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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 10, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 December 2020

Agenda: First Minister's Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 1, Business Motion, Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motions, Decision Time


First Minister's Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. We begin today’s business with First Minister’s question time, but before we turn to questions, I invite the First Minister to update Parliament on the Covid-19 situation.

I will give a short update on today’s statistics and some other developments.

The total number of cases that were reported yesterday was 933, which is 4.7 per cent of all tests reported. Therefore, the total number of cases is 103,305. There are currently 984 people in hospital, which is 12 more than yesterday, and there are 52 people in intensive care, which is two more than yesterday.

I very much regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 50 deaths were registered of patients who had first tested positive in the previous 28 days. The total number of people who have died under that daily measurement is now 4,039. The fact that the number of deaths using that measure has passed 4,000 should cause a moment of reflection—not least because it reminds us yet again of the dreadful toll that the virus takes. Again, my condolences go to everyone who has lost a loved one.

I will briefly mention two other points. First, we will shortly publish the latest estimate of the reproduction number. We expect that it will show that the R number has fallen further below 1, which is confirmation that the restrictions that are in place are having the desired effect. That progress is why, on Tuesday, we were able to indicate that 16 local authority areas will move into a lower level of restrictions from tomorrow. That is good news, but as I have stressed already, that makes it all the more important that everyone shows caution.

Secondly, I am able to give the first of what will be weekly reports on the numbers of people who have been vaccinated against Covid. I confirm that over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday a total of 5,330 people in Scotland received the first dose of the vaccine. During those first two days, vaccinations took place in all health board areas, with the exceptions of Shetland and the Western Isles, although vaccinations in those areas will start this week.

I thank everyone who has been involved in ensuring that the programme got off to a positive start, because we know that this is a major undertaking in which there are significant logistical challenges. We will publish weekly updates on the vaccination programme, from next Wednesday onwards.

We can all be hopeful that the start of vaccinations marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic for Scotland, but the coming months will still be difficult, so we should all do everything that we can to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. I ask everyone who is in a local authority area that is moving down a level tomorrow to remember that that is a move that will bring risks, so please continue to be cautious, and try to limit your interactions with others as much as possible. The fact is that every time we come into contact with someone from another household, whether it is in a shop or a cafe or at work, we give the virus the opportunities that it craves, so we should try to limit those interactions as much as we can.

As restrictions have eased in other parts of the UK, case numbers have started to rise again; that is a real risk that we face here, too. The only way to mitigate that is for all of us to be ultra-cautious and careful, to stick rigidly to the rules and to remember that just because we can do something that does not mean, in the current circumstances, that we should.

I remind everybody that the postcode checker on the Scottish Government’s website is there for anybody who wants to know what the rules are in their area.

To summarise, I ask people, please, not to visit other people’s homes at the moment, to stick to the rules on travel, and to follow FACTS: use face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean your hands and surfaces regularly; keep 2m distant from people in other households; and self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms. As always, doing all those things is the best way we have of protecting ourselves, our loved ones and communities, and of protecting the national health service, as we go further into winter.

We turn to First Minister’s question time. I encourage anybody who wishes to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button.

Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Evidence)

On Tuesday, the chief executive of the Scottish National Party, Peter Murrell, gave evidence under oath to the parliamentary committee that is investigating the Scottish Government’s botched handling of harassment allegations against Alex Salmond. That evidence plainly contradicted the First Minister’s version of events. Whose story does the First Minister find more believable—Peter Murrell’s or her own?

I have already set out in written evidence the reasons for, and the circumstances of, my meeting with Alex Salmond. In a few weeks, I will in person answer questions from the committee on those matters. Only I can do that—only I can set out the circumstances and reasons for the decisions that I have made. The fact of the matter is that my husband had no role in those meetings and had no role in the matters that are under investigation by the committee.

Ruth Davidson might want to attack my husband and use him as a weapon against me—people will draw their conclusions about that—but it does not change the basic fact of the matter, which is that he had no role in the issues.

I am asking about that because a group of women who came forward were utterly let down by the First Minister’s Government, and the fall-out from that is still going on. If the First Minister does not want to answer for the consequences of her Government’s actions, shame on her.

Like many members of the Parliament, I am in awe of the First Minister’s ability to believe that two completely opposing versions of events can be explained away so easily. Let us get back to the evidence that was given to a parliamentary committee. In his evidence, Mr Murrell said, under oath, that

“the issue that was raised with Nicola at the time was a Scottish Government matter”. —[Official Report, Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints , 8 December; c 12.]

However, the First Minister has repeatedly claimed that the meetings were in “a party/personal capacity”. Those statements are clearly contradictory; they cannot both be correct. Which one of them is true?

Ruth Davidson is wrong in how she opened that question. I do want to answer; I have not yet had the opportunity to sit before the committee and answer. I will get that opportunity in a few weeks. Not only am I obliged to do that, I am keen to do it.

In my written evidence, I have set out the answers to the questions that Ruth Davidson has asked me. I have set out what I thought might raise immediate implications for my party in the meeting that I had with Alex Salmond, and why that turned out not to be the case.

After that, my priority was to protect the confidentiality and integrity of the process. The committee will have the opportunity to question me on that. It is right and proper that it will do so, because I care about the implications—for the women who came forward with complaints and for any women who feel the need to come forward with complaints in the future.

