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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 May 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19 (Transport), Covid-19 (Economy), Covid-19 (Education), Decision Time


Topical Question Time

The next item of business is topical question time. I will try to get as many members in as possible.

The first question is from Monica Lennon, who joins us remotely.

Covid-19 (National Health Service)

To ask the Scottish Government how many people have died after contracting Covid-19 in a hospital, and what action has been taken to investigate outbreaks in NHS settings. (S5T-02212)

Because of the prolonged incubation period of Covid-19, which can be up to 14 days, it is not possible to be certain of exactly how many people have contracted the disease after admission to hospital.

The Scottish Government is working with its United Kingdom counterparts and with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to establish international definitions for hospital-acquired Covid-19 infections. In the coming weeks we will reach and agree on those definitions and we will publish information about the data that is collected against those definitions in NHS health service boards.

Robust and reliable data on the transmission of Covid-19 in healthcare settings should be in the public domain as soon as possible.

Worrying reports have emerged about a major outbreak of Covid-19 at Gartnavel hospital in Glasgow. Families who have been affected by the outbreak have shared heartbreaking accounts of the loss of loved ones. David Holgate’s family were told that he would be safe at Gartnavel. After being admitted to the hospital, Mr Holgate tested negative for Covid-19. However, he was later struck down by the virus and he died, alone, in the hospital. His daughter Mags has said:

“The virus blew through the hospital like a draught.”

What is the cabinet secretary’s response to the Holgate family and to others affected by the Gartnavel outbreak?

My direct response is to express my condolences to that family, and to other families, for the loss of their loved ones, and my sympathy to those others who have concerns.

Gartnavel hospital, like others, has three pathways for the management of patients. The red pathway is used when a hospital knows that an incoming patient has Covid-19. The amber pathway is used for contacts when a patient is suspected of having Covid-19. The green pathway is for non-Covid-19 patients or for those who have been stepped down from isolation precautions, as per the national guidance.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde initiated a blanket screening policy for all patients every four days, which is broadly consistent with the over-70s testing that we have introduced.

There are two issues here. One is that it is very difficult to know. When someone is admitted to hospital, they may test negative for Covid-19, but that does not mean that they are not incubating the disease. The 14-day incubation period that I mentioned earlier makes it difficult to be certain about that. Secondly, boards and the hospitals within boards should have very clear infection prevention and control procedures.

Ms Lennon is right that this is a serious matter. We must understand, as best we can, what more we must do to ensure that we minimise the transmission of Covid-19 in hospitals. That is why we are doing that work with the European body and with our counterparts in the other three nations of the UK, so that we can reach an agreed definition of what we are looking for and what we are counting.

That is also why the chief nursing officer’s nosocomial infection group is due to report back at the beginning of next month with its recommendations for further actions. We will take those actions once we know what is recommended. The chief nursing officer has also instructed the healthcare inspectorate to restart its direct inspections, to ensure that proper infection prevention and control measures are consistently in place across all hospital settings.

The Gartnavel outbreak raises questions about the safety of other Scottish hospitals and healthcare settings. Health board papers confirm that, during March and April this year, more than 20 ward closures occurred in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde because of Covid-19 outbreaks.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm the total number of wards that have been closed at Gartnavel hospital and across Scotland as a result of Covid-19 outbreaks? If she cannot give those figures today, will she follow that up?

Given that hundreds of patients, including those who were untested, were discharged into care homes, will the cabinet secretary explain what steps have been taken to trace care home residents who were in any of the hospitals where Covid-19 outbreaks occurred, so that action could and can be taken to isolate them and stop the spread of the virus?

In answer to the first part of her question, as Ms Lennon rightly anticipates, I do not know the exact number of wards that were closed across all our hospital settings. I will secure the number and ensure that she has it as quickly as possible.

On the second part of Monica Lennon’s question, there are two datasets: the discharge dataset and the testing dataset. Public Health Scotland holds those datasets. In order to respond in a way that means that we are confident that the data is robust, Public Health Scotland is working to bring together those datasets. That is not as straightforward as it might sound. In bringing together the data, we need to ensure that it is comparable, that we are not double counting, that we are not underestimating and that we are measuring the same things as far as possible.

Public Health Scotland has that work under way. As soon as it advises me that it has completed the work and it has double-checked and is confident about the robustness of the data, we will publish it. I will make sure that members know the publication date and the frequency with which the data will continue to be published.

Understanding to the best of our ability who in hospital settings has the virus would help to minimise transmission in those settings. Can the cabinet secretary advise when the Scottish Government will introduce regular routine testing for national health service staff?

