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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 12, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 November 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Rural Payments Strategy 2020-21, Environment Bill, Pre-release Access to Official Statistics (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time, Correction


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. Our first item of business is First Minister’s question time. Before we turn to questions, the First Minister will update the Parliament on the Covid-19 situation.

Many thanks, Presiding Officer. I will give a short update on today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,212, which represents 6.1 per cent of all tests reported yesterday. The total number of cases therefore now stands at 77,660. Of the new cases, 474 are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 231 are in Lanarkshire, 141 are in Lothian, 76 are in Fife, and 76 are in Ayrshire and Arran. The remaining cases are spread across eight other health board areas.

There are 1,207 people in hospital, which is 28 fewer than yesterday, and there are 98 people in intensive care, which is five more than yesterday. Also, I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 45 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that daily measurement is now 3,188. Again, I want to convey my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

We will also shortly publish the latest estimate of Scotland’s R number. We expect that that will show that the R number in Scotland is still hovering around 1 and might actually now be slightly below 1. That suggests that some progress has been made in recent weeks, and it reinforces the message that we are seeing from some other indicators. The current tough measures, and people’s compliance with them, are undoubtedly having an effect. However, we must be aware that the national figures mask some very significant regional variations, which is, of course, why the levels approach is appropriate.

As I said on Tuesday, we are concerned, first, about local authority areas in which transmission of the virus is rising again, albeit from a relatively low base. Those include some areas in levels 1 and 2 where the restrictions are not as tight, so the virus has more opportunity to spread. I ask people in those lower-level areas not to drop their guard. They must still take care and abide by the rules.

Secondly, we are also concerned about some areas—particularly across the central belt—in which case numbers have stabilised but have done so at a stubbornly high level. That creates a risk for the winter period, and it also makes the risks associated with the Christmas period higher. Over the next few days, we will consider that aspect carefully and assess whether further action is required.

In the meantime, we can all play our part in avoiding the need for further restrictions by sticking to the rules, so I will finish with a reminder of what those are. Of course, anyone who is any doubt about the rules that apply in their area can visit the Scottish Government’s website and use the postcode checker.

I remind everyone that, from tomorrow, level 3 areas will include Fife, Angus, and Perth and Kinross. People in those areas should not travel outside their own local authority area unless it is essential. People in other parts of Scotland should not travel into level 3 areas unless it is essential. People should try to avoid travelling outside Scotland, either to other parts of the United Kingdom or overseas.

From tomorrow, with the exception of people in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, none of us should be visiting each other’s homes except for essential purposes. When we do meet people from other households outdoors or in indoor public places, it should be with a maximum of six people from no more than two households.

Finally, I ask everybody to remember the FACTS advice: wear face coverings, avoid crowded places, clean your hands and hard surfaces regularly, keep a 2m distance from people in other households, and self-isolate and get tested immediately if you have any Covid symptoms.

My thanks again to everyone who is continuing to stick to those rules.

We will turn to questions in a second. First, I remind members who wish to ask supplementary questions that, as usual, we will take all the supplementaries after the last question, which is question 7.


Covid-19 (Contact Tracing)

The public need to have confidence in the test and protect system. It is the most effective tool that we have until a vaccine arrives, and we all want it to succeed. However, this week, serious questions have been asked and the public deserve to hear honest and up-front answers.

We have learned that the figures showing the number of people who had been contacted by the system were wrong. We also learned from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport yesterday that the First Minister was told that they were wrong a week ago, and yet the findings were quietly buried in the revision to a Public Health Scotland paper and came to light only thanks to journalists digging.

The First Minister has made much of the need for transparency and accountability in the crisis. Does she feel that, in this instance, that standard has been met?

Public Health Scotland issued a correction and made it available on the website. I agree with the need for openness and transparency. I also very much agree that it is important that we maintain public confidence in test and protect, and public confidence in test and protect is absolutely merited.

I will take a moment to explain what the coding error actually was and what the implications of it have been. The error meant that, previously, if someone had, for example, been tested at 9 am on a Monday morning and was then, having tested positive, contacted by a contact tracer at 11 o’clock on the Tuesday morning, the system was counting that as within 24 hours, because it was the next calendar day. In actual fact, it was slightly more than 24 hours and should therefore have been in the 24 to 48-hour period. In many cases, the difference was a very small number of hours. That said, it should not have happened, but it was an issue of how the information was presented. That has now been corrected, and the revised data is available on the website.

The most important thing in terms of public confidence is that test and protect is operating to a very high standard. It is exceeding, by a large margin, the World Health Organization standard, which requires that

“At least 80% of new cases have their close contacts traced and in quarantine within 72 hours of case confirmation”.

The most recent figures for test and protect show that it is achieving 95.8 per cent within 72 hours. It is actually achieving 88.7 per cent within 48 hours, thereby exceeding the WHO standard for 72 hours within 48 hours.

Where there are issues, we address those, but none of us should forget the fact that the people who are working in test and protect are doing a very good job. If we compare the performance of test and protect with test and trace in England, for example, we see that it is performing not only to a high standard on its own terms but to a relatively high standard, and the Government will continue to support it to do so.

If the First Minister had wanted to bring people with her on this matter, she should have proactively fronted it up at one of her daily press conferences. People accept that mistakes will be made, but they also expect that their Government will hold its hands up.

Let us be clear: it is good news that we are currently exceeding the WHO targets thanks to the efforts of front-line staff. However, it is wrong of the First Minister not to acknowledge that, for eight consecutive weeks at the start of the Covid second wave, we were not meeting those targets, and we did not know that we were missing them because of the data error.

The First Minister is right that the WHO says that, in order to be effective, we need a contact rate of over 80 per cent in 72 hours. In the week of 10 October, when we were counting a contact as a physical conversation, we missed that target by a mile, recording under 70 per cent of contacts traced. Is that why, on 10 October, the Scottish Government moved to change what constituted a contact to a simple text on its own?

