Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig


Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, March 19, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 19 March 2020

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19 (Education), United Kingdom Coronavirus Legislation, Business Motion, Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill, Point of Order, Business Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time


In the continuing spirit of asking questions that aim to inform, in the first instance, I seek further clarification from the First Minister on the issue of testing. MSPs have been approached by community pharmacists who have been serving customers with flu-like symptoms. Community pharmacists are often the first point of contact for the elderly, but they will not know whether they themselves have the virus. Members have also been contacted by doctors who are at home with what they think is probably just a cold but, without a test, they cannot be sure. The Government’s objective is to expand testing capacity, but can the First Minister confirm whether she believes that, within that expansion, those in front-line service roles should be prioritised?

Before I turn to the issue of testing, I advise Parliament that, as of 9 o’clock this morning, a total of 266 positive cases have been confirmed, which is an increase of 39 from yesterday. As I have done previously, I stress that that is likely to be an underestimate of the true prevalence of the infection across our society. I am also extremely sad to confirm that, as of 9 o’clock this morning, there have been six reported deaths of patients in Scotland who had tested positive for Covid-19, which is an increase of three from yesterday. I put on record that my thoughts are with their loved ones at this incredibly painful time for them.

On testing, front-line critical and key workers, particularly in the national health service and social care, are the priority for our expanded testing services. Broadly speaking, we are seeking to meet three objectives with testing. The first is to protect those who are most vulnerable and to save lives. That is why those who are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms or with upper respiratory infection will be tested. Secondly, we aim to allow critical workers to be at work unless they are actually ill. Work is on-going in all four nations to define the list of critical workers, but it of course includes those at the front line of our NHS and social care services. The third objective is to allow surveillance to enable us to monitor the prevalence of the infection across the population.

Right now, we have three laboratories that are operational, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. Between them, they currently have the capacity to do around 780 tests per day. Work is under way to expand capacity, initially to enable up to 3,000 tests to be done every day. In the longer term—hopefully not too much longer—we hope that new forms of testing will be available. That work is being led by the United Kingdom Government. The new tests will be dipstick tests rather than swab tests, which will allow people to test themselves much more quickly and tell whether they have had the virus. Those are not available right now, but I hope that the testing will be expanded in that way as soon as possible.

That is a helpful clarification. To respond to the First Minister’s confirmation of the additional lives lost, in our shared endeavour as we confront this emergency, all our thoughts will be with those who are suffering bereavement as a result of it.

Turning to the broader economy, I acknowledge that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has stated that everything that has already been announced constitutes but the first step of many and that there is a pressing need for further detailed assistance targeted in support of individuals. On Tuesday, the UK Government unveiled a package of financial measures to support business. Scottish businesses face the toughest of times, but we know that they can, will and must bounce back and prosper with the right help and support. The chancellor has backed business with more than £330 billion. Can the First Minister update us on how the Scottish Government will help Scottish business through the weeks and months ahead? In particular, in response to the many inquiries that MSPs are receiving, can the First Minister confirm to those who recognise the clear advantage of the assistance being offered to their businesses that it will be kept simple and how they should expect to access it?

This is a statement of the obvious, but we are in an incredibly difficult time for businesses across our economy and for the workers who staff those businesses.

I welcome, as does the economy secretary, the support that was outlined by the chancellor earlier this week. We have confirmed, and we will continue to ensure, that every single penny of funding that comes to Scotland to support businesses is passed on to businesses in Scotland. The economy secretary has already set out some of the initial detail of that. For example, all small businesses that receive the small business bonus scheme or rural relief will be eligible for a £10,000 grant. We will provide 12 months’ relief for properties in hospitality, leisure and retail and a £25,000 grant if those properties have a rateable value between £18,000 and £51,000. On top of that, we have taken steps to effectively halt the inflationary increase in business rates that was due in April. Taken together, that is a £2.2 billion support package to help sustain businesses and, crucially, to help them pay their staff and treat their staff fairly. As Jackson Carlaw said, that is initial support. It is inevitable that further support will be required and we continue to discuss that constructively with the UK Government.

I will be as brief as I can be on the point about how businesses will access that support, which is very important. We want to make it as simple as possible, but given the different kinds of support that we have announced, we are approaching the situation in three different ways. I will briefly summarise those. We are working to make sure that the universal rates relief that is available for all properties will be available automatically so that businesses will not have to apply for it. The 100 per cent rates relief for retail, hospitality and leisure will require some form of application from the sectors involved, but we are working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authority finance directors on how that can be administered in the most straightforward way possible. In the meantime, we will bring forward legislation next week to enshrine that relief from 1 April.

