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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 24, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 September 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Draft Infrastructure Investment Plan 2021-22 to 2025-26, Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon, colleagues. We will begin First Minister’s questions shortly, after the First Minister has made a brief statement.

I will give a short update on the daily statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday is 465, which is 7.9 per cent of people who were tested. Therefore, the total number of cases is 25,960. The regional breakdown will be provided a little later, as usual, although I can say now that 219 cases are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 73 cases are in Lothian and 66 are in Lanarkshire. A large part of the figure for Greater Glasgow and Clyde reflects a significant cluster related to student accommodation at the University of Glasgow. I am sure that we will discuss some of those issues shortly. The remaining 107 cases are spread across nine other health board areas.

There are 84 people in hospital, which is an increase of one from yesterday. There are 10 people in intensive care, which is the same number as yesterday, although I should insert a caveat: due to some technical issues, NHS Lothian figures for intensive care have not yet been taken into account so we have included the Lothian figures for yesterday in the total, and when we know the full up-to-date figure it may change the overall numbers. I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, two deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive for Covid in the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measurement is now 2,510. I offer my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one, including everyone whose loss has occurred in the last few days.

We will shortly publish our latest estimate of the R number, which we do every Thursday. The estimate confirms our view that the R number is currently above 1 and possibly as high as 1.6. All those figures demonstrate why we announced tough measures on Tuesday to reduce the transmission of the virus and to get it back under control.

Finally, I urge everyone to stick to the new rules. With some limited exceptions, none of us should be visiting each other’s homes at the moment. Outdoors, or in public indoor spaces, we must not meet in groups of any more than six people from a maximum of two households. Children under 12 are not included in the limits outdoors and young people aged 12 to 17 are exempt from the two household limit—they can meet outdoors in groups of up to six, but should still physically distance from one another. We have also announced new restrictions on hospitality: from tomorrow all such premises will close by 10 pm. Beyond that, we are asking people to limit visits to, and social interactions in pubs and restaurants as far as possible.

Those measures are tough—we all know that—but they are necessary if we are to keep schools open, resume more non-Covid NHS services, keep care homes safe and protect jobs. If we do not act now, the danger is that the virus will continue to spread and even more severe or longer-lasting restrictions will be required later. If we can start to reduce the number of new cases over the next few weeks, we will be better placed for the winter ahead.

I ask everyone to follow the new rules and to download the Protect Scotland app. I urge everyone to remember FACTS: face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m distance; and self-isolate and book a test if you experience any of the symptoms of Covid.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to update the Parliament, Presiding Officer.

Thank you, First Minister. We now turn to questions. I remind members that I will continue the approach of taking all the supplementary questions after question 7. Members should press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible if they wish to ask a supplementary question.

Universities (Covid-19 Outbreaks)

This week, we have seen major Covid outbreaks in many of Scotland’s universities: so far, we are aware of significant spikes in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, with more than a thousand students being told to self-isolate. Realistically, we must expect that figure to rise, probably significantly, in the days ahead.

Yesterday, the First Minister said that discussions on what may be required as the situation evolves were continuing. What extra measures are being considered?

Discussions with the university sector are on-going. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead, convened discussions with university principals yesterday and those were on-going last night. I hope that we will set out further measures later today, about prevention and making sure that all guidance is being properly and rigorously implemented on campus and in student accommodation, that students understand their obligations and that universities are properly supporting students.

The situation at universities is difficult, not least for those students who are being asked to isolate. That raises a welfare issue that I know universities are alive to and take seriously. We will no doubt discuss more about preventative action later.

It can be difficult for people to grasp, but the fact that a number of positive cases have been identified—I agree that we expect that number to increase—and that a number of students are being asked to isolate, shows that test and protect is working. There is more that we can do to prevent cases, but nevertheless, the essence of test and protect is making sure that when people have symptoms, they are tested—and students are being tested—they are identified if they are positive and advice is given to their contacts to isolate. That is difficult when numbers are as they are, but it shows that that system is working and we must continue to have confidence in that.

Difficult though it is, and it is really difficult for students, we must ask them to follow all the advice to not socialise outside their households and for universities to make sure that all the guidance on campus and in student accommodation is being followed.

Calls have been made previously, notably by Willie Rennie, for all international students to be tested. However, the circumstances now being faced at many of our universities clearly suggest that action is needed beyond that to halt the spread of the virus in the institutions and into the wider community.

We know that the Scottish Government’s plans for walk-in testing centres included university sites, but we also know that only two of the planned 22 centres have opened, and that that number will rise to half by the end of October. The figures from the last few days show that we cannot wait over a month to get those centres up and running; we need them now. Will the First Minister tell us what action she is taking to accelerate that programme?

That programme is under way and it is an important part of our testing capacity, although it is not the only part, which I will come on to in a moment. As members know, the St Andrews centre is already open, as is the one in the centre of Glasgow. Bookings opened today for the new walk-in centre in Aberdeen and they will open tomorrow for a centre in Edinburgh. New sites are being identified for Dundee. A second Glasgow centre will open on 2 October and another will open in Stirling on Monday 5 October, and others will follow after that. It is important to say that there is also mobile testing capacity. There has been a mobile testing unit at Abertay University in the last day or so and there is one at the Murano street student village at the University of Glasgow, where, as of now, a lot of the positive cases are.

An important point to make—I am never complacent in saying such things—is that there is no issue at the moment with students who are symptomatic getting tested, and quickly, and getting the results. For example, yesterday the Glasgow walk-in centre tested almost 300 students and still had some capacity at the end of the day. We continue to make sure that the right things are done, and I give an assurance that testing capacity is available and is being accessed and utilised.

We continue to consider the clinical advice on asymptomatic testing, not just in universities but more generally. It is very important to stress that if someone who does not have symptoms tests negative on one day, that does not take away their need to self-isolate, particularly if they have been in contact with positive or potentially positive cases, because they could be in the incubation period and could test positive a day or so later.

The most important thing is testing people with symptoms and identifying, contacting and giving the right advice to their contacts. I am confident that that is being done, although we continue to monitor that very carefully with universities.

