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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Point of Order, Rented Housing Sector, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Point of Order, Covid-19 Vaccines



The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon giving a Covid-19 update.


The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will give an update on Covid generally, as well as the latest data on omicron; I will report on progress with booster vaccinations; I will again appeal to everyone across the country to reduce contacts and to stay at home as much as possible in the run-up to Christmas day, and then again after this Christmas weekend; I will reiterate the steps that we can all take to make family celebrations this weekend as safe as possible; and I will confirm the Cabinet’s decision to propose some additional protections in relation to large-scale live events and indoor public places. We judge those to be necessary to further slow the spread of the virus, so that we can protect health, the national health service and the economy as we work to complete booster vaccinations. I will also set out further support for the many businesses that are affected by the advice that we feel duty-bound to give in the interests of protecting public health.

First, I will give today’s statistics. A total of 5,242 positive cases were reported yesterday, which is 14.9 per cent of the tests carried out; 515 people are in hospital with Covid, which is one fewer than yesterday; and 37 people are in intensive care, which is also one fewer than yesterday. Sadly, a further nine deaths have been reported, taking the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 9,790. I again send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

In last week’s statement, I reported that cases had increased by 25 per cent in the preceding seven days and that we would, in all likelihood, see a further increase in infections as omicron became the dominant strain circulating in Scotland. Omicron has now firmly established itself as the dominant strain. We know from the S-gene dropout indicator that it now accounts for 62.9 per cent of all cases. That compares with 27.5 per cent this time last week.

Omicron is significantly more transmissible than previous variants, and we estimate that its R number is well above 3. It is currently spreading rapidly across Scotland, so the steep increase in infections that was predicted last week has now started to materialise. Cases have increased by more than 50 per cent in the past week, from more than 3,500 a day on average to almost 5,500 a day. There have been increases across all age groups, but the biggest—an increase of 161 per cent—has been in the 20 to 24-year-old age group. The rate of acceleration in an age cohort with, to date, lower levels of booster protection, relatively speaking, underlines the vital importance of everyone getting booster jags as quickly as possible. I will return to that later.

As the booster roll-out is completed, and bearing in mind that it takes around a week for immune protection to take effect in individuals, we must also act to slow down the spread of cases. I want to explain why that is so vital.

First, the toll that a rising wave of infections will have on health and social care is considerable. We do not yet know whether the proportion of omicron cases needing hospital care will be lower, higher or the same as with delta, but there is still no compelling evidence that omicron is intrinsically milder than previous strains. However, even if the proportion of cases needing hospital care is lower, as we all hope that it will be, a smaller proportion of a much larger number of infections will still have a deeply damaging impact. As well as the suffering caused to individuals and families, the additional pressure on our already stretched national health service will be extremely difficult to manage.

In addition, if large numbers of people become infected—even mildly—the impact on the economy and critical services through sickness and isolation absences will be crippling. Indeed, we are already starting to see that impact. One hundred ScotRail services were cancelled yesterday due to staff absence. Theatres are already being forced to cancel shows due to Covid cases among casts and crews and, even more seriously, staffing shortages are already being felt across the supply chain. They are exacerbating the intense pressures that the NHS and emergency services are working under. That is why we must act.

Let me be clear again: this is not a choice between protecting health and protecting the economy. If we do not stem the spread of the virus, both health and the economy will suffer.

Before I set out the action that we must take, let me address one further point. Some ask why we cannot wait until we have more data and we know exactly the impact that omicron will have on the NHS. I totally understand the temptation to delay and to hope, after two long years of the virus, that further steps might not be necessary. However, as I said a moment ago, we are already seeing a significant impact from staff absences across the economy and public services. We must do what we can to stem that. We also know from experience that, if we wait until the data tells us conclusively that we have a problem—for example, with hospital admissions—it will already be too late to act to avoid that problem. We must act quickly in so far as we are able, given our financial constraints, and we must get ahead of the data if we can.

The obligation of Government is to take difficult decisions to keep the country as safe as possible, no matter how unpopular those decisions might be. Let me now set out the steps that we all need to take.

First, let me stress that we are not changing the advice for Christmas that I set out last week. It is important that, with just a few days to go, there is certainty about family gatherings on Christmas day and boxing day. I am not asking anyone to change those. However—I cannot stress this enough—please follow advice to keep family celebrations as safe as possible. Keep gatherings as small as your family circumstances allow. Make sure that everyone does a test shortly before getting together. Anyone who tests positive should not mix with others. Given how infectious omicron is, you should assume that, if one member of a household is positive, the others are likely to be so, too. Follow hygiene advice and keep windows open.

Crucially, between now and Christmas day, cut your contacts with people in other households as much as possible. Minimise socialising with others, either at home or in indoor public places—indeed, stay at home as much as is feasible. That is the best way of avoiding getting Covid and having to isolate over Christmas, or inadvertently spreading infection when you meet up with others.

I am grateful to everyone who has followed that advice over the past week. It will be making a difference. I want to stress that point. The steep increase in cases over the past week would have been steeper still but for people complying with that advice. I therefore hope that we may already be collectively slowing the spread.

However, it is important that we stick with it, so my first new request of everyone is that, from 27 December, as we come out of the Christmas weekend, until at least the end of the first week in January, when we will review the advice again, please go back to limiting your contacts as much as possible; please stay at home as much as is feasible; and, when you go out, please maintain physical distancing from people who are not in your group. Difficult though it is, please follow that advice over new year. Minimise Hogmanay socialising as much as you can.

