Meeting date: Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 13 January 2021
Agenda: Business Motion, Vaccination Plan, Covid-19 Education Update, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time
- Business Motion
- Vaccination Plan
- Covid-19 Education Update
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
We come to First Minister’s question time. Before taking questions, the First Minister will update the Parliament with a short statement.
I will update members on the current position in relation to Covid. I must stress at the outset that the situation that we face in relation to the virus remains precarious and extremely serious. Therefore, in order to maximise our chances of effectively suppressing the virus, I will set out further tightening of the lockdown restrictions.
First, I will give a brief summary of today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,949, which represents 10.2 per cent of all tests carried out and takes the total number of cases to 155,372. I can also confirm that, as of yesterday, 191,965 people had received their first dose of vaccine. Today, 1,794 people are in hospital with Covid, which is 77 more people than yesterday. In the week up to 7 January alone, 1,005 patients were admitted to hospital, compared with 851 patients in the final week of December. Currently, 134 people are in intensive care, which is one more than yesterday. All those figures underline the severity of the pressure on the national health service and the fact that that is increasing.
I am sad to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 79 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive in the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measure is now 5,102.
National Records of Scotland has just published its weekly update, which includes cases where Covid is a suspected or contributory cause of death, even if that has not been confirmed through a test. Today’s update shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid under the wider definition was 7,074. Of those deaths, 384 were registered last week, which is 197 more than in the previous week, and is the highest weekly figure that we have recorded since May. Some of the increase might be down to people registering deaths last week that had occurred over the Christmas and new year period. Even so, the figure is heartbreakingly high, and it reminds us again of the grief that the virus continues to cause. Yet again, I send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.
A little while ago, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport made a detailed statement about our vaccination programme. As I give today’s statement, which will inevitably focus on the sacrifices that we are asking of people, it is worth highlighting some of the key points that she made.
We have already vaccinated more than 80 per cent of care home residents in Scotland, and more than half of front-line health and social care workers. The vaccination of those aged over 80 is under way and gathering speed. First doses for the over-80s will be completed by the start of February, and everyone aged over 70 will have been offered vaccination by mid-February. It is our aim to vaccinate everyone over 65 and those with extreme clinical vulnerability by the end of February. That means that, by the start of March, 1.4 million people will have received at least the first dose of vaccine. To support that, more than 1,100 vaccination centres are already operational in Scotland. That number will increase, with mass centres opening too, as supplies increase.
That is all positive. Vaccination offers us a route back to a more normal life, and gives us real hope for the future. However, for now, we are in a race against the virus. To win the race, we must complete the vaccination programme as quickly as possible, which is what we will do, but we must also slow down the virus. Today’s numbers demonstrate again why that is necessary.
In early December, we were recording approximately 100 new cases of Covid each week for every 100,000 people. Since then, that figure has almost trebled. That is mainly because the new variant of Covid, which is much easier to transmit, is spreading rapidly. The new variant now makes up around 60 per cent of new cases and makes it far more difficult to get the R number back below 1 without severe restrictions.
Of course, we now have severe restrictions in place and, while it is still early days, there are some signs that lockdown may be starting to have an effect. The rapid increase in cases that we saw around the turn of the year appears to have slowed down and begun to stabilise. That is good news, but at this stage it can give us no room for complacency. It is too soon to be entirely confident that the situation is stabilising and, even if it is, that will only be because of lockdown. It is not, unfortunately, an indication that it is safe to ease it yet in any way. The number of new cases is still far too high and, of course, all of that is having a significant and severe impact on our health service.
With the number of people being infected every day remaining as high as it is, the pressure on the national health service is likely to increase further and continue for some time. Also, as I reported a few moments ago, last week saw the highest number of registered deaths from Covid since early May. Therefore, we must continue to do everything possible to reduce case numbers. That is essential to relieve the pressure on our health service and also to save lives. That is why the Cabinet considered yesterday some further tightening of the lockdown restrictions, to ensure that they can be as effective as they need to be in suppressing the virus.
There are six changes that we intend to make, and the regulations giving effect to them will, subject to the Parliament’s approval, take effect on Saturday. I am aware that some of the changes will sound technical and relatively minor. However, we believe that, both individually and collectively, the additional measures, in further reducing the interactions that allow the virus to spread, will help our essential efforts to suppress it. Of course, however technical the changes might sound, I know that all of them involve further restrictions on our essential liberties, so I want to give an assurance again that none of these decisions is arrived at lightly.
I will set out what the changes are. First, we intend to limit the availability and operation of click-and-collect retail services. Only retailers selling essential items will be allowed to offer click and collect. That will include, for example, clothes and footwear, baby equipment, homeware and books. All other click-and-collect services must stop. More importantly, for click-and-collect services that are allowed, staggered appointments will need to be offered to avoid any potential for queuing, and access inside premises for collection will not be permitted.
The details will be set down in regulations and in guidance. I know that businesses affected by the change will be disappointed and that many have gone to great lengths to make services as safe as possible, but we must reduce, as far as is possible, the reasons that people have right now for leaving home and coming into contact with others. I welcome the actions of those businesses that have voluntarily suspended click and collect and tightened their procedures—for example, in relation to face coverings.
Secondly, we intend to apply restrictions to takeaway services. Customers will no longer be permitted to go inside to collect takeaway food or coffee. Any outlet wishing to offer takeaway will have to do so from a serving hatch or doorway. That is to reduce the risk of customers coming into contact indoors with each other or with staff.
Thirdly, we intend to change the rules around consumption of alcohol. At the moment, different parts of Scotland have different laws in relation to the consumption of alcohol in outdoor public places. However, from Saturday, it will be against the law in all level 4 areas to drink alcohol outdoors in public. That will mean, for example, that buying a takeaway pint and drinking it outdoors will not be permitted.
Again, I know that that will not be a popular move, but it is intended to underline and support the fact that right now we should be leaving home only for essential purposes. That includes exercise or recreation, but it does not include simple socialising. When you do leave home, you should meet only one person from another household in a group no bigger than two people. I know that that is a hard message and it is absolutely not one that I want to be sending, but it is vital to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.
Fourthly, and significantly, we intend to strengthen the obligation on employers to allow their staff to work from home whenever possible. The law already says that we should be leaving home to go to work only if it is work that cannot be done from home. That is a legal obligation that falls on individuals. However, we will now introduce statutory guidance to make it clear to employers that they must support their workers to work from home wherever possible. For all employers, the basic but vital message is this: if your staff were working from home during the first lockdown last year, they should be working from home now and you should be facilitating that.
