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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 14 September 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Urgent Question, Health and Social Care, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Tokyo Paralympics


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many people as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.

Vaccination Passports

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the announcement by the United Kingdom Government not to proceed with plans to introduce vaccine passports. (S6T-00146)

From expert public health analysis, we know that we must do all that we can to stem the rise in cases and reduce the pressure on the national health service. Vaccination certificates have a role to play as part of the wider package of measures, as they add a further layer of protection in certain higher-risk settings.

We propose a very limited scheme to allow businesses to remain open and prevent further restrictions as we head into autumn and winter. The measures that we introduce must be effective, and they must equally be practical and capable of being delivered. We will work with all the relevant affected sectors in a constructive way to ensure that we implement the decision that the Parliament has taken in principle: that it wants to see a vaccination certification scheme in place.

I thank the Deputy First Minister for his answer, although he did not actually answer the question that I asked. However, we will move on.

At the weekend, the head of the Scottish Professional Football League, Neil Doncaster, said that the league was “hugely concerned” about the practicalities of delivering the scheme. After the league made it clear that the Government’s plan was unworkable, the health secretary confirmed that Mr Doncaster’s suggestion of spot checks of those attending a match was a possibility. That shows that, when it comes to the scheme, the Government is still filling in the blanks.

One of the many remaining questions is around data and the equipment used. In last week’s debate, much was made of the fact that businesses will be able to use an app on a phone to scan QR codes. Earlier today, when I asked the Minister for Parliamentary Business what data would show up on somebody’s personal mobile phone—for example, outside a football ground—he could not say. If my name, address and date of birth were to show up, that would be a clear breach of data protection laws. Such details could be easily harvested—

Can I have a question, please?

The question is, what protections will be put in place to prevent that from happening?

It is interesting that Mr Simpson moved on from his first question, rather than press me for further detail on the United Kingdom Government’s position. He might have done so because the UK Government has just confirmed to the House of Commons that it intends to take forward a vaccination-only certification scheme in nightclubs; indoor crowded settings with 500 or more attendees; outdoor crowded settings with 4,000 or more attendees; and in any settings with 10,000 or more attendees, should the circumstances arise due to the level of the pandemic. That is exactly the situation that we face. We have been open with the Parliament, and it is obvious that we have significant case load levels just now. That is putting huge pressure on the national health service, hence our rationale for introducing a mandatory vaccination-only Covid status certification scheme, which is exactly the same arrangement that the United Kingdom Government is taking forward.

I understand why Mr Simpson is skating past the question; it has been a very confused 48 hours for the UK Government on the issue. [Interruption.] Mr Kerr says that this is the Scottish Parliament. I have been asked a question by one of his back benchers about the United Kingdom Government, and I am just trying to be as fabulously helpful as I always am when I am answering questions.

On Mr Simpson’s question about the information that will show up when a QR code is analysed, the data that he talked about will not show up. He is right—that would be a clear breach of data protection legislation. There is no harvesting of data involved here. The scheme involves a simple check of information that is contained in a QR code to verify that somebody has been double vaccinated, in order to keep us all safe.

The difference between the UK Government’s position and the Scottish Government’s position is that the Scottish Government has set a date for introducing the scheme, and the UK Government has not. The UK Government has said that it will do so if circumstances arise. There is a big difference there, and the Deputy First Minister knows it.

It has been almost two weeks since the First Minister announced the plan for vaccination certification, but, yesterday, the health secretary again said that the Government is still working on the definition of a nightclub. Does the Deputy First Minister see how ridiculous it is that the scheme will come into force in a matter of weeks yet the Government still cannot provide any clarity on key questions surrounding its implementation?

One of the many points of similarity with the UK Government is that our decision making is based on the circumstances. We have a very high prevalence of Covid, which is driving hospital admissions. Today, there are 1,064 people in hospital with Covid-related illness. Comparatively, that is a very high level. We are having to take the action to the timescale that we are setting out because of the circumstances that have arisen.

On the question of the definition of nightclubs, the Scottish Government is working with the Night Time Industries Association to be certain about the details of that definition. We are working through individual questions with the association to ensure that we address any possible unintended consequences of the definition. We will publish that when we come to the conclusion of that exercise.

This week is freshers week. Students from the UK and all over the world will be congregating in pubs, cafes and restaurants, and, for the next two weeks, students from outside Scotland will be in nightclubs. On 1 October, they will not be able to do that, because they have been vaccinated outside Scotland and NHS Scotland does not recognise their vaccinations for the purpose of certification. The problem has been there for months and has not been fixed. Can the cabinet secretary confirm to the chamber that the matter will be fixed in the next two weeks?

We are obviously working to address a number of practical issues to ensure that the steps that we take are effective. However, fundamentally, we come back to the core motivation behind this move, which is to try to reduce the level of transmission, which is possible because of the protection of double vaccination, and to make higher-risk settings safer as a consequence of the vaccination certification approach. That is the policy objective that we are trying to secure. I appreciate that that will mean that some people will be unable to access nightclubs because they will not have in place adequate vaccination certification. However, the purpose of the approach is to try to reduce transmission by maximising the level of protection that is in place in the population.

