Meeting date: Thursday, September 17, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 September 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Employment Support, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Employment Support
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon, colleagues. We begin this afternoon’s business with First Minister’s question time, but before we turn to questions the First Minister will give the chamber a brief statement on the Covid figures.
I will give a short update on the daily Covid statistics and related matters.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 290. That represents 4 per cent of people newly tested, and the total number of cases is therefore now 23,573. The full regional breakdown will be published later, as usual, but I can confirm that 112 of those cases are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 52 are in Lanarkshire and 47 are in Lothian. The remaining 79 cases are across nine other health board areas.
Fifty-two people are in hospital, which is an increase of one from yesterday. I remind members that we changed the definition of a “Covid hospital in-patient” earlier this week to make it more accurate. Five people are in intensive care, which is one fewer than the number yesterday.
In the past 24 hours, no deaths were registered of patients who tested positive for Covid, and the total number of deaths under that measurement remains 2,501. Yet again, my condolences and, I am sure, those of everybody across the chamber go to everyone who has lost a loved one.
I can also report that the Scottish Government will shortly publish our latest estimate of the R number, which is the number of people who, on average, will be infected by one infectious person. The estimate confirms our view that the R number is currently above 1 in Scotland and is possibly as high as 1.4. We hope that the new rules that came into effect on Monday will help to reduce transmission and we will of course monitor that very carefully. We are also considering carefully—on an on-going basis, obviously—whether any further restrictions may be necessary for all or part of the country.
I remind people that the case figures that we report daily are for test results reported in the past 24 hours. Ideally, the daily figures will, by and large, reflect test swabs taken in the preceding 48 hours, but right now more of those daily cases are from swabs taken over the preceding few days. That is because of the backlog in the United Kingdom-wide laboratory network, which I have spoken about this week. To be clear, our trend analysis of the virus is not affected by that, because that analysis looks at cases by date of sample, not just reporting date. However, delays in test results being reported can delay contact tracing in some cases, which is why we are taking the issue so seriously.
I can report to the chamber that there has been an improvement in the past couple of days, which is positive, but there are still some outstanding results from the past week, so we will continue to follow that up vigorously. We are also in regular and constructive contact with the UK Government and, of course, we are committed to working with it to help address that issue.
Finally, I note that in the week since it was launched, more than 1,000,000 people have now downloaded the Protect Scotland app, and I thank everyone who has done so. One million is a big enough number for us to know already that the app can make a difference—in fact, I can report that more than 100 people have already been advised to isolate as a result of using it, so I encourage everyone who has not yet done so to download it. It is a simple but important way that we can all help to fight Covid.
The other way in which we can all do that is by sticking to the rules and guidance, so I will end by summarising those again. If you live in Glasgow, East or West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire or North or South Lanarkshire, please do not visit other households anywhere in Scotland at all right now. In the rest of the country, please do not meet with more than six people from a maximum of two households. Those limits on gatherings apply indoors and outdoors, and indoors they apply to pubs and restaurants as well as houses. Finally, let us all remember FACTS: face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m away from people in other households; and self-isolate and book a test if you experience any of the symptoms of Covid.
I thank everyone across the country for their continued efforts to help us beat the virus back.
Thank you, First Minister. We now turn to questions. I will take all the supplementary questions after question 7. Members should press their request-to-speak button now if they wish to ask a supplementary question.
Michelle Stewart (Victims’ Rights)
Two years ago this week, I raised with the First Minister the case of Michelle Stewart, who, in 2008, at the age of 17, was stabbed to death by John Wilson. Ever since, Michelle’s family members have been campaigning to strengthen the rights of victims. Two years ago, they were promised concrete action by the First Minister and her Government. This morning, we spoke again to Michelle’s family, who told us:
“Humza Yousaf seems to think he had done a lot. There’s certainly been a lot of talking but there’s been very little action. It’s now been two years since we met him about this when he promised to take action. It is time he delivered on that.”
I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice is meeting Michelle’s family members again next week. Two years on, will they finally get the action that they need?
A number of steps have been taken. Ruth Davidson and other members across the chamber know what those steps have been, and Parliament has been involved in some of them.
We want to continue to listen to the victims of crime and to reflect on other steps that can be taken. We must always seek to ensure not just that the voice of victims of crime is heard, but that their experiences help to inform further reforms of the justice system. Everybody recognises that the rights of the accused are important in any justice system, but we must also make sure that we have a system that reflects the needs and experiences of the victims of crime. The Government has not shied away from, and will not shy away from making changes where they are required.
In order to remind people, I am happy to circulate later today—not just to Ruth Davidson, but to the rest of Parliament—a summary of the changes that have been made. If, after further discussions, the Government intends to take more actions, we will update Parliament accordingly.
Thank you. The fact is that that action was promised two years ago. The reality, despite the First Minister’s claims, is that little has been done to address the concerns of Michelle Stewart’s family or those of the victims of so many crimes.
However, we can look at changes that have been introduced. They include, for example, the victim notification scheme, which is intended to give victims information on the people who offended against them. That includes important information, such as whether the offender is eligible for temporary release, whether they abscond from prison, whether they return to prison for any reason connected to the victim’s case and—crucially—when the offender is due back out on the street after release.
This week, we discovered that fewer than one in four Scottish victims of crime is signed up to that notification scheme. Victim Support Scotland says that that is down to the current system being overly complicated “to understand and administer”. Will the First Minister give a commitment today to overhaul that notification scheme, so that Scottish victims of crime can finally get the information that they deserve?
I will consider with the justice secretary whether further changes to that scheme are required. We want to make any such scheme as accessible as possible to people who would benefit from using it. We also want to make the bureaucracy around the scheme as simple as possible, and to remove as much of it as we can.
However, it is important to stress that all victims of crime who are eligible for the victim notification scheme are able to make an informed decision about whether they wish to sign up to it. The fact of the matter is that, although many do—we must make sure that the system works for them—not all victims want to be informed of a prisoner’s release, because some victims find that to be retraumatising. It is important and right that victims are able to decide voluntarily whether to opt in to the scheme before they receive any information.
