Meeting date: Wednesday, October 7, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 07 October 2020
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19, Scottish Qualifications Authority National Qualifications 2020-21, Urgent Question, United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, South-west Scotland Transport Infrastructure
- Portfolio Question Time
- Scottish Qualifications Authority National Qualifications 2020-21
- Urgent Question
- United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- South-west Scotland Transport Infrastructure
Our next item of business is a statement by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Covid-19.14:51
I will now update the Parliament on the current position in relation to Covid-19. I will give an assessment of the current course of the pandemic; I will propose difficult but important temporary measures to stem the increase in cases; I will set out how we will support businesses affected by those measures; and I will update the Parliament on the longer-term work that we are doing to further improve our ability to live with Covid.
In all of that, I will be very frank about the challenges that we face and the difficult balances that we must try to strike. None of this is easy. I am acutely aware that, in every decision that we take, lives and jobs are at stake, and I assure not just the Parliament but the country that none of these decisions is taken lightly.
First, let me give a summary of the daily statistics that were published a short time ago. Since yesterday, an additional 1,054 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed. That represents 13 per cent of people who have been newly tested, and it takes the total number of cases to 34,760. A total of 319 patients are currently in hospital with confirmed Covid, which is an increase of 57 since yesterday, and 28 people are in intensive care, which is an increase of three since yesterday.
I regret also to report that one further death has been registered of a patient who had been confirmed as having the virus. The total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement is now 2,533.
National Records of Scotland has also published its weekly update today, which includes cases where Covid was a suspected or contributory cause of death. Today’s update shows that, by last Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid was 4,276. Twenty of those deaths were registered last week, and that is the highest weekly number of deaths since late June. Every single one of those deaths represents the loss of an irreplaceable individual. Again, I send my condolences to all those who are currently grieving.
Those figures illustrate the rising challenge that we again face from the virus. That challenge is starkly set out in an evidence paper that was published today by the Scottish Government’s senior clinical advisers—the chief medical officer, the chief nursing officer and the national clinical director. The paper assesses our current situation in relation to Covid and it explains, as I will try to do in this statement, why we must introduce additional measures to control the virus, why it is urgent that we act now and why we have decided on the specific actions that I am setting out today.
Before I come on to that, I will emphasise some of the more positive elements of our current position. It is important for the morale of all of us that we do not forget that progress has been made. It might not feel that way, but the situation now is better than it was in March. We are benefiting from the sacrifices that were made over the summer. By driving the virus to very low levels then, we helped to ensure that, even after several weeks of increases, the estimated total number of cases is currently just 13 per cent of the peak level back in March. The number of cases is rising, but not as quickly as it was then.
In addition, and most importantly, we now have test and protect teams across the country, who are doing exceptional work. Test and protect is now bearing much of the strain of controlling the virus.
We understand more now about how to reduce the risk of transmission, by meeting outdoors rather than indoors if possible, wearing face coverings, cleaning hands thoroughly and keeping our distance from people in other households. Although significant restrictions are still in place, which are hard and painful, we are living much more freely now than we did in the spring and early summer. We are determined for that to continue if at all possible.
I want to be clear: we are not going back into lockdown today. We are not closing schools, colleges or universities; we are not halting the remobilisation of the national health service for non-Covid care; we are not asking people to stay at home.
Although the measures that I announce today will feel like a backward step—which I know them to be in many respects—they are in the interests of protecting our progress overall. It is by taking tough but necessary action now that we hope to avoid even tougher action in future.
Let me turn in more detail to the state of the virus. The daily figures that I reported a moment ago and, more fundamentally, the evidence paper that was published today highlight the need for action. It is worth remembering that, when I updated Parliament just over two weeks ago, the average number of new cases that was reported each day was 285, which was up from 102 three weeks previously. Now, we are reporting an average of 788 new cases each day.
In addition, I can report that, in the seven days up to Monday, the number of people in hospital with Covid increased by almost 80 per cent and the number of people who died with Covid in the past week was the highest for 14 weeks. In fact, the number of deaths in the past week alone was the same as in the whole of the previous month.
The increase in the numbers of people in hospital with, and sadly dying from, Covid reflects the rise that we now see in new cases among older age groups. In the second half of September, cases rose most rapidly in the younger age groups but, in the past week, cases in people over 80 years old increased by 60 per cent, and cases in the 60 to 79-year-old age group more than doubled.
We are seeing geographic as well as demographic spread. Without a doubt, and by some distance, the highest levels of infection are across the central belt, and we are particularly concerned about Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Arran, Lothian and Forth Valley, which will be reflected in what I say later.
However, that should not obscure the fact that numbers are rising across the country. The majority of our health board areas are now recording more than 50 new cases per 100,000 of their population each week, and virtually every heath board area has a rising number of cases. The only exceptions are Orkney and Shetland, and even they have had cases in recent weeks. As we speak, a significant outbreak is taking place in the Western Isles.
The need to act, and to act across the country, is clear, as is the need to take additional action now. I mentioned earlier that the prevalence of the virus is currently around 13 per cent of its March peak. However, we estimate that the number of new Covid cases is currently growing by 7 per cent each day. The starkest warning in today’s evidence paper is perhaps that, without action, we are likely to return to the peak level of infections that we had in the spring by the end of this month.
It is also instructive to consider the experience of other countries. Our modelling suggests that we are approximately four weeks behind France and six weeks behind Spain in the resurgence of the virus. Their resurgence, like ours, was initially concentrated among younger people, but it spread to other age groups and they now see significantly more hospital admissions, more people in intensive care and more deaths.
It is to interrupt that trajectory that we must act now. Of course, we have already taken perhaps the most important—certainly, the most painful—step that we can to reduce transmission. For the past 12 days, apart from certain limited exceptions, we have not been able to meet up in each other’s homes. That measure should already be making a difference to infection rates even if, because of the time lag between the introduction of new measures and their impact, we do not yet see it reflected in our figures.
Let me take the opportunity to emphasise again today how vital it is that we all stick to that rule. It is incredibly hard for all of us not to visit friends and family, and not to have them visit us, but it is the single most effective measure that we can take to stop Covid passing from one household to another. I ask people to please stick with it.
