Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Loading…

Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, October 8, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 08 October 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Mental Health Transition and Recovery Plan, Reducing Covid-19 Transmission, Trade Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time


Contents


First Minister’s Question Time

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Good afternoon, colleagues. I remind all members to observe social distancing rules in the Parliament. We will begin First Minister’s questions shortly. Before we do, the First Minster will give us a brief update on the Covid-19 figures.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will give a very short update on the statistics that will be published later this afternoon. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,027, which is 13.5 per cent of people who were newly tested. That takes the total number of confirmed cases to 35,787. Of those new cases, 405 are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 230 are in Lanarkshire, 152 are in Lothian and 73 are in Ayrshire and Arran. The remaining cases are spread across the other seven mainland health board areas.

There are currently 377 people in hospital, which is an increase of 58 from the figure that I reported yesterday. That is more than double the figure that I reported at First Minister’s questions last week. There are 31 people in intensive care, which is an increase of three since yesterday. I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, five deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive for Covid in the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measurement is now 2,538. Once again, I offer my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.

We will shortly publish our latest estimate of the R number. The estimate confirms our view that the R number continues to be above 1 and possibly as high as 1.6. Those figures demonstrate why, yesterday, we announced significant new measures to get the virus back under control. Full details of the measures announced yesterday are available on the Scottish Government’s website.

I recognise how hard those restrictions are for individuals and businesses, particularly hospitality businesses, which is why we are making financial support available. Those steps are essential to bring the virus back under control as we go further into the winter period. I ask everyone to stick with the rules. They are hard and painful for all of us, but they are about the protection of life and health.

Finally, I urge everybody to remember FACTS: face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m distance; and self-isolate and get tested if you experience any of the symptoms of Covid.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to provide that update, Presiding Officer.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, First Minster. I remind members who wish to ask a supplementary question—both those who are in the chamber and those who are online—to press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible.


Harassment Complaints (Meetings)

1. Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

Does it sound credible for the First Minister to forget a meeting at which she learned for the first time of allegations of sexual misconduct being levelled at her predecessor and mentor of two decades?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I get why people will look at that and raise an eyebrow, but perhaps I can explain the circumstances—as I did in the evidence that I submitted to the committee two months ago, which, I was pleased to see, was published yesterday. I read a comment by someone yesterday—I am sorry, but I cannot remember which member of the Scottish Parliament made the comment—saying that something like that would surely be “seared on your memory”. There is something seared on my memory. It is the meeting that took place some three days later, when Alex Salmond himself sat in my home, gave me the details of the complaints that had been made against him and gave me his response to aspects of those complaints. That is what is seared on my memory, and I think that most reasonable people would understand that. Forgive me, Presiding Officer, if that has somehow overwritten in my mind a much more fleeting, opportunistic meeting that took place a few days earlier. That is just how it is.

I have put forward my evidence. Anyone from across Scotland can go to the Parliament website and read that evidence—I am sure that everyone in the chamber has already done so. It is a full and frank account. I look forward—if that is not an absurd description—to appearing before the committee and answering any questions that anyone has on whatever aspects of that evidence they want to cover. I have not yet been invited to appear before the committee, and I hope that that comes sooner rather than later. I have no difficulty in answering all and any questions as soon as I am given the opportunity to do so. I am being completely open about all this.

In the meantime, I hope that people will understand that I have an important job to do, which is to continue to lead this country as safely as I can through a global pandemic.

Ruth Davidson

I have read the First Minister’s submission. In it, her argument for forgetting that meeting is that she was having a busy day, that First Minister’s questions had taken up her attention and that the meeting slipped her mind.

I have looked back at that First Minister’s question time, when we ended up talking about the Arctic strategy, which is not something to cause anyone to forget sexual assault allegations. That does not even bear the lightest scrutiny—it is beyond belief.

An account of that meeting that the First Minister had with Mr Salmond’s chief of staff has been published. I will read it out.

“The conversation was around the fact of the complaints, without discussing the specifics of them.

There was discussion about the investigation, the process of it, the fact it was a civil service investigation being conducted by civil servants.”

I ask again: does a meeting that involves a discussion of the investigation, the process of that investigation, the civil service side of it and the fact of the complaints against a former First Minister sound to the current First Minister like the kind of thing that she would not remember?

The First Minister

I do remember the complaints of sexual misconduct. The point that I am making, have made before and will make again is that the detail of that was given to me three or four days later by Alex Salmond himself. I sat in the dining room of my own home while he showed me what he was accused of. I was pretty shocked and upset at the time, and that is what is seared on my memory.

Those are the facts. Other people can decide to give their own evidence and I will give mine. I will sit before a committee, whenever it decides to call me, and I will give my account of everything that happened, on oath. I have got nothing to hide in all this.

I will make two more points to Ruth Davidson. First, she has to decide what she is levelling against me. She stood in the chamber last week and appeared to suggest that I or my husband, or others in the SNP, had somehow been involved in a conspiracy against Alex Salmond. Today, she appears to be making some kind of accusation that, in some way, I was colluding with Alex Salmond. Both of those things are complete nonsense.

Secondly, scrutiny of what happened is legitimate. It is what the committee exists to do, and, as I say, I look forward to giving evidence to that committee. However, at the heart of all this, complaints were made. It was right that they were investigated. In my view, it was right that there was a process that allowed them to be investigated. The Scottish Government made an error in the application of that process, and the committee is right to scrutinise that. However, in all Ruth Davidson’s attempts to find some way of saying that somehow I am in the wrong here, let us not forget that what lies at the heart of it all are serious complaints that the Government was right to investigate. It was wrong to make an error in how it carried out that investigation but right to investigate and not to cover up or try to cover up those complaints. Let us not forget the people who lie at the heart of this whole sorry saga.

Ruth Davidson

This is not a trivial matter. What lies at the heart of it is whether there was an abuse of power, which affects every citizen of this country.

I am afraid that the First Minister’s position is absurd. I have spent enough time sparring with her here to know that her powers of recall are in good order. Leaving aside the question of precisely who is supposed to have reminded her of a two-person meeting, we have to ask why. Why did the First Minister mislead Parliament by omitting the fact that the meeting ever happened? Why did it take a Government staffer being questioned under oath in a court of law for it to come out? A meeting in her ministerial office about a former First Minister and a civil service investigation was never recorded and never minuted, and the ministerial code is clear that all such meetings that are conducted without an official present must be passed back for the facts to be recorded.

