Meeting date: Thursday, November 19, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 19 November 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Covid Vaccine, Youth Football, Coronavirus (Scotland’s Strategic Approach), Point of Order, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Portfolio Question Time
- Covid Vaccine
- Youth Football
- Coronavirus (Scotland’s Strategic Approach)
- Point of Order
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon, colleagues. As usual, we begin business with First Minister’s question time. In line with the current custom, I invite the First Minister to update us on the Covid situation.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will give a very short update on today’s statistics and recent developments.
The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,089, which is 4.6 per cent of all tests reported. The total number of cases is therefore now 85,612. There are 1,212 people in hospital, which is 29 fewer than yesterday, and there are 85 people in intensive care, which is three fewer than yesterday.
I regret to report, however, that in the past 24 hours another 50 deaths have been registered of patients who had tested positive in the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that daily measurement is now 3,427. Once again, I convey my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
We will shortly publish the latest estimate of the reproduction number in Scotland. We expect that it will show the R number now to be very slightly below 1. That indicates that the current tough measures that have been in place have had an effect. However, the overall national situation, which the R number estimate reflects, masks some regional variations. In the parts of the country where there is the highest prevalence, we have not yet seen as significant or as rapid a fall in cases as we need to see.
That is why we have taken the decision to move 11 local authority areas to level 4, from 6 pm tomorrow until Friday 11 December. Of course, that decision was a difficult one to make; it was even more difficult for many businesses and individuals to hear. However, in the situation that we face, in common with much of the rest of the world, the job of Government must be to do what is necessary to save lives and protect health, even when we know that such decisions will not be welcome.
In our judgment, and that of the experts who advise us, those temporary measures are necessary to reduce loss of life and serious illness, to ensure that hospitals and intensive care facilities are able to treat Covid and non-Covid patients over the winter, and to allow people, albeit in a limited and careful way, the prospect of being able to spend some time with loved ones over the Christmas period.
Difficult though it is, I ask people to abide by the rules in order to keep themselves and their families safe, as part of our collective efforts to get through the rest of the pandemic with as little harm to health and as little loss of life as possible. Anyone who is in any doubt about the regulations that apply in their area should visit the Scottish Government’s website and use the postcode checker.
I will close by giving a summary of the advice and rules that are in place. With the exception of people in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, no one should visit others’ homes at the moment, except for essential purposes. Outdoors and in indoor public places, we should meet in groups of no more than six people from a maximum of two households. Slightly more relaxed rules for outdoor meetings come into force today in the level 1 areas, but the basic rule remains six from two. Of course, travel restrictions continue to be vital, and some of those restrictions will become law from tomorrow evening. More detailed information about them can be found on the Scottish Government website.
Finally, I ask everyone to remember the FACTS advice: wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean your hands and hard surfaces regularly; keep a 2m distance from people in other households; and self-isolate and get tested immediately if you have any Covid symptoms. I again thank everyone who is following all those rules.
The First Minister will now take questions. I encourage all members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak button as soon as possible.
Covid-19 (Christmas Planning)
Last month, I asked the First Minister to consider a Christmas loneliness plan so that no one would be left sitting alone at their Christmas table. I am pleased by the reports of four-nations discussions to make it easier for people to have some kind of meeting, no matter where their family lives, but Christmas is only five weeks away. We must treat the public like grown-ups and let them into Government thinking so that they can plan for themselves.
Therefore, I ask the First Minister to give people at home more information on how those four-nations talks are progressing, and to give a fuller sense of what is being considered by her Government for the festive time.
In the late afternoon yesterday, I took part in a four-nations discussion with Michael Gove from the UK Government, the First Minister of Wales and the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Among other things, we discussed the Christmas period and how we could come to a sensible—I stress “sensible”—and safe plan that will allow people not 100 per cent normality over Christmas, but a greater degree of normality, in particular the ability to spend some time with loved ones.
From that meeting yesterday, we charged our officials, advised by our respective chief medical officers, to put together a concrete proposal that we will then consider and, I hope, announce the detail of in the coming days—although, obviously, we need to wait to see what that proposal is. I hope that we will be able to share it with the public over the course of the next week.
We are all determined that we come, if possible, to a four-nations agreement, given family patterns across the UK. I think that we are also all determined to strike, as best we can, the right balance between the understandable desire—which I share—to see family over the Christmas period, which is so special to so many of us, and doing that in a way that does not lead to increased loss of life and increased harm to health over January. That is not going to be an easy balance to strike, and I already hear people expressing concerns about our even considering that kind of relaxation. However, it is important that we try to get that balance right, so we will continue to do that work.
More broadly, we are working with the older people’s strategic action forum on plans to support older people over the winter. That includes, of course, the Christmas period. We have already announced additional funding to local and national organisations that support older people, including Generations Working Together, the Scottish Pensioners Forum, Outside the Box, Hourglass and Age Scotland.
We know that Christmas will be particularly difficult for older people and, indeed, for anybody who is on their own. We are considering the proposal that was put forward during an earlier debate in Parliament about a specific Christmas loneliness campaign, and we will announce more detail of that shortly.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. We all understand that relaxing the rules for any period, even a day, comes with consequences and will require mitigations, if it is to work at all. Yesterday, the Government adviser Dr Susan Hopkins said:
“the Sage ... advice previously suggested that for every day we release we will need five days of tighter restrictions”.
Does the First Minister recognise that figure of five days of tightened restrictions for every day of festive relaxation? Is that 5:1 ratio part of the Scottish Government’s planning?
