Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)
Meeting date: Tuesday, December 14, 2021
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Covid-19, Topical Question Time, Drugs Services, Schools and Early Learning (Recovery and Improvement), Covid-19 (Public Inquiry), Deposit Return Scheme, Business Motion, Decision Time, Community Defibrillators
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Drugs Services
- Schools and Early Learning (Recovery and Improvement)
- Covid-19 (Public Inquiry)
- Deposit Return Scheme
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- Community Defibrillators
The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon, giving a Covid-19 update. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.14:05
I will give a general update on Covid and share the latest information that we have on the omicron variant. I will also set out the further protective measures that we consider necessary to help to slow its spread while we accelerate the pace of booster vaccines.
First, I will give today’s overall statistics. Yesterday, 3,177 positive cases were reported. That was 11.3 per cent of all tests carried out. The number of polymerase chain reaction—PCR—tests yesterday was slightly lower than in recent days. Therefore, I appeal to people not to put off going for a PCR test if they have symptoms or a positive lateral flow test. I know that no one wants to test positive or isolate at Christmas, but testing is a vital part of our defence and there is no shortage of capacity, so please do get tested.
Currently, 541 people are in hospital with Covid. That is 20 fewer than yesterday. However, I confirm that we now know of two confirmed omicron cases who are in hospital. Sequencing of other possible cases continues and the actual total is likely to be higher.
Thirty-eight people are in intensive care with Covid generally, which is one fewer than yesterday. Sadly, a further six deaths have been reported. That takes the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 9,725. I again send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
Our current assessment is that omicron is spreading very rapidly in Scotland. The best indicator of that is the proportion of cases that show what is called the S-gene dropout. For about 95 per cent of cases in Scotland, tests are currently processed in a way that allows us to know whether the S gene is present. That shows that omicron cases are increasing exponentially—faster than any variant that has gone before.
When I made a statement to Parliament this time last week, around 4 per cent of cases showed the S-gene dropout. By Wednesday, it was 7 per cent. On Friday, it was above 15 per cent. Today, it is 27.5 per cent. We estimate that the doubling time is two to three days—more rapid than anything experienced in the pandemic so far—and we expect omicron to become the dominant strain circulating in Scotland within days.
That matters because omicron is significantly more transmissible than the delta variant. The reproduction number—or R number—associated with delta is around 1, but the R number for omicron appears to be well over 2, and it is possibly above 4.
Cases in Scotland in total have increased by a quarter in the past week. They have risen in all age groups except the over-85s and omicron is already contributing to that increase. However, as it becomes the dominant strain, its much higher R number will also dominate, and that will drive a much steeper increase in cases. That is why I warned on Friday that we are facing a likely tsunami of cases in the weeks ahead.
Some are suggesting that omicron may be milder in its impact on individual health than delta. Obviously, we all hope that that is the case. However, we do not yet know that it is. Indeed, there is some initial evidence from Denmark that may suggest otherwise. However, even if it proves to be milder, simple arithmetic means the challenge that it poses will still be very significant.
Let me illustrate that. In recent months, the proportion of delta cases needing hospital care has been around 2 per cent. That means that an average daily case number of around 2,700—as has been the case in recent weeks—will result in around 400 hospital admissions a week. However, if cases rise significantly to, say, 10,000 a day because of omicron’s much greater transmissibility—and that is well within the modelled estimates in the evidence paper that we published on Friday—even if the hospitalisation rate turned out to be half that of delta’s, at just 1 per cent, we would see 700 hospital admissions a week.
The basic and very hard fact is that a much more transmissible infection, even if milder in terms of severe illness, can still place a much bigger burden on the national health service.
More people being infected will result in more severe illness and, tragically, more people will die. A surging level of infection will also result in many more people being off work due to mild illness and self-isolation, so the impact on our economy and on our ability to deliver critical services will also be severe. We are starting to see those impacts already. All that explains why we must take omicron extremely seriously. It is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy.
Let me turn to what, in the Government’s judgment, we need to do now to mitigate the challenge. In doing so, I ask everyone again to think in terms of this being a race between the virus and the vaccines. Our vaccination programme is running fast—we are currently the most vaccinated part of the United Kingdom, and 46 per cent of the over-12 population have had booster jags already.
However, just as the vaccines started to win the race, the virus learned to run faster. That means that we must deliver boosters even faster. That is all the more important in the light of early data that tell us that the protection that we have against omicron infection with one or two doses is significantly lower than it is for delta. We need a booster jag to ensure substantial protection against omicron infection, so we are taking steps now to get boosters into arms much faster. Getting fully vaccinated is the best thing that any of us can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the country, so please book your booster jag as soon as possible.
Speeding up vaccination is essential, so I assure the nation that that is the Government’s top priority. I will shortly set out more detail on exactly how we are doing that. Although that is necessary, our judgment is that it will not, in the short term, be sufficient. While we are speeding up vaccination, we must also try to slow down omicron. That is why we are today proposing—albeit very reluctantly—some further protective measures. I appeal to everyone to follow today’s advice in order to help to slow down omicron while more of us get our boosters.
Let me be clear: we do not do this lightly, and I know how hard it is. Please believe me when I say that I would not be asking for yet more sacrifice if I did not genuinely consider it to be necessary in the face of a very real threat.
Let me set out what is being asked. First, we want to keep businesses open, but in order to help to achieve that, we are asking them to step up the protections that are in place in their premises. We intend to amend regulations to put a legal requirement on people who run businesses or provide services to take measures that are reasonably practicable to minimise the risk of transmission. We will issue guidance this week to make clear what that means for various sectors. For example, in retail, it will involve a return to the kind of protections that were in place at the start of the pandemic, including measures to avoid crowding and bottlenecks. That will include physical distancing, measures to control the flow of customers and protective screens.
For hospitality, it will mean, for example, measures to avoid crowding at bars and between tables, and there will be a reminder of the requirement to collect contact details of customers, to help with contact tracing.
For employers more generally, the guidance will make it clear that enabling staff who were working from home at the start of the pandemic to do so again is now a legal duty. I am hugely grateful to employers who are already allowing staff to work at home where possible, but we are not yet maximising the impact of home working to reduce the overall number of contacts.
We recognise, of course, that there are people who cannot work from home—for example, people who work in manufacturing, hospitality and key public services. We are asking anyone who is in that position to test regularly before they go to work. We have extended the workplace testing scheme, which delivers lateral flow kits twice a week to all businesses that have signed up to it. I encourage—indeed, I urge—any business that has 10 or more employees to join up, and to encourage their staff to test regularly.
We will also reinforce the rules on face coverings and the public health messaging on the importance of wearing face coverings—and wearing them properly.
My hardest request today is one that I make of the general public. I want to be clear: I am not asking anyone to cancel Christmas, but I am asking everyone, in the run-up to Christmas and in its immediate aftermath, to reduce as far as possible—to a minimum—the contacts that we have with people from other households. I will say more about Christmas day in a moment.
We are not banning or restricting household mixing in law, as happened before. We understand the negative impact that that has on mental health and wellbeing. However, we are asking everyone—we will issue strong guidance to this effect—to cut down as far as possible the number of people from outside our own households with whom we interact. That will help to break transmission chains. My key request today is this: before and immediately after Christmas, please minimise social mixing with other households as much as possible. However, we ask you, if you are planning to socialise, either at home or in indoor public places, to limit to a maximum of three the number of households that are represented in your group, and to make sure that they test beforehand.
I know that that is a tough thing to ask people to do, especially at this time of year, so I want to make it clear why we are making the request. One of the things we have already learned about omicron is that it has a very high attack rate. That means that if just one person in a gathering is infectious, that person will likely infect many more people in the group than was the case with the delta variant. By reducing the numbers of people and households who gather together, we will help to limit the extent of its spread.
I turn to Christmas day specifically—or Christmas eve, boxing day or whenever you have your main family celebration. We are not asking you to cancel or change your plans, and we are not proposing limits on the size of household gatherings. Places of worship will also remain open, with appropriate mitigations. We will, however, issue guidance to help to make Christmas safer.
Reducing contacts in advance of and after Christmas, as I have just strongly advised, will help. Keeping celebrations as small as family circumstances allow is also sensible. You should make sure that everyone in your gathering is vaccinated and has done a test in advance. Keep rooms ventilated and follow strict hygiene rules.
