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
- 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
Reducing Covid-19 Transmission
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-22985, in the name of Jeane Freeman, on Covid-19.15:25
Yesterday, the First Minister set out the further essential measures that we need to take to control the spread of Covid-19 in Scotland. The First Minister set out the steps that we are taking to support those who are most affected by the measures and some longer-term actions to help us to manage and live with Covid-19. The additional measures respond directly to the evidence that was provided by our chief medical officer, our chief nursing officer and the national clinical director in a paper that was published yesterday. The measures affect us all, so it is important that members can scrutinise our decisions and that we explain them and, I hope, secure Parliament’s support for our approach.
Today’s figures, which were announced by the First Minister earlier—1,027 new cases and, tragically, five further deaths—alongside yesterday’s clear advice from senior clinicians paint a stark and compelling picture. We are facing an exponential growth of the virus. The current rate of growth—between 7 and 8 per cent a day—means that, without further action, by the end of this month we could reach the same level of new cases per day as we experienced in March.
When the number of cases began to rise in late summer, that increase was focused in younger age groups. That meant that there were fewer hospitalisations and deaths. However, the situation is changing rapidly. The number of cases in people aged over 80 increased by 60 per cent in the past week alone, and the number of cases in those aged 60 to 79 more than doubled, so the virus is again beginning to reach those who are most likely to suffer seriously from its impact.
In the first week of September, 28 people were admitted to hospital with Covid-19. Two weeks later, there were 79 admissions. In the week to 4 October, there were 212 admissions. Yesterday, we reported that 309 patients were in hospital. Today, that number is 377.
In the first week of September, two people were admitted to intensive care units with Covid-19. Two weeks later, eight people were admitted to ICUs. In the week to 7 October, 12 people were admitted. Yesterday, we reported that 28 patients were in ICUs. Today, that number is 31.
We are seeing cases all across Scotland, including in our rural and island communities, but reported rates are higher, and therefore particularly worrying, in five health board areas across the central belt. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde today reported a seven-day rate of 190 new positive cases per 100,000 of the population. The figure is 168 for NHS Lanarkshire, 125 for NHS Lothian, 92 for NHS Ayrshire and Arran and 76 for NHS Forth Valley.
We are at the point at which the size of the infectious pool of people makes it difficult to limit transmission without further restrictions to social interaction. The seven-day rate for Scotland overall is 101.4. It is 138.2 for England, 116 for Wales and 238.8 for Northern Ireland.
If we look elsewhere, we see that Scotland is continuing to track the situation in France, with a four-week time lag, and in Spain, with a six-week lag. We currently have half the number of new infections that France has and a quarter of those in Spain. However, death rates in Spain increased significantly in mid-September and are now at a level that is 10 times the rate in Scotland.
Both France and Spain have had to introduce strict new measures to reduce their rising numbers of infections and deaths, including even stricter controls on hospitality than we are proposing. Across the United Kingdom and mainland Europe, countries are facing the challenge of resurgence.
On the issue of stricter measures around hospitality, I am grateful for the movement today to allow cafes with on-sales licences in the central belt to keep trading over the two-week period. However, why do pubs and restaurants that could safely provide food and soft drinks but not sell alcohol still have to stay shut?
In the past, Mr Cole-Hamilton has been critical—as he is entitled to be—of the measures that we have introduced, because people have found them confusing. We have to balance what we need to do to interrupt the progression of the virus with communication that is clear for the public to follow. That is why we have taken the steps that we have taken. There is never—trust me—a perfect balance in all this. Scotland is not alone in trying to strike that balance, but it is our job and our responsibility to take the decisions that are necessary to limit and reduce the prevalence of Covid-19.
We are lagging behind other European countries precisely because of our success in suppressing the virus over the summer months. However, unlike New Zealand, we do not have control of our borders, which makes total elimination not practically possible, although our strategy remains to suppress the virus to the lowest level that we can. Despite that situation, we took the decision to get the virus—the infectious pool—to the lowest possible level over the summer months and to keep it there for as long as possible. That allowed us to build our public health infrastructure even further, including our test and protect service.
Buying that time has meant that we can now take more targeted and focused action than we did in March. We do not have to go back into full lockdown. We are not closing schools, colleges or universities; we are not stopping manufacture or construction; we do not all have to stay at home, shut the door and come out only for a brief period of exercise; and those people who made some of the hardest sacrifices of all—the 180,000 people who shielded—can bring back some normality to their lives. We are not stopping the remobilisation of the national health service, and we are not shutting off access to residents in care homes. However, more targeted measures are, by necessity, more complex. That is the trade-off.
We could take simpler action—full lockdown is simpler to communicate and it would suppress the virus—but, as we have said and as we have seen, full lockdown cannot last forever. The virus does not go away, and full lockdown causes harm to our economy and jobs as well as to our mental health and wellbeing. With all that we have learned and continue to learn about the virus and about what we need to do to suppress its transmission and reduce its harm, we must ensure that life goes on and we must keep people as safe as we can.
I note what the cabinet secretary says, and I completely agree with her, but I wonder about something on which I pressed the First Minister at First Minister’s question time: do we make an assessment of the impact of pausing certain services? For example, has an assessment been done of how many more cancer deaths are expected in Scotland as a result of having paused cancer services over the past six to seven months?
We do make that assessment as we go, and I am very conscious of the number of patients who have not been able to have the treatment that they need because we had to lock down those services. That is precisely why, right now, we are trying to strike a balance between taking targeted measures and not stopping the remobilisation of the NHS. That is the trade-off.
We could lock down completely and the virus would be suppressed, but the NHS would stop doing just about anything except urgent care and Covid. That is not what we want. That is why the balance is important, and it is a constantly fluctuating balance. It is not one that we can reach on a Thursday and that will last us all the way through the next month; it is constantly changing—the numbers constantly have to be looked at and the advice constantly has to be taken.
Yesterday, we announced targeted measures that will apply for 16 days from Friday 9 October to Sunday 25 October inclusive. Those are a mix of national measures and extra measures that apply directly to those parts of our country where we are seeing the highest number of cases and those health board areas where we are seeing the virus at its most prevalent: Forth Valley, Lanarkshire, Lothian, Ayrshire and Arran, and Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Our measures are targeted at those situations where the virus has the best chance of moving from one person to another. Our evidence tells us that the risk is where people from different households are mixing without consistent protection, including face coverings and distancing. That means in people’s homes and where people socialise.
Two weeks ago, we introduced strict conditions on mixing in homes, and yesterday we announced measures to limit mixing in hospitality, with important exemptions for weddings and funerals. We are also introducing additional temporary measures in the five health board areas with the highest prevalence. The intention of all those measures, alongside those that we introduced two weeks ago, is to interrupt the growth trajectory of the virus. We know that that comes at a cost to those businesses and jobs that are most directly affected, which is why we have confirmed a £40 million support fund to mitigate that harm.
Can the cabinet secretary publish the evidence that indicates that there is a direct correlation between rising infections and traceability to hospitality settings? I ask that because I understand that Public Health England has a figure of just 4 per cent of traceable Covid-19 transmissions occurring outside the home. Is there a comparative figure for Scotland? Is that something that track and trace has the ability to collect?
Yes, it is, but it is not about causality—I think that we have gone through that before—and our system is track and protect, not track and trace. The track and protect system has demonstrated an incidence of between 20 and 26 per cent, among those who followed through on that system, of people testing positive after having those encounters in hospitality settings. Ms Baillie knows as well as I do that that is not causal—it does not necessarily mean that those individuals were infected in those circumstances, but it does mean that they were in those hospitality settings, and we have to take that seriously.
Ms Baillie and I know that the virus transmits itself most easily when we are mixing and not taking all the precautions that we know we need to take. That is why all of us wandering around the Parliament are wearing masks. We know why we are doing it and why we are following the signs: mixing gives the virus a perfect opportunity to jump from one person to the next.
I go back to the funding. The money needs to go directly to the affected businesses quickly, and we are already engaging with the relevant sectors and the Scottish Trades Union Congress. The funding, delivered through local authorities, will be paid through a two-tier support system, consistent with the approach that was taken in Aberdeen in August and with UK Government support for local restrictions in England.
I am happy to accept Donald Cameron’s amendment, which seeks more support for the hospitality sector. We have found all that we can but I am hopeful that the UK Government will soon recognise that more support is necessary. I do not have time to go into the other important steps we are taking, but members will know of them from what the First Minister has said.
I am happy to accept Alison Johnstone’s amendment, as we will be reviewing testing to consider where asymptomatic testing could be expanded as capacity rises and in line with clinical advice. When we introduced the route map, we said that our approach to the pandemic would evolve, and we are now in a new phase of the pandemic.
I am also happy to accept Willie Rennie’s amendment on thresholds underpinning the application or otherwise of restrictions. As the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, I am acutely aware of the impact of the virus. We all remember the devastation of the first wave, and none of us wants to return to that. Action is required. None of us in the Scottish Parliament disagrees with that. We are proposing targeted action with financial support.
Finally, I pay tribute to our NHS and carers, including our test and protect teams, who are working night and day, tirelessly, to do what they need to do to help us to protect people across Scotland. They cannot do that if the virus is out of control.
I know that people are growing weary, but I have faith in the people of Scotland and in how we look out for each other. That spirit has served us well for the past few months. Where we are now will pass. We will move on, but we can do that only if we do it together.
That the Parliament recognises the considerable efforts of people across Scotland to suppress COVID-19; notes that the prevalence of the virus has increased in recent weeks and that the numbers of people hospitalised, in intensive care and tragically dying from the virus has also increased; recognises that this is not confined to younger age groups and agrees that further actions need to be taken in order to reduce the level of transmission across Scotland; notes the evidence paper published on 7 October 2020 and the national and regional targeted actions set out by the First Minister; recognises that these actions will be accompanied by additional measures to boost compliance, provide support for those self-isolating and financial support for those areas of the economy impacted by the measures; welcomes the ongoing four nations discussions and shared commitment to suppress COVID-19 to the lowest possible level across the UK and to keep it there, and notes the commitment to explore additional parliamentary scrutiny and the commitment to bring forward an updated strategic approach to COVID-19 transmission to the Parliament within the next two weeks.15:40
I begin by setting out the Scottish Conservatives’ general position. We understand why the restrictions are necessary. The number of cases is rising, prevalence is up and it is clear that the virus is spreading in Scotland, particularly in the central belt, where there have been sharper increases. However, we have also seen sporadic outbreaks in rural areas, such as the Uists in the Western Isles.
For those reasons, we support the general thrust of the measures and we accept with great reluctance that tighter restrictions are needed, although we have deep reservations, which I will come on to talk about in a moment.
