Meeting date: Thursday, June 18, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 June 2020
Agenda: Covid-19: Next Steps, Portfolio Question Time, Decision Time
Covid-19: Next Steps
Good afternoon. Our first item of business today is a statement from the First Minister on Covid-19: next steps. The First Minister will take questions after her statement.
Presiding Officer, thank you for the opportunity to report on the latest review of the coronavirus lockdown regulations.
First, I will summarise the progress that we have made so far in tackling the virus. I will then set out the careful changes that we intend to make to the rules and guidance over the next three weeks, and when those various changes will take effect. Finally, I will give details of some further work that we have commissioned to inform future decision making.
I will start with my usual report on the daily statistics. In doing so, I thank our health and care workers—indeed all key workers—for the extraordinary work that they are doing in incredibly testing circumstances.
As at 9 o’clock this morning, 18,077 positive cases have been confirmed, which is an increase of 11 from yesterday. A total of 929 patients are in hospital with Covid-19. That represents a total decrease of 36 from yesterday, including a decrease of six in the number of confirmed cases. A total of 23 people last night were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid-19. That is a decrease of one since yesterday.
Unfortunately, I also have to report that, in the past 24 hours, two deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed through a test as having Covid-19. That takes the total number of deaths in Scotland, under that measurement, to 2,464.
Those numbers, together with the figures that were published yesterday by National Records of Scotland, make clear the human cost of the virus. That human cost has been utterly devastating, and it should serve as a serious warning against any complacency as we move into the next phase of fighting what is a dangerous, and sadly often deadly, virus.
However, the sustained decline in the number of people dying from the virus also demonstrates the real progress that we have made. Yesterday’s NRS data showed that the number of Covid deaths last week was less than one ninth of the peak level. The number of people in intensive care has fallen by more than 90 per cent since the peak, and hospital admissions, which at one stage were at 200 every day, are now down to single figures each day.
The R number is currently below 1 and has been stable at between 0.6 and 0.9 for the past three weeks. We estimate that the number of people who could be infectious with coronavirus in Scotland as of last Friday was 2,900. I remind members and the public that three weeks ago our estimate, which has since been revised, was 19,000.
The progress that we have made to date is clear and substantial. However, it has been made possible only because of the efforts and enormous sacrifices that people across Scotland have made. I am deeply grateful to each and every one for all of that.
Taking account of that progress and the other evidence that we are required to assess, I am therefore pleased to confirm that the Scottish Government has concluded that we can now move into the next phase of our exit from lockdown. I will set out specifically what that means in a moment. However, I stress that we must still exercise care and caution. Our progress so far is because of lockdown. The virus has not gone away, and we must all remember that.
As we gradually remove the restrictions that have kept the virus under control, there is a real risk that transmission could rise again. That is why, if we do not want to go backwards—as none of us do—we must progress carefully.
I know that, in many ways, even more patience is required now than was required previously, when the danger of the virus was perhaps more obvious. As we start to feel that the virus is receding, there will be a growing and understandable desire to move back to normality more quickly, and we will all feel frustrated at times if that journey seems too slow. That is true for individuals—for all of us—and, I know, for business. The impact of this crisis on businesses, large and small, is colossal, and we all want the economy to reopen as quickly as possible.
However, if—as I believe is the case—frustration, leading to a premature easing of too many restrictions, is our biggest risk right now, it is equally true that patience could reap our biggest rewards. If we can suppress the virus more—if we can get as close as possible to eliminating it now—we give ourselves a better chance of not simply controlling future outbreaks or clusters, but of doing so through more targeted measures rather than general, blanket restrictions on our way of life.
The alternative, which would happen if we moved too quickly, is that the virus would continue to circulate in the community at a higher level of transmission. The measures that would then be needed to stop it running out of control and growing exponentially again would be more restrictive and would have to be applied much more generally and, potentially, for much longer.
So, difficult though I know all of this is, the prize for going a bit more carefully now is a recovery that is much more sustainable and one that will, I hope, allow more normality to be restored to our everyday lives. That will be important in every aspect of life, but it will be vital particularly for children getting back to normal, full-time schooling as quickly as possible. That is why, although we are moving to phase 2 today, we are still being cautious and we are not going to do everything at once. We intend to take a staged approach to avoid bearing all of the risk at the same time.
In deciding when to implement each measure, we have tried to reach a reasonable order of priority, and to think about the various interdependencies—that is, about how a decision that we take in one area affects life in other areas. All of that said, I readily acknowledge how difficult this is. There is no perfect route out of lockdown. All approaches and any approach that we take will have risks. What we are trying to do is manage and mitigate those risks as far as we possibly can.
Because of that, we have decided that, during phase 2, we will continue to ask people, as far as possible, to stay within or close to their local area. Our ambition is to be in a position to lift that restriction in phase 3 and in good time for the proposed resumption of tourism from 15 July. However, at this stage, for leisure and recreation purposes, we are asking people not to travel more than around 5 miles or so from their home—although I stress that that does not apply to meeting family and friends. Of course, home working should still be the norm whenever that is possible.
Asking people to abide by that guidance gives us much greater confidence in making other changes during phase 2, so I will now take some time to set out the most important of those changes in the order in which we propose that they happen. Detail of all the changes that will be made during phase 2, and the timing of them, will be available on the Scottish Government website.
The only change that will take effect immediately from today is in our guidance for people who are shielding— that is, those who are most at risk from Covid-19 and who have therefore been advised until now to stay inside completely. I indicated last week my hope that, from today, anyone who is shielding—unless they live in a nursing home or a residential care home—would be able to go outdoors for exercise, such as for a walk, wheel or cycle. I am very pleased to confirm that change today. So, if you have been shielding, and you planned to take some outdoor exercise today, you can go ahead, although you are, of course, very welcome to continue to listen to my remarks first.
Our clinical advisers have made a further assessment of the evidence and I am pleased to say that they have given the go-ahead to some additional changes to the guidance. To provide some advance notice of that, we have decided that those additional changes will apply from tomorrow.
From tomorrow, our advice will be that shielding people can also take part in non-contact outdoor activities such as golf. In addition, the advice from tomorrow will be that people who are shielding can meet outdoors with people from one other household, but in groups of no more than eight.
I want to stress, however, that if you are shielding, you should continue to be extremely cautious, which means that you should stay at least 2m away from other people at all times, even if you live with the people that you are outside with. Do not go inside someone else’s house, or allow someone from another household to go inside yours, even to use a toilet. When you do go outside, try to choose times and areas that are quieter and wash your hands thoroughly as soon as you get home.
I know that the requirement to stay indoors at all times, without meeting up with anyone, has been incredibly tough for shielding people—undoubtedly the toughest aspect of the lockdown. I hope that the change to our advice, which allows not just outdoor exercise but limited outdoor meetings, can provide a real improvement to your quality of life, crucially, without significantly increasing the risks that you face. We will provide further guidance before 31 July, when the current shielding period is due to end.
I turn to advice for the general population. We are also making some limited changes, which will take effect from tomorrow, to the rules on social interaction for those who are not being asked to shield. The rules currently state that one household can meet up with just one other household. Those meetings must be outdoors and should involve no more than eight people, who should maintain strict physical distancing of 2m.
From tomorrow, people from one household can meet outdoors with people from up to two other households. You can meet those two households together or separately and it does not always have to be the same ones, but it should be no more than two at a time and no more than two in a day. We still advise that there should not be more than eight people in any group.
We will also change the guidance so that you can, if necessary, go indoors to use a toilet if you are meeting in the garden of another household, and I hope that those changes will make family meetings a little bit more practical. Please, however, remember that meetings must still be outdoors at this stage. With the one exception that I will outline shortly, we still judge that the risk of mixed household gatherings indoors is too high.
