Meeting of the Parliament
Meeting date: Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Agenda: One Minute’s Silence, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 3, Consumer Scotland Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- One Minute’s Silence
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Business Motion
- Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 3
- Consumer Scotland Bill
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Before we move to questions, the First Minister will make a brief statement.
Thank you for the opportunity to give a brief update on some of the key statistics in relation to Covid-19.
As at 9 o’clock this morning, there have been 12,709 positive cases confirmed, which is an increase of 272 since yesterday. A total of 1,632 patients are in hospital with confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19, which is a decrease of 24 from yesterday. Last night, a total of 89 people were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected cases of the virus, which is a decrease of 15 on yesterday. In the past 24 hours, 83 deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed as having Covid-19, which takes the total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement to 1,703.
The figures that I have provided are the most accurate figures that we can provide on a daily basis. They record all registered deaths where the individual had been tested and confirmed as having the virus. However, each Wednesday, National Records of Scotland produces a more detailed weekly report that includes not just deaths of people with a confirmed diagnosis but cases in which Covid-19 is entered on a death certificate as a suspected or contributory cause of death. The latest NRS report has just been published; it covers the period up to Sunday 3 May. I remind members that, at that point, according to our daily figures, 1,576 deaths had been registered of people who had tested positive. Today’s report shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to the virus, confirmed and presumed, was 2,795, 523 of which were registered in the seven days up to Sunday. That is a decrease of 135 from the week before. It is important to note that that is the first weekly reduction in Covid-19 deaths that we have seen since the first death related to the virus was registered.
Forty-nine per cent of all registered Covid-19 deaths occurred in hospital, 43 per cent occurred in care homes and 8 per cent occurred at home or in other settings. However, in the most recent week, 59 per cent of all deaths linked to the virus happened in care homes. Although that is a deeply distressing figure, it is nevertheless important to note that the number of deaths in care homes also reduced last week compared with the previous week.
Finally, the total number of deaths—although still significantly higher than the five-year average—also fell, which means that the number of what we refer to as “excess deaths” was lower this past week than in the previous one.
Eighty-three per cent of excess deaths had Covid-19 as their underlying cause. Hearing reports of any number of deaths is difficult and my thoughts are, as always, with all those who have been bereaved. I am acutely aware that trends in statistics in no way ease the pain of losing a loved one. However, in the broader fight against the virus, this week’s figures give us some hope. The number of deaths has reduced overall, as has the number of excess deaths and that of virus-related deaths, generally and in care homes.
Tomorrow, the Scottish Government must formally consider whether to continue the current restrictions for another three-week period. As I have indicated, our progress, although real, is still too fragile to immediately and significantly ease restrictions. We are now planning for ways in which we can gradually do so as soon as possible.
More detail on that process is set out in the paper that was published yesterday. However, the message remains clear: people must stay at home except for essential purposes and stay more than two meters from other people when they are out; they must not meet up with people from other households; they must wear a face covering if they are in a shop or on public transport and isolate completely if someone else in their household has symptoms.
If we all stick with those restrictions for a bit longer, I am sure that we will see more progress and bring forward the moment when we can ease some of them.
Coronavirus Reproduction Number
We have all learned in recent weeks about the R number—the reproduction rate of the coronavirus. This week, the Scottish Government suggested that, if it were to start ending lockdown, the R number would have to be less than 1 for a sustained period. It also said that a different approach for different areas—either in Scotland or in the rest of the United Kingdom—could be justified by Scotland having a meaningfully different R number.
Could that difference be from the figure in the rest of the UK, or could it be a regional difference from, say, the R number for the north of England? Would it be a statistical difference or more of a judgment by ministers? Can the First Minister confirm exactly what a meaningfully different R number looks like?
I appreciate that this is not the most helpful way to start answering the question, but it could be a mix of all those things. Yesterday, we published our best assessment of where the R number is right now—it is between 0.7 and 1. We also said that there is an indication that, right now, the number might be slightly higher in Scotland than it is in other parts of the UK, although there is a significant degree of uncertainty in that.
If that is the case, some common sense should be applied to that. Our first cases were confirmed later than those of the rest of the UK and we might be slightly behind the curve—perhaps only by a matter of days. The data that is used to make those assessments comes from the kind of statistics that I have just reported.
What the experts tell me is that there is not a particular set of numbers that we need to get to, but that we need to have more confidence than we have right now that the R number is significantly below 1, so that as we start to ease restrictions, it does to go above 1 very quickly.
I said yesterday that we have to be driven by the evidence, and I will stick to that approach entirely throughout this situation. I have to apply judgment to that evidence: if it tells us that it is too soon to lift any of the restrictions, we must follow that. If experiences differ either in different parts of the UK or in different parts of Scotland, we have to pay attention to that.
We all want—and I certainly want—as much consistency as possible, not least because it makes the messaging a lot simpler. However, we must accept either that different stages of the infection might dictate different paces, or that—to simplify the situation—we all go at the pace of the slowest area within Scotland and the UK.
What we cannot have—I hope that everybody agrees with this—is any part of the UK or any area being forced to lift restrictions before the evidence says that it is safe to do so. I will continue to seek to be guided by the evidence and to apply best judgment to it.
I will come back to the matter of clarity of messaging. I have a considerable degree of sympathy with the point that the First Minister concluded on.
Yesterday, the Scottish Government paper was clear that getting the R number down was the priority, and that relies on testing and tracing. However, testing numbers are still falling short of last week’s target.
We are understandably a little bit sceptical about the Government’s promise to recruit 2,000 contact tracers in the next four weeks. Will the First Minister tell us how many contact tracers there are currently and how the 2,000 will be recruited and trained? Will she give the Parliament a cast-iron guarantee that that target will be met?
I will pick up on a couple of things that Jackson Carlaw said, for the purposes of being very clear. Getting the R number down does not depend on testing and contact tracing but on all of us behaving in a way that suppresses the virus, which means everybody sticking to the rules and guidance that we are asking them to stick to. Keeping the virus suppressed and the R number down will partly depend on continued social distancing, but it will also partly depend on our ability to quickly identify outbreaks, which is where testing and contact tracing comes in.
We reported on testing capacity last week, and we have also reported that, over the weekend and up until yesterday, the University of Glasgow’s capacity would have been slightly lower than it will be, because of a change to the shift pattern. Yesterday, more than 4,600 tests in total were carried out in Scotland, and that number will continue to increase as capacity gets back to normal and then increases beyond that.
In relation to how many contact tracers there are right now, a contact tracer is not currently a discrete professional categorisation. Many different people will be working in health protection teams and, when required, they will fulfil that function. We have to scale up that capacity because of the scale of the current infection that we are using it for. Health boards are looking at where they can use existing staff to do the job and, from that, we will be able to say with more certainty how many additional workers we will require to recruit. Right now, our best estimate is that we will require to recruit an additional 2,000 staff.
We then have to continue to increase testing capacity in order to be able to carry out the number of tests. The number of tests that will be required will depend on the prevalence of the virus in the community. The assessments that we are making are that that will probably require capacity for a minimum of about 15,500 tests per day. Clearly, such estimates will never be fixed in stone, because they will depend on how the virus is operating.
We will keep Parliament updated as that work progresses. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I are scrutinising it very closely as we go through this month because, as I said the other day, we intend to have the capacity for an enhanced contact tracing operation to be in place by the end of May.
I appreciate the complexities involved in all of this but, on both the R number and the contact tracer target, the point is that, from the public’s perception of progress being made, as much clarity as possible is essential. As the First Minister told the BBC just this morning, balancing risks is difficult. The public have to be clear on what is happening and why.
The key stay at home message has been effective because it has been delivered simply and with absolute consistency. It has not mattered whether people watch STV or the UK-wide “BBC News at Ten”, or whether they read The Scottish Sun or The Guardian; they have received the same advice and the same message. Simplicity saves lives. Does the First Minister agree that, to ensure its maximum effectiveness, future guidance should be equally simple and consistent across the UK within a framework of an agreed plan by all Administrations?