Through the victims task force and regular meetings with victims organisations, we strive to provide trauma-informed services; they include the victim notification scheme. Of course, we will continue to work with organisations that represent victims to consider whether further improvements to that scheme can and should be made.
The organisations that represent victims have been pretty clear. Kate Wallace, who is the chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, has said:
“The current system is complicated to understand and administer. Often people are asked about joining at an unsuitable time when they are most traumatised. And this is often not revisited”.
Let us look at another thing on which victims were promised action, but which has failed to live up to expectations—the victim surcharge fund. The surcharge was introduced as an extra financial penalty on all criminals who were sentenced to pay a court fine. The money that is raised is supposed to go into a separate fund that is intended to support victims, but one third of the money that is meant to have been paid in has simply not been collected. Why are so many criminals being allowed to skip paying their dues while the victims continue to suffer?
The victim surcharge was introduced in November 2019. Anyone who commits a crime that results in a court fine is now charged an additional penalty—the victim surcharge. The money is banked in the victim surcharge fund and will be used to provide direct support to victims and families. I can tell members that the aim is to open the victim surcharge fund to bids from victims’ organisations by the end of this year. In some ways, the impact of Covid on court business has delayed that and might continue to do so. However, that is still the aim.
We continue to work across all such issues sensitively and appropriately with victims organisations, including Victim Support Scotland. Victim Support Scotland’s support service for families who have been bereaved by crime was launched in April 2018, and we have consulted on expanding the range of serious crimes for which victims can make statements to the court, for example. Action has been taken and changes have been made across a wide range of issues. Of course, we will continue to listen about where further action can be taken and needs to be taken—as any Government should do. The voices of victims of crime will be at the heart of that.
I do not doubt the First Minister’s intentions, but good intentions are not enough. Her Government’s record simply does not match up to the rhetoric when it comes to strengthening the rights of victims of crime. The family of Michelle Stewart feel desperately let down by the Government—as do many other victims. Families consistently say that they want three things: to be heard during the process, to receive information about the offender, and to get practical support. As we have heard, in the experiences of Michelle’s family and so many others, the Scottish Government is falling short in all three of those areas.
Two years ago, the First Minister promised concrete action that would tip the scales back in the victim’s favour. When will we finally see that happening?
I have already gone through a range of areas where change has happened. The changes are to the great credit of victims of crime, who have made the case for those changes when the trauma of crime itself has been very significant.
We will continue to listen. I will be frank and open: it will always be the case that victims of crime will want more to be done. If I were a victim of a serious crime I would feel exactly the same. It is important that we listen to that. However, all Governments have an often difficult balance to strike between the rights and voice of victims, and the essential rights within the criminal justice system of an accused person, in order to ensure fair trial and a fair process of justice.
Those are not easy issues, but we take them extremely seriously. That is true of the victim notification scheme, the victim surcharge, and the work that we have done with victims organisations to ensure that the voice of victims is heard and that victims feel that they have information, should they want it. As I said earlier, not all victims of crime want all the information, but when they do, they will have it.
Although this will be no comfort to anyone who has experienced serious crime—I do not want anyone to think that I make this point to suggest that it will be—because of a range of things that the Government has done, not least in supporting police numbers across the country, we are seeing levels of crime that are generally lower than they were some time ago, although they fluctuate from time to time.
We continue to take the issues seriously and we will continue to listen to victims. As has been said today, the justice secretary will meet Michelle Stewart’s family to listen to more views, and we will continue to act in a way that tries to strike the difficult but important balance that I spoke about.
Health Protection Scotland (Covid Guidance)
I have been asked by workers in residential children’s units in Glasgow to raise their concerns with the First Minister. They have been told to self-isolate at home because they have had close contact with a young resident who has tested positive for Covid-19. However, they have also been instructed to continue to go to work. The staff have been sent letters that say that, although they and their family households must self-isolate for 14 days, their place of work is being considered
“as a second household setting”
by Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board, and that they are part of the
“children’s unit’s bubble.”
That is not safe. In fact, it is in direct contravention of the guidance that has been set out by Health Protection Scotland. Those front-line workers are anxious. They are concerned that they may spread the virus to the people they care for at home and at work. What can the First Minister do to ensure that those residential childcare units in Glasgow allow staff to properly self-isolate when necessary and stick to the guidance of Health Protection Scotland?
I will personally look into that as soon as I get out of the chamber. I am not familiar with the terms of the letter that Richard Leonard refers to. I am very clear about the guidance, and of course the guidance right now in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, with the exception of Inverclyde, is stricter on the isolation of household contacts than it is elsewhere in the country. In residential services, there will be some circumstances where a different situation applies because of the nature of those services but, without having seen the letter, I would not want to say whether I think that that is appropriate or not.
It is clear to me that all necessary precautions must be taken to limit the spread of the virus and that workers, which absolutely includes workers in residential children’s services, must feel safe and supported in their workplace. If Richard Leonard passes on the contact details of the people who have contacted him, or gets them to contact me directly, I will personally look into that as a matter of urgency this afternoon.
I will certainly pass on the information, because there is concern that the relevant trade union has not been involved in drawing up any of the guidance, that the staff do not have access to appropriate personal protective equipment at all times, and that they do not have regular and routine access to testing.
Let me turn to testing. Since the start of the pandemic, the Scottish Government’s testing programme has been hampered by delays and difficulties. Last month, it was limited access. This week, it is a growing backlog and slow turnaround of results. The Scottish Government’s latest testing strategy is supposed to be about getting Scotland prepared for winter. We all understand that it relies on the United Kingdom testing infrastructure, and the First Minister has said in the past few days that she and her health secretary have repeatedly spoken to the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock. What guarantees has she secured that tests in Scotland will not be rationed or restricted, that her commitments on testing targets will be met and that the Scotland first approach, as outlined in her testing strategy, will be delivered?
