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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 05 October 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Covid-19 Recovery Strategy, Health and Social Care (Winter Planning), Environment Bill, Urgent Question, Covid-19 Regulations (Scrutiny Protocol), Decision Time, Big Noise Programme (Wester Hailes), Correction


Contents


Covid-19

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on Covid-19. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:18  

I will give a further update on the latest Covid situation. I will provide an assessment of the current course of the pandemic in Scotland and, in light of that, confirm that there will be no immediate changes this week to the remaining, albeit fairly limited, Covid regulations that remain in force. I will then give a reminder of the new arrangements for international travel, which took effect yesterday. Finally, I will provide an update on the implementation of the Covid vaccination certification scheme so far, including the progress that has been made in resolving the initial difficulties that many people experienced in accessing the Covid status app at the end of last week.

First, I will report on today’s statistics. There were 2,056 positive cases reported yesterday—10.3 per cent of tests carried out. There are 998 people in hospital with Covid, which is three fewer than yesterday, and 65 people are receiving intensive care, which is two fewer than yesterday. Sadly, though, a further 21 deaths have been reported in the past 24 hours. That takes the total number of deaths registered under the daily definition to 8,687. My condolences, yet again, go to everyone who has lost a loved one.

More positively, the vaccination programme continues apace and is making good progress: 4,223,719 people have received a first dose so far and 3,849,656 people have now had both doses, which means that they are fully vaccinated. In total, 92 per cent of the over-18 population is now fully vaccinated with two doses. That includes 96 per cent of the over 40s, 75 per cent of 30 to 39-year-olds and 64 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds.

In addition, so far, 72 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds and 26 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds have had a first dose. For most people in those age groups, only a single dose is currently recommended. Most 12 to 15-year-olds became eligible for the vaccine only two weeks ago, and appointment letters were sent out to them last week, so the fact that more than a quarter of people in that age group have already received the vaccine is highly encouraging.

I again encourage all 12 to 15-year-olds and their parents and carers to read the online information about vaccination, so that they can take an informed decision about getting the jag. I remind them that there is also the option of asking further questions when they attend an appointment; I encourage anyone with concerns to do so. I am confident that our experienced vaccinators will be able to answer any questions and address any concerns.

As I indicated last week, the programme of booster vaccinations is also under way. People over 70 and people on the highest-risk list are now receiving booster jags. People on the highest-risk list who are immunosuppressed or immunocompromised are being invited separately for a third dose.

This weekly update coincides with the latest three-week review point for the remaining Covid regulations. As I indicated earlier, I can confirm that, at our meeting earlier today, the Cabinet agreed to keep the current regulations in force, with no immediate change.

That decision reflects two things. First, the number of cases is continuing to fall, so our judgment is that there is no need to introduce tighter restrictions. Secondly, the level of infection, although it is falling, remains relatively high and we consider that it is prudent at this stage, as we approach winter, to keep in place the remaining mitigations, such as face coverings, for a further period.

I will give a bit more detail about the trends that we are seeing in cases and the associated impacts. In the past seven days, the number of cases has reduced by more than a fifth. The number of cases is now more than 60 per cent lower than it was at the peak of this latest wave of infection, back in early September.

Although there are daily fluctuations, the trend in test positivity is also firmly downwards—from a peak of more than 13 per cent in late August to just over 8 per cent now.

Significantly and positively, the fall in cases continues to be apparent across all age groups. The most significant decline this week, again, has been among 15 to 24-year-olds. Cases in that age group have fallen by almost 40 per cent in the past seven days and by more than 80 per cent in the past five weeks.

It is worth highlighting that in the 0 to 14-year-old age group, which currently accounts for almost 30 per cent of all new cases, there has been a reduction of more than a fifth in the past week and of more than a half in the past three weeks. That is important, because although children are much less likely than older people to fall seriously ill from Covid, they can fall ill and they can and do pass on the infection to others, who might be more vulnerable to serious illness. Therefore the reduction is positive, although we should continue to guard against complacency.

The advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues is meeting this afternoon and will consider the mitigations that are currently in place in schools, including the requirement to wear face coverings in class. It may well be that the group recommends keeping the current mitigations in place for longer, given the risks of the winter period. However, should it advise that any easing is possible following the October half term, the Government will consider that carefully and will advise schools of any changes as soon as possible.

I speculated last week that the recent fall in cases is likely to have been driven by two factors, which remains our view this week. The first factor is increasing immunity as a result of high vaccination rates and, albeit to a lesser extent, because of infection with the virus. That underlines again the critical importance of all of us getting vaccinated if we are eligible, which includes getting a booster jag when invited.

The second factor is our individual and collective behaviour. I again thank everyone who has taken extra care in recent weeks in an attempt to stop and then reverse the spike in cases. That includes the many businesses and other organisations that are continuing to implement and promote the basic mitigation measures that are still in place, such as face coverings, hand hygiene, good ventilation and—where possible—continued home working.

