Meeting date: Thursday, August 20, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 August 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon, colleagues. I remind members that social distancing is in place throughout the building, as well as in the chamber. Members are to observe the rules at all times.
The first item of business is First Minister’s question time. Before we move to questions, the First Minister will give an update on the three-weekly review of lockdown restrictions, which will be a slightly longer statement than normal.
The Scottish Government is required by law to review lockdown restrictions every three weeks. The latest review falls due today, and I will shortly report on the decisions that we have reached. First, I will report on today’s statistics and other developments.
Since yesterday, an additional 77 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed, which represents 1 per cent of those who were newly tested yesterday and takes the total number of cases to 19,534. That is the highest number of new cases in almost three months, which underlines the need for continuing caution.
A total of 249 patients are currently in hospital with confirmed Covid, which is an increase of one since yesterday. Two people are in intensive care, which is the same as yesterday.
In the past 24 hours, no deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed through a test as having the virus. The total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement therefore remains 2,492. However, yesterday’s figures from National Records of Scotland, which reported three Covid deaths during the previous week, showed that the total number of deaths is higher than that, and that people are still dying from the virus.
We must never lose sight of the grief and heartbreak that is caused by every one of those deaths. I again send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to the illness.
I turn now to the review of lockdown restrictions. I am not able to say that there will be a move today from phase 3 of our route map out of lockdown to phase 4. For now, we will remain in phase 3. I must give notice that that might well also be the case beyond the next review point.
For us to move to phase 4, we would have to be satisfied that
“the virus is no longer considered a significant threat to public health”.
That is a quotation from our route map. As today’s figures have demonstrated, and as has been confirmed to me in advice from the chief medical officer, that is definitely not the case.
Therefore, today’s update sets out which phase 3 restrictions will be changed in the coming weeks, while other necessary restrictions will remain in place. This has involved some difficult and delicate decisions.
The figures that we have been reporting in recent weeks show that incidence and prevalence of the virus continue to be at low levels in Scotland as a whole. However, the range for our reproduction number has recently increased, and our most recent estimates suggest that it could currently be above 1. Of course, that is partly because, when prevalence is generally low, localised outbreaks have a bigger effect on the R number. That said, we must continue to monitor it closely.
We are also recording more positive cases than we were recording three weeks ago. When we last reviewed the lockdown measures, 14 new cases a day, on average, had been recorded over the previous week. We are now recording 52 new cases a day, on average. In the past three weeks, there has been one significant outbreak of the virus in Aberdeen, and a number of smaller clusters in locations around the country.
We are also now dealing with a significant cluster in Coupar Angus, which is linked to a 2 Sisters Food Group food processing plant. That is no doubt reflected in the fact that 27 of today’s 77 cases are in the NHS Tayside health board area. In total, 43 cases have been identified so far as being part of that outbreak—37 people who work in the plant and six contacts of theirs—and that number will almost certainly grow. We are stressing the importance of all workers at the plant self-isolating and getting tested. A mobile testing unit remains on site, and the factory has been closed down for a two-week period. Given the nature and potential scale of the outbreak, we are considering carefully and urgently whether further restrictions are necessary. Later this afternoon, I will chair another meeting of the Scottish Government’s resilience committee.
In addition, several cases that are linked to schools are worth noting. A total of eight adults at Kingspark school in Dundee have tested positive, which has prompted the decision to temporarily close that school. In addition, the number of cases in the cluster in north-east Glasgow now stands at 16. There is also a separate, but linked, cluster of nine cases in Coatbridge. A number of the cases in those clusters are school children, although there is no evidence that they contracted the virus in school. Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board is carrying out contact tracing around several other schools in Glasgow.
Finally, there were 12 new cases in Grampian yesterday. The latest figures that are available are that a total of 407 cases have been identified in the NHS Grampian health board area since 26 July. Of those, 237 are associated with the same cluster as has been linked to Aberdeen pubs, and 1,185 contacts have now been identified from those 237 cases.
As I said yesterday, there is now evidence that the original cluster of cases that were linked to Aberdeen pubs is coming under control, but in recent days we have continued to see new cases that do not seem to be linked to that first cluster. Because of that, restrictions in Aberdeen have been extended, but will be reviewed again on Sunday, with a view to setting out, if possible, a firm timetable for lifting the restrictions.
All those outbreaks are being tackled by our test and protect teams, and current evidence on their performance suggests that the vast majority of contacts are being identified, with most being identified quickly. However, the clusters and new cases highlight the continuing need for caution, especially as our priority continues to be to keep schools safely open.
Of course, those clusters are not completely unexpected. We have always known that reopening more services and premises, especially indoor bars, restaurants and cafes, might lead to an increase in cases. Indeed, two major risk factors have stood out in reports of recent clusters. As we expected, indoor hospitality—bars and restaurants—is one. The other is social events and gatherings in people’s homes.
We have already tightened some of the rules in relation to the indoor hospitality sector—for example, by putting guidance on a statutory footing and making it compulsory to collect customers’ contact data. I will announce further measures that are intended to aid compliance, at the end of my statement.
Understanding the risks of indoor settings has also made us think carefully about further changes and the need to ensure rigorous compliance with guidance. On balance, and taking account of the different harms that Covid and the restrictions that are imposed to tackle it are inflicting on the country, we have decided that the reopenings that were pencilled in for 24 August can proceed. I must stress, however, that such reopenings should happen only when the appropriate guidance covering that activity or setting has been implemented. We will also monitor the impact carefully and, as with everything else, we will not hesitate to reimpose restrictions, should that prove to be necessary.
Full details will be available on the Scottish Government website; the 24 August changes include some outdoor live events, with physical distancing, enhanced hygiene and restricted numbers. Organised outdoor contact sports will also resume for people of all ages, but for outdoor coaching sessions there will be a cap of 30 on the total number of people who can be coached at any one time.
Driving lessons will resume, and indoor face-to-face advice services, such as citizens advice services, can also open to provide financial advice when necessary.
We have given particularly careful consideration to premises such as bingo halls, because they share some obvious similarities with the indoor hospitality sector. It is therefore of the utmost importance that guidance be strictly adhered to, so we will be monitoring that carefully.
I now turn to the reopening of gyms, swimming pools and indoor sports courts. Three weeks ago, I indicated that they could reopen from 14 September, but I also said that we would consider whether that date could safely be brought forward, especially given the wider physical and mental health benefits of access to such facilities. Having done that, I am now able to confirm that, subject to guidance being in place, those facilities can reopen from 31 August. For indoor sports courts, including dance studios and gymnastics courts, it is worth stressing that for people aged 12 and over, reopening on that date applies to non-contact activity only.
Those are the only key changes to restrictions that we plan to make within the current review period. However, we hope that further changes will be possible from Monday 14 September, in line with what is set out in our route map. I must stress that those possible changes are, at this stage, indicative only. Given the volatility that we face in transmission of the virus, there is a very real possibility that some of, or all, those plans could change.
With that significant caveat, we hope that from 14 September, sports stadia will be able to reopen, although only for limited numbers of spectators and with strict physical distancing in place. Some professional sports events might be arranged for spectators before then, with Scottish Government agreement, to test the safety of any new arrangements. We also hope that from 14 September, indoor contact sports activities can resume for people aged 12 and over.
We hope that entertainment sites and cultural venues, such as theatres and live music venues, will be able to reopen from that date, too, but with strict physical distancing in place. To facilitate that, such venues can reopen for preparation and rehearsal from 24 August.
