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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 26 August 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Life Sciences Innovation (Covid-19 Response), Business Motion, Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Agriculture (Retained EU Law and Data) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


First Minister’s Question Time

Good afternoon. Before the first item of business, which is First Minister’s question time, the First Minister will make a short statement.

I will give a brief update on today’s Covid statistics. An additional 67 cases were confirmed yesterday; that represents 0.5 per cent of people who were newly tested yesterday, and takes the total number of cases now to 19,988. A total of 249 patients are currently in hospital with confirmed Covid, which is six more than yesterday, and two people are in intensive care, which is an increase of one since yesterday.

Unfortunately, I also have to report that, in the past 24 hours, two deaths were reported to Public Health Scotland of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days. This is the first time that any newly registered deaths have been reported in our daily figures since 16 July, and it means that the number of deaths under that measurement is now 2,494.

We have all become used to hearing news of no deaths under these daily figures. The two new deaths today are devastating for those who will be grieving the loss, but they should also be a reminder for all of us that the threat of Covid has not yet gone away.

National Records of Scotland has also just published its weekly update, which includes deaths of people who have been confirmed through a test as having Covid, as do our daily figures, as well as cases in which Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death.

The latest NRS update covers the period to Sunday 23 August and shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths with either a confirmed or presumed link to Covid was 4,222. Of those, six deaths were registered in the seven days up to Sunday, which is an increase of three on the week before. Four of those six deaths were in care homes. The total number of deaths recorded last week from all causes, not just Covid, was 40 higher than the five-year average for the same time of year. However, as we have seen in recent weeks, that figure fluctuates. Public Health Scotland has today published a new report that provides more detailed analysis of the causes of excess deaths during the pandemic.

I will give a brief update on the main clusters that we have been dealing with in recent days. First, with regard to the outbreak that was linked to the 2 Sisters Food Group processing plant in Coupar Angus, as of yesterday, 156 positive cases were linked to that cluster—138 workers of the factory and 18 of their contacts. That is a rise of four cases on the previous figure, and all four new cases are workers in the factory.

Almost all the workers at the factory have now been tested; in total, more than 5,000 people have been tested in Tayside over the past seven days. That is good progress, and I thank everyone who is working hard to manage that outbreak. So far, the testing has not revealed a large number of positive cases among contacts of the workforce. At this stage, there is still no evidence of wider community transmission, although contact tracing and testing is still on-going. Workers at the factory and their households should continue to self-isolate until Monday 31 August; that restriction applies even if any of those individuals have received a negative test result.

I will also give a quick update on the situation at Kingspark school in Dundee. In total, 31 cases have been identified as part of that cluster. Two of those 31 cases are pupils at the school. All school staff, pupils and household contacts of pupils have been given advice on self-isolation, as have other relevant contacts. In addition, testing has been undertaken for all staff who work at the school and is available for children who have been identified as close contacts.

Finally, in relation to the outbreak in Aberdeen, 261 cases are now associated with the cluster that is linked to pubs; that figure is unchanged from yesterday. The total number of cases in Grampian as a whole over the past month is 435. Hospitality in Aberdeen is due to reopen from today; in preparation for that, Aberdeen City Council has been carrying out environmental health checks at premises across the city. I am grateful for those efforts, and I thank everyone in Aberdeen for complying so well with the restrictions.

The clusters remind us, again, how easily Covid can spread if we give it the opportunity, so all of us need to continue to play our part in keeping the virus under control.

Among other things, that means following the restrictions on household and social gatherings, and, more broadly, of course, it means following the five rules of the FACTS campaign. I will conclude with a reminder of what those rules are: wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces; avoiding crowded places; cleaning hands and hard surfaces regularly; 2m distancing as the overall rule; and self-isolating and booking a test if someone has symptoms.

If all of us follow those rules, we can continue, I hope, to drag down the virus and to protect ourselves, our loved ones and the wider community. I again thank everyone who is helping us do exactly that.

We turn to First Minister’s questions. I remind members that we will take all the supplementaries after question 8. However, if you want to ask a supplementary, you can press your request-to-speak button at any point—in fact, you should press it as soon as possible.

Care Homes

I return to the subject of care homes, as some questions last week did not receive a satisfactory answer, including those on the issue of who knew what when. Let me ask again: when was the First Minster first informed that Covid-positive patients had been transferred into care homes? Was she first told in March, April, May, June, July or August?

As I reported last week, we are still waiting for the analysis from Public Health Scotland of the numbers of people discharged from hospital into care homes who may have had the virus, whether they had been tested and what the circumstances were. We will make that information available fully as soon as it is available.

I turn again to the position that I set out clearly last week. Ministers set the policy. The guidance was clear from 13 March about the need to clinically assess patients being discharged from hospital before being admitted to care homes. Neither I nor any other minster would expect to know the individual details of the clinical risk assessment that was undertaken in respect of any patient.

Of course, ministers were clear—indeed, we made it clear to the Parliament—that it was our objective, as it has been for many years, to reduce the numbers of people in delayed discharge in our hospitals. We set an initial target of doing that by 400. We then said that we had exceeded the target.

Ministers have been clear about the policy objectives that we set and about the guidance that has been put in place. However, ministers in this Government—I am pretty sure that this will have been the case in previous Governments and in other Governments across the United Kingdom—are not party to the clinical risk assessments that are done on individual patients.

We will get on to the policy objective in a minute, but that is the fourth time that that question has been asked at First Minister’s question—twice by me last week, once by Richard Leonard and once by me again today—and it is the fourth time that the First Minister has ducked it. I cannot work out why. She keeps on saying that the Government will be open about its mistakes. Putting people with Covid into care homes was clearly a mistake, and part of fixing mistakes is working out who knew what when.

Either the situation happened and the Government knew that it had happened and that informed its later decision making, or the situation happened without the Government knowing and it found out, as the rest of us did, only through a newspaper report last week. Which is it?

Ruth Davidson has asked the question and I am answering the question. I do not know the clinical condition of patients who are being discharged from hospital to their homes, community settings or care homes. That is not information that ministers would have.

