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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 February 2021

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Education, Mental Health, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. We begin with First Minister’s question time. Before we turn to questions, I invite the First Minister to update Parliament on the situation with Covid-19.

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

I will give a quick update on today’s statistics. Yesterday, 1,121 new cases were reported, which was 5.2 per cent of all the tests that were carried out. That takes the overall number of cases to 194,269.

Currently, 1,317 people are in hospital with Covid, which is 66 fewer than yesterday, and 99 people are receiving intensive care, which is one fewer than yesterday. However, I am sorry to report that 64 more deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days, so the total number of people who have died, under that daily measurement, is now 6,828.

National Records of Scotland has just published its weekly update, which includes cases in which Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death. Today’s update shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths that have been attributed to Covid under that wider definition was 953. Of those deaths, 323 were registered last week, which is 54 fewer than were registered in the previous week. Again, my condolences go to everyone who has lost someone.

Every death from Covid is deeply regrettable, and for that reason it never feels quite right for me to talk about encouraging news in the context of the NRS report. However, there are aspects of today’s report that really do bear some emphasis, because they give us, I think, the first hard evidence of the positive impact of vaccination.

The number of deaths overall has fallen for three consecutive weeks. The number of deaths that have occurred in hospitals has fallen in that three-week period by 11 per cent, and the number of deaths that have occurred in people’s own homes or in other non-institutional settings has fallen by 29 per cent. However, the number of deaths in care homes, which were the early focus of the vaccination programme, has fallen by 62 per cent. In fact, with the exception of one week at the end of August, when only two Covid deaths overall were registered, care homes last week accounted for a smaller proportion of overall Covid deaths than at any time since March last year. That is positive news, given the toll that the virus has taken on our care homes.

More generally, the age breakdown of the total number of deaths in the past three weeks shows that the largest reduction, of 45 per cent, was in the over-85 age group. Of course, over-80s who are living in the community were the next priority focus of the programme. It is reasonable to take some heart from that, because it strongly suggests that the vaccination programme is having the hoped-for effect of reducing the death toll from the virus.

On the vaccination programme more generally, I can report that, as of 8.30 this morning, 1,320,074 people had received the first dose, which is an increase of 32,070 since yesterday. As I indicated yesterday, we have offered first doses to all over-70s, all care home residents, all front-line health and care workers, and all people with a serious clinical vulnerability. In addition, 64 per cent of 65 to 69-year-olds have now received the first dose. Again, I thank everyone who has been involved in delivering the programme.

I highlight one final point. From tomorrow, the advice that is given to close contacts of people who test positive for Covid will change. As well as being asked to isolate for 10 days, they will now be asked, as a matter of course, to get tested as well. If they then test positive, their contacts will be traced and more chains of transmission will be broken. That is a further strengthening of test and protect.

As I confirmed yesterday, next week we will publish a revised strategic framework that will set out the data, principles and priorities that will guide our gradual exit from lockdown when the time is right. For now, if we want to maintain the good progress that we are seeing and avoid setbacks, we must stick with it. I therefore continue to urge people to stay at home, except for essential purposes, so that we can continue to protect the national health service and, of course, save lives.

Pandemic Preparedness

Over the past 10 months and even before that, Governments across the world made mistakes in their planning for and handling of the pandemic, but today’s report by Audit Scotland identifies a lack of preparedness, on the part of the Scottish Government, stretching back more than a decade. Specifically, it charges that Scottish National Party ministers failed to implement key recommendations that were made after pandemic planning exercises in 2015, 2016 and 2018. Reports on exercises Silver Swan, Cygnus and Iris made 52 specific recommendations. How many of those recommendations had been implemented by the Scottish Government by March 2020?

The Audit Scotland report this morning is important, as are all Audit Scotland reports, and the Government will, as we always do, pay very close attention to it. However, one of the paramount points that the report makes is this:

“The Scottish Government and NHS in Scotland responded quickly to the rapidly developing pandemic”.

On the three pandemic preparedness exercises—Silver Swan in 2015, Cygnus in 2016 and Iris in 2018—I do not have the full list of the 52 recommendations in front of me, but I am happy to arrange for that information to be provided. As a result of those exercises, a range of national and local pandemic guidance and plans were updated to take account of the lessons from those exercises.

One of the key points, which is perhaps not captured fully in the Audit Scotland report, is that what we found ourselves dealing with in February and March last year was not a flu pandemic, so no amount of preparedness for a flu pandemic would have been sufficient in the face of the situation that we encountered. Regardless of how well prepared we had been for flu, it quickly became clear quite that we were dealing with something of a completely different nature.

In fact, in reflecting on the past 10 months—this will be a matter for proper scrutiny, in the fullness of time—I think that the more valid criticism of the Scottish Government, and of Governments across the western world, is that in the early stages of the pandemic we perhaps relied too much on flu preparations and had not done enough to prepare for the experience of severe acute respiratory syndrome-type outbreaks. That is one of the key lessons that Governments, certainly those in the western world, will have to learn. We will add that to the lessons that the Audit Scotland report has for us.

Let me end my answer where I started. According to Audit Scotland,

“The Scottish Government and NHS in Scotland responded quickly to the rapidly developing pandemic”.

It was no surprise that the First Minister did not want to give a number for how many of the 52 recommendations have been implemented, because the Audit Scotland report highlights a catalogue of missed opportunities on the part of the Scottish Government, including failure to ensure proper supply and use of personal protective equipment. It makes it clear that the PPE stockpile

“was not enough to fully meet the demands of the NHS.”