It is not specifically part of the planning. I understand that that figure has been discussed—in what detail, I am not yet sure—by the scientific advisory group for emergencies, but I have not yet seen the minutes of the meeting of SAGE at which, I understand, it was discussed.
I am seeking, right now, advice from my public health advisers—principally, obviously, the chief medical adviser—about the basis for that view and whether, for example, the calculation of five days for every one day of relaxation would apply if there was complete relaxation or would be less if the relaxation was more minimal, as I think is likely. We are interrogating that right now. The reason why all four Governments asked that a proposal be brought forward that is fully informed by the advice of the chief medical officers is that we make sure that we factor in all such analysis and assessment.
I do not underestimate how difficult the balance will be for us all to strike. I want people to have a degree of normality over Christmas, but I do not want to have to announce, or the country to have to live with, numbers on more bereaved families and a death toll that could have been avoided, were we to get that balance wrong. We will take great care, listen to advice and ultimately, I hope, arrive at a judgment that we all think is safe and sensible.
The reason why I asked about the 5:1 ratio is that I think that most people need to be prepared for what is coming. The restrictions that millions of Scots in levels 3 and 4 are living under now were explained to us as suppressing the virus for its own sake, but also as allowing us hope of some form of contact this Christmas. What we need to know now is whether the current restrictions are the price of relaxation this Christmas, or whether the bill will be paid by us all in the new year.
Whether it is, as the SAGE team advises us, five days of restrictions for one day of relaxation or some other number, we all want to know whether the current good work is enough and whether we will have to start preparing ourselves now for a January shutdown.
I will try to set that out over the course of the next week or so—in common, I hope, with others across the United Kingdom. As I have sought to do all along, I am trying to be pretty straight with people about what trade-offs we have to make in so many aspects of handling the pandemic. When I, as First Minister, have been advised by the people who advise me, who have a deeper understanding of what that will mean in January, I will set that out clearly. I will not speculate on a five-days-for-every-one-day situation, because I have not seen what underpins the opinion that has been expressed on that. I will work through that with others over the next few days.
What I know and have set out clearly is that in order for us even to reach the space of being able to propose some flexibility in particular parts of the country—unfortunately, they are the most populated parts of the country—we must get infection levels lower than they are now. That is one of the reasons for the level 4 restrictions that will start in 11 local authority areas tomorrow.
There are two aspects to that. First, when we have infection levels at a stable but high level, as we do across the central belt, an increase could very quickly overwhelm our national health service. We have to get the levels down for that reason. We know that people coming together over Christmas, whether in the way that SAGE has set out or in some other way, will increase the transmission risk.
The other reason to get infection levels down now is that if, by the time we get to Christmas, there are fewer people in the population who have Covid, by definition there will be a lower risk from people getting together and of one person in a group having the virus and passing it on.
For both those reasons, if we get infection levels down, we will give ourselves the ability to perhaps ease a bit over Christmas in a safer way than we would if infections levels were to remain where they are right now. That is one of the reasons for the restrictions that we are imposing now. If relaxing at Christmas has implications for January, of course we will set that out fully. I want to make sure that we have fully considered and understood the implications, so that the information that we set out to the public is full and is delivered in as straight and open a way as possible.
The First Minister has rightly listened to representations from across the chamber regarding the position of students this Christmas, and she is bringing in mass testing to allow them to return to their families. We support that.
Will the First Minister agree that students are not the only group that are required to spend significant time away from the family home? Scotland is home to 10,000 uniformed military personnel. Will she agree to make the same arrangements for soldiers, sailors and the Royal Air Force as she has for students, and make sure that our troops get home this Christmas?
Obviously, any arrangements for testing would be for the Ministry of Defence to decide. We will work with the MOD and if we can facilitate that, we will.
Earlier this week, there was a story in the newspapers—or one newspaper, I should say—to the effect that somehow soldiers in Scotland are under rules about going home for Christmas that are different from those that soldiers elsewhere in the UK are under. That is absolutely not the case. Soldiers who are stationed in Scotland are in barracks, and barracks are workplaces. Nothing in the rules in Scotland prevents them from travelling home; that is the case in Scotland as it is in the rest of the UK. We said that we would make that clear to the MOD, and that has been done. Apart, perhaps, from in the mind of the newspaper that reported that, there is no dubiety about that.
That is the position and we will continue to work across different sectors to make sure that arrangements are in place for people to take safe and informed decisions about how they behave over Christmas, as they do at other times of the year.
Covid-19 Restrictions (Travel Ban)
Tomorrow, a travel ban will become law. It is a law that Parliament will have barely scrutinised, let alone voted on. The ban will mean that people in levels 3 and 4 will be acting criminally if they travel outside their local authority area for anything other than essential journeys. The same is true of those travelling into level 3 and 4 areas. Is the First Minister confident that, by 6 o’clock tomorrow night, everyone will have sufficient knowledge and full understanding of what constitutes an essential journey, so that they can act in accordance with the law?
I will do my best, as I have done every single day during the pandemic, to ensure that people have an understanding of the guidance and the rules that are in place and how they can abide by those rules. I think that I have already said in the chamber today—I will say it again—that anybody who is in any doubt can go on to the Scottish Government website and look at the rules and what the exemptions to the travel restrictions are.
I think that we all understand the reason for the travel restrictions. Travel restrictions have been in place previously in the pandemic—in Wales, for example. If somebody has a reasonable excuse to travel, that exempts them from the restrictions. The regulations give a number of examples, non-exhaustively, of what a reasonable excuse might be.
We will continue to take the steps that we have been taking through the daily media briefings, parliamentary occasions such as this one and our advertising campaigns to ensure that people have awareness. We also make the information available for people to check.