I know how much I am asking of everyone today, after a difficult and painful two years. I would not be doing it if I did not believe it to be necessary. Indeed, it could be argued that we should be going further, which is why I also need to explain a significant limitation on our ability to act in the way that we think is necessary to protect public health. In this context, I am genuinely not seeking to make a political point; I simply want to set out the factual position.
Many of the protections that help to curtail Covid come at a financial cost to individuals and businesses, so wherever we can, we put in place financial packages to protect people’s health, jobs and livelihoods. However, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments cannot borrow to meet the Covid funding challenge. UK funding arrangements mean that we rely on the Treasury to do so on our behalf; the Treasury has responded well throughout the pandemic. Although Scottish taxpayers foot our share of the bill, money flows back to the devolved Governments only when the UK Government makes decisions. Financial support is not triggered when the devolved Governments make decisions that we consider to be appropriate for public health reasons, even although it is our responsibility to make those decisions.
Because the UK Government is not proposing any further protections at this stage—a position that I do not agree with—no funding is being generated to compensate businesses for any protections that we think are necessary and wish to put in place. That is not acceptable in the current circumstances, so we are, with the Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, pressing for a fairer approach that takes account of our devolved responsibilities to protect public health. For now, however, this is the situation that we are in, and it means that our public health response is curtailed by lack of finance.
There are further steps that we could and would have considered today, particularly around the hospitality sector, had we the financial ability to do so, but we do not. However, I can confirm that, with considerable difficulty, we have managed to identify within our own resources about £100 million that we will use to help businesses, mainly in the hospitality, food supply and culture sectors, that are being affected by our advice last week about work Christmas parties, and which will be further affected by what I have said today. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy and her officials will engage with affected sectors immediately to consult on and confirm the details of support. We will work to make money available as soon as possible. Businesses that previously received support through the strategic framework business fund will be contacted directly.
We have also identified an additional £100 million to ensure that the self-isolation support grant is available for those who need it, given the expected increase in the number of eligible people who will be asked to isolate.
Making that money available will involve difficult reprioritisation, but we recognise the importance of providing as much help as we can.
However, that is the limit of what we are able to do within our own resources. I know that it does not go far enough in compensating businesses for what we are asking of them now—and, of course, no Government can rule out having to go further in the weeks ahead. We are continuing to press the United Kingdom Government to increase support to enable us to respond adequately to the public health challenges in the weeks ahead.
I turn now to our actions to speed up delivery of booster vaccinations. Anyone aged between 40 and 60 who has not already booked an appointment has now received an invitation to do so. In addition, since yesterday, all 30 to 39-year-olds have been able to book their booster jags online. I can confirm today that 18 to 29-year-olds will be able to book online from tomorrow.
Our aim is that by 31 December everyone over 18 will have been able to book a booster appointment. It is not possible to guarantee that absolutely everyone over 18 will have been vaccinated by 31 December. For a variety of reasons, some appointments will run into the new year. For example, some people will not be eligible by the end of December, because it will still be less than 12 weeks since their second dose. Some people have not yet come forward for a first or second dose and, despite our best efforts, some will not come forward to book a booster, either.
In addition, despite the strenuous work that is under way, we know that some capacity challenges between now and the end of the year—for example, vaccinator staff absences due to Covid—are inevitable.
Notwithstanding all that, we are aiming to reach as close as possible to 80 per cent uptake by the end of December, with the balance of appointments taking place in January. I do not underestimate the challenge of that. Vaccination teams are already making a Herculean effort, and we are asking a great deal of them. In addition, reaching that level of uptake depends on people continuing to come forward to get jags even over the holiday period.
This will not be easy—we know that—but we are working on the basis that the higher we aim, the further we will get.
Let me therefore set out the steps that we are taking to create the additional capacity that is needed. First, given its vital importance against omicron, we will prioritise the Covid booster programme over the remainder of the flu vaccination programme for the next few weeks. That will allow many more booster appointments to be made available. Let me stress, though—and this has informed our clinical advice—that for those in the highest-risk groups for flu, uptake of the vaccine this year is already high; for over 65-year-olds, it is 88 per cent, which is higher than last year.
Secondly, and in line with advice from the UK chief medical officers, the requirement for people to wait in a vaccine centre for 15 minutes after they receive an mRNA vaccine is being removed. That will speed up vaccination times and enable many more appointments.
Thirdly, health boards are working to offer additional drop-in capacity within local vaccination centres. Additional venues for vaccination are also being identified. That will include mass vaccination centres in areas where that is considered appropriate.
In terms of human resources, we plan to extend the number and role of volunteers, to ensure that clinical staff can spend as much time as possible supporting the administration of vaccines. We will continue to expand the size of the overall vaccination workforce as much as possible and we will make full use of any military support that is available.
We will, of course, keep Parliament updated on the delivery of these plans. However, at this stage, I want to again thank everyone who is working so hard to design and deliver the biggest and most important logistical project in our peacetime history.
Let me also stress this: although the focus of my statement today is on boosters, if you have not had your first dose yet, please book it now. It is more important than ever to do so.
In the new year, we will also complete second doses for 12 to 17-year-olds. I very much hope that we might also, soon, get regulatory approval to offer vaccination to under-12s.
Before I close, there are some further issues that I want to highlight. First, I reiterate the changed advice on self-isolation. For now, household contacts of a person who tests positive for Covid are being advised to self-isolate for 10 days. That advice applies to everyone in a household, regardless of age, vaccination status or PCR test result.
Businesses and organisations that provide vital services can apply for an exemption to allow essential workers to return to work, subject to their being symptom free and taking certain precautions, including daily lateral flow tests.
Beyond that advice, we do not recommend that entire school classes should be required to isolate when a pupil tests positive. The advice on school isolation will continue to be risk based.
More generally, a key aim is to ensure that schools stay open if at all possible, to minimise further disruption to education. However, it is vital for schools to be safe for pupils and staff. To help to achieve that, we continue to ask secondary school pupils and all staff to take lateral flow tests regularly—including during holidays and before returning after the break—and to wear face coverings.
The advisory sub-group on education is meeting today to provide further advice on how schools can operate safely in the new year. We will send that advice to schools by the end of this week.
We will continue to consider appropriate protective measures for people who are in institutional settings, such as care homes, while ensuring that visits can continue. Last week, we recommended that care staff should take lateral flow tests daily. We now also recommend that individual visits in care homes should not involve any more than two households visiting any patient at a time. We ask anyone who visits a care home to test before every visit. For hospitals, we recommend that no more than two people should visit a patient at any one time and, again, we recommend a lateral flow test before each visit.
I fully understand that omicron will be especially concerning to people who are on the highest-risk list. I assure all of you that the chief medical officer will write to you shortly with further advice and assurance.
It is an understatement to say that this is not the update that I wanted to give just a few days before Christmas. I am painfully aware that it is not an update that anyone wanted to hear. However, we have a duty to take decisions—no matter how difficult or unpopular—that will get us through this as safely as possible. I will not shy away from that responsibility. The fact that I am asking for further sacrifice today underlines how severe we think that the risk posed by omicron might be, so please follow the advice that I have set out today.
This is, without doubt, a very difficult juncture in the course of the pandemic, but please remember that vaccination still puts us in a better position than last year. Hard and very wearying though this is, we are not powerless in the face of the virus. We know the steps that we can take to slow it down.
I will stress again what we need to do. First, please get fully vaccinated as soon as possible. Secondly, please test regularly. If you are going to meet other people—remember that our advice is to minimise that as much as possible—take a lateral flow test before you go, every time. The tests are easy to take and, despite an issue with online ordering yesterday, they are easy to get hold of. Tests can be collected from local pharmacies and testing centres without a booking, and the online portal is open again today.
Wear face coverings on public transport and in shops and when moving about in hospitality settings. Make sure that your face covering fully covers your mouth and nose. Keep windows open if meeting people indoors, even at this time of year. Follow all advice on hygiene. Work from home whenever possible—that will soon become a requirement that is anchored in law.
