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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 15 March 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19 Update, Fisheries Management, Conversion Practices, Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework, Business Motion, Decision Time, Marie Curie Great Daffodil Appeal 2022


Contents


Covid-19 Update

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on a Covid-19 update. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement. There should therefore be no interventions or interruptions.

14:22  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Before I turn to Covid, and with your permission, I would like to give a brief update on our efforts to welcome refugees from Ukraine.

The response of the public across the United Kingdom in offering support has been truly outstanding, and I thank everyone who has volunteered. Under the UK scheme—with the exception of cases in which people already know someone who is seeking refuge—it may be some time before most of those who are offering help will be able to welcome someone from Ukraine. The Scottish Government’s super-sponsor proposal is intended to short-circuit that and allow Ukrainians to get here and be safeguarded and supported more quickly.

I am pleased to advise that the UK Government has now indicated support for the proposal in principle and has committed to working with us towards its immediate launch, alongside the wider UK scheme. That is a positive development. I hope that—assuming that we can agree details—as a start, it will allow us to welcome 3,000 Ukrainians to Scotland very soon. I will update Parliament more fully on these matters tomorrow.

Let me turn to Covid. I will confirm Cabinet’s decisions on lifting the limited measures that remain in law, and I will set out our intentions for the testing programme. First, though, I will give a brief overview of the state of the pandemic. Public Health Scotland has had server problems over the past 24 hours, so no daily figures were published yesterday—and, of course, figures are no longer published at weekends. The case number that is being reported today—38,770—is therefore the cumulative total for the past four days. For context, the total for the equivalent four-day period last week was 36,051.

The figures reflect the recent increase in cases. The Office for National Statistics survey suggests that, in the week to 6 March, one in 18 people in Scotland had Covid. Three weeks ago, an average of 6,900 new cases a day were being reported; the average now is just over 12,000 a day. There has also been a rise in the number of people who are in hospital with Covid. Three weeks ago, that stood at 1,060; today it is 1,996. The increase in cases over the past three weeks has been driven by the BA.2 sub-lineage of the omicron variant, which is estimated to be significantly more transmissible, with a growth rate since mid-February that is perhaps 80 per cent greater than that of the original omicron.

BA.2 is now the dominant strain in Scotland, accounting for more than 80 per cent of all reported cases. It has become dominant in Scotland earlier than in England and Wales, hence the more rapid increase in cases here than south of the border in recent weeks, although the numbers of cases and hospital admissions are now rising sharply again in England, too. Encouragingly, there is no evidence that BA.2 causes more severe illness than BA.1 or that it is more effective at evading natural or vaccine immunity. Indeed, immune protection means that the recent rise in cases and hospital admissions has not translated into a commensurate increase in cases of severe illness requiring intensive care. In other words, even though the weight of numbers of infections is putting significant pressure on hospital capacity—which is a real concern—we continue to observe strong evidence that the link between infection and serious health harm has weakened considerably.

It is likely that that is due to immune protection—not least from vaccines—more than it is due to omicron being inherently milder. That is borne out by current experience in Hong Kong, where relatively low rates of vaccination, particularly in the older population, mean that omicron is causing very significant levels of severe illness and death. That underlines the continued vital importance of vaccination. If you have not yet had doses that you are eligible for, please get them now.

Extension of the programme is on-going, in line with Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice. Letters inviting five to 11-year-olds who are not in higher-risk groups to be vaccinated started arriving at the end of last week, and the first vaccinations are scheduled for Saturday. Additional booster jags for older adults in care homes started last week, and appointments will start next week for everyone aged 75 and over. Additional boosters for those who are immunosuppressed will start from mid-April. I know that people who are immunosuppressed and, indeed, others on the highest-risk list are concerned about high case rates at a time when regulations are being eased. It is important to stress, therefore, that significant protection is provided by vaccination.

The higher transmissibility of omicron poses challenges, but protection from vaccines and the increasing availability of effective Covid treatments are important factors. Using the approach that is set out in our revised strategic framework, and on the basis of clinical advice, our assessment is that the virus continues to present a medium threat. However, we remain optimistic that it will move from medium to low over the spring. As a result, we consider that the overall transition signalled in the strategic framework remains appropriate. We should—and will—continue the transition away from legal requirements to advice and guidance instead. Therefore, I can confirm, first, that from Friday, and in line with other UK nations, all remaining Covid-related travel restrictions will be lifted. Although we have some concerns about that, UK travel patterns mean that diverging from the rest of the UK would cause economic disadvantage without delivering any meaningful public health benefit. We do, of course, retain the ability to reintroduce travel measures if, for example, a new variant emerges.