The inquiry is into an investigation of sexual harassment, which is why we should all treat it seriously. People who choose instead to indulge in wild conspiracy theories make it less likely, rather than more likely, that we will learn lessons from it. The fact of the matter is that it is for me to answer, because I am the leader of this Government. My husband is not a member of my Government; he had no role in those matters. It is for me to answer, so that is exactly what I will do.

As the First Minister said, the chief executive of the SNP is her husband; I was using his professional title. Under oath, he said that the meetings were Government business. However, in written testimony, the head of Scotland’s Government said that they were SNP business.

Nicola Sturgeon seems to think that all our heads button up the back, because we are being asked to accept that the chief executive of the SNP popped his head round the door to find the First Minister of Scotland—who is, coincidentally, his wife—her predecessor, Alex Salmond, his chief of staff, her chief of staff and Mr Salmond’s lawyer, all sitting, unannounced, in his living room and he never asked a single question, then or since, about what that was all about.

This morning, we learned that Angus Robertson, a former deputy leader to Nicola Sturgeon, was told 11 years ago of alleged inappropriateness by Mr Salmond. I take it that the First Minister’s line is that she had no idea about that, either—it is another allegation that just passed her by. Does she really think that that sounds plausible? Is that seriously what the First Minister is asking us to believe?

Yes—because it happens to be the truth. That might not suit what Ruth Davidson wants the situation to be, but I am afraid that that is the situation.

On conversations—or lack of them—between me and my husband, I sometimes wonder whether Opposition members are revealing more about themselves than they are about me. [Interruption.] I heard that reaction from across the chamber.

The fact of the matter is that I am First Minister of Scotland. I deal with confidential matters every day of my life. They range from national security matters through to market-sensitive commercial matters, and the whole range of things in between. I do not gossip about those things, even to my husband. I am the First Minister of the country, not the office gossip, and I take my responsibilities in that role extremely seriously.

The thing is, Mr Murrell did not just contradict the First Minister—he contradicted himself. First, he claimed that he had no prior knowledge of the First Minister’s meeting with Mr Salmond at their house, only to admit later that he had known about it the night before. That is all part of a piece: a First Minister who forgot about a meeting that she had had with Mr Salmond’s chief of staff, at which he discussed allegations of a sexual nature; who omitted even to acknowledge the existence of that meeting until it was revealed in a court of law; and who told BBC viewers that she did not know of any stories about Mr Salmond before he told her, only then to admit that she had actually been informed months before.

There is a pattern here of sharp brains suddenly turning blank, contradictions piling up, and half-answers having to be dragged out of people who should know better. The First Minister and the chief executive of the SNP are intelligent and experienced political operatives. On this one issue, why is it that they cannot get their story straight?

I do not accept that that is the case. Let me set out very clearly the situation that transpired. Back when the Scottish Government developed a process in the wake of all the #MeToo revelations, my priority was to make sure that my Government had in place a process that would allow complaints to be investigated without fear or favour. That was the right thing to do.

When complaints came forward, the Scottish Government was right to investigate them, regardless of whom they were about. When I became aware of those complaints, my priority was to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the process.

It is right and proper that the committee scrutinises the Scottish Government’s handling of the matter, and that it scrutinises my actions and decisions. I have no complaint about any of that, which is why I have put forward written evidence and why I look forward—if that is not a strange way of putting it—to the opportunity to sit in front of the committee and answer any questions that it has. It is for me and the Scottish Government to do that.

I understand why Ruth Davidson wants to drag my husband into these matters, but the fact is that he had no role. It is for me to answer the questions, which is exactly what I will continue to do.

Covid-19 Restriction Levels (Edinburgh)

We all understand that Scotland’s strategic framework says that decisions on lockdowns are based on judgments as well as facts. Do the national incident management team and Public Health Scotland not have access to the same data and intelligence that the First Minister and her Cabinet have? We know that public health officials briefed the leadership and chief executive of the City of Edinburgh Council that the city should be moved to level 2. That is not just hearsay—that is what is stated in an emergency motion that is being moved by the Scottish National Party leader of the council this afternoon. Why did the First Minister and her Cabinet vote to overturn that advice?

When we take the advice of the national incident management team, we look at all the indicators and we apply judgment to that. The chief medical officer is part of the Cabinet discussions.

I will preface my comments on Edinburgh by saying this: why on earth would I want to keep Edinburgh or any other part of the country in a higher level of protection when I did not think that there was a need to do that?

I will share with the chamber the latest data on Edinburgh. These are the figures that were available yesterday; we will get updated figures later today. Over the past seven days, the number of cases per 100,000 in Edinburgh has gone up by 14 per cent and test positivity has gone up by 0.5 per cent. Test positivity is still moderate in Edinburgh, but it has increased in five of the past seven days. The latest data show that case levels have increased in four of the past seven days. The health board breakdown of the case numbers that I reported to the Parliament a moment ago shows that Lothian accounts for the second biggest number of cases that we have reported today.

These are serious decisions that have to be taken carefully. If case numbers are rising slightly or not declining significantly enough in an area, there is a risk in easing restrictions, because the danger is that the situation will very quickly run out of control. The Cabinet reached the judgment that taking Edinburgh down a level at this stage would pose a significant risk to the overall situation, which is why we did not do that. We will review the position again on Tuesday.