After the 2016 exercise, a working group identified access to PPE as a “priority action” to be completed by March 2018. Exercise Iris, which took place two years before the onset of the Covid pandemic, again warned that the Government needed to up its game on PPE. We simply should not have had national health service staff being forced to work without adequate protection, reusing masks and having to beg for donations because PPE was not in place.

Why did the Scottish Government not act on the repeated warnings that it received in the three reports, when doing so would have meant that doctors, nurses and carers were properly protected?

I do not accept Ruth Davidson’s characterisation and I do not believe that it bears scrutiny. Scotland has never, not once, throughout the entire pandemic run out of PPE. Not only that, but we were, in fact, in a position at an earlier stage of the pandemic to offer mutual aid to other parts of the United Kingdom.

We found two things. [Interruption.] I say to the Conservatives that these are serious issues that deserve proper responses and consideration. First, we found that we had to rapidly improve, which we did, the distribution mechanisms for PPE to make sure that it got to the front line quickly. We did that with the NHS. We set up a portal so that anybody who had concerns could quickly raise them and have them addressed.

Of course, in addition to the arrangements for the NHS, we quickly put in place new arrangements to top up the PPE supplies that were available to our care homes across the country.

Some detailed consideration was also required by experts, not politicians, of the particular PPE needs, given—to go back to my earlier point, which cannot just be glossed over—that we were dealing not with a flu pandemic, but with a completely different beast that required, in some respects, a different response.

We took all those steps and we continue to ensure that we have good and robust supplies of the right PPE. Of course we have, into the bargain, also developed a domestic supply chain for PPE. We have not done that by giving contracts to our political chums, as some other Governments have done. Before the pandemic, there was effectively zero Scottish PPE manufacturing; we were wholly reliant on imports. Over the winter period, nearly half of all PPE that has been used in Scotland has been supplied from Scotland.

I would be the last person to try to deny that there are lots of lessons for us to learn. We have to do that properly as we go through, as well as when we come out of, the pandemic. However, I think that the steps that we have taken are the right ones, and we will continue to make sure that the NHS and wider society are properly equipped.

The First Minister stands there telling us that there was no issue with PPE last year. Perhaps she wants to tell that to Scotland’s nurses, half of whom told the Royal College of Nursing that they had been forced to reuse single-use protection.

Tragically, Scotland’s care homes have seen more than a third of Scotland’s Covid deaths, with more than 3,000 people losing their lives in care homes since March last year. The advice that was handed to the First Minister in three separate reports is that more had to be done to protect social care. That should have been consulted on as far back as 2018. Instead, the consultation did not open until more than a year later. It closed in September 2019, six months before Scotland’s first wave of Covid. In those six months, the guidance was never updated; no updates were ever published. Crucially, that means that care homes were left to face the pandemic with guidance that was almost a decade old and was hopelessly out of date.

We know that the Scottish Government is now reviewing the guidance, but it is far too late for too many grieving families. Is it not just a fact that had the First Minister and her Government acted sooner and brought forward guidance, which was demanded before Covid struck, some lives in those care homes could have been saved?

Again, I say no—I do not accept that. In my response to the previous question, I did not say that there were no issues with PPE, but took time to set out properly what the issues were. The issues were not what Ruth Davidson said they were; the issues were to do with distribution, making sure that we had the right types of PPE and then building the domestic supply chain. I know that that does not suit the soundbites that Ruth Davidson wants to hurl across the chamber. I spend each and every day dealing with the fine detail of the issues; that is what I try to share with the public.

It is simply not true to say that guidance was not issued to care homes; guidance was issued to them right at the start of the pandemic. We have taken steps to amend the guidance, as our knowledge and understanding of exactly what it is that we have been dealing with has developed. We will continue to do that.

I have been, and will continue to be, very candid. If we could turn back the clock and have then the knowledge that we have now about the nature of the pandemic that we are dealing with, we would have done certain things differently in care homes. I desperately wish that we could have that time again. However, we have made sure that, in relation to the guidance, the focus was on infection prevention and control in care homes, and on the use of testing, when our knowledge developed to allow that to change.

Our more recent focus was criticised—certainly, by implication—a couple of weeks ago by Ruth Davidson in her questions about vaccination. However, because we have focused on making sure not only that we offered the vaccine to every older person in a care home, but that we got the vaccine to every older person in a care home, we are now seeing a rapid reduction in deaths in care homes. I am not sure whether that will be exactly mirrored in all other parts of the UK. We will have to wait to see the figures.

There are lessons to learn every day, and I take that very seriously. I do not think that Ruth Davidson does anybody involved a favour by her mischaracterisation of some of the really difficult challenges that we have been dealing with, and which we continue to deal with.

I will read directly from Audit Scotland’s report so that there can be no “mischaracterisation”. The First Minister mentioned the guidance that was issued to care homes. Page 21 of the report says that

“Flu pandemic guidance published in 2012, designed for health and social care in England, was issued to health and social care in Scotland.”

Despite the Scottish Government’s having been told in 2018 that it had to update that guidance, it was not opened for consultation until 2019. Even by the time the consultation had closed, six months before Covid hit, the Scottish Government still had not published updated guidance. That represents two years of failure to tell social care accommodation and care home providers what they should be doing and how they should be doing it.