Finally, we hope that, from 14 September, wedding and civil partnership receptions and funeral wakes will be able to take place with more attendees than at present, although numbers will remain restricted. We intend to set out more detail on that, including on permitted numbers, shortly.
Those are the activities and premises for which we are currently setting indicative dates, but I stress again that, at this stage, those dates are only indicative.
Unfortunately, we are not yet setting a date for the reopening of non-essential call centres and offices. We will review that position again at the next review point. For now, working from home will remain the default position. I know that many office workers miss seeing their colleagues and that many are keen to resume a more normal daily routine. I also know that some businesses, regardless of how well they might be managing to work virtually, will want more of their employees to meet and work together. In addition, I am acutely aware of the impact of home working on services such as cafes and restaurants that are based in areas with lots of office workers.
However, given the numbers involved, a full return to office working would significantly increase the risk of indoor transmission. It would also make buses and trains significantly busier and increase transmission risks there, too. Our conclusion, therefore, is that a return to working in offices—unless that work is essential and cannot be completed at home—presents too great a risk at this time. In addition, the impact that it could have on community transmission would make it more difficult to keep schools open.
Unfortunately, the issue comes down to difficult judgments about priorities. We have made it clear that our priority is to enable children to be safely back at school and, with the virus at its current levels, that means that we cannot do everything else that we would like to do, such as bring non-essential offices back into operation.
I know that people will ask why their kids can go to school but they cannot go to the office—that might seem like an inconsistency—but that logic is back to front. It is because people cannot go to the office, and because of the other restrictions that we are keeping in place, that we are able to send children back to school. If we opened everything up right now, the overall impact would simply be too great. The virus would run away from us and we would, in all likelihood, be forced to reintroduce restrictions that none of us wants to see. We have been able to relax some restrictions only because others have remained in place.
There is a final issue that I want to cover. It relates to the risks that I mentioned earlier of transmission inside people’s homes, and in pubs, cafes and restaurants. We have considered very carefully what further enforcement actions we can take to minimise the risk of transmission in those settings.
For the indoor hospitality sector, I am grateful to the many pubs, restaurants and cafes that have opened responsibly and which have gone to great lengths to stick to the rules and guidance on ventilation, hygiene, face coverings, contact details and physical distancing. Their efforts are hugely appreciated. However, we know that not all hospitality businesses have implemented the guidance effectively, so we intend to strengthen the power of local authorities to act in such circumstances.
The Scottish Government has powers under the emergency legislation to issue directions in respect of a class of premises—for example, a direction to close all pubs in a particular postcode. We intend to give local authorities the power to act in respect of individual specific premises that are breaching guidelines and risking transmission of the virus. That power would enable local authorities to close such premises or to impose conditions on their remaining open, where they deem that that is necessary for the purpose of preventing, protecting against or controlling the spread of infection. We believe that that is a vital but proportionate step, which will help local authorities to ensure that businesses stick to the guidelines and that action can be taken where those guidelines are being breached.
The second area that we have been looking at carefully is that of indoor social events such as house parties. We know from the reports of our test and protect teams and from evidence from other places in the United Kingdom and, indeed, around the world that such indoor events pose a major, very significant transmission risk. Because the virus is so infectious, if it is present at such an event, there is a very high likelihood that most people at the event will get the virus. That is why we advise strict limits on indoor gatherings. Right now, our advice is that no more than eight people from a maximum of three different households should be gathering indoors.
I know that the vast majority of people will be sticking to that. It is not easy to do so and I am very grateful to them for that. However, we know that a minority do not do that and that large house parties pose a real and significant risk of causing clusters and outbreaks like some of those that we have recently been dealing with.
Therefore, for use in cases of flagrant breach and as a last resort, we intend to give the police powers of enforcement to break up and disperse large indoor gatherings. We believe that both those new powers are necessary to continue to suppress the virus, minimise the risk of outbreak and keep it under control, which is so necessary. We will lay regulations for both measures next week and we intend that they will come into force next Friday, 28 August.
The past three weeks has given us mixed news. We have seen a rise in new cases and a number of clusters across the country. We have also, regrettably, had to reimpose some restrictions in Aberdeen. However, we still have low numbers of new cases overall, we have very low levels of hospital admissions and we have strong and growing evidence that our test and protect teams and system are working well. Given the resurgence of Covid that we are seeing in some parts of Europe—and given that we always knew that reopening more parts of the economy would be risky—the picture in Scotland could be better, but it could also be significantly worse.
We are still making progress in our overall fight against the virus. We cannot take that progress for granted, especially if we are to keep our schools open, keep businesses and services open and retain our ability to socialise and meet up in small groups of friends and family. Covid is still a major risk, and we must still be cautious. We can see the evidence of that in Aberdeen, in each new cluster in Scotland and in reports from elsewhere in the UK, Europe and around the world. That is why today’s review has sought to take a careful and balanced approach.
I hope that the reopening of some services will be welcomed. Notwithstanding the risk that every reopening presents, we know that that is essential to reduce the economic harm that the virus is doing. I hope that people will also understand why, as we try to open services and to keep them open, we must take firm action if rules and guidance are not being complied with.
I also hope that everyone watching will understand that, although Government must and will take the lead in making difficult decisions, drafting guidance and proposing laws, we cannot control Covid on our own. We are all dependent on the choices that are made by each and every person in the country.
Please think carefully about whether you are playing your part as fully as you should be. Please do not meet indoors in groups of more than eight people from any more than three households. That applies in a pub, cafe or restaurant just as it does in someone’s home. Remember physical distancing and do not go into crowded places where that may not be possible. Ask yourself whether your social life feels normal—it should not feel like that at the moment. Wherever you are, assume the virus is present and act at all times to avoid creating bridges that allow it to cross from one household to another.
I have spoken before about the importance of solidarity in how we deal with the pandemic. I know that it is hard, especially after five months, but sticking to the rules is an expression of our care for each other. It is the way in which we protect not only ourselves but our loved ones and our communities.
For that reason, I will end by reminding everyone again of FACTS: the five golden rules that will help us to stay safe, even as life gets back to something closer to normality.
The F is face coverings, which should be worn in enclosed spaces: public transport, shops and anywhere else that physical distancing is more difficult. A reminds us to avoid crowded areas, outdoors as well as indoors. C tells you to clean your hands regularly and thoroughly and to clean hard surfaces after touching them. T says that 2m distancing remains the clear advice. S says that you should self-isolate and book a test immediately if you have symptoms of Covid: a new cough; a fever, or a loss of, or change in, your sense of taste or smell. You can book a test at nhsinform.scot or by phoning 0800 028 2816.
Any time any of us drops our guard and forgets those rules, we give the virus a chance to spread. We risk turning an infection into a cluster, and a cluster into an outbreak. If all of us stick to the FACTS, we can continue to suppress the virus, we can keep schools and services open and we can think about easing more restrictions in the future.
Thank you, once again, to everyone across the country who is helping us to do that.
Thank you, First Minister. We now turn to questions. I will take all the supplementary questions after question 7. Members should press their request-to-speak button now if they wish to ask a supplementary question.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement.
Today, I want to ask about care homes. Did anyone in the Scottish Government know prior to Sunday’s press reports that hospital patients who had previously tested positive for Covid had subsequently been transferred into a care home? If they knew, when did they know, and why was it not made public?
