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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 December 2020

Agenda: Covid-19 (Loneliness and Social Isolation), Covid-19 (Vaccine and Testing Programmes), First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Brexit, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill: Stage 3, Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill, Environmental Standards Scotland (Appointments), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Before we turn to First Minister’s questions, I ask the First Minister whether she would like to update the Parliament on Covid-19.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will give a short update on today’s statistics before touching on some other issues.

The number of cases reported yesterday was 1,190—five per cent of all tests reported—and the total number of cases is now 115,566. There are currently 1,025 people in hospital, which is 20 fewer than yesterday, and 56 people in intensive care, which is four fewer than yesterday.

I very much regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 47 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days. The total number of people who have therefore died under that daily measurement is 4,373.

National Records of Scotland has also just published its weekly update, which includes cases in which Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death, even if it has not been confirmed through a test. Today’s update shows that, by last Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid under that wider definition was 6,298, 203 of which were registered last week, which is 23 fewer than in the previous week. Again, I convey my deepest condolences to everyone who has been bereaved.

Before I go any further today, I take this opportunity to say how sorry I am for my breach of the rules that I ask us all to follow every single day. I took my face mask off while briefly attending a funeral purvey last week. I am sure that everyone will have seen in the media this morning a picture of me without it. I want to be clear today that, regardless of the circumstances, I was in the wrong. There are no excuses. The rules apply to me just as they do to everyone else, and the rules really matter. I am kicking myself very hard, possibly harder than my worst critic ever could. More important, I will be making sure that I do not drop my guard again.

I have three further points that I would like to update members on very quickly. The first is the situation in relation to cross-channel trade. The news that France has lifted its ban on accompanied freight vehicles is welcome, but important challenges remain to clearing the backlog. As part of that, it is important that the transport of perishable goods, including seafood, is prioritised, and the Scottish Government is ready to help in any way that we can, including with the testing of drivers.

Secondly, Public Health Scotland has just published its weekly statistical report, which includes an update on vaccinations. It shows that, by Sunday, more than 56,000 people had received their first dose of the vaccine. That is a significant achievement in the short time that it has been available.

My third and final point is that we will shortly publish the latest estimate of the R number. We expect that it will show that the R number is still around 1 in Scotland, which is a concern, given that it is thought that the new variant of Covid could raise the R number by 0.4.

Those final two points demonstrate where we are at present. The progress with vaccinations gives us grounds for hope, but the overall state of the pandemic is a cause for concern. Our immediate priority has to be to get through these next few weeks and months as safely as possible. That will be even more difficult than expected, given that the new variant of Covid seems to transmit more easily than other strains of the virus.

That is why, unfortunately, we are imposing such tough restrictions from boxing day onwards. It is also why the safest way for indoor Christmas day celebrations is within your own household and in your own home. Please do not meet other people indoors if you can possibly avoid it.

It is also why all of us, however hard it is, need to continue to stick to the current rules and guidelines, and that includes FACTS. So, with an enormous dose of humility, I remind everyone—most importantly, myself—of FACTS: people should use face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean their hands and surfaces regularly; keep 2m distance from people in other households; and self-isolate and get tested if they have symptoms. Those actions will work against the new strain of the virus and they mean that, while the vaccination programme proceeds, we can continue to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our national health service.

I take this opportunity, Presiding Officer, to wish you, everyone in the chamber and everyone watching a healthy and peaceful Christmas and—as I think we all hope—a brighter and better 2021.

Thank you. The First Minister will now take questions. I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Level 4 Restrictions (Non-essential Businesses)

From midnight on Saturday, all Scotland’s non-essential businesses will be closed for a minimum of three weeks. Most people understand why, but the news is still devastating.

Today, we spoke to Ryan Hutchins, who runs a small sofa shop in Linwood. Here is what he told us:

“90% of my customers are outside Renfrewshire … I had only 2 customers in the last 3 weeks. My business is bleeding money to the point I'm close to broke and have very little left to survive because of the lockdown … his next 3 weeks lockdown will cripple me if I don’t get help. I have 2 children, one that lives with me full time. I have £754 in the bank with my rent due on January 1st and other bills”

Ryan cannot survive until some unknown date in January without receiving grant support, so what can the First Minister tell him?

First, I want Ryan and everybody else—there are many in Ryan’s position—to know how sorry I am for the situation that we find ourselves in. If I thought that there was another way to do this, I would grasp it in a heartbeat. Nobody wants to be in this position. That is true in Scotland, in the rest of the United Kingdom and in much of the rest of the world.

Businesses that are required to close by law in level 4 areas are, of course, able to apply for strategic framework business fund support. Businesses that are required to close are eligible for a grant of up to £3,000—the level depends on rateable value. A grant of £2,100—again depending on rateable value—is available for businesses that can remain open but are required to modify their operations by law. Those grants are provided to eligible businesses for every four weeks of restrictions.

I repeat what I said earlier in the week. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance is reviewing what additional support we can make available to businesses, because we know that this extra period of disruption and, for many, closure will be very difficult to bear, even with the funding that is currently in place. We will continue to do everything that we can, within the confines of the resources that are available to us, to help as far as we possibly can.