Please follow the new advice that I have outlined today. It is guidance, but please do not think of it as optional. Cut down unnecessary contacts as much as possible. In the run-up to and immediately after Christmas, please avoid socialising with people in other households as much as you can. If you are socialising indoors at home or in public places, limit the number of households that are represented in your group to a maximum of three, and test before you go. Please follow the advice that we will give to keep Christmas day as normal but as safe as possible.
We face an extremely difficult period again ahead—I cannot tell you otherwise—but I know that we will get through it more safely if we do right by each other, as we have done all along. Please get vaccinated, test regularly and follow all the other rules and guidance that are in place for our own protection. Let us pull together again and help each other through.
The First Minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow about 70 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who wish to ask a question pressed their request-to-speak buttons now.
The situation with the new omicron variant has changed the circumstances that we are all dealing with. The Scottish and UK Governments have both examined the new variant, which is clearly more transmissible and has the potential to have a severe impact on the NHS and other vital services.
Let me therefore reiterate the key requests to everyone. Those who can should go out and get fully vaccinated—get your booster jag as soon as possible. Take a Covid test as often as you can. Take a lateral flow test before you go to bars and restaurants, before you go to meet your family and before you go to work. Take every precaution possible to protect your family and the people around you.
The Government must live up to its end of the bargain. The most important defence that we have against the virus is the booster vaccine. The vaccine booster scheme is going well, and the volunteers and staff undoubtedly deserve our praise and thanks. Now, however, we need to go even faster. Week after week, my party has come to the chamber and asked the First Minister to prepare to bring in mass vaccination centres. However, only now—only today—has that been accepted. The Scottish Government has delayed, and it is now scrambling to find venues at the last minute. Why has it taken so long for the Government to accept our calls and to agree to launch mass vaccination centres, which were so crucial and successful in the original roll-out of the vaccination programme?
My party has also called for extra support to be made available to protect Scottish jobs and to help businesses that are already struggling and losing income right now, as we saw over the weekend up and down Scotland. Last week, we said that businesses would be impacted at one of their busiest times of the year and that they desperately needed financial support. Yesterday, we called for an emergency cancellation compensation fund to protect jobs, so it is very welcome that those calls have been listened to and that support for businesses is coming from the Scottish Government, but will the First Minister confirm that payments will reach those businesses before Christmas?
I am sure that, like me, the First Minister—who said that she did not want to make a political point—will welcome the announcement from Rishi Sunak and the UK Government that additional funding will be made available to the devolved Administrations.
During her briefing on Friday, the First Minister announced that, from Saturday, household contacts of a positive case of any variant had to self-isolate for a full 10 days, meaning that a single positive case would lead to a household, potentially of four or five people, having to isolate for that entire 10-day period, even if they had tested negative. We agreed on the need for caution but, given the level of cases that the Government is expecting by next week, that rule change could result in tens of thousands of Scots being put into self-isolation every day.
We do not believe that that policy is sustainable. It will have knock-on consequences that could impact on our transport services, the police, schools and workplaces across the country—and even our vaccination programme. I ask the First Minister to outline the science and data behind the change in policy that she announced last week. According to the Scottish Government’s modelling, what impact will that have on our economy and our public services?
Today, we have clearly had a change from the announcement on Friday. The First Minister is now saying:
“Businesses and organisations that provide vital services can apply for an exemption to allow essential workers to return to work”.
How is that going to work? Where will organisations apply to for an exemption? What criteria will the exemptions be judged on? How quick will the turnaround be once applications are made?
I will take that last point first, as it is probably the easiest one to deal with, as anyone who had been paying attention to the situation over the past few months would have known. We had—
It was not in the statement.
We had an exemption scheme in place, so the arrangements for the parts of the economy that can apply to the scheme—the arrangements for applying and who people apply to—are the same as before. We will ensure that that information is refreshed.
I will take the other points as fully but as quickly as I can. Our vaccination programme is currently the fastest in the UK. We have designed it carefully so that the right facilities are available in different areas. Mass vaccination centres are not appropriate in every area. They often result in very high “Did not attend” rates, which means that appointments are lost to the system daily. We therefore flex the system to ensure that it is appropriate for the characteristics of different areas. A number of health boards already have drop-in clinics.
As we try to accelerate the programme, we are looking again at the additional things that we need to do. It would not be the best use of resources to have mass vaccination clinics in every part of the country, but, in some areas—perhaps here in Edinburgh and in Glasgow, for example—such clinics would add helpful capacity to what is already there. We will continue to do that in the best way possible.
I say this in no way to strike a note of complacency—complacent is the last thing that we are—but what we have been doing so far in the vaccination programme has resulted in the fastest progress of any of the UK nations. That does not mean that that will continue to be the case—we will have to work at it—but I hope that that gives some degree of confidence that the right judgments are being taken in how we proceed with the programme. The programme is more important than ever and, as I said in my statement, it is absolutely the top priority for the Government in the days and weeks ahead.
On the issue of money, I do not think that the UK Government’s announcement had been made before I came to the chamber, so I did not have the information, but I have just been passed a note saying that the UK Government has announced that additional funding will be made available to devolved Administrations. I do not have any of the detail yet, but I absolutely welcome that. That is very good progress, as we have been pushing for that move for the past number of days.
We have gone out of our way—rightly so—to find as much additional resource in our budgets as we can. On television last night, I noticed a Tory spokesperson calling for a fund of £10 million; today, we have announced £100 million for businesses. We will also look at the impact of the UK funding when we have the detail of it.
On the isolation policy, the current clinical advice is due to the faster transmissibility of the variant. Releasing people within a household from isolation when they test negative is not as safe as it could be, because a person testing negative one day does not mean that they will test negative the next day. That is the basis of the advice, but we are keeping the situation under review. We have already started looking at when we might migrate away from that advice to something that is more proportionate, because I absolutely understand, and I have set out, the impact that isolation might have on the economy. Therefore, it is about taking appropriate steps now but being flexible when we think it is safe to move towards more proportionate arrangements in the future.
I start by sending my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones.
The rapid spread of the omicron variant is a real cause for concern, so Parliament must be prepared to make the right decisions in the national interest. We might not yet know how dangerous the variant is, but we know that the virus risks lives.
I know how hard it must be for families across Scotland after almost two years of the pandemic, but we cannot let our guard slip or our resolve weaken at this crucial moment. We all have a duty to protect one another and to do what is in the best interests of our country and our NHS.
Therefore, I urge the people of Scotland: do your duty. If you are eligible for a first or second dose of vaccine but have not yet had it, please book the appointment now. Those who are eligible for a booster appointment should book it as soon as they can.
As Christmas approaches, we all want to protect every precious moment that we can spend with our loved ones. That means that people should work from home if they can, wear a mask where appropriate and take lateral flow tests before going to social events or visiting others at home.
It is also important that, in taking decisions, we take people with us. That means sharing as much information as possible, including the data and the science.
Throughout the pandemic, hospitality has been one of the hardest hit sectors. Many of those businesses would have been hoping that Christmas would be the time when they could catch up on lost earnings in order to survive. Therefore, they will need extra support. I welcome the assistance that has been outlined, but I urge the Scottish Government to engage with those businesses and to deliver the timely support that they need.
I also note what the First Minister said about wider support packages. If that means the UK and Scottish Governments working together to find the package, that is what needs to be done in the national interest.
I have a few specific questions. All over-18s are to be offered a booster appointment by the end of the year, with the target being that 80 per cent will have received it by the end of the year. That is only 18 days away, and will require more than 75,000 vaccines a day being administered. I welcome the plans for mass and drop-in vaccinations centres, but how quickly will they be operational, and will there be military assistance?
Given that there will be higher demand for lateral flow tests, is the First Minister confident that we have an adequate supply of them, and what steps are being taken to make them more easily accessible to people across the country?
No one should have to think about the financial impact of self-isolation on them or their family. I note the additional money, which is welcome, but what consideration will be given to increasing eligibility and the amounts that are available to individuals who need the money?
Finally, I say to the people of Scotland: stay safe, follow the advice, and we will get through this.
I thank Anas Sarwar for his questions.
On hospitality, I do not think that I addressed the point that was raised in the previous round of questions about whether the money will be delivered before Christmas. We will do our best to ensure that the money, or as much of it as possible, is delivered as quickly as possible—I hope, before Christmas. I absolutely agree that hospitality has taken a sucker punch in the past couple of weeks due to the inescapable and unavoidable public health advice.