We have asked Public Health Scotland—I think that I am correct in saying that we are the only Government in the UK so far to ask for this information—to look in detail at the situation with patients being discharged from hospital to care homes, whether they were Covid positive, whether they had been tested and, if not, what the rationale for that was. When we have that information, we will, transparently and fully, make it available to Parliament, and I am sure that we will have further exchanges on that.

It is the responsibility of Government to set the guidance, and the first guidance on Covid was issued to care homes on 13 March. I think that we have talked about the contents before. The guidance was updated as appropriate.

Of course, we very openly and transparently set an objective of reducing delayed discharge. It is interesting that Opposition politicians are now trying to suggest that they did not know that that was the case, because we set that out to Parliament. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport set it out on 17 March, I talked about it on 1 April and the health secretary talked about it again in Parliament on 1 April.

On 10 March, Miles Briggs from the Conservatives asked:

“what ... progress has been made in the past week to increase bed capacity in every NHS hospital across Scotland?”—[Official Report, 10 March 2020; c 12.]

On 1 April, Jamie Greene from the Conservatives said:

“evidence suggests that many people who are ready to leave hospital are still stuck in hospital settings ... I therefore ask the First Minister, how many people are currently in a hospital setting”.—[Official Report, 1 April 2020; c 85.]

He asked me what I was doing to ensure that that was addressed.

The policy was clear. We will continue to provide as much detail as we can on how the policy was implemented. We will do that as soon as Public Health Scotland has completed the analysis that we have asked it to do.

I am well aware that individual discharges are clinical decisions, but I do not understand why the First Minister will not say when she was first informed that discharges had occurred.

Perhaps we should recap on what has changed between last week, when I asked the same questions, and now. We have learned that NHS Scotland wrote to health boards on 6 March—more than two weeks before lockdown—to tell them to move patients out of hospital. We know that a target was set to move 900 patients out of hospital by the end of April. We have learned that, in early April, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport congratulated health boards on their tremendous progress in doing so.

Despite the First Minister’s previous protestations, which have changed today, we have learned that the Government was driving the policy, yet it appears that we are also supposed to believe that the Government knew nothing about how the policy was being achieved and was not aware of the decision to move Covid-positive patients into care homes. Is that really credible?

If it is the case that Ruth Davidson learned about the policy only in the past couple of weeks, that raises more questions about her attention to the situation than about anything else. On 17 March, the health secretary stood up in Parliament and said:

“I have set a goal of reducing”

delayed discharges

“by at least 400 by the end of this month.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2020; c 7.]

On 1 April, I stood up in Parliament and said:

“The target that we set at the start of the month of quickly reducing delayed discharge cases by 400 has already been met and we are now working to go further.”—[Official Report, 1 April 2020; c 66.]

On 1 April, the health secretary repeated that. On 10 March, Miles Briggs demanded to know what progress we had made in increasing bed capacity.

If the Conservatives did not know that the policy objective was to reduce delayed discharge—for years, Opposition politicians have rightly been pressuring the Government to do that—for the additional objective of freeing up hospital capacity because of what we thought was about to happen to our hospitals, I have to wonder where they were and what they were paying attention to, because it was not what was going on with Covid.

The First Minister is clearly irked by this line of questioning. We have spoken to a number of families who have been affected, and they want to know why, when and how many Covid patients were put into the care homes in which their loved ones died. Nearly 2,000 people have died in Scottish care homes throughout the crisis.

We have called for the public inquiry into care homes to start immediately, because it is not right, and nor is it fair on families, to have information emerge bit by bit, piece by piece. Families deserve answers now. It should not be left to freedom of information requests or newspaper investigations to find out what happened, one piece of correspondence at a time.

If the First Minister will not start the public inquiry now—she has said that she will not—will she at least commit today to publish all the correspondence between herself, the health secretary, NHS boards and care homes throughout the pandemic in order to give families the clarity that they deserve?

I am happy to make any relevant information available, but I am going further than that, as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already set out. I happen to agree that it is right that families get answers to any questions that they have. That is why, unlike our counterparts in any of the other Governments in the United Kingdom as far as I am aware, this Government has asked Public Health Scotland to specifically consider those questions and whether patients who were discharged from hospitals to care homes were tested; if they were not, why not; and whether they had Covid. We have asked that the exercise be completed by the end of September, and we will publish it in full.

Such a level of transparency around the matter is not being replicated or matched anywhere else in the UK. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has actually written to other Governments in the UK suggesting that they do likewise, so that we have the picture from all four nations. We will have the information here and, when it is available, not only can the questions be answered but the answers can be scrutinised by the Opposition.

We are going about it in the right way and, as we do so, we continue to focus on making sure that we have the right policies and procedures in place. It is not the case that policies were not in place—we had guidance in place for care homes, which included a requirement to do a risk assessment for patients. We also had guidance in place on infection prevention and control in care homes. Those are the appropriate things that we should have done, and we will continue to ensure that such matters are subject to scrutiny and transparency as we learn lessons and continue to navigate our way through the pandemic.

Extension of Job Retention Scheme

Today’s “Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland” figures show that Scotland has a fiscal deficit of £15 billion and rising. The figures also show how much we need active Government and how much it can do. They show the value of tax-funded public services and the value of redistribution according to need.

Scottish Labour’s greatest concern is about ensuring that those who are in need get support when they need it. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the value of solidarity and working together. That is why we are calling on the United Kingdom Government to extend the coronavirus job retention scheme beyond October to save businesses and jobs. That is why we are calling on the Scottish Government to deliver a quality-jobs guarantee scheme, and why we are calling on both Governments to co-operate and work together to deliver job retention and job creation.

Will the First Minister join us in pressuring the UK Government to extend the job retention scheme, will she commit to a Scottish quality-jobs guarantee scheme that would deliver secure jobs based on the principles of fair work, and will she do so before the end of October?

I do not know where Richard Leonard has been for the past few weeks. I have for weeks been asking almost every day for the UK Government to continue the furlough job retention scheme. I am glad that Richard Leonard has now decided to back that call. In addition, the Scottish Government has set out plans for a youth jobs guarantee scheme, and will set out more detail in the coming days and weeks.

