Meeting date: Thursday, October 29, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 29 October 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Point of Order, Brian Taylor, Portfolio Question Time, European Union Exit (Further and Higher Education), UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Points of Order, UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Point of Order
- Brian Taylor
- Portfolio Question Time
- European Union Exit (Further and Higher Education)
- UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Points of Order
- UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon, colleagues. Our first item of business is First Minister’s question time. Before we turn to questions, the First Minister will give an update on the Covid-19 situation.
I will shortly confirm the different levels of protection to be applied across Scotland from Monday and will briefly explain some of the reasoning behind those decisions. A detailed analysis paper is also being published, which sets out our assessment of each of the five factors and our overall judgment for each local authority area.
First, I will give an update on today’s Covid statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,128. That represents 7.1 per cent of total tests and takes the total number of cases to 61,531. Of the new cases, 416 were in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 266 in Lanarkshire, 121 in Ayrshire and Arran, and 117 in Lothian. The remaining cases were spread across nine other health board areas; only Shetland reported no new cases. I can also confirm that 1,152 people are in hospital, which is an increase of 35 from yesterday, and that 86 people are in intensive care, which is one more than yesterday.
I deeply regret to say that in the last 24 hours, a further 37 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive during the previous 28 days. That means that the total number of deaths, under the measure used in our daily figures, is now 2,791. Once again, I send my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one to this illness.
Those figures show that we are still seeing high numbers of new cases, increasing hospital and intensive care unit admissions and, sadly, a rising number of deaths.
Those issues are not unique to Scotland. We have seen a resurgence in the virus in all parts of the United Kingdom, across Europe and right around the world. Last night, for example, both France and Germany reimposed nationwide lockdowns.
In Scotland, we acted early—with some difficult but necessary measures—and we hope that that will have the effect of slowing the spread and preventing a further deterioration in our position. Although we cannot be certain and have no grounds for complacency, we see some encouraging signs that that might be the case. Last week, I indicated that we were beginning to see a significant slowing in the rate at which new cases are increasing. I can confirm that that has continued. Cases in the last week up to today have increased by 4 per cent; two weeks ago, the weekly increase was 40 per cent. Our latest estimate of the R number, which was published today, suggests that it is still above one but may have fallen slightly to 1.3.
All of that suggests that the measures that were introduced five weeks ago to curb household meetings are having an effect and that the additional measures that were introduced three weeks ago to significantly restrict hospitality may also be starting to have an impact. That is all down to the sacrifices of people the length and breadth of the country.
However, we must be under no illusions. Europe is now firmly in the grip of a second wave of Covid. Cases here at home are still rising—albeit that the rate of growth appears to be slowing—and the virus is still highly infectious. It will take every opportunity to spread. Therefore, unless we act individually and collectively to protect and build on the progress that we see today, that progress will quickly go into reverse.
Our strategic framework aims to tackle the virus with measures that are strong enough to work but also proportionate to the scale of the problem in different parts of the country, and in a way that minimises as far as possible the other harms that the pandemic is causing.
The assessment of what level of protection is right for each local authority is broadly based on five key factors. Those are: the number of positive cases per hundred thousand people over the most recent week; the percentage of positive tests; our forecast for new cases in the weeks ahead; and the capacity of local hospitals and intensive care facilities.
Those factors are assessed alongside the views of local public health officials and with consideration of local circumstances, such as specific outbreaks, travel and work patterns, and the extent to which health services are provided by neighbouring health boards. Our final decisions are based on all those factors.
Before setting out our decisions, I want to take a moment to remind people of the purpose of each level. The baseline level—zero—and level 1 are intended to ensure as much normality as possible, but do not remove all restrictions. The protections that are in place at those levels should enable communities to control outbreaks quickly and effectively and minimise transmission of the virus by following the guidance and supporting one another to comply.
However, when we begin to see community transmission in an area, and when the spread of the virus cannot be linked to a specific outbreak, we must apply the brakes. That is essentially what levels 2 and 3 are designed to do.
Our aim is that the restrictions—especially in level 3—should be in place for as short a time as possible. If any area is at level 3, the collective aim of those who live there, the local authority, local health services and local businesses must be to bring that down to level 2 and then level 1, and not to allow it to drift to level 4. We will use level 4 when transmission is extremely high and threatens the capacity of the national health service to cope.
I turn now to the levels that will apply across the country from Monday at 6 am. I point out that, following this initial assessment, we will review on a weekly basis whether any changes are required. We aim to confirm our decisions to Parliament on a Tuesday, with changes coming into force on the following Friday. Barring the need for any changes before then, our next update will therefore be Tuesday 10 November, with any changes coming into effect on 13 November.
Before turning to today’s decisions, I remind everyone that you can see on the Scottish Government’s website the reasoning behind those decisions, as well as the level that your own area is in and what restrictions that entails for the area where you live.
Given the fragile situation that we face and the fact that we are migrating to the new system for the first time, we are taking a deliberately cautious approach today. At present, we do not judge it safe or prudent to place any part of the country into the baseline level, zero. However, if we see continued progress, I hope that that might change—and will change—in the weeks ahead.
I can confirm that Highland, Moray, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland have all been assessed as level 1. In time—a short time, I hope—we expect that level 1 will allow people to meet in one another’s homes, in groups of up to six people from a maximum of two households. However, at present and on clear public health advice, the restriction on household meetings will continue to apply in all parts of the country.
I am conscious that that restriction can cause particular difficulty in our more rural and island communities, so we will review its necessity in level 1 areas ahead of the 10 November review. If the virus remains controlled in those areas, I am hopeful that we will be able to lift the restriction then.
Let me now address the areas that have been assessed as level 2. They are Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen, Fife, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Argyll and Bute and also—as I will discuss in more detail—Perth and Kinross and Angus.
In two of those cases—the Borders and Argyll and Bute—the decision on whether they should be assessed as level 1 or level 2 was finely balanced. In both cases, one of the key factors in reaching our decision was the interconnection with neighbouring areas, and in particular with health services in Lothian and in Greater Glasgow and Clyde. We have also considered the impact of travel from nearby areas with a higher prevalence of Covid. As a result, we have decided to take a cautious approach by applying level 2 to both areas. We will, however, consider that decision very carefully at the next review point.
The interconnection with neighbouring areas and services has also heavily influenced our decision on Inverclyde. I understand why that area would wish to be assessed as level 2. However, we do not consider it safe to take that decision yet, given the very close connections between Inverclyde and other parts of west central Scotland that have high transmission rates, high positivity levels and already significant pressure on hospital and intensive care unit capacity. Inverclyde has therefore been assessed as level 3, along with East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire and the City of Glasgow. That level also includes South Ayrshire, East Ayrshire and North Ayrshire, Stirling, Falkirk, Clackmannanshire, the City of Edinburgh, Midlothian, West Lothian and East Lothian.
We know that those areas in level 3 have been under restrictions now for a number of weeks, particularly on household interaction. Based on the data that we are considering and if progress in suppressing the virus is maintained, we hope that at a very early review point, we will be able to consider moving some areas—East Lothian in particular and possibly Edinburgh—from level 3 to level 2 reasonably soon. I cannot make that commitment now, but I hope that we will be able to confirm it in the coming weeks.
Our approach to managing Covid will work best where there is real partnership work between neighbouring authorities and health boards on how to drive down levels of infection, share resources, and communicate with and support communities.
I indicated earlier this week that we had cause for concern in relation to Dundee and that we expected it to move into level 3. Dundee is currently seeing, per week, around 185 new cases per 100,000 of the population, which is higher than for several areas already in the equivalent of level 3. We have therefore decided that a level 3 assessment for Dundee is the correct one, so from Monday at 6 am Dundee will move into level 3.
Support is available for businesses that will be required to close and all businesses across Scotland will have access to the replacement job support scheme from the UK Government, which begins on Monday. I would encourage all businesses in Dundee that are impacted by the closure and those in the supply chain to engage with Dundee City Council and to look at the findbusinesssupport.gov.scot website to find out what help is available. In fact, businesses across the country can access that resource.