We know that omicron is spreading fast generally, but its high attack rate means that if one person in a group of people at a Christmas party has it, almost all are liable to be infected. That higher attack rate has made the advice unavoidable.
On the Covid booster jags, the additional capacity to administer them will start to become available over the next few days and the course of this week in the form of extra centres and, where necessary and appropriate, mass vaccination centres and additional appointments at existing centres. We will make maximum use of the military; there is a UK Government commitment to make more military support available.
Let me stress, however, that the biggest increase in capacity that will be delivered, and which will be delivered most quickly, will be through the changes that I talked about to prioritise Covid boosters over flu vaccinations. That will free up significant numbers of appointments. There will also be removal, on clinical advice—the four UK chief medical officers have given the go-ahead to this—of the requirement for people to wait in vaccination centres for 15 minutes after their vaccination. Those two things will make the biggest immediate impacts on increasing capacity to do more booster vaccinations.
I am absolutely aware of the run rate that we have to achieve to meet the targets that we have set today, although it also depends on people coming forward. We know that, in a normal year, supply and demand in an immunisation programme would dip over Christmas, so we need to work to keep them as high as possible.
On the self-isolation support grant, we have announced today additional funding to support the increased numbers who are likely to be eligible and asked to isolate. We keep the eligibility requirements under review and will look at them again, but we need to maximise the amount of money that is getting to people who are genuinely in need. That will always be a fine balance that we must try to strike.
Nobody wants to surrender the progress that we have all made over the past 18 months. At moments like this—at times of crisis—we need clarity from the Government, we need businesses to get support, pound for pound, and we need the Scottish and UK Governments to work together.
People will struggle to understand why it is safe to mix with 400 people at a concert but not with four families in their own home. The effect of that public uncertainty will rock the events sector and lead to events being cancelled.
I want to bring a particular situation to the First Minister’s attention. It concerns an events centre and our efforts to ramp up the booster programme. A rave for 3,500 people that will take place this Saturday is set to displace the principal vaccination hub for NHS Lothian at the Royal Highland Show ground. It will reduce vaccination capacity at that venue by 50 per cent until after Christmas. As of 2 pm, the RHS had heard nothing from the Scottish Government, and without clarity it is contractually obliged to begin dismantling the vaccination operation this evening. The matter is really urgent. What should the RHS do?
I first spoke to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care about the matter first thing this morning—I cannot remember at what time. Action is under way to cancel the rave and to ensure that there is full compensation for that and that the vaccination centre can continue in its current location. The health secretary has been working on that all morning; I am sure that she will be happy to give an update when we are out of the chamber. That rave was planned pre-omicron and is, in the light of the omicron developments, clearly no longer appropriate, because we want to increase facilities for vaccination, not the opposite.
What advice would the Scottish Government give to parents who are concerned about the omicron variant and are considering keeping their children off school?
I encourage parents to continue to send their children to school. I absolutely understand the anxiety that parents will feel at this time. It is important that test and protect, with local health protection teams, works in a risk-based and targeted way to ensure that where cases are identified, the right approach is taken to advice for self-isolation.
There are other mitigations in place in schools, especially secondary schools, requiring use of face coverings and taking of lateral flow tests regularly. I know that those mitigations have been controversial in the past, but they are really important.
As I said in my statement, the advisory sub-group on education is meeting today to consider additional measures that we might advise schools to put in place for the new term. I will not pre-empt those recommendations, but I suspect that they will include more advice on ventilation, for example, because we know how important it is. As I said earlier, we will ensure that the advice is with schools by the end of this week.
I completely understand the anxiety, but I know that parents will also be anxious about disruption to their children’s education. We want to work in a way that minimises that as far as possible during the next difficult phase.
I listened with some concern to what the First Minister said about the omicron variant and I reiterate the importance of people getting vaccinated all the way to their booster jag. It is not too late.
A month ago, I asked the First Minister to re-open mass vaccination centres with local flexibility, using volunteer support. If she had listened to me then, we would be well on our way by now, but I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government is now listening. It is also great that the First Minister listened to what I said on the telly last night and found much-needed money for businesses.
I also asked the Government to instigate mobile vaccination centres in the 70 areas of Scotland where 40 per cent of the population still require their second dose, and so help our remote communities. I made those suggestions to help the people of Scotland. In addition to the measures that she has announced today, will the First Minister commit to providing mobile vaccination centres to help those hard-to-reach people get the jag into their arms as quickly as possible?
We already have mobile vaccination units and there are plenty of clinics operating within more rural areas. What we need to do is expand the capacity in those to make sure that they can do more appointments and, where necessary, we need to open additional facilities. As I have said, we will do all that.
Mass vaccination clinics are not appropriate for every area. That is not the best way to get everybody vaccinated. The appointment system is important, but we will continue to flex the arrangements. I take on board every suggestion that is made, but we should reflect on the fact that, as I keep saying because it is important, what we have been doing up until now has obviously been successful, because our vaccination programme is further ahead—on boosters it is quite a bit further ahead—than England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That suggests that we are getting the balance right.
However, that was then, this is now. We have to significantly increase the pace and therefore we look again across the whole of the provision and decide where and how to add the capacity that is needed.
A constituent’s elderly mother has advanced dementia and was admitted to hospital a few days ago. On previous admissions, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde permitted visiting under an essential visitor policy, which specifically mentioned both dementia and end-of-life care. However, my constituent is struggling to see his mother, which has left her distressed and anxious and the family worried.
I am, of course, in communication with the NHS, but I ask the First Minister whether there has been any change to essential visitor guidance in the light of the omicron variant? If not, will the Scottish Government work with NHS boards and staff to ensure that the guidelines are clear, well understood and applied to ensure that emotional support and end-of-life care can be offered appropriately?
We will ensure that refreshed guidance is issued to health boards to ensure that they understand what the appropriate measures are for hospital visiting. I set out today that we do not want to stop visiting; it is really important that visiting goes ahead. It is important for people in hospital and for their loved ones, but we are suggesting a limit on the number of visitors for each patient at any one time.
Visiting should continue, with appropriate precautions and mitigations. Patients should not be denied visitors except in very short-term and specific circumstances, such as managing an on-going outbreak, in which case hospitals can put in place temporary visiting restrictions. However, even when hospitals are managing an outbreak, we expect what we call essential visits to continue. A person with dementia is a clear example of someone we would expect to receive essential visits, even during an outbreak.
Care packages are being cancelled as we speak, due to staff absence. I have a constituent who had carers coming in four times a day and all that support has been pulled. She has been told that that will last for at least a week and to phone an emergency helpline if anything should go wrong. That puts her health at considerable risk. What can the First Minister say to people who feel abandoned as their care packages are withdrawn? What urgent support can she put in place, and will she confirm that exemptions from the 10-day self-isolation rules apply to health and social care workers?
On the final question, yes, that was the case previously and it is the case now.
I covered this at some length in my statement. It is part of the challenge that we are facing. It is not just through isolation, but through people having mild illness from being infected by the virus that they cannot go to work. That is why we need to crack down on the virus; otherwise, we will see impacts on our schools, public transport and people who rely on care packages. We will continue to work with the health service and social care to mitigate impacts as far as possible. I absolutely understand the impact on anybody of not having their care package for a single day, let alone multiple days. The route with this is to get the virus under control. That is why what I have set out today is so important, and it is why it is so important that we all continue to urge people across Scotland to do the right thing by following all the guidance.
The Tuesday Covid statements to the Parliament are essential for the Parliament to hold the Scottish Government to account. Public engagement and compliance is key, as it has been from the start, and compliance has been very high. However, constituents tell me that they miss the regular lunch time televised Covid information updates, which were so important in the early days of the pandemic. In the fast-moving situation that has been brought about by the omicron variant, can the lunch time public information broadcasts be reinstated?
I could hear the enthusiasm for that from members on the Conservative and Labour benches as Christine Grahame was speaking.
Whatever people might think, I do not miss having to do daily updates on Covid, although we do not know what lies ahead. I respect the Parliament: I should come to the Parliament, be accountable to the Parliament and make announcements to the Parliament. It is not for me to decide the days on which the Parliament sits. If the Parliament wants a recall, that is a matter for the Presiding Officer. What I cannot do during a public health emergency is withhold decisions or advice to the public from 5 pm on a Thursday evening until 2 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, as that would literally put lives at risk. It is sometimes important for me to be able to communicate to the public with the chief medical officer and the national clinical director there to answer clinical questions.
