients who had been confirmed as having the virus have been registered. That takes the total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement to 2,386.

National Records of Scotland has just published its more detailed weekly report. Unlike the daily statistics, its figures do not just include deaths where Covid has been confirmed by a laboratory test; it also reports on cases where the virus was entered on the death certificate as a suspected or contributory cause of death. The latest NRS report covers the period to Sunday 31 May, which was three days ago. I remind members that, at that point, according to our daily figures, 2,363 deaths of people who had tested positive for the virus had been registered. However, today’s report shows that, by Sunday 31 May, the total number of registered deaths with either a confirmed or presumed link to the virus was 3,911. Of those deaths, 131 were registered in the seven days up to Sunday. That is a decrease of 99 from the week before. The total number of excess deaths, which is the number above the five-year average for the same time of year, also decreased from 181 to 108.

Deaths in care homes made up 52 per cent of all deaths linked to the virus last week. That figure is down from 54 per cent in the previous week. The number of Covid-19 deaths in care homes also reduced again, from 124 last week to 68 in the most recent week. National Records of Scotland has published an additional analysis today, covering the period up to 17 May. It shows that, up to that point, 154 of the Covid deaths that were reported in hospital were of people who had previously been resident in care homes.

All those figures are, of course, far higher than any of us would wish. I am also aware that no statistical trend will console those who have lost loved ones to the virus. My thoughts and sympathies are with all of them. However, those numbers provide further grounds for optimism. The weekly number of Covid-19 deaths has now fallen for five weeks in a row, and they are now at one fifth of their peak level; excess deaths are at less than one eighth of their peak level; and deaths in care homes are also now falling week on week.

In my view, the figures reinforce the decision that we took last week to ease some lockdown restrictions but to do so very slowly and carefully. The progress that we have made is obvious, but it is still fragile and it could very easily be reversed. That is why it is still so important that all of us stick to the current guidance. People should still be staying at home most of the time and should still be meeting fewer people than normal. Life should not feel entirely normal at present.

When we meet people from another household, we should stay outdoors and 2m apart from them. We must not meet more than one other household at a time nor more than one a day, and we must keep to a maximum of eight people in a group. We should all wash our hands often and wear a face covering in shops or on public transport. If we have symptoms of Covid-19, we should get tested and follow the advice on self-isolation.

Above all else, we should all remember that the decisions that we take as individuals now affect the wellbeing of all of us. I again thank everybody across Scotland who has been doing the right thing and assure everybody that it is making a positive difference.

Before we turn to the first question, I remind members that I will take all the supplementary questions after question 7, which will be asked by Daniel Johnson.

Covid-19 Testing (Care Homes)

Last week, I asked how many elderly people in hospital were sent to care homes before mandatory testing for Covid was introduced. Yesterday, we finally got an answer: that happened to more than 1,350 people. As we know, tragically, just over 1,800 care home residents have since died, having caught the disease.

What is the Government doing to prevent a repeat of that tragedy? How many of Scotland’s 50,000 care home workers have been regularly tested for Covid, as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport promised two weeks ago?

The programme of regular and routine testing of care home staff is under way. When we have robust and reliable figures to report from that, we will report those regularly. That is the approach that we have taken to all the data that we have published. It is important to note that the testing of care home staff requires to be done not on a one-off basis but on a regular basis.

We will also consider what further groups of the population we will want to test on a routine basis, and that consideration will, of course, include national health service staff. In addition, we will do surveillance testing; some population antibody surveillance testing is already being done. The main strand of our testing is still the demand-led testing of people with symptoms. We all have a duty to encourage everybody with symptoms to come forward for that testing, although we will want that strand of testing to decline, because that will mean that prevalence of the virus is declining.

To respond to Jackson Carlaw’s detailed question, we will publish up-to-date data as soon as we are able to do that in a robust and reliable manner.

The First Minister says that widespread testing of care home staff is now under way, but I am afraid that that is difficult to believe. There are 50,000 care home workers in Scotland. If they were being routinely tested every week, a minimum of 7,000 tests a day would be being carried out, yet yesterday, in total, fewer than 5,000 tests were done for the whole of Scotland, and fewer than 3,000 were done the day before that. It does not add up.

Why are care homes being failed again? Surely, by now, mobile testing teams or general practitioners should have visited every care home in Scotland. Is the First Minister’s Government not letting care homes down all over again?

No is my immediate answer to that.

I should say as a preface to this comment that I do not consider any death in a care home or anywhere else, or any level of deaths, to be acceptable. Each and every death is a matter of deep regret. However, the number of care home deaths—while it is, of course, still too high—is now declining quite rapidly. In addition, from the peak through to the middle of May, the number of deaths in care homes has been declining slightly faster than the number of deaths in hospitals. That suggests that the package of measures that we are taking in care homes to protect care home residents is having an effect.

Testing is important. That is why we have extended the numbers and the groups of people that we are testing. The programme of care home worker testing is under way and will continue; it will then be routine and regular. If it is helpful to the chamber, the health secretary will set out more details of that programme and, as I said, we will set out the data from that when it is available.

It is understandable that we look at the overall number of tests, but it is important to remind people that the dynamics underneath that headline number are also important. We have different strands of testing. We expect routine testing and surveillance testing to increase with time, but we will want the level of on-demand testing for people with symptoms to reduce; indeed, it might already be reducing because the prevalence of the virus in the community is reducing. We will continue to try to publish data that gets to the granularity of that, as well as headline figures.

We will continue to take forward those various programmes of work to make sure that, as we suppress the virus and come slowly and carefully out of lockdown, testing is doing the job in the variety of ways that we require it to do it.

The First Minister has said repeatedly at her daily briefings that we need to do all that we can to avoid a second spike. That requires delivery on testing. The First Minister says that it is improving. Let me, then, share some figures.

We spoke yesterday to a leading care home provider, Renaissance Care. It has 1,150 staff—women and men who have performed heroic and selfless tasks these past three months—but only 649 of them have been tested, which is just 56 per cent. Even then, they have not been tested on a repeated basis as the health secretary promised on 18 May. What is deeply worrying is that the provider says that 7 per cent of those care home staff who were tested had no symptoms of the disease but their results came back positive for Covid. That is the disappointing reality on the ground.

