Meeting date: Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 12 August 2020
Agenda: One Minute’s Silence, First Minister’s Question Time, Return to School, Economic Recovery Implementation Plan, Business Motion, Decision Time
- One Minute’s Silence
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Return to School
- Economic Recovery Implementation Plan
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Before we turn to First Minister’s question time, I invite the First Minister to update Parliament on coronavirus and a very serious rail incident.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Before I give an update on coronavirus, I want to address briefly the impact of the serious storms across Scotland last night. There has been significant travel disruption, and efforts are under way across the country to restore services and roads to normal.
However, of most urgent concern is an extremely serious incident on the rail line west of Stonehaven, where a ScotRail passenger train derailed earlier this morning. The emergency services are currently on site, and a major incident has been declared. I have just come off a call with Network Rail and the emergency services. Although details are still emerging, I am afraid to say that there are early reports of serious injuries. The Scottish Government resilience room is operational, and I will be convening a SGoRR meeting with partner organisations as soon as possible this afternoon. Updates will, of course, be provided as they become available. However, my immediate thoughts—and, I am sure, the thoughts of everyone across the chamber—are with all those who have been involved in the incident.
I turn to the daily update on Covid. An additional 47 positive cases were confirmed yesterday. That represents 1 per cent of the people who were newly tested yesterday, and it takes the total number of cases to 19,126. A full health board breakdown will be available later, but my provisional information is that 24 of the 47 new cases are in the NHS Grampian health board area. It is not yet clear how many are connected to the on-going outbreak in Aberdeen. I will say a bit more about that shortly.
A total of 265 patients are currently in hospital with confirmed Covid, which is four fewer than yesterday. Three people are in intensive care, which is the same number as yesterday. I am also pleased to say, yet again, that in the past 24 hours no deaths have been registered of patients who had tested positive in the previous 28 days, so the number of deaths that have been recorded under that measurement remains 2,491.
National Records of Scotland has just published its more comprehensive weekly report, which includes deaths of people who were confirmed through a test as having Covid—as our daily figures do—and deaths in which Covid is a presumed factor. The latest NRS report covers the period to Sunday 9 August. It records the total number of registered deaths that have either a confirmed or a presumed link to Covid as 4,213. Of those, five were registered in the seven days up to Sunday, which is a decrease of two from the previous week and is the lowest weekly figure since the outbreak began.
That said, every single loss of life is a source of grief and heartbreak, so my condolences again go to everybody who has lost a loved one.
However, the NRS figures reinforce the point that, as of now, Covid has been driven to very low levels in Scotland. That is what has allowed us to take significant steps out of lockdown over July and August and, of course, it is the reason why schools are able to open this week. Many children will today be having their first day back after five months. I wish them well, and I want to thank all teachers and school staff for all the work that they have done, and to thank parents for their efforts in supporting their children in these unusual times.
Schools are going back because we have been successful in reducing Covid rates in the community, but there is no room for complacency. Today’s figures show that we are still seeing new cases, and the on-going cluster in Aberdeen shows that the virus can spread rapidly when it gets the opportunity to do so. From the latest available figures, a total of 272 cases have been identified in the Grampian health board area since 26 July. As of now, 177 of those are thought to be associated with the cluster that has been linked to Aberdeen pubs, and 940 contacts have now been identified from those 177 cases. In general, in the past few days, we have seen a slight fall in the number of new cases in Grampian and in cases directly associated with the cluster, but despite that slight reduction, the number of cases there is still far higher than that in any other part of the country, and is considerably higher than it was in Grampian before the outbreak started.
Based on an assessment from the incident management team and advice from the chief medical officer, the Scottish Government’s conclusion is that it is not yet possible to lift any of the restrictions that were put in place last week for Aberdeen. Aberdeen City Council has been fully involved in the discussions, as has Police Scotland, which reports good compliance with the restrictions. Therefore, people who live in Aberdeen should not go into someone else’s house, and hospitality businesses such as pubs, restaurants and cafes must remain closed for now. People who live in Aberdeen should not travel more than 5 miles, unless they have to. They can travel for work and education, but should not travel for leisure or other non-essential purposes. Similarly, we are advising people from outside Aberdeen not to travel into the city unless they have to.
I know that people in Aberdeen, who of course today are coping with the impacts of severe weather as well as Covid, will be disappointed by that decision, but I want to thank them for complying so well with the rules that we put in place last week. We continue to watch closely for any signs that the outbreak has spread to Aberdeenshire in any significant way, but at present we are not placing any additional restrictions on people who live in the shire.
I stress that nobody wants the restrictions to be in place for longer than is necessary. They will be reviewed again in one week’s time, and as soon as we can relax any of them, we will do so. However, at the moment, the number of new cases that we are seeing is still too high for that to be a safe or sensible course of action.
The final thing that I want to highlight in relation to the Aberdeen outbreak is that the significant majority of contacts that are identified are being traced within a day, and all contacts are being traced within three days. That is a real credit to the work of our test-and-protect teams, including the people from outside Grampian who have been helping with the work in Aberdeen. I am grateful to all of them.
To conclude, I note that the situation in Aberdeen reminds us how quickly the virus can take off and how much effort is then required to bring outbreaks under control. It therefore also reminds us that we must, for the country as a whole to make further progress out of lockdown, continue to suppress the virus. Government has a critical role—indeed, it has the central role—to play in achieving that, but we are, ultimately, all dependent on each other. The choices that all of us make as individuals on physical distancing, face masks and washing our hands will decide whether we move forward or backward in our fight against Covid.
I will, therefore, close by emphasising again the importance of FACTS—the five key things that all of us must do.
Face coverings should be worn in enclosed spaces.
Avoid crowded places.
Clean hands and hard surfaces regularly.
Two-metre distancing remains the rule.
Self-isolate and book a test if you have symptoms.
Those are the golden rules that can help us to stop the virus spreading. I ask everyone across Scotland to continue to comply fully with them.
Before we turn to questions, I remind members that most supplementary questions have been on Covid and therefore I will continue to take all supplementary questions, constituency and otherwise, after question 7. However, members who wish to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible.
School Exam Results
I add the thoughts of my party to those that have already been expressed regarding the incident in Stonehaven today. It is clear that the incident is serious, and it will have affected a number of families across Scotland. We think of them at this time and of the emergency workers who are in attendance.