We need only look across the world, across Europe and even across the United Kingdom right now to see what happens when restrictions are eased. As restrictions have been eased, there has been a slight increase in the number of cases in England, a dramatic increase in Wales and a bit of an increase in Northern Ireland. That is what we potentially face as we ease restrictions, so it is important that, before we do so, we ensure that the situation is as stable as possible.

Given the data on Edinburgh that I have just shared with the chamber, I do not think that easing the restrictions this week would have been a safe or sensible decision. I understand why people in Edinburgh wanted that to happen but, in a couple of weeks, I think that they might have had a very different view.

Even on those figures, Edinburgh is still well within level 2 thresholds. If we look at the five indicators that were published on Tuesday—the point at which the Cabinet made its decision—we see that one stayed at “moderate”, three remained at “low” and one was moving from “low” to “very low”, so why was Edinburgh treated in this way?

Here are some views from the real world. Yesterday, Louise Maclean from Signature Pubs told us:

“We were totally expecting Edinburgh to go down to tier 2. But we then had to tell just shy of a hundred people that we couldn’t bring them out of furlough.”

Innes Bolt from the Montpeliers group told us:

“We fully appreciate how contagious the virus is but hospitality in the city centre of Edinburgh is suffocating ... It’s survival mode now.”

Edinburgh has not just become an economic hub and our second biggest city in the past couple of days; it was an economic hub and our second biggest city when the Deputy First Minister indicated to the city’s council and to the local business community that Edinburgh would move down to level 2, so businesses, workers and communities in Edinburgh feel badly let down. What is the evidence, rationale or insight that justifies that decision, based on that judgment? Will the First Minister publish the advice, because the people of Edinburgh deserve more than the three bullet points that were published on Tuesday?

The people of Edinburgh deserve a Government that will take decisions to try to keep them as safe as possible from an infectious virus. I understand the impact on businesses. I deeply regret the impact of all this on businesses. A global pandemic is not fair for anyone, but it is not the restrictions that are harming the economy; it is the virus that is harming the economy. If we allow the virus to get out of control, the harm to the economy and to businesses will be deeper and longer lasting.

I have just shared with Richard Leonard and the chamber the last data for Edinburgh. Case numbers are rising again. Test positivity is rising. The fact of the matter is that, when we are dealing with an infectious virus, if we were to ease restrictions against a rising trend in infections, we would take a risk that the situation would rapidly and seriously run out of control. It would not be responsible for me, as First Minister, or for the Government to take such a decision.

We know the impact on business that the restrictions have, which is why the Cabinet Secretary for Finance announced additional support for businesses yesterday. For the sake of people, for the sake of saving lives and the national health service, and for the sake of businesses and the economy, our key and overriding priority right now must be to keep the virus suppressed.

Nationally across the country, the prevalence of the virus is falling and the reproduction number is falling, but we know that, as we ease restrictions, all that will be under pressure. As I said a moment ago, we see that to varying degrees in every other part of the UK right now. We must continue to take decisions with the utmost care, and that is what the Government and I, as First Minister, will continue to do.

This about more than just the city of Edinburgh; it is about transparency and public trust and confidence. The point is this: by overriding recommendations that are based on the available data and the advice of her own public health experts, the First Minister risks losing the trust and confidence of the public.

Too often, the Government appears to assume that people will act in an irresponsible way. That assumption is bringing businesses in Edinburgh and across the country to breaking point. The five-tier system was supposed to give people and businesses certainty and clarity, but we are seeing a return to arbitrary and ad hoc decision making. Decisions such as the one that was made this week appear to be political rather than scientific. Will the First Minister accept that not only does that undermine her stated commitment to limiting economic harms, it erodes public confidence in the Government’s message and, in the end, it will deter compliance with it?

Only one person in this exchange is being irresponsible and, frankly, that is not me. Let us take a step back and reflect on how ridiculous the content of Richard Leonard’s question was. He said that I am taking political decisions against the City of Edinburgh Council—the same City of Edinburgh Council that is led by a Scottish National Party politician. Why on earth would I do that? He said that I am taking decisions—apparently political ones—that are unpopular. Why would I want to take decisions that are unpopular if there was no need to?

I have very clearly set out the situation in Edinburgh and why it is important that we do not ease restrictions when we have a rising trend of infections and test positivity in the city of Edinburgh. If we did that, I would be standing here in a couple of weeks talking about a situation in Edinburgh that had run out of control, which would perhaps mean putting Edinburgh under level 4 restrictions. Do you know who would be first in the queue to attack me for doing that? One Richard Leonard, I suspect. The Government and I will continue to take decisions as safely and responsibly as we can.

I do not assume that people act irresponsibly. I am full of gratitude and appreciation for the responsible way in which the public of Scotland have acted throughout the pandemic. However, I do assume that an infectious virus will take every opportunity that we give it to spread. We have to limit interactions to keep the virus under control. Keeping it under control is about protecting health, protecting the NHS and saving lives, but it is also, fundamentally, about protecting businesses and the economy.

I will continue to take decisions in the responsible way that the people of this country have a right to expect.