We regret the impact that such restrictions will have an everyday life. Yes, there is relief that we are not returning to the stark full lockdown that we all experienced earlier this year, but that relief is tempered with anxiety. Let us be in no doubt that this will be very difficult for many people, especially those in the central belt as they go about their lives. Many of them will be prohibited from enjoying food and drink with friends, from socialising at events, and from spending time at leisure facilities. It is going to be very tough to take, even for a short time. People are being asked to give up a lot when they have already made many sacrifices and the country has been through so much.
Although we will always support measures that are proportionate and protect public health, our support for such measures is not unconditional. We have very serious concerns about the knock-on effects of some of these restrictions, particularly the impact on certain parts of the economy.
I turn first to hospitality. There is no doubt that that sector will be significantly affected, even by a temporary shutdown. Reserves were already low, confidence was shot and many businesses were still on their knees, let alone picking themselves up. Pubs, bars and hotels were relying on a busier end of season than normal this month before winter really kicks in. As we know, pubs and restaurants are now closed across the central belt completely and elsewhere in the country are facing stricter curfews and limits on where and when they can sell alcohol. That will particularly affect smaller and independent businesses, especially family-run ones. In short, the measures will be catastrophic, and I do not shirk from describing them thus.
It is easy to think of these new measures affecting hospitality only in its own silo. However, that is not true because there is a supply chain, and there will be suppliers, wholesalers and other connected businesses that will also be affected, especially in the wider tourism sector. I will illustrate that with an example from someone from the Highlands and Islands who wrote to me just this morning. I was emailed by a bed and breakfast owner on Skye, who said that she relies on local restaurants and bars being open for guests to get food in the evenings. Guests come to her B and B particularly to go to those places, and they will probably cancel their visit if they cannot eat and drink there. She operates a five-day cancellation policy, so she faces the unenviable decision whether to charge someone for a stay that they no longer want because of the measures that have come with no warning. That is just one example, and there is a lot that we still do not know.
We urgently need details about the promised £40 million support package from the Government, and I listened very carefully to what the cabinet secretary said, but we do not know how businesses apply, where they apply, what funding is available, what the conditions are, how long it will take to get support, and whether that financial package will be enough.
I am following Mr Cameron’s speech with great interest, because he said at the outset that he recognises the necessity for more significant action. He has now set out arguments against what the Government has proposed. What measures does Mr Cameron think that the Government should take to address the situation?
I do not accept that. I am not setting out arguments against what has been proposed. I am saying that there are knock-on effects and consequences for businesses that need to be considered.
As I was saying, we know that the Scottish Government has to ensure that those jobs and businesses are supported. It seems wrong that the Government is only now engaging with affected businesses in that sector, despite trailing a circuit breaker for weeks. Discussions on how to compensate business should have opened weeks ago, and a one-day consultation, literally hours before doors are to be closed, is not acceptable. CBI Scotland said that it was deeply disappointing that firms are being instructed before any specific detail has been provided on what funding will be made available and how it can be accessed.
I spoke earlier about how much Scotland has gone through and, although public compliance has generally been good, things are changing; people are feeling weary as the weather turns and the nights darken. We have a long winter ahead and patience is beginning to wear thin. In many ways, we are at a tipping point, which means that there is all the more onus on the Government to justify the measures to us all, not only in terms of the evidence that informs its political decisions but in terms of what the rules are, given the increasing plethora of complicated regulations and guidance. As of tomorrow, we will have an even more complex set of rules. At the COVID-19 Committee yesterday, the national clinical director, Jason Leitch, said
“if I am honest, I cannot keep up with all the regulation and advice; there is simply too much of it to keep on top of every day”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Committee, 7 October 2020; c 17.]
Will the member take an intervention?
I will in a second. I like and respect Jason Leitch, I commend him for his frankness and I sympathise with him, but when the national clinical director—someone who advises the Government and helps to draw up the rules—cannot keep up with the guidance, what hope do the rest of us have?
Does Donald Cameron accept that the point that our national clinical director was responding to was on a specific piece of guidance about physical education in schools that Education Scotland had issued and that, in fairness, he quite rightly said that he would write about that because he wanted to be sure that his response was accurate? It is not necessarily obvious that, because he does not know the detail of every piece of guidance, the guidance itself is complicated.
The guidance is complicated. I listened very carefully to what Jason Leitch said, and I commend him for what he said, but that comment was given in general terms. The complexity is compounded by contradictory messages. That inevitably leads to media speculation, which feeds into confusion and uncertainty from the public, because the public want clear, simple and consistent messages. We all accept that things change from day to day but, given the need for compliance and buy-in from the public, it is imperative that there is clarity about what people can and cannot do. Further confusion has arisen today over whether cafes with alcohol licences can open and, if they can, how cafes, restaurants and pubs are defined. The Scottish National Party Government must clear that confusion up, because business owners need to know whether they can open in two days’ time.
I will briefly touch on parliamentary scrutiny, which is mentioned in the Government motion. We support greater scrutiny by Parliament, and the process should be driven by Parliament. The key problem is one of timing, which yesterday shows us—in the morning, the COVID-19 Committee voted on measures that had been announced almost three weeks ago and, four hours later in the chamber, an entirely new suite of measures was announced. That is a problem that the Parliament needs to solve—[Interruption.]
Mr Cameron is just closing.
I am afraid that I cannot take the intervention.
We acknowledge the need to react to the worrying increase in cases and recognise the tough challenge of balancing public health with the need to protect jobs. The measures that were outlined yesterday are not easy or desirable, and they raise more questions than answers. We have to ensure that our pubs, bars and restaurants are closed for the shortest times, because those businesses are on the edge. They have already been hit hard by the pandemic and those measures will add to that hardship. It is right that they receive financial support, and clarity on that is needed.
We can beat the virus. Winter will give way to spring, and it is right that both of Scotland’s Governments continue to work in partnership to ensure that we move in the right direction.
I move amendment S5M-22985.1, to insert at end:
“; urges the Scottish Government to do more to support the hospitality sector, and calls on it to outline the specific details of what financial support is available to protect the jobs and businesses affected by the restrictions that have been announced.”15:48
These are the most difficult of times and these are difficult calls to make but, as I set out last week, it is paramount that the Parliament is central to the decision-making process and is not an afterthought, so we welcome this afternoon’s debate and vote. That must also mean that regulations should be voted on by Parliament before they take effect, not after. We are all agreed that we need a path to recovery in health and an economic recovery. It cannot be one or the other—it is both or neither, which is why any legislation and any regulations passed by the Parliament must reflect that at all times.
We have always said that we must be guided by the evidence and that the gloom of the pandemic must be illuminated by the light of scientific reason, but that evidence—that light—must be trusted by the people.
I take no satisfaction from this, but Government ministers know that confidence in the strategy is diminishing. They cannot console themselves with the laurels of past support. The new measures and restrictions that were announced to Parliament yesterday and come into force tomorrow have not won unquestioning support.
We understand that the choices are stark, but they can be made to work only by the establishment of trust and by winning the consent of the people. It must be won by persuasion and not by coercion. I accept that the public hesitancy and questioning that the Government now faces are, in part, born out of fatigue in the desperate search for light at the end of the tunnel. They are also born out of a growing restlessness and discontent that yet more is being asked of people without the compelling and persuasive evidence that is needed to back it up.
I say again to the Government that the evidence must be published now and in full, and it must differentiate between different parts of the hospitality industry, rather than lumping them all together. It is not good enough to put all sporting activities together. We must see more of the detail of household-to-household transmission in order to understand what is going on, what must be stopped and also what might be permitted.
It is not enough simply to invoke common sense. Trust the people with the evidence. The selfless sacrifice of the people has been unlimited—the emotional strength, the effort and the endeavour especially of those key workers who have worked for month after month with no break and have done so in the name of nothing other than common humanity.
That selfless sacrifice has also been made through the tears of loss, the desolation of loneliness and, for too many, the anguish of ever-deeper poverty. We know that many working people now face the grim prospect of unemployment and joblessness in the lead-up to Christmas. That is why they want a Government and a Parliament that are on their side, defending their rights to health, safety and life but also ensuring that they do not pay the price for a crisis that they did not create and cannot control.
That is why we have said that the workers, as well as the businesses, impacted by the new restrictions must be guaranteed compensation. It is also why we are saying that we must use the next 16 days to step up our testing system. We know that weekly testing for key workers is not routinely happening—look at the HC-One workers in West Lothian, where frail and vulnerable people have lost their lives and where the testing regime has rightly been described as a shambles. That must be fixed.
Yesterday, the First Minister 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 for months for more testing of asymptomatic people. We have asked for testing of incoming travellers and for routine testing to be expanded to home carers. Today, when I asked the First Minister when that would be delivered, I did not get a clear answer. Perhaps I will get one this afternoon.
This morning, I was contacted by a day care service worker called Alan, who told me that, although staff in care homes are now supposed to have weekly tests, day care staff and home carers do not. He said:
“This week in our place of work we have had two staff members test positive after showing symptoms and a number of staff are to isolate on the instruction of test and trace. Under the current guidelines, with no routine testing system, it is simply a mystery as to whether service users and staff are spreading the virus in our service. It defies any logic.”
I ask the cabinet secretary and the Deputy First Minister to use the next 16 days not only to publish a revised testing strategy but to roll out routine testing to staff in Scotland’s home care and day care centres.
It is not simply a matter of passing the motion or voting for an amendment; it is, in the end, about winning the hearts and minds of the people and being in touch with what is happening out there in the real world. That is about asking questions about any new restriction. Is it proportionate? Is it targeted? Will it work? What impact can we expect? Does it have the support of the people? Will every one of the measures be followed not out of fear of repercussions but out of a sense of social solidarity and a belief that sticking to them will help us all? That is the test for the Scottish Government and the test for us as representatives of the people as well. It is a test that we cannot afford to fail.
I move amendment S5M-22985.4, to leave out from “, and notes the commitment” to end and insert:
“; calls for additional parliamentary scrutiny and the commitment to bring forward an updated strategic approach to COVID-19 transmission to the Parliament within the next two weeks; recognises that the public have overwhelmingly been compliant and tolerant of restrictions and thanks them for their efforts; calls for full financial mitigation for all impacted sectors, including the hospitality sector, to support businesses and workers; expresses regret that weekly testing for frontline workers is still not happening routinely, and calls for an expansion in testing and for an increase in contact tracing capacity.”
I call Alison Johnstone to speak to and move amendment S5M-22985.3, for up to six minutes.15:55
I whole-heartedly thank those who have been on the front line working incredibly hard throughout the pandemic, often at personal risk and cost. Their dedication and bravery in extremely challenging circumstances is to be commended. I also thank all those who have been striving to adhere to what have been extremely tough restrictions over the past seven months. I know that those rules have caused considerable distress to many, so their commitment to following them must be recognised.