In making that decision on Dundee, we considered carefully whether Perth and Kinross and Angus should also be placed in level 3, given the travel patterns and interdependencies between those three authorities. Our decision not to do so at this stage is based on the view of the three authorities, NHS Tayside and the police that close partnership working can militate against cross-border transmission. However, people living in Angus and in Perth and Kinross have a big part to play. It will be essential for them to adhere strictly to the guidance and the restrictions, especially on travel, if a rise in cases that would necessitate level 3 restrictions being applied across all of Tayside is to be avoided.
I turn to the situation in Lanarkshire. The decision between level 3 and level 4 there has been very finely balanced. Lanarkshire has a high number of cases, high test positivity and a high number of patients in hospital and ICU. However, there is evidence in recent days that the situation is stabilising, which is undoubtedly down to the compliance and sacrifices of local people. The local councils, NHS Lanarkshire and the police believe that they have strong partnership plans in place to maintain that progress under current restrictions. For those reasons—and given the severity of level 4 restrictions—we have decided that North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire should remain in level 3 at present.
However, I want to be very clear that that is a borderline decision that we require to keep under review, not just weekly but on a daily basis. I therefore appeal to people across Lanarkshire to continue to play their part. Please abide strictly with all the rules and guidance to help ensure that the rise in cases continues to slow and that more severe restrictions can be avoided.
Finally, I turn to travel, and here I need to be very blunt. I know that travel restrictions are unwelcome and can be controversial, but they are an absolutely essential part of any regional approach to tackling Covid. They are, unfortunately, a price that we pay for more targeted restrictions. If people do not abide by the travel advice, the virus will spread from high to lower-prevalence areas and a differentiated approach will become unsustainable. In those circumstances, we would have to return to national restrictions.
I will be clear what we are asking of people at this stage. If you live in a level 3 council area or, in future, a level 4 area, please do not travel outside the council area that you live in, unless you require to do so for essential reasons. If you live in a level 1 or 2 local authority area, you must not travel into a level 3 or 4 area, except for essential purposes. By essential purposes, we mean things like work—if you cannot work from home—education, local outdoor exercise, healthcare or caring responsibilities and essential shopping, where that is not possible locally. In recent weeks, that guidance has applied to health board areas, but from Monday it will apply at local authority level. Similarly, wherever people live, they should not travel between Scotland and areas in the rest of the UK with high levels of the virus, unless it is essential.
Given that the police cannot check everyone’s journey, we must rely on public willingness to adhere. That is why the advice is in guidance at this stage and not regulation, but we will keep that under review. However, I appeal to people across the country: please comply with this advice to keep everyone safe and allow us to continue, if possible, with a proportionate response across different parts of the country to wider restrictions.
The levels that we will put in place from Monday require more sacrifice at a time when all of us are tired of making sacrifices. I recognise that and, again, I thank everyone across Scotland for everything that they are doing. However, those sacrifices continue to be essential. If we all dig in and stick with it, this proportionate approach has a real chance of being sustainable and keeping Covid under control over the winter. If we succeed, we open the prospect—in all parts of the country—of being able to lead slightly less restricted lives in, I hope, the reasonably near future.
However, the other side of that is equally true, and I must be open with Parliament and the country about this. We are, as of now, making progress in Scotland, but cases are still rising and the situation that we face is fragile; across Europe, the pandemic is accelerating so I cannot rule out a move back to nationwide restrictions in the next few weeks, including at level 4. That could happen if, for example, cases in parts of the country start to rise faster again, to the extent that controlling spread with travel restrictions will not be effective; or it could happen if pressure on the NHS risks breaching capacity not just at local level, but overall.
We want to avoid that, obviously. However, to achieve that, we must all play our part. The Government must and will lead, but all of us have individual agency and individual responsibility. None of us can guarantee that we will not get or transmit the virus, but we can all make choices that keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safer. I ask people to make sure that they know the restrictions in their local area, please. From Monday, a postcode checker will help everyone to do that. Please stick to the restrictions.
Wherever people live, for now, do not visit other people’s houses and do not travel to or from level 3 areas. Please remember to wear face coverings; avoid places with crowds of people; clean your hands and surfaces; keep 2m distance from people in other households; and self-isolate and get tested immediately if you have Covid symptoms.
If we do those things, we have a chance of keeping the virus under control in our neighbourhoods and our communities. We can reduce overall case levels in our own areas and help to do so across the country. Then we can all play a part in moving all parts of Scotland to lower levels of restrictions. Above all, we can protect each other, protect our national health service and save lives.
We turn to questions.
Care Home Covid Deaths
It is clear that we are now in the grip of a second wave. However, today, I want to talk about the first wave and the devastating Public Health Scotland report into care home Covid deaths. Yesterday, the First Minister said,
“I’m ... not trying just to pick on specific lines”,
but she had already selectively picked her line from the report. She quoted:
“Overall, the analysis does not find statistical evidence that hospital discharges were associated with care home outbreaks.”
Of course, the First Minister chose not to read the next line, which said that there was a “relatively wide” variation in the estimated levels of risk. Can the First Minister now tell us how high might the true risk have been of putting known Covid-positive patients into care homes?
I begin by recognising again the toll that Covid has taken on people in care homes. The fact that that is not unique to Scotland does not in any way detract from the distress and grief that have been caused. Today, I say again that I am deeply sorry for that.
The position on testing changed in line with evidence and advice. That was true in Scotland, and it was true in other parts of the United Kingdom. However, the absence of testing did not equate to an absence of action. Guidance was in place all along that was designed to minimise the risks in care homes. We continue to learn lessons, we continue to apply those lessons and we continue to take with the utmost seriousness the duty on Government to do everything possible to protect the general population and particularly those who are most vulnerable.
This is for others to judge, but I do not know that the people who were watching all the hour or more that I spent answering questions on the topic yesterday would have concluded that I tried to hide any aspect of this. This is a difficult situation for families and for the public generally. I quoted the conclusion of the report. The report has hard messages for us. It tells us some of what we think are factors driving outbreaks in care homes, but there is still work to do to understand that.
Of course, we have the information that the report gives us because we commissioned the report. Similar things have happened in other countries where they still do not have that level of information. I am determined that we continue to learn and apply lessons and do everything that we can to keep people in our care homes and the general public as safe as we can.
I thank the First Minister for that answer, but it did not address the specific question that I put to her. I asked her what the increased risk was.
When someone tested positive for Covid before being transferred to a care home, the report said that the best estimate was that there was a 45 per cent increase in the risk of an outbreak. However, because of the wide variation that I quoted, the risk could have been much higher—in fact, the report says that it could have been as high as 374 per cent. That would have meant a 374 per cent increase in the risk of seeing Covid rip through a care home. That is exactly why we need a public inquiry to start now, as there is still so much that we do not know.
What we do know is that only 13.5 per cent of care homes that were never sent any patients ended up having an outbreak. That figure jumped to 38 per cent when a home had one or more patients placed in its care. However, we still do not know how high the number went when a care home had a known Covid-positive patient sent to it. That is pretty basic stuff. Why was that number left out of the report?
The report was done independently of the Government. Public Health Scotland published it, but it was contributed to by academics who are entirely independent and who, yesterday, conducted a briefing with journalists at which they explained their findings and methodology in more detail.
I do not think that the report is the last word on these issues—I have never thought that. There is much more work to be done to understand the issues that were factors in outbreaks in care homes. The report tells us about some of those, but it does not tell us about them all.
Of course, the report gives us much more information than is available in any other part of the UK. I hope that we will see the same depth of understanding develop in countries elsewhere, so that we can learn from each other as well as from our own experiences.
The report’s overall conclusion is as I quoted it at yesterday’s briefing. However, as I also recognised yesterday, although the report said that, in all the different scenarios—whether someone tested positive or negative or was not tested at all—there was not statistical evidence that hospital discharges were associated with outbreaks, it said that there was a variation in the confidence intervals for the estimates across those scenarios.
