Meeting date: Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 May 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 3, Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Business Motion
- Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill: Stage 3
- Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motion
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon. As always, I remind members to observe social distancing when in the building, particularly when moving in and out of the chamber, as it causes concern if we do not do so. Before we turn to questions, the First Minister will give a short statement to update us on the Government’s response to coronavirus.
I will start with the usual statistical update on Covid-19. As of 9 o’clock this morning, 14,751 positive cases have been confirmed, which is an increase of 96 since yesterday. A total of 1,443 patients who are suspected of or confirmed as having Covid-19 are in hospital, which is a decrease of four since yesterday. As of last night, 53 people were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, which is a decrease of six since yesterday.
I am afraid that, in the past 24 hours, 50 deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed as having the virus. That takes the total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement to 2,184.
National Records of Scotland has just published its more detailed weekly report. Unlike the daily figures, its figures do not just include those deaths with a confirmed laboratory diagnosis of Covid-19; it also reports on cases where no formal test was carried out but where the virus is entered on the death certificate as a suspected cause of death or a contributory factor of the death.
The latest NRS report covers the period up to Sunday 17 May, which is three days ago. I remind members that, at that point, according to our daily figures, 2,105 deaths had been registered of people who had tested positive for the virus, but today’s report shows that by Sunday the total number of registered deaths linked to Covid-19, confirmed and presumed, was 3,546. Of those deaths, 332 were registered in the seven days up to Sunday; that is a decrease of 83 from the week before. Indeed, this is the third week in a row in which deaths have fallen.
Deaths in care homes made up 55 per cent of all deaths linked to the virus last week. That is down from 57 per cent in the previous week. The number of Covid-19 deaths in care homes also reduced again. However, as all of us will agree, that figure remains too high
The total number of excess deaths—that is, the number of deaths above the five-year average for the same time of year—also decreased, from 401 and 351.
Today, we have published additional information from Public Health Scotland, which includes preliminary analysis—I stress that it is preliminary—of Covid-19 cases among minority ethnic communities. Although the data is very limited, and additional analysis is being undertaken, particularly due to findings in England and Wales, the current analysis in Scotland appears to show that there is not a higher level of Covid-19 cases than would be expected, given the size of our black, Asian and minority ethnic population.
I know that none of those statistical patterns will ever console those who have lost a loved one to the virus, and my thoughts and sympathies are with each and every one of them. However, the trends that we are seeing matter, and they provide further grounds for encouragement. In particular, the number of Covid-19 deaths has fallen for a third week, and the level of deaths is now almost half what it was three weeks ago. Deaths in care homes and excess deaths have also fallen.
Tomorrow, I will make a statement and publish a route map of the steps that we will take, and the order in which we might take them, to carefully and cautiously return to some form of normality. Of course, for the moment, the message in Scotland remains the same. Please stay at home, except for essential purposes such as exercising, going to essential work that cannot be done at home, or accessing food or medicine. People can now exercise more than once a day, but when you leave the house, you should stay more than 2m from other people and you should not meet up with those from other households. Please wear a face covering if you are in a shop or on public transport, and remember to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly. If you or someone in your household has Covid-19 symptoms, you should stay at home and isolate completely.
Today’s figures show that our approach is making a difference. It is slowing down the spread of the virus, protecting the national health service and saving lives. As I will outline further tomorrow, it is also helping to bring forward the time when we can start to ease the current restrictions. As always, my thanks go to everyone who is complying with the restrictions and helping us to make progress.
Before we turn to questions, I advise members that I will take all supplementary questions after question 8. You may press your request-to-speak buttons at any time.
Covid-19 (Public Notification)
The confirmation of the number of those who have lost their lives to Covid-19 reminds us once again of the enormity of this tragedy. In the light of that, does the First Minister now accept that keeping the Nike conference outbreak a public secret was not the right course to take?
I really do challenge the terminology that Jackson Carlaw has just used. I say that with deep regret, because I do not believe that any aspect of our handling of this crisis should be political, but I do believe that using such terminology seeks to make it so.
I covered the issue at some length in yesterday’s briefing, but I am happy to do so again. All the cases from the Nike conference were reported in the normal way, through our daily figures. The reason that we did not say where those people got the virus was down to patient confidentiality. At that time, the number of cases was very low, as was the total number of people from Scotland who attended the conference; therefore, to have publicised that would have risked identifying them—almost certainly, it would have identified those individuals.
However, that does not detract at all from the public health management of the incident. As is normal in such incidents, an incident management team of experts in such situations was established. They took all appropriate steps to trace contacts and to do everything else that they thought was required to protect public health. More than 60 contacts were traced in Scotland, and I believe that more than 50 were traced south of the border, by Public Health England. At any time, if that incident management team had thought that anything further was required, including public notification, it had the powers to do that.
That is the situation. Although it is perfectly legitimate for people to question whether patient confidentiality should have been such a big factor and whether, as we go through such epidemics, it should continue to carry so much weight, it was a legitimate factor at the time. I add that the scientists working with Public Health Scotland are doing further work to examine the particular strain that came from the conference.
My final point is on the terminology of secrecy—or, to use the term that others have used, “cover-up”. Apart from asking why anyone would have wanted to have covered up that incident, I would say this. If that is the accusation, it impugns not only my integrity—which Opposition politicians are entitled to do—but that of the experts who managed the outbreak, including Public Health England, which was part of the incident management team. Let us talk about these matters seriously and consider where there might be legitimate issues and questions, but let us not engage in ridiculous language about secrecy or cover-ups.
The public were not told. As has been confirmed at Westminster, it was also explicitly agreed, in the four nations agreement, that the nation in which an outbreak occurred should take responsibility for the public dissemination of that information.
Clearly, it was the wrong call: the public should have been told. If, as the First Minister still seems to be saying, not to do so was not a mistake, why is her Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport now giving active consideration to making a different call should this kind of thing happen again?
People need to know what the Scottish Government will do should the virus be found in such a public location in the future. Therefore if, in the coming weeks, contact tracers confirm a positive case and we discover that the person involved has been in a public place where close contact might have occurred—as happened at the Nike conference—will the public be told?
As the health secretary said yesterday—and as I covered in the daily media conference then—as we go through a situation such as the current one, considerations around patient confidentiality issues change as the number of people with the virus increases. Clearly, at the start of an outbreak, when the numbers are small, there are different considerations about possibly identifying people. I repeat: there were only 10 people from Scotland at the conference. If, when we reported that X patient from Y health board had been confirmed to have contracted Covid-19, we had also said where that person had got the virus, we would almost certainly have identified them, because they were probably the only person from that health board area who was at that event.
