Election 2021

The Scottish Parliament is in recess ahead of the election on 6 May.

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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 March 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Climate Change Plan, Budget (Scotland) (No 5) Bill: Stage 3, Budget (Scotland) (No 5) Bill, Committee Announcement, Business Motion, Decision Time, Early Education


Contents


Covid-19

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, on Covid-19. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, and I encourage members who wish to ask a question to press their buttons now.

14:15  

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will update Parliament on some changes to the lockdown restrictions that are currently in place across most of Scotland. The changes relate to outdoor meetings and activities. I will also announce a change that I hope will be welcomed by Scotland’s faith communities. Although the changes that I will set out are relatively minor, they are important for our wellbeing. They represent gradual but steady steps out of lockdown and back towards a life in which we can all interact much more freely with our loved ones. Next week, I will set out a firmer indicative timetable for reopening the economy, including shops, hospitality, hairdressers, gyms and parts of our tourism sector.

The ability to announce even limited changes at this stage is possible only because of the hard sacrifices that the majority of people across the country continue to make each and every day. At the outset, let me acknowledge, and be clear that I share, the anger and despair that the vast majority of people—including, I am sure, the majority of football fans—felt at the weekend towards crowds of supporters flagrantly breaching rules that the rest of us are following every day at great personal cost. The behaviour that we witnessed at the weekend was disgraceful and selfish.

It is natural that some of the anger that people feel is directed towards the Government and the police—I absolutely understand that. All of us must reflect on what more could have been done and what more we need to do to avoid any repeat in the future. However, those at fault are those who breached the rules.

How the police manage such situations is, of course, an operational matter—the Government cannot and should not direct policing operations. I will, though, be speaking to the chief constable later this afternoon to consider what further action might be necessary to avoid any repeat of the unacceptable scenes that we saw at the weekend. However, no one should doubt the deeply invidious situation that such behaviour puts the police in as they discharge their responsibility to protect public order and safety.

We will be having further discussions this week with the football authorities and certain football clubs which, in my view, need to show much more leadership. Let me be clear that, in making these comments, I do not care about the colour of the shirts. I said some harsh things about Celtic’s decisions at the start of this year and, as far as I am concerned, in this case, Rangers Football Club could have done more to help avoid the situation arising at the weekend. The fact is that elite sport is being allowed to continue just now so that fans—who are deprived, like all of us, of so much else in life right now—can continue to watch and support their teams. It would be deeply unfair if a minority spoil that for the majority, and I hope that that will not be the case.

Given the fragility of the situation that we face right now, we cannot simply turn a blind eye to what happened at the weekend, and we will not. We will report back in due course—and certainly ahead of the old firm match that is scheduled for 21 March—on the various discussions that are taking place this week.

Finally on this subject, I completely understand why people who were watching what unfolded at the weekend might wonder why they are bothering to do the right thing. The fact is that the vast majority of us are doing the right thing because we know that it really matters—it matters for our own health and the health of our loved ones. It is about saving lives, and it is working. As I will set out shortly, we are firmly on the right path. No matter how legitimately angry we feel, let us not allow the irresponsible behaviour of a minority to set us all back. Let us stick with it as we make our way, slowly but surely, back to normality.

Let me turn to the substance of today’s statement. I will give an overview of the latest statistics and the state of the epidemic, and then I will provide the detail of the initial changes that we are proposing.

First, I will give today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 466, which represents 3.3 per cent of all tests that were carried out and takes the total number of cases to 206,465. There are 614 people in hospital, which is 40 fewer than yesterday, and 50 people are receiving intensive care, which is nine fewer than yesterday.

However, I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 19 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measurement is, therefore, now 7,441. Yet again, I send my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.

A week ago yesterday was the anniversary of the first confirmed Covid case in Scotland. This Saturday will be the anniversary of the first confirmed death in Scotland of someone with Covid. In two weeks’ time—on 23 March—we will reach the first anniversary of lockdown. The Scottish Government has been in contact with a number of organisations to discuss how we can best mark that day. On 22 March, I will meet representatives of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK.

Current plans for 23 March include a national silence. We are also discussing how communities can be supported to develop their own commemorative activities over the coming year, as part of longer-term plans for remembrance. I will set out more detail of all that over the next fortnight. In addition, I know that Parliament will wish to consider how it marks the occasion. I am sure that all of us will want to remember all those who have been lost over the past year and to offer our continued thoughts, solidarity and support to the bereaved.

The figures that I have just reported for new cases, people in hospital and, of course, deaths are still higher than we would want them to be, but they are not as high as they were just a few weeks ago, so it is worth reflecting on the positive trend that we are now seeing. Two weeks ago, we were recording an average of 815 new cases a day across the country. Last week, that number had fallen to 657 new cases a day and, this week, it has fallen further to an average of 490 new cases a day. The average test positivity rate is now just above 3 per cent, admissions to hospitals and intensive care units are also falling, and the number of deaths—although still heartbreakingly high—has almost halved since the third week of January.

We continue to make excellent progress with the vaccination programme. As of 8.30 this morning, 1,789,377 people in Scotland have received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 14,718 since yesterday. The number of vaccines being administered each day has fallen during the past week or so because of a dip in supply, which I have spoken about previously and which we have been expecting and planning for. However, from about the middle of this month onwards, we expect supplies to pick up again and for that to allow for a very significant acceleration in the vaccination programme. It is worth noting that some of the supplies will be of short-dated stock—in other words, they will be of vaccines that must be used very soon after they have been received.