On page 40, the report says:
“the risk of an outbreak associated with care home size is much larger than any plausible risk from hospital discharge”.
That means that, although we must continue to consider the issues around discharges, we must also look at the other factors. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will say more about those in the Parliament next week when she sets out details of our winter planning for social care.
I take all such issues extremely seriously. As I have done before, I give a commitment that, as many other countries have also done, there will be a full public inquiry that will consider the issues involving care homes. We are in the grip of a second wave of Covid. It is right that we enable everybody who has a part to play to focus on getting the country through that.
This morning, I was struck by comments made by Professor June Andrews, who will be familiar to many members in the chamber. When she was asked about the timing of a public inquiry, she said:
“It’s far too soon. We’ve got far too many things to do to keep the system going, to keep people well”.
There is no doubt that there will be a public inquiry. However, at the moment we will continue—[Interruption.] For the avoidance of doubt, I say that Professor June Andrews will also have said things that were critical of the Government. I am not trying to depart from that at all. There will be a full public inquiry when the time for that is right, once we have got the country through the next stage of the Covid pandemic.
However, as we have done all along, as we go forward we will continue to learn and to apply lessons in care homes. That is a responsibility that all of us in the Government take very seriously.
I am not sure that the best defence against selective quoting is to quote selectively what Professor June Andrews said on the radio this morning—it was devastating to the Government.
The calculation appears to have been that publishing yesterday’s report would ensure that any pressure to speed up or bring forward the holding of a public inquiry would ease. I believe that the opposite is the case, because of the way in which the publication of the report was handled. It was delayed by a month, it was given to ministers privately on Monday and it was released to the media only 15 minutes before they were due to ask questions, with a press release that did not even to bother to mention known Covid-positive patients being sent to care homes in the first place.
The very last people of all to have sight of the report were the families and loved ones of those who died. We already know that a crucial line in Public Health Scotland’s briefing to journalists, which the First Minister has just mentioned—that it was
“likely that hospital discharges were the source of introduction of infection in a small number of cases”—
was missing from the final report.
Does the First Minister really think that the delay, the spin and the sleight of hand surrounding the report serves those grieving families well?
I do not expect grieving families to be assured or to have all their concerns satisfied by any report and I do not think that this report is the only or the final word. The report was commissioned by the Scottish Government; I will say again that we are the only Government in the UK so far to commission a report of this depth and I think that Wales is the only other Government that has done anything to look at this issue but, as I understand it, that was a report that was based on statistical modelling, not on data. That is an important point.
The timing was down to Public Health Scotland and it consulted the statistics authority, given the complexity of bringing the different data sets together. As with all official statistics, the date of publication was pre-announced. On the timing of it, I answer questions every single day at the moment. Rightly and properly, there is no shortage of opportunities to scrutinise me.
In my view, the report does not change the arguments one way or another on a public inquiry. As I said yesterday, I expected the report to say something different from what it did on hospital discharges. However, the fact of the matter is that a public inquiry is necessary and, until that point, it is also necessary that we continue to deepen our understanding and take the actions that are necessary, just as we did back in April, when, in light of changing advice and evidence, we moved to testing of discharges to care homes, and just as we later moved to routinely test all workers in care homes. Last week, we announced plans to extend that to designated visitors and other routine visitors to care homes.
We are learning and we are applying that learning on an on-going basis. There are no words that I will ever find to convey the depth of my regret at what happened in care homes. I take possibly more seriously than I take anything else, including any other aspect of our handling of the pandemic, the need to ensure that we learn lessons where we got things wrong and do not shy away from that, but more than anything, that we take all possible steps to keep those in our care homes safe.
Yesterday’s report was stuffed full of numbers and statistics but, fundamentally, this is not about stats; it is about people—the people who lost their lives and the people they left behind. It is about people such as Sandra O’Neill, who said yesterday of her lost mum that
“the thought that she was on her own with a sense of drowning, it’s the last thing I think about at night and it’s the first thing I think about every morning”,
or Alan Wightman, who lost his 88-year-old mum in May. He said yesterday that a public inquiry should have started in June and that this report does not provide the answers that he needs. For six months, grieving families such as the O’Neills and the Wightmans have had no answers and they are not satisfied with this report; nor are we. Will the First Minister give those families the respect that they deserve and order Public Health Scotland to go back and fill in the blanks?
I said yesterday that we would be taking forward further work and asking Public Health Scotland to do further work. I am sure that Public Health Scotland and the independent academics who contributed to the report would be willing to do what they did with journalists yesterday and meet any members across the chamber to explain their methodology, how the report was conducted and the limitations of the methodology, which nobody has ever shied away from. We will continue to do whatever work is required.
I do not expect any grieving family to think that they have all the answers to their questions in this report. I want to do everything that we can to provide those answers and to make sure that there is full learning and accountability in due course. Those grieving families and what happened with care homes is probably the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing that I think about before I go to sleep. That is no comfort to anybody who has lost a loved one. I extend my condolences to them, and my regret at what they have suffered knows no limits. The commitment that I have to them each and every day as we continue to guide the country through the pandemic is to learn and apply lessons, to take whatever action is necessary to keep people safe and to go through a process that allows us, as far as possible, given what we have been dealing with and are continuing to deal with, to answer their questions. I will continue to do that to the best of my ability for every moment that we are in this situation.
Covid-19 (Levels and Support for Businesses)
We send our condolences to all the families of all those who have lost loved ones at any point during the course of this pandemic. We also extend our thanks to all staff in health and social care for the tireless work that they have done and that they continue to do.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement today. From it, it is clear that some local communities are at a lower tier than was predicted but some are at a higher tier than was predicted. Has the Government worked out what today’s decision means for people’s jobs and incomes in the areas that are in the higher tiers? What further consultation will there be in those areas between now and Monday? If the health measures are, in the Government’s view, proportionate, will the Government work to introduce proportionate economic measures to protect jobs, businesses and local public services, especially for the areas that are in tier 3 now and that might be in tier 4 in the future?
As I said earlier, I very much hope—although I cannot guarantee this—that we can avoid any part of the country, let alone the whole country, going into level 4. That is a responsibility not just for Government but for us all. I repeat that we have deliberately taken a cautious approach right now. That is, first, because the situation here at home and across the United Kingdom and Europe is very fragile, and we have to recognise that. Secondly, it is because, as I hope people will understand, we are migrating to a new system. We have not yet applied the differentiated approach in this way, so, for the first application of it, a degree of caution is merited.
There are some areas—I cited the Borders and Argyll and Bute—that are in level 1 and that could and did make a case that they should go straight into level zero. We will consider that as we go forward. Likewise, other parts of the country, such as Inverclyde, made a case that they should go into level 2, and the reasons why that is not happening have been set out. I encourage members to read the paper that we have published, which goes into more detail about the decision making.
All of this has an impact on jobs, public services and livelihoods. I am acutely aware of that. However, what will have a bigger impact on jobs, services and livelihoods is if we do not control the virus—we only have to look across Europe right now to see that. Germany and France last night went into full nationwide lockdowns again. That is what we want to avoid, and this is our best chance of doing that.
We have set out the support that will be available for businesses, which will apply to businesses that are closed or that have restricted trading regardless of what level their area is at. Information is available on the website that I mentioned earlier.
The replacement job support scheme, which is run by the UK Government, comes into place next week. I think that Richard Leonard and I agree that it should go further, but it is there for businesses to take advantage of.
We are providing as much business support as we can within the resources that we have available, and we will continue to work with the UK Government to extend that further. It is right and proper that businesses are supported, but we will do no favours to any businesses if we prematurely ease up to an extent that allows the virus to run out of control again, because that is a sure and certain route to level 4, not just for parts of the country but for the whole country, and I think that we all want to avoid that.
