Meeting date: Thursday, December 16, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 16 December 2021
Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Edington Hospital, Portfolio Question Time, Parliamentary Procedures and Practices, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Point of Order, Decision Time
- General Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Edington Hospital
- Portfolio Question Time
- Parliamentary Procedures and Practices
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Before we move to the first question, I have agreed to a request from the First Minister for her to provide an update on the coronavirus at the start of First Minister’s question time.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament on today’s Covid cases and to repeat my assessment of what we must do in response to the current situation.
Yesterday, 5,951 cases were reported, and 45.4 per cent of cases now show the S-gene dropout that is indicative of omicron. It therefore seems likely that, by tomorrow, omicron will be the dominant strain circulating in Scotland. Omicron’s much higher transmissibility will drive an even more rapid increase in cases.
Omicron is spreading exceptionally fast—much faster than anything experienced so far in the pandemic. I am profoundly concerned by the scale and immediacy of the challenge that omicron poses. In response, we are already rapidly accelerating the delivery of boosters, and we will continue to do so. Yesterday, 59,437 boosters or third doses were administered—a further increase on the day before.
We must understand that omicron is currently running faster than even the fastest roll-out of vaccines. A key point is that the immune protection from vaccination is not immediate; it takes a few days. As we speed up the delivery of vaccines, we must also act to slow the virus down. If we do not, the consequences will be significant. Even if omicron’s impact on individual health is milder than that of other variants—let me stress that we have no evidence of that yet—many people will still become severely unwell and die, and the sheer number of people infected will present a massive challenge. Indeed, in London, where transmission of omicron is currently the highest in the United Kingdom, hospital admissions are now rising sharply. If we do not act now, what we have feared all along but so far avoided—the overwhelming of the national health service—could happen.
Let me be clear: this is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy. A surge in infections will cause—indeed, is already causing—staff absences that will cripple the economy and other critical services.
This is a really serious situation and we must respond accordingly. I therefore strongly underline the advice that I gave on Tuesday. Please reduce your contact with people from households other than your own as much as you possibly can. For now, please stay at home much more than you normally would and as much as is feasible. Right now, the risk of getting Covid from interactions with others is high and it is rising. Before doing anything that you might have planned over the coming days, ask yourself whether it is as safe as it needs to be and whether it is vital enough to you to justify that risk.
I suspect that what is most important to most of us, over the next couple of weeks, is having time with our families at Christmas. Every interaction that we have before then increases the risk of our getting Covid and so possibly losing that.
More generally, I suspect that what matters most to us—this is strongly my view—is protecting children’s education. By acting to reduce community transmission, we will also be helping to keep schools open—and open safely.
Given what I am being advised about the risk that omicron poses to health and the economy, if I failed to give that advice, I would not be fulfilling my duty or acting in good conscience. I am acutely aware of and deeply concerned about the considerable impact of that advice on businesses, but I repeat that businesses will also suffer if we do not act to slow the virus. Business now needs the type and scale of financial support that was available earlier in the pandemic, but no mechanisms are available to the devolved Administrations to trigger the scale of finance that is needed to support such schemes. We need the UK Government to act urgently and in the same way as some other countries are already doing.
I made that point again yesterday at a COBR meeting, which was chaired by Michael Gove and attended by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but it now needs the urgent engagement of the Prime Minister and the chancellor.
We must not sleepwalk into an emergency that, for both health and business, will be much greater as a result of inaction than it will be if we act firmly and strongly now. Therefore, this morning, I wrote to the Prime Minister, appealing to him to put the necessary support schemes in place. Such is the urgency, I have asked to speak directly to him later today.
None of us wants to be in that position, but omicron presents a renewed and very real challenge for the whole world—the World Health Organization could not be clearer about that. Once again, the duty to protect the NHS, lives and livelihoods must be uppermost in our minds and it must drive our actions. All of us—Governments and citizens—must do what is required. I ask everybody across the country to play their part again by following the advice that we are giving.
We turn to First Minister’s question time. In the light of the First Minister’s update, I will take all constituency and general supplementary questions after question 7. Members who wish to ask such a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button during question 2. Members who wish to ask supplementary questions specifically on questions 3 to 7 should press their request-to-speak button during the relevant question.
Mass Vaccination Centres
I listened to the First Minister’s statement. She was right to look at what we can do by taking a United Kingdom-wide approach. I will focus today on what we can do in Scotland right now.
Scotland’s vaccination scheme has already delivered a booster to more than half of all over-18s. That is down to everyone in our national health service, our armed forces and all our volunteers. I thank them for making that happen. [Applause.]
However, to get ahead in the race against the new variant, we still need to vaccinate far more people. For weeks, we have been calling for the reintroduction of mass vaccination centres. Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly refused until, on Tuesday, she accepted, and agreed about, the need for them. We have learned today that the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and Hampden park in Glasgow will open as mass vaccination centres; we have been calling for exactly that for weeks. There was no mention of it in the First Minister’s statement, so perhaps she can tell us now how many other new centres will open, where they will be and when they will start vaccinating people.
Douglas Ross is absolutely right to raise the critical importance of vaccination and the speed of vaccination. Before I come to his question, I underline the point that I made in my opening remarks, which was that, in the context of the race between the virus and the vaccines, we are, of course, going as fast as we can and will continue to pick up pace with vaccination.
However, a person who is vaccinated with the booster today will not immediately get the protection of immunity; it will be some days before that is the case. Right now, cases of the omicron variant are doubling every two or so days. Therefore, no matter how fast we go with vaccination the variant is, at the moment, running faster. Yes—we need to speed up vaccination, but while we do that we must also act to slow down the virus. That is a simple statement of fact. Protection of health and lives, as well as of the economy and businesses, depends on our doing that.
