Meeting date: Thursday, December 3, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 December 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19 (Vaccine Delivery), Committee of the Whole Parliament, Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 2, Meeting of the Parliament, Solicitors in the Supreme Courts of Scotland (Amendment) Bill: Final Stage, Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Covid-19 (Vaccine Delivery)
- Committee of the Whole Parliament
- Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 2
- Meeting of the Parliament
- Solicitors in the Supreme Courts of Scotland (Amendment) Bill: Final Stage
- Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon, colleagues. Before we go to First Minister’s question time, I ask the First Minister to update us on the Covid-19 situation.
I will give a short update on today’s statistics and some other developments.
The total number of cases that were reported yesterday was 958, which is 4.3 per cent of all tests reported. Therefore, the total number of cases is 97,720. There are currently 982 people in hospital, which is nine fewer than yesterday, and there are 69 people in intensive care, which is one more than yesterday.
I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 51 deaths were registered of patients who had first tested positive in the previous 28 days. The total number of people who have died under that daily measurement is now 3,848. Again, I convey my condolences to everyone who has been bereaved.
We will shortly publish the latest estimate of the reproduction number. We expect that it will show that the R number continues to be just below 1, which is further evidence that the current restrictions are having the desired effect. That is why, on Tuesday, we confirmed that there would be no change to the current levels of restrictions for each local authority area. We will report on the latest weekly review next Tuesday.
I will briefly draw three other points to Parliament’s attention. The first relates to schools. Over the past week, there has been discussion about whether changes are required to the upcoming school holiday period. I confirm that there will be no changes to school holidays. This morning, the Deputy First Minister has written to the Education and Skills Committee and provided it with a copy of the advice that we received from the Covid advisory group sub-committee on the matter.
The second issue relates to evictions. The Scottish Government took early action to effectively ban evictions that might result from the Covid pandemic. The legislation that does that is in place until March 2021. However, it does not apply to eviction actions that were raised before the pandemic, which is a matter that has been raised in the chamber by Andy Wightman, Pauline McNeill and others. The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, Kevin Stewart, has now decided to go further in providing safeguards. Therefore, I confirm that we will introduce regulations to legally prevent enforcement of eviction notices during the six-week period from 11 December to 22 January, unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as antisocial or criminal behaviour, or cases of domestic abuse.
Finally, I highlight that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will make a statement later today to update MSPs on our plans to vaccinate people against Covid. We are preparing for the first vaccinations in Scotland to take place next Tuesday, which will be a significant landmark in our collective struggle against the virus. Although we still have difficult months ahead, awareness that vaccination is starting will, I am sure, make many of us feel more hopeful as we enter the Christmas period.
The prospect of vaccination—and, with it, a return to something that is more like normality—should also give us a further incentive in the weeks ahead to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. As ever, we can all play a part by sticking to the current rules and guidelines. I ask people to continue to do so.
The postcode checker on the Scottish Government’s website is there for anybody who does not know what the rules in their area are. In general, I ask people, please, do not visit other people’s homes, stick to the travel advice and follow FACTS: use face coverings, avoid crowded places, clean your hands and surfaces regularly, keep 2m distant from people in other households, and self-isolate and get tested if you have symptoms.
We turn to First Minister’s question time. I encourage all members who wish to ask supplementary questions, which will be taken at the end, to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as they wish.
Covid-19 Vaccination Programme
The approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use is the news that millions of people across the country have been waiting for. Now, we need to make sure that it gets out to people as quickly and efficiently as possible. As we all know, the vaccine needs to be stored in specialist freezers at an ultra-low temperature of -70° Celsius. Yesterday, the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing announced that three of the 23 freezers that have been purchased by the Scottish Government are going to the Highlands. Under the Scottish Government’s plan, how many freezers will each of the other health board areas receive, and are they all already in place?
I will make sure that we share a list of the exact locations, and where we are in getting them there. The 23 freezers will be sited in vaccine deployment centres in every national health service board area. As the first batch of vaccines is delivered, we expect to have in the region of 65,500 doses by next Tuesday.
One of the issues that is not yet certain, and which is the subject of on-going discussion with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, is the ability to move the vaccines from the ultra-low-temperature freezers to, for example, care homes. Although that is not possible immediately, we hope that it will become possible very soon. That will depend, of course, on the on-going discussions.
No issue is more important to the Government right now than making sure that the vaccination programme works effectively and efficiently—that as soon as we have supplies of vaccine they are used to vaccinate people in the order of priority that has been set out by the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation. My focus, and that of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the entire Government, is on making sure that all appropriate steps are taken.
Every bit as important as where the vaccine will be stored is where people will be able to get it. The health secretary has suggested that general practitioners’ surgeries will not be used as hubs, in order to allow them to continue to operate as usual. That is understandable, but it leaves people needing to know where they will go.
On 10 November, the First Minister confirmed to me that plans were being drawn up for mass-vaccination centres, including local centres to be run by pharmacists. She also told me that she would publish more details in the coming weeks, when plans are finalised. Is the First Minister now in a position to publish the full list of locations across the country that will be used to administer the vaccine, including the venues that are opening this month for vaccinations that are scheduled for before Christmas?
The health secretary will make a statement this afternoon, and we will shortly be in a position to publish the locations in which vaccinations will be delivered in the first phase of the programme.