To suppress and ultimately eliminate Covid, we must all continue to abide by the rules, but none of us should be in any doubt that that is an enormous ask of everyone across the country, young and old alike. We were told in yesterday’s report that just 38 per cent of people report complete compliance with the Covid measures. People are beginning to feel fatigued and they need to see light at the end of the tunnel. Transparency is vital, and the objective of the new restrictions must be clearly communicated so that people know that, by making these sacrifices, they will be moving Scotland further towards ending this terrible pandemic. People need to know what will be different at the end of the 16 days. However, I understand that the measures are intended to act as a short, sharp shock that will give us time to address the rising number of cases of Covid-19 and help us prevent its spread.
As the cabinet secretary mentioned, the evidence paper states that a quarter of positive cases have been linked to hospitality and that that sector therefore presents one of the highest risks. However, what is to prevent case numbers from rising again when the restrictions are lifted? If hospitality presents such a risk, what will prevent a similar rise in cases when people are able to attend venues as before? The fact is that, unless things change, we face a devastating cycle of lifting and re-imposing restrictions, which is not sustainable. It is devastating livelihoods and costing us so much in terms of all that we have come to expect as a society. That is why things need to change and why the Scottish Government must use properly the time that we are buying over the coming weeks.
Defeating Covid requires businesses and the public to do more, but it also requires the Government to do more. I will focus on two critical elements of the Government’s response that must be addressed: supporting self-isolation to enable and maximise compliance with that essential measure and rapidly delivering a mass-testing programme for Scotland. As revealed by the paper published this week, compliance with self-isolation and quarantine is clearly very challenging. That is often due to non-voluntary factors such as being forced to go to work or having no option but to do so.
It is clear that when individuals are asked to isolate, they should also be offered immediate wraparound support so that all barriers are removed. For example, how can university students in cramped accommodation with shared facilities who are running out of food and have no way to wash their clothes be expected to self-isolate effectively? What about workers on precarious contracts forced to choose between their health or their jobs? The motion states that the Scottish Government will
“provide support for those self-isolating”,
which I warmly welcome. I appreciate, too, the fact of the £500 grant, but I want to hear more from the cabinet secretary about how that grant can be made available more widely and quickly. The cabinet secretary knows only too well the delays in accessing universal credit and so on, so speed is of the essence here.
In return for the public’s compliance, the Scottish Government must step up to the challenge and establish mass testing. That means a new drive by NHS Scotland and Scottish universities to expand testing capacity, rather than continuing to rely on the chaotic and failing UK Government’s privately run testing programme. That extra capacity could mean weekly tests for those who are at heightened risk of exposure to the virus because they work in hospitals, schools, universities and colleges, or provide care.
The Scottish Greens have said consistently throughout the crisis that mass testing must form the basis of Scotland’s response to the virus, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments with regard to the review. Now, with cases rising rapidly, and the privatised UK testing system failing to keep up, the case for that is stronger than ever, because the more information that we have about who has the virus and where it is, the more chains of infection we can break and the more lives we can save.
I have been calling for weekly testing for carers and front-line NHS staff since April. That has been implemented only in care homes and for healthcare staff working in limited circumstances. The evidence that regular testing can reduce the spread of Covid is irrefutable, with Imperial College London researchers advising that
“regular screening irrespective of symptoms could prevent about one third of transmission”.
It is no wonder that the proposal is backed by those who represent front-line workers, including the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, the Royal College of Nursing and Scottish Care. With cases rising, that has to happen now.
The widespread outbreaks in student halls throughout Scotland and the UK are alarming. There is no doubt that many aspects of university life make that sector particularly vulnerable to Covid, and more must be done to reduce the risk of transmission. We believe that mass testing can make a major contribution. That should start with readily available, unlimited, on-demand testing for students and staff, by accelerating the roll-out of walk-in centres as soon as possible.
I appreciate that I am coming to the end of my time, Presiding Officer. I conclude by asking members to support my amendment. The science is clear that weekly testing is effective at reducing the spread of the virus, and it is high time that we got down to that.
I move amendment S5M-22985.3, to insert at end:
“; recognises that New Zealand has recently achieved elimination of community transmission of COVID-19 for the second time, and that routine testing has been a key aspect of that country’s response to the pandemic; further recognises the significant demand for testing and the need to continue to build further capacity within the NHS, but considers that the Scottish Government must work with NHS Scotland to introduce regular weekly testing for specific groups in the population to be determined in line with clinical advice, and believes that hospital workers, social care staff, school and university staff and students should be considered as a priority.”
I call Willie Rennie to speak to and move amendment S5M-22985.1. You have up to six minutes.16:02
When faced with the prospect of a terrifying disease, we put aside differences and worked with the Government and others to save lives and livelihoods. It was what people expected of us and it was the right thing to do.
We made suggestions. We put forward positive, constructive ideas on pay for front-line workers, such as nurses and carers, on testing for residents in care homes, on testing for students and on support for artists, fishermen, the self-employed and tourism businesses. We made the case for a universal basic income to fill the gaps in financial support and we offered solutions on enforcement and guidance.
There was good engagement on issues that needed to be fixed. We worked in the spirit of co-operation and I found ministers open and co-operative. I have been impressed with officials on councils and in Government and its agencies. That showed the vast mass of work that can get done when we put aside the fundamental difference and divide on the constitution.
I have personally complimented—probably too many times—the First Minister on her communications. I continue to support the cautious approach to the virus, weighing up the competing harms on, for example, health, wellbeing, the economy and education.
However, over the past few weeks, I have been tested—so have the public. We warned about outbreaks at universities and suggested a programme of testing. That was rejected and there are now outbreaks at universities. We warned about the inadequacy of the quarantine spot checks, and more than 1,000 people have now been missed from those checks and the latest figures show that we are nowhere near achieving this week’s 20 per cent target. In addition, the First Minister admitted that holidaymakers returning from Greece brought back the virus and spread it.
The talk of elimination over the summer does not look wise today, with an R number up at 1.7 and infections high.
On 17 April, the First Minister said:
“None of us have all the answers ... I’ve got a duty to try to be ... open with people. ... I’m treating the public like the grown-ups that they are.”
Fast forward six months and the country gets two days’ notice of a plan to close pubs and advice against non-essential travel. With one day’s notice, some cafes were told that they could stay open after all. My colleague Alex Cole-Hamilton has just highlighted another element of that confusion.
Is that being open? Is it treating people like adults? The First Minister is doing exactly what she criticised Boris Johnson for doing earlier this year.
I totally agree with Willie Rennie about the lack of notice from the Scottish Government. A post that I have just seen on Twitter reports that Paul Waterson of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association has said:
“This has come totally out of the blue, and really I can’t help because we just do not know what it means. And there’s no clarification.”
Does Willie Rennie think that the Scottish Government knew that the R number was on the rise and should have given us more notice?
To be fair to the Government, all this stuff is difficult. I understand how challenging it is, but it should let other parties help. Such issues can be clarified if members are given an opportunity to scrutinise them. That is what the Parliament is for—to debate the issues and challenge the Government on them, rather than their being introduced and then changed at the last minute, as has had to be done today. We need to have clarity earlier. Of course, I understand that there will still be difficulties, but such an approach would let us help to resolve issues.
Over the past few weeks, during which the First Minister has been talking in general terms, with very few specifics, about a circuit breaker, she should have been using that time to acknowledge that the route map is out of date and openly to debate and discuss a new strategy. Such a strategy should include an updated route map and transparency on the thresholds that underpin the implementation and lifting of tougher measures, nationally or locally, to help people to understand and contribute effectively to those efforts, and that strategy should be the subject of a meaningful vote in Parliament.
I am pleased that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport indicated that she will support my amendment, the wording of which describes what we want to see.
We also need to consider the issues around testing, which Richard Leonard mentioned, and on access to care homes for residents’ families. We also need to talk about support for businesses in a more comprehensive sense and, of course, to consider and openly debate quarantine checks and so many other matters. Question times are good, but we need to have debate and scrutiny.
We should embrace such a change in approach, because we are seeing the public’s patience being tested by the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Over the summer, people made huge sacrifices for longer periods than the one just announced. However, they are now being expected to make new sacrifices earlier than people elsewhere, so they need to see the Government’s workings. What is happening no longer feels like a strategy; instead, it feels like a series of knee-jerk reactions that are causing confusion and frustration.
Teachers were told, at the last minute, that they would be changing to teaching full time. Students were told to go back to university, but then that there would be no in-person teaching and that they could not even go to the union any more. Restaurants were given two days’ notice to close, even though they have stocks of food that will now go to waste. Pubs were told that it was common sense that they were the source of the spread of the virus, even though the majority were complying with the Government’s advice. Yesterday, the First Minister said that people can still go on booked holidays, but also advised those in the central belt against non-essential travel outside their own area. No wonder there is confusion.
Then there is the evidence document that the Government published yesterday, which mentions concern about the potential that the virus will overwhelm the NHS again, yet we are closing down the Louisa Jordan hospital. It just makes little sense. [Interruption.]
I am about to conclude.
Mr Rennie is in his last minute.
That is why we need discussion and debate on such issues. We need to have openness and scrutiny of the strategy and to see the science so that we can understand it and overcome the confusion. There is growing doubt. As the cabinet secretary will know, over the past few weeks I have been irritated by the Government’s changes in approach. Speaking on behalf of the people whom I represent, I do not want to be irritated any more. I reiterate that I want to help, but the Government will need to change its approach if we are to achieve that.
I move amendment S5M-22985.1, to insert at end:
“, and calls for this updated strategic approach to include an updated routemap and transparency around the thresholds that underpin the implementation and lifting of tougher measures, nationally or locally, to help people understand and contribute effectively to these efforts, and for this strategy to be the subject of a meaningful vote of Parliament.”16:09
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. It is said that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think that Mr Rennie expects not only that everything be viewed through the lens of hindsight, but that the Government should have a crystal ball to predict how the virus will affect us, which is simply not tenable.
For me, the debate is all about FACTS—wear a face covering, avoid crowded places, clean hands and surfaces regularly, stay 2m away from other people, and self-isolate and book a test if you have Covid symptoms. That advice is key to each and every one of us as we go about our daily business, whether that is at work, while studying in our schools, colleges and universities, while shopping or in our social lives.
My case load has many comments about the “F” in FACTS—face coverings. I ask everyone to do the right thing by one another and to wear face coverings where required and where it is appropriate to do so. Far and away the bulk of my contacts remain concerned and, in some cases, fearful, about the lack of adherence to wearing face coverings on trains and buses, and in shops. I hear that concern from friends and family, too.
Does Ms Adamson believe what she is saying—that hospitality businesses have not been compliant?
That is not what I said at all. I am saying that I am regularly contacted by friends, family and members of the public—my constituents—who are concerned that face coverings are not being worn in public places, including on transport when people are going to and from work.
The cabinet secretary paid tribute to our carers and to our workers in the NHS; I extend that tribute to shop workers and people who work in hospitality. They, too, are essential to our way of life, so we should do the right thing by them in their places of work and on their journeys to work, which we can do if everyone wears a face covering.
