Meeting date: Tuesday, November 3, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 November 2020
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Burntisland Fabrications Ltd, Fireworks, Winter Preparedness in Social Care, Arts Funding, Decision Time, Care Homes and Covid-19 (Amnesty International Report)
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Burntisland Fabrications Ltd
- Winter Preparedness in Social Care
- Arts Funding
- Decision Time
- Care Homes and Covid-19 (Amnesty International Report)
Topical Question Time
We move on to topical question time. I remind members that we have put aside up to an hour for topical questions today, and that there are five questions.
To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the conditions under which furlough payments will continue to be paid in Scotland. (S5T-02490)
Ministers and officials have pressed vigorously with our UK Government counterparts on a number of occasions in recent days to ensure that the conditions under which furlough payments are being made in England will continue to apply in Scotland. We continue to seek urgent clarification from the Treasury as to the exact terms under which the furlough scheme will be available to us.
At the weekend just past, many people in Scotland lost their jobs, and some lost their businesses. They did so because the one thing that the Tories had been clear about was that furlough would not be extended. Of course, that position was supported by Tories in the Scottish Parliament. The continuing uncertainty as to when and under what circumstances furlough will continue to be paid in Scotland will continue to cost jobs and close businesses.
Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in addition to the Prime Minister’s view that £1 spent in London is of more value than £1 spent in Strathclyde, it now appears that every action of the United Kingdom Tory Government supports the fear that has been expressed by one Tory member of Parliament that, to the Tory Government, a job in Scotland is of less value than a job in the south of England?
I agree with Keith Brown that the issue boils down to a very simple question: do the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer place as much value on a business or a job in Scotland as they do on a business or a job elsewhere in the UK?
The UK Government would not budge when we asked for furlough to be extended, when the Welsh Government asked for that to happen or when the Northern Ireland Executive did so, but at the 11th hour, just before it was due to end, furlough was extended. Why? Because England was going into lockdown. The lack of clarity and the total confusion that appear to reign at the very top of the UK Government are not helping Scottish businesses to plan, nor are they protecting jobs. The detail needs to be clarified immediately. Full furlough must be available to Scottish businesses when they need it and full self-employed income support must be provided. We must ensure that, when the support is required, it is there for Scottish businesses.
We have the UK Government’s shambolic conduct, to which the cabinet secretary referred, in extending a scheme that it said that it would not extend merely hours before it was due to end. We also had the farcical and twice-delayed hasty press conference in Downing Street, and we have had different versions of UK Government policy that have been expressed by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, various Tory MPs and MSPs and, most recently, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Given those things, what actions can the Scottish Government now take to get the UK Government to speak with one clear voice, guarantee furlough at 80 per cent in Scotland if and when it is required, and thereby halt the disgraceful destruction of Scottish jobs and businesses that the Tory Government and its supporters here in this chamber are responsible for?
As the First Minister said, woolly words do not save jobs. Since Saturday night, I have asked on four occasions for a meeting with the chancellor or the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to give them the opportunity to clear up the issue and provide clarity once and for all. Such a meeting has not been granted. One suspects that that is because the UK Government still does not know what its position is. I also suspect that the Scottish Tories are getting a little taste of the contempt in which Scotland is held and that they are starting to see and experience what we see and experience on a regular basis—a UK Government that blows in the wind. It U-turns on its U-turns and three days later still cannot give a straight answer on whether Scottish businesses are of the same value in the chancellor’s eyes as English businesses.
When the Scottish Government published its strategic framework, it was stated that, as part of the protection for hospitality, non-food pubs in level 2 and 3 areas would be able to open, albeit with varying restrictions on where and when they could sell alcohol. However, on Friday, with not even a hint being given in Parliament on the preceding days, the Government published regulations that closed all non-food pubs in level 2 and 3 areas. I understand why the Government did that—it did it to allow non-food pubs to access the new job support scheme (closed) that was supposed to come into effect this week.
