Meeting date: Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 10 February 2021
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (Malicious Prosecutions), Covid-19 (Local Newspapers), Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Point of Order, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (Malicious Prosecutions)
- Covid-19 (Local Newspapers)
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
The first item of business is First Minister’s question time. Before we turn to questions, I invite the First Minister to update Parliament on the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I will give a quick update on today’s statistics. Yesterday, 803 new cases were reported, which was 4.8 per cent of all the tests that were carried out. The total number of cases now stands at 188,345. Currently, 1,542 people are in hospital, which is 76 fewer than yesterday, and just 22 above the peak last spring. That is positive.
Currently, 113 people who tested positive for Covid, or were admitted to hospital with Covid within the past 28 days, are in intensive care, which is one more than yesterday. I deliberately give that definition, because it is the standard measure that we have been using for our daily intensive care figures. However, the definition does not cover some patients—30, as of today—who have been in intensive care with Covid for more than 28 days. The number of Covid patients who experience long stays in intensive care units is now increasing. Therefore, from today, we will publish data on that additional measure.
I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 50 deaths were registered of patients who first tested positive in the past 28 days. The total number of people who have died, under the daily measurement that we use, is now 6,551. National Records of Scotland has just published its weekly update, which includes cases in which Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death. Today’s update shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths that have been linked to Covid under that wider definition was 8,726. Of those deaths, 374 were registered last week, which is 70 fewer than in the previous week. Once again, I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
I will quickly update Parliament on the latest vaccination figures. As of 8.30 this morning, 985,569 people have received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 57,447 since yesterday and the second-highest daily total so far. Given the severe weather conditions yesterday, that is—in my view—nothing short of extraordinary. My thanks go to everyone who made it happen—to those who are running the programme across the country and, of course, to those who braved the elements to get the jag.
We have now vaccinated with the first dose 99.8 per cent of residents in older people’s care homes, at least 96 per cent of people over 80 who live in the community, 80 per cent of 75 to 79-year-olds, and 45 per cent of people aged 70 to 74. We remain on course to vaccinate everyone over 70 and all people with a serious clinical vulnerability by mid-February, and we are now accelerating vaccination of 65 to 69-year-olds.
Vaccination will, in time, offer us a route back to greater normality, but we know that it must be accompanied by other measures. That is why, this week, we have confirmed further steps to increase testing, and it is why we are adopting strict travel restrictions. Yesterday, Michael Matheson announced that, from Monday, all travellers to Scotland from outside the common travel area will be required to undergo managed quarantine.
For the moment—alongside vaccination, testing and travel restrictions—lockdown continues to be the most important way of keeping the virus under control. The restrictions are tough for us all, but they are working. I repeat the most important rule of all: please stay at home except for essential purposes. When people are out, remember the FACTS advice. Staying at home whenever possible remains essential to getting and keeping the virus under control, as we vaccinate more and more people, so please stick with it. Stay at home, protect the national health service and save lives.
Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints (Evidence)
The Scottish National Party’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, might have committed perjury by changing his story under oath to an inquiry of a committee of this Parliament. However, he has been clear about one thing: Nicola Sturgeon did not discuss the Alex Salmond meetings with him as her party chief executive. That is about the only thing that he has given a straight answer on. He was certain that the meetings were on Government business. Did Peter Murrell tell the truth under oath?
Yes, Peter Murrell did tell the truth. Of course, he is perfectly capable of standing up for himself and does not need me to do that.
I will, assuming that the committee does not postpone my appearance again, get my opportunity to set out to it my account next Tuesday. I relish that opportunity.
It is perhaps clear to everyone why the Opposition parties are so keen to drag Peter Murrell into a process that he had no part in, and to damage him. Perhaps they know how integral he has been during the past 15 years to the electoral success of the SNP and, conversely, to the electoral defeats of those parties. Their motive is very transparent, indeed.
The First Minister said that Peter Murrell told the truth, but the SNP chief executive’s evidence conflicts with the First Minister’s, and only one of them can be right.
There is a pattern here: a ruling party of government acting as though it is beyond reproach, a chief executive changing his story, a suddenly forgetful First Minister, votes in Parliament ignored and promises of co-operation broken. Officials who have been coached at taxpayers’ expense have been forced to change their evidence, and lawyers have shut down key witnesses and statements.
The Parliament—the country—should not have to put up with that. Therefore, today I am sharing evidence that the committee will not publish. This evidence has been shut down even though it is already in the public domain. The First Minister does not need to wait for her committee appearance to answer these questions, because the committee will not publish the evidence anyway.
Alex Salmond says that the First Minister set up a meeting on 14 July 2018, in her home, and that after that she called him on 18 July to discuss the ongoing situation. Did the permanent secretary know about those meetings before they happened?
I have already set out an account of the dates on which I spoke to Alex Salmond, in person and on the telephone, in my written evidence. I told the permanent secretary that those meetings had happened, and I told the committee in written evidence when all that happened. I will go into all of it in detail, under oath, before the committee next week. That is the right and proper way to do this.
I want to sit in front of the committee. I have been having accusations levelled at me for two years now, but have not been able to answer them fully because, first, of the ongoing criminal proceedings, then laterally out of respect for the process of the committee.
I am not refusing to sit in front of the committee; I am relishing the prospect of doing it, because then people will be able to hear my account and make up their own minds. In the meantime, I will get on with doing the job that people across the country want me to do, which is to lead it through a pandemic.