I, too, turn to the serious question of what has happened in our care homes. Yesterday’s Public Health Scotland report shows that 123 patients were discharged from hospital after testing positive; that over 300 patients who were discharged had been in hospital for Covid-19; and that thousands of elderly patients were transferred into care homes without being tested at all. Care homes that took discharges were three times more likely to have outbreaks than those that did not. Is the First Minister really comfortable telling the families who have lost loved ones that there is no link between her Government’s decision to discharge people into care homes untested and the tragic outbreaks that then occurred?
That is not what I am saying. I will come on to that in a second, but I first want to correct an inadvertent error in my previous answer to Richard Leonard. I said that the Borders and Argyll and Bute are in level 1 and argued to go to level zero. Of course, the Borders and Argyll and Bute are in level 2 and made a case to go to level 1. My apologies for that mistake.
On care homes, I am not saying that there is no link, and the report does not say that. The report says that, taking account of all the factors, hospital discharge was not a statistically significant factor compared to, for example, the size of a care home. The point that I laboured to make yesterday—and will always make—is that there were serious outbreaks in care homes and discharges did not have no effect on those, but there are other factors that we have to consider as well.
At the end of the day, the fact that there were big outbreaks that led to people losing their lives is something that I will never be comfortable with, not just as the First Minister but probably for the rest of my life. I want to understand the issue and I want to ensure that we continue to take the necessary action to protect older people in care homes.
Our position on testing changed, as I said, in line with advice and evidence, and it is right that it did so. However, a key point here, which remains important now, even when we have a much wider approach to testing in care homes, is that the absence or even the presence of testing should not allow us to ignore the other important things that have to be done. Infection prevention and control in care homes is vital. There was always an emphasis on that, and testing now supplements the protection that is there.
I sincerely apologise if anybody listening to me at any time thinks that I am in any way trying to minimise what happened in care homes. If that is an impression that I give, I readily say sorry for that, because that is not the impression that I am trying to give. I am trying to understand the situation and to give the public as deep an understanding of it as possible, but I am not trying to—and never will try to—underplay the severity or the seriousness of what happened and of all the factors that may, to a large extent or to a smaller extent, have played a part in that.
I hear the First Minister’s regret, but we are also looking for her responsibility.
Yesterday’s report does not tell the full story. The crisis in our care homes did not have just one cause. The causes included the lack of personal protective equipment, despite warning after warning; the lack of testing of care home staff, despite warning after warning; and years of underfunding, despite warning after warning. I make it clear that the drive to clear space and free up beds in our hospitals and the discharge of Covid-19 positive patients and untested patients straight into care homes were permitted and encouraged by Scottish Government guidance, so families deserve answers.
Why did the Government apply the precautionary principle to all other areas of the pandemic but not to Scotland’s care homes?
I do not agree with that, but I do not minimise the impact on care homes. I have said it before and I will say it again today: we got things wrong. We did not get things wrong because we did not care about care homes. We got things wrong in care homes—as other countries in the United Kingdom and further afield did—because, at that point, our understanding of the virus was underdeveloped and because, as I readily concede, there was significant and acute concern that our hospitals would be overwhelmed with Covid, which would make them unsafe places for older people. As a result, there was a requirement to free up capacity in care homes.
I have rightly been challenged on many occasions on the need to reduce delayed discharge in hospital in normal times. The reason for seeking to do that in Covid times was to make sure that older people were not in hospital without it being a necessity for them to be there as Covid cases came in.
Of all the things that I wish that I had had then, I wish that I had had the knowledge that I have now. That is not to say that we will not simply have got things wrong. Of course we will have done. However, I am afraid that, in saying some of what people are saying that we should have done then, they are applying hindsight that we did not have at the time. We will continue to take the steps that we can, we will continue to be open and up front when we get things wrong, and we will continue to apply that learning to keep our care homes safe.
We are in—in Scotland, I hope that we are not going deeper into it, but we might be—a second wave. There is an intense focus on the part not just of Government but of partners across the country on ensuring that care homes are as safe as they can be, and we will continue to keep 100 per cent focused on that each and every day.
New Covid Framework (Additional Funding)
Obviously, nobody will be happy about today’s announcement about on-going restrictions, but we can all see that their continuation is happening at a time when other European countries are moving more in the direction of full lockdown in the face of a second wave and at a time when we are all facing up to the dawning realisation that those restrictions, or measures like them, will probably be with us for a long time to come.
That is also happening at the same time as Boris Johnson’s Government is giving us all a Halloween nightmare with the ending of furlough and its inadequate replacement, which will mean not only that large numbers of jobs will be lost, but that many people who keep their jobs will experience significant reductions in their incomes. Even people on the minimum wage will lose up to a third of their income. In addition, astonishingly, personal protective equipment will be taxed at 20 per cent, which will push up the cost for front-line businesses and workers.
Even in this difficult context, we all have a responsibility to urge people throughout Scotland to take the restrictions seriously and comply with them to keep one another safe, but the success of the new framework will depend to a large extent on enforcement at a local level, which must mean having the resources to do that work. One Scottish local authority leader said today on the radio that
“the Scottish Government are saying that whether you are in level 3 or 4, there is no additional funding.”
Is that accurate and will there be additional funding for those local authorities that have to ensure enforcement action—[Interruption.]—at the local level to make the new framework operate successfully?
I will try to address that question in full. Presiding Officer, I hope that nobody takes this the wrong way, but I misheard part of Patrick Harvie’s question because I was distracted by shouting from members on the Conservative benches. I am trying to address all the questions in full because they all deserve answers.
I will try to give a balanced answer on the question of support. The support that has been provided by the United Kingdom Government is very important and welcome, but I do not think that it goes far enough in relation to the move from furlough to the jobs support scheme. I have expressed that view previously, and we will continue to argue that with the UK Government, because the impact of that deficiency will be felt by workers across the country in the form of reduced pay packets, which nobody wants to see. For businesses that will be closed or have their trading restricted, we have put in place a grant scheme that matches the scheme in England and we are doing that to the maximum of the resources that we have—we are going beyond the resources that have been committed to us through consequentials. We will continue to make the case to the UK Government that there should be more funding available so that we can pass that on to councils and businesses.
This is the bit of the question that I did not fully catch, and I apologise to Patrick Harvie for that. If he was asking me about support for local authorities over and above that scheme, particularly for enforcement, we will continue to discuss that with local authorities—for example, one particular issue that we are exploring is whether further powers are needed for local environmental health officers. There is a case to be made for that, but the case has also been made by local authorities, which I also think is valid, that that would require additional resources to allow those enforcement powers to be properly used. That remains a dynamic discussion—it always will—between central Scottish Government and local governments, so that we can make sure, as far as we possibly can, that they have the resources that they need to enforce compliance where necessary and support people to comply.
Another issue that I raised this week, which will require local enforcement, is that of people being told by their employers not to comply with the Covid rules. We have heard of people being told that they should not install the Protect Scotland app or not keep their phone switched on, and that is not exceptional. I have heard of cases across the country of employers asking people not to self-isolate or people being told that, if they do, it will be treated as unauthorised unpaid absence.
Someone who works in a well-known pub chain got in touch with me today—I will not name it until I have verified this—and told me that a member of staff had been showing symptoms, took a test on the Wednesday and was made to work on the Thursday until the results came back; the results were positive so they went off work from then. She had been working with symptoms for two days and the staff members who worked with her on those two days were not only told to keep working but were moved around the chain’s other pubs because of short staffing.
Can the First Minister tell us whether local government, the Scottish Government or Police Scotland currently have the enforcement powers to take action against irresponsible employers who put their short-term business interests ahead of the safety of their workforce, their customers and the wider community, and does the Scottish Government support the proposals from Unite hospitality on issues such as raising sick pay up to full pay and ensuring regular routine testing for hospitality workers?
We will consider the Unite proposals carefully. On the question about enforcement powers, one of the changes that Patrick Harvie will recall we made some weeks ago was to give local authorities the powers to take enforcement action against any individual premises that were, through whatever conduct, raising the risk of transmission; that could include closure of that particular premises or some restrictions on their ability to trade. Local authorities have powers of that nature, but of course we keep under review whether there needs to be further extension.