Fifthly, we will strengthen the provisions in relation to work inside people’s houses. We have already issued guidance to the effect that in level 4 areas work is only permitted within a private dwelling if it is essential for the upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household. We will now put that guidance into law.
The final change is an amendment to the regulations requiring people to stay at home. I should be clear, however, that this is intended to close an apparent loophole, rather than change the spirit of the law. It will also bring the wording of the stay-at-home regulations in Scotland into line with those in the other nations of the United Kingdom.
Right now, the law states that people can leave home only for an essential purpose. However, having left home for an essential purpose, someone could then stay out of their home to do something that is not essential without breaching the law as it stands. The amendment will make it clear that people must not leave or remain outside the home unless it is for an essential purpose. That change will provide legal clarity to facilitate any necessary enforcement. I want to be clear that it does not change the range of essential purposes that currently enable people to leave their house, nor does it put any time limit on how long people can be outdoors for essential exercise, for example, but it does mean that if the police challenge you for being out of the house doing something that is not essential, it will not be a defence to say that you initially left the house to do something that was essential.
I know that none of this makes for enjoyable listening. If it is any comfort, although I do not expect that it will be, it gives me no pleasure to be talking about further restrictions on businesses and on our individual freedoms to come and go as we please. Please know that we would not be doing any of this if we did not believe it to be essential in order to get and keep this potentially deadly virus under control. Case numbers are still so high, and the new variant is so infectious, that we must be as tough and as effective as we possibly can be to stop it spreading. That means taking further steps to stop people from meeting and interacting, indoors and also outdoors. Today’s measures will help us to achieve that. They are a regrettable but necessary means to an end.
I stress again that, although these are dark and difficult times, we have grounds for hope. As I indicated earlier, there are some early signs that the lockdown is beginning to have an effect, so we must stick with it. Vaccination is already protecting a lot of the people who are most vulnerable to the virus, and it will protect more in the weeks and months ahead.
However hopeless the situation makes us all feel at times, the fact is that none of us is powerless in the face of the virus. We cannot guarantee that we will not get it or pass it on—it is, after all, highly infectious—but we can all behave in a way that significantly reduces our risk of getting it or passing it on, so please continue do that.
I stress this point: please stick to the spirit, not just the letter, of the rules. Do not think in terms of the maximum interactions that you can have without breaking the rules. Please think instead about how you minimise your interactions to the bare essentials so as to remove as many opportunities as possible for the virus to spread.
In everything that you do, assume that the virus is there with you—that either you have it or any person you are in contact with has it—and act in a way that prevents it from passing between you. All of that means staying at home except for genuinely essential purposes, and that includes working from home whenever possible. Except for essential purposes, do not have people from other households in your house and do not go into theirs, and please follow the FACTS advice at all times when you are out and about.
All of that is how we keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, and it is how we keep the virus under control until the vaccines get to do their work. At this critical and dangerous moment, please stay home, protect the national health service and save lives.
Covid-19 (Restrictions on Businesses)
I thank the First Minister for advance notice of her statement.
The announcement of new restrictions today to both takeaway and click-and-collect services, while understandable, will be a further disappointment to businesses. Business groups have said that the evidence for the decision has not yet been made plain to them. For many of them, the restrictions were unexpected only a week ago. They thought that their services would continue and, in many cases, they had invested heavily to make their premises safe so as to keep trading.
I am pleased that the First Minister says that funding will be made available at some point, but is there not a case for extra compensation for businesses that have been told by the Scottish Government what to do to become Covid compliant, that have spent money making all the changes that ministers required of them and that are now being told that they must adapt again?
Those are all reasonable points. On the question of evidence, we will publish an evidence paper—it is probably being published just about now—which is an update of the paper that we published last week. It will be put into the public domain for scrutiny by members of the Parliament and the wider public, and it covers the state of the epidemic and the evidence underpinning the decisions that we are making.
I fully understand the call from businesses in different sectors for specific evidence about transmission in those respective sectors. When we were at a stage at which community prevalence of the virus was lower, it was much more relevant to look, with a laser focus, at exactly where the virus was spreading. When we have higher community transmission, which is being fuelled by the faster spreading variant, it is much more the case that the evidence tells us that, overall and in general, we have to minimise all our interactions with other people.
Lockdown, as announced last week, has substantially done that. We have data that suggest that traffic volumes and people’s contacts have fallen. However, we know anecdotally and from other areas that there are some parts of the economy and some aspects of individual behaviour where—understandably—people are still coming together in a way that risks, against a faster transmitting variant of the virus, continued spread. That is why we have set out further tightenings today.
We are not taking away click and collect altogether. Some businesses have already decided voluntarily to suspend such services, and we are putting in place more mitigations and greater restrictions, all to the end of suppressing the virus.
On financial compensation, significant money is available. Much of it is already with businesses and much more is flowing to businesses over the course of this month. The finance minister recently set out additional payments for people in the hospitality and retail sectors, for example. On an on-going basis, we will continue to look at what we can do, within our resources, where there are legitimate calls for more financial support.
I hope that, however difficult it is, businesses will understand, as individuals do, that all this is simply necessary and inescapable right now if we are not to see ourselves and our national health service being overwhelmed by the virus, and, unfortunately, many more people dying from it.
The decision is the latest in which businesses do not feel involved or consulted by the Government. They feel like an afterthought—and no wonder. We called months ago for a Covid business council, and the First Minister said that she would take the proposal forward, but such a council has still not been launched.
The new funding that was announced this week is welcome. New funding was also welcome way back on 9 December, when the Government announced an extra £185 million in support for business and £55 million for sports clubs. It was welcome in November, when the Government announced the strategic framework business fund. It was welcome in late October, when the Government announced a £30 million discretionary fund. Of all those funds, we have seen evidence of only £6 million reaching businesses. Will the First Minister agree to publish, immediately, how much of all that funding has reached businesses? Will she say now whether even a tenth of the funding has been delivered, months on?
We will publish figures as the information comes through. In the main, local authorities are administering the funding. Of the £715 million that has been allocated to business support since October, £600 million is live and the vast majority of other funds go live this month. Payments are flowing to businesses, and at the end of this month the businesses that are eligible for additional top-up payments will receive those payments. We will continue to publish figures as we proceed.
On consultation with businesses, we have discussions with businesses, business organisations and individual sectors on an on-going basis. I appreciate the desire for as much consultation as possible, and we will try to consult as far as we can. However, ultimately, right now we face decisions that are inescapable. No amount of discussion and consultation takes us away from the sharp point that we have a rapidly spreading virus, which, if we do not reduce and minimise interactions, will overwhelm us, overwhelm our national health service and lead to the deaths of many more people.