However, given that the UK Government has eventually agreed to extend the original furlough scheme, which is paid to businesses regardless of whether they are legally closed, will the Scottish Government urgently rethink the regulations that it published on Friday and consult the sector on whether non-food pubs, many of which will have invested a lot of money in providing safe open outdoor spaces, might want to open, particularly in level 2 areas, where it might be viable for them to do so, in line with the framework that the Government published last week?
We will continue to consult the sector, as Colin Smyth has asked us to do. He is right in saying that the extension of the furlough scheme for this month reduces some of the pressure on businesses, but when it comes to hardship support, we have tried to ensure that the funding that is available to us goes as far as possible to help as many businesses as possible. Of course, in Scotland, businesses can access the hardship scheme support regardless of what tier they are in, whereas businesses in England can do that only if they are in tier 2.
Without further consequential funding, we are not able, financially, to offer local funding packages beyond the grants that are set out in the strategic framework. If further consequential funding becomes available, we will ensure that as many businesses as possible get those small grants.
I appreciate the cabinet secretary’s answer, but my question was not about the Government’s grant scheme; it was about access to the furlough scheme. The Scottish Government published a framework that specifically allowed non-food pubs to open at levels 2 and 3. The Government changed that position on Friday and closed all those pubs because of access to the furlough scheme, rather than the grants scheme.
I welcome the commitment by the cabinet secretary to review those regulations but can she give an idea of the timescale? Many pubs at level 2 planned to open on Monday and were told by trading standards literally minutes before they opened that they could not do so. We are treating hospitality as a scapegoat rather than as an important sector that employs nearly 300,000 people across Scotland.
I thank the member for that clarification, which I had not picked up in his first question. On our engagement with the sector, as he says, because of the difference between the job support scheme (closed) and the job support scheme (open), we consulted the industry, and the pub sector in particular, to understand the best way for it to access support. Based on that evidence and those discussions, we made our decision on the regulations.
There was extensive dialogue in advance. However, as the member says, without any warning, on Saturday night—at the 11th hour—the furlough scheme was extended. That has complicated matters further. We recognise that we need to get the regulations right at the end of furlough if it is not extended for Scottish businesses. We will consult businesses in advance to ensure that the regulations allow them to access as much business support as possible.
Does the finance secretary think that if we cannot get a straight answer from the UK Conservative Government soon about a future lockdown and furlough to support it, the Scottish Government will be forced to lock down Scotland on Thursday?
It is important to state at the outset that the evidence that we use—the five indicators that are set out in the strategic framework—is the basis on which we allocate the protection levels. The framework also makes it clear that we are dealing with four harms: Covid harm, wider health harm, wider social harm and—critically—economic harm. We will base our decisions on the evidence.
Willie Rennie makes an important point. If there is additional financial support available, it is much easier to make certain decisions. That is why the Welsh and Scottish Governments have been pressing for an extension to furlough. It has been a lifeline. Businesses need that support if we are to mitigate the current colossal economic harm.
In her discussions with the UK Government, will the cabinet secretary make representations that all businesses impacted by restrictions should be able to make use of furlough? Will she also make representations to ensure that furlough can happen regionally? As Willie Rennie said, it would be unacceptable if the whole of Scotland were to be locked down in order to access that money. Regional furlough would allow regions where there was a spike in Covid to be locked down without financial hardship and would protect those businesses, as happened in regions of England. It is important for regions of Scotland, too.
I agree in principle, in that there are gaps in the furlough scheme and the self-employed income support scheme. That is why at the very beginning we supplied grants to those who were newly self-employed, who had been left behind. There are gaps and not everyone is helped by the furlough scheme or the self-employed support scheme.
To re-emphasise the point that I made to Willie Rennie, we will make decisions on the basis of the data and the evidence on the state of the epidemic in Scotland. We will continue to make decisions on which levels apply in which area on the basis of public health and clinical advice and assessment against the four harms.