I am relieved to report that the significant and sustained fall in cases over recent weeks is feeding through into a fall in hospital admissions. In the second week of September, an average of 150 people a day were being admitted to hospital with Covid. That number has now fallen by more than a third—at this point, fewer than 100 people a day are being admitted to hospital with Covid.

As a result of the fall in hospital admissions, we are seeing a decline in hospital occupancy—the overall number of Covid patients in hospital at any given time. Two weeks ago, 1,107 patients were in hospital with the virus. Last week, the figure was 1,026, and today it is 998. In that time, the number of people in intensive care has also fallen—from 94 to 65.

Given that case numbers continue to fall, we hope and expect that the number of people in hospital will decline further and that the rate of decline will pick up pace. We also expect and very much hope that the number of people dying from Covid will reduce, given the reduction in cases in recent weeks.

All of that is positive and I am sure that it is a great relief to all of us. However, the number of people in hospital with Covid is still higher now than it was in late August. The pressure on our national health service remains intense. NHS staff continue to deal with the combined challenge of caring for significant numbers of Covid patients, preparing for wider winter pressures and dealing with the backlog of care that has built up during the pandemic months.

As we head further into autumn and then winter, we know that people will meet indoors more often or travel by public transport rather than walk, for example, which will create the conditions for the virus to circulate. There is a risk that that will lead to a further rise in cases over the winter, which would put further pressure on the NHS.

For all the improvement that we have seen and collectively helped to achieve, at least until we are well through the winter, we must remember that the overall position remains fragile and potentially very challenging. That is why we continue to stress the importance of taking basic precautions, such as having good ventilation, wearing face coverings and keeping a safe distance from others if possible.

It is vital that we all continue to be mindful of the virus and its likely presence around us as we go about our everyday lives and, in light of that, that we continue to behave in sensible ways that reduce Covid’s ability to spread from person to person. Notwithstanding the welcome fact that we are all living lives that are much more normal than was the case this time last year or even earlier this year, if we all continue to take the sensible precautions, we will stand a much better chance of keeping under control the number of cases and the associated pressure on the NHS, even as winter conditions kick in.

I will briefly cover two further issues. The first is international travel. Proportionate travel restrictions will continue to be an important baseline measure to protect against Covid. They help to reduce the risk of people coming into Scotland with the virus and they help us to identify quickly any new variants of the virus. However, just as we have worked hard to get domestic life back to normal as much as possible, so too do we want—in an appropriately careful way—to bring greater normality back to international travel.

Yesterday, the arrangements for international travel changed in Scotland and across the UK. The green and amber lists have now been merged, which means that there are now only two categories of country: those on the so-called red list, which are, of course, the highest-risk countries at any given time, and all other countries.

Passengers who are travelling from countries that are not on the red list and who can show that they have been fully vaccinated or who are under the age of 18 no longer need to provide proof of a negative test result before they travel to Scotland. In addition, 18 countries, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have been added to the list of countries whose vaccination programmes are recognised for the purposes of travel to the UK.

It is important to note that despite the change of position on pre-departure testing, at this stage there is still a requirement for passengers to take a Covid test on the second day after their arrival here. That test must meet very high sensitivity standards, which means that in practice it is likely to be a polymerase chain reaction test. We are working with the UK Government on possible future changes to the position on post-arrival testing, but for now it remains the case that people arriving in Scotland from outside the UK must take a PCR—or equivalent—test on day 2 after their arrival here.

We will continue to work with the UK Government, the other devolved Governments and the travel sector to ensure that the position on international travel is proportionate in helping us to guard against new variants and, as far as possible, consistent across the four nations of the UK.

The final issue that I want to cover today is the Covid vaccination certification scheme. The scheme came into force, as planned, at 5 am on Friday 1 October, although, as I set out last week, the enforcement provisions will not come into effect until 18 October.

I am grateful to all the businesses, organisations and individuals who are working to implement the scheme. The app, which we can opt to use to show evidence of our vaccination status, became available for download last Thursday afternoon. I am well aware that initially many people found it extremely difficult to use the app. In particular, many people found that the app was unable to locate their vaccination record from the information that they provided. The problem was especially acute over Thursday evening and Friday, which caused extreme frustration for users who wanted to download the app as quickly as possible, and for businesses and events organisers who were planning to test their certification arrangements over the weekend. I apologise for that.

The problem was not with the app itself but with the NHS systems to which it links. Essentially, the high level of demand after the launch of the app, combined with an error in one part of the NHS system, meant that information was not being sent quickly enough from the NHS system to the app. For a period, that also caused problems for people who were requesting paper copies of vaccination certificates or who were seeking to download a certificate in portable document format.

However, improvements to remedy the problem were made to the NHS system on Friday evening. I can report that the initial backlog of people who were waiting for their information to be matched had been cleared by Saturday lunchtime. We will continue to monitor the performance of the app.