In broad terms, yes, I agree. Nobody needs to convince me, as one of the people who has to deliver the message on a daily basis, of the importance of clarity and simplicity. Being able to deliver that message and having the public respond in as magnificent a way as they have done has been incredibly helpful. I want as much consistency of messaging as possible, and I have worked very hard to try to achieve that.
I will always say—I say this openly as well as in private discussions—that a four-nations approach, if it is to be meaningful, has to be one that all four nations have been involved in formulating, and which takes account of the evidence in each part of the UK, not just the evidence in some parts of it. That is the way in which we have to continue to proceed.
I will end my answer with a point that I have made previously. We can have a four-nations approach that is co-ordinated and that accepts that there will be some differences of pace, depending on the evidence. That would be perfectly legitimate. However, we could decide that doing the same thing at the same time is what matters most. Either of those approaches is legitimate. If we use the latter, the point that I have made previously is really important: we must go at the pace of the part of the UK that is furthest behind in the infection curve, because not to do so would lead to parts of the UK potentially lifting restrictions before it was safe to do so. That is the worry that I have, and it is what I am not prepared to countenance here.
I agree with that. If we are going to have a four-nations approach, we have to agree, within the overall plan, either that there will be differences in different parts of the United Kingdom or that we go at the pace of the slowest. What is important is that, within an overall agreed plan, there is clear messaging. My point is that mixed messages will not help, and our priority is saving lives.
I think that the First Minister might underestimate the potential for muddle that comes from mixed messaging. For example, construction firms are asking why firms have been able to work safely in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not here. If a building site in Carlisle can keep going and do so safely, while there is still a lockdown and without spreading the virus, why can one in Dumfries not?
The Scottish Government risks that kind of confusion on a bigger scale if there is not a consistent message about how different types of workplace should operate across the UK. Again, simplicity saves lives.
This is not about politics; it is about keeping things clear. The question is genuine. Why not work to achieve the same guidance across the whole UK on how to work safely? If any given business can work safely anywhere, and do it without spreading the virus, why not in Scotland?
Some people—I am not saying this about anybody in particular—seem to have a lot more angst about a UK-wide approach than I do. I have been very clear. If somebody says to me that the approach has to be UK-wide at all costs, I will say that that is the wrong starting point. If somebody else says that Scotland has to have a separate approach at all costs, I will tell them that that is the wrong starting point. My starting point is: what does the evidence tell us to do to suppress the virus and save lives? That is the only thing that I am interested in, regarding what I am dealing with right now.
I take it on good faith that this is not about politics, because it certainly is not about me. Where there are differences right now, I could say that maybe the problem is that others are not following Scotland’s guidance, just as others say that it is Scotland not following guidance from elsewhere. There is a big assumption in Jackson Carlaw’s question, which is that it is safe for construction to be operating normally in other parts of the UK. As First Minister of Scotland, I am not yet absolutely satisfied about that.
I suppose that my central proposition is this: at the start of the outbreak, my judgment was that construction, apart from essential projects, was not safe to operate. What has changed between then and now? Has enough changed for me to change that judgment? My answer to that is, “Not yet”. We are at such a critical stage. The evidence that I am looking at tells me that it would not take very much at all to send our progress into reverse. We need to persevere for a little bit longer to get that progress more solidified and be more confident about it.
We are working with the construction leadership forum that has been established, which is working on a phased restart. We are talking to it about that approach, and I think that there is a lot of common sense in it. However, until I get to a point where I am satisfied in saying—to the construction industry or anybody else—that they can ease up a bit without risking the virus getting out of control, the responsible thing to say is, “Let’s stick with the guidance that we have, until we get to a position where we are more confident.” That is the risk-based and careful judgment that I have a responsibility to apply, and that is what I am going to continue to do.
Care Homes (Testing)
This week we welcomed the Government’s plans to reintroduce a test, trace and isolate strategy, although we now have to build up capacity after that approach was abandoned by the Government in March.
The First Minister has confirmed today that a test, trace and isolate strategy cannot be implemented until the end of the month. However, we know from international advice and experience that such an approach can be carried out simultaneously with a lockdown and can have benefits throughout the course of a pandemic, including the benefit of us knowing what the R number is.
Last week, the First Minister dismissed Professor Hugh Pennington’s view that the R number in Scotland’s care homes could be as high as 10, but we have not been told what that number is, if it is not 10. Can the First Minister tell us that number, or does she still not have sufficient evidence to be certain of it, because of the Government’s failure to carry out a comprehensive testing programme?
I need to clarify a number of things in relation to Richard Leonard’s question.
We do not need testing to tell us the R number—that comes from modelling that is based on a range of different data. We have an assessment that allows us to say that the R number in the community is within a certain range. We do not yet have the ability to say that with confidence about care homes, although we think that the number is above 1. I do not dismiss anybody’s view, but I have seen nothing and been told nothing to suggest that it is anywhere near as high as 10 in care homes.
The difficulty with making an assessment across care homes in general is that half of care homes do not currently have any infections so the figure is not standard across all care homes; it will be variable in different settings. Work is being done to understand that in more detail, just as it is for other institutional settings such as hospitals. I am not avoiding giving a figure, but it is difficult to arrive at, and people more qualified than I are working hard to understand it as much as possible.
Just to be clear, I did not say that we cannot do anything with test, trace and isolate until the end of May. We are building up capacity so that we will have enhanced capability by the end of May, but testing and tracing is being done in Scotland right now. For example, because of the outbreak in the care home on Skye, a test and contact trace approach has been taken there.
It is about building up testing capacity. Nobody has taken away capacity in Scotland; we have been building it up from the start of the outbreak. We need to get it to a level—albeit, as I have said, not a fixed level—at which it can operate comprehensively to keep the virus suppressed, and to flex, depending on how the virus is operating. That work is under way right now.
I am concerned about care homes. In her statement, the First Minister confirmed that 59 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths in the past week have been in residential care homes for the elderly. The situation has real life-and-death consequences.
For weeks, families across Scotland have been unable to visit their loved ones in care homes, in the hope that that would keep them safe. Sadly, for many, that has not been enough. In the past week, the Covid-19 outbreak at the Home Farm care home on the Isle of Skye has tragically demonstrated how rapidly and widely the virus can spread in care homes. It has also brought home the importance of testing all care home residents and staff, not just those who are symptomatic.
There are approximately 85,000 residents and workers in care homes for older people in Scotland. If we now have the capacity to do 10,500 tests a day—which the First Minister says is available—but almost two thirds of that daily testing capacity is going unused, there is no reason why everyone in Scotland’s care homes, staff and residents, should not be tested during the next two weeks. Given that care homes are a priority, will the First Minister finally give a commitment to making that happen?
I will come on to talking about the position on testing in care homes, which is an important point.
I am deeply concerned about the situation in care homes. Not a day—probably not an hour—goes by, during which I, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, and others, do not discuss the action that is being taken and the support that we are giving to deal with the situation in care homes. I understand how deeply distressing the situation is, particularly for relatives of people in care homes, for those who work in care homes, and for the wider public.
As I said in my statement, today’s figures are deeply distressing. It does not underplay or minimise the impact on individuals for me to say that, for the first time since the situation in care homes reached the scale it has, the figures also show a reduction in the number of deaths. We are working hard to make sure that that reduction continues in the weeks ahead.
Testing is important, but it has to be clinically driven. In care homes where there is an outbreak, all residents and staff, whether they are symptomatic, asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic are being tested.
Testing, including on asymptomatic staff and residents, is also being done in care homes without outbreaks. The test can be unpleasant and invasive, but it is really important, particularly for frail and elderly people, that it is driven by the best clinical advice and evidence, and that is what is happening.