The point that has been made consistently is that if businesses are required to close or if they see their operations impacted, they need as much support as possible, because of the sacrifices that they have already made. That is why, if furlough has been extended when businesses in England are locked down, it makes sense and is entirely reasonable to argue that the same support and extension of furlough and the self-employed income support scheme should be made available to Scottish businesses that find themselves in that position.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Local Government Funding)
To ask the Scottish Government whether the new five-tier restrictions come with greater funding for local government in areas where more businesses must close. (S5T-02504)
The Scottish Government will resource in full the business support approach that is set out in the strategic framework.
Can the cabinet secretary give more clarity on that issue? Local authorities are aware of businesses that now face a precipice because even if they are allowed to open, they might need to operate restrictions that mean that they cannot survive.
It has been heartbreaking to hear of small local businesses that have used up their savings to keep afloat in the past few months. Members have already talked about hospitality. Given local authorities’ success in supporting businesses through the first wave, can the cabinet secretary clarify what support is available from the Scottish Government that could be distributed through councils once again?
At the outset, I want to say just how grateful I am to local authorities up and down the country and how much I appreciate their work. Working at the heart of each local authority are officials, employees and staff members who, in many cases, have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that grants are processed quickly and to provide that support to businesses, and who have often worked beyond their allocated work, as it were, to make that happen.
On the business support that is available, from 2 November, grants are available for every four-week period of restrictions. In the strategic framework, which was announced last week, I outlined that grants of more than £2,000 or £3,000, depending on rateable value, will be available for businesses that are required to close by law, and that hardship grants of £1,400 or £2,100, depending again on rateable value, will be available for businesses that remain open but are directly impacted by restrictions. Those grants will be provided regardless of protection level. More information can be found on the Scottish Government’s website, which is, if I remember correctly, findbusinesssupport.gov.scot.
I very much welcome that information from the cabinet secretary, which I will be sure to share with constituents.
Infrastructure projects will be vital in kick-starting our local economies. Will the cabinet secretary clarify when and how much funding will be available from the £275 million town centre fund to enable local authorities to start planning ahead and to work with local companies? Letting local authorities get going with that investment is crucial to keeping our town centres alive.
When it comes to providing support to local government, the £230 million that we made available in June included additional funding for regeneration and the town centre capital fund. That will allow local authorities to plan ahead when it comes to infrastructure. I quite agree with Sarah Boyack that infrastructure will be key to providing jobs and revitalising local government. The detail and the breakdown of that funding, in terms of split by local authority, is also online.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has committed to open-ended support for businesses in England, and is essentially writing them a blank cheque. Has the Treasury provided any assurances that funding for business support in Scotland will be similarly open ended?
That is a very important question. If businesses in, let us say, Liverpool are required to close, the Treasury will continue to provide financial support in the form of grants to those businesses. In Scotland, of course, we are given Barnett funding, but it is very challenging to forecast the costs when we do not know, right now, how many businesses will need grant support or for how long.
It is important that we can continue to provide support, which is why I have been asking for two things. One is a breakdown of the £700 million of guaranteed consequentials, to understand what portions of it are for health, transport and business support. The second is the reassurance that if businesses need more support than can be provided within that £700 million, the UK Government will be willing to step in so that the Scottish Government can provide that support to businesses.
In the past week, the Scottish National Party Government has already had to U-turn on contingency funding for nightclubs, and there is still some uncertainty about support for soft-play centres. What will the cabinet secretary and her colleagues do to prevent that needless uncertainty in the future, to give more clarity and guidance to our struggling local authorities and to ensure that much-needed support gets out to businesses as quickly and efficiently as possible?
It is quite remarkable that a Scottish Conservative MSP has just asked me about U-turns, business support and uncertainty.
On the support that is available to businesses, we announced several weeks ago that there would be £11 million of contingency funding. That allows a flexible approach to providing support to businesses that have not been able to open yet, or have seen much-reduced trade. They do not need to apply for the contingency funding. Local authorities will contact soft-play businesses and nightclubs directly to begin the process of providing them with support—although they, too, would of course value additional clarity and certainty from the UK Government, whose U-turn thus far has been quite shambolic.