If you go inside to use a toilet, please avoid touching surfaces and immediately and thoroughly clean those that you do touch. By doing that, you will avoid possibly creating a bridge for the virus to travel from one household to another.
When we consider what changes to make, we are always mindful of the wider harms that have come from the restrictions in place to tackle Covid. One of those harms is loneliness and isolation, particularly for older people who live alone and for lone parents. From tomorrow, we will change advice to allow anyone who lives on their own, or only with children under 18, to form an extended household group with one other household.
In an extended household group, people will be able to meet indoors without physical distancing and to stay overnight—although only if they wish to do so, of course. However, they must continue to see any other households outdoors only, and stay more than 2m apart from them. No member of such an extended household group should form a similar arrangement with any other household, and an extended household must not include someone who is shielding.
If one member of an extended household group gets the virus, all the group will have to isolate, regardless of whether they live in the same property. I also encourage those who choose to form extended households to pay particular attention to hygiene measures to reduce the risk that one household will bring the virus into another.
The extended household change is not open-ended, although we will consider if and to what extent we can expand it over the next few weeks. I know that it will not immediately make a difference for everyone but, from tomorrow, it will allow a grandparent who lives on their own to form a group with another household in their family, a single parent and their children to join with another household for support, and a non-cohabiting couple, where at least one of them lives alone, to be reunited indoors without physical distancing. I hope that that will help to ease some of the isolation that is one of the cruellest consequences of tackling the virus.
Inevitably, complexities are involved in the changes and there will be many questions about the detail. You will find more information on the Scottish Government website, but with the best will in the world, we cannot provide precise answers for every single bespoke situation so, when in doubt, please use your judgment and err on the side of caution. If you are worried that something that you are thinking of doing risks spreading the virus, please do not do it.
The various changes that I have just outlined are the only ones that will take effect before this weekend. However, further changes will come into effect on Monday 22 June. For example, from then, the construction sector will be able to move to the next phase of its restart plan and then move through the remaining phases, subject to on-going consultation with Government. Dentists will be able to reopen from Monday, initially for urgent care. Professional sport can resume, although, since strict public health restrictions remain in place, that will be only behind closed doors. Places of worship will reopen but for individual prayer only, not communal worship.
I know that during the crisis many will have drawn real strength and comfort from their faith. I also know that people of all faiths are missing the ability to gather together. I want to acknowledge that and thank the priests, ministers, rabbis, imams and many others who have worked so hard to keep in touch with faith groups. The nature of the virus and how it spreads means that it may still be some time before large religious gatherings are permitted, but I hope that the reopening of places of worship for individual prayer will be welcomed and that it can and will provide an additional source of comfort for many.
Those are the main changes that will take effect from Monday 22 June. However, in 11 days, from Monday 29 June, some further phase 2 changes will take effect. From then, some indoor workplaces that have so far opted to remain closed in line with guidance, such as factories, labs and warehouses, can start to reopen, but subject to strict physical distancing, hygiene and health and safety guidance. Non-essential offices and call centres should remain closed at this stage.
Businesses that are able to reopen should use the period between now and 29 June to ensure that all physical distancing and safety measures are in place and to contact their staff to put in place staggered work times, agree flexible working where possible for those with childcare issues, and ensure that staff have a safe means of getting to work.
From 29 June, outdoor markets will also be able to reopen, as will outdoor playgrounds and outdoor sports centres. Outdoor businesses such as zoos and garden attractions can also reopen from that date although initially, until we can, I hope, lift this restriction for phase 3, people should not travel more than around 5 miles to visit them. Where those places are ticketed, tickets should be bought in advance.
Restrictions on moving house will also be lifted on 29 June. In addition, registration offices will reopen, but only for essential business, and marriages and civil partnerships will be permitted, but only outdoors at this stage and with limited numbers.
I turn to non-essential retail. The retail sector is a vital part of our economy. It is also a large and complex sector and we want to support people in the sector to get back to work quickly but safely—that is fundamental. We said in the route map that we hoped to allow small shops to reopen in phase 2, and we will. However, by waiting a bit longer, until midway through this phase, we can go a bit further, although still with some limitations.
From 29 June, retail premises of all sizes can reopen, but only if they have outdoor entrances and exits. I am afraid that for the time being, indoor shopping centres will remain closed, except for access to essential shops such as supermarkets and pharmacists. However, indoor shopping centres should prepare to reopen in phase 3, as indicated in the route map.
For those shops that can reopen from 29 June, local authorities and retailers should use the period between now and then to ensure that plans for the responsible use of public spaces are in place, for example, to manage queues, pedestrians and cyclists and to ensure that unnecessary street furniture is removed and that markings and guidance are in place to support strict physical distancing. Shops must also ensure that appropriate physical distancing and hygiene measures are in place.
Of course, all of us as customers have a role to play. When shops reopen, I ask everyone to exercise patience, stick to the measures that are, after all, in place for our safety, and at all times to please respect retail staff, who will be asking us to shop in a slightly different way.
Finally, there are some changes, especially in relation to health and other public services, that have already begun and which will build up over the coming weeks. There will be a more significant reopening of health services, consistent with our national health service mobilisation plan. More general practitioner services will be available, and GP practices will make more visits to shielded patients. The health service more generally will resume more of the services that were regrettably postponed in March.
As I said earlier, dentists will reopen from this Monday coming. In addition, optometry practices will reopen for emergency and essential services from Monday 29 June.
We will work with local authorities and others to resume some care services that were postponed and, more generally, public services will be gradually and safely reopening and scaling up. To take just two examples, energy efficiency schemes and visits to Housing First tenants will start to resume.
Public transport will operate increased services during this period, albeit with constraints on capacity, due to the need for continued physical distancing.
Those are the key specific measures that I can confirm at this stage. They represent a significant but careful change over the next three weeks, as we continue to suppress the virus. They should provide a firm basis for taking further steps in the future.
One other change that was envisaged in the route map for phase 2 was the reopening of outdoor hospitality, such as beer gardens. Unfortunately, I am not able to give a date for that just yet. We might be able to set a date later that is within phase 2, but I have commissioned further advice from our scientific advisory group to inform that decision.
There is emerging evidence that places such as pubs, restaurants and gyms can be hot spots for transmission. It is important that we better understand that evidence and what further mitigation might be necessary to protect people in such spaces, before we permit them to reopen. I appreciate that that will be hard for the hospitality industry. I want to give an assurance to businesses in that sector that we will continue to support preparations for reopening, for example by encouraging local authorities to facilitate the use of open, outdoor spaces that pubs and restaurants can use for additional space.
I expect to have that further scientific advice in two weeks. I will set out then, hopefully on or around 2 July, whether outdoor hospitality can reopen during phase 2—I hope that that will be the case—or whether further mitigations are required ahead of phase 3.
I understand the desire of all businesses to reopen quickly. However, it is vital that when services and venues reopen, they do so safely and in a way that is consistent with continued suppression of the virus. That is how we best avoid a resurgence of the virus that could lead to businesses having to close all over again.
On a related issue—although this affects many other areas, including education and public transport—I have also commissioned further advice from the advisory group on physical distancing requirements. Let me be clear that the advice and evidence we have at this time supports physical distancing at 2m. We know that—although there are no absolutes and we should not see this in isolation—the shorter the distance, the greater the risk of transmission, so I will not change that guidance without rigorous consideration and appropriate assurance.