As Douglas Ross rightly mentioned, yesterday we became the first part of the UK to have vaccinated more than 50 per cent of over-18s with the booster. We still have the fastest vaccination programme in the UK. We are picking up the pace every day, which the figures that I have given today demonstrate. One of the most important things that we are doing—and there is still capacity to be got from it—is that we are shifting our focus from the remainder of the flu vaccination campaign to boosters. In the past two days, each day we administered more than 70,000 vaccinations; some of them—I think there were 14,000 yesterday—were flu vaccinations.
We are also opening up more facilities. For NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, we are using Hampden park. Glasgow central mosque is already available as a mass, or large-scale, vaccination centre. In NHS Lothian, Lowland hall at Ingliston is already operating as a large-scale vaccination centre. In NHS Lanarkshire, there are the facilities at Ravenscraig. We are also seeking to bring in additional facilities for Edinburgh, including the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and the corn exchange. All those are under active preparation for coming on stream.
Given what I said about switching from flu vaccinations, I am confident that we can get to around 70,000 vaccinations a day, as we want to. Everything is being done so that we can achieve that. However, I ask members, please, not to lose sight of the first point that I made, which was that no matter how fast we go, the virus is running so fast that we must also take action to slow it down.
I certainly will not lose sight of the First Minister’s first point. She was right to say that people who get vaccinated today are not immediately protected from the virus. That is why Conservatives have been calling for weeks for the reintroduction of mass vaccination centres. If the Scottish Government had acted when we first called for them—twice after Covid statements in November and at First Minister’s question time two weeks ago—we would be further along the road than we are.
In addition, the new variant has meant necessary changes to guidance, but it is not right that, once again, businesses are still waiting to hear what they need to do to comply with the First Minister’s statement on Tuesday. She was right to say earlier that the situation will have a massive impact on businesses. However, businesses have told us that they heard earlier this week from Scottish Government officials who told them that new rules could come into effect on Saturday. They were then told that it could be Monday, then they were told to prepare for 5 pm on Friday. Remember—that was coming from Scottish Government officials. Can the First Minister give the answer that her officials seem to be unable to give, and tell us when the laws will commence?
Yes. I will come on to that in a second, but first let me complete a point on vaccination.
I understand why Douglas Ross and everybody else—I include myself—want the programme to go as fast as possible. It is important to give credit, as Douglas Ross rightly did, to the vaccination teams across the country. I repeat—because it is important—that we currently have the fastest vaccination programme in the UK. Although I want it to speed up even more, that suggests to me that what we have been doing, including our mix of facilities, has been right. However, we now have to go faster.
For reasons to do with staffing and people not attending, we do not have mass clinics where the geography does not support them. Many members have raised the difficulties that people have had in travelling to mass vaccination clinics. It is not the case that we would have vaccinated more people had we had more mass clinics instead of several smaller ones. That is not how it works—the situation is not that straightforward. We need the right mix, which is what we will continue to have.
Let us be clear. I hope that every member in the chamber will continue to scrutinise our progress. I absolutely welcome that and think that it is important. However, I also hope that they will, please, accept the assurance that right now nothing is more important to me, to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and to the entire Government than getting boosters into people’s arms as quickly as is feasible.
On guidance and regulations, the regulations will come into effect at one minute past midnight tomorrow morning, Friday 17 December. In fact, high-level central guidance on the announcement that was made on Tuesday was published immediately after my statement on Tuesday. I said in Parliament then that more detailed guidance would follow this week. That guidance will be available online from today. In fact, I suspect that it will—because I cleared it just before coming here—go online during this First Minister’s question time. We have been engaging with business organisations throughout the week on the issues and the guidance for various sectors. This time is difficult for businesses—that is one of the things that I stressed in my earlier remarks.
I will come back to the central point. We are now facing, two years into the pandemic, a variant of the virus that is spreading faster than anything that we have experienced so far. Omicron cases are doubling every two to three days in Scotland. In parts of the UK, the doubling time is currently less than two days. I expect that it will be the dominant strain in Scotland by tomorrow. It has a reproduction number that some assessments say is above 4.
We do not have time to waste; we do not have time to waste when it comes to vaccination, and neither do we have time to waste in putting in place the protective measures that will help to slow omicron down.
Lives are at risk, livelihoods are at risk and the NHS is at risk. That is why the Government has to speed up vaccination, but we also all have to come together to do what is required to slow down the spread of the variant. The UK Government has to step up and provide the financial support that businesses need.
Again, I agree with the First Minister: livelihoods are at risk. That is why we need, from the Government, clarity for the businesses that seek it. This morning, the health secretary, Humza Yousaf, who is sitting on one side of the First Minister, was asked when the guidance would be published and he said, that it should be published today.
Sitting on the other side of the First Minister is the Deputy First Minister, who appeared before the Covid-19 Recovery Committee this morning. At that time, he said that the guidance will be published during the course of Friday. The Deputy First Minister, who is also the Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, also said that the guidance was still being written as he spoke, less than an hour ago. I understand that he has now tweeted an apology—
I know. It is done. Move on.
The Deputy First Minister is asking me to move on. He has had to apologise and will write to the committee, but businesses are looking to the Government. They are trying to get clarity and they cannot get it from the health secretary, the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister.
Officials have told businesses three different dates on which the law will come into force. The First Minister has now had to confirm the date in the chamber. The men who are sitting on either side of the First Minister have given confusing and inaccurate advice to businesses today. Can the First Minister accept that that is, at the very least, unfortunate, that it is causing confusion and that businesses need clarity if they are to apply the guidance in just over 24 hours?
The guidance will be published, I expect, before we are out of the chamber. Business organisations have been communicated with throughout the week. Much of what we are asking businesses to do now is what they have done at previous stages of the pandemic. Many businesses—supermarkets, for example—still have some of the measures in place.
The Deputy First Minister accidentally said that the guidance would come out tomorrow instead of today, because regulations come into force tomorrow. He immediately corrected that.