No. I was not aware of the coding error at that stage, and neither was Public Health Scotland.

I will repeat this, as it is important for the public to understand. Nobody, including me, is saying that it is not important that the coding error happened. It is, and it has been rectified. However, it is also important that we do not overstate the consequences and implications of that error. In many cases, people were still contacted the next day, but the time at which they were contacted would have taken them perhaps a few hours over the 24-hour period. Let us understand the context.

On the issue of people being texted, it is important to understand how the system works. All index cases—that is, people who test positive—are telephoned by test and protect. It makes repeated attempts to reach people if it does not reach them the first time. It is a small percentage—about 6 per cent—that test and protect has not managed to contact. That is not a failure of test and protect—it is, to be frank, a case of people not answering their phone to test and protect. We all have a personal responsibility here.

All index cases are contacted by telephone. On average, those calls last an hour and the information that test and protect gets is invaluable. For people who are identified as close contacts, there is a mix of SMS text messages and telephone calls. Sometimes, SMS messages are used for speed of contact, but around 40 per cent of close contacts are actually telephoned. As I understand it, that is different from the position elsewhere in the UK. In England, all close contacts are only texted or emailed and they are not telephoned.

Where there are issues, we must of course make sure that they are addressed, but the system in Scotland is working well. Ruth Davidson is right to put that down to the hard work of the people on the front line, as I always do. I hope that people know by now that I am probably the last person to be complacent about any of this, but that is perhaps one of the reasons why right now, although we have big challenges with Covid, the prevalence and incidence of the virus are a bit lower in Scotland than in other parts of the UK. I have confidence in the system, and I think that people across Scotland should have confidence in it, too.

We need to clarify some of the conflicting information that the Parliament is being given. Three weeks ago, a Scottish Government spokesman was quoted as saying that, “From Saturday 10 October”, Public Health Scotland

“temporarily moved to a system of contacting all contacts of those who tested positive via text message.”

Nicola Sturgeon seems to be suggesting that that is either wrong or out of date. Last night, when questioned, the health secretary was robust and said:

“We do not just send SMS messages: we phone contacts of index cases up to three times until we find them.”—[Official Report, 11 November 2020; c 88.]

However, it turns out that the most recent Public Health Scotland Covid report, which was released only yesterday, says:

“Over the past few weeks, contact tracing of contacts has been primarily focused on SMS messages.”

It continues:

“Once the SMS message has been delivered, the contact will be marked as complete.”

Finally, it says:

“Where an SMS message is sent, contacts will be considered successfully contacted”.

Therefore, a text is completion.

So can the First Minister tell us—because we really need to know this, and both of those things cannot be true—which one is right? Is it Jeane Freeman or that report?

Let me go through the information very clearly again, and let me be clear in distinguishing between index cases—people who have tested positive—and close contacts of those people. First, for index cases, an individual is phoned and texted, if necessary, three times in 24 hours so that test and protect can make sure that the individual is aware of their positive test result. All index cases have a phone call with the contact tracing service. As I said, on average, that phone call lasts around an hour, so that all the information on the close contacts can be given. That is the position with index cases.

With close contacts, the position is slightly different. There was a period when that was largely done by SMS text but now, and as of last week, the figures show that test and protect phoned approximately 40 per cent of contacts. We expect the percentage of close contacts being phoned rather than just texted to continue to increase. However, some are contacted by text. If those people need to, they are then able to phone back a contact tracer. As I said, as I understand it—I am only going on my understanding here—that is different from how some other systems work. In other systems, close contacts, rather than index cases, are all simply texted or emailed.

That is how the system in Scotland works. As we go through the pandemic, we continue to try to learn lessons where things happen that should not happen and where mistakes are made, in order to build the resilience of the system. The system is working well, and people in Scotland should have confidence in it. Why is it important that people have confidence in it? That is because it is really important that they trust the service and make sure that they use it when they have symptoms or test positive.

I say again that we need clarification, because what the First Minister has just said is not what the health secretary said in the chamber last night. Let me read it back precisely. She said:

“We do not just send SMS messages: we phone contacts of index cases up to three times until we find them.”—[Official Report, 11 November 2020; c 88.]

Perhaps the health secretary could be invited back to correct the record.

I wonder how, after eight weeks of missing WHO targets by a mile, we moved to simple text messages and suddenly we were hitting the target again. The reason why the issue is so important is because the data directly impacts the decisions that we make. Last night, Jeane Freeman tried to say that it does not impact on that. She said:

“I can confirm that none of the earlier or revised information, which members are welcome to look at, would have made any difference to the decisions that we have taken”.—[Official Report, 11 November 2020; c 91.]

However, on 2 September, the First Minister told the chamber:

“The data that we now get from test and protect allows us to be much more targeted in the measures that we take.”—[Official Report, 2 September 2020; c 4.]

One says that it makes no difference to the decisions, while the other says that it directs the decisions.

Accurate data is essential here. That is the First Minister’s view, and I agree with her. Instead of responding to fair and reasonable questions with the hostile defensiveness that we have seen from the health secretary in particular, it would be better to front up to the problems that we are facing.

Yesterday, the health secretary was asked how many more people have been infected as a result of the error, and the answer is that we simply do not know. Is that not the problem here, First Minister?

I set out what the error was to give people assurance that it has not meant that large numbers of people have been missed or have gone undetected for long periods of time.

I will repeat the example that I gave. If someone got tested on a Monday morning at, say, 9 o’clock and they were contacted at, say, lunch time on the Tuesday, because that is the next calendar day, the coding error meant that that was counted as being within 24 hours when, in fact, it was slightly over 24 hours, but only by a small number of hours. I am not being defensive. That should not have happened, but it happened and it has been rectified. That does not change the fact that test and protect is operating to a very high standard.