The consideration becomes a different one when we are further into an epidemic and the number of cases is higher. That is why, as we go into the test, trace and isolate period, we will, of course, consider the circumstances in which, if there is a cluster of cases, that is made public. That is exactly the work that is, rightly and properly, being considered as part of the development of the test, trace and isolate strategy.
There are standard protocols and procedures for dealing with outbreaks such as this. However, let me stress an important point that I think it is sometimes convenient for some people to forget. If the incident management team had thought that, as part of the public health management of the situation, a public notice was required, it would have had the power to issue one. The experts on the team took the steps that were appropriate, in their view, to manage the situation from a public health point of view, and that is the normal way of dealing with virus outbreaks such as this one. I have confidence in the way that Health Protection Scotland and the incident management teams operate.
We now know that this was a conference in a hotel full of other guests and staff who engaged with those delegates. The First Minister has said that there is a balance between patient confidentiality and public health, but, for me and, I think, for most people, in the case of the coronavirus, that balance must be tipped in favour of protecting the public’s health. I think that the public and most people who have had the virus will take the view that the public have a right to know, so that we can all work together to beat the virus.
Contact tracers can do a lot, although it would be reassuring to know that there were more of them in place. It did not happen with the Nike conference in Edinburgh, when it clearly should have.
The First Minister is intervening from a sedentary position, but it is perfectly clear from the litany of organisations that were at that conference that it absolutely did not happen, whatever the First Minister asserts.
That comes to the heart of the matter, with the First Minister accepting in the abstract that mistakes can be made but never accepting that in the specific. This was a mistake. Surely, over the coming weeks, the job will be made much easier if the Government is completely transparent about when and where outbreaks occur. In fact, it is essential that it is. Will the First Minister now give that commitment?
I think that I gave that commitment when I said that that consideration would be at the heart of our approach to the test, trace and isolate strategy. However, on behalf of the public health experts who carried out the management of this situation, I feel that I really need to point out that contact tracing happened. They would have traced the contacts that they thought it was appropriate to trace. Remember: there is a definition of a contact that will not include everybody whom a confirmed case will have come into contact with for a fleeting period of time.
As I said, more than 60 contacts were traced in Scotland, and I understand that more than 50 were traced in England, so there was an extensive contact-tracing operation.
I come back to the point that it is important for people to understand that, rightly, it is not me, the health secretary or any politician who, when an outbreak is being managed, decides who gets contacted and who gets traced. That is a matter for experienced people who are used to dealing with those situations, and I have confidence in how they did that in this case.
I can tell the chamber that scientists working with Public Health Scotland, as part of its monitoring of the virus, are doing work on the molecular sequencing of the strains of the virus in Scotland, and one of the strains that they are looking at is the strain that is associated with that conference. That is highly technical work—it is certainly beyond my expertise—but I am advised that, when that work is completed, it will tell us whether the cases that were known about and reported at that time contributed to any wider outbreak or, alternatively, whether the public health management prevented onward transmission, as we believe will prove to be the case. As that work is completed, I am sure that we will be happy to make the conclusions of it known to the chamber and, indeed, to the wider public.
Last week, when I asked the First Minister where responsibility lay, she said explicitly that responsibility rests with her. Now, it seems that, when it is convenient, responsibility rests with public health officials. Part of the reason why we need to hold this Government to account is to try to avoid further mistakes. On that, it is clear that the Government does not yet have the plans that Scotland needs to tackle the crisis effectively.
We have a testing system that is delivering at only one third of its capacity—that is a failure. We have a crisis in Scotland’s care homes and still not enough tests for staff and residents—that is a failure. We have no clarity on how or even if the public will be told about future outbreaks—again, that is a failure. Does the First Minister not see that she must deliver on those things if we are to beat the virus and that she must do so without further delay or obfuscation?
The Government is delivering on all those things. We are adapting our response as we learn more about the virus, which is the right and responsible thing to do. I am accountable for the Government’s handling of the situation, as I am for anything that the Government does. That is why, as well as standing here in Parliament, as I have a duty to do, every single day I stand and answer questions. My accountability is important and I take it very seriously. I probably answer more questions and do so on a more regular basis than any other leader in any other part of the United Kingdom, and rightly so.
People would be right to be concerned if I tried to take decisions that are probably for public health experts and clinicians. We are taking a team approach and ensuring that we have the right approach in place. We are building up our testing capacity and we are about to launch an extensive and significant test, trace and isolate programme, which will allow us to start lifting restrictions carefully and cautiously and doing things in the right order.
We are taking a range of measures and adapting those as we learn more about the virus, in order to protect residents in care homes. We will continue to take all appropriate steps to deal with what is a difficult and unprecedented situation. For as long as we are dealing with the situation, I will answer questions and be accountable for that, but I will work collaboratively with those in the health service and the care system and the public health experts who are all working hard to ensure that Scotland responds appropriately. They certainly have my deep and long-lasting gratitude for the job that they are doing.
Care Homes (Covid-19 Testing)
I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests.
I welcome the Government’s acceptance this week of the need to regularly test staff in Scotland’s care homes. We have been pressing for that since the beginning of the crisis. I also welcome the First Minister’s announcement of a reduction in the numbers of new cases and deaths. However, the total number of care homes reporting Covid-19 cases continues to rise, which is why the issue remains an urgent priority.
On 6 May, I once again asked the First Minister if she would commit to testing everyone in Scotland’s care homes and I pointed out that, if we applied all Scotland’s unused Covid-19 testing capacity, we could, in less than two weeks, test every one of the 85,000 people who work and live in our care homes. Today is exactly two weeks on from that, so can the First Minister tell us whether those people have all been tested? If not, how many care workers and residents have been tested?
We will try to give the precise numbers when we can do so, but that testing is happening progressively and there is a prioritisation of care homes that have active cases. We are of course expanding testing of staff to include care homes where there are no active cases and regardless of whether staff have symptoms. We have expanded testing as we have built our testing capacity, although we are also building that capacity with a view to the test, trace, isolate programme. The expansion of testing is also driven by clinical advice. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport’s recent announcement on testing staff in care homes where there are no active cases and regardless of symptoms was driven by the clinical view that that is one thing that can be done to stop infection getting into care homes.