I thank the First Minister for that answer and especially for her commitment that the list of exemptions is not exhaustive.
Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs told an incredulous public and a committee of the Scottish Parliament that, although international travel continues to be perfectly legal, travelling to the airport may be a criminal act. Let me describe what that means to one family.
Linzi Page lives in Fife. She has stage 4 cancer and she is just 38 years old. She has a family holiday in Tenerife booked with her seven-year-old son and her four-year-old daughter. I spoke to Linzi this morning. She told me that the family has had a tough year and that the holiday would be a nice memory for them. She said that it is a precious time with the family that they will never get back. The family are due to fly out from Edinburgh a week today. However, by then, it will be illegal for her to travel to the airport. What is the First Minister’s advice today to Linzi Page?
I wrote to Linzi this morning to clarify the situation. She wrote to me last night to outline her situation, which is, indeed, tragic. My heart goes out to her, as I am sure the heart of each and every one of us does. She asked me for clarity on whether she can go on a final holiday with her family. As I said, I have written back to her today, and I have advised her that, under the regulations, anyone who is in a situation such as hers can go on a final holiday.
As I have already said, the travel restrictions come with a general exemption. People can have what is termed in law “a reasonable excuse”, and the regulations give a list of examples of what a reasonable excuse might be. As I have already said, that list is not exhaustive, but there should be no doubt that Mrs Page would absolutely meet the exemption, because one of the explicit examples that are given in the regulations is travel for compassionate reasons that relate to the end of a person’s life.
Linzi’s situation is tragic but, on both compassionate and legal grounds, she can go on her holiday. I wish her and her family well.
I thank the First Minister for that undertaking, which will, I am sure, be greatly welcomed. I am sure that we all approve of the compassion that lies behind that.
In general, people want a Government that works with them, not against them, on things such as the travel restrictions. The overwhelming majority of people are just trying to keep up with the regulations in order to follow them. However, as things stand, the best-case scenario is that the travel ban will confuse them; the worst-case scenario is that it will criminalise them. The travel ban is a red herring. Instead, the First Minister must take action on some of the things that members of the Scottish Parliament and the people have been calling for, such as a properly resourced test and protect system; appropriate personal protective equipment for our doctors and healthcare workers; safer schools for our children, school staff and teachers; the comprehensive testing of departing and returning students; additional support for our businesses and working people; routine testing for all front-line workers; and a public inquiry into our care homes.
I raise those issues because, as I have repeatedly said, it is in all our interests for the Government to get this right. Will the First Minister admit that she has not got this right? Before it is too late, will she rethink the travel ban and its application?
All along, I have said that I have not got everything right and I will not get everything right. I will continue to try to get things right and be candid when we do not. I will also take the actions that I consider—and people are entitled to disagree—are necessary to keep the country as safe as possible. In a situation like this, it is absolutely incumbent on someone like me to do my level best to do the right and the necessary things, even if they are not always popular or welcome. I would be failing in my responsibility if I did not do that.
On travel restrictions, we have a situation in Scotland whereby a significant proportion of the population will go into the highest level of restrictions from tomorrow evening. I have set out the reasons for that. I am making no criticisms, but, unlike the situation in England and the situation in Wales a few weeks ago, so far, we are avoiding a national one-size-fits-all level of restrictions, because we do not think that it is right for areas with low rates of the virus to have the same restrictions as areas with higher rates of it if we can avoid it. However, in order to maintain that proportionate, targeted approach, we must avoid taking the virus from higher-prevalence areas to lower-prevalence areas and having people from lower-prevalence areas going to higher-prevalence areas and taking the virus back, so that prevalence in those areas goes up.
To sum up:
“levels of the virus have risen and people living in those areas are not able to travel beyond their”
“boundary without a reasonable excuse. That is designed to prevent the spread of infection”
within the country
“and to other parts of the UK. I am determined to keep the country safe.”
That is what the Labour First Minister of Wales said when he introduced statutory legal travel restrictions in Wales. He was right, because he is determined to keep his country safe. I am as determined as he is to keep my country as safe as I possibly can.
Covid-19 (Parliamentary Scrutiny)
The First Minister has welcomed scrutiny of her Government’s response to the pandemic and, as always, the Scottish Green Party is committed to playing a constructive role in opposition.
Part of being open to scrutiny is listening to the will of the Parliament. The Parliament has called for a public inquiry into what happened in our care homes. It has twice backed my calls for regular testing of national health service and care staff and yesterday it backed the Greens’ calls for the Scottish Government to do more to keep our schools safe.
When will the First Minister respond to the will of the Parliament? When will her Government act on yesterday’s urgent call for more teachers in our schools, more support for vulnerable school staff and regular Covid tests for staff and senior pupils?
We will consider the terms of the motion that was passed yesterday. In terms of extra teachers, I will outline an important point: we have already funded 1,400 additional teachers in our schools in order to help deal with the Covid pandemic. The Greens’ motion asked for an additional 2,000 teachers. I accept that the Opposition can pass motions—that is entirely legitimate—but the responsibility of Government is to determine how we fund that and where we find the teachers. That involves a lot of hard work and proper consideration, but that is what we will do.
We have already expanded testing to a range of different groups. The health secretary will make a statement to the Parliament next week setting out the next steps of our polymerase chain reaction—PCR—testing programme and how we are going to use the lateral flow technology to get rapid testing for groups of the population. We have already set out our plans for students and will use lateral flow technology to extend testing to more groups of NHS staff. We hope that we can do that for other groups in the population such as those who work in our schools, as we see them as a priority. We will also set out plans for geographic mass testing in parts of the country with high rates of prevalence.