However, I have asked our advisers to consider whether there are particular settings and circumstances in which, with additional mitigations if necessary, it might be possible in future to recommend a distance of 1m or 1.5m. I hope to have that advice also within two weeks, and I will report on it then. However, let me reiterate that, at this stage, the advice is unchanged: you should continue to maintain 2m distance from people in households other than your own.
Finally, I want to make some broader points about priorities for the future. In the context of beating the virus and saving lives, no priority is higher for me and this Government than getting children back to full-time education, but that must be done safely.
Therefore, as I set out yesterday, we will be working to ensure that contingency plans for blended learning—if and for as long as that is necessary—maximise the time that children spend in school. We will also be working to create the conditions and put in place the protections that can get children back to school on both a full-time and a normal basis as soon as possible. Indeed, part of the reason I am taking a cautious approach to easing lockdown now is to help us do precisely that, by suppressing the virus as much we can. We will work with councils to keep parents and young people fully updated in the period ahead.
We understand the increasing pressures that parents face in juggling childcare and work, so, in the meantime, we will continue to increase access to critical childcare for those who need it most, and we will work with employers to encourage maximum flexibility in working arrangements. Also, although it is not the principal motivation for them, extended household groups may now—and in future, as we expand them, hopefully—help with informal childcare.
Another key issue is public transport. We want people to work from home whenever they can—that is likely to be the advice for the foreseeable future—and to cycle or walk, wherever it is possible. However, as we open more workplaces and public services, more people will use public transport. We have for several weeks recommended that people should wear face coverings in enclosed spaces in which physical distancing might not always be possible, such as on public transport and in shops. That is because of the evidence that wearing face coverings can reduce the risk of the virus being transmitted.
If you have Covid but maybe do not realise it because you do not have symptoms, a face covering reduces the risk of your passing the virus on to other people. Other people’s wearing of face coverings helps to protect you in a similar way. It is not an absolute safeguard; physical distancing, hand washing and good hygiene will always be more important in preventing transmission.
However, face coverings can help to reduce the risk of transmission, and that is important. For that reason, we have decided that, from Monday, face coverings will be mandatory on all public transport; that includes taxis and private hire cabs, buses, trains, the Glasgow subway, Edinburgh trams, planes, and enclosed areas on ferries.
That will be subject to some exemptions: for example, for children under the age of five, for people who have breathing difficulties, and for those who have a physical condition that makes it hard to keep a mask in place. It will also not apply to drivers who are already protected by a shield of some kind.
We believe that that measure will be increasingly important as the use of public transport increases, and that implementing it now will help to reduce the risks of transmission and build public confidence.
Over the next few days, we are consulting further on whether face coverings should also be mandatory in shops. I will report back on that before non-essential retail opens on 29 June. However, I appeal to the public: please do not wait for that—please follow now the strong advice to wear face coverings in shops.
The measures that we have set out today are proportionate and cautious, but they are also significant. They restart more of the economy, reopen more public services, and allow us to see more of our family and friends. They also lay the groundwork for further changes to come. Crucially, we consider that, if everyone abides by the rules and follows the guidance—I cannot stress enough how vital that is—those changes are consistent with the continued suppression of the virus, which is critical to a sustainable recovery.
The changes also mean that the overall message that we communicate to the public must evolve, too. The willingness of all of us to stay at home has been fundamental to our progress so far, and I encourage people still to stay at home as much as possible. However, as we are now permitted to go out more, our overarching message must adapt. In this next phase, instead of asking you to “stay home, protect the NHS and save lives”, we will be asking you to “stay safe, protect others and save lives.”
That advice recognises that, although the virus is being suppressed, it has not gone away. It is still highly infectious, deadly to some and dangerous to many. We must continue to suppress it—indeed, we must do everything that we can to eliminate it as far as is possible. Each and every one of us has a part to play in that. By sticking to the rules in each phase, we can all help. We will keep ourselves safe, we will protect each other—which will also help to protect the national health service—and we will save lives. We will also ensure that all of us, together, can move more quickly and more safely to the next phase.
Please continue to stay 2m away from people in other households; with the exception of those who can form extended household groups, meet with other households only outdoors; wear face coverings in enclosed spaces; wash your hands frequently and thoroughly; and, if you have symptoms of Covid, get a test and self-isolate immediately. I remind everyone that they can book a test at nhsinform.scot or by phoning NHS24 on 0800 028 2816.
If you experience any of the symptoms—a new cough, a fever or a loss of or change in your sense of taste or smell—please do not wait to see if you feel better the next day; book a test immediately and follow the advice on isolation.
For the weeks ahead, let us all remember that, now perhaps more than ever, the decisions that we take as individuals will affect the wellbeing of all of us. If we all act, as we have been doing, in that spirit of solidarity and love for each other, we will get, and keep, the virus under control, and we will get our lives back to something that feels much more normal.
The First Minister will now take questions.
It is no exaggeration to say that lives and livelihoods will be on the line over the coming months. We are facing what is potentially the biggest economic downturn of our lives. We need the Government to respond with urgency and ambition, but that the Government is simply not showing that ambition.
Let us examine the dilemma that is faced by working parents. Andrew McRae of the Federation of Small Businesses put the problem well this morning in saying that if businesses and the economy are to return, they need staff in place. He continued:
“That is why we are worried by the suggestion that some children will only return to school a couple of days a week well into the autumn—making life incredibly difficult for working parents.”
He is right. How is a single working mother with two children at home for three days a week supposed to get back to work? What measures will be in place for her? Does she not deserve more than what the First Minister called “a contingency plan”?
It is regrettable that Jackson Carlaw is incapable of rising to the challenge of a national crisis. I have recognised all along how difficult this is for individuals and businesses across the country, but my first responsibility is to protect the health of people throughout the country and to do everything that I can to save lives from the deadly virus.
Not long ago, Jackson Carlaw stood up and claimed that the Government had not done and was not doing enough to protect health and save lives. Now, however, he seems to think that we can throw caution to the wind, forget that the virus is a threat, and take action that would not be responsible. I will act responsibly, I will act carefully and I will act cautiously.
On young people and schools, let me remind members that 11 August, when all children in Scotland will be able to return to school, is actually several weeks earlier than the return will happen in England, where children will not return to school until September, on a blended basis. Our job is first to make sure that children can return to school safely.
Let me quote the World Health Organization’s director for Europe. He said that
“A warning shot has been fired: school reopenings in a few countries have resulted in local ‘flares’ in the number of cases—we need to remain diligent and lift restrictions with care.”
That is what I will do. We will continue to take action to suppress the virus and we will work to ensure that any contingency that is necessary for school education maximises the amount of time that young people are in school, but we will also work to create the conditions to suppress the virus, to get children safely back to school full time and on a normal basis.
In the meantime, we will do everything we can, including some of the changes that I announced today, to support parents with the childcare challenges that they face.
I note the limited relaxations that the First Minister announced; indeed, I welcomed every one of them a fortnight ago when they were announced elsewhere, to much derision from her.
We need much more ambition from the Scottish Government. Children need it so they can get back to school and continue their education, and working parents need it so that they have a chance of staying in work.
The Scottish Government is simply not listening on economic recovery. We read that leading companies across Scotland are unable to get a call with ministers or civil servants. We hear from senior business figures, some of whom are close to the Scottish National Party, who think that the First Minister does not get it or that there is no plan. Today, the head of the Scotch Whisky Association, Karen Betts, urged the Government to make
“an open call for all hands on deck”.
She wants the Government to reach outside the First Minister’s inner circle so that fresh ideas can be brought in. Will the First Minister do so and will she do it now?