If we pick our way through that answer, it sounds like the First Minister only informed the permanent secretary after the meeting and the phone call. Let us get the story straight. In everyone else’s mind—including Peter Murrell’s—this was always a Government matter. However, according to the First Minister’s story, it only became a Government matter on 6 June, when she wrote to the permanent secretary to say that she knew about the investigation. Therefore, this became, to the First Minister’s mind, a Government matter on 6 June. It being a Government matter, she then—a month later—set up a meeting with Alex Salmond, in her house, on 14 July. Then, she called him four days later. All that was on a Government matter, without any official being present or record being taken, and it was all against the ministerial code.
I ask the First Minister why, if she knew that it was Government business on 6 June, she set up the July meetings and phone calls without an official being present or a record being taken?
A moment ago, Ruth Davidson said that she was going to reveal evidence that nobody would otherwise hear. As far as I recall—people can check my written evidence—everything that she has just said is set out in the written evidence that I have already given to the committee. It is published, and it has been for months.
I have been patiently waiting to give oral evidence to the committee, but my date on which to do that has been postponed—I understand the reasons why—certainly two and perhaps three times. I certainly hope to be sitting in front of the committee, answering all these questions, under oath next Tuesday morning. People can listen to that and make up their own minds.
I believe that it is important to subject myself to scrutiny and to make sure that the Government is subjected to scrutiny, but it is also important to have the opportunity to tackle head-on some of the ridiculous conspiracy theories that people such as Ruth Davidson have, in my view, been all too quick to indulge. I call on anybody who has anything that would help with the process of the committee to sit before the committee and do what I am going to do, which is to put an account on the record, under oath. I am not the one who is refusing to do that.
I undertook all my meetings, as I have said before, in my capacity as party leader. I will set that out again orally. I informed the permanent secretary in June when I thought that the Government was going to be subjected to a legal challenge. I have made all that clear.
All along, I was determined that I was doing nothing to intervene in or to compromise the confidentiality, independence and integrity of a process that was kicked off because women—whose voices have, to be frank, too often been lost in this process—came forward with complaints. I thought that it was important that those complaints were properly investigated and not swept under the carpet just because of the seniority and party affiliation of the person whom they were about.
I will set out my account openly and fully. I relish having—at long last—the opportunity to do that.
The women were failed—they were failed by system that was set up by the First Minister’s Government. While they were being failed, the First Minister knew exactly what she was meeting Alex Salmond about. She chose not to tell her officials in advance and she chose not to keep a record. She kept on speaking to Alex Salmond all throughout the process—the process that failed all those women. Then she came into this chamber and told Parliament things that have been utterly contradicted by her own evidence and testimony.
We have women who have been failed, taxpayers’ money and a cover-up at the heart of Government. The whole affair stinks to high heaven. Someone should take responsibility for those failings. Should not it be the First Minister?
Scrutiny of the Government and of my role as First Minister is right and proper, which is why I am freely subjecting myself to that scrutiny next Tuesday. I have waited a long time to get the opportunity to do that, and I now relish the opportunity.
What is very clear—it has certainly been clear from Ruth Davidson and, I think, from some members of the committee—is that it does not matter to some people what I say next Tuesday. It does not matter what any of us say to the committee, because those people have prejudged the issues. They have decided in advance what are the rights and wrongs of the situation.
The roots of this whole issue are in complaints that came forward not about my behaviour, but about somebody else’s behaviour. It was right that those complaints were properly investigated. We know, because this is why the judicial review action collapsed as it did, that the Government made a mistake in its application of procedure. I deeply regret that, because I think that it let women down. However, in my view, a process that indulges conspiracy theories without insisting that people come before the committee to substantiate those theories also lets down the women.
The scrutiny of me and my Government is right and proper, and I do not shy away from it. On the contrary—I have been waiting a long time to sit before the committee and face up to it.
Of course, another on-going process is looking into whether—or not, as I would say—I breached the ministerial code. It is important to allow that to take its course, as well.
I say again that it feels to me as though certain people in the chamber have already prejudged all that and are not interested in what I have, or anybody else has, to say about it.
Ministerial Code (Potential Breach)
As a member of the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, I will not prejudge the outcome before the First Minister gives evidence next week, and she knows that I am not a great believer in conspiracy theories. However, it appears that the Government procedures were deeply flawed and that two women were let down by the process. I think that we would all agree that we must ensure that that never happens again.
The First Minister knows this, because she has just referenced it, but she is subject to a referral for a potential breach of the ministerial code, which is being investigated by James Hamilton QC. The ministerial code exists to protect the public interest, to ensure that there is trust between politicians and the public and to allow the public to hold the Government to account. It is therefore critically important. If the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?
That is the Jackie Baillie who is not prejudging the outcome of the process. Women who have been involved in the committee process have—I know, because it has been published—written to the committee, saying that they think the committee process is now letting them down; it is important not to lose sight of that.
I still hope that the committee will use the powers that are available to it to ensure that everybody relevant gives evidence, but that is a matter for the committee and for Jackie Baillie. When the committee has concluded its work, when James Hamilton QC has concluded his inquiry—again, I am co-operating fully with that inquiry, as I am obliged to do—and when the outcomes of those are published, people can ask me that question and I will set out what I intend to do. However, I do not believe that I breached the ministerial code. That is my position right now, and I am entitled to due process just like everybody else.