I have to say that Richard Leonard is still capable of surprising us, in the chamber. I did not think that it would be he who would stand up today to extol the virtues of Scotland’s being governed by a Conservative Westminster Government. I thought that that might come from members on the other side of the chamber.

The furlough scheme is funded by the UK Government borrowing money. The reason why it borrows money for us is because we do not have the powers here to do it ourselves. I say that Richard Leonard should use his imagination, and imagine that Scotland was independent right now. He would not have to ask me to plead with a UK Government to borrow more money to extend the job retention scheme; we could do it ourselves, here in Scotland, like other independent countries the world over do.

It is probably that conclusion that has led to the situation that we have right now, in which almost half of Richard Leonard’s remaining Labour supporters—which, I grant, is a dwindling band of people—now support Scotland becoming an independent country.

The First Minister will need to answer the questions about how she will make up that £15 billion deficit, and where she is going to find the £100 billion that it will take to set up the separate Scottish currency that she now says she wants.

This public health and economic crisis is the greatest challenge that the Scottish Parliament has faced in its lifetime, and it is time for all political parties in Parliament to focus on and to do what the Parliament was set up to do. The First Minister must set out in next week’s programme for government how her Government will use all the powers of the Parliament. All our attention, now and in the foreseeable future, needs to be on jobs, on reshaping the economy, on investing in public services, on building back better and on tackling poverty and inequalities.

Let me give one example. People are anxious about losing their homes, and more and more people are anxious about losing their jobs. Those anxieties will rise. Unless the First Minister uses her powers and intervenes, more and more people will lose their homes, so will the First Minister commit today to using the Parliament’s powers to ban evictions until the next session of Parliament? Will she ensure that, this time, it is a ban, and not merely a delay?

I think that I did this last week, or it might have been the week before, but I have already stood here and said that we will extend, for an additional six months, the protection against evictions that was in the original coronavirus legislation. Again, I say that Richard Leonard really needs to keep up with announcements as they are made by the Government. I am afraid that I do not have the luxury of going at his pace on such things; we have to power ahead and get them completed.

In the programme for government and in the budgets that will come, we will use our powers and our resources to the fullest possible effect. However, if we had the powers and resources that independent countries have at their disposal, we would not be in this position right now, as we face the two biggest threats to Scotland’s jobs. The first is the withdrawal of the job retention scheme. If we were independent, we would not have to be going cap in hand to the UK Government, to plead with it to continue that scheme; we could do it ourselves. The other big threat is a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. If we were independent, we would not have to face that prospect, either.

Richard Leonard is aping the Tories in using GERS, but those figures are a reflection of Scotland’s fiscal position within the United Kingdom, and not a reflection of how Scotland would fare as an independent country. Talking about deficits, I note that when the UK deficit is projected next year to be almost £400 billion, and at a time when UK debt has just topped £2 trillion, that is not the strongest territory for the Tories to be on, and it seems like politically suicidal territory for Labour to be on.

The Scottish deficit is about 9 per cent of gross domestic product, and the UK deficit is less than 3 per cent of GDP, so there is a comparison to make, which any reasonable and rational person would want to make.

Let me talk about something else that the First Minister has spoken about: powering ahead. Let us talk about powering ahead on the question of child poverty. Today, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission have united in calling on the First Minister to bring forward and not to delay an equivalent of the Scottish child payment. In a joint plea to the First Minister, they argue that

“Women have been particularly hard hit by the economic storm that has engulfed us ... with women’s poverty being inextricably linked to child poverty”.

They go on to say that

“Without this urgent Scottish Government action, the colder months will bring the cold blasts of economic hardship, with families facing even greater struggle before the Scottish Child Payment begins its roll-out.”

The Scottish Government has said that Covid makes that difficult, but Covid is what makes it urgent. If it is possible to introduce payments rapidly for businesses that are in need, surely it is possible to introduce payments rapidly for families and children who are in need. So, will the First Minister get the cash to the families who need it, now?

Scotland is about to become the only country in the UK that has a child payment. We will start to take applications for it in November this year, and the first payments will be made at the start of next year. No other Government in the UK, including the Welsh Labour Government, is getting anywhere near to doing what we are doing in delivering what has been described by poverty campaigners as a game changer on child poverty. That is what we are doing within our powers.

Yes—because of the systems that have to be put in place to deliver that, and given the Covid challenges, that is the quickest timetable that we can set to deliver it. To criticise us for taking a couple of months to open applications when his colleagues in Wales are not doing it at all seems to me to be a rather hypocritical stance for Richard Leonard to take.

I come back to my point: if Richard Leonard started to really think about the current drivers of child poverty, he would stop being Boris Johnson’s chief cheerleader in this Parliament and start standing up for this Parliament getting the powers that we need.

The welfare policies and austerity politics of Westminster Governments have driven more children into poverty. We are doing what we can to lift them out of it, but as long as the powers lie with Westminster and not in this Parliament, we will be doing it with one hand tied behind our backs.

To come back to an earlier point, I say that I suspect that that is why more and more of the dwindling band of Labour voters in this country now see that independence would be a better future for Scotland. The sooner Richard Leonard wakes up to that and stops defending Tory Governments taking decisions about Scotland, the better for all of us—and, probably, the better for his party.

Mercy Baguma

I am sure that members will join me in expressing sadness and outrage at the tragic death of Mercy Baguma. On Saturday, Mercy was found dead beside her malnourished baby in a Glasgow flat. Thankfully, her child has now been released from hospital.

That appalling tragedy occurred as a direct result of United Kingdom Government asylum policy, which forced Mercy into extreme poverty. We cannot allow mothers and babies to go hungry in 21st century Scotland. I know that the Home Office is responsible in this case, and the Home Secretary must answer for this entirely preventable death, but we cannot simply stand by; this is on all of us. What will the First Minister do to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated? Is she able to advise whether the Lord Advocate is initiating an inquiry into the incident?

As Alison Johnstone knows, I cannot speak for the Lord Advocate on death inquiries. However, I am sure that he will be perfectly willing to correspond with her on that.