Is it not the case that yet more mistakes are unfolding right now in our care homes and that those mistakes may yet lead to more deaths? It will not be possible to blame those failings on hindsight, will it?

I do not blame anything on anything. I take responsibility for the Government’s handling of and response to the coronavirus. I do that daily, and I do it—rightly and properly—in the chamber.

I have never sought, and I will never seek, to blame anybody. What I try to do, to ensure that the public has the understanding that it needs in order to know why it needs to comply with the measures, is explain the developing knowledge that we have of the virus as we go. It would be a bit strange—and, actually, negligent—of me not to do that and not to explain how our approach develops and adapts as our knowledge develops and adapts.

The programme of care home worker testing is on-going. As I said, we will publish the figures and then people will be able to track them. The testing will require to be regular and routine, which I think was—I do not know whether it still is, but I will be corrected if I am wrong—different in Scotland from how it was anticipated to be elsewhere in the UK.

Everything that we do right now is about making sure that we are suppressing the virus and avoiding, as far as possible, the risk of a resurgence. That is why this Government is taking the very careful, considered, slow, steady and cautious approach that we are taking and making sure that we do not come out of lockdown before we have the certainty and assurance that our programmes for testing—whether the routine testing or testing through test and protect—are able to keep the virus suppressed. That is in addition, of course, to all the actions that we all have to take.

We will continue to take those actions, which are based on the best possible evidence, and I will continue to stand up here, in the chamber, and elsewhere on a daily basis and answer questions and explain this Government’s response. That is my duty and responsibility, and it is one that I never have shied away from and never will.

I say to the First Minister that the World Health Organization could not have been clearer at the start of the crisis. It told her that the priority was to test, test, test. Yet for care homes, with this SNP Government, it has been a case of dither, delay and distract.

The tragedy is this: Scotland has the capacity to test. Indeed, if this Government had used that capacity effectively since the end of April, it could have tested all the residents and staff of care homes twice. Instead, capacity is being squandered and care home workers and residents, who have already endured the horror of the crisis, are being let down all over again. Why, two weeks on from a promise to test all care home staff, is this Government still not getting it right?

I am sorry, but the WHO, on care homes, did not say what Jackson Carlaw has just alleged and asserted. In fact—given that he has based his questions on it today, I am sure that he has read the WHO guidance that I am about to refer to—it issued technical guidance on infection prevention and control in long-term care facilities on 21 March, and all the guidance that the Scottish Government has issued from 13 March, which we updated on 26 March and again, I think, in May, has been consistent with the technical guidance that the WHO has set out. We will continue to adapt our approaches as any evidence and advice from such authorities changes in the future.

We will continue to take the careful and considered steps that we are taking. We will not shy away from the challenges that we face in the unprecedented situation that we are dealing with. The Scottish Government will continue to take that careful, cautious approach, making sure that we—as we have done—build up our testing capacity but also, crucially, use testing in a way that is clinically driven. That is a responsibility that I take seriously, and I will continue to do so.

Covid-19 Testing (Care Homes)

Welcome back, Presiding Officer.

We all want the country to succeed in containing and then eradicating the virus, so saving lives. However, we now know that, between March and April, more than 3,500 people were discharged from Scotland’s hospitals and 1,431 of them went into care homes. How many of those people were tested for Covid-19 before discharge? How many were sent into care homes where Covid-19 was already present?

As I have said before, we do not yet have the data that will tell us how many older people who were discharged were tested. The statisticians have to bring together that data from different sources, but we will continue to publish data as we have it in a reliable form.

I remind Richard Leonard that, back then—as is the case now, to some extent—there were doubts about the reliability, or at least the relative reliability, of testing people who were not displaying symptoms for Covid-19. That is why the emphasis in the guidance that was issued to care homes—the first guidance was issued on 13 March—was, in line with the technical guidance that the World Health Organization issued later in March, on risk assessment for residents who were being discharged from hospital to care homes, clinical risk assessment and infection prevention and control. It included the measures that care home providers were required to take to isolate residents and to ensure that there was less communal activity in care homes. At all stages, the guidance has been consistent with the evidence and advice, and it will continue to be so.

I make the point that, although nobody will ever hear me minimise the tragedy of what has happened overall with coronavirus or specifically in care homes, we see today in the latest National Records of Scotland report that the number of deaths in care homes is declining slightly faster than the rate of deaths in hospital. That says that the measures that we are taking in care homes are having an effect, and we need to keep focused on ensuring that we do the right things.

Three weeks ago, I was contacted by a care worker from South Lanarkshire who had watched the First Minister tell me in Parliament that day at First Minister’s questions that tests were no longer limited to care workers who were symptomatic. However, when that worker approached her manager, she was told that she could have a test only if she had symptoms. When she went on to the online test portal, it told her the same. When she tried the NHS Lanarkshire website, it rejected her.

I wrote to NHS Lanarkshire, which responded on 28 May, 15 days after the First Minister’s answer to me in Parliament. It told me:

“We are currently working through the operational implications of the recent Scottish Government announcement on testing of all care home staff on a weekly basis.”

Today, I spoke again to the worker who contacted me. She has still not been tested, and she is concerned about her family and the vulnerable people whom she cares for.

When will all those care home workers who want to be tested be tested? When will the promise of regular weekly testing finally be delivered in Scotland?

As I set out a moment ago, the programme is under way and is progressing. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will set out more details of the delivery of that programme, and we will publish data from it.

If Richard Leonard had contacted me three weeks ago—I offer him my apologies if he did so—I could have explained the differences between the different strands of access to testing. Testing through the portal and the drive-through centres is principally for people who are symptomatic. The routine testing of health and care staff and non-symptomatic staff in care homes is being organised through national health service boards and overseen by public health advisers. Those are the different strands of testing. The strand that Richard Leonard is talking about is on-going and, as I said, we will publish data from it when it is as reliable and robust as we want all the data that we publish to be.