I say to the First Minister that I am not prejudging the outcome of the inquiry in relation to the ministerial code; I asked her what action she would take if she had breached it, not about the committee. The First Minister cannot simply ignore the ministerial code—that would have deeply damaging consequences for the Parliament, the Government and our democracy.
On 29 March 2018, the First Minister attended a meeting here, in the Parliament, with Geoff Aberdein, who is the former chief of staff to Alex Salmond. The First Minister claimed to have forgotten about that meeting and told the Parliament that it was “fleeting” and “opportunistic”, but the meeting was pre-arranged for the specific purpose of discussing the complaints that were made against Alex Salmond. I remind the First Minister of paragraph 1.3(c) of the ministerial code, which states:
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead the Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.
I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?
I do not believe that I did breach the ministerial code, so I will not engage with that hypothetical question. When James Hamilton QC issues his report, we can have an open discussion on the basis of whatever findings he arrives at, just as we will, no doubt, have an open discussion when the committee arrives at whatever findings it arrives at.
Jackie Baillie is really stretching it here in saying that she is not prejudging things and then asking me a string of questions that are designed exactly to prejudge the outcome of this. She will get the opportunity to raise all those issues and ask whatever questions she chooses—not only on selected bits, but on the whole course of things—in proper full session on Tuesday. I look forward to having that opportunity, when we will do that properly. That is the best way to ensure full scrutiny of me and my Government and to respect the rights and interests of the women whose complaints started the whole process, and it is the best way to allow me due process, which I am entitled to.
I look forward to having that opportunity, and I say again that, if the committee is really interested in having proper full transparency, it will ensure that everybody who has relevant information to offer comes before it and does so fully, openly, on the record and on oath, just as I will do on Tuesday.
Every time I ask a question about the ministerial code investigation, the First Minister replies with rhetoric about the committee. I look forward to questioning her on Tuesday at the committee, but my questions are specific to the ministerial code investigation that is being conducted by James Hamilton QC. It is not only a question of whether Parliament has been misled that the First Minister should be investigated in relation to. Paragraph 2.30 of the ministerial code states:
“Ministers and officials should therefore ensure that their decisions are informed by appropriate analysis of the legal considerations and that the legal implications of any course of action are considered at the earliest opportunity.”
We know that, in the judicial review, there was a significant delay between counsel’s opinion and the conceding of the case, and that it took the threat of senior counsel resigning before the Government collapsed the judicial review, which cost the taxpayer well over £600,000. I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?
Jackie Baillie stands there and says, in one breath, that she is not prejudging the outcome of things but says, in the next breath, “We know things.” That is before the committee has even heard a single word in oral session from me.
I think that Jackie Baillie should decide whether she is really open-minded, objective and impartial on the matter or whether she has prejudged the issue. I suspect that, for Jackie Baillie and for some Conservatives, it does not matter what I say next Tuesday: the press releases will already be written, just as I suspect they were before my husband appeared before the committee for the second time, earlier this week.
I am well aware of the terms of the ministerial code—I am probably more aware of them than Jackie Baillie is—and I do not consider that I breached the ministerial code. I will make that case very robustly. Let us wait to see what the findings are of James Hamilton’s inquiry when they are arrived at and published—remember, I referred myself to James Hamilton for the inquiry—and then we can have all these discussions, but let us not prejudge the outcome.
I know why the Opposition parties are desperate to get rid of me—I am under no illusions about that—but, just like everybody else, I am entitled to due process and I do not need lectures on democracy from Jackie Baillie.
Care Home Visits
Care home residents have been separated from their families for months, just when they needed each other most. I have had detailed and helpful discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the chief nursing officer on how to allow safe visiting. Now that almost all care home residents have been vaccinated, will their families be allowed in soon? Will it be possible to allow safe visiting by, say, the middle of February, when immunity takes hold?
I very much hope that we can reach that position soon but, just as I have done in the past, I have tried to refrain from giving simplistic or easy answers, even if I know that those are the answers that everybody wants to hear.
New guidance on visiting care homes is being worked on. I do not think that we have got a precise date yet, but it will be published imminently. It is looking, in light of the current rates and levels of the virus, and also, of course, in light of the extremely high uptake of vaccination in care homes, at what is possible in terms of giving designated visitors much greater normality in their interactions with care home residents.
Of all the really difficult things that people are having to live with as a result of the pandemic, I know that this is one of the most difficult. That is the case for people who are separated from older relatives generally and cannot have normal interaction, but it is particularly difficult and cruel for people whose older relatives are residents in care homes. We want to get to a much better position as quickly as possible, but we must do that carefully and in a way that prioritises the safety of those residents and everybody who works in a care home environment.
I remember—I will never forget for as long as I live—the toll of deaths in our care homes last year. People in our care homes are still dying from Covid, although at lower numbers than they were last year. I do not want us ever to go back to that position, which is why these decisions have to be taken so carefully.
I am pleased that the First Minister indicates that it might happen soon; I am also pleased that there will be new guidance. However, when we consider that many care home residents do not have much time left, every single day counts.
Anne has early onset dementia. Her daughter said:
“I find it absolutely awful thinking what is going through her head just now—that those faces she used to know, visiting her all the time, are no longer there.”