Secondly, from next Monday, 21 March, the remaining domestic legal measures—with one temporary, precautionary exception—will be lifted and replaced with appropriate guidance. That means that, on Monday, the requirement for businesses and service providers to retain customer contact details will end. So, too, will the requirement for businesses, places of worship and service providers to have regard to Scottish Government guidance on Covid. They will, instead, be expected to take reasonably practicable measures set out in the guidance.

The exception relates to the requirement to wear face coverings on public transport and in certain indoor settings. Given the current spike in case numbers, we consider it prudent to retain that requirement in regulation for a further short period. I know that that will be disappointing for businesses and service providers such as day-care services, but ensuring the maximum continued use of face coverings will provide some additional protection—particularly for the most vulnerable—at a time when the risk of infection is very high, and it may help us to get over this spike more quickly. We will review the regulation again in two weeks, before the Easter recess, and our expectation now is that that regulation will convert to guidance in early April.

The other issue that I want to cover today is testing. Regrettably, our freedom of manoeuvre here is severely limited by the fact that our funding is determined by UK Government decisions that are taken for England. However, we have sought, as far as we can, to reach the right decisions for Scotland. It is important to note that we are aiming for the same long-term position as England on testing. However, we consider that the transition should be longer. In England, testing for people without symptoms ended in mid-February and will do so at the end of this month for those with symptoms.

We intend the transition to last until the end of April. That is as far as we can go within funding constraints, but it allows us to take account of current case numbers and to better support the shift in our overall management of the virus. A paper that sets out the detail has been published on the Scottish Government’s website. In summary, for the next month—until Easter—there will be no change to our testing advice. If you do not have symptoms, you should continue, for now, to use a lateral flow test twice weekly, daily for seven days if you are a close contact of a positive case, and before visiting someone who is vulnerable. If you have symptoms, you should continue to get a polymerase chain reaction test, either at a testing site or by post.

Following the Easter weekend, from 18 April, we will no longer advise people without symptoms to test twice weekly. With the exception of health and care settings, the advice to test regularly will end from 18 April for workplaces, early learning and childcare settings, mainstream and special schools, and universities and colleges. However, until the end of April, we will continue to advise the use of LFTs daily for seven days for people who are a close contact and on each occasion when visiting a hospital or care home, and we will continue to advise people with symptoms to get a PCR test.

Contact tracing of positive cases will continue until the end of April. PCR test sites will remain open during this period, although opening hours and locations might change during the transition. Although, as with all measures, we will keep this under review, our intention is that, from the end of April, all routine population-wide testing will end, including for people who have symptoms. Contact tracing will end at that point, too, although people with symptoms of respiratory illness will be advised to stay at home.

Physical test sites will close at the end of April, although mobile testing units and lab capacity will be retained for our longer-term testing purposes. During the transition, we will do everything that we can to support the people who have worked on the testing programme. I thank all of them for their invaluable contribution over the past two years.

From 1 May, in place of a population-wide approach, we will use testing on a targeted basis to support clinical care and treatment and to protect higher-risk settings and for surveillance, outbreak management and responding to significant developments such as a new variant. I stress that, for any purpose for which we continue to advise testing, access to tests will remain free of charge in Scotland.

Today marks steady progress back to normal life and a more sustainable way of managing the virus. However, while cases are spiking, there is still considerable pressure on the national health service and concern among the most vulnerable, in particular. Therefore, I ask everyone to be patient for a little while longer on face coverings and to continue to follow all advice on hygiene, ventilation, testing and, of course, vaccination.

I take the opportunity to again thank everyone for their continued efforts.

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. Members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak button now.

I praise the Great British public for their welcoming attitude and compassion. As of this afternoon, more than 100,000 applications have been lodged to be part of the UK Government’s homes for Ukraine initiative. In recent days in this Parliament, we have all agreed that more needed to be done to support people who have been displaced because of the war. I am pleased that progress is being made. Now is the time for collaboration, and it is encouraging that the Scottish Government is positively engaging with the UK Government on its proposals.