Brexit (Medicine Supplies)

Most of us wish that we had never heard of Covid or Brexit, but it is clear that facing them both at the same time will make each crisis even worse. With or without a trade deal, we know that Brexit will be harmful, and by this weekend we might find out exactly how bad it will be.

Scotland’s health boards have warned that Brexit could disrupt their services at the time we need them most. NHS Tayside said that a no-deal Brexit could

“lead to an inability to deliver safe and effective care”,

and other boards warn of disruption to medicine supply, workforce shortages and vulnerable patients who are abroad being forced to travel home.

There have already been shortages of key medicines during the past couple of years—including morphine, benzodiazepines, hormone replacement therapy and epilepsy drugs. It is expected that those drugs and others will become increasingly hard to deliver in the months after we are dragged out of Europe. Can the First Minister assure us that Brexit will not result in a shortage of drugs or personal protective equipment in our national health service, and that working hours regulations and the longer-term loss of staff from EU countries are being taken into account in NHS workforce planning?

I am deeply and increasingly concerned about the lack of clarity over the arrangements that will apply at the end of the Brexit transition period, in only a matter of weeks.

We are exactly a year on from the general election, when the Prime Minister said that his deal was “oven ready”. Now, here we are, not knowing whether there will even be a deal. If there is a deal, it will be the bare bones and a minimalist one, and it will do real damage to the Scottish economy and society. I am deeply concerned about that.

Regarding Patrick Harvie’s specific question, I cannot stand here and give an absolute assurance that there will be no impact on our economy, society and health service if there is a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. I can assure Mr Harvie that the Scottish Government is doing everything in its power to minimise and mitigate that impact.

We have been putting medical contingency plans in place. We continue to build a national stockpile of intensive care and end-of-life medicines. We are working across the four nations to ask pharmaceutical companies to increase medicine stocks to a six-week supply. We are working through NHS National Services Scotland to ensure that adequate stocks of medical devices and clinical consumables are held in the national distribution centre. That planning will continue. The United Kingdom vaccines task force is also planning to ensure the continued supply of vaccines from 1 January.

We are doing everything that we can, but nobody should be under any illusions about how deeply damaging the end of the transition will be, whatever the circumstances, and how particularly damaging it will be if no deal is agreed between the UK and the European Union.

All of that is happening at a time of year when our national health service would be under the greatest strain anyway, but added Covid pressure in January could bring a perfect storm. Experts consistently warn that we might face a third wave of Covid in the new year. The British Medical Association and the Scottish Academy of Medical Royal Colleges have said that a rise in cases resulting from the lifting of restrictions over Christmas could overwhelm parts of the NHS, whose services are already stretched to the limit. That all comes at a time when we will be asking the NHS to deliver the Covid vaccination programme, whose rapid progress is essential to defeating the virus.

Will the First Minister tell us what additional resources will be provided to the NHS to deal with that unprecedented crisis? Will she confirm the date by which all of NHS Scotland’s front-line staff will be vaccinated?

I cannot give that date now, for the simple reason that we do not yet have clarity about what supplies of the vaccine we will have. We will vaccinate in the order of priority that the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation has recommended, and as quickly as those supplies become available.

We have supplies this week—I have given an initial report on that—and we expect to get further supplies before the end of this year. The health secretary and I had direct conversations with Pfizer earlier this week to give us a deeper understanding of that. We will vaccinate as quickly as those supplies come through. Although it is not yet certain, we are hopeful that other vaccines will receive authorisation in the weeks to come and that that will further accelerate the supplies that we have available.

We have already increased the resources that are available to the NHS to help it to deal with the consequences and implications of the pandemic, and discussion about that with the national health service is on-going.

The most important thing that we can do now for the national health service—as well as hope that we do not face the disruption of a no-deal Brexit—is ensure that we are suppressing the virus. That is why this Government continues to take tough decisions about the level of restrictions that must apply in different areas. I have just had what I think was an irresponsible line of questioning from the leader of the Labour party, who was urging me to lift restrictions against a rising trend of infections. We will not do that, because was must suppress the virus to protect our NHS and save lives.

Coronavirus Restrictions (Edinburgh)

It is important to ask questions about Edinburgh. The public health experts have seen the numbers that the First Minister read out earlier; they still think that it is safe to ease restrictions in the city.

This is the problem: the World Health Organization says that lockdowns should be used only to ease pressure on health services, because of the high level of damage that is caused by restrictions. The First Minister knows about the other harms—I have heard her talking about them—to do with mental health, jobs and poverty. I question whether it is right that people have to pay the price with their mental health or their job, or through poverty, when the advisers, the local leadership and her own framework say that it is clear that it does not have to be this way. Is there any chance that Edinburgh will move to level 2 before Christmas?

We will assess that next week, in the way that we usually carry out the weekly review. Can I just be very clear? The Chief Medical Officer for Scotland takes part in the Cabinet discussions that come to conclusions on the matter. Those discussions take account of the views of the national incident management team and of assessment of the four harms, through which we come to very difficult decisions—decisions that we think, on balance, are the right ones.

Edinburgh is not, right now, in what the WHO would describe as lockdown. I appreciate that for many people in Edinburgh it will feel as though they are, but the WHO description of lockdown is akin to the situation that the country was in earlier in the year. We have not, unlike in other parts of the UK, had to apply another national lockdown, which I hope continues to be the case. We continue to take action that will, I hope, avoid that.