I am afraid that that is the harsh reality of the situation that we are in just now. My duty as First Minister, and the duty of the Government, is not to shy away from these difficult decisions but to take responsibility for them. It is my duty to stand here and set out the decisions and the reasons for and evidence behind them—and, yes, to continue to do as much as we can to support the people who are affected by them.
The Government also has a responsibility not to let viable businesses fall. Here is where we are. Leaked documents show that only seven of 30 business funds have launched. The Federation of Small Businesses Scotland says that funding is trapped in an “administrative logjam”.
Another fund, which is not included in that list of 30, has opened. The digital boost development grant fund launched yesterday morning. It was meant to remain open for six weeks but it shut within 24 hours because it was inundated and oversubscribed. That is the measure of how desperate things are. Businesses are crying out for funding, but the funds are not opening and the guidance has not been delivered.
The First Minister has just mentioned councils. They want to get funding out of the door, but they are hearing nothing from the Scottish Government. If someone were to click on to Falkirk Council’s website, they would see that it lists 16 Scottish Government funds. Underneath that list, the website says:
“Please do not contact us about these funds as we don’t have any details as yet.”
Will the First Minister say how many funds have even had guidance issued, never mind delivered money into people’s pockets?
Across all the funds, £600 million of the £715 million announced most recently is already live; the other part of that, as was announced more recently, will be going live in the course of the next period.
I have not seen the leaked documents to which Ruth Davidson referred. I will be happy to look at them to see whether they are up to date or are perhaps out of date. Since October, we have allocated £715 million to business support, which includes payments of up to £3,000 every four weeks through the strategic framework business fund. There is additional bespoke funding for sectors that have been hit particularly hard, such as tourism and culture, and for groups such as the newly self-employed and taxi drivers.
Just a few days ago, on 11 January, we announced top-up grant support for hospitality, retail and leisure businesses. For larger businesses that will be a top-up of £25,000, which will be paid later this month, compared with the £9,000 that will be paid to similar businesses in England. Smaller businesses will receive smaller amounts. Just yesterday, we announced additional funding for our island communities to help businesses that are in level 3 areas as opposed to level 4.
I have had discussions with the finance secretary on how we can support councils to get money out of the door and into the pockets of businesses more quickly. The digital boost development grant fund that was mentioned has been oversubscribed very quickly. One of the discussions that I was having just before I left the office to come to the chamber—which I will continue and complete when I get back there after this session—was on how we put additional funding into that in order to meet more of the demand for it.
This is therefore an on-going process, which we will continue to give the priority that it merits.
The First Minister has responded to me by listing announcements. I welcome those—everyone does—and the Scottish Government is great at making them, but this is about getting money delivered into people’s pockets, and the money is not getting there.
The First Minister’s inbox will be the same as mine—groaning under the weight of inquiries from people who are desperate actually to see the funding that they have been promised to prevent their jobs from going under. Here is a quote from an email from George:
“Good afternoon, Ruth. I am asking as a husband and a father. Can you ask the Scottish Government when the grant to Scottish taxi drivers is likely to be distributed? I am on my knees here, trying to pay bills and also keep a taxi on the road with little work. It is desperate stuff now. I understand that everyone is in the same position, but we have been promised this since November and we can’t find any access to find out what is happening.”
For George and 38,000 other taxi drivers, we could read thousands more shopkeepers, gym operators, hairdressers, bed-and-breakfast owners, tour operators, wedding business operators, self-catering operators and those in any number of supply chains, all of whom have been promised help. They all welcomed the First Minister’s announcements, but they are all being told, “Don’t bother applying yet, because we don’t even know how these schemes are going to run.”
Way back on 24 March, Kate Forbes said that the aim was to make payments within 10 working days. Right now, there are sectors out there that would be delighted if they could see the promised cash within 10 weeks. When will the First Minister finally get to grips with that, as thousands of Scottish jobs rely on it?
I fully understand how important the issue is. Ruth Davidson seeks to give the impression that no money has flowed to businesses, but that is not the case. We have announced many additional streams of support as different sectors have made cases for additional funding. When we announce those, of course we have to put in place arrangements to get such funding out—usually through local authorities, which often ask us for additional guidance on eligibility for it. That is an on-going process, which we will continue to accelerate as much as we possibly can.
Money is flowing to businesses, and more will do so. The finance secretary will continue to support councils. Additional administrative support has been given to councils to ensure that the process is as quick as it can be.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement. No one welcomes such restrictions, but compliance with them is necessary. I stress that it is really important that employees who can work from home are allowed by their employers to do so.
This week, the Scottish Government’s strategy for testing and tracking down positive Covid cases has come under renewed scrutiny. Research by Scottish Labour has revealed that, in the past four weeks, Scotland has carried out fewer tests per 100,000 people than any other nation of the United Kingdom. Over the past week, Scotland has carried out half the number of tests per 100,000 people that have been carried out in England. Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the First Minister’s advisory group, has warned:
“we are only finding half, or even less than half, of the cases. This is like fighting the epidemic with one arm behind our back”.
Yesterday, the First Minister said that she was looking into a roll-out of community mass testing at greater scale, which I welcome, but when and where will that start, and when will Scotland stop fighting the epidemic with one arm behind our back?
I have had exchanges of this nature with Richard Leonard before, so I am happy to go through some of the basics again and go through some of the work that is under way.
I strongly suspect that the figures that Richard Leonard quoted at the outset of his question—I am happy to be proved wrong if this is not the case—are the figures for the demand-led testing scheme, whereby people who have symptoms go to a drive-through centre or a mobile testing unit or order a home test and get tested. As I have set out before, the reason why the numbers going through that process are lower in Scotland than in other parts of the UK is that, even though prevalence of the virus in Scotland is much higher than we want it to be and it is rising, it is lower than it is in other parts of the UK. It is perhaps less than a third of what it is in some other parts of the UK. In very simple terms, that means that there are fewer people with symptoms putting demand on those tests. That is why those figures show what Richard Leonard has set out. That is quite an important point of detail to grasp and to understand.
What I have just described is symptomatic testing; people go for it only if they have symptoms. So, if our prevalence means that fewer people have symptoms, fewer people will be accessing that testing.
We are not just looking at asymptomatic testing; we carried out pilots of it in a number of areas before Christmas and we are looking at plans from local authorities to roll it out on a bigger scale. We are looking at rolling out asymptomatic testing quickly to industrial sites to help with workforce containment as well, and we will be setting out details of those plans very soon. That is work in progress, and we could not do that significantly earlier because a lot of it relies on lateral flow testing technology, which has come on stream in sufficient volumes only relatively recently.