I agree with the First Minister on the importance of contact tracing. In the spring, she stated the Government’s intention to recruit 2,000 contact tracers by the end of May. At the time she said,

“It’s really important we have the capacity in place and the ability to increase that capacity in future should we need it.”

This week, however, we learned that fewer than half—only 874—of those tracers are actually in place across the country. Does the First Minister agree that, given the situation we see at our universities, those tracers are needed more than ever, and can she tell the chamber when they will now be delivered?

I addressed the issue at some length when I did the daily update yesterday. I appreciate that people see information and draw conclusions from it. However, it is not true to say that we do not have enough contact tracers.

Earlier in the summer we said that health boards were going to create a pool of 2,000 contact tracers, from within their own resources, who would be available to be called on should demand require it. That pool is there.

We are also permanently recruiting to replace that pool of contact tracers over time, so that it is more permanent. However, health boards have the capacity that they need now. Some health boards that have outbreaks come under strain, and that is why we also have the national contact tracing centre. That is there so that health boards that face outbreaks and need additional support can pass some of their case load on to the national centre for additional support. It is not the case that the capacity that is needed is not there: it is there. We are simply going through a process of redeploying and replacing one capacity with another. Health boards have in place not only the capacity that they need for demand right now, but they have also all been asked to put in place—and have in place—the ability, if necessary, to double their capacity in the space of 24 hours.

Again, I want to assure people that those who are working in contact tracer roles are working really hard and under pressure. We have testing capacity that is standing up to the demand, and we have contact tracing capacity that is standing up to the demand. The performance of our contact tracers is way above other parts of the UK when measured by the percentage of index cases and contacts that they are identifying. The system is working but it is going to come under increasing pressure, and that is why we are working hard to ensure that we build the resilience that is required into it.

How we react to the spike will influence how big it becomes. None of us want to see restrictions placed on students because this is such an important time for young people. The new people that students meet and the experiences that they have when they are a student can shape their entire life.

However, it is clear from the figures that have emerged this week that an increase in infection rates is being driven from within the student population. In Glasgow, around half of all cases that have been identified have been identified within the University of Glasgow. There is a clear concern that the virus could spread, particularly given the number of students who travel to uni from neighbouring areas and then return home.

The First Minister has previously accepted the need for routine testing across care homes. Will she now examine the case for such routine testing across Scotland’s university campuses?

We will always examine the case for that. People will have heard me say many times about care homes what I am about to say, which is informed by the clinical advice that the Government takes. Routine testing has a part to play, particularly in highly vulnerable situations like care homes, and it may have a part to play in other settings. However, we have to be very careful that we do not allow routine testing to be seen as some kind of pass out of all of the other obligations. When people who do not have symptoms are tested, there is a risk of false assurance coming from negative tests. Testing does not remove the fundamental importance of following all the right advice, such as self-isolating when you are asked to, ensuring that you are not interacting with people that you should not be interacting with and following all of the FACTS advice.

Although my university days were a long time ago, I can imagine how awful this is for students. My nephew has started university in Edinburgh and is living in the halls of residence—we all hear stories from relatives. We do not want our young people to be living with this, but it is really important that students recognise the risk to themselves and others, and that they follow all the guidance. Do not have house parties or socialise outwith your own household group; make sure that you have the Protect Scotland app downloaded on to your phone; and make sure that you follow all the FACTS advice. That is my appeal to every student across the country.

Universities (Covid-19 Outbreaks)

There are multiple Covid-19 clusters in universities across Scotland, hundreds of students self-isolating, students waiting for tests and front-line university staff at risk of catching and spreading Covid-19. Is that what the First Minister expected to happen when she gave the go-ahead to students to return to university this academic year?

These decisions are not easy for any of us. Let us reverse that question and say that we had decided to keep all students away from university. In the days when we thought that we might not be able to get children back to school full-time, Richard Leonard and others said that we should try to normalise education. I suspect that, had we been in a position where we had said that no students could be at university, Richard Leonard might have asked here today—perfectly legitimately—what we were going to do to get education back for young people.

We have to find the right, safe balance in order to provide as much education as possible for our young people while keeping them safe and minimising the risk. That is why guidance is in place around blended learning on campus and around all the things that universities and colleges have to do. The guidance that exists in student accommodation—about not mixing between households, not having parties and so on—is really difficult. It is tough stuff for everybody.

We deal with this virus in all sorts of aspects of our lives; we cannot magic it away. The decisions that we take to minimise the risk of it in one way pose risks elsewhere, and no harm-free options are available for any of us right now. That is why we all have to accept the responsibility of playing our part and, unfortunately, students are part of that. We need to ensure that people know what to do and abide by the rules, that we give students the support that they need and that they have access to testing, as they do.

It is absolutely right that questions should be asked of me around all the issues about testing. I appeal to members across the chamber to not inadvertently—I stress “inadvertently” because I know that nobody is trying to do this—undermine confidence in the test and protect system, because it is really important that we tell people to get tested if they need to. The capacity is there and it is really important that people take up that opportunity for the greater good.

This situation was predicted, as was the spike in demand for testing before the schools returned. The First Minister keeps saying that test and protect is working well. However, this morning on BBC Radio Scotland, the director of Universities Scotland, Alastair Sim, said that, despite discussions with both Governments, neither was able to provide sufficient testing capacity.

He said that

“there just wasn’t enough kit available at the beginning of term to enable that for everybody.”

That is basic: the failure to test is a failure to contain the virus, which will cost people their health, their hopes and in some cases even their lives. From day 1 of the pandemic, we have had the same failure to anticipate, to plan and, above all, to test. Why was the First Minister not better prepared?

I accept criticism and scrutiny; I actually welcome it. If there is a failure, it is at the heart of Richard Leonard’s question—a failure to understand some of the basics of what we seek to do here and of how testing works. I did not hear Alastair Sim on the radio this morning, but I have had an account of what he said, and I think that he was referring to the availability of home testing kits. There is an issue with the availability of those kits, which come through the UK-wide system, so we have taken that up with the UK Government and we are trying to resolve that with it.