For goodness’ sake! We have a virus raging around the country and we are trying to act at speed in order to protect people as much as possible, because that is our duty. Regardless of whether people across the chamber and the country agree or disagree with me, I hope that nobody doubts how seriously I and this Government take the duty to protect people and the country from the virus.
What I think businesses want and need more than anything right now is the Chancellor of the Exchequer at his desk, putting in place financial support schemes that will prevent them from going to the wall. The fact is that if we act right now, that has implications for businesses—they must be compensated. If we do not act, that will possibly have even bigger implications for businesses.
I take my responsibilities very seriously. I hope to speak to the Prime Minister this afternoon, if he makes himself available, so that we can work together—as we did previously in the pandemic—to put in place support for businesses, and so that we can all make sure that we are doing everything that we can to protect human health and life.
I have said to the First Minister—I said it in my opening remarks—that it is right to look at what we can do across the United Kingdom, but it is also right that we do what we can in this chamber to scrutinise and try to help the Government. [Interruption.] The First Minister said that the Deputy First Minister accidentally misspoke. Did he also accidentally misspeak when he said to the committee that the guidance was still being written? He was also incorrect about that—
No, he was right.
—and can the First Minister—[Interruption.] We are trying to get some—
Members—I would very much like to hear Mr Ross’s question.
I am grateful, Presiding Officer, because I am just trying to get some clarity. We also need clarity on something that I want to check. The BBC says that it has it in writing from the Scottish Government that the regulations behind the new protections for retail and hospitality would take effect from one minute past midnight on Saturday, but the First Minister has just said that it is one minute past midnight on Friday. Which is it? That was what the Scottish Government told the BBC on Tuesday. Has that changed? Why has that changed? Surely, with such big changes, the information should come not just in response to a question from the Opposition, but should be put out to businesses straight away, but that has not happened.
The First Minister will also understand that businesses need a measure of good news. This week, she agreed to our demands for emergency cancellation compensation. However, businesses currently do not know when the funds are coming and how much money they will get. This is about people’s jobs—
I am sorry, Presiding Officer. SNP members say that I am shameless, but I am trying to ensure that the money that is made available gets to the businesses that need it. Will the First Minister simply guarantee that businesses will receive that £100 million of support before Christmas?
Let me deal directly with all those questions.
First, the regulations come into force at one minute past midnight—tomorrow morning—on Friday. We are trying to introduce them as quickly as possible, and perhaps even more quickly than we first thought would be needed. That is because of the central point, which is that omicron currently rages around the country and cases double every two to three days. Every 24 hours matters with regard to saving people’s lives and protecting the health service, which is why we are going very fast and are communicating with business organisations as we go.
Secondly, the Deputy First minister was right to say that the guidance was still being finalised. I think that I said in my first answer to Douglas Ross that I had signed off the guidance just before I came to the chamber, so that it could be issued before we leave the chamber today.
Douglas Ross is, of course, entitled to scrutinise me about anything that he wants to scrutinise me about, but regardless of whether the Deputy First Minister accidentally said that guidance would be published tomorrow instead of today, I have clarified that it will happen today. I am not sure that that is the most important thing that we face now. [Applause.]
Lastly, we will get the £100 million—which we have managed to find from other budgets with great difficulty—as quickly as we can. When I last stood in the chamber, we had heard that the Treasury was going to give us additional money, as we know from many exchanges here. Douglas Ross seemed to think that that was a great wheeze—I will leave others to think whether we should focus on wheezes now. We now know that we are poorer after that Treasury announcement than we thought we were previously. We will get the money as quickly as possible—
Briefly, First Minister.
However, £100 million is not enough for those businesses, which is why we need the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister to do their jobs and to get proper financial support in place for businesses as quickly as possible. [Applause.]
I start by urging members of the public to, please, wear a mask wherever you can, follow the guidance and book an appointment if you have not had your first or second dose or book your booster appointment if you have not done so and you are eligible for it. It is to protect yourself, your families and those around you.
Businesses across the country are anxious about what will happen to their business and employees. They will not appreciate politics or bickering but will expect both the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government to work together in the national interest to protect people, their lives and their livelihoods.
The omicron variant is causing anxiety across the country, and we know that Covid still poses a risk to our society. It is right that we remobilise our national health service to confront the virus, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that cancer remains Scotland’s biggest killer.
Since the start of the pandemic, almost 30,000 of our fellow Scots have died from cancer. Every one of those deaths—like those from Covid—is a tragedy. MacMillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK have both expressed concerns this week over fears of cancer patients who are waiting to be diagnosed or to start treatment. They have said that swift action is needed from the Government and NHS leaders. What action is the First Minister taking to prevent—in Cancer Research UK’s words—a “cancer catastrophe”?
I thank Anas Sarwar for repeating the advice to the public at the start of his question. We have many differences in the chamber, and this session is of course about scrutiny, but I hope that we can also come together, as we did at the start of the pandemic, to communicate with one voice to the public. That point is very important, so I am grateful to Anas Sarwar, and to Douglas Ross, for doing that.
I agree that businesses are terribly anxious right now, and I understand why. I also agree that this is not about politics. In a different context, the comments that I am making about funding would be political. However, here they are not. I have to make those comments because they are statements of fact. I ask Anas Sarwar to reflect on the fact that what I am saying here today about funding support from the UK Government for business is exactly the same as what his Labour colleagues in the House of Commons are saying right now. It is not about politics; it is about all of us, within our own responsibilities, doing everything that we can to meet this challenge. I will do everything within my responsibility, but I must urge the Prime Minister and the chancellor to do more within theirs.
It is absolutely the case that every death from cancer is a tragedy at any time, and it is obviously tragic that anyone, whether they have cancer or any other condition, has had treatment delayed over the course of the pandemic. We are working through investments, particularly investments in early diagnosis through the early cancer diagnostic centres, to ensure that there is speedy, timeous treatment for cancer.