In England, figures for test and trace have been released this morning. I know that that system is working hard and that huge efforts are being put in to improve it, but if we compare and contrast the figures on the performance of test and protect with those on test and trace, we can see that our system is working to a high standard.

When I talked about the data from test and protect being important in targeting action, that is correct. The test and protect data that we get is the data that contact tracers get from positive cases about where they have been. That allows us to draw conclusions about the settings in which transmission risks may be higher, which has rightly influenced some of the decisions that we have taken. Right now, such information is enabling us to take a more targeted and proportionate approach.

I want to make sure that there is no dubiety about this: for index cases, an individual is phoned and texted three times in 24 hours, if necessary—they might be got hold of on the first attempt. All index cases are phoned. A mix of phone calls and text messages is used for the contacts of index cases. That is an advance on what happens in some other systems in other countries.

We will continue to seek to improve the system, but it does not do anybody any service—by “anybody”, I do not mean the Government; I mean the people of Scotland—to suggest anything other than that test and protect is working well and that people should have confidence in it.


Test and Protect System (Performance)

Last night, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport told Parliament that what undermines confidence in the test and protect system is “misrepresentation”. Since September, the First Minister has told Parliament on at least 10 occasions that test and protect is “excellent” and is “working well”. Is not that a misrepresentation?

No. If, as Richard Leonard says, I have done that on 10 occasions, I am about to do it on an 11th occasion. Test and protect is working well—it is doing a good job—and I think that it is a disservice to the people who work in the system to suggest otherwise.

The issue of the coding error has rightly been raised, and it is right and proper that we are answering questions about that. I have set out what the coding error was; it was an error in how figures were being presented. It should not have happened, and it has been rectified. However, that does not change the fact that test and protect is working well.

I again remind people of the performance of test and protect against the World Health Organization standard, which is that 80 per cent of new cases should have their contacts traced and quarantined within 72 hours. The most recent figure is 95.8 per cent, and it was over 90 per cent the week before. Therefore, test and protect is working well and people should continue to have confidence in it, because it is vital to our overall approach to Covid that they do.

The data shows, however, that, in eight weeks over August to October, the Government failed to meet that WHO standard. The advice of the scientific advisory group for emergencies is that to make a significant impact on the R number, the delay should not be greater than 48 hours.

We are agreed that an effective tracing system is key to containing the virus, and that it is in all our interests for the Government to succeed, but that is why it is so worrying to see the system struggling so much. While the First Minister was standing in Parliament in recent weeks saying, as she has said again today, that the system was “working well”, one third of contacts were not being traced within 72 hours. Once again, there is a disconnect between the First Minister’s parliamentary pronouncements and what is going on out there, in the real world.

It is not just tracing of contacts that is taking too long. The most recent reports from Public Health Scotland show that thousands of people—3,500, to be precise—have tested positive but have not been interviewed by test and protect. There have been 400 in the past week alone. Is the First Minister seriously telling the people of Scotland that that shows that test and protect is working well? Does not it show us that the system is desperately short of resources and that the Government needs to get a grip?

I think that test and protect is working well. I am not complacent at all. An error was made in how the figures were presented, and that has been rectified. We have had to build up the resilience of test and protect, and the figures and performance that it is now achieving are, by the World Health Organization gold standard, exceptionally good.

Can I, in all seriousness, take on the point about the 3,500 people? Of course that is a concern, but it is simply factually wrong to describe that as a failure of test and protect, or to suggest that it is somehow down to a lack of resources. That number is about 6 per cent of the total number of people who have had to be contacted—index cases—over the whole period in which test and protect has been operational. Those are people who, despite the best efforts of test and protect, do not answer their phones and do not reply to text messages.

We all have a personal responsibility. We cannot blame test and protect if people are not answering phone calls from it, so let us all encourage the tiny minority who might be in that category to ensure that they answer their phones to test and protect. [Interruption.] Members across the chamber might not like that reality, but that is what that figure relates to. It is not about test and protect failing to try to contact people; it is about the service not successfully managing to contact people because they do not answer.

The 3,500 people who tested positive and could not be reached are a serious source of transmission of the virus. The 9,252 people who are contacts and could not be reached are also, potentially, a serious cause of transmission of the virus, so it is important that we get the system as accurate and as properly resourced as possible.

However, it is not just in test and protect that there is a disconnect between Government rhetoric and reality. One month on from the introduction of new guidance on care home visiting, 90 per cent of families who were contacted by the care home relatives Scotland group have seen no improvement in visiting arrangements. In fact, many have seen arrangements getting worse. One relative said that they feel

“Constant stress and separation anxiety as mum becomes frail and is asking for me.”

They also said:

“I feel I’m letting her down.”

That could be changed if care home visitors were being tested. After nine months of isolation and separation, families are calling for our help to reunite them with their loved ones in care homes. They say, in their words, that they are running out of time and that they need to see change happening now. If rapid testing can be introduced for students, why cannot the Scottish Government prioritise rapid testing for those desperate families?

We are prioritising that, and the health secretary will set out the timetable for it shortly.

I will come back to care home visiting in a second, but I do not want to miss out on finishing the final point on Richard Leonard’s question on test and protect. I agree with him that the 3,500 index cases and about 9,000 contacts that test and protect did not manage to contact are not things that we should not be concerned about, but it is absolutely not the case that those people have not been contacted because test and protect did not have the resources or did not try to contact them. They are the minority of people who have not responded to calls from test and protect. [Interruption.] Members may not want to accept that, but that is the reality of what the numbers mean.

What does that mean our message should be? The vast majority of people are complying and are responding magnificently when they are called by test and protect but, for whatever reason, there is a minority who are not, and we need to continue to send the message that they should.

If there are resource issues with test and protect, we will address them, but anybody who is trying to say that the problem is down to resource issues with test and protect is, frankly, not correct. It is important to be clear about that.