The First Minister’s defence is that she has only ever acted as head of the SNP. Is her sudden memory loss not because she did not want evidence of her involvement as First Minister to come to light?

The First Minister

So, now, I am not conspiring against him but appear to be colluding with him again.

In relation to abuse of power, let us cut to the chase. The Scottish Government, in the wake of the #MeToo revelations, put a procedure in place to allow any complaints about anybody, regardless of who they are in relation to seniority or political affiliation, to be investigated. I am sorry, but I think that that was the right thing to do. That was a good use of power, if that is how you want to describe it.

Complaints came forward, and, instead of their being swept under the carpet because they would have been inconvenient for my Government, because of who they were about, the Government decided, rightly and properly, to investigate those complaints. It made an error in how it did that, and that is an aspect that the committee is looking at. I understand why it may suit some people to say that this is all some great conspiracy, but I am not entirely sure why anybody still in possession of their critical faculties would see it as anything other than complaints being investigated and everybody trying to do the right thing in very difficult circumstances.

I have been open in the evidence that I have given, and any member of the public who is watching—who is, frankly, probably a lot more worried about the on-going Covid pandemic than they are about any of this issue—can go on to the Scottish Parliament website and read my evidence in full and make up their own mind. The evidence takes on the point about the ministerial code. The clauses in the ministerial code are intended to prevent a minister having meetings about decisions that they are taking in Government and not declaring them, but that was a decision that I was not involved in. I was trying to protect the confidentiality and integrity of that process. Of course, I have also referred myself to the adviser on the ministerial code, who will look at that as well.

I have nothing to hide on this—nothing whatsoever. People can read my evidence and, when the committee decides—it is up to the committee—to ask me to give evidence, I will do that and I will relish the prospect of doing that, because all sorts of nonsense is being levelled at me on the matter. I did not choose to be in a position where complaints were made about my predecessor, and I did not choose to be in the position where my Government would have to investigate them. We have tried to do the right thing at every stage, to do right by those who brought forward the complaints. The Government did not do right at all stages, because it got an aspect of that wrong, but I absolutely reject any suggestion that the matter was somehow covered up or not dealt with properly. When the committee chooses to call me, I will go into all the detail. In the meantime, I am going to get on with the job that I think most people out there want me to do, which is to continue to take the tough decisions to get the country through a global pandemic.

I know that Ruth Davidson does not like being reminded of this, but I am open to scrutiny not only by the Parliament but by the Scottish people, and, when I stand before them in the election next year, they can make their judgment on me and my conduct. They will not get that opportunity with Ruth Davidson, because she will be away by then, in the House of Lords.

Ruth Davidson

Let us give them all the information before then, shall we? The Scottish National Party appears to be taking people for fools here. We have a chief executive of the SNP sending texts to colleagues, calling for pressure to be put on the police, and then saying that he did not mean it. We have the First Minister attending meetings about the Salmond case, then omitting them from her diary and claiming that she had forgotten all about them. And we have a Scottish Government wilfully obstructing an inquiry by the Parliament and attacking anyone who points that out.

The First Minster’s former health secretary Alex Neil now says that a full judicial inquiry needs to be held into the scandal. Given the secrecy, evasion and unbelievable nonsense coming from the SNP on the matter, does he have a point?

The First Minister

There is a parliamentary inquiry under way that I have given evidence to and that I will sit in front of and give oral evidence to under oath. I have nothing to hide in all this. I have had two years or more of people making accusations about my conduct, but it is not my conduct that sparked any of this. I have tried to act in the proper way; if I have made mistakes along the way, I will say that and people can make their judgments, but I have tried to do the right thing and I will continue to try to do the right thing, because I believe that, when serious complaints are made, they should be properly investigated. I also believe that, when criminal complaints are made, it is right to say that the police should properly investigate and that the police should answer any questions. That is what I think most people would think is right and proper; what should happen is proper investigation and due process. I do not know what would have happened in the Conservative Party. Maybe those things would just have been swept under the carpet because they were not convenient politically, but that would not have been the right thing to have happened.

I will answer any and all questions that anybody wants to ask me about this, but most people out there who are listening to this exchange and living with the consequences of Covid—people who might have lost people to Covid or who are worried about their jobs and their livelihoods and who probably want to hear me talk about the things that we are doing to get the country through Covid—will be looking at Ruth Davidson now and saying, “What on earth is she thinking?”


Covid-19 (Decision Making)

2. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Liz Cameron, who is the chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said that there was a

“complete and utter lack of consultation with business”

on yesterday’s new restrictions. That, she said,

“only serves to compound the blows”

of the restrictions. The Scottish Trades Union Congress has confirmed that it was absolutely not consulted, even though it says that the Scottish Government’s approach has changed.

This is not just about the decision that the First Minister has taken; it is about how she has taken it. There were hints all week that tighter restrictions were coming. All the while, those who were set to be most affected by the restrictions were kept in the dark. Businesses have adapted to new rules; some were stocking their fridges and paying their suppliers for two weeks of staycations. Workers who have followed the guidance to the letter in order to keep their customers and their jobs safe now see that their jobs are on the line.

Why did the First Minister take the decision without consulting, sharing evidence with, and preparing adequate support for, those who will be most affected?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Decisions must be taken by me and the Government. We consult and talk to stakeholders—business, trade unions and other organisations—all the time. We must also assess the evidence every day and take account of the latest evidence before we come to decisions.

I update people every day on the state of our thinking—the factors that we are taking into account and the decision-making process that we go through. These are not normal times and they are not normal decision-making processes. I know how difficult the consequences of the decisions are for businesses and for individuals. I do not expect the decisions to be welcome or popular; they are tough, but they must, ultimately, be made by the Government.

This is my job and I am not complaining about it, but every day we face decisions in which we have lives in one hand and jobs in the other. It is an almost impossible balance to strike, but we are doing that to the best of our ability.

Regarding financial support for businesses that will be affected by yesterday’s announcement, Fergus Ewing has been speaking to stakeholders in the hospitality and tourism sectors, in particular. We hope to make announcements tomorrow on exactly how the £40 million of support that I announced yesterday will be allocated to businesses.

I do not expect anybody to be happy with what we must do right now, but I do expect decision makers in Parliament to understand the context in which we are operating. These are not normal times. I do not get up in the morning and decide to close pubs for some sort of policy reason. We are in a global pandemic in which we are trying to save lives, and to balance that as best we can with the interests of the economy. That is the difficult balance that we will continue to strike, by talking to, and consulting as much as possible, organisations and stakeholders along the way.