I thank the First Minister for that answer, but I am not sure that it will be enough for Ryan. I am not sure that it will be enough for the Edinburgh shop owner who writes saying,

“I’ve already run the payroll for this month due to the Christmas holidays”

and asks what he is supposed to do now. I am not sure that it will be enough for the Borders hairdresser who says that the new shutdown will be the

“final nail in the coffin”

for her salon. She says:

“I’ve adhered to all the health and safety measures we were advised to do before we reopened after the last lockdown, but financially I will struggle to keep afloat this time”;

I am not sure that it will be enough for the boss of the chain of women’s clothes shops who is desperate to protect the 131 jobs that her shops sustain, but who is also terrified that she will not make it.

They, and thousands like them, have done everything that has been asked of them, but they have no reserves left. How long will it take for the schemes that the Scottish Government has announced to open? How long will it be before money actually hits the bank accounts of those businesses, which are teetering on the edge?

First, as I have said, I understand that; it breaks everybody’s heart to hear experiences of the kind that have just been recounted to us in the chamber. I know that it does not help anybody in that position for me to say this, but it is, nevertheless, important that I say it: in doing the really difficult things that we are doing right now to suppress this virus, we are providing a more sustainable recovery for the economy in the medium-to-long term. If we allow the virus to get out of control, experience tells us that the damage to the economy will be longer lasting and much deeper than it would otherwise be. That does not take away the short-term pain and I am acutely aware of that.

The support funds that I spoke about in my original answer are already open for applications. They are administered through local authorities. We work with local authorities to get that funding to businesses as quickly as possible. As members across the chamber know, there are other funding streams that we have announced. Some of them have been in place for a while; others have been announced more recently. I know that businesses that may have been able to cope on the funding that we have made available thus far will find it much more difficult to do so the longer the disruption of this pandemic goes on. That is exactly why the finance secretary is urgently looking at what more we are able to do to help businesses in that very difficult situation.

I have been candid all along in saying that, with the best will in the world, we will never be able to compensate every individual and every business for every loss that the pandemic has foisted on them, but we will do our level best to provide as much support as possible. The Government—ministers and civil servants; all of us—will be working throughout the Christmas break to ensure that we do everything that requires to be done on every aspect of the handling of the pandemic.

Throughout the crisis, even when the Government has promised to help, it has been far too slow in getting support out the door to protect jobs. The Fraser of Allander institute told us that, for months, the Government sat on £1 billion of funding that was designed to help those who were struggling.

Figures that were released last week showed that more than 106,000 applications were received for two schemes—the small business grant scheme and the retail, hospitality and leisure scheme. However, as of 8 December, only 91,000 had been processed. Those schemes closed five months ago. Five months on, 15,000 businesses are still waiting, and fewer than 500 applications were processed in the period between September and December. Given that record, what confidence can businesses have that the schemes that have been announced in December will pay out in January?

It is right and fair for us to be challenged to get the money out as quickly as possible—we are seeking to do that, and we will continue to seek to speed up the process as much as possible. Many of those grant-funding schemes are administered through local authorities, so we are working with them in order to do that. It is an enormous burden on local authorities, and we recognise the hard work that the people who work in those authorities are doing.

I do not accept that we sit on money—we have allocated all the money that we have at our disposal. In the Scottish Government, we have to ensure that we build in contingencies because, while every penny of consequential funding is welcome, we often do not know what it is meant to cover or how long it is meant to last. We therefore have to look ahead and ensure that we are budgeting to get us through the remainder of the financial year.

It is really important that we get every penny that we can out to businesses. We are determined to do that, as far as we can, for every business across the country that is living—just as individuals are—with the horrendous implications of what the virus is doing to us.

Most small businesses understand the need for the new restrictions. What they do not understand is why they, and the jobs that they support, are so often treated as an afterthought by the Government. Andrew McRae of the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland said that moving to tier 4 so quickly was a “hammer blow” to many of his members.

We are about to enter what should be the busiest time of year for Scotland’s small businesses. Instead, small firms across the country are facing Christmas not knowing whether they can survive to new year.

On 9 December, a multimillion-pound set of schemes was announced for businesses such as photographers and taxi drivers, those in the wedding sector and travel agents and tour operators. However, people have not been told when those schemes will open, how they can apply or—crucially—when they can actually expect any money to hit their bank accounts.

When will those firms get the support that they need? What about the help that was announced on Monday for those who are affected by the next lockdown? How far into the new year will it be before applications open, never mind how many months before they are processed?

Ryan Hutchins and thousands of small business owners like him are calling on the First Minister to deliver on her promises and free up the millions of pounds that have already been passed to the Scottish Government. When will she do that?

Many of those funding schemes are open for applications; businesses are, and have been, applying, and many businesses have got money.

We are announcing new streams of funding as often as we can. Often we need to put in place guidance to allow local authorities to judge eligibility, and we will continue to work to speed up that process as much as possible.

I understand why businesses and individuals living in extreme circumstances right now may possibly think that their circumstances are an afterthought, but I assure people that that is not the case. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to update members in writing on the different funding streams: what stage they are at, when they opened or will open and what the timescales are for getting money to people.

We announced quickly the start of level 4 from Saturday. If we had not decided to impose that quickly, we would face a situation in which businesses may end up being closed for longer because of the virus running out of control. We see similar restrictions in place across much of the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. These are horrendously difficult circumstances. I take very seriously our responsibility to try to suppress the virus and support people as we do so, and the Government will work every single day to ensure that that is done as quickly and effectively as is humanly possible.

