Meeting date: Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 28 April 2020
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Covid-19 Legislation, Health (Covid-19), Transport (Covid-19), Topical Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Point of Order
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Covid-19 Legislation
- Health (Covid-19)
- Transport (Covid-19)
- Topical Question Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Point of Order
First Minister’s Question Time
Covid-19 (Care Homes)
This morning, the Health and Sport Committee heard from Professor Hugh Pennington. He suggested that, in care homes, for every one person with the virus, 10 to 14 other people can become infected, compared to between 0.6 and one additional person becoming infected outside care homes. Professor Pennington called for routine testing of care home workers.
Earlier today, the First Minister said, more or less, that the Scottish Government is looking at that, and that the matter is always under review. Care homes and families would appreciate a greater sense of urgency. What are the Scottish Government’s specific plans for testing of all care home staff, and for testing of care home staff to become routine?
I have not had the opportunity to look in detail at Professor Pennington’s evidence to the Health and Sport Committee this morning. I will, of course, do so when I am able.
I do not know what Professor Pennington based his assessment on. It was put to me earlier, at the daily update, that he had said that the R number—the reproduction rate—in care homes is, in his view, R10. I said last week that we think, based on the best estimate that we have at this stage, that in the community it is between R0.6 and R1. It is undoubtedly higher than that in care homes right now, but I do not know where the R10 figure comes from. It is certainly not based on any evidence or advice that I have been given.
We take the situation in care homes very seriously, and we treat all its different aspects as matters of urgency. Very clear guidance for care homes has been in place from early in the epidemic, and care home providers have a responsibility to ensure that it is implemented in full. We have enhanced the clinical leadership for care homes, and we have given particular responsibility to public health directors. The Care Inspectorate, working with local health protection teams, also has a key role.
We have been expanding our testing, in line with what we consider to be the best clinical approach. The situation now is that symptomatic residents in care homes should be tested, all those who are admitted to care homes should be tested, and care home workers who are off work or who are self-isolating also have access to testing. More than 20,000 health and care workers—and, where appropriate, their families—have been tested; about 30 per cent of those are care home workers or their families. We will continue to take measured decisions about extending testing further.
One issue for which evidence about the virus is currently developing is in respect of asymptomatic people and the likelihood of their being able to transmit the virus at an early stage. The balance of judgement has been that that was not likely. However, that judgment is changing and we are taking account of that in our decisions on testing. This morning, we announced that all patients aged over 70 who are admitted to hospital will now be tested on admission, and thereafter every four days during their stay.
We continue to keep those matters under daily review. We will be guided in our decisions by the best possible evidence and will make sure that, as we expand testing, we are doing so for soundly based reasons.
As it becomes appreciated widely among the public that there is a higher rate of infection and death in care homes, it is difficult to overstate the level of concern for residents and their families. Care homes face additional issues.
National Records of Scotland publishes weekly figures, and is due to do so tomorrow. There are reports that care home residents who have died of Covid-19 have not appeared, as yet, in those official figures, because NRS includes only deaths for which Covid-19 has been specifically identified on the death certificate. The Care Inspectorate, on the other hand, records that data.
It is a sensitive subject, and good information is vital. Will the First Minister clarify whether the Care Inspectorate gives the Scottish Government those wider figures and, if so, will she publish them?
I think that there is a fear that there is underreporting of deaths, but the explanation that I will give in a second should give some reassurance. I hope that people will understand that the correct and robust bases for reporting deaths associated with Covid-19 are a test and/or an entry on a death certificate. It would not be sound to base reporting on anything beyond that, in terms of the connection between a person’s death and the virus.
The figures that are now published weekly—they will be published in their latest form tomorrow—are by date of death registration, although some information is published in the reports about figures by date of death. They are the most up-to-date figures in that respect of any country in the United Kingdom: I understand that they are a week more up to date than the equivalent Office for National Statistics figures that were published for England and Wales this morning.
I want to give some reassurance by making this point. The figures, which I am sure all members look at very closely, give the total number of deaths for the week in question, and that figure is compared with the average number of deaths in the same week in the previous five years. In the past couple of weeks, the number of deaths has been above the average for the past five years, and the figures set out how many of those deaths have been attributable to the virus. If there is a remaining number of deaths that are not attributable to the virus, that is the number of excess deaths. NRS is providing further explanation of that; its publication gives the total number of deaths and as much of a breakdown as NRS is able to provide.