This is a really serious issue, so I welcome the opportunity to address it. Scottish Government ministers do not know the individual clinical decisions that are taken in cases of patients who are being discharged, whether they are being discharged from hospital to their own home, to a care home or to any other setting.
The responsibility of ministers is to put in place guidance, and guidance has been in place from 13 March. The 13 March guidance specifically refers to the need for clinical screening to take place of patients who are being discharged from hospital. That guidance, of course, has developed as our knowledge and understanding of the virus has developed.
Of course, we want to understand more about this. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, as she announced earlier this week, has commissioned Public Health Scotland to work with health boards to produce validated statistics and analysis on the number of patients who were tested prior to discharge, the outcome and the date of the test. That will include examining how many were assessed as being discharged when they were considered to be infectious and the rationales that were in place for such a discharge, for example in the case of palliative care concerns. Public Health Scotland is working towards providing that data by the end of September.
I listened very carefully to every word of that answer and at no point did the First Minister actually confirm or deny that anyone in her Government knew, or when they knew. In fact, in April, the First Minister was asked at her daily briefing whether allowing Covid-positive patients to be placed in care homes—I quote—“looks reckless”. She said, “No, it doesn’t.” In May, the health secretary was asked in the chamber whether Covid-positive patients had been transferred into care homes, and she did not know. In June, the First Minister was asked about this at First Minister’s question time, and she said that it should not happen. If ministers are being questioned, it should not take a Sunday newspaper to confirm the information for the public.
One care home that we spoke to says that it took a patient in good faith, and only after they had been welcomed into the home was it then told that the person was positive. How do care homes stand a chance in that sort of situation?
With the greatest respect to Ruth Davidson, I am not sure that she listened carefully enough to the answer that I gave. I said very clearly—I think this is something that most reasonable people would understand—that ministers are not involved in the clinical decision making about residents being admitted to care homes.
Ministers, advised as appropriate by clinicians, put in place the guidance that governs the decision-making process, and that guidance from 13 March was clear that clinical risk assessment had to happen. That guidance, of course, has since developed, as I have said, a number of times. In the fullness of time, it is right and proper that there will be inquiries into every aspect of our handling of the situation, and that will of course include care homes.
On the position around care homes, while the responsibility here lies with the Scottish Government, all Governments across the UK were taking similar decisions as we tried to manage a pandemic that was, of course, posing a significant risk of infection in our hospitals, including to elderly patients in our hospitals who had no medical need to be there.
The work that we have now commissioned Public Health Scotland to do in a short space of time will give more information on the numbers and the circumstances in which patients were tested before being discharged to care homes and the rationale for the decisions that were taken. We will provide as much information as we can as all of us seek to learn the lessons and reflect on the decisions that are made in the handling of what is, as everybody knows, an unprecedented situation.
I completely understand ministers’ role in the issuance of guidance, but if no one in the First Minister’s Government knew, she should just be able to say so.
In May, Jackson Carlaw raised the case in the chamber of Sandra O’Neill, whose mother died from Covid in the Almond Court care home in Drumchapel. As she told us then, she fears that her mother caught the disease from another resident who had been discharged from hospital despite clearly being unwell. The fundamental question that Sandra wants answered is how the disease got into her mother’s home. Yesterday, she spent four hours with the police, who interviewed her as part of their investigation into what happened in our care homes. It is not her mother’s carers that she wants investigated—she thinks that they did a brilliant job. It is the system that let her and her mother down, but she was told that the question of how the disease got into the home is not part of the police remit. Why is it not? Where can Sandra and families like hers go to get the answers that they need?
I am sorry—I am genuinely not sure whether Ruth Davidson has just suggested that it is for me to tell the police what they should investigate and how they should investigate it. That is entirely for the police and, in the matters under discussion, for the independent Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. It would be completely inappropriate and unacceptable for me to make such decisions.
Every day since the start of the pandemic, I and my ministers have taken very difficult decisions, some—I hope, most—of which we have got right, and some of which we will have not got right. For a range of reasons, I welcome the fullest possible scrutiny of those decisions: for the purposes of accountability, but also for the purposes of making sure that we learn lessons for the future, both for the later stages of the current pandemic, and for any future pandemics that we may face—I hope that we will not—in years to come. I am absolutely open to that.
I will always say, because it happens to be absolutely the case, that at every stage we have taken difficult decisions with the best of intentions, based on the best evidence, the best knowledge and the best advice that we have had. We are dealing with a novel coronavirus. We have come to understand that virus more, when it comes to both the efficacy of testing and the issue of asymptomatic transmission. We have developed our approaches and our guidance as we have gone through that.
We will continue to do that, because those decisions continue to be difficult, and we will continue to take them to the best of our ability, as we navigate our way through the remainder of the pandemic, for however long that takes. We will ensure, as we go—and, at an appropriate time, more systematically—that there is a full look back, to learn whatever lessons are required.
There is an inconsistency in the Scottish Government’s position. On the one hand, it is happy for the Crown Office and police to push ahead with an investigation into some aspects of care homes; on the other hand, it says that we should wait for an inquiry into its own actions. Those should both happen now, precisely because we do not know how far into the pandemic we are, and we do not know when, or if, it will end. However, we need to know, in order to better fight it in the future, what mistakes have been made and how to prevent their happening again.
I ask, therefore, on behalf of residents and families who are still seeking answers: will the First Minister commit to publishing the remit of the inquiry that she has promised, and to getting it started?
I know that Ruth Davidson is planning to leave democratic politics, but she has surely been in Parliament for long enough to understand the separation of powers. It is not for me to tell the Crown Office or the police what to do; it would be completely inappropriate for me to seek to tell the Crown Office or the police what to do.
Earlier this week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced to Parliament that the Government has asked Public Health Scotland to produce statistics and the analysis on patients who were tested prior to discharge; the outcomes; the dates; and the rationale for the decisions that were taken. That work will be published. We aim to have it by the end of September—in a matter of weeks.
As soon as we consider that the time is right, we will set out for discussion and consultation across Parliament the remit and timescale for a fuller public inquiry, which will look at care homes and at all aspects of the Government’s handling of the pandemic.
However, I say to Ruth Davidson that I noticed a decision that was taken this morning by the COVID-19 Committee about regulations in Aberdeen; the Conservatives abstained on whether those regulations should continue. Every day, I and the Government have to take a multitude of difficult decisions to which there are no easy answers one way or the other. We do not have the luxury of abstaining. We are leading the country through a pandemic—and that pandemic is not over.
The biggest disservice that I could do the country, right now, in the teeth of a pandemic that may be accelerating again—as we have seen from the figures in Scotland—would be to divert the attention of everybody in Government, our health boards and the care sector into a public inquiry, at a time when they should be focusing on keeping people as safe as possible from the on-going threat.
I will continue to discharge my responsibility as First Minister to the best of my ability. Unlike certain other people, I will be held accountable for that by the electorate.
Care Homes Admission (Testing)
I, too, thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement.
I agree with her that Covid-19 is still a major risk. That is why I ask the First Minister whether she can tell us how many people who were discharged from hospital to residential care homes in March, April and May have not been tested for Covid-19?
I think that I have now said twice in response to Ruth Davidson that we have commissioned Public Health Scotland to work with health boards to produce validated statistics on the number of patients who were tested prior to discharge, the outcome of those tests and the dates on which those tests happened, as well as to look at and analyse the rationale for those decisions. We aim to have that data by the end of September.