We will also continue to engage with businesses and sectors that are subject to the requirement for Covid vaccination certification. For example, in relation to football fixtures that were held last weekend, although they had agreed that no fan would be turned away if they were unable to provide evidence of their vaccination status, both Heart of Midlothian Football Club and Rangers Football Club tested their certification arrangements and managed to check about 20 per cent of their crowds. Yesterday, Scottish Government officials met those clubs, together with Aberdeen Football Club, Celtic Football Club, Hibernian Football Club and the managers of Hampden Park stadium to consider and learn lessons from those weekend experiences. We are also continuing to engage with the other sectors that are required to implement certification.

In the Scottish Government’s view, Covid vaccination certification remains a proportionate way of encouraging people to get vaccinated and of helping large events and night-time hospitality to keep operating during a potentially difficult winter. The scheme is now operational, and the provisions are in place that require businesses to keep data safe and to use it only for certification.

People are now able to access and use the proof that is required. In addition to getting the app, as many people now have been able to do, it is also possible to download a PDF or to order a paper copy of a vaccination record from the NHS Inform website. Those will continue to be options for anyone who is not willing or able to use the app.

As indicated last week, the first two weeks of the scheme will, in effect, be a grace period in relation to enforcement, while businesses and users become accustomed to the new rules.

However, during that period, we expect businesses to implement and test their approach to certification and to prepare compliance plans so that they are fully prepared by 18 October. At that point, the regulations will become enforceable by local authority officers. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, those officers will use what is called the four Es approach. They will engage, explain, encourage and then, only if those options are exhausted, enforce. In fact, their engagement work has already started. In the days and weeks ahead, the Scottish Government will also continue to engage with businesses that are subject to the certification scheme; I remain grateful to them for everything that they are doing to help to ensure that it works effectively.

My final point is addressed to individuals, rather than to businesses. At some point in the coming months, many of us will want to attend a concert, go to a big football or rugby match, or visit a nightclub or other late-night venue. Therefore, I encourage everyone to get a copy of their vaccination record as soon as they can, either through the app, or by getting a PDF or paper copy from NHS Inform. I know that the early experience of the app was not good, but it works well now, and the alternative options continue to be available.

Overall, the position that we are in now is much better than we feared it might be, this time last month. In the past four weeks, cases have more than halved, and the number of people in hospital and intensive care is also now starting to decline. The efforts that have been made by so many people, over the past month in particular, to step up compliance with mitigations and to drive up vaccination rates seem to be working. However, as we head into autumn and winter, we have no room for complacency. Case numbers are still high—each week, hundreds of people are being admitted to hospital with Covid—and the NHS is still under pressure. We must seek to maintain the progress of the past few weeks, and we all have a part to play in doing so.

As usual, I will close with a reminder of the three things that we can all do to help to protect one other. First, please get vaccinated if you are eligible and have not yet done so. That remains the most important thing that anybody can do.

Secondly, please test regularly with lateral flow devices. They can be ordered through the NHS Inform website, or collected from a local test site or pharmacy. If you test positive, or are identified as a close contact or have symptoms, please self-isolate and book a PCR test.

Thirdly, please comply with the mitigations that are still in place. Wear face coverings in indoor public places such as shops, on public transport and when moving about in hospitality settings. Wash your hands and surfaces thoroughly and regularly. Meet outdoors if you can, although we know that doing so is getting increasingly difficult.

When you meet indoors, open windows if you can, and try to keep a safe distance from people from other households. All those precautions still really matter—we can see that from the data that are being reported each day. Taking those precautions will help to protect you, other people and, crucially, our national health service.

I ask everybody to stick with it, in order to get case numbers down even further.

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow about 40 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. Members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak button.

I will start with a positive: it is really encouraging to see case numbers and hospital and intensive care admissions falling. However, the positive direction of travel that we are seeing, which the First Minister announced in her statement, raises even more questions about the justification for the Scottish National Party’s vaccination passport scheme. The scheme has been an utter shambles from day 1.

The app was delayed and came into force less than 12 hours before the scheme began. It was instantly a disaster. People could not find the app, or get it to open, and there were issues with facial recognition. Even when people completed—[Interruption.]

The Minister for Transport is waving his phone showing the app, from the back of the chamber. On Thursday, others did the same, and were embarrassed a few hours later by the chaotic scenes that we saw. People are messaging now to say that they are putting in all their details correctly, but they cannot get their vaccination passport up on the app. Days on, there continue to be issues.

There is no public information campaign, and businesses had absolutely no idea what they were supposed to do. We then had farcical scenes as one football club after another across Scotland said that they would not refuse fans entry because so many spectators had had problems with the scheme. What an avoidable own goal that was.

In her statement today, what did the First Minister say? She said that the “scheme came into force, as planned”. It turns out that Nicola Sturgeon planned for this chaos. She planned for hundreds of thousands of people to try to download an app and fail; she planned for Scottish football clubs to ignore it; she planned for businesses to be up in arms; and she planned for a scheme that was a shambles on day 1.