Richard Leonard

I get that the First Minister did not get up yesterday morning and decide to impose restrictions on pubs, restaurants and other hospitality establishments. It must have taken several days to come to that conclusion, which is why there should have been consultation of the industry and the trade unions that represent the workforce in that industry.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have called on the Government to build up testing infrastructure and tracing capacity. We have done that not to oppose the Government, but because we want the Government to succeed and we want new outbreaks to be contained. Every time we have raised it, the First Minister has told us that test and protect is working well—until yesterday, when there was finally an admission that the time that would be bought by closing hospitality would allow for another review of the testing strategy.

Yesterday, the First Minister finally spoke of extending testing

“to more individuals and groups of people in our society who do not have symptoms”.—[Official Report, 8 October 2020; c 27.]

We have asked repeatedly for more testing of asymptomatic people and incoming travellers, and for routine testing to be expanded to home care services. Can the First Minister tell us when that will finally be delivered?

The First Minister

Before I deal with Richard Leonard’s first point on consultation, I note that what I said was that I do not get up in the morning and deliberately try to damage any sector of the economy.

However, as it happens, the Cabinet met at 8.30 yesterday morning to take the final decisions on what I have announced in Parliament this afternoon. We have sought to share our thinking as we have gone on, recognising the difficult and abnormal situation that we are all in, right now. I spoke to Richard Leonard and the other party leaders on Monday night to share the state of our thinking at that point, and made it very clear that we had not taken final decisions because we were assessing the clinical evidence and taking advice from our advisers.

These are difficult matters, and I do not expect anybody just to ignore the impact of the decisions. I am acutely aware—literally every waking moment, right now—of the impact of decisions that I take, and of the potential impact of decisions that I do not take. It is literally about striking a life/jobs balance all the time. I would not wish having to make the decisions on anyone. I accept that they are my responsibility—nobody makes me, or any of us, do these jobs—but I repeat that I literally would not wish those decisions on anyone right now. I am trying my best to make them in the best possible way. I have never claimed to be infallible and have never claimed that I will not get things wrong substantively or in process. We have tried to make decisions better and to do better as we go along. I think that that is what people expect of Government, at times like this.

On testing, we have not merely a functioning test and protect system, but an extremely well-functioning test and protect system. As I reported yesterday, we estimate that prevalence of the virus right now is at about 13 per cent of the peak level in March, but we think that it is rising at a rate at which it could reach that rate by the end of this month.

However, I have just given the figure of more than 1,000 for test-positive cases. Back in March, the peak number of test-positive cases that we reported was about 500. We are reporting so many more cases now because we are testing so many more people, which is because we have a well-functioning system. The results that are published weekly of test and protect in relation to contact tracing index cases show that contact tracers are doing exceptional work, but all of us have to play our part in combating the virus.

I hate having to announce the kind of restrictions that I have announced, but if we look around the world right now—at countries including Ireland, Belgium, France and Germany—we see that all countries are grappling with the same issues and that we are all doing that to the best of our ability. I will continue to do that.

We want, as we go into the next phase, to have more parliamentary scrutiny of and challenge on that, which is in all our interests. However, nobody should be under any illusion that there are easy decisions, or that there is ever an absolutely right or wrong thing to do.

Richard Leonard

If test and protect is working so well, why are a third of people not being contract traced in 48 hours, with many waiting even longer?

However, I turn to something else that has happened this week that I think is important for Parliament to consider. We are rightly concerned about further temporary restrictions on all of us, but I turn to a group of people for whom life has been restricted for months, and who live in fear that temporary limitations will become permanent.

We must not forget vulnerable people. Theirs has been an untold story of the pandemic—until two days ago, when the Scottish Human Rights Commission published its “COVID-19, Social Care and Human Rights: Impact Monitoring Report”, which makes for deeply concerning and, at times, harrowing reading. It tells of services being cut or removed with little or no assessment or communication. The commission received reports of

“people left in dire situations ... being forced to sleep in wheelchairs, unable to get out of bed, unable to wash and dress themselves”.

The report’s conclusion is that there has been

“a direct and detrimental effect on people’s rights”.

The report makes 24 recommendations, one of which is that care and support services must be restored to pre-pandemic levels. It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that people’s rights, including their human rights, are upheld. What guarantee can the First Minister give that social care services will be restored to at least pre-pandemic levels? When will people’s support packages be returned in full? When will she uphold the human rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of our society?

The First Minister

In everything that we do, we seek not just to respect but to uphold the human rights of people across the country, and we will always take extremely seriously anything that the Scottish Human Rights Commission says. We will pay very careful and close attention to the report to which Richard Leonard referred.

It is critical that people’s social care support be maintained. We are already working with local authorities and health and social care partnerships to assure people that any temporary changes that were essential and inevitable as a result of Covid will not become long term. However, it is important that we stress that some of the changes have, for wider safety reasons, been unavoidable in the short term.

It is critical that changes to support arrangements, and their impact and duration, be discussed and considered very carefully with the person who will be affected and their unpaid carers. We continue to work not just with local authorities, but with Scottish Care and others, to address concerns.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport tends to all such matters literally daily. As we continue to go through a very challenging and difficult situation, we will strive to ensure that the rights and the circumstances of the most vulnerable people in our society are absolutely at the centre of all our decision making.


Covid-19 (Continued Employment Support)

3. Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

The Scottish Greens have consistently supported a strong public health response to Covid and action to make sure that the pandemic does not deepen the inequality that already exists in our society. Right now, workers across Scotland are faced with financial hardship, job losses and uncertainty, especially in hospitality businesses, which, even before the pandemic, already suffered from endemic low pay, insecure contracts and poor working conditions.

This is challenge poverty week, and today we are all being asked to step up the action to achieve fair work practices. The Scottish Trades Union Congress and Unite the union have already reported that some employers are asking staff to take unpaid leave. One notorious Glasgow employer, the G1 Group, is trying to present that to staff as an opportunity.