The chief medical officer’s advisory body is considering that. The advisory body, which involves scientists and clinicians, advises us on what it sees as the risk versus benefit in undertaking that measure. It provides advice; the Government will make the decision.

As I am sure that the member understands and recalls, there is a continuing debate about the value of testing individuals who do not have symptoms. During the early part of the pandemic, the advice was that there was no value at all to testing in those circumstances. That has changed in that there is now a lively debate in which it is argued that there is some value in testing those who are asymptomatic, albeit that the test is not as reliable in its results as it is for those who are symptomatic.

Testing is reliable to a degree. It tells us whether an individual has the virus on the date of the test. To ensure that we use it for the purposes of prevention and precaution, we have to keep repeating the test every seven days, as we are doing in care homes, in order to provide that level of reassurance.

We await the advice and view of the group. At that point, we will take a decision about whether we intend to take that action on testing, and whether we intend to do it for particular groups, or not—or whatever the options may be. I will advise members when we have made the decision.

Covid-19 (Contact Tracers)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will have recruited all 2,000 contact tracers by the end of May. (S5T-02214)

We will. As of today, we have 1,615 contact tracers identified and ready to be deployed. As the member will recall, the contact tracers are drawn from the three parts of our recruitment exercise—that is, from national health service boards, our returner pool and the adverts that we placed, the closing date for which was last Friday. The number that I have given is for those who have been identified and are ready to be deployed from NHS boards, the Scottish Ambulance Service, NHS National Services Scotland and Public Health Scotland.

By 1 June, we will have more than 385 from the NHS returner pool and we are processing those from the recruitment adverts at the rate of 150 a day. As we have said, we do not anticipate that, on 1 June, we will need all those contact tracers: the degree to which they will be needed will be determined by the number of positive tests that come through from individuals.

As we move from where we are now—in lockdown—to phase 1 as was set out in the route map that the Government published last week, if the incidence of the virus in the community is still as suppressed as it is at this point, we would not expect, by any means, to need all those 2,000 contact tracers at the start of phase 1. However, our anticipation is that, as we move through the phases, depending on how the virus performs and what its incidence is, we might need up to 2,000 contact tracers—or we might need more. Over the summer period we will therefore continue our iterative recruitment exercise, as well as the approach that we have achieved to date.

Will the cabinet secretary clarify how many contact tracers have actually been recruited? At her lunch time briefing today, the First Minister suggested that the number was 700. However, have those people just been moved from other parts of the Government’s response to Covid-19?

What lessons have been learned from the failures in contact tracing that we have seen in relation to the Nike conference at the beginning of the outbreak, and what additional measures have been taken into account in the new system?

Let me repeat that, as of today, 1,615 staff have been identified and are ready to be deployed as contact tracers. As the member will recall, from the outset of the outbreak, I have said, on social media and elsewhere, that our recruitment exercise for contact tracers consists of three pillars, the first of which involves NHS staff. It should be remembered that we are starting from a position of having a pool of contact tracers through local health protection teams, which, before the pandemic, would expand or contract depending on what we needed them to do. Added to that is the second pillar, which is our NHS returner pool, and the third, which involves our adverts that closed on Friday of last week. That is the threefold approach that we have been using to grow our number of contact tracers. We estimated that we would need 2,000 tracers, and we will have those in place by 1 June.

What happened around the event that the member has referenced was exactly in accordance with the way in which contact tracing works. The First Minister has already explained the process that was gone through. It should be remembered that the whole process of contact tracing is a clinically led NHS exercise, which involves protocols. At this point, one area that is being discussed is the number of cases that might constitute a cluster. That has not yet been agreed, but the process of considering it is being led by the deputy chief medical officer, the chief medical officer and others. Once that number has been determined and agreed, the other part of the advice that they will issue on how matters should proceed will be on what would then trigger a public health notice to advise a community that a cluster had appeared in a particular setting. Once those two decisions have been made by those individuals, we will ensure that members know what they are.

In Scotland, more than 100,000 tests have been left unused during the outbreak, and the number of tests being carried out has consistently fallen short of the daily target. Does the cabinet secretary accept that the current testing situation has not been acceptable, and that care home staff and residents who should have been tested have not been able to utilise the available capacity?

Further, the cabinet secretary previously told me that it was taking between 48 and 72 hours for people to receive their test results. What will the turnaround time be under the new testing system? If it will not be below 24 hours, does she think that the new system will actually work?

I would dispute the figures that Mr Briggs mentioned. I think that they appeared previously in The Herald newspaper, at which time the Government disputed them. If, after this meeting, the member would like to provide me with details of how he arrived at those numbers, I would be happy to give him a detailed answer.