Covid-19 (Care Homes)

Back in July, the Scottish Human Rights Commission questioned whether what had happened in our care homes was a violation of the human rights of their residents: of the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, of the right to non-discrimination, and even of the right to life itself.

The commission said that a public inquiry was needed, and that it should be

“independent, prompt, determine responsibility, subject to public scrutiny”.

The Government agreed with that. Why, six months later, are care home residents and their families still waiting?

We work every single day with those on the front line and those who are working so hard in our care homes to keep their residents as safe as possible. As it is for businesses, this continues to be an incredibly difficult time for those in care homes and for their families.

We have given a clear and unambiguous commitment to an independent public inquiry, with human rights at its heart. We will pursue the implementation plans for a public inquiry as quickly as is feasible.

I made this point yesterday, and it is a really important one. Right now, particularly in the light of what we are facing with the new strain of the virus, my principal responsibility and the principal responsibility of the Deputy First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and every single minister in the Government is to focus on taking decisions now, on learning lessons and on changing policy where we can to ensure that we get through the next phase of the pandemic.

I referred to this yesterday: I noticed that the chief executive of Scottish Care, Donald Macaskill, when asked about this a few weeks ago, said that the organisation wanted an inquiry, but realised that

“we cannot take staff away from the front-line duties of fighting a virus”.

If that happened, it would be, to use his words,

“a dangerous distraction which will cost lives”.

There is no doubt about the commitment to a public inquiry. I may be wrong, and events may have overtaken me, but I believe that we may still be the only Government in the UK that has given that clear and unambiguous commitment to a public inquiry.

However, we must focus on saving lives now. The virus is not done with us, unfortunately; it has just learned how to spread itself faster. The responsibility that I and my Government owe to the people of Scotland is to keep our focus on what we must do now, every single day.

It is not just the Scottish Human Rights Commission that is making that call. Just this week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland also called for a public inquiry into Covid deaths in Scotland’s care homes. It said that that was urgent, and it reported:

“We were told of situations where there were reduced or no visits by GPs and community nurses ... Residents were not being transferred to acute settings and people nearing the end of their lives were not receiving palliative care.”

We know that, until mid-May, the Scottish Government guidance advised that anyone who was a long-term care home resident should not be admitted to hospital. Why on earth, 10 months into the pandemic, does the First Minister think that the EHRC still finds it necessary to recommend that Scotland’s care home residents must have

“full and equal access to ... healthcare”?

I am sorry, but I just do not accept that characterisation of the Scottish Government’s advice. We have had this exchange before. Government often puts in place policy frameworks in the shape of advice on such matters, but the issue of whether or not an individual—whether in a care home or living in their own home or anywhere else—is admitted to hospital is a decision for clinicians, as is right and proper. It should never be for politicians to second-guess that.

The guidance makes the point that, for older people, particularly those nearing the end of their life, the best place for them to receive appropriate care is often in their own homes. For many older people, a care home is their own home. However, if a clinician thinks that they should be in hospital, that is exactly where they should be.

I do not disagree with what the Equality and Human Rights Commission is saying or with any of the calls for a public inquiry. It is not a question of whether there will be a public inquiry; on behalf of the Scottish Government, I can say that there certainly will be a public inquiry. It is a question of when it will be sensible and safe to have that inquiry.

My judgment, with which people are absolutely entitled to disagree—I appreciate that some in the chamber do—is that my responsibility right now is to focus on the immediate challenge of getting us through the next phase of the pandemic. We are perhaps at the most dangerous juncture now since February or March and my focus has to be there.

There will be a full public inquiry into not just care homes but all aspects of the handling of the pandemic. That is right and proper. Right now, however, the most important thing is to keep steering us through the pandemic as carefully and as safely as possible.

The First Minister says that the advice is clinical and not governmental, but the letter that was issued on 13 March was from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman. I have the letter here—it is on Scottish Government-headed notepaper.

To go back to the situation that is affecting people in care homes, let me describe what daily life has been like in our care homes for the past ten months. Both of Angela’s parents live in the same care home in Livingstone. Angela said that

“since March, they have been isolated, every day on their own, in their small rooms, almost imprisoned for being old. My mother is isolated, her health deteriorating, and she is losing the will to live because there are not enough staff to support the restrictions. For her, Covid has meant that she has lost the right to see her husband and family, to practise her chosen religion and to leave her home for even a bit of fresh air.”

We understand that the virus is highly contagious and that we must protect the most vulnerable, but care home residents deserve better than this.

In 2020, we have seen a record number of Covid-related deaths in Scotland’s care homes and the violation of the human rights of care home residents. Families have been torn apart from their loved ones. Will the First Minister work with all parties across the Parliament in 2021? Will she listen to the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the EHRC? Will she set up the long-awaited public inquiry and listen to the voices of people such as Angela, so that all our older people are finally treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve?

Before I come to the really important matters, I will clear up something from Richard Leonard’s question. I did not say that the guidance was clinical advice rather than Scottish Government advice, but questioned Mr Leonard’s characterisation of what the advice said.

The guidance is Scottish Government advice, but I made the point that it does not countermand the decisions of clinicians, if the latter think that an older person should be in hospital. Those are important issues; let us not mischaracterise what we are each saying on the matter.

All of us understand that the pandemic has possibly affected no group in our society more, or harder, than the people who live in care homes and their families. I had occasion this past week to write, for the first time in my experience, to somebody whom I knew personally, who had lost their husband in a care home. Thousands of families across the country will have had the experience of dealing with the pandemic in a care home setting.