It seems that the Government did not foresee the high demand for an app that it wanted everyone who goes to gigs, football matches and nightclubs to download. Did it really not foresee the demand?

As the First Minster just about acknowledged in her statement, the issue was not just about demand; there was an error with the system. Now she talks about a new approach: the four Es. We do not need four Es to describe the scheme; we need only one: embarrassment. It has been a complete and utter embarrassment.

Can the First Minister tell us, when the Government paid £600,000 of taxpayers’ money to a Danish app developer, how many people were expected to try to download the app? How many people tried but failed to download the app? To return to the same question that I asked just hours before the scheme went live last week, will the First Minister now accept that the scheme was not ready to be launched and should have been delayed? Is it not about time that she listened to businesses and scrapped it altogether?

Before I address all the questions that Douglas Ross has asked, I will pick up one of the points that he made. If he thinks that the four Es is a new approach, the only question that that begs is this: where has he been for the past 18 months? The police and environmental health officers have been using that approach day in, day out in relation to all the regulations that have been in place. He might just want to haver reflected a little bit on that before he poses his questions.

I will now deal with the substantive points. It is the case that we now have an extremely positive trend in terms of cases and all the associated impacts on hospital admissions, occupancy and intensive care that flow from Covid cases, and I hope that we will start to see a reduction in the number of people dying. That is really positive.

When I was standing here a month or even three weeks ago, I would not have been entirely confident that we would be in this position. I understand that people will look at the situation and ask why we need any mitigations or restrictions to keep cases under control. That is not an illegitimate question, but the answer is very clear. We do not know—no country does—what pressure we will be under from Covid this coming winter.

This will not be the first winter that we have lived through this pandemic, but it will be the first winter in which Covid will be circulating and there will be no lockdown restrictions in place in terms of our everyday lives. I wish that this was not necessary but, in my view, it is prudent to have in place proportionate steps to give us the best possible chance of keeping cases under control—so that we do not have a health impact or people losing their lives or more pressure on the national health service—while keeping our economy fully open and trading.

That is why we are asking people to continue to wear face coverings and to do all the other basic things that are really tedious for everybody but still important. It is also why we consider—we are far from the only country in this position—that Covid certification has a part to play. We think it important to have that in place over the winter months.

Last week, the app did not work as we intended; there is no point in my trying to say anything different. I have tried to set out as clearly as possible the technical reasons for that. The situation is deeply regrettable. In essence, the issue was the linkage between the app and the NHS systems, and action has been taken to address and resolve that.

When we are in a position to do so, we will publish data around the app—the downloads, including the numbers of successful QR code downloads. However, the figure that we have—we rely on Google and Apple for some of the download information—is that, as of midnight on 3 October, almost 380,000 people had downloaded the app. We will continue to monitor the data and we will publish information as soon as we are in a position to do that robustly.

We will continue to make sure that we have those proportionate mitigations in place, because of what might happen if we do not. I reflect again on a point that I made last week: if I cast my mind back over these statements, going back probably for months now, almost every mitigation that we have put forward to try to keep cases under control has been opposed by Douglas Ross and the Conservatives. We are not in a position of being able to do nothing in the face of the virus over the winter, so we seek to do the most proportionate things possible. That is the action that we will continue to take.

I start by sending my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one to Covid. The Government’s vaccination passport roll-out is a “complete shambles”—those are not my words but the words of the people left to implement the chaotic scheme. Mike Grieve of the Night Time Industries Association said:

“Nobody knows what is going on, confusion reigns and we’re stuck with trying to enforce this on the streets.”

At the weekend, his venue was full to its capacity of 410, but only six of the people attending had the new vaccination app. It was a predictable disaster, and it is the consequence of an arrogant Government forcing through its ill-thought-through plans despite concerns from the public, public health experts and businesses. The promised app was rushed out at the last minute and crashed just minutes later.

There are also severe equality issues. The app requires a driving licence or passport. Almost a third of Scots adults do not have a driving licence and more than 20 per cent do not have a passport. That figure is likely to be higher in the very communities that have higher levels of vaccine hesitancy. That is not to mention the issues with digital exclusion, because people still need to go online to get the PDF file.

Now we discover that, when thousands of people descend on Glasgow for the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—they will not require a vaccination passport in order to attend. Instead, they will need to provide proof of a negative lateral flow test. The First Minister is making it up as she goes along, so will she either change or ditch the system?

We all want to increase vaccine uptake—that should be the focus—so we should be making it easier for people to get the vaccine. Does the First Minister agree that we should open more drop-in centres and mobile centres rather than closing them or reducing their hours?

As more and more people are vaccinated, health boards will of course change the configuration of the facilities that they have available. We will continue to ensure that facilities are available across the country to provide access that is as easy as possible to vaccination. I do not have today’s figures in front of me, but in the past few days, Scotland became the country of all four nations with the highest proportion of the adult population vaccinated.