At the moment, the vaccination programme is working through priority groups 6 and 7, which include 60 to 64-year-olds, unpaid carers and people with particular underlying health conditions. For example, unpaid carers who are not registered with the Scottish Social Services Council will be able to self-register for vaccination from next Monday onwards.

However, I can confirm that we are now in a position to start scheduling appointments for people in groups 8 and 9, which include people who are 55 to 59 years old and people who are 50 to 54 years old. I should point out, of course, that many people in those age groups—30 per cent of 50 to 54-year-olds and 36 per cent of 55 to 59-year-olds—have already had the first dose due to their having an underlying health condition. However, by now scheduling appointments for those age groups generally, we can ensure that no vaccine goes to waste and that we meet our target of offering first doses to everyone on the initial Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list—everyone over 50, all unpaid carers and all adults with an underlying health condition—by mid-April.

The good progress that we are making on vaccination is, of course, important context for today’s statement. Almost 40 per cent of the entire adult population has now received a first dose of the vaccine.

There is already strong evidence that the vaccination programme has significantly reduced deaths in care homes, and studies are also showing that vaccination can—as well as reducing illness and death—significantly reduce transmission of the virus.

We therefore do not have absolute confidence yet, but we have increasing confidence that as more and more people acquire some protection through vaccination, we will be able to ease restrictions while still keeping the R number below 1.

In addition to vaccine protection, continued international travel restrictions and the work of test and protect will help us to keep the virus under control as we—I hope—return to much greater normality in our everyday lives.

The prospects are now very encouraging indeed. That said, getting the timing of it all right remains essential. If our easing of restrictions gets ahead of our progress on vaccination, the virus will run out of control again. That is what we must avoid and that is why, notwithstanding all the positive news, caution is still essential, at this stage. Case numbers, although they are much lower than they were at the start of the year, are still high, and although we are confident that the R number is currently below 1, it is probably not very far below 1.

We also know that the more transmissible variant of Covid that was identified before Christmas now accounts for almost 90 per cent of new cases in Scotland. We have no real experience of just how far and fast that variant will spread as we start to emerge from lockdown. Indeed, it is possible that some of the very significant steps we are already taking to get children back to school could push the R number back above 1. If that happens, as we know all too well, case numbers will start to rise again.

Even though older people, who are more likely to die from the virus, now have stronger protection as a result of the vaccine, no vaccine will provide absolute protection for our most vulnerable citizens.

In addition, we know the virus can cause significant long-term harm to people of all ages. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s make up a significant proportion of those who are currently in hospital with Covid, and there are people who have never been in hospital who are still suffering from what is known as long Covid.

In addition, if we allow more people to get the virus, we also increase the risk of new variants emerging. We also need to show continued caution about the risk of new variants entering Scotland. A possible—although still unconfirmed—further case of the P1 Brazil variant has now been identified in Scotland. It involves an individual who travelled to Scotland from Rio de Janeiro via Paris, and arrived on 19 February. The individual followed the procedures for managed self-isolation, and we currently have no reason to believe that that case presents any risk to the wider community. However, we are, of course, continuing to undertake all necessary follow-up work.

The point that I am making is that even though we are heading firmly in the right direction—I strongly believe that we are—we cannot afford to take our foot off the brake too soon. We still need to keep the virus under control if our hopes for a much more normal summer are not to suffer a setback.

If we continue to prioritise children’s education—as I believe we should and must—our scope to make further changes will be limited while we are still rolling out vaccination.

We intend to ease restrictions as soon as we safely can, and we will do so quicker than has previously been anticipated, if that proves to be possible. As I indicated, when I update Parliament next week, I will set out a firmer timeline for our exit from lockdown.

Today, however, I want to set out some changes that we believe can be made more immediately. In considering that, we have deliberately prioritised changes that might improve our general well-being and quality of life without having too big an impact on infection rates, and we have focused in particular on restoring a bit more normality for children.

The first set of changes relates to outdoor social interactions. We realise that meeting up—even outdoors in Scotland—can be hugely beneficial to our wellbeing. Therefore, we intend to relax the law from Friday, so that up to four adults from up to two households will be able to meet outdoors. In addition, we will make it clear in our guidance that that will be allowed for social and recreational purposes as well as for essential exercise.

Meeting will be possible in any outdoor space, including private gardens, but I ask people, please, to stick to the new rules. Gatherings must be a maximum of four people from two households, and people should go indoors only if that is essential in order to reach a back garden or to use the toilet.

For now, please stay as close to home as possible. We hope to be in a position to relax, at least to some extent, travel restrictions within Scotland in the weeks ahead, but our advice is that it would not be safe to do so just yet.

For young people aged 12 to 17, we want to be even more flexible to enable more interaction with friends, so for 12 to 17-year-olds outdoor meetings will also be limited to a maximum of four people, but the two-households limit will not apply. That means that four friends from four different families will be able to get together outdoors, which will, I hope, allow young people to see more of their friends than is currently the case.

We are also proposing some changes to the rules on outdoor exercise and activities. From Friday, outdoor non-contact sports and organised group exercise will be permitted for all adults in groups of up to 15 people. We will also ensure that there is some flexibility around the travel rules for young people, so that children are not prevented from taking part in sport because, for example, they belong to a club that is a bit outside their local authority area.

Those are minor changes—I know that—but they are important. They have been made possible by the hard sacrifices that the majority of people across the country have made. We will seek to build on them as quickly as possible, in the weeks ahead.

