Meeting date: Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 17 June 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Provisional Outturn 2019-20, Justice Sector Response, Recovery and Renewal, Mental Health Transition and Recovery, Business Motion, Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, Domestic Abuse Bill, Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill , Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Provisional Outturn 2019-20
- Justice Sector Response, Recovery and Renewal
- Mental Health Transition and Recovery
- Business Motion
- Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill
- Domestic Abuse Bill
- Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon, colleagues. As usual, I remind members to be careful about observing social distancing guidance in the chamber and throughout the building, but particularly when coming into and out of the chamber.
I ask the First Minister to introduce First Minister’s question time with a short statement.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will give a brief statistical update.
Since yesterday, an additional 21 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed, which takes the total number now to 18,066. A total of 965 patients are currently in hospital with suspected or confirmed Covid-19, which is a decrease of 21 since yesterday. That includes a decrease of 14 in the number of confirmed cases. As of last night, 24 people were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, which is an increase of five on the number that I reported yesterday. However, I stress that that increase is all in suspected cases. Unfortunately, in the past 24 hours, nine deaths of patients who had been confirmed as having the virus have been registered, which takes the total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement to 2,462.
National Records of Scotland has just published its more detailed weekly report. Those figures report deaths where Covid has been confirmed by laboratory tests and cases where the virus was entered on a death certificate as a suspected or contributory cause of death. The latest NRS report covers the period to Sunday 14 June. At that point, according to our daily figures, 2,448 deaths of people who had tested positive for the virus had been registered. However, today’s report shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths with either a confirmed or a presumed link to the virus was 4,070. Of those, 70 were registered in the seven days up to Sunday, which is a decrease of 19 from the week before. This is the seventh week in a row in which the number of deaths from the virus has fallen. The total number of excess deaths, which is the number above the five-year average for the same time of year, also decreased again, to 32 in the most recent week. Deaths in care homes made up 50 per cent of all deaths linked to the virus last week. However, the number of Covid-19 deaths in care homes reduced again, from 42 to 35.
All those figures are still higher than I would ever wish them to be and I know that downward trends will never console those who have lost loved ones. My thoughts and sympathies continue to be with all of them. However, as I have said, the weekly number of Covid deaths has now fallen for seven weeks in a row, and they are now at less than a ninth of their peak level. The numbers of excess deaths and care home deaths also continue to fall.
Tomorrow, I expect to be able to confirm that we can move from phase 1 to phase 2 of our plan to emerge from lockdown. I will set out much more detail on that tomorrow. However, we will continue to proceed in a cautious and phased way because the more we hammer down the virus now, the more normality we can ultimately get back in all aspects of our lives.
Our test and protect system is, of course, vitally important to our plans to emerge safely from lockdown. Health Protection Scotland has just published further data on that system, showing that, from 28 May to last Sunday, 992 cases were reported in which the individual tested positive. Contact tracing has already been completed for 891 of those cases and is on-going in others. In total, 1,239 contacts have been traced so far. I remind everyone watching that if they have symptoms of Covid-19, they should book a test immediately and follow the advice on self-isolation.
Again, I ask everyone to continue to adhere to all elements of the public health guidance and advice. It is making a difference, as those statistics demonstrate, and I thank everybody across the country for continuing to do the right thing.
Thank you, First Minister.
I again welcome the sustained fall in the number of fatalities from Covid-19, although, obviously, those fatalities are still distressing. Our thoughts are with those families, but the sustained fall is welcome.
Professor Sridhar, who is one of the First Minister’s key advisers on coronavirus, has said that, as long as Covid-19 cases are low enough come the middle of August,
“schools should re-open as normally as possible”,
with children back full time. Does the First Minister agree with Professor Sridhar’s analysis? Will she put in place a plan to deliver that?
Yes, I agree whole-heartedly with Professor Sridhar’s analysis. As an aside, I deprecate anyone who has cast aspersions on Devi Sridhar’s integrity this morning.
I agree with the totality of what Professor Sridhar says, not just the bits of her analysis that suit my particular argument. I want to get schools back to normal as quickly as possible and our economy back to normal as quickly as possible. However, I know that all of that has to be safe. We cannot have memories that are so short that we already forget that we are dealing with a virus that is dangerous and potentially deadly, and that it has not gone away. Therefore, we must continue to move forward in a careful and phased way, and that is what I will continue to do.
The key part of what Professor Sridhar and other experts will say is that we must suppress the virus even further if we are to have that ultimate and—I hope—speedy move back to normality. I ask people to bear in mind the totality of her advice when I stand here tomorrow and—yes—announce further steps out of the lockdown, which I will continue to do in a very careful and cautious manner.
We all understand the difficulty here. It is not enough simply to deprecate all those who ask questions, whether they are politicians or journalists. Many parents are looking for a commitment from ministers to at least try to get schools back to normal for the beginning of term. What is disappointing those parents is that that does not seem to be the ambition that is being set. As many parents have put it, if we can build a new hospital to look after patients, as we did so magnificently, surely we can find equally drastic solutions to support our children.
Professor Sridhar’s point is that a community-based testing regime that helps to see exactly where the disease is spreading would clearly give teachers and parents reassurance that schools are safe to return to normal.
The question is obvious, and it brings us back to the testing issue that we have raised for several months. Will the First Minister commit today to ramping up our testing capacity and—this is important—our usage of that capacity during the summer so that, by August, opening schools full time, if it is safe to do so, is a realistic and achievable option?
For the record, I do not deprecate anybody who asks questions; I deprecate people who cast aspersions on the integrity of an expert. It is really important to be clear about that.
I have given a commitment, and I will do so again today. I will move heaven and earth with my ministerial colleagues to get this country back to normal in every aspect of our lives as quickly as possible. Nothing is more important in all of that than getting our children’s education back to normal and, of course, ensuring that we put in place plans to allow children to catch up on missed education. I take that responsibility very seriously. I also take seriously my responsibility to ensure that we get through the crisis as safely as possible.