I will continue to do everything that I can to get key public messages across. In an emergency such as this, it is incumbent on us all to try to put our differences aside and unite to get those public health messages across.
The Scottish Greens have always advocated a cautious approach to dealing with the pandemic, and that remains our position. Boosters will play an increasingly important role in providing protection against the omicron variant, and I urge everyone who is eligible to book their appointment.
I appreciate the further funding from the UK Government that was announced just after 2 pm, but, at the moment, it appears to fall short of furlough. A lack of furlough fundamentally limits the options that are available to the Scottish Government and this Parliament to tackle the spread of the omicron variant. What work is on-going to obtain the financial support that will be required if further measures are needed?
That is an issue that we have discussed constructively in four-nations meetings over the course of the past week. As members would expect, it is an issue that has been raised by me, the First Minister of Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. As I said, I have not seen the detail of what the UK Government has announced; I look forward to seeing that later, and I welcome it.
The basic principle here, which should apply across all parts of the UK, is that, if we feel that it is essential to take measures to protect public health, we should not be constrained in doing so because of financial considerations. It should not be the case that money is triggered only if the UK Government decides to take steps; if the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish Governments, acting within devolved responsibilities, think that that is important, we should be able to trigger that support as well. It is about parity and not asking for one part of the UK to have an advantage over the other. We all pay for this and it is important that we all have equal access to financial support for businesses and individuals whose livelihoods are on the line.
Everything should be kept open and under review, including the reinstatement of furlough over what we hope will not be, but might be, a really challenging period for businesses in the weeks to come.
I welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to support the hospitality trade and the indications of support from the UK Government. Given that this Parliament does not have borrowing powers to fund the response that is required, will the First Minister press the UK Government to advise this Parliament of the details of its support package as soon as possible? Does the Scottish Government have any specific asks for the funding?
The Deputy First Minister is telling me that the detail that I have given members is the detail that we have at the moment. More money will be made available, but we do not know how much it will be and we do not know whether it is genuinely additional money or whether it will be netted off against expected savings elsewhere. I welcome the money. I welcome any movement on the issue. Members will appreciate that I need to see the detail before I can comment further.
We want to be in a position to take the necessary measures to protect public health without having to plead for financial support in a situation in which, if the UK Government were taking those measures, it would be able to make that financial support available. This is about parity. Whether we are talking about furlough, protecting workers’ wages, or compensating hospitality businesses for the significant knock to their Christmas trade, we need to be in an equal position to compensate for the necessary public health measures that we are taking.
I hope that we have seen progress today and I will happily report back to the Parliament when we have more detail.
I ask this question on behalf of two sets of constituents who have been in touch with me in the past 24 hours. They have family members who have been working abroad and who have arrived home for the Christmas break. Those people have had two vaccinations in the countries where they have been working. If they are British passport holders, will they be eligible for the booster vaccination?
In principle, the answer to that question would be yes. There will be some caveats regarding which vaccinations they have had in the countries that they have come from. I do not have the detail of that, and therefore do not know whether they can have the boosters here. If Liz Smith would like to write to me or to the health secretary with details, I will be able to give an answer that is particular to the case, rather than the general answer that I can give on the basis of the information that I have now.
The First Minister said in her statement that the new variant presents a problem in terms of capacity for the health service. Some of the people who are watching this may be undergoing cancer treatment or waiting for critical surgery. What assistance is being given to health boards and what plans are there to ensure that those people will get the treatment that they need? What has been done to ensure that care packages are in place for vulnerable patients, so that they can leave hospital and are not left there blocking beds?
Those are important issues. NHS staff are working extremely hard and are under intense pressure, but health boards will continue to prioritise critical patients and urgent care as much as possible, in line with the critical prioritisation framework that was published in November 2020.
It is also important to get patients appropriately discharged from hospital. We have invested significantly to enhance care at home services, although the issue of staff absences is a concern for us. Those matters are all being given significant attention and priority.
The health and care workforce are working above and beyond the call of duty and we are now asking them to do more to accelerate the vaccination programme. That is why it is important, as I set out today, that we try to free up capacity in ways that do not ask staff to pause other forms of care when that is avoidable. We will continue to do everything possible to support staff during this difficult winter.
NHS Lanarkshire declared a code black 53 days ago. Staff are exhausted and they fear a trickle of omicron cases, never mind a tsunami of infections. What more will the Government do to support staff and patients in Lanarkshire, including chronic pain patients such as Liz Barrie, who has already waited for 21 months for a steroid injection that she, and many others, should be getting twice a year?
We will do everything that we possibly can to support those working in the health service. I cannot even begin to find the words to express my appreciation for that work, understanding the pressure that they are working under. There are many patients, including the individual cited by Monica Lennon, who are having disruption to their care.
We will do everything that we can to mitigate those impacts, but we come back, as we so often have during the pandemic, to the hard reality at the centre of this. The impact on services comes from the pandemic. As cases go up, we see a bigger impact in people being off work sick or having to isolate, with an inevitable impact on services. We need to come back, again—hopefully for the last time in the pandemic, although none of us knows exactly what is ahead of us—to the need to pull together to do all the right things to drive infections down. That will do more than anything else to allow us to get the NHS sustainably back on the path to normality.
I appreciate that no one has a crystal ball, but given that we are now just 10 days from Christmas eve, can the First Minister advise as to whether my Cowdenbeath constituents and people across Scotland can reasonably start to finalise their Christmas plans, based, of course, on the series of protective measures that have been set out today?
Yes—I think that that is a reasonable thing to say. I have tried today to set out as clearly as possible that we do not want to put limits on people’s ability to gather with their families on Christmas day, or on boxing day or Christmas eve if that is when they choose to have their main celebration. However, there are things that we need to do now to make that safer, such as reducing our contacts and avoiding socialising with other households, and there are things that we need to do on the day around testing, ventilation and hygiene.
I really want people to be able to do that, but I cannot stand here and tell them that there are no risks around omicron. I think that one of the darkest days for many people—out of many dark days during the pandemic—and certainly one of the darkest days that I experienced was 19 December last year, when, having given people some limited normality, we had to take that away from them before Christmas. Nobody wanted that to happen, and I certainly do not want to be in that position again.
Let us do the things that I am asking for today, limiting contacts and socialising in order to get through Christmas with the freedom to enjoy it, and then continuing to limit socialising so that we do not see a surge in cases afterwards. That is my best advice to people right now in what is a really, really difficult situation.
The financial support that has been announced for the hospitality and food sectors is welcome, and I hope that there will be more, but the losses that are consequent to the announcement on Thursday about Christmas parties not being recommended go far beyond those sectors. I have been contacted by constituents in the hair and beauty sector who have suffered a range of cancellations at what would normally be their busiest time of year, given the Christmas party season. Will financial assistance be offered to those businesses as well?
The £100 million pot that I have announced today is the limit of what we can do within the resources that we have, and we are going to have to make really difficult choices in order to make that money available. I am being candid with people about that. However, that amount is not insignificant. I am genuinely not trying to be political here, but I note that the Conservative spokesperson said that they wanted £10 million. We have delivered 10 times that amount today, and I think that that is right, but that will not go near full 100 per cent compensation for the losses of business.
I hope that what is being announced by the UK Government today—I will not repeat what I said about not knowing the detail of that—will allow us to go further in compensating businesses for the losses that are associated with our current advice, and that it will give us the flexibility to do more should we need to go further, although I hope that we will not have to do that.
I will look at that, and we will do more if we can, but we have, I think rightly, made available today the maximum that we can provide within the resources that we currently have at our disposal.
Can further steps be taken to encourage higher uptake of vaccines and boosters in minority ethnic communities and lower socioeconomic groups?
I think that the answer is yes. More can be done and more needs to be done. We are working with NHS boards, which have dedicated inclusion plans within the vaccination programme that outline how they will offer vaccination to people who often face barriers to uptake. Health boards plan the location of clinics to suit the needs of their populations and they often respond to evidence of lower uptake using available data and local insights. Mobile outreach units are provided by the Scottish Ambulance Service, and some health boards have partnered with local transport providers to use their vehicles to offer transport to appointments for people who might otherwise struggle to get there.