Our hearts break for them every day. I will not wait until 2021 to listen to people such as Angela; I listen to those voices, views and opinions literally every single day. I cannot always find the perfect balance for everybody in that situation, because there is no perfect balance: the virus is not fair, neither for people in care homes nor for anybody else.

We have to juggle all those difficult factors every single day and come to the safest possible outcomes for people. We will try to do that as best and as well as we can every day. In 2021, I hope that we will see the start of a public inquiry, because I hope that we will then be out of the acute phase of the pandemic at least, so that we can turn our attention to the inquiry.

I come back to the point that I would not do any favours or any good at all to people in care homes, families or anybody else across the country right now if I—with my Government and all the people with whom we have to work, including the care home sector—do not focus 100 per cent on trying to deal with those issues day in and day out. That is what we will continue to do.

Covid-19 and Brexit (Disruption to Food Supplies)

We are dealing with the extremely dangerous new strain of a deadly virus at the same time as Boris Johnson still seems determined to drive us off the Brexit cliff. The first of those crises is already disrupting the border, and the second threatens to do even worse.

A United Kingdom Government source told The Times that there were

“contingency plans in place for absolutely everything.”

I honestly doubt that that is even possible, but it is vital that Scotland is as ready as we can be. Yesterday, the First Minister told the Parliament that,

“if the situation is not resolved in the next day or so, we may start to see pressure on some fresh produce after Christmas.”—[Official Report, 22 December 2020; c 10.]

Will the First Minister set out what types of fresh produce are the greatest cause for concern, when she expects the issues to be seen—in relation to either Covid disruption or Brexit disruption—and what action her Government is taking to ensure that those who are in greatest need, including people on low incomes and those with young families, are not left facing additional hunger or price gouging in the days and weeks ahead?

My responsibility here is to deal with the Covid impacts. My views on Brexit are well known. We are getting ever closer to the cliff edge, and I still hope that we can avert the reality of going off it. We have seen some of the contingency plans that were prepared for Brexit having to be activated in the past couple of days due to the border issues associated with Covid. People themselves can judge whether the disruption that we have seen in the past couple of days suggests that, in the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit, those contingency plans would be anywhere near adequate for what we would be dealing with. My view is that they would not be, but I will leave others to deal with that.

I hope that we will see no impact on food supplies. It is positive that we are starting to see freight moving again, although it will take some time to get through the backlog of vehicles. As I said yesterday, the Scottish Government is considering the ways in which we can help. There is not much that we can do to help with the backlog that is already at Dover, but there is perhaps much we can do, through testing and other things, to prevent problems occurring in the future.

I will chair a meeting of the Government’s resilience committee this afternoon to take stock of any issues relating to food supply. People will have read in the papers about the kind of fresh produce that might be affected—for example, fresh salad products and citrus fruits—if the situation is not sufficiently alleviated quickly enough. However, we hope that that can be avoided. If I think that it is necessary and appropriate to do so, I will send a note round MSPs after today’s resilience meeting, to update them.

Earlier in the week, we had an update from FareShare, which said that it has no concerns about food for food banks and for those in the most vulnerable circumstances. Again, that is something that we will be monitoring closely in the days ahead.

I certainly do not suggest that the Scottish Government has caused either Covid or Brexit, but the Scottish Government has a responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of those who are affected. The threat of food price hikes in the new year would come in the wake of the impact that Covid has had on inequality and wellbeing. The Scottish Government’s report on that issue confirms what I think most of us already knew—that the pandemic is disproportionately impacting people in poverty, low-paid workers, children and young people, women, older people, disabled people and minority ethnic groups.

Around a quarter of adults are concerned about providing for their family, and one in five households with dependent children say that they are already in serious financial difficulty. That is the stark reality as we head into Christmas, and the situation is set to worsen in 2021 if we have to start the year with a prolonged lockdown.

What more will the First Minister and the Scottish Government do to support low-income households over that period and to support organisations that are working to tackle food poverty? Does the First Minister agree that Scottish tax policy must actively reverse the growing level of inequality by ensuring that those who have profited immensely in 2020, such as the supermarkets and online retailers, pay their fair share?

I was not suggesting that Patrick Harvie was blaming the Scottish Government, and I was certainly not suggesting that we do not have a big responsibility in dealing with the impacts of Covid and Brexit, even though Brexit is not of our making.

Over the recess period, we will continue to update members on any implications of what is happening at borders just now and on Covid and Brexit more generally.

We are already doing a significant amount to help people who are in the most vulnerable situations. As members should be aware, we recently announced a £100 million winter support package, which contains measures such as extra money that goes directly to families with children who are in receipt of free school meals, extra funding for organisations that work with the most vulnerable and funding to address food poverty. We will keep under review our ability to provide more support and the requirement for that.

In principle, I agree that we should have progressive tax policies in which those who can bear the biggest burden do so and through which we do as much as possible to help those who need the most help. Obviously, the Scottish Government’s tax powers are limited in that respect. Some supermarkets have, rightly, repaid the business rates support that they received, which is extra money that has come back into the Scottish Government’s coffers. We will continue to support a progressive approach to taxation as we look ahead—as I hope that we can—to a Covid recovery in 2021.

Independence Referendum

I thank everyone for their work over the past year. In particular, I thank key workers—nurses, doctors, train and bus drivers, teachers, supermarket workers, cleaners and others. From time to time, I have even thanked the First Minister. I also thank the amazing Parliament staff, who have worked so hard to adapt and to keep our democratic process running throughout the crisis.