We have two strands in place in education right now. First, in common with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, we are having to contingency plan to bring schools back with physical distancing in place, because that is what the evidence tells us right now is required. Within that, of course, our challenge is to maximise the time that children can spend in schools. That is why we are scrutinising councils’ plans so carefully.
The second strand is to consider and take advice on the alternative measures that we might be able to put in place to allow schools to operate, safely, as normal. That involves continuing to suppress the virus and having in place a robust and reliable test and protect system, and that is exactly what we have put in place. Over the weeks to come, we will assure ourselves that that system is working as robustly as it needs to. I say to parents who are watching—they are the most important people of all, next to the young people, of course—that that has my total commitment.
I sincerely say to members across the chamber that anybody in the chamber who suggests that these issues are simple is perhaps showing that they are not interested in sufficiently understanding them. We must proceed cautiously and carefully, and we must do nothing that compromises the safety of our young people and the safety of the country overall.
I will continue to operate each and every day in a way that focuses not on the politics of these issues but on my responsibility to get the country through this crisis as safely as I possibly can.
France, Germany, Denmark and Ireland are moving heaven and earth; the Scottish Government is not. If alternatives have to be found, let us turn to them. If it does not prove possible to open schools fully in August, the Government needs to be far more creative than it has been so far. It needs to start with an open mind and to be open to radical proposals. Parents are now suggesting ideas, and we need the Government to be open to those ideas, too.
Let me take two ideas. First, will the Scottish Government commit to contacting all newly qualified teachers and supply teachers to boost teacher numbers, and will it intervene if any council seeks to reduce teacher numbers or cancel any probationary teacher opportunities? Secondly, will the Government state clearly today that it will support local councils with the additional funding that they require so that buildings—both public and private—where children could spend some of the week being taught can be made available?
I will address all those issues directly. The point about other countries is an important one, and we will be looking to learn from other countries, as we have been doing. Our international council of education advisers has a critical role to play in that work, as does the Covid-19 advisory group.
Jackson Carlaw mentioned a number of countries. He will find that, in many of those countries, if not all of them, children are not back to school full time yet. Very few countries in the world operate completely normal school education. I was reading a piece yesterday about Korea, where the test and trace capacity has been lauded as one of the best in the world, but the Koreans still have children in school only part time. I do not say that because that is my objective or because I want it; I say that to underline the point that all countries everywhere are grappling with the issues that we are grappling with.
The approach that we have decided that we must have in place as a contingency, with blended learning, is exactly what the United Kingdom Government is doing for England and what the Welsh Government is doing for Wales. These are not straightforward issues. In the first strand, if we have to have a blended model of education for a period—which I hope would be as short as possible—I absolutely give the commitment that, if that involves additional resources to maximise school time, the Government will step in.
We expect—as I would think everybody expects—councils to be creative and innovative in how they use the resources that they have. We will look into additional teaching capacity, whether it comes from retired teachers or other sources that we can get that capacity from. We will scrutinise those plans—as the Deputy First Minister and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education are doing—to ensure that, if we have to have a model of education that is less than full time for safety reasons, for any period of time, we absolutely maximise that, and that we take steps to provide additional support to parents and young people for the periods that they spend out of school.
These are difficult issues. Every issue that we are dealing with in tackling the virus is complex; none of them is straightforward. We must have safety at the heart of everything that we do, but we will also bring to bear creative thinking and solutions.
That was done in hospitals, but my last point—I see the Presiding Officer understandably looking at me impatiently—is for people who make simplistic comparisons with what we did in the health service. Yes, we created the NHS Louisa Jordan, but anybody who thinks that there has not also been unavoidable significant disruption in the health service in dealing with the crisis is not looking closely enough at the issues.
These are not ideal circumstances for any of us, but we will continue to navigate the country through them as best we can, with the interests of everybody very much at the heart of that.
The country is looking at the First Minister impatiently—and, to use her word, “understandably”. There have been soft words, matched by a record of non-delivery, with months of dithering on education. Matthew Eastwood, a parent of two young children in Edinburgh, has put it better than any of us can. Writing to MSPs this week, he said:
“Whilst careers may be furloughed, childhood cannot.”
I agree: we must not put a price tag on our children’s future.
So far, we have seen half-measures and buck passing, and parents are rightly furious. I ask the First Minister for a commitment today: will she promise to commit the funds that are required, whatever it takes, to underpin a national endeavour to help councils get schools back in place and to give this generation of children the start in life that they deserve?
If Jackson Carlaw was remotely interested in my answers or their substance, he would have heard me give that commitment in my previous answer. I do not put a price tag on the education of children; equally, I will not act recklessly to put the lives of children, teachers or the wider community at risk. I will continue to work through these issues in the way in which the public would expect me to.
What I will not do, and what we have not had to do, is cancel plans to bring schools back this month because we had not thought through and worked through the practicalities and difficult issues, as the UK Government had to do just last week. We will continue to work through difficult issues.
I say to Jackson Carlaw that I have been tested by this, and, as First Minister, I will continue to be enormously tested by this, and people will make their own judgments on how and if I rise to that. I think that Opposition politicians are tested by this as well. The approach that Jackson Carlaw is taking perhaps reveals more about him and his party—their character and ability—than it does about me. I am not sure that people who look at that now will see a particularly appealing picture.
Two days ago, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, Bruce Adamson, declared:
“The State has an obligation to ensure that children can access their human right to education.”
He went on:
“This is an education emergency and resources must be moved by”
the Scottish Government
He is right; we are in an education emergency. Children have a right to education, so we need to pull out all the stops to make sure that our children return to school safely and full time as soon as possible. What additional resources will the First Minister give councils to make that happen?
We are in a health emergency right now that has caused an economic emergency and it has created an education emergency. We have to tackle them all simultaneously, which is what the Government seeks to do. I agree with the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland: young people have a basic human right to education, but they also have a basic human right not to be put at risk of a deadly virus and we have to make sure that we do not inadvertently do that.