I am grateful—although I do not know that that is the right word—to Alison Johnstone for raising the issue today. Like most people across this country, I find myself consumed with sadness and anger at the death of Mercy Baguma. First and foremost, my thoughts, and I am sure the thoughts of all of us, go to her family and friends following her tragic death.

The exact circumstances of Mercy Baguma’s death are not yet known; it is important to be clear about that. I support all and any efforts to establish the facts of this tragic case. What I think we can all say—I think that we all knew this before this tragedy, but it has been underlined—is that the UK asylum system is not just broken but deeply inhumane and it must be changed. People who come to Scotland because they need a place of safety should have our support, and that is even more true at this time of crisis.

Asylum is wholly reserved to the UK Government and that includes the procurement and operation of asylum accommodation and support contracts. The communities secretary and this Government as a whole have repeatedly raised with the Home Office our concerns about accommodation and support for asylum seekers before and during the pandemic, and we will continue to do so. However, we need wholesale reform of our asylum system. We need to start from the principles of dignity, empathy and support for our fellow human beings who come to this country seeking support at desperate and dismal times of their lives. I appeal to members of the UK Government to look into their hearts as a result of this case and finally make the changes that are needed.

I agree with the First Minister that wholesale reform is required.

In response to this tragedy, the Home Office said that

“it takes the well-being of all those in the asylum system extremely seriously”.

However, anyone who sees the cruel way in which asylum seekers are treated knows that that statement is simply not credible. This is the third death in recent months of an asylum seeker in Scotland.

Will the First Minister write to the Home Secretary to demand an independent inquiry into the deaths and suffering that are caused by the UK’s hostile environment policy? Does she support the call from Positive Action in Housing for an inquiry into the housing of asylum seekers during the pandemic? Does she support the Scottish Green Party campaign for asylum accommodation to be taken out of private hands and to be managed at local level with the support of the third sector? What specific actions is the Scottish Government taking now to deliver that change?

I support pretty much everything that Alison Johnstone has just said. I am happy for the Scottish Government to raise with the Home Office the issue of an inquiry. We have repeatedly raised those concerns with the Home Office. I do not want to politicise the issue, but I am afraid that it is another on which we need to stop having to plead with a UK Government to change the way in which it does things, and to start having the ability in the Parliament to put in place systems that reflect our values as a country.

I support Positive Action in Housing’s call for an inquiry, and we will look at what we can do to give practical support to that.

I do not know all the details of the Green campaign—I will be very happy to look at it—but it sounds like something that we would support. Again, we would be happy to look at the practical steps that we can take to turn that support into action.

As I have said before, the fact that asylum is wholly reserved to the UK Government means that the procurement and operation of asylum accommodation is reserved, so there are constraints on what the Scottish Government can do in the circumstances. That is why I want us, over the longer term, to have more control of such decisions, here in our Parliament. When we have that control, it is not the case that we will get everything right all the time, but we will be able to have systems that reflect our values as a country. What happened to Mercy Baguma—albeit that we do not know all the details, it involves all the hallmarks of the UK’s asylum system right now—does not reflect the values of the Scotland that I know and love.

Covid-19 Testing (International Students)

I share the grief of others at the tragic death of Mercy Baguma, and I agree that we must have the answers on that which we deserve.

Intelligent young people come to Scotland from all over the world because of our brilliant universities. We have a duty to keep them safe when they are here. Yesterday, we heard about 11 new virus testing centres, including one in St Andrews, which will be welcomed by locals, visitors and students. What we did not hear was a new policy on testing international students. Will the First Minister give an update?

We will publish revised guidance for colleges, universities and student accommodation, reflecting the most up-to-date scientific advice, by next Tuesday, 1 September. We are still finalising some of the details, including those about testing.

Testing has an important part to play in how we protect the student community, and wider communities where student populations are based. The new walk-in testing centre in St Andrews, to which I referred yesterday, will be an important part of that. Further walk-in testing centres will be established across the country between now and October. One of the priorities for those is to look at locations that support student populations.

I appreciate that Willie Rennie has raised the topic on a number of occasions. We are looking very carefully at all the details of the different steps that we have to take—not just at testing. Detail will be published early next week.

That is good news, but I am sure that the First Minister will understand my frustration. It has been a month since her adviser Devi Sridhar recommended that all international students should be tested on day 1 and day 5, and since then I have been asking about that almost every week, yet we must wait even longer for the policy. Students are arriving right now for the new term. It will be the biggest movement of people since the lockdown, and I think that we all have a duty to keep them safe. We know that there is a rise in cases in Italy because of young people returning from holiday. Germany and France are insisting on tests for all travellers from hotspot countries, including students.

If it is at all possible, may I have some answers now? Will all students be asked to get a test when they arrive in the country, and on day 5? When will the testing capacity be ready, and will it be a condition of their studies?

We will set out the detail on the testing policy when we publish the updated guidance. I am not going to give the specific detail on that, because I want to make sure that we properly finalise it and take the decisions that we think are right and are based on the best advice, and that we have the delivery mechanisms in place.

I want to be clear that, although we are finalising updated guidance that will be published this week, universities and colleges are working to deliver arrangements that are already in place. They include arrangements for blended learning, which will be a deliberate effort to reduce numbers on campus; enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures; and 2m physical distancing. In addition, staff and students who are arriving here from certain high-risk countries will have an obligation to quarantine for 14 days. That is a very important foundation, whatever the final position is on testing. There is also a process for familiarising students with health protection measures and embedding that in student induction.

There is already a considerable amount of work on-going to ensure that students and wider communities are safe. The guidance that we will publish next week is an update on that and will cover whether there are additional steps that we intend to take.

Covid-19 (Winter Spikes)

5. Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is preparing for any spikes in Covid-19 infections over the winter period. (S5F-04313)

We are working closely with health boards, other partners and the wider public sector to manage and plan for a potential resurgence of Covid-19, alongside our usual winter planning and the remobilisation of paused services. As part of that approach, we are implementing the revised testing strategy that was published, I think, a couple of weeks ago. We have put in place robust outbreak management arrangements, we are replenishing key equipment and personal protective equipment stockpiles and, of course, we are planning an expansion of the seasonal flu vaccination programme.