I will insert a caveat that is always important: this does not mean that no individual, on any given day, is not having some difficulty getting a test when and where they want it—of course that will happen. It is not the case, however—and it is really important that the message from this chamber today is not that it is the case—that students who need to be tested right now are not getting tested; they are getting tested. That is why we have the numbers of positive cases: if we were not testing students with coronavirus right now, the numbers that I am reporting would be much smaller and so would the numbers of people who are being asked to isolate.

I accept that there is something counterintuitive in all that. Of course we want to prevent cases and to keep those numbers low, but the higher those numbers are when an outbreak occurs, the more people are being tested and identified—test and protect then does its work.

I say to members to ask questions and to scrutinise and criticise when it is legitimate to do so. The worst thing that any of us could do right now is to unfairly and unjustifiably undermine confidence in test and protect, because it is so important that people across the country, including students, have confidence in that. Right now, that confidence is justified.

Students were told that they could return safely to universities and the communal living that goes with that; and we have all been told that test and protect is working well. However, students are now suffering the consequences of failure. Students—some as young as 17 and away from home for the first time— are living without established support networks. We know that that in itself can have an impact on young people’s mental health. On top of that, some of them are self-isolating in cramped accommodation and many more will be anxious that they will not be allowed to go home for Christmas. Students, and staff who work in their accommodation, need to know that the Government is working towards a solution. What is the First Minister planning in order to avoid students either being confined in accommodation away from their families over Christmas or returning home with the fear and real risk that they are spreading Covid-19 to their friends and families back home?

If Richard Leonard was really concerned, as I am sure he is, about the welfare of students and not increasing the already anxious situation that they are in, I think that he would have asked that question in a different way. Talking about things such as students not being allowed to go home for Christmas is not helping anybody. We all have to work to ensure that we deal with this infectious virus—part of a global pandemic—in the best way possible. I wish more than anything else that I could snap my fingers and make it go away, but I cannot. It is a global pandemic and we need to deal with it properly and systematically, with all of us playing our part.

The situation is really tough for students and we all understand the welfare issues involved. I said a moment ago that I have a 17-year-old nephew in his first year at university living in halls of residence and, like families across the country worrying about their young people, I worry about him. We all understand the emotional impact of the situation as well as the practical impact. That is why I have a duty and universities have a duty to say to young people “Make sure you’re not putting yourself at risk through parties in student accommodation or socialising in a way that increases the risk.” That is why universities have a duty to ensure that the welfare of isolating students is properly catered for and that all the other guidance is implemented. It is also why we have a system in place that means that when a student is symptomatic, they get quick access to testing; if they are positive, test and protect then steps in to ensure that their close contacts are given the right advice.

None of that is easy for anybody, but the responsibility of Government is to ensure that we face the issues head on, support those out there on the front line and get through this collectively as a country, which I believe we will.

Universities (Covid-19 Outbreaks)

I do not pretend that any of this is easy, but it is the responsibility of the Parliament to raise these issues in a constructive manner.

With outbreaks in Edinburgh, St Andrews, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow, and more than 1,000 students in halls in self-isolation, we need to remember that this is the situation just weeks into the term. Many of those students will be first-year students away from home for the first time, excited about their new life at university. It is heartbreaking that they are now cooped up and coping with this new anxiety. They need their universities and the Government to ensure that they get the support that they need.

However, the truth is that outbreaks such as these should have been expected and support and testing sites should have been in place before the term started. A bit like the situation with cruise ships at the start of the pandemic, opening student halls has brought people together from far and wide into densely populated accommodation, providing the perfect conditions for the spread of the virus. There is a far greater potential for outbreaks to spread into the wider community from student halls, and the real number of infections might already be far higher than we know.

The First Minister has not yet told us this, so I ask her to tell us now. Exactly what proportion of Scotland’s new cases are accounted for by outbreaks in student accommodation? When will the walk-in centres that she talks about be not just available for bookings but fully operational and conducting the tests that are needed? What specific action will the Government take to prevent student outbreaks from spreading into the wider community?

They open for booking one day and do the test the following day—that is how it works.

I absolutely accept—obviously, this is not voluntary—the importance of Parliament asking questions and its right to ask questions. I am simply making the point that we all have a responsibility to discuss the issues in a way that does not increase students’ anxiety but gives them information and advice in a proper and sensible way, and that is what we are seeking to do.

There is another important point. Testing is vital, but it is absolutely wrong to say that it is somehow the absence or shortage of testing availability that is the issue in the outbreaks in student accommodation. Students who need testing are being tested. That is why we are seeing the numbers of cases in the student population continuing to increase. If we were not testing them, we would not know that they existed, their contacts would not be told to isolate and we would then have situations on our hands that we were not able to manage and control in the way that we are doing now.

Patrick Harvie is absolutely right about the importance of welfare, and universities have been preparing and planning, and are making sure that the welfare of students is catered for. That is a big responsibility, and they need to ensure that they take it seriously. We have to make sure that students have the advice that they need to minimise the risk of spreading the virus elsewhere. It is really difficult for students, but that is why not mixing outside their household group, not socialising in the normal way that they would and not having house parties is really important.

Patrick Harvie asked about the numbers of cases. In Glasgow, a significant proportion of the cases that we reported today will have come from the outbreak at the University of Glasgow. Obviously, test and protect is still working through those cases and, of course, we will make breakdowns of the figures available as and when it is possible to do so.

We had a difficult period when the schools went back, with people experiencing increased anxiety. As we did then, we must ensure that the systems in universities that need to be there are there and are working.

As long as the virus is here and we do not have a vaccine against it, we will have to manage the situation. We will do that to the best of our ability, we will learn the lessons as we go and, where things are not working, we will take steps to make sure that they work.

I am certainly not saying that students are not being tested. I am saying that, where we have the potential for rapid new outbreaks, we need far more testing capacity than was available at the start of term. That extra capacity should have been there. We all want test and protect to continue working, but there needs to be more capacity in those areas.

Student populations, of course, go well beyond student halls. Many students rely on the private rented sector, so there is an issue about the impact on our wider community. I will move on to issues in relation to that sector.

In August, the First Minister told me that no one can be evicted because of what she described as an effective eviction ban in response to the Scottish Greens’ calls for greater support for tenants during the pandemic.