The fear that an unreported number of deaths is lurking somewhere does not have a basis in fact. In its reporting, NRS has made it clear that excess deaths that are not attributable to Covid-19 through death-certificate reporting merit much further exploration. We are seeing that phenomenon in countries across the world, right now. In last week’s report, NRS was able to give more context for that; I do not know whether it will be able to do more of that tomorrow. I hope that the report, given its comprehensive nature, allays any sense that there is a hidden number of deaths that are associated with the virus.
I think that the First Minister will appreciate, as she does, from her answer, that this is a very complicated subject. We will study that answer with care. I hope that it gives the reassurance that she suggests.
One of the absolute priorities in tackling Covid-19 has to be clarity, so I turn to the Scottish Government’s new guidance on face coverings. The new guidance is clear about the limits on where they might be effective and where they are not, but we have not been told exactly what evidence the First Minister has been using to inform today’s change in advice.
For the sake of absolute clarity, can the First Minister confirm whether the new advice came from the scientific advisory group for emergencies, from the chief medical officer for Scotland, from both or from elsewhere? Can she be absolutely clear about the circumstances in which she is recommending that face coverings be used, given that it is already being reported that it is a requirement that all Scots wear face coverings when they leave home, which I know is not what she was intending to convey earlier today?
SAGE has given advice. I have looked at the evidence that has come through the SAGE process, and I understand that ministers in other Governments are doing likewise. I have also discussed the matter with the chief medical officer, as—I am sure—members would expect me to do.
One of the reasons why I thought it important to give guidance was so that I could say to people that I have now seen evidence—it is not overwhelming—that there could be some benefit from face masks being worn by people who have the virus but are asymptomatic and might be shedding the virus. Those people do not know that they have the virus because they do not have symptoms, so face coverings might give some additional protection against their transmitting the virus to others. There is an indication of some benefit, so it is important that people know that.
Anecdotally—I see this, as, I am sure, all of us do—we know that many people are choosing to use face coverings anyway. However, I am concerned that people think that doing so gives more protection than it does—that covering their face will give them some kind of invincibility against being infected with the virus. The rationale in the guidance sets out what the limited benefit might be, but it also says that face coverings are not a substitute for the other things that people should be doing. If anything, face coverings are an added protection that should be used as a precaution. However, the most important things to keep doing are staying at home, isolating in certain circumstances, not mixing outside one’s own household and following all the hand hygiene and other hygiene rules.
We are not making face coverings mandatory right now. We are giving advice and a recommendation. Essentially, the advice is that people who are leaving their own home to go into enclosed spaces where they will be with other people, from whom it will be difficult to keep apart by the recommended social distance of 2m, should wear a face covering. I stress that “covering” does not mean a medical mask.
The circumstances in which people should be doing that right now should be very limited, if they are following the guidance to stay at home. Today, we have given examples of such situations, which include being at essential work, travel using public transport, and going for food shopping to a supermarket or smaller food shop in which social distancing is difficult. We will keep that under review.
Let me stress that we are not there yet, but as and when we ease any of the restrictions, and people are interacting with others more often, there might be a need to widen or extend the advice to more circumstances.
However, people should wear face coverings when they are in an enclosed space in which they will come into contact with others, and are worried about not being able to keep to social distancing. I stress that a face covering means a scarf, bandana, piece of cloth or other textile—not a medical mask. We are not advising the general public that they need to wear medical masks.
I have, since the announcement at lunch time, had e-mails about the distinction between smaller convenience stores and larger supermarkets. One e-mail rather charmingly pointed out that in a large supermarket the person would be no nearer to anybody else than I am to the First Minister now. The sender asked whether I would be wearing a face mask this afternoon, as a consequence of the chamber being an enclosed space. It is a difficult distinction for some people to understand, so it would be helpful to have clarity about the First Minister’s thinking on it.
Is it possible that we might soon be moving into the next phase in our response to coronavirus? We cannot be complacent, as we still have a long way to go.
This morning, there was a reminder that even as we continue to confront the health emergency, the economic challenges will be huge, particularly for Scotland. The Press and Journal reported that 30,000 jobs could be lost in the oil and gas industry. In recent years, the UK Government has delivered billions of pounds’ worth of support for the north-east, including through transferable taxes, slashing the supplementary charge, and investing in carbon capture and decommissioning.