We will continue to do the hard work that is necessary to turn what we all want to see happen into reality. That is the responsibility of the Government and it is one that we take seriously.
Two and a half thousand staff absences have been reported in schools in recent weeks. It is clear that action is urgently needed.
Testing helps us identify who needs to self-isolate. However, the Scottish Government’s own evidence suggests that compliance with self-isolation is low—it might be as low as one in four people. Many people simply cannot afford to self-isolate or to step away from important caring responsibilities, or they do not have the space at home.
On 27 May I asked the First Minister:
“What support will be made available to those who need to isolate? For example, will accommodation such as hotel rooms be offered free to those who need them?”
“The short answer to that question is yes.”—[Official Report, 27 May 2020; c 10.]
The evidence has long been clear that providing hotels for self-isolation significantly increases compliance, as New Zealand has found. Indeed, that can also provide meals, medical care and laundry services free of charge.
Can the First Minister tell me how many people have been provided with hotel rooms for self-isolation since May? Will she commit today to ensuring that anyone who needs a hotel room to self-isolate will be given one?
A lot has happened since May, not least the self-isolation support payment, which people can apply for—we are looking at whether we can enhance and extend that to other groups. We have set up an outreach service through local authorities, so that everybody in the lowest-income and most vulnerable groups who is starting with those payments gets a call when they are advised to self-isolate, so that their individual needs can be properly assessed.
We will continue to assess whether there are accommodation needs or other needs that can be met. Just as we will with support for schools and with the roll-out of testing, we will continue to enhance the support that we can provide for those who are asked to self-isolate, given the importance of that intervention to help control the spread of the virus.
Mental Health Support (Police)
Liberal Democrats secured a commitment from the Government for 800 dedicated mental health professionals. They were for doctors’ surgeries and accident and emergency departments, but also for the police, to help them with the increasing numbers of incidents that involve mental health issues.
Three years on, only 12 of those mental health professionals have been allocated to the police. That is truly pitiful. Why is the Government not supporting our police with the enormous mental health challenges that they face?
I do not think that I have in front of me the up-to-date figures on the allocation of the 800 additional professionals to particular services, but I will make sure that I send that to Willie Rennie.
We support our police service in a number of ways. We have protected numbers of police officers and increased funding for the police service through the most recent budgets. Police Scotland also works in a range of different ways to support the mental health of police officers.
We will continue that support across police, teachers and the national health service in particular. The pressures of Covid have raised significantly the mental health pressures that those public servants are working under. We will continue to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to respond to that.
I can assure the First Minister that that is the up-to-date number, and it is just 12. That is just not good enough.
Police Scotland’s demand and productivity unit has undertaken a mental health survey. Its report on the survey, to be published at the police board meeting next week, has staggering findings. Some 40 per cent of those who are in police custody have experienced poor mental health. The average time that it takes to handle a mental health-related incident is seven hours and 20 minutes.
A year ago, I asked the First Minister about shocking mental health issues in the police service. Now we find that police officers do not even get the support that they need to help other people. I ask her again: why does she think that it is acceptable for Police Scotland to receive just 12 mental health professionals, and will she do something about that?
There is a range of ways in which the police are supported on mental health issues. We will continue to take steps to enhance those where it is necessary. The wellbeing of police officers is one of the principal responsibilities of the chief constable.
Current absence rates for police officers are lower than for the equivalent period last year. Police officers and staff can access a range of services to care for physical and mental health, including Police Scotland’s your wellbeing matters programme. Police Scotland was one of the first police services in the UK to implement mental health and suicide intervention training for all officers. We have provided funding to extend the Lifelines Scotland wellbeing programme to all blue-light responders, including the police. That programme provides tailored online resources for responders, volunteers, and, indeed, their family members.
We also provide funding for other initiatives, including to help with the introduction of wellbeing champions.
We support the police in a range of different ways so that they can look after the mental health of their officers and support staff, and we will continue to have dialogue with the chief constable to ensure that we are supporting the police in whatever ways we possibly can.
Covid-19 (Travel Restrictions)
My question has been somewhat pre-empted by events.
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will consider putting travel restrictions into regulations, in light of reports that Covid-19 transmission rates are not slowing down sufficiently and, in some areas, are increasing again. (S5F-04574)
As I said in the chamber on Tuesday, we will put travel restrictions into regulations from tomorrow. They will apply to travel within Scotland and to other parts of the United Kingdom and the common travel area. That action has not been taken lightly but, as I have set out already today, it is essential to prevent the spread of the virus from high-prevalence to low-prevalence areas. It is that which will allow us to continue to avoid a one-size-fits-all set of restrictions for the whole country.
I ask people, difficult though it is, to abide by the travel restrictions.
Unlike Richard Leonard, I and most of my constituents welcome making travel restrictions subject to legal enforcement, particularly because my constituency, which covers the Borders and Midlothian, is now at level 2, thanks to the efforts of the folks there.
However, Edinburgh, which is adjacent, is at level 3. Just over the city boundary, in Midlothian, we have major retail outlets such as Dobbies, Ikea, Costco and Straiton retail park. How will travel from Edinburgh to such places be monitored? Purchasing a tray of winter pansies or wine glasses and cushions, while completely understandable, can hardly be considered essential, and that non-essential travel will spread the virus.
Christine Grahame raises some really important and fundamental points. I will take a moment to underline again the reasons for the travel restrictions.