If we all follow the advice to minimise the contact that we have outside of our own households, we will help to limit the spread of infections. That is the bedrock of our plan for the immediate period ahead.

However, although our core advice is to reduce socialising and stay at home as much as is feasible, the Cabinet’s judgment is that we must also take some further steps to make as safe as possible the places where people might still gather. That is why we are proposing some additional protections. None of those is being proposed lightly, but we consider them necessary to help to stem the increase in cases, safeguard health and protect the NHS, the emergency services and the economy, while we complete the booster programme and get its full effect.

First, from 26 December inclusive, for a period of three weeks, we intend to place limits on the size of live public events. I stress that that does not apply to private life events such as weddings. For indoor standing events, the limit will be 100; for indoor seated events it will be 200; and for outdoor events it will be 500, whether seated or standing. Physical distancing of 1m will be required at events that go ahead within those limits.

That will, of course, in effect make sports matches, including football, spectator free over that three-week period. That is similar to the situation in Wales from boxing day. Unfortunately, it will also mean that large-scale Hogmanay celebrations will not proceed—including the one that is planned here in our capital city.

I know how disappointing that will be for those who are looking forward to such events, and for their organisers. I will underline why we think that that difficult decision is necessary. First, we know that the much higher transmissibility of omicron means that large gatherings have the potential to become very rapid super-spreader events, putting large numbers at risk of getting infected very quickly. Limiting such events helps to reduce the risk of widespread transmission. It also cuts the transmission risks that are associated with travel to and from such events. Secondly, and not insignificantly, such large events put an additional burden on emergency services, especially on the police and ambulance services. Given that those services are already under severe pressure and are dealing with high levels of staff absence, limiting large-scale events will help them to focus on delivering essential services to the public. Despite the disappointment that I know the decision will generate, I ask the public please to understand the reasons for it.

Secondly, we intend to issue guidance to the effect that non-professional indoor contact sports for adults should not take place during the three-week period from 26 December, because such activities, in which physical distancing is not possible, also create a heightened risk of transmission.

Finally, from 27 December, again for up to three weeks, we intend to introduce some further protections in hospitality settings and other indoor public places, to reduce transmission risks in what are, through no fault of those who run such venues, higher-risk environments. I can confirm that a requirement for table service only will be reintroduced for venues that serve alcohol for consumption on the premises. We will also ask indoor hospitality and leisure venues to ensure 1m distance not within but between groups of people who are attending together. As I set out last week, we will continue to advise people that, if they attend indoor hospitality or leisure venues—and people should remember that our core advice remains to minimise that—no more than three households should be represented in any group.

I know how unwelcome this will be for everyone, but we believe that those precautionary steps will help us to navigate a difficult period more safely.

I am also acutely aware that those decisions and the advice that we are giving the public have significant financial implications for many businesses. Last week, I announced £100 million of support from within our existing resources for affected sectors. I also confirm that eligibility criteria and guidance for the hospitality sector will be published on the Scottish Government website today. Since that announcement, the Treasury has given approval for money that would have come to us later to be allocated now. As I have said, we had already budgeted for most of that money and, therefore, cannot allocate it now without causing significant shortfalls elsewhere, including in the health budget. Money simply cannot be spent twice. However, we estimate that the Treasury announcements give us additional spending power now of £175 million. I confirm that we will allocate all of that to business support.

The Treasury has also, in the past hour or so, announced additional funding for business. Unfortunately, it appears that that announcement generates no further funding for Scotland and that any consequentials are already contained in previous announcements by the Treasury. However, the Scottish Government will allocate a further £100 million from elsewhere in our budget between now and the end of the financial year. That will involve difficult decisions, but the impact of the current crisis on business is such that we consider it essential.

Taken together, that adds up to a fund of £375 million that will help to support business for the unavoidable impacts of our decisions over the next three weeks. That is proportionally significantly more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer has just announced for businesses elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Although that is significant funding, I understand that it will not fully compensate business. As I said last week, my view is that the scale and urgency of the omicron challenge requires financial support for business on a scale similar to that at the start of the pandemic. However, current UK funding arrangements mean that only the Treasury has the borrowing powers to provide support on such a scale and that financial support at scale is triggered only when the UK Government takes decisions for England. All that means that our ability to act to protect public health, and to compensate individuals and businesses affected, is curtailed. That cannot be right in a public health emergency.

Although today’s Treasury announcement may be a welcome acknowledgement of the crisis that businesses face, it does not go far enough. Therefore, we will continue to press the UK Government to take the threat of omicron more seriously and to act accordingly. In the meantime, we will—indeed, we must—do what we can to protect health, lives and livelihoods here in Scotland.

Before I conclude with an update on vaccination, I will cover two further points.

First, it remains our priority—and, I hope, the Parliament’s priority—to reopen schools as normal after the Christmas holidays. Indeed, one reason for asking adults to make sacrifices for a further period after Christmas is to help to minimise any impact on children’s education. However, to ensure that schools are safe environments for young people and staff, updated guidance based on recommendations from the education advisory sub-group was published at the end of last week. Colleges and universities are also assessing any steps that they need to take for the new term and some are returning to a default model of online learning for the start of that term.