Those are important issues. First, I think that our test and protect system is working extremely well, which is a great credit to the experts and contact tracers across the country. If we consider the “protect” part in particular, figures on that are published weekly, and well over 90 per cent of index cases—people who test positive—and their contacts have been traced, which is a very good record and one that we want to maintain.
Clearly, for that to work as effectively as possible, the testing part has to operate quickly as well and, by and large, it has been. Over the past few days, we have been experiencing longer turnaround times through the UK-wide Lighthouse laboratory network than we would want to see.
I have spoken personally to Matt Hancock and Dido Harding, who heads up the UK testing system, and the health secretary spoke to Matt Hancock last night. We have received assurances on access to testing, which has not been an issue in Scotland in the past few days in the way it has been in England. People have not been unable to book a test; it is a laboratory processing issue in Scotland.
We have received assurances, first, that Scotland’s access to testing through mobile testing units or regional testing centres will not be constrained to try to deal with any of that and, secondly, that Scotland’s fair share of the laboratory processing capacity will be secured.
We monitor the matter carefully. I personally monitor it several times a day. Over the past couple of days, we have seen an improvement, with a reduction in the backlog, and we now want to make sure that the turnaround times improve as well.
It is a UK-wide network system, so we need to work with the UK Government to resolve these constraints. Of course, we have a second strand of testing capacity in the national health service, through which most of the routine NHS testing is done. We are considering whether, as part of what we can do to help solve the UK-wide issues, we move the routine regular care home testing into the NHS.
We are working hard to resolve the issues and we have seen signs of improvement. Overall, it is important to say that our system is working well. We are focused on making sure that it is resilient and capable of continuing to work well as we go into what is going to be a difficult winter period.
It is important for all of us to continue to stress to people that, if they have symptoms of Covid, they should access a test and self-isolate.
I wonder whether, as part of her consideration, the First Minister could think of this: at the weekend, a survey of home care workers and Unison members revealed that half of them had never been tested for Covid-19. Mike Kirby, Scottish secretary of Unison, said of the survey:
“Routine screening is how care staff protect their vulnerable clients and keep infection rates low. This is an urgent issue that needs dealt with now or we risk a new wave of coronavirus deaths with this potentially being the cause.”
Home care workers have also asked me to raise their concerns. Community transmission is increasing. Winter is coming, with all the additional pressures that it brings. Our dedicated front-line home care staff are rightly anxious. They need all the support and reassurance that we can offer.
Will the First Minister allay the fears of those home care workers? Will she reduce their exposure and the exposure of the vulnerable people for whom they care? Will she agree to regular and routine access to testing for Scotland’s heroic home care workers?
Richard Leonard is right to raise the concerns of workers here. The health secretary regularly talks to the trade unions in the health and social care sectors, and we are very vigilant about making sure that the concerns of those working on the front line are raised, listened to and addressed.
On who we routinely test, we are—as I hope that everybody would accept—rightly guided by clinical advice on that, and we will continue to be. One thing that we are very clear about is that our response to constraints on capacity at the moment should not be to pull back on access to testing or to focus on people we think should be tested. Instead, we should tackle the capacity constraints. We want to continue to look at how we expand the groups of people who are tested, if clinical expertise says that it is appropriate. Home care workers are certainly one of those groups.
Every week, more than 30,000 care home staff are routinely tested, and that is an important part of the protection for care homes. These things are under on-going and regular review. It is important that we take clinical expert advice, and it is also important that we apply our judgment to that, which is what we will continue to do.
Covid-19 Testing Programme
Test and protect is the foundation of Scotland’s strategy to contain Covid, but it does not work if people cannot get a test. The United Kingdom’s testing programme is collapsing and the Tory Government has warned that it will take weeks to resolve. Like many, I am deeply concerned that we will pay for this chaos in the coming weeks.
The First Minister said that access is not an issue and that the system is working well, but one constituent tells me that she has been simply unable to get a test for her father, who is in a vulnerable condition and has carers visiting daily, and another tells me that after days of trying, she is feeling exasperated and frustrated. At the same time, symptomatic individuals are being sent hundreds of miles for tests, potentially spreading the virus more widely.
Does the First Minister accept that the current UK-wide testing regime is not fit for purpose? Will she return to the chamber with a new testing strategy, to further enable NHS Scotland to meet demand?
We will continue to make sure that we have in place a strategy that is right. It is important to be very frank about where we are experiencing challenges. Some have accused me this week of trying to politicise the issue—nothing could be further from the truth. It is important to be up front with people about where we have challenges and what we are trying to do to address them, and that is what I have sought to do.
I would not agree with some of the language that Alison Johnstone has used. I am not saying that nobody in Scotland will ever find it difficult to get a test where they need it and without having either to travel or to wait. When schools went back a few weeks ago, we had a surge in demand for testing that did—for a few days—lead to some difficulties in accessing tests. That is not what we are seeing in Scotland now.
I am not complacent about that. Demand will vary, depending on the prevalence of the virus. But it is not right to say that the system in Scotland is not working. There is a capacity constraint in the UK part of the laboratory system and we are working to address that. We are seeing improvements in that, but they must be sustained.
I will not go into all the detail but, for things like access to contracts for testing kits and so on, it makes sense for the four nations to co-operate in order to maximise access to testing at scale. We also have a system of National Health Service laboratories through which we route as much testing as makes sense. We will continue to look at the balance between those two things.
I do not want anybody who is watching this in Scotland to get any other impression than this: if they have symptoms they should, with confidence, book a test. That is important and we will continue to work hard to ensure that any issues that we experience are resolved. That means not only working with the UK Government, which is important, but also looking at our own resources to ensure that we are bringing them to bear on resolving any issues.
I agree that it is essential that we continue to work with the UK Government. In the evident absence of an effective four-nations approach, however, it is important that the Scottish Government takes all the actions that it can to augment and to improve the situation. It is vital that the public has complete confidence in the system.