The other careful change that we feel able to make at this stage relates to places of worship. I can confirm that we intend, assuming that there is no deterioration in the situation with the virus between now and then, to allow communal worship to restart from Friday 26 March. That is in time for Passover, Easter, Ramadan and Vaisakhi. In addition, the limit on attendance at communal services will be increased from 20, which was the limit that was in place before lockdown, to 50—assuming, of course, that the place of worship is spacious enough to accommodate that many people with 2m physical distancing.

I know that the restrictions on communal worship have been really difficult for many people, despite the exceptional efforts that have been made by faith groups to reach out to their communities. The change is, again, relatively minor, but it is proportionate. We believe that it can be achieved relatively safely and we hope that it will enable more people to draw strength, comfort and inspiration from acts of collective worship.

All of us, I think, can see that things are getting better just now. In recent weeks, we have seen a significant fall in new cases. Deaths and hospital admissions are—thankfully—now falling, and the vaccination programme is progressing not just well, but beyond our initial expectations.

All that is excellent news that provides strong grounds for hope, but that hope must be balanced by caution. Because we have been in lockdown, it is easy to overlook the fact that the virus that we are dealing with now is much more infectious than the one that we were dealing with in the autumn. We will be reminded of that very quickly, if we try to do too much too soon, and because we are prioritising reopening of schools, our scope for lifting other restrictions—certainly, in the next few weeks—is extremely limited.

That is why the changes that I have set out today are modest; however, they are also important. They will, I hope, help people’s health and wellbeing by enabling group exercise and allowing for a bit more social interaction. They will also, I hope, let children see more of their friends, and let them exercise and play a bit more normally. They should also, I hope, provide some comfort for faith groups.

I expect that further more substantial changes will be possible in the weeks ahead. I will set out as much detail about that as I can in next week’s statement. As I have said before, if the data allows us to relax more restrictions more quickly than we have previously indicated, we will not hesitate to do that.

I am well aware of just how difficult continued restrictions are and I know that they get harder, rather than easier, to bear as time goes on. I also know, because I feel this too, that the progress on vaccination makes us even more impatient to reach the end of this ordeal as quickly as possible. However, I am absolutely certain that easing restrictions too quickly would be a mistake that we would regret.

Therefore, I ask people to take advantage of the relaxations that I have set out today but, please, to continue to do so within the rules. We must still stay at home except for specific purposes, which from Friday will include limited outdoor socialising and recreation on the bases that I have set out. We must not meet people from other households indoors yet—that is absolutely essential—and we should all follow the FACTS advice when we are out and about.

By doing that, we can continue to look after each other and protect the national health service, and we will all play our part in keeping case numbers down while the vaccinators continue to do their work, children get back to school and we all take tentative, but, I hope, very firm steps back to life as we once knew it. For the moment, please continue to stick with it: stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you, First Minister. I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement, and I echo her condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives.

I agree with her about the scenes in Glasgow at the weekend. When so many people have done so much over such a prolonged period of time, to see a tiny minority risk those efforts jeopardises the progress that we have made. Let us be clear: Covid is in retreat, and that is down to the perseverance of the public and the success of the vaccine roll-out. Scenes such as those at the weekend risk what has been achieved by the actions of us all.

As we relax restrictions, the Scottish Conservatives have always urged the First Minister to ensure that children’s return to school is an absolute priority. The First Minister has claimed that it is, and last week she brought forward plans to get pupils back into the classroom. She said then that the moves are

“important for ... wellbeing ... as well as for education.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2021; c 13.]

Today, she has referred to them as “very significant steps”. Because of the importance that she gave to the issue last week, parents who have spent months trying to home school and watching their children struggle away from their friends and from face-to-face teaching were expecting a significant change.

It therefore came as a shock to many to discover that, when the letter came in, they were looking at something less than was billed. Xanthe in Edinburgh says that, for her family, it is half a day per week, which she has called “Clearly ridiculous” and a “token gesture”. Elaine in Aberdeen was “devastated” to be told that her son will have only two three-hour sessions this side of the Easter holiday. Alan in Fife says that his daughter will get one day per week but, in return, will now get no other live teaching time online, which he brands “an absolute joke”.

Pupils and parents were promised a return to the classroom but, from the information that they are now being sent, it is clear that, for many, that will amount to only a few hours a week at best. Can the First Minister look those parents in the eye and say that that is the significant progress that she has claimed? Will she look again at the plans in order to increase the actual amount of teaching time that pupils get?

The First Minister

I will always look parents in the eye and try to explain the difficult challenges that we are trying to balance. I understand that few groups in society have found the situation more difficult than parents who have had to juggle childcare with working from home and all the other responsibilities that are part of everyday life. I understand how important the issue is.

Let me be clear: I set out clearly in Parliament last week that, from 15 March, all primary school children will be back to full-time education in schools, which is a significant change, and that we will seek to have some in-school learning for secondary school pupils in the period between now and Easter. It is the intention, assuming that there is no deterioration in the position, that we will have a full return after the Easter holidays.

However, instead of having some young people in secondary schools with no in-school contact at all, we have decided to try to give them that, even if it is fairly minimal, for the period between now and Easter in order to try to reacquaint them with school and their friends and to prioritise their wellbeing. I do not stand here and say that that is perfect, but we need to balance all the issues to get schools back in a way that does not set back the country’s progress overall.