For everyone who is involved in education—staff, children, students and parents—the past term has been another exceptionally difficult one. I say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has helped to ensure that children are well supported and, indeed, I thank children and young people themselves for continuing to endure the tough times that they face at such an important stage of their lives.

The second point that I will cover briefly relates to test and protect. The current surge in cases is putting significant pressure on that service and I am grateful to all its teams for working so hard to break chains of transmission. From this week, test and protect will flex its approach as necessary to ensure that priority is given to higher-risk settings, such as hospitals and care homes, where outbreaks can cause the most harm.

For many of us, that means that, if we test positive, our contact from test and protect teams is more likely to be by text or email rather than a phone call. I ask people to respond to those messages and complete the online form that is sent. That helps their contacts to get the right advice as quickly as possible. I also ask the contacts of someone who tests positive to follow test and protect’s advice. That will help to slow the spread of the virus.

Finally, I turn to booster jags, which are our best line of defence against omicron and which will, I believe, get us through, and out of, this difficult phase. In the past week, there has been a significant acceleration of the programme, and I thank everyone who has been involved. This week, a further two large-scale vaccination centres have opened, at Hampden in Glasgow and the Edinburgh international conference centre. Yesterday, 69,135 boosters or third doses were administered, which means that well over half the adult population has now had a third dose or a booster.

Last week, I said that our target was to have 80 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated with boosters by the time the bells strike on Hogmanay. Today, I can confirm that we are now confident that we have the capacity to meet that target. However, in order to reach it, or to get as close to it as possible, we need everyone who is eligible to come forward. If you have an appointment booked for January, please now reschedule it for December. Appointments will be available right through Christmas eve and then next week, up to and including Hogmanay, so please book an appointment now. Alternatively, you can check out the location of drop-in clinics and go there instead. Getting fully vaccinated is the best thing that any of us can do to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the country, so please get boosted before the bells.

In some ways, this statement feels distressingly similar to the one that I gave this time last year. Just a few days before Christmas, I am again urging people to stay at home as much as possible in order to slow down a highly infectious new variant of Covid. However, although it may not feel like it, we are in a much stronger position than we were last year. We have had far fewer restrictions in place for much of this year than was the case in the previous year, and Christmas day will be more normal than it was last year. Most importantly, a rapidly increasing number of adults are now protected by three doses of vaccine. We all, as individuals, know what to do to protect ourselves and each other.

Please make sure that you do all the following things. First, please get fully vaccinated as soon as possible. Secondly, please test regularly. Our advice is to stay at home as much as possible, but if you are meeting other people, please test before you go, every time, and test as close to when you go as possible. That is very important for family gatherings on Christmas day or boxing day.

Finally, please take all the other precautions that can help to make a difference. Please work from home when possible, and stay at home as much as you can. If you visit indoor public places, please limit the number of households in your group to a maximum of three. Please wear a face covering on public transport, in shops and when moving about in hospitality, and make sure that the covering fully covers your mouth and nose. Please keep windows open if you are meeting indoors, even at this time of year, and follow all advice on hygiene. Sticking to all that is hard, but there is no doubt that it will help to keep all of us safer.

I end my final statement before Christmas with a heartfelt thank you to everyone for everything that you have done to help us through another exceptionally tough year. I wish everyone the happiest and safest Christmas possible, and a much better and brighter new year ahead.

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues that have been raised in her statement. I intend to allow about 40 minutes for questions.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

We are, once again, facing the unwelcome reality of a new variant and new restrictions, and every member in the chamber has to understand and accept the frustration and anger that people across Scotland are feeling right now. However, we can get through this. Like the First Minister, I encourage everyone to go out and get their booster jags; I have my own scheduled for Christmas eve.

I also want to speak to a proportion of the population out there. We often focus solely on booster jags, but there are people who have not yet had their first jag, and I encourage them to come forward as well. They have not left it too late. There is no shame in turning up to get your first jag now; the vaccinators simply want to protect you, so please consider doing so. Our vaccination scheme, in Scotland and across the UK, has helped to keep Covid under control, and it remains our best way out of the pandemic.

It is crucial that the Scottish and UK Governments work together constructively, fully focused on omicron. Instead, sadly, over the past week, we have seen an unnecessary funding row that is a distraction from the task at hand. The Scottish Government originally expected £268 million, which would have still been new money, but it has now been provided with £440 million. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies made clear yesterday, that £440 million is extra money now. The Scottish Government has the funding available, and Scottish businesses are crying out for it. Last week, the First Minister said that businesses are

“already bleeding, every 24 hours counts.”

Will the First Minister tell us today when the first grants will start to reach businesses? Will it be before Christmas, or will it be into the new year?

Secondly, in her statement, the First Minister explained that 100 ScotRail services have been cancelled due to staff absences, and there are similar pressures on our emergency services and others. Last week, we raised concerns that self-isolation guidance for household contacts would lead to those challenges. Although well intentioned in seeking to limit the spread of the virus, the rules could grind our transport network, economy and public services to a halt. Given that the evidence now shows the impact of those rules on our essential services, will the First Minister tell us whether she has considered changing them so that household contacts can end self-isolation if they have a negative test, and if she has not, is she confident that that position is sustainable for our economy and public services?

The First Minister

I will take each of those points in turn.

First, I take the opportunity to agree with Douglas Ross that, if someone has not already had their first or second jag, it is important to get it as quickly as possible. It is never too late, so I ask those people to come forward now, and they will be vaccinated. The sooner people get their first jag, the sooner they can get their second, and the sooner they will be able to get the protection of a booster vaccination. I reiterate and underline that point.

