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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 28 January 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital Oversight Board, Holocaust Memorial Day, Point of Order, Business Motion, Decision Time, Alasdair Gray


Topical Question Time


To ask the Scottish Government what preparations and provisions it is making in response to the coronavirus outbreak in China. (S5T-01973)

We have made preparations and provisions in response to the coronavirus outbreak in China but, before I outline them, it is important for us to note that, to date, no positive cases have been identified in the United Kingdom and the risk to the population continues to be assessed as low.

We have activated our health resilience preparations including a dedicated incident management team. Our chief medical officer has CMO-level calls with all the other chief medical officers across the UK to ensure that there is a co-ordinated response and an emerging understanding of the nature of the virus, its properties and how we might anticipate its spread and impact. There are also daily calls between my officials and officials in the rest of the UK. On Friday, I participated in a COBRA call with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and ministers from both Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that we have an agreed, co-ordinated response that has regard to who is in the lead for which areas, bearing in mind that health is devolved in Scotland. In addition, within the Scottish Government we are ensuring that other ministerial portfolios that may have a relevance for, or an interest in, this issue continue to be advised as we make progress.

Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular, enjoys the presence of many international visitors and international students. What consideration is being given to the increased probability of cases of coronavirus that that might bring, and what steps are being taken in response?

At a Scottish level, which replicates the work that is being done elsewhere in the UK, guidance has been issued to clinicians in both primary and secondary care. Additional guidance is being worked through with Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland and with the public health officers of our local authority partners.

At a UK level, as flights enter the UK from Hubei province in China, there is a protocol that has been agreed and is being followed, which includes providing information to passengers on those flights. That has now been extended to providing information to all passengers on all flights entering the UK from China, and the information includes what to do if passengers feel that they have any of the symptoms that may be associated with the virus. Of course, part of the issue is that some of those symptoms could be associated with normal flu or with a respiratory infection that is not connected to this virus. Nonetheless, where individuals have those symptoms and have been in contact with people in that province, they are encouraged to go to their local health practitioner to be checked.

Clinicians will carry out a triage process when those symptoms present, on the basis of which they will determine whether further specific tests for the coronavirus should be undertaken. Those are the instances that we are talking about when we say that tests have been completed and to date there are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the UK.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that clarification. I am sure that she will agree with me that it is important that we take a measured and considered response. I note that she has echoed the advice from the UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for those who have returned from Wuhan. Are there any measures or steps that the Scottish Government is advising the general population to take at this time?

There is nothing specific for the general population to do at this time. Emerging work is being undertaken by experienced clinicians, epidemiologists and so on to understand the nature of the virus, the way in which it is transmitted and what the situation might be if people can be infected but display no symptoms. Part of what we have agreed at UK level is the various stages of response that may be triggered should there be a confirmed case, or should further data emerge from the scientists and clinicians who are working on the issue with the data coming from China that should advise us of additional preparations.

The overall advice to citizens in Scotland who have not been in Hubei province in China is that, when they have a respiratory infection, they should present themselves to their general practitioner in the normal course of action for that to be looked at. The general practitioner will then determine whether there is a need for further treatment. Of course, as always, my advice to all of those who are eligible for a flu vaccination is that they should take up that opportunity. It is not too late: at this point in January, the vaccine is still effective. I urge everyone who is eligible for the flu vaccination to get it as soon as they can.

We have three further questions and I will try to get them all in.

I repeat what the cabinet secretary has just said about the importance of the vaccination. There is concern in Scotland among people with multiple conditions.

I go back to the point that was raised earlier. Chinese new year means that there will be a lot of movement of Chinese students. Yesterday, Matt Hancock outlined the view that students who have returned from the province should self-isolate for two weeks, even if they have no symptoms. Is that the Scottish Government’s position? What discussions are taking place with universities in Scotland, given the difficulties that that might cause?

Mr Briggs is right to say that people who have had no contact with Hubei province in China, but who have multiple conditions, and who are experiencing respiratory problems, or fatigue that is out of the ordinary, should seek clinical assessment and guidance. Mr Johnson and Mr Briggs are both right to say that our response should be measured, considered and proportionate.

As Mr Briggs says, because of Chinese new year, some Chinese students may have been looking to go home to their families or be returning from visiting them. The advice that we are giving through and discussing with Universities Scotland and Colleges Scotland is comparable to the UK advice. If someone has returned from that province in China or has been in contact with people who have been in that province, and they experience any of the coronavirus symptoms, they should immediately seek clinical advice to determine whether it is appropriate in their case to undertake the particular test for coronavirus. As I have said, the second clinical step, which is the triaging of the symptoms—given that the symptoms are often present in other conditions—is very important.