That measure is vital, but the clinical advice which I have now received says that it is not sufficient—we need to do more and we need to do it now. To those who might wonder and—understandably—ask whether the measures that I set out today go too far, let me be clear: if this were a purely one-dimensional decision and all that we had to consider was the immediate harm from Covid, it is likely that we would go further.
However, seven months into the pandemic, I am acutely aware that that decision is not, and cannot be, one dimensional. We have a duty to balance all the different harms that the pandemic causes. We must consider the direct harm to health from the virus, which must be reduced, alongside the harm that is done to jobs and the economy, which, in turn, has an impact on people’s health and wellbeing. We also have to consider the wider harms to health and wellbeing that the virus and the restrictions that are deployed to control it are having on us all.
For all those reasons, we are applying a far more targeted approach than we did in March—one that reduces opportunities for the virus to spread while keeping businesses and other activities as open as possible. We are not recommending that people who shielded over the summer should return to staying completely indoors. We know how damaging that is to your wellbeing, but we recommend that you take extra care, especially if you live in the central belt. You can now access information about infection levels in your local neighbourhood on the Public Health Scotland website.
I will set out the additional measures that we are proposing. The measures on hospitality are intended to be in force for 16 days, from this Friday at 6 pm to Sunday 25 October inclusive—in other words, across the next two weeks and three weekends. First, with the exception of the five health board areas that I will talk about shortly, pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes will be able to operate indoors on the following very restricted basis only. They can operate during the day, from 6 am to 6 pm, for the service of food and non-alcoholic drinks only. Hotel restaurants will be able to operate beyond 6 pm, but only for residents and without alcohol.
The reason why we are not closing indoor hospitality completely is that we know the benefits in terms of reducing loneliness and isolation and of giving people, particularly those who live alone, somewhere that they can meet a friend for a coffee and a chat. However, the restrictions will be strictly applied, and all the current regulations and the limits on meeting a maximum of six people from two households in indoor public places will still apply.
Again with the exception of the central belt areas that I will mention shortly, bars, pubs, restaurants and cafes can continue to serve alcohol outdoors up to the existing curfew time of 10 pm, and subject to the 6 and 2 rule on group size. It is important to stress that there will be an exemption to those rules in all parts of Scotland for celebrations that are associated with specific life events, such as weddings that are already booked and funerals. The current rules for those will continue to apply.
Those are the new measures that will take effect nationwide. However, because of the significantly higher levels of infection in the central belt, we are introducing stricter restrictions in the following five health board areas: Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Arran, Lothian and Forth Valley. In those areas, all licensed premises—with the exception of hotels, which will remain open for residents—will be required to close indoors and outdoors, though takeaways will be permitted. Cafes that do not have an alcohol licence will be able to stay open until 6 pm to prevent social isolation. In addition, snooker and pool halls, indoor bowling alleys, casinos and bingo halls will close in those areas for two weeks, from 10 October.
Contact sports for people aged 18 and over will be suspended for the next two weeks, with an exception for professional sports. Indoor group exercise activities will not be allowed, although the current rules will remain in place for under-18s. Gyms can remain open for individual exercise. Outdoor live events will not be permitted in those five regions for the next two weeks.
Finally, we are asking people who live in those five health board areas to avoid public transport unless it is absolutely necessary—for example, for going to school or to work, if homeworking is not an option. We are not imposing mandatory travel restrictions at this stage and, specifically, we are not insisting that people cancel any half-term breaks that they have planned. However, in general, we are advising people who live in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Arran, Lothian and Forth Valley not to travel outside the health board area that they live in if they do not need to. Likewise, people in other parts of Scotland should not travel to those areas if they do not need to. More detail of all that I have just set out will be available on the Scottish Government website.
I want to set out some of the reasoning behind those decisions and, in particular, the focus on hospitality. I know that the vast majority of pubs, bars and restaurants have worked exceptionally hard over the past few months to ensure the safety of their staff and customers. I am deeply grateful to them for that, and I know how tough the albeit temporary restrictions are for the hospitality sector. However, the evidence paper that has been published today sets out why such settings present a particular risk.
The R number seems to have risen above 1 approximately three weeks after the hospitality sector opened up and, of those people contacted by test and protect, more than one fifth report having visited a hospitality setting. That does not absolutely mean that that is where those people got the virus, but it shows that such settings pose a particular risk of transmitting the virus.
That makes sense from what we know about how the virus is spread. Indoor environments, where different households from different age groups can mix, inevitably present a risk of transmission. That risk can be increased, in some hospitality premises, if good ventilation is difficult and if it is hard to control the movement of people. Of course, the presence of alcohol can affect people’s willingness to physically distance.
For all those reasons, significantly restricting licensed premises for 16 days temporarily removes one of the key opportunities that the virus has to jump from household to household—we have already restricted the other key opportunity of transmission, which is within our homes. Restricting those opportunities is an essential part of our efforts to get the R number back below 1.
It is worth noting that many other countries are now introducing restrictions on hospitality, no doubt for the same reasons. Ireland, France, Germany and Belgium have announced a variety of measures over the past few days.
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the things that we are trying to do is balance the public health harm that is caused by Covid with wider economic and social harms. I know that although the measures that we are proposing are temporary, they will have a significant impact on many businesses, and I am sorry for that. Since the Government is placing an obligation on businesses, we have an obligation to help them financially. I can announce that we are immediately making available an additional £40 million to support businesses that will be affected by the measures over the next two weeks. We will work with the affected sectors, especially hospitality, in the coming days to ensure that the money provides the most help to those who most need it and that it gets to them as quickly as possible.
For the rest of this month, businesses can still use the United Kingdom Government’s job retention, or furlough, scheme. However, it now requires a significant contribution from employers, so one of the things that we will discuss with businesses in relation to our support package is how we can mitigate some or all of that contribution.
As I have indicated, our intention is that the additional measures will be in place for just over two weeks, incorporating three weekends, from 6 pm on Friday—for the hospitality sector—until Sunday 25 October. We will, of course, keep the situation under review between now and then, and we will keep the Parliament updated.
We hope that the restrictions that are already in place and those that I have announced today will stem the increase in the number of new cases, but I cannot stress enough that, fundamentally, that is down to us all. The more that we comply with all the restrictions and advice, the more effective they will be.