The vaccination programme is a roaring success, but every person who remains unvaccinated is providing themselves with a vulnerability and adding to the overall vulnerability of the country. We will continue to take steps to get vaccination rates up as high as possible. Indeed, one of the reasons for vaccination certification is to provide an added incentive to get the vaccination rates as high as we can.

On the certification scheme, I have already made it clear that I do not consider the experience of the launch of the app last week to be remotely satisfactory. We have taken action to resolve the initial problems, the app is working well and we will continue to monitor it. The reason why we decided to leave a two-week gap between the legal requirement coming into force as planned, at 5 am on Friday, and enforcement was to give individuals and businesses the ability to test arrangements and get used to the rules.

We have taken the equity issues extremely seriously. That is why we have an alternative to the app for people who do not want to use it—as some will not—or people who are unable to use it because they are among those who do not have a passport or driving licence. Those people can request a paper copy or download a PDF file. It is important that we continue to have those alternatives in place, and they will be in place for anybody who needs them.

On COP26, we are working with the United Kingdom Government and the United Nations on the overall mitigations in place around the event. There are arrangements on testing and other mitigations that people who are attending COP26 will be required to comply with. We are co-operating with others on those arrangements, and I know that all of us, for all sorts of reasons, want COP26 to be a success.

The First Minister told Douglas Ross that many other countries are adopting vaccination certification. However, as we learned last week, Scotland is the only country in the whole of Europe to do so in isolation without the alternative of a lateral flow test verification.

Last week, the Information Commissioner said that trust is key to the success of vaccination certification and that people should be able

“to enjoy a night out ... without wondering if their data is at risk.”

Well, what little confidence existed crumbled on Thursday night. The launch was shambolic. Thousands of attempts to access Covid identification cards hit the buffers.

I warned that the Government’s information technology system would not be up to the job when the First Minister first unveiled the scheme. The Government has seen a litany of tech problems since before the crisis and, once again, it cannot even get the very basics right. Is the First Minister confident that the scheme enjoys public trust? Is there finally clear and practical guidance to support the venues that are required to carry out the checks in accordance with the Information Commissioner’s ruling?

We have guidance in place for the sectors that are required to do Covid vaccination certification. As I said last week, and as I have said again today, the reason why we left the two-week gap between the introduction of the scheme and the enforcement provisions coming into force was to allow for testing and for the guidance to be properly applied and understood by the businesses that are required to undertake that.

I accept the point that Alex Cole-Hamilton made about public confidence, which is why the early experience of the app was deeply regrettable. However, it was also important for us to quickly rectify that and continue to take steps to ensure that we monitor and rectify any issues that arise.

After 18 months of the pandemic, I do not think that the public particularly wants there to be any restrictions in place. However, equally, from the interaction that I have had with people, it is my view that there is a pragmatic understanding on the part of the majority of the public that we cannot simply bury our heads in the sand over the virus as we go into winter and, if we want to live as normally as possible while keeping the virus under control, we have to accept some compromises. In my experience, most people accept Covid vaccination certification. Actually, in some of the media coverage on Thursday and into Friday, the people who were doing interviews and vox pops were pragmatic about the acceptance of showing vaccination status as an alternative to some of the more restrictive options.

None of us wants to be in this position. I wish—possibly more than most in the chamber—that we could just wash our hands of the virus and stop having to consider any of this or having to deal with the headaches and teething problems with the things that we have to introduce. We are doing this to try to get through the winter with Covid kept under control and the economy and our lives operating as normally as possible. Is that easy every single day for anybody? No, it is not, but I am afraid that it is essential while the virus continues to circulate.

The furlough scheme has helped us through Covid, and yet Covid continues and the furlough scheme has stopped. What are the First Minister’s impressions of how that will impact on Scottish workers?

I have significant concerns about that. I know that I am not alone in the chamber in being concerned about the impact of the withdrawal of furlough while the pandemic and what we are having to do to control it are still having an impact on the economy and on businesses and workers more generally. In the weeks and months to come, we will need to see exactly what that impact is. I expect that there will be an impact in terms of jobs lost. Of course, we also have acute labour shortages across our economy.

The Scottish Government is anxious to make sure that, through Skills Development Scotland and the other work that we do on employability, we match available skills with job vacancies. However, we are going into an uncertain period in terms of employment, labour shortages and the overall impact on the economy. It would have been preferable if furlough had remained in place for longer, but that decision was not made by the Scottish Government.

In her statement, the First Minister mentioned the issue of face coverings in schools. Constituents who are parents have asked me why their children must continue wearing face masks in schools, even when they are seated at their desks, when they saw on social media at the weekend the First Minister and many of her colleagues meeting members of the public in this building but not wearing face coverings or exercising any social distancing. The question that they are asking is this: is there one rule for their children and a different one for the First Minister and her colleagues?