Given the particular characteristics of the Pfizer vaccine, the main uncertainty, as I alluded to in my earlier answer, is on the extent to which it will be movable from the vaccine deployment centres in each NHS board area to other locations. We hope that we will get greater clarity on that matter over the days and weeks to come. To start with, delivery will be close to the vaccine deployment centres, in order to ensure that we make maximum use of the first supplies of the vaccine, and to ensure that it can be overseen by experienced pharmacy staff.
As I have said before—the health secretary will update Parliament on this—we are also exploring a number of options for larger vaccination centres. Those venues will come on stream later, once we have supplies of vaccine in sufficient quantity to support their establishment. A number of other locations might be used, including primary care settings, where that is appropriate.
Those plans and options exists and will be implemented as soon as we get fine detail on, and clarity about, particular issues to do with the characteristics of vaccines. We expect and hope that, over the weeks to come, other vaccines will be authorised, as the Pfizer vaccine was yesterday. They do not have identical characteristics and requirements, so we have to be able to flex our plans to take account of the particular characteristics of each, as it becomes available. That is exactly what we will do.
The way in which the vaccine is stored and transported means that it will be extremely difficult to bring it to individual care homes. That point has been acknowledged by the health secretary this morning, and by the First Minister a moment ago.
Dr Donald Macaskill, who is the head of Scottish Care, has warned that many care home residents are too “frail” or “vulnerable” to be transported to the hubs where the vaccines will be. Care home residents and their families have suffered enough through the pandemic, so the possibility that the promised vaccines could be delayed is yet another blow. What is the plan for Scotland’s care home residents, who were promised that they would be first in the queue to receive the vaccine?
It is really important to understand the issues. I have heard the Prime Minister talk about exactly what I am going to talk about; it is not in any way unique to Scotland and is about the particular characteristics of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Ruth Davidson is right to point to that being mainly about the ultra-low temperatures at which it has to be stored. There is also a requirement to mix two different agents together, for that vaccine. I took part in a four-nations call last night in which that was one of the issues that were under discussion.
We will use vaccines as soon as they become available and as closely as possible in line with the order of prioritisation that the JCVI has set out. If, during the first period, it is difficult to get the vaccine to care homes, we will obviously use those supplies for the NHS and care home staff.
This is the bit that I, the Prime Minister and the other First Ministers cannot be absolutely definitive about right now, because discussions are on-going. I know that our pharmaceutical civil servants were discussing this very point with the MHRA yesterday. Although it might not be possible for the vaccine to be moved to care homes immediately, I remain hopeful, based on discussions to date, that that will become possible at an early stage, after we start receiving supplies. I hope that we will have greater clarity on that in the days to come.
I make it clear that that is not unique to Scotland’s vaccination programme, but is an issue with which all four nations in the UK must contend. It is beyond question that safe delivery of the vaccine is the absolute priority, and it is in all our interests to make sure, in line with the JCVI advice that we have received, that elderly care home residents be vaccinated as quickly as is possible.
I turn to the Scottish Government’s longer-term plan. The health secretary made it clear in a statement less than a fortnight ago that the Scottish Government hopes to complete the vaccination programme in full by spring next year. However, this morning she told the BBC that only waves 1 and 2 of the vaccinations will be completed by spring, and that only after the spring will we move to vaccinate people under the age of 65. Will the First Minister clarify which is right? Does she expect all waves of vaccinations to be completed by spring, and does she agree that it is critical that the Government sets clear benchmarks in order to avoid raising expectations that cannot be met?
We very much hope that what the health secretary set out in Parliament when last she gave a statement is what we will be able to deliver. That is what we are working towards. Ruth Davidson’s point about being clear with people is important. Although we have had the fantastic news this week of the authorisation to supply the Pfizer vaccine, our overall vaccination programme is contingent on a number of other vaccines receiving authorisation, so that supplies of them can flow in the quantities and at the pace that we expect.
We have no reason to feel pessimistic about any of that right now, but the processes are regulatory processes that we do not control. It is important that all the vaccines go through those rigorous and robust processes, which is an important part of ensuring public confidence. At every step of the way we will, as we did yesterday as soon as we got the news about the Pfizer vaccine, set out our expectations for when the vaccination programme will start. We will also set out the issues that we are grappling with in relation to the first vaccine as soon as we have authorisations for the other vaccines, including the AstraZeneca and University of Oxford vaccine, of which the UK has procured the biggest number of doses.
We will set that out with clarity at every step of the way for the public and, of course, we will communicate directly with members of the public as well.
Covid-19 Vaccination Programme
I begin by sending our condolences to the family of Maria Fyfe. Maria was a pioneer, who fought for what she believed in to the very end. She was an inspiration to generations of Labour Party members, me included, and many people beyond. She was instrumental in campaigning for the Scottish Parliament; she led the constitutional convention’s working party on the equal representation of women. We are all in her debt and we mourn her passing today, but we celebrate her life.
I turn to the vaccination programme. We join others in welcoming the news this week that a vaccine will be available in five days’ time. However, we know that the roll-out of the flu vaccine this winter has been problematic. Here is what one person told me just yesterday:
“My personal experience with the current flu jab arrangements is a bad one. No letter of invitation from the health board had come this year by the beginning of November. Wife rings up; offered precisely timed appointments on 4 November at a church. Turn up; no record of our appointment; get vaccinated nevertheless—staff at church excellent—two weeks later, get letter of invitation for vaccination.”
Many people have had the same experience, but that was the experience of world-renowned virologist Professor Hugh Pennington.