That is all important work, which is being done at pace. I do not want to send any message of complacency about this, because I could be standing here next week and the position could be very different, but I come back to the point that, right now, although the prevalence of the virus is too high—it is increasing, and that is not acceptable—it is lower than in England and in Wales, and it has certainly been lower than in Northern Ireland.
That suggests not that we are getting everything right but that perhaps we are not doing everything wrong, as Richard Leonard often stands up and says. We can never take our foot off the pedal on this. We have to run faster than the virus, and that is what we are determined to continue to do.
The First Minister talks about running faster than the virus, but the figures are these: positive case numbers have increased by 184 per cent since the start of December but we are carrying out only 7 per cent more tests, so increasing testing is crucial.
However, to contain this new wave, we need to be tracing contacts effectively as well. Last time there was a spike in cases, we know that test and protect struggled to cope and reverted to using only SMS messages to trace contacts. Back then, the First Minister said that her Government would
“seek to improve the system”,—[Official Report, 12 November 2020; c 7.]
with more phone calls and fewer people receiving only texts. However, according to Public Health Scotland, once again,
“over the past few weeks, contact tracing of contacts has been primarily focused on SMS messages”.
Is the First Minister satisfied that a tracing system based on text messages is sufficient to ensure that people understand what is required of them and, critically, how they can access support? How confident is the First Minister that, if mass testing is rolled out and cases rise, the test and protect system will be able to cope?
The test and protect system is not just coping but doing extremely well. That is not a tribute to the Government but a tribute to those across the country who are working hard to ensure that that is the case. It has coped throughout the pandemic. Yes, the pressure on it is greater at times of higher transmission, but it is a well-functioning system that is coping. For contact tracing, it uses a mixture of telephone calls and SMS; the priority is to get to contacts as quickly as possible. The figures that are published on a weekly basis by Public Health Scotland show that the proportion of contacts that are successfully traced within the target period is high and, the last time I looked, that test and protect in Scotland is performing better in many of those metrics than similar systems elsewhere.
Again, we are not complacent about any of that. We continue to work hard to ensure that the systems that are in place are commensurate to the scale of the challenge, and that will continue to be the case. We also have a system whereby local authorities make outreach calls to people, particularly those in vulnerable, low-income groups, who have been asked to self-isolate, to make sure that they understand what is required of them and that they are accessing any support that they need. The system has many layers and we continue to look at how we can strengthen and enhance all of them, but it is to the great credit of those who are working in our test and protect system that it continues to operate as well as it does.
The First Minister talks about people accessing support, but we know that fewer than a third of applications for self-isolation support grants are approved. The Government assured the people of Scotland that that money was there to help them in their hour of need. However, more than that, that failure is damaging Scotland’s efforts to tackle the virus. I know that the Government has revised the support grant scheme, but council leaders I have spoken to say that the Government’s criteria are still too restrictive, because they are based on eligibility for particular benefits. As a start, the council leaders suggest widening criteria to include those who are eligible for council tax reductions. Will the First Minister agree today to further widen the Government’s criteria so that, at last, the money reaches those people who are in greatest need?
We will always look at reasonable suggestions to modify what we are doing in order to help more people, so, yes, I will undertake to look at that. According to the figures that we have available, expenditure on awards of self-isolation support grants has increased between October and November. We deliberately focus the financial support on the people who are most likely to face hardship and, since it was launched, we have extended the grant to better reach those whom it is intended to support. That includes the parents of children who are required to self-isolate and people who are not in receipt of universal credit but whose income is at a level where they might qualify for the benefit if they applied for it. Spending on the support grant is approaching the levels that we predicted, which suggests that it is reaching the numbers of people that we thought it would.
If it is appropriate, local authorities signpost people who apply but are deemed not to be eligible to alternative support, principally through the Scottish welfare fund. We have also increased funding to the Scottish welfare fund, so we are seeking to get support to as many people as possible, focusing on those who are most in need. However, as with everything else in relation to the virus, the situation continues to be fast moving, so we will continue to look at what more we can do to support people.
Polymerase Chain Reaction Tests
Last week, the Scottish Government said that PCR tests are safer than lateral flow tests, but it is still not using the full capacity for PCR testing to hunt down the virus. The First Minister has just said that demand for PCR testing is not at full capacity, so why are we not using it to hunt down the virus in our communities? If half of the people who have the virus do not know that they have it, why is the Scottish Government not using that capacity to find them? That should be the priority for the Government.
PCR tests are not safer than lateral flow tests; they are more sensitive and specific. That is not a pedantic point; it is really important.
Secondly, PCR testing is what we use for symptomatic testing. It is important, especially when transmission rates are rising, that we ensure that there is the capacity to test everybody who comes forward with symptoms. That is what has happened. At the moment—I am touching wood—turnaround times for testing through that system are extremely good. We also use PCR testing for some routine testing of care home staff and some groups of national health service staff.
We think that it is better to use lateral flow testing for wider mass testing of asymptomatic people because of the speed of the results. That, as well as the sensitivity and how specific the tests are, is another big difference between PCR and lateral flow testing. Even with quick turnaround times for PCR testing, it takes more time to get results. We can give people results from lateral flow testing much more quickly. That is the preferred way of mass testing people who do not have symptoms.
We are not not using capacity. We are seeking to use most effectively the different capacities and technologies that we have, overall and collectively, in order that we can keep the virus under control through testing. Of course, important though testing is, it is only one aspect of the strategy that we have to deploy against the virus.
The First Minister has just said that she is “not not using” all the capacity. What kind of contortion is that? The reality is that 65,000 tests are available, but she is using, at best, only half of them. Just as it was with business grants, the Government is great at making announcements on testing, but is very poor on delivery. When our hospitals are bursting at the seams, we should be using the gold-plated and gold-standard tests to hunt down the people in our communities who have the virus but do not know it. That is the best way to stop the spread.
I have made positive suggestions for weeks on end in the chamber, and the First Minister has repeatedly pooh-poohed them, but we now find out that the Government is still not using the capacity that is available. Let me make another positive suggestion today. I hope that the First Minister will be able to act on it. There could be mobile PCR testing units at supermarkets, Royal Mail sorting offices, police stations and schools to test the people on the front line of the pandemic with the best test that we have available for them. Will she agree to that, or is she just going to stick in the rut that she has got herself into?