Throughout the pandemic, the First Minister has sought to build her reputation on how she has handled the virus. However, the truth is that her Government was less prepared than it should have been, as is set out in black and white in today’s Audit Scotland report. The Government made mistakes. Those mistakes cost the health of front-line workers and the lives of care home residents, and they built up over a decade of delay. The Auditor General’s report makes it plain that the First Minister’s Government was warned again and again. There were years during which she could have acted. What stopped her?

I just do not think that that bears any serious scrutiny. Every single day over the past 10 months—for almost a year, now—I have sought to do nothing other than my best, and to ensure that the Government is also doing its best, to steer the country through the pandemic as safely as possible. That is still my focus each and every single day, no matter what attempts Ruth Davidson might make to change that.

All along, I have admitted mistakes. I will continue to ensure that the Government seeks to learn from mistakes as we go. For as long as I live, I will regret the toll that the virus has taken, particularly on the older members of our community and those who live in our care homes.

However, I also know that because of decisions that we have taken and—even more so—because of the efforts of health and social care workers across the country, we in Scotland can say that we have a lower number of cases than other parts of the UK have. We also have a proportionally lower number of deaths. No one should misunderstand my point: the number is still far too high, but the rate is lower than that for England and Wales.

Every single day, we continue to take steps to ensure that we reduce the impact of the virus. That is, right now, all that I seek to do every day, and what I will continue to seek to do.

Ruth Davidson wanted to quote from Audit Scotland’s report, so I will do the same. It says that

“Staff across the NHS and Scottish Government have worked hard, in challenging circumstances”

and that

“The Scottish Government and NHS ... responded quickly”.

It also says that the actions that were taken prevented

“the NHS from becoming overwhelmed”.

What Audit Scotland describes as

“Initial difficulties in supplying and distributing”—

which I mentioned in the context of PPE—were

“resolved and supply is now meeting demand.”

I can go on. The report also says:

“The Scottish Government worked to improve the support available for the health and social care workforce during the pandemic”

and it goes on to cover the steps that we are now taking to rebuild and remobilise the health service.

I will continue to try to ensure that the Government learns lessons. However, each and every day, and for as long as it takes, I will stay focused on leading the country through the current circumstances as safely as possible.

Pandemic Preparedness

I, too, send my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones to Covid.

The issues highlighted by Audit Scotland’s report are so important that I make no apology for covering the subject again. The First Minister has said that the pandemic is unprecedented, and she is right. However, the report that has been published today makes it clear that a pandemic should have been anticipated.

The Government knew that a pandemic could threaten the lives of people across Scotland. It was told that our social care system would struggle to cope. It was warned that access to personal protective equipment for our nurses and doctors simply was not good enough. We have now learned that the Government did not act on any of those warnings. In 2015, 2016 and 2018, the Government received clear recommendations that it simply failed to act on. Exercise Silver Swan, exercise Cygnus and exercise Iris all identified problems, but the Government was just too slow to act. As a result, according to Audit Scotland, the areas that were neglected

“became areas of significant challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The First Minister referenced flu planning, but the flu pandemic planning that the Government carried out repeatedly highlighted vulnerabilities in PPE supplies and in social care—the very areas of challenge in the pandemic. If the Scottish Government had acted in advance, we would have been in a better position to respond, whatever the virus was.

The First Minister had warning after warning after warning, so was her failure to act negligence or incompetence?

I am not even going to respond to that, because it is actually quite demeaning—not to me, but to the people across Government and across the country who have worked every single day to try to deal with the crisis.

I have already alluded to Silver Swan, Cygnus and Iris. All those lessons were properly embedded in the national and local pandemic guidance. However, I come back to the point that this pandemic is not a flu pandemic. In doing so, I am acknowledging what I think is a real criticism of this Government, and of many other Governments as well. Although I think that the Audit Scotland report is really important, this is a point that is missed from the report.

Jackie Baillie says that we should have anticipated a pandemic. Almost on my first day, and certainly in my first week, in government as the health secretary, I was briefed on the potential for a pandemic—for a flu pandemic—and we did a lot of preparation. We had a flu pandemic in 2009, and we learned lessons from that as well. One of the significant issues that we have to reflect on is the fact that not enough of our planning and preparedness was for a pandemic of the nature of the one that we have been dealing with. Covid and severe acute respiratory syndrome—SARS—type viruses are very different from flu.

Those are lessons that we have been learning and will continue to learn. It is simply not true, and it is not borne out by the facts, to say that we were not prepared on PPE, although, as I have acknowledged not just today but previously, we had issues around the distribution of PPE early on, which we took early action to resolve. In addition, guidance was in place for care homes, and it has adapted and evolved as our understanding of the virus has adapted and evolved.

In the fullness of time, there will be real, proper and detailed scrutiny. I believe that we might still be the only Government in the United Kingdom that has committed to a full public inquiry. However, for now, I and my ministers will continue to get on with the job of making sure that we are taking the country through this, getting more people vaccinated and suppressing the virus so that we can get back to normal as quickly as we can.

I make no criticism of the staff, who I think have been hardworking and absolutely brilliant throughout the pandemic, but the First Minister needs to stop hiding behind them, because this is a matter of leadership and that is something that she is responsible for.

I repeat: flu pandemic planning that the Government carried out repeatedly highlighted vulnerabilities in PPE supplies and in social care. Had the First Minister paid attention to that, as she says that she did, we would not be in this position.