Thankfully, most of the evidence so far suggests that children may be less susceptible to this virus, but the evidence is not conclusive. This is a virus that we still know far too little about, because it has not yet been around for long enough. We also know that a tiny minority of children—so far, and I hope that it will stay like that—may suffer an inflammatory disease complication, Kawasaki disease, so we cannot play fast and loose with the safety of children. I hope and expect that no one across the chamber would argue that we ever should do that.
We have already given councils significant additional resources and we are working with them now to look at the plans that they can put in place for blended learning, if that is what is required. We will then scrutinise those plans and, if they have to go further, we will have a conversation with councils about the resources that are required. That is the proper way to go about those things. We have also asked for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education to have a role in scrutiny as well.
The other strand of work is to look at whether we can get the virus levels low enough and then rely on test and protect, and perhaps other hygiene measures in schools, to allow a full-time return in which children can operate normally. Those issues are all really important but they are not simple or straightforward—no aspect of this virus is. I will continue to get on with the hard work of trying to get through them and to steer the best course through them, working with those with whom we need to work. That is my responsibility as First Minister, frankly, and it is one that I will continue to focus on.
It is also the First Minister’s responsibility to give local councils the resources that they need to restart our education system. Scotland’s teachers, parents and young people also want clarity, and this week they have had nothing but mixed messages. Anxious parents are writing to me about the impact that schools being closed is having on their children and the impact that the Government’s mixed messages are having as well. One mum told me:
“it’s just adding more stress to an already stressful situation”.
It is not just parents. A survey of headteachers and deputy headteachers by the Educational Institute of Scotland found that more than 90 per cent needed
“greater clarity over how the next academic year of teaching will be delivered.”
Instead of clarity, we have seen the First Minister contradict her deputy, contradict her advisers and then contradict herself. That is not clarity; it is chaos.
The First Minister produced a four-phase route map for opening up the economy. Why can she not publish a detailed route map and timetable for a return to full-time, face-to-face schooling? Will she provide the national leadership and the resources that our councils need to give parents, teachers and pupils the clarity that they demand and deserve to get their lives back on track?
On the day that we published the four-phase route map for getting the whole country, not just the economy, out of lockdown, we also published the report of the education recovery group that looked at an education route map. We are now working with councils to implement that plan, which was agreed—not imposed by the Government—through the recovery group by the Government, councils, education trade unions and parents organisations. That is the plan that we are now operationalising with councils in case we need that contingency for blended learning. It is a similar approach to the one that is being taken in other parts of the UK.
We will work with councils to make sure that the resources are there to maximise the time that children spend in school if that approach is necessary. However, we are also looking at whether it is safe to take another approach that gets children back into school normally. It is not about an unwillingness to make the resources available; it is about making sure we take an approach to schooling that keeps children safe as well as maximising the quality of their educational experience. Both those objectives are vital as we move through this next phase.
If we want get back to normality in education, the economy and all other aspects of our lives, we need to take a careful approach to coming out of lockdown. When I stand up here tomorrow to set out our next steps, those who want normality in our schools but also say that we should go quicker on coming out of lockdown will have a fundamental contradiction at the heart of their argument. Let us work our way through this—I mean that absolutely genuinely—but let us be consistent in the arguments that we are making. Our first priority is to beat this virus so that we can bring the country back to normality safely. Anybody who argues simplistically that there is some kind of magic shortcut to that is not putting the interests of this country first.
I am not asking for a shortcut. I am simply asking for a route map. All that the Government has produced so far is a starting point for blended learning. It is not a way back to full-time schooling.
Children have already been failed by the Government’s response to their educational needs during this crisis. Indeed, as many as 62 per cent of parents who took part in a question-and-answer session with the education secretary last night said that their children have had no access to online lessons while schools have been closed. The one additional resource that the Government promised was 25,000 laptops for those children who need them most for home learning. Four weeks on, not one single device has been issued.
We have one of the world’s worst records on tackling Covid-19, so we should be making sure that we have one of the world’s best records on supporting our children as we come out of it. Parents across Scotland are crying out for a clear plan to get their children back into the classroom. One parent told us that there seems to be a lack of ambition and investment in overcoming the challenges.
At the start of the crisis, the First Minister rightly channelled resources into the national health service. The NHS Louisa Jordan was created and ready to take patients in three weeks. New equipment was brought into hospitals right across Scotland. Where is the commitment? Where is the energy? Where is the drive? Where is the conviction? Where is the national plan and the national leadership? Where is the ambition to tackle this schools crisis with the same urgency, to pull out all the stops, to make the resources available, to get our schools safely reopened and to uphold our children’s right to an education?
The commitment is there. It has been repeated several times today, but I am happy to repeat it again. However, in reality, that involves putting in place the plans and doing the hard work to turn the ambition into reality, which is the process that we are going through right now.
My commitment to parents and to young people is as it always has been—to get normality back into education, as we want to get it into every aspect of our lives, as quickly as possible but as safely as possible. I will not at any stage of this try to underplay or to oversimplify complex issues that the entire world is trying to grapple its way through right now.
I absolutely recognise the stresses, strains and anxieties of parents who are home schooling while trying to juggle work commitments right now. We will continue—we have got more to do—to support parents for as long as such a situation continues. However, in point of fact, the Connect survey that was published on 4 June found an increase in the proportion of parents—68 per cent—who said that they have the support that they need for school work. We will continue to make the investments, whether that is through making available laptops or tablets, or through the resourcing of the plans to get children back to school as quickly as possible.
I welcome and relish the debate around this, which is right and proper. However, fundamentally, all of this involves hard graft. It is that hard graft that my colleagues and I in the Government, with our partners in councils, and with teachers and others, will continue to do, day in, day out.
The Covid crisis is, clearly, the most immediate challenge for the Scottish Government, but it must not allow us to fail on the deeper, longer-term crisis that we also face. Sadly, for the second year in a row, the Scottish Government announced yesterday that it has missed its climate targets. It was not even a near miss—emissions for 2018 went up instead of down.
