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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 May 2022 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, Health and Social Care, Business Motion, Decision Time, R B Cunninghame Graham


Contents


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. In order to get in as many members as possible, I would be grateful for short and succinct questions and responses.


ScotRail (Revised Timetable)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the sports and events sectors regarding alternative transport arrangements in light of the revised ScotRail train timetable. (S6T-00730)

Discussions with sectors across a range of portfolios, including sport and events, have been taking place in relation to the impact of ScotRail’s temporary timetable and alternative transport. For example, culture officials joined the event industry advisory group’s meeting on 20 May, at which I understand the group discussed the impacts on the events sector. The EIAG’s members include those from cultural, sporting and business events.

Although we want the temporary timetable to be in place for as short a period as possible, engagement is on-going, as required, with those organising individual events. Many attendees will already have plans to make use of Scotland’s extensive bus services on key routes.

The world cup qualifier on 1 June is one of the biggest games in 20 years, with more than 50,000 people flocking to Hampden. Considering the last-minute changes on the day that 700 services were axed, can the minister give fans the assurances that they need that extra capacity will be provided to get them home from Hampden—many will be going to northern cities—and that that capacity will not fall foul of more unplanned cancellations?

I thank the member for her question. First of all, it is important to remember why the dispute is happening. ScotRail has taken the decision to put in place a temporary timetable, which has been made necessary by the decision of train drivers, as part of a pay dispute, not to take up the option of Sunday and rest-day working. That decision is in train drivers’ gift; rest-day working is entirely voluntary. That has been a feature of British railways for many years; it entirely predates nationalisation last month.

However, it is true to say that Scotland, like many other parts of Great Britain’s rail network, relies on rest-day working to allow the network to function. Over the past few weeks, the network has, of course, not been functioning. We have had mass cancellations. For example, on Sunday—the last day of the old timetable—there were more than 300 cancellations.

I understand the concerns of supporters who are planning to attend the Scotland match against Ukraine on 1 June, which is just over a week away. Of course, that is Scotland’s most important game in a long time, and we want to ensure that supporters can get both to and from the match on public transport, including by using, where possible, our bus services across Scotland. I note that, before the reduced timetable was introduced, the last train from Glasgow to Aberdeen would have been at 21:40, so it still would not have returned people home to Aberdeen after the match.

ScotRail is aware of the various large cultural and sporting events across the summer and it is currently reflecting on how it will address the impact that the reduced timetable might have on those events.

Last Friday, I asked ScotRail for an update specifically on the Scotland-Ukraine match, and it has assured me that plans are in place and that it will publicise details of those in due course, as it does with all major events. I will meet ScotRail tomorrow to seek an update on that work, and more broadly on the negotiations, as it is due to meet with the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen this afternoon.

The night-time economy and the cultural sector are already on their knees as a result of the pandemic. The Night Time Industries Association has described the cuts to rail services as “devastating” and has said that

“Scotland’s economic recovery and the future of many thousands of small businesses and jobs”

are at risk as a result of the rail service being cut to the bone.

Last week, Douglas Ross asked the First Minister what compensation will be made available to businesses that are affected by the cuts. The First Minister did not answer. Can the minister provide a response now?

Ministers are of course very aware of the impact of the pandemic on the night-time sector and the wider hospitality sector, and on Scotland’s cultural sector. As a former culture minister, I know just how challenging the pandemic and the restrictions have been for our theatres and cultural venues. Undoubtedly, it has been the most challenging time for the industry in living memory. We are also of course aware of the emerging pressures from the cost of living crisis, which are due to the cost of doing business and to the consequences of reduced household incomes for things such as leisure spending.

ScotRail will keep the timetable under review. With regards to the member’s question, it is absolutely essential that we now get a resolution to allow for the restoration of the timetable so that services can go back to normal for passengers and staff alike. I will seek an urgent update from ScotRail on the meeting with ASLEF that is taking place later this afternoon.

ScotRail’s temporary revised timetable is one facet of industrial action that is taking place throughout the United Kingdom. However, although the Scottish Government wants all parties to get round the table and negotiate a fair and affordable pay deal, the Tories seek to use the dispute to illegalise industrial action. Therefore, what discussions has the transport minister had with Grant Shapps on his proposal to make industrial action illegal unless a minimum number of rail employees are working?

Ms Dunbar, I draw your attention to standing order 13.7.8, which tells you—well, it tells all members—that

“A member may ask a supplementary question only on the same subject matter as the original question”.

That being the case, we will move on.

The current ScotRail crisis is causing misery for many people every day, but especially for those who do not work regular hours. One of my constituents is a national health service nurse who finishes her 12-hour hospital shift at 7.45 pm. Her last train home is now at 8.04 pm, but she will miss it because she has less than 20 minutes to get changed and jog down to the station. There is no bus service and no rail replacement bus. How does the minister suggest that my constituent, and countless others like her, get home?