Nowhere has the impact of the pandemic been more distressing than in our care homes. One in every three people to have lost their lives from Covid-19 were care home residents. That is more than 3,000 families who have been bereaved by an epidemic that raced through our care homes—the very places where we expect our elderly and our vulnerable to be safe.

However, concerns about the ability of social care to cope during a pandemic were highlighted five years ago by exercise Cygnus. Exercise Silver Swan recommended that the Government

“Ensure a wide understanding of plans for distribution of PPE and prioritisation of key staff”.

That recommendation was made in April 2016. It was the end of March 2020—nearly four years later, when the country was already gripped by the pandemic—before the Scottish Government had a PPE distribution model for social care. We know that the PPE was not adequate and there was an initial shortage of supply because health and social care staff told us so. I see that the First Minister is shaking her head, but those are the very staff we praise for their efforts and they were telling us what was going wrong.

Had the First Minister listened to the warnings about the threat facing social care in a pandemic—and, yes, in the context of flu pandemic planning, too—lives could have been saved. Why did she not listen?

First, I have not, in any way, hidden or tried to hide on a single day since the pandemic struck. In fact, on many of the days when, to the best of my ability, I have been seeking to lead the country through the pandemic, Jackie Baillie has been writing letters to the BBC to try and stop me from briefing the public on a daily basis. Therefore, perhaps it is the fact that this Government has shown leadership that Jackie Baillie finds so difficult to take.

Because we learned lessons from the swine flu pandemic that we had in 2009, as well as the exercises that were done, we had a stockpile of PPE at the start of this pandemic. As I said earlier, that is why we never ran out of PPE and why we quickly resolved the early issues that we faced with regard to the distribution of PPE within the health service. To this day, there are on-going concerns from staff, which we listen to very carefully, about the precise nature of the PPE and whether it is adequate to protect them from the virus, particularly as we face new variants. Our clinical advisers listen to and discuss those concerns, so that we can respond as necessary. As I have already said, we took additional steps to top up the PPE supplies that care home providers already had.

We have taken all those steps. Has everything gone as we would have wanted? No; we have made mistakes and done things that, had we had the knowledge that we have now, we would have done differently, and we learn from those as we go. Every day, this Government—with the dedication of people not just in our health and social care workforce, but in many sectors of society—has tried to get through this as well as we can, and every day we will continue to do that.

Jackie Baillie talks about care homes. Because we learned the lessons from care homes earlier last year, we made the decision to focus on getting the maximum number of people in care homes vaccinated—not just offered the vaccine, but vaccinated—even if, early on, that slowed down the rest of the programme. That decision was—certainly by implication—criticised by Jackie Baillie and Ruth Davidson just a couple of weeks ago. That says it all. They will criticise whatever we do, but we will continue to get on with the job of keeping the people of this country as safe as we can.

I am clear that there was no leadership in preparing for the pandemic. The First Minister referenced stockpiles of PPE but, from staff on the ground, we know that they were inadequate and well out of date. The whole point is not to learn after the event but to learn beforehand, so that we put in measures to prevent the scale of death that we have witnessed. The evidence is that, when presented with recommendations, the Government simply did not listen; it was too slow to prepare and too slow to act. We may have reacted quickly—I welcome that and thank national health service and care staff for doing so—but we were simply not prepared.

Here is an opportunity to listen and act. Do not just clap for health and social care workers; listen and act when they ask for enhanced PPE to protect them and those they care for from the new Covid variants. We know that the rate of hospital-contracted Covid is still far too high. Since the start of the pandemic, at least 3,115 people have contracted Covid-19 in hospital. In the week ending 24 January, the Scottish Government rejected calls from Scottish Labour for enhanced PPE to protect staff and patients from the new variants and dismissed the concerns of the very staff whose attitude and evidence we all value so highly. That same week, at least 228 people contracted Covid-19 on hospital wards. Will the First Minister listen? Will she act and give health and care staff the enhanced protection that they need and deserve?

We did not dismiss those calls. As a politician and former lawyer, I am not qualified to decide the technical specifications of PPE. That is what I have clinical advisers for, and every time that health or social care staff say that they think that they need a higher specification, we ask our clinical advisers to consider that and come to a view. Until now, that has been done on a four-nations basis. We will never dismiss those claims.

The advice to me and to the Government is that the specification of the PPE that is being used is appropriate for even the new variant of Covid. If that advice changes, so, too, will the decisions that we take on PPE. Not just as First Minister—although that is the most important point here—but as the sister and sister-in-law of people who work on the front line of the national health service, I would never dismiss the views of those on the front line of the NHS. We will continue to take those decisions on the basis of the best advice.

We will continue, too, to learn lessons, just as we learned lessons from the 2009 pandemic and from the exercises. We will also learn the real lessons from the current pandemic, which are that we must learn as we go and must not assume that the pandemics that we will face are the ones that we have faced in the past. I think that the real criticism of Governments such as ours is that we should have been better prepared for a SARS-type virus and should have relied less on flu preparedness. I am able to say that, but let us engage properly on such matters, rather than just chuck soundbites across a parliamentary chamber.

Food Provision (Glasgow)

We have all seen the pictures of hundreds of people queueing in the snow for emergency food in Glasgow’s George Square last week. That people are experiencing that level of desperation in the city that the First Minister and I represent is an indictment of the failure to tackle poverty and hunger in Scotland.