I will repeat some of the statistics that I gave. Again, I preface that by asking why on earth, if I believed that it was safe, and was not to take a disproportionate risk, I would not want to put Edinburgh, or any other part of the country, into a lower level of protection. I have no interest in keeping any part of the country in a higher level of protection than is necessary. However, in the city of Edinburgh test positivity has increased over five of the past seven days and case levels have, in four of the past seven days, increased.

Again, I will make the obvious point. To take an area down a level is not a neutral act; it means that we ease restrictions, which gives the virus more opportunities to spread. Inevitably, the virus will take such opportunities to spread. If we ease restrictions based on a foundation that we consider is not stable or sustainable, the danger is that the virus would rapidly run out of control. The virus spreads and the position deteriorates very quickly, which is why we have to apply the greatest possible caution in making decisions, and why we will continue do exactly that.

The First Minister knows that I have been cautious throughout. I will continue to try to support her, but it is hard when she turns her back on the advice and on her own framework.

We have two ferries at Ferguson Marine that are 100 per cent over budget and at least four years late, with desperate island communities still missing out, taxpayers losing more than £100 million and workers being let down by catastrophic management failure in a company that is owned by the Government.

On BiFab, the First Minister boasted to the workers that she had saved their jobs, but she will not, I suspect, be back to hand out their P45s. Now, they will be able only to watch as the wind farm is built off the coast of Fife.

The Government’s industrial strategy is failing just when workers need it most. What is the new plan to revitalise our yards? I ask the First Minister, please, not to tell me that there is another working group. If the Scottish National Party’s working groups created work, we would have full employment by now.

Before we leave the issue of Covid—which I cannot do as glibly as Willie Rennie just did—I reiterate that we will continue to take careful and considered decisions on Edinburgh and in all parts of the country. However, if we do not continue to apply real caution, we might in the next few weeks and the remainder of the winter end up with the virus running out of control again. I am sure that if that were to happen, Willie Rennie would, rightly and properly, and just as Richard Leonard would, be one of the first to question why we took decisions that allowed that to happen.

On BiFab, I think that it is three years ago right now since the Government took action that meant BiFab did not close and go into administration back then. We have worked hard, invested heavily and become a minority shareholder in BiFab to try to secure a future for the yard. Unfortunately, we reached the limit of our ability legally to provide support to the yard, and the company has, unfortunately, gone into administration. However, we will continue to work to secure, if we can, a future for the yard.

I am sorry that Willie Rennie does not like the reality of how we have to work through things in Government. There are issues around the renewables supply chain that involve us getting people round the table—not least, with the United Kingdom Government, which still holds so many of the powers—in order to try to get a sustainable position in which our supply chain wins more of the benefits of our renewables potential. The Government will continue to do the hard work that is involved in that.

As far as Ferguson is concerned, the management failures happened, in my view, before the Government took the yard into public ownership—in fact, they are why we had to take the yard into public ownership. Again, if we had not stepped in to do that, all the jobs at Ferguson would have been lost. Since the Government took it into public ownership, 139 jobs have been created; more workers are working there now than when we took the yard into public ownership.

None of those issues is easy and none offers up straightforward solutions. However, we are determined to work as hard as we can to make secure companies including BiFab and Ferguson, and to do the hard work to secure supplies of work. Unfortunately, that means that we have to get other people round the table.

Brexit (Support for Food and Drink Businesses)

To ask the First Minister what support is being offered to food and drink businesses in Scotland to prepare for Brexit. (S5F-04649)

We are working with food and drink businesses and organisations to do everything that we can to mitigate the worst impacts. That includes providing guidance and support through enterprise agencies via the website, and leading efforts to develop a simpler risk-based approach to providing export health certificates for seafood exporters, for example.

However, there is no doubt that, deal or no deal, Brexit will hit food and drink businesses very hard—but it will hit particularly hard if there is no deal. The consequences of that for Scotland’s businesses could, and will, be devastating, with consumers also being badly affected.

Last month, Scotland’s food and drink industry penned an open letter to Boris Johnson, warning of

“the perilous situation facing our sector with”—

at that time—

“less than 60 days until the end of the Brexit transition period.”

We are now only 21 days away, and instead of pausing Brexit and extending the transition period, the Conservative Government is taking the UK head first towards a bad deal, or even no deal, in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis. Given that Scottish jobs and livelihoods that are on the line, does the First Minister agree that Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to stand up for Scotland’s interests?

To be fair, I say that I think that we knew that, before Brexit reared its head. However, the experience of the past period, particularly of the past few weeks, is that the UK Government seems to have failed to make any progress on Brexit negotiations, which certainly underlines that point.

I could stand here and talk for a long time about the impact of Brexit on almost all sectors of our economy, but perhaps it is better to quote the director of policy of NFU Scotland, who said that with no certainty in the future trading relationship,

“UK and Scottish agriculture finds itself on a cliff edge.”

That is the reality for swathes of our economy right now, so it is absolutely shameful that after all the commitments, promises and glib assurances that we have heard from Boris Johnson, we stand so close to that cliff edge. Let us hope that the whole UK does not go over it in the next few weeks—although I do not think that anyone who has been watching the events of the past few weeks and who saw last night’s images could have any real confidence in the UK Government, at this time.