As we want the measures to be temporary, it is important that we use the next two weeks to prepare, protect and prevent in order to further strengthen our resilience and ability to live alongside the virus. Therefore, I confirm that, over the next period, we will also take the following steps. We will introduce regulations to extend the mandatory use of face coverings in indoor communal settings, which will include, for example, staff canteens and corridors in workplaces. We will take action to strengthen compliance with the different strands of the FACTS advice, particularly focusing on areas where, as we know from our research, compliance is not yet high enough, such as the need to self-isolate.
I confirm that, from this weekend, we are asking shops around Scotland to return to 2m physical distancing and to reintroduce the mitigations that they put in place earlier in the pandemic, such as one-way systems in supermarkets.
We will work across all other sectors to review and, where necessary, tighten the guidance on and regulation of their operating practices.
In addition, over the next two weeks, we will conduct a further review of our testing strategy, setting out the further steps that we will take to expand capacity—already well under way—to build resilience and to extend testing to more individuals and groups of people in our society who do not have symptoms.
Finally, we will finalise a strategic framework, setting out the different levels of intervention that can be adopted in future, either locally or around Scotland, depending on how the virus is spreading. We very much hope to align the broad framework with those that are being considered by other UK nations, although each nation will take its own decisions on implementation. Subject to the Parliament’s agreement, we will put the strategic framework to a debate and vote in the Parliament in the week after the October recess.
I am well aware that the measures that I have outlined today are disruptive to many businesses—especially hospitality businesses—and will be unwelcome to many people across the country. However, although they are significant, as they need to be in order to make an impact, they do not represent a lockdown. In fact, they are designed to reduce the likelihood of a future lockdown.
We are not requiring people to stay inside all day, as we were earlier in the year. Schools will stay open. Learning will continue in our universities and colleges. Shops will continue to trade. Businesses such as manufacturing and construction will continue.
The new restrictions are intended to last for 16 days. They are intended to be short and sharp action to arrest a worrying increase in infection. However, although they are temporary, they are needed. Without them, there is a very real risk that the virus would run out of control by the end of this month. With them, we hope to slow down its spread. That will help to keep open schools and businesses, including hospitality businesses, over the winter. Fundamentally, it will also save lives.
I ask everybody across the country please to follow the new rules and continue to take the other basic steps—difficult, but basic—that we know will protect you and each other. Please do not visit each other’s homes, for now. Work from home if you can. Download the Protect Scotland app if you can and have not already done so. Of course, also remember FACTS: face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; 2m distancing; and self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms.
Sticking to all of that is not easy. After seven long months, it is harder than it has ever been. However, it is essential. It is the best way to look out for each other. Now, more than ever, we all need that spirit of love and solidarity that has served us so well.
Hard though it is to believe it right now, all the hard sacrifices that we are making will hasten the brighter days that lie ahead. The pandemic will pass, so let us do all that we can to help each other through it. Let us stick with it and, above all, stick together.
My thanks again to everybody, across the country, for everything that you are doing.
The First Minister will now take questions.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement.
Fifteen days ago, when the First Minister announced the reintroduction of national restrictions for the first time since lockdown had started to be lifted, I said that the Scottish public were steeling themselves for a long, hard winter.
In the past fortnight, people have not been allowed to visit friends or family in their homes; the number of households that they can meet in public spaces, both indoors and out, has been curtailed; businesses that were looking to reopen have remained closed, and those that had been allowed to trade again have seen their hours cut. For many, that has been a bitter pill to swallow, but they have done it, and have done it because they were told that, if they did, it would stop the rise in infections that we had started to see.
People are now being asked to give up even more. They can see that cases are rising, and they are willing to act, to stick by the rules and to do their bit. However, we need to acknowledge that the First Minister’s announcement today is putting further massive restrictions on people’s lives and livelihoods.
In the weeks ahead, the whole country will be in the firing line, perhaps no more so than in Scotland’s hospitality sector. Like other small businesses, the sector is looking to the First Minister for a clear statement of what support it can expect. Yesterday, the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland said:
“The bare minimum that those in business expect is for the Scottish Government to set out their new package of help at the same time as they detail any new restrictions.”
Today, we have had the headline figure, but we do not have what small businesses really need: the details. They cannot afford to wait. Many are running on empty; all reserves are gone. They want to know today how much their business can apply for; how they apply; and how long it will take for any money to reach them.
Those points and questions are all perfectly legitimate.
I know how tough this is for people. I am aware of that, in every single decision that I take. They are horrendously difficult decisions to take, but that is as nothing compared with how difficult it is to live with their consequences. There is not a moment of any day when that is not very much in my mind.
Before I come on to hospitality and businesses, I say that we are seeing a rising tide of infections across the UK and across Europe and the world. This is still an accelerating global pandemic. It is very difficult, and feels incredibly difficult for people right now. It is important not to underplay that. However, it is equally important not to underplay the progress that we have made, which allows us to have much more freedom now than we did in lockdown earlier in the year. It is important that we stick with the restrictions, in order to preserve that.
I pay tribute to and thank—I am sure that I do so on behalf of people across the country—the test and protect teams, which are doing so much work in every part of Scotland to bear as much as possible of the strain of controlling the virus. That is a significant step forward from the position earlier in the year.
I will make two points about hospitality. Ruth Davidson referred to small businesses, but hospitality businesses are particularly affected by my announcement. What I will say is not intended to criticise decisions that other Governments have taken, because we have taken such an approach to an extent with the 10 pm curfew, but the tendency in recent weeks has been to keep hospitality businesses open while restricting more and more what they can do. That might mean that they feel as if they are all but closed, but financial support is not being given to help them. We have decided today to take a more honest position; we are restricting hospitality further but offering significant additional financial help. That is a more honest and straightforward way of treating the sector.
The question about the package is important. I have made it clear that significant additional funding will be made available. Yesterday, I looked at options for allocating the money and decided to take a day or so after the announcement to consult the sector, so that we can hear how it thinks the money would be best allocated, what the priorities for it are and what package would best meet its needs. I do not want that process to take a long time but, given the impact on the sector, it is important to allow it to have such input. As was the case with Aberdeen, we then want the money to flow quickly to affected businesses.
