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
Coronavirus (Scotland’s Strategic Approach)
Before I call the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, Aileen Campbell, to open our debate on Covid-19, I thought that it would be helpful to clarify what the Parliament will be asked to agree to this evening.
Today’s debate is part of a package of enhanced scrutiny measures to which the Bureau has agreed, to give members an opportunity to scrutinise the changes that the Scottish Government proposes before they come into effect. The debate therefore allows Parliament to debate and then express its views on what is proposed. It is not, however, a decision on whether to approve regulations.
Following the debate, it will be for ministers to decide whether to go ahead and make the regulations as proposed. The Parliament will then have an opportunity to scrutinise those regulations through the usual procedures for statutory instruments. I hope that that clarification is of assistance to members and to our constituents.
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23416, in the name of John Swinney, on coronavirus: Scotland’s strategic approach. I invite all members who wish to contribute to press their request to speak buttons.16:31
Today’s debate offers an opportunity for Parliament to debate the outcome of the second review of Scotland’s strategic framework on Covid-19. As Parliament knows, the review takes place every week and considers a range of data as well as local knowledge and intelligence on Covid in our different communities.
Those reviews seek to manage the prevalence of Covid-19 in such a way as to drive infections to the lowest possible level and keep them there, while mitigating the other health, social and economic harms that Covid, and the restrictions that are required to protect us from it, can cause.
The First Minister set out the details of that review on Tuesday. Those measures are difficult but necessary. Alongside that review, the Scottish Government published a statement of reasons that explain each decision, and an evidence paper for each local authority. The First Minister also explained that, in making our decisions, we do not just consider the prevalence of the virus in this week or next, but the expected prevalence of the virus in January and February, particularly in relation to the capacity of the national health service to support Covid patients, as well as to the usual winter pressures.
Before I set out the rationale behind the decisions, I wish to underline how aware we are of the significant consequences of those measures for local businesses, communities and Scotland as a whole. Those decisions are not taken lightly—nothing about this situation is easy—but those steps are necessary and based on careful consideration of the data and analysis.
This week’s review found that the picture across Scotland is improving, but that numbers are still high and that progress is slowing. Overall, the situation remains fragile, with as yet no sustained evidence that we are changing the course of the pandemic. Our cautious approach reflects the fragility of the situation that we face.
I am sure that the cabinet secretary will soon come to the issue of travel restrictions. I received notifications today from TUI, the travel agents and tourism company, that say that it is carrying on with its package holidays to the Canary Islands, even though many thousands of people will be unable to get to the airports because of the travel restrictions. Are there any measures, or discussions with the foreign office, to try and resolve that issue?
I know and recognise how difficult the issue is. We encourage people to ensure that they discuss the matter with whoever they bought their package from. We have made the point for some time that people should not travel unnecessarily.
People should engage with their travel operators. We know that decisions have been taken around some flights—which include TUI flights—in particular airports and we stress that it is important that people do not travel unnecessarily and ensure that they engage with whoever their provider is. Willie Rennie’s point is well made and it is one that we recognise. We can continue to engage with him on the issue and I thank him for raising it.
East Lothian and Midlothian have seen consistent positive trends, and the indicators at the time of the review suggested that, if progress is maintained, level 2 would now be appropriate. The move down to level 2 will take place on 24 November, which gives businesses and local authorities time to put in place measures to ensure that they can stay at level 2, or continue towards level 1, rather than experience a rise in cases following the loosening of restrictions.
Although other areas have shown a stabilising of case numbers, we took the decision this week that it is not currently possible for other local authorities to move down a level. However, I hope that the decisions on East Lothian and Midlothian show that that can happen.
The areas that are moving to level 4 are Glasgow City, East Renfrewshire, Renfrewshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, West Lothian and Stirling. Two of the indicators that inform the review are projections on hospital and intensive care unit beds, and most of the areas that will move up to level 4 tomorrow are projected to exceed capacity in the next six weeks. That issue, coupled with the current slowing rate of decline in case numbers, is of concern. Therefore, the clinical and public health advice was that there was a need to do more to drive the virus down.
Of course, another reason for wanting to see faster progress is the upcoming festive season. I am sure that, like me, people across Scotland want to spend time with friends and loved ones. We want to do everything that we can to make that happen, but to do so in a safe way.
Will the cabinet secretary explain why it is fair that people living in Parkhead in Glasgow who have a holiday booked to see their loved ones cannot travel due to the restrictions that have been announced, but those who live in Renfrewshire can travel?
Essential travel is permitted, and there is a list of exceptions to the restrictions. I assume that Pauline McNeill is talking about travel to the airport. The point of the restrictions is to restrict travel to prevent transmission of the virus. Only essential travel is permitted, and there is a list in the regulations that sets out essential reasons for travel that mean that people are exempt.
We accept that it is tough, but we will continue to make sure that, after the three weeks, people can—[Interruption.] Forgive me, Presiding Officer, I am trying to answer the question, but there is a lot of chat going on in the background.
We are trying to make the best of the situation. We know that it is difficult and will impact on people. However, after the three weeks, it will be over, and we hope that we all emerge into a position in which the case numbers are going down, rates are lower, and people can enjoy one another’s company and meet up with friends and family. We know that it is really tough, but the purpose is to keep people safe and to ensure that, when people can meet up, they can do so in a safe way.
Level 4 protective measures are designed to be in place for a short period to provide a short, sharp response to quickly suppress the virus. The changes to protection levels will come into effect at 6 pm this Friday 20 November and will likely remain in place for three weeks. Ahead of those three weeks coming to an end, we will make clear what levels those local authorities will move into. We are engaged in four-nation discussions to consider, if the prevalence of the virus permits, what might be possible over Christmas time.
Before talking about travel, I will say a quick word about the role of local authorities in the process. Although the First Minister has been clear that decisions sit with the Scottish Government, it is important that the framework is delivered in partnership with local authorities. Ahead of each review, the Deputy First Minister and I engage with local authorities to take their views, and officials engage on the actions that local authorities are taking. We thank them for the positive approach that they are taking.
A fundamental component of any approach that allocates areas to different levels is limiting migration of the virus from areas of high prevalence. That is a key part of the approach that the World Health Organization advises in order to prevent the importation of the virus from areas of high prevalence into areas of low prevalence. Consequently, limiting non-essential travel is an essential element of that approach. We have already asked people not to travel in and out of local authority areas that are in level 3 or 4, which includes not travelling between level 3 or 4 areas. With local authorities now ranging from level 1 to level 4, it is our view that such steps are essential at this time. For that reason, we are introducing regulations to put the rules into law from tomorrow, Friday 20 November. As with all such measures, they will be kept under review.
The example in Willie Rennie’s question was about people going to the Canary Islands on holiday. If someone is out there already and is not due to return until Monday—to Glasgow airport, for example—what do they do then?
They need to come home and, if wherever they have come from has incurred a period of quarantine, to stay at home and stay safe. Again, we will set out all those things in far more detail. In essence, the regulations are about trying to stop the transmission of the virus. It travels really easily. Given the prevalence that we have set out, it is now essential that we put in place these restrictions to prevent that from going higher and making the difficult winter period even more challenging.
As I have said, the travel restrictions are difficult but necessary. If people travel from one area to another, in order to avoid restrictions on hospitality or non-essential shopping, there is an increased risk that the virus will spread. There are of course exemptions for those who have formed extended households, for caring responsibilities, for work that cannot be done from home, and for care home or hospital visiting. There are also exemptions for essential shopping and exercise, if people need to cross out of their local authority area to do those. If parents live apart, children can continue to move between their homes. We will ensure that students can return home at the end of term, supported by a testing programme.
Although, in line with all Covid regulations, the regulations can be enforced by the police, we want to see the new laws working through high levels of public compliance. As we know, people recognise that when guidance becomes law, its importance is underlined. The dramatic increase in the numbers of people wearing face coverings when that was put into law demonstrates that fact. We are confident that people will recognise the importance of minimising travel as much as possible, for everyone’s safety, and that they will not see exemptions as loopholes.
Our approach to travel also addresses the risk of importing or exporting the virus by travel between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland, in the particular context of the volume and nature of travel across the common travel area. The regulations will prohibit non-essential travel between Scotland and England, Wales or Northern Ireland—just as our guidance has done—while prevalence in those countries is high. They will also apply to the Republic of Ireland. The same exemptions apply to such travel as they do to travel to and from level 3 local authority areas in Scotland.
It is worth remembering, in the light of the Labour amendment, that Scotland is not alone in restricting unnecessary travel within or across its borders. The Welsh Government has legislated to ban non-essential travel into or out of Wales, including overseas travel, and has regulated travel within Wales. Regulations that restrict or ban domestic travel without a reasonable excuse are currently in force, in different forms: in England, through a requirement to stay at home; in Northern Ireland, through a requirement to stay at home overnight; and in the Republic of Ireland, at present, through a stay-at-home requirement and a prohibition on inter-county travel in its level 3 and 4 areas.
For international travel more generally, the border quarantine regulations will continue to apply. All international travellers who come to Scotland from outside the common travel area are required to provide contact details. Those from areas that present a greater risk are required, on arrival, to self-isolate for 14 days. Where there is a clear risk to public health, for example in relation to travel from Denmark, we have taken further action to restrict international travel.
For residents of level 3 and 4 areas, the guidance—and, from tomorrow, the law—is that leaving their local authority area for a non-essential reason, such as a holiday, is not allowed. That applies to holidays abroad just as it does to holidays in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK. That should not come as a surprise to anyone. More generally, for Scottish residents, we have strongly advised against all non-essential overseas travel for a number of months now, and have pointed out the risk that people may need to self-isolate on return, given that the status of countries on the quarantine exemption list can shift at very short notice. That advice remains in place.
We know that it is hard, and we want to help people and businesses to come together, as the winter season is fast approaching. That is why we have recently announced that we are making an additional £30 million available to local authorities, to support businesses over the coming months. We are also setting aside additional funding worth up to £15 million for newly self-employed people.
I recognise the importance of supporting people to self-isolate, and the key role that test and protect plays in controlling the spread of the virus. That is why we are happy to accept the amendment from the Scottish Green Party, and will further develop proposals for additional support to overcome barriers to self-isolation. Unfortunately, however, we cannot accept the amendment that has been lodged by Labour; I have outlined today why the travel regulations are necessary if we are to avoid national measures, which nobody wants.
The strategic framework’s flexibility in enabling different regional approaches allows us to be responsive and to prepare for the peaks of demand that our hospitals and health services may face—which may not fall evenly across the country. We need to support and protect our NHS and all the hard-working front-line staff of whom we have asked so much already and to whom we are so grateful. This is always a busy time for health and care services and this year it comes with the added challenge of a resurgence in Covid-19 infection rates; that is why it is imperative to drive down the rate of infection in time for Christmas, and in time for deepest winter in January when our NHS is traditionally tested the most.