Throughout the pandemic, we have been gathering, validating and publishing data on a wide range of things for which we normally do not have to do that. We have to make sure that the data is robust, while we continue daily to take the on-going decisions that are about keeping people safe. I hope that Richard Leonard welcomes the announcement by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport earlier this week.
That data, above all other data, is so important because half of all Covid-19-related deaths have taken place in the setting of our residential care homes. That is why the data is important, and should urgently be made available to Parliament and the public.
A freedom of information request by Scottish Labour reveals that at least 1,200 people were discharged from hospitals to care homes without being tested for Covid-19. That figure is likely to be a gross underestimate, because five of Scotland’s health boards, including the two biggest, failed to provide answers.
Back on 6 May in Parliament, in an answer to Neil Findlay, the First Minister stated:
“On the situation in care homes, if a patient in a hospital has the virus, they must have two negative tests before they can be discharged ... Therefore, at every single step of the way the priority is to prevent infection from getting into care homes ... I hope that he will take it in good faith”.—[Official Report, 6 May 2020; c 28.]
Thanks to an investigation by the Sunday Post, we now know not only that people were transferred into care homes without being tested, but that people were also transferred into care homes when they had been tested, and had tested positive for Covid-19.
The First Minister asked to be taken “in good faith”. Can she simply answer yes or no to the following two questions? Was she aware, when she gave that answer to Parliament, that people who had not been tested at all were being discharged into care homes? Was she aware that people who had been tested and had tested positive were being transferred into care homes?
I gave that answer; I gave the policy position that was the case at the time. That policy position has moved on and developed, but at that point the policy was that a person who had been known in hospital to have Covid had to have two negative tests before being admitted to a care home. That was the position, and that is what was reflected in practice at that time.
We have since extended that, so that testing of patients who are being discharged from hospital into care homes is now wider than that. We also now do routine weekly testing of all staff who work in care homes.
The reason why the position on testing has developed—this is not unique to Scotland; although the detail of policy positions will differ, it is similar in England, Wales and other countries—is that our understanding of the efficacy of testing people who do not have symptoms of Covid has changed. Previously it was thought that it would be less effective than it is now thought to be, therefore our policy and practice have developed.
The other point—it is worth stressing—that I have made repeatedly to Richard Leonard is that, notwithstanding the important role of testing, the fundamentally important aspect of tackling Covid or any other infectious disease, in a care home or anywhere else, is infection prevention and control. That is why, from the earliest iterations of the guidance there was, in addition to the focus on clinical screening, a focus on isolation of residents in care homes in their own rooms and, later, on distancing and restrictions on visiting.
Testing is important, but testing has never been, and never will be, the only way of tackling the virus. It is really important that people understand that.
The First Minister referred earlier to the Scottish Government clinical guidance of 13 March, which says quite clearly:
“There are situations where long term care facilities have expressed concern about the risk of admissions from a hospital setting”.
It goes on to say, three times in just five pages, that care homes must keep taking transfers, and that
“the priority is maximising hospital capacity.”
It also talks about flows out of hospital being “not hindered” and “where appropriate ... expedited.”
Does the First Minister not understand that people who have lost loved ones are upset, and that they are also angry? Half of all deaths from Covid-19 have taken place in our care homes. The First Minister talks about transparency and honesty, and she asks in Parliament to be taken “in good faith”, but in communities across Scotland people were being discharged from hospitals into residential care homes, where the people who are most vulnerable and susceptible to the virus are living. It was, as Professor Allyson Pollock said at the weekend,
“like putting a lit match to dry tinder”.
We know that the cabinet secretary for health has now instructed Public Health Scotland to publish how many people were transferred from hospitals to care homes after testing, but it should not take a national newspaper’s revealing, through freedom of information requests, that people who had tested positive with Covid-19 were sent from hospital into care homes at the peak of a pandemic, to jolt the Government into action.
How was that allowed to happen? Will the First Minister accept full responsibility? Will she apologise to care home staff and residents, and to the grieving families of those who have lost loved ones?
I stand up and take responsibility for every aspect of this Government’s handling of the pandemic every day of the week. I have said before, and will continue to say, that if the Government has got it wrong at any stage, on any aspect of our handling of the situation, notwithstanding our best intentions, yes—I am sorry for that.
On a daily, hourly and almost minute-by-minute basis, I am acutely aware of the impact of the virus on individuals, families, communities and businesses across the country, and I feel the weight of that responsibility very heavily. Scrutiny and criticism are legitimate, but I ask people not to doubt the seriousness with which I take every single aspect of this.
Richard Leonard quoted the guidance of 13 March, which I do not have in front of me, but with which I am very familiar. The bit that he did not quote, of course, was the requirement to do a clinical risk assessment of every patient before they were discharged to a care home. That is important.
I regret every death from the virus and I regret the situation in care homes, but—this applies not just to Scotland, but to every part of the United Kingdom and to literally every Government across the world—at the point when decisions were being taken, the pictures on our nightly news were of hospitals and intensive care departments in parts of Italy not being able to cope because they were so overwhelmed with patients. Lots of things have kept me awake at night over the whole piece; at that point, I did not know whether our hospitals would be able to cope with the influx. I also did not know the severe risk that patients, particularly elderly patients who had no need to be there, would be at if they were in hospital while Covid patients were coming in in huge numbers.
We were dealing with a range of difficult decisions that had to be balanced, and we took all decisions based on the best knowledge and evidence, using best judgment and with the best intentions. We will have got things wrong along the way, and I will forever regret anything that we got wrong, but just as we have done until now, I will continue to do everything that I can to lead a Government that tries to make the best decisions as we navigate our way through this horrendously difficult situation.
Question 3 comes from Patrick Harvie, who is joining us remotely.
Schools (Covid-19 Safety Measures)
For schools to remain open, they need to remain safe. A week on from reopening, it is clear that the concerns that were expressed by teachers and other school staff, as well as parents and pupils, are still very real. Despite the efforts that are being made, further action is needed to keep people safe. The Educational Institute of Scotland has this week made a direct plea to the First Minister, saying that 3,500 teachers are needed to reduce class sizes. So far, the Scottish Government is providing funding for less than half that number.
The EIS is also asking that guidance on physical distancing and face coverings be strengthened. The evidence is clear that face coverings can reduce the spread of the virus, which is why they are needed in other indoor spaces. It is just not credible to say that transmission simply will not happen in schools, when we know that the risk exists everywhere else where social distancing does not happen. Is the First Minister as concerned as I am by the pictures of crowded school corridors and canteens, where it is clear that social distancing is not possible? Does she believe that face coverings should be worn in high schools when distancing is not possible?
The direct and short answer to Patrick Harvie’s central question is that I am concerned about every aspect of the virus and how it transmits. We monitor very carefully and try to adapt our response accordingly.
It is important that we have children back to school, because we know the harm that has been done to children from being out of school and away from education and their friends. That has harmed their mental wellbeing as well as their educational opportunities. It is important that we have prioritised, and continue to prioritise, children being back in full-time education.
Equally, I understand the concerns of parents, which are entirely understandable. There are a number of cases associated with schools right now. Yesterday, a case was reported in St Albert’s primary school in Pollokshields, in my constituency, and a class is self-isolating. There are a number of such cases. The bulk of the evidence so far shows that the transmission is not within the schools; community transmission is causing issues for schools. That will perhaps change—we cannot rule that out. We have to keep the evidence under review.