The NHS remains under sustained pressure, which will grow in the weeks to come. However, in the most recent quarter, more patients were treated within the 62-day waiting time standard than were pre-Covid. That is an indication that we were starting to catch up on some of the backlogs. We must keep a focus on that, but if we are to protect the ability of the NHS to do it, we must bear down on the pressure that is being put on the NHS because of Covid.
Be in no doubt that I expect the Scottish and UK Governments—that includes Rishi Sunak and the Treasury—to be at their desks doing everything that they can to work together to support businesses across the country. Be in no doubt about that.
I recognise what the First Minister says, but figures that were published this week show that there have already been more than 400 more cancer deaths this year than were expected. That is higher than the 293 extra deaths last year. It is getting worse, not better.
In March, long before omicron, the First Minister said:
“we are now focused on getting the NHS back to normal.”—[Official Report, 11 March 2021; c 11.]
However, there are plenty of examples of people having to wait too long for treatment. Here is just one. A 71-year-old man who had previously had skin cancer contacted his general practitioner in the summer because he felt that it had returned. His GP confirmed that and referred him to a consultant. Months later, he is still waiting for an appointment.
We know that the earlier someone is diagnosed and the earlier they start treatment, the higher the chance of survival. Why has more progress not been made since March?
Progress has been made since March, but since then we have had the delta variant, which set back the ability of the NHS to recover, and now we are dealing with omicron. Health services all over the world are struggling to get back to normal because of the continued and, at times, increasing pressure that the virus is placing on us.
We have invested and we continue to invest in the detect cancer early programme. I absolutely agree that the earlier we detect cancer, the more able the NHS is to save lives. In recent times, we have established the first three early cancer diagnostic centres in NHS Ayrshire and Arran, NHS Fife and NHS Dumfries and Galloway. They are about providing a referral route for patients who do not have standard cancer symptoms. We are making significant investments in other parts of the cancer journey to speed up the time for diagnosis and the time from diagnosis into treatment. All that has continued and will continue.
For cancer and other care, we will get the NHS more firmly on the road to recovery the more able we are to bear down on Covid cases. That comes back to the central messages that we all have to communicate: please cut down on your contacts so that we avoid any opportunity that we can for the virus to spread.
I know what the First Minister says, but statistics that were published this week show that almost one in five of the most urgent cancer cases are not starting treatment on time and, between July and September—just three months—677 patients waited longer than the Government’s target.
This is a problem that predates the pandemic. The Government has not met its cancer treatment target for almost a decade. As we enter the new phase of the pandemic, we must learn the lessons of the past year. For bowel cancer alone, there is a backlog of more than half a million screening kits; there is still no breast cancer screening for women over the age of 70; and operations are being cancelled. Will the First Minister make a commitment that, as part of any redeployment, cancer services will be protected? That means no pause to screening programmes, genuine accelerations—so we can catch up—and no cancelled cancer operations, because we cannot have an NHS that chooses between treating a virus and treating cancer.
Cancer services have, rightly, been prioritised throughout the pandemic, and that will continue. That does not mean that there has been no impact. The decision on one of the early days of the pandemic—I remember it vividly—to pause cancer screening programmes was one of the most difficult decisions that our clinical advisers had to take. Screening programmes have resumed. The issue with screening older women for breast cancer is correct and we want to get that back to normal as soon as possible.
We have two cancer targets. The 31-day target has consistently been met for some considerable time. The 62-day target, which is a whole-journey target, is not being met. I am not saying that it is good enough, but 83 per cent are seen within the 62-day target. We continue to prioritise diagnosis and treatment and we will continue to take all appropriate steps to do so.
I dearly wish that I could stand here and say that we could somehow protect the NHS generally and cancer services in particular from the impact of the pandemic. I cannot do that, no matter how hard we work. The only thing that will protect the NHS from the pandemic is getting the pandemic under control and driving down the number of cases. I know that Anas Sarwar agrees with and accepts that, and it is why, right now, and yet again, the most important thing to do is get vaccines into people’s arms as quickly as possible, and appeal to the public to behave in a way that will stop the omicron variant in its tracks. That is the best thing that we can do right now for ourselves, our loved ones, and the national health service.
Just Transition (Highlands and Islands)
To ask the First Minister how a just transition can be secured for the Highlands and Islands. (S6F-00584)
We are determined to leave no individuals or communities behind as we move towards a net zero economy. Our national just transition planning framework, which was published in September, sets out how we will develop just transition plans with different sectors and regions. It is critical that those plans build on existing skills and expertise, and that they create good green jobs.
We need bold action to do that. I saw for myself a prime example where, with support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the port of Nigg has been transformed into the largest offshore wind tower manufacturer in the United Kingdom.
Our first just transition plan will be published next year with a focus on energy, and that will set out how the transition is managed, ensuring fairness for all communities, including the Highlands and Islands.
The pausing of Cambo oil field development shows that the need for secure and sustainable jobs in our Highland and island communities is greater than ever. I was delighted to see the potential for 400 renewable jobs at Nigg.
Scotland has one quarter of Europe’s offshore renewable potential. That includes tidal power, and I am pleased that the islands centre for net zero, which is based at Orkney, is included as a national development in the new draft national planning framework. Can the First Minister outline what else the Scottish Government can do to realise that potential to create and sustain new jobs in the Highlands and Islands, and elsewhere in Scotland, as part of a just transition away from fossil fuels?
First, we have to fully exploit our renewable energy resources. Offshore wind is one of our greatest assets. Secondly, we need to capture all the economic benefits of those resources throughout the supply chain. As I have said candidly previously, I do not think that we have done that well enough for many years. There is much that the Government is doing to seek to achieve that right now. Another example is the ScotWind leasing round, which recently closed. Applicants for that need to provide a supply chain development statement, which sends a signal of the importance that we place on the imperative of creating jobs in renewable energy developments.