Universities are considering what more support and guidance they can offer their students. We have repeated the UK guidance on self-isolation. The best advice at the UK level is that the incubation period for this virus is 14 days. The situation is fluid and it is a new virus in many respects. We will continue to update the guidance as more information emerges.

The cabinet secretary mentioned that people who have not yet had the flu shot should seek it if they are eligible for it. Can the cabinet secretary reiterate the importance of getting the flu shot, given that the symptoms of coronavirus are the same as those of flu? That might at least allay some worries for people who think that they might have coronavirus.

There is no reason for someone to think that they have contracted the virus if they have not been in that province of China recently or had any contact with anyone who has visited that province, including on business and so on.

Nonetheless, the flu vaccine is important for our population overall, but particularly for those who are vulnerable, including children, those with relevant conditions and older citizens. It is important for several reasons, including the individual’s own health and the general health of the population. I encourage anyone who is eligible and who has not had the flu vaccination to contact their primary care provider to make early arrangements to get it.

I am pleased to report that, yesterday, I received information that shows that the level of vaccination among our healthcare workforce has increased over the past year—and we are not yet finished in that regard.

One of the principal concerns that have been voiced by the considerable number of British citizens living in Wuhan city, in Hubei province, is their inability to leave it. What discussions has the cabinet secretary had with the United Kingdom Government about the repatriation of Scottish citizens or their safe transit out of the area?

As of today, my understanding is that the UK is making arrangements to ensure that a plane goes to Hubei province and that British citizens who want to return home will be assisted to do so. That aircraft will have a health team on board. We have asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to advise us whether there are any Scotland-domiciled individuals who will board that plane, and I am confident that it will let us have that information as soon as it knows, so that we are able to make appropriate arrangements for those people.

Scottish Visa

To ask the Scottish Government how a new Scottish visa could address depopulation and skills shortages. (S5T-01981)

Scotland has distinct demographic and geographical needs, and it is clear that the current immigration system is not meeting the needs of our communities and employers. Countries such as Canada and Australia have successfully used regional migration schemes to attract and retain people with the skills that are needed to benefit local communities. A Scottish visa would allow the Scottish ministers, who are accountable to the Scottish Parliament, to develop a tailored policy within the United Kingdom immigration system to meet the needs of Scotland.

Our proposals for a tailored migration policy are supported by local authorities, employers and universities across Scotland. The UK Government should engage positively and work with us to develop a system that meets our distinct needs.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that some 70 per cent of people who are employed in the north-east of Scotland’s fish processing industry are non-UK nationals? With the number of vacancies already rising, how would a Scotland-specific scheme assist that vital industry, which is worth some £650 million a year to the Scottish economy?

Stewart Stevenson raises a critical point in relation to the future success of that sector. The policy proposals for a Scottish visa are designed to be inherently flexible, to meet Scotland’s varied labour needs, and we want to consult the industry and employers in developing the Scottish visa to meet those needs.

Similarly, we have made the case for a place-based route for migration to rural areas and, today, the UK Migration Advisory Committee has again recommended a pilot of a visa that could cater for industries in rural areas, such as the fish-processing industry in the north-east. We will work with the committee, and we are planning to commission the independent expert advisory group on migration and population to research the specifics of rural pilots and the operation of a place-based immigration route.

Has the Scottish Government looked at the experience of the devolved Government in Alberta, Canada, which has, through its immigrant nominee programme, a local scheme that operates within the country-wide immigration scheme, which is delivering different immigration criteria, and the benefits that Alberta derives from having its own scheme?

We have, indeed. People may not have had the opportunity to read the paper on migration that was launched yesterday by the Scottish Government, along with the proposal for the Scottish visa, but it contains analysis of a number of different countries that have such a scheme—Canada is one of them. Pages 78 to 80 set out the proposals and how they work in other countries.

It is interesting that, in Alberta, the retention rate is as high as 82 per cent after five to eight years of residence. The paper that we put forward provides international examples of how such a scheme works in other countries. It is perfectly possible, and it is perfectly reasonable—all that we are asking for is a reasonable response from the UK Government to take it forward.

There is a huge amount of interest in this topic. Six members wish to ask supplementary questions, but I am afraid that we will not have time for them all.

The Scottish Conservatives believe in a UK-wide immigration system that also works for Scotland, which is why we previously argued for a system that reflects the needs of places that need migration—in particular, remote and rural communities and sectors that are reliant on migrant labour in places where there is no domestic workforce available.