The Scottish Government never misses a chance to congratulate itself on setting world-leading targets, but it needs to face up to the reality that it has not been taking the steps that are necessary to meet those targets. Scotland can tackle the climate crisis and build a thriving renewable energy industry, developing the green jobs that we will need at the heart of our post-Covid economic recovery. However, the Scottish Trades Union Congress warned this week that the failure to support a Scottish renewable energy industry means that those jobs will not materialise, as turbines and other gear are simply imported.
When does the First Minister expect Scotland to finally start meeting its climate targets? What will the Government do to support the creation of jobs in the renewable energy industry in Scotland?
I expect us to meet our climate change targets on an on-going and increasing basis. There will be fluctuations year on year in what is a long-term challenge. The figures that were published this week, as well as the yearly increase that Patrick Harvie highlighted, which is regrettable, reflect different circumstances and different shifts in our energy mix reflecting those circumstances. Those figures also show the long-term 50 per cent reduction in our emissions, which gives us an incredibly strong foundation—probably one of the strongest in the world—to move towards our 2045 ambition of net zero, with very stretching targets along the way.
The investments that we already make in our economy, and in particular those that we will require to make to get our economy going again, as reflected in some of what Kate Forbes said in the chamber yesterday, will open up additional opportunities to invest in the energy transition as we progress towards net zero.
We work very hard on jobs in the renewables industry that come from some of the larger-scale renewables projects. Although we are using the powers that we have at our disposal, some of those powers, such as those around how contract for difference is structured, still lie at Westminster, which does not yet fully allow us to maximise that potential. That is simply a statement of fact. Nonetheless, we will continue to do everything that we can to ensure not only that we meet our environmental targets but that we reap the full economic benefit of that along the way.
It seems scarcely credible for the First Minister to say that she expects us to meet our targets on an on-going basis when she knows that we are not doing so. Throughout this session of Parliament, the First Minister has—I believe genuinely—wanted Scotland to be world leading on this issue. However, she has left her Government with a track record in relation to which the best that she can claim is that it is not quite as bad as that of Boris Johnson’s Government.
Let us look at transport in isolation. That is the area in which we have seen the clearest long-term failure to reduce emissions. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform told the Parliament yesterday that we should not judge the Government’s track record on the basis of one year’s figures. However, the track record stretches back not just years but decades. Either the Government has not been trying to reduce transport emissions, or it has been trying but has been pursuing the wrong policies. Just this week, the resumption of short-haul flights between Glasgow and London has been allowed, despite there being plenty of rail capacity, which we should be using.
Last year, in Channel 4’s climate debate, the First Minister said, for the first time, that we need to “fly less”. Okay—how much lower than the pre-Covid level of aviation does the First Minister think that we should be aiming for, and what action will the Government take to prevent aviation regrowth from breaching a safe, sustainable level?
First, we support people to fly less, and to use alternatives, by continuing to invest in those alternatives and to make them more convenient and speedy. We will continue the work that is under way, but I also hope that the whole experience of the Covid crisis will help us to accelerate that.
I am not saying that we do not have a monumental amount of work still to do—far from it—but the entire world does, too. In the reduction of our emissions so far, Scotland is the second-best country in the world; we are second only to Sweden. That says to me that what we have been doing has been working, but we need to do more of it and we need to do it more sustainably.
We will continue to encourage behaviour change, and to invest in alternative energy—in alternative ways for people to travel, heat their homes, and live their lives. However, to say that Scotland does not have both a very good track record and a very strong foundation is, frankly, way wide of the mark.
The Scottish Government is opening up more of the economy. Thousands of parents will be returning to work in businesses and shops in June and July. However, normal summer childcare—from childminders, private nurseries, family and friends—is still restricted by the Government. When schools open in August, children will be at home for up to four days a week.
It does not add up. The First Minister asks parents to go back to work—but who will look after the children? What are parents supposed to do?
First, I say—not so much to members but to parents, who may be watching at home—that none of this is easy for parents. This is, and has been, incredibly difficult. I wish that I could make all those difficulties disappear overnight, but I cannot wave a magic wand. We have to work to a plan to allow us to suppress the virus, keep it suppressed, and bring all aspects of life back to normal with as much alignment as possible.
Willie Rennie’s question is legitimate and important. We have to bring the economy back carefully. Understandably, issues of economic challenge have encouraged people to think that we should do it more quickly. We have to continue to be cautious about that, and do things according to the plan that we set. Tomorrow, I will set out the next steps on that.
We want more key workers to have access to critical childcare hubs, which have been in place throughout the crisis, and to have those running throughout the summer so that there is more access—albeit that that will not be possible for everyone.
This week, we have published guidance for early learning and childcare, so that we can begin preparations to get early learning and childcare facilities back, in recognition that some of the issues that we talk about for school—in particular on physical distancing—are even more difficult in those settings.
Thirdly—and lastly—what Willie Rennie described, with regard to schools coming back on 11 August, is what we are working to change, so that children will be in school, even if that is under the contingency blended model, for more time than parents are perhaps looking at as a possibility right now; and to get back to a normal schooling week as quickly as we can.
All those bits of this complex jigsaw need to be in place, and we have to work methodically and very hard to get them in place as quickly, but also—I will keep on saying this—as safely as possible.
I understand that, as we see the numbers that we report every day going downwards, there is sometimes a tendency to think, “Let’s just get back to normal immediately.” However, the virus is dangerous, it is potentially deadly and it is still out there. Anybody in Scotland who doubts that just has to look at the fact that we still have people dying, but also at what China is grappling with again, what some parts of America are still grappling with and at what even some of the countries that are said to have done best in tackling the virus are still facing on almost a weekly basis.
We have to do this properly, we have to do it right and we have to do it with public health and safety at the forefront of our thinking.