We must recognise that the restrictions that have in recent weeks been placed on hospitality in all parts of the UK have not come with additional financial support. We are changing that today and ensuring that the burden that such businesses will bear in the next two weeks is reflected in the support that we provide.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement.
The hospitality sector is not Sodom and Gomorrah, and it should not be treated as such. Why does the First Minister not consider closing businesses that do not comply with guidance instead of shutting every business—businesses that serve 70 per cent of the population and include those that comply fully? Where is the evidence that Covid is spreading in all hospitality settings to warrant a blanket ban on all such establishments? What are the terms for the review after the initial 16 days? How will the Government distribute the £40 million for mitigation for hospitality businesses that are forced to shut? If the First Minister is having a consultation, will she speak to trade unions? Will she take it into account that every worker and every business should be covered for all their losses, including young workers, many of whom are on minimum hours or zero-hours contracts?
I will touch on Richard Leonard’s questions about finances. I said in answer to Ruth Davidson that we are taking a day or two to talk to the sector so that we allocate the money in the way that it thinks will best help affected businesses. It is important to do that.
Let me stress that we are digging deep to provide support, because we think that that is the right and necessary thing to do, given the restrictions that are, inevitably, being announced today. We are also seeking to work with the UK Government for additional support to be made available across the four nations—the other devolved Administrations are pressing that point again—for any steps that we have to take in future, because our budget is finite and it is not possible for us to continue to take such compensatory steps beyond where we are right now.
Of course we will talk to the trade unions—we talk to the trade unions in everything that we do—but we want to ensure that the money gets to businesses as quickly and effectively as possible.
On the point about evidence, I do not know whether Richard Leonard has had the opportunity to see the evidence paper that the chief medical officer, the chief nursing officer and the national clinical director prepared and published today—he perhaps has not had the opportunity, because it was published shortly before my statement. The paper looks at the evidence that we are putting forward for the focus of these restrictions. This is not hospitality’s fault; nobody is pointing the finger of blame.
Two things are important to point out. One is that, because genomic sequencing is required, we cannot say—in any case of the virus, although test and protect interview people when they test positive to find out where they have been—that, because a person has been in a pub or restaurant, they caught the virus there. However, it shows that there has been an exposure and that they have been somewhere that they could have caught it, or transmitted it when they were positive.
The other is that because of some of the characteristics of hospitality—sometimes there is poor ventilation, or places in which people with alcohol are mixing more and not maintaining physical distancing, even in premises where a significant effort has been made to comply with all the regulations, as the vast majority have done—these are higher-risk settings for the virus to transmit.
If we want to make a big impact on arresting the rise in cases, there are two things that my advisers say we have to do. We have to limit interaction between households in domestic settings—that is what we have done—and limit interaction between different households and between people generally in other settings in which they are likely to come together. Obviously, that includes hospitality.
None of this is easy or straightforward, and there are no straightforward, easy solutions. However, we must arrest this increase to have and retain as much normality as we can for individuals and businesses as we get deeper into the winter.
On the review, it is our firm intention that these measures will be lifted at the end of two weeks. I am not saying that I will first come back to Parliament and say that; they will be lifted at the end of the two-week period. Obviously it stands to reason that we will monitor the virus between now and then, and if there are any changes to any of that, we will report to Parliament. However, our intention is that these are time-limited measures.
Absolutely everyone will recognise that these new restrictions are regrettable, but, in the face of the rising number of infections, I believe they are necessary. However, the situation reinforces the need for continued support for people’s incomes—workers’ incomes, not just the incomes of business owners.
The job support scheme is clearly not a sufficiently flexible replacement for furlough, given the need for local and national measures to meet Scotland’s particular circumstances. Therefore, I endorse the call on the First Minister to ensure that the £40 million that she has announced is not only available for business owners but supports the employees in hospitality businesses whose incomes will be affected.
I also note the success that people around the world have seen in New Zealand. By showing strong leadership—leadership that I think we should follow—it has, for the second time, achieved elimination of community circulation of this virus. It is now able to lift restrictions because they were imposed quickly and clearly enough to drive down infections. That is a lesson that we and other countries should take seriously.
I also welcome the review of testing that the First Minister announced. As the First Minister knows, the Greens have persistently raised that issue with the Scottish Government.
We are all aware of the shortcomings of the UK testing system. Will the First Minister tell us more about the work that is being done to build capacity in NHS Scotland to conduct that testing, and does she agree that the review that she has just announced must look at a wider role for regular, routine testing of groups within the population?
Let me address each of those points. First, on the point about giving support to workers as opposed to only businesses, I absolutely agree. In my statement, I specifically said that one of the things that we want to talk to businesses about is ensuring that our financial package can help with the contribution that businesses now have to make to the job retention scheme, which is greater than it was in weeks gone by.
For the rest of this month, businesses can still make use of that scheme and re-furlough workers, but they have to pay a bigger contribution. Therefore, we hope that the package will help make a contribution to that, which will, by extension, help employees of those businesses.
It is absolutely imperative that we see further action from the UK Government on support for wages for businesses that will continue to be affected by Covid. It is also important that it gives further financial support, not only to Scotland but to Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England, when restrictions have to be imposed.
This week, there have been positive four-nations discussions about that, and I hope that we will see progress in the not too distant future.
On one level, I very much agree about New Zealand—I think that there is a lot to admire about it generally and about its current leadership, although I probably should not go too much further than that, given that there is an election there at the moment. However, New Zealand has not been without its trade-offs. Every country is making trade-offs. Although New Zealand has a different approach domestically, its borders are completely closed and people cannot go in or out without, at the very least, observing very strict quarantine. Obviously, we are not geographically the same as New Zealand, and there are different issues at play, given Scotland’s integration not just with other parts of the UK but with Europe more generally. No two countries are identical. We look to learn from all countries where we can, but we have to adapt to our circumstances, which is what we are seeking to do.
We are in the process of creating a number of regional hubs that will significantly increase NHS testing capacity. We are already transferring care home testing to the NHS in order to give us more capacity through the UK system. The increased NHS capacity will give us more scope to expand regular routine testing of asymptomatic groups in the population, where that is clinically advised—I will keep stressing that point. We are already looking at further groups in the NHS and we will consider that for the wider population as well, but it is important that any such testing is clinically advised, and my clinical advisers would say that it does not always make sense to do it in every part of the population. However, once we have carried out the review that I referred to, we will update the Parliament on the next steps that we will take.