Scotland is, of course, not the only country that is currently tackling the pandemic. We are not in a rut; we are in the face of a global pandemic that we are seeking to lead the country through.
I will not commit to those suggestions because there are very good reasons why doing so would not be sensible. Places such as Willie Rennie mentioned are exactly where we are seeking to carry out lateral flow testing. They are the kinds of sites at which we carried out pilots before Christmas.
We use PCR testing for routine on-going asymptomatic testing of certain groups. We would be making a mistake if we were to use all our PCR testing capacity for asymptomatic mass testing, because it would then not be available if it were to be required for symptomatic testing. We have to balance sensibly all the different testing capacities that we have, as other countries do.
I know that this is complicated, but there are reasons why we do things. Although the situation is not perfect and is absolutely not beyond being improved when that is required, there are reasons why we use testing as we do.
As we pass another tragic milestone in respect of the number of deaths from the virus, our thoughts are with everyone who has lost someone close to them. We all need to continue to take the crisis seriously. Instead of debating exactly how long people are allowed to sit on a park bench, we should be supporting people to do the right thing, which, overwhelmingly, they want to do.
For months, the Scottish Greens have been warning that many people simply cannot self-isolate safely—not just because of income but because of lack of physical space, the risk of losing their job, caring responsibilities and other reasons. Way back in May, the First Minister seemed to agree with us that we should provide hotel accommodation for people who need it. By November, she could not say whether that had happened. We now know that most applications for the self-isolation grant are being turned down. Is it not clear that the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments need to take a far more proactive approach to supporting people to self-isolate—as the Greens have proposed and as other countries have already done—if that critical part of our Covid response is to be effective?
Those questions are important, and I covered some of them in response to Richard Leonard. We have eligibility criteria for the support grant; we have already extended them and will consider extending them further. People who do not meet the criteria will be signposted to other support.
The outreach services that local authorities provide can offer other support, and we will discuss with them whether they feel that demand for things like hotel accommodation is coming through those services now. We can certainly look again—as we did last year—at whether that should become part of the offer that we make to people. We will always consider what more we can do.
Although it is very difficult for people in any circumstances to be asked to self-isolate, there is certainly no suggestion that people are not routinely doing it. Patrick Harvie is right: people are doing the right things. Although that is important, so, too, is giving people advice about what they can and cannot do during lockdown. I do not think that it is right to dismiss that. My inbox heaves daily with people wanting practical advice. We must support people in all the different ways, which is what we will continue to do.
I am afraid that I still find it frustrating that we are being told that the issue will be looked at again. I have lost count of the number of public health experts who have been raising the issue for months—as we have—and saying that the approach needs to be much more proactive. If we are expecting that the number of cases will remain high and will continue to rise with the new variant, provision needs to be in place already.
The First Minister will also be aware of the pressure on students. They have been told that they should not return to colleges and universities yet and have, thanks to Green amendments to the coronavirus legislation, the legal right to cancel unneeded tenancies.
However, many private housing providers are putting barriers in the way of cancellation or are forcing students to pay rent for accommodation that they cannot use. Does the First Minister agree that students who have been told not to return to campus should be entitled to a rent waiver for January and February? What action is the Government taking to ensure that landlords respect students’ right to terminate their leases freely, if that is what they decide they need to do?
Let me conclude on self-isolation before I get on to the questions about students.
When I say that we look at things “again”, I mean that we look at them on an ongoing basis. We have already made changes to provision of support for people who are self-isolating. We will never get to a stage in the pandemic when we will say that we have done enough and will not consider doing more. That commitment is on-going and is important.
We will look into the matter and we will take whatever action is considered to be necessary when there is evidence that private housing providers are trying to frustrate students’ ability to exercise their legal rights. If Patrick Harvie or others know of specific incidences, they should, please, pass them to us.
More generally, the issue of rent for students is a matter for universities and housing providers. I know that a number of universities and providers are providing some kind of waiver or rebate, but I encourage them to go further than that and to ensure that the situation students are in is properly understood and responded to. We will, through the Scottish Funding Council, continue to discuss with universities the extent to which the Scottish Government can help with that. However, responsibility for addressing the matter is, in the first instance, fundamentally for universities and providers of housing.
Care Home Visiting
To ask the First Minister what the current guidelines are regarding care home visiting. (S5F-04726)
In view of the move to enhanced level 4 measures, it has been recommended that visiting in adult care homes is restricted to essential and outdoor garden and window visits. I know how distressing that is for the friends and family of people in care homes, given that before we moved into this situation progress was being made on visiting. However, concerns around the spread of the virus are significant.
I hope that, with the progress that we are making in vaccinating care home residents and staff, we will soon be able to support more indoor visiting. In the meantime, essential and outdoor visiting should continue, and it is vital that care homes support essential visiting to ensure that families are able to visit those in distress or who have a change in their wellbeing, and of course to visit those who are approaching the end of their life.
I thank the First Minister for that answer and agree that today’s vaccination update gives us all hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
With regard to the current guidelines, can the First Minister provide further information on how end-of-life exemption decisions are approached, reached and communicated to families? I have heard from constituents who have been notified far too late and, tragically, have been unable to see loved ones before losing them. Will the First Minister consider reviewing the guidance around those decisions in the light of such cases?
Yes. If it is thought that reviewing the guidance would help to reach appropriate decisions in those cases, we will, of course, consider doing that. I am very sorry to hear about Shona Robison’s constituents’ losses and the loss of anybody across the country in those circumstances.
We expect care homes—I know that care homes are working hard on this—to take the necessary steps and to be flexible in supporting families to visit loved ones who are near the end of life, wherever possible. Essential visits include those in circumstances in which it is clear that the person’s health is changing for the worse and in which visiting may help with communication difficulties or to ease significant personal stress. That includes those who are approaching the end of life.
On how those decisions are made, we would hope and expect that care homes would make those decisions in close and regular contact with families. That is particularly important in an end-of-life situation.
We will, of course, continue to reflect on how and to what extent we can make the process easier or less horrendously difficult by providing amended guidance.
Vitamin D Supplements
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the roll-out of vitamin D supplements for people who are eligible. (S5F-04724)
This week, Food Standards Scotland launched a new campaign to encourage people to take vitamin D supplements to maintain bone and muscle health. That campaign builds on a recent social media campaign and other work by the Government, Food Standards Scotland and Public Health Scotland to raise awareness of the importance of vitamin D.