Things are slightly more complicated when it comes to grant schemes. We have set out two grant schemes: the £10,000 small business grants and the £25,000 grants for retail, hospitality and leisure. We are in discussion with COSLA, councils and business associations about how those can be efficiently distributed. I know that the same challenges are being faced in England with grant schemes there. There is no simple answer, but we want to do this as straightforwardly and quickly as possible, and I undertake to make sure that information and guidance are distributed to MSPs and business organisations as soon as the detail is clarified.

That is all very helpful. That clarification will be much valued by business, and we will obviously lend our support to any legislation that is required to give that assistance effect.

The childcare sector faces an uncertain future. This afternoon, John Swinney, will expand on yesterday’s confirmation by the First Minister, and by the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, that schools and nurseries across the UK, including private nurseries, will close from tomorrow. The medical advice is clear, and we must keep people safe. We also know that childcare is vital to keeping the UK working through coronavirus and, once we have beaten the virus, to returning to prosperity. We all fully appreciate that closure is unavoidable, but could the First Minister tell us what help we can give that vital sector?

Jackson Carlaw is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the childcare sector for the business reasons that he set out and for the care of young children right now and for the future, when we are on the other side of this virus. Obviously, we have ambitious plans to double the provision of early years learning and childcare. We want to work to mitigate the impact as far as possible, although I have to be straight with people: we will not be able to do that completely. John Swinney will set out more details on that, among other things, in his statement this afternoon.

However, I take the opportunity to confirm to Parliament that we have decided, as the Government, to guarantee the funding that private and third sector nurseries currently receive from the Scottish budget. That funding pays for the statutory entitlement that children receive in those nurseries and across the private and third sectors, and it is worth around £220 million. We will keep that cash in place, even while children are at home and not at nursery, so that we can help to support businesses through what is a very difficult time. That will be in addition to the work that we will do with councils to maximise the use of private and third sector nurseries to provide childcare to key workers who need it. There will be more detail on that when John Swinney makes his statement later.

That confirmation of funding will be hugely welcomed by the sector.

Key workers will be crucial in the battle with the virus, but the definition of “key workers” needs to be clarified. It is not as straightforward as it at first seems because, however desirable it may be, if everyone becomes a key worker we are right back where we started. Yesterday, the First Minister mentioned nurses, doctors and other critical staff. Can she confirm that police officers will be included, and will she tell us which other groups will or may be part of the key worker plan?

Finally, will the First Minister join me in asking people to be patient as information is confirmed and made available? These are evolving responses to a national emergency, and it is unreasonable to expect every t to be crossed and every i to be dotted on the detail with immediate effect. The public should know that both Scotland’s Governments are working to ensure that as much clarity as possible is provided as quickly as possible, and we should all support the people who are working flat out to achieve that.

I absolutely echo those comments.

On the issue of key workers, we are in difficult and not straightforward territory, and we must get the balance right. Jackson Carlaw asked me directly about police officers. I fully expect police officers to be included—in fact, I think that it is inconceivable that police officers would not be included. Indeed, I fully expect all who work in the emergency services to be covered by the definition of “key workers”.

Beyond that, work is being done across all four nations to come to the right definition. I will make a couple of points about that, the first of which is the obvious one that Jackson Carlaw made. If we go too far and end up having too many children in our schools, we will undermine the public health reasons for regretfully having to close schools.

Secondly, while we will try to get as much national consistency on the matter as possible, it will undoubtedly be the case that some local flexibility will be required. The definition of who might be considered to be key and critical workers in a remote rural or island community might not be exactly the same as that definition in the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh. It is important that we have that flexibility.

Understandably, the focus is very much on those workers who are required to keep our health and social care services running to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. Beyond that, there are the workers in some obvious other areas, such as the energy sector, who will make sure that we can continue to heat our homes and keep the lights on. Those workers who are required to get food to different parts of our country are another example. That work is on-going, and we will continue to update Parliament on it as the definition of “key workers” becomes clearer.

I began my answer by agreeing with Jackson Carlaw’s final point, and I do so again. I have given an assurance to people across the country that the Scottish Government will be as open and transparent as possible on an on-going basis. I have never been as acutely aware as I am right now of the inability of Government alone to deal with the challenge that we face. As First Minister, I will do my best to lead that operation in the months ahead, but I need the help of everybody across Scotland. What I can do is share as much information as possible. That will sometimes involve being frank about not knowing the answer to something immediately or being honest about the fact that certain things take some time to be put in place.