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the Scottish Government’s 2014 white paper on independence that a points-based system is one of the best mechanisms to achieve that?

The member might not have had the chance to read the paper that was launched yesterday, which is about how prosperity for Scotland can be achieved through migration, but, if he takes the opportunity to do so, he will see in it our proposal for a points-based system, which is internationally recognised as a way forward.

It is interesting that the MAC’s proposals, which came out today, do not contradict at all what the Scottish Government is proposing. They also recognise the importance of having the flexibility of a regional approach.

We think that the issues for Scotland are not just sectoral but national. Our population issues are quite different. If there is to be a 50 per cent reduction in the number of EU migrants coming to this country, as has been suggested by the UK Government in previous debates, that would see a working-age increase for the UK of 4.9 per cent over the next 25 years but a reduction for Scotland of 1.9 per cent.

We want to support rural and remote areas. Fourteen of our local authorities are facing depopulation. Although we want to have pilots in distinct geographical areas in Scotland, this is an all-Scotland issue that needs an all-Scotland solution.

I welcome the publication of the Scottish Government’s report. I thought that the Conservative Government’s response was very disappointing, because, although I support immigration being reserved, I believe that there is room for workable flexibility in the current system.

In its statement yesterday, the Scottish Government recognised the importance of reaching agreement with the UK Government

“on the need for a tailored policy”.

What future steps does the Scottish Government plan to take to reach that, and is there room for Parliament to have a greater involvement in those discussions?

I am keen to continue the positive cross-party engagement that we have had in Parliament so far, and to continue the positive engagement with the wider sector. So many of our businesses are small businesses. Yesterday, Andrew McRae, the Scotland policy chair of the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, said:

“The new paper from the Scottish Government is a timely and evidence-based intervention. It sets out a pathway towards a UK system that can flex for Scotland’s distinct demographic and economic needs, without creating additional burdens for smaller businesses ... The UK Government should acknowledge that it is possible and desirable to enable its immigration system to respond to different regions and nations, as well as maintain strict border controls and a user-friendly system.”

I do not think that anybody in this chamber would disagree with that statement. The problem is that yesterday, in a knee-jerk response, the UK Government dismissed our proposals. I am urging it strongly to rethink that position. The response was that the immigration system

“will remain a reserved matter.”

The proposals in our paper would take place within a UK system. Ideally, we would retain freedom of movement, but this is a very practical proposal for an additional system that would allow flexibility in Scotland. We will persist, and the more cross-party support that we have in this chamber, perhaps through debates and motions, the more we can try to engage the UK Government.

We are proposing something that has widespread support. We, in Scotland, would be best placed to implement pilots in some of these areas. The solution is one that we should pursue on a cross-party basis, and I thank Claire Baker for her interest to date.

The UK Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee acknowledged the need for regional variation with its recommendation for rural pilot schemes. Does the cabinet secretary agree that Scotland should host those pilots, to ensure that our rural areas can benefit from changes and not be further damaged by the Tories’ hostile immigration environment?

Yes, indeed. The Migration Advisory Committee took evidence from us and responded by saying that that should happen with those rural pilots. I have met a number of leaders of local authorities in Scotland who are keen, willing and able to take forward those pilots. I mentioned that we will commission the Scottish Government’s independent expert advisory group on migration and population to look at the best examples of that, and we are taking that forward.

We need something very flexible to meet Scotland’s needs, and that is what we will continue to pursue.

The Scottish Government’s proposals have been welcomed across the board by business organisations, universities and industry bodies. Even former Tory MP Stephen Kerr supports them, but the UK Government has dismissed them in record time. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that ill-informed response demonstrates that the UK Government is out of touch with the needs of the Scottish people and economy?

I thought that the response was deeply regrettable. It was a knee-jerk response that was given perhaps without reflection and certainly without consideration of the report’s content. To be generous, I want to give the UK time to consider and study the actual proposals in the report and to continue to engage with it.

The UK Government’s response represents a serious warning. If it cannot engage on something as reasonable as a flexible system that has support from different organisations, industries, universities, trade unions and other sectors in Scotland, how on earth can anybody think that its approach can ever be responsive to Scotland? We have set out the visa proposals in good faith. They are practical and doable, and they are supported in many respects by the previous conclusions of the Migration Advisory Committee.

The political writing is on the wall. Let us try to be as practical as possible in serving the people of Scotland. If the UK Government does not respond positively on this matter, the results will be of its own making.

I apologise to Stuart McMillan and Emma Harper, but there is no time for more questions.