I have personally complimented the First Minister on her communications, and I continue to support the cautious approach. However, like many people across the country, I am now frustrated and disappointed. Why have we had rumours and hints of greater restrictions for weeks but no up-front evidence or debate? We now have a new set of complex measures that are being rushed through in a matter of days, with little evidence of the likely impact. What has happened to the route map, and what now for the elimination strategy?
People made sacrifices for longer here, but the Government did not use that extra time well to get ready. For instance, why has it taken until now to agree to asymptomatic testing? To many people, the approach no longer feels like a strategy; it feels like a series of knee-jerk reactions. I want to work with the First Minister to get it right, but we need a new route map that is endorsed by the Parliament and that everyone can understand. Will she agree to that?
Not only will I agree to it, but I announced in my statement that, the week after the October recess, we will bring a new strategic framework to the Parliament for debate and a vote. All four UK nations are working on similar approaches. We hope to align with a strategic framework, although it will be down to each nation to decide which levels of it are implemented in which nation or in different parts of each nation. That will come to Parliament the week after the October recess.
I understand that people are frustrated and depressed. I share the frustration and depression about all of this situation, although I understand that it is much harder for many people across the country than it is for me. However, as I keep saying—it is a statement of the obvious—we are in a global pandemic.
On the specific and legitimate points that Willie Rennie raised, I constantly have a debate in my mind about the balance to strike in relation to being open and discursive with people before we reach decisions in order to give an insight into the challenges that we are grappling with and the factors that we are taking into account. That is what we have done over the past couple of weeks. That can lead to speculation running away from us, which, again, is understandable. The alternative to that would have been just to keep it all to ourselves and then come here today and announce things without any open discussion of the challenges.
We will continue to try to get that balance right. Increasingly, measures are complex but, again, there are difficult balances there. We can be simple and hard or we can be a bit more targeted but recognise that the price of that is a bit more complexity. In our judgment, we had to do what we have done for the central belt today. The simple thing to do would have been to apply that across the country, but that would have been much too hard for the non-central-belt parts of the country. That is where some of the complexity comes from.
I have tried to articulate the elimination strategy to Willie Rennie before, and I will have a brief go at doing so again. It has always been our strategy to eliminate the virus in the sense of getting it to the lowest possible level. The challenges of doing that ebb and flow, depending on the range of restrictions that we have in place and are prepared to live with; in addition, of course, we now have the winter effect. It is still our objective to get the virus to the lowest possible level—in fact, the Governments of the four nations of the UK are now signed up to a strategy that is about suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level. That is why we are putting additional restrictions in place. If we were happy to let the virus spread of its own free will, we would not be doing that. It is because we suppressed the virus so far over the summer that, although we are in a difficult situation at the moment, we are not in an out-of-control situation. We would already have been in such a situation if we had not suppressed the virus so far in the summer.
On asymptomatic testing, we test asymptomatic groups: we test workers in care homes every week, regardless of whether they are symptomatic, and we test groups of NHS staff, regardless of whether they are symptomatic. We also do surveillance testing. Driven by clinical advice, what we are going to do now—we had always intended to do this, because we regularly review our testing strategy—is look at where we can go next to extend testing to asymptomatic groups of the population. As I said to Patrick Harvie, we will update the Parliament on that once we have had the opportunity to do the review.
As many as 17 members would like to ask a question, so I hope that we can make progress.
The evidence paper that has been published by the chief medical officer today makes a compelling case for action, and today’s case numbers show that, sadly, there is indeed a need to act urgently. Is the First Minister content that the package of measures that she has announced today goes far enough in seeking to bring the virus under control?
By way of context, I mention that, this afternoon, it was announced that all pubs and cafes in Brussels are to close completely for one month.
Annabelle Ewing is absolutely right in what she said about Brussels. Earlier this week, the Irish Government decided, in effect, to close indoor hospitality venues in all parts of the Republic of Ireland; I think that, in Dublin, outdoor hospitality venues are closed, too. Therefore, we are not out of step. Many countries are having to take such difficult decisions. I think that it is better to be firm in taking them and to take them early in an attempt to arrest the spread of the virus than it is to wait longer and find that that is much more difficult to do.
Annabelle Ewing asked whether I am confident that the measures that we have taken will get the virus under control. What we are seeking to do with the very restrictive measures that are in place with regard to household interaction and hospitality is reduce the risk of transmission in the highest-risk settings. That is very much about arresting the growth in cases and starting to bring the virus back under control. If those measures are to succeed and we are to bring the virus back under control and keep it there, all of us will need to continue our efforts. As well as adhering to the specific restrictions that I have announced today, all of us must ensure that we continue to work from home if possible, that we comply with all the aspects of test and protect—self-isolation in particular—and that we follow all the other strands of the FACTS campaign. Strengthening compliance will be one of our other objectives over the next two-week period.
The First Minister said that household transmission is the principal way in which the virus is spread. She said that the restrictions to reduce that should be making a difference, but that is not yet reflected in the figures. Household restrictions were introduced in the Glasgow City Council area and two other local authority areas six weeks ago. Given that timeframe, is the First Minister able to comment on whether those household restrictions are effective?
The public health experts who advise the Government tell us that they think that there is evidence of those measures being effective; there is evidence that the measures that have been in place for longer in those west of Scotland areas have blunted the increase in cases.
However, the public health experts also say that the data is complicated—in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area, in particular—because of the large outbreak among students that we have seen in recent weeks. They believe that the evidence exists; is just that it is not easy to see in the overall data because of various factors that are in play.
I understand that the chief medical officer and the national clinical director—I will be corrected if this has not yet been set up or confirmed—will offer a briefing to party leaders or their representatives later on, in which they will be happy to go into some of the detail of the data, if that would be of interest to members.
The First Minister mentioned a number of countries that have been looked at in relation to the hospitality sector. Given the varying rates of Covid-19, and how it is growing and spreading a lot faster in some countries than in others, what can be learned from other countries about how to tackle the pandemic? Are there any countries in particular that the First Minister feels we should look to?
We look at a range of countries across Europe and further afield. I think that there are things that we can learn from many countries, but all countries are having serious challenges with the pandemic.