Marine energy is another massive opportunity for the Highlands and Islands, and indeed for all Scotland. As we make the transition, we will continue to focus on ensuring that it brings the jobs and economic benefits that are necessary to ensure that the industries that we are transitioning from are not left behind.
Household Waste Statistics (Recycling)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the latest household waste statistics from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which reportedly show a small reduction in household recycling in 2020 compared with 2019. (S6F-00590)
It is obviously disappointing to see the 2020 household recycling rate fall back, but we must acknowledge the unprecedented and challenging year that everyone has had, including local authorities, as a result of Covid. SEPA believes that the Covid lockdowns and unavoidable disruption to recycling services, including the closure of recycling centres for a period of time, had an effect on local recycling rates. However, despite the challenges, kerbside recycling increased during 2020, and I know that local authorities worked really hard to keep priority services going throughout the pandemic. I thank their staff for all their efforts.
We are determined to accelerate progress to meet our waste reduction and recycling targets. The Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity recently announced £20.3 million-worth of landmark investments from the recycling improvement fund to help to deliver a step change in our recycling.
Recycling is just one way in which we can reduce our impact on the planet. It is obvious that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on the recycling activities of local authorities, including those of my authority of Inverclyde Council. That makes it even more important that we try to reuse or upcycle items before we recycle them.
What assistance—including funding to help with capital investment—is available to local authorities to help them to improve their recycling capabilities? What can the Scottish Government do to assist businesses, including small businesses such as InverEco in my constituency, that want to adopt a circular approach to their products so that they remain in use for longer?
As I said in my original answer, the £20 million-worth of investment from the recycling improvement fund marks the beginning of one of the biggest investments in recycling in Scotland in a generation. That will support local authorities and, by extension, businesses, including small businesses. It will also make it easier for households to recycle more and drive up rates of recycling. It is estimated that the investment has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 21,400 tonnes a year, which is the equivalent of taking more than 11,000 cars off the road.
In addition, Zero Waste Scotland provides a range of support to businesses to help them to develop circular economy approaches. That includes support for design, remanufacturing and skills development, to support innovative projects that deliver carbon savings, leverage investment and create jobs.
I will make two further points. Although it is disappointing that the recycling rate fell back during Covid, I repeat that there was an increase in kerbside recycling. Secondly, in 2020, the amount of waste that went to landfill was at its lowest level since records began. Therefore, there are reasons to be encouraged, but we need to do more to maintain progress.
The recycling rate has fallen for two years in a row. That is simply part of a catalogue of Scottish Government climate change target failures. When will the 2013 recycling target be met?
If the Scottish Government is failing on climate change, I am not sure what that says about the United Kingdom Government, given that we are further ahead, I think, than it is on—[Interruption.]
These are serious issues. It is the case that the recycling rate fell back. Although we are not happy about that, it is understandable, given that, for part of last year, recycling centres were closed for a period. We now need to get back on track and improve the situation. As I said, there was an increase in kerbside recycling and the lowest amount of waste went to landfill since records began. That should encourage us to press forward and make sure that we build momentum.
Earlier this week in Parliament, the Minister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity set out how we intend to progress towards implementation of the deposit return scheme. [Interruption.] It is interesting that the Conservatives complain. They wanted us to delay the scheme further the last time we talked about it.
These are serious issues. There is serious investment and serious action on the part of the Scottish Government, and we will continue to ensure that that is the case.
Local Government Funding Settlement 2022-23
I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, which shows that I am a councillor on Aberdeen City Council.
To ask the First Minister what discussions she has had with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities regarding the local government funding settlement for 2022-23. (S6F-00593)
Ministers meet COSLA and individual local authorities on a regular basis to cover a range of issues, including the local government funding settlement. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy met COSLA on 27 October, 11 and 25 November, and again on 8 December, to discuss the local government settlement and the spending review.
It is obvious to us all that the First Minister has now turned her back not only on the oil and gas industry, meaning that thousands of jobs will be lost, but on local government. COSLA has shown that it is clear from a like-for-like comparison between years that a savage cut has been made to local government’s budget this year.
When will the First Minister pick up the phone to COSLA, apologise and provide local government with the settlement that it deserves, given all the work that it has done over the past two years?
First, I do not need to pick up the phone to the member, as I can say it directly to him across the chamber: if the Conservatives want to propose that local government be given more money in the next stage of the budget, they can come forward and point to the part of the budget from which we should take that money. That is open to them, and I am sure that the finance secretary will be prepared to listen.
Secondly, if we are talking about savage cuts, let us put some facts on the table. In the period between 2013 and 2020, we delivered a cash-terms revenue budget increase to Scotland’s local authorities. Over the same period, local authorities in England, where the member’s party is in government, faced a cash-terms revenue budget cut of 14.7 per cent.
My point is that all Governments face difficult issues. We have to make choices. The choices that we make protect local government in Scotland more than is the case elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We will continue to keep public services very much at the heart of those choices.
Retail Stores (New Year’s Day 2022)
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will require large retail stores to close on new year’s day 2022 so that retail workers can spend the day with their loved ones. (S6F-00579)
I whole-heartedly appreciate the efforts of retail workers, who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic. Members have heard me say before in the chamber that I am sympathetic to calls for large stores to close on new year’s day.
We have looked carefully at the issue, and the minister set out our conclusions to Parliament not long ago. The Christmas Day and New Year’s Day Trading (Scotland) Act 2007 does not ensure that all retail employees would get a day off or, crucially, that they would be paid for that day off. We want to go further than the legislation currently allows by focusing on wider fair work principles across the retail sector. We will do that through our forthcoming retail strategy, as the minister set out in a statement on 26 October.