The Covid vaccine requires two doses, which have to be 21 to 28 days apart, so the logistics and administration of delivering that vaccine will be even more critical. Is the First Minister really going to leave the current Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing in charge of that?
Before I respond to the question on the vaccine, I also take the opportunity to express my condolences on the sad passing of Maria Fyfe to her family, friends and colleagues, including those in the Labour Party. Richard Leonard rightly said that Maria Fyfe was an inspiration to colleagues in the Labour Party, but she was an inspiration not just to colleagues in the Labour Party; for all my political life, I have been in a different political party but, when I was a young woman starting out in politics, she was one of very few women in the front line of politics. She was a feminist icon that I looked up to; I did not agree with her on everything, but I very much looked up to her and found her example inspirational. Many of us, particularly women in politics today but many others as well, owe her a great debt of gratitude, and I pass on my thoughts and condolences to everybody who loved her.
On the question on the vaccine, first, the flu vaccination programme had to be delivered very differently this year because of the challenges of Covid. I readily acknowledge, as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has done, that there were problems and issues in some national health service boards as that programme rolled out. Steps were taken to address and resolve those, and the flu vaccination programme is now progressing extremely well. Uptake in many of the eligible groups is higher than we expected, and that programme will continue to its conclusion.
On responsibility for the Covid vaccine and all aspects of the Covid response, whether it is the health secretary, the public health minister or any minister, we are collectively responsible and engaged in making sure that we respond effectively to all aspects of the crisis. Ultimately, on all those things, the buck stops with me, as is right and proper. However, the Government is focused intensely on making sure that all the very difficult logistical challenges around the Covid vaccination programme are getting the attention that they need and merit. When we face challenges with it—as, undoubtedly, we and other countries will—we will address them and get the vaccine to the maximum number of people as quickly as possible. For the first time in nine months, the vaccine gives us hope for the future and the light at the end of the tunnel that all of us have been desperate to see, so it is vital that the programme proceeds as quickly as is feasible. That is the commitment that I give.
Figures for the take-up across Scotland of the winter flu vaccine have not been published, and it would be useful to see them, because the experience that I described is not unique; it is a common experience that people have been reporting to us over the past few weeks.
It is in all our interests that as many people as possible receive the Covid-19 vaccine, and public confidence that the vaccine is safe will be critical to that. The vaccine has been tested to the highest possible standards, but we are already faced with the spread of dangerous misinformation that seeks to persuade people otherwise.
Every member of the Parliament has a role to play in making sure that the public know that the vaccine is safe and encouraging people to come forward and be vaccinated. What research has the First Minister’s Government done on vaccine scepticism in Scotland? Does she have a clear plan to counter scepticism? Will she share that plan with Parliament, so that we can all be as effective as possible in persuading people that they should be vaccinated?
The short answer to all that is yes, but I will go into more detail, as I am sure that Richard Leonard would want me to do. He is right that we all have a responsibility to persuade people that they should come forward for vaccination, that it is safe and that it is in their and our collective interests that the maximum number of people take up that opportunity.
Richard Leonard is also right to point out that, although the first vaccination to be given authorisation has gone through a process that is very quick, that is a real credit to the global scientific community and its efforts to get us to this stage. No corners have been cut. Everyone will have had the opportunity to hear the head of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency say yesterday that no corners have been cut in the regulatory process, that all the procedures that would normally be followed have been followed and that people can have confidence in the Pfizer vaccine.
We carry out weekly polling to assess public attitudes on a whole range of matters associated with Covid. That will continue to include questions on public attitudes to vaccination. The health secretary will be making information available to MSPs next week so that they have the information that they need to counter some of the myths and misinformation about vaccination that we can already see appearing on social media. We will continue to update MSPs. It is vital that everyone—the Government and MSPs as the political leadership of the country, and the media and social media companies in particular—takes their responsibility in this very seriously. Like many colleagues across the chamber, I am not one of the early priority groups for the vaccine—I am not old enough—but as soon as soon as I am eligible to be vaccinated, I will be there with my sleeve rolled up. We all have the opportunity to lead by example.
Yes, we should all get our sleeves rolled up.
The First Minister accepts that mistakes were made during the course of the pandemic and, undoubtedly, those mistakes have consequences, some of them devastating and nowhere more so than in our care homes. We all appreciate that the practicalities of the Pfizer vaccine make the logistics especially challenging. However, the Government must have been working on the vaccination plan for months. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation believes that care home residents should be vaccinated first, as a matter of priority. This morning, Dame Anne Glover, who served as a chief scientific adviser to the Scottish Government, said on care home vaccinations:
“If we are solution-focused, we will find a way to do this.”
We realise that it is difficult, but will the First Minister commit to a priority programme of vaccinations for all care home staff and care home residents and their relatives? Will she publish the Government’s road map with clear dates for when that will be achieved?
Yes, we will publish all that and keep Parliament up to date. The Government is responsible for the vaccine deployment programme. As I said a moment ago, in that respect, as with everything in the Scottish Government, the buck stops with me. This is a statement of the obvious, but we are not in control of which vaccines get authorised first or what the properties and characteristics of those vaccines are—that is a constraint that the Scottish, UK, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments are all working within.