Last week, the First Minister said that she would consider support for the north-east. Ministers have had the opportunity to consider what could be done. Can she confirm to people in the vital oil and gas sector who are worried about their jobs, families and the wider industry—with redundancies regrettably being confirmed as we speak—what action the Scottish Government might now take?
We will continue to consider that matter and to discuss it with the sector; we have not come to a final decision. I point out that most of the levers around oil and gas—certainly in the fiscal regime—lie with the UK Government. Therefore, perhaps we need to have most discussion with the UK Government, which has been very forthcoming in its support for businesses, so I hope that that will be a productive discussion. However, we will continue to take whatever decisions we can to give maximum support to the economy and the sectors within it.
I am acutely aware of the economic impact. A negative economic impact of this magnitude also feeds social and health impacts. We are dealing with a number of different but interrelated harms, and we have to manage them in a way that reduces the overall harm that is done to the population.
It is important that we take decisions at the right time, rather than prematurely, when we are entering a new phase. From a health perspective, the worst thing that we could do would be to lift restrictions prematurely and allow the virus to run out of control again. That would be really damaging to the economy and businesses. It is not a trade-off—it is about trying to balance all those things.
The next review date for the current lockdown measures is 7 May. At this stage, there is no guarantee whatsoever that come 7 May we will be in a position to lift any of the measures. although—as I set out last week—we are assessing options and taking advice on what their impacts would be.
We must continue to suppress the virus. The margins that we are operating within are very narrow, and the difference between reproduction numbers of R0.6 to R0.7 and R0.8 to R0.9 is quite dramatic in terms of what would be seen in spread of the virus. We have to be very careful: there will be no flick of the switch moment. Some of the social distancing restrictions that we are living with now are likely to be with us for a considerable time to come, until we have a vaccine or treatment.
We will take such decisions cautiously, carefully and in the way that best balances the various factors that we must take into account. We will, of course, advise and update Parliament as we go.
A sizeable number of members wish to ask questions, so I ask for concise questions and answers.
Covid-19 (Health and Care Worker Deaths)
I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests.
Today is international workers memorial day. Each year on this day, we gather to mourn those who have died at work, to remember the dead and to fight for the living. With so many key workers in Scotland fighting the pandemic, doing so has never been more important than it is today.
Will the First Minister mark international workers memorial day and agree with GMB Scotland that there should be a fatal accident inquiry for every health and social care worker who dies from Covid-19? Will she also mark it by extending to Scotland’s care workers the death-in-service payment that has been announced for national health service workers?
As I am sure we all did, I marked international workers memorial day at 11 am this morning by taking part in a minute’s silence. I will also mark it, not just today but every day, by doing everything that I possibly can to ensure that key workers—not exclusively but particularly those working in our health and social care sectors—have the protections that they need and in whatever form they need them.
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has already written to the Health and Sport Committee to say that we will set out the details of the death-in-service arrangements by 1 May—therefore, by the end of this week. We are taking a bit of time with those arrangements because we are talking to trade unions to make sure that there is agreement about them. We have always made it clear that we will put such arrangements in place—it is right that we do so.
I know that Richard Leonard understands that the question of whether to instruct fatal accident inquiries in Scotland is one not for ministers but for law officers, acting independently of ministers. The Lord Advocate issued a statement at the end of last week that made his responsibilities in that area clear.
We all want to make sure that we do the right thing by any front-line worker who dies protecting the rest of us from the virus, however that happens. It is important that we understand the processes, so that these things happen in the right and proper way. I am sure we will discuss those issues in the future; my focus now is to make sure that those on the front line of dealing with the pandemic have the protections that they need.
All too often throughout the pandemic, there has been a gap—a time lag—between what the Scottish Government announces and what is actually delivered on the ground.
I return to the subject of residential care homes. Families across the country are deeply concerned about the situation in our care homes. I speak from personal experience: last Friday, I lost my uncle, who was living in a care home, to Covid-19.
The Scottish Government’s framework document, which was published last week, said that the Government listened to the advice of bodies such as the World Health Organization, but the WHO says “test, test, test”, and there has been little testing of care workers. The Government also said in that document that it listened to bodies such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, but it has said that
“Staff in long-term care facilities should ... be tested on a regular basis ... twice weekly”,
and we know that that is simply not happening.