In the past 48 hours, in Dover, we have had a glimpse of what happens when an economic partnership is broken. However, by this time next year, the First Minister wants to have repeated the same mistakes with her referendum. Christmas is a time for sequels. We have now seen what Brexit 1 is like, and, despite that, the First Minister still wants Brexit 2: the break-up of another economic union. Why does the First Minister want another break-up by next Christmas?

On a note of Christmas cheer, which I will try to maintain for as long as I can, I echo Willie Rennie in thanking many people, including the staff of the Parliament, who have done a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. We are all deeply grateful to them. I also thank the civil servants who support the Government—they do not always get thanked—who have also done a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. [Applause.]

The only reason that we are faced with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit in Scotland is because we are not independent—it has been foisted on us against our will. Independence is not the same as Brexit; it would see Scotland joining other independent countries in the European Union, working together where we need to, including on matters such as Covid, and charting our own future. It is the positive prospect of charting our own future, being responsible for our own mistakes and building our own success and prosperity, instead of having our future foisted on us by the likes of Boris Johnson and his band of Brexiteers, that sees a sustained majority of the Scottish population supporting Scotland’s becoming a normal, equal, independent country.

At the weekend, the First Minister said that it would be “unconscionable” to carry on with Brexit in the middle of a global pandemic, oblivious to the irony of her planning to hold an independence referendum in the middle of that same pandemic. I want the crisis to stop, but her plans would add to it.

We should put the recovery first. We need to put first the young people who need work; the businesses that are on their knees; the climate, which is in a state of emergency; the people who are waiting ages for mental health treatment; and the pupils who deserve a better education. I know that the First Minister has supported independence for all of her political life, but holding an independence referendum now, in the middle of one of the worst health and economic crises that this country has ever seen, is not the right thing to do. Surely, the First Minister can see that?

I have worked out what Willie Rennie is up to today. He has realised that people are really missing pantomimes, so he has decided to provide one all of his own—it is actually a public service.

Where to start? First, let us not lose sight of the irony of the situation that the Liberal Democrats are now a pro-Brexit party. They have actually given up their opposition to Brexit. I still think that Brexit is a mistake.

Secondly, I am sure that it has not escaped Willie Rennie’s notice that I am not planning an independence referendum right now. In fact, I put planning for an independence referendum on hold when the global pandemic struck. If only Boris Johnson had put planning for Brexit on hold when the global pandemic struck. I am not planning to have a referendum while we are in the midst of a global pandemic, because my focus is on leading the country through the pandemic.

However, as we start to recover from the pandemic and as all of us across the world start to ask ourselves what kind of countries and societies we want to live in, I want the people of Scotland to be in charge of answering that question, not the likes of Boris Johnson. Becoming an independent country is essential to building the Scotland that we know is possible as we come out of this Covid crisis.

Loneliness and Isolation (Festive Period)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government is doing to tackle loneliness and isolation over the festive period. (S5F-04690)

All of us are acutely aware of the isolation and loneliness that the pandemic has caused. As part of the winter support package that I just talked about in response to Patrick Harvie, we provided nearly £6 million to tackle isolation and loneliness, which included more than £4 million for our connecting Scotland programme to improve digital inclusion for older people and money for partners such as Age Scotland, which is tackling loneliness through its expanded helplines. In addition, £15 million of the winter funding is available to community and third sector organisations to support their work.

I encourage everyone to safely check in on those in their neighbourhoods and communities who they believe might be in need of a kind word or deed this Christmas. I also thank everyone who has been working to provide connection and comfort to those around them over the course of the past very difficult months.

Earlier this week, I launched a campaign asking school-age Scots and their families to help by completing five acts of kindness over Christmas. I know that the scouts in north-east Scotland are already doing that and I am hugely grateful to them for everything that they are doing to make a difference. Acts of kindness could be anything from popping a note through the letterbox of a neighbour who lives alone to donating to a local food bank.

Will the First Minister back my campaign and join me in asking those who are able to do so to look out for others in our communities during what will be an especially tough Christmas for many Scots?

Yes, I will certainly do that. It deeply saddens all of us that this will not be a normal Christmas and I know that the change in restrictions has been a particularly bitter pill for many people to swallow. Although this will be a festive season like no other that any of us has experienced before, much compassion and kindness have been evident across all communities this year.

As, I know, everybody will, I certainly take comfort in the knowledge that so many people—such as those who Gillian Martin talked about—will be doing so much to help make Christmas a bit better for someone else. I welcome anything that encourages others to carry out acts of kindness, large or small, and I am very happy to support Gillian Martin’s campaign.

Travel Restrictions (Exemptions)

To ask the First Minister what reassurances the Scottish Government can give to communities in the Borders regarding exemptions to travel restrictions between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. (S5F-04694)

Communities in the Borders have very close social and economic connections with the rest of the United Kingdom, which are really important. The regulations that prohibit travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK without a reasonable excuse are, unfortunately, necessary and essential at this time. However, they include a range of exemptions for which travel is permitted. Those include but are not limited to: travel for work or for voluntary or charitable services that are essential; travelling to school or university; travel for essential shopping; and travel for healthcare, childcare or parental support services. Those exemptions are set out in full in our guidance on the website. However, for everyone’s safety, we encourage people to keep such travel to an absolute minimum during this period.