The First Minister knows that I share her caution. I have been constructive throughout the pandemic. However, yesterday, the education secretary said that, if people criticise the policy, they are criticising the teachers. I think that that is a shameful insult to thousands of parents who have genuine concerns.
The problem for the First Minister is that this issue is coming up next week. People will be going back to work next week and they will need the support next week. The Government has put parents in an impossible position because they cannot choose between their job and their children. The Scottish Government ramped up national health service capacity and pumped billions of pounds into businesses to keep them alive, but on education, our children and their parents are being left behind.
Why does the First Minister not accept that, if she is asking parents to return to work, she has an obligation to work out who is going to care for their children?
I recognise that Willie Rennie has been constructive. I do not criticise anybody for discussing the issues or asking questions. All that I ask—and it is up to people to decide whether they want to proceed on this basis, which I think that Willie Rennie has generally done—is that people recognise that the issues are not straightforward.
It is not the Government that is putting parents in an impossible position. It is not any Government that is doing that. It is a global health pandemic that is putting people in an impossible position, and we have to try to mitigate that and help them work their way through it, which is exactly what we will seek to do. We have to do that cautiously, because we cannot allow the virus to run away with us again and get a grip again; we also have to do it methodically and try to keep the pieces in line as far as possible, and that is what we will seek to do.
I will not say to any parent or teacher or anybody else across the country anything other than that this is incredibly difficult for them each and every day. I say to Willie Rennie that I do not think that it is correct to characterise it as something that is coming up next week. It is something that parents and others have been living with throughout the crisis because of the reality of the situation that we are dealing with.
As I said earlier, this is not about an unwillingness to make resources available; it is about using resources properly to get the country, including schools, back to normal in a way that is sensible and does not put the health of children or others at risk, and that is what we will continue to prioritise.
There has been a lot of interest at various stages in asking supplementary questions. I remind members that I will take all the supplementaries after question 7, which is Monica Lennon’s question.
Ferry Tickets (Island Residents)
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update for island residents who wish to book ferry tickets. (S5F-04228)
We are working with ferry operators to identify measures to ensure passenger and crew safety when travelling, while observing 2m distancing on vessels. Capacity will obviously be reduced by the measures, but we are putting in place plans to manage that. That work includes consideration of how the booking systems of CalMac Ferries and NorthLink Ferries might be used to help to manage demand. Further details will be available in the transport transition plan and from the operators, as we move through the phases of easing lockdown.
As the First Minister is aware, many islanders have not seen family members on the mainland since March. They have strongly supported the travel restrictions, but are now anxious to know that they will, whenever it is considered safe to change the current travel advice about ferries, have the opportunity to book what will be a very limited supply of ferry tickets, perhaps on a priority basis. Can the Government take steps to avoid new pressures on reduced services and capacity meaning that islanders do not get to see their families until after any tourist season is over?
I fully understand how important it is that islanders be able to access the lifeline ferry services on which, of course, they depend for getting to and from the mainland—in particular, to see their families. They rightly want to enjoy the same freedoms that others will be able to start enjoying as we ease out of lockdown. Like all aspects of the situation, that requires careful consideration to make sure that people can move safely and without risk to themselves and others.
There are practical considerations about safety that mean that capacity will be reduced by the measures that must be in place, which must be managed to ensure that islanders are not disadvantaged. That is a key consideration that CalMac, Transport Scotland and the Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, Paul Wheelhouse, are looking at.
Crucially, there is, and will continue to be, on-going engagement with island communities to determine the best way forward. The involvement of people who actually live on our islands, including Alasdair Allan and his constituents, is absolutely key.
People with Dementia (Lockdown)
To ask the First Minister what consideration the Scottish Government has given to the impact of lockdown restrictions on people with dementia. (S5F-04233)
Our route map recognises that the disruption to normal routines and connections, and the physical constraints of staying indoors, can and do have a profound impact on people with dementia, leading to feelings of loneliness, lethargy, stress, anxiety or depression.
That is why in phase 1 we are already planning and implementing the safe gradual resumption of much-needed access to respite and day care to support unpaid carers and families.
Changes to the care home sector on restricted visiting and a pause on normal activities and routines to protect residents, staff and visitors have had a significant impact on the wellbeing of residents and their loved ones. We already enable families to visit loved ones in their final days and in other exceptional circumstances, and we are developing plans for a phased return to visiting, when it is clinically safe to do so.
My question was prompted by a friend of mine, who called me on Monday to say that, sadly, he had lost his mother a couple of months ago, which has been compounded by the fact that his father is in a care home suffering from dementia and has yet to be told that his wife has died. My friend wants to be able to tell his father that face to face.
My friend said that he is not only saddened by the loss of his mother, but that the sadness is compounded by the fact that his father’s dementia is accelerating because of lack of contact with the family. When the First Minister makes her statement tomorrow, will she consider giving clear guidance to care homes and families on visiting, in order to ensure that such situations are rectified?
Yes—we will consider the guidance and how it develops at every stage of the route map. As I said in my earlier answer, visiting is permitted in end-of-life situations and in other exceptional circumstances. It might well be that the very distressing circumstances that Brian Whittle has recounted are such exceptional circumstances. It is entirely up to him and his constituent, but if he wants to pass on details, we could look into whether visiting, in those circumstances, is now possible, even without further developments.
That is an example of the many difficult aspects of dealing with the crisis. The people who have been most at risk—people in care homes—are also the people who have had to live under some of the most distressing restrictions, and have not had family visits, as they would normally. As with so much else, we want a return to normality in that as quickly as possible.
However, given what we have already seen unfolding in our care homes, everybody will understand that we are perhaps even more cautious here than we are in other areas. Work is under way, and a lot of thinking is going on into when and how normal visiting can be resumed in care homes. The decision must be based on the most careful consideration and thought.
On the specific case that Brian Whittle mentioned, I and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport would be happy to look into it, if that would be helpful.