I will not do that right now because I am standing up in the Scottish Parliament’s chamber answering questions. However, this afternoon I will speak to all the key business organisations and the Scottish Retail Consortium. I will continue to speak to interests and organisations right across the country, but I will never take my eye off my fundamental responsibility, which is to keep the country safe and avoid lives being lost.
Jackson Carlaw said that he would have welcomed the lifting of restrictions that I have announced today two weeks ago. That would have been utterly reckless and it would have put lives at risk. That is why increasing numbers of people across Scotland are glad that Jackson Carlaw is not standing in this position.
We have to act carefully and we have to put the health of the country at the centre of everything that we do, because if we ease restrictions too quickly, the virus will run out of control again and we will be back to square 1, imposing a lockdown and requiring businesses to close. That would be wrong and irresponsible and, if we were to do it, Jackson Carlaw would be the first person in the chamber to stand up and say that we had gone too quickly and had not discharged our responsibilities, because he blows with the wind—or, rather, he blows in whatever direction his colleagues at Westminster tell him.
I am glad to hear that the First Minister is engaging with all those organisations. I hope that she is not just talking to them, but is finally listening to them. She needs to listen, because she needs all the help that she can get.
On one hand, the First Minister’s top economic adviser claims that the United Kingdom will be the worst-performing developed economy in the world and that Scotland will be even worse. On the other hand, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes—the minister who is supposed to lead our response to this generational crisis—finds time to go on Twitter to attack the media for reporting the adviser’s comments, and insists that it is all fine. Could someone tell Scotland’s finance secretary that Trumpian tweets and getting the Twitter mob to blame the media do not make jobs? Is not it the case that the SNP Government does not comprehend the depth of the economic crisis that we are about to go through?
I have comprehended the depths of the health crisis, the economic crisis and the education crisis since day 1. With my ministerial colleagues, I have literally been working around the clock to steer Scotland through this crisis. We will do that for as long as it takes, and we will continue to try to steer a steady, consistent and safe path for the country.
Despite the tone and tenor of exchanges today—prompted by the tone of Jackson Carlaw’s questions—I will, as far as I can, continue to do that in a non-party-political way. I regret the constant tendency of Jackson Carlaw to politicise all the issues. Scrutiny is important, but anyone who doubts that that tendency exists should reflect on the fact that Jackson Carlaw supports, when the UK Government does them, most of the things for which he criticises the Scottish Government. There are many examples, from schools to the economy. The most egregious example of that inconsistency—if I can put it so mildly—is that Jackson Carlaw led the pack that bayed for the head of Cath Calderwood but lost his tongue over Dominic Cummings. Such party-political engagement, inconsistency and hypocrisy have no place when we are dealing with a national crisis.
This time is tough and hard for individuals, businesses and Governments across the world, and my job is to focus on getting the country through it. Regardless of Jackson Carlaw’s attempt to distract attention from that—which I suspect is more about distracting attention from the travails of a Government somewhere else—I will focus on the job at hand and get Scotland safely through the biggest crisis that we have ever faced.
We all welcome plans to get the country out of lockdown, but Scotland does not need just a plan to open back up—it needs a route map back to recovery, as well as imagination, ambition and an open mind. However, one high-profile business figure said about the SNP last week:
“I’m not sure they understand the scale of it all. What’s the plan? There’s deafening silence.”
Children need a plan so that they can get back to school, parents need a plan so that they can get back to work and Scotland needs a plan so that we can avoid a depression as great as we have ever seen. I hope that the First Minister will deliver that, but it does not augur well that the front-bench team deals in angry tweets rather than in commonsense solutions. Is not it time for Scotland to get back to work, and for ministers to engage with everyone else in order to achieve that?
Jackson Carlaw should deal with the Twitter trolls among his own members before he starts to give anybody else lessons.
This is serious stuff. Let me try to introduce a note of consensus: Jackson Carlaw is right to say that Scotland needs plans for all those things. Scotland has those plans and will continue to see them being implemented.
I have hard work to do, so if Jackson Carlaw wants just to snipe from the sidelines, I will leave him to do that, although I regret it and would welcome him back to a constructive approach so that we can collectively get through this. I will get on with the hard graft of getting the country safely through coronavirus and building the sustainable recovery that we all want. I will focus on that job and will leave Jackson Carlaw to indulge in whatever makes him happy.
Four weeks ago, when the Government launched its route map out of lockdown, I said that the Labour Party stood behind the First Minister and the Government. This is a national fight to eradicate a deadly virus, and that remains the case today. Of course, that does not mean that we will not hold the Government to account, especially where there are yawning gaps between what is announced at daily press briefings and what is happening out there in the real world.
Four weeks ago, I asked the First Minister for three guarantees for easing restrictions: first, that the evidence behind decisions to relax lockdown be shared; secondly, that testing be maximised with a fully working test, trace and isolate system; and thirdly, that the strategy be agile enough to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. The people we represent are not yet convinced that those guarantees are being met. For the public to have confidence in easing restrictions, the evidence and the testing strategy must be robust and shared widely. The truth is we are still woefully behind in using the testing capacity available. As recently as last week, almost 74,000 tests went unused.
Four weeks ago, the First Minister announced that phase 2 would include expanding visits from family to their loved ones in care homes. That was welcomed and long awaited—it has been confirmed in today’s document that accompanies the statement. However, with 85 per cent of Scotland’s care home staff not being tested by last week—one month to the day after the health secretary said that all staff would be tested regularly and repeatedly—what is the First Minister doing to ensure that the much-needed extension to visiting will be safe? Can she confirm that it will happen and when it will happen?
I will first address Richard Leonard’s three points on guarantees. First, when we take the decision to move from one phase to another, we publish the analysis of the evidence that that is based on. That analysis will be published early tomorrow and so be available for people to read, scrutinise and ask questions about. Secondly, test and protect is up and running and is working. The biggest challenge for us now is to ensure that every member of the public knows about test and protect, what to do when they have symptoms, where to go to book a test and what to do around self-isolation. When people are contacted to tell them that they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive, they need to know where to go for support in order that they can self-isolate.
There is a campaign behind that and, over the next week or so, information will go out to every household in the country, telling people exactly what to do in those circumstances. Every member of the Scottish Parliament has a responsibility to help in that task. The testing capacity is there, the contact tracing capacity is there and the support for those who are required to isolate is there. That is part of the big challenge that we face in the weeks ahead.
We are expanding routine testing. The figures that Richard Leonard gives on the testing of care home staff are just wrong. The latest figure is that 22,500 staff have been tested through national health service laboratories. Additional staff will have been tested by drive-through centres. That represents a significant proportion of care staff. We will be doing that testing regularly. Further consideration will be given to other groups. Testing will have a role to play in getting parts of our society back to normal.
Lastly, on the issue of visits to care homes, the route map update that we are publishing today says that we will give further consideration to that and will then set out when visiting on a normal basis can resume. It is likely that that will start with visiting outdoors. However, our clinical advice is that we must take great care in that. The number of cases of coronavirus in care homes is reducing, the number of deaths is, thankfully, reducing and the number of care homes with outbreaks is reducing. However, given the experience that we have had in care homes, we want to tread very cautiously. I remind people watching this that there are already arrangements in place for visiting in end-of-life situations and, as I talked about yesterday in the chamber, other exceptional circumstances. We will therefore continue to take great care as we navigate through all these things.
In all this, I believe, as I think I said the first time I stood in the chamber and addressed the matter, that proper, robust scrutiny is very important for the Government as well as for everybody else. However, what I will not be swayed by, in any aspect of this, is the normal political to-ing and fro-ing. I have the biggest responsibility that I have ever had in facing the current situation and I am determined to do the right things in the best way and at the right pace to get the country through the crisis.