The past week has been a terrible time for Scotland’s school pupils and a new low for this Government’s handling of our education system. Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills sought to draw a line under events, but questions still remain. For example, this morning, we spoke with Abby from Prestwick, who had a conditional offer to go to the University of Edinburgh. Her father said that they were initially delighted by Mr Swinney’s U-turn, but they have since discovered that, based on last week’s modified results, the offer from Edinburgh has been withdrawn. Yesterday, Mr Swinney said that more university places would be created in order to stop university students being
“crowded out of a place that they would otherwise have been awarded.”—[Official Report, 11 August 2020; c 32.]
However, that is not a guarantee of a place on Abby’s chosen course. Therefore, will the First Minister write today to every Scottish university to make it clear that they must now honour every conditional offer that they made to students on their projected grades?
Members understand that in no year can the Government guarantee a place at university for every young person. However, we are absolutely determined to make sure that young people are not disadvantaged this year. Obviously, I am not able to talk in detail about individual cases, but any member who wants to raise individual cases should do so, and we will seek to respond as fully as we can.
The education secretary has already been in discussions with universities. We are determined that not only will those who have the grades and have had offers of places get those places but that, given yesterday’s decision—which has been welcomed by pupils and parents across the country—young people will not be crowded out of places. Discussions are on-going to ensure that additional places will be available at our universities. That is a welcome move. Given the massive disadvantages that young people—not just those who were to sit exams but all young people across the country—have suffered in the past five months as a result of Covid, that is a positive signal to them of the determination of the Government and the whole country to ensure that, in the future, they have the opportunities that they richly deserve.
Frankly, the idea that, on 12 August, which is more than a week after results were issued, pupils are still not clear about what is happening with university places is ridiculous. One way to build back trust is to be more transparent.
When the last Scottish Qualifications Authority fiasco happened in 2000, Nicola Sturgeon was in opposition. She insisted then that the then education secretary
“give the Parliament a categoric assurance that he will make available ... all papers, correspondence and notes of meetings and of phone calls within his department and between his department and the SQA since the start of this year”.—[Official Report, 6 September 2000; c 27.]
The same thing needs to happen now. We know that this Government does not have the best record of making documents available, but will the First Minister give that guarantee today, and will she start by confirming that the education secretary formally backed the SQA’s deeply flawed exam model?
On the issue of university places, in any year, the process of university admissions and clearing goes on for a period of time. This year, we will ensure that more places are available for young people. That is a good and positive thing that should be welcomed across the country.
With regard to the responsibilities and role of the SQA and the Government, we will make available to Parliament whatever Parliament wants. However, perhaps understandably, given experiences with Governments elsewhere, the Opposition is maybe struggling to grasp a key element of the situation. The Government is not trying to pass responsibility to the SQA; the Government is taking responsibility itself.
Ruth Davidson referred to previous incidents with the SQA, which I remember well. However, one thing that is different now is that we are living through a global pandemic. We were not able to have scheduled exams this year; therefore, we had to put in place an alternative process. We asked the SQA to put in place a process that maintained comparable standards with previous years. The SQA did that but, given the impact on young people and that we did not want them to feel that their future has been determined by an algorithm rather than by their performance, we have made the judgment to come to a different conclusion. The Government has taken responsibility for that. We have acted with the best of intentions. However, when we judge that we have got it wrong, we are big enough to say that we got it wrong, to apologise to young people, and to put it right. That is what people across the country want to see.
The situation will affect every Government in the United Kingdom—we will no doubt see that tomorrow, when the A-level results for England and Wales are published. However, we will also see whether Governments elsewhere have the willingness to admit that they might have got it wrong and put it right comprehensively in the way that this Government has done.
I am sure that the First Minister did not mean to imply this, but she just stood up and basically said that transparency is important when she asks for it and we are not in a global pandemic, but the Government gets a mulligan when we are in a global pandemic.
Yesterday, we welcomed the announcement of a review of the entire debacle, but if trust and transparency are to be restored in the system, one key measure is the SQA showing its workings. In countries around the world, exam scripts are returned to schools so that teachers can see exactly how students were graded and how those grades were modified. That simple measure would end the secrecy that erodes confidence in the way that our exam system is managed, and it would be a valuable tool in helping teachers to close the attainment gap in future exams. Will the First Minister commit to that today?
I know that Ruth Davidson is just back on the front bench, but the SQA published its methodology last week, and it is there for people to see, scrutinise and draw conclusions on. The chief executive of the SQA appeared before the Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee this morning. For reasons that I hope Ruth Davidson will understand, I have not had the opportunity to follow that evidence—I have been dealing with other things. However, the SQA’s chief executive has answered questions from members across the chamber. If there is other information that members want, the SQA and/or the Government will provide that.
Fundamentally, we have had to deal with an unprecedented situation. We have done that with the best of intentions, but we have recognised honestly that we made the wrong judgment and that perhaps we thought too much about standardisation in the system rather than individual experience in a unique year. Instead of doing what I suspect some others might do and simply dig our heels in, we have acknowledged that that was not the right thing to do, apologised to young people and put it right, and we are going to make more university places available.
I think that that should all be welcome. The Parliament is perfectly entitled to scrutinise all of that. I, for one, I am not scared of scrutiny, whether that be from the Parliament or the electorate. In fact, I relish and welcome it.
So the First Minister will not write to universities, she will not release correspondence today, and she will not commit to returning exam scripts to schools in future.
Next week marks five years since Nicola Sturgeon announced that education would be her number one priority. In those five years, she has pulled Scotland out of international tests, her flagship education bill has been scrapped, the named person scheme has been struck down by the courts, poor students have been punished by a persistent attainment gap, hundreds of teacher vacancies have been left unfilled, and we have just seen the biggest exam fiasco in the history of devolution. John Swinney has been the common denominator through all of that.
The First Minister’s loyalty to a colleague may be commendable, but her real loyalty should be to the parents and pupils of Scotland. They deserve new leadership in education, and John Swinney cannot deliver that. Why will the First Minister not see that?
I am not sure that loyalty to colleagues is a strong suit for Ruth Davidson.