The Cabinet took difficult decisions this week to move 11 local authorities into level 4; they are intended to suppress the virus to the lowest level possible, not only to increase the possibility of being able to enjoy Christmas with our family and friends but to do everything in our power to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases at its most difficult time of the year. I hope that that sets out some of the rationale, and I look forward to contributions that members may wish to make and to continuing engagement as we navigate a path through this challenging time for the country.
That the Parliament agrees the measures set out by the Scottish Government on 17 November 2020 under its Coronavirus (COVID-19): Scotland’s Strategic Framework, and notes that the regulations implementing these measures will be laid in Parliament.16:45
I will make the position of the Conservatives clear at the outset: we accept the general thrust of the new restrictions, regrettable as they are. However, as the Presiding Officer pointed out, this is a debate on the wider general approach to the restrictions and not on the actual regulations. We reserve our position on those regulations, which will come before two parliamentary committees and the chamber in the next few weeks, especially because they were published in draft only a few hours ago and we, and others, need time to reflect on them. That important proviso is particularly pertinent when it comes to the ban on travel, on the application and enforcement of which we have serious reservations. Nevertheless, this is a debate about the wider measures and the general approach to restrictions, and we approach the debate in that spirit.
Moving on to the substance of the debate, I welcome the opportunity to debate the announcements that were made on Tuesday. I note that, although some welcome progress has been made in beating the virus, it is abundantly clear that there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, the news of potential vaccines in recent days has been extremely encouraging, offering a glimmer of hope in these dark days that there is a way out of the crisis. I note yesterday’s comments from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that the UK has secured access to 355 million doses from seven different vaccine developers, which is more per head than almost any other country, and we heard earlier today about the Scottish Government’s plans for vaccination delivery.
The announcements also highlight the importance of keeping the virus at bay as best we can to get through the next few months. All of that is welcome news, and it shows that, although there are still challenges ahead, there is increasing light at the end of tunnel. However, Tuesday’s announcements also provided a stark reminder that we are not out of the woods yet, and I acknowledge the deeply distressing news that the death toll from Covid-19 will surpass 5,000 people. Although that is a concerning number in and of itself, much more importantly it represents individual lives lost and the sorrow felt by the grieving families and friends of all those who have sadly succumbed to this awful and deadly virus. As ever, on behalf of the members on the Conservative benches, I express our deepest sympathies to those people.
We continue to pay tribute to our excellent front-line health and social care workers, who put themselves at risk to save lives. As I said, we note all the new measures that were set out this week under the strategic framework. As Ruth Davidson said on Tuesday, if the evidence points to an essential calculation of accepting three weeks of level 4 restrictions in some local authority areas in order that the prize might be an easing of restrictions over Christmas and new year, regretfully, we would accept that at face value.
Given that the travel ban that criminalises people comes into force tomorrow night at 6 o’clock, could Donald Cameron tell us what other opportunity the Parliament will have to vote against it?
As I said, the Parliament agreed the process of emergency legislation in spring this year. Two committees of Parliament will have the opportunity to interrogate that legislation and the whole chamber will have an opportunity to vote on it.
We welcome news of further financial support for businesses that are affected by the new measures, although the Scottish Chambers of Commerce has said that more support is needed, as the grants that are currently available “do not scratch the surface”.
We have several concerns, which the Scottish Government has not yet adequately addressed. We are worried that some new measures have been brought forward with little to no explanation for the people who will be affected by them or required to enforce them.
We recognise the necessity of preventing the spread of the virus between local authority areas with high rates of transmission and those with lower rates, but the news about travel restrictions between local authorities and between Scotland and England is concerning for many, especially those who live on or near the border.
The Scottish Government announced those new measures on Tuesday and, as has been pointed out, although they come into force tomorrow, there remains a wide degree of uncertainty as to how they will work in practice. People who live and work in communities that are on or close to local authority boundaries—or the border between Scotland and England—urgently need greater clarity on whether they can travel to a neighbouring authority for work or essential shopping or to see family. More crucially, the police need to know what powers they will have to enforce those measures and what additional support will be made available to them.
We are also concerned about the impact of level 4 restrictions on businesses, especially those that operate in retail and hospitality. Businesses in those areas are rightly worried about the impact of being closed for a three-week period, and we share those concerns. In particular, in the run-up to Christmas, the retail industry is understandably anxious. On Tuesday, the First Minister called level 4 restrictions “short and sharp”, but shutting down retail and hospitality businesses during the busiest trading period of the year will be seen as nothing less than cataclysmic.
The Confederation of British Industry Scotland has described the measures as
“a body blow for businesses across many parts of Scotland”,
and the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said that
“there will be many operators who will now be seriously considering if their businesses have a future at all—that’s how serious the situation is.”
David Lonsdale from the Scottish Retail Consortium said that the introduction of level 4 restrictions in the 11 local authority areas
“will flummox retailers who have jumped over every hoop asked of them.”
We have great sympathy with that view, not least because of the inevitable knock-on effects on jobs.
In addition, we have not yet heard the justification for maintaining a level 4 lockdown for three weeks, and the Scottish Government has not shared any evidence as to why that length of time is required. Will it commit to that three-week time span as an absolute maximum period and enshrine the end date in law?
At this juncture, it is worth remembering that many of the areas that moved from level 3 to level 4 have been living under restrictions for a long time already. Glasgow, East Renfrewshire and West Dunbartonshire have had a ban on household mixing since 1 September. That is more than two and a half months, and people who live in those areas deserve to know why the ban has lasted so long.
The SLTA also noticed that, despite many pubs, bars and restaurants being closed in five local authorities in October, case numbers have barely improved in those areas. Those are all measures that we were told were necessary to reduce transmission but that do not yet appear to have had a significant effect. For the public and business to have confidence in those measures, the Government must publish the full scientific advice that backs up the need for those measures.
It is also clear that insufficient consultation has been carried out with businesses that will be directly affected by the changes. That is why, in our amendment, we reiterate our call for the creation of a business advisory council, so that business leaders can work with Scottish Government officials on the setting and introduction of new restrictions. In the same spirit, we remain of the view that bringing forward new measures with barely a few days’ notice is not fair on already struggling businesses. That is why we are also calling on the Government to create a minimum “one-week adaptation period” for businesses between the announcement and the introduction of restrictions. Those are simple measures and entirely reasonable requests that would go a long way to giving businesses more confidence during this difficult period, when many are struggling to keep their heads above water.
We understand the need to move rapidly to control the spread of the virus, but, although we broadly agree with the new measures that have been announced, we believe that more clarity is needed going forward. On travel restrictions, the public need to know what they can and cannot do, and the police need to know what enforcement actions they can take. On business restrictions, retail and hospitality firms need greater support. Above all, the Scottish Government needs to engage better and produce evidence for its decision making.16:54
Tomorrow marks eight months to the day since the First Minister told the people of Scotland that we were facing
“the biggest challenge of our lifetimes”.
Ever since then, the people have made enormous sacrifices for the sake of suppressing the virus and in the hope of a return to better days. However, 244 days on, there is evidence of behavioural fatigue. More than that, there is growing frustration because people, including business owners and workers, are struggling to see that their compliance is having an effect. Therefore, my first point is that the Government needs to be better at showing the evidence of the effect.
As I reminded the First Minister in Parliament two days ago, if?the Cabinet’s decision about which tier each local authority area? is to be placed in is a judgment,? as she tells us it is, and if
“judgment must combine with the hard data”,—[Official Report, 10 November 2020; c 20.]
as the First Minister says it must, then the?First Minister?must?explain to? the? people, including those in North and South Lanarkshire, what the?hard data and?evidence is for moving them up a tier when the transmission rate is going down.
If the First Minister says to the people of Edinburgh, as she did last week, that, if the number of cases there keeps going down, they will have restrictions lifted and will move from level 3 to level 2, and then the number of cases falls—as it has—it is not surprising that many people are questioning why they remain at level 3. I accept that there are still valid reasons for maintaining or extending restrictions, even if the number of cases is falling, but the Government’s failure to routinely publish the evidence supporting those decisions not only obstructs scrutiny by Parliament but is dangerous.
Members will be aware that we routinely publish quite a lot of information. As a genuine question, in among all the evidence and data that we publish and the data that is available from Public Health Scotland, what is it, specifically, that Richard Leonard wants us to publish?
I do not want just data; I want proof and compelling evidence that will persuade people that the measures that the Government is imposing are having the effect that they are claimed to be having. That is important for all of us, because the less understanding people have of the rules and restrictions, the less effective those measures will be.
I commend Richard Leonard, because in the 21 years since I was first elected to the Parliament I have never seen an amendment from another party that so well hits the nail on the head about what the Scottish Government should be doing to save more lives and livelihoods. I heartily recommend it and I am disappointed that party politics might intervene to have the amendment voted down when the whole Parliament should support it.
I welcome Mr Rumbles’s support and agree with him that the arguments go beyond party politics.
Let me reflect on what happened earlier this week, when the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs—a very intelligent man, by all accounts—told an incredulous public? and a disbelieving committee of the Parliament?that international travel will not be illegal, so?people can sail off and fly off, but they cannot drive or take a bus, tram or train to get to the airport. That is not common sense; it is nonsense, and the Government knows it. [Interruption.] No, I will not give way. I have given way twice.
This morning, I heard from Bruce Lamond, who runs a travel agency in Kirkcaldy. He is aghast at the new travel law, as well as at the ambiguities spread by ministers in the past few days, and the confusion and losses that it will cause him and his clients. Bruce last received money from travel companies on 1 March, but he was unable to furlough his staff because he needed them to deal with cancellations. He told me:
“Changing information on travel, safe corridors, no airport testing, quarantine laws, effectively stopping all October travel—this basically lost us any income we may have had this year from February!!”
Therefore, my next call to the Scottish Government is this: if the health measures are proportionate, will the Government introduce proportionate economic measures to protect jobs, businesses and public services?
Last week, I made?a?call—supported by?Parliament by a slightly larger majority than I anticipated—for additional support for?businesses and workers, especially in hospitality and tourism businesses. That is?the will of Parliament. I welcome Tuesday’s announcement of some additional support, but I fear that it will not be extensive enough and that it will not stop people being kept awake at night with worry and anxiety about losing their job or business and how they are going to pay the bills.
We must also remember that the impact of tier 4 restrictions will not be felt equally and that those who have been hit hardest since March will be hit harder still this time round. Let me be clear about this: it is not the case that the poorer you are, the more wayward or feckless you are; it is the case that you are more likely to live in overcrowded housing and to have to go to your place of work than you are to be able to work from home. You are more likely to take public transport to do that, and you are more likely to do so because you have to put food on the table.
We also know that there is a higher rate of cases among black and minority ethnic communities for many of the same reasons. In September, the scientific advisory group for emergencies said that we need to understand the unequal impact of decisions around the pandemic, so we are asking the Scottish Government to carry out equality impact assessments of the decisions that it takes and to publish those assessments.