We are seeking to avoid a national lockdown. The only way to take a proportionate and targeted approach that avoids people who live in areas in which the levels of the virus are lower having to live under restrictions that are designed for areas with much higher levels is to limit people’s travel across the country. It is unpalatable and it is not something that anybody wants to have to live with, but it is one of the trade-offs in trying to avoid a one-size-fits-all lockdown, as is in place in many other countries and, indeed, in other parts of the UK right now. I ask people to consider that. Even if they do not agree with travel restrictions—people are entitled to take that view if they want—they should understand the reasons for them.
As I have already said today, there will be a range of exceptions for essential travel, including travel for work, education, healthcare and essential shopping, if that is not possible within the local authority area. People should use online shopping or shops, banks, and other services in their local area wherever they can.
As we have done on every aspect of the regulations throughout the pandemic, we want to see the new laws work through high levels of public compliance. We have had very high levels of public compliance, and I am deeply grateful to the public for that. We do not want to have to rely on enforcement. Enforcement will be a last resort, and, as is the case in relation to face coverings and other aspects of the coronavirus regulations, the police have enforcement powers. A fixed-penalty regime applies, and I am sure that the police will use that sensitively and proportionately, as they have done with all the regulations throughout the pandemic so far.
To ask the First Minister when the Scottish Government expects a free port to open in Scotland. (S5F-04573)
The first thing to be clear about is that free ports cannot and will not offset the damage that is being and will be caused by Brexit, which is taking Scotland and the United Kingdom out of the world’s biggest free trade area and single market; of course, in Scotland’s case, it is doing so completely against our will.
The Scottish Government wants to build a high-productivity, high-wage, innovative economy in Scotland. We remain concerned that the focus of free ports may be on the low-cost, low-wage, low-value opportunities with which they are sometimes associated globally. For those reasons, we have not yet made a final decision on whether to support the designation of free ports in Scotland.
We will look carefully at the UK Government’s proposal to ensure that free ports can work with our ambition for a low-carbon, wellbeing economy that also targets investment geographically and strategically. Now that some more details on the UK Government’s proposals are available, we will gather the views of stakeholders and partners in the public and private sectors and will make the results of that survey work available. That will be crucial in forming our response.
The First Minister will be aware that, in England, the bidding process for free port status opened this week—although, as she has just said, it has not opened here. There is a lot of interest in Scotland in having free port status. The first free ports in England are expected to open next year.
Yesterday, I spoke to the management team at the Port of Cromarty Firth. In contrast to what the First Minister has just said, they told me that free port status could deliver high-tech, high-skill and high-wage jobs for them. They describe it as a tremendous opportunity. If Scotland does not act in sync with the rest of the UK on that, we stand to lose jobs to the rest of the UK. Will the First Minister get on board with free ports?
We will consider whether free ports are in the best interests of Scotland. That is what having a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish Government is all about. I know that the Conservatives think that it has been a disaster, but the majority of people in Scotland think that it is the right thing for us.
We will have discussions with stakeholders and we will come to the right decision. I am sceptical about the Conservative Government’s commitment to a high-value, high-tech economy as opposed to a race to the bottom. However, if we think that the proposals are consistent with our ambitions for a high-wage, high-productivity, innovative economy, we will support them—if we do not, we will not support them. We will take the views of a range of stakeholders in coming to that decision.
What is beyond any doubt is the looming threat to Scotland of the end of the Brexit transition period, either with no deal or with such a flimsy deal that it will cause chaos to our businesses the length and breadth of the country. Frankly, that is on the Tories.
Covid-19 (Resolution Foundation Report)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to the report, “Caught in a (Covid) trap”, by the Resolution Foundation, which says that almost a third of families who have experienced a reduction in income due to the pandemic are struggling to afford to heat their homes or buy fresh vegetables. (S5F-04581)
The pandemic has had a significant financial impact on families, and to help mitigate that the Scottish Government has already provided significant financial support. For example, we have made more than £130 million available to tackle food insecurity and to ensure free school meal provision during holiday periods, right through to Easter. Last year, we invested £1.96 billion in supporting low-income households and I am pleased that, very recently, we opened applications for the new Scottish child payment.
As the Resolution Foundation notes, the United Kingdom Government must also play its part. I hope that the chancellor will ensure that next week’s spending review provides adequate support for families, starting with making permanent the vital £20 uplift in universal credit.
I believe that we may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg. Many people on furlough have seen a drop in pay over eight months, and that has been crippling for those on the lowest incomes. We all know that we are on the edge of mass job losses. We must also not forget about people on zero-hours contracts who did not get furlough. There is deep inequality in some of the ways in which support from both the UK and Scottish Governments has been provided. Will the First Minister commission an early analysis of who has lost income in the past eight months?
Scottish Labour welcomes the Scottish child payment, which we know that 28,000 people applied for on the first day it opened at the start of the month. In order to give families a boost in income, will the First Minister consider backdating the Scottish child payment to the start of November for all those who apply before the end of February, which is when the first payments will be made? That suggestion was put to the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People, who said that it was quite a complex issue. However, I have put to the First Minister today a simple way in which to do it, and I ask her if it could at least be considered.
It is complex, as there are both legal and practical issues—it is not about desirability. However, we are looking closely at ways in which we can further help low-income families, in particular over the coming winter period, and we will set out some further proposals on that shortly. We will continue to look at the specific suggestions regarding the Scottish child payment, but I do not want to underplay the complexities that are involved. We will have more to say shortly about how we will provide additional support for low-income families.
We will continue to do what we can to assess the equalities impacts of everything that is happening right now and to ensure that, as far as possible, the support that we provide is as targeted as it can be at those in need. The definition of those in need is changing, as the impacts of the pandemic are felt. There are people who, just a few months ago, would not have described themselves as being in financial difficulty, but who are now in a very different, and difficult, situation. We need to take account of that as we design our policies over the short, medium and long term.