National Health Service (Restart of Services)
To ask the First Minister whether she will provide an update on the Scottish Government’s plans to restart NHS services, in light of reported concerns from patients who are experiencing delays to their treatment. (S5F-04239)
We recently published the framework for remobilising the health service. It sets out how health boards will follow national and local clinical advice in order safely and gradually to prioritise resumption of some paused services over the coming weeks and beyond, while retaining sufficient capacity to deal with Covid-19.
Boards have continued to protect key services throughout the pandemic, and are now gradually restarting services across key specialties including cardiology, urology, trauma and orthopaedics, as well as endoscopies and other diagnostic services. Patients will be seen on the basis of clinical need, and anyone who has been offered an outpatient or diagnostics appointment or a date for surgery should attend in order to ensure that they receive the treatment and care that they require.
That said, we know that coronavirus might well be with us for some time to come, so we will have to continue to balance restarting of services with the need to keep the virus under control, to continue to protect the national health service and to ensure that there is capacity to deal with any cases of the virus that need hospital or intensive-care treatment.
We are all acutely aware of the need to manage the direct risks of Covid-19, as well as the harms that are caused by lockdown itself. My constituent Jeffrey Hills fears that he will lose his sight as a result of lockdown, because of delays to his cataract operation. Clearly, that outcome must be avoided, and could be avoided if testing and personal protective equipment were used to support Covid-free zones and safe resumption of NHS services.
Thousands of patients across Scotland are, like Mr Hills, waiting for treatment. They include cancer patients and people who are living with chronic pain, who have been telling Parliament how difficult the situation is for them.
All MSPs have been talking to health boards in recent weeks, and health boards have been stressing to us the importance of helping them to manage the public’s expectations. However, the framework has no dates attached. How can we help our constituents by giving them a bit of hope and confidence while, at the same time, managing the public’s expectations? What further clarity can we expect?
The resumption of services, within the constraints that I have outlined today, will be an on-going process. We want it to happen as quickly as possible; some of it is already happening, in the specialties that I spoke about.
We have Covid-free zones in hospitals; there is a proper and appropriate supply of PPE, and staff have clear guidance about its use. We are continuing, with the advice of our nosocomial advisory group, to consider increased use of regular testing in hospitals to assist with the process of reopening the health service.
As I said in response to a question last week, with particular regard to elective treatments, into which category cataract treatment falls, we are examining all resources, including the NHS Louisa Jordan hospital. That work will continue and will be accelerated to the extent that that is possible within the constraints that I have outlined.
Dates will always be one of the most difficult things in how we deal with the virus. I hope that, as the weeks go on, that will get easier. However, there are the uncertainties of the virus itself and, unfortunately, none of us has a crystal ball that can tell us how the situation will unfold. We must therefore assess the data and evidence in order to know what it is safe to do at the particular points when we must make decisions.
I will therefore say to patients who are awaiting treatment something that is similar to what I have said to parents and others who have been living with the difficulties of the situation for three months. We want to get them back into a normally functioning health service as quickly as possible, but that, like everything else, must be done with the imperative of safety absolutely at the forefront of our minds.
Civil Service Jobs (East Kilbride)
The First Minister is aware that my constituency of East Kilbride has already suffered a huge blow from the decision by the United Kingdom Government to move thousands of skilled Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs jobs from the town. Can she now press the Prime Minister for a guarantee that 600 jobs in vital international development work—work that is free from political interference—will remain at Abercrombie house in East Kilbride?
Yes, we will continue to do that. The Prime Minister said yesterday that none of those jobs is at risk. I welcome that, but it is incumbent on all of us to hold the UK Government to that commitment on behalf of the hundreds of people who work in those jobs in East Kilbride.
More generally, I fundamentally disagree with the decision that was announced yesterday to merge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development, because that puts foreign policy and commercial and political ambitions ahead of the needs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, at a time of global crisis. The move is regrettable, in the context in which the decision has been made.
Care Homes (Discharge from Hospital)
The Edinburgh Evening News reports today on the case of my constituent Mr Rodger Laing, who—against the wishes of his family, with his power of attorney overruled—was transferred from Midlothian community hospital to a care home. Mr Laing developed coronavirus and died from it on 27 May. His daughter, Gail, has said:
“I will never be able to forgive them for my dad, someone needs to be held accountable.”
As part of ministers’ Covid-19 response, 1,090 additional care home places were purchased and patients were moved into them. I have previously raised with the First Minister my concerns regarding the human rights of patients, but what investigation has the First Minister undertaken into how those patients and their families have been treated during the coronavirus outbreak?
I have made it clear that there will be a full inquiry into and investigation and exploration of all aspects of the crisis, including the decision making and the impact on our care homes. I have said before that decisions on discharge are taken carefully and on the basis of clinical risk assessments. At the outset of the crisis, at the start of March, some members in the chamber asked why more people whose discharge was delayed were not being discharged from hospital. It is important that we assess all of that in order that we have accountability and learn lessons for the future.
It sounds as though the case that Miles Briggs raises should not have happened in the way that it did. Discharge planning should involve families, clinicians and, when possible, the person who is being discharged. I am happy to look into the particulars of that case, to see whether we can get answers for the family but also whether lessons require to be learned.
A constituent contacted me about a neighbour who received a self-testing kit for Covid-19. They did the test, but nobody was available to pick it up. The neighbour contacted me, I spoke to NHS Highland and the test was uplifted three days later. I am not a scientist, but I figure that that test would have been useless by that time. What steps will the First Minister take to make sure that everybody, regardless of where they live, has access to testing that can give a result?
Again, without knowing the details, I cannot comment on the individual case, but the speed of testing is of huge importance. As we go forward with the test and protect strategy, we will want to report on the turnaround time for tests. When we launched test and protect, we said that we would take steps to improve—beyond the situation that exists now—local accessibility, which is particularly important in rural areas, and that work is on-going. Although home testing has and might have a growing part to play, I have always been sceptical about placing too much reliance on tests that are posted to people, who are required to send them back or need to have them picked up. It is better if someone who can do the test does it there and then. We will continue to strengthen the resilience and reliability of test and protect in all those aspects. However, if I had further details of that three-day wait for a test to be picked up, I would be happy to look into it.