The Scottish Government’s £40 million fund is welcome. The First Minister has said that it will be used to meet employer contributions to furlough. If that is the case, how many full-pay jobs will that amount protect? Does it match the scale of need in the businesses that are affected by the new restrictions?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

As I indicated a few moments ago, we are having discussions with stakeholders—Fergus Ewing has been having those discussions. We hope to announce shortly the detail of how the £40 million will be allocated. Our current expectation is that the funding will be distributed through a two-tier support system. We are looking at providing grants to affected businesses based on rateable values and deploying a discretionary fund for businesses that are impacted by restrictions, even if they are not being required to close. That is similar to the approach that was taken in August in Aberdeen; it is also, I think, broadly similar to the schemes that are intended to be used elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Furlough is about to end. That is not a decision of the Scottish Government. It is a decision that we very much regret and still hope will be reversed. The support that the UK Government gives through the furlough scheme is also less than it was when businesses in Aberdeen had to close. Therefore, we will be discussing with the sector how the financial support that the Scottish Government is making available can provide a contribution towards the costs.

I will be frank. We have dug as deep as we can within the finite budget that the Scottish Government has at its disposal to make the £40 million available. We cannot plug all the gaps that are the responsibility of the UK Government. Employment is a reserved matter. The support that has been given through the furlough scheme is very welcome, and we will do our best to mitigate the impact of deficiencies. However, we need to see action from the UK Government to replace the furlough scheme properly and to put in proper schemes that enable the Scottish Government—and the Welsh, Northern Irish and UK Governments—to compensate properly any businesses that unavoidably have to close as a result of the on-going Covid challenge.

Patrick Harvie

Clearly, both the UK and the Scottish Governments need to provide the support that will be necessary over the coming weeks.

However well or badly we manage to support people in this period of additional restrictions, though, in the longer term we will only get the virus back under control if we have robust systems on testing, contact tracing and supporting people to self-isolate. That is why the review of the testing strategy must be quick and must also deliver a major increase in testing, including widespread, weekly screening of those who are at highest risk of infection. This afternoon, the Parliament will vote on an amendment in the name of my colleague Alison Johnstone that calls for such an approach. I hope that the First Minister will support it.

It is not only on testing that the Scottish Government needs to up its game. I am very concerned by the evidence that was presented by the chief medical officer yesterday that more than three quarters of people who should be self-isolating are not doing so. The self-isolation support grant is due to come in on Monday, but the criteria for it are incredibly narrow, so it is unlikely to reach many of those who need it, in particular those who are in insecure work. The Government must make it easy for people to self-isolate. What action will the First Minister take to ensure that everyone has the support that they need to stay at home if they are asked to? Will she make the grant available to everyone who needs it?

The First Minister

The Government does not have the financial wherewithal to make the grant available to everyone. However, we are targeting the support that is available to those who are most likely to need it—those who are on low incomes and who are most likely to lose income if they are asked to self-isolate. That is important.

Again, I hope that, over the next period, we will see more funding become available through UK Government funding streams. We will use the funding that we have at our disposal to help as many people as possible.

Financial support is important—that is why we have put the scheme in place—but so, too, is the broader practical support that we offer. We are also working with local authorities to ensure that anyone who is asked to self-isolate gets an offer of practical help. Many people who do not need financial support will need help with the practical implications of not being able to leave their houses, so we want to provide that help, too.

We must continue to get across to people the importance of self-isolation, why it is so vital in breaking the chains of transmission and what it entails. That process will be an on-going one and, frankly, every member in the chamber will have a part to play in helping with it. The Government has the prime responsibility for that job, but I hope that every party and every member in the chamber will help with that in their communications with their own constituents and supporters.


Test and Protect Strategy

4. Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

Presiding Officer,

“The aim of Test and Protect is to ... protect the country from a second peak.”

Those were the words of the First Minister in May, when she launched the test and protect programme. Back then, 77 people tested positive; today we have 1,027 new cases, at a point when we are supposed to be heading towards elimination of the virus.

In June, the First Minister said that the purpose of the elimination strategy was to

“get more normality back and ... deal with any flare-ups or clusters or outbreaks in a much more targeted way.”

However, as of yesterday, we now have travel limits, pubs and restaurants being forced to close, the rule of six, no indoor visiting and no bingo or bowling. That does not seem like a targeted approach. It is now clear that the Government got carried away with its language over the summer. The First Minister did not use that time well to prepare adequately. What would she have done differently to get on top of the virus?

The First Minister

No doubt, when I look back on this episode—as we do regularly—I will see all sorts of things that we would do differently if we had our time again. That is probably in the nature of having to deal with an unprecedented challenge.

However, I fundamentally disagree with Willie Rennie’s characterisation of the situation. It was not a question of getting carried away; it was absolutely right that we used the time over the summer to drive levels of the virus as low as possible. If we had not done so, we would now be seeing higher levels of infection. It is always difficult to prove a negative, but I say to him that, right now, we would be seeing levels of infection that would be way above those that we are already seeing.

If we look at the figures across the United Kingdom right now, we see that, although reproduction numbers are not perfect ways of describing what is happening with the virus, we have an R number that is marginally above that in other parts of the United Kingdom, and we have a growth rate that is marginally above that in other parts of the UK. However, our case numbers per 100,000, on both a seven-day and 14-day rolling average, are the lowest in the UK. That is the benefit of having driven the virus down, so even though the virus is spreading again, it is doing so from a much lower base.

I am sure that, if Willie Rennie goes back to mine my quotes, as he obviously has done, he will find many times where I have said that test and protect cannot suppress the virus on its own. Right now—we do not see this because the work that it is doing is preventing lots of cases that are not there—test and protect is bearing a lot of the strain. Unfortunately, with an infectious virus, we all have to play our part—that is what we are all being asked to do. I recognise that that is difficult for everybody, but that is in the nature of what we are dealing with and it is what virtually every country in the world is having to do.

As I said yesterday, although this is difficult for all of us to think about right now, because life still feels so abnormal, we are living with much more normality now than we were in April, May and June—even into July. In many ways, aspects of our lives have returned to normal, but there are still restrictions on our lives because of the pandemic that we are dealing with.

I absolutely understand people’s frustrations and I share those frustrations, but we are in this situation in common with everybody across the world and we have to keep doing the right things to get ourselves through it. The Government has to continue to lead on that.

Willie Rennie

If the Government is to get on top of the virus, we need to be frank about what has happened. Test and protect has not protected us from a second peak and the elimination strategy has not succeeded.

Let me turn to something that could help. At Northumbria University in England, mass testing of students was carried out and, last week, it was found that 90 per cent of those who tested positive showed no symptoms, which means that nine out of 10 of those students did not know that they had the disease. They and their contacts are now self-isolating to stop the spread and to get the virus under control. So far, the Scottish Government has refused to embrace that approach but, with the evidence from Northumbria University, I want to try again. Will the First Minister agree to mass routine testing for students so that we can stop further outbreaks in our universities?