On the point about continuing to look at all of this, the Deputy First Minister continues to consider all the issues on an on-going basis with the partners in the education recovery group to ensure that we are striking the best balance and the right balance overall.

I repeat that the most important objective that we are seeking to fulfil right now is to get all young people back to school full time after the Easter holidays, in the way that we did last August. That is what we are aiming for. With secondary school, we want to prioritise in-school contact between now and Easter for those in the senior phase, to ensure that national qualifications are given the priority that they deserve, and we want all young people in secondary schools to have some contact back in school before the Easter holidays.

Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement and join her in sending our condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.

The decision to allow more social interaction is welcome. Social interaction is important for people’s mental health and wellbeing, which is why we also need to ensure that this is our last lockdown. That will rely on testing, contact tracing and a speedy vaccine programme.

Can the First Minister confirm that every contact of the patient with the so-called Brazilian variant, including every passenger on the flight, has been traced, notified and informed of the need to isolate?

The First Minister mentions the rate of vaccination, which has dropped dramatically. Can she confirm when she expects it to reach, and remain at, the 400,000 doses per week target? We are now at around half that level.

I share with the First Minister the sadness and anger at the scenes that we saw in Glasgow at the weekend, which emphasise the risk that Covid-19 poses to those who continue to work on the front line. Given that and the further phased return of schools next week, does the First Minister agree that, alongside the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, there should be vaccination prioritisation for front-line workers, including teachers, school staff and police officers?

The First Minister

We had three cases of the new variant previously identified, and all appropriate contact tracing in relation to them has been done. I set out some of the detail of that at the end of last week: there were a small number of passengers on the flight concerned who were not able to be traced, but there is no indication of any onward community transmission from those cases.

The case that I have mentioned today is not connected to those three cases, and all appropriate contact tracing is being done. From the manifest data provided for the flight in question, there were 22 passengers on board, plus the cabin crew. Some 11 passengers, including the indexed case, went into managed quarantine, and the remaining passengers were exempt from the need to quarantine. However, depending on the nature of their exemption, they are likely to have been required to self-isolate at home and to take tests on days 2 and 8. All appropriate steps have been taken to follow up appropriately. Negative test results for both days 2 and 8 were recorded for 13 individuals, and the national contact tracing centre is following up the other eight passengers. We will continue to ensure that everything appropriate is being done there.

The most important thing to stress at this stage is that there is no indication of onward community transmission of that variant, and we need to work hard to continue to ensure that.

On vaccination, I have clearly and openly set out the issues around supply. We can only vaccinate as fast as we have supplies to vaccinate with. I flagged up in advance that we were expecting a dip in supply, which indeed materialised, and that is why there has been a dip in the daily vaccination rate over the past period. The figures for other parts of the United Kingdom reflect the same pattern.

We are now expecting those supplies to pick up again from the middle of March, which will allow us to work towards achieving that target of 400,000 vaccinations a week and the overall target of completing the JCVI priority list by mid-April. That comprises priority groups 1 to 9, which, to repeat, is the majority of the adult population: everybody over 50, all unpaid carers and all adults with an underlying health condition.

We will then move into the rest of the population. As we do that, we will follow JCVI advice. Its advice is that, both in terms of clinical risk and in terms of the ability to work through this as quickly as possible, we should continue to prioritise by age cohort. We will follow that advice, as we have always done with JCVI advice. Many teachers and people in other key professional groups will already have been vaccinated as part of the priority groups so far, and they will progressively be done as we work down the age groups.

If we were to depart from that JCVI advice, we would rightly stand accused of making political decisions in place of clinical decisions. I understand the calls that are being made but, in dealing with something so important and sensitive, I do not think that that would be the right thing to do.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

The breach by Rangers fans at the weekend was the biggest gathering that the country has seen for months. The chief medical officer said yesterday that it could result in an increase of the spread of the virus, but the First Minister makes no direct reference to that in her statement today, and she is bringing forward the relaxation of the rules.

Does that mean that the First Minister is now confident that there will not be an increase in cases in Glasgow as a result of what happened at the weekend? Is she confident that there will not be an outbreak in Glasgow?

The First Minister

If I was to stand here and say yes, people would realise that I was not basing that on anything.

I said at the weekend that I was concerned that what happened in Glasgow could set back our progress.

I fervently hope that that will not be the case, but as we know, with this virus, it will be some time before we know that for sure. Our test and protect teams and those doing our contact tracing and taking all the other steps that we take will of course work hard to ensure that any cases that arise from that gathering, or gatherings, at the weekend are properly contained.

We have made the judgment—based on clinical advice, as all these judgments are—that, given the relatively minor nature of the changes that we are setting out today, and given that they are focused on outdoor activity, it would be wrong at this stage to hold them back because of the behaviour of an irresponsible minority. We monitor all that—we are still closely monitoring the impact of getting schools back, which is why we have to get schools back cautiously and in a phased way.

It all comes back to personal responsibility. Desperate though we all are to do much more that we value doing in life, if we all take care to do that within the rules, we can ensure that this journey out of lockdown takes no longer than it has to and that it carries on with a forward trajectory.

Let us make no mistake: having crowds of people risks the spread of the virus. I take no pleasure in saying this, but I say again that people who gather in George Square, or anywhere else, in big crowds are putting at risk not only their own health but that of their loved ones and the wider community.

I say again clearly that that behaviour was not just irresponsible but deeply selfish. When so many people across the country are having to make painful sacrifices—miss funerals of loved ones; not be able to get married; not see grandparents or grandkids for months—we all have to ensure that we act not just out of what we want to do, but out of what the whole country needs us all to do.