Secondly, in terms of the funding, I am not trying to cause a row with anybody. There are structural problems in how our funding arrangements work. Across the chamber, we have different views on the Barnett formula, which I will leave to one side. However, during a public health emergency, we have learned that the Barnett formula is not fit for purpose. That view is, I think, shared by the Governments in Wales and Northern Ireland. We are trying to propose constructive ways of ensuring that we are all able to discharge our public health responsibilities fairly and equitably.

I welcome the announcements that the Treasury has made. The money that was announced this time last week is not new money; it is already budgeted for—largely for the health budget. Therefore, to spend it now, we have to remove money that the health service is already planning to use.

We think that the announcement that was made on Sunday gives us extra spending power now, being money that is not already budgeted. I am saying today that we will allocate every penny of that to business support. Between my announcement last week and my further announcement today, we will find, through very difficult budgetary decisions between now and the end of the financial year, an additional £200 million. That means that we are creating a pot of £375 million to help businesses over the next period. That is proportionately significantly in excess of the £1 billion for the whole of the UK that the chancellor has announced today.

Based on my announcement last week, the grant for hospitality is up to £6,800 per hospitality business, compared with the grant of up to £6,000 that was announced by the chancellor today. We are working to get the grants to businesses as quickly as possible, and we are working with councils to do so.

The point about self-isolation is an important one that is under on-going consideration by the Government. The fundamental point is that it is not self-isolation but the virus that is creating staff absences. At this stage, given the infectiousness of omicron, if we do not have households isolating when one member is positive, we will have many more cases of the virus spreading, which will compound, not alleviate, the problem.

That is the position right now, but we want to migrate to something more proportionate as quickly as possible. I can tell members in the chamber that the Government is actively considering, as the booster programme meets its target, moving away from the current situation to something more proportionate. However, it would be counterproductive to do so right now, because the current household isolation policy remains one of the protections that we have in place.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I start by sending my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.

I was fortunate enough to get my booster yesterday, so I thank Zahira and all our vaccinators for their extraordinary efforts. I appeal to people across the country: if you have not had your first or second dose of the vaccine, please get it, and if you are due a booster, please book it. As we head towards Christmas, I ask everyone to please wear a mask where appropriate, follow the advice and take a lateral flow test before meeting others. It is about protecting you, your family and those around you.

This is a time of anxiety for people who are worried about their lives and livelihoods, especially those people in the hospitality, events and leisure industries as well as those who are self-employed. People expect and need the Scottish and UK Governments to work together in the national interest at this time of crisis.

I note the announcements from the chancellor today, but they simply do not go far enough. There must be an increase in the level of statutory sick pay; significantly more financial support for impacted businesses and the self-employed; and, for the sectors that are shut down or as good as shut down, a furlough-type scheme so that we do not have businesses going bust and thousands becoming unemployed.

In Scotland, the financial support that businesses could apply for was limited to around £4,500. I think that the First Minister was suggesting that that might be increased to £6,800. However, for many businesses, that will go nowhere near covering the impact of the losses that they will face over Christmas.

No one should have to think twice about self-isolating due to financial pressures. Last month, 30 per cent of applications for a self-isolation support grant were rejected. That has peaked at as much as 50 per cent and, in some local authorities, as much as 70 per cent of applications have been rejected. Can that be urgently reviewed, with all the data for every local authority being published? Also, can the eligibility criteria be expanded and the payments made much more quickly?

Of course, we hope that this is the last variant, but it is highly likely that it will not be, so we must learn the lessons of delta and omicron. We need to build resilience and contingencies into our public services and the wider system. The Scottish and UK Governments must develop a framework and triggers for when restrictions will kick in, what they will be and what financial package of support will come with them. Will the Scottish Government commit to urgently starting that work? We commit to engage with it actively on that, because the on-going uncertainty only adds to the level of anxiety and impacts negatively on people’s health and wellbeing.

The First Minister

I agree about the importance of the Scottish and UK Governments working together. In many respects, we have been working well together and continue to work well together. In the past week and a half, I have taken part in three COBR meetings, and we have regular four-nations discussions over and above those meetings.

We have an issue with financing that we cannot unilaterally resolve. Anas Sarwar has narrated much of it today, and the points that I make in this chamber are almost identical to those that Anas Sarwar’s Labour colleague Mark Drakeford is making in Wales. We cannot unilaterally resolve that issue, but I hope that we will get movement to find a better way forward on it.

After the announcements that I have made today, we will have further consultation with businesses on what additional support can be made available from the additional funding and the best way to make that support available. We have already given commitments to hospitality and other sectors, and the additional money that I am announcing today will allow us to go further.

However, I agree—indeed, I said this in my statement—that that will not fully compensate businesses. At this stage, at the least, a targeted furlough scheme should be introduced to help the most affected sectors. We will do everything that we can within our own resources, and we will work with colleagues in Wales and Northern Ireland to try to get more support from the UK Government.

I will take away the member’s points about the self-isolation support grant. I accept the premise of his question, but I again come back to the fact that we have a limited pot of money. We have decisions to make about whether we focus that money on those most in need or spread it more thinly over a wider range of people by extending eligibility criteria. That is not an easy balance to strike. We have put an extra £100 million into the self-isolation grant and we will consider that again.