Covid Restrictions (West Lothian)
There is considerable disappointment in West Lothian about moving to tier 4 restrictions. Nonetheless, the West Lothian community will continue to pull together to protect our national health service and save lives. Right now, we need three things from our Government.
First, we need a clear statement of all the facts and factors specific to West Lothian that relate to why the decision was made, given that, historically, we have had a lower incidence rate, and there is a perception that we may have been a borderline case in the Government’s considerations.
Secondly, can the First Minister outline the support that will be available over the next three weeks?
Thirdly, and most important, can she give us some hope for the future that there are indeed better days to come?
I thank Angela Constance for her question. I will take the three parts in turn, as briefly as I can.
First is the rationale for the decision. Over the weekend and in the course of Monday and into Tuesday morning, when the Cabinet made its decision, an assessment was made by the national incident management team and, more broadly, by the Scottish Government’s four harms group, of the most recent clinical data and the data for the basket of indicators that we have set out. That included consideration by chief advisers.
Over the past week, West Lothian has not shown any sustained improvement in the number of cases or in the case positivity rate. Both those indicators remain stubbornly above the national average and people in West Lothian can look at the analysis, which was published on Tuesday on the Scottish Government’s website, of the latest data for the West Lothian Council area. That will be updated next Tuesday, and I hope that we will see an improvement. One of the reasons behind using level 4 for some of the council areas that have stabilised, but at a very high level, is to try to get their levels down more quickly, so that they end up spending less time in level 3 and can go to a lower level much more quickly.
On the second part of the question, as we set out on Tuesday, businesses across West Lothian will have access to the grant scheme, and West Lothian Council will have access to the additional discretionary fund to help businesses, over and above the grant scheme, where it thinks that that is necessary. West Lothian will also have a share of the £15 million fund that we will make available for social and community support for council areas in level 4. Discussions are on-going between Scottish Government officials and councils about the allocation of that funding. The business support grant scheme is already open to applications from businesses.
The question on hope is perhaps easier to answer for West Lothian right now, given that, as of Tuesday next week, assuming—I am touching the wooden desk in front of me—that there is no significant deterioration between now and then, Midlothian and East Lothian will go down a level because their data has been declining in a more sustainable way.
Various factors are involved that are not people’s fault in any way, shape or form. There are different travel patterns and population densities in those council areas that will feed into the figures. However, when we start to see numbers go down—as I hope that we will do for East Lothian and Midlothian next week—the levels go down as well, and people can live with fewer restrictions. If a council goes down a level, however—whether now or in the future—that does not mean that we can ease up or that the risk is passed. When there are fewer restrictions, there are more opportunities for the virus to spread, so it becomes more important for everybody to abide by the rules that are in place in their areas.
I hope that, in the weeks to come, there will be better news for West Lothian, as well as for the other councils in level 4 and for the whole country.
I encourage colleagues not to ask three-part questions.
Covid-19 (Level 4 Restrictions)
Over the past 48 hours, the reality of Tuesday’s confirmation of level 4 status has settled on my Eastwood constituents, who feel a mixture of weary resignation, bewilderment and fear. “What is it that we have failed to do?” ask many who have already done so much. Some small business owners who have invested heavily in stock for the season on which their livelihoods most depend have literally been in tears. Others have expressed alarm for their community.
These are not the sunny uplands with long, warm days of spring and summer ahead; rather, they are the cold, wet, short, dark days of winter, when the fear of isolation and loneliness presents challenges even without the addition of Covid.
Second-guessing the difficult decisions that the First Minister must take is a fool’s game, as we have seen. People understand that. However, what they want from the Government is practical, easily accessed support to keep their businesses and communities alive, and they tell me that what they have heard so far does not cut it.
What more can we do and what more will the Government do—for more it must do—to ensure that small local businesses survive and thrive and, importantly, that as this winter progresses, Christmas besides, we do not find that anxiety, fear of isolation and loneliness have been compounded, such that a more predictable, terrible and tragic toll of self-harm, in any of its forms, is visited on our communities?
Every single one of the decisions that I take, whether people agree with them or not and whether I get them right 100 per cent of the time or not, is taken with the sole objective of trying to keep the country as safe as possible and to get it through what I hope is now the final stage of the pandemic, with as few lives lost and as little harm to health—and, indeed, as little harm to the overall economy—as possible.
I understand the sentiment that says that, if we do less to control the virus, things are better for the economy. In fact, the opposite ends up being true: if we do not properly control the virus, the damage to the economy becomes worse, and the effects will be even longer lasting.
I know how difficult things will be for the local authority areas going into level 4 tomorrow, including Renfrewshire. I again make the point that the restrictions that will be in place in 11 local authority areas from tomorrow, albeit that they are the most populated parts of the country, are the same restrictions, by and large, as those that are in place in the entirety of England, without exception. Every country is grappling with this. Many parts of Europe now have restrictions like this in place. That does not make it easier, but it is important that we all keep sight of the overall, global perspective.
Applications are now open for grant support for businesses. The grants match the support that has been made available by the United Kingdom Government for businesses in England, but the discretionary funding that we are making available over and above that goes further—from what I understand to be the case in England—and will give greater flexibility to local authorities to enhance their support for businesses both in the supply chain and others that do not fall into the categories concerned. I know that local authorities are working hard to get that support to businesses as quickly as possible.