Outdoor events producers have suffered more than most businesses as a result of the pandemic restrictions, but they have started to adapt and to create Covid-safe events. The organisation 21CC, which is based in my constituency, was due to have a safe drive-in fireworks display in Errol at a cost of several tens of thousands of pounds to the organisation, but it now has to cancel that event because of the cross-region tier restrictions on travel. Given that such organisations will not have been insured for Covid-related disruption, will the cabinet secretary consider repurposing part of the newly announced events recovery fund to make good any losses for outdoor events producers such as 21CC?
We recognise the huge impact on the events sector, which is why we made £10 million available for it as part of the culture, creative and heritage consequential funding. A number of other support schemes are also available.
Alex Cole-Hamilton has made a really important point. With the funding that we have been given, it is very challenging for us to ensure that all sectors and all businesses see their lost income being replaced. That is why, in providing support, we are trying to make the funding envelope as wide as possible so that there is support available for the events sector and culture organisations. However, we appreciate that that will not be sufficient to make up for all the lost income, so we are keen to get any consequential funding that is available to us out the door as quickly as possible in order to provide support to businesses and ensure that jobs are retained.
What discussions has the Scottish Government had with local authorities and banks about the eligibility criteria for the Covid-19 restrictions fund, which requires a business bank account to pay funds into if an application is successful, and about the issues that that is causing for a number of businesses in my constituency?
On engagement, we have worked closely with partners in local government to get the funds up and running quickly. The requirement for a business bank account is to help to manage the risk of fraudulent claims.
I am aware that there has been an issue with banks not opening new business bank accounts because of the volume of UK Government loan scheme applications that have been received. That has put considerable strain on account-opening resources. Fiona Hyslop has raised that issue directly with the banks at the banking and economy forum, and with Scottish Financial Enterprise.
I understand that many banks are now opening new accounts for larger businesses and existing customers who are establishing new businesses. I agree that that falls some distance short of the ideal situation, so we will continue to press the banking industry to ensure that business owners are not adversely affected by that situation and can benefit from the new scheme.
At the weekend, I heard a number of UK Government ministers talking about the levels of funding that they are putting into local government in different ways. Labour very much supports the call for details of the funding that is coming through Barnett consequentials, and we will work with the Government on that.
However, on the different levels in Scotland, I was contacted at the weekend by a number of companies and pub owners in Fife who said that they are in level 2, but would prefer to be in level 3 because, realistically, they are unable to function. If a bar says that it is simply not feasible for it to continue to be open, will it get the same support?
I thank Alex Rowley for that question, which was raised in advance of the protection levels coming into force. That issue was somewhat resolved by furlough being extended, because the big challenge for pubs was that, even if they were allowed to open in level 2, a ban on selling alcohol would mean that it would clearly not be viable for them to do so. There was a risk that they would not be able to access the job support scheme if they were closed, which is more generous than the support under the scheme if they were open.
In discussion with businesses and business organisations, it was concluded that it would be easier to mandate closure rather than to allow businesses to open with less financial support. We now have a window of a month to make sure that the regulations are right, because furlough is in place and the job support scheme has not come into operation, but we will need to ensure that pubs and other businesses are able to access maximum support. Of course, that will not even be a topic of consideration if the furlough scheme is extended for Scottish businesses, as the Prime Minister said yesterday it would be.
Face Coverings in Schools
To ask the Scottish Government how it will ensure that the latest guidance on face coverings in school will be implemented. (S5T-02480)
I wrote to local authorities jointly with Councillor Stephen McCabe of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities last week to emphasise the need to implement updated guidance on reducing the risks of Covid-19 in schools as swiftly and effectively as possible. Effective implementation of the package of measures in our guidance at a local level, including in respect of face coverings, is crucial to ensuring that schools remain open safely.
To support implementation in secondary schools, a communication toolkit has been produced and is available on the new Education Scotland education recovery web pages. Education Scotland will be adding examples of good practice to those pages. Our guidance also provides general advice on the local processes that should be followed when there are concerns about the implementation of risk assessments and protective measures. The Covid-19 education recovery group will continue to oversee the guidance and monitor its implementation.