In that regard, there are two things that we have to bear in mind and that clinicians who advise us tell us to bear in mind. The first is that, particularly with frail older people, the test is sometimes invasive and can be uncomfortable, so there must be sound and considered reasons for giving it to residents. The second is that, although testing is important, it can give false reassurance, so it is important, particularly in institutional settings such as care homes, that we do not lose sight of basic infection prevention and control procedures, which are the fundamental steps that care home providers have to take to ensure the safety of their residents as best they can. We need testing to be part of those steps, but we always have to caution—given the relative lack of reliability of tests of people who do not have symptoms—against putting all our focus on it, because it risks false assurance.
My last point about staff in care homes and the health secretary’s announcement is that it is important that the testing is not a one-off. I believe—although I will be corrected if I am wrong—that, in other parts of the United Kingdom, the commitment to test all residents is for a one-off test. For the staff who we will now test, that will be done on an on-going basis; we will work to do that every seven days to give an on-going assurance. I think that that is a really important part of the health secretary’s announcement.
Testing should not be all of our focus, but it is necessary if we are to defeat this virus. How we value a workforce is a measure of how we value a service, which is why we have been calling for testing. However, we still have no details of how, for example, death-in-service payments, to which national health service workers are rightly entitled, will be extended to those who work in social care services.
We know that many care workers are on insecure contracts, many are low paid and many who are ill or need to self-isolate will receive only statutory sick pay, which is £95.85 a week. Gary Smith of the GMB said this week:
“the Scottish Government should end the scandal of ... workers ... who test positive ... left in poverty if they’re off work as a result of testing positive.”
We need to be on their side—on the side of those key workers—and so on the side of the vulnerable people whom they take care of.
This afternoon, will the Scottish Government back our proposals to support Scotland’s care workers who suffer financial loss because of Covid-19, so that we can safeguard livelihoods and also save lives?
In response to the last part of that question, yes we will. I believe that Monica Lennon already knows that because she has been in discussion with Jeane Freeman about it, but I am glad to confirm that point.
On the wider point, we are on the side of social care workers. I have said repeatedly—I will say it again, because the point is important—that we are all part of a collective effort to defeat this virus. That is true in the social care sector, as it is true in the NHS and in wider society. This is not about trying to say that something is one person’s responsibility and not another’s—we are working together. However, the social care sector is different from the NHS—I will come on to death in service in a moment—in that the Scottish Government, via the health boards, is the employer of NHS staff, but we are not the employer of social care staff. Therefore, without pointing the finger at anybody or trying to pass the buck, I think that it is really important that we work with employers to make sure that employers are doing the right thing and fulfilling their duties to the staff who work for them.
We covered death in service last week, and I said that it was our absolute intention to make sure that the same benefits apply to people in social care as apply to people in the NHS. The health secretary has contacted Scottish Care, which has confirmed that it is putting together a proposal with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. I think that the health secretary will be discussing that proposal, which we have not seen yet, with them on Friday this week. If there is a role that the Scottish Government can play to facilitate that, we will do so. There is a really important point here: employers have a duty to make sure that their staff are properly catered for at all times, particularly at this time of crisis. As we have done in every aspect of dealing with this, the Scottish Government will play our full part in that.
Jeane Freeman said a few days ago, and it is worth repeating, that no member of staff should feel that they cannot come forward to get tested in case they test positive and then have to lose a significant part of their income. Those are all things that we are working with employers to try to resolve but, recognising the duty of employers and the exceptional circumstances that we are in, we are prepared for the Scottish Government to do more than we might otherwise do when we are dealing with the responsibilities of employers. All those things will continue to be taken forward responsibly by us in collaboration with others who have a part to play.
The lack of fair work that I referred to in the social care sector is part of a bigger problem, which has been identified today in a new report published by Common Weal. It calls the tragedy that we have seen in Scotland’s care homes a “predictable crisis”. It sets out how, over years, the Government has left responsibility for the provision of care services to private providers, while regulation and inspection regimes have been limited. Despite warnings from pandemic planning exercises of the weaknesses in social care, the Government did nothing, so that when the Covid-19 virus reached Scotland, we were badly unprepared.
The Common Weal report goes on to suggest that, for the first two months of the pandemic, the Scottish Government was “in denial” and was too slow to take responsibility for protecting care home residents. It concludes that, had the Government accepted responsibility at the beginning,
“many lives would have been saved”,
and that leaving the provision of care up to providers
“almost certainly means many old people faced an absolutely unnecessarily uncomfortable and painful death.”
I accept that the report is difficult reading, but it requires a response. Residents and their families want answers. Care homes have not been given enough priority, and the consequences are devastating. Does the First Minister accept that the crisis in care homes was predictable? How will she ensure that, in the road map that she sets out tomorrow, the wellbeing of care home residents is given the priority that it should always have had?
The wellbeing of care home residents has always been a priority and it always will be.
The model of social care in Scotland has not fundamentally changed under this Government; it has been in place for a long, long time. Without going into the matter in too much detail right now, because there has to be further discussion and thinking, I think that questions are now being raised about the appropriateness and fitness for purpose of that model in the long term, and I am sure that we will come back to those issues in due course as a Parliament and as a society.
In the here and now, on the situation with the virus, we have been dealing and are continuing to deal, as are Governments across the world, with an evolving situation. Our knowledge of the virus, and its impacts and how it behaves, is developing all the time, so there will inevitably be areas where, if we had had the knowledge then that we have now, we may have taken different decisions. That will be an inevitable part of assessing how the crisis has been handled here and in other parts of the world.
I hope that people accept and understand that, while it is the easiest thing in the world to apply hindsight now, we do not have the benefit of hindsight when we take those decisions—nobody does. In due course, there will be a systemic look at things that were done or not done, and the lessons that have been learned from that.
We try to learn as we go along, but at every stage we take the decisions that we think are best, and we do so for the right reasons. That is why guidance was published in early March in respect of care homes in particular, telling people and providers what they should be doing as part of the management of care homes to prevent and control infection.
We have extended testing as we have built capacity, and we have expanded it as our knowledge of the virus has developed. One aspect of the virus around which knowledge has developed and continues to do so is asymptomatic transmission, so we have had to adapt our response not just in care homes but more generally.
I know that it is always tempting for people to say that this was predictable and that we should have known all of that, but we absolutely learn lessons as we go and ensure that we take the best decisions based on the best knowledge and understanding that we have at the time.
I thank the First Minister for the updated figures, and I add my condolences and those of the Scottish Green Party to all those who have been bereaved by the pandemic.