I was delighted when the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced that the Scottish Government is working on a card that will be available to people who are exempt or are unable to wear a face mask or covering. That is extremely helpful, but I make it clear again for the rest of us: do the right thing.
The other facts that are at play here are the facts in the scientific evidence that was published prior to the First Minister’s announcement yesterday. They make for very difficult reading, indeed. The rate of growth of the epidemic is increasing and the R number is now in a range of 1.3 to 1.7, which is leading to acceleration in the increase in numbers of cases and a rising test-positive rate in most areas of Scotland. We know that the total number of confirmed cases is lower than the total number of new Covid infections, because some people are asymptomatic and some people with symptoms do not manage to get a test. It is also very sad that the facts show an increase in the number of deaths.
Cases are increasing most rapidly among young people, but they are increasing across all ages, which is worrying. It is in the context of those scientific facts that the Government has taken the necessary action to interrupt spread of the virus by the series of measures that have been announced. They are tough and challenging, but they are absolutely necessary.
Much has been asked of the people of Scotland so far, and much will be asked of them going forward, but it is essential that each and every one of us does what we can in order to—literally—save lives. We need only examine the facts around us to realise that.
The cabinet secretary alluded to our European neighbours. It is exceptionally concerning that Paris hospitals recently reported that 40 per cent of intensive care units’ capacity is taken up by Covid patients. The French Government has taken action: all bars in Paris will shut for two weeks from 6 October; university lecture halls can be no more than half full; and, last week, bars and restaurants in Marseille were shut completely for 15 days. Face coverings are compulsory in closed spaces, and in Paris and hundreds of other areas of France, it is compulsory for anyone over the age of 11 to wear a face covering.
Madrid is in lockdown, and we know that the Netherlands and many other European countries, including Germany, have had to introduce new measures to curb the increase in the Covid virus outbreaks that are happening around us.
We are not unique in this: it is a global pandemic, and each and every one of our European neighbours is taking necessary action, tough though it is, to stop the spread of Covid. It is all about facts.16:15
Let us be honest with ourselves: at decision time today, we will not be passing regulations or legislation that will introduce the 16-day shutdown that was announced yesterday, so in that respect, there will not really be a meaningful vote, to use the fashionable phrase.
However, we are having a debate, which is welcome, because in just 24 hours the regulations will affect millions of lives in our country. Many cafes and bars will close their shutters, and I fear that some will be closing their doors for the last time. Like most folk, I am trying to strike a balance in considering the need to combat the spread of the virus while staring down the barrel of economic abyss. That is the dilemma that all Governments across the world are continuously facing.
I want to flag up three questions for the Government. First, does the Government think that the public have confidence that the measures that we have introduced, and those that we will introduce, are fair, are working and will work? This morning, we heard from UK Hospitality that there are 16,000 licensed premises in Scotland. The £40 million that the First Minister announced is welcome, but it has been described as
“a drop in the ocean”
compared to what is actually needed to keep those premises afloat.
The restrictions that we introduce have consequences. The hospitality sector, which is bearing the brunt of most of them, deserves comprehensive support that is not just obvious but is easy to access. Hospitality businesses will run out of cash in days, not weeks. They are at the tipping point, after months of disruption. Let us be frank: they have busted their guts to do what we have asked of them. On the radio this morning, one owner said that they are “stunned, shocked and depressed”, and they are not the only ones.
Will Mr Greene therefore join us in urging the UK Government to ensure that the furlough scheme is extended and continued rather than ended, and to make available to the Scottish Government, in addition to the £40 million that we have found, which is as far as we can go, resource precisely in order to help the businesses that he is talking about?
I would like my time back for that, Presiding Officer, because I have a lot to get through.
The Scottish Government is making the decisions and introducing the measures, so it must back them up with the funds to support the businesses that those decisions affect. They are not UK Government decisions; they are decisions that are made in the Scottish Parliament.
Those sectors—[Interruption.] Please let me finish. Those sectors are asking us where the evidence is. [Interruption.] I will not give way. Those sectors are asking us for evidence that the restrictions are working. Why does the Government believe that closing cafes and bars will compensate for spread of the virus, as the people who are currently drinking in pubs, which are regulated, will move to drinking in their houses, which are not regulated? Where is the evidence that arbitrary curfews of 6 pm and 10 pm will work? If the virus is moving from home to home, and it is, why did it not stop spreading from home to home when we banned people from going into others’ homes? We have had weeks and weeks of that.
All that people are asking for is evidence that the measures that we introduce are working. We have taken a cautious approach in Scotland. Whatever our views are on that, all that we are being asked is, “Why are we being asked to do it again? What has gone wrong?” People are rightly asking the Government, “Are you keeping your side of the bargain? Are you testing, protecting, mitigating and preparing? If the route map has not worked as planned, why not?” People are saying, “I will do my bit, but you also must do yours.”
My second question is this: are people confused? A quick look at my inbox is testament to the months of changing regional advice and time-constrained regulations, guidance and laws. They are all intertwined and they are all changing and, I am afraid to say, they are rarely debated. If we are confused, the public must be confused, too, and that has an effect on compliance.
That takes me on to my third and most important question, which is this: will people comply? What happens when we stop people drinking in bars and pubs? The rise of alcohol sales in supermarkets and off-licences is testament to what happens. It is no surprise: people gather in houses. Do the police have sufficient powers to prevent that or to deal with that? Do they have the resource that they need in order to be able to do so? It is absolutely right and fair to ask why we are punishing compliant businesses for the recklessness of others. Patience is wearing thin, and that should be a big red flag to all of us.
The freedoms to travel, work, live, love and learn are the foundations of our society. We took them away because we had to, and we are doing the same again because we have to, but are we saying that this endless rollercoaster of locking and unlocking is the Government’s strategy? When we give the Government the powers to curb our freedoms, some simple tests must be met. The powers must be justifiable and necessary, they must be used proportionately, they must be time constrained and they must have certainty of ending. The truth is that, for so many people, they are looking down the barrel, but the end is far from sight.
We must ask valid, probing and even difficult questions of the Government, but that is not the same as denying the need for restrictions. It is our job and our duty to do so, and it is one that we must all do better.16:20
I think that it is fair to say that yesterday’s news of new restrictions came as a blow to many people. It is okay for us to feel like that. As a nation, we have worked hard through lockdown. We have been wearing masks and sacrificing much, but unfortunately, here we are, with numbers rising again. I get how people feel; I have had constituents contact me who are upset that, for example, long-arranged plans to meet up with a friend or a family member are now off. We are living in scary times.
However, for me, what is even more scary is the increasing the numbers of infections, hospital and ICU admissions and, sadly, deaths. We absolutely must do something to arrest the spread of the virus and prevent another lockdown. As others have said, the outcry would have been so much worse had we simply sat here and done nothing. That is why I fully back yesterday’s announcement by the First Minister of the new short, sharp measures to get Covid-19 back under control.
I want to talk about how people and businesses in my constituency have been affected by the measures that have been put in place. There can be no doubt that the hospitality sector is bearing the brunt of the new measures. People in the sector have had a difficult year since March, and I know that they are beginning to feel as though they are being singled out.
Last night, a constituent who works as a bar manager and in a local primary school emailed me to say that she thought that there is much more risk of transmission in school settings than there is in hospitality, where mitigation is in place. I hear what she says—similar opinions have been expressed in the chamber—and I know how much mitigation has been put in place to minimise risk. Owen’s pub in Coatbridge, for example, has been commended for its response, after it was identified through contact tracing as being part of an outbreak in Lanarkshire that was connected to the Sitel call centre, back in July.
However, we know that the virus is transmitted in places where people congregate together, and we know that although the level of transmission in hospitality is much lower than it is in households, hospitality is a source of spread. Therefore, we must do something, and we must do it now.
We need to think now about how we support the hospitality sector. I welcome the £40 million investment and will wait to hear the details of it. However, the owners of the businesses in Coatbridge and Chryston who contacted me last night think that it might not be enough; that is what the early indications suggest to them. If that is the case, we must listen and do what we can. If we need to have further discussions with the UK Government about it providing more money or extending the furlough scheme, so be it. No one in my constituency or elsewhere should lose their job as a result of the 16-day circuit breaker. Across Governments and local authorities, we must all work together to make sure that that does not happen.
We should also not forget about sectors whose premises have remained shut, including the soft-play sector, the situation of which I have raised in Parliament and with the Government on several occasions.
We must think about how the hospitality sector can move forward after the 16-day period. For example, does the 10 pm curfew need to stay? There are already well-documented concerns about that, as we have heard. People might go back to houses at closing time. We should use the 16 days to consider the evidence. Is the virus spreading faster or slower with the curfew? I do not know, but it would be good to have that discussion.
The owner of Envy Gin & Cocktails, which is a pub and club in Coatbridge, has raised the issue of background music with me. He says that the absence of background music in his establishment has led to more people talking louder, which has increased noise levels and risk. I had not thought about it from that angle before, and I am not particularly sure what the science says. I am open minded, but again, what does the evidence say? Has the ban on background music slowed the spread of the virus or not?
Let us give the hospitality sector something to hang on to for when we come out of these 16 days—a hope that the situation might be better for them than if there was no circuit breaker, and a hope of a better future as we go through the winter. Background music and curfew times are just two examples, but I feel that we will bring the sector with us by having those conversations. I know that the Scottish Government will do that.
Like other members, I have been contacted about adult sports and clubs, and about classes such as parent and toddler groups. Although the news from the other day about baby and toddler groups was welcome, it will give hope to some people if we can think about how all those things, and the hospitality sector, might return in a safe way after the 16 days. Sometimes those classes or activities are the difference between people being isolated and not being isolated, and between their having good emotional health and not having it. Again, I know that the Government gives consideration to those things.
I also want to raise the issue of some of the household restrictions, which my constituents have contacted me about, specifically the restriction whereby an individual who is in a relationship cannot meet their partner indoors because one of them lives with other people—perhaps parents. I ask that those types of restrictions are thought about in the coming weeks, with more bespoke solutions found—perhaps through use of testing where possible and if necessary, although I understand that that is difficult.
We all know that house parties and mass indoor gatherings have been major causes of concern, so if we are going to have this virus with us for a long time, we need to find ways to distinguish between types of gatherings, although I appreciate how difficult that is.
I am not sure how much time I have left, because I am online. I emphasise that I fully support the measures that were introduced yesterday. The Government has always put the health and wellbeing of the nation first. Seven months in, the balance is becoming more difficult to strike, so I welcome the proposed additional parliamentary scrutiny, and suggest that it is for all of us, across the parties, to raise the concerns of our constituents and to work together collaboratively to strike the right balance in all areas of our life, while keeping everyone safe and driving the virus back.