The clinical advice on the effectiveness of face coverings seems clear so, although I recognise that this is far from ideal, I welcome it as a vital step in keeping pupils and staff safe. However, it is only one mitigation measure and I am concerned that others are not going ahead. We know that social distancing is not taking place consistently in most schools, for example, but we do not currently know the status of the testing programme. In August, the Deputy First Minister told me that enhanced surveillance testing would be fully operational by October. Did that happen?
Yes, the surveillance programme is up and running and 30,000 education staff have registered their interest in participating in it. I am advised that we have about 13,000 results already as part of that programme. Of course, that is in addition to the fact that we have made the opportunity available for any member of staff who is concerned about Covid but does not yet have symptoms to secure a test through their employer, and any member of staff who has symptoms is able to get a test whenever they require one.
Those programmes and enhanced measures are in place, and we will obviously continue to keep all possible steps under active review to ensure that our schools remain the safe places that they are for staff and pupils.
This morning, the Deputy First Minister responded to a letter that I had sent early last month raising concerns on behalf of vulnerable teachers who had been pressured to return to classrooms. There is currently a postcode lottery across the country as to whether home working and alternative arrangements are being seriously considered. His response states that individual risk assessments should take place, informed by advice from the teacher’s general practitioner.
Two teachers in two separate council areas have contacted me to say that their GP is advising strongly against their being in the classroom but that their school and local authority have refused alternative arrangements beyond statutory sick pay, which would have an obvious and significant financial impact in the long term. What is the Deputy First Minister’s response to such situations, in which a GP has advised against a return to work but alternate arrangements have not been seriously considered?
Fundamentally, those are issues for local authorities to determine in their role as employers of members of staff. It is for them to take account of the guidance that has been very clearly put in place by the education recovery group, which draws together the work of Government, local authorities, professional associations and a range of education stakeholders. I would encourage staff members to engage in those discussions with their employers.
If Mr Greer is concerned about particular cases—obviously, he has raised some in his question—and he is prepared to provide me with the details, I will look into them further. I can offer the general guidance that the education recovery group’s work is focused on ensuring that our schools are safe for all staff and all categories of staff, in particular staff who have fundamental vulnerabilities in their health and are in the shielding population. Those issues should be considered individually by individual local authorities, as recommended by the education recovery group.
The level of frustration that members have felt over the nature of that announcement is quite palpable. Why did the cabinet secretary announce it by press release on Friday morning, rather than on a sitting day in Parliament, when we would have had ample opportunity to debate the details of his guidance? What impact assessment has the cabinet secretary undertaken on the guidance and the effect that the measure will have on pupils with physical health conditions, additional support needs and learning difficulties? Will he publish that impact assessment?
The Government has to act to ensure that we implement the advice that is available to us at the earliest possible opportunity during a pandemic. The education recovery group finalised its position on the advice in the course of Thursday, and we had the new tiers framework coming into place on Monday. My judgment was that we should set out that information timeously. I am, of course, here to answer questions about the advice in Parliament today.
The specific needs of young people with additional support needs or any other issue that would impede their ability to wear a face covering is already covered in the guidance, which makes very clear that exemptions should be applied if there is any reason why it is inappropriate for a young person to wear face coverings and that other mitigating actions should be taken by schools in those circumstances. That approach is consistent with the approach that we generally take to ensure that our decisions in the education system are based on the individual needs of individual pupils.
There is a good case for the wider use of face coverings in schools, but Jamie Greene is right that it would have been a lot easier to support, explain or defend those decisions if members had had some notice of them. There was no mention of the consideration of face coverings in schools during the many hours of parliamentary time on the five-level framework last week. The change was briefed and tweeted by journalists on Friday morning, it was confirmed by a press conference at lunch time and Parliament was told in an inspired portfolio question, which was answered four hours later. Indeed, the initial supporting evidence that was published did not mention face coverings at all. That really is not good enough. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to do better in future?