I understand the First Minister’s caution, but it needs to be underpinned by the resources going into not just testing capacity but testing being carried out, especially in settings such as residential care homes.
Turning to another issue, just this week we learned more about the impact of Covid-19 on the Scottish economy: manufacturing down by 25 per cent; retail and wholesale down by 35 per cent; and construction down by 40 per cent. We know that businesses need a steady supply of work and that, unless something changes soon, blue-chip companies such as Rolls-Royce and Alexander Dennis are facing a significant cut in capacity. We need action urgently.
Yesterday, in response to Neil Bibby, the First Minister said that, instead of
“lots of different task forces ”,
there should be
“more joined-up strategic task forces.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2020; c 22.]
What we need is not a reactive approach based on short-life task forces but a proactive, comprehensive, forward-looking, planned, long-term approach for the whole Scottish economy. That is why, four weeks ago, I asked the First Minister to work with us, trade unions and employers to establish a new industrial strategy, a new plan for the economy and a new plan for jobs. Will the First Minister today finally commit to that to save businesses and jobs and build the Scottish economy back better?
I think that I committed to that the first time that Richard Leonard asked me about it. Indeed, the Scottish Government is working already on the recovery in a range of ways. In an economic sense, on Monday next week we will have the recommendations from the group that Benny Higgins has been chairing for us, which will feed into the work that we are doing. I welcome constructive inputs from people and from members, parties and interests across the chamber.
My comments yesterday about task forces were in response to another Labour Party member’s request to set up a task force. Criticising me for what I said when I was responding to that request is perhaps a little bit unfair.
I will not go into detail about particular discussions or support for an individual company but, with a company such as Rolls-Royce, a big challenge for us is to work with it to get to a repurposing of what it does. However, the challenge that Rolls-Royce faces just now is part of a global challenge. With companies such as Alexander Dennis in the bus industry, we have an opportunity to align our recovery from this crisis with our climate change ambitions. There are therefore potentially massive opportunities for such companies.
Those are things that are already under way in the Scottish Government and I welcome ideas and suggestions, whenever they come, from people across the chamber.
I turn finally to the subject that has preoccupied lots of people this week. Parents across Scotland have shared their anger over the past few days about a lack of leadership in setting out a plan for getting pupils back to school full time, which should be the goal of all of us. Just yesterday, the First Minister described the blended learning models that councils are working towards as a contingency plan, but it must be the ambition to go beyond that contingency plan to return children to school for their whole class time in a safe way.
Responding to the calls from the Parliament and, more importantly, to the legitimate concerns of parents, pupils and school staff, including teachers, will require the agility that I called for four weeks ago. Let me ask the First Minister again what I asked her yesterday: will she produce a route map with a clear timetable that explains how she will get pupils back into classrooms five days a week and how she will provide the resources that are needed to ensure that that can happen as quickly and safely as possible?
Yes, but—I hate to point out the basics to Richard Leonard—we have to do the work to produce that. That is what is happening right now.
On the day we published the route map, we also published the education recovery group’s report. That plan was agreed not only with Government but with local government, teaching unions and parents organisations.
The plan that was published then is being operationalised by the work that councils are doing. We are applying scrutiny to that and, as I said yesterday, we are also working on what conditions and protections are required to get children back to school not only full time but as normal, so that they are not only getting a full-time education but are able to interact with each other as young people want to. That requires continued suppression of the virus. Therefore, we have to take the actions that we are taking now and go with the considered plan so that we drive the levels of the virus down, and then we can consider different ways of getting schools back.
Unfortunately, there are no magic wands when it comes to this virus; only a lot of really hard and detailed work will get us to where we all want to be. That is what the Government is doing. I say to Richard Leonard—but it is possibly more accurate to direct it at the other side of the chamber—that if we act in a reckless way when it comes to getting kids back to school and do not—[Interruption.] Richard Leonard has said that he wants to know what the plan is.
We need to have contingency in case the virus runs out of control again, and we also need to have a plan for if we get the virus suppressed. That is what we are dealing with. We will continue to do that hard work. However, if we end up with an outbreak of the virus in schools in October or November, Jackson Carlaw and Richard Leonard will be the first to stand up—as they have been to speak on the issues with care homes—and ask why we did not take greater care.
I will not compromise the safety of children. We will act in a way that keeps them safe and gets them back to school as quickly as possible.
The Scottish Greens stand in solidarity with asylum seekers. We will support them in their efforts to make a better life for themselves and we utterly condemn the racist thugs whose behaviour in Glasgow’s George Square in recent days has appalled people across Scotland.
Around one third of households do not have access to a car, and in Glasgow the figure is more than 50 per cent. The First Minister will understand the relief of some of the lowest paid workers that public transport services are being increased as we enter phase 2. However, many will be concerned about the practicalities, because without adequate transport provision many people face the possibility of losing their job if they are unable to get to work. How will the First Minister ensure that those who most need access to public transport will get it?
I associate myself with Alison Johnstone’s opening remarks. The scenes in Glasgow last night were horrifying and disgraceful, and we should be pretty blunt about the cause of what happened. It was not caused by people protecting statues or the cenotaph; it was caused by a bunch of racist thugs seeking to pour out their vile prejudice against asylum seekers and refugees. That is not what Scotland is about. Welcoming refugees and asylum seekers is a part of who we are, and we should stand against the scenes that we saw in Glasgow. In my view, those who broke the law should face the full force of it.
Those questions about public transport are important. Transport Scotland is working with transport operators to ensure that they maximise the capacity that they have in a way that is safe, with physical distancing and hygiene in place.
Part of that is about making sure that employers help with staggered start times. We are also encouraging and investing in active travel; Michael Matheson has made announcements about that in recent weeks. We are enabling more people to walk and cycle to work, rather than relying on cars or on public transport.
The wearing of face coverings will help to build public confidence that it is safe to use public transport, notwithstanding the continued risks that the virus poses to us all.
I welcome the First Minister’s remarks about face coverings and their part in protecting our key transport workers on our buses, trains and ferries. She is right that that will encourage confidence in those who rely on those vital services.
Public transport will inevitably be running at greatly reduced capacity, so it is critical that businesses continue to follow Scottish Government advice to work from home wherever that is possible. The First Minister has suggested staggered start times; it is important that we all avoid rush hour. That will become increasingly challenging as businesses begin to open in the weeks and months ahead. What steps will the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland take to ensure that businesses comply with that, wherever possible?
There is active engagement across all sectors, and we are publishing guidance for all sectors about safe opening. The responsibility is placed on employers to make sure that they do what they can to be flexible with workers. We want to encourage all employers—and this is something that I should have mentioned earlier—to play their part in making sure that the public know about test and protect and about what to do if they have symptoms.
None of that is straightforward. Anybody, in any part of the chamber, who says that any of that is straightforward is doing a disservice to the public, individuals and businesses across the country. It is difficult. It will continue to be challenging. We must work through those issues, as we have been doing for the past three months.
We all have a part to play. Government has a part to play in making sure that guidance is in place and that the necessary support, including financial support, is in place. Employers have a responsibility to make sure that they are supporting their workers. Individuals can help by walking and cycling where possible and also by working from home where that is possible.
Collective action and endeavour has got us to where we are now in tackling the virus and it will continue to be important as we work through the significant challenges that still lie ahead.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement. I reiterate my intention to continue to provide constructive support to make this work.
The First Minister has announced the return to work for thousands of parents, but without adequately explaining who will look after their children. There is no school yet. Childminders are still limited and can be costly. Critical childcare is also strictly limited and grandparents and friends are still largely off limits.
I have asked the question twice already this week, but the answer is still not clear. How will parents who are required to work get the childcare that they need?