Yesterday, the Housing and Property Chamber of the First-tier Tribunal of Scotland issued the 100th eviction order since it restarted its work in July. That is not much of a ban. People should not be getting evicted in the middle of a global pandemic, and it would be unacceptable if that situation carried on into the winter. Why are people being evicted when the First Minister said that they would not be? Will she commit now to an actual ban on winter evictions?

Patrick Harvie, Andy Wightman and I discussed that issue in my office just a few weeks ago. Patrick Harvie was able to articulate those points then, so I think that he understands and knows the answer to the question that he has just asked me.

We have put in place a system to make sure that, for people who are getting into difficulties with rent arrears because of the pandemic, the timescales of the protections that are in place constitute an effective ban on eviction over the coming winter period. What we discussed then—I know that Patrick Harvie understood it—is that the system cannot be made retrospective to deal with cases that were in the system before the pandemic. I suspect that he is talking about cases that predate that. However, I am happy to look at the detail if I am misunderstanding the issue that he is raising.

We have also put in place—again, at the request of the Scottish Green Party—a fund to help people who are in difficulties with their rent in order to recognise and try to deal with the financial pressures that people are dealing with.

We will continue to take reasonable, practical steps to give people protection against eviction, or other hardship, through the pandemic, when the hardship that they are experiencing is, as we know, no fault of their own.

Universities (Covid-19 Testing)

Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for testing international students for Covid-19 on their arrival in Scotland has now passed. I think that we had a duty of care towards them, and I regret the decision that was made not to test them.

Following the recent outbreaks on campuses across the country, we need to do more to track down the virus. I feel for students who are away from home for the first time and who are being forced to self-isolate in halls of residence. I also think of their families, who are many miles away and who are worried about their children’s safety. Both groups deserve reassurance that the health services in Scotland are focused on keeping them safe.

As a significant proportion of people with the virus do not know that they have it, there is a risk they could spread it unknowingly. If they do not know that they have it, we need to help them find that out. It is right to say that students need to stick by the advice, but we need to do so much more, too. Will the First Minister therefore rethink the Scottish Government’s approach to routine testing for students who are asymptomatic?

I, too, feel for students and their families right now. As I have said a couple of times, I am a member of a family that is currently worrying about a student who is in that very position, so I know—not just in theory, but in reality—how that feels.

I do not want to labour the point, because Willie Rennie and I have had exchanges on it before. I accept that he has made a legitimate point, but I stress that international students have an obligation to quarantine. The reason for that, as opposed to requiring them to undergo testing, is that although no system is absolutely perfect, it is felt that quarantine is more effective in those circumstances. If we test someone who comes in and their result is negative, that does not mean that they do not have the virus; it may simply mean that they are in the incubation period. Therefore, requiring them to quarantine for 14 days is a more effective way of protecting against importation of the virus.

That takes me to my other point. Willie Rennie asked whether the Scottish Government would rethink its approach to testing. We are always thinking about that and taking the best clinical advice on it. There is an increased role for surveillance testing, and we are doing more of that.

Willie Rennie is right to say that we need to identify the problem. However, one of the questions right now is what the best solution is in such situations. As could be true of any of us—not just students—someone who does not know that they have the virus, because they are not displaying symptoms, could be tested, but they still might not know that they had the virus. The test might be negative, perhaps because they are in the incubation period or because they are genuinely asymptomatic, in which case the test would not show up the virus. I am not saying that we should never carry out such testing. However, the problem is that we must be careful that a negative test does not then lead a student to say, “I’m fine. I don’t need to bother with isolation or abiding by social distancing and all the other rules.”

Those are careful judgments on which, frankly, I have to take advice, because I am not a clinician or a public health expert. The Scottish Government thinks about such matters on an on-going basis, and we will continue to do so. As every bit of clinical advice that I have tells us right now, the most important things that we need to do are to get symptomatic students tested, which we are doing, and where those tests are positive, to give their contacts the right advice about isolation. That is what is happening right now. The numbers that we are seeing are as high as they are because that system is working in the way that it is intended to. Of course, we also need to work with students, and others, to achieve better levels of preventing the virus from spreading in the first place.

I accept the First Minister’s argument. However, my concern is that people might relax when they think that they do not have the virus and so will not go the extra mile to stick by the rules, despite all our pleas for them to do so. An extra measure, involving further routine testing, would give us absolute assurance that people who have the virus are definitely isolating and keeping out of the way. Having such an extra safety measure would protect us all.

Yesterday, we were told that some of the local outbreaks across our country had occurred because of travellers returning from Greece. The quarantine spot-check system would therefore seem to be an important defence against the virus, yet it has experienced repeated problems over several weeks. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice said that the spot checks were working well, when they had not even started. He changed the target figure, and then changed it again—but the system is still missing more than 1,100 people.

Under the new target, 20 per cent of arrivals who are required to quarantine—it is not limited, as the previous target one was, to a figure of 450 people—are to receive a spot check. However, only 9 per cent are receiving a check, or around half of what the target is supposed to be. When will the Government get on top of quarantine spot checks?

Additional resources are being applied to that. By 5 October, the system will be doing the full 20 per cent, although it is already doing more than the target of 450 people.

I remind Willie Rennie that 100 per cent of the people coming into the country from places on the quarantine list are emailed, so there is contact with everybody. The other point—and I accept that this is partly a reflection of the summer holiday season ending—is that our contact tracers are seeing a reduction in the number of positive cases coming through our test and protect data in which foreign travel is identified, so that is positive news as well.

Of course, it is because we saw information about Greece coming through the system that we applied quarantine measures to Greece, so the system is giving us the information to direct some of our efforts.

These are all perfectly legitimate issues. Even if I am not saying all the things that people want me to be saying right now, please be assured that we are thinking through, considering and reconsidering these things every single day.

Willie Rennie’s initial point in his second question is valid but, in a sense, it misses the other side of the issue. If it is the case—and I think that he is right—that people, perhaps particularly young people, who do not have symptoms relax and do not think that they are at risk, there is a genuine question about whether giving somebody a test result that is negative, even though they may have the virus, makes them more or less relaxed. That is an open question and it is part of the considerations that we have to go through in terms of the tactical use of testing.