I do not doubt that the First Minister believed it when she said that all care home workers would be tested, but there is a consistent disconnect between pronouncements in Parliament and the reality that is facing workers on the ground in Scotland’s care homes. Promises have been made on pay, personal protective equipment and testing, but they have been delivered too late or have still not been delivered at all.

This week, not just care workers’ trade unions but care home bosses have said that the Government’s focus is on generating headlines rather than delivering for workers on the front line. As we begin to ease the lockdown, what confidence can those workers have that the First Minister’s Government will not just make more big announcements but will actually deliver the real changes to Scotland’s care services that we need to give people dignity in their final years and to give the people who look after them proper recognition and reward and the respect that they deserve?

Part of my daily responsibility with my ministers is to give people confidence in how we are dealing with this and to set out very clearly and candidly the steps that we are taking and the challenges that we face along the way. We have done that every step of the way, and I think that, broadly speaking, that is the reason why the majority of people in Scotland express confidence in the way in which the Scottish Government is handling matters.

Without minimising the tragedy of what we are dealing with, we are now seeing the number of deaths overall and the number of deaths in care homes declining significantly. That says that the package of measures that we have implemented and are delivering in care homes is having the effect that we want it to have. We will continue on an on-going basis to ensure that the policies that we are announcing are delivered consistently and that we publish the data that allows all of that to be scrutinised and allows us to be held to account.

The last point that I will make is one that I make genuinely in the spirit of collaboration and partnership in which we have always tried to deal with this. To use Richard Leonard’s term—it is not my term—care home bosses, too, have a responsibility to work in partnership with us to ensure that care homes are safe. Let us not forget that care home providers have a responsibility, our health protection teams and public health directors have a responsibility, and the Scottish Government has a responsibility. We will continue to bring to bear that collective effort so that we will—I hope—see the trend in the figures that has been outlined today continue, and the number of deaths and the number of new cases in care homes continue to decline. I think that all of us want to see that.

Covid-19 (Impact on Black and Minority Ethnic Groups)

As if the pandemic itself was not enough to deal with, the world is watching with horror events in the United States, where systematic police brutality is being endorsed and encouraged by racism at the highest political level. We stand in solidarity with those who are taking to the streets in the US and around the world to express their anger and to make it clear that black lives matter.

Expressing that solidarity does not mean just looking at other countries; it means challenging ourselves, as well. The First Minister recently received a letter from the Scottish Trades Union Congress black workers committee regarding Covid-19, which highlighted that black and minority ethnic groups

“remain over-represented in the ‘at-risk’ communities identified by the Government”.

Public Health England’s report on the issue has been criticised for simply telling us what we already know instead of offering any explanation or solution.

When will the Scottish Government publish its own up-to-date analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on black and minority ethnic people? Will the First Minister commit to acting on all the issues that are raised in the black workers committee’s letter?

I, too, feel total solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. We are all looking on with concern and horror at the scenes that are unfolding in the United States. I believe that the President of the United States has a duty to address the underlying causes of the legitimate protests that we are seeing instead of continuously attacking those who are protesting.

I could not agree more about taking responsibility ourselves. I made that point yesterday. No country or society is immune from racism. We all have to look at ourselves in the mirror and consider what we are going to do to combat racism. As First Minister, I certainly rededicate myself to that.

I have received the letter from the STUC black workers committee, and this morning I signed a response to it that will go to it this afternoon, which I hope the committee will see as a comprehensive response to the very reasonable and legitimate points that it raised.

As Patrick Harvie is possibly aware, Public Health Scotland released some initial analysis of the impact of Covid—two weeks ago today, on 20 May, if I am getting my dates correct—in which it said that it had undertaken an initial analysis

“to investigate whether COVID-19 outcomes vary by ethnic group”.

It said in that report that “further work is required” and that, based on the available data to date,

“the proportion of ethnic minority patients among those seriously ill with COVID-19 appears no higher than the proportion in the Scottish population generally”,

but it caveated that by saying that “further work is required”. Further work will be done, and,

“in parallel, work will be undertaken to explore and understand emerging patterns”

from other parts of the UK. That is work that we take very seriously, and I know that Public Health Scotland will be keen to understand it and report its understanding as quickly as possible.

We should all agree that that further work needs to happen, and I hope that the Scottish Government will give us a timeframe for when we can expect to see progress on the issue.

Even as we seek to address racism and inequality at home, many of our fellow citizens are looking at coverage of the events in the United States and asking what we can do. I hope that everybody considering joining a protest this weekend will act responsibly and observe social distancing. Perhaps it would be better to do something from home, such as donating to the community bail funds to support those who have experienced the authoritarian response that we witness on our screens. I have made a donation, I urge others to do the same, and I hope that the First Minister will join me in that call.

Does the First Minister agree that the UK must stop all export licences for security and policing equipment to the US to ensure that this country is not providing the tear gas, rubber bullets and riot gear that is currently being used against protesters and journalists? Given that the First Minister has previously told us that devolved business funding for the arms industry is for the so-called blue-light sector, can she also confirm whether the Scottish Government has given any public money to any company supplying the police or the National Guard in the US?

I am not able to give an answer on the last point right now because I do not have that information, but I will undertake to look into it and come back to Patrick Harvie as quickly as possible.

On the point about further analysis, Public Health Scotland made the point that there is still limited data in Scotland, but that as the data increases it will want to do further analysis. I hope that that will be done as quickly as possible, but I will ask Public Health Scotland to write to Patrick Harvie directly to set out the timeline and the process that it is going through.

I echo the comments that Patrick Harvie made about events in the United States and protests that people may want to take part in here. We all want to make our voices heard on those issues, and everyone has the right to protest—many of us will have taken part on many occasions in peaceful protests—but, right now, mass gatherings of people could be a risk to health and indeed to life, so I appeal to people to make their voices heard safely and not to put themselves and others at risk. Patrick Harvie has helpfully listed some ways in which people can do something, including making donations to community bail funds, and make a difference without putting themselves at risk. I certainly echo that.