National health service boards have prepared their remobilisation plans to March 2021, which incorporate arrangements for potential surges in Covid over winter. We are currently reviewing those.

As part of a broader assessment of our preparedness, Professor Sir Harry Burns, our former chief medical officer, is making recommendations on winter preparedness.

The Scottish Government is, of course, in charge of health and social care and has demonstrated control over a range of policy issues that have equipped us to manage the effect of the pandemic since March. However, the gaps in the powers of the Scottish Government have been exposed, particularly in the economic and financial response. What is the First Minister doing now to ensure that, if we are in the unfortunate situation where further lockdowns are needed to control any spikes in infections, we have the powers to provide financial resilience for workers and businesses, particularly if the United Kingdom Government ceases programmes that it has funded through its borrowing powers?

We have taken a wide range of actions to support businesses and workers since the start of the pandemic, including the £2.3 billion-worth of business support, and we will continue to work closely with businesses and local authorities in the event of any local restrictions. We launched a support fund for businesses that were affected by the measures that were introduced to contain the outbreak in Aberdeen.

As I said in my exchange with Richard Leonard, we do not have the borrowing powers to replicate a furlough scheme in Scotland. That would require action from the UK Government, so we are keen to work with it to ensure that any extended or replacement scheme—which we hope there will be—meets the needs of businesses and workers here in Scotland. On Friday, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture wrote again to UK ministers, asking that the furlough scheme be extended to provide support in areas where we know that it will be needed beyond 31 October, such as support for businesses and workers if local lockdown restrictions are put in place.

Disabled People (Abuse During Lockdown)

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking in response to Police Scotland figures suggesting that reports of abuse against disabled people almost doubled during the lockdown. (S5F-04309)

Nobody should ever face abuse because they have a disability or an impairment. I am very clear that any form of hate crime, including abuse or prejudice, is totally unacceptable and must not be tolerated.

The Government takes these matters very seriously. We have met key organisations throughout the pandemic to listen to concerns directly from disabled people, and we recognise the damaging effect that abuse and hate crime have on victims, their families and communities. All of us have a responsibility to challenge that.

We continue to work closely with Police Scotland and partners to tackle hate crime, including through developing campaign activities to raise awareness and encourage reporting. I strongly encourage anyone who has experienced or witnessed such abuse—or any hate crime—to report it to the police.

The population is concerned about the risk of contracting coronavirus, and social distancing rules have helped to reduce the spread of the virus. However, the rules are inherently visual and almost impossible for blind and partially sighted people in Scotland to adhere to.

According to research by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, two thirds of blind and partially sighted people feel less independent than they felt before lockdown, because of the abuse that they receive daily as they struggle to cope with getting out and about and maintaining physical distance. Some individuals have been shouted at and spat on, and the journalist Ian Hamilton said recently that he feels “more blind now” than he did before Covid.

Attitudes must change. Will the Scottish Government commit to a public awareness campaign to highlight the issue and ensure that public messages are underpinned by the reflection of how challenging physical distancing is for disabled people?

I will certainly consider that suggestion. It is important that we take every opportunity to raise awareness of the challenges that people with disabilities face, particularly during the pandemic, and the complete unacceptability of any abuse, discrimination, hate crime or stigma.

At the start of the pandemic, we provided funding to the British Deaf Association, Deafblind Scotland and the Glasgow Disability Alliance, which paid for key public health messages to be produced in British Sign Language, Braille and EasyRead. The Glasgow Disability Alliance used some of that funding to help disabled people to connect to the internet and keep up with guidance.

This is a difficult time for everybody, but I agree that it is more difficult for people who have disabilities, for all the reasons that have been set out. We will consider all possible ways of helping people to deal with the challenges and—fundamentally—we will make sure that we continue to challenge prejudice, abuse and discrimination in all their forms.

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill

To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to address concerns that the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is an attack on free speech. (S5F-04319)

We have just heard an illustration of why it is really important that we tackle hate crime in any form.

The bill proposals seek to find a balance between protecting those who suffer the scourge of hate crime and respecting people’s freedom of speech and expression, which is extremely important. The bill approaches the matter through the prism of the European convention on human rights.

We know that hate crime is damaging and disruptive—we just heard that. It is rooted in prejudice and intolerance. As the Cabinet Secretary for Justice made clear in the Parliament last week, the Scottish Government will engage, listen and seek to find common ground, to ensure that the bill helps to protect people from hate crime—which I hope that everybody will agree is important—while respecting freedom of speech and expression.

Action on hate crime is welcome and important, but it is clear that there is a serious problem with the offence of “stirring up hatred”, as proposed in the bill. The Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation, the Catholic Church and a range of stakeholders have lined up to criticise the bill’s vague language and to express their concern that it is a threat to freedom of speech.

Does the First Minister accept that the Government has got its approach to the bill badly wrong and that the stirring up hatred offence needs to be fully deleted or heavily amended?

I do not accept that. What I accept—and I hope that everyone will enter into the legislative process in the same spirit—is that we have to consider these things, listen to views that are expressed and decide whether amendments to the bill are required. That is the right way to go about this. Nobody should go into the process with a closed mind, and that includes Opposition members, just as much as it includes the Scottish Government.

I hear the concerns that have been expressed. The Government will consider all of them carefully. That said, the concept of stirring up hatred offences is not new to Scots law; long-standing stirring up racial hatred offences have operated effectively in Scotland since, I think, the mid-1980s. The bill includes explicit provisions on freedom of expression and its provisions require to be interpreted in accordance with the European convention on human rights.

It is important that people express their views on this bill or any bill at the start of the legislative process and that they try to do so constructively. The Government has a duty to listen; we will listen and we will respond appropriately. However, let us not lose sight of what we were talking about in the previous question. Hate crime is a real problem in Scotland and we all have a duty to tackle it—that goes wider than legal ways of tackling it, but our approach must certainly include legal ways of doing so.

Mark Ruskell joins us remotely.