The fundamentally important point about the use of testing right now is to get to those who have symptoms and, if they are positive, to isolate their contacts, and that is what test and protect is focusing on. Although I am the last person to demonstrate any complacency about any of this, test and protect is working well right now and that is a great credit to everybody in that system who is working so hard.

Miners’ Strike (Independent Review of Policing)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the report of the independent review into policing during the miners’ strike. (S5F-04414)

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 divided people in many ways, with miners and, indeed, police officers often finding themselves in challenging situations.

I know that strong feelings about the strike, particularly on the part of miners and their families, remain to this day. I understand that many of those affected are eager to see the report and the Scottish Government’s response. I can confirm that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice plans to report to Parliament on the Scottish Government’s response by the middle of October, and the independent report will be published at the same time.

I take this opportunity to commend all those who have campaigned for so long to secure justice for the miners. I understand that the report will, in fact, recommend pardons for those men, who were only trying to defend their jobs, their families and their communities.

I hear what the First Minister says, but I am sure that my constituents in Cowdenbeath and people in former mining communities across Scotland would be keen to have an indication of the intention, as a matter of principle, of the Scottish Government to act to right those wrongs.

I agree with the sentiments of Annabelle Ewing’s question. I think that many of us whose formative teenage years were around the time of the miners’ strike will always remember its impact and people’s strong feelings. Because of the kind of community that I grew up in, I absolutely understand that.

I hope that Annabelle Ewing will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to pre-empt the publication of either the report or the Government’s response by the justice secretary, which, as I say, will happen within the next couple of weeks. I think that it would be better for everybody concerned to allow the report and the response to be read and understood properly.

I very much hope that miners and their families will welcome both the recommendation in the report and the Government’s response, and that, at that point, they will feel that there has been a recognition of what many consider to be the injustice that was suffered.

Social Housing (Waiting Lists)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to reduce waiting lists for social housing. (S5F-04410)

Ensuring that everyone has access to a safe, warm and affordable place to call home is absolutely essential to my sense of a fair Scotland, which is why we have invested—and continue to invest—in expanding our social housing stock.

Since 2007, we have delivered more than 66,000 new homes for social rent as part of more than 95,000 affordable homes. We have invested more than £3.5 billion to deliver on our target of 50,000 affordable homes, including 35,000 for social rent, in this parliamentary session alone.

We have committed £300 million of interim funding for the affordable housing supply budget for the next financial year, which will ensure that new social housing continues to be delivered beyond the current parliamentary session. In addition, to ensure that homes remain in the social rented sector, we ended the right to buy, protecting up to 15,500 houses from being sold over a 10-year period.

An analysis by Shelter shows that 70,000 children are currently on social housing waiting lists. At the end of March, more than 7,000 children were living in temporary accommodation due to homelessness. The Scottish Conservatives support building affordable homes, which is a key aspect to driving down child poverty, creating jobs and meeting climate change targets. However, even without the coronavirus crisis, the Scottish Government’s target of delivering 50,000 affordable homes in the current session of Parliament was going to be missed. Therefore, how will the Scottish National Party Government expedite the delivery of social housing in line with Shelter’s campaign?

Actually, the 50,000 target was absolutely on track to be delivered, and we will do everything that we can, notwithstanding Covid, to ensure that it is met as quickly as possible. As I said, we have already committed funding into the next financial year so that we can continue that commitment beyond the current parliamentary session.

I absolutely take at face value and in good faith the member’s commitment to the provision of social housing and to not having children on waiting lists for it. However, I politely suggest to her that, if that commitment is genuine, as I am sure it is, it would be valuable for her to ask her Conservative colleagues in government in London to protect the Scottish Government’s budget so that cuts are not applied, and perhaps to stop undermining and cutting the benefit entitlements of children in poverty across this country, which does nothing to help the provision of housing. If the Conservatives occasionally matched the rhetoric with action on poverty, homelessness and social housing, we might all be in a better position.

Fair Start Scotland Programme

To ask the First Minister for what reason the Scottish Government will not meet its target of helping 38,000 people back into employment through the fair start Scotland programme. (S5F-04412)

Fair start Scotland provides intensive support for our most vulnerable unemployed people. Participants are treated with dignity and respect, and, unlike for some United Kingdom Government approaches, participation is voluntary. We continue to work towards the target of supporting 38,000 people. Covid has presented challenges to engaging new participants in delivering services, and the numbers of referrals and starts have dropped since lockdown started. Most referrals come from the Department for Work and Pensions, but those were suspended during lockdown in response to increased demand for benefit claims. Also, lockdown restrictions on face-to-face interactions meant that fewer people were able to engage with services. However, since 2018, fair start Scotland has supported more than 24,300 people, and, pre-Covid, referral to start rates were increasing.

We remain absolutely committed to the service. We have extended delivery to March 2023 so that we can continue to work with partners to support the vulnerable.

I acknowledge the chancellor’s announcement of a job subsidy scheme, but I fear that there will still be a significant number of job losses before the end of the year. I accept that the pandemic has disrupted delivery of the programme, but, given the likely scale of unemployment, it is disappointing to miss the target by some 14,000 people. Will the First Minister give a commitment that any money that is saved as a result of missing the target will be spent on employment support programmes to help a generation of young people who may find themselves out of work?

We have already given a commitment to significant investment in support for young people who face unemployment. The commitment to fair start Scotland that I talked about is unchanged, and that includes the financial commitment to it. The situation is disappointing for us all, but, when referrals and face-to-face interaction are suspended, it is unfortunately unavoidable. The challenge now is to get that back on track.

Because I was on my way to the chamber, I did not have the chance to see all the detail of the chancellor’s announcements on the intended replacement for the furlough scheme, but I hope that it is positive. The snippets that I heard just before I came down to the chamber suggest that it is a step forward, but it perhaps does not go far enough to prevent the increase in what I would describe as avoidable redundancies and unemployment—because they are avoidable if proper support is put in place. I look forward to being able to look at more of the detail of that later.

We move to open supplementary questions.