I turn to the Covid statement. More than two years ago, our lives were turned upside down by Covid. The pandemic has had a dramatic effect on us all. We have all had to make sacrifices, we have all lost loved ones to the virus and we have all changed our way of life.

Covid has not gone away, but we have learned to live with it. The UK’s world-leading vaccination scheme has been a game changer, allowing us to move on and get back to normality. It is true that case rates are higher at the moment than any of us would like, but Covid cases were always going to rise as restrictions were eased.

We cannot get complacent with Covid, but we have to move forward. We cannot stay stuck with Covid rules for ever. That is why it will be a blow for households and businesses that the First Minister has decided to keep the face mask rules in place. Last month, the Government said the rules would be removed on 21 March, but that has now been delayed. Why will the First Minister not trust the Scottish public to take the steps that they think are right to protect themselves and their families? Why are we back to a wait-and-see approach, with no firm date to allow businesses and the public to plan ahead? The First Minister said that she will report to Parliament again before the Easter recess, but there is no guarantee that a positive announcement will be made then. What criteria are her Government basing that decision on and what will need to change for the face mask restriction to be removed at the next review?

Lastly, the First Minister is proposing to continue to provide testing kits for the whole population well into April. That does not come without significant cost, and that is funding that could be used to support our front-line NHS workers to tackle the backlog in routine treatments. Will she tell us exactly how much the extension of free testing here in Scotland will cost?

First, Scotland is not stuck. Let me remind everyone in the chamber and, indeed, all of Scotland that, as of Monday, every legal measure to help us to control Covid will have been lifted, with a limited temporary exception for a continued requirement to wear face coverings. Given the spike in cases that we are seeing right now and the very high risk of infection, that will help us to protect each other and, in particular during this spike, it will help us to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities and I think that it will help us to get the spike under control more quickly than might otherwise be the case.

That is very much in the spirit of solidarity and mutual concern for each other that has characterised the public response to the pandemic over the past two years. In the light of the very high number of cases right now, I think that many people in Scotland will welcome that precautionary move and that even people who may not welcome it—I understand that there will be people in that category—will nevertheless accept it and understand the reasons for it.

I will update Parliament again in two weeks’ time, before the Easter recess. I would hope, and the expectation is, that we will then convert that regulation to guidance in the early part of April, with 4 April being the first Monday. I think that it is right to take that approach. How we will make that decision is set out in the strategic framework that we published three weeks ago. In short, though, we will want to see the increase in the number of cases stabilise and the risk of infection—it was at one in 18 in the most recent week, according to the ONS—start to reduce so that the most vulnerable people in our society, in particular, are not at the risk that they are right now. However, let me remind everybody that that will be the only legal measure that remains in place and it will be in place for a short, two-week period of time.

On testing, I have got news for Douglas Ross. We will now have to fund all our continued testing requirement, including the more proportionate and targeted testing system that will be in place for the longer term, because the consequentials are not continuing. Those decisions are, of course, driven by the situation that the UK Government arrives at for England. We will continue to assess the overall cost of testing over the next period—[Interruption.] If the Conservatives want to listen to my answer—

Colleagues, I ask for quiet across the chamber so that we can hear questions and answers.

The overall cost will depend on factors such as outbreaks and whether we see any new variants emerging, and we will have to flex that cost based on the reality of the situation. The cost of extending access to LFTs prudently for a period and, unlike the situation south of the border, making sure that, where we are advising testing, it is free of charge for people who need to test, will be a relatively small part of the overall annual cost. We will continue to judge that cost on the basis of the circumstances that prevail with the pandemic at any given time.

The number of Covid cases is rising, hospitalisations are at their highest point since February 2021, health boards are raising concerns about capacity and I understand that the Queen Elizabeth university hospital was very close to declaring a code black last Thursday. All three NHS Lanarkshire hospitals are reportedly overwhelmed and staff absence is up. Will the First Minister give members more information about testing for health and social care workers after May, particularly in terms of frequency and the staff groups that will be targeted?

Key to our ability to return to normal is the use of antiviral medication, and I am pleased that testing remains for people who are immunosuppressed. However, there are reports that antivirals are not currently being administered within the five-day window for them to be effective and that some eligible patients are not being offered antivirals at all. One contacted her general practitioner but the general practitioner had no supplies and no ability to prescribe, and the five days passed without her receiving the antiviral medication that would have lessened the impact of Covid on a person with a serious underlying health condition.