I will give an example of that. John Swinney will give as much detail as possible about the alternative arrangements that we are putting in place in the light of the school closures but, to be frank, that planning work will continue over the days to come.

This has to be a collective national endeavour. It will not be easy, but if all of us—Government, the public and all parts of the economy and the public sector—pull together, I have confidence that the country will be able to get through the current situation, notwithstanding how incredibly difficult and challenging it is.

Covid-19 (Personal Protective Equipment)

First, I want to pay tribute to all our social care and national health service staff, who are working tirelessly under some of the most challenging conditions that we have ever faced. I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that they have our unwavering support and our unconditional backing.

The First Minister is well aware that there is real and growing concern that two thirds of front-line Scottish Ambulance Service crews do not yet have the personal protective equipment that they need. Can the First Minister tell us when they will get the safety equipment that they need and that they have been promised?

That work is under way at pace as we speak. This afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will meet the Scottish Ambulance Service and the trade union that is associated with it, the GMB, to make sure that front-line workers’ concerns are being properly and quickly addressed. I give an undertaking that we will do everything possible to ensure that that is the case.

Health Protection Scotland has issued clear guidance on the types of protective equipment that is required in different circumstances, and we have made supplies available. At the moment, there are pressures on supplies of protective equipment not just in Scotland but globally, but we must do everything that we can to support people on the front line.

We always owe those in our front-line health and social care workforce an enormous debt of gratitude, but I can say candidly that we will never, ever owe them more than we will do in the weeks and months to come. My job as First Minister, along with the health secretary, is to make sure that we do everything that we can do to support them, and I treat that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.

More supplies of personal protective equipment were delivered to ambulance stations across Scotland yesterday afternoon, but they were not the full-face protection FFP3 masks that are needed. What was received was another batch of paper surgical masks with expiry dates of April 2016. When we raised the concern on Tuesday that that same batch of masks had been supplied to general practitioners, the cabinet secretary said that she was aware of the issue and was taking steps to ensure resupply and that the situation would not be repeated. Regrettably, it has been repeated.

We all know that we cannot afford to put our front-line NHS staff—our key workers—at increased, unnecessary and avoidable risk. What guarantee can the First Minister give that the appropriate supplies will be made available, and what advice can she give to workers, such as those in the Scottish Ambulance Service, who believe that they have been put at risk?

We will do everything that we can to protect those on the front line. Health Protection Scotland has issued guidance on the question of the type of protective equipment that is required by different categories of health workers. In a service such as the Scottish Ambulance Service, a mix of masks will be required, some of which will be those described by Richard Leonard. Other parts of the workforce will require other types of mask. It is not for politicians such as me or the health secretary to say what is required; it is for Health Protection Scotland to do so. We will continue to work with GPs and with the ambulance service to make sure that those supplies are there.

I say again—it is important to understand this—that, as is the case with ventilators, there is a global demand at the moment for that type of equipment. Supplies are under pressure, which is why we are also looking at how we can get alternative supplies.

The health secretary has considered, and will continue to consider, the issue of expiry dates. There will be circumstances in which supplies will be revalidated for use—by experts, not by politicians—because it will be judged that they are safe to use, notwithstanding the expiry date.

The priority in all of those decisions will be the safety and security of those who are looking after us. That is something that everybody has a right to expect from Government. I am sure that Richard Leonard will understand that my decisions must be informed by the best expert advice. I am conscious of that in every decision that I take on the response to this situation, and that is what I undertake to do.

The cabinet secretary for health has confirmed that, no matter what precautions are taken, rising absence rates are expected during the next few weeks of the outbreak. Absence rates of between 25 and 30 per cent of the NHS workforce at any one time have been predicted.

It is because of that that medics, nurses, paramedics and other health professionals are calling for the testing of key workers as swiftly as possible. They do not want to spread the virus if they have it, but they also want to be able to continue to work to support their colleagues and to provide essential care for patients if all they have is a cold or if they are no longer contagious.

I appreciate that the First Minister has committed again today to expanding testing. Is she able to tell us the timetable for that, how frequently she expects front-line testing to take place, and, if the possibility of self-testing has been explored, when that is likely to be widely available to key workers in Scotland?