The charities that feed people in Glasgow have warned that funding is not getting to where it is needed. Last year, 80 organisations got the resources that they needed to provide such emergency relief. This year, it is expected to be less than half that number. I will give an example. The Children’s Wood, which runs a holiday club for children in Maryhill, has not received funding. Does the First Minister think that it is acceptable that getting food to hungry children is a postcode lottery in Glasgow? Will she commit to universal solutions, such as extending free school meals to all primary pupils all year round?

I have already made that commitment. We have made it clear that, if we are returned to government, we will provide free school meals to all primary pupils and children in early years all year round. I hope that other parties across the chamber will join us in that so that, whoever emerges victorious from the election in May, we know that that policy will be implemented.

On the wider issue, there is much more that we all need to do to tackle poverty. Like Patrick Harvie, I was appalled and disturbed by the photograph that circulated a few days ago. I asked my officials to look into the circumstances of that and to engage with relevant partners to see what more we can do. Throughout the pandemic, we have increased funding to tackle food insecurity and, specifically, to help people whose poverty is being exacerbated by the pandemic, and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance announced even more funding for that just yesterday.

We will continue to take whatever steps we can to help those who are finding it toughest as a result of the situation that everybody is dealing with at the moment, but we are also taking the crucial steps to deal with the underlying causes of poverty. Perhaps the most significant thing that has happened in that regard this week is the launch of the new Scottish child payment. Scotland is the only part of the United Kingdom to have such a scheme, which is about lifting children—and, by extension, families—out of poverty. We will continue to do what we can to try to consign poverty to history in our country.

The First Minister does not need to wait until May to commit to the policy of extending eligibility for free school meals; it could be built into the budget that the Parliament will vote on later this month.

The First Minister has made it clear that, as we build a recovery from the pandemic, returning schools to normal will rightly be the first priority but, if we are to do that, we need first to talk about how we keep teachers and support staff safe. Vaccination must have a role to play here. I make it clear that we are not asking the Government to ignore the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. It has recommended the first priority groups but, in the paper that it published at the end of December, it said that occupational groups could be considered for priority in the next phase of the vaccine programme.

Yesterday, the First Minister told my colleague Alison Johnstone that some teachers will have been vaccinated already, but with schools reopening to more pupils from Monday, surely we must ask whether it is safe for those teachers who have not been vaccinated to be sent back into full classrooms without that protection. Does it not stand to reason that, if reopening schools is a high priority, vaccinating the staff who enable those schools to function must be a priority, too?

First, I want to make the point very clearly that we would not be going ahead with the decision that we confirmed yesterday on the phased reopening of schools if we were not assured that it was safe. We are not complacent about it and we do not take these decisions lightly.

Mitigations will be in place in schools. In the senior phase, there will be very limited numbers of pupils there, and we know that the risk of transmission is much lower when we are talking about the younger age groups. We also know from the evidence that the risk from reopening schools comes less from transmission within schools than it does from the behaviour of adults around the reopening of schools, with people taking it as a trigger for a return to normality. That is why I was at such pains yesterday to ask parents across the country not to do that as of Monday.

We are introducing twice-weekly testing for teachers and school staff, which will get under way straight away as schools return from Monday.

It is important to take the points on the issue of vaccination seriously. I know that Patrick Harvie is not suggesting that we do not follow the JCVI, but we are still in the process of vaccinating the JCVI priority list. We hope that we can complete that as soon as possible—even sooner, perhaps, than our original target date—but that is the focus right now.

We are waiting to see whether the JCVI gives us any more detailed advice on the order of priority for the rest of the population. It is absolutely the case that there may be a focus on occupational groups, in which case that is what we will follow. However, there are still unknowns about the vaccines’ impact on transmission as opposed to mortality and illness, and that is why, at the moment, it is really important that we follow the clinical priorities that the JCVI is setting.

We will continue to consider the matter with the other nations of the UK and we will set out as soon as we can what the approach will be once we have vaccinated the initial JCVI groups and whether there is an order of priority to be followed for the rest of the population.

Education (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Report)

4. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

How can the people of Scotland judge the First Minister on her record on education if she will not publish the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report until after the election?

The timetable of the OECD review that is under way right now has been set by the OECD. It is carrying that out independently for the Scottish Government and it would be wrong for us to seek to dictate to it how it does that or to what timescale. The work was delayed because of the pandemic, not least because of restrictions that the OECD put on the ability of its staff to travel overseas. However, it is work that the OECD is taking forward. I look forward to its conclusions and to making sure that we can take forward any recommendations that it makes.

Does the First Minister seriously expect us to believe that, of all the months of the year that the OECD could have picked, it just happened to insist on the one immediately following the election? The Scottish Government has the report already, so the First Minister should publish it now.

The independence of the report is in question because of the interference. The Scottish Government and its agencies have timetabled months to alter the report. A special group has been established to make changes, but it is dominated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority and Education Scotland—the very bodies that are under the microscope of the OECD report. We all know that, because it is in the Government’s documents that we secured under freedom of information.

How can anyone have confidence in the independence of the report if the Government has the opportunity to meddle with it for months on end?

I am not entirely sure—well, I think that I am sure what Willie Rennie is suggesting, but the idea that the OECD would allow to happen what he has just suggested is happening is completely outrageous, actually. The OECD is a respected organisation. It is carrying out the review for the Scottish Government independently and it has set its timetable.