Mr MacGregor makes the case for reliable time pieces for members who make remote contributions.16:27
The First Minister’s announcement yesterday was a sad day for the hospitality sector—we all agree on that at least. Stephen Montgomery of the Scottish hospitality group said that it signed a
“death sentence for many businesses ... while the real problem is socialising at home.”
The vast majority of businesses in the sector have adhered to the guidelines and ensured that their establishments are safe, because they know how much rides on that. I visited O’Neill’s, a pub in Glasgow, this past week: it is orderly and clean; people cannot go to the bar but are waited on at the tables. Yesterday’s announcement devastated its staff.
It is easy to understand why such businesses feel that the latest round of restrictions overpenalises them. I pay tribute to Paul Waterson who, throughout the six months of the pandemic, was understanding and fair about the fact that the hospitality sector could not open. The fact that he is criticising this week’s restrictions speaks volumes.
Richard Leonard talked about the lack of consultation, which means that we have already had to make corrections to our understanding of cafes and licences. Hospitality businesses have had to keep up with so many changes, and they now get a bolt from the blue, with less than 48 hours to shut down their operation, decide how they will deal with staffing arrangements and assess whether they can survive for another three weekends with no business.
If Fulton MacGregor is listening, I tell him that the measures are not “short and sharp” and that it is naive to think that people will not lose their jobs—people unfortunately will, unless they can get some guarantees from the Government today. However, I agree with Fulton MacGregor about the 10 pm curfew and the background music; if he is listening, I hope that he will sign my reasoned and measured motion on the matter.
The £40 million that has been announced to cover 15,000 businesses seems an awfully small amount of money and I do not think that the sector can survive on it. I plead with the Government to reconsider that amount: if it was meant to mitigate, mitigation will not happen with that figure. Whether or not one thinks that the new rules are justified, the Government must make some assessment of the losses that those businesses will incur, and I do not know that that has been done.
The Scottish Trades Union Congress and Unite have said that they are already hearing reports of employers asking already precarious workers to shoulder the pain and take long, sustained periods of unpaid leave. I think that Patrick Harvie mentioned that earlier today. We need to make sure that whatever the funding package is, it reaches workers as well.
We need a serious discussion with politicians, communities and Government ministers about a step change in our approach to the virus. We have already had many questions and discussions about the accuracy and speed of testing and track and trace, especially here in Scotland, where it is not as good as it should be.
There is a poor level of compliance, which is partly why the hospitality sector is questioning the data behind the measures. A recent study showed that, of those whom the NHS track and trace service had alerted that they had had close contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case, only 11 per cent did not leave home in the following 14 days, and only 18.2 per cent of those who had shown symptoms isolated—the rest did not. If those figures are true—I can cite the study—there will have to be a serious look at them. Perhaps that is what Clare Adamson was getting at.
We cannot stand still. We need testing in the community in order to live with the virus. What I mean by that is not just what we have been discussing the past few weeks. Testing is an industry that is not standing still—many people understand that they can make money from it, which is fair enough. Saliva tests, RNA lamp tests—it is a moving thing. We need to have a discussion on what kind of tests would be acceptable to the Government. I know that there are on-going discussions with aviation, and I am pleased about that. Those discussions need to include some of the detail of how not to impact on current capacity.
In Italy, tests are carried out on arrival at airports and the result is given in 30 minutes. Jersey airport is testing people on arrival. The World Health Organization put together a plan at the end of last month to roll out 120 million rapid diagnostic tests to help lower-income countries to fight the virus.
I am in my closing seconds. We all believe, I hope, that test, test, test is the way. If we are going to live with the virus until a vaccine is available, we need to step up our approach and see what kind of tests can work in aviation, live music and football audiences. That is the way forward.
I discovered just this afternoon that Geoff Ellis and others have been discussing with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport what will happen with the live music sector and whether there is a way forward with testing. That is the direction that we need to head in.16:32
“Pandemic”, “lockdown”, “self-isolate”—how quickly those terms have become part of our lives. Some months ago, confined to my home with just a short walk each day, I learned new skills in Zoom and Teams. I kept a diary of those weeks, partly to give structure to the day, partly as therapy and partly, perhaps, so that one day I could look back on those dark times. There were also bright moments when I spoke to neighbours whom I never used to see during the working week, and later I clapped along for carers and health workers with strangers in distant tenements, in an emotional demonstration of community.
Why do I say that? Because then, we were truly all in it together. Fear—absolute fear—of the unknown united us in purpose and kept us sticking to the rules. The impact on those living alone, and particularly on some who are elderly, was and is very hard. Not all elderly people are in the same boat, of course. We are as diverse in our health, personal circumstances and temperaments as the next. However, we have one thing in common: we are more vulnerable, statistically, to a severe reaction to the virus than almost any other group.
There have been some suggestions—although not in this chamber—that are gaining traction: that politicians should change tack; that even targeted lockdowns are not working; that, as the economy cannot take much more of this, we should let the majority of the population move about more freely, and perhaps even give that elusive herd immunity a chance, while we protect the elderly and vulnerable. The trouble is that, to my knowledge, no one has said what that “protect” involves. Is it the option of either personal lockdown for an indeterminate period or taking our chances and going out and about? To me, that is like asking us to cross a busy road without looking right and left. As people get older, life becomes more precious for them in many respects. They no longer take life for granted.
Of course the economy and jobs have to be protected to the best of our collective ability. It is distressing to see family businesses in my constituency on their knees and to read the emails of desperation. There must be Scottish Government and UK Government support for them to see us through to the spring of next year at least.
The furlough, whether sectorally targeted or not, must be reinstated, and those who must isolate must know that they will have financial support, because it is clear from the figures yesterday that it is a minority who comply. I welcome the recently announced Scottish Government support within the constraints of its limited budget. That is the key: a limited budget.
The major intervention to allow businesses to function is what we do ourselves. We know how the virus operates: it operates through us—through our need to socialise and be close to others. Back in March, we understood that and, perhaps through naked fear, we complied. Now the scary words “pandemic” and “Covid” have become familiar. With that comes a degree of contempt, as the adage goes.
Of course test and protect is important, but it is not a panacea. The strategic approach, which I welcome, will not be worth the paper that it is written on if some of us continue to defy what we know is required. We must keep to those rules not just for ourselves or for granny or grandad, but for strangers whom we will never know. In so doing, we must also give the economy a fair chance at recovery.16:36
I want to pick up on some of the things that Christine Grahame has just been saying and what Clare Adamson said earlier. Testing has preoccupied quite a few speakers in this debate, but it has, of course, to stand a long way second to the behaviours that we adopt. If anybody doubts that prioritisation, they should just think about what we have seen happening at 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue, which is otherwise known as the White House. The President of the United States has been tested for Covid every single day for a very long period of time, but that did not protect him from catching the disease, because the behaviours that he and many around him adopted were not safe. It is the behaviours that protect us. However, testing is important, because it is a component of understanding where the disease is going and how we can follow it as it passes from one person to another, so that further sources of infection can be cut off. It is therefore vital that we have a good testing system.
I have read that blame is being attached to software in England that was used for doing some of the statistics associated with the pandemic. Using 13-year-old Excel software was not intrinsically a problem. The software was not to blame for the difficulties that were experienced in calculating the people who tested positive; the problem was the lack of professionalism of the people who used the software. It is like blaming a four-seat car for being unable to carry two soccer teams to a match. The car was designed to carry four people, and 22 people in those soccer teams would be the normal thing. We cannot blame the car, whether it is new or 20 years old; the issue is the person who decided to use the car in the way that they did. The deficiency that has been attributed to the software is actually a deficiency in the professionalism of the people who were using it.
In a sense, that goes to the heart of who we have as our experts. With software, we need experts who understand software. I speak with a particular interest as a professional software engineer—I am not the only one in the Parliament. I have software that I wrote more than 40 years ago that is still used millions of times every week. Age can bring maturity.
On the issue of age, I heard Richard Leonard say that we should have no restrictions until they have come to the Parliament and been approved there. I say to the member that I took my first driving test in the year in which he was born and I do not want somebody to have to stop me from stepping in front of the traffic that might be coming down the road—Christine Grahame referred to that—by going to the Parliament to get permission first. Grab me and then, post hoc, homologate the decision that is made. That is the approach that we need to take with the pandemic.
I have used the word “expert”, and it is important that we have all the experts that we require to hand and the statistics that they can gather explained to us laypeople who have to make the decisions. I do not envy the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I certainly do not envy the First Minister. I congratulate them on their fortitude in the face of the most impressive workload. I cannot believe that it is possible for them to be doing anything other than about 40 hours of work a day; it certainly looks that way. An expert is someone who brings expertise to the problems that we have to beat, and they do so without bias or taking a prior position.
We have heard quite a lot about the economy and I agree that it is vital that we protect it. That is why the money that is coming from the Scottish Government is to be welcomed. The hospitality sector has suffered in particular, and we need to be careful to support many small businesses. There are others, such as Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, who initially refused to pay his staff. He is worth about £0.5 billion and he has stopped paying his suppliers. I do not particularly want to be supporting the Tim Martins of the month; however, I want to support his employees, as that is very important.
I am delighted to see that we have a broad consensus and will support all the amendments, bar the Labour Party’s amendment. I welcome the debate.
I call Rachael Hamilton, to be followed by Richard Lyle. [Interruption]. Order, please.16:42
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
We know that Covid-19 cases are rising across the whole of Scotland, and that is very concerning for businesses that are operating in an already fragile and fast-changing environment. Let me be clear: the Scottish Conservatives support measures to bring the R number down and to curb the virus, but we are asking for clarity over the detail and the decisions.
As my colleague Donald Cameron said, this is a worrying time for businesses. Many thought they that they had weathered the worst of the storm, just to be knocked back again.
The economic implications of the pandemic and the new lockdown restrictions will be a “catastrophe” for businesses. That is not my description; it is the description of Willie Macleod of UK Hospitality. Others have also been clear, as Pauline McNeill said. Stephen Montgomery has called the measures a “death sentence”. Let us be clear: the frustration is born of the 11th-hour nature of the Government restrictions, which have wounded a £14 billion sector and put a good chunk of its 206,000 jobs on the line.
We welcome the £40 million to support closed businesses, but require detail regarding eligibility for the two-tier process based on rateable value that the First Minister talked about today. Does it require full lockdown or partial lockdown? Perhaps the cabinet secretary could clarify that in his closing speech.
The SNP has neglected to bring the hospitality and tourism sector on board in its latest round of restrictions. Businesses employ people, they pay taxes and they are the beating heart of our economy. They deserve to be consulted prior to any decisions on more restrictions that are coming down the line. Moreover, that sector has a duty to their employees to give them certainty and reassurance so that they know that their wage packet is on its way.
Mark Crothall of the Scottish Tourism Alliance set the record straight yesterday when he said:
“The details of the new restrictions as announced by the First Minister this afternoon which will come into force in just two days’ time are nothing short of devastating for the majority of those operating in the hospitality industry.”