I cannot answer the question of when new and different kinds of tests are likely to be available. That is one of the things I must be honest about. It is a global issue. Discussions are happening with pharmaceutical companies in the United Kingdom about the provision of new and quicker types of test. I hope that that happens very soon. That is in everyone’s interests, but Richard Leonard will understand the processes that must be gone through to provide new approaches in that regard.

On the more general issue of testing, as I have set out previously, we are committed to testing key and critical workers. It is in everyone’s interests for that to happen, because we want those who care for us to be at work whenever possible, and we want them to be as safe as possible.

There is a need for us to be guided by expert opinion with regard to how often key and critical workers require to be tested, just as there is the on-going work, about which I have already spoken, to make sure that we are properly defining that list of who is categorised as a key and critical worker. Obviously, that list includes those on the front line of our national health service and social care services.

On timescales, we are working at pace. There are large numbers of people quite literally working around the clock on this. That includes the Scottish Government, but that is the least of it. People across our emergency services and health and social care services, in particular, are working to do all of this as quickly as possible.

I have already talked about the work on expanding our testing capacity. That was expanded at an earlier stage of this outbreak, when we brought the laboratory in Dundee on stream. We are now working to expand it beyond that in order to ensure that we are using all possible capacity that we have. We are working hard to make sure that, as quickly as possible, there is an understanding of which workers are being tested and how that is to happen.

These things are happening at pace. I would go back to Jackson Carlaw’s point: few people—actually, that is not true. Everybody understands the seriousness of this situation. I say to Richard Leonard that he should take some assurance from the fact that I absolutely understand the urgency of all these issues and I want to make sure that all of these things are put in place as quickly as possible. I will continue to do everything that I can, as head of the Scottish Government, to make sure that we are taking all the necessary steps to do that.

I intend to allow some supplementary questions, but after the party leaders have asked their questions.

Covid-19 (Voluntary Community Support)

The current crisis is an unprecedented challenge for every level of Government. It is a challenge for all of us to work together as never before, and it is a challenge for our whole society to show that the values of compassion, solidarity and mutual care are what matter at a time such as this.

I want to join with others in expressing our thanks to and concern for the dedicated people working in our national health service and other public services, and those people who have been undervalued for a long time: every carer, cleaner, supermarket worker and many more. Their work is essential to help us all get through this, and they need our support.

Like other members, I have heard from many people who just want to help, whether that is keeping in touch with family, looking out for a neighbour or making sure that people in isolation in our community have got what they need. As social distancing measures become ever more important, that kind of voluntary community help might become more difficult. How can the Government and MSPs make sure that people know how to help one another—and how to do so safely—in the weeks ahead?

I thank Patrick Harvie for his question and I agree with his sentiment. Right now, we are learning a really hard lesson about the fragility of life in the modern world and all that we have come to take for granted, whether that is hugging loved ones, meeting friends for a coffee or jumping on a plane to go on holiday.

Perhaps, at the same time, we are also being reminded of what and who really matters in life. We are reminded of the importance of good health, the importance of love, friendship and solidarity and the importance of looking out for each other. In these difficult and dark times—there is no doubt that they are difficult and dark—we should hold on to those values, which are perhaps coming to the fore.

I have heard so many heart-warming and inspiring stories of communities not waiting to be told or asked, but just getting on with it, looking out for others and thinking about how they can play a part in the challenge that we all face. That is happening probably in every corner of Scotland and we, as the Government, are thinking very hard about how we support and facilitate that, whether through financial or other support.

That is why part of Aileen Campbell’s statement yesterday was about the provision of funding to help with those voluntary efforts. We will provide MSPs with further information for wider dissemination about how local groups can access that, because it will be really important.

I visited Age Scotland yesterday morning. With help from the Government, it is expanding its existing helpline so that more older people have somebody to phone if they need advice or help, or if they just need to hear a friendly voice. There will be examples of that activity all over the country and we all need to play our part in supporting it as well as we can.

I hope that the Government knows that the whole chamber will offer support for those actions.

One group in our society that is most urgently in need of help is those who are losing their incomes but who still face continued rent demands. I have heard from one constituent who has already seen her full-time income disappear completely. Her boss wants to be kind, but an events company with no events to run simply cannot pay her. She has no idea how she will pay her rent or other bills. I have heard of some landlords who are being responsible and recognising people’s needs. However, I have also heard from people who are being forced out of their homes, or threatened with that, on a range of existing grounds for eviction, not just rent arrears.