That is an important question. I will be frank: there is no single, straightforward answer to any of these questions. That is hard for me to say and it is hard for people to hear. I recognise that.
If we look at any other part of the UK, we see that there are no straightforward answers to these questions. We are still dealing with an unprecedented challenge. We must try to balance things as far as we can. We are still saying to employers that they should encourage and support home working where possible and that they should be flexible where there are childcare issues. We are increasing access to critical childcare beyond what has been available so far, and we will continue to do that as far as possible.
Although childcare is not the principal motivation for the steps that we have announced today about extended households, those steps will make more informal childcare possible and I hope that we will be able to expand that concept in the next couple of weeks
None of this is straightforward. There is no magic solution to dealing with a situation in which, to save lives, we have had to close down big parts of our economy and society. As we open those up again, we are moving carefully and gradually. I recognise how difficult that is for people. If I try to pretend that there are easy solutions, or if I try to go too quickly to create solutions before it is safe to do so, I risk taking the whole country backwards and seeing the virus run out of control.
I have already quoted the WHO’s comments from this morning, and I will not repeat that quote. However, its comments are very sobering, indeed. The quote actually ended with Dr Hans Henri Kluge saying:
“I repeat: The risk remains high across ALL our Member States.”
Unfortunately, that means continued caution. I recognise that, for many people, that means continued inconvenience and disruption. We will do everything that we can to mitigate that in the weeks ahead.
The First Minister knows that I support a focused approach. However, the problem is that she is asking people to return to work, and their employers are expecting them back. People cannot afford to stay off work, because the furlough is ending.
Today’s changes on childcare are minor, and the Government does not plan to lift restrictions on childminding capacity until phase 3, which is at least three weeks away. I support caution; I also support a joined-up approach. However, the route map and the guidance are not joined up. They are flawed. How will the First Minister fix that?
I do not know whether Willie Rennie is saying that we should not open up parts of our economy carefully, or whether he is saying that we should put children into unsafe environments. We are seeking to join up those aspects. We are taking a phased approach through phase 2. We are not asking people to go back to work until a later part of the phase, when we hope that we will be able to extend the extended household concept, for example. At that point, we will be getting into the period when we are making decisions for phase 3, which will, I hope, open up other possibilities around childminders and other early years settings.
Yes, I accept that there is no perfect alignment with any of those aspects right now, but that comes from the uniqueness and the severity of the situation with which we are dealing. We are trying to get the steps in as much alignment as possible, and we will continue to try to do that.
I say again that the more that we continue to suppress the virus now, the more we open up the possibility of going more quickly in the future.
As I keep saying, none of this is easy or straightforward for anybody across the country. If people want to make alternative suggestions, I will always listen to those. We are taking a considered, careful and planned way forward, in which different individuals, interests, businesses and organisations, with the support of Government, all have to play a part in getting us through this. It is not easy, but there really is no alternative to taking the careful route that we are taking right now.
As everyone can imagine, there is much interest among members in this topic. I encourage everyone to keep it succinct and to the point.
I share the First Minister’s interest in the economy being boosted as safely and carefully as possible. The ambitions of many businesses to develop their premises have stalled, and they are keen to move on. What will phase 2 mean for the operation of organisations such as valuation joint boards, where the process of getting businesses up and running is being stalled due to Covid constrictions?
We have said that non-essential offices should remain closed but that other indoor workplaces can start to reopen. Lots of organisations have been doing a lot of work online and virtually to support people who are working at home, and it is important that we continue to support that way of working.
However, increasingly and progressively over the next few weeks, we want more businesses to be able to return to something that is closer to normal. For public and quasi-public services in particular, that will be essential in getting other things moving. Getting registration offices open, even for essential business, will be important in allowing limited weddings and civil partnerships to take place.
This is a complicated puzzle for us all, and we have to get all those bits working together as best we can. I remind people that every single Government in the United Kingdom and across the world is grappling with the same issues. We look to learn from other countries, where they are doing things differently. However, there is no straightforward, simple way through this. We are dealing with a deadly virus for which there is no cure and not many treatments, although we had some positive news on that front this week.
That is the situation that we face. Anyone—for whatever purpose or motivation—pretending to people that there are simple solutions that we are just not bothering to find is doing them a disservice, given the severity of the crisis that we face. I know that Clare Adamson is not doing that, but, in some of the comments made today, it sounded a bit like other members were.
Dentists in more than half the dental practices in Scotland that have been surveyed fear that their practice will not survive the coronavirus crisis. They feel that there has been a total lack of transparency in the information that the Scottish Government has provided to them.
Today’s statement lacks any detail on the full restoration of dental services in Scotland, so will the First Minister say now what support ministers will provide to that vital part of our health services? If we do not see action from the Scottish Government, all of us fear that the current public health emergency will turn into a long-term public health crisis.
I do not think that that is a fair characterisation. The chief dental officer has been working closely with the dental profession. The plan that he put together was subsequently shared among many other countries by the WHO, because it was seen as being a high-quality piece of work.
For obvious reasons, in the past few weeks dentists have been considered to be at high risk of transmitting the virus, but we are now able to move forward—thanks, in large part, to the work that the chief dental officer and the profession have been doing. Practices will be able to reopen on Monday—initially for urgent care, but we hope that they will be able to get back to normal soon afterwards. I know that, although they might not relish a visit to the dentist, many people will have plans to catch up on treatment that they have missed. Dentists will work hard to achieve that and, as they always do, they will have support from the Scottish Government to the extent that they need it in the weeks ahead.
Phase 2 allows university lab research to resume but, right now, universities are also setting budgets for teaching and learning in the next academic year, in which they face a shortfall of at least £0.5 billion. They have still had no indication of how the Scottish Government will support them through that. When will the Government respond to the crisis in the university sector, which is a sector that will be critical to our economy’s recovery?
I am sorry, but that is just plainly and factually wrong. Not only have we worked with universities, and will continue to do so, but we have already given them an additional £75 million for research. We will work with universities in the same way as we will with every sector that has been affected by the crisis: methodically, and step by step.
Right now, the greatest thing that we can do for any sector, interest or business is to create the right conditions for suppression of the virus, which will allow them to get back to normal as quickly as possible. We will continue to work across all those areas to ensure that universities and businesses have the support that they need from the Scottish Government in the way that they have been getting it throughout the crisis so far.
Will the First Minister confirm that all the changes that she mentioned in her statement apply across the whole country, including islands and remote rural areas? Will she also confirm that, because the 5-mile limit for leisure journeys has been continued, people should still avoid making day trips to islands solely for recreation?
The changes that I have announced today apply throughout the country and in every part of it. As part and parcel of our approach to scaling up public transport, we will look at the capacity of ferries so that people who require to get off or on to islands to visit family, in the way that all of us can now do, are able to do so. It is important that people who live on islands can take advantage of the freedoms that we are all now able to enjoy.
The restriction on travel for recreation and leisure that we are asking people to abide by is important. It, too, applies across the country. We are asking people not to go further than 5 miles for such purposes, and not to flock to beauty spots or tourist attractions. Such actions still pose a risk and put avoidable pressure on parts of our infrastructure. We very much hope that we will be able to lift that restriction when we go into the next phase—not least because we are looking forward to seeing our tourist industry resuming from 15 July.
Yesterday, the First Minister said that she would “move heaven and earth” to get schools reopened. I agree that she should do so. I also agree that the health of our children and their families is important, but people should not have to make a choice between losing their health and their children losing their education. If the Government’s own advisory group should report back to it that the current social distancing guidelines can be reduced, councils will have to rewrite their current plans, which will come at a cost. How much will local authorities be given to support them in delivering education, the right to which is the most fundamental of all children’s rights?