Like Patrick Harvie, I do not know whether the examples that he narrated to the chamber are verified in any way; I would be very interested to know whether they can be.
Let me be very clear. I understand how incredibly difficult the situation is for businesses, but any business that has been behaving in that way has been risking making the situation worse, risking restrictions having to be in place for longer, risking the health and safety of their workers and the wider community, and risking making the impact on businesses more severe and longer lasting. It would be completely and utterly irresponsible for any business to behave in that way. I appeal to businesses, in their interests and those of the wider country, to abide by all the rules and support their staff fully to do so.
To workers across the country, I say this: if you are being put under pressure by an employer to act in any of those ways, get in touch with your local MSP or your local environmental health office, or email me directly. We would take steps to ensure that any such dangerous behaviour was addressed fully and properly.
Covid-19 (Care Homes)
The Government had a rule: care workers were told that if they had symptoms of the virus, they should stay away from work—stay away from the care home. They did that to protect vulnerable residents. However, the Government broke its own rule: it sent hundreds of people who had the virus into care homes. I know that the situation is difficult, but it seems to have been the case that there was one rule for care workers and another rule for the Government. That is not hindsight, because I warned about the issue at the time.
Despite all the carefully chosen words today, I still want to hear from the First Minister that the lesson has been learned, that the error has been accepted and that the apology for that error has been made. Will the First Minister say those words?
I am sorry for any error that I have made in the matter. I have said it many times. I am not carefully choosing my words—I probably do not have the capacity to do that at the moment—but am trying to be as frank as possible. We have got things wrong, we will continue to try to put that right and we will use all the normal processes of accountability.
The one thing that I will always rail against—not through “carefully chosen words”, but through emotion, probably, more than anything else—is the idea that we were somehow not caring about what happened in care homes. That does not mean that we did not get things wrong, but we tried at every point, on the basis of the evidence and advice that we had at the time, to do the things that we thought would be most effective. In care homes, at the earliest stage of the pandemic, those things were around infection prevention and control, isolation of residents in their rooms, not having communal activities, and steps regarding care home workers. It is absolutely legitimate to question, with the benefit of hindsight, whether those things were right or wrong, but at the time, the advice on testing asymptomatic people and its effectiveness was different from what it is today.
I wish that I could turn back the clock on all this—especially with regard to care homes—but I cannot. What I can do, and what I have the responsibility to do, is ensure that we learn the lessons, apply them and get things as right as possible.
Will we make more mistakes in this situation? Undoubtedly we will, and we will regret them, but I promise everybody in the country that, every single day, I and my Government will do our best to get it right. We will be scrutinised and I will listen to all the criticisms and scrutiny—that is an important part of the process. On every step of the way, we will do everything that we can to keep people as safe as possible. That is true for the whole population, and it is particularly true for the people who are most vulnerable.
I did not challenge the motive. It is the facts and decisions that we all want to get to, and that is the purpose of this scrutiny.
The complicated statistical report is limited because of the lack of testing, which means that the margins of error are wide. This must not, for the sake of the families who need to know more, be the end of the investigation of the care home travesty. We need to learn, because the virus is still with us.
After the Nike conference, the Government was able to establish whether the strains of the virus had spread around the country. Will that work be done for care homes?
We need to know what is happening now. We need to know that all new residents have had two negative tests before they are admitted to care homes. Is that always the case?
That is what we say should happen. I accept that I cannot stand here and say with 100 per cent confidence that in a big system there is never a circumstance in which a policy is not applied. However, that is the policy, and it is what we expect to be applied.
There will always be circumstances—this is reflected in the report—in which, for good clinical reasons, a clinician will decide that it is not appropriate to conduct an invasive test on a person. A frail elderly patient might be at the end of their life, for example. I cannot countermand the decision of a clinician on that, but the policy is very clear.
On Willie Rennie’s point about genomic sequencing, I expect genomic sequencing to tell us much more about the spread of the virus across the country, including the situation in care homes. Scotland is probably doing more genomic sequencing than many countries are doing. It has told us a lot of important things about what happened and what did not happen after the Nike conference. I expect that there will be more findings in the coming period from looking at the situation over the summer and what happened as we came out of lockdown. It has an important part to play, including in care homes.
I am not complaining at all about scrutiny. If it ever sounds as though I am, that is not my intention. Scrutiny is an important part of the process that we are all going through right now.
I have never said that the report is the final word; obviously, it is limited. It looked at a particular factor, and there were limitations on what it could say about that factor. I have never tried to say otherwise. However, there was a call for us to commission a report on that particular factor, so that is what we did.
There are other factors that we have to understand better, and we will, in the fullness of time, have to look at the situation in totality through a full public inquiry. I am absolutely clear in my mind that that has to happen. It has to happen for the country overall; it has to happen for everybody, and not just for the families of residents in care homes, although it has to happen particularly for them. It has to happen for the sake of the families of people who died and so that we learn lessons now that can be applied if the world—I hope that this will not happen in our lifetimes—ever goes through such a situation again. I am 100 per cent committed to that process.
However, right now, my main duty as First Minister is to continue to lead the country in a very focused way through the second wave that still lies ahead of us.
I remind members that I will take supplementary questions after question 7. There are well over two dozen potential supplementaries—in fact, there are more than 30. I do not think that we will get through them, but we can try.
Child Sexual Exploitation
To ask the First Minister what her response is to the report by the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration and Barnardo’s Scotland, which confirms that child sexual exploitation is happening in island, rural and urban communities across the country, with cases being reported in 27 out of 32 local authority areas. (S5F-04496)
Child sexual abuse and exploitation are heinous crimes. We welcome the publication of that important research, which examined the complexity of sexual exploitation and its links to other forms of abuse. The research demands close attention from all core agencies and key partners in determining an appropriate multi-agency response.
Any child or young person, regardless of their age, race or ethnicity, can be at risk. Children from any background or any community can be affected. I know that all of us want Scotland to be a place from which sexual exploitation of children and young people is eliminated.
The report contains many disturbing findings. For example, more than half of the girls and a quarter of the boys in the children’s hearings system were victims of sexual abuse, and a high proportion of those young people—especially girls—attempted suicide. It is worrying that four out of five boys and a quarter of girls who were identified as likely victims had not been recognised. That suggests that vulnerabilities are not being taken seriously enough.
Given those concerns and their magnitude, will the Scottish Government put a sustained focus on child sexual exploitation in order to deliver the better protection that our most vulnerable children urgently need?
With our third sector partners and through the continued funding commitments for the child-protection sector, we will continue to build on the wealth of activity that is delivered through the national action plan to prevent and tackle child sexual exploitation. We have listened carefully to child-protection partners, which called last year for acknowledgment of the strong links between child sexual exploitation and other forms of child abuse. That is why we will place a renewed focus on child abuse and exploitation as part of the revision of the human trafficking and exploitation strategy.
Flu Vaccinations (Completion)
To ask the First Minister whether all flu vaccinations will be completed on time. (S5F-04486)
Yes, health boards are on track to provide eligible cohorts in phase 1 with the vaccine by the time the flu season reaches its peak. Eligible cohorts are those who are the most clinically vulnerable to flu. Among others, they include the over-65s, those with underlying health conditions, pregnant women and health and social care workers. Health boards have estimated that almost 1.1 million people will be vaccinated by the end of this week—that is 44 per cent of the total people who will receive the vaccine during this flu season. In the United Kingdom, the flu season begins in December and reaches its peak in January and February. However, it will be possible to receive the vaccine as late as the end of March 2021.
When I previously asked the First Minister whether she could guarantee that everyone who is due a flu vaccine will receive one and what percentage she hoped to achieve by the end of November, she was not able to offer that guarantee. However, the health secretary wrote to me to give me the figure of 1,072,237 people—or 52 per cent of the people in that phase 1 group—whom she said would be vaccinated by the end of October.