A lot of work is being done to reach undervaccinated communities, and that work will continue, because it is really important that everybody who is eligible to get vaccinated comes forward, and that they get support to do so, if that is needed.
Within hours of the issuing of the public health guidance, my constituent, Jo Lawrence, who runs a catering business in East Lothian, sent me this message:
“Here we go again 8K of cancellations this morning, just as we were getting back on our feet.”
Last time around, many independent wedding, catering and hospitality firms such as Jo’s were excluded from major support schemes. Will the First Minister give a commitment to ensuring that no such business is excluded this time around?
I have set out very clearly and very candidly where we are with financial resources. We are making available every last penny that we can. When we have a pot of money, there are difficult decisions to be made about how thinly that is spread versus giving, perhaps, a smaller group of businesses more significant amounts.
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy and her officials will consult affected sectors and get to the best possible outcome. We will help as many businesses as we can. If more money is now available from the UK Government, I hope that that will allow us to do more, but we have to see the detail of that.
These choices and decisions are awful for the businesses that are affected. I understand that. It is perfectly understandable that members come to the chamber and read out such messages. However, nobody should be under any illusion that I do not know the impact of the situation or understand how awful it is.
I do not have a choice. I cannot continue to tell people that it is safe to go to certain settings in groups, right now, given the way that omicron is running. I and the Government have to make those choices and to deal with the impacts to the best of our ability. That is what we will continue to do.
As the First Minister has made clear, the evidence shows that omicron is a major threat to public health in Scotland. However, although I appreciate her announcement today of the provision of some support to business, and the announcement from the Treasury, which was released as the First Minister was on her feet, it is clear that the Scottish Government’s hands have been tied, and that it has been held up while the UK Government is unwilling to provide the necessary financial support.
As we have seen over recent days at Westminster, the Tory party is full of zealots who will not vote for public health measures, and the Prime Minister does not have the political capital to push through the necessary restrictions because, last year, number 10 partied through lockdown. Does the First Minister agree that the UK Government’s intransigence is putting lives at risk and that it must urgently change course?
There is a real issue there, and it is not being political to point it out.
For whatever reason, and whatever anybody’s view of this is—I am not going to comment on that—it is very difficult for the UK Government to impose more protective measures, while, in my view, those protective measures are really essential. That is the right of the UK Government, which is responsible for protecting public health in England just as the Scottish Government is responsible for doing that in Scotland. It is just as entitled to take the decisions that it thinks are right. However, what is not fair, right now, is that, when it decides to do things, it can trigger financial support that is denied to us when we take decisions that we think are necessary.
Hopefully, we will get to a better position and today’s announcement is indicative of more of a willingness to listen to that point—as I have certainly seen, in recent days—than has been the case at some previous points in the pandemic. However, that basic issue of public health fairness is at the heart of it. Not only am I raising that issue; the Welsh and Northern Irish First Ministers have raised it. The devolved Governments are responsible for protecting public health; however, if we are denied the wherewithal to do that, we are in an invidious position that is unfair not just to the Governments involved but, fundamentally, to the populations that we serve.
Many members wish to put a question in this session, so I will be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.
The duty to work from home is a recognition that workplaces are an increased transmission risk. It has been raised previously that many key workers cannot work from home. They face a continued heightened risk of getting Covid at work, and then, potentially, long Covid. What support will be offered to key workers who are now unable to work in the long term, due to long Covid that they caught while they were doing their jobs? Does the First Minister accept that long Covid should be made an industrial disease under Scotland’s benefits system, now that the UK Industrial Injuries Advisory Council has refused to classify it in that way?
I certainly think that there is an argument for that, and I would be more than happy to look at it in detail and consider the Scottish Government’s position.
It is absolutely right to say that we are advising people to work from home wherever they can and—as of this week—strengthening that requirement on businesses. It is not just that it reduces the risk of transmission in workplaces; it also reduces the number of contacts that people have when they travel to work or have lunch while they are there. Working from home helps to take away some of the transmission risk and, given what we are facing right now, that is important.
For those who have to work, it is important that there are appropriate mitigations. Testing is one of the most important mitigations. Yes, there are people who suffer from long Covid and there are long-term implications that might affect their ability to work, but sickness pay, and much of the benefits system, is still reserved to the UK Government. There will be issues that we need to address, and I hope that this Parliament will come together to help us to put those issues very much on the UK Government’s radar screen.
Over the past few days, I have been contacted by constituents who have been experiencing difficulty in obtaining lateral flow testing kits from their local pharmacies. Can the First Minister provide an assurance that everything possible will be done to ensure that adequate supplies of kits are available at pharmacies, especially for those who are unable to use alternative options, such as ordering online?
Yes, we will take steps to do that. I have not been aware of particular issues at local pharmacies. There are more than 1,000 community pharmacies and dispensing general practitioners across the country that are providing access to lateral flow tests, and they can place daily orders to ensure that supply is sufficient. We are working with the UK Government to encourage pharmacies to place daily orders and increase the amount of tests that they are able to order each day where that is needed.
In the event of any supply issues in a particular pharmacy, people will be redirected to collect at another local pharmacy or testing site. If you want to know where your nearest source of lateral flow devices is, you can go to the website and put in your postcode, and it will tell you.
In general—I raised this at a four-nations discussion on Sunday—we need to ensure, given the higher demand for LFDs, which is really positive and good, that their procurement and supply stays healthy. I know that the team in the UK Government that is responsible for LFDs is working extremely hard on that. There was a temporary issue with the online ordering system yesterday, which has been rectified today, but it is really important that we keep the supply of these tests flowing, because they are an important part of our defence.
Given that the one thing that we know about the omicron variant is the significant increase in transmissibility, why has the guidance on identifying close contacts in schools not immediately been revised? Will that result in more students and staff having to miss time from school because transmissions have been missed and outbreaks are worse than they would otherwise have been?
We keep all those things under review. With schools in particular, there is a fine balance to strike, as we want to minimise the risk of children’s education being disrupted. If we had a blanket self-isolation policy for a whole class where one pupil tests positive, we would very quickly see large numbers of pupils and classes isolating. On the other hand, as Ross Greer rightly says, we do not want a situation in which we allow the virus to spread more easily in schools than it would otherwise do.
That is why the risk-based approach that test and protect uses is so important. As the situation develops, we are going to have to keep all that under review to strike the right balance between protection and allowing schools, and the economy and critical services, to operate. None of that is easy—none of it has ever been easy—and it will be tricky in the weeks ahead, but there is a real focus on trying to get those balances as right as possible.
Hospitality businesses in Dundee have contacted me to express their concern about the impact of the new variant on trading over the festive period. Those businesses will welcome today’s announcement of £100 million in support from the Scottish Government.
However, does the First Minister agree that, while that support is welcome, today’s Treasury announcement of unspecified financial support just moments before this statement highlights yet again that, while we are in the grip of this horrible pandemic, the current funding arrangements across the UK are dysfunctional? Does she agree that greater certainty is required from Westminster, and quickly, not only for the Scottish Government but for businesses that are facing a festive period of challenge? The Scottish Government needs to press the UK Government for early clarity on that.
Yes, I agree. We are pressing both for funding arrangements that are, even if only in the Covid context, more appropriate to the situation that we face, and for as much clarity as possible. I will not repeat what I said about not knowing the detail of what was announced just after 2 o’clock.
This is a basic issue of good sense when it comes to dealing with a pandemic. We cannot have our hands tied on public health by funding arrangements that are asymmetrical and unfair to the devolved Administrations.
I hope that we are going to see some progress. It is really important that we all have the maximum ability to steer our way through the next phase of the pandemic without businesses unduly paying the cost of what we do because we do not have the wherewithal to compensate them properly.
The public health guidance that was issued on Thursday took many businesses by surprise, especially those in hospitality, and gave them absolutely no time to prepare. What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that that situation does not happen again and that all possible steps are taken to give businesses adequate time to prepare for new measures and guidance?
We will do that as far as possible. I understand the frustration, anxiety and distress on the part of businesses that, like all of us, have now had two years of guidance that changes as the pandemic changes.