For many people in communities along the border—such as in Paxton, Chirnside and Lamberton—Berwick-upon-Tweed is the nearest town for essential shopping and medical appointments. Police Scotland has said that it will double its efforts along the border. When we combine that with the current coverage in the media, many of my constituents are scared to venture out for essential purposes if they take place a few miles away in England.

I am concerned that elderly people will go without food, essential supplies and medical care, because they are fearful of breaking guidance. Will the First Minister give me and my constituents assurances that the police are aware of the special circumstances in which borderers find themselves? Will she ask the Scottish Government to issue specific advice for the Borders, as well as for areas such as Dumfries and Galloway, so that my constituents and others know that they can carry out essential daily tasks without fear or hindrance?

The guidance and the laws that are in place right now have been written with the particular circumstances of the Borders already in mind. That is why I do not think that it is necessary to have specific guidance. In the example that the member used, of essential shopping being required from over the border, essential shopping that cannot be done in people’s own local area is one of the specific exemptions in law. I think that it is the responsibility of all of us to point such things out to people.

Nobody should be fearful of travelling for an essential purpose. We should all be fearful—not because of the police, but because of the virus—of travelling when we do not have to travel, because that poses risks to our health. However, people should not be fearful of travelling for essential purposes. Anybody who has listened, as I am sure many of us already have, to the chief constable set out how the police will go about the enforcement of the regulations will take some assurance and comfort from that. I have confidence in how the police will do that for the travel regulations over the Christmas period and, if necessary, beyond.

Long Covid (Support)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government’s new clinical guidelines and definition will support people with long Covid. (S5F-04692)

The new clinical Scottish intercollegiate guidelines network guidance provides helpful advice on how to care for people who have symptoms during, or after getting, Covid. That guidance will of course evolve as evidence on long Covid continues to emerge. The guideline will support general practitioners and clinicians in identifying on-going symptoms, and provide a definition of best practice, investigation and treatment options to support people who are living with long Covid.

It is crucial that decisions about treatment are based on the latest available evidence, and are aligned to clinical guidance. The guidance work and our deepening understanding of the symptoms and impact of long Covid will help us continue to tailor diagnosis and treatment to each individual patient’s need.

I have spoken to a retail worker who contracted Covid-19, was in a coma for weeks, and now has to walk with a stick and is in immense pain; I have also spoken to a social care worker who also now uses a walking stick, has never recovered her sense of taste and smell, and has been referred to a respiratory clinic. Both are women, and both contracted Covid-19 at work.

I firmly believe that Covid-19 and long Covid are industrial diseases that remain unclassified, especially since Public Health Scotland has stated that healthcare workers are three times more likely to be hospitalised from it. Industrial injuries benefit does nothing for those who catch Covid-19 at work. Will the First Minister say to those key workers who are still suffering how the newly devolved employment injury assistance will support key workers who have long Covid, particularly since they are in female-dominated workplaces, which have been largely ignored by the current industrial injuries scheme?

That is an important point. I am not able to answer it in detail right now. I undertake to take that away and look specifically, within the devolved benefits for which we are now responsible, at whether and to what extent we should and could be looking at providing support for those who may live with long Covid for some time. It is a very legitimate point to raise. Among the other work that we are doing on understanding and responding to the challenges of long Covid, I undertake today that we will consider that and come back to Mark Griffin, and to the Parliament more generally, in due course.

We turn to supplementary questions.

Health Service (Winter Pressures)

The winter often brings pressures on our health service, which we are used to and which are well understood, but this year those pressures are compounded by the Covid outbreak. Will the First Minister update the Parliament and my constituents on the best ways to protect the health service and to access urgent medical care over the festive period?

All health boards, including NHS Lanarkshire, which covers the member’s constituency, are under serious pressure right now. We continue to support health boards as much as possible. The health secretary recently launched our redesign of urgent care programme, which aims to ensure that people are seen safely during winter and can access the right care, in the right place and at the right time. We have increased funding to the health and care sector, to help it to deal with Covid.

I encourage everyone to do all the things that all of us need to do to suppress the virus, and to continue to use the health service when they need it, through the usual channels of NHS 24 and—of course only where necessary—accident and emergency and our Scottish Ambulance Service. The health service is under huge pressure right now, but it remains open for those who need it.

Stone of Destiny

Will the First Minister join me in congratulating all those who have been involved in the hard and successful work to persuade Her Majesty the Queen and the commissioners for the safeguarding of the regalia that the stone of destiny should return to its spiritual home in Perth, with all the economic benefits that that will bring?

This a phrase that in my younger days I would probably never have predicted that I would utter: as one of the commissioners for the safeguarding of the regalia, I am pleased that we were able to announce today, with the consent of Her Majesty the Queen, the relocation of the stone of destiny to—and I agree with Liz Smith’s use of this term—its spiritual home, which is Perth. I think that many members were delighted years ago to see the stone of destiny return to its rightful home in Scotland; now it will return, in due course, to be the centrepiece of the redevelopment of Perth city hall. That is really good news.

I thank the people in Edinburgh who safeguarded the stone so well over the years, and I am sure that everybody will be delighted—[Interruption.] Well, I am sure that the Edinburgh members are as delighted as the rest of us are that, in the next few years, we will all be able to go to Perth to see the stone of destiny.

We come next to Neil Findlay.