The First Minister

First, I will go back to test and protect, because I am conscious that there are lots and lots of people across the country working in test and protect right now who are doing exceptional work, and I do not want to leave hanging the statement that test and protect is not protecting the country. Test and protect cannot suppress the virus on its own, but the work of test and protect is preventing countless infections, which will save countless numbers of people from becoming ill and potentially countless numbers of people from dying. Those working in test and protect are doing an excellent job and we should all be deeply grateful to them for that.

I think that Willie Rennie, who is a really smart, intelligent guy—don’t quote me on that in your next election leaflet, as I will deny it to the end of days—in some respects is choosing not to understand the elimination strategy point, but we will no doubt continue to debate these things, and both of us enjoy that debate, although I am not sure that it helps anybody who is watching the debate.

We are doing more asymptomatic testing, and our testing strategy will develop in line with proper consideration of the clinical advice that we have—again, I say that with the greatest of respect. The latest review, as I said yesterday, is due to be carried out over the next couple of weeks. We will look at where it is sensible to take asymptomatic testing next; we have already extended it to care homes and to national health service staff and that discussion will continue.

On the university outbreaks that we have had—and I am not complacent about this—our data right now shows that the impact of those is beginning to abate, so the work that test and protect has been doing has been helping to contain the university outbreaks and prevent them from getting bigger. I take Willie Rennie’s points about testing, and I assure him that we will continue to consider his points, as we will consider the points that others make to us.


Sporting Organisations (Support)

5. Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on discussions with the United Kingdom Government regarding support for sporting organisations most affected by a delay to the return of spectators. (S5F-04473)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Joe FitzPatrick, the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, met with his counterpart in the UK Government on Friday 2 October, which was last Friday, to discuss financial aid for sporting organisations that are most affected by the delay in the return of spectators to stadiums. Those discussions are on-going, and we do not yet have confirmation of any proposals that would lead to Barnett consequential funding for us, but we will continue to pursue those constructively. This week, the sports minister met footballing authorities, and we will continue to engage and work with them to ensure that we provide whatever support is possible.

Fulton MacGregor

[Inaudible.] There have been numerous suggestions this week in football circles that the decision to exclude fans from football matches is in some way a political decision rather than a scientific one. Will the First Minister share the advice on which that unfortunate but necessary restriction is based? Does she agree that football and other sports clubs at all levels play a vital role in their communities that goes far beyond the activity itself? Will the Government support clubs to continue to think of other solutions to survive the current tough time, such as live streaming? Will she confirm that supporters will be allowed back when that is possible, but only when it is safe for that to happen?

The First Minister

The statements that Fulton MacGregor refers to confused me, because I cannot work out what the political motivation would be for the restrictions. We all want life back to normal, and that includes having spectators back in stadiums. Plenty of my supporters are enthusiastic football fans. My father asks me literally every night on the telephone when he is going to get back to watch Ayr United play—I am not sure why he is so desperate, but people want to get back to normal. It is just a bit odd to suggest that I have any sort of political motivation to prevent that from happening.

Jason Leitch has addressed the issue during the week, and I will summarise the position. In a pandemic of an infectious virus, when we are trying to keep the virus under control, we can bear only so much normal activity that brings people together without the virus then getting out of control. Obviously, the point is also relevant to the discussion on hospitality. The virus spreads through human contact, and we have to be careful about the different circumstances, not just individually but collectively, of the ways in which we are enabling people to come together and potentially spread the virus. We continue to take decisions on that as carefully as possible.

To go back to what I said earlier, we are trying to strike as good a balance as we can in a situation in which there is never a perfect balance to be found. We will continue to discuss with the football authorities how we can better support them in that. All of us, me included, want football, all sports and all of society to get back to normal as quickly as possible.


Emergency Workers (Attacks)

6. Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to statistics stating that attacks on emergency workers have risen approximately 6 per cent on the previous year and occur at a rate of more than 20 a day. (S5F-04468)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Any act of violence or aggression towards emergency workers is completely unacceptable. I was very concerned by the report on that. Some time ago, we extended the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 to cover general practitioners, other doctors, nurses and midwives when they are working in the community. The national health service charter of patient rights and responsibilities makes clear that any abusive, violent or aggressive behaviour towards staff when people are using NHS services might be subject to legal action.

We are absolutely committed to improving staff safety and ensuring that all instances of violence and aggression are reported so that perpetrators can be held to account. Nobody should face abuse or violence while at work. Our courts have extensive powers to deal robustly with those who carry out attacks on emergency workers.

Liam Kerr

Despite a rise in the number of attacks a year of more than 1,000 since 2014-15, court proceedings have plummeted by 55 per cent over the same period. Why is that, and what is the Scottish Government doing right now to address that statistic?

The First Minister

As Liam Kerr will appreciate, I do not take decisions—nor should I—on which cases are prosecuted and which cases are not. That is a matter for the Crown Office and prosecutors. I do not take decisions on the disposal of cases that come to court, either. My responsibility—and the Government’s responsibility—is to ensure that we have the right legal framework in place. I have already mentioned the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which was extended—I think that I was health secretary when we extended it—to make sure that the courts had the right mechanisms in place to deal robustly with such cases.

I say openly that, if there are members across the chamber who think that there are further changes to that legal framework that Parliament should make, we would be very open to considering that. I will be corrected if I am wrong here, but I think that when the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Bill first went through Parliament, the Scottish Conservatives voted against it. I hope that there is now more of a constructive willingness on their part to consider how we improve the legal framework.

I think that all of us would want to agree that abuse of or attacks on emergency workers at any time is completely unacceptable and, in my view, utterly inexplicable, but particularly at this time, when so many of our emergency workers are working so hard to help to keep the rest of us safe, we should all be united in sending out a very clear message about how completely unacceptable such behaviour is.


Child Poverty

7. Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government plans to meet its interim child poverty targets, given that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published this week says that it is not on course to meet them. (S5F-04467)

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We are determined to continue to progress towards, and to meet, our child poverty targets, which are obviously incredibly important for reasons that everybody understands. That will be challenging to do in the face of continued welfare cuts by the United Kingdom Government, the economic impacts of Covid and the potential that is looming before us of the end of the Brexit transition period.