The guidance that is in place has been informed by scientific evidence. We will ask our scientific advisers to continue to review emerging evidence. This morning, I read summary reports of evidence from the United States about the viral load in children and their ability to transmit the virus. We will ask our advisers to look carefully at that evidence. The Deputy First Minister will chair a meeting of the education recovery group tomorrow. We will consider the calls that the EIS and others have made.
We have to constantly review the guidance on face coverings. I am sure that that will be a topic of discussion at the education recovery group meeting tomorrow. It might well be that, in the near future, we will look to change the guidance on the role of face coverings in schools. None of the guidance can be fixed in stone. We are trying to navigate a difficult, uncertain and unpredictable situation. We are prioritising having children back in school, but we are determined to do anything that is required to make the return to school safe and to allow it to continue.
We all appreciate that there is uncertainty but, in the context of uncertainty, we should be taking a precautionary approach. If there is to be a change to the policy on face coverings, that change should come sooner rather than too late.
It is not only education where local services are under pressure as a result of the pandemic. Glasgow Life, which runs leisure facilities, libraries and community centres across the city, expects to lose more than £30 million in income this year because of Covid. That will put at risk the future of places such as Whitehill pool, Govanhill library and many others. So far, Glasgow Life has no plans to reopen almost two thirds of its venues. Those facilities are a lifeline.
The First Minister might even have seen people outside closed libraries in her constituency. They are turning up there because the wi-fi is still switched on and that is their only internet access. Such facilities are really needed. The uncertainty is affecting those communities as well as almost 1,000 staff who are currently on furlough. Will the First Minister allay people’s fears and commit to a bailout for Glasgow Life and similar services across Scotland?
I know the importance of those issues. I do not want to stray into constituency issues, but I am concerned about Govanhill library and Pollokshields library, in my constituency, which are not yet reopening, although I know that Glasgow City Council and Glasgow Life are navigating a difficult situation. I see the impact on my constituents, just as all of us see the impact, including the impact on our families and friends. There is no part of life or society that the situation that we are living through is not impacting on. We want to provide financial help to sectors, individuals and businesses as much as possible, and every day we look at what more we can do.
This is not intended to be a political point or moan, but there is a limit to the Scottish Government’s ability to make financial resources available. We have limited borrowing powers, and therefore there is a hard limit and we are not able to overspend. There is a hard limit on how much we can make available. We hope that we will see more action. We have seen welcome action so far from the UK Government in its extending of the furlough scheme, but it could also look at giving more borrowing flexibility to this Government and taking decisions that lead to more consequentials.
We will flex the financial resources that we have as much as possible. However, I am not doing anybody across Scotland any favours if I am not clear that there is a hard limit on what we can do. In being clear, we encourage everybody to think about how we can change that situation so that we have flexibility.
We will continue to do everything we can for Glasgow Life and cultural organisations elsewhere. We are currently—and I think that this will come up later—discussing with the culture sector the disbursement of money that is available to try and help. We will do everything we can, but we also need more flexibility if we are going to be able to do more.
Spot Checks on International Arrivals
Two months ago, the justice secretary told a committee of this Parliament that 20 per cent of arrivals from abroad who were required to quarantine were being spot checked. The actual number was zero. Yesterday, an official Government document showed that the figure was still only 7 per cent, but the health secretary told the chamber that she thought that it was 20 per cent. Does anyone in the Scottish Government have a grasp of those numbers? Do ministers think that it is important to carry out spot checks or not?
Yes, we both have a grasp of the numbers and think that it is important to carry out spot checks.
I believe that some of the information that I am about to give has already been given to Parliament. However, if it has not, I stand to be corrected. We committed to Public Health Scotland making contact with around 20 per cent of travellers, up to a maximum of 450 per week, which at that time was considered to be a robust sample size given the number of flights affected. We are currently exceeding that figure, with around 600 contacts per week. However, as the number of flights increases, the figure of 450—or even a figure above that—will become less than 20 per cent. Therefore, we are looking at how we will adjust that. In fact, data for last week shows that we contacted just over 1,000 travellers.
As more countries have quarantine restrictions imposed—there will be discussions later today and into tomorrow with the other United Kingdom nations, and it might be that other countries are added to that list—we will be required to take decisions to increase that capacity further.
To put that in context, we understand that Public Health England takes a random sample of 600 individuals from travellers who enter England each week. Therefore, there is some consistency in the number of contacts that are being made by Public Health Scotland and Public Health England.
Those are the figures. We will continue to ensure that we are committing the resources to make them proportionate to the numbers of people that are coming in. That will change as the countries that are in and out of the quarantine restrictions change as well.
The Government’s promise is to do spot checks on 20 per cent, and after two months that figure is still not being delivered. In fact, the document that was published yesterday talked about reducing the numbers, not increasing them.
I am sorry to say that, with the Spanish quarantine and spot-check problems, I have little confidence that the Government is on top of this. If the First Minister focused a little bit more on the international border than the English border, we might be in a better position.
Three weeks ago, I asked the First Minister whether she would test all international students on arrival to keep them safe, and she said that she was thinking about it. Last week, she said that she was still thinking. This morning, the health secretary said that she was looking at it. However, students are arriving right now. How much more thinking and looking time does the First Minister need? From spot checks to testing, why is the First Minister risking the spread of the virus?
If Willie Rennie paid attention to the decisions that we are making, he would know that his comment about borders was completely and utterly ridiculous, and, actually, I think that it was beneath him.
I am not particularly interested in borders or where they are; I am interested in keeping Scotland as safe as I can from an infectious virus, and I will take whatever decisions are necessary to achieve that.
Willie Rennie has not been entirely accurate about what ministers have said. For example, Humza Yousaf stated that the aim was to contact 20 per cent—up to 450 people per week—which is being exceeded; it is around 650 contacts a week and last week was 1,000 travellers. We will increase that as the number of countries in quarantine restrictions increases, which may happen over the next 24 or 48 hours.
With regard to his second point, I apologise to the health secretary that I was not able to listen to all her evidence this morning, but I happened to catch in passing her comment about universities. She did not say that we were thinking about it; she said that we were in active consultation with universities about the finalisation of the proposals. It is important that, given the scale of incoming student numbers and the risks that we know that will pose, we get those measures right. That is what we are seeking to do. We will continue to look at testing, the quarantine arrangements that are in place and face coverings. Across a range of those things, we—as the Government, as is our responsibility—will continue to take the tough decisions, whatever they may be, while others can simply criticise from elsewhere.
Football Clubs (Covid-19 Testing)
To ask the First Minister what discussions the Scottish Government has had with the Scottish Football Association and the Scottish Professional Football League to allow football clubs to utilise their local Covid-19 testing facilities. (S5F-04295)
The Government has held a range of meetings with the SFA, the SPFL and the joint football response group to agree the protocols and testing regimes that allowed SPFL premiership football in Scotland to resume without putting the public and others at unnecessary risk. To safeguard public sector testing capacity to meet the needs of the public, the testing for premiership clubs as commercial entities is being undertaken by private sector facilities.
I have been informed that, so far, more than £500,000 has been spent on 7,543 tests for clubs, with the expenditure going to private firms outside Scotland. Of those tests, only three have returned positive results, which were community, not football, related. Many of Scotland’s football clubs are smaller community clubs with NHS Scotland testing facilities in close proximity and not always busy. If Scottish football is willing to pay in full all costs incurred by NHS Scotland for the use of those facilities, can the First Minister indicate whether football clubs would be able to use those testing facilities and take up underutilised capacity, therefore keeping more money in Scotland’s economy?