No, there is not, and I think that people know that. I was delighted that many of Murdo Fraser’s colleagues introduced me to their guests here on Saturday. There were moments when photographs were being taken in the building when face coverings were not on, but that does not mean that the rules apply to one person but not to another.

I do not want us to be in a position of having to wear face coverings for longer than is necessary and I certainly do not want to ask anyone else to do that, but that brings us back to the central point. We cannot pretend that the virus does not exist, so what are the proportionate and least restrictive measures that we can take to keep it under control?

Murdo Fraser is perhaps making for me the point that I made to Douglas Ross: we know what the Conservatives do not want us to do regarding mitigations; what we do not hear is how they think that we should keep the virus under control over the winter.

Many of us have school-age relatives and friends. If there was any setting that I would like to have as the first where we lift the requirement to wear face coverings, it would be the classroom, because the requirement is far from ideal for young people. However, we have to take advice and listen to that. The advisory sub-group is meeting this afternoon and we await its latest advice, which we will share with Parliament in due course.

The First Minister said in her statement that the over-70s are now receiving booster jags. Will she clarify whether the timing of that booster is dependent on when a person received their second vaccine? Might people be offered the booster and the flu jag in one visit?

That will happen where possible. I know some people who are already in that category and will get their booster vaccine and their flu jag in the same visit.

There is a recommended time gap between the second vaccine and the booster, which the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation set out in its advice. If memory serves me correctly, the gap should be six months. That will guide the timing of booster vaccinations, which is why someone in my age group will wait longer for the booster vaccination than someone in my parents’ age group.

Those vaccinations are under way. Health and care staff, those over 70 and those in the highest-risk group are being given booster vaccinations first and we will then work through the rest of the recommended population in the order in which they got their initial vaccination, in order to take account of the recommended time gap.

A number of health boards, including NHS Lanarkshire and NHS Dumfries and Galloway, do not currently have any drop-in clinics for Covid vaccinations and have returned to an appointment system. That is at a time when the Government has said that it wants to boost the number of young people being vaccinated. Is the First Minister concerned that those decisions, which are no doubt due to staff shortages, will have an impact on the quick roll-out of the booster and flu vaccination programme this autumn and winter?

Those are important issues, but I stress that, as we get to the very high uptake levels that we are seeing now, decisions that individual health boards take about the best way to deliver vaccinations are not driven by staff shortages, but driven by consideration of the most effective use of resources. When we reach a point, as we have with many age groups, where relatively small numbers of people are not yet vaccinated, drop-in clinics that are open all day may not be the most effective way to reach those people. Offering appointments can be more effective. In bigger health board areas, there will be a different consideration. The issue is about recognising the progress that has been made, the current situation and how health boards are best placed to reach those who are not yet vaccinated.

The percentages are small, but within those percentages there are still lots of people whom we want to reach. Given their different geographies, it is therefore important that we allow health boards to exercise some judgment and discretion about how best to reach those people. The health secretary stays close to those discussions with all health boards.

What data does the Scottish Government have about the level of public compliance with the mandatory wearing of face coverings in indoor public places and on public transport?

We carry out regular surveys of public opinion. In the most recent surveys, which take us up to the end of September, more than 80 per cent of respondents agreed that wearing a face covering was either very or fairly important and more than 90 per cent said that they were wearing face coverings when required to do so very or fairly often.

I think that that illustrates the point. I am sure that, if we asked people to say whether they like wearing face coverings, the numbers would be much, much lower, but I think that there is a pragmatic acceptance on the part of the public that certain mitigations are still required if we are to get through the next—and, we hope, final—phase of the pandemic over the winter. I think that those numbers on face coverings demonstrate that.

I have a constituent who recently wished to travel to Germany to see her family, but she was unable to get a vaccination passport and she feels discriminated against. Will the First Minister give the Parliament an update on the steps that the Scottish Government has taken to improve the transfer of data across international borders and enable people like my constituent, who received one vaccination in England and one in Scotland, to obtain proof of their vaccination status and access a vaccination passport?

I am happy to write to the member on the matter and put details in the Scottish Parliament information centre in order to keep my answer as brief as possible.

On the interoperability between England and Scotland, those issues have been addressed. We continue to add other countries. People from other countries can get proof of vaccination in their own country for use here. Obviously, I do not know the circumstances in which the member’s constituent was unable to get a Covid vaccination passport, but if she passes the details to me, I will be happy to have that looked into. I also undertake to set out and provide to the Scottish Parliament information centre the different categories of people—such as people who live here who have been vaccinated somewhere else, and visitors—and the current arrangements for them to access their vaccination status.

The First Minister might be aware that the United Dance Organisation’s European and world dance qualifiers will be held in November and December but Scottish dancers will not be able to take part. To date, my constituent Michelle Connelly, who is the designated organiser of the Scottish qualifiers, has been unable to secure a suitable venue as all the councils across central Scotland are telling her that the event would be outwith the current Covid guidance because it requires an attendance of up to 2,000 people.