That includes, of course, the offer that we made at the end of last year to everyone on the shielding list of a free four months’ supply of daily vitamin D supplements to support their health and wellbeing over the winter months. More than 71,000 people who opted in received that in early December last year. Supplies were sent out in late November, and I understand that that is now complete. The offer included residents in care homes and those in prisons, who will receive their supply through individualised discussions and prescriptions where that is of benefit.
Vitamin D deficiency is a national issue in Scotland. We know that 75 per cent of Covid deaths have been in the 75-plus age category; that vitamin D deficiency is higher in that group of people; that the lockdown has restricted exposure to daylight; and that not all people have access to good food sources. There is a distinct need to improve immune health in those vulnerable groups.
I am glad to hear that the First Minister is committed to the calls from campaigners to supply free vitamin D to care home residents. Will she consider her Government funding vitamin D trials in Scotland to provide resource to gather data on vitamin D deficiency and sort out our issue with immune health in Scotland?
I am sure that there is willingness to consider any proposals for trials. The Government funds trials in a range of clinical and medical areas, and there is a well-established process for that. I would be very surprised if there has not been support for areas around vitamin D in the past. There is a process to allow that to happen.
It is important that we raise awareness of the importance of vitamin D, particularly for people who are more vulnerable to the implications of vitamin D deficiency. That is why the campaigns that I have spoken about are so important, particularly given the lockdown situations.
We will continue to look at how we can continue to support the availability of vitamin D. The four months of free supplies for those on the shielding list were important, and what I have said about care homes is important.
My final point is particularly relevant for people in care homes. It is important that the provision is based on individual discussions, because there can be instances in which vitamin D interacts with other medications that people are on. Appropriate clinical advice is always vital.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Enforcement)
To ask the First Minister what analysis the Scottish Government has undertaken regarding whether the level of police enforcement of emergency Covid-19 regulations is appropriate and the impact this is having on compliance with the restrictions. (S5F-04716)
The chief constable of Scotland has been clear throughout the pandemic that the police will follow what he describes as the four Es approach: engage, explain, encourage and, then, enforce, but only if that is necessary to protect public health.
As part of our on-going review of regulations, we regularly assess whether the powers given to Police Scotland are proportionate and fair. In addition, an independent advisory group, chaired by John Scott QC and reporting to the Scottish Police Authority, provides scrutiny of the police’s use of coronavirus powers. We know that most people and organisations are complying with the measures. Polling data throughout the pandemic has shown high levels of understanding of and support for the restrictions, with high levels of self-reported compliance. A high proportion of the public also report that they believe that the police are doing a good job. However, we continue to review and monitor all those things very closely.
The First Minister will be aware of scenes shown on social media at the weekend of police enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions. Although she might not be able to comment on the detail, I am sure that she will agree that those scenes are damaging for both public perception and officers’ confidence.
Policing by consent underpins the whole ethos of the Police Service and it must be protected. Restrictions are also more effective if the public co-operate rather than their being enforced. Officers are being asked to put themselves into situations that the rest of us are being told to avoid and it is clear that their workload has increased substantially with the new responsibilities and powers that they hold. What additional resources is the First Minister providing to the Police Service to cope with the pandemic? Will she ensure that all officers are supplied with body-worn video cameras to provide an accurate account of interactions at this challenging time?
We discuss on an on-going basis with the police the resources that they require to do the job that we ask them to do at any given time. Their responsibilities are much greater at the moment, for the reasons that Rhoda Grant set out. The use of body-worn cameras is a matter for the chief constable, but that issue is part of the resourcing discussions that we will continue to have.
If Rhoda Grant is referring to the scenes that I think she is referring to, which many people will have seen on social media, I cannot comment in any detail on them because the matters arising from that video are sub judice. However, the chief constable addressed that particular issue when he joined me at the end of last week at one of the daily media updates. One of the things that he said is that the police in that incident were wearing body-worn cameras, so there will be footage of what happened. Obviously, that will be for use in any investigations.
The other thing that the chief constable said, which I want to reiterate and underline, is that all of us right now—indeed, at any time, but particularly right now—should exercise a degree of caution in drawing firm conclusions from snippets of incidents that we see shared on social media. Often, what we see will not necessarily be representative of the reality of the situation. That is not a specific comment about that case, but a more general comment that may or may not apply there.
More generally, I take the opportunity to thank the police and their support staff for the work that they are doing, and I give an assurance that we will work with the chief constable and the Scottish Police Authority to support them in whatever ways we can.
Thank you. We move now to open supplementary questions. The first is from Bob Doris.
Supermarkets (Covid-19 Protocols)
I am increasingly being contacted by worried staff and customers of large supermarkets who are concerned that some stores have not reintroduced protocols—such as queueing and limiting store capacity—that they introduced during last year’s lockdown. They are also increasingly concerned that a minority of customers simply do not show the same caution when shopping that was shown previously. I have been in contact with large supermarkets in my constituency, but what national guidance and standards exist or could be put in place—or, indeed, strengthened—to better and more consistently protect the supermarket workforce in the vital job that they do, as well as the customers?
Food retailers’ staff and, of course, customers have an important role to play in adhering to all the measures that are in place. Food Standards Scotland has published guidance for food business operators that sets out how best to prevent the spread of Covid in the manufacture, processing and retail of food—that would include supermarket shop floors—and it provides a risk assessment toolkit that I would strongly encourage all food-related businesses to use.
In the past few days, the main supermarkets have issued stronger messaging about wearing face coverings, which I welcome. I thank them for all that they are doing to help to keep people safe. However, I also strongly encourage them to make sure that all the stringent measures that were put in place at the first stage of the pandemic, in the first lockdown, are put in place again and adhered to, because that is really important.
Obviously, we cannot close down essential retail, because people need to access supplies. However, because these places remain open, they pose a risk of the virus spreading. The operators and retailers must ensure that they have the right mitigations in place, and, of course, I urge the public to make sure that they abide by all the restrictions when they are going for essential shopping.
Sport Activity After Covid-19
I want to make the First Minister aware of a Scottish Parliament information centre investigation, which it carried out on behalf of the Health and Sport Committee, that indicates that three quarters of people have reduced or significantly reduced their physical activity during the Covid-19 crisis. The same proportion indicate that their mental health, physical health and communities have been negatively affected as a direct result of that decline in physical activity. I am sure that the First Minister will agree that that will have significant long-term implications for Scotland’s health.
Revitalising sporting activity post-Covid will require significant planning and resource. What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that sporting activity will be available post-Covid? How will the Government encourage the restarting of sport and participation in those activities?