Ruth Davidson says that I will not write to universities. The reason for that is that John Swinney has already spoken to the universities. She says that we will not publish the SQA’s workings. The reason why I will not instruct it to do that today is that it did that last week. There are more teachers in our schools today than there were when I became First Minister, and we have just funded local authorities to employ more teachers in our schools.
Forgive me, but my mind is not particularly on political matters this morning. However, if Ruth Davidson wants to have that kind of exchange, she really should think about the position from which she seeks to do that. In just a few months, I will submit myself and my Government to the verdict of the Scottish people in an election. That is the ultimate accountability for our record and our leadership. As we do that, Ruth Davidson will be pulling on her ermine and going to the unelected House of Lords. I gently suggest to her that, when it comes to scrutinising and holding politicians to account, she really is not coming at that from a position of strength. It is not me who is running away from democratic accountability.
For four months, we have had the First Minister standing up and telling the people of Scotland that she does not do party politics. Nine minutes it took her to get there. The difference is this—[Interruption.]
Let us have some order, please.
The former leaders of the Labour Party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservative Party might want to go and serve in another Parliament, yes. She thinks that that is a bad thing, but there is not a word of condemnation for the former leader of her party, who would rather shill for Putin’s Pravda.
All it has taken nine minutes to do today is expose Ruth Davidson’s raw nerve. I do not criticise anybody for wanting to serve in any Parliament; I just have an old-fashioned preference—[Interruption.]
Can we have some order, please?
I just have an old-fashioned preference that they get elected before they do so.
This Government has serious issues to deal with, and we deal with them each and every day. We are not infallible; we make mistakes and when we make them, we put them right. As First Minister, with my team of ministers, we are going to get on with the job of leading this country as best we can through the crisis that it faces. We welcome scrutiny of that, but we will not lose our focus on that central task, which is a more important one than any Government has faced in Scotland for quite some time. That is what I will be focusing on today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future.
School Exam Results
I begin by saying that all our thoughts go to those involved in this morning’s incident at Stonehaven and all our thanks and support go to the emergency service crews who are in attendance. Let us hope that lives are saved and not lost.
“I want Sam Galbraith out of office, not off the hook.”
Those are your words, First Minister, from 24 August 2000, when the then education secretary faced a vote of no confidence from this Parliament after 9,000 pupils did not get their exam results on time. That is a fraction of the 75,000 pupils whose results were downgraded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority on your own education secretary’s self-confessed instruction. Why then, First Minister, do you want John Swinney off the hook rather than out of office?
People are going to have to make their own minds up about this, although I suspect that minds in this chamber are pretty fixed on it. Richard Leonard is giving the impression that he is more interested in the politics of this than in having the issue actually fixed for young people across the country. However, we are living right now in unprecedented and unique circumstances. We were faced with something that has not happened in Scotland in more than 100 years: the cancellation of our exam diet. There was no easy option open to ministers, just as there were no easy options open to the Labour Government in Wales or the Conservative Government in the United Kingdom. We had to come up with an alternative to exams to certificate our young people’s achievements.
We asked the SQA to come up with an approach that maintained standards. We have reflected in the past few days that that was not the right approach. We have the humility, frankly, to say that we got it wrong and to apologise to young people and put it right. I think that, particularly in these times of crisis, that is what people want to see happen. I was struck, in something that I read in the media about the Deputy First Minister over the past week, by a comment from the father of a young person who had been affected by this. I actually suspect that what he said is how not everybody, but probably the majority of people across Scotland feel. He said:
“Show me a man that has never made a mistake and I will show you a man that’s never worked. He is human and I take my hat off to him for saying he was wrong. Everyone makes mistakes and I hope everyone learns from this.”
That is the approach that this Government is taking to these unprecedented times. It is up to the Opposition, as it would have been up to us in Opposition, to decide how they tackle these things. However, I think that all the evidence right now suggests that, in these difficult times, the public wants to see leadership that is prepared to admit when they get things wrong and to put them right. That is the approach that this Government is going to continue to take.
I will go to something else that the First Minister said, which is from August 2015:
“Let me be clear—I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”
If it really matters, why did neither the First Minister nor her education secretary listen to the voices telling her that the SQA moderation system was not right? She was warned in April; she was warned in May; she was warned in June; and she was warned again in July that this system would not work. In fact, in May, the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned that the
“SQA have been unable to demonstrate that they have considered any equality issues in their work in this area, or that they have met their legal duties”.
We now know that the results were pre-released to John Swinney five days before the pupils saw them. He could have fixed it then; he could have saved all those young people from all that anguish; he could have saved the First Minister from having to make a grovelling apology—but he did not. Why is his neck not on the line?
John Swinney announced yesterday that there will be an independent review to look at the lessons that should be learned, and I think that that is the right thing to do.
I made a judgment. We are in difficult circumstances and we did not get this right. I accept that, and it is important to be absolutely open about that. We did not get this right. We acted with the best of intentions. We judged that it was important to have a set of results this year that were comparable in standard with those in previous years. I think now that that was not the right judgment, which is why we have made the decision that John Swinney announced yesterday.
I accept that in the circumstances in which we are living, there has been no decision that I or any member of this Government has taken over the past five months that has been easy or where there has been an absolute right or wrong. We are living through the most horrendously difficult set of circumstances. That is why it is so important to recognise that where, despite the best of intentions, we get things wrong, we do not dig our heels in but we put things right. That is what we have done.
Again, I think that the evidence suggests that people prefer that approach to government to the ding-dong exchanges that I, in Opposition, have been as guilty of as anybody else—I am not criticising that. However, we are not living in normal times. Richard Leonard can quote me from four years ago or 20 years ago, but we are living through a global pandemic right now, where the choices that we face and the challenges that confront us are really difficult. We will continue to lead the country through this as best we can and we will not shy away from saying when we get things wrong and taking the action that we need to take to put things right. I think that people prefer that approach to the traditional approach to politics that we have in more normal times.
But the point is that month after month after month, the First Minister was forewarned that this problem would arise when the results were announced last week. “Judge me on education,” the First Minister said. Of the young people who demonstrated, forced the Government climbdown, and refused to take this injustice lying down, the oldest have been at school for 13 years, so every single day of their education has been under the stewardship of the Scottish National Party. Where did it take them? To having to organise street demonstrations and online petitions just to get the Government to hear them and to give them the results that they had worked hard for.