We are solutions focused. Earlier, I referred to on-going discussions between my officials and the MHRA on how we can get the vaccine from the deployment centres and ultra-low-temperature fridges in which they must be stored to the care homes where they are needed. Right now, I cannot say definitively when that will happen. I am reasonably confident that we will find a way of doing that, and even if that is not immediate as of next Tuesday when the programme starts, I hope that it will be sooner rather than later. All four Governments across the United Kingdom are keen to see a resolution to that issue as quickly as possible.
Naturally, I share the optimism that has been expressed about the vaccine approval. I offer my sincere thanks to the researchers, the regulators and the many thousands of vaccine trial volunteers who have made it possible. They have given us hope.
As well as creating hope, we need to address people’s fears. The fear of infection during the pandemic has been very real for tenants in Scotland. I welcome the news today that an eviction ban will be put in place. I commend my colleague Andy Wightman and campaign groups such as Living Rent on working so hard to push the Government to change its position on that.
There has been a lot of speculation about the school holidays, and there are different views on the safest thing to do. This morning, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills said that there is to be no extension to the holidays, despite suggesting earlier in the week that that might be necessary. Last week, the First Minister told me that her Government had not assessed the potential impacts that the Christmas relaxation of the regulations would have, so I seek some clarity. Does today’s announcement now mean that the Scottish Government does not believe that the loosening of restrictions over the Christmas period could lead to a third wave in January, as public health experts have predicted, and that there is no risk of young people bringing Covid into schools in January, putting each other, their communities and school staff at risk and forcing even more to self-isolate in the new year?
I thank Patrick Harvie for that question. I will never stand here and say, in any sense, that there is no risk to the public during a global pandemic. That is why we all have to act responsibly, as the overwhelming majority of the public have been, to mitigate the risks as much as possible.
From a very pragmatic point of view, we have recognised that there might be a tendency for different households to come together over Christmas more than they would at other times of the year, so we have tried to put some guidance and boundaries around that in order to keep such meetings as safe as possible, although they will not be risk free. We have been very clear that our advice is that, where possible, people should not interact over Christmas. I hope that many people understand—as many of the people to whom I have spoken do, particularly with the prospect of a vaccine so close—how important it is to continue to take mitigating action over the Christmas period. However, there are obviously risks at all times when different households come together.
We have considered very carefully the issue of school holidays. We took advice from the sub-committee of the Covid advisory group, and the Deputy First Minister sent that advice to the Education and Skills Committee this morning. Those who read that advice will see that it reflects the fact that this is a difficult decision and that there are views on both sides. The balanced judgment that the Scottish Government has come to is that the risk of transmission in schools, even after the Christmas period—we have all gone through the reasons why we do not think that transmission in schools is a big driver of infections—is not sufficient to outweigh the risk to children’s education of being out of school for longer periods of time.
None of these judgements and decisions is straightforward. We take care to think them through very carefully. I recognise that, on almost every issue, whatever judgment we come to, there will be people who legitimately and understandably think that we should have come to the opposite one, regardless of which side of the issue we come down on. That is why it is so important for us to continue to stress that, through our individual behaviour, we all have to act in a way that reduces, as far as possible, the risk of the virus spreading from person to person and from household to household.
It sounds as though the First Minister recognises the possibility that more young people will have to self-isolate as a result of an increase in cases of the virus in the new year. Young people have already lost a substantial amount of classroom time this year, and many are losing more time every day. As a result, it is clear that the ship has sailed on any chance of holding exams in a fair and equitable manner.
This week, the education secretary told Parliament that one in four secondary 4 to 6 pupils has already experienced a Covid-related absence. That is causing real anxiety and frustration to thousands of young people across the country, one of whom got in touch, after being asked to self-isolate for a third time. She puts it really well. She says:
“I have followed all the rules and kept the amount of people I have contact with to a minimum ... it is incredibly frustrating to have to isolate again ... it’s getting extremely concerning how much school I have missed due to self isolation … this year is going to be incredibly unfair for everyone who has exams”.
The Scottish Greens first called for this year’s exams to be cancelled in May, when it became clear that this would be a year unlike any other. Young people have experienced enough stress and anxiety this year to last a lifetime. As is often the case, it is those from the most deprived communities who are being disproportionately affected. Is it not time that the First Minister gave teachers and young people the clarity that they need by accepting that higher and advanced higher exams cannot go ahead in the coming year?
I recognise everything that Patrick Harvie has said. These are issues that the Scottish Government is continuing to think carefully about.
We have set out previously—the Deputy First Minister set this out when we announced the decision on national 5s and has done so subsequently—that, ideally, we want higher and advanced higher exams to proceed. However, the public health advice must allow that to happen, and it must be not just safe, but safe for all learners. We absolutely recognise that, which is why we are monitoring the position closely and continuing to listen to all views.
On this issue, as on every issue, we will hear different views. Patrick Harvie’s view is legitimate, but I have also been contacted by young people who have expressed the opposite view. We have to try to navigate our way through these issues as carefully as possible.
We know that there is potential for further disruption, which is why contingency plans for higher and advanced higher courses are being developed. The Deputy First Minister has made it clear that a final decision on higher and advanced highers will be taken no later than mid-February, but it will be taken sooner than that if the evidence suggests that that is the right thing to do. The Deputy First Minister is engaged on this issue every day. He and I had a discussion about it just yesterday, and we will continue to discuss it in the days to come. Fairness to all learners will be at the top of the priority list as we continue to consider the issues.