I am reminded of one of Mr Gray’s other contributions to a recent debate, in which he criticised me for not announcing a change to policy on exams more quickly and leaving it until I addressed Parliament several days later. Here, Mr Gray is complaining that I have acted quickly and come to answer questions from Parliament later. I think that it is a glorious example of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, in the eyes of Mr Gray.
Covid-19 Testing (Guidance for Over-70s)
To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to reports that some national health service boards reduced Covid-19 testing for patients over 70 on the basis of guidance issued by the chief nursing officer. (S5T-02494)
Since 29 April, patients aged 70 or over have been tested for Covid-19 on admission to hospital. That is in addition to testing policy on discharge to care homes and testing when Covid symptoms have developed. Concerns were expressed by the Covid-19 nosocomial review group, whose work had informed the policy, about the ethics and impacts of repeat over-70s testing, those being discomfort, distress, and the risk of mucosal damage. As large numbers of repeat tests were resulting in a low positive yield, our chief nursing officer advised boards on 7 October that repeat testing of over-70s was not required unless the person became symptomatic or was part of a Covid-19 cluster, or the lead clinician considered it to be necessary. It was also made clear on 15 October that repeat four-day testing of those aged 70 or over could continue if, following a risk assessment, boards felt that it was necessary and reflected current epidemiological evidence.
I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer, but it allows me to raise once again the role of Parliament and the fact that we get much of our Scottish Government information through the media, whether it be through the daily brief or other media outlets. I recognise that the cabinet secretary has set up fortnightly meetings for health spokespeople.
Given that the CMO and Professor Jason Leitch are so instrumental in how Scotland tackles this crisis, should Parliament not at least have the opportunity to question them directly as part of openness and transparency?
The national clinical director, the chief nursing officer, the chief medical officer, the deputy chief medical officers and our other clinical advisers are precisely that—they are advisers. The decisions that are taken on the basis of that advice are taken by elected politicians—in this case, by me. It is therefore appropriate for members to take the opportunity to question me on those decisions and judgments.
The advisers have been made available to members and I am happy that they continue to be made available to brief members; from memory, our chief medical officer attended the most recent discussion that I had with Opposition spokespeople. I am very happy that we continue to make them available—it will not necessarily be Dr Smith but might be others depending on what you are talking about—in order to update Opposition spokespeople directly on the state of the pandemic and the thinking and so on.
It is important that we are clear about the role of clinical advisers and other advisers across the Government whose professional role it is to provide advice to the best of their ability. The decisions that are then taken and the actions of Government are for ministers, the Cabinet and the First Minister, who are accountable for those decisions. It is those individuals, including myself, who you should question.
Of course, the cabinet secretary is right that the Scottish Government is responsible to Parliament. Will she consider how Parliament can be kept informed of the decisions that the Scottish Government makes, and will she ensure that Parliament’s place is respected and that members do not have to get their information through media outlets?
If Mr Whittle does not mind me saying so, I think that that is a wee bit unfair. I regularly write to the Health and Sport Committee, of which Mr Whittle is a member, on issues that we are developing and making decisions on. I am happy to look at what more I can do in that regard.
We also make sure that Parliament is aware through general inspired questions, which are usually accompanied by a letter to the Health and Sport Committee to make sure that it is aware of the question.
We publish a great deal of information. We are always looking at how we can publish more information. I am always happy to make statements to Parliament or to take part in debates in Parliament. If members think that there is more that I, as Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, can do to ensure that Parliament is kept absolutely up to date in addition to what we publish on a regular daily, weekly or monthly basis, and in addition to what the First Minister and I already do, I am happy to consider that in the spirit that I want members to be informed and I want the proper democratic role of Parliament to be honoured and respected.
According to Public Health Scotland, between 1 March and 21 June, more than 1,000 discharged hospital patients were admitted to care homes with a known Covid-19 outbreak. Why did the Scottish Government guidance that was issued in March permit that, when did the practice end and will the cabinet secretary allow preliminary work on the public inquiry to begin so that issues such as the role of Scottish Government guidance in clinical decisions can be examined in the interests of both transparency and public safety?