I agree that it is not a choice between education and health, but we cannot have one without the other. Therefore, we have to make sure that we prioritise both, which is exactly what we will do.
It interesting that the Tories want us to just write a blank cheque, which is never the approach that they take in government to anything, unless they are absolutely forced to, such as in the case of providing children with free school meals.
We will work with councils to assess their plans and what they require to do. If those plans change—as plans in almost every sector might do as the experience of the virus and what we need to do to tackle it changes—we will work to support councils in the way that we have to. If that requires resources, we will make those resources available, but we will do so through a proper process of dialogue and engagement. That is the right and responsible approach of someone who is actually responsible for delivering things and is not just talking about them.
The First Minister will be aware that Scotland’s gross domestic product fell by 18.9 per cent during April, which is the largest monthly fall ever in Scotland. Andrew Wilson, author of the Scottish National Party’s Sustainable Growth Commission report, warned that Scotland was heading for the worst economic slump in the developed world. Is he right?
The First Minister will be aware that economic poverty kills as much as any virus does. What will she do to save jobs and tackle poverty, and will she now publish a child poverty strategy rather than delay it indefinitely at this critical time?
As an aside, Andrew Wilson is a former colleague and a great friend of mine, and he is someone for whom I have a great amount of respect. However, it amuses me—and I need any amusement that I can get right now—that when Andrew Wilson argues for the SNP and the cause that it stands for, according to the Opposition, he is wrong and is usually called a “corporate lobbyist”. However, when he says things that can be construed as criticisms of the SNP, suddenly we have to take it all as gospel. I look forward to the same respect for Andrew Wilson emerging among members on Opposition benches when he argues the case for Scottish independence.
The points about GDP and poverty are important. Of course, GDP has fallen—we saw it fall in the UK by more than 20 per cent. We have effectively put the economy into hibernation, and the challenge now is to get the economy safely out of hibernation so that a recovery in GDP happens as quickly as possible. That recovery will be more possible than it would have been had there not been such an attempt—led, to be fair, by the UK Government—to protect the productive capacity of the economy.
This Government has done more than any other across the UK to tackle child poverty. We will be taking forward our plans for the child income supplement, and we have made announcements around free school meals and food insecurity. With regard to the child poverty strategy, I agree that it has to be put in place as quickly as possible so that we can do the additional things that we need to do. However, the world has fundamentally changed in the past three months and we need to pause to make sure that our strategy takes account of the changes and the much greater challenges that we now face. Anybody who does not recognise that is not thinking about the issue as closely as they need to.
The Scottish Government’s commitment to tackle child poverty was strong going into the crisis and is even stronger as we come out of it.
The hospitality industry will, no doubt, be disappointed, but I hope understanding, about the need to wait a little longer before opening beer gardens. I welcome the First Minister’s comments that local authorities have been asked to be flexible about allowing the use of outdoor spaces, but will the Scottish Government also meet the hospitality industry to discuss what further steps can be taken to support the sector, particularly the extension of the furlough scheme and reduction in VAT?
Yes, we will have on-going and close engagement with the hospitality sector. We are already arguing for the extension of the furlough scheme, and will continue to do so, and for the UK Government to consider how the scheme might in the future be targeted on particular sectors on which the crisis is having a longer impact. We will also continue to consider the support that we can provide for sectors such as hospitality and tourism.
I understand that the hospitality sector will be disappointed at not having a specific date today. As I said earlier, I hope that we can give a date during phase 2. However, some of the most concerning emerging evidence about the virus is on what is referred to as super spreading and the risks in some settings that come from a range of things but which are often associated with how people are breathing if they are shouting over noise or exercising. We must understand that properly to ensure that any mitigations that are required are put in place.
That is why we have commissioned further advice. We will have it within a couple of weeks, and I hope that it then opens a way to opening for the hospitality sector. It is important that local authorities think about how they can provide additional outdoor space that would not normally be used so that, for the remainder of the summer months, the hospitality sector can start the process of recovery.
On a similar topic, hospitality businesses, be they pubs, cafes, hotels or restaurants, are in despair. They will be bitterly disappointed by the statement and the lack of detail in it. For that sector, every day matters at this time of year. Can the First Minister therefore give a firm date when the review of the 2m rule will be published? Will that review contain a full and rigorous analysis of the science on the issue?
I recognise how difficult it is for the hospitality sector, but I hope that the member is not suggesting that we should just go ahead regardless of the concerns. Interestingly, there is no firm date for the opening of the hospitality sector anywhere else in the United Kingdom, which suggests that all Governments, and not just the Scottish Government, are proceeding cautiously on the issue.
I gave a date for reporting back on the advice—I said that it would be “around 2 July”, and I hope that it will be on 2 July. I cannot pre-empt what will be in that advice, but I hope that we will then be able to give the go-ahead to outdoor reopening within phase 2. However, I really hope that Donald Cameron is not suggesting that, if the advice says that further mitigations have to be put in place to protect people from the virus, we should somehow ignore that.
There is a tendency for people who are listening to exchanges such as this one to think that everybody thinks that the virus has gone away. I understand that when it is among the general public, but I am less understanding of it when it comes to other politicians, who should understand the risks that we still face. This virus has killed more than 4,000 people across the country, and there are 4,000 families grieving people right now as a result. To suggest that we proceed recklessly is wrong, and I will not do it.
The First Minister said that she is continuing with getting Scotland through the crisis “safely”. I ask her to reflect on that rhetoric. We have one of the worst death rates in the world, and it is totally inappropriate to make claims that are contradicted by the reality that is faced by the 4,000 families across Scotland who have lost loved ones.
Councils will be key to getting us through this, and they need money now. The Lothian councils need £100 million to fill the budget black hole and get education going again. When will they receive that money?
On Neil Findlay’s first point, I am the last person anybody will ever hear downplaying the human cost of the virus in any way. Nobody has suffered more than the families who have lost loved ones. The experience that I have had over the past three months of standing up every day having to report on the numbers of people dying will literally live with me forever. I will never in any way, shape or form diminish the impact of that. It is that experience that makes me so determined to do everything that I can to reduce the numbers of people who die from the virus from here on in.
Neil Findlay is one of the people who legitimately say that we should have done more earlier. There is nothing untoward about saying that, but I do not agree with it, because I think that we acted in the way that we believed was appropriate at the time. However, anybody who believes that should understand the need to behave in an appropriate, careful and cautious way now. I see it as my key responsibility to get this country through the virus as safely as I can, and I will not be swayed from that by party-political issues.
On the issue of council funding, over the course of the crisis, councils have had around £300 million in new money and up to £200 million of flexibility with money for early learning expansion that had already been allocated, but which, because of the delay caused by the coronavirus, they have been able to allocate to other places. So there is £500 million or thereabouts in additional funding. I do not underestimate the pressure that councils are under. We will continue to work with them to assess what additional resources they need. To say that councils have not been given additional resources during the crisis would be factually inaccurate.
The famous Seamill Hydro hotel, which opened in 1880, faces unprecedented difficulties due to the pandemic. Yesterday, it began a redundancy consultation with its 200 employees, between a quarter and a half of whom face potentially losing their jobs, due to the fall in tourism and income from functions such as wedding receptions.
Redundancy will have a devastating impact on employees and the local economy. The pivotal enterprise resilience fund and rates relief have helped greatly, but what else can Scottish ministers do now to assist Seamill Hydro during phase 2? What hope can the First Minister give to the hospitality sector, given the restrictions necessitated by social distancing for the foreseeable future?