Schools all over Scotland are making a fresh start today. Pupils, staff and teachers have our good wishes and our good will, but they need the resources to make the return to school work and they need an education secretary in whom they can have confidence. Will the First Minister give them that and sack John Swinney?
First, on the young people who made their case over the past few days so passionately, as Richard Leonard rightly says, for many of them, their entire school careers have taken place while my party has been in Government.
I reflect on the fact that the objectives of curriculum for excellence are to ensure that young people are confident individuals and are engaged, active and responsible citizens. I think that, in the way that they have conducted themselves, those young people are actually a credit to the Scottish education system, because, having listened to many of them over the past 24 hours, I know that they understand and recognise the difficult circumstances and welcome the action that the Government has taken and the fact that I and the Deputy First Minister have apologised to them for their experience over the past few days.
One of the few things that cannot be said to be my responsibility, I am delighted to say, is how the Opposition parties conduct themselves, but I think that, for all that the Government got this wrong—I keep saying that because I do not want anyone to think that I am shying away from that in any way, shape or form—we also put it right, and I think that it is the Opposition that is increasingly out of touch in not recognising that the public understand how difficult the situation that we face right now is. They want a Government and leadership that accepts that sometimes we will get things wrong and we will put them right and continue to lead the country forward in the best way that we possibly can.
Like all the other speakers, I want to express our deep concern for all those who are affected by the rail accident near Stonehaven and for the emergency services that are responding, as well as the public health professionals who are working to contain the Aberdeen outbreak.
Children, young people and their families, as well as school staff, have been through a great deal this year and we wish them the very best as schools return, and many thousands of young people have an extra reason to celebrate as an unfair policy is overturned. As the Greens warned for months, far from building back better, the Scottish Qualifications Authority downgrades would have entrenched inequality in our society.
However, that is not the only area in which the Scottish Government’s action has fallen short of its rhetoric of wanting Covid recovery to be a chance for a fairer, greener and more equal society. We have also been warning for a long time that this pandemic would also lead to a housing crisis but, although the First Minister said that no one should be evicted because of the pandemic, she rejected Green proposals that would have protected private tenants and instead worked with the Conservatives to give extra help to landlords. Is she aware that there have been 350 applications for eviction orders during this crisis—that is before we even count illegal or unchallenged evictions—and that hundreds more applications are still outstanding as the First-tier Tribunal resumes its work. How can that be acceptable?
As I know Patrick Harvie is aware, the emergency legislation that we passed in the Parliament in effect halted eviction action for up to six months. He talks about applications, but no people can be evicted. That emergency legislation is currently in place until 30 September and, yesterday, we confirmed that, subject to the agreement of Parliament, it will be extended to March 2021. That underlines the continuing commitment of the Government to do everything that we can to protect tenants and prevent people from becoming homeless as a result of the pandemic. We also want to ensure that we continue our record investments in affordable housing, so that we are building the housing that is needed for this and future generations.
I am always willing to listen to views on where we can and should go further on these matters, but the protection against eviction that I have spoken about is in place right now and, if this Parliament agrees, it will be extended.
The emergency powers that were introduced at the start of this crisis tackled the immediate issue of rough sleeping and prevented evictions until September. However, it is clear now that that is not enough, given the outstanding applications that are already in place and the new applications that have been made. Even if the temporary measure does not end in just a few weeks, there are other evictions that take place without those applications, informally or illegally.
It is clear that every forecast shows that the pandemic will cause long-term economic damage to our most vulnerable communities. Given the timescale of eviction proceedings, those who have already lost their jobs or incomes during the pandemic could still face eviction in the middle of winter, even under the Government’s current plans.
The First Minister will be aware that Andy Wightman proposed a rent freeze and a ban on any evictions as a result of the debt that this crisis has created. If the First Minister still cannot bring herself to back those policies, will she consider other measures to prevent a tidal wave of evictions this winter, or will we again be left looking to fix a crisis after the harm has been done?
I am genuinely not sure whether I am missing something here, so I am happy to have further discussions on the matter with Patrick Harvie and his colleagues.
With regard to Andy Wightman’s past proposals, I have stood here and explained some of the reasoning behind why we did not accept some of those proposals but instead took other steps that, in some respects, had the same, or a similar, intent.
The ban on evictions that the original Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 put in place is due to expire on 30 September, but the Government wants to extend it to March 2021. I cannot say that that is definitely happening, because it is up to Parliament to vote on it, but if my party and Patrick Harvie’s party vote together, there should be no block to that.
In addition, we took action in the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Act 2020 that allowed us to create a private landlord pre-action protocol that is similar to what was already in place in the social sector. It sets out specific actions that private landlords must take before they even begin to pursue eviction action. If a landlord fails to engage with the pre-action protocol and applies for an eviction order, a tribunal could refuse that order on the basis that the landlord did not meet the protocol’s requirements.
We continue to work with tenant and landlord stakeholder groups to ensure that those issues are properly explored. Our clear intention is to ensure that nobody is evicted as a result of the crisis that we are living through. That is why we have put in place those measures, and I remain happy to discuss them with members on all sides of the chamber. I know that Pauline McNeill has a question on similar territory later in this question session. We remain happy to work with members across the chamber to see whether we can reasonably take any further steps or action.
Test and Protect (Schools)
My thoughts are with those who have been affected by the derailment in Stonehaven, and I am thankful for the efforts of the emergency services.
The return of pupils to school means that there will be a whole new phase of interaction between large groups of people. I want to ask the First Minister about plans to protect those who are working and studying in schools. The Scottish Government has put in place the test and protect scheme. However, last week, the city of Aberdeen went from isolated incidents to a full regional lockdown in a matter of hours. Can the First Minister tell me why test and protect was unable to contain the virus?
Schools should be among the last institutions to close in the event of an outbreak. Is test and protect ready to protect our schools?
I will come on to schools specifically in a second.
This is part of the learning journey that we are all on. Test and protect on its own will not stop coronavirus outbreaks; we are all principally responsible for doing that. We are the first line of defence—if the virus gets through us, test and protect is the second line of defence. It is important that we all understand that, and that we communicate it to our constituents.