I do not have with me some of the detail of the answer that Ms Lennon requires. I am happy to provide that, although we have rehearsed it before. I will make a statement shortly, which will be issued to Opposition spokespeople about now. There are a number of evidence papers to support that, including not only the root cause analysis that I commissioned with respect to care homes and the results and recommendations from that, but the evidence paper and the plan itself. All of those documents, along with the independent report from Public Health Scotland and the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, contribute to our deepening and developing learning about what we need to do to provide more protective measures not just to people in care homes but to those who are receiving adult social care across a range of settings. I hope that, in this afternoon’s statement and questions, we will be able to rehearse that evidence and have further discussion of it. As Ms Lennon knows, there will be a further debate on the matter tomorrow.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that NHS Ayrshire and Arran undertook to reinstate Covid testing for the over-70s. However, she has confirmed today that that is happening only for new admissions and not for existing in-patients, who were previously tested every four days. With more than 75 Covid-infected patients in Crosshouse hospital alone, should that four-day testing regime not be fully reinstated and extended to all hospital in-patients as before?
To be completely accurate, what I said was that testing of patients aged 70 and over who are admitted to hospital continues. It has not been stopped and it carries on. What we did was in response to the concerns of the nosocomial group, which is a group of clinical and other experts. It expressed concerns about repeat testing every fourth or eighth day, on the grounds of both ethical and clinical decisions. In response to that, the most recent letter that the chief nursing officer sent to boards said that they are not required to do that testing, but that they should do it if their clinicians think that it is necessary or if the local epidemiological data tells them about a prevalence of the virus in their area that makes them believe that it is a sensible precaution to take in public health terms.
That decision making sits with individual boards. I do not have the detail about what NHS Ayrshire and Arran is doing, but I am happy to send it to Mr Scott. However, other boards—NHS Lanarkshire, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and others—are continuing with that repeat testing because that is the view that they take locally, informed by their public health experts and clinicians. I think that that is the right balance—requiring a national position but permitting local decision making by the people on the ground who know best. In terms of all admissions to hospital, patients who are coming in for elective procedures are tested, and we are working through the delivery plan to test all admissions to hospital in the very near future.
I am concerned about the implications of the policy for families visiting residents in care homes. I hear varying stories about access, with some families still finding it difficult to see their elderly relatives. Will the health secretary assure us that the policy will have no implications for that, and will she also update us on the testing of families to make sure that they can get the access they need?
I assume that Mr Rennie is concerned about the consequences of the policy for visitor access to hospital patients who are over 70. There is no detrimental impact on access to visiting. The hospital visiting guidance is clear, and we encourage our boards and hospitals to take as generous an approach as they can to visits to in-patients, given where a hospital sits, the level in our strategic framework that the hospital’s area is in and all the necessary precautions such as booking visits, personal protective equipment and other public health measures.
If Mr Rennie will indulge me, I will speak about access and testing for visitors to care homes in the statement that I will make shortly on the adult social care winter preparedness plan. It will be appropriate at that point to advise all members of the position, as with other issues in which the member takes a keen interest.
Covid-19 (Cross-border Journeys)
To ask the Scottish Government, in light of England entering lockdown and the Scottish Borders being placed at level 2 restrictions, what measures are being considered to ensure that only essential cross-border journeys take place. (S5T-02484)
To suppress the spread of Covid-19, it is essential that, with limited exceptions, there is no travel to or from areas where higher numbers of people might carry the virus, whether that is in Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In the current circumstances, our guidance is clear—nobody should travel from Scotland to England or any other part of the UK unless it is absolutely essential. The same applies to travel from any other part of the UK into Scotland.
The reality is that we cannot police every journey and must therefore rely on people complying. That is why this is a good example of why it is so important to take the people of Scotland with us in all our decisions.