That makes the action that we take here all the more important. That is why we are prioritising, even amidst the Covid challenge, the delivery of the Scottish child payment, which opens for applications next month. It is estimated that just under 200,000 children could benefit from that. If the Scottish child payment is taken together with the best start grant and the best start food support payment, an eligible two-child family will be provided with around £10,000-worth of support in the early years of their children’s lives.

I call on the UK Government to take a similar approach. In the short term, it could decide to retain the £20 uplift to universal credit and to extend that to legacy benefits. That would make a big difference—the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted that, alongside our new payment for under-sixes, that could help us to lift 25,000 children out of poverty.

Pauline McNeill

I thank the First Minister for her answer, but she will know that 24 per cent of children in Scotland are growing up in poverty, which is an increase on five years ago. The Scottish Government’s target was to reduce that number by a quarter to 18 per cent by March 2024. Therefore, I hope that the First Minister agrees that we need to make a bigger effort to meet that target.

I want to ask the First Minister specifically about single parents. In comparison with two-parent families, double the level of single-parent families are in poverty. Recently, Glasgow City Council withdrew funding from One Parent Families Scotland, which is the only dedicated single-parent support service. The First Minister will know that the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 includes a specific target on single parents. Would she be prepared to remind local authorities such as Glasgow City Council of that fact? If we are to have a joined-up anti-poverty policy, such a decision should be reconsidered.

I would also be grateful if the First Minister could say more about what specific policies will be aimed at single-parent families.

The First Minister

The point about single-parent families is important. Obviously, it is for local authorities to take their decisions, but I hope and believe that all local authorities share the Scottish Government’s determination to implement the child poverty action plan and to meet the targets that we have discussed.

The policies that I have talked about—especially the Scottish child payment—will benefit single-parent families, as it will benefit other families. I will be happy to write to Pauline McNeill with details of the specific policies that the Scottish Government is pursuing and will pursue in the future that are geared towards single-parent families.

I do not think that there is anyone in the chamber who would say anything other than that meeting the child poverty targets is absolutely essential and a priority. In my view—I am sure that it is also the view of Pauline McNeill and others—one child living in poverty is one too many. Poverty levels in Scotland are lower than in other parts of the UK, but they are still too high. It is important that we do everything that we can to tackle child poverty and we are doing that, although we are always open to doing more where that is possible.

However, we have to recognise that many of the levers that impact on child poverty are out of our hands. Welfare cuts and the austerity agenda that we have seen in years gone by have a massive impact on our ability to meet those targets. I hope that we get support—certainly from the Labour side—in asking for different policies and, more fundamentally, for those decisions to lie with this Parliament and not with the Conservatives in Westminster.


Intensive Treatment Unit (Inverclyde Royal Hospital)

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware of the news that broke this past weekend about the intensive treatment unit at the Inverclyde Royal hospital. The health board has now clarified that the unit itself has not been closed, but that the process of transferring the most unwell patients to the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Glasgow, which equated to nine patients throughout Covid, has been formalised.

The inappropriate manner in which that news was conveyed to both staff and the public has caused a great deal of justifiable anger and concern to people in my community, who rely on those vital services. Had the Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS Board conveyed those changes in a transparent and clear communication strategy—both internal and external—much of that anger and worry would have been avoided.

Can the First Minister therefore confirm that the future of the IRH is not in doubt and can she provide an assurance that the ITU service will remain there?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

First, I thank Stuart McMillan for raising that issue. He is a dedicated champion of Inverclyde Royal hospital as the constituency MSP, and I know that his constituents will be grateful to him for that. Secondly, his points about communication are well made, and I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will pass them on to the health board, which will hear those points here as well.

Most important, on the substance, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has given assurances that the critical care unit at the IRH is not closing. Both the Government and the health board have been consistently clear in our commitment to the continued provision of comprehensive hospital, community and primary care services across Inverclyde, including Inverclyde Royal hospital.

The intensive care unit beds at the IRH will remain open and patients will continue to be admitted to the beds, assessed and stabilised. The high-dependency unit and coronary care unit will continue to treat patients at the IRH as is the case at present. When a patient no longer needs critical care support, they will transfer back to the IRH for their continued recovery and rehabilitation.


Free Ports

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I read this morning with utter disbelief that Ivan McKee, the Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, suggested yesterday in Westminster that he might reject the opportunity of setting up free ports in Scotland. I can tell the First Minister that several ports in the north-east are interested in becoming free ports, which could turbocharge them and greatly boost local economies. Does the First Minister support that reckless position and total lack of ambition for the Scottish economy?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

That is a complete mischaracterisation of our position, but I will put that to one side. I do not think that free ports are any substitute for being a full member of the single market, which the Conservatives are of course ripping us out of against our will.

Let the Conservatives tell us exactly what they mean about free ports, how they will work and whether they are anything other than a race to the bottom. We will of course listen to and support anything that is in the interest of Scotland. What is absolutely against that interest right now is the Tories’ obsession with Brexit, and their determination to drag us out of the single market and the European Union and to potentially leave the transition period with no deal.

The Conservatives should really have a long, hard look at themselves with regard to Scotland’s trading position before levelling any accusation at the Scottish Government.


Licensed Cafes (Covid Restrictions)

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

There are cafes in my constituency and across Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park that have a license. They will be forced to close their doors as a result of the new restrictions, but the reality is that 99 per cent of what they do is about food and only 1 per cent about alcohol. Can the First Minister consider a way of allowing those cafes to suspend their licenses and continue to trade by offering just food? They might otherwise have to close their doors permanently.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will not consider it in the future, because I already have done. I am delighted that Jackie Baillie has given me the opportunity to clarify this point. Cafes will be able to open, whether they are licensed or unlicensed, as long as they do not serve alcohol. The regulations that we will shortly introduce to close certain premises will include a specific exemption for cafes. The regulations will be published tomorrow. Of course, environmental health officers will be responsible for ensuring that the regulations are adhered to. I hope that Jackie Baillie will welcome that.


Mossmorran (Unplanned Flaring)

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

The First Minister will be aware of the further unplanned flaring at Mossmorran, resulting in more than 56 hours of hell for my constituents, who are not just fed up and worried, but increasingly very angry. For the future, a just transition for Mossmorran will be essential, but, dealing with the here and now, I urge the First Minister to have the Scottish Government consider all available options to bring to an end the operator’s blatant disregard of the interests of the local community.