University Towns (Covid-19 Measures)

To ask the First Minister whether adequate measures are in place in Scotland’s university towns to prevent local Covid-19 outbreaks as students begin to return to campuses. (S5F-04306)

I covered some of this content in my exchange with Willie Rennie. Colleges and universities are already working to ensure a safe environment for students as they return. That currently includes blended learning to reduce the numbers on campus, enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures, 2m physical distancing, quarantine for staff and students who arrive from certain countries, and the embedding of familiarisation with health protection measures in student induction.

However, as I mentioned earlier, revised guidance for colleges, universities and student accommodation that reflects the most up-to-date scientific advice will be published by Tuesday 1 September.

Last week, I met members of the University and College Union at the University of St Andrews who are deeply concerned about a decision by the university to make in-person teaching the default. More than 9,000 students from around the world will return to the town from this week. The university has said that only the largest lectures will move online; that is clearly not blended learning.

Staff at the University of Edinburgh have reported similar concerns, whereas the University of Glasgow and the University of the Highlands and Islands have said that in-person teaching will not resume this calendar year.

Will the revision of the Scottish Government’s guidance ensure that all universities adopt the safest approach possible? Can the First Minister confirm whether universities pushing staff to deliver in-person teaching is consistent with the Government’s route map, which says that people should continue to work from home by default?

I do not think that staff in any sector of the economy should be put under pressure to do things that we do not advise. That is a general comment. Obviously, we are very clear on the need for a form of blended learning.

Different institutions will take different decisions based on their circumstances, and that is right and proper. However, all of them must have regard—very serious regard—to how they keep their student communities and the staff who work in their institutions safe, and to how they ensure that their arrangements do not pose a risk to the wider communities in which they are located. That is why the arrangements that I have set out are important.

We are also going through the process of assessing the guidance in the light of the most up-to-date advice. As I have said a number of times, we will publish the updated guidance by next Tuesday.

A fair number of members wish to ask supplementary questions.

GlaxoSmithKline (Job Losses)

GlaxoSmithKline has announced that around 60 jobs are set to be lost from its Irvine plant by the end of this year. That would be bitterly disappointing at any time, but in the current climate it will feel even more devastating for the people involved and our wider community. What support can the Scottish Government give to workers? Will sector or area-specific support be available to ensure that important life science jobs are retained in Ayrshire?

Like Ruth Maguire, I am disappointed to learn that GSK is in consultation with its workforce in Irvine with a view to making a number of redundancies. This will obviously be an anxious time for those who are affected, particularly during the current situation.

Scottish Enterprise will continue to engage with the company throughout the consultation period to explore all possible options to support the business and its workforce. GSK sites in Scotland are very important to the company’s global pharmaceutical supply network, and it is an important partner in Scotland’s life sciences community.

Should there be job losses—we will explore every opportunity to avoid that—we will provide support through the partnership action for continuing employment initiative. Through providing skills development and employability support, PACE aims to minimise the time that any individual who is affected by redundancy is out of work.

The economy secretary will be happy to continue to update Ruth Maguire on the situation as it develops.

Covid-19 Testing (School Pupils)

Yesterday, I was contacted by a constituent whose child had been sent home from school with a blocked nose, streaming eyes and a chesty cough—in other words, what sounds like a cold. The school was fine, but when parents found out that that child had been sent home, pressure was put on my constituent to have their child tested for Covid. The inference was that if that child came back to school, those parents would not allow their children back into school unless that child had been tested. The parent eventually got the test done, because they were worried about how their child would be treated when they went back to school.

If such behaviour is reflective of what will happen across winter, when half of the children in our schools will end up with the sniffles, that will inevitably overwhelm the testing process and lead to the spread of Covid-19, which is the very thing that we are trying to prevent. How will the Scottish Government ensure that the message gets out that Covid symptoms are not the same as those of the common cold?

As we have always said, as we go into winter, when other viruses will be circulating, the demand for testing will inevitably increase. That is why we are further increasing our testing capacity. This week, we have had significant demand for testing, which is obviously a consequence of children being back at school. We are therefore activating contingency plans to increase capacity this week, and we have further medium to long-term plans for a permanent increase.

It is really important to be clear that when anybody, including a child, has one of the symptoms of Covid—which include a new, continuous cough—they should be going to be tested for that. That is the very clear advice that we are giving. Anybody who has a new cough, a fever or a loss of or change in their senses of taste or smell should be booking a test. If a child does not have any of those symptoms—for example, if they just have a blocked-up nose—there is no requirement for them to be tested. However, a cough is one of the relevant symptoms.

As for the implications for other children in schools, the test and protect system and local health protection teams will advise parents where any child has tested positive and other children are therefore required to isolate because they have been close contacts. I ask parents to follow such advice. If they are not getting such advice, there is no need for them to keep children without symptoms out of school.

It is important for all of us to be very clear on the symptoms for which we advise testing and on those that might be indicative of other illnesses and for which we do not require testing. We must all be careful not to inadvertently muddy the waters on that.

Covid-19 Testing (Remote Areas)

At First Minister’s question time on 17 June, I raised the issue of the collection of home testing kits. A constituent of mine had not been able to return his test within 72 hours and it was therefore rendered useless.

I have now received a letter from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, which says:

“I am aware that in some remote areas, home testing kits are not available because of difficulties with the delivery of the kits in a timely manner.”

She goes on to say that current locations for mobile testing units in Oban, Dornoch, Fort William, Ullapool, Kingussie, Thurso, Portree, Campbeltown and Lochgilphead will be available until the end of August.

Therefore, home testing is not available to many of my constituents, and mobile testing will be available only until the end of the month. That is simply wrong. What will the First Minister do to ensure that all my constituents can have access to Covid-19 testing, regardless of where they live?

We are ensuring that people have access to testing. Home testing kits are delivered through the United Kingdom Government’s system. Sometimes there are issues with longer delivery times in remote areas, which is why we are also increasing the number of mobile units that are available. By their very nature, such units are able to move to different locations around the country, based on demand and need.