Providing assurance to those with underlying health conditions becomes all the more important as restrictions are lifted. Therefore, what action is being taken to improve the administration of antiviral medication so that everyone is protected? How much antiviral medication is currently being administered in Scotland? Are there sufficient supplies? Will that now be done by GPs?

It is our intention that health and care workers will be advised to continue testing after the end of April. That is likely to be on a twice-weekly basis, at least initially, although that will be kept under regular clinical review. As I said in my statement, one of the purposes of testing after the end of April will be the protection of high-risk settings, which will, of course, include hospitals and care homes.

The NHS is working hard to ensure that those who are eligible for antiviral treatment get access to it. I cannot comment on individual cases but, if the detail is sent to me, I would be happy to have that looked at. The availability of antiviral treatment continues to develop and increase, so the eligibility of people to be treated with antivirals will also increase. Again, that will be kept under very close review.

The five-day window is important. Obviously, that is why we have continued to support testing and will continue to support it to help with access to care and treatment. Principally, that will be to ensure that firm diagnosis can be given for those who may be eligible for antiviral treatment. That will not be a fixed group of people as time passes; it will be an increasing group of people as the availability and the effectiveness of those treatments continue to increase. We will continue to ensure that the health service is working in a way that best supports the quickest and most effective access to those treatments as that develops. I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care would be happy to provide more information as access to that scheme and its scope widen in the weeks and months to come.

It will be disheartening to many Scots to hear that, despite the extra sacrifices that we have made in Scotland, our infection rates are still so stubbornly high. The First Minister rightly mentioned the plight of Ukrainian refugees. I echo my party’s support for her Government’s efforts in that regard, and I want to ask about them with regard to Covid.

Before the invasion, the vaccine roll-out in Ukraine had reached only 35 per cent of adults. Ukrainian refugees will be coming to a country with one of the highest infection rates in the whole of Europe. After everything that they have been through, the last thing that they will need is a bad dose of Covid. What plans does the Scottish Government have to offer arriving refugees access to immediate vaccination for any who wish to take that up?

As I indicated earlier, I will set out in a statement tomorrow more details of the arrangements that we are working to put in place to welcome and support refugees to come here from Ukraine. However, I can say now that that includes intensive work with Public Health Scotland to look at exactly what we should offer by way of testing when people arrive and by way of vaccination if they are not already vaccinated. That work is under way as part of the wider preparations to welcome people here, and I will set those out in more detail tomorrow.

Two years out—give or take a week—from the first lockdown, on 23 March 2020, thoughts inevitably turn to reflection on what we have all been through and to the heroic efforts of our NHS staff in getting us to this point. However, we also look to the months ahead, including to the potential for a further winter in the shadow of Covid. Is the First Minister in a position to advise when a second Covid booster vaccination will be available to the population as a whole?

That is an important question. I am not able to give that information right now because we depend on, and we follow, JCVI advice.

The advice that we have is what I have set out in my statement today. There will be additional boosters for certain groups of the population, when that has been recommended, and, of course, the offer of vaccination for all five to 11-year-olds. I encourage everybody in those groups to take up those offers as soon as they are available.

We await further JCVI advice on what might be required as we go into next winter. My expectation, and the Scottish Government’s planning assumption, is that there will be a regular vaccination programme, but we still await final advice from the JCVI on exactly what the frequency will be, at whom exactly it will be targeted and how many doses might be involved. We will, of course, keep the Parliament updated on that as soon as the advice becomes available.

Shamefully, the Scottish National Party-Green Government is still dragging its feet on establishing a network of long Covid clinics across Scotland. Up to 90 clinics are up and running across England, including the Hertfordshire clinic that I discussed with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care as an exemplar. Thousands of patients in Scotland are suffering with long Covid. When will the First Minister finally listen and ask her health secretary to deliver solutions instead of just announcing money?

That is not the case. We have published an action plan and have rightly devoted resources to it, and health boards are taking forward a number of the actions in it. Clinics are a part of that, but not the only part. Health boards have to ensure that they have in place holistic support services for people who are suffering from long Covid and that, as far as possible, they are provided with services from routine healthcare up to and including specialist healthcare. That work is under way and it will need to continue alongside on-going efforts to ensure that we continue to understand the causes of long Covid and its impact on the health of individuals. That is all set out in the action plan, which will continue to be updated as appropriate.