Covid-19 (Test-booking Staff)

To ask the First Minister how many staff are employed to answer calls to book Covid-19 tests in Scotland. (S5F-04653)

Appointments for symptomatic members of the public who require a test are, in almost all cases, made through the online booking system. The provision of that service is the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government. Separate arrangements are in place through national health service boards for testing NHS staff, patients and, increasingly, care home staff, who are transferring to NHS testing as capacity increases.

I have been contacted by constituents who have waited on the phone for more than 90 minutes to book a test. That issue is really important, because a significant minority of people are unable to use the online service and may be waiting on a call. There should be no barriers, because we need everyone who has symptoms to book a test and to self-isolate to help stop the spread of the virus.

I understand that there are two helpline numbers for people to call—an 0300 number and an 0800 number. Are those lines staffed by the national health service in Scotland or through the United Kingdom Government, or both? What thought has been given to increasing the number of NHS Scotland staff handling requests to book tests?

The member is right: there is an 0300 number and an 0800 number. As I understand it, both those lines are staffed through the UK Government. The first one certainly is; I think that the second is, too, but if I am wrong about that I will clarify the position. The UK Government does not allocate staffing to a particular nation. However, as I said in my original answer, although the phone lines are there for people who cannot use the online booking service, the vast majority of tests are booked through the online facility. If any member who is having particular constituency issues raised with them passes those issues on to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, we will absolutely take it upon ourselves to look into them.

Puberty-blocking Drugs

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s position is on whether puberty-blocking drugs should continue to be administered to children in Scotland. (S5F-04641)

Decisions on treatment pathways are best made by clinicians in consultation with patients, and following all the appropriate guidelines. It is not the role of the Scottish Government to intervene in such decisions.

Young people can be considered for puberty blockers only after thorough psychological and endocrine assessment, as per the clinical guidelines, and anyone who commences them continues to receive regular psychological review and support appointments.

It is interesting that the First Minister does not think that the democratic process and the courts can overrule medical opinion, because that is exactly what happened in the High Court in England last week.

Let me say that I support every child having the right to live their best life, and the medical support to enable them to do so. However, last week’s judgment in the English High Court was specifically about children’s capacity to consent. Law and society do not deem children to have capacity to consent to sex or marriage. Last week, the High Court said that neither do they have the capacity to consent to life-altering, fertility-changing drugs until they are aged 16. However, we know that, in the Sandyford clinic in Glasgow, NHS Scotland continues to give such drugs to children as young as 11.

Given her legal background, can the First Minister tell me whether she agrees that children lack the legal capacity to give informed consent to receiving such drugs? If she does, will she use her power to instruct the national health service in Scotland to stop giving them to our children?

It would not be appropriate for me to comment on court actions or decisions that have occurred in England. As a matter of fact—it is not a matter of opinion—last week’s ruling from the High Court has no formal status in Scotland. In the case of children and adolescents in Scotland, the young people’s service at Sandyford works within the existing guidelines on the treatment of young people to which I referred in my initial answer.

Decisions on types of treatment are for clinicians to make. Jenny Marra referred to my legal background. I have no clinical or medical background, and I think it important that such matters are reserved to clinicians. If the Parliament wants to consider them in a policy sense, it is of course always open to it to do so.

We turn to supplementary questions.

Covid-19 Safety Measures (Retailers)

A number of staff from a large supermarket in Kirkcaldy have contacted me with concerns about a change to the limit on the number of customers allowed in the store in question. The store has previously limited that number to 350, but on 5 December that was increased to 963. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with major supermarket chains regarding the procedures that will be introduced to help to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and to ensure that, in the run-up to Christmas, the safety of the public and staff is prioritised before profits?

I thank David Torrance for raising that important issue. Since the start of the pandemic there has been constant and on-going engagement with retailers, including very recent contact with nine major supermarkets, to ensure safe shopping environments for consumers and to obtain updates on the measures that they have in place. Such measures include ensuring a 2m distance between customers; limiting the number of customers in stores at any one time; managing customer movement through measures such as one-way systems; the mandatory use of face coverings, including in staff communal areas; the use of barrier screens at checkouts; and enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures. It is really important that retailers follow all such guidelines and take all appropriate mitigations.

As Christmas approaches, we all expect stores to be busier at times. It is therefore all the more important over the next few weeks that the safety of both staff and customers is prioritised. I would appeal to all retailers, particularly as level 4 restrictions end at 6 am tomorrow morning across 11 local authorities, to be really responsible and to put the safety of customers and staff at the top of their agenda.

I understand that retailers want to make up for lost business and will want customers to frequent their shops. However, if we have retail situations in which the virus is able to spread, we will end up going backwards in relation to our progress on the virus generally and the retail situation in particular. I make an open appeal to retailers to bear that in mind and to make sure that they continue to put the safety of not just their staff and customers but the country as a whole at the top of their agenda.

Businesses (Financial Support)

The First Minister indicated a few weeks ago that a £30 million fund had been set up to support businesses, including taxi drivers, who do not qualify for other grants. Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance confirmed further support to the sector.

Following assurances on the initial fund, constituents in my area contacted local authorities to apply for those grants but were advised that the funds had not been received from the Scottish Government. Weeks down the line, not a penny has been paid out despite assurances to members who have asked questions in the chamber. When will hard-pressed businesses get the financial support that they rightfully deserve?