The Scottish Government’s announcement yesterday will still leave people facing a choice between the threat of losing their home at this dangerous time, or building up unpayable debts over the coming months while, in many cases, their landlords are benefiting from a mortgage holiday. Is it not clear that we need a complete ban on evictions—on any grounds—during this crisis, and a rent holiday for those who need it?

We will continue to look at the actions that we can take and those that we need to take. I will rule nothing out, and want to rule as much in as possible. However, I say categorically, as First Minister, that nobody should face eviction from their home because of rent arrears that are accrued as a result of the coronavirus crisis. I hope that everybody across the chamber agrees with that.

Aileen Campbell set out actions yesterday, but those are not necessarily the end of the road. We continue to look at what more we can do. To put it in context—it is not my intention to be political, or to criticise the United Kingdom Government, I only want to give context to what I am saying—the Prime Minister set out emergency legislation so that landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three month period. We do not need to do that in Scotland, because that is what our current law says. That is why Aileen Campbell set out that we will extend the existing provision to six months.

In any event, as housing tribunals are not sitting right now, no proceedings will be taken forward. However, I repeat that nobody should face eviction because of the crisis that we are living through. What I have just described applies to landlords in the private rented sector. For completeness, I say that the Government will take action if we find that any social landlord is contemplating raising eviction proceedings against anybody in these circumstances. My constituency experience is that we have outstanding social landlords and I would not expect any of them to do that.

The Government will continue to ensure that if issues arise that put people in an unfair position, we will not hesitate to take the action that is required.

Covid-19 (Emergency Surgery and Procedures)

Jackson Carlaw, Patrick Harvie, Nicola Sturgeon and I met yesterday. We agreed that we will keep on meeting, and that we are going to work together, because this crisis demands that we work together.

I got this letter—which I opened here in the chamber—from a constituent, who says:

“Right now, I am scared to death. After blood tests and a scan by my GP, my GP has said I will be referred to a surgeon to save my life after the next test, but now the Scottish Government is saying that they are cancelling all non-urgent surgery for three months due to the Covid-19 virus. As you can see, I might not get the surgery that I require to save my life. I would like to live a bit longer”.

We know that it is not the case that the person will not get the surgery. However, people are worried about that announcement and what it means for their operations and treatments. What reassurance can the First Minister give to people like my constituent, and others across the country, who are worried about life-saving treatment right now? We need to be clear about what we are doing so that people are not afraid about their future. What can the First Minister tell us?

I would appreciate Willie Rennie’s passing the letter and the details of his constituent on to us.

Let me try to set this out really clearly. What has been announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport—it is being replicated in all nations of the UK, I think—is a decision that we have not taken lightly, but it is unavoidable and essential because it will allow our national health service, and in particular our critical care services, to cope with what we know is coming down the track. What has been announced is postponement of non-urgent elective procedures in our NHS. We want urgent emergency and life-saving procedures, and cancer and maternity services to go ahead. Without having seen the detail, I think that what Willie Rennie has outlined sounds like the kind of procedure that should not be postponed and will go ahead.

It is important that we all take a responsible approach, as I know we are doing. I appreciated yesterday’s meeting with party leaders; I am keen to continue to hold such meetings. We all want to work together, and part of working together will be our being clear about what is changing and what we are striving to ensure does not change. We are facing a big challenge and I do not want to scare people because, in my experience, scaring people is not productive.

However, I want people to understand that this is not a drill; this is real and it is happening. We all have to take seriously our responsibility to follow advice. I take this opportunity to remind people of the advice that we are urging—not asking, but urging—them to follow for their own sakes, and for the sakes of their loved ones and everyone else in Scotland.

If you have symptoms, stay at home. If you are in a household with somebody who has symptoms, stay at home. All of us are to cut down on our social interactions. That is particularly important if you are over 70, if you have a health condition for which you get the flu vaccine or if you are a pregnant woman. We have already said that people who are the most vulnerable due to their health conditions and those who have compromised immune systems will get tailored advice.

I repeat: the advice is not optional, and should not be seen as being optional. It is about saving lives. I have never before had to stand up in the Parliament and say anything so blunt. My job right now—it is not just me who is doing this; I am leading an effort that is enabling everybody to do it—is about saving lives, so we all have to follow the advice for that purpose. [Applause.]

I appreciate the work of the First Minister, the clarity that she is providing and the professional way in which she is going about it.

It is really important that we flush out these issues so that people understand what is happening, are not afraid for their lives and get the treatment that they urgently need.