Public buy-in is key to suppressing the virus. That is why there was shock across the UK earlier this week when it emerged that the Tory Government had convened an emergency meeting of senior cabinet ministers to exempt hunting and shooting from coronavirus restrictions.
For months, people across the country have made personal sacrifices to play their part in reducing the spread of the virus. Does the First Minister believe that it is fair that—at a time when children cannot play with all their friends and when families cannot visit loved ones in care homes—shooting parties are permitted to load up their shotguns and head to the hills?
I will be clear: I have had no meetings in the past week or two, or during any part of the Covid pandemic, to discuss shooting exemptions. There is no specific exemption under the Scottish regulations for shooting. There is the ability to allow outdoor and sporting activities if those meet the criteria laid out in legislation and if they follow all the guidance and adhere to the physical distancing requirements. That applies to things such as angling, wildlife clubs and pony trekking, as well as to the sort of activities that Alison Johnstone talked about. That is not a specific exemption.
We continue to carefully consider the balance. I acutely recognise that there are always unintended consequences to the types of regulation that we must put in place at the moment. None of us wants to be in this position. We consider both the need for the restrictions that are in place and also which exemptions are or are not appropriate. We will continue to look at that and to make changes where we think that those are necessary.
Care Homes (Visits)
Yesterday I met Cathie Russell. Her mother is in a care home. They are not allowed to meet for more than 30 minutes a week and they are separated by a plastic screen. They have not hugged or held hands for five months. Her mother’s health is in decline. Cathie says:
“People in care homes need their families.”
In Toronto, a limited number of family carers can visit care homes. They have personal protective equipment and they are tested. Why is the First Minister opposed to that for Cathie and her mother?
Such questions are legitimate, but any tone that suggests that I am willingly or deliberately trying to keep families away from loved ones in care homes is not.
These are difficult decisions. The health secretary will be meeting representatives of families tomorrow. They have legitimate concerns.
There will be few of us who do not have some experience of family or friends who have been in care homes. We know that visiting is a fundamental part of the health and wellbeing of those who live in our care homes, but that is particularly true for people with dementia. It is hugely difficult for all of us to see and hear the distress of families who are not able to interact with loved ones in the normal way. However, the restrictions are ultimately in place to try to help us protect care home residents and save lives. It is important that, as we take those decisions, we continue to recognise the risks of communal living and the risks of infections getting into care homes.
That said, the guidance on families and relatives entering care homes remains under regular and on-going review—as I said, the health secretary will meet family representatives tomorrow—and we look at whether we could put more protections in place to allow a more normal visiting regime in care homes. I take all those issues seriously and probably no decisions have been more difficult and at times more genuinely upsetting than the range of decisions that we have had to take around care homes. We all want to allow families to visit normally as quickly and safely as possible, so we will continue to take these difficult decisions with the best of intentions but the greatest care as well.
The First Minister might not like what I said, but I have discussed the situation with the health secretary and the national clinical director, so I know what issues are at stake. The situation has been under consideration for weeks but, to be frank, Cathie cannot wait any longer. She needs change now. Cathie’s mother comes into contact with multiple carers every day, yet the most important carer of all—her daughter—is left outside. A similar situation is happening to hundreds of people every day—a fraction of them were outside the Parliament building yesterday. So, extend testing, give Cathie PPE, check her temperature, make her self-isolate—do whatever it takes to keep people safe—but let her in. Will the First Minister make that happen?
I think that Cathie is one of the family members that the health secretary is meeting tomorrow. Around 40 per cent of the care homes around the country now allow and enable indoor visiting, and obviously we want to see more able to do that. Will I make that happen? I will try to take decisions that strike a balance between allowing families to have normal interaction with their loved ones, which I absolutely understand they want, and ensuring that we are doing everything appropriate to protect people in care homes. Those are not easy decisions, but it is my job to take them, along with the health secretary and colleagues across the Government. We have to do that and to listen to a range of voices and understand all the difficulties.
I do not enjoy making those decisions at all, but we will try to make them, taking the best advice and all the factors into account and balancing them in order to get to a position where we can have families able to visit normally in care homes, which is what everybody wants more than anything else. However, I also want to ensure that we avoid a situation a few weeks from now—I do not mean this to be in any way critical, before Willie Rennie suggests that I do—where Willie Rennie is asking me questions about why we have outbreaks of infection in care homes. That is the difficult balance that we have to try and strike, and we will continue to try to do that with the best of intentions. That is an assurance that I can give to not just members across the chamber but families across the country.
Leisure Trusts (Financial Position)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that several of Scotland’s leisure trusts, which operate sports and other leisure facilities, are close to financial collapse. (S5F-04384)
We are in regular dialogue with leisure trusts and councils to understand the impact of Covid on community sport, and that dialogue informed the decision about reopening indoor sport and leisure facilities. The finance secretary has also been engaged in discussion with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to finalise the details of a lost-income scheme and has stipulated that that should cover additional financial support for councils’ arm’s-length organisations, including leisure trusts. The finance secretary confirmed that we will be providing councils with further funding of £49 million, which they will be required to pass on in full to support services, including those delivered through arm’s-length organisations, to top up those allocations. She wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 4 July requesting details of the consequentials that we can expect to receive to help fund the scheme, but, as of now, we are still awaiting a response to that.
I know that the First Minister agrees that having access to and participating in such activities is essential to our wellbeing—more so now than ever before. However, leisure trusts report that 70 per cent of their annual revenue is generated by paying customers and that the pandemic has increasingly serious implications for their ability to sustain their offer.
It has been said that the Scottish Government and COSLA seem to be looking to each other to solve the issue. We cannot afford to risk losing those vital public services, so will the Scottish Government get together again with COSLA to work out a sustainable solution? What further support can the Scottish Government offer that crucial sector?
It is an important issue, and it is good that Brian Whittle has raised it again—I know that he has raised it in the past.