With the Government’s road map due to be published later this week, I will look a little further ahead. The First Minister said that recovery from the pandemic must mean
“building a fairer, greener and more equal”
Scotland after the crisis. That ambition to build back better will be realised only if there is a clear economic plan and the political will to take the bold steps that are needed.
Yesterday, after the Scottish Government blocked Green proposals to protect tenants, the director of Shelter Scotland said:
“It is hard to see now what is going to prevent a tidal wave of evictions sweeping people into homelessness services which were barely coping before the pandemic.”
Given that the Scottish Government opposed the solutions that the Scottish Greens put forward, what specific actions will the First Minister take now to protect tenants from building up enormous debt burdens, to ensure that arrears due to the crisis cannot be used to evict people, and to prevent the predicted new wave of homelessness after the temporary measures end?
As we have done throughout the crisis, we will be taking a number of actions. I am sure that, as a Parliament, we will discuss them on an on-going basis.
Let me make a pretty fundamental point here, though. Not supporting particular amendments to a bill does not equate to a lack of determination to protect tenants. Our objection to the particular amendments was that we thought that they were flawed. In some cases, they were unnecessary, but in other cases they would have had serious negative unintended consequences. It does not mean that we are not determined to take actions to protect tenants.
I will comment on a couple of the points. One of the amendments called for a tenants fund. We already provide financial assistance to people who have difficulties in paying rent through discretionary housing payments. We do not need to establish a new fund. Our responsibility is to make sure that DHPs are properly resourced, and we will continue to monitor and do that.
On the call for a blanket rent freeze for two years and discounting of all rent arrears whether or not they accrue because of the crisis, I note that it was social landlords who raised concerns about that. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations said that it
“would undermine and threaten the wellbeing of tenants ... not benefit them.”
The Glasgow and West of Scotland Forum of Housing Associations described the proposals as potentially “calamitous”.
We are all determined to protect tenants. That is why the Scottish Government has already put in place the protection against eviction for six months. Patrick Harvie is right—we need to consider the appropriate measures that come after that. We have given extra financial support in a range of ways, including support to Citizens Advice Scotland to help people who are struggling with rent arrears and other financial difficulties, and we continue to support discretionary housing payments.
These are important discussions that the Government will be very actively engaged in as we go through the crisis, making sure that as we—hopefully—come out of the acute phase, we are dealing with the impacts in all their many forms. I hope that, notwithstanding disagreements on the technicalities of amendments, we can have these discussions in an open and collaborative way.
I will never claim that Green proposals are the only way in which it is possible to achieve something, but if they are not the way, we need to hear from the Scottish Government what the alternative is.
At the moment, it is clear that even some landlords who can access the Government’s landlord hardship fund are saying that their tenants are increasing their rent arrears and that, after the six-month protection is over, they will evict people on the ground of arrears and then hike the rents for their next tenants in order to pay back the loan that they have taken out. We do not yet have the measures in place to ensure a socially just outcome.
Before we went into the lockdown, at least 10,000 people were stuck in temporary accommodation in Scotland and hundreds were sleeping rough. There has been an enormous effort by councils, the third sector and social enterprises to get people housed, get those who were sleeping rough into accommodation and move families out of insecure bed-and-breakfast accommodation and into self-contained accommodation. I pay tribute to everybody who has been involved in that extraordinary effort. It is another demonstration of the change that we can deliver when we put our minds to it.
However, it is critical that, when the lockdown is lifted, we do not go back to the status quo but build back the better Scotland that we want to see. The decisions that we make now will determine whether we achieve that fairer, greener, more equal Scotland or end up making matters worse. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end homelessness. Can the First Minister give us a guarantee that no one will be put back on the streets or into unsuitable accommodation when the restrictions are lifted?
Yes, I absolutely want to make sure that, where we have made progress because of the crisis on things that we had unfortunately not made sufficient progress on previously, we do not go back the way. Patrick Harvie talked about homelessness and rough sleeping and he is 100 per cent right about that, but there are many other examples, such as the roll-out of technology in the health service, where, out of a crisis, we have done things that had proven difficult, and we have to continue that progress and not regress.
In many other ways, we will have to take action to deal with the impacts of the crisis and try to change how we do things. We have just alluded to some of the questions and considerations around the social care model in Scotland.
All that I would say to Patrick Harvie is that the crisis has impacted on literally every aspect of life, the economy and society, and we are going to have to methodically, systematically and carefully work our way through how we fix the impacts where they have done damage, and where we will change how we do things in the future.
I do not have all the answers right now, and members would be a bit miffed if I stood here and tried to give all the answers right now. At the outset of the crisis, we put in place protection against eviction, and as we move into a different phase we will have to consider what protections are appropriate for the longer term and what bigger changes we want to happen. Everybody in the chamber has a part to play in that, as has the entirety of the Scottish population.
I would never have wished the circumstances in which we are having these discussions, but it is undoubtedly the case that they give us an opportunity to change things for the better. That is something that I am determined to try and do. As I say, everybody has a contribution to make to that and a part to play in it.
Last night, I spoke to Linda McKenna from Tayport. Doctors at Ninewells hospital have told her that she needs to have her gall bladder removed but, because of the virus measures, she can only have the operation if her health gets much worse and an urgent procedure is required. She is on painkillers and antibiotics, but she is worried that the pain will soon be back. Why does Linda have to wait until her health gets worse before she can have the operation that she needs?
I wish that she did not have to. None of the steps that we have had to take to deal with the immediate impact of the virus are ones that I wanted to have to take. My sympathies are with Linda, because I understand how difficult the situation will be for her and for the many others who are in a similar situation.
First, we had to free up capacity in our health service to deal with the immediate consequences of the virus. As we get past this first and, hopefully, only wave—although we cannot be sure about that—that pressure will start to reduce. The second reason for the steps that we took was that we had to make judgments about the risk to patients and on whether the risk would be greater if patients were taken into hospital, which would bring them into contact with people and perhaps expose them to the virus, rather than allowing them to stay at home with others.
Those are the immediate reasons, which all Governments in the United Kingdom have been forced to confront and on which they have been forced to take very similar steps. As we start to come out of this acute phase of the crisis, we are intensively planning for how we resume procedures in the national health service in an orderly and safe way. That work will accelerate over the next few weeks.
Those were the reasons why certain things had to be postponed. I never wanted to be in the position of having to do that, and neither did the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, but I think that people across Scotland understand the reasons for that, given the situation that we were facing.