The First Minster talks about expanding testing, but can she tell us how many care home residents and workers in Scotland have actually been tested? Is she confident that the Government has done everything that it could to prevent the devastating losses that we are seeing in Scotland’s care homes?
I convey my condolences to Richard Leonard for his personal loss. One of the difficult things for all of us in dealing with this situation is that the impact of the virus means that there are now probably very few of us who—through our own families, our friends or our wider networks—do not know somebody who has been affected. We all understand that impact.
On whether I am satisfied about what we have done, the health secretary, other ministers and I spend each and every day trying to make sure that we are doing everything that we can, on an on-going basis, to protect those on the front line and residents in care homes.
What I am about to say should not be seen as my underplaying the situation in care homes—I would not want to do that in any way. The overall number of deaths from the virus in care homes in Scotland is broadly in line with some of the international evidence. That evidence tells us that older people—and not just older people in care homes—are particularly vulnerable to becoming ill and dying from the virus. The vast majority of deaths have been in the over-65 age group, and people in that group will be in various locations. However, the virus spreads more quickly in care homes and institutional settings generally, hence our taking the steps that I have outlined already.
I have outlined to Jackson Carlaw our approach to testing. I have said that we are keeping all matters under review and that we are expanding testing as we go—not only as our capacity increases but on the basis of our having sound clinical reasons for doing that.
On the numbers, at the end of this week, which, of course, is also the end of the month, we will set out where we are with testing capacity and the numbers of tests that we are doing daily. That information will not just come from the numbers that we report every day. Shortly, we will add the numbers being tested in the drive-through centres that operate in several locations across the country. That will give us more detail about the total numbers.
As I have indicated, the total number of health and care staff—or their families, where appropriate, because that aspect is important—who have now been tested is 20,700 or thereabouts. Care staff or their families make up just under 30 per cent of that figure. That number continues to increase: it has increased by a higher number in each of the past few weeks and it will continue to do so.
That is still considerably fewer than one in five of all the care home staff who are employed in Scotland.
Last Thursday, the First Minister announced that the Scottish Government would be adopting a test, trace and isolate strategy. We welcome that. In its framework for decision making, the Government sets out that there should be
“Early and rapid testing ... Early and effective tracing”
“Early and sustained isolation of contacts.”
Professor Devi Sridhar, who is a member of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 advisory group, has suggested that such a strategy could require between 15,000 and 20,000 tests a day, yet we are still not meeting the Government’s target of 3,500 tests a day. In fact, although the health secretary announced six weeks ago that there would be an increase in community testing, the interim chief medical officer has since made it clear that that would start only this week, which is neither early nor rapid. Does the First Minister recognise that the number of daily tests that Professor Sridhar suggests should take place is the right number? When, realistically, will her Government be in a position to implement a test, trace and isolate strategy?
I think that it is important that we do not mix up different things. I will therefore not talk about the testing that we are doing right now for today’s purposes; instead, I will look ahead to the test, trace and isolate work, which is under way already.
I broadly recognise the number that Richard Leonard mentioned. We need to make assessments of the number of tests and the number of contact tracers required. That work is under way.
All of that depends on how low we get the prevalence of the virus. One of the reasons why we need to get prevalence as low as possible is that that determines the number of people who are likely to be symptomatic and in need of testing. The assessment of the number of contact tracers depends, to some extent, on the social distancing measures that are in place, because that obviously determines the number of contacts that each of us has daily. Yesterday, the health secretary and I took part in another in-depth session about that in order to look at where that work has got to.
I want to—I intend to—publish a more detailed paper, probably early next week, on the test, trace and isolate strategy, because I think that it is important that people really understand where that strategy fits into the overall approach in the next phase, the work that we are doing and the capacity that we need to build to. It is also important that the public develop an understanding of their role in making a test, trace and isolate system work, because whether it works will depend on the public recognising symptoms, doing what they need to do and being prepared for periods of isolation. They may need to have multiple periods of isolation, depending on whom they have been in contact with.
That work is under way. As I said, early next week we will publish more detailed information that will explain both how such an approach works and what we are doing to get to the capacity to deliver it. We are working towards having such capacity in place within weeks, in order to dovetail with how we might start to ease restrictions. However, the capacity that we need will develop over time, of course, depending on the degree of social distancing that is still in place. All of us now have many fewer contacts than we would have if we were living our lives normally. Therefore, there will be many stages between those two places that will determine the capacity that we will need to have.