The same knee-jerk reaction happened with the self-catering industry. The Scottish Government knew for weeks that the R number was on the rise, yet it did not give the self-catering industry notice, causing widespread cancellations, especially in the run-up to the October holidays.
Knee-jerk reactions are causing economic damage. Furthermore, restaurants plan shifts seven to 10 days in advance, and orders are placed at wholesalers up to weeks ahead. We heard yesterday from Iain Gray that Greene King, which owns Belhaven brewery in East Lothian, is making redundancies. It is an industry left in tatters.
Once the data was finally revealed, the Scottish Government admitted that the rise in infections cannot be entirely attributed to hospitality. Between 20 and 26 per cent of individuals who have tested positive have been exposed in a hospitality setting. That is fair enough, but, as the cabinet secretary said, the data does not indicate where people who have tested positive were infected. It is not a measure of causation, except if there is an outbreak.
I am sure that the member understands that it is not possible to get binary causation data that will tell us that. However, we do know—she knows and I know—how the virus transmits itself between one person and another. The more people there are in any particular setting, whether household or hospitality, the greater the chance of virus transmission. That is what we know.
I think that the evidence needs to go further. There was no consultation with hospitality businesses regarding the measures. The cabinet secretary is throwing them off a cliff.
The measures that were enacted yesterday tar all hospitality businesses with the same brush—a point that was echoed last night on “Debate Night” by Stephen Leckie, who is chief executive officer of Crieff Hydro. Making bars, pubs and restaurants the scapegoat will not bring back jobs and livelihoods. The measures also imply that the sector is flouting the rules, which is galling for those who have implicitly complied with them.
Protecting jobs in Scotland should be top priority when new restrictions are being introduced. Many across the hospitality and tourism industry welcome the additional funding, but they are concerned that it simply does not go far enough. Businesses on the ground simply have no detail about if and when they will receive a portion of the funding. That was echoed by the Scottish Tourism Alliance, which is concerned that the funding will not be sufficient to protect businesses from being forced into full-time closure, with job losses incurred.
The Scottish Conservatives want to see testing and testing capacity increased. We want to see a commitment to putting more boots on the ground in the form of test and protect staff. We know that testing is improving, but the contacts of 925 people who have tested positive since 22 June have not been traced. As the R number is increasing, that is quite concerning.
A total lack of planning and prior consultation with businesses has caused heartache and confusion. As Alison Johnstone said, it is just “not sustainable”. The hospitality industry in particular has suffered immensely over this period, and it demands clarity. The least that the Government can do is get the balance right. All parties are calling for sensible measures in their amendments today. The hospitality industry deserves a lifeline, but the offering on the table from the Scottish National Party is, I am afraid, not good enough.
Richard Lyle will be the last speaker in the open debate.16:48
Since March, we have witnessed the tremendous efforts of the people of Scotland to try to deal with an unseen, untouchable virus—a virus that has affected every one of us and the world as a whole. It is a virus that, sadly, looks like it will not go away any time soon. We are in a pandemic—we need to deal with it.
I wish to thank health professionals and everyone who kept their services running. Every grocery firm and local shop deserves our thanks for what they are continuing to do during the pandemic.
Yesterday’s announcements affect many in central Scotland. At the start of March, we as a family decided that my daughter and my grandchildren would come to stay with my wife and me. We formed our own bubble, to ensure that we could see one another every day. I know that that has not been possible for many grandparents.
Over the past months, there have been many changes in restrictions on where people can meet. Grandparents not being able to see their families has been hard for both families and grandparents, and when they have been able to meet, it has been hard to answer the question, “Gran and Grandpa, why don’t you give me a hug?”
I have been lucky during lockdown to have been able to spend a lot of time with my grandchildren. I have spent more time with them than I ever spent with my own children, as I was always out as a councillor and balancing two jobs during that time. I have taught my granddaughter Iona to ride her bike, although Iona would say that she taught herself. She now calls me “Grampi”; colleagues here will surely now change that and call me “Grumpy Grampi”.
My grandson, Ruaridh, is an expert in building Lego. He asked me to help him to build a monster truck, but I had a Microsoft Teams meeting that day. I said that I would not be long but, as usual, the party meeting went on and on, and he had built it himself by the time that the meeting had finished.
I note that, as the Government motion says,
“the prevalence of the virus has increased in recent weeks and that the numbers of people hospitalised, in intensive care and tragically dying from the virus has also increased”.
This is a trying time for us all. As I have stated previously, Highgate care home, which is in my constituency, was the first care home in Scotland in which residents contracted Covid-19. My brother was in that home. The care home faced the challenges and gave him an excellent service—he was in a five-star hotel. Sadly, as I have said, my brother died, but not from Covid-19. I thank the home again for letting me see him before he passed away.
I agree that further action needs to be taken in order to reduce the level of transmission across Scotland. I note the evidence paper that was published on 7 October and the national and regional targeted actions that were set out by the First Minister. I for one recognise that the actions will be accompanied by additional measures, which will have to be explained in order to boost compliance.
The public want to know the reasons for the restrictions. During the past months, councillors, MSPs and MPs have seen tremendous growth in our daily emails. People have asked us for every reason under the sun why something is closed. We have to take people with us and give reasons why places have to close. If we have to close down businesses—even for a short time—we should help them financially.
Covid-19 has been a learning curve for us all. I pay tribute to our cabinet secretaries and ministers for their extra work. I give special thanks to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. She and the First Minister have made choices, not mistakes, in my mind. We have provided support for those who have needed to self-isolate and financial support for areas of the economy that are impacted by the measures that were announced yesterday.
I welcome the on-going four-nations discussions and the shared commitment to suppress Covid-19 to the lowest possible level across the UK and keep it there. There should be a commitment to explore additional parliamentary scrutiny and a commitment to bring an updated strategic approach to Covid-19 transmission to the Parliament shortly.
During the pandemic, there have been many issues to deal with, and I have asked many health-related questions and got many answers. I encourage the health secretary to ensure that, when they can, operations start again, and that cancer treatments continue or restart. Covid-19 is very important, but so are all the other health issues that affect everybody, including people in my family. People have to be able to get the flu jab if they wish, and to meet their GP when they can—at least virtually.
I constantly raise the subject of dental treatment, so I have to ask what reply I am to give to constituents with a chipped front tooth or who have been diagnosed as needing a non-urgent filling. Currently, the treatment cannot be completed under the NHS, but the same patient is able to have the same problem fixed by the same dentist in the same practice on the same day outwith the NHS, if they can afford to pay for the treatment. It cannot be for science reasons, as the procedure can go ahead with the correct personal protective equipment, so what is the reason for the two-tier system of dental care that is currently operating in Scotland? That is one of the other choices that has to be made.
I hope that we will get back to normal. When? I do not know. It will possibly be when a vaccine is found. I have seen many posters in the past months. The best one said, “We are all in this together.” Yes—we are. I thank everyone for doing what they can for their fellow human beings. I say to all: stay safe.
We now move to the closing speeches.16:53
I am glad to be closing the debate for the Liberal Democrats. At the start of the debate, Donald Cameron quoted the national clinical director, Jason Leitch. The cabinet secretary understandably took exception to that, because the remarks were taken out of context. Nevertheless, I will repeat them, because, within them, there is a very eerie echo of many of the emails that we are all getting from constituents across the country. Jason Leitch said:
“if I am honest, I cannot keep up with all the regulation and advice; there is simply too much of it to keep on top of every day.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Committee, 7 October 2020; c 17.]
Even if he did not mean to say those words, or if they were taken out of context, we are all Jason Leitch today, to some extent. It was telling that one of the most important clinicians in the Government said that, because it echoes the hundreds of emails that we get every day.
The measures announced yesterday are not just clinical decisions—they are political as well. I accept that, given the nature of the emergency, by necessity a lot of this is guesswork. A balance has to be struck between infection control and livelihoods and between protecting the NHS and protecting people’s mental wellbeing. I do not doubt the intentions of the First Minister or her cabinet secretary, or the place where any of this comes from. However, there is massive confusion out there and every time there is a rule change other members and I spend the next few weeks mopping up inquiries.
The First Minister must know by now the extent to which people have begun to hang on her every word when she makes announcements such as the one that she made yesterday. Words matter, and in such statements clarity is everything. When she says, in practically the same breath, that her Government is not insisting that people cancel their October week staycation but advises them against all travel outside their region unless it is absolutely necessary, what are people supposed to think?
The First Minister has to realise that the commitment of normal people to doing their bit in the national effort to fight coronavirus is such that the assessment of whether to travel from Edinburgh to a hotel in the Highlands, for example, will be laced with guilt. Small wonder that, on Radio Scotland this morning, Stephen Leckie, the CEO of Crieff Hydro, revealed that within an hour of the First Minister’s statement yesterday, 50 bookings had been cancelled for the October week. Her words matter and they have consequences.
The Liberal Democrats have worked as constructively as possible from the start of the emergency to support and amplify the Government messaging around infection control and we continue to do that to this day. In the foothills of the crisis, the Government was very good at including Opposition politicians in briefings and decision making and that approach was welcome. However, as my leader Willie Rennie said, that has fallen away over time. Briefing and consultation have started to become an afterthought.
Indeed, it says a great deal about the diminishing effort of the Government to include Opposition parties that the last time that I met the chief medical officer in my role as shadow health secretary, that CMO was Catherine Calderwood. I have not raised that with the health secretary or the CMO, who have much better things to do than meet me. However, although I am tasked with explaining the changes and measures imposed by the Government and the rationale behind them to literally hundreds of local people who get in touch with me every week, I am nearly as much in the dark as my constituents.
How can 50 people be allowed at Sunday worship but only 20 at a funeral in the same church the following day? Why did the science suggest that five adults was the absolute maximum limit for parent and baby classes last week, but allow that to double to 10 this week, although only if the children are under 12 months old? Why is it that cafes in the central belt could stay open, but—until this morning—cafes with on-sales licences, such as Craigies Farm in my constituency, could not? Now such cafes can stay open, but pubs that can switch to providing breakfast, coffee, soft drinks and meals still cannot.
Alex Cole-Hamilton sounds as though he is speaking from a position of having read the instructions. If someone had a pub in Glasgow or a lockdown area and suspended their licence, would they be able to open until six o’clock?
It is almost as though Rachael Hamilton and I rehearsed this, because I am coming to that in my next breath. In my intervention on the cabinet secretary earlier, she said that I often criticise her for producing confusing guidance. However, given the measure that Rachael Hamilton has just alluded to, I would say that the hundreds of emails that are being sent to licensing boards right now, asking for a temporary suspension of liquor licences, are evidence of just how clumsy the measure is.
The business owners of this country are crying out for clarity from the Government; their survival depends on it. [Interruption.] I do not have time to take an intervention.