Turning to the wider point that I want to make, while testing is an important element, we must not, even inadvertently, oversimplify the situation and say that testing is the only thing that matters. Basic infection prevention and control is the most important thing in care homes and in dealing with the situation, for this infection or with any infection. That is why directors of public health are providing enhanced clinical leadership. They have contacted every care home in Scotland, and they are assessing, care home by care home, how infection prevention and control is being managed, taking into account staffing, training, physical distancing and testing. When deficiencies are identified, they are working to rectify them. The care home rapid action group is taking accelerated action where necessary, and is working with care home providers.
A range of interventions are essential in care homes if we are to ensure that this outbreak is controlled and if the number of people affected, particularly the number of people losing their lives, is to decline.
Our care workers are putting themselves at risk in the front line of the battle against Covid-19 every day and every night of the week, but many of them are among Scotland’s lowest-paid workers. Last week, the First Minister said:
“We will be looking for quite some time to come at how to properly recognise and reward those on the front line of our health and care services.”—[Official Report, 28 April 2020; c 67.]
There is action that can be taken now. Last week, the First Minister told me that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport was developing a death-in-service payment. When it was announced, however, it applied only to national health service staff, not to care workers, disappointingly. That is something that the First Minister could and should put right.
The Scottish Trades Union Congress has called for all key workers, including care workers, to receive a pay rise of £2 an hour. Will the First Minister support that call from the STUC, and will she provide the funding for it? Will she see it as an important first step in ending the long-term undervaluation of our care workers?
Death-in-service benefits are important and we want the issue to be properly addressed for staff in the social care sector. The reason why the announcement by the health secretary covered the NHS is a basic but important practical one: the Scottish Government, via the NHS, employs those staff, while the same is not true for the social care workforce. We are not in the same position there, and we do not have the same ability to make the decisions for that workforce that the health secretary announced for the national health service.
That does not mean, however, that we are not working in other ways to address those issues more broadly. I will say this bluntly: I bow to nobody in my admiration, respect and deep gratitude for health and care workers the length and breadth of this country. As I have always done—when I was health secretary and since I have been First Minister—I want us to ensure that, as far as we can within the resources that we have, we are rewarding those workers properly. I will not labour the point, and this is not to say that they are paid enough at all, but social care workers in Scotland are already paid more than their counterparts in England and Wales.
As we go forward, we want to value those who have done so much for us, but we do that in discussion and in consultation. We discuss issues of pay and reward in partnership with trade unions and employers. Right now, we are holding twice-weekly discussions with the STUC and general council members. Jamie Hepburn met representatives of the STUC on Friday, and Jeane Freeman is meeting Unison representatives tomorrow, I think. We are taking forward those discussions in the proper way.
Let me be clear: we owe a deep debt of gratitude to health and care workers, and it is one that I am certain must be paid, certainly in words and recognition, but in more than words, too.
Covid-19 Test Capacity
On behalf of the Scottish Green Party, I express our deep sadness at this week’s news that the United Kingdom now has the largest number of Covid deaths in Europe. Our thanks go to everyone who is respecting the lockdown. Some people seem to be willing to hand over Scotland’s decision making on that issue and are actively agitating for an end to the life-saving measures that are in place. We urge the Scottish Government to continue to put public health first.
Test, trace and isolate is now clearly stated as Scottish Government policy. I am pleased by the move back to that approach. However, as others have done, I want to explore the numbers. On testing, the First Minister said two weeks ago that she wanted to
“use to the full now the capacity that we are building.”—[Official Report, 21 April 2020; c 66.]
However, she has just told us that, from capacity for more than 10,000, just over 4,000 tests were completed yesterday. That underuse of our capacity is not a single day’s anomaly; the stats that were published for previous days showed that 1,400 or 1,600 tests had been done, against capacity of well over 8,000 at the time. It seems that, since the start of this month, well over three quarters of our testing capacity has been sitting idle.
When does the First Minister believe we will get close to using our full capacity for testing? Does she agree that that is a necessary step towards the mass testing that Scotland needs?
May I correct Patrick Harvie’s figures a little? I said on Friday that by the end of this week we will have capacity for 10,000 tests a day; we do not currently have capacity for 10,000. On Friday, the capacity that I confirmed we had reached was 8,350, split between the expanded national health service lab network and the University of Glasgow lab, but I also said that a change to the shift pattern at the University of Glasgow was taking 2,000 off that capacity, until yesterday.
Therefore, until yesterday, testing capacity was—my arithmetic might betray me here—about 6,350, so the figure of 4,000 tests represents use of more than 70 per cent of the capacity that we had yesterday. If I have, in the moment, got any of those figures wrong, I will happily correct them later.
I also said on Friday—this is something about which my understanding has deepened over the past weeks—that there will never be a perfect match between capacity for testing and use of testing, because of fluctuations and geographical variations in demand. There will also never be a perfect match between the number of tests that we do and the number of people who are tested, because there are good clinical reasons why some people require to be tested more than once. For example, we require that Covid patients who are being discharged from hospital to a care home have two negative tests. There will always be differences.
We are working to ensure that capacity is used as fully as is possible and practical, and we are working to build capacity beyond what it is now. The milestones that I set out were capacity for 10,000 tests by the end of this week, and for 12,000 by the middle of the month. The initial assessment of where we need to go after that, for TTI, is 15,500. Again, I will inject a bit of caution on that number: we might need to go beyond it. That will depend very much on how well we suppress the virus and on the requirement for testing to keep it at low levels.
We will continue to look at the figures, of course, but the tables that were published yesterday seemed to suggest that there had been 1,400 or 1,600 tests done per day, from capacity for well over 8,000 a day.
Mass testing—actual tests taking place, as opposed to capacity—is only the first element in TTI. It is good that the Scottish Government is emphasising the work of human contact tracers as the next step. A proximity app might well have a role to play, but I agree with the First Minister that it should not and cannot replace the proven methods that are used by people who work in public health.
I was therefore pleased to see the first estimate of the numbers, which is that 2,000 contact tracers will be needed. However, the plan that was published on Monday does not have clear timescales attached to it, so I am still unclear about the timescale, even after the First Minister’s exchange with Jackson Carlaw. The First Minister says that enhanced contact tracing capacity should be in place by the end of May. Does that mean that 2,000 contact tracers will be recruited, trained and deployed by then? If not, how many will be in place by then? Will the First Minister tell us who is undertaking that recruitment? Will the contact tracers be employed by public health agencies or by outsourced private contractors?
What measures will be put in place to support people for whom isolation will pose particular challenges, including people with family caring responsibilities, significant disabilities or complex health needs?
We will set out more detail on the milestones towards capacity, and we will set out changes to our estimates of capacity as we build towards milestones. Health boards are already looking to train existing staff in contact tracing, and an advert will go live on Friday, through Public Health Scotland, for recruitment of additional contact tracers. That work is under way. I ask members to try to appreciate the complexities in the assessments that are required to allow us to estimate what we need, and to appreciate that they will vary as we go through the experience of the pandemic. We will share as much detail of that information as we can, as quickly as possible.
I will briefly cover two other points. I will address the issue of the NHSX app. There has, understandably, been some confusion, because it is a technical matter. Two different contact tracing digital products are being talked about. In Scotland, we are developing a digital tool that will support targeted manual contact tracing, which will be led by our public health teams. There is some functionality that we need that the NHSX app will not, as far as we are aware, provide—that being the ability to put in details of contacts so that people who do not have the tracing app can still be contacted.
There is also the proximity app, which is the one that is being talked about. We are not developing an alternative to it; we are trying to understand better how it is intended to work and how it will fit in with our systems. Government officials will have seen a presentation on the app this morning, so I hope that some of the questions will be answered.