However, I ask all members to listen to what I said earlier. Cases of this variant of the virus are doubling every two to three days. It is moving faster than anything that we have dealt with before in the course of the pandemic, which is quite a statement, because we have dealt with really difficult situations before. Therefore, speed of response is now more important than it has ever been. I understand that businesses would prefer that we waited for a few days to tell them what we are going to do a week hence so that they could have a week to prepare, but, in a week, this variant of the virus will have doubled three or four times. That is why speed is so important.
I wish that we were not in this situation but we are, and we do not do businesses or anyone else in society any favours if we do not try to act as fast as the virus is replicating.
Some hospitality groups are saying that the First Minister has just asked people to—I quote—“stay away” from their restaurants and facilities. Would the First Minister clarify what she said so that everyone is totally clear about what is being asked and what is not?
I think that I made it clear in my statement. I am not trying to override the judgment of every person. We are two years into this pandemic and people have a lot of experience of it and need to be able to make judgments. What I am saying is that, in the run-up to Christmas and after the core celebrations of that time, people should reduce their contact with people in other households as far as possible. That means minimising socialising. That will help us to slow down the virus while we get more and more people boosted.
Secondly, because I appreciate that some people will want to socialise and will socialise—although my advice is to minimise that—I ask those who are doing that, whether it is in their own home or in a hospitality setting, to limit the number of households in that group to a maximum of three. I am trying to explain why that is important.
That kind of thing has always been important with an infectious virus but, as we have seen from the outbreaks over the past two weeks and from all our evidence since the emergence of omicron, the attack rate of omicron means that if someone is in a group of people where one person is infected, the majority of people in that group are being infected. That almost took out an accident and emergency unit in Lanarkshire last week.
That is why we are giving this advice. It is horrible advice to give and is the last thing that people want to hear, but it is essential if we are to get on top of this virus before it overwhelms us.
In her statement, the First Minister advocated continued lateral flow tests for secondary school pupils. School testing figures are currently below 4 per cent. Test and protect has been abandoned in classrooms and there has been no action on classroom ventilation beyond opening some windows. Further to that, the promised laptops for all are not in the hands of pupils. The Government has done nothing to help keep schools open and has done nothing to help prepare them in case they have to close. Can we assume that the Government will be working now to ensure that, after two years, maximum safety measures are in place so that schools definitely reopen in January?
I am just going to be blunt: I think that that was a deeply irresponsible contribution. It was not only irresponsible because it mischaracterises the position of test and protect; it is an insult to those who are working in test and protect to help schools to stay safe every single day, using a risk-based approach, trying to strike the right balance between protection and maintaining children’s education.
We distributed laptops and connections to tens of thousands of children at an earlier stage in the pandemic, having identified those who are most at risk, and we will continue to do everything that we can to keep schools open, because, as we see today in the attainment figures, that is important for the sake of children’s learning and education.
As I say that, I absolutely accept that schools must also be safe for children and staff, which is why we have given local authorities additional resources to help with ventilation and the education advisory sub-group is looking at all those matters again right now. Members should, by all means, scrutinise the issue, but I ask them not, in the midst of the crisis, to come to the chamber and irresponsibly mischaracterise the situation.
Has any consideration been given to providing new guidance to large-scale events, including sporting and recreation events, to help to slow down the transmission of the new variant?
The guidance that we have given today is to people on the interactions that they have with people in other households. That is specifically for indoor events. We are also considering strengthening face-covering requirements and, as part of that, we will consider whether we want to encourage people to wear face coverings even outdoors in some crowded events.
We are not cancelling events at the moment. Particularly if we have more financial wherewithal to compensate companies and events, we will consider whether there is more proportionate action that we can take. However, the advice that we are giving today is the advice that was set out in my statement, which will be backed up with more detail and guidance to be issued over this week.
The size of the vaccination workforce is pivotal to the delivery of the accelerated booster programme. The statement indicated the Scottish Government’s will to extend the number and role of volunteers. Is it possible for the First Minister to provide more details on how and when that is likely to be achieved?
I encourage all MSPs to think about volunteering in a local vaccination centre over the Christmas break if there is a need for volunteers. I have asked all ministers to think about doing that if it would be helpful.
I said last week that we had already increased the paid professional workforce by 300 full-time-equivalent posts. Many people want to volunteer. We will make available details of how people go about registering their interest.
Volunteers are restricted in what they can do, but their activity and contribution can help to free up time. Taking on reception tasks or stewarding people who are turning up for vaccinations frees up the time of clinical staff to do the vaccinations. It is all hands on deck over the next few weeks to get the booster jags into as many arms as we can as fast as we can.
On Saturday, I was at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow. The theatre insisted on people having had a vaccination or a negative test, which was extremely good. Does the First Minister agree that venues should go above and beyond what the law says?
I congratulate any venues—I know that there are many of them—that are going the extra mile to keep the venues and people who go to them, whether performers or spectators, as safe as possible.
As I said, we will put a legal obligation on people who run businesses and provide services to take all practical measures to keep their premises as free from transmission as possible. We know that nobody can eradicate the risk of transmission—it is important to be clear about that—but there are many things that we can do to reduce the risk. I give credit and my appreciation to businesses the length and breadth of the country that seek to do that.
I had my booster jab yesterday. The guy who put the needle in my arm was at the start of a 12-hour shift. Nobody would be able to do too many of those without getting exhausted. What are we doing to protect the army of heroes who are delivering the vaccination programme? How many extra vaccinators do we need?
As I said last week and repeated today, we have already increased the numbers: we have added 300 full-time-equivalent posts. Health boards are also training new vaccinators and we are recruiting extra volunteers. All of us have to do it.
My appreciation of those who are doing the vaccinations knows no bounds. When I went for my booster a week or so ago, I had a good conversation with the lead nurse about the pressures that they are under and the heroic work that they are doing. We often talk glibly about the contribution that NHS workers make to all our lives but, right now, everybody who is helping with the vaccination effort is literally saving lives and helping the country to get through the most difficult period. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, but the Government owes them the support that they need. That is what we are focused on providing as we ask them to do even more over the next few weeks.
It has been reported that around 120 staff from University hospital Hairmyres, which is in my constituency, are isolating following a Covid outbreak. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with NHS Lanarkshire on that matter? What support, logistical or otherwise, will be provided to ensure that patients are seen?
We are aware of the situation at Hairmyres through the daily contact that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and/or officials have with health boards. NHS Lanarkshire is under significant and sustained pressure, but it has confirmed that it is deploying staff from other areas to ensure that services can deliver key and effective patient care.
We will continue to work closely with all boards, including NHS Lanarkshire, to review their contingency plans and assist in any way possible—for instance, through mutual and military aid where appropriate—and to ensure that appropriate use is made of the exemption system to allow critical workers to return to work on the basis of certain precautions.
I have been contacted by constituents who are deeply concerned and there have been press reports in the past few days about people who are deeply concerned that an elderly relative has not received their booster vaccination due to a prolonged stay in hospital. Despite being in hospital through the autumn, many have been told by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that they can be vaccinated only in the community. With the huge problem of delayed discharge and the imperative to ensure that everyone has a booster, can the First Minister confirm whether boosters will be administered urgently to those in hospitals if that is clinically appropriate?
There is no blanket policy that says that elderly patients in hospital cannot be vaccinated in the hospital; that is down to a clinical decision and judgment. I will certainly ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to see whether we need to issue any more guidance to health boards to ensure that that happens.
We have talked a lot about the impact that the pandemic has had on our health service, but it is also impacting on other public services, such as our court system. What has the Scottish Government done to deal with the significant backlog of cases and ensure that our criminal justice system can start to clear that backlog?
The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service is working very hard on plans to clear the backlog, which is more on the criminal side than in civil cases. A lot of civil business has continued to happen online. There have, of course, been measures to minimise the impact on criminal business, which has been more severe. I discussed that issue directly with the Lord President just last week. Obviously, the budget helps to ensure that there are resources for the court service and the Crown Office to continue their recovery work.
Given that the guidance that has been set out today relies heavily on everyone taking personal responsibility and that changing rules around Covid can be confusing, providing good and easily understandable information is key. That certainly was not the case on Thursday evening, when the public and businesses were hugely let down by the lack of clear guidance. I assume that the First Minister agrees that good communication is critical, so why has the Scottish Government once again removed ITV Border from television advertising schedules? That means that viewers in Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders will not see Scottish Government Covid and other, related public information messages on channel 3. Why is providing the information in the south of Scotland less important than providing it elsewhere, given that the Government continues to spend on STV?