I will conclude by putting on record once again that the need for the new restrictions that we are debating today is a direct consequence of the SNP Government’s failure to implement an effective test and protect system. The Government’s travel ban looks like a poorly conceived and ill-considered piece of legislation rather than the evidence-based intervention that we need. It risks uneven application and, as a result, uneven treatment across Scotland; it risks uncertainty that will eat away at the trust of the public; and it risks criminalising people who are understandably confused by a complex, ever-changing system of levels and a constant chopping and changing of Covid-19 rules.
My final point is that we should be pursuing alternatives to criminality, because, in the end, the people should not be criminalised for the failings of Government.
I move amendment S5M-23416.3, to leave out from “and notes” to end and insert:
“on condition that the Scottish Government introduces a programme of mass testing and improves the operation of Test and Protect to contain the virus and prevent the need for further tighter restrictions, withdraws the regulation imposing a statutory travel ban and consults the Parliament on any future regulations.”17:02
I already thought that I was likely to vote against the Labour amendment and, after hearing Richard Leonard’s speech, I am now more convinced of that.
I think that it is very clear that the large majority of people inside the Parliament and the large majority of people outside the Parliament deeply regret but recognise the necessity of the restrictions that are being brought in. We need those restrictions to reduce social interactions, which is of huge importance in its own right, but a period of tighter restrictions is of most use if it is used to improve the wider public health response.
The test, trace, isolate, support system needs to continue to be improved, as the Green amendment makes clear. We have long made the case for mass public testing programmes and for an emphasis on person-to-person contact tracing systems, with proximity apps being seen as additional to that. To prevent future infections, however, people who are tested or contact traced need to be supported to self-isolate. It is reported that we have a low level of compliance on self-isolation, and it is clear that much more work is needed in that area.
A one-off £500 grant that is available on a means-tested basis will undoubtedly help some people, but there will be many others who are concerned about not just the immediate cost of self-isolating, but the risk of losing their job and income for the long term. The barriers are not all financial, either. Inadequate or insecure housing, care responsibilities, emotional wellbeing and practical help are among the relevant factors.
The Lancet has shown evidence that suggests that people being asked to quarantine in institutional settings is more effective than their being asked to do so at home. In New Zealand, people who have to self-isolate and their families can, if they wish, move into an isolation facility, where they will be provided with three meals a day, snacks, wi-fi, laundry services, toiletries and a dedicated healthcare team if they need it—all free of charge.
We need the Scottish Government to provide a comprehensive package of support. In New Zealand, those people also have Covid-related employment rights. The UK Government must act to make available things such as a right to job protection for people on precarious contracts and a more realistic level of statutory sick pay, which should be available for self-employed people, too. Those are the purposes of the Green amendment.
I want to say something about the other amendments, both of which raise serious concerns about issues that are well worth airing. I can agree with much in the Conservative amendment. We have called for the publication of scientific evidence and expert advice as well as clarification of the role of enforcement. I think that most people would expect enforcement to be done with flexibility and expect that we will aim to encourage compliance first and foremost.
Labour would support and agree with much of what Patrick Harvie has said. However, does he understand that, the minute we make something criminal, with criminal sanctions attached to it, we make people into criminals? That is the problem. Actually, the travel ban regulations are so non-understandable that people may become criminals without even knowing it.
I do not expect that to happen and I do not agree that making the law in itself criminalises people. It is how the law is applied that is important, and I think that we all want that to be done with common sense.
Still on the Conservative amendment, I note that we have questioned the intention behind having a business advisory council. It seems to me that the desire is not to have a group that would advise on how best to implement public health measures, but to have a group that would lobby against them.
Also, given that we are now in a weekly cycle of reviewing the levels, it would not make sense to me to say that they could not be changed without a week’s notice. That was not in the framework that the Parliament approved and I think that it would be wrong to bolt it on now.
As for the Labour amendment, I very much welcome the call for a mass-testing programme—Greens have been arguing for that for months—and improvements to the test and protect system. We need to recognise the need to improve all elements of test, trace, isolate and support.
However, I cannot agree with the idea that we should make approval of the measures today conditional on other action happening after those measures have been put in place. We cannot retrospectively remove the new restrictions if subsequent actions are not put in place by some unspecified future date. Our decision today needs to be clear and unambiguous. I am also not at all convinced that we should oppose the travel regulations.
Looking ahead, people need clarity. I want to mention the particular case of a constituent, who told me:
“I got told we are essential workers. I work for a dairy and I know that the company is essential, but I am a door-to-door canvasser. I canvass for new customers. I don’t think I am as essential as the rest of the business. I don’t know why we’d be allowed to go round doors asking people to have their milk delivered and going to different areas if I can’t see my family. Some people are even being sent to work in England.”
Surely that kind of door-to-door canvassing or marketing by people in an area that is about to move into level 4 cannot be seen as essential work. With the extension of furlough, employers in such situations need to have clarity that they should not be asking people to do things that we as political parties have all asked people to stop doing, such as going door to door and up and down tenement stairs for a non-essential activity.
I have come to end of my time allocation. We all hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that it is drawing nearer, but we may well have to endure some restrictions for many months, as well as social and economic hardship, and the need for government at every level to focus on how we can support people through the continued challenges will not end. More likely, that need will only increase over the coming weeks and months.
I move amendment S5M-23416.1, to insert at end:
“; believes that these measures can only be fully effective if the test, trace, isolate, support system continues to improve; recognises that self-isolation poses significant challenges for many people, which the existing conditional self-isolation grant cannot fully meet, and calls on the Scottish Government to develop a comprehensive package of support for self-isolation to ensure that everyone who needs to is able to take this step to protect their community.”17:08
Most of the indicators in the new level 4 council areas have not been breached. In fact, all but one has infection rates in decline. The infection rates and projected rates all fall below the indicators. Only two councils breach the test positivity rate. The indicators were supposed to give people fairness, hope and clarity that, if they did the right thing, measures would be eased. Through their sacrifices, the virus has gone down, but the level of restrictions is going up, and it is going up through the lack of adequate hospital capacity. That capacity is under threat, even when the infection rate in the community is lower than was expected in the strategic framework.
Advances in medicine and care have helped to secure better outcomes for those who catch the virus. One would expect that to ease the pressure on the NHS, but that is not happening. I would like an explanation of why the strategic framework is flawed. Its indicators are not in alignment with each other. Why has the NHS not built up the capacity to be able to cope? Why have the new treatments not helped to ease the pressure? We need clarity on those important questions. There are big questions about why we are moving council areas into level 4 when the rate of infection in most of them is going down.
As Liberals, we prefer encouragement, rather than the heavy hand of the law. The new travel ban makes us concerned, but we appreciate the police’s light-touch approach to the pandemic laws and the indication that they will adopt the same approach to the travel restrictions.
Putting restrictions in law makes it clear what people are expected to do, so I am concerned about the message that we would send if we supported Labour’s amendment. We have not proposed a travel ban in law, but rejecting it might indicate that people can travel freely around the country again. It is important to recognise that how we vote in the Parliament sends a message across the country. We will not vote for Labour’s amendment. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention just now. However, we want a clear indication that the travel ban will come to an end on 11 December.
We also need urgent clarity on international travel. I heard what the minister said earlier, but I would like more detail, perhaps in the summing-up speech. It is a nonsense to ban travel to airports, but permit travel abroad. That really matters. Despite the advice on holidays, people have been permitted to go on them, and those with long-booked holidays will have no route to secure repayment from airlines unless that restriction is changed. That has been managed in England, so why can we not manage it here?
From Friday, most people here will be in lockdown, just like people in England. Unlike others, I will not misuse the words of Dr Nabarro of the World Health Organization. He said:
“We in the World Health Organization do not advocate lockdowns as the primary means of control of this virus. The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but by and large, we’d rather not do it.”
We in Scotland have had that time already. In the summer we had a respite as a result of the additional sacrifices that people in this country made. However, we did not use that time well. The Government opposed—I use that word wisely—mass asymptomatic testing. It believed that a negative test would make people relax and ignore the rules, so it felt no need to accelerate the growth of testing and lab capacity.
Thankfully, that belief now seems to have been abandoned. The Government has accepted the value of mass asymptomatic testing and is rushing to catch up. For many weeks, the tracing programme was operating well below the level that the Government believed that it was, and the quarantine spot checks were not meeting the target, so the virus outbreaks were not snuffed out before they could spread, and we are now in a second wave.
Although I have made some criticisms today, I have sought to help and support the Government throughout the pandemic. A national emergency demands that. However, I am concerned that the measures outlined this week might not work and that the infection rates will not go down sufficiently to ease the pressure on the NHS. We might be shutting down parts of the economy and society for which we have little evidence that they are causing the spread. Test and protect cannot tell us where the spread is coming from. To a certain extent, we are working in the dark.
The First Minister has told us that too many people are ignoring the advice and are meeting inside homes. I have one suggestion. I want the Government to consider whether regulated pubs, cafes and restaurants may be safer places to meet in than unregulated homes. If people are going to meet, let us make it as safe as possible for them to do so. I want the Government to take that suggestion away and consider it with its advisers.
I make that suggestion in line with the cautious approach that I have adopted throughout the pandemic. I want people to be safe. Five thousand deaths—that is among the highest death rates in the world—are a sobering reminder of how important the issue is.
I will support the Government motion, but not the Labour amendment. I hope that the Government has listened carefully to what I have said on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.
We move to the open debate. We do not have a lot of time, so I encourage all members to keep to their four minutes, including interventions, where possible.17:15
I thank everyone in Aberdeenshire East, who, through their sacrifices and adherence to the protective measures that the Government has set out, have ensured that the infection rates are levelling out. We remain in tier 2 in Aberdeenshire this week. To be honest, I was expecting that we would be moved up a tier because of some local outbreaks, particularly in the north of my constituency and in Stewart Stevenson’s constituency. I trust the decision, but I cannot relax; no one ever should relax.
The Government’s framework for decision making is based on clinical evidence, expert advice and a balanced assessment of the risks, in consultation with the local authorities, which know their areas best. As parliamentarians, we are in the privileged position of being able to directly interrogate that evidence and the regular updates from not only the Government but the clinical experts in our health board areas who inform those decisions.
I want to correct some misinformation that has been circulating in the Grampian NHS Board area and that could, I believe, lead to people thinking that our situation is much better than it actually is and consequently putting themselves and their families at risk by dropping their guard. A couple of weeks ago, there appeared to be a theory that the Grampian NHS Board area’s Covid infection figures might be increased by the inclusion of positive tests from people who live outwith the area—for example, transient oil and gas workers and patients from other health board areas who are being treated in specialist units at Aberdeen royal infirmary. That very question was put to NHS Grampian board members and clinicians at our regular elected representatives meeting, a week past Friday, by Alexander Burnett. It was a fair question, and they answered that that was categorically not the case and that only data from patients with postcodes in the Grampian area was used to inform decisions on the tier level in the Grampian area.
On the Monday after that very clear explanation from NHS Grampian, the same MSP was on the front pages of newspapers, floating the now-confirmed baseless speculation about how our figures were calculated. Any suggestion that Aberdeenshire or Aberdeen city should be in a lower tier that is based on misinformation or speculation could create a false sense of security among the public. It could cause harm. It would most probably result in a situation in which people were less likely to follow the guidance, and we could end up with spikes that would prompt a tier 4 firebreak situation in which most businesses would have to close and people would be further isolated. To state the obvious, more people could become ill. No one wants any of that.