There is little doubt but that the United Kingdom Government will need to do more to provide money to put food on the tables and keep the roofs over the heads of our constituents. Using existing Government tax and spend mechanisms is the best way to get money to them speedily. The Confederation of British Industry is recommending reverse national insurance contributions. We also need to boost the social security system. Those are probably the best ways to deliver some sort of citizens income.

Is the First Minister talking to the Prime Minister about that? Does she agree that we need an early statement on that from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because people are worried not just about how exactly they will survive the virus, but about having enough food and a roof over their heads?

Across the Scottish Government, we are talking to the UK Government about all those matters. I am sure that Willie Rennie and others will appreciate that most of my and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport’s interactions over the past couple of weeks have been on the immediate health emergency that we face. However, the health emergency is undoubtedly fast becoming an economic emergency for businesses, for the economy as a whole, and for households and individuals around the country. Willie Rennie is right to make that point.

I welcome what the chancellor outlined earlier this week. I perhaps did not expect to be saying this, but the UK Government is, like the Scottish Government, trying very hard to do all the right things. However, UK ministers know, and we know, that much more will be required. We will work together on that. We will do everything that we can within our powers and resources; we have already set out a lot of initiatives, and there will be more to come from us.

However, there undoubtedly needs to be more from the UK Government, which holds most of the relevant levers. To move through this situation to a universal basic income or citizens basic income approach is the right thing for us to seek to do, and might be the necessary thing to do.

We will continue to have those discussions, because we cannot allow this health emergency to wreck the lives, livelihoods and incomes of so many people. We all have to pull together. It is really important that we do that in Scotland and around the UK, but it also requires a global economic intervention. I hope that countries will work together to beat the virus and to ensure that the rebuilding that will be required when we are on the other side of this situation is not as difficult as it will be if we do not take the right action now.

As members will appreciate, there is a huge amount of interest in asking supplementary questions, from members of all parties. We will not be able to get through them all, but I hope that members will be succinct.

Covid-19 (Air Ambulance Service)

Can the First Minister confirm in more detail what the arrangements will be for patients in Scotland’s islands who require the use of an air ambulance? Is the service now equipped and able to carry patients who have tested positive for coronavirus?

Yes it is, and, as we develop our approach to coronavirus, we will continue to take particular account of the needs of our rural, remote and island communities.

Everyone is feeling anxious about this, but it is inevitable in any crisis that the people who live on the margins of our country will feel that anxiety even more acutely. We will continue to make sure that that is at the forefront of our minds and thinking.

Covid-19 (Private Sector Assistance)

Does the First Minister agree that the private sector is essential in dealing with the coronavirus? A company in Glasgow has identified hundreds of ventilators in China—I know that her ministers are aware of that and that Scottish Enterprise is working closely on such matters. I probably do not need to ask this, but, for the record, does she agree that we need to do everything that we can to ensure that the sector gets all possible assistance if it finds ways to help with the coronavirus?

I agree 100 per cent. I hope that we know about the company that Pauline McNeill is talking about, but, just in case we do not, I would be grateful if she passed on the details.

Ivan McKee is chairing a working group that involves officials from the Scottish Government, the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and the national health service, which is co-ordinating efforts to mobilise the wider Scottish manufacturing base so that it can support work on NHS shortages of key manufactured products. Ventilators are very much at the top of the list of priorities, but, as I said to Richard Leonard, other products will fall into that category. Any company that feels that it has something to contribute should contact us.

We have been inundated with offers from individuals and companies. We have gin and whisky distillers making hand sanitiser. I have had offers of timber if we need to build things. I have had offers right across the spectrum, of everything that members could imagine. People in the entertainment and events industry have offered their skills and help if hospitals need to reconfigure their physical base.

There is so much good will out there, and we need to harness it. I am keen that there is, in the Scottish Government, a central point at which to collate all those offers, so that nobody’s offer of kindness or help falls through the cracks. I have asked for some work to be done on that. If members have been contacted in that regard, I ask them please to pass the information on to us.

Covid-19 (Hospital Parking Charges)

NHS professionals in Scotland are rightly being told to limit their use of public transport. A number of nurses who work at Edinburgh royal infirmary contacted me this morning to say that they are now presented with a £7.50 daily parking charge at the hospital. What discussions has the Government had with parking companies here, in Edinburgh, as well as in Glasgow and at Ninewells hospital in Dundee, about suspending parking charges while we are in this crisis?

I sympathise with those in that situation. We removed parking charges for all NHS car parks some time ago, but that does not apply for the private finance initiative hospitals.