Test and protect has worked very effectively in Aberdeen. Without it, rather than dealing with an outbreak—albeit a large and complex one—that is, I hope, on its way to being contained, we would by now already be dealing with widespread community transmission.
The number of contacts that have been traced, and the speed at which they have been traced and contacted, is a credit to the work of test and protect. I am not complacent about that—as First Minister, one of the questions in my mind is whether, if we have several outbreaks at the same time, we have sufficient resources to deal with that. We are looking all the time at how we strengthen and improve the resilience of those arrangements, but I want to stress how well the test and protect scheme has worked, and is working, in Aberdeen, and give due credit to everybody who is involved in it.
Part of the function of test and protect is to give us intelligence and information on where an outbreak has started and what the chains of transmission are. That is why we were able, so early in the outbreak, to say that it had in all likelihood originated in the night-time economy, which is why we took the difficult decision to close down the hospitality sector.
We should all take some confidence and assurance—albeit that that might seem counterintuitive—from how test and protect has worked, although we should not be complacent about the challenges that lie ahead in that regard.
In schools, test and protect will be available to any member of staff or young person who is symptomatic. On top of that, there will be surveillance through data gathering, which will, in the autumn, be supplemented by surveillance testing in schools.
In addition, the Deputy First Minister will, in his statement to Parliament this afternoon—I will not go into all the detail, as he will cover it—announce a further expansion of the availability of testing in schools to give greater assurance to teachers and other staff who work in our schools.
My final point—Willie Rennie and the Presiding Officer will probably be getting frustrated at the length of this answer—is a difficult one for me to communicate. In all likelihood, we will see outbreaks of coronavirus in schools—in particular, perhaps, in secondary schools. The important thing is how we contain those and make sure that they are properly dealt with. I give the chamber an assurance that that is an issue of priority focus for the Government.
I am sure that the First Minister understands that that is why people are very nervous about what might happen following the reopening of schools.
People are equally nervous about the situation as regards universities. Two weeks ago, I asked the First Minister whether she would agree to all international students being tested on arrival in the country. The policy was supported by one of her scientific advisers, Devi Sridhar. We want those students to come here, but we want them to be safe, too. The First Minister said that she was considering the proposal, but I warned her that time was running out.
We are two weeks closer to students returning. Can the First Minister tell me what has been decided? Will all international students be tested?
I cannot give Willie Rennie the conclusion of those discussions, because the issue is still under consideration. I have an acute understanding of how quickly the virus can spread and, therefore, of how urgent such decisions are. However, I also understand that it is important to get them right so that they are sustainable and so that we can encourage and obtain buy-in on the part of those people we expect to comply with such measures.
With the university and college sector, we are considering the matter carefully, and we will set out more detail on it shortly. As I think that Willie Rennie knows, we listen very carefully to the advice of our advisory group. Devi Sridhar, whom he cited two weeks ago and again today, is a member of that group, and we are paying very close attention to the recommendations that the group makes.
Preventing Covid-19 Transmission (Bars)
To ask the First Minister what measures the Scottish Government can put in place to prevent bars being hot spots for the spread of Covid-19. (S5F-04266)
Three significant pieces of guidance for hospitality have already been published: sector guidance that covers essential measures such as physical distancing, cleaning and hygiene; guidance on the collection of customer contact details; and guidance on additional mitigating measures for a 1m physical distance exemption.
As we announced last week, we will move guidance on to a statutory footing. Later this week, we will enhance measures on safe practices and will introduce measures to make collection of visitor details mandatory. That recognises the need to ensure that the following of guidance is not seen as optional. It is a key tool in balancing the risk between allowing the hospitality sector to operate and keeping the risk of transmission as low as possible.
It is clear that the vast majority of eating and drinking establishments in Scotland have been complying with guidance since they were allowed to reopen, but as we have seen, it takes only a small number not having robust systems in place, or not managing systems effectively, for an outbreak to happen. Willie Rennie has blamed test and protect, but it is a compliance issue—as he would know, if his North East Scotland MSP colleague ever went to NHS Grampian briefings.
Is there scope for measures to ensure that there are sanctions for businesses that do not comply with regulations and guidance? What might those sanctions look like? How can customers’ concerns be raised?
Gillian Martin has made really good points. In short, we will continue to consider the balance between guidance and regulation, and the balance between encouraging people to do the right thing voluntarily and imposing sanctions when they do not. Enforcement is a key part of our approach, but I continue to think that it is important to encourage people to do the right thing for the right reasons. The police have powers of enforcement across a range of the measures in question; we will continue to keep under consideration whether they have to be strengthened.
Willie Rennie was right to scrutinise the resilience of test and protect, because the issues that we are talking about are extremely important, but Gillian Martin is fundamentally right when she says that, first and foremost, keeping the virus under control is an obligation on all of us. The way I think of it is that we are the first line of defence; it is by complying with all the various measures that we keep that defence strong. When the virus gets through our defence, test and protect jumps into action, but that is then firefighting. Compliance is about giving ourselves the best chance of not starting the fires in the first place.
I make the same plea every day to businesses and individuals across the country. I ask businesses to familiarise themselves with the guidance and the law and to make sure that they are complying with it, and I ask individuals to assume, in everything that they do, that the virus is right next to them and to make sure that they are complying with the FACTS advice, because those are the things that will give us the best possible chance of keeping the virus under control.
Culture and Leisure Trusts
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that more than a third of culture and leisure trusts in Scotland may not be viable beyond six months. (S5F-04273)
This is a really challenging time for individuals and organisations in the culture and leisure sector. We will continue to do all that we can to support them.
Obviously, it is the responsibility of individual local authorities to allocate funding based on needs and priorities, but we are working closely with partners—including the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Museums Galleries Scotland, and the Scottish Library and Information Council—to understand the specific circumstances that are faced in supporting culture and leisure trusts as they seek to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
We have already taken action to support local authorities during the pandemic, through both increased and front-loaded funding for councils. We have also made funding available in other ways to deliver financial support for the creative sector.
The chair of Community Leisure UK in Scotland, Robin Strang, issued a warning for the sector in a letter to COSLA’s President, Alison Evison. In it, he said that 70 per cent of his organisation’s members will not be viable within 12 months.