We have already started work on longer-term health resilience, which is not just about the entry into and exit from restrictions. I very much hope, although I have said this before, that this will be the last time that we have to impose restrictions. More fundamentally, as we come out of the acute phase of the Covid pandemic and it becomes endemic in our society, that work will be about how we build resilience into the economy and health services to deal with the situation.

The work is at an early stage. We are looking at whether and how our overall Covid strategic framework can be adapted. We may publish a more updated version, with a greater focus on health resilience, in the early part of next year. If members from all parties have thoughts that they want to feed into that, I am sure that they would be gratefully received.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

Tonight is the longest night of the year and this statement will spell further darkness for an events sector that is already on its knees. Its businesses were the last to reopen and they will be the first to be asked to close. Pantomimes and theatres will shut their doors, stadiums will close and Hogmanay is cancelled again, and all that has a knock-on effect on pubs and restaurants. They will all need to be made whole and compensated, pound for pound and drink for drink.

We are seeing a return to the pingdemic that we first experienced last year, which put so much pressure on so many of our key sectors and services, so I want to ask about polymerase chain reaction testing capacity. Last week, on one day alone, 64,000 tests were processed. Last time the chamber was updated, our national capacity stood at just 80,000 tests a day. Is 80,000 still the reach of our capacity in PCR processing and is the First Minister confident that demand will not outstrip lab capacity? If it does, we run the risk of asking healthy key workers—health workers, in particular—to stay at home for want of a negative PCR test result.

The First Minister

First, I accept the points about the impact on the events sector and the knock-on effects of that into hospitality and other parts of the economy. That is why it is so important that we do everything that we can to deliver financial compensation and, with others, encourage the UK Government to provide more wherewithal.

On the points about a pingdemic, the issue is important and legitimate and I will address it directly. It is not people being pinged but people getting the virus that is causing the problem. Therefore, we need to suppress the virus. That is an inescapable truth, which leads to some of the difficult decisions that Governments are again having to take. Some of the decisions that I have outlined today are in common with decisions that are being taken by Governments in many other parts of Europe—indeed, they are being taken in other parts of the UK, such as Wales. The Republic of Ireland, slightly further afield, has taken many of those decisions, too. It is suppressing the virus that will ultimately help us to relieve the pressure. Self-isolation, which is where the pingdemic comes from, is part of the way in which we can help to suppress the virus. I go back to the comments that I made in response to Douglas Ross.

Lab testing capacity is being increased across the UK right now. I will give the Scottish Parliament information centre the up-to-date figures for our daily capacity. It is increasing, but it is still a bit of a moving feast—if you forgive me for using that non-technical expression, Presiding Officer. We have ample capacity right now. In addition to the UK network capacity, we have the three regional NHS labs and pre-existing NHS capacity. If cases continue to soar, we will reach a point, not just in Scotland but across the UK, where we start to challenge that capacity. That is another reason to keep a downward pressure on cases.

Lab capacity is, of course, only one half of our testing capacity; sampling capacity is another. However, right now we have testing capacity and people who have symptoms or a positive lateral flow test result should go forward and get a PCR test. We continue to have constructive discussions—this is an area of very good joint working between the four nations—about how we continue to increase the testing capacity as far as we possibly can.

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are concerned about their employer requiring them to attend their office, as they feel that they should be able to work from home. What advice would the First Minister give to my constituents in that situation and what steps will the Scottish Government take to ensure that employers are treating the situation as seriously as possible?

The First Minister

First, I note that most employers are treating it seriously, but I would very strongly encourage all employers to do so. Where staff have concerns, I encourage them to raise those with their employer, or with their union reps where that is appropriate, or to contact Scottish Hazards and the local authority environmental health team for advice and support.

Remember—this is a message to employers from last Friday—it is a legal requirement for businesses to take all reasonable measures to minimise the spread of Covid. The guidance makes it clear that one of the measures that employers must take is to allow employees to work at home if they can. We expect businesses and employees to take that requirement seriously. Working from home is a really important measure in controlling this more transmissible version of the virus. We continue to engage regularly with business organisations and trade unions on encouraging working from home.

I encourage businesses to remember that suppressing the virus is in the interests of business and the economy, as well. It is not a choice between protecting health and the NHS and protecting the economy. If we do not protect health, the economy will suffer. We all have an interest in ensuring that all the guidance is followed.

Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In her statement, the First Minister mentioned schools. She will be aware of calls in some quarters for schools to return to a blended learning model in January. Does the First Minister agree that, given the harm that can be caused to children by being absent from the classroom environment, we should do all that we can to ensure that schools reopen fully in January? Will she commit to ensuring that there is no delay to the start of the new school term after the Christmas and new year break?

The First Minister

I have made my views on that very clear. I want schools to reopen on schedule and I want children to be back in school as normal. Everybody has suffered through these past two years, but children and young people have suffered disproportionately, particularly given the very important stage of life and education that they are at. My views on that are clear.

I will say two further things. First, when teachers hear me say that, they might think that I am dismissing concerns about their safety, but I am not—I want to be clear about that. We must ensure that schools are safe environments for young people and staff, which is why the guidance that was published last week is so important.

Secondly—this is a message to all us adults—the best way of keeping schools safe and getting them to open normally and on time is to suppress community transmission of the virus. For a period, we, as adults, need to accept some further sacrifices, although none of us will enjoy it and it will not be easy for individuals or businesses but, if it helps us to ensure normality in our schools, that is one good reason why we should accept it and work together to get the transmission rate down.