The work is complicated, but I assure members that it is well under way in the Scottish Government and that, as I said, we will provide further details soon.
Covid-19 (Testing of Health and Care Workers)
On international workers memorial day, Scottish Greens pay tribute to essential workers who, sadly, have lost their lives while fighting Covid-19, which is the heaviest price to pay. The safety of their peers is paramount at this time.
On Friday, I published a proposal for routine testing of health and care workers regardless of whether they have symptoms, which has been welcomed by experts and organisations including the Royal College of Emergency Medicine. Routine testing of hospital workers and carers regardless of whether they are showing symptoms will help to detect cases early, reduce the spread of the virus and give those dedicated workers the extra protection that they deserve. Will the First Minister commit to the carrying out of such routine testing not only for those with symptoms?
My earlier comments on the basis on which we are taking decisions about the expansion of testing also apply to Ms Johnstone’s question.
I will make two other points. They are not designed to diminish the importance of testing, but it is really important that we always place that in its context. First, although the evidence around people transmitting the virus while they are asymptomatic is developing, we are still not confident that the current test is 100 per cent reliable before people have symptoms. It is really important to make that contextual point so that we do not have overreliance on testing, but instead see it in its proper context.
My second point flows from that—and it applies regardless of whether we test particular groups. For example, to go back to the earlier point about care homes, the most important steps in relation to those—which will also be true for hospitals—are the infection prevention and control policies and procedures that are in place. In such institutional settings the most important thing is to ensure that we prevent the virus from entering them and then spreading. It is true that testing has a part to play in that process—and as we increase our capacity we will continue to expand the categories of people whom we test—but we must always bear in mind that we are still not in a position where we can be sure that the test is 100 per cent reliable in the cases of people who do not display symptoms of the virus.
I spoke to a notable Scottish expert about the effectiveness of the current test. Their response to me was that we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
To protect the people of Scotland properly, we need a comprehensive test, trace and isolate strategy. Routine testing of carers and hospital workers has to be part of that. One major hospital in London is already carrying out routine testing of asymptomatic workers. Adding to the growing body of evidence in support of such action is a study that has just been published by Imperial College London, which advises that, regardless of whether symptoms are present, regular testing could prevent about a third of transmissions from those who are tested.
Commenting on the Scottish Greens’ proposal, respiratory consultant and expert Professor James Chalmers said:
“the data ... are coming fast ... asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic HCW are likely to be transmitting to other staff and vulnerable patients ... We will regret the lost time if we do not move to address this now.”
The urgency is clear if we are to prevent deaths and protect our workers. Every day on which asymptomatic workers go untested increases the risk. We can act to avoid that. Will the First Minister confirm that she will act now?
We will continue to increase our testing capacity and to expand the categories of people whom we test, based on the best evidence. I read a lot of expert evidence on that every day, and I also take a lot of advice from experts. As is the case with politicians, some experts disagree on the detail of this issue, but we must continue to inform our views through the best advice and expertise that we have available.
It is not the case at any stage that we are allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good—we have already announced today an extension of testing into a group of people regardless of whether they have symptoms. Equally, we have to guard against the testing of asymptomatic people becoming a false assurance. If somebody who is asymptomatic tests negative, it does not necessarily mean that they do not have the virus; we have to balance a lot of things. Also, although there is clearly a relationship and a bridge between the two, I would caution against mixing up what we are doing now and the purposes for which we are using our expanding testing capacity with what we will move to as we go further into the test, trace and isolate approach.
Health and Social Care Staff (Support)
Last week, I asked the First Minister to support a positive proposal to pay £29 per day extra to health and social care workers. Can the First Minister update us on whether she has made any progress on that proposal?
This pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the social care sector. Staff are on low wages and precarious contracts, even though they are caring for the most vulnerable in society, and morale at this time is particularly low, so will the First Minister also agree to review pay and conditions for all social care staff, whether they provide care at home or in care homes, so that we can give this sector the status and the support that it desperately needs?
We have not yet come to a final view on last week’s proposal from Willie Rennie. I am sure that he will appreciate that we are working through a lot of issues and demands. That is not to say that any of them are less important than others, but we need to make sure that we prioritise urgent and pressing issues. The staffing issue that the health secretary has been prioritising and seeking to resolve is the death in service issue, which has already been raised. All those issues are important, but we require to work through them properly so that we can take a considered view and come to the right conclusions.