The Scottish Government seems to be shifting its position—[Interruption.]—in the light of its discussions with the industry. I think it only fair to press the Deputy First Minister in relation to the answer that he gave moments ago to my colleague. When exactly does he expect to bring details to the chamber and publish them more widely?

My first point is that Mr Simpson—I apologise to him for not addressing this point when he made it earlier, which I should have done—suggested that the possibility of spot checks at football grounds was a new development. It was conceived of in the document that we lodged with the Parliament last Thursday, so it should not have been a surprise when the health secretary talked about it on radio at the start the week.

On Stephen Kerr’s question, the Government often gets criticised for not engaging enough—in the eyes of some critics—with external sectors. Now we are getting criticised for engaging too much with sectors.

As I explained in my response to Douglas Ross last week, essentially we want to make sure that we do not have a definition that creates any uncertainty or disadvantage in the marketplace around the grey area between night-time pubs and nightclubs. We just have to make sure that all those details are thought through, in consultation with industry, and we will publish that information as soon as we have completed those discussions.

Valneva Covid-19 Vaccine

To ask the Scottish Government whether it is in discussions with the United Kingdom Government regarding its decision to terminate its supply agreement with Valneva for its Covid-19 vaccine candidate, VLA2001. (S6T-00151)

The decision to terminate Valneva’s contract was taken unilaterally by the UK Government. We are in discussions with the UK Government over Valneva’s alleged failure to meet the terms of its contract, and we are awaiting further information. We are currently working with Valneva to secure the future of the site. The Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise, Ivan McKee, will meet the company shortly to discuss matters. The announcement to terminate the contract does not affect the Scottish Government’s vaccination programme, which we continue to roll out as guided by advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. The First Minister will give details of that shortly. We have sufficient vaccine supplies to undertake any potential booster programme over the coming months.

Many people in Scotland participated in clinical trials of the Valneva vaccine, and the decision may understandably cause them anxiety about their vaccination status. Will the cabinet secretary confirm that the termination of the agreement will not impact the vaccination status of anyone who participated in the Valneva clinical trial?

I will look at that, because, of course, we would not want anyone to be disadvantaged if they took part in a vaccine trial. We owe them a great deal of thanks.

I am not talking specifically about Valneva, because I do not have the details of that clinical trial. However, I will urge the UK Government to publish that detail, because I think that transparency in the matter is absolutely paramount. I will go away and look at the situation to double check, but it is the Scottish Government’s starting position that anybody who is taking part in a clinical trial should not be disadvantaged in any way.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer. There is some evidence that the Valneva vaccine could be more effective than other vaccines against variants. What impact does the cabinet secretary think the UK Government’s decision could have on our ability to protect people against further mutations of the virus?

I reiterate that, in the interests of openness and transparency, it will be important that the UK Government publishes the results of the COV-Boost trial and the clinical trials that are under way—when it is appropriate, because I know that there are sensitivities, including commercial ones, around such matters. I reiterate that, regardless of that decision, we have a plentiful supply of vaccines, and I am pleased to say that the clinical trials and the evidence that we have show that the vaccines that we are using are very effective in reducing the severity of illness from the coronavirus, including the delta variant.

Valneva employs constituents of mine, and the cabinet secretary will be aware that Angela Constance MSP and Hannah Bardell MP have written to the UK Government, asking it to provide transparency about its decision making and its on-going commitment to investment in the West Lothian site and French-owned facility. As Scottish Enterprise has also supported the company, will the cabinet secretary ask the business minister to discuss the company’s worldwide vaccine market opportunities and the present situation when he meets the company?

I will do that. I agree with everything that Fiona Hyslop has said. I spoke to both Angela Constance and Hannah Bardell yesterday, and I am more than happy to speak in detail with Fiona Hyslop and any other interested member. The Scottish Government will do everything that we can to provide as much security for the site as we can. I am happy for my colleague the Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise to update the member once he has had discussions with the company.

It is very welcome to hear from the cabinet secretary that the decision should not impact access to vaccines. Does that include the possibility of 12 to 15-year-olds being given vaccinations and older people getting boosters? Will it impact the surplus that the cabinet secretary referred to and the possibility of the Scottish Government supporting people from low-income countries who are coming to the 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—to access vaccinations?

The answers to those questions are yes, yes and no. The First Minister will shortly outline our response to the advice from the chief medical officers and the JCVI with regard to 12 to 15-year-olds and the booster programme, respectively, but we have plentiful supplies even if we include those two possibilities in our future programming. The final answer is no—the UK Government’s decision will not impact our ability to vaccinate people from the developing world who come to COP26. I reiterate, and I reassure the member, that there is a plentiful supply for the roll-out of our future vaccination programme, with all the possibilities that we are planning for.

That concludes topical question time.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The first topical question related to vaccination passports, and there was great interest in asking additional questions to seek clarification on the matter. I ask your advice on how we can persuade the Government to give a ministerial statement on it, so that the significant number of outstanding questions can be answered.

Martin Whitfield might be aware that there was a discussion about that among business managers at the Parliamentary Bureau. Such discussion will continue. It is, of course, a matter for the Government to decide whether a ministerial statement is made.