I have to agree about the exams. On any given day, up to 30,000 pupils and 1,500 teachers are absent for Covid-related reasons. Some have had to self-isolate for a fortnight many times, while others have not missed a minute of school. That means that we need an effective alternative to higher and advanced higher exams. To make that happen, however, teachers and students will need plenty of warning. The longer the Government waits, the less time the teachers have to prepare and the greater the problem becomes. The Welsh Government decided weeks ago to cancel those exams. Will the First Minister think again, make the decision and cancel those exams now?
If Willie Rennie had listened to my previous answer, he would know that the Government is thinking carefully about this, and that is right. There are no simple answers. As has been evidenced in Parliament during the past nine months, on almost every decision that we have taken, rightly and properly, understandably and legitimately, members of the Scottish Parliament and people among the wider population have said we should have done the opposite of what we did. That is in the nature of the situation.
It is important that we take the time to get things right, because this issue matters to all young people. The Deputy First Minister previously said that mid-February would be the last possible date for taking a decision, but there is a strong argument that we should come to a conclusion earlier than mid-February, and we are discussing that point intensely at the moment. We will take account of all the factors that young people are facing right now and the desire that many young people have to sit the exams that they have worked for. However, many young people are understandably concerned that, because of self-isolation and the wider disruption caused by Covid, having to sit an exam would not be fair. We will come to a balanced decision as soon as we think that is appropriate. In the interim, as I said to Patrick Harvie, contingency plans for the higher and advanced higher courses are being developed.
I know that the First Minister is thinking hard about these things, but everybody in Parliament thinks about these things, and I have come to the conclusion that we will need to act earlier than February.
With the great news about the vaccine, people will want to know how the restrictions will be eased. As a Liberal, I am nervous about talk of immunity passports for getting into shops and restaurants or on to planes. Putting personal information on to large databases means risks to privacy and the possibility of fraud, hacking and theft. The World Health Organization questions the value of immunity passports, and the UK Government has said that it has no plans to introduce them. I want to go further, and I think that we need guidance. We might need to make changes to the law to protect people from its misuse. What is the Scottish Government’s policy on immunity passports?
I will come on to that point directly, but I will round off on the previous issue first. I know that everybody in Parliament is thinking seriously about these issues, and I respect that. However, the Government has to take decisions after we have done the thinking. Willie Rennie is right to say that we should not take too long to reach our conclusions, but we need to take the time to get to the right conclusions, and I assure learners and their parents across the country that is what we are doing.
I do not think that Willie Rennie or anyone else will have heard me, the health secretary or anybody else talk about the prospect of immunity passports. That is not something that we plan to have or that we favour. I share some of the philosophical and ethical objections that Willie Rennie articulated.
There are also practical issues. We do not yet know—either in relation to the vaccine that has just been authorised or in relation to any of the vaccines—the extent to which vaccination prevents the transmission of Covid. We know from trials that the Pfizer vaccine suppresses illness—it prevents people from getting seriously ill—but we will not know for some time, once the vaccine is in use, whether vaccination prevents onward transmission. From a practical point of view, it is flawed to say that, just because someone has had the vaccine, they cannot pass Covid on to somebody else.
We have no plans to introduce immunity passports, just as we have no plans to make vaccination compulsory, although we will strongly encourage maximum take-up of the vaccine. We will always consider whether legal changes are necessary to support our policy position, but the starting point—which I think, although I do not know, is the starting point for everyone in the chamber—is to make it clear that immunity passports are not something that this Parliament is contemplating.
Covid-19 Travel Restrictions (Compliance)
To ask the First Minister how many people have been cautioned by Police Scotland for travelling between areas with higher and lower Covid-19 restriction levels since the current legislation was passed. (S5F-04627)
As I said before, we want to see those laws working through high levels of public compliance rather than by relying on enforcement. That said, Police Scotland will uphold the law by using the approach that was adopted at the start of the pandemic. Operational matters are for the chief constable.
Police Scotland has reported that, although there have been high levels of compliance, the most recent data indicates that 33 fixed-penalty notices were issued under the travel regulations up to 25 November.
I have been contacted by many constituents about shops in my constituency being busier than usual. Some of those who work in retail have indicated that they have had customers who have clearly come from outwith Inverclyde. Although I welcome the fact that retail outlets will be busier than usual at this time of year and the fact that people who cannot travel to shop are supporting the local economy, I am concerned about people travelling to Inverclyde unnecessarily and placing my constituents at additional risk.
Will the First Minister reiterate the message about non-essential travel? What additional resources can be given to Police Scotland in Inverclyde to increase random checks on retail outlets and customers, to help to catch those who break the rules?
It remains vital that members of the public continue to observe physical distancing, to wear face coverings and to avoid non-essential travel into or from level 3 or 4 areas.
The need to restrict travel across the country is even more important now in the battle to reduce transmission rates because we do not want to take the virus from high to low-prevalence areas. I again ask people to take personal responsibility—as the vast majority are doing—and to do the right thing. We must always remember that the purpose of all the restrictions, which none of us enjoy living under, is to protect the national health service and to save lives by preventing the virus from spreading.
Deployment of resources is a matter for the chief constable, but I am confident, on the basis of my experience throughout the pandemic so far, that if officers encounter any instances of non-essential travel or of breach of any of the other Covid regulations, they will continue to deal with those issues appropriately.