We will be looking for quite some time to come at how to properly recognise and reward those on the front line of our health and care services. We will also be thinking much more fundamentally about those services. A lot of what we have been talking about in relation to the care sector right now raises real questions in my mind about how we will deliver social care in the future.
There are well-established arrangements in place, through staff-side discussions, for pay and conditions and we will continue to discuss those issues in the normal way. Some of the issues that Willie Rennie raises have short-term, immediate aspects to them, but some raise much more fundamental questions. I think that it would be right for all of us, not just the Government but the Parliament, to think through those questions properly and carefully, learning from the experience that we have had in the past few weeks along the way.
I understand the point about the Government’s capacity to take on new issues and new plans. However, it is important to consider them, as the First Minister says. Morale is particularly low in the social care sector, so if we can give an early indication that it would be possible to address those issues at some point, that would help immensely.
There are also gaps in the financial support that is available from the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments, which is leaving some people and companies in great difficulties. Those gaps will continue if we use only the existing tax and spending architecture. Would it not make sense, at least for the length of this pandemic, to use some form of universal basic income to deal with this problem?
The Spanish Government is bringing in a universal basic income. Will the First Minister raise that option with the Prime Minister this week so that we can implement it at the next stage of the economic response to the pandemic?
I am on record as being very interested in a universal basic income and I think that the experience of this pandemic and the impacts from dealing with it make the case for a universal basic income stronger than ever. I certainly want to see it seriously considered as an option.
I do not want to stray into political or constitutional territory, but I wish that we had the totality of powers in this Parliament so that we could move ahead with something like that right now. However, with welfare still largely reserved, we would need to do that in co-operation and collaboration with the UK Government. I will continue to raise it with the UK Government.
We continually look at where there are gaps in support and we try to plug them as much as possible within the financial constraints that we have. We have on-going discussions with the UK Government about how some of those gaps can be filled through it working in partnership with us. Those conversations will certainly continue.
Thank you. We now move to some supplementary questions.
The vital importance of the care sector has never been more evident. Therefore, what discussions has the Scottish Government had with the United Kingdom Government on migration policy, in light of the increasing demand on the care sector in Scotland?
That is an important point. The current crisis has clearly demonstrated our reliance on individuals in our health and care sectors and on key workers across our communities. Many of them were not born in this country but have chosen to make their homes here. We have therefore called on the UK Government to grant all migrants leave to remain during this time and, in the longer term, to revisit its approach to immigration policy.
Across society, we should all stop using the inaccurate and somewhat demeaning terminology “lower-skilled” to describe the contributions of key workers. Those are vital roles that are filled by dedicated people with very valuable skills. We will continue to seek opportunities to discuss those issues with the UK Government and to seek to persuade it to take a better approach to immigration as we come out of the crisis than perhaps was the case when we went into it.
Supermarket Food Deliveries (Priority Scheme)
There seems to be some confusion about who should have priority for food deliveries from supermarkets. For example, a constituent of mine who is in her 70s and who is self-isolating with her spouse as per Government guidelines called the helpline and was called back by five different people. They all tried to be helpful, but three said that the couple were eligible for the priority scheme, and two said that they were not. Can the First Minister clarify Scottish Government policy on who should be eligible for the scheme? I am sure that the First Minister will agree that consistent messaging is crucial.
I will set out the Scottish Government’s policy and approach, although some of the issues that Brian Whittle raises will be down to the capacity of supermarkets to deliver shopping. That is not a criticism of the supermarkets, as the demand on them for delivery slots is greater than ever.
I will explain the arrangements that are in place for what we call the shielded group. Right now, everybody in the shielded group can register through our text message service and, so far, 81,000 people have done so. Those people can request a food package to be delivered, not by a supermarket but free of charge through the arrangements that we have in place. So far, more than 103,000 of those free food packages have been delivered to people in the shielded group.
We also give people in that group the opportunity to ask us to pass on their details to supermarkets so that they can be prioritised for delivery slots. So far, more than 34,000 people have asked us to do that, and their data has been passed on to participating supermarkets. I believe that, currently, we are unique in the United Kingdom in that people in that group who were not existing customers of supermarkets have been matched with supermarkets. That is only now being done in the rest of the UK.