I agree with that, and I supported the Government’s decision to postpone non-urgent operations because of the need to prepare for the pandemic in the way that the First Minister outlined, but there is capacity in our hospitals to do things now.
Two weeks ago, I told the First Minister about Andrew Gould’s postponed hip operation. Mr Gould now tells me that he is finding it difficult to walk.
Professor Andrew Elder of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh said that
“we must now move swiftly but carefully towards restoration of deferred or delayed activity.”
That was three weeks ago.
I know that the First Minister understands that the very measures that we have taken to protect us from the virus are causing pain and harm in many other ways, so, in advance of her statement tomorrow on easing the lockdown, can she give the thousands of people who are waiting for treatment any hope today?
The phrase “swiftly and carefully” is absolutely the one that we plan by. The work is under way, and we will seek to resume NHS procedures that have been postponed as swiftly and carefully as possible. The immediate pressures in the form of hospital and intensive care admissions, as shown in the statistics that I give every day, have been reducing, but I know from people whom I speak to who work in the health service that the pressure of dealing with the virus has not gone away, and there are still significant concerns in our hospitals—as there are in care homes—which we seek to manage and get on top of, as all the Governments across the UK are doing.
There are still concerns about nosocomial infection—the transmission of the virus in hospitals—so we must be careful and safe in how we do this, but getting procedures under way again is a priority, and the work on that is under way, as I have said.
That is part of the route map. We will set out in broad terms the phasing of what we are trying to do, but, at every phase, bringing the health service back into normal operation will be at the heart of what we try to do over the next few weeks to get back to normality.
There will, of course—I alluded to this a moment ago—be things to do with how the health service used to operate that we might not want to go back to, because there has been a greater focus on technology and remote consultations. In some cases, we might want to continue to operate in the same way because we have been trying to do that for a long time. However, getting people who need treatment access to that treatment as quickly as possible is absolutely essential, and that is a key strand of the work that we are doing to get the country back to normal.
Covid-19 Antibody Tests
To ask the First Minister what plans the Scottish Government has for introducing the new antibody tests for Covid-19 in Scotland. (S5F-04132)
Antibody testing is currently being used in Scotland as part of our community surveillance programme. The sensitivity level of those tests has meant that, to date, they have been useful only for providing population-level information. However, with the on-going validation of new and more reliable tests, we are drawing on clinical and scientific advice to quickly develop plans on how they will be best deployed. We are engaging with the other Administrations on that testing as we all work as quickly as possible to bring forward the new approach to testing.
What impact will the new antibody test that is coming on board have in the testing, tracing and support strategy? What will the priority groups be for the new antibody test?
Because of the greater reliability and sensitivity of the new antibody tests, they allow us to move away from a population surveillance use into—I hope—use with individuals. Test, trace and isolate will fundamentally be based on diagnostic testing but, as we go forward, antibody testing will play a greater part in our overall strategy. Plans for that are in development, and we hope to set them out soon. As we learn more about antibodies and immunity to the virus, that will inform how we can use the tests best as we move forward.
Some of the recent news on the development of tests has been very positive, but it is still really important to inject a note of caution. The evidence has not yet developed sufficiently to give us assurance that, when antibodies are detected, that necessarily signifies meaningful or long-lasting immunity. There are still big questions about the extent and longevity of the immunity that people get from antibodies.
That is the cautionary note that I would strike. However, I hope that the tests will have a crucial role to play in helping us to answer that question and in our long-term strategy to deal with the virus.
Obesity and Diabetes (Covid-19 Risk)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that obesity and diabetes increase an individual’s risk of contracting Covid-19. (S5F-04137)
There are signs that suggest that people who are living with obesity and diabetes may be at risk of poorer health outcomes from Covid-19. A review that is looking at that and other potential factors is being conducted, and I understand that it is due to report by the end of the month. We will be guided by evidence in assessing the continued risks from the virus.
With so many conditions, such as heart and respiratory conditions as well as diabetes and obesity, increasing the risks from Covid-19, which, in turn, have led to an increased mortality rate, does the First Minister agree that the crisis starkly highlights the need to tackle Scotland’s poor health and inequality report card and that a step change in how we view and deliver health to move towards a more preventative agenda is long overdue?
Yes, I do agree with that. We already have in place a delivery plan to address the overweight and obesity challenge. Adult weight management services across health and social care have been maintained where possible, and they are continuing in various formats, including through the increased use of telephone and video calls.
That is another reminder of the need to be as preventative as possible in our approach to health and to deal with some of the underlying risk factors that make people more susceptible to becoming seriously unwell if they get particular illnesses.
We still need to understand more about the impacts of coronavirus. What the other risk factors are is one of the aspects of our knowledge about it that continues to develop. However, I have little doubt at this stage that it will add to the understanding of the need to prioritise and tackle healthy weight and obesity. I look forward to that workstream among a range of other workstreams getting back to normal as quickly as possible.
Labour Market (Women) (Covid-19)
To ask the First Minister what analysis the Scottish Government has made regarding the potential impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on women’s position in the labour market.
We continue to assess the impact of Covid-19 across the population. To that end, we recently published an analytical paper examining the expected labour market impacts on different groups of people, including women. The paper shows that women are more likely to work in many of the sectors that have been shut down and that they are more likely to have caring responsibilities, which can make it hard to maintain or take on employment during the current crisis, with potential consequences for their income. We take women’s employment very seriously and that is demonstrated by the Scottish Government’s various policies and support for women, including the gender pay gap action plan, which sets out 60 actions for tackling barriers that are faced by women in the labour market, and the women returners fund.
I welcome the work that the Government is doing and its recognition that the disruption to the labour market caused by the coronavirus pandemic will have a disproportionate impact on women. That has been acknowledged in a report by advocacy charity Close the Gap. Women are more likely to work in sectors, such as food, service and retail, that have been hardest hit by the virus. A lack of consideration for gender in the aftermath of the financial crash in 2008 resulted in the recession having a disproportionate impact on women. That is why I welcome the Government’s recognition of that issue.
Will the First Minister continue to make a gendered response to the anticipated jobs recession, alongside other interventions that are designed to address women’s inequality? I am sure that the First Minister will agree that women’s work is undervalued; women are dominant in areas such as social care and childcare. Will the First Minister support levels of pay in those sectors that would at least value the work that women do until we can make deeper progress on occupational segregation for women?