What we say as politicians really matters. I commend the tone of Donald Cameron’s speech in that regard. People look to us for information, clarity and guidance. Richard Leonard made that point today when he asked the First Minister what she was doing to make sure that people understand the restrictions that come with their area’s tier allocation and the new travel restrictions. However, that is not just the First Minister’s job; it is the job of us all. We have a duty to share the Government’s guidance and to scrutinise and challenge the methodology but, once that guidance is out there, we have to use our platforms to make sure that our constituents know about it.
This morning, I found out that a close relative of mine has tested positive for Covid. We are now getting to the point at which we all know someone who has at the very least become very ill because of Covid.
Thankfully, with each day that passes, every one of the four UK Governments gets better informed by clinical information and experience. We are lucky that every one of those Government leaders trusts the science and uses it to make their decisions. Scotland’s strategic framework is Scotland’s route map out of this. It is based on science, not political motives. We all need to get behind it to get us safely out of this terrible situation.17:20
I will focus my remarks on Donald Cameron’s amendment and his call for the Scottish Government to
“provide immediate clarification with respect to new travel restrictions and to detail what powers the police will have to enforce these restrictions”,
because from 6 pm tomorrow, existing guidance on moving in or out of level 3 or level 4 areas will become law under regulations that were published a mere four hours ago.
A breach will be a criminal act subject to a fixed-penalty notice of £60, reduced to £30 if paid promptly. I presume that having issued that fine, the police will tell the miscreant to go home, but what happens if they refuse? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that subsequent breaches would see the fines double, up to a maximum of £960. In serious cases—whatever those are—the criminal could be taken to our massively backlogged courts. Of course, they may not be fined, because if they can tell the police officer that they have a reasonable excuse for entering or remaining in an area, they may continue to go about their business. There are more than 27 listed reasonable excuses for level 3 and more than 25 listed reasonable excuses for level 4, and as we heard at First Minister’s questions, those are non-exhaustive lists.
One can just imagine the anxiety that is being generated for people who are unsure whether their reason for travelling is essential. It will create more distress for people at a time that is already difficult for their mental health, as my colleague Annie Wells will explore. Where all that will end is that, when someone is stopped by the police having perhaps crossed a boundary, they will offer their reasonable excuse. I presume that the police will then decide whether that constitutes a listed reasonable excuse, and if not, whether it is nevertheless an acceptable excuse, and if not, whether that person will be ultimately criminalised.
As Donald Cameron said, before even getting to that point, how many people who live and work in communities that are either on or close to a local authority boundary actually know where those council boundaries are? Under the regulations, the crossing of a council boundary could constitute a criminal act, so people have to know precisely how not to commit the infraction. I hope that the minister will address in her closing remarks whether the Scottish Government has done, or urgently intends to do, any work to inform people where those council boundaries lie.
I am curious to know whether the member has seen the postcode checker, which enables people to put in the postcode for where they live and to then find out what level of restrictions they have to abide by.
Absolutely. However, I think the point being made is that it is about where people are and about travel. The minister talked about where people live, but we are talking about where people travel and where they are at any given point.
What about someone who has a family holiday booked flying from Glasgow airport? Flying from the airport is okay, but travelling to it will be illegal, according to Michael Russell yesterday—[Interruption.] I am afraid that I cannot take an intervention in the time than I have.
Willie Rennie made a decent point that families presumably are being asked to cancel their family holidays, which they perhaps cannot claim back for on insurance. To return to my intervention earlier, what if they are already out in the Canary Islands and flying back on Monday? What happens when they land? If their home is outside the Glasgow area, which is in level 4, that is not an exemption in the legislation. I hope that the minister will pick that up.
Speaking of travel uncertainty, if someone boards a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen this Saturday, are ScotRail staff expected to interrogate their reasonable excuse and phone the police if they judge that the travel does not fall in either the listed or the unlisted reasonable excuses? Has the Scottish Government spoken to British Transport Police and resourced it to patrol those trains and ask passengers about their business?
As for Police Scotland, which I think we would all agree is admirably and successfully walking the difficult line between enforcement and community policing, the First Minister said that police would enforce the restriction only “as a last resort” where there was a “clear and flagrant breach”. That begs the questions how the police are to identify a “clear and flagrant breach” and whether the Government will issue any guidance to Police Scotland in that regard.
My point is this: if we are going to give something the force of law—particularly something that imposes such extraordinary restrictions on, and potentially criminalises, the people of Scotland—it must not be done without extreme caution and proper thought. That is why Donald Cameron’s amendment is right to require immediate clarification on the travel restrictions and detail on what enforcement powers the police will have.
I call Tom Arthur, to be followed by Pauline McNeill. I remind members that they have four minutes only.17:25
My Renfrewshire South constituency overlaps Renfrewshire Council and East Renfrewshire Council areas, which in about 24 hours will move into level 4. In that part of Scotland, it has been more than two months since we were last able to visit friends and family in their homes. It has been 40 days since significant restrictions on hospitality were introduced.
Moving into a period of even greater restrictions is disheartening, to say the least. I share the deep frustration of my constituents, who have worked hard to follow the rules. In particular, I feel for the local businesses that have had such a torrid year. My office stands ready to continue supporting local businesses to access the financial support to which they are entitled.
Although we face a challenging period ahead, we should remember that, although the virus is still claiming too many lives, our collective efforts are helping to save lives. We also have hope—not a false hope, but a hope built on the bedrock of medical science. With the widespread availability of effective vaccines becoming increasingly likely in the coming months, we can now envisage an end point to the pandemic. We have come so far and given so much to get to this point. With an end now distantly in sight, we must do all that we can to keep people safe through what will be a difficult winter.
We can also draw strength from our collective resilience. Across Scotland, our local groups, businesses and social enterprises have played a key role in supporting their communities over the course of the pandemic. There are many organisations in Renfrewshire South whose work has had a real and positive impact. In my remaining time, I will share just a few examples of that.
Johnstone Coffee Co, in conjunction with Elderslie Butchers, has provided more than 1,200 free meals for children in Johnstone and has given meals to key workers. The Include Me 2 Club is a Barrhead-based group that provides support to more than 500 individuals. It has quickly adapted, changed and reacted to the emerging needs of the children, young people, families and communities it supports. It has been working to provide digital inclusion, hot meals to those who are shielding and other vital support services. As a service that was set up to keep people together, it has overcome the barriers of Covid-19 to remain inclusive.
The Linwood Community Development Trust scaled up its roots of Linwood operation, going from providing fresh fruit and veg to 40 households to providing them to in excess of 400 households. Over the course of the pandemic, it has distributed thousands of boxes to households throughout Renfrewshire that were unable to access food. The operation has been recognised as a high street hero by STV. The LCDT approach was to provide a community-led response to Covid. It has also provided support to other groups, such as the mental health organisation Kickin’ On and youth interventions.
The Neilston Development Trust has been providing individuals and local groups with signposting to services, as well as information and guidance. Throughout the pandemic, it has worked with local volunteers and groups to bring people together to provide essential services such as shopping, prescription collection and contact with those who feel alone and isolated. It has helped make and distribute face coverings, grown food and repaired bicycles to help keep people moving safely.
Many other organisations, including Thorn Athletic and the Neilston War Memorial Association, have worked hard to support communities through the pandemic. I know that they all stand ready to continue doing so over the next three weeks.
I thank all those who have helped support communities across Renfrewshire South over the past eight months and who will continue to do so. It might not feel like it, but the end is in sight. Together, we will get there.17:29
I do not believe that we have had a straightforward outline of how Glasgow arrived at level 4 lockdown, and how Covid-19 is not under control in the central belt, even though we were in level 3 for several weeks. I therefore need to put faith in the First Minister’s answer to me in her statement yesterday that she would aim to get us to level 2—but there is a lot of pain ahead for Glaswegians. I know that we will all play our part in helping to control the virus.
I still have some concerns about the key information that is not readily available to allow us to form a view about why we have not turned the corner during the past few months under the previous restrictions. There must be clarity in all these rules, and I do not think that there has been full clarity today.
I am trying to understand the restrictions on travel abroad. I think I understand them now, but perhaps I need clarification. The Government appears to be saying that it is unlawful for Glaswegians to travel to the airport unless on compassionate grounds, but if someone comes from a level 0 or level 1 area, can they still travel to Glasgow airport, which is in a level 4 area? The answer to that would appear to be yes, but we need clarity in the Government’s wording. If the answer to that is yes, perhaps the minister will understand why Glaswegians will be really upset to find out that, because of level 4 restrictions, they will have to unbook their holidays.
The Government needs to address that as a matter of urgency—Michael Matheson is shaking his head.
Will the member give way?
Of course I will.
The regulations say that those who live in a level 3 or level 4 area who want to leave their local authority area, whether it be to go somewhere in Scotland or to go on an international flight, would be covered. However, someone who lives in a local authority area that is not in level 3 or 4—in level 2, 1 or 0—and who has to undertake essential overseas travel can still travel to the airport for the purpose of taking that flight.
I thought that was the case, but ministers will have to explain that to Glaswegians, who are going to be upset to find out that they will not be able to travel. I am trying to listen so that I can understand, but I do not think that the cabinet secretary understands how upsetting this is going to be to many travellers. It might be necessary but the Government needs to address that.
I feel sad for a lot of traders and retailers who are missing out. December is the month in which many businesses make up what they have lost. Supermarkets can trade with few restrictions, and many online businesses will be able to capitalise on the situation, so compensation will be needed to recognise that.
Presiding Officer, I know that you said that speeches have to be a strict four minutes, and I am now down to 44 seconds. I do not know whether I am going to get any more time.
The closing speakers would lose time if you do—that is all.
Okay, well I will cut to the chase. I have missed out a whole bit of my speech about the lack of business support.
My other question is for Michael Matheson. He does not seem to have made much progress with allowing the aviation sector to test travellers. I am told that he has been stringing it along for weeks and now he is not interested in it. The Government does not seem to understand the connectivity issues that arise for Scotland and for Glasgow. I would be happy to take an intervention in my final eight seconds on that. That is what I am hearing. That means that Glasgow will not recover from the virus unless he is serious about the aviation sector.
We are tight for time. I am already asking all the closing speakers to shave their time. I will probably also end up asking the open debate speakers to lose some time, so please keep to your time limits.17:33
I accept and understand the frustration that we all feel and know about from our case loads. The pandemic has not been easy for anyone, and we still face huge challenges in tackling the virus. We must not lose sight of that. I know that fatigue has set in and we want it all to be over, but everyone has made such a huge effort so far. We do not want to throw that away.
We need to look at the new restrictions in context. Scotland is not alone in what it is doing. The whole world is facing the same difficult choices and many countries are making similar decisions.
In Germany—which is held up as a country whose response is seen as a model for other countries to replicate—bars and restaurants are closed, unnecessary travel is discouraged and even with those restrictions, it appears that further tougher measures will be required to tackle the pandemic.