The First Minister will know that, despite what she says, there is deep disappointment with the Government’s decision not to use existing powers to close large retail stores on new year’s day. The Government has made that decision against not only the overwhelming response from workers, who are in favour of closure, but a Government report that states that closure is unlikely to have a significant negative effect on the economy.
The First Minister rightly alluded to the fact that shop workers deserve the kind of festive break that the rest of us benefit from. However, the Government has not enacted legislation that would do just that for the vast majority of Scottish shop workers.
What would the First Minister say to retail workers who again cannot spend new year’s day safely with their families? What are the Government’s plans to deliver a decent break for shop workers over the festive period, after they have worked so hard during the pandemic?
Like Mark Griffin, I feel strongly about the issue. I set out clearly why the current law is not sufficient to allow us to achieve what he is asking for. I encourage retail employers—particularly large retail employers—to give their staff appropriate time off. I know that some retailers, such as Morrisons, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Aldi, have already announced plans to close for an additional day over the festive period.
The current law allows us to restrict trading in certain premises. It allows us to insist that stores are closed; it does not allow us to insist that employees get a day off, so stores could have workers in stocking shelves. Crucially, the law does not allow us to insist that any day off that workers do get is a paid day off. It is simply not possible to achieve the outcome.
That is why, as the minister told Parliament, through our retail strategy, we want to look at how we can get to a situation where the ends that I think that Mark Griffin and I agree on can be achieved in a way that benefits workers without inadvertently penalising them.
I hope that Mark Griffin will accept those points and will work with us to reach that outcome in the months ahead.
Sexual Assault (Teenage Girls)
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will set up a commission on preventing violence against women and girls, in light of reports that one in five teenage girls have been sexually assaulted. (S6F-00604)
I know that all of us in the chamber and most people in society will be shocked and appalled that women and girls are still facing assault and violence in our society today. During the recent 16 days of activism, we highlighted in the chamber that we must all stand together against gender-based violence.
The Scottish Government has taken and will continue to take robust action by improving our laws and providing funding to services that support anyone who has experienced domestic abuse, rape or sexual assault. We are delivering our long-standing and well-respected equally safe strategy in collaboration with a wide range of partners. We think that that is the best route to tackle and challenge the attitudes that underpin violence against women and girls and ultimately to prevent it from taking place. However, we will continue to listen to views from across the chamber to ensure that we are doing all that is necessary.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. It is recognised and welcome that the Scottish Government has done work, such as that which the First Minister has just outlined, to address violence against women and girls and change attitudes, and we have gold-plated legislation to tackle domestic abuse. However, as last week’s Sunday Post report highlighted, 80 per cent of schoolgirls have suffered abuse or harassment or know someone who has; sadly, that is one of many similar findings. Domestic abuse rates are up, rape convictions are woefully low, two thirds of women do not feel safe on our streets, and three in five suffer street harassment.
The culture of violence against women and girls needs to be tackled through a holistic approach. Scottish Liberal Democrats have proposed a commission to look across all aspects of life in order to make societal change. This is about more than justice, policing and education. It is about women and girls being and feeling safe at home, school, work and everywhere. Does the First Minister see the value in a fundamentally new approach?
Given the situation that we face, I think that it would be wrong for anyone, and certainly for me, to rule out new approaches, fundamental or otherwise. I take very seriously the call that has been made for a commission, and I want to assure the member that that is something that we continue to give consideration to.
I am not sure in my mind whether establishing a commission is necessarily the right thing to do and the thing that will make a difference. It is really important that we continue with the equally safe strategy and the increased investment for the organisations that are working at the front line. However, I do not close my mind to anything that might help us to make a more significant, fundamental step change.
I am also mindful of the fact that I have my own advisory council on women and girls—we are in the process of refreshing it at the moment—which has done a lot of good work around many of the issues that women and girls face in our society. It may be that the advisory council, in its refreshed form, can look at the subject on that more holistic and fundamental basis.
I undertake to continue to update Beatrice Wishart on our considerations around the matter, and I absolutely give her an assurance that we will consider in good faith any suggestions that are made. I hope that she will accept the absolute determination that I and the Government have to tackle these issues, which are so fundamentally and utterly unacceptable in modern-day society.
The prevention and eradication of violence against women is our shared goal, but while abuse persists, information, support and refuge for survivors remain vital. The joint Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and Scottish Women’s Aid guidance on good practice in commissioning specialist domestic abuse services stipulates that there is no statutory requirement to put domestic abuse services out to tender. Will the Scottish Government consider taking action to strengthen local government guidance to ensure that core funding is secure for specialist support services such as those that are provided by Scottish Women’s Aid, given that so many survivors rely on those essential specialist services?
I will certainly undertake to consider that. It is an important point. We are extremely fortunate in this country—of course, we are not alone—in that we have excellent support and advocacy services for women and girls, in the form of rape crisis centres, Rape Crisis Scotland and of course Scottish Women’s Aid. Across the country, there are many other organisations that do fantastic work. Our focus, working with local authorities, is to ensure that they have the support that they need to provide those services to women.
We have increased and are increasing over the current session of Parliament the funding that is available, but ensuring that it gets to the services that have the experience and expertise to help women is important. The point about putting services out to tender, the way in which services are funded and the guidance that underpins that is a very valid one. I will certainly undertake to have a look at that and write to Clare Adamson when I have had the opportunity to do so.
I welcome the First Minister’s comments to Beatrice Wishart about the commitment of this Government and indeed this Parliament to our young people, particularly girls. However, given the report in the Sunday Post at the weekend, based on the work of Soma Sara, what is the Scottish Government doing about the responsibility of our local authorities, over whose wi-fi in schools bullying messages and assaults are taking place?
I would expect local authorities to take the matter very seriously, as the Scottish Government would.