The preliminary report that the Scottish Government has received is purely for accuracy checking; it is not an opportunity to influence the content or rewrite any part of the report. I do not think that the OECD would wear that, even if the Scottish Government were to attempt it, which it will not. As I understand it, draft findings will be shared with stakeholders, providing an opportunity for key partners to inform the final report. The independent report will be published when the OECD decides that it should be published.

If the Scottish Government was trying to dictate either the way in which the OECD did that, or the timetable to which it did it, I am pretty sure that Willie Rennie would be standing up here right now saying how outrageous and unacceptable that was. We will do this properly. Given how well thought of an organisation the OECD is, I have confidence in it and I trust it to do this and to do it extremely well.

I am conscious that we have taken more than 35 minutes to get through the leaders’ questions, so I appeal to members and the First Minister to make their questions and answers succinct.

Child Poverty

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to tackle child poverty. (S5F-04830)

Monday marked the important milestone of the introduction of the Scottish child payment, which is a key plank in our action to tackle child poverty and a key action in the tackling child poverty delivery plan.

Last year, we spent nearly £2 billion on supporting low-income households, with £673 million focused on support for families with children. Next year, we will almost double our investment in the tackling child poverty fund.

In response to the economic impact of the pandemic, we have invested an additional £51 million to continue the provision of free school meals during school closures and holiday periods, and our £100 Covid winter hardship payment supported more than 144,000 children and young people. We have just confirmed a second round of that payment, to be paid in the spring.

I thank the First Minister for that reply and the very good news about the Scottish child payment, which has been hailed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as “more needed than ever”. However, the Tories at Westminster will not commit to maintaining the £20 uplift to universal credit. Does the First Minister agree that, if the UK Government is serious about tackling child poverty, it should introduce a similar benefit to the Scottish child payment and not cut benefits at a time when many families are struggling to survive?

I agree with that, but I do not think that there is a shred of evidence that the UK Government is at all serious about tackling child poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that, even with the £20 uplift, the average family with children is £2,900 worse off each year than they were a decade ago. If that increase is removed, that figure rises to £3,800 a year. That is the impact on child poverty of the decisions that the UK Government has taken.

The UK Government’s own analysis highlights that the number of households that were impacted by the benefit cap nearly doubled last year, with 6,400 households in Scotland losing an average of £50—and 97 per cent of those families have children. It is time that the UK Government stopped hiding its head in the sand about the damage that its policies are causing. A first step—although it would be only a small step—would be to make the £20 increase permanent and extend it to legacy benefits, as well as abolishing the benefit cap, the two-child limit and the abhorrent rape clause. If it wanted to get truly serious about tackling child poverty, it would follow the lead of the Scottish Government and establish the equivalent of the Scottish child payment, so that we can tackle child poverty head on and lift more children out of poverty for good.

Education (Disruption)

To ask the First Minister what additional and urgent measures will be taken to ensure that pupils catch up on learning lost as a result of the disruption to their education. (S5F-04825)

We have prioritised children receiving in-person learning throughout the pandemic, which is why we confirmed yesterday that children in primaries 1 to 3 and some senior-phase pupils will return to school next week, as will children in early years settings. To support that, we are investing a further £100 million in education recovery and additional family support, as we announced yesterday. That is in addition to existing investment such as the £127 million in pupil equity funding to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For older pupils, we were able to provide clarity yesterday that national 5, higher and advanced higher exams in 2021 will be replaced by an alternative certification model that is based on teachers’ judgment of the evidence of individual pupil attainment.

It may be true that some children are returning to school next week, but 11 months of disruption to classroom education will come at a great price—let us not fool ourselves. It is what we do now that will make the difference.

The First Minister has repeatedly told us that she will consider any proposals or ideas, wherever they come from. However, beyond warm words, very little action has followed. We have put forward sensible proposals for an urgent national tutoring scheme and for pulling in resource from anywhere we can to help those pupils to catch up. That would result in clear and immediate benefits. Will the First Minister take that issue forward and discuss those proposals in great detail with me? If not, why not?

I am sure that the Deputy First Minister will be delighted to discuss that proposal and any other proposals directly with Jamie Greene. I have said before that tutoring provision is available through the e-Sgoil platform, and we will, of course, continue to look at how we can extend and expand that.

It is not the case that we are not taking action now. As recently as yesterday, we confirmed even more investment to support local authorities and schools to help pupils to catch up on their education. Previously in the pandemic, we have made available resources that have allowed an additional 1,400 teachers to be recruited. The investment that the Deputy First Minister announced a few weeks ago will allow even more new teachers to be recruited if local authorities think that that is the appropriate use of that funding.

We will continue to focus on how we support children to catch up on education, but a wider and bigger imperative and responsibility is to consider holistically how we will, as we come out of the pandemic, help to repair the overall damage that has been done to children’s wellbeing. That will partly be about education, but there will be bigger things for us to consider, as well. That will require our focus for a considerable time to come.

Unsafe Cladding (Replacement)

To ask the First Minister how the consequentials from the recently announced £3.5 billion of funding to replace unsafe cladding in England will be allocated, and whether buildings under 18m will be included in any grant scheme. (S5F-04820)

We are still waiting for the details of the consequentials and of what the new levy and tax on developers will comprise. Two recent consultations on guidance—by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Scottish Government—have shown that it is not only buildings of 18m and above that need to be considered. Our view is that the scale of risk as a whole needs to be considered, rather than risk being assessed only on the basis of the height of the building that people live in. That undoubtedly makes the task more complex in respect of scale, availability of information and ensuring that public money is used to the greatest effect. However, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning will set out a sustainable path forward next month. We hope that, by that time, we will know the details of the consequentials so that we can set out more details of how they will be used.