I return to what I said in my original answer. The finance secretary is in discussion with COSLA to finalise the details of a lost-income scheme. The United Kingdom Government’s corresponding scheme specifically excludes arm’s-length organisations, but it is important that the scheme that the finance secretary agrees with COSLA includes financial support for such organisations. I hope that that will be a positive development.
As I say, we are still awaiting a response about the consequential funding in relation to such schemes, but we are getting on with discussions with COSLA to finalise the details. I am sure that the finance secretary will update Parliament as soon as that has been done.
Covid-19 Tests (Young Adults)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that the highest proportion of positive Covid-19 tests is among young adults. (S5F-04388)
The virus is spreading again; that is obvious from the figures that we have been reporting in recent days. We know that there has been a larger number of young adults returning positive tests than was the case earlier in the pandemic. Our testing approach is different now from what it was then, so that will to some extent account for the increase.
More recently, the 18 to 39-year-old age group has shown the highest number of positive cases. That is not surprising, and I made this point last week: young people are more likely to be exposed to the virus because they are more likely to be back at work and required to be in higher-risk situations, and they are more likely to live in shared accommodation.
It is really important for us all to say that the increase in cases among the younger age groups is not their fault or something that they should be blamed for. That said, we cannot and should not be complacent about it. Younger people are less likely to become seriously ill or die from Covid, but they can still become gravely ill, and many people who get Covid but do not go to hospital suffer long-term health complications. A 29-year-old from Aberdeen reported his experience of that just last week.
Further, we know that if the virus spreads among the younger age groups, it will eventually spread to older age groups, who are at greater risk of illness and death, which is when, unfortunately, we would start to see a rise in the number of cases of hospital and intensive care admissions and deaths. That is the trend that we see right now in countries such as France, which is why it is so important for everybody to stick to the restrictions, so that we can try to stem the spread of the virus.
The First Minister is clearly concerned—as every MSP should be—about the reports of house parties continuing to be held, despite the measured approach that has been taken by the Scottish Government and Police Scotland.
Nobody wants an excessive or heavy-handed approach during this challenging time. However, with the greater numbers of local authorities with stricter lockdown measures and Covid-19 cases increasing daily, does the First Minister now consider it appropriate for tougher fines to be implemented for the hosts of house parties?
It is a legitimate issue and the same issue that Christine Grahame raised last week—I can hear her behind me reminding me of that. We continue to keep these important issues under review.
It is important that when there are really egregious breaches of the regulations, we do not just use fixed penalty fines, as the police are able to take more serious prosecution action.
The vast majority of people are abiding by the restrictions. Even when some are not, that is not deliberate, but might be through a lack of understanding, which is why it is so important that we continue to explain exactly what we are asking people to do and why. However, when people flagrantly breach the rules, that should be treated seriously.
I understand that young people want to socialise and see friends—of course they do; there is nothing more natural than that—but right now house parties are a danger to people’s health and to life. Last weekend, Police Scotland responded to 405 house parties across the country. That demonstrates both that we still have to get that message across to people and that the police are taking appropriate action.
Any breaches of the regulations may be subject to enforcement action, including fixed penalty notices the level of which, for repeat offences, can be doubled up to a maximum of £960. Where prosecution is deemed appropriate, the sheriff court can impose a fine of up to £5,000, and higher fines can be imposed depending on the charge that is libelled. However, we will continue to keep the level of fines and the enforcement action under review.
Family Contact (Older and Disabled Care Home Residents)
To ask the First Minister what urgent action the Scottish Government is taking to restore and support contact between family carers and older and disabled people living in care homes, which is considered essential to their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. (S5F-04387)
I have already answered aspects of that question in my response to Willie Rennie. I hope that no one would doubt it, but I want to make it clear that I understand how difficult this time is for people who have loved ones who live in care homes. To have restrictions placed on visiting our loved ones is the most challenging thing that I think any of us can imagine.
Visiting is a fundamental part of the health and wellbeing of people who live in care homes. On 25 June, the Scottish Government published guidance that outlined a staged approach to the return of such visiting. Currently, limited outdoor and indoor visiting is recommended, provided that strict criteria are met.
Balancing the risks to care homes both from Covid exposure and from reduced social interaction needs to take account of a range of factors, including the fact that we know that many residents are more vulnerable to the effects of Covid exposure. That becomes an ever-more important and challenging consideration when community prevalence of the virus is on the rise, as it is now. However, we hope to open up further visiting options for families as soon as it is safe to do so.
I am pleased to hear that the health secretary will meet Cathie Russell and will engage with the care home relatives Scotland group.
I say to both Willie Rennie and the First Minister that the issue is not just about the timetabling of visits; it is about recognising and reinstating family care givers as equal partners in their loved ones’ care.
We all want to see the virus being eliminated, but we also need to address the psychological and physical harms of separating care home residents from their families. Experts and campaigners have called such separation a “hidden catastrophe”. The editor of the Sunday Mail, Lorna Hughes, has written movingly about the guilt that she feels about her mother being alone in a care home, and there are thousands more like her. We need to change the story before it is too late. We must end this hidden catastrophe in care homes and avoid a winter of separation.
Does the First Minister agree that family care givers are important partners? Will the Scottish Government find a way to change the guidance urgently, to facilitate their vital role?
Yes is my immediate answer. It is important to recognise that a wider principle is at stake here. We are talking not just about family members visiting their loved ones in care homes, but about the role that family members play in the care of loved ones in care homes. The health secretary was keen to meet family representatives as soon as possible, because it may be that that provides some of the answers and solutions to us as we try to strike the right balance.
As I have said, we all understand how difficult this is. Further, I am sure that very few people in Scotland will not, at some point, have had experience of a loved one being in a care home, so what I am about to say will be of no comfort to anyone who is in that position. In the midst of a whole host of daily decisions, which have been the most difficult that I have ever faced in my life, this has been the most difficult.