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I completely understand the community concerns in relation to the issue, and I understand the frustration and anger that people in the local community will feel. I can hear that expressed on their behalf by Annabelle Ewing today. It is entirely understandable and, in my view, entirely legitimate.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency is looking at the cause of the flaring and how it was managed over the duration of the incident. The local concerns are clear and well understood by both Government and regulators. Of course, the Crown Office is currently considering a report of a previous incident of flaring that SEPA submitted. I will not say any more about that, for obvious reasons, but I hope that it is an indication of the seriousness with which SEPA is treating flaring incidents at the plant.

That is what is under way. I give Annabelle Ewing an assurance that, of course, we will continue to consider all options and be open to discussing them with her on behalf of her constituents.


Inverclyde Royal Hospital Intensive Care Unit

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

My question follows on from Stuart McMillan’s. The Greenock Telegraph today launched a campaign to save the intensive care unit at Inverclyde Royal hospital. I am being careful with my language here—I am talking about the intensive care capability of its critical care unit, not the entire unit.

The campaign page has already had 10,000 signatures, and the campaign has my backing and, I hope, the backing of every party in the chamber. The campaign page says that the First Minister

“made a commitment to this paper that Inverclyde Royal would be protected. We now call on her ... to make good on that promise.”

The question is: will she?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I just made that very clear in my response to Stuart McMillan. We are clear in our commitment to the continued provision of comprehensive services across Inverclyde. I have already said that, and I have said that the intensive care unit beds will remain open. Patients from Inverclyde will continue to be admitted to the beds, assessed and stabilised. The high dependency unit and the coronary care unit will continue to treat patients at Inverclyde Royal hospital, as is the case at present.

I understand absolutely the concern that local people will have when there is ever any threat or perceived threat to local services, which is why I agree with Stuart McMillan that it is important that the national health service board communicates clearly to local residents, as boards should do in any case. The commitment to the IRH is there and it is clear, and this Government stands by it.


Covid-19 (Scottish Government Response)

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

The First Minister is a better communicator than Boris Johnson, and I think that everyone in Scotland would say, “Thank goodness for that.” However, the rise in the number of cases in the past two weeks shows that an effective communication strategy is not the same as a virus elimination strategy.

I support our trying to beat the virus, but I genuinely fear that parts of our response to it might lead to more deaths than the virus itself. The pausing of cancer services is one example; others include the cancellation of thousands of operations and, indeed, the further restrictions, which will have an impact on people’s mental health as they worry about their jobs or businesses.

I understand that assessments will be made of the Covid impact of all those measures. Is a health impact assessment being done on the long-term impact on Scotland of our response to the virus? If there is, will the First Minister publish that information? If there is not, will she say why there is not and commit now to making such an assessment?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

We assess all our decisions against the four harms that were set out in one of the early papers that we published about how we would chart a way through the pandemic. We have published analysis of that, and I will look on an on-going basis at what more we can publish.

I assure members that we do not look at just the direct impact of Covid, although anybody—I am not suggesting for a minute that Anas Sarwar is doing this—who suggests that that should not be a real priority is wrong. We need to have that very high up in our minds.

This morning, I looked at an Office for National Statistics report about England and Wales that showed the relative numbers of deaths from Covid versus the flu. That puts paid to the argument that Covid is no worse than the flu. We cannot take our eye off that, but Anas Sarwar is right that there are other things that we have to look at and assess.

Yesterday, I said that, if the decision that we reached yesterday had been purely about the Covid impact, we would undoubtedly have gone much further in closing the country down to stop Covid in its tracks, but things are not that simple or one dimensional. We have to assess the economic impacts, because they impact on jobs and people’s health and wellbeing, and, of course, we have to assess the impact on wider health issues. Part of the reason for trying to continue to suppress the virus is so that we do not have to pause things again in the national health service to free up capacity. Obviously, we need capacity for Covid, but we want to ensure that we have the balance right.

I am not going to say that there is a perfect balance to be struck in such a situation. Every decision that we take involves balancing different harms and trying to minimise harms overall. It is not the case, and it cannot be the case, that the issue is one dimensional. That possibly was the case back in March, when we just shut everything down to stop Covid, but that cannot be the case seven months in. We will try to ensure that the wider impact across all those different factors is assessed in all our decisions.


Rail and Road Network (Safety Checks)

Maureen Watt (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)

Following the very heavy rainfall over the weekend, especially in the east and the north-east, can the First Minister give us an assurance that all the necessary safety checks are being carried out on Scotland’s rail and road network?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Obviously, that is an extremely important issue, given recent events, and Maureen Watt is right to raise it.

Because of the severe weather that was forecast for 3 and 4 October, an emergency rail passenger service timetable was implemented. That resulted in a blanket speed restriction of 40mph and a controlled closedown in the east and north of the country. Once the weather had passed, the impacted routes were checked using empty trains to ensure that the lines were safe for passenger services to resume.

Trunk roads have weekly safety inspections and patrols to identify defects or hazards, which are repaired by operating companies within strict timescales. Following Saturday’s heavy rainfall, special inspections were undertaken of structures that were known to be susceptible to scour, but no issues were identified. The inspection and maintenance of local roads is, of course, the responsibility of local authorities.


Sports Organisations (Covid-safe Environments)

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

Many sports clubs and organisations have gone to extraordinary lengths to make their training and participating areas Covid safe—the club that I coach at is managing its training regime like an SAS operation. I accept that it is easier to maintain social distancing in my sport, because we have lanes, but the kids at the club wonder what they are training for. Sport is a lot about competition. What work is being done with sportscotland and the governing bodies to maximise the opportunities for competition in a Covid-safe environment?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The Government is working with sportscotland and a whole range of agencies and organisations throughout the country to try to allow, as far as possible, all aspects of our lives to operate as normally as possible in a Covid-safe environment. I will ask the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing to write to Brian Whittle, particularly to address the point about competitive sport and the actions that can be taken on that.

I absolutely recognise that, for the wider health and mental health and wellbeing of the country—this goes back to Anas Sarwar’s question—having physical activity and sport operating as normally as possible is really important but, unfortunately, in everything, we have to take account of the wider issues and the bigger perspective.

It is always easy in trying to manage our way through the situation—I find myself doing this—to focus on the things that we do not want to be affected. We can all do that, and we all have things that we would prioritise if we could, but we have to make a balanced decision. However, sport is important, and I will ask the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing to give more detail on the specific question that has been raised.