Government has a big responsibility to ensure that we support businesses, but nothing that we can do will absolutely compensate business for every single loss that is made. That is true in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland and across the world. The most important thing that we can do for business is to get and keep the virus down, so that we can open not just the economy but society more, and do that sustainably. That is why, fundamentally, it is in all our interests to stick to the restrictions so as to get through the remaining phase of the pandemic as quickly and with as little harm as possible.
In recent days, Ian Murray and I have written to the First Minister on behalf of hospitality businesses in our constituency. Those business owners collectively run more than 100 premises across the city, and they estimate that, in total, almost 700 jobs have already been lost, with no changes for level 3. They fear that 500 more will be lost with the continuation of the restrictions. In advance of a full response, will the First Minister consider one of their key requests, which is that business hours for hospitality, while maintaining the ban on alcohol sales, should be changed from being open for 12 hours from 6 am to 6 pm to being open from noon until 9pm? That would enable two evening meal services. That small change could prevent half of the projected job losses. We all understand the need for restrictions, but the First Minister must surely agree that we must also review them to balance the economic cost of the public health measures.
We will consider that in good faith as we consider all reasonable suggestions.
There is no part of me that wants to do things that are harmful to business; the idea that I want to do that is ridiculous. I know that that is not what the member suggests. I want to see us get out of this as quickly as possible and I want to see us get through it with as little harm to life, health and the economy as we can.
We will consider all reasonable suggestions. We must also bear in mind the reason for some of the restrictions. In hospitality, as with some other restrictions, it is, bluntly, about reducing the number of people who are coming together. I understand that changing the hours of those restrictions would be better for business, but it undermines the public health objective. We must reach a balance.
I know that businesses are struggling and that they are anxious and stressed, which makes my final point a difficult one to grasp. This is not just about now; it is about how quickly we can get through this. I made the point earlier that to ease up on restrictions because that is easier for the economy could, unfortunately, lead to the opposite happening because it will take longer to get out of this.
I have not yet seen the letter that Daniel Johnson refers to. When I see it, I will respond fully. I undertake to look particularly carefully at the specific point that he has raised.
Coronavirus (Support for Small Businesses)
What impact will the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s decision to scrap the job retention bonus have? The decision has been condemned by the Federation of Small Businesses, many of whose members had factored into their cash-flow forecasts the £1,000 given for each worker kept on until January. Meanwhile, the six largest supermarket chains have awarded £1.3 billion in dividends to their shareholders during the pandemic. Tesco alone had a half-yearly sales increase across the United Kingdom of 8.5 per cent and profits of £1.2 billion and has enjoyed rates relief of £585 million. The Welsh Government restricted such relief, securing £117 million for its economic crisis fund. When so many small Scottish businesses are under pressure, should we not do something similar?
As I said to Daniel Johnson, we will consider all reasonable suggestions.
Members will be aware that the Scottish Government introduced reliefs through legislation for a full-year period. We are not able to withdraw eligibility in year. We will take decisions about future non-domestic rates support in the context of the Scottish budget, which is contingent on discussions and decisions about the United Kingdom budget.
We have tried since the start of the pandemic, within the resources that we have available, to maximise the support that we give to businesses. That will continue to be the case. We will take the latest data into account, looking at where the greatest burden falls and trying to make sure that our response takes that into account.
“Do Not Resuscitate” Notices
My constituent Heather Goodare had a “Do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation ” notice imposed on her during a three-day stay in hospital following a minor stroke. Ms Goodare did not discover that until she left the hospital, as the information was buried within her patient notes. Her daughter Roseanne had refused to sign the “Do not resuscitate” order when she was first asked to do so when her mother was admitted. Campaigners are raising growing concerns about that practice and about the human rights of vulnerable patients in Scotland. The chief executive of Age Scotland, Brian Sloan, has called on the Scottish Government to launch an inquiry into the practice. Will the First Minister agree today to do that? Will the Scottish Government also agree to act urgently to insist that it should be mandatory for forms to be signed by a patient, a family member or someone with a power of attorney?
I responded to that question last week. I will consider that.
It is also important to be clear. Decisions about end-of-life care in individual cases or about the use of “Do not resuscitate” notices cannot be taken by politicians. Those are discussions for individuals and clinicians. I have always been clear—as has the health secretary—that no one in any circumstances—[Interruption.] Miles Briggs should let me complete the answer. No one must ever be put under pressure to do that. If there are examples of that happening—some have been sent to us previously—we will take steps to investigate those.
I cannot be clearer that that should not happen. I do not believe that it is happening in any systematic way, but even isolated incidents are not acceptable. Should there be evidence of such incidents, we will of course consider whether we need to take further action to ensure that they do not happen, because they should not. I am absolutely clear and emphatic about that.
Care Homes (Discharge of Covid-positive Patients)
This week, West Lothian will move into level 4, which means that visits to a care home can take place only once that home is clear of the last Covid case for 28 days. Last night, I was contacted by a member of a family whose mum was hospitalised yesterday and tested positive for Covid. They have been told today that she will be discharged to her care home while she is positive for Covid. Are we back to a policy whereby we discharge Covid-positive patients back into care homes? If we are, that means that there will be no visits to that home for 28 days. That is further evidence of the dreadful way in which we have treated older people for the duration of this pandemic.
With the greatest respect, I do not accept that. There is no such policy and there will not be one. I clearly cannot comment on the individual case, because I do not know its circumstances. If Neil Findlay makes those available to me and to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport after First Minister’s questions, we will look into the case and get back to him as quickly as possible. However, there is no policy of that nature and there will not be one.