In recent weeks and months, I have—perfectly legitimately—been challenged in the chamber about the numbers of people who died in our care homes at an earlier stage in the pandemic. That whole experience will absolutely stay with me forever. That does not mean that we should then take an approach that is overly cautious and keeps people away from their loved ones—that would equally be a wrong thing to do. However, it does mean that we take such decisions very seriously and try to get them as right as possible.
Whether people agree or disagree with the conclusions that we are reaching, I ask them please not to doubt the care and the seriousness, and the real weight of responsibility that we all feel, in reaching those decisions. With families, and with those who, rightly, speak up for their loved ones, we will try to get it as right as possible, and to get back as quickly as possible to a position that people want to be in.
As we have to do in so many aspects of this pandemic, we will also use it as a way to ask more fundamental questions, one of which is: what is the role of family members in the care of people in care homes?
None of that helps a person who is not seeing their loved one in a care home—I know that—but I hope that it gives some indication that the decisions are not straightforward and that we take them very seriously.
Thank you. We now move to supplementary questions.
Covid-19 (School Staff Support)
Will the First Minister indicate what support is available for teachers and other school staff, to help manage additional pressures resulting from the pandemic?
We have announced £80 million of additional investment for the recruitment of more teachers; that will fund around 1400 additional teachers and 200 support staff, this year, which we hope will bring resilience to the education system and help those who are currently teaching in our schools.
We are also very mindful of the wellbeing of school staff at this time. Earlier this week, the Deputy First Minister confirmed an additional package of support that has been developed through the education recovery group and is focused on staff well-being. That is part of a £1.5 million funding package to help manage additional pressures as a direct result of Covid. That includes mental health support, new professional learning for post-probationary teachers, and a new coaching and mentoring offer. That will complement the excellent practice that is already taking place to support the wellbeing of staff in schools across the country.
Last month, the Lord Advocate, who is a member of the First Minister’s Government, admitted in court that David Whitehouse and Paul Clark—formerly administrators of Rangers Football Club—were the victims of a malicious prosecution by the Crown Office. That is unprecedented in recent Scottish legal history. They have already been paid £600,000 in costs, and are claiming another £14 million in damages, which will have to be paid by the Scottish taxpayer.
Does the First Minister agree with me that that scandal demands a full, detailed and public inquiry, on conclusion of the litigation, so that those responsible can be held to account?
I agree, but I am going to be careful. I may be wrong, but I think that Murdo Fraser is a lawyer by background, so probably should not require me to remind him of certain things. Those matters are still live before the court—in fact, he alluded to that himself—so I will deliberately be very limited in what I say, because it would be completely inappropriate for me to do anything else.
They also involve issues that relate to the independent prosecution functions of the Crown Office, not to functions of the Lord Advocate as part of the Government. Again, those are distinctions that members, particularly those who have a legal background, should probably understand.
I will say—in general terms, because of the caveats that I have just had to insert—that, of course, for anything of that nature, in the fullness of time and when no live proceedings are under way, it is appropriate that there would be full, proper and appropriate inquiry into what gave rise to those circumstances.
That is probably as much as I can or should say at this point; I hope and expect that Murdo Fraser will understand.
United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
Does the First Minister share my concern that the United Kingdom Government’s blatant power grab, masquerading as the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, means that critical funding that should be transferred to the Scottish Government will instead be controlled by Boris Johnson and the Tories at Westminster, regardless of the spending priorities of the people of Scotland?
Yes. I have many and varied concerns about the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.
First, it breaches international law—something that the Advocate General for Scotland clearly could not stomach, and over which he has resigned his post. Unfortunately, the Scottish Conservatives seem to just roll over and accept anything that Boris Johnson decides to do.
Secondly, it is a power grab on the powers of this Parliament and, yes, it gives the UK Government the ability to override or undermine the spending priorities of a democratically elected Scottish Government that is supported by a democratically elected Scottish Parliament. The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is a full-frontal no-holds-barred assault on devolution. Those who think that I would say that, as the leader of the Scottish National Party, should listen to the union-supporting First Minister of Wales, who has exactly the same opinion of the bill. In my view, the only way to protect the Scottish Parliament is for it to become a normal independent Parliament, which I think will happen sooner rather than later.
Business Interruption Insurance Claims (High Court Judgment)
The First Minister will be well aware that thousands of businesses across Scotland are struggling with the economic effects of coronavirus. However, Tuesday brought a rare ray of sunshine, when the High Court found in favour of the Financial Conduct Authority’s test case over business interruption insurance claims, which removes a major roadblock and gives Scottish firms and the thousands of jobs that they support a victory of right over might. Does the First Minister agree?
Yes, I do. That is a positive judgment and development. At a time of multiple challenges for businesses, the member is right to see that as positive, and I am sure that businesses will welcome it.
Test and Protect (Scams)
We know that unscrupulous and dangerous criminals will always seek to take advantage of people through scams, even—unbelievably—during a pandemic. That includes, for example, pretending to be from the vital test and protect teams that are doing such a crucial and fantastic job in keeping us all safe. Can the First Minister explain how people might be able to tell the difference between a genuine test and protect contact tracer and a scammer? Does she agree that those criminals really are despicable?
Yes, I think that anybody who is attempting to scam test and protect is despicable—that is probably the mildest word that I can think of to describe them. Unfortunately, in recent days, we have been reminded that a small number of people—it is a small number—will seek to exploit any circumstance for their own gain. That is absolutely disgraceful.
I addressed this issue the other day, but it is important for people to understand what a legitimate contact tracer who gets in touch with them will and will not do. A contact tracer will ask you only for information about your movements and about people who you have been in close proximity to. A legitimate contact tracer will never ever ask you for your bank details or your computer passwords. They will never try to sell you anything or tell you that you have to pay for a test, and they will not offer any other services. Legitimate contact tracers from test and protect will always call from the same telephone number, which is 0800 030 8012, and they will give you the option of hanging up and calling back on that number so that you can verify that they are legitimate.