Disabled People (Impact of Reduction in Services)
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government plans to mitigate the impact of any reduction in services due to the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives and mental wellbeing of disabled people. (S5F-04620)
It is important to recognise that disabled people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. It is critical that people’s social care support is maintained at this time to ensure their safety, dignity and human rights. The recently published “Adult Social Care Winter Preparedness Plan 2020-21” makes clear that the transmission risk of restarting some support services must be balanced with ensuring that social care packages allow people to live fulfilling lives and to get the support that they need.
In October, we published the plan, “Mental Health—Scotland’s Transition and Recovery”, which lays out a response to the mental health impacts of Covid. Those with long-term physical conditions and disabilities are a key population group identified in that plan. We outlined a number of commitments, such as ensuring that those who require clinical treatment in response to mental illness can access timely and effective support.
The First Minister will be aware that today is the United Nations international day for persons with disabilities. Prior to the pandemic, disabled people were already more likely to experience damage to their wellbeing as a result of social isolation. With many disabled people experiencing a reduction in, or the total withdrawal of, social care support and the closure of day centres, surely that social isolation must have become more widespread and acute. Has the Scottish Government done anything to address and mitigate the social isolation that disabled people are experiencing today?
I thank Jeremy Balfour for raising an important issue and for reminding us that today is the UN day for disabled people and that this year’s theme is “not all disabilities are visible”. That shines a light on the challenges that disabled people face in their day-to-day lives but especially the difficulties that they have been facing during the pandemic. It is important, as I said in my initial answer, that, notwithstanding the challenges that Covid presents, care packages are delivered to allow people to live their lives in the way that they have a right to.
On the action that the Government has been taking, we have been working closely with a number of disabled people’s organisations to understand the impact of Covid on disabled people and to develop solutions to help with that. We have made funding available directly to organisations supporting disabled people and many of those organisations have been doing brilliant work, for which I commend them. I give a commitment that the Scottish Government will continue to work closely with them and do everything that we can to support them.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the IPPR Scotland research suggesting that youth unemployment could reach over 100,000 in the coming months, the highest level since records began. (S5F-04619)
The research from IPPR Scotland has already been really valuable in forming a response to addressing youth unemployment. It is important to note, though, that since that report was published we have seen revised unemployment forecasts, not least because of the extension of the furlough scheme, and of course we are now facing more economic uncertainty with the impending prospect of the end of the Brexit transition period.
We continue to be determined to do everything we can to ensure that the prospects of all young people are protected and not permanently damaged by Covid. Last month, we set out how the young persons guarantee will be delivered to create more opportunities for young people. We will work closely with them, employers, local government, trade unions, the third sector and others to respond as the situation develops. That will include initiatives such as the £15 million funding for apprenticeship recruitment and the £10 million funding for pathways to apprenticeship that I announced earlier this week.
I very much welcome every measure being taken to support young people through this period. In terms of building back from Covid, will the Government bring forward more detailed plans to address the unacceptable levels of fuel poverty in Scotland and for a national house-building programme to once and for all tackle Scotland’s housing crisis, both of which will create thousands of apprenticeships and tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland?
Yes, we will continue to do all of that. Fuel poverty remains something that needs to be challenged and tackled, and the Scottish Government is doing that. Earlier in the week I announced a £100 million winter support package for people on low incomes that will include the £100 cash grant to families with children in receipt of free school meals, which they will get before Christmas. However, that overall package also includes funding to help people struggling to pay their fuel bills, which is just one of many ways in which the Scottish Government is seeking to help.
We also saw an announcement earlier this week of additional funding to support our affordable housing programme. We have delivered almost 100,000 affordable homes since this Government took office. We always see a housing programme as being first and foremost about delivering homes for people to live in, but Alex Rowley is right that it is also a good way of generating economic activity and jobs. That is why we will continue to invest strongly in affordable and social housing going into the next Parliament, just as we have done in the course of this Parliament.
We turn to some supplementary questions. The first is from David Torrance, to be followed by Liam Kerr.
What support can the Scottish Government give to the BiFab workforce and any parties interested in investing in the yards following this morning’s news that the company has filed for administration?
I thank David Torrance for raising that really important issue. I deeply regret and am deeply disappointed about this morning’s developments. I know that this is a deeply worrying time for workers and everyone associated with BiFab, and I want to give an assurance and a commitment that the Scottish Government will do everything that we can to support a positive future for them.
We have worked hard in the past to avoid the closure of BiFab. That has included significant investment in equity and loan facilities on the part of the Government. We are a minority shareholder in BiFab, and we will continue to work even now to secure its future. However, as with any Government, we must do that within the law. If there was any more that we could have done within the law to avert what has happened today, we would have done it. It would have made no sense for us not to do it. We were not able legally to provide the additional support that BiFab was seeking. Had the majority shareholder been prepared to invest, it might have been different.
We will now work with administrators, trade unions and others to try to secure a positive future for BiFab. That is what we have always been committed to doing, and we remain just as committed to it now.
Legal Profession (Support)
I remind members that I am a practising solicitor.
On Monday, several bar associations took strike action over the legal aid system and the future of the legal profession. In October, a Scottish National Party minister told me that the reason for the reduction in both the number of young lawyers wanting to do defence work and the number of criminal law firms was due to
“the fall in reported crime over several years”.
We know from Government statistics that recorded crime is at a five-year high, so that answer would appear to be incorrect. Does the First Minister agree that the actual reason for the reductions is the inadequate support from the SNP Government?
I am not immediately familiar with the comments that have been quoted, but I will take time to look at them.