This is a really challenging time for shift workers and many people travelling across the country. That was alluded to in the original question, which relates to sporting events and the events industry more broadly.

I am more than happy to address the specifics of Mr Bibby’s question about his constituent. If he would like to write to me, I will raise the matter directly with ScotRail.

We absolutely do not want the current scenario to go on for any longer than it has already gone on for. The new timetable started just yesterday, and we saw a reduction of cancellations on the network. As I mentioned in my response to the first question, on Sunday, we had more than 300 cancellations, which was not sustainable, so we had to get to a better scenario for the delivery of services. ScotRail has put in place a temporary timetable as a result of drivers refusing to work on their rest days. I am absolutely committed to working with ScotRail and ASLEF to get a resolution for Mr Bibby’s constituent and for the thousands of other passengers who have been inconvenienced by the dispute.

It is clear that unsustainable and unfair working practices have been allowed to build up across the rail industry over many years. Does the minister agree that that is why having union and passenger voices on the ScotRail board will be so important in future? While passengers wait for the dispute to be resolved, can the minister ensure that no communities—communities such as Dunblane—are disproportionately impacted by the emergency timetable?

The member will be aware that there will be representation via union and passenger roles on the new ScotRail board, which is certainly welcome news. I know that it was welcomed by the trade unions with whose representatives I spent a lot of time following my appointment back in January, discussing their views on nationalisation and what future they saw for Scotland’s rail network. I want them to be part of that vision, through, for example, developing our plans on women’s safety. The unions have raised with me their concerns about staff safety, and I am keen to work with them on that matter.

The specific issue of disproportionality that Mr Ruskell mentioned in his question has been raised with me, primarily in relation to rurality. I have raised it with ScotRail and I will be happy to provide Mr Ruskell with an update on the restoration of a number of services, which I hope will be coming in matter of days.

The minister has to accept that this has been an utter failure of industrial relations on the part of the Government.

Organisers of July’s 150th Open golf championship in St Andrews are banking on more rail services being available for the almost 300,000 people who will descend on the town for that world showcase. Does the minister not understand the humiliation that will be imposed on Scotland if she does not get the rail strike sorted by then? If it is not, what plans does she have for ensuring that the roads of Fife will not be gridlocked by those 300,000 people?

Many moons ago, when I was a teenager growing up in St Andrews, I worked at the Open, so I very much recognise its importance to the local economy of St Andrews and the surrounding Fife villages.

I am advised that a meeting of the silver command group for the Open, on which the Scottish Government’s major events team is represented, is taking place today. It is expected that the traffic and transport group, on which Transport Scotland is represented, will be formally tasked with investigating the impact further and looking at the contingencies that Mr Rennie spoke of. I hope that that will reassure him that plans are being put in place. However, I point out that the Open is quite a wee bit away yet. I hope that we will be able to reach a resolution with the trade unions before then, and I am committed to working with them to deliver that in conjunction with ScotRail.

The minister will be aware that the Edinburgh international festival is just around the corner. At that time, many people travel into the city from other parts of Scotland to go to the theatre or to shows. Some people have already contacted me to say that they have bought tickets but will no longer be able to attend events because the trains back to where they will be staying will no longer be running. Will the Scottish Government offer compensation to people who have already bought tickets but who will no longer be able to get home safely because of the rail strike?

The premise of Mr Balfour’s question is that no tickets assumes no festival. I do not accept that.

Ministers are engaging with cultural stakeholders on a range of matters. That engagement includes Angus Robertson’s meeting with the director of Festivals Edinburgh just last week, at which I am advised the issue was not raised. As I have mentioned, as a Fifer myself, I am well aware that people travel into the capital city to attend the festival. As I outlined in my response to Mr Rennie, I hope that we will have reached a resolution far in advance of that date. Officials are also engaging regularly with culture and events stakeholders to understand the difficulties that they face in their respective sectors.

Again, I appeal to the trade unions and ScotRail to work together. I am delighted that they are meeting this afternoon. I look forward to sharing with members an update on the resolution from that meeting—later today, if I am able to do so—on the progress that we might be able to identify as we move forward, including, as I mentioned to Mr Ruskell, the reinstatement of a number of services.


Monkeypox Virus

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of reports of an outbreak of the monkeypox virus in the United Kingdom, including a case in Scotland, what action it is taking to monitor transmission of the virus in Scotland and support people affected. (S6T-00732)

As the member would rightly expect, I am being regularly briefed by officials and clinicians on the monkeypox outbreak. Public Health Scotland is working with the United Kingdom Health Security Agency, Public Health Wales and Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency to monitor and respond to potential and confirmed cases of monkeypox in the UK. Work is progressing with national health service boards and wider partners in Scotland and the UK to investigate the source of the infection. Close contacts are being identified and provided with health information and advice. That may include the offer of vaccination.