I know that it is hard and that the Government and cabinet secretary are doing their best, and I do not doubt their intentions. However, a route map is only a route map for as long as people know where they are on it. I do not think any of us in the chamber knows whether the five-stage route map revealed to Parliament in May even exists any more.
I cannot help but think that, if the Government and cabinet secretary had brought us with them, as they did at the start of the emergency, including us in the discussions, showing us the evidence and treating us as adults, as we were promised, we could have helped them. We could have helped them to see that hot-housing thousands of first-year students without a testing regime in place for their arrival would lead to mass infection. We could have helped them to work with the licensed trade to remove the risk of alcohol to social distancing while keeping those businesses open on a paying basis. We could have helped them to better understand the wellbeing needs of bereaved families who cannot grieve together in a place of worship.
I am not saying that our ideas are any better than the Government’s, but surely getting us back to where we were at the start, feeling our way through the crisis together in co-production and giving us some ownership of the decisions that the Government takes, would better equip us to bring our constituents with the Government on the awful journey that still lies ahead. I say to the cabinet secretary: take us with you—we do not want you to fail.17:00
This has been a welcome and overdue debate. It is understandable that, in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, Parliament’s role in the scrutiny of the Executive was necessarily limited. As Donald Cameron pointed out, we have passed regulations weeks after they were made and came into force. We will do so again this evening. We have done our best to scrutinise the on-going policy decisions of the Scottish ministers.
However, we stand now at something of an inflection point. Covid has and will always be primarily a public health crisis, but it rapidly became and remains an economic crisis. Although it is no longer a political crisis, it is now a broader political issue. That is to say, it has been running for so long, continues to have such a profound impact and will do for months to come that the public are becoming increasingly confused and tired and thus, it risks becoming a wider political issue.
The Government’s commitment to engage with Parliament over a refreshed strategic approach is welcome. As many members have said, there needs to be wider buy-in and consent to the measures that are put in place to eliminate Covid. To get that, we need to address four key aspects of the governance of the crisis.
First, there is the science, which is widely available and is being published on open access terms. That is all good. Much uncertainty exists and dispute takes place, but that is normal in scientific inquiry and we can leave it to one side.
Secondly, there is the evidence. Helpfully, ministers are now publishing more of that in a more timely fashion. Yesterday set a good example. Although evidence can be selective, partial and biased, by and large the evidence that we have is useful. However, there remains much more that could be shared. Jamie Greene asked about the impact of household restrictions—that is set out, at least in part, in figure 12 of the evidence that we got yesterday.
Thirdly, there are the options and advice provided to ministers by officials. None of that to my knowledge has been published or shared outside the Government. Fourthly, there are the decisions themselves and the guidance and regulations associated with them.
I want to focus on the second and third aspects. On evidence, we know that between 28 May and 4 October 14,997 people were recorded as index cases in the test and protect system. We know that 65,755 contacts were traced. Of these, 48,243 are unique individuals, but that leaves 17,512 individuals who are associated with more than one index case—some will be associated with two cases, but some may be associated with dozens. What do we know about those 17,000 people in that example? That question relates to the K number, which is a measure of the concentration of the pattern of infection. Is it a few people spreading to many, or is the spread more evenly distributed? Does the cabinet secretary know what the K number is or what the distribution is of those who have been in contact with more than one index case? That is one example of evidence that may well exist and which it would be useful to have in the public domain.
More important is the third factor: the options and advice given to ministers, which are not the same as the evidence, need to be shared more widely. I know that that is not done routinely because it can compromise frankness in engagements between officials and ministers, but we are at a stage where it is vital to public confidence that the public know what the options are—or were before the decisions were made—what the pros and cons of various approaches are and why the Government has decided on a particular course of action.
In her opening remarks, the cabinet secretary argued that the Parliament should scrutinise decisions. We have done our best. However, we cannot fully scrutinise decisions if we are not fully informed of the options and the advice made available to ministers. Options and advice are not the same as evidence, which has been published—although we need more. The judgments that are made are presented as faits accomplis, but we do not know what the counterfactual is or what the alternative might have been.
If we are not more transparent and more inclusive with the decision-making process, we should not be surprised if public consent were to start to erode to a point where it may be very difficult to re-establish the levels of compliance that we need to eliminate the virus. We are already seeing quite poor levels of compliance in critical areas of our test and protect strategy, such as in respect of self-isolation.
As my colleague Alison Johnstone argued in her opening speech, and as outlined in the Green amendment, increased testing is fundamental. In most cases, testing is still accessible only to people who are suffering symptoms or who have been in contact with someone with Covid-19. That will prevent some from seeking testing immediately, as they might wait until they are convinced that their symptoms are Covid before seeking a test. To ensure that such cases are identified, those workers who are most at risk of exposure and who are not part of a weekly testing programme should be allowed access to a test regardless of symptoms. That would include, for example, retail and hospitality staff who work in the kind of enclosed environments that have been identified as posing significant risk. That is already being done in other countries. New Zealand has engaged in routine testing of border workers and asymptomatic at-risk groups, such as health workers, hospitality staff and transport workers.
Key to our approach is also ensuring the wellbeing of those who are most at risk and those workers who face the greatest risks to their livelihoods. I urge ministers to respond promptly and constructively to the letter that the STUC sent today.
The Scottish Greens support a precautionary approach to dealing with the pandemic. As the virus is spreading in the community at an alarming rate, it is clear that further action needs to be taken to halt the spread. We must recognise, however, the huge toll that months of restrictions have taken on people’s mental health, on workers and on the livelihood of many small businesses. Although two weeks ahead might seem to be a relatively short space of time, to those who are isolated, experiencing a mental health crisis, or having to shut down their business, it might seem like a lifetime.
Short of the climate crisis, this is the most critical issue facing most of us in our lifetimes. To its credit, the Government has recognised that it cannot do this on its own. The public need to be on board, but for that to happen over the winter months and over perhaps much of next year, we need a new, inclusive and participatory approach to assessing evidence, devising and appraising options, and deciding on the best way forward.17:06
The opening line of the Government’s motion asks Parliament to recognise
“the considerable efforts of people across Scotland to suppress COVID-19.”
On behalf of Scottish Labour, I repeat our thanks to the public for their compliance and their care for one another, and to the front-line workers who have kept the country going.
The impact of Covid-19 has been devastating. Our thoughts are with everyone who has lost a loved one to the virus. No one in the chamber underestimates the severity of the illness and the need to stop the virus in its tracks.
In June, the Scottish Government said that Scotland was not far away from eliminating coronavirus and, if we all followed the rules, we would keep the virus at bay. The public have followed the rules, and that is why people across Scotland have reacted with dismay at these tough new restrictions. Despite the public’s sacrifices and co-operation, we are now facing a huge growth in the pandemic, with accelerating numbers of cases and growing positive rates in most areas of Scotland.
Although we welcomed the evidence paper that the Scottish Government published yesterday, ministers must do more to improve transparency. Measures are being brought in with little or no time for Parliament to scrutinise them, and we are moving on to the next set of restrictions just as people are getting used to the previous ones. That is where the public are starting to lose patience.
People are asking where the evaluation is of what works and what does not work, and what the measure of success will be for the new restrictions. Andy Wightman covered it excellently when he said that we, as MSPs, want to be better informed. We want to see as much as possible of the modelling, options, scenarios and advice that ministers are receiving. Two days ago, Michael Russell said to me that it is possible that too much information is being put out in the public domain, but it is not just about the volume of information; it is about the quality of what we are all getting.
When Professor Jason Leitch said to the COVID-19 Committee that he struggles to keep up with all the guidance and the pace of change, I do not think that we should criticise him. Ministers should reflect on what it is like for the public and those small businesses that are trying hard to keep up.
Professor Leitch also said that the two biggest factors affecting the spread of virus are human behaviour and test and protect. If we all agree that compliance with the restrictions is high, we must look at the record of test and protect. The First Minister has consistently argued that it is working well. The health secretary said last month that she wanted to use testing to
“actively hunt down the virus”
and that is a sensible strategy, but more than six months into the pandemic we are still falling far short of the WHO advice to “test, test, test”. Every week, Scotland still has thousands of tests going unused, and for months experts such as Professors Linda Bauld, Devi Sridhar and Sir Harry Burns have consistently called for routine mass testing, including of asymptomatic individuals, but the Government has been slow to act on that.
Why has unused capacity not been used to expand routine testing? Scottish Labour strongly believes that everyone in health and social care should have access to regular testing, including family carers and front-line workers such as teachers. Why was there not the foresight to ramp up testing capabilities before bringing thousands of university students into halls of residence? Regrettably, there is a danger that the Scottish Government is being complacent on test and protect. The outbreak at Redmill care home in West Lothian, which was raised by my colleagues Neil Findlay and, today, Richard Leonard, where it took more than a week for staff to be tested, is a shocking example of where test and protect is not good enough. Alison Johnstone is absolutely right on routine testing, and she says that every week.
Concerns are growing that a stop-start approach to lockdown will be disastrous for our economy and jobs. That is why Scottish Labour is calling for full financial mitigation for all workers and businesses—many of which are on a knife edge—that are affected by yesterday’s announcements. We are also clear that we are strongly against the exploitation of workers, especially in the hospitality sector, where many are low paid and on casual contracts in precarious work. I quickly looked this up on the Parliament website, Presiding Officer—my colleague Richard Leonard recently lodged a motion on a good business commission and I urge colleagues from across the chamber to sign it. Forty million pounds, which I know others, including Jamie Greene, have welcomed, will not go very far; the industry is saying that it is a drop in the ocean.
I will give one example; I know that many MSPs have also had this email today about Ten Hill Place hotel, which is run and operated by Surgeon’s Quarter, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. The managing director, Scott Mitchell, said:
“the hotel provided a safe controlled environment for healthcare workers who tested positive and require to self-isolate from their households and at the start of the pandemic provided free accommodation to NHS staff.”
The hotel has now entered—this will be familiar to many hoteliers—a negative pace, which means that it has had more cancellations than bookings. It has already made staff redundant and he makes the point, which others have made in the chamber today, that if we engage with stakeholders as much as possible, we will avoid some of the confusion that we have heard about. I encourage ministers to take part in that early consultation.
We all want to defeat the virus, but we also need to prevent other increasing harms, including excess deaths, the mental health crisis, social isolation, jobs and opportunities going, increasing poverty and fading hope—all while Covid is still rising. The people of Scotland have made considerable efforts and sacrifices and we know that it will be a tough winter, especially for our NHS, so we encourage both Governments to urgently redouble efforts on testing and to act quickly to prevent catastrophic job losses so that no worker or business is left behind.17:13
Reflecting on this afternoon’s debate, I recognise that reimposing major restrictions across the country, and particularly in the five large health boards in the central belt, is an extremely lonely place for the Government to be. However, we must remember that it is not anywhere near as lonely or as desperate as the position that many businesses are left in, with their employees and communities desperately waiting for news and financial support. Those in the hospitality industry and the associated supply chain are being asked to bear the brunt.