Such trusts in Scotland have more than 1,400 facilities, including 232 libraries, 197 leisure centres, 466 outdoor sports courts and pitches, 39 theatres, 49 parks and 213 community and town halls. Those are vital to the health and wellbeing—physical and mental—of the nation. We cannot afford to let them sink. However, there have already been hundreds of redundancies.
I am sure that the First Minister will agree that this should not be a blame game—it is not. Will she therefore agree to hold crisis talks with COSLA as a matter of urgency, and to come up with a rescue plan?
As I said in my original answer, we are already working closely with COSLA on that issue and a range of others, and we will continue to do so. I absolutely acknowledge the impact that Graham Simpson has outlined. I do not think that there will be a single one of us in the chamber who does not understand the issues and the impacts from our constituency experiences. This is an important issue.
Like so many other areas in which we are dealing not so much with the impact of the virus itself, but with the impact of the steps that we have had to take to contain it, I am afraid that there are no easy answers in this one. However, we are determined to work with partners—in this case, with COSLA and other representative bodies—to find the best way forward. We will do so as collaboratively, but also as urgently, as possible.
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports of an increased number of evictions predicted for this autumn. (S5F-04272)
I apologise to Pauline McNeill because I am about to repeat the substance of my earlier answers to Patrick Harvie. I reiterate that no landlord should evict a tenant because they have suffered financial hardship due to the coronavirus. Instead, they should be helping their tenants to access the financial support that they need.
One of the reasons why the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning wrote to all private sector tenants was to ensure that they are aware of their rights. We also want to help tenants to remain safe in their homes during the pandemic, so we took action, through emergency legislation, to halt eviction actions for up to six months. As I said earlier, that emergency legislation is in place until 30 September. We want, which is subject to the agreement of Parliament, to extend it until March 2021, which I hope underlines the Government’s commitment to doing all that we can to protect tenants and to prevent people from becoming homeless as a result of the pandemic.
I have previously welcomed the increased allocation of money to the discretionary housing payment fund, but it does not touch the problem. In the private rented sector, almost 45 per cent of tenants have seen a drop in their income since March. As we have heard, there are fears of mass evictions—more so because, in the next month, there will be more job losses.
I put on the record that Scottish Labour whole-heartedly supports the First Minister’s announcement today. She will be aware that 25 housing and homelessness organisations called for extension of the no-evictions policy, so the extension is welcome. However, having rejected the hardship fund and the fair rents bill that I proposed, how else does the First Minister intend to help renters during this unprecedented crisis? Although it has taken some action, the Government does not seem to have a big idea to help them to survive.
In my response to Patrick Harvie, I already ran through some of the actions that we are taking. We will continue to look at all the steps that we are taking and consider where we can do more, including through financial support. We increased funding for discretionary housing payments in order to help people in the rented sector—Pauline McNeill alluded to that—and we have more than doubled the Scottish welfare fund.
As we put together a programme for Government for the year ahead and look ahead to our budget process, making sure that we help people financially and in other ways with the impact of the crisis will be uppermost in our minds. Clearly, that includes people who are struggling to pay the rent and those who face homelessness. I know that there is genuine willingness right across the chamber to be constructive as we try to come up with the right approaches, which is why I look forward to continuing to have discussions with members including Pauline McNeill, and to being prepared to listen to any suggestions that come forward.
We have a number of supplementary questions. The first is from Angela Constance, to be followed by Maurice Corry.
St John’s Hospital Children’s Ward (Reopening)
I have some great news today—NHS Lothian has announced that it is going to reopen the children’s ward at St John’s hospital on a 24/7 basis come October. I am grateful to the health secretary, national health service staff and everyone who has worked with local families.
Will the First Minister pay tribute to West Lothian parents for their tenacity in campaigning hard for this much-loved service, but also for doing so positively to build the strongest case for this much-needed service? Can we now look forward to stability and security for our children’s ward?
I am absolutely delighted to welcome NHS Lothian’s decision to reinstate the paediatric in-patient service at St John’s on a 24/7 basis from 19 October. It has undertaken considerable recruitment efforts to ensure that the service can safely be resumed on a 24/7 basis. I hope that everybody will agree that patient safety must always be the paramount concern, particularly when it is the health and care of children that is at stake.
I absolutely pay tribute to West Lothian parents who have campaigned to have the full service reinstated. They have, I think, been excellent in making the case on behalf of their children and their communities. The Government has always wanted to get to this position, but we and NHS Lothian had to ensure that it was done safely. This is a really positive day for St John’s and for West Lothian.
Finally, I pay tribute as well to Angela Constance, who has assiduously stood up for her constituents on this really important issue.
Qualified dyslexia assessors have contacted me to tell me of the significant difficulties that many people are having in booking their appointments for assessments during the pandemic, which have in some cases worsened the mental wellbeing of people who are already vulnerable. With a severe backlog in face-to-face assessment bookings, which will not resume until phase 4, what detailed support can the First Minister offer to professional assessors who feel that they cannot do their jobs to the best of their ability?
I thank the member for raising what is a really important issue. I think that everybody appreciates the reasons why face-to-face assessments are not always possible at the moment, but we want to get those services back to normal functioning as soon as possible.
I am very happy to take away the particular issue of dyslexia appointments and to write to the member in more detail, giving as far as I can some detail on the likely timing of the restoration of face-to-face assessments and the steps that we can take in the meantime to support people who do not have those opportunities. I will make sure that that is done as quickly as possible.
Party Houses (Covid Security)
I have raised with the First Minister my constituents’ concerns about a so-called party house in West Linton, where the proprietor, Michael Cameron, is apparently defying Covid security measures. For example, one weekend, 30 men from London at a stag do were too drunk for the police to safely disperse them. Does the First Minister agree that that attitude beggars belief and that it could cause a spike in the virus not only locally, but beyond?
I agree. That conduct is not responsible in the circumstances that we live in. The guidance is very clear that large numbers of people from different family groups should not gather in shared accommodation for leisure purposes such as stag and hen parties. The rules that govern circumstances in which people can spend time with friends and family apply both at home and away from home at any type of holiday accommodation.