Christmas Travel Plans (Northern Isles)
Shetland students and their families are anxious about Christmas travel plans. It is not easy to get home to the northern isles; it is expensive, and bad weather can often mean cancellations. There are understandable added complications this year, with limited services and reduced capacity because of the pandemic.
In one of the many emails that I have received, a student writes:
“We can no longer be left in the dark, we need to be treated like equals and have the promises from the government put in place at the same time they announce them.”
Will the Scottish Government recognise the need to plan in advance and issue urgent advice so that no student misses the boat?
The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science clarified that point with universities, and I think that there was a discussion on Tuesday with the National Union of Students, or student representatives, after we set out those plans.
Students will be able to go home for Christmas if they choose to do so. We put in place the plans, which include testing, to ensure that that process is as safe as possible and that the travel restrictions will not stop students from going home. That has been made clear. The exemptions that I have set out will be there in the regulations. There will be work to do, after the first iteration of the regulations, to ensure that they align with the household restrictions, but there is no dubiety about the fact that the travel restrictions will not prevent students from returning home for Christmas if they choose to do so.
More widely on the subject of public transport—which clearly has a particular resonance in relation to travel to the islands—one of the things that we discussed around Christmas generally, on a four-nations basis yesterday, is how we can ensure that our plans are aligned with public transport capacity. With the best of intentions, although we want to give people the ability to come together a bit more at Christmas, we do not want to create issues—either of capacity or of infection risks—on the public transport network. That point is important for the country as a whole, but particularly for the islands. I will ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity considers ferry capacity issues, in particular, as we take those decisions.
I want to be clear that students will be able to go home at Christmas. However, we ask them to take all safety precautions, and we are, of course, putting in place arrangements to help them do that.
Does the First Minister accept that the experience of free ports in the United States has been that they lead mainly to the relocation of existing jobs rather than to new jobs—a situation that also happened in the United Kingdom in the 1980s? Would that be one of her concerns about free ports?
Yes, that is one of the concerns and one of the things that we have to consider carefully. We are conscious of the risks that have been highlighted, which is why we want to carry out a full assessment and due diligence and not just accept or decline before we have had a chance to do so. We want to have thriving businesses in Scotland that meet standards of fair work and that contribute towards an inclusive green wellbeing economy.
If free ports are to be implemented in Scotland, they cannot simply be a vehicle for businesses to avoid paying tax or get around planning permission or other regulations, and they cannot just displace jobs from one area to another. That is why we are considering the whole issue so carefully.
Attacks on Emergency Workers (Sentencing)
The Scottish National Party’s effective ban on short sentences means that most criminals who are convicted under the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 never see the inside of a prison cell. Will the First Minister back Scottish Conservative plans to double the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker?
I make a point of ensuring that I do not rule out suggestions that are made. It is important to consider suggestions, and in that spirit I undertake to consider the matter. I have to say that I always hesitate when it comes to some—although not all—of the Conservatives’ criminal justice policies around short sentences.
We need to consider such matters carefully. The vast majority of people in Scotland understand that it helps to cut crime and rehabilitate offenders if we have alternative sentences rather than short-term prison sentences, which often do not meet those objectives. I think that, across the chamber, we are unanimously clear about how abhorrent it is for anybody to attack an emergency worker. However, we have to make sure that we have in place the right criminal justice policies to punish offenders and also contribute towards rehabilitation and cutting crime.
Support for Estranged Students
Next week is the fourth annual estranged student week, which seeks to raise awareness of family estrangement and of the fact that those students face additional barriers to success due to financial pressure, accommodation challenges and poor mental health, all of which are exacerbated by the pandemic. For example, for many—if not most—estranged students, going home for Christmas is not an option. What additional, specific support is the Scottish Government putting in place to help them?
I understand that we have had discussions with the organisation that represents estranged students. Those issues are really important. When the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science outlined the plans for supporting students to go home for Christmas, he explicitly made the obvious, but important and often overlooked, point that, for some students, university is home. That is the case for estranged students and care-experienced young people and students.
We are clear about the responsibilities that universities have to give proper support to young people who will be staying on campus over the Christmas period. That is important every year, even during normal times, and it is particularly important during the pandemic.
Given that I know that there have been discussions, I will arrange for some correspondence about the outcome of those discussions and any particular points that we have agreed to take forward as a result of them to be given to Iain Gray. I hope that he accepts the assurance that we absolutely recognise the importance of the matter and want to make sure that students who are in that position have the support that they need.
Edinburgh Zoo (Financial Support)
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland has signalled that a number of its staff have entered the redundancy process. Put simply, the continuing restrictions on travel into and out of Edinburgh due to its level 3 status are a body blow to Edinburgh zoo’s pathway to recovery. It simply cannot sustain month upon month of reduced footfall while we wait for the vaccine.
With a cross-party effort, the Parliament has saved the zoo once before. Will the Scottish Government now back the investment that was made by the Parliament by extending further emergency funding to tide the zoo over through the winter months?
Of course, the Scottish Government did provide funding for Edinburgh zoo, and we will continue to consider how we support it and other organisations.
Although I recognise the difficulties that many members are understandably raising about the impact of the restrictions, we must all be clear that it is the virus, not the restrictions, that is causing the harm. Therefore, we have to control the virus in order to minimise the harm to the economy and organisations. That is difficult for people to grasp and accept. It is a horrendously difficult situation, but that is the fundamental truth at the heart of the challenge that we are going through. In the midst of it, as we navigate our way through and hopefully get closer to the end of it, we will continue to consider how we support those that are bearing the burden, which will undoubtedly include Edinburgh zoo.
On that note, we conclude First Minister’s question time.13:24 Meeting suspended.
13:59 On resuming—