Families are giving evidence to Parliament today. Families are crying out for urgent change. We have heard their stories, and they want safe access to care homes. Clinicians say that the separation is worsening dementia as visits from family are the only tether to reality that some people have left. Residents in care homes should be living, not just existing. I will press the First Minister just a little bit more. Can she give families hope? Can she give them a date by when safe care home visiting will begin?
I will not give a date today, before we are in a position to do so. That would be wrong, because it would run the risk of giving families false hope, which I do not want to do. When we get to that position, which I hope will be sooner rather than later, I want it to be on the basis of well-considered advice and guidance that has been properly informed by clinical evidence and input, so that, when we give a date, we can have confidence in it.
I will make two further points, although I do not expect that either will make a single person who is in such a scenario feel any better. I do not, for a second, underestimate how deeply traumatic the situation is. First, I know—or, at least, can imagine—how deeply traumatic it is. I make no criticism of Willie Rennie for reading out such testimony, but I say to him that I know that and I feel it. My heart breaks for people who are in that position. Secondly, what possible interest would I or the health secretary have in delaying, for a minute longer than necessary, a return to normality? We all want to get back to normality as quickly as possible in general, but particularly so on things that matter so deeply.
We will take those steps as quickly as possible, but it is also incumbent on me and the health secretary to do so as safely as possible so that, later this year, we will not be having discussions in the chamber about why we again have people dying in our care homes from Covid. These are difficult decisions, but that difficulty is as nothing compared with that of the reality with which relatives are living. I urge people to try to understand why such a change has to be done as carefully as we are trying to do it.
Covid-19 (Protections for Tenants)
As the First Minister knows, throughout the pandemic the Scottish Greens have made the case for greater protections for people who rent their homes. It was pressure from the Greens that led to the introduction and extension of the winter evictions ban and the introduction of the tenant hardship loan fund. It was a Green amendment to emergency legislation that gave students the right to terminate their tenancies.
However, there is more to do. What is missing is serious action to tackle out-of-control rent rises. Does the First Minister accept that the idea of rent pressure zones has failed, given that there is not a single such zone operating anywhere in Scotland? What more does she plan to do to tackle rising rents and to prevent people in the private rented sector from building up unmanageable debt?
I would not necessarily accept that the legislation that was put in place, including that on rent pressure zones, has been as Patrick Harvie has characterised it. The onus is on local authorities, which have been given the flexibility to do so, to take action where they consider it necessary and appropriate.
However, I accept that there is more that we can do on that front. Patrick Harvie has run through the various steps that the Government has taken. I am happy to give him and the Greens due credit for their part, but I am sure that he would also give the Government credit—I hope that he would—for being very responsive to where action in the face of the pandemic has been necessary. I do not close my mind, nor does the Government close its mind, to doing more on how we might better regulate the private rented sector—not just in the short term, during the pandemic, but looking to the longer term.
By necessity, any further legislation would require to be introduced in the new session of Parliament, after the election. My party will put forward proposals for that in the course of the election campaign, as I am sure that Patrick Harvie’s party and others will also do. It might be that we could find parliamentary consensus on what needs to be done. I am open minded and will continue to listen to proposals for both the short term and the longer term.
I give the Government credit when it listens and acts, but that has not happened on the issue of rent controls. High rent is just one of the factors that are keeping many households in poverty. As we look forward to recovery from the pandemic, there are stark warnings about the future increases in poverty that our country might see. The Scottish Government has eye-catching targets on child poverty, but even before the pandemic we were on track to miss them. Almost one in four children in this country lives in poverty. If we do not act, the number will rise dramatically. Citizens Advice Scotland has warned about rising debt. Home schooling has increased household costs for many people, incomes are under threat and the United Kingdom Government’s social security system is still unworthy of that name.
Surely the Scottish Government needs to show more ambition both in its budget for next year and in the longer term to support the household incomes of those who are most in need, whether that means expanding free transport and school meals, investing to cut energy bills, reconsidering its position on public sector pay or providing an uplift on the Scottish child payment. There are many actions that need to be taken to support the household incomes of those most in need.
I very much agree with those sentiments, but it is not true to say that the Scottish Government just has eye-catching targets on child poverty; we have game-changing policies in place—and I use that term because it is the one used by anti-child poverty campaigners. There is the new Scottish child payment, for example, which is just taking effect now to put extra money into the pockets of low-income families with children.
My party has already set out plans to extend free school meals to all years in primary school throughout the year, including school holidays, if we are re-elected in the election in May. We have taken steps throughout the pandemic to put extra money into the pockets of those on the lowest incomes and we will continue to look to do that.
Through our affordable housing programme, we have built almost record numbers of new houses to try to deal with some of the pressures on housing availability. I think that the Scottish Government doing all those things that I have spoken about puts us in a unique position in the United Kingdom. The equivalent of the Scottish child payment, for example, does not exist in any other UK nation. I hope that, in future years, it might.
We are taking action to back up those targets but—and this is a big but, which I think we all have to consider—we need to do more. We know that poverty—child poverty in particular—is too high and we know that the pandemic and the inequalities that it has both exposed and exacerbated run the risk of making that problem worse. We all have to challenge ourselves to do more. I know that the Scottish Government and my party, in setting out plans for the next session of Parliament, are focused on doing that, and I hope that that is true of parties across the chamber.