I am sorry, Mr Findlay—your microphone is muted. We will try one more time.

Mr Findlay, we will come back to you in a few minutes.

British Transport Police

I thank the First Minister for making it clear that, for people who live in the eastern Borders, travel to Berwick—to Morrisons for groceries, for example—can be essential.

Given that the British Transport Police is responsible for policing the rail network, including the Borders railway, how will the BTP liaise with the Scottish Government and Police Scotland on cross-border travel?

I thank Christine Grahame for taking a responsible approach in standing up for her constituents to ensure that they can travel for essential purposes, while recognising the public health need to limit travel in the way that we are doing.

Christine Grahame is right to point to the role of the British Transport Police. When the chief constable joined me for one of the daily updates earlier in the week, he set out that Police Scotland is in close liaison with the British Transport Police, which is taking—in what is, of course, an operational matter for it—the same proportionate and sensitive approach on the railways as Police Scotland is taking in relation to what are operational matters for it elsewhere. I am very grateful for that.

I will go to Sarah Boyack while we try to reconnect to Neil Findlay.

Vaccination Programme

Last week, we had an excellent briefing from NHS Lothian. Delivery of all three waves of the vaccination programme will take a long time and full roll-out will take six to eight months. Although the first wave is under way, by the end of March only people over 65 and those who have specified conditions will have been vaccinated in phase 2. What does that mean for keeping key workers safe while they must still take safety precautions and wear personal protective equipment? What does it mean for keeping our schools open and keeping safe all the staff who support our school students?

I am happy to consider any specific detail that NHS Lothian provided, but I will respond in terms of the general overall programme, and about our ambitions for it and our determination to carry it out. The biggest and central constraint on our ability to be absolutely definitive about that is supply of the vaccine, which is a massive logistical exercise that health boards are working extremely hard on.

However, vaccine supplies permitting, our intention is to follow the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list, which means that we will have vaccinated everybody over the age of 50 by the spring, if we can. As we go into the summer, the rest of the population will follow. That is not an easy undertaking and it involves a lot of planning and logistics but, as long as the supplies come in the timeframe that we expect, we are confident that we can achieve that.

As I said earlier, more than 50,000 people in Scotland have already had their first dose of the vaccine, which is very good progress, given the short period in which supplies have been available.

National Tutoring Programme

The First Minister might be aware of warnings from Professor Lindsay Paterson that plans for blended learning might only exacerbate the attainment gap that we are all trying to close. He is not the only one; our inboxes are full of emails from parents who have genuine concerns about the further loss of face-to-face teaching and wonder why, on one hand, they are told that schools are safe but, on the other, are asked to keep their children at home.

Will the First Minister finally give serious and sensible consideration to our proposals for a national tutoring programme, which has the simple aim of helping the young people who are at the greatest risk of falling behind in their education?

Tutoring is available through the e-Sgoil initiative, and we can make details of that available.

I do not want young people to have blended learning if we can avoid it. We have made it a priority to have schools open full time and, in my view, that has happened safely and successfully until now. In the past week or so, what has changed is the new variant of the virus, which we are still trying to understand. As I have set out before, we know that it appears to be more transmissible but, as I said yesterday, we do not yet fully understand whether, as some scientists think might be the case, it is infecting children and young people more easily than previous strains did. In those circumstances, we have a duty to be precautionary until we have greater clarity and understanding of that.

We want to get schools back full time as quickly as we can, which we very much hope will be from 18 January. However, we have been candid with parents that, in the circumstances, we must keep that under review. In any period in which blended learning is necessary—whether that is for all schools, which I very much hope will not be the case, or whether that is on a school-by-school basis, which might sometimes be the case, depending on local outbreaks of the virus—we will do everything that we can to make sure that those who are not in school have the support that they need.

Care Home Visiting

Yesterday, care homes were advised that, under new level 4 restrictions, only essential outdoor visits—in Scotland in December—can take place and that only one visitor is allowed for outdoor visits.

This week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission produced a scathing report about human rights abuses of older people in care homes. Why has the Scottish Government ignored the commission’s findings in the publication of the new care home guidance? Should effective infection control measures not facilitate rather than prevent safe family contact?

Yes, they should, and that is what we tried to achieve. We are not ignoring the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but we are listening to the clinical advice that we are getting. The chief nursing officer and chief medical officer have written this week to care home managers to outline what the level 4 restrictions—which will come into place on Saturday for most of Scotland—will mean for care homes.

Those decisions are not taken lightly. All that I can do is repeat that we are faced with a strain of the virus that appears to be spreading perhaps 70 per cent faster than previous strains. We do not yet know all the implications of that or why that is the case. Therefore, difficult though it is for everybody who is affected—I am under no illusions about that—again, we must act on a highly precautionary basis.

Rightly and properly, we talk here about—and, rightly and properly, the Government gets acute scrutiny on—the number of people who have died in our care homes and the conditions that people who live in our care homes have had to ensure. All of us decision makers feel the burden of that very heavily, indeed, but that also makes it more important that we are very careful about the decisions that we take.

I very much hope that we get better news about the new variant that makes us all less concerned than we are at the moment, or that, in a few weeks’ time, we are more confident in our ability to suppress it and that we can quickly get back to where we were in trying to open up care homes to visitors. However, all of what we are doing at the moment—people might agree with it or disagree with it, which is understandable and legitimate—is being done with the intention and the desire to keep people in care homes as safe as we can.