The Guardian recently reported that the UK Government is to end funding for free Covid testing in special schools and children’s care homes in England this month—a move that was greeted by sources in the UK Health Security Agency with “shock” and disgust. What assurances can the First Minister give that the Scottish Government’s approach to testing will continue to be guided first and foremost by public health expertise and not by political pressure?

I have set out the funding constraints within which we operate, but within that, of course, we seek to take decisions on the basis of public health advice and considerations. I have set out our approach to testing, which is about ensuring that, as we transition to an end-state testing approach—a steady state, I would hope—we do so in a careful way, with an appropriate transition.

I have set out the timescales for ending routine testing with lateral flow devices in the general population and in education settings. However, I have also said that, for any purpose for which the Government continues to advise and recommend testing—I have set out the broad categories now, but they might change over time depending on the development of the pandemic—we will ensure that access to tests, whether those are LFD or PCR tests, remains free of charge for those who are advised to use them.

It has been more than 140 days since NHS Lanarkshire hit the panic button and declared a code black. None of us wants that to be the new normal for NHS patients and workers. Can the First Minister reassure my constituents and people across Scotland that the test and protect transition plan will not make achieving NHS recovery any harder? Can she indicate when NHS Lanarkshire is expected to de-escalate from code black?

The point of having a lengthier transition plan than we are seeing south of the border is to ensure that we migrate smoothly and effectively to the end state. As we have seen in recent times, the pandemic will continue to throw up challenges for us. The plan is intended to ensure a smooth transition, and the timeline that we have set out allows us to do that.

With regard to wider pressures on the NHS—including NHS Lanarkshire, although many other health boards are experiencing those pressures—we need to see the number of hospital cases come down again. As of today, there are just under 2,000 patients in hospital with Covid. They will not all be in hospital because of Covid, but they are in hospital with Covid, and that brings additional challenges.

Part of the reason for being slightly cautious on face coverings to date is to help us—we hope—to get the spike under control. As we get the spike in cases, which is driven by the sub-lineage of omicron, under control, we will start to see the number of hospital cases come down again. That will then allow NHS Lanarkshire and other health boards to get back on track in restoring services to normal. I hope that we will see that happen very soon. The steps that we have set out today are intended to support that process and have it happen as quickly as possible.

Many people in the communities that we represent will be worried about the rising number of cases. I saw the chief medical officer mention vaccine effectiveness studies at the weekend, and I wish to ask the First Minister about those. What reassurance can they provide to the vaccinated, and what encouragement can they give to those who are yet to get their jags?

That is something that clinical experts keep under very close review. The data on vaccine effectiveness is scrutinised closely. Emerging evidence demonstrates that boosters continue to provide strong protection against serious illness. Recently published Health Security Agency data indicates that initial vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation among older people increases to around 90 per cent two weeks after a booster and remains at around that level for more than 10 weeks, although there will continue to be strong protection after that. That is why we continue to encourage people to come forward for vaccination, even if they have not had boosters so far. It is not too late to do so, and it gives significant protection.

I mentioned Hong Kong in my statement. For people who are interested, it is worth looking at the data. Omicron is causing very severe illness there, and the death numbers are spiralling because vaccination rates are relatively low. That underlines the importance of vaccination and the fact that it is immune protection that is making omicron less severe rather than any inherent mildness of the variant.

This will be a worrying time for people who were previously shielding and who are still being cautious and reducing social contact. The transition away from routine asymptomatic and then symptomatic testing will make it much harder for them to avoid coming into contact with people who are Covid positive. Will the Scottish Government consider continuing access to testing for families and carers of people who are clinically extremely vulnerable? What other mitigations will be put in place to ensure that vulnerable people continue to be protected from Covid?

In the paper that we have published today, we have set out our intended approach to testing after the end of April, and I have set out the summary of that in my statement. Many people who are extremely clinically vulnerable—not everybody, but many of them—will be among the categories of people who might benefit from antiviral treatment if they get Covid. They will therefore be among people who are still advised to test, even after the end of April. That group of people will remain under review as treatments develop and become more available.

I recognise that this is an anxious time for people as we make this transition back to normal, but we are doing so with appropriate caution and with those who are most vulnerable in mind. We have tried to do that at every step, and we will try to continue to do that at every step yet to come.