The Scottish Government has already had £97 million of consequentials to address the cladding issue. We need urgency on that. The Grenfell tower fire was in 2017. I have a constituent who has an EWS1 form that cost £3,000 but who still cannot sell their home and move on. Our constituents are under immense pressure because they are not able to make their buildings safe, they are trapped in unsaleable homes and they have not had any support. They need that support urgently.

Will the First Minister ensure that there is urgent progress on the issue? There is already £97 million in the budget, which could be spent. We know where a lot of these buildings are, and there has been progress on the high-rise inventory; we just need action. Our constituents are trapped, and the immense financial and mental pressures that they are under need to be addressed urgently.

I agree with much, if not all, of what Sarah Boyack has said. I have constituents in that position, as well, so I know about the stress and anxiety that the issue is causing.

It is important that we get it right and that we have done the work to establish the scale of the problem and the nature of the buildings whose owners will require help so that, when we disburse taxpayers’ money to help, we do that in a way that helps the maximum number of people. That is why the work that has been done is so important.

I absolutely accept that there is a need for urgency. That is why, as I said in my initial answer, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning will set out the pathway forward next month. We will then be able to give greater clarity and certainty to owners who are in that position, based on the foundation of proper consideration and research that I have spoken about.

Learning Disabilities (Covid-19 Vaccinations)

Following the publication of mortality data for people who have a learning disability in Scotland, the cross-party group on learning disability and Enable have asked the Government to ensure that every person with a learning disability in Scotland is supported to come forward for vaccination, including younger adults in care home settings, who are at particular risk. The First Minister will perhaps have read the moving story of author Ian Rankin, whose disabled son, Kit, is still waiting for the vaccine. NHS England has just issued guidance to general practitioners recommending that they identify, invite and support all people who have a learning disability to come forward. Will the Scottish Government also do that?

We will consider whether we need to take further action. However, it is important to point out right now that, as the member knows, there are a range of people with learning disabilities who have been clinically judged already as being clinically extremely vulnerable and who therefore will have been vaccinated as part of cohort 4. They are one of the groups for which we had the target date of early this week to meet. I think that we will publish the data on this later today, or certainly by later this week, but around 140,000 people who are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable have been vaccinated. That is an uptake of around 80 per cent. The original estimate in our deployment plan was around 110,000, so we have exceeded that already.

Some of those who have profound learning difficulties, though, as well as unpaid carers, will not been vaccinated as part of that cohort. As things stand, they will be offered vaccination as part of cohort 6. The invitations for appointments for people in cohort 6 should start to issue from next week, so people in that group will then start to get certainty about when their vaccination will be delivered.

QCovid Risk Assessment Tool (Shielding)

Does the Scottish Government plan to utilise the QCovid risk prediction model that has been developed by the University of Oxford to expand the criteria for those who are placed on the shielding list?

We are considering the QCovid list further. The findings of the QCovid tool have already led to some groups being added to the shielding list in Scotland, such as people with chronic kidney disease, stage 5 Down syndrome or severe liver disease. However, the model was developed using death and hospitalisation data from England, so the advice that the Government has had is that more work needs to be done to validate the tool more fully in relation to Scottish data before we can be confident about using it more widely in Scotland. Options around that are being considered at the moment, and we will continue to work with partners to understand how it can work in the context of Scottish health data.

As for the people who were spoken of in the previous answer, the vast majority of those who would have been identified through QCovid are likely to have already been included in group 4 or group 6 of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list.

Scottish Child Payment (Applications)

As at last Sunday, the Scottish Government had received only 77,000 applications for the Scottish child payment. That means that, even if all the applications are approved, only 44.5 per cent of the 173,000 children who are estimated by the Scottish Fiscal Commission to be eligible for it will receive the payment. The First Minister will know that the deadline was two days ago, on 15 February. However, those figures mean that almost 100,000 parents of children who probably need the payment have, for some reason, not applied.

Given the First Minister’s commitment on child poverty, which she has reiterated today, will she consider extending that deadline to ensure that the take-up is much higher? Does she agree that, in the long run, this situation makes the case that we need to automate such payments, complicated though that would be, to ensure that families who need the child payment—families who live in poverty—can get access to it?

I agree with the point on automation. We certainly want to automate more systems through Social Security Scotland, although it is also very important that people have the option of talking to somebody face to face, as we know that not having that option can sometimes be a barrier.

We will continue to encourage maximum uptake. The deadline for applying for backdated payments was this week, but of course people can make new applications if they decide that they want to do so. There is a big job for all of us to do to make sure that the people we represent are aware of the new benefits and know how to apply for them. I took the opportunity, in one of the Covid briefings this week—because this issue is very relevant in the context of the financial challenges of Covid—to share the details of how people can apply. The Government will continue to take every opportunity to do that.

National Care Service

Unsurprisingly, and despite calling for the establishment of a national care service, yesterday Labour members chose to vote with the Tories against the Scottish Government’s motion that committed to establishing such a service. Will the First Minister set out what else they voted against last night?

There was some muttering from Labour members. I can only take that to mean that they found their decision as inexplicable as we did.