In France, travel between regions is prohibited, with the exception of essential journeys. As the First Minister said today, closer to home Wales has had travel restrictions similar to those in Scotland, England is in the midst of a second national lockdown and Ireland and Northern Ireland have similar restrictions. The point is that we are not alone in this position; looking at the same evidence has brought us to some of the same conclusions. The steps that the Government is taking are not unique or excessive in comparison with others.
As the First Minister said earlier, we want to avoid a national lockdown. Setting regional levels and ensuring that the virus is not transmitted between regions by unnecessary travel is part of trying to avoid that, which we all want. No one wants to see the virus spreading to communities that are not currently experiencing the high level of infections that other communities are experiencing.
The new travel restrictions that will become law tomorrow evening are very challenging indeed. However, to oppose a measure that so many other countries—in the rest of the UK and further afield—are also adopting, raises the question of on what basis we would take a different approach to travel. I have not heard, in the debate, anyone who is advocating such an approach and opposing the travel restrictions explain why Scotland would take a different approach. There is a responsibility to lay out the basis on which Scotland should take a different approach, using the same evidence and restrictions.
Frustratingly, Dundee remains in level 3. The first week of restrictions saw a 29 per cent drop in cases per 100,000. Unfortunately, that was followed by an 11 per cent rise the next week. There is more to be done to turn the curve towards a consistent downward trend. I am very clear that that is what has to happen. It is clear that in other areas, too, there has to be a consistent downward trend.
I know that Dundonians are doing their very best; I urge them to stick with their efforts so that the city can, at the earliest opportunity, move down from level 3. It is challenging for everyone—especially the hospitality sector, as I know from representations that have been made by local businesses that have been badly affected. We must support them as best we can.
Donald Cameron made a very important point, which is that there are two parliamentary committees that have the opportunity to scrutinise. I sit on one—the COVID-19 Committee. We pore over the detail of the regulations. The cabinet secretary, Mike Russell, has been at the committee nearly every week, so the suggestion that there is no scrutiny of the regulations is just not true. There is a level of scrutiny for those who want to take part in it.
It is important that people who talk about politicking acknowledge when they are politicking. There is no politicking among SNP members because—[Interruption.] The measures are not popular things to do, are they? If we wanted to politic, we would do popular things. The measures are deeply unpopular. I suggest that the politicking is coming from elsewhere. I urge members to support the Government motion.17:38
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this afternoon’s debate. Tuesday’s announcement that many parts of Scotland would be entering level 4 restrictions was news that no one wanted to hear. I completely support the principle that, if infection rates are rising and if the science deems it to be necessary, tighter measures are required to halt the spread of the virus—unfortunately.
The virus has been incredibly stubborn. It is clear that we need a new approach to combating it if we are to slow the spread, minimise pressure on the NHS and, ultimately, protect our loved ones. However, we also must take a step back and acknowledge the significant effects that level 4 restrictions will have on Scots who live in the 11 affected local authority areas—from vulnerable people to local business owners.
Like my Scottish Conservative colleagues, I have serious concerns regarding the state of many businesses in my home city of Glasgow and across the country, including concern about whether they have appropriate support from the Scottish Government, which they need in order to continue trading, thereby ensuring that people have jobs to go to.
As we have heard—from the Scottish Tourism Alliance admitting that many hotels will be forced to close, to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association warning against “irreparable damage” to the hospitality sector—level 4 restrictions represent a hammer blow for businesses across Scotland. That is why I have repeatedly urged the SNP Government to harness the unprecedented funding that the UK Treasury is providing, in order to support Scottish jobs and livelihoods.
To be frank, time is quickly running out for many, which is why I ask members to back the Scottish Conservatives’ amendment tonight. As well as calling for immediate clarity, it urges the SNP Government to immediately
“establish a Coronavirus Business Advisory Council”.
I draw attention to another consequence of the introduction of level 4 restrictions, which is the impact on people’s mental health. As, I am sure, many members are aware, the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland recently issued a stark warning that we are on the brink of a mental health emergency and are reaching a tipping point.
Mental health support in Scotland was already in crisis prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the pandemic has brought about a perfect storm of negative consequences, which have accelerated the problem tenfold. A YouGov poll found that as many as 40 per cent of Scots think that the pandemic will lead to adverse mental health consequences in the coming year.
For those who are already finding life difficult, no matter what their age or personal circumstances, level 4 restrictions will seem like yet another impossible hurdle. I have spoken in the chamber previously about my mum, who—as many others who have loved ones who are particularly vulnerable to the virus will have experienced—is finding it incredibly difficult to cope. She completely understands that life should not feel normal as we combat the virus, but she desperately misses the hustle and bustle of everyday life and talking face to face with friends, neighbours and loved ones. Despite finding the existing restrictions difficult, my mum has now been told that she must restrict her ability to interact with others even further.
I urge the Government not to forget the importance of protecting mental health as it introduces the new restrictions across Scotland. The last thing that we, as a society, need is the new restrictions creating another pandemic of their own: a long-lasting mental ill health pandemic.17:42
When the First Minister said at the very beginning of the crisis that she had “made mistakes” but was trying her best to work for the benefit of all, that was understandable and commendable. What is not understandable and commendable, however, is that she has continued, as the months have progressed, to make serious mistakes in tackling the crisis.
As Willie Rennie pointed out, there has been inexplicable reluctance to follow the World Health Organization’s recommendation to test and isolate people with virus symptoms. We have had the Scottish Government’s clinical advisers telling us night after night on TV that if people have symptoms, they should get a test and self-isolate, but for months the First Minister has consistently refused to test the vast majority of people who do not have symptoms, who were then ignored and left to spread the virus.
That does not happen in countries in the far east that are successfully tackling the virus. People entering our country are not tested at our airports, but are instead simply told to quarantine for two weeks. The First Minister says that those people are contacted by test and protect, but I know from experience that that is not the case, and research shows that 80 per cent of people do not quarantine properly. The First Minister must know that, but where is the change in policy?
Without testing people who do not have symptoms, the First Minister is left with only one option, which was eloquently outlined by Richard Leonard: repeated national or local lockdowns. That is not recommended—according to the WHO, it is not the way to do it. The strategy has self-evidently been a complete failure—a failure that has been compounded by other repeated failures.
Until recently, there was a failure to provide the data on infection thresholds, on which decisions to lock down local areas are based. When that data was eventually provided, the First Minister ignored it in her decisions to lock down local areas.
Another failure is that the First Minister continually bypasses Parliament—I get really annoyed about this—relying, as she does, on regulations that MSPs can approve only after they have come into force, and often after their expiry date. The First Minister could have asked Parliament to approve the regulations that will come into force tomorrow, but she has not done so. Instead, we have a simple non-binding debate and vote, as was pointed out by the Presiding Officer at the beginning of proceedings.
The last major mistake that I will highlight—I do not have time to list all the other mistakes that have been made—is the First Minister’s decision to move away from advising people not to travel to making it a criminal offence to travel, in large parts of the country. A glance at the draft regulations shows just how ridiculous they are. Anyone who has a reasonable excuse can ignore the travel ban. The regulations do not define the travel ban; in fact, they give dozens of non-exhaustive examples of reasonable excuses. Anyone with a reasonable excuse can ignore the regulations. Of course, what is reasonable to one person might not be reasonable to someone else. The legislation is self-evidently unenforceable by the police or in any court of law, and any self-respecting lawyer—there are lots, here in Parliament—would advise a client not to pay a fixed-penalty charge but to have the case dismissed out of hand in court.
All that is so tragic. So many people have lost their lives or have had their livelihoods ruined by wrong decisions.
I started by acknowledging the good faith of the First Minister, and I emphasise that point: I do not challenge the good faith of the First Minister. However, that does not absolve her of responsibility for the continually poor decisions that she has made—decisions that have been made in good faith, but are flawed.
As for what needs to be done, the Labour Party amendment has hit the nail squarely on the head—I could not have put it better, myself. I will be voting to support Labour’s amendment, whatever anybody else does. If it fails, I consider it my duty, in order to save more lives and livelihoods, to vote against the Government tonight.17:46
I am angry. I am angry that the place that I have worked for as a councillor and as an MSP for 45 years of my life, Lanarkshire, is moving into level 4 tomorrow. Like others, I will be staying and working at home in Lanarkshire from tomorrow for the next three weeks or more.
“Why is that?” I have been asked. “Why has the Government had to make that choice?” It is because we are in a pandemic. It is because of something that we cannot see or perhaps even touch, but it can kill. A minority of residents in Lanarkshire just do not get that.
Now is the time to say this. Wake up! We are in a pandemic. Get real! Start to wear face coverings, start to take reasonable precautions and start to follow the advice that is shown on our television screens every day. Start to listen. Stop visiting people who are not in your bubble. This is not a game; it is real life, and it is our life. [Interruption.] No—I only have four minutes.
The only way we will get out of this level is by following the rules. When you go out, wear a mask. When you take your kids to school and when you collect them, wear a mask. Do not stand at the school gates to watch your kids going into school. It surprises me how many people do that. Do not stand next to each other. Yes, we might all let our guard down for a while, but we really cannot do that. It is not rocket science. There is a virus out there that can kill and, sadly, it has, and it will continue to do so unless we all pull together, do as we are being asked to do and follow the rules. We have done it before.
I hear about the “I don’t want to put on a mask” brigade. Yes, you are entitled to your civil liberty, but you are also responsible for my health, my daughter’s health, my grandchildren’s health and my wife’s health. This is about “we”, not “you”.
We need to pull together. For the past few months I have watched the politics come in, but it is not time for politics; it is time to work together. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Every question that has been levelled at the Government has also been levelled, strangely enough, at every other Government, in this country and others.
I am angry that personalities are coming into how we are dealing with the pandemic. Remember who we represent, who we should be standing up for and who we should be fighting for: the people who elected us. It is not about us; it is about them. Many of my constituents have lost their jobs, and their lives have changed. This time last year, the economy was looking up in various places. Now, people are on furlough. Some people have not made a penny since March. We need to get real.
Places of worship are open but only to 20 in a church at a time. Personally, I find that hard. People want to find peace. Where do they go but to a church or another religious place?
Schools are open. As a grandfather, I welcome that, but I ask our young people to keep wearing masks and to follow the guidelines that help us to fight the pandemic. I get emails blaming schools, but there are Covid cases in every walk of life. We must start to solve this.
A dog groomer asked me yesterday whether she could still work. She was frightened that she would break the law. The answer was not on the Government website, but the Scottish SPCA told me that she can.
This will affect everybody’s work and life. We must ensure that we make the advice clear to people. This will be hard for many and we must try to make it easier, whatever the cost. We should not count that cost in money; it is about what we can do for our constituents and our population.
This is hard, but we will get through it. There is light at the end of the tunnel: two vaccines that show high rates of success will eventually come.
I wish everybody well. Let us take the politics out of this and work together—it is a pandemic.17:50
I remind members of my registered interest as a trade unionist.