New Zealand has been mentioned. We have tried to learn from its focus on driving the virus down to the lowest possible level, although the circumstances there, particularly in terms of geography, are very different from ours.
We have looked at actions that have been taken in some European countries in recent times to try to limit the disease’s spread. Again without criticising the Government in any other country—because, my goodness, we are all struggling with this—to be frank, I say that one of the lessons that I would draw from France and Spain is that action was perhaps not taken quickly enough to do some of the things that we are talking about to bring the disease’s spread more under control. Of course, I do not know all the detail of what those countries are doing.
We try to look for the positive things but also for things to avoid. However, this is a global pandemic that is still accelerating in most parts of the world. All countries are struggling with it, so we all have to continue to learn from each other as best we can.
Contact tracing is crucial to preventing the spread of Covid-19. Two cases have been reported to me this week. In one, the person tested positive for Covid-19, but five days later he had not been contacted. The other person was in direct contact in a car, for at least an hour, with someone who tested positive. A week later, he had not been contacted to be told to self-isolate. The latest data tells us that a third of people are not being contact traced within 48 hours, and my constituents waited longer. If people do not know, they do not self-isolate, so the virus spreads.
One health board recruited contact tracers on the basis of there being seven cases a day. On Monday, they dealt with 130 positive cases. Is not it the case that not enough contact tracers have been recruited to cope with existing demand? How many more contact tracers will be in place by the end of the month, when restrictions are lifted?
No—that is not the case. We have resources in place across the health boards. We also have the national contact tracing centre that assists health boards, and we will continue to expand that resource as and when we need to. I have already set out many times what we did in creating the pool within health boards then replacing that pool with permanent recruits along the way. That capacity is in health boards.
I say to Jackie Baillie—and, in fact, to all members—that, if they are being contacted by constituents who believe that they should have been contacted by test and protect but have not been, those constituents should not wait to tell us that, but should get in touch so that we can follow it up straight away.
Good. I will make sure that that is followed up.
We have expert test and protect teams across the country. What we are finding—the information is publicly available, so people can compare and contrast different parts of the UK—is that more than 90 per cent of index cases’ contacts are being successfully traced and followed up from the minute a positive case goes into the case management system. That is very positive.
Of course, there will be difficulties in some cases, and sometimes errors will be made. No system is absolutely infallible, but test and protect is working really well and it deserves our credit and gratitude. There are issues, but things have improved and we continue to work with the UK Government to make sure that the time from a person’s being tested to the result going into the case management system is as short as possible, and that turnaround times continue to improve.
Test and protect teams are doing a great job; I really do think that they deserve our support and our thanks.
Self-isolation can be incredibly tough, but it is essential in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus and, ultimately, to save lives.
However, people should not have to make the choice between self-isolating and supporting themselves financially. What support is the Scottish Government providing at this challenging time to ensure that people do not fall into financial hardship? Will the Scottish Government continue to press the UK Government for clarity on consequential funding for the support scheme that was recently announced?
The support scheme is the key way by which we will help people on low incomes to self-isolate if they are asked to do so. It is a payment of £500 that will be administered through the Scottish welfare fund, and will be targeted particularly at people who are on universal credit, although some flexibility will be needed in order to reach others who are in need.
We are also working with local authorities to make sure that everybody who is given advice to self-isolate is proactively contacted, so that if they need help with delivery of food or medicines—even if they do not need financial help—that can be provided. We are asking people to do a very difficult thing in self-isolating for 14 days, so it is essential that they have the help that is needed.
We continue to pursue consequential funding for the support scheme with the UK Government. As I said earlier, we are in discussions about additional support that we think will be necessary, and about reconciliation of the consequential funding that has been made available for the pandemic so far. That money is being fully utilised in Scotland, so any new scheme, such as the support scheme, requires additional support through the consequentials stream.
The First Minister confirmed that the additional restrictions will be in place until 25 October. What happens after that date will be of equal importance and interest. Will the whole of Scotland return to the current levels of restrictions, or will higher-level restrictions be maintained in some or all of the country? More important, whatever is decided, when and how will businesses and the general public know what the restrictions are? If we are going to close businesses, if nothing else we owe them the decency of adequate notice of when they can re-open.
Jamie Greene has done me a service, because I did not mention, as I should have, that, as things stand, when the additional restrictions cease on 25 October, we will go back to the current level of restrictions. The household restrictions will remain in place; the hospitality restrictions will end. I am not going to stand here and give a 100 per cent guarantee and say with certainty that nothing in a global pandemic will change over those 14 days, but that is our firm intention, now.
On how we will update people, particularly over the recess, I give a daily update, despite the best efforts of some people. I do that so that I can give information directly when we are changing restrictions, in order that people know the rules that we are asking them to follow. I have no plans to stop that over the October recess.
Can the First Minister comment on plans to support hospitals, such as the Inverclyde royal hospital in my constituency, in dealing with the normal increase in patient admissions over the winter months while they must also support patients who are admitted with Covid symptoms?
All hospitals are being supported to ensure that they have capacity to deal with Covid-related admissions. The figure that I gave today for hospital admissions for Covid should make us all sit up and take notice. Once again, more than 300 people are in hospital with Covid.
However, we are also supporting hospitals to make sure that they can remobilise and care for people with non-Covid needs. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is working very closely with the NHS on remobilisation and winter planning. I think that she will make a statement to Parliament in the week after recess with an update on all that work.
Earlier this week, I spoke with senior management of Greene King, which owns Belhaven brewery and pubs and is based in East Lothian. It reported that only a handful of test and protect contacts had been raised with its many premises. The First Minister’s evidence for today’s measures says that one in five contacts had been to a hospitality setting. Can she say how many that actually was?
I cannot do that off the top of my head, but I will be able to give Iain Gray that figure later. Some of the material is in the evidence paper that we published today. Members will be able to see the relative figures.
It is really important to stress—this is part of the difficulty; I am trying to be genuinely helpful—that when the test and protect team interviews somebody, that person will say, as we can imagine from our own lives, “Yesterday I was here, the day before I was there and this morning I have been here.” There will be multiple possible exposures. It is not the case that, because somebody has been in a pub, we assume that they necessarily got it in a pub. It is a possible exposure, and the percentage of people who mention being in hospitality settings shows that those are places where people, if they have Covid-19 without knowing it, are at risk of transmitting it.