I appeal again to everybody: let us stick with this. We are so close to getting into a much better position; let us not mess it up through any of us not sticking to the rules now, for whatever reason or circumstance.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

Like everyone else, my thoughts as we approach a grim anniversary are with those who have lost a loved one and those whose health still suffers.

I welcome the gradual easing of some of the rules on meeting outdoors. We all miss mass gatherings. People miss mass gatherings of all kinds, whether they be music events or gatherings at the cinema. Some people even miss party conferences. I would like nothing better than to go to a beer festival. However, we do not do that. The organisations and businesses that run such events have all had to stop until it is safe to run them.

Why should a football club be any different? Let us be honest: I say seriously that that football club did nothing to prevent dangerous mass gatherings in its name that trashed the public realm, risked the safety of front-line workers and posed a public health threat. Surely it is not enough just to appeal to the good sense of people who have shown that they do not care. Why are we even contemplating letting that business carry on in the weeks ahead, when we know that it is likely to generate a repeat of the scenes that we saw at the weekend?

The First Minister

I was trying to work out whether the beer festival and the Green Party conference were distinct events or one and the same.

Patrick Harvie has made really important points. Everybody is missing something right now. Many of us are missing many different things, such as mass gatherings or just the simple ability to go and see loved ones. It is really hard and heart breaking, and it gets more so with every day that passes.

I understand why any football team winning the league, particularly after a long period of time, is a big occasion. I get that. However, people are asked to forgo all sorts of things right now, and there can be no exceptions if we are to get through the next phase as quickly and as safely as all of us want to.

I have made it very clear, as the Deputy First Minister did yesterday and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice did again today, that Rangers Football Club could have done more to help to avoid what happened happening. Similarly, I thought that Celtic Football Club should have made different decisions about certain things that it did earlier in the year.

I am not partisan. Half of Glasgow thinks that I am partisan in one direction and the other half thinks that I am partisan in the other direction. I am not at all partisan. I do not care about the colour of the shirt; I care about the safety of the citizens of Glasgow and people across Scotland.

I have had a three-page letter from Rangers that does not even reflect the fact that what happened at the weekend was deeply regrettable and that we must all reflect on how we can avoid that happening in the future. At no point, unless I missed it—in which case, it will be pointed out to me and I will stand corrected—did Rangers simply and unequivocally say to their fans, “Stay at home” or, when they were gathering, “Go home.” We must all take responsibility for those things. I take responsibility for reflecting on whether the Government could have done more, and the chief constable will do the same with the police. We all have a responsibility to get the country through this.

On future fixtures, I said in my opening remarks that a variety of discussions will happen over the course of this week, including one between me and the chief constable today. We will report back on those in due course, and certainly before the scheduled old firm match on 21 March.

We have tried to keep football and elite sport generally going, not for the benefit of elite sportspeople but for the fans. Everyone is being deprived of so much, so people should have the ability to watch a football match on the television and cheer on their team. A minority cannot be allowed to act irresponsibly, so I hope that we do not have to spoil that for the majority. However, we will have to assure ourselves that there will be no repeat of the sort of scenes that we saw at the weekend, and, frankly, that is work in progress.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

We all welcome the phased return of pupils to school but, in her statement, the First Minister acknowledged that steps that are being taken to get pupils back might well lead to the R number being pushed above 1. Would that impact on the timetable for a return to full-time education? If so, would any changes be national, or could those be varied according to the R number in a health board or local authority area?

The First Minister

First, as I said, no change that we make as we come out of lockdown will have a neutral effect. As we ease restrictions, every change potentially increases the risk of transmission. We have to behave in a way that minimises that risk. That is why, when we had the first phase of school return, I said openly to parents not to use that as an excuse to interact more with other adults. If we limit the changes to their purpose, we can reduce that risk. Although it is possible that the changes that we are making now will take the R number above 1, it is not inevitable, and we will be working hard to avoid that happening.

If the virus starts to run out of control again, which I hope it will not, we would, of course, have to review the pace of coming out of lockdown. We will do that appropriately, whether that is at national level or local level, depending on the circumstances. It becomes much more difficult to accurately assess the R number on a regional basis for methodological reasons, so we want to focus on making the changes in a way that stops the R number going above 1.

The outdoor changes are the least risky, and we hope that they will not have that impact, if everybody enjoys them but stays within the rules. That is the message: if we all stay within the rules, even as we come out of lockdown, we will increase our chances of doing that safely and sustainably, without suffering setbacks. However, with an infectious virus, there are no guarantees. We must all just stick with it and show the discipline that is required.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

The hospitality sector is one of the hardest-hit sectors in our economy. Will the First Minister listen to the Scottish hospitality and licensed leisure sector’s proposals for reopening, and will she publish the evidence on the impact of restrictions in the sector on coronavirus transmission?

The First Minister

I will listen to the representations of all sectors. The hospitality sector has been the hardest-hit sector, and it makes, has made and will continue to make representations on how it can reopen in a way that is safe but which allows businesses to trade more normally. We will listen to that. However, we have to ensure that any changes that we make do not risk increasing transmission to the point at which it sets us all back, and that is not an easy balance to strike.