I agree with the sentiment of the point on export licences and we will make appropriate representations to the UK Government on that point.

Test and Protect System

The Scottish Government estimates that 19,000 people in Scotland have the virus. Last Thursday, the test and protect system started. Does the First Minister know how many of those 19,000 infected people have been tested and how many of their contacts have been traced?

We do not yet have initial data from test and protect. I hope that, if all goes to plan, the initial data will be published this time next week; again, we have to make sure that it is quality assured and robust.

Those 19,000 people will of course be at different stages of infection; it is a moving picture and we will now produce every Thursday estimates of the R number and our understanding of the infection rate. The information that comes out of test and protect will be very important—not just the numbers tested but, as Willie Rennie rightly says, the numbers of contacts that have been identified and traced.

I will make two additional points for context. First, of course we have to ensure that test and protect is operating robustly and effectively and that it is engaging with everybody it requires to engage with, either through testing or tracing. However, over time, the test and protect numbers going up will not necessarily be a good thing, because it will be a sign that the virus is increasing again, and we do not want to see that.

Secondly, while everybody is complying with the physical distancing rules right now, as they should be doing, the number of close contacts that people have should be minimal. As we look at the numbers, hopefully next week, it is important that those contextual points are borne in mind.

We know that, since last Thursday, only 264 people have been tested and found to be positive. That is just 1 per cent of the number of people who are estimated to have the virus. Why are we missing 99 per cent of the people who have the virus?

Test and protect was the big idea for driving the virus out of the country, but we now discover that it will protect us from only 1 per cent of the virus. If that is the case, what is the value of the Scottish Government’s test and protect system? Is it capable of eradicating the virus?

I believe that it is capable of playing a significant part in suppressing and, I hope, eradicating the virus. However, I and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport have said all along—and it is a very important message that we all must convey to the population—that it will not do that on its own. We all have to play a part by complying with health advice, in particular the physical distancing guidelines.

Without going into too much detail—although I am happy to write to Willie Rennie to set out more detail if that would be helpful—the numbers that we publish daily on positive tests are numbers that come through NHS lab testing. Drive-through testing and the Lighthouse lab are a separate strand to that.

Willie Rennie says that the numbers are minimal. They will grow. We are signposting people to book tests through test and protect and to go there.

People should absolutely scrutinise and look at the details of test and protect. You can be assured that the health secretary and I will also be doing that very closely. However, let us all recognise and take seriously our responsibility to get the message across to people. We cannot force people to come forward for testing; we have to encourage them to do so and explain why it is so important.

Let all of us take every opportunity to say to people, “If you have any of the symptoms of coronavirus—a fever, a cough, or a loss of or change in your sense of taste or smell—don’t delay and wait a day or two to see if you feel better. Go immediately to NHS Inform or phone NHS 24 and book a test.” If all of us get that message across, we will see test and protect play the part that it needs to play to ensure that we keep the virus suppressed.

Youth Unemployment

To ask the First Minister what steps will be taken to avoid a big increase in youth unemployment in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. (S5F-04172)

I think that all of us recognise the long-term negative impact that periods of unemployment can have on anybody—in particular, on young people.

We recently announced funding of £33 million to support people back to work as we gradually get the economy opened up again. That initial funding will focus on helping those who are most adversely affected, which includes young people. Our Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board will also ensure that we are helping to equip people with the skills that they will need for the future. It will report back to us later this month.

I point out that, in Scotland, we have a track record of tackling youth unemployment through developing the young workforce, which is our internationally recognised youth employment strategy. We will continue to support industry-led developing the young workforce groups to ensure that we provide relevant and appropriate support.

Does the First Minister agree that, although Covid-19 is much more likely to have a lethal impact on older people, younger workers are bearing the greatest economic burden? Many of them worked in hospitality or tourism on zero-hour contracts. Of those who are still employed, even graduates have suffered an 8 per cent fall in their hourly wages.

Last year, 28,191 individuals began apprenticeships in Scotland. How can struggling employers continue to attract and retain apprentices during the pandemic and beyond it? Does the First Minister agree that it is time that the United Kingdom Government scrapped the apprenticeship levy?

The apprenticeship levy was introduced back in April 2017, with no consultation of the Scottish Government, despite apprenticeships and skills being devolved. So far, the UK Government has resisted calls from employers to suspend the levy during the pandemic.

Apprenticeships form an integral part of our economy. They give those who take part in them the opportunity to develop skills while earning an income. There is no doubt that Covid-19 will have an impact on businesses and apprentices across Scotland. As I said, we will consider the recommendations of the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board and will, in the coming weeks, set out our plans for the future in the area.

Skills Development Scotland delivers our apprenticeship programme, and it has delivered more than a quarter of a million modern and graduate apprentices during this Administration up to March 2019.

As a result of Covid, we will review our approach to apprenticeships to ensure that it is aligned with and responsive to the emerging needs of employers and workers, especially young workers.

Test and Protect Programme (Support)

To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government plans to offer self-isolating people under the national health service test and protect programme. (S5F-04179)

For those who need it, help is available via the Scottish Government’s national assistance helpline, which links to local authority teams who provide access to essential food and medicine and emotional and social support.

Financial support for those who are asked to self-isolate will also be critical to the success of the test and protect programme. It will be more difficult for people to comply with the arrangements if they face financial hardship through doing so. To that end, I welcome the United Kingdom Government’s decision to ensure that, for those who are eligible, statutory sick pay will be available for every day on which they are in isolation.

The extension of the self-employment income support scheme for a further three months is also welcome news. However, I look forward to hearing from the UK Government what more can be done through reserved powers to ensure that people who are isolating do not lose out financially.

The new trace and protect programme is wholly dependent on voluntary compliance. Hugh Pennington, who is emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, has

“pointed out that only half of people who develop coronavirus symptoms self-isolate for at least a week, according to government science advisers.”