We have, relatively recently, provided support to different sport and sporting organisations to protect the viability of sports clubs during the pandemic. We are in an on-going discussion about how they will start up their activities again as we come out of this wave, as they did when we came out of the first wave. Many activities need to get restarted—that is important.
I take this opportunity to ask all those who are still able to participate in sport at an elite level to make sure that they are abiding by the spirit, as well the letter, of all the restrictions.
On physical activity more generally, I have not seen the findings in detail, but, they are, of course, a concern. In the first lockdown—at least, for the first part of it—we restricted legally people’s ability to go outside for physical activity to once a day. We have not done that this time because I think that it is really important that people can go for walks, cycles, runs and whatever they want to do outside. I encourage people to get outside, get fresh air and be physically active. That is good for physical health, and we all know that it is good for mental health, too. In doing so, I ask that people please make sure that that is for exercise and that they do not allow that to seep into socialising, which would then provide opportunities for the virus to spread. However, people should be getting outside for exercise for a whole variety of reasons right now.
Protect Scotland App
I spoke to a constituent yesterday who found out through the Scottish Government phone app that he had spent time with someone who had tested positive for Covid. He is worried, because it was 10 days before he was notified. What more can be done to make the system more effective, given the perilous situation that we are in? Is the issue data entry, or is the system not working effectively?
I am not sure that I will be able to cast any light on that matter now. I would be not only happy but keen to look into the circumstances of that case.
Of course, the app is anonymous—it does not tell someone who they have been in contact with or anything else. Therefore, it is not immediately clear to me how it would have been obvious that the notification came after 10 days. However, I probably should not try to answer the question without knowing and understanding much more of the detail. If Sarah Boyack can pass the particulars to me or to the health secretary, we will look into that and get back to her as soon as possible.
NHS Ayrshire and Arran (Capacity)
Due to a combination of increased Covid-19 infections, 150 staff self-isolating and a rise in admissions due to winter pressures, hospitals in Ayrshire have been stretched beyond capacity and, as of last night, NHS Ayrshire and Arran has had to suspend elective surgery. As a matter of urgency, will the Scottish Government work with NHS Ayrshire and Arran and offer practical and financial assistance to alleviate the immediate pressure, which will protect and support patients and national health service staff?
Yes. We will work with all boards, including NHS Ayrshire and Arran, to support them through what are probably the most challenging times that the health service has faced in our lifetimes. We are in daily contact with health boards, including NHS Ayrshire and Arran.
In terms of practical and financial support, we have allocated a total of £2.6 million to support elective services up to March. We have also allocated more than £700,000 to specifically support NHS Ayrshire and Arran through the winter period. We continue to explore all options to ensure that the most urgent patients are treated, which includes those on a cancer pathway. NHS Ayrshire and Arran is specifically sending patients to the Golden Jubilee hospital for breast cancer surgery and diagnostic testing. We will continue to support all boards to respond to these challenges as best they can.
We can all support the NHS to cope by staying at home and suppressing the virus. Every one of us has a part to play in protecting the NHS right now.
Organ Transplant Patients (Covid-19 Vaccine)
I know that a lot of joint work has gone into identifying the priority for vaccine delivery. Organ donation that leads to a transplant is one of the greatest gifts that can be given and, indeed, received. Constituents have contacted me who are currently on the transplant list but who are not prioritised for receipt of the Covid vaccine. I believe that there is medical and public support for ensuring that those awaiting transplants are given the best chance of being Covid free when they are eventually called in. Will the First Minister ask her advisers to urgently raise with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation whether transplant patients should be prioritised for the Covid vaccine?
I will certainly consider that properly, and, if it requires us to engage more with the JCVI, we will certainly do that.
I will make two points. First, I completely agree with the importance of promoting organ donation—it is the greatest gift that anybody can give. When I was health secretary, I spent a lot of time working with clinicians and others to raise awareness and increase rates of organ donation and I know that all health secretaries who have come after me have taken that very seriously as well.
My second point is more pertinent to the specifics of the question. The clinically extremely vulnerable are a priority in the first JCVI list—I think that the group is priority 4 in the current JCVI list. As a non-clinician, I expect that many, if not all, transplant patients would be included in that group, but if I am not correct about that I will happily discuss it with advisers and see whether we need to address that point in any other way. I will ask the health secretary to write to the member once we have had an opportunity to consider that.
Safe Care Home Visiting
Families and members have tried for months to make progress on safe care home contact between residents and families, but there has been almost zero progress. Will the Government now bring forward emergency legislation similar to the Ontario model, so that the rights of those who are receiving care are respected and promoted, and identified family or friends can become essential care givers? If the Government introduced legislation to get that done, parties in Parliament would work constructively with it.
I know that the health secretary has met families fairly recently, and I believe that she has a cross-party meeting next week, so I am sure that she is happy to discuss that on a cross-party basis to see whether there is consensus and a feeling that such legislation would be helpful.
Progress was being made on reintroducing safe care home visiting before we got into the second wave, which required additional restrictions. It is regrettable that that has had to go back the way—I made some comments on that earlier—but, given the risk that is posed just now, particularly with the new variant, it is important that we prioritise the safety of people in care homes as far as we can. That is also why the residents of care homes have been the top priority for vaccination; 80 per cent of them have already had their first dose of the vaccine, and I hope that that will play a part in allowing us to get back to safe indoor visiting. We are of course happy to consider legislative options and I will ask the health secretary to ensure that—[Interruption.]
Presiding Officer, I am trying to address a serious issue very seriously, and it is not helpful to be shouted at across the chamber. Saying “Do it now” does not help anybody; it is far better for me to set out the challenges and the ways that we will try to overcome those challenges. What I was about to say before the interruption was that I will specifically ask the health secretary—I am sure that she was going to do this anyway—to discuss the issue at the cross-party meeting to look at those options that she will have on Monday next week.
If we think that that offers a quicker way of getting back to some normality, of course, we will do that, but we have to take account of the overall position in trying to keep people in care homes safe. Thankfully, so far, the number of people dying of Covid-19 in care homes is lower in this wave than it was in the first wave, although in saying that I am not trying to minimise it in any way. However, the figures that I announced earlier from the NRS report show that more than 30 per cent of Covid-related deaths in Scotland are in care homes, so we have to be extremely cautious in protecting the safety of those residents as far as we can.
Seafood Exporters (Brexit)
Scottish seafood exporters are suffering a catastrophic collapse in their export businesses because of border chaos caused by Brexit. As we know, borders are a matter that is reserved to Westminster. Will the First Minister detail what assurances and remedial measures the Conservative Government is putting in place as a matter of urgency to alleviate those issues, which are threatening many livelihoods across Scotland’s coastal communities?