There are well-established and robust infection prevention and control procedures for dealing with such cases of infectious disease, and they will continue to be followed strictly. The Scottish Government continues to work closely with PHS as we monitor the situation.

I highlight the comments of Dr Nick Phin, who is the director of public health science and medical director of Public Health Scotland, who has said that

“The overall risk to the general public is low.”

He has also said that “early identification and vaccination” can prevent close contacts from

“going on to develop the condition.”

Given the interest in tracing people who are travelling within the UK, and given the confirmed case in Scotland, will the cabinet secretary outline how any required contact tracing will be carried out and what role can be played by test and protect services, which were developed during the Covid-19 pandemic?

I thank Paul O’Kane for reiterating at the beginning of his question the important advice of Nick Phin and Public Health Scotland, and the assurance that the overall risk is low for the general public.

There are well-established procedures in place. As has been widely publicised, there is one confirmed case of monkeypox in Scotland, and appropriate contact tracing has been done for that case. For the cases in England, too, contact tracing is well under way. The contact tracing processes and procedures for infectious diseases pre-date Covid. I give Paul O’Kane an absolute assurance that they are in place.

I ask people to familiarise themselves with what to do if they have any of the symptoms that are associated with monkeypox. There are good well-established procedures in place, and there is a good four-nations approach being taken in our response to the virus. I am having a meeting later today with the other health ministers of the UK to discuss issues around vaccinations and antiviral treatments.

The World Health Organization has highlighted the importance of tackling misinformation about the virus. Monkeypox has previously been most common in Africa, and recent UK cases have been more common among people who identify as gay or bisexual, and among men who have sex with men. However, there is no link to race or sexual orientation. I am sure that, like me, the cabinet secretary has been appalled by racist and homophobic assertions in the press and online regarding the virus.

Dr Derek Sloan, who is senior clinical lecturer in the school of medicine at the University of St Andrews and consultant in infectious diseases at NHS Fife, has written extremely well in The Courier today, busting myths about monkeypox and trying to ensure that

“health anxiety does not—even accidentally—fuel racist or homophobic discrimination.”

Does the cabinet secretary agree that we must do all that we can to tackle misinformation and discrimination? Will he outline how the Government plans to do that?

I strongly associate myself with all of Paul O’Kane’s remarks. I have not seen the piece in The Courier, but I will ensure that I do so after I leave the chamber because, like him, I have been appalled by the disgusting and bigoted reporting on monkeypox that I have seen.

It is important that we work hard to get the appropriate public health advice out to the communities that might be more affected by the current outbreak, but we must do that in a way that does not stigmatise those communities and does not allow the issue to be weaponised for other purposes.

To give Paul O’Kane and other members some assurance, I note that I have tasked my officials to work with a number of organisations and stakeholders in the LGBTQI community. Some good material, which I strongly recommend to everyone, has already been put out by the likes of the Terrence Higgins Trust.

It is important to highlight that anyone who has a confirmed case of monkeypox or who has been in close contact with a confirmed case should avoid children and people who are pregnant or immunosuppressed.

Will the cabinet secretary reiterate how that information can be passed on to members of the public?

Public Health Scotland is putting out regular updates. It provided an update yesterday that gives really good details on symptoms that are associated with monkeypox and which people should look out for. If anybody is concerned that they might have such symptoms, they should, of course, call their general practitioner or, if the call is out of hours, call 111. More advice will be put out.

We are in the early stages of the situation, and I fully expect more cases of monkeypox to be identified. However, I return to what I said to Paul O’Kane: there are very robust infection prevention and control procedures in place to deal with such cases.

Despite the relatively self-limiting and mild nature of monkeypox, some people might be more susceptible and might require hospital care, if they catch it. How is the Government ensuring that all health and social care workers are protected from the virus and have information about how to keep themselves and their patients safe from on-going transmission?

Gillian Mackay raises a very important point that is part of my discussions with clinicians. To give her some assurance, I say that those conversations with health and care staff are important—they are vital, in fact—especially for health and social care staff who work in high-consequence infectious disease units and deal with people who have infectious diseases. That work is under way.

As Gillian Mackay knows, we have limited amounts of vaccine, although there will be discussion of further procurement of vaccine at the meeting that I will attend later today. Antiviral treatments could also be helpful in keeping healthcare workers safe, so that they, in turn, can treat anyone who has the virus.

That concludes topical questions.