As with all types of scams, anybody who becomes a victim of an attempted scam should of course contact Police Scotland on the 101 phone number. If people need more advice on the issue, it is available from Advice Direct Scotland. I encourage people to listen to what I have said to ensure that they know what they can expect if they get a call from test and protect.
If you think that somebody is trying to scam you, hang up the phone, but you should be confident in test and protect and the legitimate contact tracers, who are doing an excellent job across the country.
Dental Services (National Health Service Patients)
A constituent has raised an issue of disparity in the treatments that are available from national health service and private dental services. She told me that, as an NHS patient, she cannot get a filling but, if she was a private patient sat in the same chair in the same room receiving the same treatment, she could. The chief dental officer has noted that, from 17 August, all dentists, both NHS and private, can provide a limited range of aerosol-generating procedures. However, it seems that there is no requirement for NHS dental contractors to provide the service. Can the First Minister explain why private dental patients can be seen quickly yet NHS services are not resuming, leaving constituents frustrated and in pain?
Not only will I try to explain that, as it is a legitimate issue, but I think that I did so last week in response to the exact same question from one of the member’s colleagues. However, I am more than happy to do it again, because I understand the concerns that are being raised.
We have guidance in place, and the chief dental officer—understandably, and as people would expect—has spent a lot of time making sure that the guidance is right so that it allows for the safe provision of dental treatment. That guidance now allows a limited set of aerosol-generating procedures to be carried out, but there are still restrictions on what can and cannot be done. To supplement that—this has been the case throughout the pandemic—there is a network of urgent dental care centres across the country for people who need urgent dental care.
We expect—we have addressed this issue previously—dentists who provide only private care to abide by the same rules and regulations that we expect NHS dentists to abide by, but we have a different relationship with private dentists, because of how they are funded. Therefore, we do not have the same ability to insist on that, but we expect them to abide by those rules and regulations. Our focus, and that of the chief dental officer, is on getting NHS dental services working fully and properly as soon as it is safe for that to happen, and the chief dental officer will continue to focus on that.
What support measures are being put in place to help Dundee to recover and regenerate after the Covid-19 pandemic? Does the First Minister welcome the confirmation that Social Security Scotland’s headquarters will be at the heart of the city’s regeneration project on the waterfront, where it will potentially employ up to 900 people?
We will invest £150 million in the Tay cities region deal over the next decade, which we hope will help to create high-quality jobs and enable a sustained recovery. That programme includes £25 million for the growing the Tay cities biomedical cluster project at the University of Dundee, £6 million for the cyberquarter at Abertay University and £20 million to invest in skills across the region.
As part of our £30 million for regeneration to support construction as part of the economic recovery stimulus package, £264,000 will go directly to Dundee. In addition, as Shona Robison alluded to, it was announced yesterday that Social Security Scotland will become the first tenant in the waterfront regeneration project. That new public service has the potential to employ up to 900 people in Dundee and to contribute up to £100 million to the wider Scottish economy. That is good news for Dundee and a sign of the ambition that all of us have for that city.
Pay Offer (Burton’s Workers)
Biscuit makers are moving into what they call the shortbread season, when they increase production in the run-up to Christmas and new year. Yesterday, low-paid key workers at Burton’s biscuit plant in Sighthill in Edinburgh were on strike over a miserable 14p per hour pay offer. That stands in stark contrast to the 33 per cent increase that their bosses awarded themselves.
Will the First Minister join me in calling on the management at Burton’s to immediately return to negotiations so that the production of an iconic Scottish product can begin again in time for Christmas and new year?
I always encourage employers to get round the table and negotiate with workers, and I always encourage trade unions having the ability to make a proper contribution to that process. I am not familiar with all the details of the situation at Burton’s, so I will not comment on that directly. However, in general, I agree with what has been said.
Obviously, the Scottish Government does not have the power to regulate pay negotiations between private employers and workers and, of course, we do not have control over employment legislation—I wish that the Scottish Parliament did have control over that, so that we could set stricter conditions on such matters. I absolutely call on employers at all times, but particularly at times like this, to treat their workers fairly and to include workers and trade unions in all decisions that they take, not least those on the important issues of pay and conditions.
Food Banks (Increased Use)
I would like to thank each and every person in my constituency for the work that they do in meeting emergency food need. However, I am sure that the First Minister will agree that no one should have to rely on food banks in the first place. Alarmingly, a report by the Trussell Trust forecasts a 61 per cent increase in use of food parcels in the coming months. What is the First Minister’s response to that?
That concerns me deeply—as, I know, it concerns everybody. Throughout the pandemic, the Scottish Government has invested significant amounts of money in helping to tackle food insecurity. We will continue to take that very seriously. The money includes, but is not limited to, the money that was provided to carry on provision of school meals throughout the school holidays. We have also increased the welfare fund and will continue to do everything that we can to support organisations that are involved in providing food to people who need it.
Obviously, we are also seeking to address poverty at source, which is why the new Scottish child payment will be so important. Work is under way to open applications for the payment later this year, and for payments to be made early next year.
Of course, some of the solutions to poverty lie in the hands of the UK Government. We need to make sure that we do not have a return to austerity and that we continue to see increases in investment to tackle poverty. We badly need some of the reforms to the welfare system that have exacerbated poverty in Scotland and across the UK to be changed, so that we have a welfare system that lifts people out of poverty, rather than driving them deeper into it.
I do not know whether the First Minister has seen David Attenborough’s documentary “Extinction”, which dramatically lays bare the collapse of the natural world on which we all depend. When will the Government pay farmers to recover nature rather than degrade it? When will Governments stop the dredging of our nature-rich sea beds? When will the Government end the destruction of wildlife and end driven grouse shooting?
I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to write to Mark Ruskell with updates on all those specific issues. We take the health of our natural environment very seriously.
The cabinet secretary is reminding me that we discussed at Cabinet this week the challenges that we face in meeting our climate change ambitions, and the work that we are doing on that. Notwithstanding Covid, we continue to give that work great priority. Peatlands restoration, forestry planting and all such things are incredibly important to us as we seek to meet the targets.