We are certainly aware of the costs that are associated with testing players. I recognise that clubs at all levels face unprecedented financial pressure because of the pandemic, so I absolutely understand the point that Stuart McMillan has made. However, as Government, our overriding responsibility is to protect the public sector testing capacity. It may seem at the moment as if it is underutilised, but that is because prevalence is low. As we go into the winter months, when other viruses, colds and flu will give people symptoms that may be similar to those of Covid, we expect that the demand for that testing capacity will increase significantly. It is really important that we build a capacity that is able to cope with the situation not just right now, but in the winter. That is about not just money, but the physical capacity of our laboratories and the people who have the specialisms that we need to process those tests.
It is not an easy decision, but we will continue to engage with the football authorities to ensure that they have an effective regime in place that can safeguard players, staff and the wider population. We will also have to consider the implications for testing requirements of the resumption of non-contact sport for all ages, including for clubs below the premiership, such as Greenock Morton, in the member’s constituency.
Police Scotland (Budget)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in response to Police Scotland’s reported budget overspend during the Covid-19 crisis. (S5F-04285)
Police Scotland has been at the front and centre of the response to Covid and I thank it for that. Police Scotland continues to work closely with local authorities and the national health service to support the wider response.
This year, the Scottish Government has increased funding for policing by £60 million to more than £1.2 billion, but we recognise that Covid is an unprecedented situation that could lead to expenditure above that budget allocation. We will continue to work closely with the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland to monitor and manage the financial impacts of Covid on the policing budget.
The latest quarterly statistics show that there are now fewer officers in front-line roles than when Police Scotland was formed. The pandemic has strained the police purse by an extra £5 million. Our officers helped to keep us and our streets safe at the height of the pandemic. The First Minister must back our police officers and give them the funding that they so rightly deserve.
In the most recent budget, which I accept was pre-pandemic, we increased the policing budget by £60 million. The Scottish Conservatives had asked us to increase it by £50 million, but we went further than they asked us to do. That is a sign of our commitment to policing. There are 1,000 more police officers in Police Scotland than there were before this Government took office.
Our police service has done a sterling job in the course of the pandemic, which has increased the financial burden on them as it has on others in the public sector and more generally. We will continue to work with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority to ensure that we are able to monitor and manage that budget and to ensure that Police Scotland continues to do the fantastic job on our behalf that it is already doing.
Arts Sector (Funding)
To ask the First Minister what support the Scottish Government is providing for the arts sector, in light of reported concerns regarding the impact of the lockdown on the sector and loss of jobs. (S5F-04297)
Covid is having a profound impact and effect on the arts sector in Scotland. We want to do everything that we can to ensure that our world-class culture can continue to make a vibrant contribution to our country. We acted quickly to support culture with funding for both freelancers and organisations. More recently, we have announced support of £12.5 million for performing arts venues, £4 million for independent museums and £10 million for the events sector. We continue to work with the sector to ensure the full distribution of the £97 million that we received in consequentials for the arts, culture and heritage sectors.
The investment so far is welcome, but what work has the Scottish Government done to assess the knock-on impact of cancelled arts events, such as concerts and festivals, on local economies, particularly Edinburgh’s? Will the Scottish Government’s future support packages include not just institutions, but also community arts and those who are self-employed, such as artists and actors?
That is a fair and legitimate point. Within the financial constraints that I have already referred to, we try to design financial support schemes and packages in a way that recognises the wider knock-on effects and supply chain impacts. I cannot stand here and say that we will be able to mitigate and ameliorate every single penny of the impact of Covid—I wish that I could, but I cannot. We try to do that as much as possible. The support that we made available for freelancers in the cultural sector was an important indication of that understanding of the wider impact.
We are still in discussions about the distribution of the full £97 million of consequentials. Some of that money has already been allocated: the grassroots music venue fund; the performing arts venue fund; the museums resilience and recovery fund; almost £4 million to the National Trust for Scotland; and the £10 million for the events sector that I already referred to. I assure Sarah Boyack that we will keep that wider impact in mind as we come to decisions on the distribution of the rest of it.
We will move on to supplementary questions.
Residential Communities (Covid-19 Guidance)
Constituents of mine have a daughter residing in a Camphill residential community that supports adults living with learning disabilities. They are keen to see guidance for visiting arrangements, including returning home for family visits, being reviewed and revised, and made distinct from the guidance for care homes for the elderly. Such a review will hopefully take account of the lower risk faced by residents in such communities and the different environment in which they live. Will the First Minister give that some consideration?
I certainly will. The decision to restrict visiting in care homes was really tough, but was very important. In June, a plan was published for the gradual return of visiting. We are taking an incremental approach to that because, although we have made significant progress, the virus is still a threat. Currently, residents can have outdoor visits, with up to three people at a time, from no more than two households. Care homes can move to indoor visiting if they have visiting plans signed off by local directors of public health by 24 August.
We are also working to reintroduce arrangements to allow residents to go out to visit friends and family. That would obviously need to be staged and risk assessed and we will likely prioritise homes for children and people with learning disabilities initially. We will give consideration to whether further changes to the guidance are needed to address the specific circumstances of residents in communities such as the one Bob Doris refers to.
Cancer Surgery Delays
A constituent from Glasgow has contacted me regarding delays to her surgery to remove precancerous cells from her cervix. The surgery was originally put back in March but, despite calling her consultant every fortnight, there has been no updated timescale for her vital operation. My constituent is petrified about any delay to her surgery and says that
“To be able to go to a pub before I go for surgery is insulting enough. To be able to go to a pub before even receiving any update about my surgery is quite frankly contemptuous.”
I know that the First Minister will be aware of the case because she was copied in to the original email. Will she give a firm commitment that she will personally look into the situation to help my constituent get this resolved as soon as possible?
Of course, I will personally look into that; if I was copied into the email, I am sure that that process is under way already. I do not mean in any way to diminish the importance of the case, but I hope that people understand that I get a very large number of emails. They are all dealt with and looked at, so we will look into the circumstances—perhaps it will help if Annie Wells emails me the contact details today, so that I can immediately identify the correct case.
These are horrendously difficult situations for people to be in. The postponement of certain procedures in the health service in order to deal with the Covid risk was probably one of the most difficult decisions in a range of difficult decisions and I understand the daily impact of that on people. We now have in place the national framework for the resumption of cancer services and that work is under way, but patients should, of course, be being kept up to date, so I will certainly look into the case and see whether there is more that we can do, at the very least, to give the individual concerned more information.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Aberdeen)
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman, told the COVID-19 Committee this morning that the prevalence of Covid in Aberdeen remains too high for the Government to lift the local restrictions. That was different from the judgment of the local incident management committee, which was that the outbreak is under “adequate control” to allow phasing out from this weekend. Of course, advisors advise and ministers decide, and those are not easy decisions, as the First Minister says, but can she tell us what level of prevalence in the city would allow those local restrictions to be lifted?
I will try to answer the question as fully as I can. I will start by saying that I fervently wish that those judgments were as simple as that, but they are not—a whole range of factors have to be taken into account.
The chair of the local incident management team participated in the resilience committee meeting yesterday morning and indicated that he was in agreement with the precautionary approach that we were taking. Of course, yesterday morning, we had double the number of cases reported in Grampian than had been reported the day before. The situation in Aberdeen is that the IMT thinks that the pub-associated cluster is firmly coming under control and may be under control. The concern that was expressed very strongly to me and that formed the basis of the advice by the chief medical officer and the national clinical director is that there are still a significant number of cases in Grampian and in Aberdeen city that are not evidently associated with the cluster, so there is still concern about a wider community-based prevalence.