I am happy to come back to the member in more detail when I have had the opportunity to consider more fully the answer to his question. However, the important general point that underpins the question is that the ways in which young people communicate are radically different from what was the case when we were at school. Therefore, our responses must keep pace with that and with the ways in which young people can be subjected to bullying. Clearly, the internet and technology are absolutely at the heart of that. That puts an added onus on all of us to make sure that our responses are fit for purpose.
On the particular technical points, I will come back to the member as soon as possible.
We will now take supplementary questions. I advise members that there is a lot of interest, so the more succinct the questions and the responses, the more members we will be able to include.
NHS Ayrshire and Arran (Hospital Visits)
NHS Ayrshire and Arran has suspended all but what it deems essential hospital visits, such as for those nearing the end of life or with a terminal illness diagnosis. That is despite the First Minister’s statement on Tuesday that it is really important that visiting goes ahead, albeit with a sensible limit of two visitors per patient.
No attempt is being made to ascertain the Covid status of visitors, and the confused situation is causing a lot of upset to my constituents and people across Ayrshire. What steps will the First Minister take to ensure that patients in Ayrshire will be able to receive visitors this Christmas?
We have been made aware of NHS Ayrshire and Arran’s decision. I can advise Kenny Gibson that officials have been in discussion with the health board this morning. I appreciate that these are exceptionally difficult circumstances for health boards, but we have been very clear about our expectations around visiting, which are as I set out in my statement and in response to questions on Tuesday.
Scottish Government officials have been assured by NHS Ayrshire and Arran that the decision will be urgently reviewed and that the board is very mindful of the need to ensure that no one is isolated in hospital over Christmas. We are being assured that the board is supporting all essential visiting.
Obviously, a person’s Covid status is really important, and we all need to be aware of that. I take the opportunity to remind everyone who is visiting a loved one in hospital that it is vital to take a lateral flow test ahead of every visit.
Covid-19 (Omicron Symptoms)
I call Sandesh Gulhane. [Interruption.] Mr Gulhane, we cannot hear you in the chamber. We will try to make an adjustment, to see whether that makes any difference to us here.
There we go. Is that better, Presiding Officer?
It is, indeed. Please begin again.
The omicron variant affects people differently, especially if they are double vaccinated. The Zoe Covid Study app is showing that, along with the classic triad of cough, fever and loss of taste or smell, omicron also gives people headaches, runny noses, scratchy throats, extreme tiredness, muscle aches and night sweats. We know that those symptoms are also part of having a cold or flu. Would the First Minister raise the issue with the chief medical officers across the four nations of the United Kingdom and consider adding those symptoms to the list of symptoms that require people to take a polymerase chain reaction test?
That is a very good point. I assure the member that such things are kept under on-going review by the four chief medical officers, and it is an issue that the health secretary and I discuss with our chief medical officer regularly.
I have read the reports suggesting that the symptoms of omicron present differently from the symptoms of previous variants. I know that that is something that the chief medical officers will want to bear in mind when considering whether they should update the case definition advice that has been in place.
My advice to people who are worried that they might have Covid is to make sure that they get a PCR test. Anyone whose lateral flow test device shows a positive result should make sure that they get a PCR test.
As I indicated on Tuesday, I had a slight concern that people might not be going for testing as we got closer to Christmas. I have to say that that concern has been allayed, as there has been an increase in testing rates during the days since.
The point about being vigilant around symptoms is important, and I am sure that the chief medical officer would be happy to discuss the matter directly with the member, if that would be helpful.
Recently, a mum and dad contacted me about their difficulty in getting their daughter Emily a formal autism assessment. When my office contacted the local health board about that, we were told that it is only now making appointments for children who were referred for assessment in June 2019. The waiting list is more than two years long. While Emily is left waiting for a diagnosis, her condition is getting worse, her education is suffering, she is unable to access the additional support that she needs and her parents are left unsupported.
To be compliant with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Government must ensure that disabled children have the full enjoyment of their human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis with non-disabled children. Can the First Minister set out what the Scottish Government intends to do to address such lengthy waiting times and ensure that children such as Emily are not left waiting years for an autism assessment?
It is important to make the point that Pam Duncan-Glancy has just made. All services are under considerable pressure right now and, unfortunately, I expect that that will increase rather than decrease in the immediate weeks ahead. However, the points about priority for urgent services and equity and the human rights impacts on children with disabilities in particular are well made. I will look into the specific issue about waiting times for autism diagnosis after I leave the chamber today and I will write to Pam Duncan-Glancy with a fuller answer when I have had the opportunity to do that.
Covid-19 (Vaccination Staff)
Will the First Minister join me in thanking every member of our national health service staff, every volunteer and every person has gone to have their booster jag for their stunning and braw efforts, who have allowed Scotland to become the first UK nation to give a booster or third dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to more than half its entire adult population?
I will. I am sure that the whole chamber will join me in thanking everybody and every vaccination team across the country. They are doing truly heroic work right now to get booster jags into people’s arms as quickly as possible. I do not think that I can find the words to properly convey the depth of my appreciation and gratitude to every single member of those teams. I encourage them to keep going. We will do everything that we can to support them.
This is a key point. The responsibility on Government, working with health boards to ensure that capacity is there to meet the target that we have set ourselves for the end of the year, is obvious. I accept that unreservedly. However, we also need people to come forward. We need people to get on the system and book their appointments where they can, as quickly as they can. Everyone who is over 18—apart from those in our island communities, where communication is different—can do that using the online portal now. That is the case for mainland Scotland.
Please book your appointment. We will do what we need to do to ensure that the capacity is there. I hope that, together, through this national mission, we can use booster jags to get us out the other end of the new challenge with omicron.
Perinatal Mental Health
My constituent, Lesley, was admitted to Carseview, following a relapse in her postpartum psychosis and was eventually moved to the intensive care unit. Lesley has been discharged but is yet to receive occupational therapy and it could take weeks to appoint a community psychiatric nurse. The staff are incredible, but a lack of resources means that Lesley is not getting the treatment that she needs.