On care home visiting, we all want to see as much normality as possible, which is why we are introducing testing for care home visitors. The health secretary will set out the detail of the timing of that shortly. However, we have to strike the right balance between allowing families to visit—we all understand the importance of that—and, given that we are again in a period of higher prevalence of the virus, making sure that we keep care home residents safe. That is not an easy balance to strike. The situation is harder for families of people in care homes than it is for anybody else, so we will continue to take steps to get that balance right and to make sure that we are protecting people in care homes in the broadest sense.


Online Conspiracy Theories

Around the world, people who believe in democracy breathed a collective sigh of relief last week at Donald Trump’s defeat. However, as he refuses to concede and instead reverts to promoting online conspiracy theories, we need to recognise that that kind of toxic agenda is a threat in Scotland, too.

Investigative journalists at The Ferret have shown that online conspiracies are gaining an audience in Scotland. They include ideas linked to Covid denial, anti-vaccine myths, climate denial and other far-right ideologies that are very similar to the movements that Trump cultivated. They are a very real threat to public health. Research by Hope not Hate has shown that one in four people in this country agrees with online conspiracy theories, and the Royal Society has suggested that around a third of the public are uncertain or unlikely to accept a vaccine when it is available.

What action is the Scottish Government taking to address this dangerous movement, which has caused so much harm to both democracy and public health in the US, and what will it do here, in Scotland, to build public confidence in a future vaccine, so that we can maximise uptake?

The risk that Patrick Harvie sets out is a very real risk, not only in a public health and Covid context, but, as he said, more widely to our democracy. All of us should guard against buying into conspiracy theories on the internet or anywhere else.

On Covid, that is particularly important. The first and really important thing to say about the vaccine is that it will go through all the appropriate and proper regulatory processes—that is what is happening right now. It is important that we are all very clear that, when vaccines are given clearance to be used, they are safe to use. The Scottish Government will make sure that all the information about the vaccine is made available, and we will take steps to address any concerns that people have.

There is no guarantee of this, but I hope that, even before the end of this year, and certainly very early next year, we will be in a position to start vaccinating people against Covid. Therefore, it is important that the message is very clear. If you are in one of the eligible groups, come forward for vaccination. You will be protecting yourself and helping to protect others. Politicians and Parliament as a whole will have a big part to play in that.

We all have a part to play in that.

As well as protecting Scotland from the particular threat that Donald Trump helped to cultivate, we need to protect Scotland’s good name from association with the toxic Trump brand itself. The First Minister is well aware that there are serious and long-standing concerns about Trump’s business activities, including US evidence at Congress citing

“patterns of buying and selling that we thought were suggestive of money laundering”

and drawing particular attention to the golf courses in Scotland and Ireland.

The cause for concern is still growing. It has now been reported that the Manhattan district attorney’s office is investigating the Trump Organization’s inflation of assets and potential bank and insurance fraud. The Trump Organization has been accused of repeatedly reporting fraudulent financial details to the US Office of Government Ethics while reporting a different set of figures to the United Kingdom regulators, with regard to the Trump golf courses in Scotland.

The Scottish Government is able to go to court and ask for an unexplained wealth order to start getting answers. So far, it has refused to either confirm or deny that an investigation is even under way. Now that Trump is due to lose immunity from prosecution in the US, he may finally be held to account there. Is it not time that he is also held to account here? Is it not time for answers from the Trump Organization and for the Scottish Government to go to court to seek those answers?

I think that everyone is well aware of my views on the soon-to-be-former President of the United States, and those views are probably no different from those of Patrick Harvie and many other people across Scotland, so I do not think that the idea that I would somehow try to protect him from due accountability in Scotland holds much water.

On unexplained wealth orders, Patrick Harvie and I have had similar exchanges before in the chamber. Decisions on that issue are not for ministers but for the Crown Office. In matters such as this, the Crown Office operates independently of the Scottish ministers, as is right and proper. I am sure that, if Patrick Harvie feels that any further information can be provided, the Lord Advocate will provide it. However, I restate that these are properly matters for the Crown Office, not for the Scottish ministers.


Personal Protective Equipment

This week marks 50,000 people having lost their lives because of the coronavirus. That must be a reminder to us all that the efforts of those in Government who make decisions and those of us who scrutinise, challenge and support their work have just not done enough.

I want to avoid a repeat of the personal protective equipment problems that we saw earlier this year. Last week, general practitioners were given new supplies of PPE. The supplies were supposed to include aprons but, instead, GPs were given white-tint polythene bags with holes cut out for heads and arms. GPs are annoyed about that. Why did it happen?

First, the figure of 50,000 deaths that the United Kingdom as a whole reported this week—obviously, we have reported quite a significant number of deaths in Scotland in the past few weeks—should remind us all of the severity of the challenge that we have faced and continue to face. As someone who is in Government, taking decisions on this matter every day, I do not need a reminder of that. These things are uppermost in my mind literally every minute of every day. That does not mean that I always get things right—far from it—but everybody should be assured that trying to save lives and minimise the health impact and the overall impact of Covid is the principal and primary driving focus of this Government each and every day.

On the issue of PPE, I will make two points. Before I make either of them, however, let me say that one of the most important responsibilities of Government is to ensure that those on the front line of our health and care services have the PPE that they need. The Government has taken a number of steps to ensure that that is the case, and it will continue to ensure that our stocks are resilient and that the quality of PPE is as it should be.

First, in this particular instance, there was a concern about the labelling of those aprons as bin bags that had been reformulated. It has been confirmed that that was a mislabelling and was not correct: they are PPE aprons. The second point—the most important point—is that those aprons comply fully with all regulations and have passed rigorous quality assurance tests.