I make it plain that the issue concerns public health, not the constitution, given that travel from level 3 local authority areas that bound the Scottish Borders is prohibited except when journeys are essential. Is the Westminster Government engaging in a mutually respectful manner—I hope that it is—to prevent unnecessary cross-border travel from England into Scotland?
The Scottish Government is engaged in discussions with the UK Government about travel in the UK and internationally. Essentially, we come at the issue from the same perspective—we all want to minimise travel and discourage individuals from travelling, given the likelihood of spreading the virus when travelling.
If the travel restrictions that are to be in place in England are followed, journeys into Scotland will not be permissible—that is under the arrangements that the Prime Minister set out on Saturday. The same guidance exists in Scotland. I assure the Parliament and Christine Grahame that the Scottish Government is engaging constructively with the UK Government on this important question to try to stop the infection spreading.
It is good to hear of co-operation, which is welcome. How will cross-border travel be monitored on the Scottish side, and how will it be prevented? I stress that travel should be only for essential purposes such as healthcare, work and caring responsibilities. How will test and protect function if people travel from England into Scotland? Many of my constituents are concerned that, without such safeguards, Covid will be imported not only from neighbouring council areas in Scotland but from England, where the Covid transmission rate is even higher.
Christine Grahame raises a number of elements. There is a distinction between monitoring and policing. We can monitor the volume of journeys from Scotland to England and vice versa through the Transport Scotland traffic monitoring system, which gives us a clear impression of the volume of traffic that is making journeys in both directions.
As for policing, as I indicated in my earlier answer, it is impossible to police every journey, but we would appeal to members of the public to follow the guidance that has been clearly set out—for example, that we do not want individuals in a level 2 area such as the Scottish Borders to travel to a level 3 area, whether that is to Midlothian, the City of Edinburgh or East Lothian, or south of the border, to Northumberland or Cumbria. That advice is in place to minimise the spread of the virus.
On the test and protect system and the apps, as Christine Grahame will be aware, the Scottish app is available to members of the public and can be utilised in other jurisdictions, too. We are working closely with the United Kingdom Government to ensure compatibility between our app and the arrangements that are in place in England, and we hope to have progress on those questions within a short timescale.
[Inaudible.]—essential services for my constituents south of the border, such as shopping, healthcare, assisting a vulnerable person or taking a dog to a vet in Berwick-upon-Tweed are already subject to important exemptions. Indeed, that is no different from travelling within Scotland to a tier 3 local authority area. Can the Deputy First Minister clarify whether further exemptions will be added to enable my constituents to access lifeline services over the border, such as baby-and-toddler classes, which are essential for the mental health and wellbeing of new mothers?
There is an interrelationship between the general issues relating to travel and the wider regulations that exist in different localities, depending on the prevalence of the coronavirus. The question that Rachael Hamilton raises relates to the interplay between the arrangements for travel in Scotland and the availability of such classes or other provisions in Berwick-upon-Tweed or any other locality.
Given the significant prevalence of the virus south of the border, adjacent to the Scottish Borders, with 190.7 cases per 100,000 people in Northumberland compared with 43.3 cases per 100,000 people in the Borders, there is clearly a risk of importation of the virus from such localities should any more than essential connections be made. I appreciate that that is very difficult for individuals who live in localities where they have to access services in other jurisdictions, whether that is in another local authority area in Scotland that is at a different level or in a jurisdiction south of the border. Nevertheless, I would encourage members of the public to err on the side of caution and try to minimise the spread of the virus, because we must all—collectively and individually—do everything that we can to minimise its spread.
That concludes topical question time.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. In her answer to my second supplementary question, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance gave us information on the wrong fund. I was asking about the £275 million fund for town centres, and the cabinet secretary inadvertently gave an answer that related to the £230 million communities fund. I think that the cabinet secretary is aware of that, and I would be very grateful if I could get a written answer to my question. I just wanted that to be on the record.
Thank you for that point of information. There is a corrections procedure, and I am sure that the cabinet secretary, having been alerted, will use it.