Through the contingency arrangements that we have brought to bear, three additional mobile units will be allocated this week—albeit that those will all be across the central belt, because of current demand patterns. However, we will also increase the number of mobile units over the period leading into winter. Further, we will carefully look at the locations of the 11 walk-in centres that were initially established, and more such centres will be set up as we go beyond that period.

We are looking carefully at patterns of demand and also at geographical issues, because we want to make testing available to people quickly. Right now, testing turnaround times are, in the main, within the timescales that we would seek. However, we also want to continue to make testing more accessible for people so that they do not have to travel inordinate distances to access it. Local and geographical access is therefore very much a priority as we continue to expand the testing system.

Covid-19 Testing Portal

The problems with the UK Government’s online Covid-19 testing portal this week have been well-documented. Applicants, including some of my constituents, have been sent to Argyll or even Northern Ireland for testing; for others, the system has not taken the application. What engagement has the Scottish Government undertaken with the UK Government to fix the online portal, which is so important to my constituents and people across Scotland in getting the tests that they need?

This week, we have had three particular challenges for testing, which interrelate in some way. There have been technical problems with the UK Government booking system and we are working with the Department of Health and Social Care in England to resolve those, including those situations where people in Scotland are being referred to testing centres that are a long way away and sometimes outside Scotland altogether. We hope that that issue will be resolved.

Yesterday, we had a weather-related problem—the regional testing centre in Edinburgh had to close because of high winds—which we hope will be resolved quickly.

The more fundamental issue is the peaks in demand, which is something that we have always known about and have planned for—those plans were activated this week. There has been high demand, not just in Scotland, over the weekend and into the early part of this week, which, from the analysis that we have done seems to be clearly related to the understandable concerns of parents about their children who have coughs and colds and who are being taken for testing. That is why this week we are activating additional contingency measures, including the three additional mobile testing units that I spoke about and NHS boards bringing in greater NHS capacity. For example, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde is making additional drive-through facilities available. There is also the planned increase in capacity as we go into winter.

We are working to resolve all those issues as they arise. We continue to try to advise people on when they should—or should not—get a test. There are some exceptions: if the test and protect service contacts someone and advises them to get a test, they should get a test even if they do not have symptoms; and certain professions have agreed access to testing, for example people working in schools. However, apart from those exceptions, people should book a test only if they have one of the symptoms of Covid—the cough, fever, or the loss or change in their sense of taste or smell. In those circumstances a person should seek to book a test.

Schools (Personal Protective Equipment)

Given that a decision was made this week on obligatory face coverings for over-five-year-olds on school transport and over-12-year-olds in other school settings, will the First Minister confirm that her Government will guarantee a supply of PPE, through whatever means necessary, if required by any family that might struggle to meet those obligations?

As I said on Monday, and yesterday, we will work with councils to ensure that schools have supplies of face coverings for young people should they need them. I also made the point, which I am sure that people will understand, that although we have—rightly—changed the guidance for school transport and high schools this week, children over five are already required to use face coverings on public transport and in shops, so I expect that many, if not most, children already had access to face coverings, even before the change to the school guidance.

However, it is important that schools have access to supplies because, as the member rightly says, there may be some families that are unable to make that provision. Inevitably, there will also be children who forget to pick up their face covering before they leave home in the morning and come to school without it, so it is important that there is access to supplies to cover that eventuality. We have made it clear that we will work with councils to ensure that that is the case.

Covid-19 Testing (Capacity)

I was contacted this morning by the family of an elderly couple from Clackmannanshire. On the advice of their general practitioner, the couple had a test delivered to their house and were told to phone and make arrangements to do the test on Monday morning; it would then be picked up between 8 and 4. The test was never picked up, and, by the time that their family had managed to get through to someone, they were told that the elderly couple would have to take another test. As the First Minister has said, such tests can be quite intrusive. Is the First Minister confident that we have the testing capacity? People are being let down—I have seen case after case of that.

As we move into winter, the testing needs to be bumped up almost to the point of mass testing. Do we have the capacity to do that, and will the First Minister ensure that it happens? While I am on the subject, can she also say where we are with the antibody test and whether that will be introduced?

I will come back to antibody testing in a moment. At such points, I wish I had the chief medical officer standing next to me, as he could probably give a more specialised answer to that question than I can.

On the issue of Alex Rowley’s constituents who did not get their test picked up, if the member can send me the details of that, we can look into it. The home testing provision is part of the UK Government administered system, but we will work with the UK Government if there are practical difficulties with it. That should not have happened. Obviously, I do not know why it happened, but I am keen to look into it.

In relation to capacity, yesterday, for example, around 22,000 tests were carried out across Scotland. The daily capacity is in the region of 40,000 tests a day, and we have plans to increase that to approximately 60,000 tests a day. We are confident in our plans to have that capacity right now and to build capacity as we go into winter.

One of the things that we have experienced this week, for which we have contingencies that have been activated, is that there will inevitably be points when demand peaks beyond the average level. There may be reasons for that that we can foresee and reasons for that that we do not foresee. For example, there may be a circulation of another virus in a particular area or a Covid outbreak in a particular area that increases demand. So, one of the key focuses for us this week has been on ensuring that those contingency arrangements for when we need short-term boosts in capacity are there and can be activated. Those are things that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I, among others, consider with officials on a regular basis.

Overall, our testing system is working well. Test and protect is working very well, but we may face a period, as we go into winter, when the pressures become much more significant again. We are therefore looking ahead to make sure that we can cope with that.

We do antibody testing in Scotland for surveillance purposes. The issue with antibody tests right now is twofold: there are still questions around it, although I think the quality of the test is getting better and effective tests are now available, but the biggest problem is that we do not really know what the results of an antibody test mean. If somebody has an antibody test and it tells them that they have antibodies, we do not know whether that gives them immunity to Covid for a day, a week, a month, a year or forever. So, there is still a real problem with asking anybody to make any decisions about how they live their lives on the basis of antibody testing. Hopefully, that science will develop over the weeks and months to come, but we do not yet know that.

One of the developments that we saw earlier this week, in Hong Kong, was researchers thinking that they may have discovered the first case of reinfection with Covid, which suggests—although I do not think anybody can be definitive about this at this stage—that the period of immunity may not be that long. That is the biggest doubt about antibody testing, which is why we have to be cautious about the reliance that we place on it.