I can send the First Minister’s office more information if required, but will she investigate the issue and ensure that appropriate guidance is issued to local authorities in order to allow our talented young people an opportunity to join their counterparts from countries around the globe and to represent Scotland on the world stage?

If Fulton MacGregor sends me details, I will be more than happy to look into that further and issue whatever guidance we may deem to be necessary as a result. I remind the Parliament, though, that there are currently no limits on the size of events that can take place in Scotland as a result of the Covid rules. Of course, events that are attended by more than a certain number of people—the number varies based on whether the event is indoors or outdoors—will be subject to Covid certification. However, I set out last week that, because of the introduction of Covid vaccination certification, the rules about events of a certain size needing permission were being removed, so there is no overall limit on the size of events that can take place.

Next week is the deadline for ventilation improvements in Scottish schools. Can the First Minister provide the Parliament with an update on how much of the funding that was allocated for those improvements has been spent? Will a report be produced on how it was spent? What measures are in place to monitor the effectiveness of the improvements that have been made?

The announcement of the £25 million fund to support small businesses to enhance ventilation—I think that we made that announcement at the end of September—has been warmly welcomed by a number of stakeholders, including the Federation of Small Businesses. Since making that announcement, we have been working with delivery partners, as I indicated that we would, to take forward the next steps. We recognise the importance of that work as we enter the winter months, when it might be less practical for businesses to keep windows and vents open.

We will set out further details of the grant and funding scheme and, of course, we will report on uptake and spend, as we have done for previous funding streams for businesses.

What reassurances can the Scottish Government provide for people with medical exemptions from the Covid-19 vaccine that they will be treated with dignity and respect as we transition to the full vaccine passport programme?

There is a very—I stress very—small number of people in Scotland who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. There may be people who believe that they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons but, actually, in very few cases will that turn out to be the case. However, medical exemptions allow those who cannot be vaccinated due to a health condition access to settings that would otherwise require vaccination, and people who are known to health boards to be in that category are being notified of that. Of course, over a period, it will also be possible for people who think that they are in that category but have not received that notification to apply for it.

It is important that people in that position are treated with kindness, dignity and understanding, but I want to stress again that there are very small numbers of people who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons.

I was recently contacted by a constituent who was a participant in the Novavax Covid vaccine trials. The vaccine is yet to be approved, but my constituent has been unable to access her vaccination status via the app and has not been issued with a QR code in her vaccination letter. Will the First Minister outline what support is available for trial participants, to ensure that they are not disadvantaged during the roll-out of the certification programme?

I think that I covered this in response to a question last week. Work is on-going to ensure that the vaccine status of those who volunteer for clinical trials is correctly presented on the vaccine database. A letter confirming someone’s involvement in a trial has been issued to those who participated in the trials, and any participants who have not yet received a letter should contact their respective research teams. That letter can be used for domestic purposes as proof of trial status.

Individuals who are travelling abroad will still need to meet the requirements of their destination country when travelling—for example, a negative pre-departure test, if that is the arrangement and if that is stated by the relevant country. However, I stress that those in Scotland who took part in a trial will not be disadvantaged. That would be deeply unfair, given the great service that they have done the rest of us. They should have had a letter. If they have not had one, they should contact their respective research teams.

The head of health intelligence for NHS Grampian commented last week that there has been a reduction in the use of lateral flow tests, with many people using those tests only once they have become symptomatic. What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that the public is aware of the clinical guidance on lateral flow tests and to encourage the uptake of that guidance?

We are taking a range of steps—as we have been for some time now—to encourage people to use lateral flow devices, ideally twice a week. There are particular groups that we give particular advice to, such as pupils and staff in secondary schools. Every time that I stand here, I remind people about the importance of using lateral flow devices. The importance of lateral flow device testing has featured in a lot of our marketing and advertising campaigns around Covid, and we will continue to encourage people to use those tests.

It stands to reason that, when cases rise, people are understandably more anxious and are possibly more likely to use the tests more and that, when cases fall again, there might be a tendency to fall away from doing that. That is why it is important for me, the Government and all of us to send the message that people should not drop their guard as cases continue to fall. It is still important that we do all of the things that we have been doing in order to prevent cases rising again, and testing ourselves with lateral flow devices is one important way of doing that.

This is on the back of Tess White’s question. Around one in three people with Covid-19 does not have symptoms but can still infect others. As we head into winter and face the likelihood of people gathering indoors, I am sure that the First Minister will want to reiterate how important it is that people take rapid lateral flow tests every three or four days to check for Covid-19 even if they do not have symptoms. Can she confirm that those tests will still remain free of charge in Scotland?

We absolutely intend that those tests will remain free of charge. They are an important part of our protection against Covid. Emma Harper is right in saying that a significant number of people who contract Covid will not display symptoms, and certainly not in the early part of their period of infection. That is why lateral flow tests are so important.