Over and above that, we have put in place a helpline for other vulnerable people who are not in the shielded group. We cannot guarantee supermarket delivery slots for them, because that is down to the capacity of supermarkets, but we wanted to put in place a helpline so that, if somebody is in need of food, medicines or any other vital support, local resilience partnerships can consider how to deliver that through local arrangements. I take this opportunity to tell people that the national helpline number is 0800 111 4000. Anybody who is vulnerable—we have suggested that that may be people who get the flu jab annually—and who needs support can phone that number and will be put on to arrangements in their local council area.
Polish Presidential Election
The First Minister will be aware that the Polish presidential election is still due to take place on 10 May. I would not ask the First Minister to comment on Poland’s politics or the election, but can she provide assurances to Polish nationals who are resident in Scotland and who have a right to participate in that election, if they wish to, that protecting them from the risk of coronavirus will be a priority and that the Scottish Government will ensure that there is close contact with the Polish consulate on advice for that electorate?
We will certainly do so. I am happy to arrange for a written response to be provided to Claire Baker on exactly that point, and Graeme Dey has given me an indication that the work is already under way. As Claire Baker indicated, of my many responsibilities, the Polish presidential election is not one. Nevertheless, ensuring that Polish residents here have the opportunity to participate in an election is an important matter. I will arrange for a written response to be sent, setting out what we are doing to ensure that that is the case.
Social Distancing (Health and Safety Executive)
Sometimes, workplace management think that there is sufficient social distancing in place but unions and workers feel that there is not. Has the Health and Safety Executive a role in that issue, and what can it do to mitigate or to ensure that there is an agreement in the end?
Alongside local authorities and the police, where there is an issue of enforcement, the Health and Safety Executive has a role to play in making sure that employers comply with the law and with the guidance that is in place. We try to have close engagement with employers, business sectors of the economy and, of course, the business organisations, to provide as much advice and support as possible. In my experience, the vast majority of businesses and employers are trying to do the right thing by their workers—and they should be. Where there are concerns, we do what we can to help to resolve them, and the Health and Safety Executive has a role to play in that, where required.
Curriculum for Excellence Review (OECD)
Could the postponed release of the much-needed and crucially important Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of curriculum for excellence be published, if feasible, before May 2021, rather than after?
The Deputy First Minister has given some information on the review, and, if that were possible and there was a way to do it, we would want, as a standing principle, for that to be the case.
I hope that members will understand that, across a whole range of our responsibilities, the focus of the Scottish Government right now has to be on dealing with the immediate crisis here, and then with the impacts and the recovery, which unavoidably has an impact on other business. As we go through this, we will try to minimise that impact as much as possible and ensure that, when things can happen even earlier than we might expect, we will keep them under review.
Live Video Teaching (Access)
Teachers have worked miracles to move learning into the home. Can the First Minister explain why pupils in some parts of Scotland are offered access to live video teaching whereas others are not? Will she ensure that Education Scotland provides national leadership, to ensure some consistency, at least, in home schooling across the country?
I will certainly take that point about Education Scotland back.
There has been a suggestion that Education Scotland has instructed councils not to use videoconferencing, but that is not the case: local authorities are responsible for decisions about data protection and online safety. We know that some are considering how and whether to use alternative videoconferencing services outwith glow. I understand that Highland Council and Aberdeen City Council are using Google in some schools and that Western Isles Council is using Vscene to communicate with pupils. Those local authorities must be content that any platform that they use provides the level of protection that they require, and we would expect any local authority to follow the national cyber security centre’s guidelines. Last week, glow had more than 3 million logins, and many teachers and local authorities are making use of those facilities.
I will take away the question about whether Education Scotland can provide any more national guidance, and I will end on a note of consensus. Teachers are doing a fantastic job to support young people in this very difficult period for them. I place on record my thanks to them.
At the commencement of the lockdown in Scotland, we rightly took a different approach from that of the rest of the United Kingdom in respect of the construction industry. Major employers in my constituency, such as the Robertson Construction Group and other construction firms, therefore ceased operations. I know that the Scottish Government is thinking very carefully about how best to ease the lockdown restrictions. As part of that consideration, what is the Scottish Government’s current thinking with regard to the construction industry?
We are considering all such matters carefully and will continue to do so, but the current position is unchanged. That position is that, in our view, all but essential construction sites should remain closed to help to save lives and protect the health service. I reiterate our thanks to the construction workers who are continuing to work on essential projects and to all businesses that continue to act responsibly.