I will see whether we can get the actual figures for Iain Gray later on. I apologise—I do not have them at the front of my mind right now.
Joan McAlpine is joining us remotely.
This week, I met the Scottish hospitality group, whose members employ thousands of people in my constituency and beyond. The businessmen argued that well-run hospitality is safer than household socialising. Does the published clinical research support that? They also said that the restrictions would mean permanent closures and redundancies, so I welcome the £40 million package of support.
Given the disproportionate effect of the restrictions on hospitality businesses compared with other businesses, such as supermarkets, which profit from the closure of hospitality venues, how will the Scottish Government engage with the hospitality sector, including the Scottish hospitality group, on how the money allocated to support it will be distributed?
That engagement will take place very quickly with the key stakeholders in hospitality. We are not talking about a complicated and lengthy consultation, but about ensuring that the money is allocated in a way that the sector thinks is appropriate and will deliver the best help.
On the question whether hospitality is safer than households, I am not sure that we can describe anything as 100 per cent safe in the context that we are in with the virus, but we have always accepted that regulated environments present fewer risks than unregulated environments. That is why we have restricted interactions within people’s own homes first of all.
However, we also know that, in other settings where people come together, households mix and there are people of different age groups, and where ventilation is perhaps not particularly good, and—I do not mean this in a pejorative or judgmental way in any sense—alcohol is involved and people are disinhibited, it can be more difficult to physically distance. All of that means that, not through their own fault but simply because of the nature of the environment, hospitality settings are places in which people who have the virus are more likely to transmit it than they would be walking around a supermarket.
That said, there is a need for supermarkets—I indicated this in my statement—to go back to some of the more stringent mitigations that they had in place earlier on in the pandemic. That is why we are asking them to return to 2m physical distancing.
How was the additional £40 million in business support calculated? Will it be enough to safeguard every job and business impacted by the restrictions? On what date will the first of those businesses receive funding?
I am not going to give the date yet, because we have not had the discussion with the sector that I have already talked about. However, we want that money to go to businesses as quickly as is feasible. It is in nobody’s interests for that to be any other way.
On how the figure was calculated, obviously we have made assessments of the number of hospitality businesses and the kind of restrictions involved, and the remainder of the furlough. However, I will be brutally honest: the money is to some extent limited by the availability of funding in the Scottish Government. That is why I hope that Maurice Golden and his colleagues will join us in making the case to the UK Government for the need for greater consequentials to allow us to do more.
We believe that that support will significantly help hospitality businesses, given that the measure is temporary. Obviously, if the measure were extended—I do not intend that, and I hope that it will not be—we would need to look at things again. However, the fund is intended to mitigate losses over a two-week period.
The First Minister has always been clear that the Government would seek a balance between protecting health and the wider costs of lockdown to the economy and people’s lives. We are facing the most difficult decision point yet if we want to settle and suppress the virus ahead of the winter. Can the First Minister outline the rationale and the scientific basis that drove the Scottish Government’s decision, as set out in her statement?
The rationale and the basis for that are set out in the evidence paper that I have spoken about, which I have tried to summarise in the remarks that I have made.
I am not a scientist or a public health expert, and one of the difficult things that I have had to learn over the past few months is that science takes us only so far in any of these decisions. I think that all of us as decision makers strive for a situation in which science will make the decisions for us, but it cannot. Basically, it tells us how the virus spreads, where it is most likely to spread and what can be done to mitigate it; we then have to make difficult decisions on the basis of that. There are limited things that we can do to try to stop the virus spreading; the most important thing is that we do all of them.
That is down to all of us as individuals; there is also the burden that is being borne by some businesses across the country. The good news is that, if we do all those things, we know from the summer that we can suppress the virus. That is the challenge for us, albeit in more difficult circumstances, because we are not in strict lockdown and the weather and winter challenges will be different. However, we have other things to bring to bear, such as test and protect. If we all do what we are being asked to do and test and protect does the rest for us, we can bring the virus back under control. I am as certain of that as it is possible to be during a global pandemic.
The First Minister said that she is providing additional funding to support businesses that are affected by today’s measures, not least hospitality and tourism, which face decimation.
Does the First Minister understand that, even before today, many businesses were already crippled because of existing restrictions that prevented them from opening, including outdoor residential education, soft play centres and many more? What support will those businesses get as a result of the announcement today? How far will the £40 million go? For example, will it include gym instructors who will no longer be able to provide classes?
I do not underestimate the impact of any of the restrictions. I remind members that, in saying that, I am not trying to minimise the impact, but it is important to remind people that, with gyms, for example, we are talking about a two-week period. The fund is there to mitigate, as far as it can, losses that result from the measures that we have announced today, including for any business that is affected by those measures.
I am acutely aware of the impact across other sectors that are not affected by what we have announced today but which continue to be affected by previous decisions.
We are trying to make the available funding that we have go as far as possible, but it is finite. I keep making that point because it is a statement of fact. I hope that members across the chamber, regardless of politics or affiliation, will get behind us as we make the case to the UK Government that significant additional financial support is needed for many sectors across the economy.
Without saying so, the First Minister believes that it is the consumption of alcohol indoors in hospitality settings that is a major cause of the spread of the virus. Could she publish the evidence that has led her to that conclusion?
Why do cafes, pubs and restaurants have to close completely for 16 days—for instance, they could voluntarily accept a ban on alcohol and concentrate on food and soft drinks instead—whereas cafes that do not have a licence and ordinarily sell food and soft drinks can remain open? That does not seem to me to be logical or make sense. Could the First Minister consider giving cafes, pubs and restaurants the option to remain open if they so choose, as long as they remove alcohol?
They will have that option outside the central belt. We have to take tougher measures in the central belt, because this is also about limiting the volume of people coming together. That is why we are going further in the central belt than we are going elsewhere.
Trust me—I am not trying to make judgmental statements about alcohol. People say—and I understand this; I demand it all the time of the Government’s clinical advisers—“Give us the evidence.” However, we get to a point where some of this is just common sense. We all know that, in certain circumstances, complying with certain restrictions is more difficult. [Interruption.]