Schools (Return During Holiday Period)
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government is considering children returning to full-time education during part of the traditional summer holiday period. (S5F-04797)
There are no plans to take a blanket approach to increasing pupils’ learning time or the intensity of learning time. Individual schools will work with pupils, as they do every year, to identify ways to supplement learning as appropriate and we encourage schools and local authorities to target support where it is most needed, including tutoring if required.
In addition, e-Sgoil will be providing an Easter senior-phase study support programme, which will begin in April; it is currently gathering input from learners to best design that programme. Teachers are contracted to work 195 days a year. Any additional cover for summer holidays would need to be agreed, and it would need to be done on a voluntary basis.
The needs of children should be at the heart of this. Children have lost a lot of education and it is really important that we support them to make up for that loss. However, children have been affected in a plethora of ways and we need to keep in mind their wellbeing as a whole as we go through the rest of the pandemic and into the recovery phase.
I put on record my thanks to all the staff in our schools for all that they have done for our children and grandchildren during this very long pandemic.
I hear what the First Minister has said but does she agree with me—as I think that she does—that school is so much more than the three Rs, to use the old-fashioned shorthand? School is so important for the wellbeing and social development of our children. That has been lost over these months, and a version of summer school might provide it.
I think that we should properly consider all those things. There is a big job of work to be done, which will not be completed quickly, to make sure that the impact on our young people does not turn into a long-term impact that they are saddled with for the rest of their lives. It is about making sure that we help them to make up for lost education and lost learning time but it is also about supporting them to deal with the wider impacts: the separation from their friends; the worry and anxiety that Covid has no doubt brought their parents and them; and the long periods of time without seeing close relatives such as grandparents. That is all having a deep emotional impact on our young people.
I think that whatever we do in the months and perhaps years to come has to take account of recovery in the wider sense so that, whatever else happens or does not happen, this generation of young people do not pay a lifelong price for what I hope will be a once-in-a-century pandemic that we are unfortunate enough to be living through.
A9 and A96 (Dualling Completion)
To ask the First Minister when projects to dual the A9 and A96 roads are expected to be completed. (S5F-04809)
We continue to take forward plans to dual the A9 and the A96. Despite the 5 per cent cut to Scotland’s capital budget as a result of Westminster budget decisions, we have completed the first section of the A9 and construction is well under way on the second, with the project expected to open to traffic in the winter of this year. The design and development process has been protracted by the impacts of Covid and, rightly, through ensuring that the statutory process concludes, with local communities having their say and any objections being resolved as far as possible.
Design work is well under way on dualling the A96. That is a significant undertaking that requires careful in-depth planning and design to ensure that we deliver the right schemes and keep impacts on the environment to a minimum. Once the statutory process concludes, a timetable for progress can be set.
The pledges to complete work by 2025 and 2030 for the A9 and A96 respectively have been described as “ambitious”. Of the 11 sections of road under the A9 programme, which started in 2011, only one has been completed so far, with only one other even under construction. None of the work on the A96 has started. The projects are vital for communities across my region, for accessibility and for safety, with IAM RoadSmart saying that failure to complete the projects
“will cost lives as well as stunting the local economy.”
Can the First Minister again reassure my constituents in the Highlands and Islands that the Scottish Government is committed to completing both projects in full and within the original target timescales? Will she commit to providing delivery timescales for the remaining sections of the A9 and for the A96?
I agree that the proposals are ambitious, but I have set out the progress and our intentions. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity to write to the member in more detail to set out the future projections. As everybody knows, such projects involve complex and at times lengthy planning and statutory processes that have to be undertaken, not least because it is important that local residents get the chance to have their say on the design and that any objections or concerns are taken into account and, where possible, addressed.
Clearly, as is the case with almost every facet of life right now, Covid has had an impact on the projects, and we will need to consider exactly what that impact will be going forward. I have set out the significant progress on the A9 and where we are with the A96 plans. We will continue to progress those as quickly as possible.
Covid-19 (Travel to Vaccination Hubs)
To ask the First Minister how far people should be expected to travel to attend a vaccination appointment at a Covid-19 vaccination hub. (S5F-04800)
Every effort has been made and will continue to be made to minimise travel times and distances to vaccination centres where that is possible. I know that some residents in areas such as East Lothian have had to travel to central Edinburgh locations and that, for people in some parts of East Lothian, that might be a distance of around 35 miles. However, a new vaccination centre at Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh has opened today, I think. That will be significantly closer and will carry out 4,000 vaccinations in the next week.
If someone is offered an appointment at a location that is not suitable for them due to mobility issues, an underlying condition or any other factor, an alternative location will be offered wherever possible, and a national booking line is in place for rescheduling appointments. Calls to the line can be passed to NHS Lothian’s local call handlers to arrange appointments locally.
People understand how big a challenge the programme is. They appreciate the efforts of those who are delivering it, and they are willing to go to great lengths to be vaccinated, but the lengths that they are being asked to go to are rather more than the First Minister appears to believe. In East Lothian, many constituents who live in Dunbar or North Berwick have been asked to travel past not one but two vaccination hubs in East Lothian to go to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre or, even worse, the Royal Highland showground, which is a round trip of about 80 miles, involving two or three bus journeys or a return taxi fare of about £120.