The environment secretary will give Mark Ruskell a more detailed update, but I assure him that the issues have the utmost priority within the work of the Scottish Government.
The Scottish Childminding Association has described the Scottish Government’s offer to childminders as “completely out of step” with what has been given to other parts of the sector.
In Orkney, 26 childminders have been excluded from the transitional support fund, and that picture has been repeated across the country. After I shared the latest response from the Minister for Children and Young People, Maree Todd, one local childminder contacted me last week to say that she felt undervalued and defeated. She said that the minister was
“deflecting the question by making it about our income when it is about development of our practice”.
Given the priority that the First Minister has said she places on expanding childcare, why does the Government appear not to value the role that is played by childminders who are delivering that vital service? Will she now agree to give them access to the support they deserve?
The Government and I value childminders highly. From the outset of the expansion of early years education and childcare, we have been very clear that childminders are a crucial part of that.
Throughout the pandemic, support has been made available to childminders—rightly so—through the transitional funds and support for the longer term. I will look at the correspondence that Liam McArthur referred to, and if there are further issues that we need to address, we will of course consider that.
Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
Does the First Minister agree that the increase in the number of coronavirus cases creates a real worry for the economy and jobs, and makes it all the more important that the coronavirus job retention scheme be extended by the United Kingdom Government? Would it be helpful if all members of the Scottish Parliament across the parties were to back that call?
Yes, I think that the furlough scheme should be extended, and I hope that every member across the chamber will back that call. I know that many organisations and interested parties across the country back it. I have been encouraged by some of the noises that are coming from the UK Government about this—in particular, from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—in the past couple of days. Let us hope that we will see something positive.
Yesterday, the Scottish Government published an analysis of the impact of the furlough scheme and the impact of withdrawing it. The scheme really matters, and if it is taken away completely at the end of October, with nothing to replace it, we will see a large number of avoidable redundancies. I do not think that anybody, regardless of their politics, wants that to happen at this time.
We have always said that we will be open to discussions about the nature of any extension, whether it be a blanket extension or a sectoral extension. We all know, and must acknowledge because of the current figures, that the pandemic will not end at the end of October and that the impact on the economy will not end at the end of October, so support for businesses cannot end then, either. I hope that that call will be echoed by members from right across the chamber and by people outside it.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Waiting Times)
Earlier, the First Minister spoke about the effect of Covid on young people. Although they are less likely to suffer some of the severe physical effects of the virus, their mental health is suffering from secondary issues.
Since I joined the Parliament, members from right across the chamber have been raising the issue of access to mental health services. Waiting times were disgracefully long before the pandemic hit us, and they have not got any better. Will the First Minister finally commit to ensuring that all young people who need access to child and adolescent mental health services will get it within the 18-week period to which her Government committed? We cannot let those young people down a day longer.
We are committed to that. Jamie Greene is right that there were issues before the pandemic, but some of the challenges relating to the CAMH services have, of course, been exacerbated by the pandemic. As I have said many times, delivering on the commitment requires increased investment, which we have delivered, but it also requires reform of how we deliver mental health services.
Part of the challenge has been that there have not been enough preventative and early intervention services, so people have ended up being referred to specialist services. If they had had help earlier, that referral would not have been required. That extends waiting times for those services. In order to provide that early intervention and preventative focus, we are putting more counsellors into schools and have committed to the wellbeing service for young people. That work is really important.
One of the complications of the pandemic has been the difficulty in providing face-to-face consultations—not just in CAMHS, but generally in the health service. Many health boards, including NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, have been doing that to try to reduce some of the longer waits for CAMHS, which is positive. However, we want reform of the service to carry on as quickly as possible, so that we have the right balance between early intervention and access to specialist services.
The Advocate General for Scotland has quit, following the United Kingdom Government’s plans to breach international law by overriding parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, backed by presidential candidate Joe Biden, warned that there is “absolutely no chance” of a UK-US trade deal passing Congress if the Good Friday agreement is undermined. What impact will the utterly irresponsible behaviour of the UK Government, barely three months before Brexit hits, have on Scotland, our economy and, as part of the UK, our standing in the world?
Brexit will have a bad impact on Scotland’s economy. Leaving the transition period at the end of this year without a deal will have an even worse impact on it. Even if there is a deal, it will be only the most minimal of deals, which means that there will, in the midst of a pandemic, be an avoidable impact on our economy.
The UK Government seems to be intent on trashing the UK’s international reputation .To have a bill that threatens peace in Northern Ireland—people know my view that that makes it even more likely that Scotland will become an independent country—and which egregiously breaches international law says everything that needs to be said about the UK Government. Many people, even people on its own side—with the exception of the Scottish Tories, who seem to have the highest tolerance of anybody of all the dreadful things that the UK Government does—are seeing how unacceptable all that is. Many eyes in Scotland are being opened to the fact that we would be much better off being in charge of our own destiny, rather than being governed by a UK Government of such a nature.
A83 Rest and Be Thankful Pass (Landslide)
The third major landslide at the A83 Rest and Be Thankful pass happened on Saturday night, which has caused yet more woe for residents and businesses in Argyll and the west Highlands.
The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity spoke about holding a consultation on a new permanent route in December 2020, with an announcement for a final proposal to come in March next year. For the sake of the many communities that are affected, will the First Minister give a cast-iron guarantee that that consultation will happen?
The situation obviously causes inconvenience and distress to people who rely on that transport link. I addressed the issue at First Minister’s question time—I cannot remember whether it was last week or the previous one—before the latest landslip. We are committed to finding a fundamental long-term solution to the problem and are considering a number of options on a cross-party basis, as is right and proper. The Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that we find not just temporary stop-gap solutions, but sustainable long-term ones, because the residents who rely on them deserve exactly that.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. I urge members to observe social distancing rules as they leave the chamber. The next item of business will be questions to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body.13:30 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—