We have seen in Aberdeen what can happen with gatherings that do not adhere to the guidance, particularly where alcohol is involved. We expect guests to comply with the guidelines and we absolutely expect accommodation providers to act responsibly when letting larger properties. The recovery of our tourism and hospitality sectors is at a very fragile stage, and I urge everyone to play a full and responsible part in supporting that recovery while, of course, keeping Covid suppressed.
Rest and Be Thankful (Closure)
The First Minister will be aware that the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful is closed again as a result of a major land slip last week. I am sure that she will want to join me in thanking those who are working hard to reopen the road. However, all the political leaders in Argyll and Bute Council, Mike Russell, Donald Cameron and I have jointly written to the First Minister to press the case for more action to be taken, because the economic impact on the area is devastating. Will the First Minister agree to convene the A83 task force as a matter of urgency to focus on finding a permanent solution, and finding it quickly?
I thank Jackie Baillie for raising that extremely serious issue. I also thank all the travellers and services who are involved for their forbearance and their work.
We must find a solution. Michael Matheson raised the issue at Cabinet yesterday, and he is seeking to take forward that joined-up approach to determining the best way forward. I assure members that the issue is of the utmost priority to the Government. Clearly, there is a lot of work to be done on developing a solution, and we will keep Parliament updated.
Social Security Support (Return to School)
As the First Minister has said, it is very welcome news that our schools are going back today. However, as she has also said, there will be anxiety—which will have a number of sources—associated with that return. What social security support is the Scottish Government providing for families whose children are returning to school?
That is an important issue. I am sure that this morning’s return to school provoked a mix of emotions in young people and parents including excitement and relief, probably for parents, but also a degree of anxiety and nervousness. However, for some families across the country, the financial cost of the return to school is also a real consideration.
Many parents and carers will be eligible for the best start grant school-age payment, which is the most important form of support that we provide. It provides £250 to parents and carers who receive certain benefits or tax credits and have a child who is old enough to start primary school. Parents do not need to take up a school place to get the money. If someone is home schooling or they have deferred their child’s start date, they can still apply for the best start grant.
Parents and carers may also be eligible for the school clothing grant and for free school meals. I would encourage everybody to go and find the details of that, which can be found on the Scottish Government website.
Aberdeen Lockdown (Guidance)
The First Minister’s announcement regarding the extension of the restrictions in Aberdeen is understandable but, nonetheless, it will come as a disappointment to many across my constituency.
At yesterday’s topical questions, I asked the health secretary about a specific issue that has been raised with me by a number of constituents who rely on the support of grandparents to look after children where, for example, the grandparents stay in Aberdeenshire and the family stays in the city, or vice versa. Some of those constituents are teachers who are welcoming pupils back to school today, and they rely on that family support to care for their children.
What assurance can the First Minister give me that there will be clear guidance about whether those arrangements are possible, so that alternatives can be sourced, if necessary?
I know the difficulties that the restrictions are causing for people in Aberdeen. Once I have left the chamber, I will look specifically at that particular case to see whether we need to provide further guidance in order to give clarity. At the moment, the advice is that people should not be going into other people’s houses unless they have already formed an extended household group or they have caring responsibilities. That is the guidance, but if there is a need to make any aspect of that clearer, I will undertake to ensure that that is done later on.
I very much hope that the restrictions in Aberdeen are not in place for too much longer. They will be reviewed again in seven days, and we will lift some or all of them as quickly as we can. However, it is important not only that we have them in place right now, but that people comply with them. We will try to support people in Aberdeen with guidance to make that easier to understand, as much as we can.
Aberdeen Lockdown (Hospitality Restrictions)
In order that the many establishments that abided by the rules in Aberdeen are not further disadvantaged by the few, will the Scottish Government ask the Treasury to extend the eat out to help out scheme to support hospitality when the city reopens, and will it consider reopening cafes that do not have an alcohol licence?
Yes, we will make that case to the United Kingdom Government. That would be a reasonable case to make, and I hope that it will be prepared to listen.
The issue of cafes was discussed at the incident management team resilience officials meeting, which formulated the advice that came to ministers about continuing the restrictions. They looked at whether the restrictions could be lifted for some parts of hospitality, but the clear advice is that at this stage it would not be safe or sensible to do that. However, we will continue to review whether the restrictions need to be in place at all and, if they do, whether they can be lifted from any part of hospitality. We want to ensure that they are not in place for longer than is necessary, and that while any restrictions have to be in place there is proportionality to them.
In 1998, the late Donald Dewar rightly called the persecution of birds of prey in Scotland a “national disgrace”, and 22 years on it remains a national disgrace.
The grouse shooting season begins today, and this week we have learned of the disappearance of a golden eagle on a grouse moor, which followed closely the news of a poisoned sea eagle. Sadly, such shocking events are far from rare. Indeed, a senior RSPB Scotland conservation officer has said:
“You become a little numb to it. You’re almost ... waiting for the next one.”
Scotland should be a haven for wildlife: it should not be a haven for wildlife crime. When will the First Minister finally act to end raptor persecution in Scotland once and for all?
I understand how serious those issues are, and also how understandably and legitimately upset people are about the issues that Alison Johnstone outlined.
Wildlife crime is a priority for Police Scotland. The Government is reviewing the law and guidance around those issues in a range of ways. I will ask the environment secretary to write to Alison Johnstone with an update on the Government’s considerations on those issues as soon as possible.
Adult Day Care and Respite Services
Two weeks ago, I asked the First Minister to give my constituents clarity about the timescales for reopening adult day care and respite services. The First Minister said that she would look into it and come back with detail very soon. I thank her for her reply. However, the response that I received yesterday said no more than what we already knew, and detailed guidance is still not available.
Can the First Minister please give some indication—especially for the families who think that they are always left behind—of what is happening with those much-needed services?
I thank Beatrice Wishart for raising that issue again. I am glad she referred to the letter. I was sure that I remembered signing off a reply to her in the last couple of days. I have given as much information as I am able to give right at this moment. However, I undertake to write to her again as soon as we are able to give more clarity on dates and timescales.
I absolutely understand that feeling of perhaps not really being on the priority list, in particular for families in Beatrice Wishart’s constituency. I want to assure them that that is not the case. We are dealing with a whole range of complex issues about determining things that are safe—or as safe as possible—to do, and in what order and what way. We are trying to ensure that relevant guidance is developed with the right clinical input as quickly as possible.