The Government is introducing significant regulatory changes and it is right that they should be discussed by the Parliament. However, the Parliament cannot stop the Government introducing the changes, because they come into force tomorrow.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to follow Government reasoning on the steps that are being taken to suppress the virus. Along with much of the population, Labour has continually asked for sight of a clear evidence base for those decisions
When the Government started to tackle the pandemic, before the national lockdown, schools were closed because the virus was found to be circulating there. Now we are told by the Deputy First Minister and advisers that the virus is not really a problem in schools and that teaching is no more risky than other jobs. I see the figures for Covid in schools in my area and that is not what I observe. Absence levels seem high.
I am constantly asked by constituents how it is credible to claim that virus levels are low in schools when so many young people are gathering together inside without proper ventilation systems in place. Councils need funds from the Government to make schools safer, including funds for increased cleaning, as was noted in a recent report by Unison.
Beyond that, there is the issue of how we measure the virus in schools if there is no consistent approach to testing. It is obvious that the infection began rising slowly when lockdown was eased and schools returned. Rates increased rapidly when the Government failed to test students and allowed large numbers of untested students, including international students, into halls of residence. The Government has been reactive and has been unprepared for predictable rises in infection rates. That mistake must not be repeated.
My constituents have been under severe restrictions for many weeks now, which is adversely impacting their mental health and wellbeing. Their efforts have resulted in a decrease in the infection rate since we last debated the subject a few weeks ago. I have no doubt that, if the messages are clear, communities and families will do what must be done.
We were told in October that the measures would be “short and sharp”. Now, although adherence to the restrictions has had a positive effect in Lanarkshire, including in our hospitals, we are being put into even more draconian measures and moving to level 4, which the First Minister yet again describes as “short and sharp”. It is therefore no surprise that many are now finding it hard to believe the First Minister when she says that the measures will end in three weeks’ time.
Turning to the statutory travel ban, which carries criminal charges, I remind the chamber of John Swinney’s words during his media briefing on Friday. He said that
“We have got to concentrate on winning public confidence in the measures“
and that much more progress will be made if
“we engage people and invite them into the national endeavour rather than apply penalty after penalty”.
What has changed since Friday? The Government is now proposing to make people criminals if they break the travel ban, but there are many exceptions. For example, according to the First Minister yesterday, people can travel across boundaries to play golf. The First Minister also said yesterday that only people who flagrantly break the rules will be fined. Who decides what flagrant means? Is that a judgment call by the First Minister?
Ignorance of the law is not usually an excuse, but the travel ban is so complex and confusing that it would take a team of lawyers to work it out. I remind the chamber—the lawmakers in here—that the law should not have ambiguity, be applied unevenly or make criminals of people when other measures, such as better advertising to stop unnecessary travel, could be used.
Despite what the cabinet secretary said at the beginning, the First Minister said that the travel ban will not necessarily end in three weeks. The travel ban law is not a law that responsible parliamentarians should agree to without proper scrutiny. People should be treated as adults and encouraged to comply, not criminalised.
Labour has continually said that it wants the Government measures to succeed, but we need a consistent approach that protects lives and livelihoods, supports businesses and safeguards incomes, along with a test, trace and protect system that is fit for purpose and allows us to resume a semblance of normal life and work.
I have to say that I am surprised that neither the First Minister nor the Deputy First Minister is in the chamber to listen to the debate.17:55
I speak in support of the Scottish Government motion with no enthusiasm, because no one wants to place such significant restrictions—particularly those that my constituents and I will now face in a level 4 area—on the communities that we all serve.
I accept that those restrictions are required, however, given the stubbornly high infection rates and Christmas just around the corner, as well as the prospect of the usual major seasonal NHS pressures that we can expect in January and February.
I am sure that we have all had different individuals and groups raise questions with us on why various restrictions have been placed on them across different levels. Many of us will be in level 4—the most stringent restrictions—for the next 21 days, so that particular level has been brought into sharp focus.
I want to make some comments about gyms and fitness centres. I recently made representations to the Scottish Government for the reopening of gyms, and was pleased to have had a sympathetic hearing when they reopened, but that event predates our current five-level system. In the current system, gyms could operate under strict conditions at level 3 or lower, but that is not possible at level 4, so gyms will close on Friday in level 4 areas. Several constituents have contacted me—both gym users and owners—who are concerned about the physical and mental impact of the closure of gyms under level 4.
With darker nights and bad weather, gyms will become an increasingly important outlet for training and physical exercise, not only for those constituents’ health but for their emotional wellbeing. They believe that the risks in gyms are relatively low. However, with seemingly relatively low risks, scale becomes a major factor; there is a multiplier effect with more opportunities for the virus to spread.
I know that gyms will not open at level 4 over the next few weeks, and I accept that. I hope that local authorities do not return to level 4 at a later date, but if they do, I ask the Scottish Government to consider an amendment to level 4 restrictions, perhaps in the new year as winter starts to bite.
I absolutely accept that such an amendment will depend on the impact of Covid-19 and on expert advice, and also that the easiest way to get gyms back open full time and permanently is to get Glasgow and other local areas to level 3 or ideally lower.
I want to say a little bit about the financial impact on people who have lost their jobs and those who have been required to self-isolate. Patrick Harvie made some important points on the self-isolation grant. I am convener of the Social Security Committee, and we have heard about the potential issues with that grant, including with its qualifying criteria, and wonder how those who apply unsuccessfully could be supported elsewhere. For example, are those people automatically signposted to a potential crisis grant through the Scottish welfare fund? They perhaps are not, or not consistently so. I am therefore pleased to see the amendment from the Greens this afternoon.
Our Social Security Committee is conducting an inquiry into how social security can support us through and out of the Covid-19 crisis. If we agree as a committee that there are gaps in the support—I am sure that there are many gaps in support at all levels of Government—I hope that we can come together with the political will to plug some of them as best we can.
By and large, my constituents will abide by these tougher restrictions. They might not like it, but they get it. Saving lives and protecting the NHS come first, which is why I will support the Scottish Government motion this afternoon.17:59
I, too, appreciate the chance to debate the latest restrictions, but, as has been observed from the outset, we are not amending or approving them. That will be the job of others, and I have every faith in their ability to scrutinise and their commitment to scrutiny. Nevertheless, the measures commence tomorrow, so we are still some way from doing things in the right order. That is important, because every one of us has an inbox that is full of questions that we have a duty to answer.
I will start by talking about small local businesses. They accept their responsibilities and role in a global pandemic, as do we all. However, they have been on a rollercoaster of opening and closing and ever-changing rules on when they can open, how many customers they can have, what they can serve and when they can serve it. Try explaining to the owner of a small cafe why they cannot serve a glass of wine with lunch when, a few miles up the road, there is another who can. All the while, they are being told by the Government that there is support available for them, but it is only a few thousand pounds. For many, the reality is that that will not cover overheads for a few days, never mind a few weeks.
I spoke to the owner of a pub in Greenock, who told me that they were pulling their hair out trying to access money weeks after they had to close. The owner of a hotel in Largs described themselves as being in a zombie-like state, because they were allowed to stay open but had no bookings, so they are losing money hand over fist. The owner of a hotel on Arran said that they had to throw away rotten food and beer because the regulations that we passed gave them too little time to cancel their delivery from the mainland. Where was the island impact assessment of that decision? That is why members on the Scottish Conservative benches are asking for a minimum adaptation period of at least one week. How can it be that, eight months into the crisis, we cannot even offer local businesses one week’s notice that we are going to shut them down? That is not good enough.
The Scottish Chambers of Commerce believes that the support that is on offer at the moment does not “scratch the surface” of what small businesses need to survive. Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics told us that it thinks that more than a third of hospitality businesses have little or even no confidence of surviving the next three months.
I know that there is not an infinite pot of money out there, and I am not claiming that there is. Goodness knows that, right now, sensible Governments the world over are borrowing money like it is going out of fashion. The virus is nobody’s fault, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to make reasonable, proportionate and enforceable law. My plea today is a simple one: let us try to do that. On behalf of all those people who seek clarity and help, do not just hear them; help them.
The debate is too short, because there is so much more that we need to ask. I wanted to ask why cathedrals in level 4 can have only 20 worshippers, meaning that people are being denied their right to worship. Why can people not drive to Edinburgh from Durham but they can fly there from Doha? In level 2, why can people have a drink with a meal indoors in a pub at 5 pm but not outdoors or indoors at any time in level 3? On what planet do we, as a Parliament, think that a pub in Scotland that cannot serve alcohol will stay open or even survive? I wanted to ask why children can shout, cry and laugh in our nurseries but are not allowed to sing. In level 4, why can people buy clothes in a supermarket but not in a clothes shop?
I have lots of questions that are fair, sensible and reasonable. If we want to take the public with us through a long, cold winter of more restrictions, we need to be able to answer those questions with confidence. If the Government cannot or will not do so, it is not the Opposition’s support for its measures that it is at risk of losing, it is the public’s.18:03
The pandemic continues to blight our planet and test our endurance as weeks have turned into months. As someone with a higher potential vulnerability by reason of age, I express my gratitude to the public, both personally and as a representative of a community of people who are vulnerable for a variety of reasons.
The pandemic has always been a public health emergency. The huge majority of our population recognises it in such terms, and we, in Parliament, need to recognise it as such. We honour and respect the work that people across our communities have done in protecting us from the worst excesses of the pandemic.
It is necessary to create legal frameworks for that minority of people who wish to test the boundaries of what is permissible. However, the legal frameworks need to follow the public health action. The great majority of people are doing the sensible thing, and we should thank them all. We should do nothing that suggests to them that their commitment and action—or their inaction—are not valued; they absolutely are.
The strategic framework helps us to understand what we must and must not do. Inevitably, if a concise view is to be produced of what is happening that might be presented in a single A4 page, of necessity it will not provide all the detail that might be found in a legal document. Frankly, no person in our communities will go and read the legal documents.
There is good news: vaccines are coming along. We hear that they have encouraging outcomes, although, of course, we do not know how long the post-jab immunity will last. That is just one of many things that we do not know about this pandemic or about creating immunity in individuals. However, each development moves us a little closer to a point at which we may be able to get a pharmacological grip on the pandemic. We already know that previous inoculations for viral infections are much more limited in their effect than those for bacterial infections. For example, an injection against cholera is required every year.
The bottom line is that protecting lives is the absolute priority for all legislators and for all people in our communities. Money cannot protect our citizens. The actions of citizens who limit their contact with other people is going to make the very real difference. It is nothing more than that, in any sense.
Of course, there is no point in protecting the community if we do not make sure that there is an economy after the pandemic, so we have to provide appropriate support to businesses. I am very fortunate in that about 15 per cent of my constituency is in level 1 and the rest is in level 2. Others, in the central belt, have more substantial problems. However, even in my area, as Gillian Martin mentioned, hotspots in some food-processing factories are giving us concern. I think that the incident management teams are doing an absolutely first-class job in working their way around that.
I thank the Government and the population for everything that they are doing. I will support the motion and the Green amendment tonight.