In that light, what assessment has the First Minister’s Government made of non-compliance because of a reluctance among employers to pay statutory sick pay? What is her response to comments from Professor Pennington, who has

“warned if the NHS test and trace system wasn’t effective then the only alternative was compulsory random testing ... ‘in places such as supermarket queues’”?

I am not currently aware of the evidence that Hugh Pennington cited, but I would be happy to look at it, if Rachael Hamilton sends it to me.

We have always been clear that the test and protect programme can play a critical part in suppressing the virus, but it depends on persuading people to comply with everything that we are asking them to comply with. That means their coming forward for testing immediately they experience symptoms and following the advice on self-isolation.

In my anecdotal experience, but also as shown by monitoring that the Scottish Government has been doing through surveys during the pandemic, the majority of people in Scotland have been complying with everything that we have asked them to do—the lockdown generally, and isolation in particular. I hope that that will continue to be the case.

We have already acknowledged that it is vital that support be in place. That support will come in a range of shapes and forms—from financial support, which is very important, to practical support. In some—I am sure that they will be rare—cases, support through alternative accommodation will be needed, so we are working to ensure that that is available.

I will repeat a point that I have already made today, because it is a point that we must all repeat as often as we can. Every single one of us will reduce our risk of being asked to self-isolate, as a close contact of somebody who has coronavirus, if we abide by the physical distancing guidelines and stay at least 2m apart from other people.

Scrutiny is important, but we all have a role to play in ensuring that the test and protect programme succeeds. That requires that we all make sure that we communicate the advice to our constituents and that we encourage them to abide by it. I have great confidence that if we all do that, the test and protect programme will play the part that we want it to play in suppressing and, eventually, eradicating the virus.

Covid-19 (Per Capita Death Rate)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that Scotland has one of the highest per capita death rates for Covid-19 in the world. (S5F-04180)

In my view, every death is one too many. Deaths in Scotland are higher in number than any of us want them to be. As I have said today and will continue to say, every death is a tragedy. Throughout the crisis, we have acted on the best available advice in order to keep the number as low as possible. The number of deaths is starting to fall, although I acknowledge that that is of no comfort to those who have lost loved ones to the virus.

I also acknowledge that, although the question highlights a particular measure and analysis, there are differences in how Covid-19 deaths are recorded in different countries. Individual countries are also at different points on the infection curve, so, at this stage, those factors make direct comparisons complex.

Published at the end of last week, analysis from the Financial Times revealed that, with a total excess death rate of 891 per million people, the United Kingdom has had the second-worst outbreak of Covid-19 in Europe. On the same basis for comparison, Scotland has had 840 deaths per million people, which means that Scotland has had the third-worst outbreak in Europe—worse than Italy’s and 10 times those in Germany and Denmark. That analysis has rightly provoked questions of the UK Government regarding the timing of lockdown, the adequacy of social distancing measures, the availability and use of testing, deaths in care homes, use of “Do not attempt to resuscitate” orders and criteria for hospital admission.

Does the First Minister agree that we must hold the Scottish Government to the same standard—that the questions that are asked of the UK Government must also be asked of the Scottish Government? Can she confirm that the Scottish Government has been responsible for the timing of lockdown, for social distancing measures, for availability and use of testing, for guidance to care homes, for use of DNAR and for criteria for hospital admission?

I am not sure where Daniel Johnson has been over the past few weeks, because even my worst critic could not accuse me of trying to dodge accountability on those issues. I answer questions daily, for lengthy periods, covering all those issues, and will continue to do so, because accountability is important and I have a duty to set out the steps that the Scottish Government is taking, the challenges that we face and the changes in our approach when evidence changes.

I trust the Scottish people to respond accordingly; by and large, the Scottish people have responded magnificently. At no stage will I shy away from my responsibilities and accountability. People who are watching at home can draw their own conclusions and make up their own minds about that.

I will make reasonable points about our understanding changing, and about the fact that we are not through the pandemic yet. One of the things that worries me most is people thinking that we are at the end of it—that it is all over. It is not over; we have tough times still to come, so, as well as looking back and assessing decisions that we have made, we have also to remain focused on taking the right steps for the future. I will continue to do that openly and frankly.

Right now, the only thing that matters to me is that we continue to take the steps that we need to take to suppress the virus and to protect the Scottish population. If that means learning lessons along the way, we will do that. I am not interested in political game playing of any form; I am interested only in doing the job that I have been elected to do for the Scottish people.

Covid-19 (Guidance for Childminders)

When will the Scottish Government issue updated coronavirus guidance to childminders?

I think that we have done that, but, if we have not, we are about to do so very soon. Childminders are able to restart within phase 1 of the route map out of lockdown, although the number of households from which they can look after children is limited to four. That guidance is or will very soon be available to childminders, to allow them, as far as possible, to get back to normal operations.

Cystic Fibrosis Trust

I ask this question on behalf of a young father with cystic fibrosis, who has spent nearly 12 weeks shielding. His twin five-year-old girls are due to start primary 1 on 11 August, but he is worried that they will not be allowed to do so because of his at-risk status. He says that he would prefer to leave his family home rather than have his girls miss out on their first day at school. He is not alone. The Cystic Fibrosis Trust says that “urgent guidance” is needed,

“especially as children start to go back to school and more people return to work.”

What response would the First Minister give to that young father? Can she reassure others who are in a similar situation that, when the shielding advice update is finally given, it will include detailed information on freedoms and restrictions for those who are in the same household as at-risk individuals?

The current period of shielding is due to end on June 18, and I and the health secretary have already said that we will publish updated guidance in advance of that. The guidance will be very much clinically driven and as detailed and as comprehensive as possible. It will look at the different risk factors and seek—as far as possible—to give people as much flexibility and allow them as much judgment as possible in relation to the risk factors that they face and how they can best mitigate them, and detail how the Government can support them in doing that.

We will try—as far as possible, recognising the risks that those groups still face—to get people back to some degree of normal life. We are taking great care over that guidance, and we recognise that the impact of somebody who is shielding on others who live in their household will be particularly acute when those people are children.