Dementia Support

What is the Scottish Government doing to support people with dementia and their carers during the pandemic?

The dementia and Covid national action plan was published yesterday, and it has been endorsed by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The plan is the result of extensive engagement with stakeholders, including people with dementia and their carers. Pre-Covid, estimated annual spend on dementia by health and social care partnerships had already increased significantly, but the plan sets out work with COSLA, health and care partnerships and Alzheimer Scotland to review and assess the provision and the design of post-diagnostic services, to identify best practice and to look at the barriers that exist to further expansion of the services.

The plan also details work that we have undertaken to ensure that all carers have access to short breaks that are suitable for those who are self-isolating and physical distancing through the £3 million voluntary sector short breaks fund. Unpaid carers of loved ones with dementia will also get more support, with new funding for counselling being provided through Alzheimer Scotland.

Planning (Flamingo Land Ltd)

My constituents in Balloch were, frankly, gutted to discover yesterday that the Scottish Government’s enterprise agency has extended the exclusivity agreement given to Flamingo Land Ltd for the development of a private resort on what is currently publicly owned land at Loch Lomond. The fact that our community campaign against Flamingo Land’s unsuccessful first proposal lodged more than 60,000 objections made that application the most unpopular application in Scottish planning history. Now, we face months and—in all likelihood—years more of a saga that should have ended this year.

Why is the First Minister’s enterprise agency so unwilling to accept that Flamingo Land is the wrong developer and that its proposal is the wrong development, which would cause unacceptable damage to the local environment and community, and that it is simply utterly unwelcome within our world-famous national park?

As I understand it, such decisions are not really decisions for Scottish Enterprise. Scottish Enterprise will sell the land at West Riverside to Flamingo Land only if a new planning application is consented. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority is the planning authority, and it will be the body that considers any new planning application that is submitted to it. As I understand it, a new proposal has not been lodged with the national park authority.

It is really important that the processes in question are robust, and it is probably important that I do not express views on them at this stage. Given that I was involved in not dissimilar issues in my constituency quite a few years ago, I absolutely understand the concerns of the public on such issues, but I think that it is important that the processes are followed appropriately, and they will be.

Outdoor Activity (Nursery-age Children)

What measures are in place to ensure that our nursery-age children can continue to enjoy learning and having fun outdoors in the winter months in the light of the current pandemic?

I would like to take a cheeky opportunity to pay tribute to the absolutely fantastic and amazing Gaelic nursery at Tollbrae primary in North Lanarkshire, which serves kids across the council area and which my youngest son attends, and to wish its staff and all early years workers a merry Christmas.

I join Fulton MacGregor in wishing his son’s Gaelic nursery a very happy Christmas and thanking it for all that it does. Given that I have met him a few times, I also take the opportunity to wish Fulton MacGregor’s son—in fact, both his sons—a very happy Christmas. [Interruption.] I have been challenged to do it in Gaelic, but I think that that would be a challenge too far for me to even begin to accept. I will get Kate Forbes to give me some lessons later.

Fulton MacGregor raises an important point. Playing, learning and having fun outdoors is really important for everybody’s mental and physical health, but it is particularly important for that of children. Even though the new strain of the virus might be 70 per cent more transmissible, we still believe that it is less transmissible outdoors than it is indoors. That is an important principle for all of us to bear in mind. Guidance for childcare settings advises them to maximise the amount of time that is spent outdoors.

We announced a winter outdoor clothing fund to ensure that more children are able to spend time outdoors as part of their funded nursery experience, and that should help to reduce inequalities for children whose parents perhaps cannot buy suitable winter clothing just because we are in a pandemic.

We also fund Virtual Nature School, which provides training and support to early learning and childcare practitioners. More than 1,000 practitioners and 40,000 families have benefited from that programme, and I know that a further 500 teams will take part in the winter programme to support the delivery of high-quality all-weather outdoor experiences.

Mental Health Support Service (Vale of Leven Hospital)

Presiding Officer, I have some good news for you. Yesterday, a new mental health support service was officially launched at the Vale of Leven hospital in my West Scotland region as a result of my working with the Defence Medical Welfare Service and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. That demonstrates the effectiveness of the armed forces community covenant in our area. The service will make the Vale of Leven hospital a rising centre of excellence in mental health support work, with several patients and the hospital staff already benefiting immensely.

Will the First Minister join me in congratulating Bob Reid, Scottish director of the Defence Medical Welfare Service; Margaret O’Rourke, operations manager at the Vale of Leven hospital; and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde on launching that excellent new service at the Vale of Leven hospital at a time when we need mental health support more than ever?

Yes. I am delighted to whole-heartedly agree with that and thank all those who are involved in the new service at the Vale of Leven hospital. I am sure that it will be a shining example of that type of service.

We have had different groups of people to thank today, and I take this opportunity to thank our armed forces and everybody who serves. Many of them are used to experiencing what some will be experiencing for the first time this year: spending Christmas away from their families. I recorded a happy Christmas message to them yesterday evening, but I say that again today on behalf, I am sure, of us all. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude and, wherever they are right now, we wish them and their families a very happy Christmas.

As this is, I think, my last answer, Presiding Officer, I end by wishing you, the Parliament and everybody across Scotland at this very difficult Christmas the happiest one possible.

Thank you, First Minister. That concludes First Minister’s question time. Before we move on to portfolio questions, there will be a short pause while we change seats.