Election 2021

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 February 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Urgent Question, Malicious Prosecutions, Green Recovery Inquiry, Decision Time


Topical Question Time

Learning Disability (Covid-19)

1. Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to figures published by the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory, which state that people with a learning disability are three times more likely to die of Covid-19 and twice as likely to experience serious disease. (S5T-02654)

The Minister for Mental Health (Clare Haughey)

The Scottish Government thanks the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory for completing that report and research, which helps our understanding of the impact of coronavirus on people with a learning or intellectual disability.

The study evidences that there were 36 deaths of people with learning disabilities during the first wave, and the SLDO’s position has been to be cautious in interpreting the data, due to the very low numbers involved. However, I want to stress that I absolutely recognise that those figures represent unique and irreplaceable individuals whose loss is mourned by many, and I offer my sincere condolences to all who have lost a loved one.

We understand and recognise the anxiety among the community and the call from SLDO and other charities for all people with learning disabilities to be offered vaccination. We continue to work closely with SLDO to consider the implications of that research and any necessary action, as well as further research.

The Scottish Government will remain guided by the recommendations of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is advising on a four-nations basis. Our Scottish data supports the conclusions that have already been made available to the JCVI from similar research that was carried out in England and Wales relating to people with learning and intellectual disabilities. However, the JCVI will continue to analyse emerging data, and we will ensure that the SLDO’s data is made available to the committee through our chief medical officer.

In the meantime, Scotland’s Covid-19 vaccination programme continues to gather pace, led by the JCVI’s guidance on vaccination prioritisation. People with Down’s syndrome are currently being invited for vaccination during group 4, and people with severe and profound learning and intellectual disabilities and their carers will be offered vaccination during group 6. Our “Roll up your sleeves” campaign encourages everyone who is offered vaccination to get it, as it is the best way to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus—and to protect the national health service.

In community settings for people with learning disabilities, routine testing is available for all care home staff in Scotland, and we are now using a mixture of testing to allow us to regularly test care home visitors, care-at-home staff and all patient-facing healthcare workers. As of January 18, we have expanded testing to all care-at-home and day services and to all permanent and visiting staff and personal assistants who attend people’s own homes and the homes of people who live in residential settings or sheltered housing complexes. Staff who work in adult day centres are also now being regularly tested.

Joan McAlpine

Last year, Public Health England found that people with learning disabilities have a mortality rate that is six times higher than that of the general population, so there is already a body of evidence that that group is vulnerable. As the minister said, people with severe and profound learning difficulties are currently in priority group 6 for vaccination, but people with mild and moderate learning disabilities have no prioritisation, even though the higher mortality rate affects them, too.

The Scottish Commission for Learning Disability has issued a statement saying that the easiest way to protect the group is to ensure that all are prioritised for the vaccine. Will the Government act on the commission’s recommendation? More broadly, given the growing amount of research, including the latest research on mortality figures, should people in that group be higher up on the JCVI’s priority list for vaccination, especially as they already feature in the green book’s table of clinically vulnerable people?

Clare Haughey

The Scottish Government will remain guided by the recommendations of the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is advising on a four-nations basis. It is for clinicians and experts in the JCVI to analyse emerging data and make recommendations. However, we will ensure that the SLDO’s data is made available to the committee through our chief medical officer.

Some people with mild and moderate learning disabilities will be eligible for priority vaccination if they have co-occurring underlying health conditions or are over the age of 50, and we are continuing to work with NHS Scotland to ensure that everyone who is eligible for a priority vaccination is invited to receive one.

Joan McAlpine

The statement from the Scottish Commission on Learning Disability points out that general practitioner records might not accurately identify people with a learning disability. For example, those records do not tell us whether someone has severe or profound learning disabilities, so they might not get the prioritisation that they need.

The commission says that people need clear guidance on what to do if they do not receive a vaccination when they should or if their learning disability is not identified in GP records. The commission’s statement also says that reasonable adjustments must be made so that people with a learning disability can receive the vaccine in a community setting if need be. Will the Government act on all those recommendations from the SCLD?

Clare Haughey

We continue to work with health boards to ensure that everyone who is eligible for a priority vaccination is invited to receive one. Local health boards will contact individuals to arrange a vaccination appointment when they are eligible for one. However, if anyone is concerned that they have not received an invitation and thinks that they should have done, I encourage them to contact the national helpline on 0800 030 8013. We continue to review our vaccine delivery strategy on a rolling basis to ensure equitable access for all those who are eligible for a priority vaccination.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

We know that feelings of loneliness and isolation are increasing—especially among people with learning disabilities—as lockdown restrictions continue. The Red Cross report entitled “The Longest Year” states that nearly one in three Scots say that they are not confident about where to go to access mental health support and that almost half say that it is difficult to talk about their problems. What action will the Scottish Government take to ensure that people can access the practical and emotional support that they need?

Clare Haughey

We all acknowledge what Rachael Hamilton has said. People have been feeling more isolated and lonely because of the necessary lockdown restrictions. The Scottish Government provided £445,000 of additional support to national autism and learning disability charities to help them to deliver their critical front-line services, which support people who are struggling as a result of Covid-19. The support included specific funding to Down’s Syndrome Scotland for advice on shielding, wellbeing and mental health. There was also funding for Enable Scotland to deliver a programme to tackle social isolation and digital wellbeing and to provide counselling support, which is delivered through PAMIS.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have worked in close partnership with the Scottish Commission for People with Learning Disabilities and People First to create easy-read versions of coronavirus guidance and information, which is available on the NHS Inform website and at www.gov.scot.