One of the many reasons that we actively support the real living wage is to try to ensure that we see pay that reflects what women do, particularly in some of the jobs that they are more likely to do. However, we still have to go further. That is why the recent resolution of the long-running equal pay injustice in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland was so important. I agree with Pauline McNeill that it is important that we have a gendered analysis of not just the immediate impact of the crisis but the actions that we will take to recover from it.
The analytical paper that I spoke about in my initial answer is worth reading for those who are interested in the issue. It does not contain anything that would hugely surprise people, but it underlines some of the issues that we are dealing with. Women do more unpaid care work and take more responsibility for childcare, which makes it harder for them to maintain or take on employment; they are overrepresented in health and social care jobs, and over the past couple of months, that would potentially have put them at greater risk of contracting coronavirus. That is potentially particularly true of women from African, Caribbean or black ethnicities. The vast majority of lone parents are also women and they are less likely to have somebody to share childcare with.
Those are just some of the issues that the analytical paper has laid bare. As we decide on the actions that we need to take—we announced significant funding yesterday to try to start considering how we get people back into the labour market after the crisis abates—we need to consider the challenges and the barriers that women, in particular, face. I give an assurance that that is exactly what we will continue to do.
Written Parliamentary Questions (Covid-19)
To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to ensure that all answers to written parliamentary questions about Covid-19 are being processed as quickly as possible. (S5F-04140)
We aim to answer all parliamentary questions as quickly as possible and within the deadlines agreed with Parliament. The vast majority are answered on time. It is only fair to recognise that the significant redirection of civil service resources to respond to the pandemic inevitably means that there might be an impact on response times, but we will do all we can to minimise any such impact as we recognise that accountability to the Parliament is even more important during these exceptional times. That is why, in addition to continuing to respond to written parliamentary questions, the Government has provided information to members about the range of ways to obtain information from the Government specifically about the pandemic and our handling of it.
On Monday this week, the business bulletin reported that, of 93 written parliamentary questions that were submitted that were specifically about Covid-19, no fewer than 22 holding answers were issued.
At the weekend we learned that last week one ministerial department delayed answers on 30 occasions. One MSP intimated that they had received 12 holding answers on one day, and another MSP intimated that she had received five holding answers on one day.
I ask on behalf of many members across the chamber: does the First Minister accept that that is a completely unacceptable situation at a time when members are urgently seeking important information to give to their constituents?
I understand the importance of rapid answers to parliamentary questions. I am not for a minute going to suggest that it is not really important, and we will try to ensure that those answers are given timeously. I simply make the point that everybody across Government is working incredibly hard to deal with an unprecedented and very difficult situation. I simply ask members not to accept that that means that questions do not get answered but to make a little bit of allowance for the reality that we are facing right now.
It is also sometimes the case—although I cannot say whether it is for the specific holding answers that Liz Smith is talking about—that information is not readily available. We are learning about the virus, and we are developing and deepening the data sources that we publish. In some cases, there will be a need to take a bit longer to get the information that members ask for.
In addition to recognising the importance of answering written questions as quickly as possible, we have made available a range of other ways to obtain information from the Government, and I encourage members to use those.
It is also very important that we answer questions in this oral format. There has been a range of virtual question times with ministers, I am answering questions here—rightly, as is my duty—for an hour today, and I will be answering questions for an hour tomorrow in Parliament, on the publication of the route map. I also answer questions not from parliamentarians but from the media for an hour every single weekday. I recognise the importance of information—particularly at a time like this—and the importance of accountability. We will continue to try to improve as much as possible.
In return, I ask for a little bit of understanding about the multitude of pressures that the people responsible for answering written questions are working under right now, which I hope that any reasonable person—which I know includes Liz Smith—would recognise at this time.
A huge number of supplementaries have been requested again today. We will not get through them all, but we will run until just after 1:30pm.
Lawn Bowling (Permitted Sport)
Like the rest of us, sports clubs are eagerly awaiting details of the route map for the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions. Football clubs have, understandably, caught the headlines, but local sports clubs right across Scotland, including the lawn bowling clubs in my constituency, are hopeful that they might be supported to reopen safely, with social distancing protocols being put in place and strictly enforced. There are 900 lawn bowling clubs with 60,000 members across Scotland.
A member of Hawthorn Bowling Club, in my constituency, has told me of the physical benefits and important camaraderie that the sport offers patrons. Does the First Minister agree that, during mental health awareness week, it is right to acknowledge the mental health benefits of club sports? Will the Scottish Government look at the case for adding lawn bowling to the list of permitted sports—with strict social distancing, of course—as we gradually ease lockdown restrictions?
I recognise the mental health benefits of clubs, team sports and getting together with people; it is a very important consideration. I also acknowledge the mental health benefits of exercise, which is why our first easing of restrictions was to allow people to exercise more than once a day, to which they had been restricted until then.
We look carefully at all such things. I do not take any pleasure in saying this, but it is just the reality that we are still in that we have limited room for manoeuvre right now. That is what the data tells us. Therefore, we have to be careful and cautious. We will not be able immediately to give the green light to open to every organisation that wants to do so. We have to do that in a careful and phased way, and with clear priorities.
As we move through the next weeks, it will be easier to open activities that happen outdoors than to open activities that happen indoors. It will also be necessary for us to continue to maintain safe social distancing. Clearly, some restrictions and restraints will be with us for some time to come. Within those, we will try to get people back to as much normality as possible, as quickly as possible.
My final point is one that I made last week: we have to strike the right balance. I am as desperately keen as anybody is to get the economy moving again, so although we have limited room for manoeuvre, we need to acknowledge the need for people to have more social interaction as safely as possible, as well as the need to get people back to work. Those are balances that we are trying to strike in the best and safest ways possible.
OVO Energy (Closure)
Yesterday, OVO Energy announced that it will completely close its Selkirk office, which is in my constituency. That cut will mean that 380 staff will be affected; how many jobs will be entirely lost remains unclear. The job losses will be devastating for the fragile rural economy of the Scottish Borders. Young people will be particularly acutely affected.
What is the Scottish Government’s response to the job losses? During the pandemic lockdown, will the partnership action for continuing employment service be operating as normal, to support people through devastating job losses among my constituents?
I thank Rachael Hamilton for her question. I deeply regret—as, I know, she does—the announcement by OVO Energy. It will have a huge impact in Selkirk, as it will in Perth, where the company also employs people.
Through Scottish Enterprise, we will continue to engage with that company and any company that is facing a similar situation, and we will consider whether there are actions that we can take to prevent or mitigate redundancies.