Covid-19 (Phone Apps)

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

In May, I asked the First Minister whether, given the decision to develop different Covid-19 phone apps in different parts of the United Kingdom, those apps would be compatible with one another. The First Minister’s answer was yes. That has not happened. Five months on, the Scottish test and protect app does not work in England, and the thousands of my constituents who travel south of the border every day cannot use the English app properly when they are in England because it does not recognise a Scottish postcode. Why has the disconnect between the UK and Scottish Governments allowed that basic failing in any credible test and trace system to happen, and when exactly will it be fixed?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Work is on-going on that. The member will recall that, at a much earlier stage of the pandemic, I said—probably in the chamber—that it was never our intention to establish a separate Scottish proximity tracing app. We wanted to have the UK-wide app but, unfortunately, it was not introduced in the predicted timescale, and there was a period in which we did not really know whether it would ever happen. We therefore took a decision, once the Republic of Ireland had successfully launched its app and Northern Ireland had used it, that we would actually just get on and get it operational. We have done that and it has been very successful. If people who are watching have not yet downloaded the Protect Scotland app, please do so.

Now that the England and Wales app has launched, work is on-going to get the interoperability issues fixed. I hope that that will happen soon. I think that it is likely that there will be interoperability between the Scottish and Northern Irish apps sooner, because we are using the same software, which is part of a federated system. That work is under way and will be completed as quickly as possible.

The only alternative to getting our own app up and running would have been to have to wait for one that we really did not know was ever going to materialise. I do not think that that would have been the right thing to do.


Prestwick Airport (Job Losses)

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

Does the First Minister agree that Peter Chapman’s outrageous comments on the future of 300 direct jobs at Prestwick airport and countless other associated jobs, and Ayrshire Tory councillor Tom Marshall’s call for the airport to be shut altogether, display a callous disregard for the Scottish aviation industry, and are further proof that the Tories cannot be trusted to stand up for Scottish workers?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

The notion that Conservatives cannot be trusted to stand up for Scottish workers would probably be agreed with by the majority of people across the country, not just by me. There is a wealth of evidence going back for my entire life, and probably before that, that would prove that point.

The aviation sector has been hard hit by Covid, and that is very difficult for it. It faces possibly one of the longest recovery periods of any sector. In line with the powers that are available to us, we have been providing support to the sector, including rates relief for airports and ground handling providers. We are also working with Scotland’s airports to help them to rebuild route networks and return to growth. However, I do not underestimate the impact of the decisions that we have had to take on the sector and all its different aspects.

In relation to Mr Chapman’s comments, we should all remember that this is a difficult time for those who have lost jobs in the sector and an uncertain time for those who are still working in aviation, aerospace and travel. I would encourage everyone—all of us, without exception, because we can all be guilty of these things—to show understanding and empathy all the time as businesses try to respond to the current challenges and take tough decisions to ensure their recovery.


Mossmorran (Unplanned Flaring)

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I listened very carefully to the answer that the First Minister gave about Mossmorran flaring. However, the fact is that many live investigations into the flaring will be continuing for the foreseeable future and communities cannot wait for those investigations to end. They want to see change and they want to see a just transition at the plant. What message does the First Minister have for the 5,500 people who have written to Roseanna Cunningham calling for an inquiry into the crumbling plant?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

My message to people is that I absolutely understand their views, frustration and anger over the issue. As I said to Annabelle Ewing, the Government is willing to look at all options. If Mark Ruskell wants to be part of that conversation, I would very much welcome that. As a result of his question, I will have a further discussion with Roseanna Cunningham about the call for an inquiry and any further action that we can take or support, or encourage the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to take.

I understand that it is not any help to people who are living with the situation for me to say that I understand what they are saying. However, there are legal processes that we cannot simply cast aside, which involve SEPA and the Crown Office. If there is further work that we can do beyond those processes, particularly looking ahead to the legitimate issue of just transition, we are very keen to do it. I know that Mark Ruskell, as somebody who has a genuine and long-standing interest in the issue, will be keen to be part of that.


Covid-19 Restrictions (Orkney)

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

Yesterday, the First Minister acknowledged that neither Orkney nor Shetland has a rising number of Covid cases, but she added

“even they have had cases in recent weeks.”—[Official Report, 7 October; c 23.]

My understanding is that there have been five recent cases in Orkney. Two turned out to be false positives, and the other three relate to Orkney students who became infected, self-isolated and remain in other parts of Scotland. I am also told that there has been no community transmission of Covid in Orkney since April.

However, the restrictions that the First Minister announced three weeks ago apply every bit as much in Orkney as they do in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Yesterday’s statement offered islanders no respite from those restrictions, which are clearly taking a toll on people’s health as well as on jobs and businesses. Can the First Minister advise my constituents why more account is not being taken of local circumstances and relative risks?

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I assure Liam McArthur and his constituents that we take great account of those issues. The Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands had discussions in recent days with island authorities, and we are willing to continue to have a discussion to see whether a different balance might be struck for islands in particular.

Earlier this week I had a call with party leaders. It was not specifically on the islands context, but a more general discussion—as Richard Leonard will recall—about the balance that we are trying to strike between nationwide restrictions, which allow us to avoid travel restrictions, and more localised restrictions, which would probably necessitate travel restrictions. I am open to discussion on that—it is one of these things that can be argued both ways.

I am happy to have a discussion with the local authority in Orkney, but if we were to say that, if Orkney does not have cases, it can be exempted from national restrictions, the quid pro quo would probably be that there must be travel restrictions from the mainland to Orkney. It is not for me alone to say what the islanders would prefer, but it is for me to be frank about the choices and trade-offs that have to be made.

I say, in all sincerity, that we are happy to have those discussions with the islands on an on-going basis. We have had a significant outbreak in the Western Isles in recent days, and there have been cases in Orkney, although I absolutely take Liam McArthur’s point about the circumstances. One of the early outbreaks of Covid was in Shetland.

These are not easy issues, but, if there are different ways of protecting our island communities, we are open to them. However, I will not stand here and pretend that it will be easy or straightforward. There will always be trade-offs in how we deal with the situation. I would be happy to have the islands minister follow up with Liam McArthur and the other islands MSPs to see whether there is a different way that they would be interested to pursue.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you. I apologise to those MSPs whom I could not call. That concludes First Minister’s questions. I urge members to be careful while leaving the chamber and to observe social distancing, particularly on the steps, by following the one-way systems.

I suspend the Parliament until 2:30 pm.

13:33 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—