Since then, we have had further reports of hundreds of patients in Grampian being turned away for flu jabs this month due to major logistical and capacity issues, while NHS Ayrshire and Arran suspended its programme and is unable to vaccinate its care staff. Ms Freeman said yesterday that she does not think that that is shambolic, but many of our constituents disagree.
Can the First Minister tell me how many people in the phase 1 group in each NHS health board have received a flu jab as of today, and can she provide reassurance that I will not need to ask the question again in November?
I do not have the information for all health boards in front of me—and if I did, Presiding Officer, it would probably take too long for me to give it and you would be more unhappy with me. However, the health secretary will write to the member with that information.
I can, though, say—and I will give the number more precisely than I did in my initial answer—that 1,072,786 people will be vaccinated by the end of this week, the end of October. That is 44 per cent of the total number of people who will receive the vaccine during the flu season, and the vaccination programme will continue.
There have been some challenges in health boards, particularly in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. In Ayrshire and Arran, there was a temporary issue to do with the procurement of the vaccine, which has been resolved. Many of my friends and family live in Ayrshire and Arran, as that is the part of the country that I come from, and I know that the programme is generally working very well in that area.
Where there are issues, the health secretary and her officials have been working with health boards to address them. The vaccination programme is on track and we will continue to ensure that that remains the case.
Burntisland Fabrications Ltd
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government is responding to reports that BiFab is on the brink of collapse. (S5F-04488)
In order to save BiFab from closure back in 2017—and, at that time, to support the delivery of the Beatrice offshore wind project—the Scottish Government invested £37.4 million through a combination of equity and loan facilities, which was converted to a 32.4 per cent equity stake in BiFab. A loan facility of £15 million has also been provided to support working capital.
We will continue to do absolutely everything that we can to support the business while recognising the need for us to remain in line with state aid regulations and overall financial constraints. In doing that, we remain in regular dialogue with the majority shareholder, JV Driver.
Today, the Daily Record reports on legal opinion regarding state aid rules from Lord Davidson, which concludes that the Government has appeared irrational in withdrawing the commitment to provide a guarantee and that that decision risks judicial review.
Communities in Fife cannot understand why the Scottish Government has withdrawn its support. I urge the First Minister to reverse that decision and to publish the advice that she has received on state aid, as 500 jobs in Fife rely on that contract. A workforce who marched on the Parliament three years ago deserve straight answers and a future.
I sympathise absolutely with the sentiments of Claire Baker’s question. The Government has worked very hard with the trade unions—which have worked even harder—and with the owners at BiFab to try to secure it. We have invested heavily, but we have to act within the advice that we get on state aid and financial constraints.
I want to be very clear: we will leave no stone unturned. I ask Claire Baker to recognise that and to take it as a sign of the sentiment that lies behind the Scottish Government’s actions. We have invested significantly—we are a significant shareholder in BiFab—so it would make no sense for the Government, let alone the workers or the wider community, to simply allow BiFab to go to the wall if there is a way for us to avoid that happening.
We will explore every opportunity to save BiFab, as we have done in the past. As people would expect of someone in my position, I have personally spent a great deal of time and effort working with others to secure BiFab. But for that, BiFab would have closed three years ago. We will continue to do everything we can, but we have to operate within the legal constraints that all Governments are bound by.
Thank you. I highlight again that we seem to have a remarkable number of members wanting to ask supplementaries today. We will not be able to get through them all, but we will go through as many as we can. I urge people to remember my injunction for succinct and brief questions and answers.
Covid-19 Restrictions and Support (Dundee)
I am sure that the First Minister will understand the local concerns about Dundee being placed in level 3. Can she give any further detail on support for businesses in Dundee that are affected by that change? Does she share my alarm at the forecast in today’s document that NHS Tayside will exceed hospital bed capacity within six weeks on the current trajectory? What more can we all do to change that trajectory and blunt the rises, so that Dundee can move out of level 3 at a future review?
Presiding Officer, first, I would like to say that you are in charge of the chamber, but I am happy to answer all the questions and to stay here for as long as it takes to do that if that is permissible.
The projections relating to NHS Tayside are part of the reason that we have taken today’s decision on Dundee city. It is action designed to take Tayside—and Dundee, in particular—off the path that it is currently on and to avoid those projections coming to pass. My plea to people across Dundee and the wider Tayside region is that they abide strictly by all the advice and all the regulations, so that those decisions and actions that we have taken have the best possible chance of working.
The support for businesses is set out in general terms in the strategic framework. Businesses in Dundee will be able to ask the city council for precise details, and the website findbusinesssupport.gov.scot—if I do not have that wrong—is available so that businesses can look in more detail at the support that is available to them should they require to close or have their trading restricted.
Thank you. For information, this question session is due to end at 13:40, or 20 minutes to 2, and we will resume at half past 2. There is not a huge amount of time for turnaround, and there is a lot of business to get through.
Business Support (Wholesalers)
Will the First Minister give assurances that wholesalers that are not closed but that are severely restricted by the closure of the hospitality sector will have access to the hardship fund and additional targeted sectoral support, so as to ensure that the wholesale food supply chain does not fail and that it can continue to service hospitals, schools, prisons, care homes and hospitality businesses when they reopen?
The support package that we have made available is designed to support not just businesses that require to close or businesses that have their trading restricted in a primary sense, but the supply chain as well. Therefore, it includes wholesalers. The precise details of support packages are available for businesses to consider. We have tried to match the grant support packages that have been made available in England.
I think that that is the minimum that businesses can expect from the Government, but it is the maximum that we can do with the resources that we have. We will continue to work with our colleagues across the United Kingdom to ensure that we see expanded and appropriate support for businesses as we continue to go through these difficult times.
Care Services (Reductions)
The First Minister will be aware that many services that were available pre-Covid were withdrawn during the early stages of the crisis, including care for older people and disabled people in their own homes. A number of constituents have contacted me to report that, now that those services are being reintroduced, their support packages are much reduced and there is a consequent serious impact on their health and wellbeing.
Does the First Minister agree that any attempt now to reduce support that was deemed essential pre-Covid is unacceptable? What action will she take to ensure that support is not reduced by stealth, with the impact of Covid being suggested as a justification?
I agree with that. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has previously made it clear that people should have the support that they require and that Covid should not be used as an excuse to reduce packages “by stealth”—to use Johann Lamont’s phrase. I do not think that that is happening across the country, although I have heard reports of it happening in particular parts of the country and the health secretary is engaged with local partners where that is the case.
There has been additional investment by the Scottish Government in local partners to ensure that those services have the support that they need. If a member has any evidence of a reduction in packages happening in any part of the country, they can draw that to the attention of the health secretary and we will take steps to address the issue.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Amateur Football Teams)
I know that many MSPs have been contacted by amateur football teams. A local amateur football team in my constituency—Maryhill Milan AFC, which was formed in 2017—has many players, including those in the recovery community. Under level 3 restrictions, they cannot play the game that they love and I am sure that everyone in the chamber will appreciate the potential impact on the health and wellbeing of those players.
I absolutely accept the tough decisions that the Scottish Government must take and the balance that it must strike at this difficult time. What considerations can be given in the future to the development of a more flexible framework that can see teams such as Maryhill Milan AFC return to playing as quickly and—just as important—as safely as possible?
We all appreciate the positive benefits that participation in football, and sports generally, has on physical and mental health and on a range of other outcomes, including recovery—the activity of Maryhill Milan AFC in Bob Doris’s constituency demonstrates that. I know that the restrictions on adult contact sport will disappoint people who cannot get together with their pals and teammates to play at whatever sport they favour.
After significant consideration and consultation, the Scottish Government has reluctantly confirmed the position as previously set out: the risk that is associated with the virus is still too great in areas with level 3 or level 4 conditions to allow adult contact sport.
I assure Bob Doris and others that we will keep that situation under review, because nobody wants to restrict anything without it being necessary, or for longer than is necessary. That is particularly true of sporting activity. We will continue to review the situation and give updates as and when we are able to do so.