I hope to be able to say confidently to people in Scotland that they should download the app because it is a useful enhancement, and because there are no concerns about privacy and data use. That is what we are working towards. However, the app is an enhancement; we should not build an entire system around it, because we need to cater for people who, with the best will in the world, will not download an app of that nature because they do not have the technology or do not want to use such technology.
When we talk about test, trace and isolate we often focus just on test and trace—those are the areas in which the Government has a responsibility to ensure that we have capacity. At the start of this week, we tried to focus people on what “isolate” will mean, because it will work only if the public are willing to comply. We will potentially find ourselves, under the policy, being advised to isolate for 14 days, which could then happen on multiple occasions.
Another thing that we are thinking of, to build on and learn from the work that we have done in supporting the shielded group in this phase of the virus, is what kind of support we have to put in place to allow homeless people to isolate, and people who might not have a spare bedroom in which to isolate from their family. We are asking how we will support such people. That is about supporting people to do the right thing. It is not—as some of the more lurid headlines suggested earlier in the week—about locking people up in hotels against their will.
Overwhelmingly, my experience of dealing with the pandemic in the past couple of months has been that the public want to do the right thing, but what has often stopped them has been their not having the ability to do that. It is not that they do not want to do the right thing, so we have to provide as much support as we can.
The First Minister knows that I support the introduction of a universal basic income, as well as a daily pay supplement of £29 for health and social care workers. Those measures are needed now, so I would appreciate an update from the First Minister on the progress that has been made, if possible.
I also invite the First Minister to consider our proposals on a way to protect the one in five workers on furlough. If we turn off the scheme too soon, before workers can afford it, jobs will be lost and its success will be undermined. We propose keeping the furlough scheme for longer, together with a taper, which would help companies to get their cash flow started. In her discussion with the Prime Minister, will the First Minister raise our safe return to work scheme to protect jobs?
On the first question, I will provide updates as and when I can. I go back to the answer that I gave to Richard Leonard: we will discuss pay and reward with trade unions and employers, and we will make decisions on that basis.
On a universal basic income, I am on record as saying that my position on that has gone from my having a keen interest in exploring it, to what I now describe as active support for it, because of our experience right now. We cannot implement it unilaterally in Scotland, for reasons that everybody understands, but I look forward to having Willie Rennie’s support as we try to progress the idea with the United Kingdom Government.
Willie Rennie will have to forgive me, but I have not had the opportunity to see his proposals on the furlough scheme. I will be happy to look at them in detail, however. As he alluded to in the latter part of his question, decisions on the furlough scheme are not ones that I am able to take, but I agree in principle that we have to provide support for businesses for as long as it is needed. The UK Government is to be credited for putting the scheme in place, but it must not create cliff edges when it withdraws it.
As I said, I am happy to consider Willie Rennie’s proposals and, if we agree with them, to feed them in to our discussions with the UK Government.
It is important to try to work constructively on such matters, in the interests of securing positive solutions.
Many people who need non-urgent healthcare are in pain and discomfort, and are worried that their conditions will get worse. For example, people with pernicious anaemia suffer from tiredness, chest pain and poor balance if they do not receive regular vitamin B12 injections from their general practitioner. Since the lockdown, that treatment has not been possible. The symptoms can become permanent if they are not treated.
A constituent of mine, Andrew Gould, is in severe pain as a result of deterioration of his hip joints. He was due to have his hip replaced next week, but the procedure has been postponed. He is not alone in finding himself in that situation.
It is right that we are protecting people from the virus, but people are suffering in many other ways, too—as, I know, the First Minister knows. GP surgeries and hospital wards are quieter than we feared they would be, so is the Government planning a safe way for such treatments and operations to start again early?
Yes. One of the issues that we set out in the paper yesterday concerned how and when we can start to restore non-urgent elective procedures in the health service. I and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport know how serious the situation is for people who currently cannot access a range of treatments.
Willie Rennie mentioned vitamin B12 injections: I know from the experience of someone who is very close to me how important those injections are. That importance is replicated across a range of conditions and treatments. The work on planning phased restoration of postponed national health service procedures is under way, as part of our general planning for coming out of our restrictive lockdown as quickly as we are able to do so.
On a more general point, I repeat the important message that the health service is open for people who have emergency symptoms or symptoms that they are worried about. We need to continue to get that message across. Progress is not yet good enough, but we are seeing signs in terms of hospital bed occupancy, for example, that the message is starting to get across, because numbers are starting to go up again. That is positive, but we must continue to ensure that the message is conveyed to people.
Also more generally, everybody who is dealing with the situation right now must balance the different harms that are being done to the population. We must try to deal with the harm of the virus, but we must also try to mitigate the harms from what we do to deal with the virus: such is the complexity of the decision making that we are all grappling with right now. We need to get back to as much normality as possible as quickly as possible, but in a way that mitigates the different harms that are being done. I will continue to listen carefully to what members from across the chamber say about that, just as we will continue to listen to the views of the wider public.
Before I take supplementary questions, I inform members that 31 members have requested additional questions. Notwithstanding the First Minister’s offer, that might be quite a lot to get through. We have scheduled an extra 15 minutes for this question time, so we will play it by ear and see how many questions we can get through. However, that is a lot of members.
Quarantine (Entering the United Kingdom)
Countries including Germany, South Korea, New Zealand and Ireland have introduced tighter health and quarantine measures for people entering from abroad at airports and other points of entry. Does the First Minister think that similar measures should be applied to people travelling to the UK?
Yes. I have said previously that, particularly as we go again into a suppression phase of dealing with the virus, we cannot not have restrictions that deal with people coming into the country from elsewhere, whether they involve suggested isolation or the quarantine approach—there are arguments for both of those methods. I believe that the United Kingdom Government is considering the issue. It is a reserved matter, but my view is clear that that has to be part of how we continue to keep cases of the virus low once we have got it to the level of suppression that we are working on right now.
In Vitro Fertilisation
I have been contacted by constituents who, a few weeks ago, received a letter from the Edinburgh fertility centre and reproductive endocrinology at the Edinburgh royal infirmary telling them that the in vitro fertilisation cycle that they were in the middle of had been stopped due to Covid-19. That was one letter among hundreds. The decision is completely understandable; nonetheless, it is devastating because IVF is, for many people, their last or only hope of starting a family.
The First Minister is rightly concerned about the impact that Covid-19 restrictions might have on the mental health of the nation. I can tell her that, although IVF is a physical procedure, its mental impact can be utterly consuming. People in other parts of the United Kingdom have been given a plan that allows their clinics to apply to reopen from Monday. When can my constituents and others like them across the country expect to see a similar plan published for Scotland?
We are currently looking at the issue, and we hope to give clarity on it soon. As Ruth Davidson indicated, that has been an issue across the UK and we want to get that service restarted as quickly as possible. Everybody who has been unable to get treatment as a result of the restrictions is in a difficult position, and I understand the heartbreak and devastation of people in that particular circumstance. We will make sure that the service resumes as quickly as possible and that we give the requisite clarity about that as soon as we are able to do so.
Insurance Company Obligations
The First Minister is aware that thousands of small businesses—from hotels to hardware stores—across Scotland are trying to claim on their insurance policies because of the interruption to their trading caused by the lockdown. However, several insurers have been accused of wriggling out of their obligations, which puts at risk the future of many businesses. Will the First Minister meet insurance companies and spell out to them that leadership and social responsibility are crucial during the pandemic, so that, when the lockdown ends, we can still have a functioning economy?
I am clear that insurance companies, like everyone else who has a responsibility, should play fair and understand the difficulties that businesses—through no fault of their own—are having. I send that message without equivocation. Anyone who is trying to wriggle out of their obligations is doing a disservice to the challenge that all of us are facing and dealing with. I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to have a more direct discussion with the insurance sector, to make sure that there is an understanding—and to make sure that there is no further guidance that we can offer to provide clarity on what people should do and how they should act.