Our advice is to take a lateral flow test twice a week. In addition, I advise people to do that before they go somewhere or, if they forget to do it once or twice a week, definitely to do it if they are due to visit somebody or to go to a particular event. The other part of the advice is that anyone with a positive lateral flow test result should book a PCR test to get confirmation of that result and should, of course, isolate immediately.

It is really important that we continue to do these things over the winter. If we all follow all of that advice, we have the best chance of keeping cases on a downward track.

As Mr Sarwar mentioned, one third of Scots do not have a driving licence and a quarter of Scots do not have a passport. Given that those are integral to logging into the app, is there a potential digital exclusion issue with its design? Will the First Minister agree that that indicates design immaturity in the app and take steps to address that potential flaw in the system?

We have addressed the fact that not everybody will have a driving licence or passport and that, therefore, not everybody will be able to use the app. That is why we intend to continue to offer people the alternatives of ordering a paper copy of their vaccination status or downloading a PDF file—not just for a few days, but throughout this. Both of those things can be done without using the app at all. It is important that those alternatives are there and that people are aware of them.

We are all aware of how difficult things have been during the pandemic, with restrictions and the need for a good recovery. Businesses across my constituency are being impacted by the 7.5 per cent rise in value added tax that the United Kingdom Government imposed at the start of October. That is in addition to the pressures caused by rising wages and rising inflation. Indeed, as Douglas Ross said during First Minister’s question time last week:

“Businesses have never had a tougher time than right now”.—[Official Report, 30 September 2021; c 12.]

Given that many hospitality businesses in my constituency report that they did not experience the staycation bounce this year, does the First Minister agree that the members of the supposed party of business in this chamber should speak to their colleagues in London about the impact that those VAT changes are having on businesses in Scotland?

It would be good if, occasionally, the Scottish Conservatives raised any of those concerns with their counterparts in London. I am not convinced that their counterparts in London pay any attention to them, incidentally, but that is another matter altogether.

There is a serious issue at the heart of this. The Tories are, right now, raising taxes for businesses and individuals at a really difficult time for the economy, as we try to recover from the pandemic. As we know, Brexit has also caused acute labour shortages across our economy, which are making it difficult to get certain foodstuffs to supermarket shelves and for people to access fuel reliably.

Those problems will simply increase and get worse over the winter unless the UK Government really stops and thinks about the impact of its actions and comes up with solutions. All of us should be demanding that it comes up with those solutions—and quickly.

With reports this morning that police officers are now routinely filling in for ambulance crews by transporting patients to hospital, does the First Minister accept that this Government waited too long to tackle the crisis in the Scottish Ambulance Service?

The police are not routinely filling in for the Scottish Ambulance Service. [Interruption.] It has not asked the police to take patients to hospital. It may well be the case that, if a police officer comes across somebody who needs to go to hospital, they will opt to transfer them to hospital. I am not sure whether Alexander Stewart is suggesting that that should not be the case. However, that is not the result of a request from the Scottish Ambulance Service.

We face big challenges across our Ambulance Service and our national health service, just as do England, Wales, Northern Ireland and many countries around the world. We are taking action to respond to those challenges, and we are rightly and properly being robustly scrutinised on that, which I am sure will continue throughout the winter. However, let us not claim that things are happening across the country that are not happening.

Is the Scottish Government aware of reports of some families being prevented from travelling abroad because their teenage children might still test positive for Covid many weeks after their first positive test, despite no longer being infectious? With the school holiday period almost upon us, what can be done to remedy that situation?

We recognise the clinical reality that someone who has recently had Covid may continue to test positive for some time and that, depending on the rules in the countries to which they are travelling, that could prevent them from travelling. People therefore need to check the entry requirements of the countries that they are planning to visit before arranging a trip.

We consider on an on-going basis what we can do to ease the difficulties that are being caused by such issues. However, it is simply one of the features of Covid that people have to think about when they make decisions about travelling or, indeed, doing things here.

Earlier today, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee rejected the Government’s vaccination passport regulations on the basis that they were rammed through without proper parliamentary scrutiny. There was ample time in which to show Parliament the respect that it deserves and allow MSPs to scrutinise that deeply flawed scheme before it came into force. Given that a committee has now said, “Hold on a minute,” will the First Minister agree to rescind the regulations so that we MSPs can do our job?

No, I will not agree to do that. I will agree to follow the process that is in place for such an eventuality. I am sure that the member knows—I am convinced of it—that, in such circumstances, what has to happen is that, within 28 days, the regulations have to come for a decision of the whole Parliament. That is what will happen, and I am sure that all MSPs of all parties will fully and properly do their jobs.

Thank you. That concludes the First Minister’s statement on the Covid-19 update. There will be a short suspension before we move on to the next item of business.

15:15 Meeting suspended.  

15:17 On resuming—