Actually, I want to make a third point, which is addressed more to GPs than to Willie Rennie. Any GP who wants an apron of a different style to those—if, for whatever reason, they do not have confidence in them—can raise a replacement request through their local health board supplies team, and alternatives will be supplied. However, all the PPE that we provide goes through rigorous checks, and I think that people on the front line have a right to expect that.

Whatever the label says, they look like bin bags. Manufacturers believed that they were bin bags, and they are not making GPs feel particularly valued at this time. The PPE hub told a GP that it was at the mercy of the PPE push from the Government and that no substitutes were available at that time. I think that GPs will want to know that those items will be taken out of circulation and that they will have aprons in the future.

Yesterday, at last, the Government agreed to test students, but the junior minister in charge refused to test students before their return to university after Christmas. That risks a repeat of the scenes in September, when thousands of students were locked up in halls. Will the First Minister overrule her minister and confirm that those students will be tested when they return from home?

Before I come on to testing, I am not sure that there is an argument for taking those aprons out of circulation, but I will ask that question of those who advise me. They are medical-grade aprons that have been independently tested—it is important to make that clear. If GPs prefer a different style of apron, they can request that, and I will query whether there is any reason why they should not be in circulation. We take seriously the responsibility of ensuring that those who work in our health service have the right protection.

On the testing of students, we have put arrangements in place for those who want and are able to go home for Christmas to do so. Not all students will want to, nor will all students, such as those who are care experienced, be able to do that—for some, university is home.

Testing is a part of those arrangements, but it is not the only part. We have not yet finalised the plans for the return of students or determined whether we will want students to return in the same way as they did in October, and we have not yet finalised what role testing will play if that is the case. It is not that we have ruled anything out; we are continuing to consult students and the sector to get the right arrangements in place.

For a variety of reasons—including the season, having had Christmas, and potential issues with students—January will potentially be a challenging month in terms of Covid. It is important that we take all due precautions and think carefully before finalising any plans. That is what we are doing regarding the return of students after Christmas, and we will set out the detail of that as soon as possible.


Scottish Child Payment

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the number of people who have applied for the Scottish child payment. (S5F-04552)

The Scottish child payment opened for applications on Monday. Initial management information indicates that by the end of Tuesday, over 28,000 applications had been received. [Nicola Sturgeon has corrected this contribution. See end of report.] The payment is intended to tackle child poverty, and with the economic impact of the pandemic meaning that more households are reliant on benefits, we need to make sure that the payment reaches all eligible families.

Our plans to promote the Scottish child payment, which have been set out publicly, include carrying out an extensive advertising campaign as well as making information available through a number of routes, including midwife and health visitor packs, the baby box and nursery and school enrolment packs. I encourage all parents and carers of the 194,000 children who could be eligible to make sure that they apply for that new benefit.

The Scottish child payment is the most ambitious anti-poverty measure currently being undertaken anywhere in the United Kingdom. The First Minister is right that we must maximise uptake.

Last week, the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland urged the UK Government to temporarily increase universal credit. That temporary increase should be permanent. The IPPR also recommended that the benefit cap and the two-child limit be removed. It described those as

“the most pernicious parts of the UK-wide benefit system”

and said that they were

“wrong”

even

“in the pre-pandemic context”.

They undermine our efforts to tackle child poverty as well as just being plain wrong.

Will the First Minister ask the UK Government to match the Scottish Government’s ambition to tackle child poverty?

Yes, absolutely. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to scrap the needlessly punitive and, in my view, immoral two-child limit and the benefit cap. This week, the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish Governments sent a joint letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions calling for the £20 uplift to universal credit to be made permanent.

We know that harmful policies like those that come from Westminster have a disproportionate impact on single parent households. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found that withdrawing the £20 uplift will result in 700,000 more people, including 300,000 children, across the UK being pushed into poverty.

I hope that the UK Government will do the right thing on both of those issues, so that we can all work together to ensure that we tackle child poverty and do not make it worse.


Long Covid (National Support Service)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland’s call for the introduction of a national support service for people with so-called long Covid. (S5F-04546)

We have already met Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland and are considering its proposal about support for people with on-going Covid symptoms. The National Health Service is delivering care that is tailored to the individual needs of people who are experiencing long Covid across a range of specialisms. Of course, that is a developing area of clinical understanding and we need that greater understanding to drive our response in the future.

We are taking action to understand the longer-term effects of Covid. That includes investing in research and supporting the Scottish intercollegiate guidelines network—SIGN—and United Kingdom partners to develop a rapid clinical guideline, which is intended to be published before the end of this year. The guideline work and the deepening of our understanding of the impact of on-going symptoms are required in order to configure our response and to help the NHS to tailor the holistic diagnosis and treatment that people need.

I am grateful to the First Minister for her response, but that will not be enough for many people. There are people across Scotland who are suffering from this debilitating condition while trying to live their lives as best they can. A number of harrowing accounts of long Covid have appeared in the media recently.

I was contacted this morning by someone who wrote about her frustration at the lack of interventions and practical support for her symptoms. For her and for thousands like her, will the First Minister commit today to meet representatives of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland and people living with long Covid? Will her Government urgently develop a much-needed national strategy to support treatment services, much like NHS England has done, by investing in the development of long Covid clinics to offer specialist help?

As I said in my initial answer, Scottish Government officials have already met representatives of Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland, although I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport would be happy to engage as well.

Long Covid represents one of the most serious and profound implications of Covid, and I have cited it many times in the past as one of the reasons why younger people in particular should not be complacent about Covid.

We need to understand the condition better, and I have had long discussions with clinical advisers about it. On the point about trying to create specialist facilities, there is not yet enough understanding of what specialisms are required. We are investing £5 million in more than 50 rapid research projects, I think, in an attempt to quickly get a better understanding that allows us to tailor the support that is needed.