Food (Support for Families)
What is the Scottish Government doing to ensure that families have support to access food over the summer holidays?
Yesterday, we announced the continuation of free school meal entitlement over the summer and made it clear that we were giving councils additional money—£12.6 million—to pay for that extended provision. That is important at a time when we know that lots of families who were already struggling to make ends meet are finding things even harder. Many councils will be integrating that free school meal provision into their wider food support, so we have also made additional funding available to councils to help them with that wider provision.
Food poverty and insecurity should always shame a country as rich as ours. As far as we can, we must deal with it at source. While people live in food poverty, we all have a duty—which the Scottish Government takes seriously—to do everything that we can to help people to get the food that is a basic human right.
School Leavers (Support Services)
Bearing in mind the current emergency and its devastating effects on Education Scotland, can the First Minister give me a concrete assurance that the Scottish Government has provided local authorities in my West Scotland region with sufficient additional financial resources to ensure that the careers guidance and advisory support services in our schools will provide the most effective and very best support to our school leavers this term and next year?
We will continue to work with local authorities to ensure that they have the resources that they need to get through the crisis. That applies not only to education but to all aspects of the challenges that we are facing. I have just talked about yesterday’s announcement of additional money for local authorities. We have provided local authorities with substantial additional resources so far, and those conversations will continue.
Aerospace and Aviation (Job Losses)
Two weeks ago, I asked the First Minister to establish an aerospace and aviation task force, and I am grateful that a group has been established to respond to the situation at Rolls-Royce and to support aerospace jobs. However, with the loss of 160 Menzies Aviation jobs at Glasgow airport being announced and with National Car Parks workers also facing redundancy, does the First Minister agree that we also need a focus on aviation?
Specifically, what can be done to support our airports? Glasgow airport is one of the biggest employers in my region. The trade unions Unite and the GMB are warning that further job losses are to come, and they support the creation of an airport jobs task force. Will the Scottish Government create such a group?
I will consider any suggestions. As Neil Bibby says, he suggested that we create a cross-party task force to look specifically at aerospace in the light of the Rolls-Royce announcement, and we have taken that suggestion forward.
We must, however, guard against creating a plethora of different task forces, because we have to see this as an overall challenge and perhaps look at these things in a more joined-up, sectoral way. Early next week, we will have the report and recommendations from the advisory group on economic recovery, which is chaired by Benny Higgins, and we will reflect further in the light of those recommendations. At every level and in every way, there is a real commitment to do all that we can to support the economy as it recovers from the unprecedented challenge that it faces.
In addition to the cross-party approach on aerospace to which I have already referred, I spoke directly to the chief executive of Rolls-Royce a week or so ago. Work is also on-going between the Government and Rolls-Royce to look at what we can do in the short, medium and long terms by working together to preserve jobs and, I hope, a footprint for Rolls-Royce in Scotland. Those are all really important challenges for us.
We have to find the best way of catalysing the whole Parliament in a team Scotland approach. We need to have a discussion about whether that involves lots of different task forces or more joined-up strategic task forces, and it is clear that we are willing to involve other voices from across the chamber in that discussion.
Job Retention Scheme
Has the First Minister had any discussions with the United Kingdom Government about extending the job retention scheme?
We are having on-going discussions with the UK Government about the extension of the job retention scheme. We are discussing whether that should be done on a general basis or whether it should be targeted at specific sectors that will have challenges for longer—I am thinking not exclusively but particularly about the tourism sector. That is essential. I saw some evidence that was published this morning about the number of companies that are expressing concern about the impact of a premature ending of the job retention scheme, and that evidence is growing.
Other countries have been used as examples to encourage the Scottish Government to do more, which is right and proper. Other countries—France, in particular—have already taken steps that the UK Government should follow, such as announcing the extension of such schemes for up to two years. We will continue to have—I hope—constructive discussions on the issue as we jointly support the economy through the difficult times that still lie ahead.
Keeping 3m apart is better for social distancing than keeping 2m apart, and 2m is better than 1m, but the World Health Organization says that a 1m distance is safe. Will the First Minister aim to change social distancing to 1m, as is recommended by the World Health Organization? The present distance will risk both lives and livelihoods if there is no plan to move to 1m at some point, as we move towards coming out of lockdown.
We must be careful that we do not mischaracterise what the WHO is saying. The WHO recommends keeping a minimum distance of 1m. However, it is also very clear that there is a continuum of risk and that there are often other factors that have to be taken into account. If we get agreement on that, it will be a useful starting point.
I do not have any fixation on a particular distance; I only want to keep people safe, and I want to do that in a way that is as conducive as possible to getting the economy moving again. I will always resist the tendency to see any of these issues in isolation, because they are not; therefore, we have to be very careful.
The advice that I have is that we should not move away from 2m right now. For all the talk about doing that, not one of the Governments in the UK has decided to move away from 2m right now. Yes, there is on-going consideration of whether there are particular circumstances, settings or mitigations that could be brought to bear to make something like that possible—I am not closed-minded about it. However, I will not be pushed into doing it in a way that looks at the issue in isolation or does it in an unsafe way.
At the heart of this is the fact that some of the settings—the economic locations—that, understandably, feel they would benefit the most from reducing the distance, both practically and economically, are also some of the locations that evidence tells us are higher-risk transmission areas or so-called “super spreader” areas.
It is a common refrain of mine, but none of these things are simple, straightforward or binary. It would be much easier if they were. We have to come to the right, balanced judgments, taking account all of the risks and benefits along the way. I will continue to try to do that on all aspects, because my fundamental duty is to do everything that I can to get this country through this crisis as safely as possible, and I will not be diverted from that.
Brexit Transition Period
Many experts have warned that a second spike in coronavirus will be doubly disastrous if it is combined with a no-deal or low-deal Brexit. Can the First Minister update Parliament on what further representations have been made to the Westminster Government over an extension to the Brexit transition period?