First, the catastrophe that our seafood exporters are facing is absolutely shameful and disgraceful; I am sure that, but for the Covid crisis that we are living through, it would be dominating the headlines every day.
The issues that are being experienced are a direct result of the United Kingdom Government’s rush to a substandard finishing line that left exporters with less than a week to understand, never mind implement, the implications of the newly agreed relationship with the European Union. The Scottish Government and Scottish food and drink stakeholders repeatedly warned that businesses needed more time to prepare effectively for the changes, but the UK Government point blank refused to listen to the request for a six-month grace period.
We are pressing the UK Government to fix this mess, which is entirely of its making. So far, there is no sense of urgency or any suggestion at all that it is prepared to do that. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism has also called for businesses to be compensated for their losses. However, the UK Government appears to be telling businesses simply to get on with it or face the threat of fines. That is unconscionable and unacceptable. We will do everything that we can to support our exporters, but the position that they are in, into which they have been put, should never have been allowed.
Ministerial Code Investigation
If the First Minister has nothing to hide, why will she not explicitly expand the ministerial code investigation to cover all the accusations that have been made against her? There is a big difference between saying that there are no limits on what James Hamilton can look at and explicitly asking him to examine specific possible breaches.
The Deputy First Minister notified me this morning that Mr Hamilton has written to him, confirming that, in his view, all the allegations—incidentally, all of which I completely refute—about breaching the ministerial code are covered in the scope of his existing remit. I said previously that I wanted him to go wherever he thought it appropriate to go, and, as I understand it, he has now confirmed that there is no limitation on his ability to do that.
I hope that the member will accept that and that people will now allow due processes to take their course, instead of making their minds up before we even get to that point.
British Gas (Employment Contracts)
British Gas, which is owned by Centrica, has threatened to fire and rehire 2,000 workers in Scotland, placing them on significantly worse terms and conditions, using the pandemic as cover. Many of those workers have been on strike for the past week. They describe the changes as having a serious impact on family life and being akin to zero-hours contracts.
Given that British Gas operates a number of public sector contracts, including directly for the Scottish Government, what action will the First Minister take to ensure that fair work principles apply to those and all other Government contracts?
Of course, if employment powers rested with this Parliament rather than with Westminster, and if the Labour Party supported that, we would perhaps be in a position to take tougher action. Contractual routes are not the way to resolve these issues; having control over powers in employment law is.
I support the workers in this regard. I think that they are being treated appallingly, and I call on British Gas to get round the table with them and come to a fair outcome as quickly as possible.
Click and Collect (Restrictions)
The click-and-collect measures that the First Minister announced today are difficult but necessary. Some supermarkets offer click and collect for food, which is presumably safer, especially if it takes place outdoors, given that we know that transmission in supermarkets is quite high. Can the First Minister clarify that that essential click and collect for food will continue to be allowed?
Yes. Click and collect is allowed for essential purposes such as that. In addition to allowing essential click and collect—I stress the word “essential”—we ask, as I said earlier, that the service should be by way of staggered appointments to avoid queues forming, as that is one of the concerns that has been raised about click and collect. It should also be outdoors, as far as practical. It will not be practical for that to happen in some circumstances, but we would normally expect any of those services to be delivered outdoors instead of people having to go into premises.
Church Services (Restrictions)
Has the First Minister seen the letter to her from more than 200 church leaders from across Scotland, who question whether, in completely closing down churches for public worship, she is consistent with her obligations under article 9 of the European convention on human rights? They simply ask the Scottish Government to provide them with the evidence that Covid-compliant church services that were operating safely were proven to be a significant source of the spread of Covid-19.
It has just been drawn to my attention that Philip Tartaglia, the Archbishop of Glasgow, passed away this morning. I put on record my deep sadness at the news, and I am sure that everybody across the chamber shares that sadness. I send my deepest condolences to his loved ones and to everyone in his community.
The member’s question is serious and I take it seriously. I do not want to impose restrictions on anyone or on their ability to worship collectively. I know how important that is to people of faith—for their wellbeing and mental health and for the purposes of their faith.
We do not take any of these decisions lightly. This is a pandemic. At the stage we are at right now, we simply must, as far as we can, stop people coming together, which unfortunately includes in places of worship. The restrictions will not be in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
Church leaders and members of different churches have made representations to me that they want to see that re-thought, but I have also had representations from others in churches who say that they understand and think that, in the circumstances, the restrictions are appropriate and necessary.
These decisions are difficult, and that is perhaps one of the most difficult. The more we act collectively to suppress the virus, the quicker we will get out of the restrictions and get back to a degree of normality, including allowing people to take part in collective worship.
Respiratory Care Action Plan
There are now more than 80,000 people on the shielding list due to the burden of lung disease. Can the First Minister commit to speeding up the delivery and funding of the respiratory care action plan, so that we can get better recovery from lung disease while building resilience against Covid?
I am not aware of any issue with the speed of the funding or the actions there, but I am happy to look into the matter and ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to engage with the member on further actions that we might be able to take.
Category 3 Key Workers
The Deputy First Minister said earlier, responding to questions on his statement, that for category 3 key workers, who are essential to the economy, there will be differences in different geographical areas, which I understand. I have cases however, in which some employers are telling employees that they are key workers and that they should come to work. Those employees are therefore having to apply to the council for face-to-face teaching for their children, and the local authority is—correctly, in my view—rejecting those applications.
It seems to me that some employers are not acting within the law, let alone in its spirit. I ask whether the definition of category 3 key workers, who are essential to the economy, could be beefed up.
Key worker childcare guidance was published this past week and is intended, obviously, to provide guidance and flexibility to councils in responding to local needs.
In summary, category 1 includes health and care workers who are supporting Covid, emergency and critical care; staff who are supporting childcare and learning; and priority energy supply workers. Category 2 includes other health and care staff; public sector workers who are providing emergency or critical services; and essential critical national infrastructure staff. Finally, category 3 covers people without whom there could be a significant impact on the country. Authorities must consider local needs when they apply those definitions, which may include prioritisation where there might be high demand.
I say to all employers that they should act in a way that does not generate unnecessary demand on places in schools. As we go through the next phase, we have to look carefully at the numbers in schools and make an on-going assessment of whether they are getting too high—to a point at which they undermine the whole point of schools not being open at present. Employers have a big part to play in that regard, and I ask them to do what I have set out. Employees should discuss any request for a place with their employer before contacting their local council. As with everything, we will keep those categories under review.
That concludes First Minister’s question time.