Mike Rumbles is saying that there has to be evidence. There is a lot of evidence, and we are publishing a lot of it today. Scientists across the world are publishing evidence all the time. I am not saying that evidence is not important—it is crucially important; I am making the obvious point that there are some matters to which we also have to apply our common sense.
At the heart of this is an infectious virus. We know how it transmits, so we know how to try to stop it transmitting, and we know the circumstances in which it is more difficult than in others to do that.
Evidence is important, and we are publishing as much of that as we can, but, ultimately, we all have to apply a bit of good old-fashioned common sense as well sometimes, and we are trying to get the balance around that as right as possible.
We have heard that the UK and Scottish Governments are considering moving to a levels-based approach, which could be applied nationally or regionally. Does the First Minister agree that one way to solve the financial problems could be that moving to specific levels of restriction would trigger support from the Treasury? Would she urge the UK Government to look at that approach?
Yes, I would. That is a very sensible way of looking at it. The good news is that that discussion is under way. It is still at a reasonably early stage, but it is quite positive on a four-nations basis. It is about an aligned strategic framework under which financial support is triggered by the level that an area is at, although it would be for the Governments in each of the four nations to decide which level all or part of each of our countries was at at any particular time.
Ireland has a five-level system. If we had levels—although I am not pre-empting the level that we will put to Parliament, because discussions are still to be had on that—we would probably be at around level 3, as Ireland is. That is the kind of approach that we are working on across the four nations, and I hope that Parliament will be able to debate that early after the recess.
First Minister, in your statement you said that people in the five central belt health boards could not travel outside their health board areas. However, many people across the country will not be aware of what constitutes the health board that they are living in. What advice will the Scottish Government be giving to people on the territorial extent of the health board that they are living in and on where they can and cannot travel to? Can you also set out how preventing travel between health board areas will be enforced?
Very specifically, I did not say that people “cannot travel”. We thought carefully about mandatory travel restrictions, and we are not putting them in place at this stage. I had a discussion with party leaders the other night, in which I thought that the view was expressed that, if it was possible, we should not have mandatory travel restrictions. We have tried to accommodate that view. We are not saying to people in those health board areas that they cannot travel. I am not saying to people in those areas that, if they have an October holiday break planned, they cannot go. We are saying to people in those health board areas, “Think carefully about whether your travel is essential. If you don’t need to travel outside your local health board area, don’t do it.” To people in other parts of the country, we are saying, “If you don’t need to, don’t travel into those areas.”
There are always challenges with telling people to stay in their local authority or health board area. None of us has in our head the exact geographical boundaries. We will put advice on the Scottish Government website, with postcodes and maps of the areas for people to look at. The first time we did that was when we had local restrictions in place in Gretna and Annan. That was very successful, and we will seek to do the same now, to give people the guidance that they will be looking for.
In attending churches around the country, my experience has been that they have been very strict about adhering to the guidelines, and I think that that is true of other faith groups as well. I am grateful that there are to be no further restrictions on faith groups at the moment. Can the First Minister offer any encouragement to faith groups about their continuing adherence to the guidelines and about moving forward?
I am very pleased that we have not had to impose any further restrictions, or to re-impose restrictions, on worship and faith groups. It is important that we try not to do that. I will be candid, though: it is one of the things that we had to consider for the central belt over the past few days, although I decided not to do it.
My appeal to faith groups is to be very rigorous in their application of the guidance in their places of worship—as I know they are already being—to make sure that the risks that are undoubtedly there when people come together in any setting are minimised as far as possible. If that happens, I will be very hopeful. I am very keen that, as we go through the different stages of the pandemic, we do not have to impose further restrictions on faith and worship.
I do not know who was responsible for the kite flying and briefing over the past few weeks, but they should be ashamed of themselves, whoever they are, given the impact on those who are already fearful for their futures. I trust that the First Minister will sort those people out.
Many people will immediately be without work, and, because of the nature of their contracts, they will now be left with little or no income. What Scottish Government support is in place to directly help those workers now, many of whom are on the minimum wage and have little or no job security? They have been seeking to implement the ever-changing rules, and their reward has been a blanket ban. And what will success look like? In Glasgow, for example, the closedown coincides with schools being on holiday, so it will surely be difficult to see accurately what has caused the change if there is any.
I guess that the people whom Johann Lamont is inviting me to “sort out” are advisers to me and the Government who, right now, are working around the clock to help this country through a pandemic. I will certainly not sort them out; I will continue to be deeply grateful for every single thing that they are doing. That was a disgraceful thing to ask of me.
I will not stop discussing openly the things that we are contemplating doing. Although I recognise the risks and the downsides to that, it is important that we are as open as possible with people across the country, not just about what we are having to consider but about the difficult balances we are trying to strike. People are capable of understanding that. This is really difficult for everybody, but the more that we can give an insight into the decision-making process and the challenges that are involved in that, the better people will be able to understand, and the better that people are able to understand, the better we can persuade them to comply with the difficult things that we are asking them to do.
I might have missed this in her statement, but I ask the First Minister to tell Parliament whether the new regulations will have any impact on the current regulations on key relatives visiting those who are in care and nursing homes, particularly in Ayrshire. If there is new guidance on visiting to be issued, when will it be published?
Before I answer John Scott, I should say that, just before I sat down, Johann Lamont reminded me from a sedentary position that I had not addressed part of her question. She asked what we are going to do for workers. I have addressed that question by referring to the financial support that we are making available. I remind her that the people that she has just invited me to “sort out” are also workers. Perhaps it would be good if she bore that in mind.
John Scott raises an important question. We hope that the current state of the virus will not have an impact on the advances we are seeking to make in visiting patients in hospitals and residents in care homes. In fact, just as this is about keeping schools open and keeping as many business open as possible, part of the reason for making these restrictions to stem the spread of the virus is to protect our ability to keep moving forward and to get much more normality into the ability of people to visit their relatives in care homes. That is really important to us, and the health secretary is taking the matter extremely seriously.
That concludes questions on the First Minister’s statement. I encourage members who are leaving the chamber to be careful and to observe social distancing on leaving the chamber, particularly when going down the stairs into the garden lobby. I also encourage members to wipe down their seats if they are leaving and another colleague is coming in. There are restricted numbers of members in the chamber at the moment, so please wipe down your seat if another member is taking your place.
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