The health secretary is looking urgently at how we can get rid of parking charges at those hospitals during this period. I hope that we can talk to the companies and ask them to suspend charges, but, if that does not happen, the Scottish Government will want to look at what we can do to take away those costs from the people who will be working hard to keep the rest of us safe in the weeks and months to come.

Covid-19 (Homeless Accommodation)

I think that the First Minister is aware of the Lodging House Mission, which is based in my constituency and which has run a winter night shelter since December, in conjunction with Glasgow City Mission. The charities are having to close their daytime and nighttime care facilities. Is the public sector able to take over some of the care that the third sector has provided for homeless people and rough sleepers?

I know that Glasgow City Mission, which runs the winter night shelter, took that decision for the sake of its guests’ safety. It was an understandable and appropriate decision.

The health and social care partnership and third sector and registered social landlord partners have made extra accommodation available to help rough sleepers and people in temporary accommodation to self-isolate. They are urgently looking at how to increase capacity in the days to come, including through the use of hotels and perhaps vacant student accommodation.

Our £350 million welfare and wellbeing package, which Aileen Campbell set out yesterday, is all about ensuring that local partners can support people in need, which very much includes people who are experiencing homelessness.

Covid-19 (National Health Service Staff Testing)

I appreciate what the First Minister has said about the testing of NHS staff, but, three times in the past five days, NHS Lothian staff have received an email telling them that, if they display symptoms, they should stay at home for seven days from when their symptoms started and that they will not be tested.

From what the national clinical director told us yesterday, I am aware that the new testing regime will be operationalised imminently. Will the Scottish Government relay that information to NHS staff? They are panicking about the situation and are sending substantial volumes of correspondence to their MSPs because they simply do not know what to do.

Yes, we will ensure that all NHS staff know exactly what the testing arrangements will be and how they can access them. As I have said, we are working at pace to make sure that the arrangements are in place and that we have the capacity to process the tests.

I say to Ross Greer, to those in the chamber and to every single one of our health and social care workers that we know how valuable and important those workers are. We want them to be safe and well. We do not want them to be at work if it is putting their health at risk, but we want them to be at work if at all possible, because the rest of us need them, as they will be looking after all of us. We have a shared interest in making sure that testing happens as quickly as possible, and that is our absolute priority.

Covid-19 (Mental Health)

The First Minister will be aware that those with an existing mental health condition—whether it is anxiety, depression, psychosis or paranoia—will have their condition exacerbated by the circumstances of the pandemic. Will she increase the resources and capacity of Breathing Space, which provides really valuable support? What other plans does she have to take care of those with existing mental health conditions and for the wellbeing of the whole population?

The short answer is yes. If Breathing Space wants to contact us, we will look at how we support it. Part of the funding that was announced yesterday is to support organisations on the front-line that are providing crucial support.

I have already referenced my visit to Age Scotland yesterday. We have given additional funding to allow the expansion of its helpline, but other organisations—Breathing Space is a very good example—will have greater demand placed on their services.

As people are social distancing and self-isolating, the services will become more important in ensuring that the human connections that are so vital to all our lives continue. We very much want to do everything that we can to make sure that those vital organisations have the support that they need.

Covid-19 (Immunity Test)

I draw the First Minister’s attention to the statement that the Prime Minister made yesterday about a reliable test being available imminently to identify those who are immune from coronavirus. Is she yet in a position to advise when such tests may be available in Scotland? Who would be on the priority list for them? The tests will be extremely helpful in fighting coronavirus.

I have already alluded to that issue in some of my answers today. Notwithstanding what might happen in relation to a new test being made available, I have made it very clear that key workers will be getting tested to make sure that they are not self-isolating unnecessarily and that we can keep that workforce as intact as possible.

I have already said that discussions are on-going about the possibility of new forms of tests, rather than the swab tests that are currently being used. Dipstick tests are quicker; they are not available right now, but discussions are taking place at United Kingdom level with companies about whether it will be possible to make them available in the near future. If so, that would allow people to test themselves much more quickly and, crucially, to tell whether they had had the virus—that is, to see whether they had the antibodies that suggested that they had had it.

I have set out the three objectives of our testing arrangements: to protect the vulnerable and save lives; to test key and critical workers; and to carry out population surveillance, so that we know what is happening with the spread of the virus. The new tests, if they became available, would enable people to know whether they have had the virus, which would be hugely important, particularly as we try to get people back to normal in later stages. The tests are not available right now, but I hope that the on-going work will lead to their becoming available as soon as possible.