I go back to the debates that we had before Christmas and before we went back into lockdown. The evidence can be made to sound really complicated, but it is not. The virus spreads when people come together, which is why it spreads in places where people come together most and are more likely to interact without social distancing, or in places where ventilation is not great. Unfortunately, that includes a lot of hospitality premises. We want to get hospitality open safely as quickly as possible, just as we want the rest of the economy to do that.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

In my constituency, specialist luxury food and drink shops rely on the passing tourist trade not just to thrive but to survive. Such trade all but vanished during lockdown. North Ayrshire Council has denied grants that are vital to the survival of such businesses and has said that Scottish Government guidance deems specialist food and drink retailers to be essential and therefore not required to close. However, other local authorities have taken a completely different view of the guidance. Will the First Minister clarify whether specialist luxury food and drink shops are essential? Can they close and therefore access the vital grants that they need to survive?

The First Minister

All the restrictions are really challenging for businesses. The legislation allows for shops that sell food and drink to be open, but does not specify the types of food and drink, and it may be that some specialist shops are not experiencing the same footfall as they experienced before Covid. The local authority discretionary fund, which the Scottish Government is supporting through £120 million of funding, was set up to help local authorities to respond to local economic pressures in their areas. I encourage businesses in that category to contact their local authority about that.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

Two concerns have been raised with me in recent days. The first is that 60-year-olds in my constituency have not been called forward for vaccination appointments, but 50-year-olds have. That is in the same local authority and health board area.

Secondly, and worryingly, a large number of people have missed their vaccination appointments. In one local centre, 70 people missed them in one day. That seems slightly strange, given the high uptake rate.

Last year, there were issues with the flu vaccination programme and people being notified too late. In some areas, people were notified after the date of the appointment. Will the First Minister investigate the extent to which that is an issue with the vaccination programme, and will she ensure that people are notified in adequate time?

The First Minister

If Jackie Baillie wants to send me examples, I will look into that. I gave an open invitation to people to email me directly about vaccination issues, and I assure her that many people have done so and that that option remains open. However, the most important source of help and advice in such situations is the helpline, which I encourage people to use.

On people aged 50 and over being called before people aged 60 and over, I point out that, if somebody in the 50 to 55-year-old age group is being called right now, that is likely to be because they have an underlying health condition, so they will have the same priority as people in the 60 to 64-year-old age group. Both groups are in progress of being called for vaccination.

Nobody will be missed; everybody will be reached. By mid-April, everybody over the age of 50, which, unfortunately, includes me—I still struggle to come to terms with that—will have been vaccinated, as will every adult with an underlying health condition. That is the vast majority of the adult population. We will then get to the rest of the adult population as quickly as possible.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I have been contacted by residents of Motherwell and Wishaw who have had concerns about the lack of public transport to the Ravenscraig mass vaccination centre. I raised that issue with the health board a couple of weeks ago. What support has been provided by NHS Lanarkshire to facilitate transport and support people who have difficulty in accessing that centre?

The First Minister

I have had a number of emails on that in the past few days, and we have picked up the issue with NHS Lanarkshire. The board is expanding its communications plan over the coming days to ensure that Lanarkshire residents are aware of the rebooking options that are available to them, and it is working with Strathclyde partnership for transport on improving transport connections to Ravenscraig. We recognise that not all vaccination slots will be suitable, which is why it is important that there is an option to reschedule an appointment to a location that is closer to home or for a different time, if that is more convenient.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Further to earlier exchanges on schools, will the First Minister provide clear confirmation that, to facilitate her promise of a meaningful full-time return for all school pupils after Easter, the guidance on social distancing in classrooms will be altered?

The First Minister

In order to get all young people back to school, we have to make sure that the restrictions are proportionate. That includes social distancing. We continue to take advice on those issues from our expert advisory sub-group.

People should remember that we got schools successfully back full time in August and that it was not school return that sent us back into a deteriorating position and lockdown. We know that we can get schools back successfully, and that is what we are focused on doing again.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

It is welcome that the dates for easing some restrictions have been brought forward. I particularly welcome the return of congregational worship in time for religious festivals such as holy week. If the data continues to go in the right direction, could even more dates be brought forward? For instance, could gyms reopen sooner than anticipated in level 4? I know that my constituents would greatly value that. We would all like more things to go back to normal as soon as possible—if it is safe for them to do so, of course.

The First Minister

In general, yes. As the data allows and as our confidence increases that we can ease up without risking greater transmission—the vaccine roll-out has a big part to play in that—we will accelerate exit from lockdown if we can. What we have announced today is an acceleration beyond what we anticipated just a couple of weeks ago.

I do not want to give people false assurances. We will set out next week a firmer indicative timetable for further moves out of lockdown, which will include the reopening of the economy. Gyms, hairdressers, shops and hospitality will be included in that. I recognise the importance of gyms to people’s physical and mental health, and that is reflected in the opening up of outdoor group exercise for adults today.

All those things really matter, and we want to get them done as quickly as possible, but, as I keep saying, we will all regret it if we decide to run before we can walk and end up having to go backwards. Frustrating and difficult though it is, we must keep with the slow, careful and cautious but steady pathway forward. I think that we will find that we get to the end destination a lot more quickly than would otherwise be the case.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

NHS Lothian and the City of Edinburgh Council area, in particular, continue to have among the lowest rates of vaccination in the country, at 33.4 per cent and 30.1 per cent, respectively, in comparison to the 40 per cent figure that the First Minister cited in her statement. It is several weeks since I first raised the issue. What steps is the First Minister taking to identify that continuing lag in Edinburgh and the Lothians? Does she have any insights into the matter? It is of great importance to my constituents and the citizens of Edinburgh.