The reason that we are taking time to publish updated guidance is that we want to be able to answer as many of those questions as possible. Nobody wants to see people shielding any longer than is necessary, but I remind members that people in the shielded category are at greatest risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the virus, so it is right that we take as much care as we can. It is really important that we do not act prematurely and that we do not give advice without proper care and consideration.

The final point that I will make to the individual who was quoted, and to those in the shielded category generally, is one that I have made before. The Scottish Government—including me and the health secretary—has not forgotten you or the difficulties that you are facing. However, you, your families, and your health and safety really matter to us, which is why we will take time to get the guidance as right as we possibly can.

Rolls-Royce (Inchinnan Site)

Last week, the First Minister agreed with me that strategic intervention in the aerospace sector would be required to save Rolls-Royce jobs at Inchinnan. Today, plans have been announced to axe 700 jobs, which would be devastating for the workers and the west of Scotland economy. It would also be a blow to manufacturing, and the end of Rolls-Royce maintenance, repair and overhaul operations in Scotland. We cannot let that happen.

Will the Scottish Government work with the trade unions to put pressure on Rolls-Royce to think again? Is the Scottish Government prepared to make significant financial support available to the sector now? Will the First Minister agree to establish a cross-party aerospace and aviation task force to ensure a co-ordinated collective approach to support those sectors and save those jobs?

I agree in general terms with everything that Neil Bibby said. The news that workers at Rolls-Royce in Inchinnan will have got this morning is absolutely devastating, and my thoughts are very much with all of them and their families today.

The Scottish Government will continue to do everything that we possibly can to get a more positive outcome. Those jobs are important, the Rolls-Royce facility is important and advanced manufacturing is very important for the Scottish economy now, as it will be in the future.

I will respond quickly to the various parts of Neil Bibby’s question. As we always do in these situations, we will work very closely with trade unions. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture to look at pulling together a cross-party approach so that we can all work together to try to protect and safeguard those jobs.

On financial interventions, we will consider all options, as we have done previously. I note for the record that we have to operate within state aid constraints and, of course, we are accountable to taxpayers for the use of taxpayer money. However, we always look for ways in which we can protect jobs and important manufacturing facilities such as this. I will ask the economy secretary to correspond further with Neil Bibby, and with others across the chamber who have an interest, so that we can try to bring together, as far as we can, a team Scotland approach to safeguarding those jobs, if it is at all possible to do so.

Covid-19 (Funding Consequentials)

Has the United Kingdom Government provided any clarity on whether it will provide £70 million of funding consequentials to the Scottish Government to tackle the Covid-19 crisis?

A variety of strands of consequentials has been provided, and we continue to talk to the UK Government about the detail of that and about additional areas where we think that support would be appropriate.

As I think that I said last week, we have concerns about consequentials that had been announced not materialising. We also have concerns about whether underspends in any of those areas will be clawed back or whether we can reinvest them. It is really important that the commitments that we have made to businesses and people across Scotland are fulfilled, which means that we must ensure that the money that has been committed is not taken away, and that it materialises in full.

I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to correspond with Colin Beattie about the particular aspects of that, and to make clear where we have those assurances and where we still seek them.

Resumption of Health Services (Optometry)

One of my constituents is registered blind and his wife has eyesight problems that need a visit to an eye specialist. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has been emailed regarding the opening of essential services such as optometrists, but we have had no reply. That lack of response seems to be a running theme with Jeane Freeman, as I have sent her emails on several occasions, none of which she has bothered to reply to.

Will the First Minister tell her health secretary to reply to her emails and, more important, will she recognise that essential services such as optometrists need to open now and that any delay causes undue stress and concern to many of my constituents?

The member raises a really serious issue and I will treat it seriously. The tone of the first part of his question will jar with the majority of people across the country, who, over the past three months, have seen our health secretary work literally around the clock to try to tackle the virus.

I do not know why the Tories seem to be moving away from absolutely legitimate scrutiny—I unequivocally accept that that is their role—and a constructive approach to what appear to be attempts to party politicise this issue. I do not know why they are choosing to do that, but that is not what the majority of people across Scotland want to see. For my part and that of the health secretary, we will just get on with the job of trying to deal with this virus, day in and day out.

We want to see services, including optometry, resume as quickly as possible. As the health secretary has set out in the past couple of days—including yesterday in the chamber—we have to do that with careful consideration and in a framework of decision making, to ensure that those services resume safely, that the health service is still able to cope with the coronavirus, should we see an increase in cases, and that we do not put patients at greater risk by resuming services before we are ready to do so.

Those important considerations are under way and the health secretary will of course keep Parliament and the wider public updated. I understand how difficult it has been for people who have not been able to access the health service in the normal way. That will, in some cases, have been painful for people, and we want to see that situation rectified as quickly but—crucially—as safely as possible for patients across the country.

Shielding Young People (Support)

Charlotte, aged 19, is self-isolating because she lives with her grandparents and has a health condition; Angela, aged 19, is a shielded person because she has an immunosuppressive condition. Both those young girls gave up employment in good-quality jobs because they were shielding, leading to not only a loss of income but a loss of opportunity.

The First Minister has already answered a question about youth unemployment, which is an important issue. Shielding young people get a generous food box but no other specific support for their situation. The Government’s former adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt, pointed out that 19 to 24 is the most critical time in a young person’s life, and I believe that that is true.

What thinking has been done about that group of young people who have been shielding and have lost out on opportunities because they have acted on Government and scientific advice? Has the First Minister thought about what positive action could be taken to help that group?

That is a really important point. I genuinely assure Pauline McNeill that we are thinking through the issues, in all their complexity, that shielded people face. We sometimes talk about shielded people as if they are a generic group, but every shielded person is an individual with their own needs and circumstances. It is absolutely right to say that the experience for young people will be different from the experience for older people—and it is not an easy experience for older people.

We are taking all those factors into account. In short, we are trying to move from a position in which we have given generic, blanket advice to people in the shielded category to one in which we are able to give more tailored advice that is specific to different conditions and to people’s individual circumstances. That raises a lot of complexities, and it is important that we get it right.