I gave some figures yesterday to try to illustrate that. Yesterday, the figure for Aberdeen city of the non-cluster-related cases was more than 20 per 100,000. To put that in context, the figure for the whole of Scotland over the past seven days has been around six per 100,000. It is coming down but, again to give some context, around 20 per 100,000 is when we would probably be imposing quarantine restrictions if that was the figure for another country. We have undertaken to do a mid-week review on Sunday, and we want to see that figure coming down. It is coming down, and we want to see it continue to come down. I would like to see it go below 20, but there will be a range of considerations about whether we can reach the conclusion that the overall situation in Aberdeen is sufficiently under control that we can start to lift the restrictions and bring people into contact with each other, which would, of course, risk transmission increasing again. I hope that, after the review on Sunday, we will be able to set out a firm timetable for the lifting of the various restrictions that are in place.
Pupil Safety (Covid-19)
The First Minister is aware of the cluster in Coatbridge, which includes five pupils at two secondary schools. I thank her for her attention to that. I also thank NHS Lanarkshire and the council for their swift response and for keeping elected representatives and the public up to date.
What action is being taken to ensure the safety of school pupils where such isolated Covid-19 outbreaks have been confirmed? What else can the Government do to highlight the risks of young people meeting indoors in large groups, where there are no regulations such as there would be for within schools?
The guidance that is in place for activity in schools is, of course, informed by scientific advice. However, as I indicated earlier in response to Patrick Harvie’s question, we are keeping that under close review. That particularly relates to aspects such the use of face coverings.
More generally, local authorities, health boards and test-and-protect teams are working extremely well when cases are identified among school pupils or adults associated with schools, ensuring that steps are taken to inform parents and advise children to isolate where necessary. That has happened in all those cases, and we continue to monitor that very carefully.
Most of those cases involve community transmission that has an impact on schools. Obviously, we are looking very carefully at any risks of transmission in schools, which cannot be ruled out, and we are continuing to take a series of mitigations to keep that risk as low as possible and to respond accordingly.
I know that parents will be anxious. Where I live in Glasgow is within the catchment area of the schools in the north-east of Glasgow cluster and the linked Coatbridge cluster, and some of my neighbours’ children go to those schools. I know that this is a time of real anxiety for parents. That is why getting kids back to school is so important. However, ensuring that the right mitigations are in place to keep people safe is vital, and we take that responsibility very seriously.
Sports Facilities (Under-18s)
I know that the First Minister is aware of the importance of being physically active for physical and mental health. Government guidance says that under-18s are able to play sport in an outdoor area, but many public facilities still remain closed. What can the First Minister do to ensure that facilities are available to enable under-18s to play the sports that they wish to play?
I hope that some of what we have announced today in respect of the opening up of indoor sports facilities as well as extending the ability to do sports outdoors will help that. All of that involves a balance and a journey.
I absolutely understand the importance of physical and mental health and exercise. That is why we have taken the decision to slightly accelerate the ability of gyms, indoor sports courts and swimming pools to reopen, for example. However, we have to balance that against having the proper arrangements in place to minimise the risk of transmission. The further steps that we have set out today take us very firmly in the right direction.
Job Losses (Colleges)
This week, 42 job losses in the City of Glasgow College and Glasgow Clyde College were announced because of a drop in footfall as a result of Covid-19. The colleges have agreed with the contractors to replace the catering service with vending machines. That mainly involves a group of women workers on very basic and poor redundancy packages due to their being in the private sector.
How does the First Minister square that with the letter from the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to college principals that said that they should look to maintain jobs? Does the First Minister agree that it is short-sighted of the colleges to replace an entire catering service with vending machines? I think that everyone would like to think that we will go back to some kind of normality in the long run. Can the First Minister look at that issue and take steps to prevent outsourcing in the future? If the service was not outsourced, people would at least have better terms in the public sector. Can the First Minister do anything at this stage to intervene and save the jobs of those women?
I am very happy to look at that. I am not aware of all the details of the issue. I will ask the education secretary to look at it, as well.
I absolutely appreciate the points that Pauline McNeill has made, and I have a lot of sympathy with them. Colleges have to take those decisions independently, of course, but I will look into the matter.
I do not want to prejudice that, but, generally speaking, everybody is having to make really difficult decisions right now in order to reduce transmission risks while getting people back to normal. It is easy to accuse people of being short-sighted, and sometimes that may be justified, but sometimes everybody is having to make unenviable decisions to get the balance as right as possible. However, given that I do not know all the details of that case, I will happily have it looked into, and either the Deputy First Minister or I will write to Pauline McNeill when we have had a chance to do so.
The 19.7 per cent decline in Scotland’s gross domestic product from April to June is deeply worrying. Does the First Minister agree with Scottish Chambers of Commerce that further intervention is required now to prevent real and lasting damage to employment levels?
Scottish ministers have outlined clearly what the Scottish Government will do, but most economic powers remain at Westminster. Will the Scottish Government continue to press the Chancellor of the Exchequer to extend furlough, immediately reduce employees’ national insurance contributions, extend the cut in VAT in vulnerable sectors to next summer and back new initiatives such as an employee-retention incentive scheme, to enable struggling employers to survive until the economy recovers?
The economic crisis that we are facing right now is severe, and is the most acute in any of our lifetimes. We all have a responsibility to do everything we possibly can to protect jobs in the short term and then to support the economy towards a longer-term sustainable recovery. The Scottish Government is very focused on doing that.
I have said a number of times that, for the foreseeable future, health and jobs are the twin priorities and focuses of this Government. We will do everything that we can do within our resources to facilitate that, but it is the case that many of the relevant levers lie with the United Kingdom Government. We therefore need to continue to make the case for increased spending in a number of areas to support economic recovery, but we also, and most urgently, need to make and press the case with the UK Government for extension of the furlough scheme.
One of the most wrong-headed decisions that might be about to be made is that to end the furlough scheme prematurely. That could see an avalanche of redundancies that are avoidable if support were to continue. I noticed earlier this week that Germany became the latest country to extend its equivalent scheme for a longer period—up to, I think, two years. I appeal to the chancellor, who has given lots of very welcome support, not to make the mistake of ending the scheme prematurely, but instead to continue it for as long as it is required.
To qualify as a paramedic, people now need to complete a degree course. During that course, students are expected to work the same hours as fully qualified paramedics, which makes other part-time work almost impossible.
Student nurses in Scotland are given a bursary in recognition of that, and paramedic students in England also receive a bursary. When I wrote recently to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport on behalf of a constituent, to ask how she was expected to fund herself through the degree course, I was told that the Government has no intention of reviewing its position. Why will the Scottish Government not support trainee paramedics properly? Will the First Minister agree to put paramedics on a par with student nurses and midwives?
This is an important issue. I have also been contacted by a constituent in the past little while about the matter, and I think that the case that is being made is absolutely not without merit. I have seen a response from the health secretary on the subject that sets out the range of support that is available for trainee paramedics. Obviously, unlike some other Governments in the United Kingdom, we have taken a decision to continue bursaries for student nurses and midwives, which I think is important.
However, no such dilemma has an easy solution, given the financial constraints within which we operate. I hear the case that is being made, though, and we will continue to consider how we can better support everyone who works in our health service—paramedics and anyone else. I am happy to have another look at the matter with the health secretary, and will revert to Liam McArthur on it once we have had the chance to do so.