I call Neil Findlay for a brief contribution.18:07
For almost nine months, people across Scotland have co-operated. They have been careful, taken advice and been tolerant. They have implemented unprecedented measures and have sacrificed their rights, freedoms, relationships, jobs, businesses and much more. Their physical and mental wellbeing has suffered.
It has been brutal, painful, dispiriting and, all too often, devastating, with 5,000 friends, relatives, parents and grandparents dead and laid to rest at services with only a handful of mourners. Despite all that sacrifice, and with no idea about the long-term consequences, we now have to accept more restrictions, more anguish and more social and emotional trauma.
I can only imagine how difficult it is for Governments across the world. I do not question their good faith, and I have never questioned their effort. However, our job, which is essential at a time like this, is to hold the Government to account for its decisions and to raise questions on behalf of our constituents. Mine are asking why, when the science does not support it, West Lothian is going from level 3 to level 4, or why Edinburgh is still in level 3.
A few weeks ago, the First Minister said that the
“science takes us ... so far”.—[Official Report, 7 October 2020; c 43.]
After that, decisions are political. My plea is for the Government to make it clear that non-science-based decisions are, indeed, political decisions. That would be honest, open and transparent.
Will the member give way on that point?
I have hardly any time.
I also want to object in the strongest possible terms to the way in which the emphasis of Government strategy sees the cause of virus spread as individual behaviour and not as a failure of planning, governance and year-on-year cuts to the public services that protect and civilise us.
The greatest failure has been the failure to take on board the WHO’s advice to test, trace and isolate, which is something that I have banged on about from day 1. From the outset, every case should have been tested, traced and isolated—not doing that has been a major failure. It is not the doctors and nurses who took the policy decision to discharge Covid-positive older people to care homes or the students who, by themselves, rushed back to university; they were told to do so, following pressure and lobbying by Universities Scotland for financial purposes. It is not the citizens who are responsible for the inadequacy of the test and trace system, and it is not the health and care staff who are responsible for the failure to test them routinely and weekly.
We were told that Scotland could eradicate Covid by the end of the summer, but the actions that we have seen and the actions in the strategy are self-evidently not working and we are back to the situation that we are in. I cannot support a plan to put the emphasis of blame on individuals and to absolve those in positions of power of the mistakes and bad decisions that they have made. I will tell members what will happen with the legislation that we are about to agree—are we about to agree it? I do not know. The greatest impact will be on the low paid, the young, teenagers, the old, the poor, the isolated, the lonely, the weak and vulnerable, those in care homes, those with addictions and the people at the coalface of the pandemic. For those reasons, I cannot support what is being proposed to Parliament.
We move to closing speeches. I have asked all the closing speakers to keep their remarks as tight as possible.18:11
As Willie Rennie said, we will support the Government motion and reject the Labour amendment at decision time, but we will do so with some reluctance. The Liberal Democrats would not have proposed the legal enforcement of a travel ban, but given the public expectation that one is coming, the need for clarity in these difficult times and the welcome reassurances from Police Scotland, we will support it.
I recognise that these are not easy decisions. Our citizens have accepted the hardships and privations of lockdown with grace and fortitude because they understand what is going on—they get it. However, the Government forgets that sometimes. That is why the Liberal Democrats keep asking the Government to treat people like grown-ups. If people are offered reason and science, they will more readily volunteer acceptance; without such explanations, public health measures begin to feel random—a kind of think-of-a-number politics—which breeds scepticism and frustration.
Let us take the allocation of levels as an example. Until this week, Glasgow and Edinburgh were both in level 3, but for weeks our nation’s capital has had transmission and hospital admission rates that the Government defined as medium and heading to very low, whereas the rates in Glasgow remained very high, with little optimism for downward progress. People have, understandably, asked why that is.
It is not only our constituents; businesses, too, are struggling to keep up with the shifting sands of public health advice. My constituent, Geoff Crowe, owns 21CC, which is a successful events company that has been utterly decimated by the pandemic. He finally saw a pathway to recovery through outdoor, Covid-secure events and was due to launch with a spectacular fireworks concert in Errol on bonfire night. Then the cross-regional travel restrictions came in; the event was done for and, along with it, the resources that Geoff had ploughed into it.
Every decision that the Government takes has a consequence, and the decisions are tough—I get that. All we are asking ministers is that they get their Government to carry us with them and to define the problem, and the risks and benefits of each possible direction, with more clarity. We are asking them to treat us like grown-ups, as I said.
It is clear that the most contentious aspect of the regulations is the use of legal force around the travel ban. I have some sympathy with my colleague Mike Rumbles, who I thought spoke very well on the matter, and with the Labour Party.
I said at the top of my remarks that the rest of our group are minded to support the Government motion only because of the reassurance offered by Police Scotland. It has signalled that there will be no roadblocks and no specific operation—just commonsense policing. We take Police Scotland at its word on that, but we are watching. Should things change, by active policy or in operational delivery, we will insist with immediacy that the regulations be brought back to the chamber and repealed.
We will not stop seeking transparency and clarity on behalf of our constituents, who deserve to know the hinge point for movement down the levels, how they can get there and, most important, what this Government will do to support them in that endeavour.16:15
This is all grim; I am sick of it—we are all sick of it. However, there have been moments in today’s debate when members—with whom I disagree and from whom I will vote differently—have made important points that I agree with.
However, there is also a question of tone. There have been moments when the tone of the debate has suggested that members will vote against the motion because they do not like the regulations. None of us likes them—nobody does. There have been moments when the tone has suggested that, because the level 3 restrictions were not fully effective and did not wave the problem away completely, level 4 is somehow not required or justified. There have also been moments when one or two members, who should reflect on their tone, seemed to encourage people not to comply with regulations that are necessary in the interests of public health.
Will Mr Harvie take an intervention?
I am afraid that I do not have time.
Tell us who they were.
I do not want to go through a roll call of individual members, because I want to make this a positive speech.
I disagree with Donald Cameron, but I think that his tone was right when he said that Government should publish more information and advice, and I agree with that. He also said that people have a right to know why the restrictions have been necessary. The main point that I disagree with is that I think that people in Scotland understand why the restrictions have been necessary and want an emphasis on public health and putting lives first.
Again, to be positive for a moment, today at First Minister’s question time, Richard Leonard quite properly raised the situation of somebody in exceptional circumstances, and I hope that he welcomes the answer that he got. However, we all need to recognise that, at the moment and in most normal circumstances, booking a foreign holiday is not essential travel and poses a risk.
My amendment mostly focuses on support, which includes the need for support in self-isolation, but it goes beyond that. A great many people who work in public services around Scotland are providing that support. Members might have seen a social media post that went viral a few days ago about a library worker in an area that is about to go into level 4 restrictions. They have been desperately trying to support people to access the benefits system and other forms of support. Given the restrictions that they have to work with in the library, they were feeling unable to do that work, but they were pulled up by their manager just for trying to offer that support. I will write to the minister, because I do not have time to go into the issue in detail, but all of us—including local authorities and the Scottish Government—have a responsibility to make sure that that support is provided as best as we can.
I desperately want to end on an up note. Today, as many people look forward to the prospect of a vaccine, I have more reason than usual to be proud of my mum, because my amazing mother has been a volunteer in the Oxford vaccine trial. We are all amazed at the work of the researchers and scientists who have opened up a glimmer of hope, but thousands of people around the world have decided to put their bodies on the biological front line. We should have immense respect for those many people. If, as a Parliament, we show the same selflessness in the way that we do our work to keep our country safe that they have shown, we will be doing not too badly. [Applause.]18:19
Today’s debate has been a sobering reminder to us all that the pandemic has not gone away. Bold talk in the summer that we were on the cusp of eliminating the virus has been replaced with a realisation that, until we have mass testing, more robust contact tracing and better treatments and until promising vaccine trials become a programme of mass vaccination, Covid-19 and restrictions on our lives will be with us for some time to come.
Our thoughts should never stray from the 5,135 lives that have been lost in Scotland to the virus. We have one of the worst death rates in the world and that terrible toll is likely to grow because, eight months into the pandemic, we find ourselves where we did not want to be—at the heart of a second coronavirus wave. The catalogue of events that led us here is there for all to see. The Government’s own figures show that more than 168,000 people arrived in Scotland between 22 June and 8 November who were required to quarantine, and that just 12 per cent of them were followed up by contact tracers, yet the Government still rejects a programme of comprehensive testing at airports.
The impact of the botched handling of the return to university, with that last-minute change in guidance by the Government, is clear. At the start of September, before universities returned, the average number of confirmed Covid cases was under 120 per day; two months later, it was over 1,000 per day—10 times higher and breaking the World Health Organization’s 5 per cent positivity threshold above which the virus is no longer under control. At the same time, in more than a third of test and protect cases, it was taking more than 72 hours from being notified for contact tracers to speak to the person with the positive test and tell their close contacts to self-isolate. That was despite SAGE warning that taking more than 48 to 72 hours has a significant impact on the R number.
Crucially, the Government has failed to roll out mass testing, with most front-line workers such as our home carers still not being routinely tested. The result is that our hospital wards are once again filling up and much of Scotland will soon return to lockdown with more businesses being forced to close. No one doubts how difficult making that decision will have been for the Government, balancing the challenge of battling a growing pandemic with the fallout that there will be from the actions that it takes to do so. That is why those decisions deserve the maximum scrutiny, especially when they mean such significant changes in the law, yet we are debating the impact of regulations that have been published just this afternoon. Few will have read them, never mind scrutinised them, and we will not get to do so before they come into effect tomorrow, despite them having such a profound impact on the lives of our constituents.
Why is that important? Because we have been here before. On 27 October, the Government published its Covid strategic framework, we debated the framework and the First Minister told Parliament:
“Level 2 is broadly comparable to the restrictions that are currently in place outside the central belt. Currently, in those areas, hospitality can operate normally outdoors with an early closing time.”—[Official Report, 27 October 2020; c 47.]
The First Minister answered questions on the framework, but the next day she published regulations that utterly contradicted what she had told Parliament and closed all non-food pubs from level 2 up. The First Minister said one thing to Parliament, but her regulations did another. Our fear is that, without adequate scrutiny, we will see a repeat when it comes to travel restrictions.
It is eye-opening, I have to say, that SNP speaker after speaker has dismissed people wanting more scrutiny of something before it becomes law as “politicking”. We have a genuine fear that we could be about to criminalise people who are simply working hard to navigate an increasingly complex tier system. Just yesterday, Mike Russell showed that he did not understand what the travel regulations would mean, telling the COVID-19 Committee that people can undertake international travel but they cannot travel to the airport to do so. Even a cursory glance at the regulations, which is all that we have had time for, shows that it is far more complex than that. The regulations will mean that, from tomorrow, someone in my South Scotland region who lives in East Ayrshire, which is at level 4, and travels to a beach 6 miles away in South Ayrshire, which is also level 4, for a solitary walk on a Sunday morning will be breaking the law.