I think that the finance secretary addressed that point in the chamber yesterday when she announced £185 million of additional support for businesses. The £30 million discretionary fund allocations have been agreed and guidance has been issued to local authorities, which I understand was at the request of local authorities. It is now for local authorities to decide how they allocate that money. It is a discretionary fund that is meant to be there for the purposes that local authorities consider to be necessary.

Of course, the finance secretary also announced additional support yesterday for a range of sectors, including additional support for the taxi trade, and we will work with local authorities to get that support to affected businesses as quickly as possible.

Covid-19 Restriction Levels (Edinburgh)

The issue with the decision to keep Edinburgh at level 3 is not just that it seems to be contrary to the stated advice of public health officials; it is that the process that preceded that decision seemed confusing to all those outside it. We had days of speculation, presumably fuelled by briefings that turned out to be wrong; city leaders received advice from public health officials that turned out to be beside the point; and those same city leaders received phone calls from ministers who gave reassurances that turned out to be misplaced.

Will the First Minister review the process by which the decisions on levels are made so that it is transparent and robust, so that those consulted have their views taken into consideration, and so that the public have clarity about and trust in the decisions that are arrived at?

We review all these matters on an on-going basis and we learn lessons as we go. Things are not perfect and we need to improve as much as we can, but I have been at pains to set out the process that we follow.

At no time was the City of Edinburgh Council told that Edinburgh was going into level 2 this week. The Deputy First Minister had engagement with the city council and I do a briefing most days when I am not in Parliament. Beyond that, we do not give briefings with hints about what is happening. We stand up and talk openly about the factors that we are taking into account. I have made clear all along the factors that are taken into account; I have also made clear all along—every week in the chamber and in opportunities in between—that the final decision every week is taken at the weekly Cabinet meeting on a Tuesday morning.

The process is never easy; it will never be easy. However, we have set it out clearly and we will continue in all circumstances to take decisions that we think are the safest decisions to get every part of the country through the second wave of the virus as safely as possible.

Spectator Sports (Financial Support)

Does the First Minister recall that, last week, I asked the Scottish Government when it would announce what financial support would be available for spectator sports to help them through the winter period? Significant new support was announced yesterday for the hospitality sector and others, which is good, but I was surprised that there was no similar announcement for spectator sports. Given that, for instance, many smaller Scottish Professional Football League clubs, which employ many people, are close to crisis point, when will the Government announce such a package?

We know the devastating impact that the pandemic has had on spectator sports across the country, particularly when so many of Scotland’s sporting clubs receive a significant proportion of their income through spectators attending events. I can confirm that, later this afternoon, we will set out a £55 million package of support for various spectator sports, which will comprise a combination of grants and loans. It will include £30 million for Scottish football, with support for all levels of the game. It should be noted that top-flight English men’s football has not received financial support of that kind from the United Kingdom Government. I can confirm that Scottish Rugby will benefit from £20 million and that the package will also include funding for basketball, netball, motor sport, horse racing and ice hockey.

Taken in its entirety, the support package will be well in excess of the Barnett consequentials that were announced as a result of the investment that the UK Government announced last month.

Palliative Care Patients (Covid-19 Vaccine)

Twelve leading charities have signed an open letter backing the call of palliative care patients and their families to be prioritised during the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine. I pay tribute to Fred Banning from East Renfrewshire for spearheading the campaign. The First Minister might have read about him in the newspapers or seen his interviews. Will the First Minister agree to investigate the matter personally and to develop new guidance for clinicians on the vaccine in relation to terminally ill patients and their families? Now that we have the vaccine, it is more important than ever that those who have limited time left can spend it with their loved ones.

Yes, I will of course personally look into the letter that has been referred to. I am sure that, if we have received it, we will already be preparing a response. I understand the sentiments and the reasons behind the request that is being made. Of course, we decide the priority of vaccination based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, as do all the United Kingdom nations. The clinically vulnerable are on the priority list, and therefore I think that, under that advice, priority will be given to the groups that the member mentions. We will continue to do what we can to ensure that people who are at the end of their lives, and families who want to maximise the time that they have with loved ones, have the priority that they merit, and we will respond to the letter as soon as possible.

Supermarkets (New Year’s Day Closure)

Last night, the GMB won a day off on boxing day for all Asda workers. However, Asda has said that workers will lose a day of annual leave as a result, so shop workers are campaigning for a proper extra day off on new year’s day. In Scotland, we already have the power to give all supermarket workers a day with their families by closing large shops using the Christmas Day and New Year’s Day Trading (Scotland) Act 2007, which is a power that the First Minister supported. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that supermarket workers have been the heroes throughout the pandemic and that there is no doubt that they deserve a day off with their families. If we do not use the power this year, I am not sure that we ever will. Time is short, but there is time to do it.

Will the First Minister agree to meet me and to consider using the Scottish Government’s power under the 2007 act to give those workers a well-deserved day off on 1 January?