As someone who used to be a practising lawyer—although that was many, many years ago—I obviously want to see us have—as we do have—a strong legal aid system, for all the reasons why that is important. I understand, and the Government understands, how difficult the current situation is for those in the legal profession, as it is for people in professions and sectors across the economy. We have taken a number of steps to support lawyers and the legal profession generally, and we will continue to do so during this really difficult time.
I declare my membership of GMB Scotland, which represents Centrica’s British Gas workers, who are being threatened with sweeping and unwanted changes to their terms and conditions as well as threats to hire and rehire them if they do not agree to them. If that proceeds, that will send out entirely the wrong message at a time when we need to create fairness at work and when good jobs are hard to come by. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, has called on Centrica to remove the threat to fire British Gas’s entire 20,000-strong workforce and rehire it on significantly reduced terms. Will the First Minister make the same call to Centrica to get round the negotiating table and treat its workforce better?
I have no hesitation in making that call of any employer: they should be round the table with their workforce, with fair work absolutely being at the heart of their approach.
At any time, but particularly during these difficult times, fairness for workers should be a priority for every business. I recognise that this is a tough time for businesses of all shapes and sizes and in all sectors, but businesses tend not to be able to operate successfully without the commitment of their workforces. Therefore, treating them fairly is paramount.
We will always continue to do what we can to support, constructive discussions in any way that is appropriate. I call on Centrica to get round the table and to try to come to decent and fair agreements with its workforce.
Spectator Sport (Support)
I am aware that the Scottish Government is considering what further support can be provided to help spectator sport to get through the winter. Does the First Minister understand that football clubs and others are deeply concerned about the loss of vital income, because no fans are coming through the gates? That applies particularly to football clubs outside the top five or six positions, which receive little by way of finance from the television companies. Will the First Minister also tell me what progress is being made in regard to any potential funding packages? The situation is becoming precarious for some clubs.
The Scottish Government is currently developing and finalising a support package for Scottish spectator sport, which we hope to be able to outline shortly. We also welcome the recent announcement of a United Kingdom Government support scheme for sports that have been impacted by the loss of spectators during the winter. We do not yet have clarity on the Barnett consequentials that will flow from that. The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing raised the matter earlier this week, at a meeting of the UK Government’s Cabinet to discuss sport, but there has not yet been an answer. Notwithstanding that, we will continue to engage with sporting bodies whose revenue is being impacted. We hope to bring our support package to fruition in the very near future, at which point we will update Parliament in the usual way.
Hospitality Businesses (Support)
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests, which relates to tourism.
Many businesses in level 2 areas that can open are nevertheless losing revenue due to the introduction of travel restrictions, which has resulted in high numbers of cancellations. Will the First Minister commit to backing the call made by my colleague Douglas Ross for a rapid review of the grants system, to ensure that businesses that are affected indirectly by such restrictions will be able to access funding over the winter period?
We will always consider any proposals on how we might provide support better or differently, but I point out that the grants system already provides access to support for businesses that do not have to close but are affected by travel restrictions. I absolutely understand the impact on revenue for businesses in all sectors—particularly those in the tourism sector—that follows from travel restrictions having been put in place. I know that the current situation is tough for any business. However, if we did not have those restrictions in place and if levels of the virus increased as a result, the impact on revenues would probably be even greater and would last even longer. That is the reality of the situation that we face.
At its meeting this week, the Cabinet discussed our response to the recommendations of the Scottish tourism recovery task force, and the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism will shortly set out our proposals on those. We will continue to do whatever we can to support businesses in the tourism sector, which has undoubtedly been one of those hit hardest by what we are all living through.
Coach Operators (Support)
Scotland’s coach operators are facing a cliff edge, with thousands of jobs on the line. Some 80 per cent of their income derives from tourism. However, despite the tough restrictions on hospitality and travel that we have heard about, as well as the challenges of social distancing, coach companies were excluded from the recent Government funding and, unlike bus and rail operators, have received no sector-specific support. More than a month ago, the Northern Ireland Government announced a package of specific support for coach operators there. Will the First Minister do the same for Scotland’s coach operators, to help them to face this looming financial crisis and protect the thousands of jobs that are on the line?
I will happily look at the initiative in Northern Ireland to which the member has referred. If we can give more support to any sector, we will do so where that is practical and we are able to do so within our resources. The coach sector has had an extremely difficult time, and I understand why the issue is being raised.
We have also made discretionary funding available to local authorities to enable them to decide whether they consider that particular sectors require help outside the grant structure that we have put in place. However, as I have said on a number of occasions today, in relation to sport and to tourism businesses, we will continue to look at parts of the economy that have perhaps not had the support that they would have wanted, to see whether we can do more. I will also look at the specific suggestion that Colin Smyth has made.
Taxi Drivers (Support)
As the member serving Maryhill, I send my condolences to Maria Fyfe’s family and the wider Scottish Labour community for their sad loss.
I have been contacted by several constituents who are taxi drivers and who have seen their incomes melt away as Covid-19 restrictions have continued to impact the communities that we all represent. Taxi drivers were encouraged by the First Minister’s recent announcement that they would be able to claim funds from the Scottish Government via local councils. However, will she now provide an update, including details of when payments are likely to be made, what the criteria are likely to be and when the first payments are likely to arrive in the bank accounts of taxi drivers who are currently very hard pressed?
I draw the member’s attention to the discretionary fund to which I alluded in my previous answer. It is designed specifically to target small businesses and the self-employed, which very much includes taxi drivers who have not received direct financial support through other schemes.