The First Minister met Lesley during a photo call when funding for perinatal mental healthcare was announced. Lesley has heard the promises. Will the First Minister now ensure that Lesley gets the treatment that she needs?
I remember meeting Lesley and I send her my best wishes. I will look into the particular circumstances.
If memory serves me correctly, the day that I met Lesley at St John’s hospital in Livingston, we were announcing significant investment in perinatal mental health, which underlines the importance that we attach to that. There are challenges across all services right now as a result of the pressure of Covid. That pressure increasingly comes from staff absences, which are compounding some of the challenges that were already there.
The importance of getting timely care and services to people is obvious. We will continue to work with health boards to ensure that. As I said, I am happy to look into the particular circumstances around Lesley’s situation.
I come back to the point that I made earlier. We must all do what is required to get Covid cases on a downward path again. As long as they are rising as rapidly as they are right now, those challenges will continue. I accept the Government’s responsibility here, but all of us across the country have a part to play in ensuring that we get the national health service back on track.
Vaccination Clinics (Queues)
Yesterday, my constituents queued for up to two hours while waiting to get their booster jags. They understand the need to get vaccinated, so they waited patiently. However, around 7 pm they were told that they should go home as they would not be vaccinated that day. Some 200 of them were turned away—and they had appointments for 7.30 that evening. They have since been unable to rebook their vaccination appointments.
We can all accept that there will be glitches, but people in my constituency want to be vaccinated and they want to be vaccinated quickly. Will the First Minister investigate that? Better still, will she ask NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde to put on extra clinics in Dumbarton?
First, anybody who has an appointment and is not able to have that appointment fulfilled should phone the helpline to rebook, because that is what is required. That is my advice.
We are seeking to do everything to avoid such situations happening. That is one of the reasons why we need a balance of facilities. If we had only drop-in clinics, people would queue, and it would be hard to match supply and demand. I do not want people to be queueing, but if a person turns up and there is a queue, they should wait there and get their vaccination, because it is important. We certainly do not want people to be turned away.
We are working every day to resolve these issues and to ensure that the vaccination programme continues apace. I am not minimising the impact on people who have that experience, but the programme is a massive logistical effort that is being delivered in an excellent way by staff throughout the country, and we will continue to support it as best we can so that everybody who is eligible and comes forward gets a vaccination.
I thank the First Minister for her update on Covid. We have heard a lot about the impact on business, but there will be workers in customer-facing roles who will be terrified about compromising their health or going to work. If the United Kingdom Government refuses to do the right thing, what support might be put in place to ensure that those in retail, hospitality and other customer-facing roles will not have to choose between their health and their income?
On funding support, I find it impossible right now to contemplate how the UK Government can fail to put schemes in place. This is not an issue that only Scotland is facing; it is an issue that the whole UK is facing. The doubling times for omicron in parts of England are even faster than they are in Scotland right now. We are all in this together. Whatever the politics and the maelstrom around that that we have seen in recent days, I think that it will become unavoidable for the UK Government to act. I hope that it acts sooner rather than later, because that is the issue. The sooner we act, the less of an emergency we will get ourselves into.
We have maximised the financial support that we can give to businesses. That is why it is important that the UK Government acts beyond that. There will always be, as there were in the initial stages of the pandemic, some workers who have to go to work because they provide critical services. That is why it is so important that we support the right mitigations.
Some of the changes in guidance for supermarkets, for example, are as much about supporting staff as supporting customers. On Tuesday, I mentioned the workplace testing scheme. Employers can order tests directly and support their employees to test regularly.
It is very important that, if people have to go to work, we do everything that we can to protect them, not only through financial provision but through the mitigations that are in place.
Can the First Minister update Parliament on the most recent COBR meeting?
The most recent COBR meeting was in the late afternoon yesterday—I think that it was between 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock. That was the second in a week; the previous one happened last Friday.
I welcome the fact that those meetings have happened. It is important that we discuss these things seriously. The meeting yesterday was chaired by Michael Gove, and many things were discussed in it. Obviously, the Welsh First Minister, the Northern Irish First Minister and I raised the points about the need for funding support that I have reported in the chamber today. Therefore, it is not just the Scottish Government that is raising those points.
These meetings are very important, and I hope that the Prime Minister and the chancellor will engage directly in them from now on, because it is a serious situation that we all face, and it is important that we compare our experiences, share what we are doing and work together where we can. The Scottish Government is ready, willing and keen to do that, and I hope that we see that materialising over the period ahead.
Edinburgh Tram Inquiry
There is on-going national press coverage of, and significant public interest in, the Edinburgh tram inquiry, and that public interest continues to grow. The £500,000 that was allocated to the inquiry in the Scottish budget last week will bring the total that has been provided by the Scottish Government to over £12.5 million. What was once a beleaguered project is now a much-beleaguered public inquiry. Edinburgh residents deserve answers about what went wrong with the building of the trams. Will the First Minister shed light on why an inquiry that was initiated by her predecessor seven years ago is still on-going, although closing submissions concluded in 2018?
I seem to remember that the member’s Conservative Party predecessors voted for the trams in the Parliament, but there we go. To be serious here, there is—
Answer the question.
I am going to answer the question. The inquiry is a statutory public inquiry, convened by Lord Hardie. I am not sure whether the member is genuinely asking me, as a minister, to interfere in the conduct of an independent statutory public inquiry. That would be deeply inappropriate. Let me hazard a guess that, if I ever did so, the Tories would be the first ones on their feet complaining about that.
The judge will take forward the public inquiry in whatever way he sees fit, and he will provide conclusions. I am sure that, at that point, Parliament will fully consider and scrutinise those conclusions.