On the second part of Mr Brigg’s question, about the turnaround time, if I recall correctly I said that it was up to 72 hours and we were pressing hardest to have that turnaround time reduced in the lighthouse laboratory, which is part of the four-nation, United Kingdom Government-led exercise. There is a target time of 24 hours for going from sample to result. Our NHS labs are achieving that. The Lighthouse lab, I am pleased to say, is close to consistently achieving that target time, too. Our clinical advisers to the health service will determine how that will be monitored to ensure that the 24-hour target time is consistently met across all the lab sites that are operating.

Aileen Campbell is joining us remotely to answer question 3.

Covid-19 (Wellbeing Support)

To ask the Scottish Government what guidance is available to help and support the wellbeing of people affected by Covid-19. (S5T-02201)

To ensure that individuals are aware of the help and support that are available to them, we have provided key information on Ready Scotland and on a new information page on We have also worked with key partners, including local, national and third sector organisations and local authorities, to strengthen the support that is available, and we have provided guidance on supporting shielded individuals.

We launched a new helpline on 14 April to ensure that everyone who needs help and cannot get it from friends, family or others nearby can access it. We wrote to every household in Scotland to make them aware of the help and support that are available.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that answer, but many people will be facing challenges in being able to access and afford food and other essentials during this crisis. Can she outline in more detail how the Scottish Government will ensure that people receive the support that they need in a dignified way?

Absolutely. We are unique in the United Kingdom in trying to take a cash-first approach to food insecurity, which is the most dignified way to provide support and is founded on human rights principles. That is why we have more than doubled the national budget for the Scottish welfare fund, and why we have given local authorities the flexibility to provide their £30 million allocation of the food fund as cash or, where appropriate, vouchers.

Of the £70 million food fund, £60 million is directed at a structured public sector response to support food access. There is £30 million for the national shielding programme and £30 million for local authorities to support others who are at risk, and the remaining £10 million of the food fund is going to the third sector partners that are delivering community-based responses. The supporting communities fund and the wellbeing fund are also supporting community food provision.

We are taking a range of different approaches to ensure that people can access and find the support that they need, where they need it.

Further to that reply, can the cabinet secretary provide details on how the Government is ensuring that people are informed about and can access the financial support that is available, whether it is in the form of UK reserved benefits such as universal credit, Scottish Government support such as the Scottish welfare fund or grants for the self-employed?

We continue to promote uptake of the wide range of available support, including through our partners in Citizens Advice Scotland. In 2020-21, we are providing the CAS network in Scotland with £3 million to support people who are affected by poverty and welfare reforms, helping everyone in Scotland who is struggling financially. That includes an additional £100,000 from the wellbeing fund to support Covid-related pressures, including the new national helpline.

We also provide funding for welfare advice through One Parent Families Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group and Advice Direct Scotland. That funding covers direct advice to people seeking assistance as well as training support and the second-tier advice that is given to other advice agencies across Scotland.

There are a number of different ways in which we are trying to help people cope financially. Undoubtedly, there will be future pressures and we will need to continue to be agile on the issue.

There is a supplementary from Alex Rowley.

Presiding Officer, I pushed my button to request a supplementary to the first question.

There seems to have been an issue with our screens. We will move on.

For question 4, John Finnie is joining us remotely, as is the cabinet secretary, Fergus Ewing.

Covid-19 (Tourism Industry Support)

To ask the Scottish Government, in light of Specialist Leisure Group Ltd entering administration, resulting in seven hotels across Scotland ceasing to trade, what further steps it is considering to support the tourism industry. (S5T-02197)

I was very sorry to learn of Specialist Leisure Group entering administration, and our thoughts are with the large number of employees who are directly affected in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.

The Scottish Government has done a great deal to support tourism businesses in these most difficult times. In particular, we have provided very substantial financial support.

Tomorrow—for the sixth time, I think—I will speak with Nigel Huddleston, my UK counterpart. I will be pressing him on the fact that the many businesses that have rateable values in excess of £51,000—in particular, rural hotels in Scotland—have had no grant support from the UK Government scheme. I believe that it is not too late for the UK Government to put right that defect, if it wishes. I very much hope that the UK Treasury will listen very carefully and help such businesses to bridge the gap through these troubled times.

I also want to ensure that relaxations to the furlough scheme are flexible enough to assist businesses in Scotland and meet their needs.

Finally, it is vital that we enable businesses in the tourism sector to resume as soon as they can safely do so. A great deal of our effort at the current time is devoted to that vital task.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that detailed response.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the crisis has created an extremely difficult environment for coach operators—the Caledonian Travel brand was part of Specialist Leisure Group, for example. Will he outline the discussions that he has undertaken with coach operators about the long-term sustainability of that sector, given the current challenges? Have those discussions included the role that those operators could play in school transport when schools return after the summer break?