The First Minister

When I give average figures in the chamber, by definition some health boards will be above those and some will be below. All health boards are progressing with vaccination better and more quickly than we would have dared hope for back at the start of the year. It is really important to give that context.

I will ask NHS Lothian to engage with the member—I am sure that he is already in touch with it—to set out whether it is dealing with any particular issues. However, all health boards are moving forward well and quickly, and all are working to the same targets of having offered the first dose of the vaccine to everybody in the JCVI priority groups by mid-April and then having given first doses to the whole adult population by the end of July. Both of those target dates are earlier than we anticipated at the start of the year—it is really important to keep hold of that context.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

My Cowdenbeath constituents—indeed, people across Scotland—will be keen to better understand what may lie ahead in the months to come. Will the First Minister provide some information at least as to what the new criteria will be for the strategic framework levels approach, and will she advise as to the planned frequency of review of the levels decisions?

The First Minister

I will say more about that next week. I do not want to get ahead of the decisions that we will take that will inform the statement that I make next week. When I made a statement two or three weeks ago, I set out the intention to realign some of the indicators that we were using previously to inform decision making, so as to be more in line with the current World Health Organization guidance. That will ensure that, as we open up, we have confidence that we are continuing to suppress the virus.

We will review all this on an on-going basis—probably three weekly rather than weekly—and, although we will have the ability to apply different levels of restriction to different areas of the country, should that be appropriate, so that we are not forced into a one-size-fits-all approach, it is my hope that we can start to move down levels of restriction as a country and that we can make progress overall.

That is why it is really important that we continue to stick to the guidance and the rules right now, so that that progress enables the whole country, all being well, to start to come out of lockdown together.

As we look further ahead, if we have outbreaks and localised flare-ups that we need to control, the levels system allows us to do that in a much more targeted way than a one-size-fits-all approach for the whole country could do.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

This is a critical time for hospices. Charity shops are shut and fundraising events have been cancelled. However, only £10 million of the £24 million that the UK Government has made available has been passed on to hospices, despite promises that all funding would be passed on. When will the full funding allocation be passed on to hospices?

The First Minister

All the funding that has been made available for hospices will be passed on to hospices. The balance of that will be confirmed soon. The reason for the delay is that we have found it challenging to obtain clarity as to the final consequential figure for hospices. The Department of Health and Social Care shared with officials only at the end of February information that indicated that it is now estimated that £24 million has been provided for hospices, but we have still not had final confirmation of that from the UK Treasury.

Let me be very clear to the hospice sector: every single penny of consequential funding that comes because of hospice funding decisions elsewhere will be passed on to hospices in Scotland.

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

I recently met the Scottish Wedding Industry Alliance. The wedding industry is particularly important in Dumfries and Galloway. Although the sector is grateful for the support that it has received from the Scottish Government, it is asking for guidance on whether it can safely operate this summer. Many providers already have bookings, but guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority means that the cost of cancellation falls on the venue. The alliance also points out that weddings with 20 people or fewer are not viable. Can the Government offer guidance? If it is not safe to reopen, is more support likely to be available?

The First Minister

I hope that it will be safe to reopen. As with anything else, we have a difficult balance to strike between economic viability and public safety, and public safety obviously has to take priority. We want marriage ceremonies and wedding receptions with more guests to happen as soon as possible, and we will facilitate that in line with the public health advice that is available to us. In the meantime, we will continue to work closely with the Scottish Wedding Industry Alliance on when restrictions on ceremonies and receptions can be relaxed.

We introduced a £25 million fund for the weddings sector. The fund, which closed at the end of February, provided grants of up to £25,000 to businesses and self-employed people who operate in the sector. We will set out more detail on future business support later this month.

Our focus now is—as far and as quickly as we possibly can—to get businesses trading again, but that requires all of us to continue to play our part in suppressing the virus.

Liam McArthur (Orkney Islands) (LD)

I have been contacted by a constituent whose parents are in a care home in Orkney. She and her brother have had weekly indoor visits and have been told that outdoor visits for up to six people from two households will start this month. When she asked whether her daughter and granddaughter can visit, she was told that they cannot, as they are from a third household. She said:

“My parents feel imprisoned ... All they want is to see their grandchildren before passing away and they are losing the will to live because of these rules.”

In a community with such low prevalence of Covid, why can visits such as my constituent requests not be permitted? When does the First Minister expect further relaxation of the rules so that care home residents in Orkney, who are desperate to see their families, can have that contact?

The First Minister

Nobody—absolutely nobody—wants to keep families apart for any longer than is necessary, and we certainly do not want to do that for no reason. If Liam McArthur wants to send me details of his constituents, I am happy to ask the local health board to respond directly on the particular circumstances that he mentions. I understand absolutely the stress, anxiety and distress that is caused in these situations.

The one point that I would make—it is a general point—is that it has always been the case under the very difficult restrictions that apply to care home visiting that end-of-life visiting has been allowed, as has certain other kinds of visiting in exceptional circumstances, which can include distress on the part of residents. Therefore, there may already be a conversation that should be had with the local health board and, indeed, the care home provider about whether that can be facilitated.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Last week, the Western Isles reached a significant milestone, with more than half the adult population having had their first vaccination. NHS Western Isles staff and all who have helped them have done a fantastic job. However, we are in the midst of two significant outbreaks locally. All bus services were suspended on Lewis and Harris on Saturday and there was some disruption to the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry due to a positive test.