Contact Tracing App (Retail and Hospitality Staff)

Does the First Minister consider that management, particularly in retail and hospitality, should encourage staff to have their mobile phones on them, to enable the contact tracing app to be more effective, given their considerable contact with the public when they are out and about, as it were, on the shop floor?

Yes, I strongly agree with that suggestion. I stress that, for individuals, downloading and using the app is voluntary, but I strongly encourage people to do so. Almost 1.2 million people in Scotland have downloaded it, and it is good to see the England and Wales app being launched today. Such apps are important ways of extending the reach of our test and protect systems.

I ask all employers to actively promote the app and, crucially—to address Christine Grahame’s point—to enable staff to carry their phones with them, particularly in environments such as supermarkets, where staff have lots of contact with customers and clients. That is extremely important.

As a point of information, we have created a dedicated stakeholder page on the website, to help employers to raise awareness of the app, and I encourage all employers to make use of that.

Soft Play Centres (Reopening)

Yesterday, family-run businesses and their employees from across Scotland’s soft play centres protested outside the Parliament. They warn that, without action and support, more than 4,500 jobs are likely to be lost. Play centres safely reopened in Wales on 10 August, in England on 15 August and in Northern Ireland on 14 September. They have demonstrated that they can provide Covid-safe play for children under the age of 12 and support young families during this difficult period.

As we head into the winter months, parents and guardians across Scotland want to have access to safe play spaces for their children. Would the First Minister be willing to meet representatives to look into the plight of the sector in Scotland? Will Scottish National Party ministers now provide clarity and support for a sector that plays a key part in providing play centre space in Scotland?

The Government engages with different sectors all the time, and, of course, ministers would be happy to meet any sector, including the soft play centre sector. I absolutely understand how difficult it is for any sector—including that one—that is not able to trade fully or, in some cases, at all at the moment.

We continue to be very focused on trying to reopen those aspects of the economy and society that are not yet open, but that must be done safely. When prevalence of the virus is rising again, as it is at the moment, such decisions have to be taken even more carefully than has been the case in recent weeks.

We will also continue to do what we can to provide financial and economic support for sectors that are not trading normally. An issue that I voiced yesterday—again, I stress that I am not seeking to do this for political reasons; it is a statement of fact—is that I increasingly worry that, because of the financial constraints on how the Scottish Government’s budget is made available, there is a mismatch between what we need to do in a public health capacity and our ability to mitigate the impact of that financially and economically. That is one of the reasons for my writing to the Prime Minister last night to raise the issue.

Of course, we will continue to engage as positively as we can with affected sectors, because I fully understand the implications, for them and for the jobs that rely on them, of the situation that we are dealing with.

Football Task Force

I am fully aware that regular dialogue has been taking place between the Scottish Government and the footballing authorities, but will the First Minister consider the introduction of a football task force as a way of helping football to navigate a way through the pandemic and safeguarding the future of our clubs—particularly the smaller community clubs, which are such an important part of the social and economic fabric of their communities?

I absolutely recognise the important role that football, in particular, and sport in general play in communities and in the wellbeing of our lives overall.

We are working closely with the football authorities and other partners, including football clubs. Officials are represented on the football joint response group, which was established to respond to the issues that the pandemic presented for football at all levels. We are happy to consider how best we can continue working together to safeguard the future of all clubs, across the country, in the Scottish Professional Football League and below.

The sport minister wrote to the UK Government yesterday, as well, seeking engagement on how we can collectively look at a financial recovery package for sport, because although their on-field activities often dominate, clubs at all levels make a really big contribution to individuals and communities, and we have to recognise that wider sphere.

We will continue to work closely with football, to hopefully get the game—along with the rest of our society—back to normal as quickly as possible and to provide as much support as we can in the interim.

Seagreen Offshore Wind Farm

On Tuesday, we saw a trading of blame between the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments over the awarding of the Seagreen offshore wind farm project to China when the Scottish supply chains, including Burntisland Fabrications Ltd, got nothing.

A members’ update from the GMB this week says not only that both Governments are to blame for the current process, which keeps producing the same results, but that the Scottish Government asked SSE to keep the unions in the dark about the announcement and that they had to find out from the press coverage. These jobs are too important for Fife, and the trade unions must not be isolated during the process.

Does the First Minister recognise that that situation is unacceptable? Will she ensure that it does not happen again?

First, I think that this Government has demonstrated—I hope that I have demonstrated this—the commitment that we have to BiFab and to the involvement of trade unions. I have personally, on a number of occasions around BiFab, engaged directly with the trade unions, and we will continue to do that. We have a very strong commitment. We have a financial investment in BiFab, which I think demonstrates that commitment. That said, the circumstances for BiFab and the conditions in which it is operating are not easy, and there is a challenging period ahead of us.

There is no attempt to play a blame game here. Sometimes it is really important, though, for public understanding as well as political understanding, to make sure that we are clear about where some of the issues lie. It is a statement of fact that the current UK Government contracts for difference scheme is one of the factors that puts acute pressure on the management of project costs. That is just inescapable, and we need the constructive co-operation of the UK Government to work through some of the issues that are a barrier right now to the development of a sustainable supply chain in the renewables sector. I hope that we can all agree on that and seek to address it constructively.

In the meantime, we will continue to engage with BiFab and the trade unions there as we try to find a sustainable future for BiFab, which has always been our objective. It is not easy—I am not suggesting that it is—but the Government remains absolutely committed to that.

Union Representatives (Protection)

This afternoon, we will debate the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. As a former Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers shop steward, I fully support the bill. However, while we debate it, my constituent Richie Venton faces an uncertain future, having been sacked by IKEA in Glasgow—a firm that has made £11.2 billion in profit. Just for carrying out his trade union duties to protect workers’ pay and conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic, he has been sacked. What protection can the Government give union representatives in carrying out their union duties?

I thank Sandra White for raising the issue. I should say that I know Richie Venton—I have known him for many years. I have probably campaigned both against and with him at various points over the years.

Notwithstanding that, I think that it is really important that I do not get drawn into commenting on individual cases without all the information, but I will be clear about this. The law offers protection to enable people to carry out their trade union duties without fear of recrimination, and that is an important principle that all employers should not just understand, but make sure that they practise in workplaces.