Employment (Young People)
The First Minister has often spoken about the impact on her political beliefs of the mass unemployment of the 1980s, and I know that she is well aware of the scarring effect of unemployment on young people in particular. What action will the Scottish Government take to support young people back into work?
Aside from the immediate challenges of tackling Covid, I think that the biggest responsibility that Governments the world over have right now is to stop the impact of Covid becoming a scarring legacy for the next generation.
This is a really uncertain time for young people, so we have committed to investing £60 million in this financial year in a youth guarantee that is part of the overall investment in employment and skills that we announced last month. That is one of the first actions to be taken forward from the advisory group on economic recovery’s report, and it sets out very clearly the employer-led plan to give every young person access to work, training or education. We also recently announced that that will include £10 million for measures to support and retain apprentices.
On Monday this week, our eighth Scottish benefit was introduced—the new job start payment, which will provide a one-off grant to young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who have had a period of unemployment. It can be used to cover the costs of a new job, such as travel, clothes and childcare, in order to remove barriers that young people can face and to support them into work.
Those are some of the immediate things that we are doing, but the responsibility for ensuring that all young people have the opportunities that they deserve, notwithstanding Covid, will be with us and on us for a considerable time.
Coronavirus Restrictions (Aberdeen)
The public health measures to suppress coronavirus must be matched with the right support, so that my Aberdeen constituents can continue to provide for themselves and their families. Businesses are on a knife edge. Aberdeen City Council is clear that more than 5,000 jobs are at risk without more financial support. The north-east must not be left behind. Will the First Minister listen to the north-east and urgently pledge further funding support?
Every part of the country deserves support to help it through what we are currently living with, and that absolutely includes Aberdeen. In fact, that is particularly the case for Aberdeen, given the current restrictions.
The figure of 5,000 jobs that has been cited is a serious number that I do not intend to underplay at all, but I have heard Liam Kerr talk about it as if the figure is the impact of the current lockdown measures in Aberdeen. That is not the case; the figure relates to the period from April to July. That does not mean that the number is not serious, but it is an important clarification.
We have already made available £32 million of grant support to businesses in Aberdeen, and the funding that was announced yesterday is in addition to that. I would really love to do more by way of economic support for Aberdeen and for businesses in other parts of the country, but I come back to the inescapable point that my Government’s budget has limits on it because of the limitations on our ability to borrow and our inability to overspend and to borrow to meet that. That, I am afraid, is a hard fact.
I hope that those who are rightly calling for more money to be made available to Aberdeen or to other parts of the country will join us in making that case to the UK Government, so that we can increase our borrowing powers or make more funding available, because without one or both of those, we will run up against those hard limits in what we can do. That is not a political point, in this context; it is a statement of fact, and it is a fact of life. I appeal to the Conservatives: by all means, make the case for more money, but join us in calling for the wherewithal to deliver that extra investment.
Inquiry into the Scottish Government’s Handling of Harassment Complaints (Co-operation)
In January 2019, the First Minister said in the chamber that she would co-operate fully with the parliamentary inquiry into the Government’s handling of sexual harassment cases. She said:
“The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request ... My commitment is that the Government and I will co-operate fully with it”.—[Official Report, 17 January 2019; c 14.]
Given that swathes of documents are heavily redacted and that the Scottish Government is refusing access to key documents relating to the core of the inquiry’s remit, I hope that the First Minister will want to stand by her earlier commitment. Will she now instruct from the Scottish Government the full co-operation that is currently missing?
This is a really serious issue. I am absolutely committed to fully complying with the inquiry. I will personally attend the committee to answer questions when I am asked to do so. I have already submitted written evidence to the committee, and it is for the committee to decide when and to what extent that is published.
Given that part of the committee remit is to look at my conduct, I have recused myself from any decision making in terms of the Government’s interaction with the committee, so I am not going to instruct the Government, because it would not be appropriate for me to do so. The Government will, I am sure, continue to co-operate fully and within the legal obligations that it operates under, and to make available the maximum amount of information that it can to the committee. I am absolutely committed to abiding by the committee’s processes.
Sometimes, I wonder whether everybody is so committed. The other day, a Conservative member of the committee issued a political press release about the evidence taking of the committee, which suggests that the member is not prepared to abide by the processes of the committee and, perhaps, that the member has made up their mind about the outcome of the inquiry before the committee even gets there.
I will respect and fully co-operate with the committee. I hope that other members around the chamber will do so as well.
There has recently been an election in Belarus, the results of which appear to have been rigged, with the Opposition getting a mere 10 per cent of the vote and the candidate having to leave the country. Does the First Minister share my concerns about that, and can she pass on those concerns to Belarus, either directly or through the United Kingdom or the European Union?
I very much share John Mason’s concerns. My view, like the views that the UK Government and other Governments around the world have made known, is that it is important that the results of that election not be recognised, because of all the concerns about its lack of legitimacy and validity. I am happy to make my concerns known—either directly or through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has already expressed similar views.
Inquiry into the Scottish Government’s Handling of Harassment Complaints (Co-operation)
Further to Jackie Baillie’s question of a few moments ago about the handling of harassment complaints by the Scottish Government, the First Minister pledged back in January 2019 that all parts of the Scottish Government would fully co-operate with a parliamentary inquiry.
On Tuesday, at the meeting of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, I asked the permanent secretary, Leslie Evans, whether she was aware that female civil servants had been advised not to be alone in the company of the former First Minister. She answered my question by saying that she could not comment.
Does the First Minister believe that that response was in accordance with her commitment that there would be full co-operation from all parts of the Scottish Government? Was the First Minister aware of female civil servants being given that advice?
No, I was not aware of that.
I will answer all questions that are put to me by the committee when the committee asks me to do so, unless my answers to those questions would breach legal requirements.
As it would not be appropriate to do so, I will not comment on the evidence that other people give. It is important that I respect the committee in all aspects. As I understand the matter—this is entirely for the committee—that question was ruled out of order at the meeting. I also understand—this is something that the committee is perfectly entitled to take up itself—that the permanent secretary has already said that she is happy to write to the committee to address the issue, if the committee wishes.
I will co-operate fully with the committee. I come back to the point that I made earlier: I have already submitted evidence to the committee, and I respect the fact that it is for the committee to decide when that is published, because there are important and sensitive legal processes to undergo.
I respect every aspect of the committee’s work. Murdo Fraser is already, or is about to be, a formal member of the committee, yet within hours of its first evidence session, he issued a political press release that accused me of not being forthcoming, thereby giving the impression that he is anything but independent and neutral. I think that he should perhaps consider that before he asks such questions of me, who intends to fully respect every aspect of the committee’s work.
Rail Fares (Increases)
Commuter rail fares have risen by 54 per cent under the Scottish National Party Government. This week, it was confirmed that unless there is a change of policy from ministers, fares will rise by another 1.6 per cent. Does the First Minister agree that now is not the time for more fare hikes, and that we need at least a ticket price freeze and, ultimately, a new fares regime that is affordable and will encourage people back on to our rail network as it becomes safer to do so?
We have not taken a decision yet on rail fare increases, which we are considering in the context of Covid and the significant disruption to rail travel. We will take all those issues into account as we come to a final conclusion.
I will draw First Minister’s question time to a conclusion. I apologise to members who did not get the chance to ask their questions.13:44 Meeting suspended.
14:45 On resuming—