The World Health Organization has warned that, because of the focus on Covid-19, malaria deaths could double this year, which could affect some of our partner countries, such as Rwanda, Zambia and Malawi. Can the First Minister say anything about that? Despite the current difficulties, can Scotland do anything to help those countries?
It is recognised that, in countries with a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions, there can be added complications in relation to Covid-19. Through contact with partners and others on the ground, we are monitoring the Covid-19 situation as closely as we can in our African international development partner countries—those are the countries that John Mason mentioned: Malawi, Zambia and Rwanda.
We continue to support our African partner countries through projects that are funded under the international development fund and by the climate justice fund. As part of their end-of-year reporting, all projects that we fund are carrying out impact assessments in relation to Covid-19 and, at our request, considering whether their existing project can assist in the Covid-19 response in the partner country concerned.
Glenisla Care Home
Last Tuesday, a resident from the Glenisla care home in my region was transferred to hospital in Aberdeen; the next day, the resident was confirmed to have Covid-19. The care home immediately took action to protect residents, but today—a week later—it is still waiting for tests to be undertaken on all residents and staff. NHS Grampian has told the care home that testing kits are not available and that there are no plans to test.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland this morning, the First Minister committed to looking into that case. Given the urgency of the situation, can she advise what action she has taken since it was raised with her? Will she also look into the claims that testing kits are not available? Given the vulnerability of our care home residents and the staff who look after them, can she assure us that, when a case is confirmed in a care home, it is Government policy that all residents and staff should be tested as a matter of urgency, in order to limit the potential spread of the virus?
Yes, that is Government policy; I have made that clear. This morning, I said on the radio that, if I had the details of the care home, I would look into it. To be fair to the BBC, I do not know whether it has provided the details yet. If the member wants to provide them, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I will look into that specific case. We will also investigate whether there is any shortage of testing kits in NHS Grampian. However, let me be absolutely clear that such testing is the policy intention.
Oil and Gas Workers Furlough
The First Minister may have seen reports in today’s The Press and Journal that oil and gas firms are grappling with whether to furlough workers or go straight to redundancies, which may well be open to challenge on grounds of unfair dismissal. What advice would she give to those employers?
I do not want companies to make workers redundant if that can in any way be avoided. Clearly, I cannot give advice here that is bespoke to individual companies in different sectors, but my advice generally is that redundancies should be a last resort.
The furlough scheme, which is not a Scottish Government scheme, is available. Although we have welcomed it and it has been very positive, we need to make sure that the future of the scheme is tailored to our on-going need to respond to the virus. I would therefore encourage companies—whether in the oil and gas sector or more generally—to investigate all the forms of support that are available and to make maximum use of them, whether that is through the furlough scheme or the range of support that is available through Scottish Government routes.
United States Trade Talks
What engagement has the Scottish Government had with the United Kingdom Government about the commencement of trade talks with the US this week?
Like most other people, I was alerted to that matter through the newspapers last weekend. Yesterday, the Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation was advised in a call that trade talks would restart that afternoon. He has written to the UK Government seeking meaningful engagement in that process to ensure that Scotland’s interests are represented and protected. We have repeatedly set out that the US 25 per cent tariffs on whisky and other Scottish goods should be removed before any negotiations start, and we must be absolutely clear that our national health service should be protected and that there must be no reduction in environmental, animal welfare or food safety standards as a result of any agreement. I think that those issues should be preconditions for negotiations, and not things that are left to the negotiations themselves.
Outpatient Appointments (Test Results)
Will the First Minister confirm that outpatient consultant appointments that involve test results, particularly in respect of potential cancer diagnoses, should not be postponed or cancelled by health boards during the current emergency?
Urgent treatment should not be cancelled, and we have made that very clear. Clinically driven decisions will be made on the balance of risk for different patients. Clinicians will look at the patient’s circumstances and decide whether the risks of postponement are greater or less than the risks of a patient going to hospital, potentially coming into contact with other people and being exposed to the virus. Those decisions are being made, but if something is urgent, it should happen and not be postponed.
As I said to Willie Rennie, we are now in a process of thinking through how we restore and resume non-urgent procedures that have been postponed, so that we get the national health service, as well as society generally, back to as much normality as we can as quickly as possible.
Universities (Financial Assistance)
Universities Scotland is clear that the higher education package that was announced by the United Kingdom Government will do little to help the sector in Scotland. Although the £75 million to help research that the Scottish Government announced is welcome, it will not make up the potential £1 billion-plus shortfall in income that universities would normally generate from non-European Union students and private income from venue rental and consultancy work. Almost a third of universities’ income is at risk, so what further measures will the Scottish Government take to ensure that we do not see any universities fail as a result of Covid?
Our universities are facing a significant challenge and we will continue to work very closely with them to make sure that we give appropriate support when and where we can. The Scottish Funding Council is working closely with universities to understand their financial position and guide any decisions that require to be taken.
I agree with Daniel Johnson about the UK Government’s announcement. As far as we are aware, no consequentials are coming to the Scottish Government through that announcement—certainly, no more than is marginally the case. The decision that we have taken and announced today is an important first step and an indication of our determination to work with universities to support them through this difficult time. The £75 million of research funding has been welcomed by the sector and will form a foundation for the discussions that we will take forward with them in the months to come.
Private Rent Sector Landlord (non-business) COVID-19 Loan Scheme
Yesterday, Scottish ministers published details of the landlord loan scheme, which provides loans for landlords who are not receiving rent from tenants as a result of Covid-19. I am not aware of what consultations were undertaken with tenants and housing charities. However, given that a landlord in distress also means a tenant in distress, can the First Minister explain why the scheme contains no provision to also support tenants and, in particular, why it contains no prohibition against a landlord who is in receipt of a loan seeking to evict a tenant for arrears once the emergency legislation and its existing protections expire?
I hope that Andy Wightman will recognise that, given the nature of the crisis that we are dealing with, the Government is not able to consult as normal on a lot that it is doing to support different groups and individuals in society because there is no time to consult.
We are putting and have put in place a range of supports and protections for tenants through discretionary housing payments and the emergency legislation on protection against eviction. The loan fund is also an indirect way to try to protect tenants. If a landlord faces repossession because they cannot pay their mortgage, that is not going to help a tenant who lives in their property.
The loan is available only to landlords with five or fewer properties; it is not available to big-scale landlords. It is also available only to landlords who are not eligible for any other Government support. It is a short-term, limited offer.
As I said, in supporting landlords, the intention is to also support tenants. We continue to be open to suggestions about how we can improve the support that is in place and how we can extend it, where possible.
Shielded People (Exercise)
I have a young constituent, Hannah Jack, who is 15 and is immune suppressed. She is shielding with her mum, Kaz, who has asked me to raise the issue of safe exercise.
Kaz is very supportive of the Scottish Government’s approach and the need for restrictions to last as long as is needed to keep us all safe. However, she has asked whether any consideration has been given to shielded people who want to get out into the sunshine and take a bit of exercise. For example, could we look at restricting access to green spaces at certain times of day to shielded people, who cannot get out to exercise and get sunshine in any other way?
I am happy to look at such practical suggestions in more detail, because I absolutely understand why they are made and how difficult the situation is for shielded people.
For obvious reasons, a lot of the decisions that we are taking right now are guided and informed by clinical and medical evidence. That is particularly true when it comes to those who are in the shielded group: they are being shielded because of particularly severe medical conditions. However, we will take away suggestions about the shielded group, and I will ask the health secretary to write to Joan McAlpine when we have had an opportunity to assess them.
More generally—I stress that what I am about to say is not specifically related to the shielded group—one thing that I am very keen to do, if we can, at an early stage is to allow people to be outdoors and exercising more often. Right now, the guidance says that that should happen only once a day, but could we allow people to exercise more than once a day, as long as they continue to comply with social distancing measures? That might well be one of the earliest easing-up changes that we make to the restrictions. However, we also have to think about the unintended consequences of all such things. We have to ensure that, as we ease things, people still do the other things that are required to keep the virus suppressed.