I urge IKEA to get round the table with the union and reach a positive resolution to the matter. We are committed to enhancing workers’ statutory rights and protections through our fair work policy, and we continue to engage with the Scottish Trades Union Congress and individual unions about that. However, the ability of trade union officials to carry out their trade union duties is an important principle that all of us should endorse without equivocation.

Flu Vaccine Stocks

Earlier this week, I was informed by a local pharmacy in my West Scotland region that it is having great difficulty in getting supplies of the flu vaccine to meet its patients’ demands for vaccinations, as it is being told that its supplier has no stock of the vaccine. What provision has the First Minister put in place to ensure that we have sufficient stocks of the flu vaccine to meet the demand for vaccinations throughout Scotland before winter is upon us?

We have a very well-developed plan to procure the stocks of flu vaccine that are made available through the national health service for NHS-eligible groups. Pharmacies will often have additional stocks for other people, but our focus is on eligible groups, which have been expanded this year. The flu vaccine is being delivered slightly differently because of Covid, and we procure supplies through a United Kingdom-wide system.

Perhaps the best thing for the member to do regarding the pharmacy in his region would be to write to the health secretary, so that we can look into the particular issues and see whether there is action that we can take to assist with them.

United Kingdom Internal Market Bill (Building Regulations)

Does the First Minister share my concerns that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will limit Scotland’s ability to legislate in the area of building regulations to maintain the highest standards that protect Scottish householders from catastrophic events such as the Grenfell disaster?

Yes, I very strongly share that concern. It is one of the very many concerns that I have about the UK Government’s bill, which will undermine this Parliament’s ability to legislate for and insist on the highest standards across a range of areas. The General Teaching Council for Scotland today articulated a concern about the potential for standards for the teaching profession to be undermined.

On the issue that James Dornan raises, we have had different building registry requirements for decades, and that has never resulted in barriers for business. The UK internal market white paper, which preceded the bill, cited different building regulations as an example of an additional cost to business in the UK. In my view, there is not a shred of credible evidence—or any evidence—to support that view. For decades, we benefited from setting our own robust building safety standards.

That is another reason why the bill is wrong for Scotland and why I think that all of us, across the party spectrum in this Parliament, should resist vigorously any attempt by the UK Government to limit the ability of this Parliament to protect the people of Scotland.

Capital Theatres

Will the First Minister intervene to help Capital Theatres, Edinburgh’s theatre charity, weather the storm that it is facing due to loss of income? Without emergency funding, jobs are at risk, and the much-loved King’s theatre faces closure if the charity cannot fill the £8 million gap in its vital refurbishment plans.

We have made funding available to help the culture sector, including cultural venues. I know that the culture secretary is engaged specifically with the issue of Capital Theatres and the King’s theatre in Edinburgh. I have had representations on that issue from a number of people, including Brian Cox recently. I will ask the culture secretary to write very soon and urgently to the member to update her on those discussions and the assistance that I hope we will be able to provide.

Joan McAlpine is joining us remotely.

Covid-19 Testing (Disabled People’s Care Workers)

The Scottish Government has been asked today to consider routine testing of students, and I share concerns about student outbreaks. However, the First Minister knows that I have repeatedly raised the need to routinely test care workers who support vulnerable disabled people, including learning disabled people, outside of care home settings. I was encouraged that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport told me recently that that group is being considered as testing capacity expands, as are close family carers, to allow visiting.

Although I do not want to downplay the student outbreaks in any way, I appeal to the First Minister and others in the chamber to recognise that routine testing to protect disabled people should come before the routine testing of young and healthy people if a choice has to be made due to capacity.

We want to try to ensure that our testing decisions are driven by clinical considerations and considerations of how we best protect vulnerable populations. I am not for a minute saying that we do not have to think about capacity issues, but we want our decisions to be made for the right reasons. I assure the member that the group that she identifies is very much in our thinking, as part of our winter planning for the possible extension of routine testing.

As I have been saying to other members in relation to students, there are complex issues that we have to consider when it comes to routine testing and the place that it has. However, with disabled people and care homes, there are clear vulnerabilities and reasons that would lead us towards routine testing that may not exist when we are dealing with other parts of the population.

Covid Legislation (Scrutiny)

During the pandemic, the Scottish and UK Governments have brought in laws that impact on civil liberties; admittedly that has been done for the best of reasons, but it has been done without prior parliamentary scrutiny. An example, of course, is the ban on people visiting other households. Wherever possible, Parliament should be able to scrutinise laws before they are brought in; will the First Minister review the way in which emergency legislation is done so that Parliament can have prior scrutiny of laws?

I hope that the member will take my answer constructively. In general terms, I agree that of course we want Parliament to scrutinise law before it comes into force, not after. Obviously, we have statutory requirements to review regularly the emergency legislation and the regulations that are made under it, and the overall acts on a certain basis, and Parliament is involved in that.

I hope that everyone will understand this. In the situation that we are in right now it is, in a whole range of different ways, just not possible to do things in the ideal way that all of us would want. Unfortunately, the virus does not agree to take a few days off while Parliament scrutinises important measures that are needed to protect people from its spread, and I know that everybody understands that. That is another of the multitude of ways in which we are having to strike the best balances that we can, given the nature of what we are dealing with, and recognising that those balances are not ideal and that so much of what we are doing right now we would not choose to do in those ways if we had more of a choice. I hope that members recognise that—I think they do—but we will try to facilitate as much parliamentary scrutiny as is feasible as early as possible on all those things.

Economic Performance

The latest monthly gross national product statistics for Scotland show that the economy expanded by 6.8 per cent in July. Given the different pace of easing of lockdown measures in different parts of the United Kingdom, how does Scotland’s economic performance compare to the UK’s since the measures were introduced in March?

Scotland and the UK as a whole had record falls in their economies following the introduction of restrictions. I think that everybody understands why that was the case—in effect, we closed down much of the economy. Some of the fall has been made up as the economy has reopened. Gross domestic product remains 10.7 per cent lower than it was in February, and the corresponding UK figure is 11.7 per cent, so the figures for Scotland and the UK as a whole are broadly comparable.