Strong language has been used this afternoon, and we can all understand the anger. It was always going to be impossible to please everyone. This is a public health issue, and it seems likely that difficult and unpalatable decisions will have to be taken for some time to come. We accept that, but what we cannot accept is the, at times, confusing way in which changes are announced and the shameful lack of detail on lifeline support to protect jobs and livelihoods.
As my colleague Donald Cameron showed, the country is increasingly weary. Many members have made the point that morale is extremely low. We have captured some of that today, which shows the importance of this debate.
Like many, I wanted to believe that the elimination strategy was succeeding. I suspect that the Scottish Government and the First Minister hoped the same. Months on, it has become clear that elimination is a long way off and that we face a cold, dark winter after so many sacrifices have already been made.
I cannot imagine how it feels to be one of those who missed out on saying goodbye to loved ones, or to have been told that my planned surgery or health treatment was not important enough to go ahead, or to have missed out on taking my exams and leaving school with my friends.
That is not to say that there were no other good options. Andy Wightman made an important point about the need to set out what those options are and what they could have been. However, no matter what choices we make, we must be aware of how much we are asking of people.
In that spirit, as Jamie Greene argued, it is imperative that we ask and answer some of those difficult questions now. What will success look like for the measures? What if they do not work? What modelling has the Scottish Government done on the case numbers we anticipate seeing when we get to 26 October?
The member asks what success will look like. I broadly agree that we need a better grasp of that. There is some evidence in figure 12 of a reduction in exposures of confirmed cases in family clusters and in gatherings of family and friends. There is therefore some evidence that the measures that were taken a few weeks ago were successful. I agree that we need more of that, but does Mr Mundell accept that some of the evidence is quite encouraging?
I would be loth to use the word “encouraging”, because it is hard for people to accept that those measures were needed. That comes from a natural human instinct. We all look at ourselves, and at our own situations and families, and it is difficult to understand that our individual actions can have a collective impact.
One of the other key themes to emerge today has been the inconsistency, or perceived inconsistency, of many of the restrictions and the accompanying guidance. Where that confusion exists and where it is hard for people to follow what they are being asked to do, it is more difficult to justify it. If we do not get this part of the process right, there is an increasing risk that a number of people will decide, “Stuff this.” I do not say that lightly, and I encourage everyone to follow the advice that they have been given.
I disagree with the cabinet secretary. It was important that Jason Leitch was willing to say that it is difficult to keep up with the changes. I know that he was asked about specifics—I heard the cabinet secretary say that—but we all have specifics in our own lives. Everyone faces specific circumstances and difficult choices and issues in their own family and life, and everyone has to deal with a plethora of guidance. People who send their children to school or whose children go to sports clubs, as well as people who go to work, all face different rules and restrictions and slight variations in almost every setting that they go into. It is hard for people to follow that.
The First Minister is right to talk about balance and the need for common sense, but the frustration for many people who are determined to do the right thing is that they are struggling to understand the logic and to see how those different decisions fit together.
With more thought and contingency planning—and with more consultation with experts in industry—some of that could have been avoided and some practical answers could have been given ahead of time. As Rachael Hamilton highlighted, we saw that just two weeks ago with self-catering accommodation, when there was a mix-up in what people were being asked to do
I am not criticising the Scottish Government for taking those decisions, but there is no way that anyone can think it is fair that sending out mixed messages and treating people’s businesses as an afterthought is acceptable when the Government is taking decisions that damage and destroy people’s livelihoods.
When it comes to the changes that were announced yesterday, I, personally, find it disappointing and astonishing that there was no time to engage properly with the hospitality and tourism sectors ahead of those announcements being made. After all, we had had weeks of speculation in the media that something like that was being considered. What is even more galling is that, after six months of going it alone, the First Minister found time to speak to Opposition leaders on top of briefing the media twice but did not find the time to pick up the phone to those who will be most directly affected. That, to me, is not leadership, and people deserve better. We must remember that, in taking these difficult decisions in Government and in Parliament, we are not the ones who are paying the price for these measures. We do not have to let staff go and we do not have to close the doors on businesses that we have built over many years.
The only thing that we can do is provide the right support and, most important of all, provide it in a timely manner. However, what has been offered so far is insulting, both in terms of the sum and the lack of clarity in advance around eligibility. Imagine the anxiety that that will cause on top of many hospitality businesses being told in October that operating outdoors is their only option at a difficult time of the year for that. What a bitter pill that is to swallow after many businesses have spent thousands of pounds in trying to do the right thing, doing what the Government has asked and keeping their customers safe.
We can do far better, and we can start by curtailing the endless speculation ahead of these announcements. Either the Scottish Government is a leaky ship or people are deliberately briefing proposals out to the press. That helps no one; it only contributes to unease, and it has destroyed what little confidence is left. What is worse is that, in between all of that, the consultation and communication have not been right.
Today’s debate has been an important opportunity to air the issues and make a start on a much-needed return to parliamentary and democratic scrutiny. Ultimate responsibility for the decisions lies squarely with the Government alone, but it is right that the Parliament has a greater voice, as this is no longer a short-term emergency but a long-term reality.
I call the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to wind up the debate.17:22
This has been a helpful and informative debate that has addressed the most important question—there has been broad agreement on that—which is that there was a necessity for us to take further action. The Government set out yesterday the basis on which we decided to do that. The necessity for action is demonstrated in the evidence paper that was published by the Government yesterday, which of course comes with a huge amount of data published on a daily basis about the development of the pandemic, with further series of information that reflect the pattern of the pandemic.
I will highlight from the evidence paper three particular graphics that make important points. The first is figure 2, on the estimated total number of infections, which illustrates that at the current rate of infection growth of 7 per cent per day, the number of infections would be at the level of the March peak by the end of October. To me, that one illustration is the compelling indication of why further measures are required to be undertaken. Faced with that evidence and data, I cannot see how it would be possible to say that there is no case for action to be taken. That point has been pretty broadly accepted across the chamber.
Those are concerning figures—I do not think that anyone disagrees with that. However, why is it that we would be in that situation if we did not make the current intervention? Presumably, given all the measures that we have introduced and all the lockdowns and restrictions, we would not expect to be in this position. What has gone wrong?
What is happening is that a virus that we had suppressed significantly in Scotland has not disappeared—at no stage has the virus disappeared. What we are seeing in Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, countless European countries and the United States is that the virus makes a reappearance—a reoccurrence—because it is transmitted by human contact and interaction.
I will address Mr Greene’s question directly. Yesterday was not the first time that we took further action—we took action a fortnight ago to tackle the issue of household gatherings. We had to put in place tight restrictions on the ability of individuals to meet in households. Essentially, those were to stop people meeting in households indoors.
I come to the second chart, which is the one that Mr Wightman has just highlighted. I refer to “Figure 12: Percentage of Covid-19 cases that were exposed to different settings per week”. I want to draw out two points from that data. The first point is that the proportion of cases attributed to family interaction in family settings is declining, which should give us some encouragement that the measures taken as a consequence of the restrictions that we applied a fortnight ago are beginning to have an effect. As our clinical advisers have confirmed publicly, in the west of Scotland, the restrictions were blunting the rise of Covid in family settings.
The second point is that, although it is difficult to draw a direct line, we are generally seeing an increasing proportion of cases attributed to activity in the hospitality sector.
I fully recognise the Deputy First Minister’s point, but does he understand the frustration that some hospitality businesses feel, having spent thousands of pounds and a lot of time putting in place safety measures? I am not saying that that is the wrong conclusion to draw, but does he understand their frustration?
I completely understand their frustration. If we answer the first question that I posed—is there a case to act further?—by saying that there is a compelling case to act as a result of figure 2, which I think there is, we then have to think about what to do about it. Figure 12 shows that the first thing that we should try to do is to limit household interaction. We did that a fortnight ago. There are some grounds for encouragement, but the action was not enough, as figure 2 shows, and, consequently, we have to look at the other causes. That takes us to hospitality. I completely understand the frustration on the part of the hospitality sector.
That brings me to the third illustration: “Table 1: Number of new cases in the last 7 days per 100,000 people by age”. At this point, I come to Christine Grahame’s compelling contribution. Although a large number of cases per 100,000 people are in the 0 to 19 years age group, that has largely become static. The worrying element is the growth in the number of cases in the recent seven-day period in the age groups above 40. That is when we start getting to the acute issues of hospitalisation and, ultimately, sadly, into fatalities.
In marshalling that evidence, we see that there is a compelling case for us to act further. We have taken steps on the hospitality sector. The Government engages regularly with the hospitality sector—we have frequent discussions with it. Fergus Ewing, who is the responsible minister, is in constant dialogue with the sector and has been throughout on issues relating to the pandemic.
I listened carefully to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport’s response to Alex Cole-Hamilton’s intervention. Does the Deputy First Minister accept that there seems to be an anomaly between cafes with a licence being allowed to operate and restaurants that can offer exactly the same service not being allowed to operate? Is there any movement on that restriction, and might the Government look at it again?
The point that we come back to is that we must take sufficient action to address the danger that is shown in figure 2. If we exempt everyone from the action, frankly, there is no point whatsoever in taking it. We must take enough action to reduce the opportunity for social interaction in order to enable us to interrupt the spread of the virus.
The health secretary has set out the Government’s position on a number of the amendments. We cannot support the Labour amendment. It makes reference to giving “full financial mitigation” in all circumstances. We would love to be able to do that, but we do not have the resources or the scope to borrow to enable us to do so.
We are putting in place £40 million of Scottish Government resources. We hope that, as the United Kingdom Government reflects on the same dilemmas as we have here—
Liam Kerr rose—
If Mr Kerr will forgive me, I am required to wind up my comments now.
Mr Mundell made a comment about the Scottish Government perhaps pre-advertising its direction of travel. I point out that in the newspapers that I was looking at this morning, the United Kingdom Government was setting out where it might move. It might bring forward further financial resources, the deployment of which the Scottish Government will consider.
My final point is on parliamentary scrutiny. The debate has been a welcome one. The Government is happy to come to the chamber: we have debated Covid issues on a number of occasions, and there have been myriad opportunities to raise questions. As far as I am aware, every invitation for Government ministers to appear before the COVID-19 Committee has been accepted and fulfilled. Indeed, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I were at a meeting of the committee—I want to say last week, which it was, although it feels as though it was an eternity ago.
The Government is absolutely willing to engage in all manner of parliamentary dialogue, and we look forward to doing so. These are vital issues, but I come back to where I started. If the Government is faced with compelling evidence to which it has to respond, it has to take difficult decisions. There are no easy ones in all of this. We will engage as much as we possibly can but, ultimately, we have a duty to protect the public and to take the actions that we consider to be necessary to enable us to fulfil that objective.
That concludes our debate on Covid-19.