Support is available for essentials, food and medicine, but we have also given funding to mental health helplines and other services to try to give broader emotional and wellbeing support, which will continue to be important in the period to come.

My final point is about employers, although it will not apply to every single situation. Often, shielded people will not be ill or suffering symptoms, and they will still be able to work. I make an appeal to employers: if somebody is shielded, that does not necessarily mean that they cannot work. If they can work from home, employers should encourage and support them to do so, and I know that many employers will already be doing that.

I know people who are in the shielded category and I know how difficult the experience is. Moving from a blanket approach to a much more tailored approach is really important, but I hope that people understand that we are talking about people’s lives. The greater complexity involved means that it is all the more important that we apply real care, attention and consideration to the issues involved.

People with No Recourse to Public Funds

Last week, the Prime Minister expressed shock that people with no recourse to public funds cannot access financial support. It was not a shock to many, including the Kurdish development association in Glasgow which contacted me recently. The association told me of the impact of the rule on many Glasgow residents, including many who have temporary leave to remain and who have lived and worked in the United Kingdom for a number of years, and yet who have been forced into destitution due to their immigration status and the impact of Covid-19.

Now that the Prime Minister has been made aware of the situation, does the First Minister agree that he must ensure that the UK Government takes decisive action to support those who are affected by that dreadful immigration rule?

Yes, I agree very strongly. I find it inexplicable that any member of Parliament or member of the Scottish Parliament could be unaware of the issues that are created by not having recourse to public funds. In my constituency—the same will be true in Bob Doris’s constituency—those issues cross my desk and arrive in my constituency mailbag every single day. They are real issues for very many people.

For a number of years, and over the course of the pandemic, the Scottish Government has consistently raised the issue with the Home Office. Now that the Prime Minister has realised that there are people who face destitution and hardship because they cannot access much-needed support, I hope that that appalling policy will be reversed.

At this time of crisis, in particular, people who have come to the UK to work, study or be with their families, or because they need a place of safety, must be appropriately supported as restrictions are lifted, so that they can be safe and wider public health can be protected. That is absolutely essential if we are to ensure that our communities and economy can recover from this unprecedented situation. I very much hope that we will see a change of policy from the UK Government soon.

Education (Home Learning)

Although I pay tribute to all teachers who have risen to the challenge of putting in place new ways of working during the pandemic, figures compiled by Fife Council show that 20 per cent of primary school pupils and 40 per cent of secondary school pupils had not engaged with home learning by the end of May.

Clearly, missing months of schooling will set those children back significantly in comparison with their peers. What further, urgent support with the Scottish Government provide to reduce barriers to pupil engagement?

That is an important issue. None of us wants to see young people lose out on education or to be out of school for any longer than is necessary. That is why the most important strand of work in that area, which is being led by the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, is that of getting our schools open again as quickly as possible and in a safe and phased way. In our judgment, that will happen on the date that we have set, which is 11 August.

We will also look to increase the number of children who can access critical childcare through the hub system that has been in place throughout the crisis. During June, we also hope to provide transition support for pupils who are going into primary school or moving from primary school to secondary school.

The point about support for home learning is important. When I set out the route map in the chamber a couple of weeks ago, I announced additional funding for electronic devices for young people in deprived areas, to make sure that they are not losing out in that way. Working with teachers and parents, we will pursue a range of other ways to ensure that home learning is a good and worthwhile experience for young people while it is still required.

I pay tribute to teachers and parents across the country for the really good work that they have been doing in very challenging circumstances.

I also thank young people themselves. This has been an incredibly difficult experience for all of them, but I think they have all responded to it magnificently well.

New Lanark Trust

As many members will know, New Lanark is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—UNESCO—world heritage site. All partners and parties need to work together to ensure that it has a sustainable future, embedded in the values of co-operation for which it is known worldwide, while recognising the importance of connecting with the local community.

What advice and financial support is the Scottish Government offering to the New Lanark Trust in light of the reported precarious financial situation that it is in, which has been compounded by challenges of Covid-19, and noting the concerning recent announcement of a formal consultation process regarding a significant number of redundancies?

New Lanark is a truly wonderful place. It is a credit to Scottish ingenuity, it is a jewel in the crown of our tourism industry and we all want it to flourish in the period to come.

A couple of weeks ago I answered a question about the National Trust for Scotland, and the New Lanark Trust, like many other organisations, is facing considerable challenges as a result of the present crisis. The Scottish Government will work with organisations as far as we can, providing them with advice and, where possible, support to help them cope with and get through the immediate impact of the crisis so that they can look forward to a future when they can continue to grow and thrive again.

I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government to correspond with the member more specifically on the New Lanark Trust to see what conversations we can have and what advice we can offer, given its specific circumstances. We all want such organisations to come through the pandemic and to go from strength to strength once again.

National Care Service

During yesterday’s health debate, at least three of us from three different parties spoke in favour of establishing a national care service, discussing the need for a refocus on not-for-profit care. I would be interested to know what the First Minister thinks about having a national care service and how she thinks we could progress that idea collectively and constructively across the Parliament.

I read the Official Report of yesterday’s debate and I saw the comments that were made. I have huge sympathy with the idea. Without going into all of the detail, for reasons that I will talk about, I think that it is an example of how we need to be prepared to rethink old ways of doing things and to contemplate new and potentially better ways. I hope that there might be some cross-party willingness to examine the idea of a national care service. There are huge complexities and challenges associated with the idea, and none of us should underplay those, but there is a range of ways in which we will want to rethink how we have done things in the past.

I am very happy—and, indeed, keen and anxious—to engage in a more detailed way in this debate and in other similar debates in the future. Right now, of course, my main focus is on getting through the crisis and dealing with the issues and the steps that we must take in order to do that, but I pay tribute to Angela Constance and others for even putting these things on the agenda at this stage.

I think that we should agree on and unite behind the idea that, although this crisis is not one that any of us would in any way have wished to experience, it offers an opportunity for us to think about doing things differently, and we should grasp that opportunity with both hands.