When people phone the helpline, they are routinely and repeatedly told that nothing can be done and that no closer appointments are available. Meanwhile, they hear stories of Midlothian residents being sent to Haddington in East Lothian for their vaccination. We have the whole roll-out of second doses still to come. Will the First Minister intervene and sort this out?
We will continue to try to get the right balance between local accessibility and speed of the programme. Rightly, we have been under pressure to speed up the programme, notwithstanding the reasons for the phasing of it in the early days, and it is now motoring.
I appreciate that some people—particularly as we go down the age groups—will be asked to travel a bit further, but local health boards will be as flexible as possible, and health and social care partnerships should be offering to help with transport when somebody has to travel a bit more. The new centre in Musselburgh that I mentioned is an example of how we are trying to make the programme more accessible.
The arrangements will never be perfect for people, because we are trying to vaccinate the entire adult population as quickly as possible. Most of the people who contact me recognise that but, equally, we recognise that we need to make sure that people are not being asked to travel inordinate distances or being put in a position in which it is genuinely impractical for them to attend a vaccination appointment. The flexibility and input of local health boards is extremely important in that regard. We continue to try to get the arrangements as right as we can.
I will end this answer by saying that the programme is going really well, notwithstanding some of the issues that we see, which we will undoubtedly continue to see in some areas with a programme of such a scale. There are people right across the country who are working so hard to get through people as quickly as possible. Of course, people enthusiastically turning up for their appointments is also a critical part of the success of the programme so far.
We turn to supplementary questions.
Covid Vaccination Priority Groups (Police Officers)
I have been contacted by a number of local police officers who feel that they should be prioritised when it comes to receiving the Covid vaccine. I have spoken to some officers who have had to self-isolate three or four times since last March.
Can the First Minister give any details of discussions that the Scottish Government has had with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation regarding the prioritisation of certain professions, such as police officers and teachers, so that they could receive the vaccine first, once the initial prioritisation list has been completed?
I have previously set out some of the issues that we are grappling with here, and I know that people understand them. In the early phase of the vaccination programme, we have limited supplies, so we have to prioritise where those supplies go first. Instead of Government doing that based on our judgments, we have—as we always do on issues around vaccination and immunisation—taken the clinical expert advice of the JCVI, which has asked us to prioritise based on the order of people in clinical need and at greatest risk of becoming seriously ill and dying.
That is the list that we are working through right now. We hope to have completed that initial list by the early part of May. To recap, that is everybody above the age of 50, and any adult of any age with underlying health conditions. There will be some police officers included in that, just as there will be some teachers included in that. However, as we go through the early phase with limited supplies, every time we decided to attach greater priority to one group of people, we would have to deprioritise another group, which would be a group that the JCVI has considered is more clinically at risk, and I do not think that, ethically, that would be the right thing to do.
However, as we get to the point at which we are getting to the end of the initial priority list, we will, of course, think about the order in which we vaccinate the rest of the adult population. The JCVI is currently considering what advice it might give on prioritisation in the second phase, and we hope to receive that in the near future. Part of its consideration will be of whether there should be occupational prioritisation for healthy individuals from 16 to 50—subject, of course, to the latest data on vaccine safety and effectiveness. When we have that advice, we will set that out to the Parliament, and we will also set out the decisions that we will take on the basis of it.
Covid Vaccination Priority Groups (Offshore Medics and Workers)
I have a related question. Offshore medics are on the front line in the battle against Covid, helping to save lives on board oil platforms, while members of the offshore oil and gas workforce work tirelessly to protect security of supply throughout the pandemic. Is the First Minister able to give similar comfort on whether offshore medics and offshore workers should receive the vaccination as a priority in phase 2 to keep those critical workers safe?
That will depend on the advice that the JCVI gives us. The JCVI will give the same advice to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and if the past is anything to go by, all Governments will accept that advice. Therefore, I cannot say with certainty right now whether the workers to whom Liam Kerr refers will be prioritised in phase 2, because that would be to pre-empt the clinical expert advice that we will give, should the JCVI consider that it is appropriate to give us advice on the prioritisation of the rest of the adult population. Vaccination will be done as quickly as possible, and it will be done on the basis of the best clinical advice and in the order of priority that is most likely to reduce serious illness and cut the number of people dying from the virus. I think that that is the right way to go. I understand that everybody, virtually without exception, wants to get vaccinated yesterday, but we have to do it methodically and in line with advice, and that is what we will continue to do.
Tesco (Livingston Distribution Centre)
This week, Tesco is paying a £5 billion dividend to shareholders while cutting between £3,000 and £13,000 a year from key workers at its Livingston distribution centre and four other locations. Does the First Minister agree that that sickening corporate greed exemplifies everything that is wrong with unregulated free-market capitalism? Will she join me in calling on Tesco to withdraw its despicable fire-and-rehire threat?
I would call on any employer to treat their staff fairly at all times, but particularly given the difficult circumstances that everybody is living and working in right now. I am not responsible for what Tesco decides to do in terms of dividend payments to shareholders or indeed its hiring practices, but I have no hesitation in saying that any employer that is treating workers unfairly or in a way that is against the principles of fair work should be asked to think again, and I am happy to do that.
Of course, we would have more ability to regulate some of those things in this Parliament if the powers did not lie at Westminster, but instead lay here in this Parliament. I know that Neil Findlay will not be standing again at the election but, notwithstanding that, I hope that he can be an advocate in favour of that in the future.