I advise members that there is a great deal of interest in this statement, so I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

A number of constituents and even a member of my staff have visited pharmacies to collect lateral flow test kits, but were initially refused them as they were not registered with the pharmacy, even though the advice is that people do not have to be registered to receive test kits. Given that regular testing is essential to curb the spike in omicron cases, will the First Minister advise what steps have been taken to encourage pharmacies to hand out test kits to people who need and request them?

The First Minister

LFD kits are available for everyone. Let me be clear: a prescription is not required nor is there a need to be registered for any form of community pharmacy service in order to obtain a kit from a local pharmacy. The Scottish Government wrote to the community pharmacy network on 17 December re-emphasising that point, along with providing other advice for streamlining the process for distribution to relieve pressure on community pharmacy teams, which are extremely busy and have done heroic work over the course of the pandemic.

The community pharmacy network is a vital part of the public health response to Covid. Since the introduction of the pharmacy collect arrangements in June, the network has distributed more than 1.3 million packs—nearly 10 million tests—helping to keep us all safe during this time. I place on record my thanks to pharmacists and their teams in communities the length and breadth of the country.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Accident and emergency statistics for the week ending 12 December are the second worst on record. As John Thomson of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine has said, the delays will cost lives. We all applaud A and E and all NHS staff for their valiant efforts, but things are about to get tougher as staff absence increases due to omicron. What contingency planning is in place to deal with staff shortages in the NHS and in other essential and emergency services?

The First Minister

Accident and emergency services, like health services in general, are under intense pressure because of the pandemic. Again, that pressure has been exacerbated because of the rising number of cases, so we come back to the essential point, which is that we must get the number of cases to come down again to relieve the pressure. That is direct health pressure and also the pressure that comes from staff absences.

In the week that was cited, there was no exemption from self-isolation for the NHS, but there is one now. To an extent, that will help to alleviate the pressure. However, the only way of properly alleviating pressure—not just in the health service but in the economy—is to get the number of cases down, which comes back to the reason for the difficult decisions that I have set out today.

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

Although the advanced funding that the UK Government has announced is welcome, it falls well short of the financial support that is required to reinforce public health messaging. It is not sustainable that the Scottish Government is responsible for protecting public health but that its actions are constrained by UK Government funding decisions. Does the First Minister agree that that is yet another example of how the current funding arrangements for Scotland are entirely inadequate to responding to the impacts of the pandemic?

The First Minister

Yes. That view is shared by the Labour First Minister of Wales and the Democratic Unionist Party First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Let us put views on constitutional matters, whatever they are, to one side for the moment. The Barnett formula depends on decisions being taken for England by the UK Government. That then triggers resources for the devolved Administrations through consequentials. We have different views about that. It may be appropriate in some circumstances but, in a public health emergency, when we all have our own responsibilities to act to protect public health and to do so quickly, that situation self-evidently does not work. It is not fit for purpose in these circumstances. We are making that case. I hope that we are getting some understanding of that and that we might be able to see some changes.

We are making available as much money as we can from within our own resources. I welcome the acknowledgement today by the chancellor that help is needed, but further help is required. It is not just me saying that or even the Governments of Wales and Northern Ireland; many voices across England are saying that now. Hospitality businesses and others are facing all the same pressures that businesses in Scotland are facing but, even after the chancellor’s announcement today, they will be getting significantly less funding to help with that.

The position is unsustainable. I suspect that some in the UK Government understand that. The quicker they act, the more we will be able to get on top of this latest phase of infection.

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

The need for caution is clear and the chancellor must bring back furlough to protect small businesses.

The absence rate in schools over the past 10 days cannot be sustained in January and February without massive disruption to pupils’ learning. I fully appreciate the current financial difficulties. Given the transmissibility of the new variant, has any new funding been identified to help schools to ensure that ventilation is as effective as it can be?

The First Minister

I know that Gillian Mackay takes a close interest in this and that she will be aware that we made additional funding available to local authorities some months ago for carbon dioxide monitors that would allow them to assess ventilation. We continue to discuss with local authorities what further support we can provide them to ensure that ventilation is given due priority. Ventilation is not the only thing that needs to be done, but it is an important protection, particularly in the school environment. We are looking carefully, and will continue to look, at what further steps we can take.

I keep coming back to a point that I know that Gillian Mackay absolutely understands. We should not accept the inevitability of soaring cases and soaring staff absences as we go into January and February. If we do not do the right things now, there is a real danger of that. That is why we are setting out the decisions that we are taking now to try to change the future.

On that point, I was listening to a discussion on the radio this morning in which someone said that models from the scientific advisory group for emergencies always turn out to be wrong. Modelling is an imprecise science, I grant you that, but the reason that the worst predictions of SAGE have not come true on past occasions is that we have acted to stop them coming to pass. That is the key point. We must act to influence what happens in the next few weeks to avoid some of the worst impacts that will otherwise confront us.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I welcome the £375 million that is available for business and I note the First Minister’s comments about the need for a targeted furlough scheme. I understand that the Prime Minister and the chancellor were not at the recent COBR emergency meetings. Does the First Minister think that they understand the seriousness of the situation? Does she know who is in control at Westminster? Is anyone in control?

The First Minister

I am not sure that I am able to answer that question. I might pass on it.