Businesses (Social Distancing Requirements)
As businesses think about gradually returning to work, many will find it difficult to maintain the 2m social distancing requirement. The World Health Organization recommends maintaining a social distancing measure of 1m, so why have we gone for 2m across the United Kingdom? Should not our Governments be following the science that is recommended by the World Health Organization?
The advice that has been given to me is 2m, and I think that that is the same across the UK. Mike Rumbles is right, in the sense that in some countries the figure is 1.5m, in some it is 1m, and in some it is 2m, as it is here.
In all of this, I have wanted the approach to be as precautionary as possible. I think that that is the right approach. There is no intention on my part, right now, to ease or reduce the 2m figure in any way. However, we continue to take advice and look at all of these things.
It is absolutely the case that, as we start to get the economy moving again and businesses back to work—although, as I said yesterday, our advice for some time will likely be that if people can work from home, they should do so—and as people start to go back into workplaces, there will be a need for adaptation and redesign. We are talking to businesses, economic and business organisations and trade unions about how that will work in practice for different parts of the economy.
A wider debate has been sparked by the UK Government’s draft workplace guidance. We are consulting stakeholders on the extent to which it should be mandatory for employers to publish risk assessments, or whether that should that be voluntary. We are looking at all those things in detail in order to get to the right approach. Everything that we are doing is about trying to strike a better balance than we have just now in allowing people to get back to as much normality as possible without compromising the need to suppress the virus. None of these decisions is straightforward or black and white, but we must work through them in an orderly fashion.
Unpaid Carers (Support)
What support is the Scottish Government providing to unpaid carers during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Unpaid carers are playing a vital support role, as they always do, for their families, friends and neighbours. I know that they are feeling the pressure, as is everybody.
We have established a £500,000 fund to help local carer organisations provide support to carers. We also extended access to personal protective equipment to unpaid carers, and we are working with national carer organisations to understand how we can better support carers to access testing. We have made emergency changes to carers allowance and to the young carer grant rules to ensure that the coronavirus does not prevent carers from accessing benefit support.
Furthermore, as has recently been announced, we will include provision in the forthcoming coronavirus bill, which is being introduced to Parliament next week, to allow for an extra coronavirus payment of £230.10 in June for carers who are in receipt of carers allowance supplement. If Parliament passes that measure—as I hope and expect that it will—that will support around 83,000 carers and will be an additional investment, directly to them, of £19.2 million.
Training Providers (Support)
The training industry, which supports modern apprentices and learners across Scotland, is hugely frustrated by the lack of confirmation from the Scottish Government as to whether training providers can continue to work. By following public procurement guidance in relation to public money, training providers could receive a percentage of a contract’s value in advance. That would allow them to continue to support learners and develop improvements to the sustainability of modern apprenticeships.
Will the First Minister intervene to enable our trainers to make the best use of public money? If they furlough their staff now, those staff are not permitted to work and to provide that important support to our learners.
I do not need to intervene, because I know that Jamie Hepburn is involved in work that is under way to try to resolve the issue and reach the best possible outcome. The most helpful thing that I can do is ask Jamie Hepburn to write directly to the member with more detail on that work and the steps that are being taken to resolve the issue that she has raised.
Covid-19 Response (Unintended Consequences)
I broadly support the measures that have been taken in response to Covid-19 and the rationale behind them, but I want to raise concerns about the unintended consequences.
We are storing up future physical conditions and psychological trauma. We have already seen a reduction of 70 per cent in the rate of referral for cancer diagnosis and an increase in treatment times. On psychological trauma, I am aware of a Glasgow constituent whose wife is in the final stages of her cancer. He has not been able to see her for almost 40 days. He rightly asks why he is allowed to be 2m away from strangers in supermarkets, but is not able to see his wife in the final stages of her life.
Surely there is a practical solution that would prevent such situations. It could involve testing, adequate levels of personal protective equipment and social distancing. Let us not build up unintended consequences that will stay with people for the rest of their lives.
Obviously, I do not know all the particular circumstances of the constituent case that Anas Sarwar has raised but, in general terms, the guidance that is in place for hospitals and care homes allows for end-of-life visits of relatives. If Anas Sarwar wants to pass on more details of that case and we can provide clarity that might help in that situation, we would be happy to do so. However, we have always recognised the extreme sensitivity of family contact at the end of a loved one’s life.
On the broader issue—I hope that Anas Sarwar will take this in the way that it is intended—I really do not need people to tell me about the unintended consequences of all this. I spend every day, as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and other ministers do, worrying about, thinking through and grappling with all the issues that are being created by the action that we are having to take to suppress the virus. I know that everybody is doing the same, and I know that all those questions come from a thoroughly good and well-meaning place.
We now face issues of complexity and necessity. What will not change over the next period is the requirement to suppress the virus. What has to change is how we are doing that, so that we get to a point at which we have a better balance that allows people to get back to a degree of normality and mitigates any unintended consequences but does not risk the virus running out of control. That is the balance that we are trying to strike.
I say to members: please be assured that we are as focused on the unintended consequences of all this as we are on suppressing the virus. A lot of support will be required in a range of different ways for a long time to come in order to deal with some of what people are suffering right now, and that is very much at the centre of all our thinking.
On the subject of unintended consequences, the First Minister has mentioned many times the difficult decisions that are being made in judging the potential for harm to other areas of healthcare as we respond to Covid-19. I would like to hear her current thinking on the potential to resume our cancer screening programmes, which, as she knows, have saved so many lives up to this point.
I specifically mentioned that issue yesterday. We want to get cancer screening programmes started again as quickly as possible and, as part of the work that we are doing right now, we are looking at how that can be done safely and to what timescale.
There have been a lot of really difficult decisions in all this, and that was undoubtedly one of the most difficult. The judgment that was made, which was guided by the chief medical officer, was that pausing cancer screening would do less damage than continuing with the programmes and having a situation in which people missed their appointments for a variety of reasons—for example, they had the virus or were worried about going for an appointment.
If someone missed their appointment while the programme was running, it would be three or five years before their next appointment was due. If we pause the programme, we effectively freeze things and, when those services resume, everybody who was meant to get an appointment in those three months will get their appointment then. That was the judgment that was made. We want to get the programme back up and running as quickly as possible, and that is a key part of what we are working through right now.
Mental Health (Doctors)
A recent poll by the British Medical Association Scotland showed that 40 per cent of doctors are currently living with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. The same survey found that a quarter of those who reported a problem had not been suffering from it prior to the coronavirus outbreak. What measures will the Scottish Government implement in order to monitor and improve the mental health of our doctors?
At the end of this week—probably over the weekend—the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will announce and outline a package of measures that are designed specifically to support the mental health and wellbeing of healthcare and social care professionals.
We absolutely recognise that, although it is a tough job at the best of times, it has been so much tougher in recent times. Some healthcare professionals and social care staff will have experienced and witnessed things that will have had a profound impact on their mental health and wellbeing, and we take very seriously our responsibility to support them. All of us, through our own network of family and friends, will be aware of people in those positions who are suffering in that way.
We will ensure that members are notified of the detail of the package of measures towards the end of the week, when we are in a position to put it in the public domain.
Care Homes (Hospital Discharge)
My mum, like thousands of our loved ones, is in a care home. We now have the worst death rates in Europe, and care homes are at the epicentre of the crisis. It has been announced today that 59 per cent of deaths are occurring in care homes.
Why on earth are we continuing to discharge patients from hospitals to care homes without establishing whether they are positive for Covid-19? I am not one ever to plead with the First Minister, but I will do so now. Please stop that practice now to save the lives of residents and the great people who look after them.