What steps are being taken to ensure the safety of key transport workers in similar situations in the country?

The First Minister

There are and should continue to be a range of mitigations in place on public transport, and it is important that those are robustly applied and monitored.

On vaccination, once we have offered vaccination to priority groups 1 to 9, we will continue to follow JCVI advice by inviting adults under 50 to come forward in age cohorts. That approach is supported by evidence that the risk of hospitalisation and admission to critical care with Covid increases with age, so those at the highest risk of hospitalisation outside cohorts 1 to 9 will be those in the 40 to 49-year-old age groups.

The other point that it is important to make is that that is also the approach to vaccination that will enable us to vaccinate everybody most quickly. Logistically, it would take longer to do that if we were to take an approach that involved identifying people in different professions and occupations, as opposed to identifying people on the basis of age. We will get through the whole adult population most quickly if we do it methodically by age cohort, and that will also deliver the biggest impact on illness, hospitalisations and death.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

I have had concerns raised with me that vaccination teams in Dumfries and Galloway have been asked to slow down in order to let other areas of Scotland catch up. Can the First Minister confirm whether the Scottish Government approved that request, and can she explain why vaccination rates could vary so significantly as to require that?

The First Minister

I am certainly not aware of that and I would be astonished if that were the case. I know that there are political divisions between different parties, but what possible interest do I or does anybody else in the Scottish Government have in slowing down vaccination in any part of the country? That really does not make any sense.

There will have been a slowing of the rate in the past couple of weeks. If Oliver Mundell has been listening, he will know that that has been because supplies have dipped. That slowdown has happened across the country—in fact, it has happened across the whole of the UK. As supply increases again, from the middle of this month onwards, the daily rate of vaccination will increase as well.

As I said a moment ago to, I think, Daniel Johnson, there will be variations, and they will sometimes be geographical. Of course, there are parts of the country that were hit by severe weather a few weeks ago. There will be reasons why some parts of the country are slightly above average and others are slightly below average. However, all parts of the country are ahead of where we would have hoped in our wildest dreams to be at this stage. The vaccination programme is going really well in all parts of the country, and we should be thankful to vaccinators across the length and breadth of Scotland for that.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I welcome the Cabinet Secretary for Finance’s recent announcement that hospitality businesses will pay no rates for 12 months, while the UK Government committed only to three months. Can the First Minister confirm that the SNP Government will honour that commitment to those hospitality and tourism businesses, so that they will pay no rates for 12 months?

The First Minister

Yes, I can confirm that—assuming, of course, that the Parliament votes for the budget later this afternoon. The budget will ensure that retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation businesses in Scotland will pay no rates during 2021-22. That will save ratepayers an estimated £719 million, and it responds to the key request that was made by the business community.

In addition, we have the lowest poundage in the UK, including an unprecedented reduction in the poundage mid-revaluation, which returns it to pre-Covid levels and will save Scottish businesses more than £120 million in comparison with our previously published plans.

Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

Further to the question that was asked by Joan McAlpine, MSPs heard on Friday that, in a survey, 20 per cent of wedding venue owners said that they have had suicidal thoughts at the situation that they face. The industry outlined that it has real concerns about the thousands of cancellations that there have been in the past few weeks but that the industry could bounce back quickly if it gets the right help.

In relation to the First Minister’s discussions with the industry about a recovery plan, could that focus specifically on saving those venues from going bust? If we do not do that, the many couples who have cancelled their weddings will not be able to re-book. That would be an important step for the industry.

The First Minister

That will be a focus of on-going support in different sectors for as long as it is needed and I will make sure that the point is fed into discussions that are on-going with the wedding sector.

However, the most important thing that we are trying to do is get businesses back trading, which includes weddings and wedding receptions. It may be that there are still some limitations on numbers for a period, but we want to try to get back to normality there as quickly as possible, just as we do everywhere else, for the benefit of the wedding sector but also for all those people across the country who want to get married and have not been able to do so because of Covid.

John Scott (Ayr) (Con)

Long Covid appears to be an emerging and growing problem. Can the First Minister tell us how many cases there are in Scotland, what measures the Scottish Government has put in place to deal with long Covid in hospitals and in the community, and whether additional financial resources will be made available to health boards and local authorities, if required, to support those unfortunate enough to have contracted long Covid?

The First Minister

I can check whether we have an estimated number for that, but I cannot definitively answer right now how many people have long Covid. That is partly because we do not yet fully understand what it is, how it manifests and how long long Covid turns out to be.

As well as supporting health boards to make sure that services are available for people who present with symptoms that appear to be indicative of long Covid, the key thing that the Scottish Government is doing is investing in a lot of research work to better understand what long Covid is, how it affects patients and what kind of specialisms might be required in the longer term to deal with it. That is an extensive programme of work that I expect we will be committed to for some time to come.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

West Lothian is consistently behind in vaccination rates and has been from the beginning of the programme. What additional resources are being put in to try to increase the levels of vaccination in the area?

The First Minister

All health boards have access to the same resources to get on with vaccination. I repeat the answer that I have given before: I am not aware of particular issues in West Lothian. I will happily ask the health secretary to look into that, but all health boards are progressing well with vaccination, and the progress of the vaccination programme is beyond what we anticipated earlier this year. There is a lot of focus from Government, health boards, local authorities and vaccination teams across the country to make sure that that progress continues.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes that item of business. There will be a short pause before we move on.