The motion that Labour voted against, with the Tories, last night was about scrapping non-residential social care charging, providing unpaid carers with improved recognition and support, improving pay and terms and conditions to reflect fair work principles, bringing in national pay bargaining and establishing a national care service in law on an equal footing with NHS Scotland. I know why the Tories would have voted against all that, but for the life of me, I cannot work out why Labour would. However, maybe that starts to explain some of the reasons why Labour is pretty much in the doldrums.

Covid-19 Quarantine Regulations (Offshore Workers)

Following the announcement of the extended quarantine regulations, constituents in the oil and gas sector have raised concerns that offshore workers who support overseas projects on a two-two rota would have to spend 10 of their 14-day field break alone in a hotel room. They understand the need to minimise the chance of introducing new variants as well as the need to restrict exemptions, but, given the unique nature of the offshore rota, will the First Minister consider reviewing the list of exemptions to allow those overseas workers to self-isolate at home?

We have already said that we will consider any arguments that are made for particular groups, so I suppose that the short answer is yes, we will consider that. However, I follow that up immediately with a strong caveat. The more exemptions that we have from the managed isolation policy, the more chance there will be of new variants of the virus coming into the country. We therefore have to balance all that and come to the best position overall.

As we suppress the virus and vaccinate more people—we are doing both successfully right now—the bigger risk that we face will increasingly be the importation of new variants of the virus that might spread more quickly and be able to beat lockdown restrictions; more seriously, they might undermine the efficacy of the vaccines that we have at our disposal right now. That is why we need to exercise the utmost caution over borders and travel.

We will continue to consider fairly any calls for greater flexibility, but we will apply a rigorous assessment to such calls because we do not want to undermine the effectiveness of the policy that we have put in place any more than is already the case, given that we do not yet have a four-nations approach.

National Child Payment

My question is a supplementary to question 5 from Sandra White.

Scottish Labour welcomes the introduction of the national child payment, albeit that its introduction will be later than we would have wanted. We know that the payment will make a difference to many families and help to tackle child poverty. However, given the terrible impact of the pandemic on women’s employment in particular, can the First Minister confirm that there is sufficient capacity to respond rapidly to changes in household circumstances? Can she also advise whether the data collected on claimants will be disaggregated by sex?

I am not entirely sure—and that is my fault, not hers—what Elaine Smith means by “sufficient capacity” to deal with changes in household incomes, but I am happy to come back to her with more detail. We are trying to respond rapidly with support, including financial support, to the circumstances that people face. We will continue to do that. We have people across Government who are focused on that kind of work.

On the data that we will produce from the payment, again I will check exactly what data will be made available, and with what frequency and degree of disaggregation. I will make sure that I write to the member with that information as soon as possible.

Brexit (Logistics Sector)

Only this morning, a survey by Logistics UK of its members, most of whom are hauliers or manufacturers, showed that, since Brexit, almost half—48.4 per cent—had transport operations to deliver goods to the European Union or Northern Ireland cancelled or postponed. An astonishing 88 per cent of them cited problems with customs. A significant proportion of them do not expect to return to pre-Brexit operational levels, citing uncertainty and reduced trading confidence, which will inevitably impact on jobs and our economy. Although the solutions lie mostly with the United Kingdom Government, how will the Scottish Government assist our key logistics sector at this difficult time?

The Scottish Government and different ministers and officials have been working with logistics companies and key export sectors to do everything that we can to help with the extreme difficulties that they have been facing since the end of the transition period at the start of the year. It is fair to say that much of our focus has been on the seafood exporting sector, because the damage that has been done to it has been very severe—frankly, what they have been dealing with is unforgivable.

The impacts for our exporters and logistics companies have been extreme. Some of those impacts will, I hope, be resolved by action that the UK Government takes, but I am not sure that we will see trading patterns return completely to normal because I think that they risk being changed for the long term. That will mean a loss to Scotland in financial terms, probably in jobs and in overall economic activity. It illustrates just how wrong-headed and ideologically driven Brexit was, and it is the Tories who bear the responsibility for it.

Covid-19 (Hospital-acquired Infection)

Serious concerns are being raised regarding the soaring number of patients in Scottish hospitals who are acquiring Covid-19 while being treated for an unrelated illness. Public Health Scotland data has revealed the concerning number of patients affected. What measures will the Scottish Government put in place to ensure that increased infection control is undertaken in all our hospitals?

There is a significant and strong focus on infection control in our hospitals. This morning, I looked at the latest data on Covid nosocomial infection, which has just been published today—the nature of the collection and analysis of that data means that there is a three-week time lag.

There is a reduction in the total number of cases that are deemed to be probable or definite hospital onset, although the proportion is still a little bit higher. What we find, and have found, with Covid is that the trend of hospital-acquired infection mirrors that of community transmission. The figures published today are from a period when community transmission was still much higher than it is right now and we hope that, as community transmission has reduced, so too will hospital infection.

Every day, the people who work in our hospitals focus very hard on minimising the prospect and possibility of not just Covid but all infections being passed on. The data that the member refers to is looked at very closely so that teams on the ground know whether there is more that they can do. However, one of the key lessons in the context of Covid is that the relationship between community and hospital transmission is quite strong, so the more we can do to reduce community transmission, the more we help to reduce transmission in our hospitals as well.

I apologise to those members we were not able to reach. We will return at 2.30 with Liberal Democrat business.

13:32 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—