In challenging times, those who are in already vulnerable situations are often hit the hardest. What is the Scottish Government doing to support priority families as identified in “Every child, every chance: The Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan 2018-22” to improve their income prospects and help to protect them from the precarious situation that they find themselves in at this difficult time?
Supported by the tackling child poverty fund, we have invested more than £7 million this year in the new parental employability support fund, which is designed to help low-income parents, particularly from the priority family types that are identified in the delivery plan, to progress into and then within employment.
This year’s draft budget confirms further funding of £5 million for the service, and we will shortly confirm details of additional funding to strengthen the support that is available to both disabled parents and young parents.
That is in addition to the wide-ranging action that we are taking through the delivery plan, including providing advice through the money talk team and directly boosting household incomes for up to 163,000 children through the Scottish child payment.
Teachers (Extra Protections and Testing)
What extra protections and testing can be put in place for those teachers who are looking after children with special needs, children who are vulnerable and the children of key workers? By the nature of their jobs, they come into close contact with not just their charges, but also the parents of those children. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that the work that those teachers do is essential, and that it also comes with an increased risk.
We are delivering asymptomatic testing to schools. That is in progress as we speak, in advance of some gradual, phased return to school—we hope, although that has to be confirmed next week—later this month.
I will happily take the issue away and have discussions about whether there is more that we can do for the particular groups on top of that, but there is no doubt that testing has a key role to play in trying to identify cases of the virus and get people into isolation as quickly as possible.
Cladding (Private Buildings)
While First Minister’s question time has been in progress, the United Kingdom Government has announced an additional £3.5 billion for the removal of unsafe metal cladding from private buildings. Given that announcement, will the First Minister reflect on whether the Scottish Government will review the financial assistance that it has made available for the removal of such cladding, especially given the financial predicament that it has left many people in?
Obviously, I am not going to comment on that announcement, because I have not heard it, having been standing here answering questions. I set out at First Minister’s question time last week, I think—or possibly the week before—the work that the Scottish Government is doing to determine how best we target funding to help those who are most in need of help in that situation. Constituents of mine are affected by the issue, so I know how urgent it is. Once I have had the opportunity to catch up on whatever has been announced today, and what the implications might be for Scottish Government decision-making, I will be happy to write to the member with an update.
Cabinet Office (Recruitment)
The First Minister will be aware that the Tory Government at Westminster is advertising jobs in the Cabinet Office’s union unit for which knowledge of Scottish issues is deemed only “desirable”. Does the First Minister agree that that unit is no more than a costly flag-waving exercise and an outrageous waste of taxpayers’ money?
I suppose that the United Kingdom Government’s asking for people in whom knowledge of Scotland is “desirable” could be seen as a step in the right direction, because there is no evidence that it has insisted on that at any point in the past.
Does that not say it all—recruiting people to a so-called union unit for which, I understand, it has said that it is not essential to have knowledge of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland? Complete uninterest in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland perhaps might just sum up the union perfectly.
The most interesting things about that union unit, as far as I can see, are the fact that, if the Scottish Government had an independence unit in such a way, there would be howls of protest from the Conservatives; and all the effort that is being put into fighting in a referendum campaign that they say is never going to happen. That is a bit odd.
I am saying to people, “Let’s get through Covid”—I am focused right now on getting this country through Covid—“then, post-pandemic, let’s have this debate properly.” In addition, here is an idea: let us allow the people of Scotland to decide their own future.
Extended Households (Covid-19)
On Friday, I hosted a virtual coffee morning for more than 50 new parents in my constituency. From the start, it became clear just how much strain those people are under, especially the mums, with many reduced to tears as they shared their stories.
In England, the extended household policy has been expanded to allow parents with babies under the age of one to bubble up with another household of new parents. However, there is no such provision in Scotland.
Good parental mental health is a matter of profound importance for the wellbeing and development of babies. With the possibility of several more months of lockdown still ahead of them, we need to give those mums and dads a bit of hope and the society of their peers. Will the First Minister now follow England and allow those parents to bubble up with each other for support?
We will always consider what more we can do to ease the pressure that people, particularly parents, are living under.
Of course, Scotland, unlike England, has for some time excluded children under 11 from the limits that we have imposed on things such as people meeting up, and there is already the extended household concept in Scotland whereby single parents with children under 18 can join another household. Arrangements are in place, but nobody—least of all me—underestimates the difficulties that people are facing, and we will continue to consider every way in which we can make things better.
However, we have to do that carefully. As I keep saying, infection levels in Scotland are too high, albeit that they are coming down and are lower than those in England. Perhaps that suggests that the careful approach that we are taking is not always the wrong one. Nevertheless, I recognise the difficulties for particular groups of people, which is why we will always look at what more we can do to ease the restrictions where that is appropriate.
Only yesterday, scientists from Harvard University and University College London announced research findings that showed that fine particles from burning fossil fuels were responsible for up to one in six deaths in the United Kingdom pre-Covid-19. That is in addition to a study that was published a fortnight ago on accelerating global ice loss, which matches the worst-case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In view of that serious situation, will the Government redouble its on-going work, in co-operation with other nations, to avert catastrophic climate change?
Yes, we absolutely will. We recognise—as, I think, everybody does—that global co-operation is absolutely integral and essential to responding effectively to the climate and ecological crisis.