That said, we are very aware that the longer the lockdown continues in its present, very severe form, the greater the impact on industry will be. That is why we are providing unprecedented levels of support. Ministers certainly share the ambition to get businesses back to work as soon as possible, but that must be done with public health and safety as the first priority. To support that, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning is chairing meetings of the construction leadership forum, whose work includes the development of safe site operating procedures. As we go through the next process of looking at whether, when and how certain of the restrictions can be eased, the role of construction will form part of those considerations.
Over the past few weeks, members who represent rural areas will have had reports of an increase in fly-tipping in the countryside. Such behaviour is always inexcusable, but the present increase seems to be linked to the closure of local authority recycling and waste centres. Today, the United Kingdom Government has said that recycling centres can reopen with appropriate social distancing in place. Is that something that the Scottish Government should also consider?
Of course, we will consider all of that. A public campaign on fly-tipping was started yesterday, I think—I am looking at the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to check whether I am right. Fly-tipping is unacceptable at any time, but we understand some of the factors that are contributing to the present increase and we will continue to consider further action that we can take to address what is an understandable concern for people.
Business Support Grants
Although I acknowledge that many people have received business support grants, I continue to be contacted by constituents with businesses who have yet to receive such a grant. What proportion of applications have proceeded through to payment? What measures of take-up by all eligible businesses does the Scottish Government have? What communication has the Scottish Government had with local authorities to identify and eliminate backlogs?
The Cabinet Secretary for Finance continues to have on-going engagement with local authorities to get that money flowing as quickly as possible. The figure is one that I struggled to locate in my briefing at last week’s First Minister’s question time, so I made sure that I underlined it today. As of 21 April, 33,176 business grants had been awarded—that figure will have been updated by now—which amounted to more than £388 million.
We continue to encourage local authorities to get those payments made as quickly as possible. We want all the support that is being provided to be with businesses and in their bank accounts without delay. We must, of course, make sure that the right processes are in place to ensure that it goes to people who are eligible to receive it, but we continue to discuss with local authorities how they can get that money flowing as quickly as possible.
Council Tax (Support)
During the current Covid-19 crisis, debt, including council tax arrears, will become an increasing issue for households and local authorities. I welcome Glasgow City Council’s decision to allow households that are struggling with council tax to defer monthly payments for two months, as well as its decision to temporarily suspend action to recover council tax.
Will the First Minister work in partnership with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that councils are given the support that they need to support households that are struggling with council tax debt, that best practice is adopted across all local authorities and that, ideally, such best practice includes the provision of full welfare advice and support to struggling households before any recovery proceedings are considered by any authority?
I very much agree with the sentiment behind all aspects of that question.
The council tax reduction scheme is in place to ensure that anybody who loses the ability to pay their council tax because, for example, they have lost their job gets the help that they need. More than 450,000 households already receive some level of such support. Anyone whose earnings are impacted by the pandemic and who might now struggle to meet their next council tax payment should discuss that with their council as soon as possible.
The Scottish Government has made additional resources available to local authorities to increase the capacity of the council tax reduction scheme, given the greater demand that is likely to fall on it. We have also joined with the Citizens Advice Scotland network to fund a new campaign to raise awareness of the financial support that is available to people. It provides information and advice on council tax, rent and mortgage payments, and energy and utility bills, as well as on financial support. People can access that advice online, by phone or by contacting their local citizens advice bureau.
We remain very aware of the need to ensure that support is provided not just to businesses but to individuals who are struggling with the impacts of the measures that are in place, and we will continue to consider what more we can do.
Charity Funds (Carrier Bag Charge)
Many charities rely on funds from the plastic bag charge, which brought in £15 million in Scotland last year. As a Parliament, we recently agreed unanimously that the charge should be temporarily suspended due to health restrictions around food deliveries, but that means, of course, that millions of pounds of income is lost to charities. Does the First Minister agree that supermarkets, which are seeing record levels of profit at the moment, should be honouring charitable donations even though the carrier bag charge is currently not being collected?
Yes. I think that that is something that supermarkets should consider—and, no doubt, they will want to do so. We can certainly raise that issue with supermarkets.
It is also important to say that we are providing, through Scottish Government resources, additional support to the third sector and to charities through the third sector resilience fund, for example, and the wellbeing fund. That money provides support to third sector organisations including charities and social enterprises, helping them to work with the most at-risk people who are affected. We will continue to do what we can to support them, but I am certainly happy to take that suggestion forward.