Shetland Economy (Redundancies)

There are 49 jobs at risk at the Moorfield hotel, following plans by the oil company Total to move accommodation for its workers at the Shetland gas plant from the Moorfield to the Sella Ness accommodation facility. That is another devastating blow for the Shetland economy, especially in the north Mainland, which has already been hit hard this year with the closure of Scatsta airport and other redundancies at the Sullom Voe oil terminal. What can the Scottish Government do to prevent those job losses and to help those people who are facing redundancy at this worrying time?

I thank Beatrice Wishart for raising what I know is a very important issue that is particular to the Shetland Islands but also general in terms of the impact across Scotland. I will ask the economy secretary to correspond with her about the Moorfield hotel to see whether we can bring to bear any advice or help.

We know that the hotel sector and, more generally, the tourism sector have been very hard hit by the crisis. As we come out of lockdown, and particularly as we look at how we get the economy going and support our economy to recover, ensuring that we provide tailored and appropriate support to the tourism sector will be very important.

I chair an economy sub-committee of the Cabinet every Friday morning and, last Friday morning, Fergus Ewing led a discussion on the tourism sector, in particular. Obviously, different issues are involved in that, but they are very much at the forefront of our minds and they will continue to be as we go through the weeks and months to come.

I will ask the economy secretary to have further discussions with Beatrice Wishart on the particular issue on the Shetland Islands.

Best Start Grant

At this time, many parents are struggling to get through the week. That will particularly be the case when their kids start to go back to school, so the best start grant provides a fantastic opportunity for them. What is the Scottish Government doing to encourage parents whose children will be returning to school to apply for the best start grant?

I encourage parents to apply, and we will take all the steps that we can to ensure that parents who are eligible for the best start grant are aware of it and apply for it, because it provides critical help and support for parents at key stages of their children’s lives. That is important at all times but, for obvious reasons, it is particularly important now.

I encourage all members from across the chamber to do whatever they can to ensure that the best start grant is known to their constituents and to encourage those who are eligible to apply for it. We will consider how we can raise awareness and market the importance of the best start grant as widely as possible.

Grandparents (Childcare Duties)

The new guidelines that were issued for childminders who are returning to work state that they can take children from four separate households. The Scottish Government has yet to issue guidelines on grandparents who are responsible for the childcare of their grandchildren. Many grandparents are below the age of those in the shielded category and without underlying health conditions. Will the First Minister outline today when they can return to their duties, particularly given the fact that, in most cases, they will be taking children from only one other household, which creates a lower risk than there is for childminders?

No, I will not outline that today. It would not be responsible of me to do so, because we have to consider all these things carefully. Notwithstanding my earlier comments about the shielded group, I appreciate that, although to some extent we have to consider these things in a general way, there will be different circumstances within that.

I know that not all grandparents are over 70—in fact, I know some grandparents very close to me who are not over 70, and they would want me to point that out. However, it is the case that, generally, older people are more at risk from the virus than the general population, and we cannot simply ignore that.

With grandparents perhaps more so than with childminders—although I know that this will also be a factor for them—there is the issue of keeping physical distancing. Not having a grandchild hug their grandparent is very difficult.

We are thinking about those things very carefully and cautiously. I know how difficult all the arrangements are for people, but they are all about trying to keep people as safe as possible. I will not depart from that careful and cautious way of making decisions. As we go through the route map, we will try to accelerate things when we can, but at all stages we will keep in mind the driving imperative of suppressing the virus overall and protecting those who are most at risk.

Charities (Financial Support)

I draw the chamber’s attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

This week, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations reported that half of all Scottish charities will run out of cash in six months and fear closure. Many—perhaps most—have been unable to access crisis funds. How will the First Minister respond to that cry for help from a critical sector?

I absolutely understand how critical the sector is. As we all do, I deeply value the contribution that it makes. I know how much poorer a country Scotland would be without that contribution, so I desperately want charities to be able to get through the crisis and to flourish at the other end of it. I give an assurance that the Scottish Government will do everything that we can to support them. I am not going to insult anyone’s intelligence; I cannot stand here and give a blanket assurance that we will be able to solve every financial problem for every single charity. I think that people understand that. However, we will do everything that we can, as we always have done, working with the sector, to provide as much support as we can. We have provided some support already during this crisis.

Also—and I am not trying to let the Government off the hook; we have a key responsibility here—every single one of us, as an individual, has a part that we can play. Most of us will have—now or at some point in our lives—a charity to which we are particularly close and to which we donate. Every citizen across the country can perhaps think about making a donation, if they are able to do so, to a charity that means a lot to them or that they want to support. If we all do that, it will not take away the responsibility of Government but it will be another example of our coming together as a country to try to protect what matters most to all of us.

Collecting Students (Guidance)

In light of the move into phase 1 of the transition out of lockdown, will the First Minister say whether new guidance will be issued to allow parents to collect their student children and take them back to the family home? I have had many emails from worried parents and stranded students who are concerned that communal living and the lack of job opportunities over the summer will put students at risk from Covid infection, mental health issues and a limited income or no funds.

It is important that I declare an interest: my son is studying at Edinburgh Napier University, so I feel that anxiety keenly myself.

I think that Gillian Martin’s anxiety is well understood. I am sure that parents across the country will very much relate to it at this time.

It is an important issue, and I assure the member that the Scottish Government is considering it carefully. Given the proximity to the end of the academic year, with associated leases ending, the collection of students’ belongings and travel home from accommodation are matters that we are considering in the context of the framework for decision making. We will issue revised guidance, as appropriate, as soon as possible.

I want people to be aware that, in trying to deal with that issue—and generally, to some extent—we understand the multitude of different circumstances and detailed issues that are at stake. As we go further through this crisis, we will try to take account of and respond to as many of those issues as we can, while staying consistent, as we must do, with the imperative of keeping the virus under control.

That concludes First Minister’s question time. I apologise to the members in the chamber and joining us virtually whom we could not accommodate.

Parliamentary business will resume at 2.30 with a statement on Brexit.

13:32 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—