The NHS is already providing generalist support and care, but greater specialist care will undoubtedly be needed. I do not know exactly what the £10 million in England is being invested in, but that would be £800,000 in a Scottish context, which would not get us very much by way of specialist clinics. That is why we are investing significantly in the research that will then drive what I expect, in time, will be a significant investment in the creation of different types of care and specialist treatment. However, we cannot provide treatment before clinicians have a sufficient understanding of what specialist treatment people with long Covid need.

I understand how debilitating the condition must be—I, too, have read the accounts—and I assure people that we are doing as much work as we can to support experts, researchers and clinicians to understand it as quickly as possible so that we can improve services as soon as possible.


Children’s Mental Health

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to support children’s mental health throughout the pandemic and subsequent restrictions. (S5F-04565)

This is a really important issue, and we know that Covid measures have had an impact on children’s mental health. Last week we announced a further £15 million for local authorities, both to respond to children and young people’s mental health issues that have been brought about by the pandemic and to begin the roll-out of long-term community mental health support across Scotland.

Our mental health transition and recovery plan outlines the Scottish Government’s response to the pandemic and sets out the wide range of actions that we will take, which include continuing improvements to child and adolescent mental health services. From early on in the pandemic, we have provided enhanced digital resources for mental health and wellbeing via the Young Scot website and social media.

I thank the First Minister for that response. Earlier this week, Childline reported an increased number of calls to its helpline. In April, Young Scot reported that 77 per cent of children and young people surveyed were concerned about their mental wellbeing.

Dr Justin Williams, vice-chair of the CAMHS faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, recently said:

“We have suffered from many years of neglect and disinterest in our services. We need to have real resources not cosmetic changes. Specialist mental health services need to be properly resourced. The government claims they’ve been increasing resources in CAMHS for years. They have not.”

Does the First Minister agree with Dr Williams, and is she really confident that the small pockets of money that have been offered are capable of delivering real and tangible change to young people’s mental health?

We have been increasing investment in mental health, but if Dr Williams or any other front-line clinician does not feel that that investment is having the impact that it needs to have, we must address the reasons for that.

Before the pandemic, we had lots of exchanges in Parliament, and I agree that there is a need for greater investment in CAMHS, but we also need to recast how services for young people are delivered. We absolutely need to make sure that specialist services are properly resourced and we are committed to doing that, but we also need to make sure that the burden on specialist services is not increasing because of the lack of early intervention and preventative services. We have been trying to invest in and redesign that part of the service, which is why the community wellbeing service and councillors in schools are so important.

All that work was important before the pandemic. Given the impact on young people’s mental health as a result of the pandemic, it becomes even more important, which is why we are increasing investment and will continue to support clinicians and others across the service to make sure not just that services are well resourced, but that they are delivering in the way that best helps young people.

Let us not forget that behind all this talk about money and the redesign of services are our young people, who are suffering mental health impacts—some of them very severe impacts. I take very seriously, as do the health secretary and the Government, our responsibility to respond to that appropriately.


Petroineos (Job Losses)

The First Minister will be aware of the announcement by Petroineos on Tuesday, detailing its plans to reconfigure the Grangemouth refinery to protect 450 skilled jobs, but with the regrettable loss of up to 200 jobs as a result of reduced demand for fuel here and in Europe. There is also, of course, the added threat of possible imposition by the European Union of tariffs on fuel that is manufactured in the United Kingdom, in the event of no-deal Brexit.

I know that the partnership action for continuing employment team has offered its assistance to Petroineos and its employees, as has Falkirk Council. However, with the speed of change in the European refinery sector worsening, the challenges are likely to continue. What can the Scottish Government do to ensure that the Grangemouth refinery retains its role as critical industrial infrastructure? When can we expect to see the formation of the Grangemouth future industry board, as promised in the programme for government? It will be crucial, as we can see from Tuesday’s news.

I thank Angus MacDonald for that question, which is obviously of huge importance in his constituency. I share the concerns of those who are affected by the announcement and their families, and my thoughts are with them. We will do everything possible to support the people whose jobs are at risk.

I am told that the decision is a response to challenging market forces that have, largely, been brought about as a result of the pandemic, but it is also an attempt to reposition the refinery for the longer term.

We are also working within our devolved powers to support Scotland’s industries to retain productive capacity and to recover from the economic impact of Covid. Industrial change will continue as we get closer to 2045, and planning for net zero emissions is the responsibility of the Government and industry. The programme for government includes extensive tangible support for further adjustments to transition.

Finally, I confirm that work to establish the Grangemouth future industry board is under way already. Future proofing that key industrial hub will help to support a long-term sustainable future for Grangemouth, which I am sure everybody in the local area wants.


Covid-19 (“Do Not Resuscitate” Notices)

Age Scotland is becoming increasingly alarmed by the number of elderly patients and their families who feel that they have been pressured to sign DNR forms. They are concerned that DNR notices are being used as a tool to write off, because of their age, elderly patients who are otherwise healthy and living independently. What is the First Minister’s response to Age Scotland’s calls for a parliamentary inquiry into DNRs? Will she commit to publishing data on the number of forms that were issued during 2020?

First, it is not for me to determine whether there are parliamentary inquiries into particular issues; that is for the appropriate committee.

Secondly, I will take away the point about data and look at whether we are able to publish that data. I do not know whether we are able to publish such data, but I will look into it.

Thirdly, and by way of introduction, I say that I always take the concerns of Age Scotland seriously, given how respected the organisation is in the field in which it operates.

I have been very clear about the matter when it has been raised periodically throughout the pandemic. No person—nobody, period—should ever be pressured to sign a DNR notice. It should not happen. In my experience, I have never spoken to a clinician who would say otherwise. Clinicians will often say that very sensitive conversations are needed with individuals—all of us could find ourselves in this position in the future—about end-of-life care, and DNRs might form part of those discussions. However, that should always be done very sensitively and take account of the wishes of the individual concerned and their wider family. Nobody, in any circumstances, should be under pressure to sign a DNR. I could not be clearer about that, and neither could the Government. Any decent clinician—which, in my experience, they all are—would be very clear about that, as well.