As recently as last week, both the Scottish and Welsh Governments made a plea to the United Kingdom Government to seek an extension to the Brexit transition period so that we take away any prospect of either a no-deal Brexit, or, as Joan McAlpine rightly said, some kind of low-scale deal that puts jobs and livelihoods at risk. Unfortunately, that appears to have been ignored so far. We will keep making that case, although time is running out for common sense to prevail.
My views on Brexit are well known and I am not going to rehearse them all, but I think that Brexit is a bad idea and a no-deal Brexit is a catastrophic idea. In the best of times, anybody who contemplated that has serious questions to answer, but to contemplate it in the teeth of the crisis that we are confronted with because of Covid is unthinkable and deplorable. The UK Government will have very serious questions to answer, for a very long time, if they allow it to happen.
Scouts Scotland (Third Sector Resilience Fund)
I have two children who are scouts, and many members will have family connections or local associations with the scouting movement.
Today, Scouts Scotland has said that 47 per cent of its staff are at risk of redundancy, including those at the Fordell Firs outdoor centre in Fife, due to a projected loss of income of £1.5 million this year. Scouts Scotland has had no funding from the third sector resilience fund. What support can the Scottish Government offer to organisations such as Scouts Scotland that do so much excellent work with our young people, and will the criteria for the third sector resilience fund now be widened so that charities like Scouts Scotland can apply?
The scouts do a fantastic job, and I pay tribute to them for that.
Throughout the crisis we will try to be as expansive as we possibly can be—within the obvious limitations of resources that we face—and to help as many organisations, individuals and interests as possible. The finance secretary has already demonstrated a willingness to do that, with all the amendments and changes that have been made along the way.
I cannot stand here and say that we can flex any scheme to take account of and cater for absolutely everyone; I wish that I could do that, but I cannot. However, we will continue to try to do as much as we can to accommodate organisations that do great work and are seriously challenged by the crisis.
The main thing that we can do for scouts and for everybody else is to safely get us back to normal. That comes back to the key point that we must continue, as we are doing now, to suppress the virus. If we suppress it to the point at which we can keep it suppressed through test and protect, and if we can get agreements to deal with the potential of the virus coming into the country from elsewhere, we can all move back to much greater normality than we might have thought possible just a month or two ago.
That is the big challenge now; it is also the prize for continued patience during this understandably frustrating phase for everybody.
Brexit (Economic Impact)
Professor Jim Gallagher recently told the Finance and Constitution Committee that
“adding further economic disruption on top of the economic disruption caused by the Covid crisis by driving towards a hard Brexit in the hope that it will somehow be disguised by the Covid crisis would be not just unwise but wicked.”—[Official Report, Finance and Constitution Committee, 5 June 2020; c 19.]
Given what the First Minister has already said about that, and given that it looks as if that is where the Westminster Government is heading, will she tell us what progress has been made by the Scottish Government in preparing to offset the worst impacts of the likely outcome on businesses, jobs and the Scottish economy?
That is a good question and one that we are addressing. We should not be having to address it now. All of our efforts and energies should be focused on dealing with the Covid crisis and our recovery from that. It is inexplicable to me why any Government would seek to heap more economic pain on top of the economic pain that we already face.
We are having to restart our no-deal Brexit planning. In the next couple of weeks—the immediate date escapes me—the Cabinet will spend time looking again at those plans. Mike Russell is leading that work.
Every minute, hour and day that the Government has to spend on looking at how we mitigate the impact of Brexit, and particularly of a no-deal or bad deal Brexit, is a minute, hour and day that we are not spending focusing on the Covid crisis. I appeal again to the UK Government not to allow that madness to happen. Let us all focus on getting the country through the immediate health crisis and then on supporting the country to recover from the economic crisis that we face, without compounding that with the lunacy of Brexit.
Island Communities (Lockdown)
Each of our islands is unique. What criteria will be used to decide, and who will decide, when and how our islands come out of lockdown? Community engagement has been discussed. How will that work along with the Scottish Government, ferry companies and relevant local authorities? With a reduced ferry service and hugely diminished capacity due to social distancing, what additional support will be provided to island businesses, given the huge fall in visitor numbers at the height of the summer tourist season?
The initiatives that we are announcing, and the further initiatives that we will put in place to help business, will give particular consideration to island and rural businesses, given the particular challenges that they face. That is true of the initiative that Kate Forbes announced yesterday, as it will be of future initiatives.
I want the whole country to come safely out of lockdown. The surveillance systems that we put in place to track Covid will make us aware of localised clusters or spikes. That will involve making data available to local authorities and to the public so that they can make informed judgments about any risks that they might take. It will also involve discussions between national and local Government about localised decisions that may fall to be taken. We are already discussing with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and with local authorities how that will work in practice.
The more we suppress the virus now, the sooner and more sustainably the whole country can emerge from what we have been living through.
Independent Ferry Operators (Business Support)
In April, the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture announced the creation of a £45 million ferry fund to support operators during the Covid crisis. Although vital independent operators have received some support through other funding streams, it has been considerably less than the amount suggested by the economy secretary’s funding announcement.
Some independent firms, such as Pentland Ferries, have received indications that they will not be eligible for support from the fund at all. Why, when independent and subsidised operators are facing similar challenges, and are equally vital to the communities that they serve, have independent operators been treated so differently by the Scottish Government?
It is important that there is fairness and transparency about how such funds are allocated. As I think that I said some weeks back during an exchange in the chamber, at times of crisis, when we have put funds in place very quickly, some of the normal due diligence has been done much more quickly, but the principle of fairness and transparency must still be there.
I do not have the details in front of me of the breakdown of the support for ferries, but I am happy to look at it. There will certainly have been no intention to treat particular operators unfairly, but if the rules on how the money is allocated have inadvertently done that, as with all such issues, we will be happy to look at whether better arrangements can be put in place.13:30 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—