I also give the assurance that we will make sure that PACE is operational. As everything does right now, it might have to operate in a slightly different way in order to maintain safe working practices, but support will be available for people who are facing redundancy. That support will, in the weeks and months to come, be even more important than it has been in the past few years.
I give that assurance, and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture will continue to be open and happy to discuss individual situations with members whose constituencies and constituents are affected.
Offshore Wind Farms (Construction Work)
The First Minister has said that it is important that we get the economy moving again. I agree that we are facing a real crisis, as we move forward.
This morning, GMB Scotland has stated that it understands that SSE Renewables intends that work for the Seagreen offshore wind farm project will become the latest tranche of offshore wind farm work to go abroad, despite the huge support that the industry has received, and still receives, from the United Kingdom taxpayer. That means that yards in Burntisland, Methil and Stornoway are likely to remain empty while work for offshore wind farms around Scotland goes abroad. What action is the Scottish Government taking to bring work for the Scottish offshore renewables sector to Scotland and the yards that are lying empty?
That is an important issue. As Alex Rowley is aware, the Scottish Government established a task force and held a summit to look in detail at barriers. Although it has obviously been hampered, as have many other things, by the crisis, there has been good co-operation among companies, developers, the Scottish Government, the UK Government and trade unions. We want to continue with that approach.
My understanding is that no decision has yet been taken by SSE on the project, although that is likely to be a rapidly moving situation. I have personally, as has the Government generally, engaged with SSE on the issue in the past. We will continue to do so in order to ensure that as much as possible of the economic benefit from our vast renewable energy resources comes to Scotland. That will be an on-going priority for the Government and for the economy secretary, in particular.
Covid-19 (Construction Industry Guidance)
Can the First Minister give me some clarification of whether the guidance for the construction industry has changed? I am aware of several instances of construction work that are proceeding in my constituency. The workers are observing social distancing and so on, but they are not, according to the current guidance, on the essential workers list, and are therefore barred from working. Can I have clarification on that please?
Guidance to business has not changed. As, I think, I said a couple of days ago—I will say more about this after we publish the route map tomorrow—we will publish over the next days sectoral guidance that tells companies in key sectors the steps that they need to take to prepare for a safe return to work. Although not necessarily all companies will return immediately, the guidance will allow companies in key sectors to start preparatory work.
There has been particular engagement with the construction sector. The industry leadership group in construction has prepared a phased approach to restart, which I will, I am sure, say more about tomorrow. We want companies and workers to get back to work as quickly as possible, but it is essential that we do it safely.
I will come back to a central point, which I know is easy for all of us to forget in our anxiety to get things moving and to get back to normal. It is this: we really would be making a huge mistake if we were to move too quickly, and thereby allow the virus to run out of control again. That is still a real and present danger that would be damaging for the economy and would undoubtedly lead to more lives being lost.
I therefore make no apology for continuing to take a very careful and cautious approach that is aligned with our introduction of the test, trace and isolate strategy, because that will be a key part of how we keep the virus suppressed, as we get more people back to work.
I clarify and repeat that the current guidance to business remains in place and has not changed.
Cancer Testing and Treatment (Delays)
One of my constituents, who is in remission from stage 4 prostate cancer, has undergone treatment for the early stages of skin cancer and has begun tests for bowel cancer. He has been awaiting further tests since early February this year, despite his general practitioner marking his case as being very urgent.
My constituent has received a letter postponing those life-saving tests indefinitely, which is causing a great deal of worry, concern and stress. Will the First Minister answer today the question why so many urgent cancer cases, such as that one, have still to receive testing and treatment?
If testing and treatment are urgent, they should be going ahead, as I and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport have made clear. However, in recent weeks clinical judgments have had to be made about whether the risks of going ahead outweigh the risks of postponing for a period. I cannot comment on all individual cases, but I would be very happy to look into that particular case, if Maurice Corry sends the details. However, the general position is as I said.
As I said to Willie Rennie, we are in the process of resuming hospital procedures as quickly and as safely as possible. However, I know how difficult, worrying and—in some cases—painful it will be for people who have had any kind of procedure postponed. Nonetheless, the clinical judgment will have been made that, on balance, that means less risk than going ahead would mean. That does not make it any easier for individuals; I simply make the points that no such decisions are taken lightly, and that we want to get the national health service operating as normal as soon as we can safely do so.
Police Scotland (Referral to Health and Safety Executive)
I draw the First Minister’s attention to the referral of Police Scotland to the Health and Safety Executive by the Scottish Police Federation for inadequate protection of officers carrying out breath tests. The Police Federation states that the procedures do not represent “best risk management practices”.
A referral to the Health and Safety Executive is clearly a serious matter, and it is unacceptable that officers should be put in that position. Will the First Minister therefore direct Police Scotland to find a solution that ensures that police officers feel safe in carrying out those important duties?
If I was to stand here and issue a direction to Police Scotland on operational matters, I think that James Kelly would probably be one of the first to say—rightly—how inappropriate that would be. The procedures for taking evidential breath tests are a matter for the chief constable. However, clearly, there are important issues to consider here.
I have seen reports that the SPF has referred the matter to the Health and Safety Executive, which it is absolutely entitled and right to do if it has concerns. I would encourage the Scottish Police Federation and Police Scotland to continue their dialogue about the issue in order to resolve it.
The Cabinet Secretary for Justice regularly meets the chief constable, and I have regular discussions with the chief constable about the entirety of the policing response to the virus. Of course those discussions include and impinge on issues relating to the health and wellbeing of officers and staff. I encourage continued dialogue, and any views that the Health and Safety Executive has on this important issue must be taken into account.
Job Retention Scheme (Malpractice)
What steps can be taken to ensure that employers in Scotland who claim funds from HM Revenue and Customs under the coronavirus job retention scheme act in the spirit of that scheme and disperse the funds in full to eligible employees? What penalties could be imposed, should malpractice be found?
It is important that any company that accesses funds at this time does so appropriately and that no one seeks to abuse the system. Schemes that are administered by HMRC are a matter for that organisation to monitor and apply any penalties.
This afternoon, the Parliament will debate amendments to the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Bill from Patrick Harvie around not making Scottish Government funding available to certain companies that do not comply with their tax responsibilities.
These are important ethical matters. This is a crisis, and taxpayers’ money is rightly being made available. However, it is really important that companies do not abuse that. In my experience, the vast majority of companies are acting perfectly responsibly, but even if it is a tiny minority that seek not to do so, it is important that we ensure that appropriate procedures are in place.