Christmas (Four-nations Arrangements)

Earlier, the First Minister mentioned Christmas, which is not only an important Christian feast but a national holiday celebration for people of all religions and none. They want to make plans, especially in Central Scotland where extreme measures have been in place for many weeks. What progress has been made in the four-nations talks on that, and what consultation is the First Minister having with other political parties and civic Scotland to try to avoid a bleak and lonely Christmas?

Christmas is important for all of us. It is not the only festival that is important, but for the majority of us—even people who are not Christian—Christmas is important. I absolutely recognise that. Right now it is Diwali; many of our communities across the country have had important celebrations interrupted because of Covid. We have to recognise that there has been an impact on many different faith groups.

I had a four-nations discussion yesterday evening about a couple of things—one was the Christmas arrangements. Those discussions have not concluded and will continue. I was due to update party leaders shortly after that on matters Covid, when, no doubt, Christmas would have come up. However, due to a delayed vote in Parliament the discussion on that had, unfortunately, to be postponed.

These are important matters, so what is really important is that we strike the right balance. First, we have to recognise that people want to spend time with their loved ones at Christmas. I am no different from everybody else in that respect. We must also recognise that we have to give people confidence in any rules and restrictions that are in place, and encourage maximum compliance. That means recognising the reality of the Christmas period. We all want to get to that position.

However, we must also be sensible. If people are going to interact more over Christmas, we have to think about what we will advise them to do after Christmas, in January, to minimise risk. We must ensure that all of us being able to enjoy Christmas a bit more does not lead in January and February to loss of life and to illness that could otherwise have been avoided.

I wish—probably on this more than on many other aspects—that there was an easy answer, but there is not. We need to get to a sensible position, which is what the Scottish Government is trying to do. We are seeking to do that in partnership and in a way that is aligned with the other Governments of the United Kingdom.


Agriculture Act 2020

Does the First Minister agree that the United Kingdom Government’s Agriculture Act 2020, which has now received royal assent, woefully fails to deliver on the promises that were made to Scotland during the European Union referendum—that European Union funding would at least be matched, and that no powers that impact on farming and food production would be grabbed from our Parliament?

Yes, I agree with Maureen Watt. Promises have been broken right, left and centre—from assurances about food standards to assurances about funding in agriculture. As yet, we have not seen any of them materialise.

We are now just over a week away from what is supposed to be the deadline for a deal for the end of the transition period, but we do not know whether a deal will be done. What we do know is that, even if a deal is done, it is likely to be a very basic deal that is bad for Scottish jobs in all sectors, including agriculture. I do not understand why, given that we are in the middle of a pandemic, we have a UK Government that is determined to press ahead and end the transition period at the end of this year, when that will put lots of Scottish and UK jobs at risk. That is, in my view, unforgivable.


Early Learning (Group Singing)

I have been contacted by a number of constituents whose children are in nurseries and early learning centres. Under present guidelines they are not able to sing indoors as a group. That is having an effect on their early education and, in some cases, on their mental health. Can the Government look again at the guidelines to see whether some form of group singing could be allowed in early learning centres, so that children can continue to learn in a way that is best for them?

We will always look at guidance on an on-going basis. None of us wants any of the restrictions to be in place for a moment longer than they have to be, so we will look all the time at whether we can ease them, as prevalence of the infection falls, as we learn more about the virus and as some things that we previously thought were risks might become of less concern.

The restriction that Jeremy Balfour has just outlined is, of course, one that nobody wants to be in place, but it is drawn from scientific evidence about how the virus transmits. It can transmit in particles, therefore people shouting over loud noise or singing can increase the risk of the virus spreading. If we are trying to limit, mitigate and minimise transmission, we have to take account of the areas where, and the activities in which, the risk is greatest. That is difficult for everybody. All this is most difficult for children right now, but we will not keep any restrictions in place for longer than we consider to be absolutely necessary.


Tied Pubs

Organisations including the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the Campaign for Real Ale, the Society of Independent Brewers, the Campaign for Pubs, the Pubs Advisory Service, GMB Scotland and the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland as well as many of Scotland’s publicans want to see statutory protection for tied pubs in Scotland. Many of them are asking me why Scottish National Party MPs voted for legal protections for tied pubs in England, yet SNP MSPs on the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee oppose the same legal protections for tied pubs in Scotland. I cannot explain or justify why the SNP would be stronger for England’s pubs. Can the First Minister explain?

I am happy to look into the issue; my apologies to the member—I cannot immediately remember exactly what stage his bill on tied pubs is at. I assure him that we will continue to look sympathetically at proposals. I will make a point of looking at the proceedings of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee this afternoon and I will come back to him once I have had the opportunity to do so.


European Union (Trading Relationship)

Does the First Minister share the frustration and deep concerns of Scottish businesses that, as a result of four years of chaos and incompetence on the part of the United Kingdom Government, we still have no idea what our trading relationship will be with the European Union, notwithstanding the fact that the transition period comes to an end in seven weeks?

I very much share those deep and serious concerns. The transition period ends in seven weeks, but even more pressing is a deadline for agreeing a deal, if there is to be a deal. I am hopeful that there will be a deal; I think that it is in everybody’s interests. However, we know that any deal that can be struck at this stage—and there are no guarantees that it will be struck—is likely to be such a flimsy and thin deal that the end of the transition period will bring disruption to Scottish businesses. That means lost revenue and potentially lost jobs at a time when businesses are already struggling with the impact of the pandemic. I think that the UK Government really needs to get its act together quickly, although, from watching the news over the past 24 hours, those involved seem to be preoccupied with fighting each other rather than making sure that issues to do with the pandemic or the Brexit deal are resolved. However, I hope that, in the interests of businesses everywhere, we see progress on this very quickly.