For goodness’ sake, I ask members why on earth I would want to stop public health messages getting to people in every part of Scotland. What could be my motivation for that? That is a bit rich coming from the Conservatives, who spend a lot of their time trying to prevent me from giving public health messages.
Tell us why.
I do not know why that is the case. I will look into it urgently. Many, but not all, of our public health messages right now are being done on a UK-wide basis. We are co-operating with the UK Government to ensure consistency of messaging. By all means raise these things, but raising them in a tone of voice that suggests that somehow I have a motivation to stop people in the south of Scotland getting public health messages is utterly ridiculous.
It is clear that further restrictions are necessary, but does the First Minister agree that people are willing to comply with restrictions when they think that they are consistent and fair, and that it will be difficult to explain why people are allowed to mix at large events when restrictions are being put on small family gatherings?
In guidance, we will ask that measures to ensure safety start to be introduced in public places in which people gather. I talked particularly about hospitality and the need to ensure that there is no crowding between tables, because we are asking people to stay in smaller groups if they are in hospitality settings. We will give that message consistently, whether people are in their own home or in a public place.
I have today set out candidly the financial reasons why we cannot do more for some of the public places, although, as I have said, we will look again to see whether we can do any more to support some sensible measures.
I understand the importance of people understanding, which is why I have set out the reasons for what we are asking people to do. This is about all of us trying to reduce our contacts as much as possible. If we all reduce our contacts a bit, and as much as we can, we will reduce the virus’s overall ability to spread. It might be easier for somebody to do that by not going to hospitality venues, or it might be easier for them to do it in their own home—let us do whatever works for us. If we all take the number of our contacts down in the run-up to Christmas, I hope that we will be able to enjoy Christmas and not see a surge of infections after it.
None of this is guaranteed. Omicron is a highly infectious variant of the virus, but doing all that will give us the best possible chance of achieving a smoother path through the winter.
Can the First Minister provide an update on what support the Scottish Government is making available to general practitioner surgeries in Scotland to expand the level of care that they provide to patients?
We are providing funding of £30 million to support general practices to continue to provide a high level of care to patients through the winter. The funding will help with the provision of existing services. It will include support for more face-to-face appointments, extra GP sessions, practice nurse time and non-core hours to cover all appointments, for example.
We want face-to-face appointments to resume and to happen as necessary. Many people will continue to prefer online or telephone appointments with their GP, but we need to make sure that we get the balance right. GPs have been working extremely hard throughout the pandemic to provide essential services, and it is right that we support them with funding to ensure that they continue to do so.
The First Minister knows that there is a glaring inconsistency between household gatherings and event gatherings, as Katy Clark has just pointed out. She would like to go further if money is available, especially now that the UK Government has indicated that there will be funds. Will she return to the chamber tomorrow to give us greater certainty for businesses and jobs? Events will be cancelled because of the guidance announced today. We will need the guidance to be updated very quickly to avoid that.
I do not know, because I have no idea what money is on the table. When I get out of the chamber and back to my office, perhaps I will have that information, but I might not. If there is more money and it enables us to take other decisions that we think are appropriate, we will have to go through a decision-making process. When we arrive at further decisions, I will come to Parliament. I cannot say at the moment whether that will be tomorrow.
What I would say to all MSPs is that we all have a choice. These are difficult decisions and, when we are dealing with a pandemic, there will always be inconsistencies no matter what we do, because we are all trying to reduce our contacts as much as possible. We can choose to go around telling people about the inconsistencies, or we can explain why things are as they are and encourage people to comply with the advice that we are giving. That is in the overall national interest.
On what date will the guidance for businesses be issued? What lead time will they have to implement it?
At this stage, we intend for the change in regulations to take effect on Friday this week and the guidance to be issued before that. I return to the point that I made to one of the member’s colleagues: we want to give businesses as much time as possible, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are facing a variant of the virus that means that cases are doubling every two to three days—it is closer to every two days. It is moving very fast, and if we do not try to move as fast as it is moving, we will have very serious problems.
Constituents have contacted me because they have family members flying into Scotland for the festive season who are due to arrive on 23 December. That means that family members will not be able to obtain the required UK Government PCR test on 26 December, which will be 48 hours after their arrival, because the PCR test providers will be closed between Christmas and new year, except for urgent reasons.
Are discussions taking place with the UK Government about the issue? Will the First Minister encourage people to ensure that they are aware of the current travel advice, especially regarding the PCR test requirements for people who come to Scotland during the festive season, because many people have already booked their travel?
I think that I have addressed that issue in the chamber before. We encourage people who come into the country to take the PCR test on day 2 after their arrival, but they are actually able to take it within two days of arrival, and the regulations have always allowed that. Therefore, people do not have to wait until boxing day if they arrive in the timescale that Emma Harper set out. They should make sure that they know how to get their test; a list of test providers is available on the UK Government’s website.
A 21-year-old constituent has contacted me about something that, I hope, the First Minister can clarify. She asked:
“Am I being stupid? Pubs and restaurants have to socially distance and you can’t order at the bar, but you can still go to a nightclub.”
What are the recommendations for the already hard-hit hospitality sector, given the on-going and specific pressures on nightclubs?
I encourage—or would have encouraged—the member to listen to my statement. We will issue guidance. We are asking hospitality businesses to take measures to avoid crowding in bars, but we have not so far asked people to go back to table service. We are trying to be as proportionate as possible while having an impact on transmission.
If the member wants to say to me that we should close nightclubs, she should perhaps say that. If there is funding in that regard, we can consider it, but let me add that I do not want to close any business again if that can properly be avoided.
There is never going to be 100 per cent consistency, and there never has been since the days when we simply made everybody stay at home all day apart from going out for one walk.
As elected representatives, we have a duty, right now, to explain to people why they are being asked to do certain things and why one thing might look a bit inconsistent with another. We are political opponents across this chamber and we have vigorous disagreements, but we are again in the teeth of a serious public health crisis and our overriding duty is to unite to explain the advice to the people of Scotland, so that they have the best chance of following it.
Will the First Minister give further detail about the supply of lateral flow devices? The website is back up and running but currently states that no lateral flow devices are available to order. Is the First Minister confident that a sufficient supply of devices is in circulation and available to order, to enable people to do lateral flow tests as frequently as we need them to do?
Yes. I will come on to the point about the online system in a moment. Supplies are under pressure because demand is rising. That is a good thing. Let me say again, as a statement of fact, that although the devolved nations make a financial contribution, the procurement and distribution are done on a UK-wide basis.
The issue yesterday with the online system—it might be that the issue has kicked in again while I have been in the chamber—was not supply but distribution. There has been a limit—work is under way to increase it—to the number of tests that can be distributed daily through the Royal Mail, and the number was breached in recent days because of increased demand. That is a distribution issue, not a supply issue, and because it is not a supply issue we can say with confidence—although I know that other procurement efforts are under way—that, if people cannot order online, they can go to a local pharmacy or test site to get supplies. Supplies are also being distributed to local authorities, to be made available in other areas.
As I said, I took part in a four-nations call on Sunday, during which the head of the testing system went into a lot of helpful detail about the work that is under way to increase supply and ensure that distribution is sufficient. It was not a problem with supply that led to the issue on the website.
That concludes the First Minister’s Covid-19 update statement.
Members might find it helpful to know that the Parliamentary Bureau has met six times since Thursday for the sole purpose of ensuring that the Parliament has the appropriate opportunity to scrutinise the Scottish Government on any significant announcement about Scotland’s response to Covid-19. The bureau agreed to propose that today’s statement and question session should be extended to allow as many members as possible to ask questions. Through such discussions, the Government is fully aware that, as far as possible, all significant announcements should be made to the Parliament.
I want to ensure that members have the opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s response to on-going developments that relate to coronavirus and to represent their constituents. That might include meetings on Mondays and Fridays, to maximise opportunities. The bureau will continue to monitor the situation closely and daily, not just in the remaining two weeks of the parliamentary term but in the recess, when Parliament can be recalled as required.