The figures highlight that the pandemic continues not just to have a serious health impact but to have a very serious economic impact. We are working hard to rebuild the economy by safely reopening it, and we are using the experience of the pandemic to build a more resilient and sustainable economy. We will continue to do that work where appropriate with colleagues in the Governments across the UK.

Miners’ Strike (Scheme of Pardon)

Following Annabelle Ewing’s question, I offer my sincere thanks to the Government for undertaking the independent review of the policing of the miners’ strike in Scotland. I give particular credit to the then Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson, for commissioning the review. Unlike his predecessor, he listened to us and took us seriously, and I personally and publicly thank him for that.

The review panel appears to have taken on board the proposal for a scheme of pardon that I put to it, but I understand that such a scheme would require legislation. Given that many former miners have passed on and those who remain grow older, will the First Minister commit to ensuring that any legislation to enact the scheme comes before Parliament before dissolution in March?

We will look very closely at the timescale for doing that. There are two things that I do not want to do today. Members across the chamber will note that I am not pushing back against any of the recent speculation in the media. They can draw their own conclusions from that, but it is important that I do not pre-empt publication of the report or the Government’s response.

For a wide range of reasons that are not to do with where our instincts were pushing us, but are to do with practical and legal issues, we have had to take some time to consider the issue properly, which is important. We will publish the report and the response in the middle of October. Michael Matheson deserves huge credit for taking the issue as seriously as he did, and for getting us to the position that we are in. Obviously, we will set out any implications of the report to Parliament at that point.

Suffice it to say that I fully understand that many miners and their families are not getting any younger, so if there is to be recognition of what was suffered, the sooner it happens the better.

NHS Dumfries and Galloway (In-patient Visits)

What support will be, or is being, provided to NHS Dumfries and Galloway, given that the board has suspended in-patient visits at the Galloway community hospital in order to protect vulnerable patients from potential Covid-19 infection?

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will be happy to look into the specific circumstances of the case, and into why visiting has been suspended. We work with and support health boards on the range of things that they are doing to reduce the spread of coronavirus, to deal with outbreaks and to treat Covid and non-Covid patients.

Issues around visiting have to be very carefully handled. We want visiting at hospitals and care homes to get back to as much normality as possible as quickly as possible. However, when there are spikes or clusters, decisions must be made with the protection of vulnerable patients uppermost in mind. I will ask the health secretary to liaise with Emma Harper about the specific local circumstances.

Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Air Traffic Control)

Last week, Prospect union published a report that showed that Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd’s remote tower plan will take at least £18 million of economic benefit from island communities and economies, and that the scheme’s costs have increased significantly. That confirms what HIAL’s own consultants have said: namely, that centralising air traffic control services in Inverness is the most costly and risky option. HIAL has been hell bent on pursuing that option.

Given the massive downturn in the aviation sector, the high and spiralling costs of centralisation and the opposition from staff and local communities, will the First Minister instruct HIAL to call a halt to the damaging project?

I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity to write to Beatrice Wishart with more detail. There is a need to modernise air traffic control to ensure more sustainable and reliable services in the Highlands and Islands. HIAL has been tasked with taking that process forward and with finding the safest and most sustainable solution. It has made its decisions based on the best available information and analyses of the available options.

Obviously, the project is a big change technically and personally for staff, so HIAL needs to continue to involve its staff and key stakeholders, as the process continues. The Scottish Government and HIAL will, of course, continue to listen to the views and opinions that are expressed. I will ask the transport secretary to correspond with Beatrice Wishart with more detail on the current situation.

Care Homes (Visitor Testing)

The First Minister will know that, yesterday, I asked the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport questions about increasing access for key family members to elderly and fragile relatives in care homes, particularly in Ayrshire. Her answer implied that she is very aware of the problem and is seeking to deal with the lack of access.

If testing capacity is now available, and as winter approaches and outdoor meetings become impractical, will the Scottish Government consider routine testing for key family members, as Joan McAlpine suggested, in order to reassure nursing home managers that it is safe to admit key family members into nursing homes?

In short, yes; we are considering such steps. As I said she would at First Minister’s question time last week, the health secretary met representatives from the care home relatives group last Friday to discuss a range of proposals that it has put forward.

A clinical and professional advisory group is also advising us on such issues. It is looking at what more we can do to strike a much better balance between family and visitor contact and activities in healthcare services for residents, and continuing to protect them as best we can from introduction of the virus into their homes. It is important to get that balance as right as possible, so the issues have to be considered carefully. The testing proposal that John Scott raised is under consideration.

NHS Fife (Flu Vaccines)

Over the past two weeks, NHS Fife has issued thousands of letters to older people to tell them to call a phone number to book a flu vaccination. When people have phoned the number, they heard a message saying that they should try later. NHS Fife has since apologised and said that it will have that fixed within the next few weeks.

However, yesterday I was contacted by a lady from Kelty, who is disabled and has underlying health conditions. She was, when she eventually got through, offered vaccination in Lochgelly, which is two bus journeys away; in Dunfermline, which is a bus ride and long walk away; or Glenrothes, and I won’t even go there.

Does the First Minister agree that, apart from the risk that people are being asked to put themselves in to get the vaccine, there is a greater risk that people will just stop trying and give up? I do not underestimate the enormousness of the challenges that the Government faces, but that is not good enough. Will the First Minister do something about it?

I will resist the temptation to join Alex Rowley in the Fife geographical politics that he was engaging in—not least because I have family in Fife and it would get me into trouble.

Those are important issues. Obviously, the flu vaccination programme is, by necessity, being delivered differently this year because of the Covid risk. Our aim is that everyone who is eligible for a flu vaccination will receive an appointment after the programme commences on 1 October. It is very important that everybody who is eligible takes that opportunity.

The issues with the phone line in Fife have been addressed. Where there are other issues around access, the Cabinet Secretary for Health will work with health boards to ensure that people who are eligible have the access that they need, to ensure that they can take the opportunity. I will ask the health secretary to correspond directly with Alex Rowley about the concerns that he has raised and, specifically, how they are being addressed.

That concludes First Minister’s question time.

13:31 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—