Self-isolating Pupils (Support)

Stewart McFarlane, who is a constituent of mine, has raised serious concerns that his daughter’s education is suffering because of her requirement to self-isolate. Despite his daughter’s school trying to do its best to support her, it is clear that it is struggling, particularly because of her additional support needs. No child should fall behind at school because they have to self-isolate, so can the First Minister explain why the education and additional support that my constituent’s daughter deserves is not in place, and will the First Minister act to make sure that schools have everything that they need to support pupils who are self-isolating?

Obviously, I am not aware of the individual constituency case. I would be happy to look at the detail of it if Annie Wells wants to send that to me, although these are principally matters for local authorities as the statutory providers of school education.

It is important that, when young people have to self-isolate—significant numbers of young people are doing so, and self-isolation is part of what we need to do to keep schools open generally for the majority of pupils—schools provide them with physical resources where they are needed, including learning materials, textbooks and digital devices. Schools are also providing live learning and teaching sessions, which is being done in a variety of ways. Clearly, we want to make sure that that is taking account of all the different needs of different young people. That is a responsibility that local authorities have to continue to take very seriously, and I am sure that they do.

I would be happy to consider the individual circumstances that Annie Wells raises if I have more details about it.


Community Crisis Grants

I raise with the First Minister concerns about the disparity in community crisis grant payments, which are administered under the Scottish welfare fund. Data from the Poverty and Inequality Commission shows that the average level of payments in Glasgow is £146, which is the lowest in all council areas. That is of particular concern given the levels of deprivation in certain areas of Glasgow and the number of vulnerable people who rely on those payments. Does the First Minister accept that Glasgow should not be unfairly penalised? Will the Government take urgent steps to ensure that future payments from the Scottish welfare fund are carried out in an equal and fair manner?

I think that the member will accept that I will always agree that Glasgow should not be unfairly penalised. I do not have any evidence that Glasgow is being unfairly penalised in that respect. The welfare fund is administered by local authorities. I will have a look at the particular issue that James Kelly raises.

The Scottish Government has increased the money that goes to the Scottish welfare fund because of the pandemic, and the welfare fund is also administering the self-isolation payment scheme. I will look at the details of what has been raised, and if there is more that I can add once I have done so, I will write to the member.


United Kingdom Government Climate Change Champion

The United Nations brings its climate change conference to Glasgow next year. Does it not undermine prospects for its success that Boris Johnson has appointed as his Government’s climate change champion a pro-fracking Tory member of Parliament who has campaigned against wind farms?

First Minister, I think that you caught the gist of that.

My apologies to Stewart Stevenson. He has frozen on the screen before me, but I did get the gist of the question.

I think that the appointment of the climate change champion will have raised some eyebrows for the reasons that Stewart Stevenson sets out. Consistent with our ambition to become net zero, we would have to oppose fracking and support wind power. That is important.

Obviously, I wish anybody who is in that position well. I want to see them succeed, and we look forward to working with the United Kingdom Government. However, all of us—and I include the Scottish Government very much in this—as we get towards the 26th conference of the parties, or COP26, which will happen at this time next year, will have to be judged not just on our words about climate change but on our actions. Boris Johnson should remember that as well.


Cervical Cancer Screening

This week, 15,000 women across Scotland, including many of my constituents, discovered that letters inviting them for non-routine cervical screening and colposcopy treatment were not sent at the end of August, as they should have been. That has caused a great deal of anxiety for those women, because those tests are required because they are considered to be at greater risk of cervical cancer, due, for example, to family history or to previous smears having indicated the presence of pre-cancerous abnormalities. What assurances can the First Minister give that such an error will not happen again? What guarantees can she give that future delays will not result from dealing with this backlog? What assurances can she give to the constituents who I represent and who many across Parliament represent who are understandably extremely worried about the potential delay and the impact that it could have on early detection and treatment?

I am aware of the issue and I agree that it is a serious matter. I know that NHS National Services Scotland has already taken steps to understand the reason why it happened in order to make sure that it cannot happen again, and to communicate with women affected to—hopefully—reassure them that there is no impact in relation to their care, treatment and screening and to answer any other questions that they have. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to write to Mark McDonald with more details of exactly the steps that NSS is taking so that he is able to reassure his constituents. Given that this issue will have affected some women in all parts of Scotland, I will make sure that that letter is also placed in the Scottish Parliament information centre for the benefit of other MSPs.


Burntisland Fabrications

Workers at Burntisland Fabrications are desperate, as they face another Christmas of uncertainty. Given that state aid rules kick in only at the point at which a contract is signed, does the First Minister believe that a delay to the signing of contracts in relation to the Neart Na Gaoithe wind farm could take us into a different state aid regime, which could make it easier for the Scottish Government to offer a financial guarantee to the struggling firm?

I do not think that that question can be answered definitively. Obviously, we do not know exactly what state aid, or the replacement for state aid, will be. What I can say absolutely definitively is that the Scottish Government will do anything that we can, within the legal and financial constraints within which we operate, to help secure the future of BiFab. We want to see BiFab not only survive but flourish, and we will continue to work with the majority shareholder. The Scottish Government is the minority shareholder and we therefore clearly have a financial interest—as well as all the other interests that we have—in wanting to see BiFab succeed. We will also continue to liaise with the United Kingdom Government and others to make sure that no stone is left unturned in trying to secure the future of BiFab.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The First Minister said earlier that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman, will provide information on care home visitor testing soon. However, we knew that, because the health secretary had already announced that on Twitter. Will you ensure that the health secretary shows respect to MSPs and the Parliament and announces the exact arrangements to this Parliament first, and not to the press or on Twitter?

I have made clear my view that any significant announcements should be made to the Parliament. I am sure that they will be in due course. That concludes First Minister’s question time.

13:27 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—