As Kenneth Gibson knows, I grew up in Ayrshire, and Seamill Hydro is a place that I know well. I know how distressed everybody who is associated with it will be at this point. That feeling will be replicated across the entire hospitality sector. There is no doubt that the loss of much of the summer season is putting many businesses at risk. Tourism is an important part of our economy and we are absolutely committed to supporting a safe and strong recovery for it.
We have provided a support package of £2.3 billion of lifeline funding to businesses throughout this period; that included specific support for hospitality and tourism. We will continue to look at how we provide financial support to the sector. We have also—this was called for and welcomed by the sector—provided an indicative opening date of 15 July and we will publish sectoral guidance later today on what businesses should do to prepare to reopen safely. We will of course continue to engage with the sector over the coming days and weeks.
With regard to Seamill Hydro, any decision to consider job cuts is a dreadful one to take, and I know how difficult that will be. We will continue to extend as much support as we possibly can to staff there or at any other tourist business at this time, and we will fundamentally continue to work to get the sector opened as quickly and as safely as possible.
I sincerely thank the First Minister for her remarks about opening zoos on 29 June. More than 5,000 people joined our campaign to ask her to help Edinburgh zoo to reopen, and opening will be a much-needed lifeline.
My question is about shielding. There was good news in today’s announcement for people who are shielding. It seems as if they are moving into phase 1 as we move into phase 2. Can people who are in shielding expect to follow the phases, albeit at one remove, in future announcements? Also, the First Minister spoke about extended family groups. Can people who are shielding be part of those extended family groups?
No. I said that in my statement; I appreciate that it was possibly difficult to follow all the detail. They absolutely cannot, and that is an important point of clarity.
On the member’s more general point about advice for those who are shielding, there should not be an expectation that it would follow one phase behind, not least because we hope by the end of July to give much more tailored advice to people who are in the shielding group that will be much more specific to the conditions and which will allow them to take a more informed and risk-based approach. I hope that that will bring the shielding group—albeit that they will no doubt continue to have to take additional precautions and be much more conscious of risk—more into line with the general population. We will continue to ease those restrictions as much as possible and it is really good that today we have been able, on the advice of our clinical group, to go further than we thought we would be able to go last week.
I will be delighted to see Edinburgh zoo reopen on 29 June. Also, later today I can confirm that we will provide emergency support funding for zoos in Scotland. The aim of the funding will be to prevent animal welfare issues and it will be based on need. A sum of £1.6 million is being made available for grants and a further £1 million for loans. I hope that, as well as the reopening date, that additional financial support will be welcomed.
The First Minister said that further discussion will take place on making face masks mandatory in retail outlets. She will be aware that trade unions are concerned about staff having to enforce such a policy. Will trade unions be part of the discussion?
Yes, they very much will be. We are seeking to involve trade unions in all the discussions that we are having. I recognise the concern that shop workers have about being in a position in which they have to enforce the wearing of face coverings or take action against people who are not wearing them. We do not want shop workers to be in that position, so we will have further consultation to work out such issues and will come to a conclusion on the matter.
I think that there is a strong case for the mandatory wearing of face coverings in shops, as there is for the mandatory wearing of them on public transport, but we need to work through the issues properly. I say to people across the country, do not wait for a decision on the wearing of face coverings being mandatory, because it is for your protection. For the reasons that I set out earlier, by wearing a face covering you protect other people, and other people wearing a face covering protects you. I ask people across Scotland to do that now. If you are in a shop or on public transport—where you will be required to do this from Monday—make sure that you cover your face. We are asking you to wear a face covering, not a medical mask, to provide additional protection.
However, it is the other measures—physical distancing, hand washing, cough hygiene—that are the most important things in reducing the risk of transmission.
What is the scientific basis for the First Minister’s view that outdoor markets are safe to open, but not beer gardens?
I genuinely refer Graham Simpson to the large amount of material that is already published, which is in addition to the scientific evidence that I get directly. There is a lot of emerging evidence that, in particular locations, including pubs, whether indoors or outdoors, the risk of transmission could be higher. Gyms and places where there is congregational or communal singing fall into the same category. In short—I am not expressing this in the way that an expert would do—we are talking about places where people’s pattern of breathing might be changed. If someone is shouting to be heard over music or is singing, they are more likely to inhale and have the virus transmitted in that way.
That emerging evidence is very strong. The situation is not necessarily the same in places such as markets, where people wander around, but even outside at a pub, if there is music playing or there are lots of people there, particularly when there is alcohol involved, and voices are raised, in summary, the risk is higher. I am not qualified to say how valid that is or what the correct mitigations are, but that risk is there and scientists across the world are talking about it.
People are now used to hearing about the R number; I encourage them to read up on the K number, which is about superspreading and the kind of situations that I have spoken about. When there are such risks, it would be reckless and irresponsible of me not to understand them better before taking the decision to reopen pubs.
The First Minister is aware that the hospitality sector faces catastrophic job losses, the extent of which will depend on the decisions that she takes in the future. Glasgow, the city that the First Minister and I represent, is very dependent on the hospitality sector. Businesses in the sector locked down when they were asked to, but many do not believe that they have been given the comfort that they need. They are terrified that the furlough scheme, which ends in October, will finish well before any recovery plan is in place.
I have listened carefully to what the First Minister has said to others. I fully understand why she cannot give indicative dates—I totally accept that—but she does not seem to have addressed what specific assistance the Government can give the hospitality sector or what recovery plan it has for the sector. Does the First Minister have any thoughts on a recovery plan specifically for the hospitality sector? Many businesses in the sector do not get grants because their property has a rateable value of more than £51,000. I would like the First Minister to provide some detail. She has said that she will meet the sector. Will she talk to it about what specific recovery measures she can offer?
I will address specific strands of that question. We will produce guidance for the hospitality sector on safe reopening, but we need to understand some of the risks that I mentioned so that we know that we are advising businesses to do the right things and all the things that they need to do. That is why we have commissioned the additional work that I mentioned. Like any other sector, the hospitality sector needs clear guidance on the steps that it will be required to take.
Secondly, suggestions have been made by, for example, Glasgow City Council about how we could provide support to the hospitality sector over the medium term—that would involve providing financial support to reduce some of the burdens that businesses in the sector are under. We are looking at those suggestions closely and will engage with the sector on them.
Thirdly, on the furlough scheme, I hope that we will be well on the way to recovery but that depends on suppressing the virus over the next few months. I have said before and I will say again that I think that it is essential that there is an extension of the furlough scheme so that there is not that cliff edge for companies, particularly those that are in sectors that we know will have suffered a longer-lasting impact. We will continue to make that case strongly to the Treasury.
The First Minister has confirmed that face coverings will be mandatory on public transport from Monday. Are there any plans to encourage people to wear them by providing masks at train stations, for example?
We encourage everybody to think about how they will equip themselves if they are travelling on public transport from Monday. Passengers are advised to use simple face coverings such as scarves or bandanas, for example; this is not about requesting or advising people to use medical face masks.
We expect that there will be a small number of passengers who might not have immediate access to a face covering or might need some encouragement, so we are working with ScotRail to help travellers across the rail and bus industry to make the change in the initial stages. ScotRail has a supply of masks to give away to passengers in the early days, and they will be distributed at rail stations and major bus stations for a limited time to give travellers the opportunity to source their own face coverings.
I stress that I am talking about simple face coverings. People do not have to go and buy medical masks. In fact, we are expressly saying that that is not required.
Thank you. I am afraid that that is all that we have time for. We have to move on to the next item of business; my apologies to those members whom I was not able to call.
There will be a short pause before the next item of business. I remind members to observe social distancing rules if they are leaving the chamber.