I will come on to the specifics of what happens in care homes, because they are so important. However, first, I say to Neil Findlay that every single one of us is deeply concerned and moved by what is happening in our care homes. That is particularly the case for people who have relatives in care homes, such as Neil Findlay, but I do not think that a single one of us does not find the situation deeply and profoundly upsetting. So please do not ask such questions in a way that suggests that we are not all trying to do everything that we possibly can in order to do the right thing.
On the situation in care homes, if a patient in a hospital has the virus, they must have two negative tests before they can be discharged. If a patient has not had the virus but is being discharged to a care home, they should be tested 48 hours before they are due for discharge. If the judgment is that it is right for that person not to remain in hospital but that it would be better for them to be in a care home, they must be isolated in that care home for 14 days if their test result has not been known. Therefore, at every single step of the way the priority is to prevent infection from getting into care homes. The ways in which that is done are clinically driven and led, and they are also led by what is in the best interests of the individual and in the interests of trying to prevent infection in care homes.
Even if Neil Findlay does not agree with the detail of that policy—as he is absolutely entitled to do—I hope that he will take it in good faith that we are doing the things that we have been advised to do as the best ways of protecting individuals at every single step of the way, whether they are in hospital, care homes or communities.
Business Support (Aerospace Industry)
When we move to the next stage of the evolving crisis and look towards reviving our stricken economy, it will be clear that some sectors will already have been in a more precarious position than others. The aerospace industry involves innovative manufacturing, has a highly skilled and productive workforce, is critical to generating income that can be spent in our service economy, and provides taxes to pay for public services, but it has been hit hard. What will the Scottish Government do—in co-operation with the United Kingdom Government, if necessary—to assist our increasingly vulnerable aerospace industry, half of which is based in Ayrshire and on which thousands of well-paid jobs depend, both directly and indirectly?
We will continue to work with the UK Government to support all sectors of the economy in appropriate ways. However, we will also look for ways in which the Scottish Government can give support to particular sectors that are so important. The pivotal enterprise resilience fund that we announced last week might be appropriate for companies such as those that Kenny Gibson has described. Not long before the current outbreak started, I visited Spirit Aerosystems in Prestwick, so I know how important that industry is to the Ayrshire economy. Perhaps Mr Gibson, along with those companies, could look at whether that fund might offer them support.
Business Support (Bed and Breakfasts)
Across Scotland, the operators of small bed and breakfasts who pay council tax are struggling. Many cannot apply for support from the Scottish Government’s hardship fund, because they do not meet the requirement to have a business bank account. Incidentally, that has never been a requirement of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to prove that a B and B is operating as a business or been recognised as a way of preventing fraud. Will the First Minister undertake to try to find a way of removing that requirement, which is clearly a huge stumbling block for small B and Bs in applying for the grants that they need?
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance tells me that she is considering that issue.
As is the case with many such issues, what we are trying to do is to strike a balance. In this case, the balance is not necessarily the same one that we would strike in normal times. It involves trying to ensure that there is some due process and good governance around applications. I am not suggesting that people are fraudulently applying for money—and certainly not in the sector that Mr Mountain has mentioned—but we need to have some way of guarding against that without making it impossible for people to access such funds.
I say again that we are trying to strike the right balance and that the balance is probably less risk averse than the one that we would strike in normal times. However, I will ask the finance secretary to correspond with Mr Mountain once we have had a chance to look at that issue in more detail.
Supporting Communities Fund
The supporting communities fund, which will provide funding worth £40 million, is very welcome. Although £8.4 million has already been awarded, I am aware that the locations of some of the anchor organisations in Fife mean that significant gaps have been left in other parts of the region. I am surprised that the letter that members of the Scottish Parliament received last week from the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government revealed that guidance on how community groups can access the fund is being worked on only now. I appreciate the reasoning behind quickly distributing the funds, but can I have assurances that the next tranche of funding will provide support for areas and towns that have so far missed out and that the process for accessing the funds will be transparent and well publicised?
It may be helpful if I ask the communities secretary either to speak to or to correspond with the member so that we fully understand her point about the local impact.
In general terms, we will try to make sure that the arrangements that have been put in place to access these funds are as user friendly and as fair as possible and we will learn as we go. It is a bit like the answer that I gave to the previous question. In normal times, we work out all the details of these things and then we announce the fund. However, right now, we are having to do things the other way round. We are having to get the money agreed and launch the funds and then work out all the application details as we go. It is not ideal, but we are in a crisis situation. That sometimes means that we will revise things as we go, there will be unintended consequences that we want to fix and there will be things that do not work properly.
I ask members across the chamber to raise such issues and, where we can, we will act to fix them. We might not be able to fix everything but we will certainly have a go. The communities secretary will be happy to take up Claire Baker’s particular point in a bit more detail.
This question is similar to the previous two. Is it possible for the Government to support some businesses that are not eligible for any of the current financial support schemes? I am thinking of businesses with properties that have a rateable value above the £18,000 threshold, businesses that are not in the retail, leisure or hospitality sectors, sole traders who rely on dividends to earn a living, self-employed people who operate businesses from home and some businesses that are not sole occupants of premises. All those groups are in difficulty and are receiving no financial support, as far as I know. What might we be able to do to help them?
We will look at where there are gaps and look at what we can reasonably and practically do to fill those gaps. I cannot stand here and give a blanket commitment that we will be able to cater for every circumstance and fill every crack in the support that is available, but I am determined that we will do everything that we can, whether that is working to persuade the United Kingdom Government to do more or different things, adjusting the schemes that it puts in place to make sure that they meet Scotland’s particular needs or—as we have already done—using our own powers and resources to put additional schemes in place. It is important that that kind of support for business continues for as long as business needs it.
We also continue to hear feedback from different businesses. We have already made adjustments and changed our minds on certain things as we have got that feedback and we will continue to operate in that way. Of course, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance remains willing—she is nodding—to speak with any member about particular issues that are being raised with them about businesses in their constituency.
There are still nine members who have not had an opportunity to ask a question. I appreciate the First Minister’s willingness to carry on. However, we have chamber business scheduled for 2.30. Given the First Minister’s willingness to continue, I suggest that we delay the start of the afternoon session by 15 minutes to 2.45 and continue now until we get through those nine questions. I encourage members who are leaving to be careful about observing social distancing.
Food Provision (Older and Vulnerable People)
The First Minister will be aware that, in my community, the level of deaths is three times higher than in any other part of Scotland. What additional resources can the First Minister provide to the public sector, the third sector and the voluntary sector to assist with one of the most important elements of what is happening locally, which is pre-prepared food provision? That is one way of ensuring that some of the older and most vulnerable people will not leave their homes to go into the community.
Stuart McMillan raises an important point. I am very aware of some of the concerns that have been raised in Inverclyde about the geographic breakdowns of deaths. Every single death is a tragedy, wherever it happens. As the pandemic develops, the geographic impact may change in different ways, so we have to ensure that we can respond to that appropriately.
Stuart McMillan is right to raise the importance of support for communities and people as well as for businesses. At the outset of the outbreak, we announced £350 million of funding to support communities where that is needed. As part of that, we have committed to a range of support in Inverclyde. That includes funding directly to the local authority of £1.3 million for the Scottish welfare fund, £749,000 in hardship funding and £0.5 million from the food fund, as well as support for third sector and community efforts, such as grants to Oak Tree Housing Association and Inverclyde Community Development Trust. We will continue to look carefully at the community and human impact of the current situation as well as at the business impact.
Rail Network (Increase in Services)
The First Minister will have received a joint letter signed by the general secretaries of the rail workers unions the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers expressing deep concern at any plan to increase the level of services on our rail network when we do not yet have Government guidance on how that can be done safely, never mind have those measures implemented. Can the First Minister give a clear commitment that the Government and rail operators will work with the trade unions to jointly identify, where there is real and necessary demand to increase services, how that demand will be met safely for passengers and workers? Will she make clear that there will be no increase in services without the full agreement of the trade unions? Surely that is the least that we can do for our key transport workers.