I will ask the health secretary to look at that issue again in the light of the member’s question, and will endeavour to give as much additional information as I can, as quickly as possible.
NHS Dental Services
A survey that was published last week by the British Dental Association Scotland revealed that 52 per cent of largely or exclusively national health service practices and 86 per cent of mixed practices predicted a reduction in NHS work during the next year because of the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the provision on NHS dental services.
Given the precarious position that dental practices face, what additional financial support will be provided to ensure the viability of those practices? Without that, there is a real possibility that dentistry in Scotland will quickly move towards a two-tier system with reduced access for NHS patents.
There is not, and there should not be seen to be, a two-tier system of oral healthcare. If dental practices are ready to do so, they can provide aerosol-generating procedures on patients with urgent dental problems from 17 August. We have 75 urgent dental care centres throughout Scotland, to which patients continue to be referred.
On funding, we recognise the pressures that Covid is bringing to bear on all aspects of our health service and all areas of our economy. We will continue to work with the dental profession and seek to provide whatever support that we can.
We are already making exceptional payments to the value of around £12 million per month to support national health service dental incomes, which shows the degree of financial help that is being provided to meet the challenge of these difficult times. We will continue to look at what more we can do on dental practices, as with all other areas.
Domestic Abuse (Clackmannanshire)
The First Minister will be as concerned as I am that Clackmannanshire Council—the smallest council in Scotland—has had the second highest rate of domestic abuse incidents in Scotland during lockdown. Clackmannanshire Women’s Aid has said that the problem is so severe that it might not be able to cope in providing assistance to people as lockdown eases. What urgent action will the Scottish Government put in place to ensure that women, children and young people receive the support that they require?
As a result of Alexander Stewart’s question, I will ask my officials to liaise with Scottish Women’s Aid, particularly in Clackmannanshire, to see whether we can offer any support.
Around the United Kingdom and further afield, we and others acknowledged from the start of the pandemic that lockdown would create its own serious problems. The potential for domestic abuse was undoubtedly one of those problems. We have already made available additional resources to organisations working in that field so that the helpline could continue during the pandemic.
We take domestic abuse extremely seriously, as does Police Scotland. When the chief constable took part in one of the daily updates with me, he made it clear that, notwithstanding the difficulties and restrictions of the pandemic, anybody who feels at risk or under threat of domestic violence should contact the police, who will respond appropriately.
We will continue to do what we can to support the front-line organisations that are supporting women or anybody who is subject to the threat of domestic abuse.
This morning, I took receipt of the first batch of responses from local authorities to freedom of information requests about teachers who have spent lockdown shielding and are expected to return to work this week. There are 151 such teachers in North Ayrshire and 134 in Glasgow. Those numbers paint a picture of thousands of teachers and thousands more pupils who are in the most vulnerable categories and who are expected to return to the school environment with Covid still at large. For teachers and pupils at the upper end of secondary schools, their anxiety must be all the more acute.
The First Minister told Willie Rennie that she expects outbreaks in schools to take place. What reassurance can she give to people in vulnerable groups that they are safe to be in school, and what measures will she ask schools to employ to keep them safe?
Those are important issues and I seek to give assurance in a number of ways. First, the advice that we give people who are in the shielded category is not given lightly. We consider it carefully and it is informed by clinical and expert opinion, which will continue to be the case. Our advice that shielding could pause from the start of August was advice that we agonised over and that we will keep under review.
Before I go on to schools, I note that we have produced workplace guidance for people who are in the shielded category and their employers to ensure that the right considerations are taken into account to make workplaces safe.
In schools, the guidance has put in place a number of mitigating factors to ensure that schools are safe and that the right protections are there. Again, we will keep that under close review. The Deputy First Minister will cover more of this ground when he makes a statement to Parliament this afternoon, which will include extensions to the position around testing.
We will not hesitate to change the advice and guidance that we give people in the shielded category if we think that that is necessary. By keeping the virus under control, we all have a responsibility to help to ensure that that is not necessary. On an on-going basis, we are seeking to develop the range of information that we give people so that they are better able to assess their own risk in the particular area in which they live.
These issues will be under review literally daily.
I am sure that all members in the chamber wish pupils who are returning to school this week the very best in what are unprecedented times.
Will the First Minister extend her thanks to the education recovery group for its co-operative work in developing the protocols that are in place to ensure that staff, pupils and teachers can have confidence that the best measures are in place to avoid Covid-19 outbreaks?
I record my thanks to everybody who has been working hard to help us through Covid and make sure that the right guidance is in place to help people to return safely to schools or other workplaces. The education recovery group has not had an easy task, but it has done a really good job.
As I said in my previous answer, all aspects of the guidance on schools will be kept under review, as will any emerging evidence from Scotland, the United Kingdom or any other part of the world.
I take the opportunity to thank teachers, support staff, janitors, cleaners, caterers and everybody else who works in our schools, who have done a huge amount of work but who, as parents and family members themselves, will also be feeling a sense of anxiety right now, just as young people are. It is important to acknowledge that and give as much assurance as we can that we will continue to strive to make sure that the right protections are in place.
Train Derailment (Contact Information)
I join Ruth Davidson, the First Minister and others who have expressed their shock and concern at the events that are unfolding in Aberdeenshire today.
The First Minister has said that many agencies will be involved, and many people will be very concerned that they have friends or loved ones who are involved. Is there a central point of contact that they can access to get information about those concerns?
That is an important suggestion, and I undertake to act on it later on. I am sure that members will understand that I mean no disrespect to Parliament when I say that I am anxious to get out of the chamber so that I can be updated on the current situation and make sure that all the practical arrangements are being put into place.
As I said earlier, I spoke to Network Rail, the police and the fire service just before coming to the chamber. The details that were available then were minimal because it is an on-going incident and it has happened in a location that is difficult for emergency services to access. I know and appreciate that many families will be anxious if they believe that their relatives were on the train.
We will do everything that we can to make sure that the emergency services and families are supported, and that there is a clear point of contact. It may be that while we have been in the chamber, the emergency services have already put that in place. If not, we will make sure that there is a point of contact that anybody who has worries about their relatives or friends can access over the course of the day.13:32 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—