Covid-19 (Testing for Healthcare Workers)

Will the First Minister commit to prioritising testing for front-line healthcare workers and ensuring that it is accessible at local level?

Yes. I have been trying to do that repeatedly to date. Front-line healthcare workers are the priority when it comes to making tests available. We want to do that as easily and as accessibly as possible. That is exactly the work that is under way, and I am grateful to Maurice Corry for giving me the opportunity to reiterate that important point.

Covid-19 (Access to Ministers)

The Covid-19 pandemic means that we will need to look afresh at how we respond to Scotland’s drug death emergency, and give fresh consideration to the available capacity in Scotland’s residential rehabilitation centres and how we use them. There are many urgent questions about vulnerable people who are affected by substance misuse. I agree with the First Minister that we need a national collective endeavour, so I ask that Opposition spokespeople can have regular access to ministers. We all have ideas, and there are ways in which we can help, so that we can work together to deal with the issues in our country that were already big but which have become even more acute because of the outbreak.

Yes, I can give that assurance. I would hope that Opposition spokespeople feel that they have access to ministers. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has told me that she is meeting with Opposition health spokespeople after First Minister’s questions. As Willie Rennie said, I convened a meeting of party leaders yesterday and have given an undertaking to meet them regularly.

Things feel a bit unusual to all of us, me included, because these are unusual times. Politics as normal is not operating right now—nor should it be. The only thing that we should all be focused on—the only thing that I am focused on—is doing everything that we can to get the country through this unprecedented, enormous challenge.

Government has a leadership role, but I will be candid in saying that Government cannot do it all on its own. We try to think of everything, but there will be some things that we do not think of. The questions that are raised in the chamber, and the suggestions that are made, are therefore more important than ever. Not only Opposition spokespeople but members across the chamber should feel that doors are open in the Government. If they have ideas, if they hear suggestions, or if they think that there are things that we are not thinking of or not doing as well as we should, I ask them to tell us. It is in everybody’s interest that they do that, so that we can make sure that we are doing absolutely everything that we can.

Covid-19 (Business Insurance)

On the subject of the Government not being able to do it alone, I have been contacted by a small business in my constituency that provides specialist inspection and training services to the energy industry. Over the past few weeks, its order books have ended up at less than 5 per cent of the pre-Covid-19 level. The owner tells me that he will have no alternative but to close operations next week. As a responsible business owner, he has business interruption insurance, and he has provided me with a copy of the policy. It turns out that the policy provides cover for smallpox, which was globally eradicated before I was born, but not, his insurance company tells him, for Covid-19.

Last week, the First Minister told Andy Wightman that discussions were on-going with the insurance sector. Where are those discussions at, and does she agree that the insurance sector needs to get a shift on? It could be the difference between companies surviving the crisis or not.

Yes, I would absolutely send that message to insurance companies. Fiona Hyslop made a comment about the banks the other day, which I absolutely endorse and extend to insurance companies. We need everybody to play their part in doing the right thing. If Mark McDonald wants to pass on the details of the company, we will be happy to look into the issue and to include it in discussions with the insurance sector.

We made Covid-19 a notifiable disease a few weeks ago. That is important for insurance purposes. There has also been some debate across the UK about whether it is necessary for insurance purposes for businesses—in particular, pubs, cafes and restaurants—to be ordered to close. All those things are being carefully worked through.

Through emergency legislation that will be published at Westminster, new powers are being taken to try to deal with some of those things. However, we should not always have to be exercising legislative power; in this situation everybody has an obligation to step up to the plate and do the right thing to the best of their ability. That undoubtedly includes insurance companies.

Covid-19 (Armed Forces)

There are unconfirmed reports that Army units are setting up in Strathclyde park in my constituency. What discussions has the First Minister had with the armed forces high command in Scotland regarding the emergency, and will Army units be used during it?

The Army often provides support when we need it. For example, during previous terrorist incidents, the Army has been able to provide support at the request of the police. In terms of dialogue, procedures are well-established between the Scottish Government and the Army. We will take help wherever we can get it.

I am happy to look into the specific issue that Richard Lyle has raised, but we need to make sure that all our resources are appropriately—I stress “appropriately”—fully deployed to ensure that our efforts against coronavirus are absolutely what the public need them to be.

I am conscious that quite a large number of members did not get a chance to ask a question, but we have already let the session run on. I will suspend the meeting there, and we will resume at a quarter to 2 for portfolio questions.

12:49 Meeting suspended.  

13:47 On resuming—