We are already playing our part. At the end of last year, we updated the climate change plan with more than 100 new policies that will help us to achieve a just transition to net zero by 2045. As the Climate Change Committee has noted,
“the Scottish economy has decarbonised more quickly than the rest of the UK, and faster than any G20 economy since 2008.”
We also intend to use the opportunity of the 26th conference of the parties and our role as co-chair of the Under2 Coalition to raise global ambition and drive forward tangible climate action across the world.
Last week, the dedicated staff at Whitehill community centre in Hamilton had to throw out 14 vials of the Pfizer vaccine, which had been held at a lower temperature for more than five days, because appointment vacancies that were made centrally had not been filled. Each vial contains enough for six to seven jabs, so 84 to 98 people were deprived of that life-saving vaccine. That is just one centre in Lanarkshire, and there have been similar experiences Scotland-wide.
Will the First Minister please provide clear messaging that those in the shielding and relevant age groups can check with the national helpline to confirm their appointment date and thereafter check the availability of short-notice appointment vacancies—for that day or the next day, usually—to ensure that not a single drop of the precious vaccine is squandered, that the maximum number of people are vaccinated each day, and that more people can then move up the queue?
For the reassurance of anybody who is watching this, I confirm that nobody will be deprived of their vaccination. Every adult in Scotland will be offered the vaccination, and I hope that we will see significant numbers of people coming forward to get it, as we have done in the early groups.
Wastage is minimised. The wastage rates of the vaccine, so far, are very low and we want to get them lower still. They are well below the 5 per cent international figure that is often used for planning assumptions in designing such programmes.
I cannot ever stand here and say that there will not be wastage of a single drop of vaccine. I think that most people who use common sense would realise why that is. Things sometimes happen in the distribution and administering of vaccines that make that impossible, but there will be efforts, and I know that those who are administering the programme are working hard, every hour of every day, to minimise wastage to the absolute lowest levels.
Health boards have standby lists so that, if appointments are not filled, they will fill them. I and, I am sure, others will have had emails from people who have had very short-notice messages to ask whether they could go for an appointment on the same day—maybe a couple of hours hence. Some people think that that is great, although others are less happy with that. Those systems are in place.
I am never going to stand here and say that, in a programme of such a scale, everything every single day is perfect and there are no glitches or things that go wrong. That is not going to be the case. The exercise is the biggest peacetime logistical exercise that we have ever undertaken in Scotland; the same is true in the other UK nations. When things go wrong, as happened in Fife this week, we have to take action quickly to resolve that.
We must keep wastage to an absolute minimum but, right now, the programme is going better than I could have dared to hope at this stage. Proportionately—in terms of vaccines per million of the population—the daily number of vaccinations that was reported yesterday was the highest achieved so far in a single day between Scotland and England. It was our highest daily total so far. Today, in the face of some of the most severe weather conditions that we have had in many years, we have had our second-highest daily total. The programme is therefore going well, and we will continue, on a daily basis, to resolve as quickly as we can any issues that arise, including those that Margaret Mitchell has highlighted.
Maritime Businesses (Support)
The First Minister is aware that businesses have received support on the basis of rateable value. Maritime businesses do not have a rateable value, but they have similar costs, such as berthing dues, loans and rental payments, and they have received no help. They might qualify for councils’ discretionary payments, but those are inadequate to meet their needs and are a fraction of what their land-based equivalents have received. Will the First Minister undertake to ensure that they get an equivalent level of support?
I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to look at the perspective that the member highlights and to consider whether there is more action that we can take. With any system of financial support, we need a system on which to base eligibility. Although it is not perfect, I think that rateable value is, so far, the best one that we can have. We have recognised that some businesses will fall through the cracks, however, which is why other sectoral schemes have been put in place. Councils have also been given money, and the finance secretary has recently indicated that there will be an increase in that money, to be used at councils’ discretion, for businesses that do not fulfil the criteria of any of the other schemes.
We will continue to look at what more we can do, and I will ask the cabinet secretary to respond to the member when she has had an opportunity to look, in particular, at the maritime sector.
A9 and A96 (Dualling Completion)
I am pleased to hear, from Jamie Halcro Johnston’s earlier question, that he is committing the Tories to dualling the A9 and the A96. He might want to tell his colleague Peter Chapman, who is against that—perhaps there is a split in the Tories. Parliament will remember that the Tories previously pledged to add a lane to the M8, which would have stripped funding from projects such as the A9 and the A96. Does the First Minister agree that that is another demonstration of Tory hypocrisy or simply confirmation that they believe that there is a magic money tree from which we can spend cash twice?
I certainly agree that looking for any consistency from the Conservatives would be much harder than looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack—it is pretty much non-existent. When you are in a position of having to take such decisions, it is important to do it properly by giving proper consideration and ensuring that the money is there to fund the commitments that you are making.
That is why the new national transport strategy, which was published in February 2020, sets the priorities and outcomes that we seek for transport. The second strategic transport project review is currently identifying the strategic transport interventions that are required to provide us with a network that is fit for the 21st century and for the post-Covid world, which is why it will lock in the positive benefits of travel behaviours of individuals.
We will continue to do that difficult but necessary work and leave the Conservatives to continue to tie themselves in knots, as they so often do.
That concludes First Minister’s question time.13:32 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—