Outdoor Education Sector (Sustainability)
I warmly welcome the £2 million that the Scottish Government gave to the outdoor education sector. What further engagements will the Scottish Government have with the sector about long-term sustainability? The £2 million is obviously not enough to get the sector through the considerable concerns that it faces with Covid-19.
We are acutely conscious that short-term support is short-term support. We need to work with all sectors and consider the support that is appropriate and necessary as the situation develops. We have on-going engagement with the outdoor education sector, which has been good and resulted in the short-term support that Liz Smith welcomed.
It has been the case all along that we want to support the sector in the short to medium term to do as much as can be done within the current regulations to maximise its activity. However, we want to also work with it and other sectors in the broad framework that we set out to reduce levels of the virus, so that we can start to introduce more normality. This is not easy for anybody, but we will continue to work with sectors to provide as much support as we can.
A point that is relevant to the previous question and to this one is that we all have to remember that the restrictions can feel difficult for everybody—a quick glance across Europe right now shows that we are not alone. The more effectively that all of us act to get the virus under control, the quicker we can start to restore normality. That has to be the key point that all of us remember and communicate to our constituents across the country.
Shielding (Supermarket Deliveries)
I draw the First Minister’s attention to research that was published yesterday from the Scotland in Lockdown project, based at the University of Glasgow, which highlighted the plight of forgotten shielders—those on the official shielding list who have had to shield because of long-term health conditions or disabilities. One particular problem for them is access to supermarket deliveries; even when they get access, getting the appropriate food—consistent with their conditions—is a problem.
As we enter phase 2, what discussions can be had with supermarkets to ensure that people who are in that situation get appropriate access to the food that they require in those challenging circumstances?
We will continue to keep that under on-going discussion with supermarkets. Of course, at the outset of the pandemic there were particular pressures on supermarkets, which led to supply issues and that included delivery slots. That eased, although we also took action to set up a specific food delivery service for people in the shielding category and local authorities set up local arrangements to make sure that people in the shielding category got that priority access to food. Thousands of people got the free food deliveries every week through the Scottish Government scheme that we set up.
We also did some work with supermarkets to give priority access to slots for vulnerable people. We hope that we will not see the same pressures going into the next period as we saw at the outset, but we will continue to talk to supermarkets to make sure that pressures are addressed where they arise. We will also take steps, in partnership with local authorities, to ensure that vulnerable people get access to any support that they need including, where necessary, access to food supplies.
Contact Tracing (Target Time)
What is the target time for contact tracers in our test and protect scheme to contact someone who has received a positive test result, so that the test and protect app can be updated as quickly as possible?
People who test positive should be contacted within 24 hours of the positive test being entered into the case management system. The system has been under pressure in recent weeks due to the increasing volume of index cases, but it is routinely exceeding the 80 per cent target for closure of cases. That means that not just the initial contact but all the work has been done within 72 hours.
The latest published statistics show that, for the week ending 25 October, 84.1 per cent of people had their interview complete within 24 hours of an index case appearing in the case management system and 97.7 per cent of cases were closed within 72 hours of being created in the system. Compared with systems elsewhere those are positive statistics, but we are not complacent about them. We will continue to work hard to make sure that they do not deteriorate and that we improve them even further.
Ministerial Code (Investigation)
Will the First Minister agree to expand the ministerial code investigation to include her statements to Parliament and her actions on the legal advice regarding the judicial review into Alex Salmond’s alleged behaviour?
My view right now is that James Hamilton, who is the adviser undertaking the investigation into the ministerial code, is not restricted at all in the issues that he can look at. If he thinks that there are any issues that engage the ministerial code or could in any way constitute a breach of the ministerial code, my view is that he is free to look at them. If he considers that that requires any change to his official remit, I am sure that he is perfectly able to say that. However, for the record and to be clear, I do not consider his remit to be limited to just one aspect of the ministerial code.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Financial Support for Businesses)
There are many pubs across my region that do not sell food and do not have space for a beer garden and therefore they cannot sell alcohol. Because of the restriction levels that the First Minister has just announced, they will, frankly, close.
The Government has not shared the regulations that will underpin those restrictions, so I ask the First Minister whether those businesses will be legally required to close. If not, will they be treated in exactly the same way, in terms of the level of financial support from the Scottish Government and access to the furlough scheme, as businesses that are legally required to close and, if not, why not? Government restrictions have the same effect on those businesses as legal closure, so they are surely entitled to the same level of support.
I agree that we have to support all businesses, not just those that are legally required to close. The job support scheme does that by having different strands for businesses that are required to close and those that are not. Our grant system recognises that businesses that are not required to close but which have their trading restricted are also eligible for support.
It is important that we recognise the different ways in which the restrictions impact on the ability of businesses to operate normally. We are trying, through that system, to have as proportionate an approach as possible. In many and increasing numbers of countries, including in the United Kingdom—in Wales, obviously, for reasons that I entirely support because the First Minister there thought that they were necessary—hospitality is completely closed. We see that now in Belgium, France, Germany and increasing numbers of countries.
We are trying to be proportionate and to give proportionate support, but it is necessary that such restrictions are complied with to avoid the need for us to do what other countries are doing. That is a point that we cannot lose sight of, however difficult I know the restrictions are.
What role did the lack of capital investment by JV Driver, the majority shareholder in BiFab, have in the company’s recent decision to withdraw its bid for the energy contract?
The Scottish Government is a minority shareholder in BiFab—I set out the shareholding position in my response to Claire Baker’s question—and we are bound by state aid rules, so we can act only as a commercial investor would in our situation.
We look to JV Driver, as the majority shareholder, to provide financial support to the business. At this stage, it is maintaining a zero-risk position. If the majority shareholder is not prepared to invest in the business, that makes it more challenging to demonstrate that another commercial investor would invest. Of course, that changes if the majority shareholder is prepared to invest in the company; that would potentially open the door for the Scottish Government to provide further support.
We will continue to do everything that we reasonably can to support BiFab. We would not have come this far with the scale of investment that we have already made in BiFab only to blithely let the business go to the wall now. We will continue to do what we can, but we are bound by state aid rules and the broader financial context.
Covid-19 (Testing in Schools)
In August, the Deputy First Minister confirmed that, by October, the enhanced surveillance testing programme for schools would be fully operational. Can the First Minister confirm if that is now the case, and whether the aggregate data that is produced by the testing programme will be published?
I will come back to Ross Greer on the plans for the publication of data. There are a number of strands to testing work in schools. All teachers and school staff can access testing if they feel that they have been exposed to the virus. There is also surveillance testing, and an antibody testing programme is being conducted in schools. I do not have the data on the numbers to hand, but I will undertake to come back to Ross Greer with the detail as soon as possible.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Islands)
Along with the island authorities, Beatrice Wishart and I have been raising concerns about the continued restrictions on small indoor meetings in Orkney and Shetland. Meeting socially outdoors is simply not possible for many as we enter winter in our island communities, where restaurants, cafes and coffee shops are pretty thin on the ground.
How was that factored into the Scottish Government’s decision? Given the known social harms and risks of isolation, will the First Minister ensure that every effort is made to lift those restrictions at the earliest possible opportunity?
Yes, I will give that assurance. As I said earlier, we hope—although I will not give a guarantee ahead of the formal assessment—that we will be able to lift that restriction for level 1 areas at the next review point.
I understand the particular difficulties for island and rural communities, and I recognised those in my statement. The clear public health advice that is currently coming to us is that, given the overall fragility of the system; given that there have been cases in our island and rural communities, although transmission is lower in general; and given that we are migrating to the new system for the first time, the precautionary and safe thing to do is to keep the restrictions in place for a further period.
As I said earlier, NHS Shetland is the only health board area that does not have cases today, and I know that the current situation is therefore particular harsh on that area. Nonetheless, we want to move away from it as quickly as possible, all things being equal, and I hope that we can signal such a change at the next review point.