I spoke to the Prime Minister on the telephone late on Friday. I think that he appreciated the seriousness of the situation; that is definitely the impression that he gave me. We had a good conversation on Friday. However, appreciating the seriousness and acting in such a way as to try to change that seriousness are two different things.

My Government and I take responsibility for public health decisions here in Scotland. I cannot and should not second guess the decisions that the UK Government takes for England, although there are many voices pointing out that, just as in Scotland, action needs to be taken to get Covid under control.

The interest for my Government and me is that it is only when the UK Government acts for England that funding at scale is triggered. That is the unsustainable asymmetrical bit that is constraining our ability to act. I hope that the Prime Minister, the chancellor and the entirety of the UK Government treat this challenge with the seriousness that it merits because, frankly, all of us need them to do that.

Sandesh Gulhane (Glasgow) (Con)

We know that the coronavirus is airborne and not droplet spread. We know that omicron causes differing symptoms from the classical triad and that it has a reproduction number of 4 and an attack rate of 50 per cent. It evades double vaccination and thus can be unwittingly spread by people. Given that it is our responsibility to protect the Scottish NHS workforce, will the First Minister upgrade healthcare workers’ personal protective equipment from surgical masks to FFP2 and FFP3 equipment?

The First Minister

I will take advice on the clinical requirements for PPE in the health service—I have done that throughout—and respond accordingly. The guidance on PPE, if my memory serves me correctly, is produced on a four-nations basis, so we use the same grading of PPE in different circumstances. However, if clinicians say to me that something additional is required, then of course, as a non-clinician, I will listen to that and act on it.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

What with vaccinations, boosters and lateral flow tests, the role of test and protect has to an extent disappeared from sight. I welcome test and protect prioritising higher-risk settings such as hospitals and care homes, but will the First Minister remind us all of the importance of test and protect in general, and of keeping the app active?

The First Minister

Yes. I hope that test and protect is out of sight for most people, because that means that they are not being contacted by it, but it is doing incredible work every single day to help to break the chains of transmission of the virus.

I take the opportunity, as Christine Grahame has invited me to do, to remind people of the importance of test and protect. If the service contacts you because you have tested positive, make sure that you fill in the details that it asks for so that your contacts can be given information as quickly as possible. If you are contacted as a contact of someone who is positive, make sure that you follow the advice that you are given. That is really important.

I end on Christine Grahame’s final point. The app is really important. If you downloaded it at the start, go and check that it is still active—that you have it properly switched on and activated. Doing that absolutely helps test and protect to do its job and make sure that people are getting the protection that they need.

Foysol Choudhury (Lothian) (Lab)

Delayed discharge continues to affect many of my Lothian constituents due to care staff shortages. One 82-year-old man from Kirkliston has been stuck in hospital for almost three months now as there is a lack of available care homes that take residents who are local authority funded. As we witness the surge of Covid cases, how will the Scottish Government solve the staff shortages and increase funded places so that social care packages can be delivered for my constituents in Lothian?

The First Minister

It is a very important question. Delayed discharges are not in the interests of the people who are delayed in hospital, but they are not in the interests of the wider health system, either. We are working hard to try to reduce delayed discharge. I will come on to the issues that are compounding the challenge, but one of the key things that we have done—the health secretary reported this to Parliament in the recent past—is to provide funding for the recruitment of 1,000 additional workers to help with exactly the problem that the member outlines.

Right now, of course, all those problems are being compounded by staff absence due to the virus. That is happening in social care, the health service and across all sectors of our public services and the economy. That brings me to the essential point that I keep coming back to today: we have to get the virus under control. That will not solve all those problems, but it will at least mean that we are not exacerbating them with the absences that we are seeing right now. That is one of the big factors behind the decisions that we have set out today—not least the cancellation of large-scale events to reduce the pressure on the Scottish Ambulance Service, for example, which is already struggling with some of these issues.

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

It is so important that everyone who is eligible comes forward for vaccination. What is the Scottish Government doing to encourage the uptake of vaccinations and boosters in our black, Asian, ethnic minority and heritage and culture communities?

The First Minister

That is a really important question, because, although it is vital that we get the uptake of boosters high across the whole population, we also have to make sure that the uptake is high in particular communities that we know have been disproportionately affected by Covid. Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities are certainly a key grouping in that regard.

We are working with health boards, which have inclusion plans within their vaccination programmes that set out how they will actively offer vaccination to groups that we know face barriers to uptake. Decisions on the location of clinics are often taken with that very much in mind. Clinics have been set up in places of worship, for example. Glasgow central mosque is not the only one, but it is probably the most prominent example of that in Glasgow. The Scottish Ambulance Service is also providing mobile outreach units to get into communities that have been harder to reach.

We are also working closely with organisations such as BEMIS, which is the national umbrella body supporting ethnic minority voluntary sector groups in Scotland. A whole range of work is being done, and I know that health boards will keep at it for as long as is necessary.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

It is imperative that there are enough personnel to run offshore oil and gas facilities. Equally, there must be enough competent personnel in all the safety-critical roles and emergency response teams at those installations. We are still learning about omicron, as we have heard today, and failure to act swiftly could result in the shutdown of offshore installations or onshore terminals, which would result in a security of supply issue for Scotland and the wider UK. Will the First Minister support the oil and gas industry with a more flexible approach and a strategy that can be deployed quickly to focus on the protection of the most vulnerable yet retain personnel on our installations so that can they continue to power the UK?