I will undertake to look into that and arrange for the relevant minister—if not me—to have discussions with Neil Bibby. As I have not yet had the opportunity to look at the specific request, I will not give a guarantee or assurance, other than to say that I will look at it. However, I very much agree that supermarket workers have been heroic in the course of the pandemic. It has not been easy for them, and they deserve our thanks, gratitude and appreciation. I believe that, like everybody else who has worked hard throughout the pandemic, they deserve rest and recuperation, and they deserve to be treated fairly by their employers. I will always urge employers to do that. Those are my comments in general, but I am happy to give further consideration to the specific request.

Human Rights Act 1998 (United Kingdom Government Review)

Today is international human rights day. Earlier this week, the United Kingdom Tory Government announced its intention to review the Human Rights Act 1998. It is important that we are all alive to that Tory threat to human rights protections in Scotland and to the weakening of citizens’ rights across the UK post-Brexit. Amnesty was quick to warn that

“Tearing up the Human Rights Act would be a giant leap backwards.”

What discussions has the UK Government had with the Scottish Government regarding that important matter?

I have very little information beyond what the UK Government announced on Monday. We were not consulted in advance, as far as I am aware, and we have had no role in developing the remit of the panel.

In my view, the Human Rights Act 1998 is one of the most important UK statutes ever to be enacted. It secures the rights and freedoms of every member of society, and it has served Scotland and the whole UK extremely well for more than two decades. Critically, it is also central to the devolution settlement. The review must not become yet another exercise that undermines devolved powers, which seems to be the objective of the current UK Government at every cut and turn. I do not believe that the review is necessary, and I believe that the UK Government should focus on respecting and protecting human rights, rather than seeking to undermine them.

Compensation Payments (Bullying in NHS Highland)

I am sure that the First Minister will welcome, as I do, the compensation payments funded by the Scottish Government that are being made to those who suffered bullying in NHS Highland. I support that process. Unfortunately, those payments are being administered through payroll, which means that many victims—current and past employees—are being put into higher tax brackets and that those who have lost their jobs are now losing their benefits.

The Scottish Government can make compensation payments without attracting income tax and national insurance. Does the First Minister agree that unnecessarily using the payroll system compounds the pain and suffering of, and shows no compassion to, those who have been bullied? Will she resolve the issue as a matter of urgency?

I am very happy to look at whether we could make the payments in a different way that would avoid tax implications. However, there is perhaps an easier way for the issue to be dealt with. The UK Government, which is responsible for deciding what income is subject to tax and is in charge of the majority of our benefits system, could decide to exempt such payments from tax. While it was at it, it could exempt the £500 bonus for national health service and social care workers as well.

Pfizer Vaccine (Public Information) (Autoimmune Disorders and Allergies)

As the First Minister mentioned earlier today, the roll-out of the vaccine this week is great news. Obviously, at the moment, only a limited number of doses of the Pfizer vaccine are available, but can the First Minister advise when a public information campaign is likely to start to ensure maximum vaccination take-up? What advice and guidance will be given to people with autoimmune disorders and allergies with regard to being vaccinated?

If I recall correctly, the public information campaign will start towards the end of this month. There will also be a door drop, with deliveries starting at the very start of January. I believe that, yesterday, an information pack with more information about the vaccination programme was distributed to all MSPs and placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre. I hope that that was helpful.

As we have greater certainty over the supply, we will continue to update Parliament on the progress of that. As I said earlier, from next Wednesday, we will publish a weekly report on the number of people who have been vaccinated.

As far as advice to people with allergies is concerned, yesterday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency issued advice in the wake of two—as I understand it—isolated cases in England in which individuals had a reaction to the vaccine. In both of those cases, the people involved had a history of allergic reactions. That has led to the MHRA issuing precautionary advice that people with a significant history of allergic reactions to medicines or vaccinations should not get the Pfizer vaccine at this stage. However, I know that the chief medical officers, the MHRA and, I am sure, Pfizer continue to look at the issue carefully, and I am sure that that advice will be updated in due course.

Brexit (Special Arrangements for Northern Ireland and Scotland)

The Westminster Government has said that special arrangements for Brexit provide Northern Ireland with, in the words of Michael Gove,

“the best of both worlds”.

I seem to recall that Ruth Davidson previously threatened to resign if Northern Ireland was given a special deal. Like Northern Ireland, Scotland voted to stay in the European Union.

What special Brexit arrangements is the Westminster Government providing for Scotland?

“None” is the answer to that last question. Of course, the member is right in relation to Ruth Davidson. I will quote exactly what Ruth Davidson said. She said that she

“could not support any deal that ... leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists.”

Apparently, that

“would undermine the integrity of our UK internal market and this United Kingdom.”

I can only speculate that it is amazing what the offer of a seat in the House of Lords can do to change somebody’s opinion.

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill

Today, the Justice Committee released its report on the SNP’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. It is highly critical, and it concludes that the bill as drafted is a threat to our fundamental right to freedom of speech. Does the First Minister now agree with that conclusion?

Unfortunately for the member, I read the report’s conclusion this morning, and I think that it says something along the lines that, subject to the Government agreeing certain further amendments, the committee supports the general principles of the bill. That is exactly what it says, and I think that that view was unanimous, which means that the Conservatives must have signed up to that conclusion.

The Government has already agreed to amendments to the hate crime bill. We will consider carefully the report that was published today and, if we consider it appropriate, we will make further amendments in the interests of building consensus across the chamber.

13:20 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—