Miners’ Strike (Inquiry)
As the First Minister knows, I represent three mining communities: Penicuik, Gorebridge and Newtongrange, which is the home of the Scottish Mining Museum. I therefore welcome yesterday’s announcement of a general pardon by the Scottish Government for those in Scotland who were criminalised for the events in the 1984 strike.
I know that the Government wants the United Kingdom to hold an inquiry. Can I ask that the First Minister emphasises that any UK inquiry must include in its remit the question whether there was political interference in police operations, which saw mounted police charging into miners who were democratically defending their jobs and communities?
The miners’ strike was one of the most bitter and divisive industrial disputes in living memory, and I am really glad and proud that the Scottish Government was able to take a small but important step yesterday in righting those wrongs and addressing the injustice that was suffered by so many miners and their families during the strike.
There are unanswered questions about the UK Government’s role in the strike, and we will continue to press the UK Government to hold a full public inquiry, which would of course include any allegations of political interference.
For our part, we initiated the independent review to ensure that the experiences of Scottish mining communities were fully understood. We now have an opportunity to bring reconciliation to miners and police officers and to try and heal the wounds of the past. We will call on the UK Government to adopt the same reconciliation approach in pursuing a UK-wide inquiry.
Fire and Smoke Alarm Standards
Following a wave of public discontent, the Scottish Government has performed a U-turn on fire and smoke alarm standards. The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning confirmed to a parliamentary committee:
“It is imperative that we get the publicity right.”—[Official Report, Local Government and Communities Committee, 19 December 2018; c 26.]
In reality, a private company conducted a marketing campaign, carrying the Scottish Government logo, that was not signed off by the Scottish ministers. What reassurances can the First Minister give to constituents in my region and to organisations such as Age Scotland that lessons will be learned?
The logo should not have been used, and we have taken steps to ensure that that will not happen again. I know the upset that that will have caused to people across the country. I first saw the leaflet when it went through the door of a member of my own family, who told me about it, and many people received it.
More substantively, I could equally frame this as the Scottish Government listening and recognising the unique circumstances that we are in. Covid has meant that we were not able to do the awareness raising and supportive work that would have made possible a shift to the measures according to the anticipated timescale.
I think that we have done the right and responsible thing, which was to recognise what has happened, listen to people’s concerns and propose a delay to the introduction of the legislation. We will continue to try and respond in that responsible way to all the difficult issues that are being thrown up by this unique and unprecedented set of circumstances that we are living through.
As members can see, I am letting this session run on a little bit longer, so that we can get some more questions in.
The First Minister will recall that I have previously raised the case of my constituent, Leigha Collins, both at First Minister’s questions and with ministers. Leigha is a young Scottish mum who, along with her infant son, was sent back to Malta by a Scottish judge to face a risky and uncertain future. It now appears that important issues relating to her case were not known to the Scottish judge before he made his decision: namely, that her former partner had admitted a charge of grievous bodily harm last July, eight months before the hearing, at which the judge insisted that the former partner was innocent until proven guilty in Malta. This young woman and her young child have been isolated and alone—in one room in a hostel in a foreign country—because the legal system did not believe her, in particular that she was frightened for her safety and the safety of her children. They need someone on their side.
I am asking the Scottish Government to step up and examine the details of the case. I appreciate that it is a legal matter, but when the law fails children and young Scottish mothers, surely something has gone wrong. Will the First Minister agree to examine the detail of what has happened in this case? The family needs help to be brought back together and to be brought back to Scotland.
I thank Alex Rowley for raising the case. Members understand the constraints in which I must operate when it comes to commenting on decisions of the independent legal system. From a human perspective, there are some cases where I find that much more difficult compared with others, and this is one such case. My heart, like the heart of everybody I know, goes out to Leigha, noting the circumstances that she finds herself in.
I cannot simply cast aside the constitutional limitations of my role, but if there is anything that I can do to try and allow Leigha to be home and to be safe, I will of course look at doing that. If Alex Rowley wishes to write to me, I am happy to engage and look to see whether there is anything that I can do within the obvious constraints in which I operate.
The First Minister will be aware that there is a lot of concern about fireworks this year, especially as some of the larger and council displays have been cancelled. She probably also knows that the Dogs Trust is based in my constituency, and that animals get extremely stressed and frightened when fireworks are let off near them. Can she make any comments or offer any advice to households or individuals who are thinking about fireworks this year?
The need to behave responsibly is even greater this year than it was previously.
During the past few years I have dealt with some particularly challenging issues in my constituency that involved the irresponsible and downright dangerous use of fireworks, so I know only too well the impact that they can have on local communities.
Like so many other things, bonfire night will look very different this year. Many traditional activities will not take place and public fireworks displays will not happen. That means that it is all the more important that individuals do not act irresponsibly or, inadvertently, in a way that puts them and others at risk. That is important for human beings, but also for animals—pets and livestock.
Public health advice and Covid restrictions on household gatherings must also be adhered to. Let me be very clear that people should not have private fireworks displays in gardens that breach those rules. Generally, people must behave responsibly around fireworks.
The police and the fire brigade will ensure that they have the resources to respond appropriately on the night and in the days leading up to it.
Coronavirus Business Advisory Council
Given the difficulties that many businesses have had in accessing support, will the First Minister back our proposals for a coronavirus business advisory council to ensure that businesses are at the heart of our efforts to save jobs?
During Tuesday’s debate, I said that we would consider that proposal sympathetically; that remains the case.
Businesses are already at the heart of this. I appreciate that, in the circumstances that we are living in, it might not always feel like that for businesses and individuals—I readily recognise that.
We want to ensure that businesses are involved, as far as possible, in the decision-making process and that they have an understanding of what drives those decisions. We want that to be true of wider society as well—trade unions should be involved, for example. We will consider how to take that proposal forward.
I said on Tuesday that although—for reasons that we explained—we were not able to vote for the Conservative or Labour amendments, that did not mean that there were not good ideas in them. We will take those good ideas forward as far as we can.
Airport Racial Profiling (Mohammad Asif)
Mohammad Asif came to Scotland from Afghanistan in 2000 as a refugee. He has made a huge contribution to Scotland, including by adopting seven-year-old Mohammad Sudais after he was injured in a gas explosion. Mohammad Asif is also known to the First Minister.
He recently visited his very sick mother in Pakistan, but on his return to Glasgow airport he was detained by police, closely interrogated and asked to read schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. He was asked questions about what he thought of the Taliban and whether he was a strict muslim. His phone was interrogated for pictures and data. He felt deeply humiliated and degraded.
First Minister, this is not only about Mohammad Asif; it is about a process that seems to me to undermine our approach in welcoming refugees and to race-community relations. I wonder whether the First Minister agrees with me on that.
Treating people such as Mohammad Asif as a terrorist, when it is widely known that he fled the brutality of the Taliban, should be condemned. Perhaps it is time to review how services go about profiling people whom they detain.
I declare an interest, because Mohammad Asif is a very dear friend of mine, as I know he is of Pauline McNeill. He is a fine, upstanding member of the Scottish community who makes a marvellous contribution to this country, and we should be really proud to have him here. Little Mohammad Sudais has come through the most unimaginable trauma, but is also flourishing.
This is obviously about Mohammad Asif’s experience, but it is also about a wider issue. I have not had the chance to speak to him this week. However, I have read the reports of what he experienced. I think that it is unacceptable, and that things need to change.
Let me also say that people who work for Border Force and immigration authorities do a tough job, and we should also recognise that.
However, many of my constituents in the south side of Glasgow who travel backwards and forwards to Pakistan feel that they are not treated fairly in that process, and that they are often put through humiliating and degrading experiences. That is wrong. We need to find the right balance between protecting the country and recognising the fact that people such as Mohammad Asif should not be treated in that way.
This issue relates to matters that are reserved, but we continue to raise them with the United Kingdom Government as appropriate.
I am afraid that although I have let the meeting run on, I do not think that I can let it run any further.
NextPoint of Order