Since October, we have been working with local authorities to develop the detail of the discretionary fund, to ensure that the additional financial support that it provides will quickly reach businesses that need it. We have now reached agreement with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on allocations, which will allow such funding to start to flow to local authorities and allow them to start to assess applications on the basis of need. I hope that that will allow money to start to flow in the very near future not just to taxi drivers but also to other small or self-employed operations that need that kind of support.
Werritty Report (Scottish Government’s Response)
Last week, the Scottish National Party Government overruled a key recommendation of the Werritty report and announced that it will issue licences to grouse moors before the suggested five-year probationary period has ended. That decision risks an industry that is worth £350 million annually to an already precarious Scottish economy and puts jobs and livelihoods in rural areas such as my constituency of Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire in jeopardy. The Scottish Conservative Party values the role that grouse shooting plays in Scotland’s rural communities, economy and natural environment. Could the First Minister explain to rural communities why the SNP has ignored its own research and gone against the evidence?
In considering our response to the Werritty report, we took a range of different reports and evidence into account, including evidence that was heard by the Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee. Last week, the Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment set out our response to the Werritty report, including on the recommendation to introduce the licensing of grouse moor businesses; the response also covered the other recommendations in the Werritty report.
We do not think that it is practical or appropriate to wait for a further five years to assess raptor populations before introducing licensing, as the review recommended. There is a pressing need—much more pressing than that timescale would allow—to address problems of raptor persecution now. Waiting five years before deciding to act might mean that it could take eight years or longer before legislation was completed and a licensing system implemented. I appreciate that not everyone will agree with that, but the problem of raptor persecution demands action more quickly than that, which is why we have committed to taking action more quickly.
Vale of Leven Hospital (Dementia Wards)
On Friday last week, staff in the Fruin and Katrine dementia wards at the Vale of Leven hospital were told by their managers that the wards would be closing and that patients would be transferred to Glasgow. I am sure that the First Minister would agree that that would be very disruptive for dementia patients. That was because a locum consultant contract was ending.
I welcome the positive intervention from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. Can the First Minister confirm that every effort will be made to secure consultant cover so that the wards remain open?
Yes, I give that commitment. I fondly remember visiting the Fruin and Katrine wards in the Vale of Leven hospital when I was the health secretary. At that time, there was concern over the future of those wards and we worked with the health board to make sure that they were protected. They remain open to this day all these years later. Cover has now been secured to take away any short-term risk to the ability of those wards to stay open and to cater for the patients who depend on them. The Government has that long-term commitment and I know that the health board has committed to that too.
Small Business Saturday
As we mark small business Saturday this weekend in a year that has been especially tough for small businesses, what is the Scottish Government doing to encourage and support people to buy and enjoy locally sourced Scottish products by shopping locally?
I encourage people to shop locally, support local high street businesses and buy Scottish produce where they can and where it is appropriate. There remain 11 local authority areas where non-essential retail is closed. Those restrictions will be lifted on 11 December. As we go into the Christmas period and, I hope, start to come out of the Covid crisis, there is an opportunity for all of us to support local businesses as often and as much as we can. I encourage people across the country to do that up to Christmas as well as after that.
Christmas Covid Rules (Essential Workers)
My constituent Hazel and her husband are both doctors. Between them, they are working four of the five days of lockdown relaxation over Christmas. She has elderly parents in Northern Ireland and her mum has advanced dementia. She has only seen them once this year, and has cancelled several trips due to Covid restrictions.
When it became clear that there would be some allowance for movement over the festive period, Hazel hoped to visit for her dad’s birthday on 29 December and to stay for new year, but now they cannot do so. We are repeatedly told that Covid is not taking Christmas off; well, nor are doctors, intensive care unit nurses, police officers or soldiers. Therefore, will the First Minister’s Government allow those who are working on the front line this Christmas the opportunity to take their five days slightly later, so that they can have some of the comfort and joy that is being offered to the rest of the nation?
I really, really wish that I could, but I will not beat about the bush here. We have had to take and continue to have to take really difficult decisions. I offer my heartfelt thanks to Hazel—I think that that was what the member said his constituent’s name is—and her partner for the incredible work that they and others working at the front line of our health and social care services have done.
We simply have to restrict the flexibilities as much as possible, and that is a conclusion that all Governments across the UK have come to. On the face of it, why would we not allow people who are working hard on the front line to take the flexibilities at other points? However, if we allow different parts of the population to interact at different times, we will create a bigger risk of the virus transmitting more rapidly. That is why we cannot design the flexibilities, which we are encouraging people to use only if absolutely necessary, anyway, in a bespoke way that takes account of individual circumstances. I deeply and bitterly regret that—I really do. Part of the motivation for trying to keep things as tight as possible is for the sake of those working on the front line of our national health service, because they bear the brunt if Covid cases start to rise.
The last thing that I will say, which I do not expect to be of any immediate comfort to people in Hazel’s position, is that, as we go through this Christmas, difficult though it will be for many people across the country, we have to keep our eyes fixed on the light that the vaccine offers us, in the hope that soon—hopefully by spring and Easter—we will all have much more normality in visiting our families and loved ones across Scotland and even perhaps when they live out of Scotland.
That is a really tough message, and every fibre of me hates having to stand here and say it, but it is important that I am straight with people and that I am straight with them about the reasons for having to communicate these really tough things, particularly at this time of year.13:22 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—