Patrick Harvie says that it is unlikely that the law will be enforced, so why have it in law in the first place? I have heard the argument from some in the debate that the regulations are about restricting movement between low and high levels of restriction, but the regulations make it clear that they will restrict travel even between two areas with the same level of restrictions at level 3 and above. We already have guidance in place on travel and people are working hard to follow it. The Liberal Democrats said that they would not have introduced travel restrictions in law but that, if we do not vote for them, that will send a signal to the public that they should not follow the existing guidance on travel. I do not think that Willie Rennie or Alex Cole-Hamilton convinced themselves with that argument, they certainly did not convince Mike Rumbles, and I have to say that I have more faith in the public than they do.
More and more is being asked of members of the public. The rules and laws that they have to follow are becoming more and more complex and confusing. That should make us at least pause before we criminalise that confusion. Asking for the withdrawal of the regulations on travel so that we can properly scrutinise them is not politicking; frankly, it is common sense. I urge Parliament to vote for that common sense and support Labour’s amendment at decision time.
I thank all members for their efforts to curtail their remarks. However, it looks as though we will go over time, so I ask the Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans to move a motion without notice to move decision time back to 6.40.
That, under Rule 11.2.4, Decision Time shall begin at 6.40 pm.—[Graeme Dey]
Motion agreed to.18:25
In her statement yesterday, the First Minister noted that Scotland’s Covid death toll is likely to pass the 5,000 mark this week. That is a stark reminder of why restrictions of any sort are necessary. However, Annie Wells highlighted the mental health issues that are faced by many people, and we must ensure that we get the restrictions right, that they are understood by the public, that they can be enforced and that they will make a difference.
By the measure of those criteria, yesterday’s announcement of travel restrictions falls short. It is not that anyone doubts the need to act—we must take it in good faith from ministers that the data demands that those measures be put in place—but, as we have heard from Donald Cameron and Willie Rennie among others, the regulations, which have been published less than 24 hours before the travel ban comes into force, are already causing confusion, especially when people will have little idea of where local authority boundaries actually are. We are not talking about clearly marked international borders here—council boundaries are often just invisible lines that cut through streets.
If we add in the large number of exceptions, we have a recipe for people to unwittingly break the law that will make enforcement very difficult. That is unfair on our police officers, who have done a tremendous job during the crisis. The least they deserve is a clear explanation of how they are supposed to enforce the ban.
The lack of preparation by SNP ministers that has been evident this week is baffling. The coronavirus strategic framework was set out weeks ago, and the First Minister has openly discussed the need to consider tier 4 restrictions since it was announced. We must add to that the lessons that should have been learned from the confusion that was created over cafes and restaurants the last time.
Why are so many basic questions still unanswered? Businesses in the 11 local authority areas that are moving to tier 4 still have no information on the restart procedure or timing after the restrictions end. That will play havoc with staff rotas, supply chains and forward planning. More immediately, those businesses go into the busy Christmas period facing closure or restricted trading with no guarantee of when or even if the SNP will provide support.
We all appreciate that decisions might have to be taken quickly, but they should not be taken in a vacuum. Businesses need more time to adapt, especially as many are already “running on fumes”, as Liz Cameron from Scottish Chambers of Commerce warned yesterday. The Scottish Conservatives’ amendment recognises that in our call for there to be a week’s adaptation period between the announcement of restrictions and their introduction, and for the establishment of a coronavirus business advisory council. Jamie Greene said that businesses were on a rollercoaster ride.
There is also a question of fairness here. Just today, I was contacted by Lisa, who runs L Occasionwear, which is a small retail business in Ayr. She says that she has endured a “business year from hell” and will be forced to close tomorrow because her business is deemed to be non-essential, yet large retail businesses such as supermarkets will remain open and able to sell non-essential items. Needless job losses at Christmas will occur if the SNP does not provide enough business support.
Back in October, the previous discretionary fund was announced over a week before anyone could even apply, let alone receive funds. It is unthinkable that lessons have not been learned from that, and I hope that we will see an urgent update on when applications will open for the latest discretionary fund, which was announced yesterday.
However, that fund is worth only £30 million, with £15 million for self-employed support. Every penny of that is welcome, of course, but it is simply not enough. As CBI Scotland warned earlier this week, businesses need
“a significant increase in support immediately if they are to keep their heads above water.”
The UK Government recently announced another £700 million boost for Scotland, and now is the time for the Scottish Government to deploy it. If it is saving that money for a rainy day, that day is now.
That money would also allow support to be provided for those whom the Scottish Government has all too often allowed to slip through the cracks. For example, much of the SNP’s support effort in the crisis has been linked to domestic rates, but it is estimated, according to the Federation of Small Businesses, that one in two businesses are run from people’s homes, and they account for one in 10 jobs. The fact that those people do not have business premises does not mean that the restrictions will not impact on their livelihoods.
We are all united in wanting the restrictions to succeed in reducing the spread of the virus, but ministers cannot take the public support for granted. They need to meet the public halfway, and that means giving sensible warning of changes, stopping the holding back of support funds and, above all, ensuring that the information is there so that everyone understands what is expected of them.
I call the cabinet secretary, Michael Matheson, to conclude our debate.18:31
I thank everyone for their contributions to our debate this afternoon. I am in no doubt that, despite some of the differences of opinion that have been shared during the debate, we all have the shared objective of seeking to suppress the virus and manage our country through the course of the pandemic as best we can.
In any parliamentary debate on the subject in the political heat of the chamber, we must not forget the fundamental human impact of the virus, which has been illustrated yet again by the 54 new deaths of people who had tested positive that were reported just today. My condolences go to each and every one of the families who have lost a loved one. That is the human impact of the virus, and it is why it is critical that, as a Government, we take forward the appropriate measures in order to try to manage our way through this as effectively as we can.
A number of members rightly raised the issue of parliamentary scrutiny of such regulations, given the direct impact that they have on individuals’ day-to-day lives. I fully respect that. As a member of this Parliament since 1999, I very much respect and uphold the Parliament’s right to scrutinise the Government and hold us to account for the measures that we take forward. That is the role of Parliament—to ensure that the Executive is effectively held to account.
I will give ground to no one who suggests that we, as a Government, are seeking to push these matters through without scrutiny. The reason why I say that is that, as Donald Cameron and Shona Robison recognised in their speeches, this is not a normal process, because we are not in normal times. The process has been created in order to try our very best to manage the very challenging circumstances that not just our constituents, but all of us are facing day in, day out in our personal, day-to-day activities.
I fully accept that the regulations will come into force at 6 pm tomorrow, and I recognise that some might question the pace at which we are taking forward some of these measures. However, with every delay in taking forward the appropriate measures to manage the virus, we would increase the risk to people in Scotland and, potentially, more people would die as a result of the virus. That is why it is critical that we take forward measures at an appropriate pace, in order to offer the greatest protection that we can.
We should not think that Scotland is isolated in the measures that we are having to take. England has had to take similar measures. Northern Ireland, Wales, the Republic of Ireland and France have all had to take measures to restrict the ability of people to move around the country, impinging on their day-to-day lives in a way that none of us who, when we came into politics, would ever have wanted to do. Even countries such as Germany, which is often held up as an example of how we should go about managing the virus, have had to introduce restrictive measures on travel.
In his speech, Willie Rennie rightly recognised the importance of dealing with issues relating to travel that impact directly on controlling the virus.
I very much welcomed Donald Cameron’s speech, in which he broadly agreed with the approach that we are taking with the regulations. I also recognise the challenges arising from the complexity of these matters, such as those regarding local authority boundaries. Not everyone has their council boundary imprinted exactly in their brain. Nevertheless, we have sought to reach out by creating a mechanism, in the form of the postcode checker, that allows people to access information as easily and as readily as possible, so that they can identify the restrictions in their local area. We will always seek to do more to communicate that information and ensure that people have access to it as best they can.
I recognise that the situation is not perfect, but the measures are important to protect the public in Scotland.
I am sure that the cabinet secretary will also recognise the point that I made about those who have booked holidays abroad—whether reluctantly or not—and are now not able to get to the airport. Those holidays have not been cancelled, so those people will not get their money back. Will the Government look at that? How will it sort it?
I will seek to address that point and a number of other points that members have raised. Willie Rennie raised the issue of TUI. It has cancelled all flights from Glasgow and Edinburgh until 10 or 11 December, as a result of the fact that the vast majority of people who use those flights come from level 3 and 4 areas. I hope that the member takes some reassurance from that.
Our approach to and advice on international travel has not changed. It remains the case—as has been the case for months—that we advise against non-essential overseas travel. Of course, some people will have to travel for work purposes or on compassionate grounds, and we fully recognise that, but that advice has not changed. It is exactly the same as it has been for months, and it has been the same in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It remains the same now, and it is important that people listen to that advice and act on it.
I recognise the calls of those who wish to see more evidence. They want to see a greater level of detail on the rationale for the restrictions. I am very open, as are all my colleagues in the Cabinet, about how we arrive at our decisions. If there are specific areas on which members believe that there is a need for further information and data to be provided, they should tell us what that is, and we will look to see whether it can be provided.
I have a word of warning, however. Before members call for more evidence and data, it is important that they become familiar with what has already been provided. We had a call from Richard Leonard today for an equality impact assessment of regulations of this nature. We have just carried out that very impact assessment, which was published alongside the regulations this afternoon. It is okay to come to the chamber and call for things, but it is incumbent on members to make themselves familiar with what is already available.
Pauline McNeill raised a point about airport testing. I can assure the member that we are still taking forward a piece of work on that with the airports. There is a difference of opinion between the clinicians that the airports have and our clinicians on how any regime should operate, but we are continuing to work with the UK Government and Scottish airports in looking at trying to introduce a pilot project in Scotland, if that is possible.
I am very conscious of the time.
As other members have said, there is much light at the end of the tunnel. We have heard from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport about the approach that we are taking in planning for the rolling out of a vaccine when it becomes available later this year and into the new year. There is hope that there will be more than one vaccine.
I offer my thanks to Patrick Harvie’s mother for her selflessness in contributing to the type of clinical trials that will end the pandemic and mean that we no longer need to have such regulations coming to Parliament again and that people can get back to their normal, day-to-day lives.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. During his speech, Richard Lyle said that, because his area is going into level 4, he will be working at home for the next three weeks. Can you clarify the travel law in that regard for members, Presiding Officer? Are members and their staff—[Interruption.]
Let us hear the point of order, please.
Are members and their staff allowed to travel here from level 3 and 4 areas without breaking the law? I hear cries of, “There’s been an email”, but some of us have been participating in a very important debate. It would be extremely helpful if you could clarify that, Presiding Officer.
Yes, I can clarify that. That has been discussed, and an email went out this afternoon while we were in the chamber that offered support and guidance to all members of staff. The advice for all members is still that we should work from home where possible. However, this is essential business, and members are clearly allowed to come to the Parliament. They are also allowed the support of one additional member of staff. I advise members to look to the guidance.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer.
Mr Lyle, I hope that this is not going to be a rebuttal, rather than a point of order.
No. I just want to say that that is my personal choice, and I am in it with my constituents.