In short, yes, I whole-heartedly agree. I apologise, but I have not personally seen that letter yet, although I am sure that it is coming to me and I will ensure that I pay close attention to it. Those discussions with the trade unions will take place, if they are not on-going already.
On the issue more generally, before we can persuade workers to go back to work, we have to give them confidence that it is safe. A key part of that is persuading those who use and run our public transport system that it is safe, too. If we fail to do that, no matter how strongly I might urge people to go back to work, they will not do it.
The work to ensure that it is safe for people to return is critical, and essential to that is the role of trade unions in representing the interests and voice of workers. We are consulting with trade unions, and will continue to do so, on the workplace guidance that the United Kingdom Government has been working on. Concerns have been raised about the inadequacy of that, so we want to ensure that we understand those concerns and rectify the issues, either through action that we can take or through our discussions with the UK Government. I give an assurance that the safety of those who work in our public transport system and of those who use it is absolutely central to everything that we will do.
Third Sector (Support)
To follow on from Stuart McMillan’s question, we all recognise the input of the third sector and charities in supporting the Government’s effort to tackle Covid-19. As we move towards coming out of lockdown, we will have physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing issues in our communities and we will be leaning on the third sector to help us to provide support in that regard. I know that the First Minister will recognise that but, from talking to third sector organisations, including charities as well as sports, music, art and drama clubs and our scouts and guides, I think that it is obvious that they are struggling, too. Organisations are telling me that they might have to downsize or might not even be there at the end of this. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that, at that point, our third sector organisations are there to deliver for us when we need them?
The third sector is invaluable. That was the case pre Covid-19, it is absolutely the case during the pandemic and it will be the case after it. Just as it is important to support businesses and our statutory sector organisations such as our national health service and local authorities, it is vital that we support the third sector. We have already made funding available for that but, in the interests of time, I will not go through it all. As we move forward, we will consider how we ensure that organisations and sectors that need support can get it on a sustainable basis.
Let me be clear that my view—a view that has been strengthened rather than created by the current experience—is that our country without a strong, vibrant and dynamic third sector would not be the strong and dynamic country that we want it to be. Therefore, the third sector is critical and the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government is determined to ensure that it gets the support that it needs.
Emergency Support (Students)
I welcome the £4.2 million of additional funds that the Scottish Government has made available to universities and colleges for students during the Covid-19 crisis. However, the support that is available could be as low as £500 for individual students who are struggling and in all likelihood will no longer be able to access summer employment. Will the First Minister review support for poor students? Does she agree that a temporary relaxation of the qualifying criteria for universal credit to allow students to claim during the summer months could make a huge difference for students from the poorest backgrounds during these unprecedented times?
Bob Doris has raised a really important issue. The emergency funds that have been made available to universities and colleges can be used to support students during the summer up to the end of July, in recognition of reduced employment options. Universities and colleges will receive a further instalment of higher education funds in August; it will be a matter for each university and college to determine the amount that can be awarded, but the previous maximum limits have been removed. We will also continue to work closely with the National Union of Students and the sector on the support arrangements that are required in the future.
On the point about whether the universal credit rules can be relaxed, that is a reserved matter but it is a point that we would support. Generally, we remain committed to ensuring that students are adequately supported during what is a very challenging time for them—as indeed it is for everybody.
Offshore Oil Workers (Testing)
I am grateful to the First Minister for staying on this afternoon. A significant number of offshore workers and companies have contacted me to suggest that not enough testing of offshore workers is being done. There is testing at Aberdeen airport but I am told that it involves the offshore worker providing their own swab, and they tell me that that does not feel sufficiently robust. What progress is being made to protect with testing North Sea oil workers, their families and, by extension, the national health service when they deploy offshore, and when they come home?
When workers in that category are onshore, they can use the online portal to book a test at one of the drive-through centres or mobile units, whichever is appropriate. Availability of test kits that can be posted out for people to use at home is increasing, although it still has a long way to go, and that is a obviously different and greater challenge when workers are offshore. I will certainly take away the point about how we better improve access when workers are offshore and the health secretary will come back to Liam Kerr in due course.
Shielding and Outdoor Exercise
I have been contacted by a constituent who is shielding along with her family, as her three-year-old son has cystic fibrosis. She is worried about what the immediate future may hold. She was keen to stress to me that outdoor exercise is key to keeping him well, which is similar to the situation that was raised by Joan McAlpine. What consideration has the Scottish Government given to the impact of any changes in the framework for decision making on people who are shielding? How will the Scottish Government engage with the people in that category about the impact on them of any future changes?
My answer to Joan McAlpine will to some extent cover the response to Fulton MacGregor and when we consider Joan McAlpine’s suggestion, we will make Fulton MacGregor aware of the outcome.
I will say two things very briefly. First, I absolutely recognise how difficult this is for people who are in the shielding category, particularly when they are children and their families are having to shield as a result. We want to do everything that we possibly can to make their lives easier.
The other thing that I have to say is tougher. People are being asked to shield for very good reasons, because their health condition means that they are particularly at risk from the virus. Any changes that we would make to the advice around shielding would have to be carefully considered and clinically advised and driven, which is why I want to be cautious today about raising expectations about what might be possible. We will continue to look at the issue and take the advice of our clinical advisers.
Emergency Hospital (NHS Louisa Jordan)
Aside from its original purpose as an emergency Covid-19 hospital, what consideration has been given to the role that NHS Louisa Jordan might play in helping to get our health service fully operational again. Has the Government drawn up any criteria to inform its decision making? Could the Louisa Jordan be used for orthopaedic procedures, for example?
I appreciate that this might not be the most helpful answer. That is under consideration but we have not reached any final decisions. The NHS Louisa Jordan was intended to deal with Covid patients. We always hoped that it would not be needed, and we still hope that it will not be needed, but we cannot yet rule it out for the remainder of this year, so we must not take our eye off its principal purpose. It was also intended to be a step-down facility, effectively, and not where a patient would immediately go for intensive care, although it does have intensive care unit facilities to cover the eventuality of patients deteriorating.
We have to think carefully about how that hospital is configured and what that makes it appropriate for, or not, in relation to the wider healthcare objectives. As we look to get our health service working normally again, and to tackle the backlog of certain procedures, the potential use of that hospital is one of the things that we will consider. As we take more concrete decisions around that, we will advise Parliament in the normal way.
Food and Drink Sector (Support)
Will the First Minister outline what support the Scottish Government is providing to Scotland’s food and drink industry as part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic?
We are doing two main things to help the food and drink industry. Obviously, the virus has impacted adversely on many food businesses, particularly those that are dependent on exports and the hospitality trade. First, we are providing nearly £23 million specifically to eligible seafood businesses as part of our overall package of economic support. That includes schemes for which other food businesses might also be eligible. We are also delivering common agricultural policy payments to farmers and crofters on time as part of the published schedule for 2020; notwithstanding Covid, that schedule has continued.
Secondly, we are working with the whole food industry, including retailers, to ensure that Scottish produce is getting on to shelves and to consumers to help maintain livelihoods and jobs. I take the opportunity today to thank everyone who is working in the many sectors that help to produce food and to get it to our tables for the absolutely crucial role that they are playing during this crisis.
This sector is important to Scotland’s economy, but it is also important to Scotland’s brand, to our reputation and to how we are seen in the world. I give an assurance that we will continue to work with it to provide it with support during this difficult time and as we come out of this period.
Members will be pleased to hear that that exhausts all our questions. I thank you all for your forbearance. Parliament will resume at 3 o’clock, and not at quarter to; we have an hour until then.14:02 Meeting suspended.
15:00 On resuming—