Many people—including me—will be very concerned that we now have 1,996 people in hospital with Covid. Some of those people might be thinking that we should really be increasing measures and restrictions rather than reducing them. How would the First Minister respond to such comments?

I do not take that view. If I did take that view, the contents of my statement would have been different. I think that we are on a justified journey back to normality. Thanks mainly to vaccines but also to natural immunity, there has been a considerable weakening in the link between cases and severe illness. If we did not have vaccines or some natural immunity, we would be in a very different position and we would need additional protections to avoid people becoming seriously ill and dying. Thankfully, we are not in that position, so we can migrate back to normality with a different approach to managing the virus. However, it is important that we do that with appropriate care and caution, which we have done at every stage—particularly when this BA.2 spike is causing challenges. We will continue to do this carefully and cautiously, but I think it is in everybody’s interests, given the wider harms of Covid restrictions, that we continue to get back to normality as soon as we possibly can.

It has emerged that the vaccination passport scheme has cost the taxpayer almost £7 million. That is more than 10 times the originally projected cost of £600,000. Can the First Minister account for how the costs were allowed to balloon like that? Does the Scottish Government believe that that represents value for money for the taxpayer?

Yes, I think that the decisions that we have taken to try to avoid the number of Covid cases being even higher and the harm that is caused by Covid to be even greater than it has been will be shown, in time, to have been worth it. Obviously, we are about to have a public inquiry, which will look at all such issues and will hold the Government to account. That is right and proper.

Every time that somebody says that we should not have taken a particular step—in this case, introducing vaccination passports—and should have avoided those costs, they also have to consider the potential implications of not taking the step, such as higher numbers of cases, more people in hospital and more people becoming seriously unwell. All of those decisions would have a cost, too, and not just a financial cost. [Interruption.]

Before I go on to the next question, I remind colleagues that we treat one another with courtesy and respect at all times in the chamber.

Does the First Minister agree with the evidence that was given to the COVID-19 Recovery Committee by Public Health Scotland, which said that the economy is an important determinant of health and that the cuts to universal credit and other austerity policies have had a profoundly negative impact on public health?

Yes, I agree strongly with that; it is borne out by evidence. Right now, many people across Scotland and, indeed, the UK are suffering public health-related adverse impacts because of the poverty into which they have been plunged by the removal of the universal credit uplift. Unfortunately, those effects will be exacerbated by inflationary pressures and the increasing cost of living. As well as restoring that universal credit uplift, I call on the UK Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he makes his spring statement next week, to deliver significant support for people who are living in poverty, because that will help their health as well as ensure that their quality of life is better.

At the most recent meeting of the cross-party group on learning disability, the issue of access to vaccination was once again raised by people who have a learning disability and their family carers. Will the First Minister ensure that people who have a learning disability and can be more vulnerable are called for the spring booster programme? Will she ensure that, when reasonable adjustments are required—such as for people who have autism and find it difficult to be in large vaccination sites—they are made?

The groups who will be called for the additional booster will, of course, be determined on the JCVI’s advice, which we follow.

The point about accessibility and ensuring that those with particular conditions such as autism are properly catered for was well made. Given the stage that we are at in the vaccination programme, there is less reliance on large-scale vaccination centres and much more reliance on smaller-scale settings. We have tried all along to balance the need for speed and large-scale approaches to vaccination with accessibility, and we will continue to do so. Although there are still people who could come forward for vaccination, and we encourage them to do so, our high vaccination rates speak to the success of that approach. However, we will continue to bear in mind these important issues.

The Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service told the Criminal Justice Committee that the removal of the 1m physical distancing requirement will allow juries to get back into the courtroom and will help to tackle the huge backlog of cases. First, given that there are about 43,000 cases in that backlog, will the First Minister confirm that that physical restriction will also be removed on Monday, along with others? Secondly, if it is removed, will our courts now be able to move to other business-as-usual operations that will increase the capacity of our courtrooms and the volume of cases that can be heard?

It is for the court service to manage its business. We have provided additional funding, including an increase in its routine resource budget, to help with recovery. All legal restrictions, with the exception of the short-term, temporary requirement on face coverings, will be lifted on Monday. Many of the restrictions have already been lifted, and the remaining ones will be lifted on Monday. We will continue to work with the court service, as we will do with other parts of the public sector, to get services back to normal and to catch up on backlogs as quickly as possible.

That concludes the First Minister’s statement on Covid-19.