The First Minister

The short answer to that question is yes. We work with different sectors to make sure that the challenges that are being faced because of staff absences are being mitigated as far as possible. There are exemption arrangements in place for critical sectors, and we keep them under review. Officials and ministers engage with different sectors, and I will make sure that we are engaging closely with oil and gas to address the particular concerns that have been raised.

Audrey Nicoll (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

At last week’s Covid update for NHS Grampian, we discussed the challenge of people with health inattention not presenting with conditions that require investigation or treatment. Although the situation is beginning to ease, I am concerned that the upsurge in omicron will again discourage those who are in most need of healthcare from seeking help. What assurance can the First Minister give that everything is being done to encourage people to make and keep appointments with general practitioners and others, while recognising the huge pressures that health services are facing once again?

The First Minister

That is an important point as well. Obviously, all parts of the NHS are under severe and increasing pressure right now, but the NHS remains open for people who need it. If anyone needs to contact their GP or other parts of the health service, they should do that. We have worked hard to ensure that GP capacity for medical care is preserved. That is one reason why we deliberately limited the involvement of GPs in the Covid vaccination programme. Let me stress that they have not had no involvement in it and that I am very grateful to them for what they have done for the programme. However, we have not relied overly on GPs to deliver the vaccination programme.

We are also increasing funding for the expansion of multidisciplinary teams, and we have provided additional funding to primary care specifically to support services through the winter, in order to increase as much as possible the availability of face-to-face appointments. Nevertheless, we recognise that, for many reasons in addition to Covid protection, patients will also benefit from other ways of accessing their GP, whether online or through telephone services.

We will continue to work with and support GPs as much as we can.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

Constituents have contacted me because they are concerned about the distance that they need to travel to get their Covid vaccinations. Many do not live near vaccination sites and do not drive, so they are reliant on public transport, which is patchy in Glasgow, especially in the north of the city. Public transport not only poses financial challenges to low-income households; it can also be inaccessible and distressing to use for disabled people. One constituent said that they are afraid of using public transport because of the risk of catching Covid. What plans are in place to ensure that people can get vaccinated closer to home and that, when people have to travel to a Covid vaccination centre, affordable, accessible and safe transport is available to get them there?

The First Minister

Pam Duncan-Glancy illustrates very well a challenge that I have articulated on occasion in the chamber, not least when I have been challenged by members—understandably—-to have more mass vaccination centres. Mass vaccination centres have a part to play, but we need a balance of provision, so that we have much more community availability as well. That is why we have tried to get a balance between big-scale but sometimes more remote places and smaller-scale places that are easier for people to access in their communities. The balance is difficult to get absolutely right.

My advice to people who are struggling to get to a vaccination appointment is that they contact the helpline and seek advice on how they can get the vaccination in a way that is more accessible. There are a variety of appointments and different ways of booking appointments, and a person does not have to book an appointment in their own area.

We will ensure that health boards make sure that appropriate assistance is given to people who are really struggling to get to vaccination appointments. We will ensure that the issue continues to be borne in mind.

I call Clare Adamson, to be followed by Craig Hoy.

There is a problem with Ms Adamson’s connection. I will go to Mr Hoy.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

Public health messaging remains a crucial part of the fight against omicron. Given that recent YouGov polling found that fewer than 2 per cent of Scots fully understood the FACTS acronym, how will the Government ensure that any new Covid guidance is communicated effectively? Will the First Minister ensure that, whenever possible, such communications are consistent, through the adoption of a four-nations approach to messaging?

The First Minister

We adopt four-nations approaches. Some of the advertising right now is being done on a four-nations basis. There have been periods during the pandemic when we have not thought that the messages from the UK Government were appropriate or right, and therefore we have had messaging that we thought was appropriate for Scotland. I reserve the right to do that, just as the UK Government would reserve its right in that regard.

The Government and I try to communicate as clearly as possible. We do not always get that right. We test messages and we learn from that. We will certainly learn from the FACTS advice campaign. That campaign is no longer in use, as we are not currently advising people to follow all of its components—although we are getting closer to that at the moment.

I take the whole public communications aspect of this seriously—people sometimes criticise me for taking it too seriously—because I know how important it is. We absolutely will learn any lessons, as we go, about how we can improve it.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Given that the advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation now includes pregnant women in the at-risk category, will the First Minister provide an update on Covid vaccination uptake among pregnant women?

The First Minister

I very much welcome the JCVI’s recent advice, which moved pregnant women into the at-risk group for Covid vaccination. That demonstrates the importance of women getting vaccinated when they are pregnant, to protect themselves and their babies against what we know are the risks of Covid in pregnancy.

Uptake remains much lower among pregnant women than it is among non-pregnant women, but it is increasing. The most recent data that Public Health Scotland has published, which covers September and October, shows that the uptake among pregnant women in those months was more similar to the uptake in the general female population than had previously been the case.

The fact that the uptake is improving is encouraging, and I continue to urge all pregnant women who have not already done so to book a vaccination as soon as possible: it is really important, to protect not just your own health but the health of your baby.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes the First Minister’s Covid-19 update. I apologise to members whose questions I was unable to take.

I understand that Clare Adamson has a point of order.

I am sorry, Ms Adamson, but we cannot hear you at the moment. We will look into why we have had this difficulty this afternoon.