There are quite a number of members who still want to ask questions, so I emphasise the need for concise questions and answers.

Comedy Venues (Support)

The First Minister will be aware of concerns raised in relation to the future of nightclubs, music venues and comedy venues such as The Stand comedy club in my constituency, which contributes greatly to the cultural scene and economy in Glasgow and beyond. What support is the Scottish Government giving and what support can it give to those venues to ensure that they continue to operate and remain part of Scotland’s vibrant music and comedy sector?

I thank Sandra White for raising the issue. Comedy is a very important part of our arts sector. We have already provided a range of support initiatives for culture and the arts generally, and many of those support streams have been available to people in the comedy sector. We are in the latter stages of finalising how the remainder of the £97 million of consequentials for arts and culture will be allocated. Without going into detail, because we are finalising that and will hopefully announce it over the next few days, I hope that that will also support people in the comedy sector. Let me stress that we are very keen to do everything that we can to provide the support that is needed there, because of the importance of the contribution that those venues and artists make to our health and wellbeing as a country.

Weddings (Restrictions)

The Government’s woeful approach to weddings has left many frustrated couples with their lives on hold and the wedding industry on its knees, with hundreds of jobs at risk, including in my Dumfriesshire constituency. Last week, the First Minister gave a glimmer of hope when she confirmed that larger weddings might be able to take place from the middle of September. However, does she recognise that, by not giving an indicative number now, she is making it impossible for couples and businesses to plan ahead, which risks further jobs and adds to delays?

I apologise to Oliver Mundell that we, in the Government, are trying to take really difficult decisions in the best way that we can in order to keep people safe from an infectious virus. If he finds that “woeful”, I am afraid that there is not much that I can do about that.

I understand the implications of the decisions for those who are affected and for businesses that are still not able to open at all or to operate to full capacity. However, we know from all the data that we are looking at right now that indoor social gatherings are among the biggest risks for transmission of the virus. That is why we have to take care. In fact, when there was an outbreak in the north of England a matter of weeks ago, wedding receptions were among the things that the United Kingdom Government put on hold for a couple of weeks. That reflects the fact that we know that that is a risk area.

We plan to issue new guidance that sets the numbers who can be at wedding receptions, and we hope to do that soon. However, these decisions have to be taken very carefully for reasons that people understand, which are to do with the protection of human health. In addition, if we allow the virus to get out of control in any sector of our economy again, we risk sending businesses backwards rather than supporting them to go forward, even if that sometimes involves supporting them to go forward at a slightly slower pace than I know and understand they want to go at.

Cameron House Hotel Fire

The First Minister will have seen the front page of the Daily Record yesterday, with the heartfelt plea of Mrs Midgley, who lost her son Simon in the devastating fire at the Cameron House hotel. She has written to the First Minister because it has been almost 1,000 days since the fire and the families of those who lost loved ones still do not have answers from the Crown Office about what happened. I am sure that the First Minister will sympathise with Mrs Midgley, who has been caused severe and on-going distress by the lack of progress. Will she therefore seek an urgent update from the Crown Office and agree to meet Mrs Midgley when she comes to Scotland?

Actually, I sent a reply to Mrs Midgley last night. She will receive that letter today or in the next couple of days. I sympathise deeply with Mrs Midgley for her loss, the loss that her family has suffered and the frustration caused by the delays in any process around the investigation of what happened at Cameron House, which will be contributing to her grief.

What I tried to do in my letter—I will not go into all the details, because it was a letter to Mrs Midgley—was explain the reasons. Jackie Baillie already understands those reasons. No matter what my personal feelings are or the anguish that I feel on Mrs Midgley’s behalf, I cannot seek to intervene in any decisions about criminal investigations or potential criminal prosecutions—it simply would not be right for me to do that. I know that that is always hard for victims or people who have suffered loss to understand, but I do not serve them well unless I set that out clearly.

I am sure that the Crown Office would give Jackie Baillie an update. It is simply not appropriate for me to seek to direct it in these matters in any way.

I am, of course, willing to meet Mrs Midgley if she wants me to do that when she comes to Scotland. However, I do not want to raise her expectations—nor do I want Jackie Baillie to do so on my behalf—about what I can reasonably do in the context of criminal investigations. That would not be fair to her or her family, although I absolutely understand her anguish.

Again, I convey my deep condolences and sympathy to Mrs Midgley and her loved ones for what they are suffering.

Showpeople (Funding)

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

Funfairs have been able to operate since last Monday, but, because of current Scottish local government licensing laws, showpeople might not be able to hold a local funfair for at least another three months. Showpeople have not had any income since March. Under the present Covid-19 application requirements, they have not been able to access any funding—not even the tourism fund—due either to not being entitled previously to the small business bonus or to the fact that they do not have a business bank account. Both of those facts have ensured that their applications have been refused—that has been confirmed to me by the agencies that operate the funds. Will the Scottish Government review those conditions in order that showpeople may access funding to survive and bring back the fun to Scotland?

I am all for bringing back fun, in whatever way we can get it, but I am not going to give a commitment to retrospectively change the conditions on funds that have already been disbursed. As we put in place any new support, we will look at the representations that Richard Lyle has made. We know that it is important that funfairs are able to operate again as quickly as it is safe for them to do so. Beyond that, I am happy to have the detail of Richard Lyle’s question looked into, to see whether there is anything further that we can do, and I will respond to him in writing on that.

People’s Action on Section 30

To ask the First Minister the cost of the Scottish Government’s participation in the people’s action on section 30, in the light of the recent decision to pull out of that case, and whether that decision ushers in a new era of prudence by the Scottish Government regarding the spending of public funds on legal actions.

The Scottish Government always aims to be prudent in use of public money. In relation to the question, I do not have the details to hand but I am happy to see whether we can get those and provide them to the member later.

I apologise to the more than a dozen members we did not get a chance to reach, but that concludes First Minister’s question time. We will resume at 2.30 with a statement on life sciences.

13:31 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—