I have had a lengthy discussion with a number of coach operators, including representatives of the trade body, the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK.

Most of the coach operators that operate in the tourism sector do so exclusively. Other operators also work for education authorities—local authorities—in providing school transport. As Mr Finnie’s question implies, it is possible that, in the future, some coaches, at least for an interim period, could help out with school transport, or indeed with public transport—not least because, as I understand it, through working closely with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, the requirements of social distancing for bus transport mean that only a very small proportion of the seats will be used, meaning that more buses will be required.

Mr Finnie has made a very practical point, if I have interpreted it correctly; it is one that we are interested in pursuing, working with him and with all members.

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for confirmation of the important role that the coach sector could play. Is there a role for the Scottish Trades Union Congress in ensuring that any support that the Government provides will underpin the fair work agenda?

Yes. We have always worked very closely with the STUC. Over the years, I have valued its counsel and involvement in ensuring that work arrangements are fair to employees. This is another example of that.

The STUC will be concerned—as I am—that the UK Government has not yet come up with a bespoke scheme to provide assistance for the coach sector, which is so important for the tourism sector overall. If people cannot travel to Scotland to visit our hotels or leave cruise liners to see visitor attractions, or if coaches cannot be used to collect visitors from airports or railway stations and take them to their onward destinations, the task of resuming our successful tourism industry will be that much the harder.

I have a few supplementary requests, so it would be good if members could be succinct.

The tourism sector is very anxious that the Scottish Government may not continue the financial support that has been provided so far, even if it advises that the sector will remain closed during the very important summer season. Will more financial support be available from the Scottish Government if it advises that the sector will remain closed?

Mr Rennie has made a very important point. I understand that my colleague Fiona Hyslop will be making a statement later this afternoon that may be of interest to the member. We in the Scottish Government certainly realise that our job to provide a financial bridge through this difficulty is not yet complete. The bridge is under construction; it is not finished.

We need to continue to work in a non-partisan way with the UK Government on these matters, recognising that the bridge is not yet complete. In particular, the furlough scheme needs to be extended beyond October. This morning, I spoke to a group of north Highland hoteliers who said that the most important single issue to enable their survival would be a more flexible furlough scheme that would allow them options to navigate through to Easter next year, especially if, as now, there is uncertainty as to whether there will be any chance of a summer season for hotels this year. It is essential that we approach the need to provide that support in an open-minded and non-political, non-partisan way; otherwise, I am afraid that we will see the example of the sad administration of the leading company Shearings followed by others. The issue could not be more important, and I very much hope that the UK Government will be of the same view.

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

The cabinet secretary has rightly pointed out that the UK Government’s furloughing has been a lifeline for the tourism industry. Will the Scottish Government create a bespoke scheme for tourism and hospitality businesses that are fighting for their survival and which are not eligible for the grants of £10,000 or £25,000 or the creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund or pivotal enterprise resilience fund?

I have been absolutely open from the outset that our job is to provide a financial support mechanism to all legitimate tourism businesses, by which I mean not Airbnbs or second home owners who make a bit of money on the side, but genuine businesses that rely for their main livelihood on tourism and now have no business.

I have consistently argued that it is the Government’s business to keep those businesses going and it follows automatically that the bed-and-breakfast establishments, photographers, people involved in field sports, amusement arcades and marinas and small boat owners who may not have been eligible for the original grant schemes require other support. That work is on-going and I suggest that Rachael Hamilton listens carefully to this afternoon’s statement, when I hope that further information will be forthcoming. I absolutely assure her that I support the principle that she has set out. I hope that the UK Government Treasury does not regard the issue as a box that has a tick occupying it. There is no tick in this box. It is our job to complete the bridge and complete the task—and we are determined to do so.

The Bay Waverley Castle hotel is a 77-bedroom hotel in Melrose that is part of the Bay Hotels group. Staff living on site have been given 28 days’ notice to find alternative accommodation, so they have been made jobless and homeless in one go. What assistance can the Scottish Government, perhaps in liaison with the local authority, give to those members of staff?

I am not aware of that case. Christine Grahame has drawn it to my attention and, thereby, to the public’s attention. I will ask my officials to look into the matter straight away. It is of concern that, during this period in particular, people will face eviction from their property, but I do not know the individual circumstances of the case in question. I will, of course, undertake to work with Christine Grahame if she wishes me to do so to look into the matter and to see what can be done to help the individuals who are now in an extremely invidious position.