In-vitro Fertilisation Services
Two weeks ago, I asked the First minister about publishing a road map on reopening in-vitro fertilisation services in Scotland—[Interruption.]
Would the member adjust her microphone?
I have never been accused of being quiet before, Presiding Officer. Let me start again.
Two weeks ago, I asked the First minister about publishing a road map on reopening in-vitro fertilisation services in Scotland, given that they are already able to be up and running elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I look forward to a road map coming forth. My asking that question prompted worried couples to contact me about their situation. One recurring concern is that, in Scotland, people are entitled to three rounds of IVF on the national health service if they are under 40, but that number is cut to one round as soon as they hit 40.
Can the First Minister reassure women who are in danger of having their entitlement cut that no woman will be penalised for crossing the age threshold due to the suspension of services during Covid-19, however long Scotland’s clinics stay shuttered?
On the general issue of restarting those services, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to write to the member to give more detail on exactly where that work is and on the progress that has been made.
On the second part of the question, I will give that general assurance, and I am happy to get the health secretary to give more details on exactly how that will work. I do not want any woman who is undergoing IVF to have their chances of conceiving a child taken away from them because of the crisis alone. We will do whatever we can and whatever needs to be done in order to ensure that that is not the case.
If the member bears with us, I will ask the health secretary to write with more detail on both those points about how we will put that assurance into practice.
Scientific Advice (Publication)
The First Minister might be aware of a letter of 18 May from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to the Prime Minister, which outlines the lessons learned to date in the Covid-19 pandemic. Recommendation 2 is that there should be more transparency in the scientific advice provided to Government and that a summary of advice—I stress that the word used is “advice”, not “evidence”—should be regularly published.
I know that publishing advice to ministers is not routine practice and I agree that, in normal times, it should not be published. Does the First Minister agree that, in these particular circumstances, such a practice would aid transparency and help scrutiny of Government decisions?
I am happy to look at any suggestions about how we both increase transparency and assist public understanding of the challenges that we are dealing with and the evolving nature of the Government’s understanding of the virus.
The chief medical officer’s expert advisory group has been established in Scotland, and it provides really important advice to me and other ministers. The minutes of the group’s meetings are already published on the Scottish Government website, and its membership is published because it is important that people should see the names of those who provide us with that advice.
As we go through this crisis, we will continue to put as much data as possible into the public domain, and provide as much understanding as we can of what underpins the decisions that we take. As an example of what the member is talking about, I think that members had a briefing yesterday with the Government’s chief statistician to give them a deeper understanding of how the reproduction number is calculated and the factors that are taken into account. We will continue to try to aid that understanding as much as possible in as many ways as possible.
Hospital to Care Home Discharge Data
Earlier this month, Neil Findlay submitted a question asking about the destination of those patients who were discharged from hospital to make way for an influx of Covid patients on every day since 1 February. The answer that was given this morning revealed that 29 per cent were discharged to care homes in the month of February, but that answer covered February alone.
What happened to those older patients who were moved out of hospital in that great exodus in March and April could prove critical to our understanding of the tragedy that is now sweeping through our care homes. What has happened to the data from March and April and will the First Minister commit to publishing it now?
If I am wrong, I will stand corrected but I think that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport gave that information in the chamber yesterday, when she said that, overall, 62 per cent of people who were discharged from hospital had been discharged with an appropriate care package to their own homes and 38 per cent had been discharged to a care home. I believe that that information was given in the chamber yesterday. If not, I have given it now and we can put that on to the parliamentary record in other ways as well.
As we consider the decisions that were taken and the reasons for them, it is important to consider those issues. However, I remind members that, when any patient was being discharged from a hospital into a care home, there was guidance in place on isolation and infection prevention and control for care homes. Those were always important considerations when residents were being admitted to care homes or for residents who were already in care homes.
I hope that that information on the numbers answers Alex Cole-Hamilton’s question but, if not, and we are able to, we will provide other data.
The First Minister mentioned earlier that activities that take place outside are safer than those that take place inside. Can she give any guidance about the Government’s thinking on an activity, such as a wedding, that could take place in either place? Would it be possible to lift the restrictions on weddings that take place outside before we lift them on those that take place inside?
I will not give a guarantee to do that specific thing. In general terms, the risks of transmission outdoors appear to be lower than the risks of transmission indoors but, even outdoors, considerations about social distancing have to be taken into account.
I understand why people want weddings to go ahead as quickly as possible, but in intimate family gatherings there will always be concerns around social distancing and transmission risks. Wedding and civil partnership ceremonies are restricted by the current regulations, which include the restrictions on gatherings in a public place. Scientific and medical evidence does not yet support allowing marriages and civil partnerships to go ahead, but we will look in more detail at the outdoor issue and, for example, extending the practice of some ceremonies taking place in private spaces, such as gardens. I see where John Mason is coming from but, in all those issues, we have to consider all the relevant factors and move as swiftly but as carefully and safely as possible.
Scottish Development International (Conference Attendance)
In the week commencing 24 February, at the same time as the Nike conference in Edinburgh, senior staff from Scottish Development International assembled for a week-long conference of events at the Scottish Enterprise offices in Glasgow. Those staff were not just from Scotland; they came from America, Asia and all over the world.
Given that, since January, COBRA meetings had been taking place that underlined the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, it is surprising that Scottish Development International did not postpone the event. Is the First Minister aware whether anyone who attended the event was suspected of having Covid-19? Has there been any follow-up testing of those who were there? Does she think that it shows poor judgment for a Government agency to ignore the warnings about the pandemic and organise a global event?
That is not necessarily a fair characterisation of the decisions that were taken. I am not aware of having knowledge of that event, so I would not be able to answer questions about whether anybody there was suspected of having coronavirus. I will certainly look into that and if there is any further information that we are able to give to Jackie Baillie, we will make that available.
Decisions around mass gatherings and the further restrictions that were put in place were taken at what we considered to be the right time, in the right order and in the right way. I am sure that for a long time to come legitimate questions will be raised about whether that was the right order in which to do things, or whether things should have been done earlier. None of us has hindsight when we make such decisions.
In terms of people coming into the country, border control is not a matter for the Scottish Government, but I think that we will see some decisions on border controls going forward. We try to take all those decisions in a proper and measured way, and that applies to Government agencies as well as to the Government. If we have more information about the particular event that Jackie Baillie raises, I will endeavour to get it to her.
That concludes First Minister’s questions. I encourage members to leave safely and by observing social distancing. We will resume at half past 2.13:35 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—