Meeting date: Thursday, May 21, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 21 May 2020
Agenda: Covid-19 Lockdown: Next Steps, Members’ Question Time, Urgent Question, Decision Time
Covid-19 Lockdown: Next Steps
Good afternoon, colleagues. Before we start, I remind you that, if you are moving around the chamber, you should remember to observe social distancing rules.
Our first item of business today is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, on Covid-19 lockdown: the next steps. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons as soon as possible.12:30
The Scottish Government has just published a route map to take Scotland through and out of the Covid-19 crisis. It provides information about how and when we might ease the lockdown restrictions while continuing to suppress the virus, and it provides us with some indication of what our journey to a new normal might look like. The route map is, for ease of access, high level, but it will be supplemented in the days ahead with detailed advice and information for the public, as well as guidance covering key sectors of our economy, travel and transport.
In publishing the route map, we confront a fundamental issue. The lockdown restrictions have been absolutely necessary to mitigate the massive harm caused by the Covid-19 virus. However, the lockdown is creating harms of its own—loneliness and social isolation, deepening inequalities and serious damage to our economy. None of us wants it to last any longer than it has to. Today, we are setting out the phases in which we will aim to ease lockdown and reduce the impact on us all—individuals, families, communities and businesses.
The steps we will take are, by necessity, gradual and incremental, and they must also be matched with rigorous, on-going monitoring of the virus. There is no completely risk-free way of lifting the lockdown, but we must mitigate the risks as much as we can, and we must not at any stage act rashly or recklessly. For all our progress, the virus has not gone away. It continues to pose a significant threat to health and, if we move too quickly or without proper care, it could run out of control again very quickly. The danger of a second wave, later in the year, is very real indeed. We must not forget any of that.
At every stage, though, the biggest single factor in controlling the virus will be how well we all continue to observe public health advice. Continued high compliance with the restrictions that are in place at any time, together with hand washing, cough hygiene and physical distancing, will continue to be essential, as will wearing a face covering where that is appropriate. We must also understand and accept what a test, trace and isolate system will require of us all. Each of us will have an on-going responsibility to protect ourselves and each other.
I will do three things in today’s statement. First, I will give an update on where we are now in our efforts to control the virus. Secondly, I will set out the initial ways in which lockdown restrictions are likely to be eased from the end of next week. Finally, I will discuss possible future steps and the approach we will take in deciding which ones to take, and when.
I stress, however, that the nature of what we are dealing with means that the proposals cannot be set in stone. We will conduct formal reviews at least every three weeks, to assess whether and to what extent we can move from one phase to the next, but we will be constantly alive to when we can go faster or whether we have gone too far. It might be that we cannot do everything in a particular phase at the same time. A single phase might span more than one review period. Some measures might be lifted earlier than planned and some later.
Of course, our plans will change if the data, evidence or, indeed, our understanding of the virus changes. We also welcome views on the plans, including from other parties. In addition, I encourage members of the public to read the route map at www.gov.scot and let us know their views. This crisis affects us all, and how we emerge from it safely matters deeply to us all.
In setting out where we are now, I will give an update on the daily statistics before putting the data we now have into a broader context. In doing that, I want to thank—as I always do—our health and care workers for the extraordinary work that they are doing in incredibly testing circumstances.
As at 9 o’clock this morning, there have been 14,856 positive cases confirmed, which is an increase of 105 from yesterday. A total of 1,318 patients are in hospital with Covid-19; 909 of them have been confirmed as having the virus and 409 are suspected of having Covid-19. That represents a total decrease of 125 from yesterday, including a decrease of 34 in the number of confirmed cases.
A total of 51 people last night were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid-19. That is a decrease of two since yesterday. Unfortunately, I also have to report that, in the past 24 hours, 37 deaths have been registered of patients who have been confirmed through a test as having had the virus, which takes the total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement to 2,221.
Those numbers, together with yesterday’s figures from National Records of Scotland, spell out very starkly the human cost of this virus. Those are not simply statistics; they all represent individuals whose loss is a source of grief to many. I send my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to this virus.
However, the numbers also make it clear—as I indicated yesterday—that our efforts to curb Covid-19 have had an impact. Our mid-range estimate for the number of infectious people in Scotland is now 25,000; however, we expect that number to decrease further.
We are now seeing significant and sustained reductions in the number of confirmed Covid-19 patients in hospital. The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care is now less than a quarter of what it was at its peak, and yesterday’s National Records of Scotland data showed that the number of Covid-19 deaths has now fallen for three consecutive weeks. Last week’s total was just over half the figure that was reported for the last full week of April.
We are also publishing today a paper that sets out the methods that we use for calculating the R number—the rate at which the virus is reproducing. We will now publish our up-to-date estimate of the R number each Thursday. Our latest estimate is that the R number remains between 0.7 and 1. In March, it was probably above 4.
It is worth saying that, although those figures indicate real progress, we cannot and must not be complacent. Progress remains fragile, and it would be too easy for the virus to run out of control again. The total number of Covid-19 deaths—351 last week alone—is still far too high. Although we estimate that the R number is below 1, the range has not changed this week, and there is still uncertainty about just how far below 1 it is. It may also still be slightly above the R number in other parts of the United Kingdom.
However, we now have some confidence that the R number has been below 1 for more than three weeks and that there has been a reduction in the number of new cases and in the impact of the virus. In my judgment, therefore, the time is right to move towards a careful relaxation of lockdown restrictions. However, as I will say in a moment, we must do so on a timescale that aligns with our development of test, trace and isolate.
Today’s route map outlines four phases in emerging from the Covid-19 crisis beyond the current lockdown phase, and it covers nine key aspects of our lives: seeing friends and family; travel and getting around; education and childcare; work, business and the economy; shopping and leisure; sport and culture; public gatherings and special occasions; communities and public services; and health and social care.
We are legally required to review the lockdown restrictions every three weeks, and the next review date is 28 May—next Thursday. Provided that we continue to make progress in tackling Covid-19 over the next week and, in particular, that we see no regression from our progress so far, I can confirm that the Government intends to move from lockdown to phase 1, and thereby lift some restrictions, from 28 May. As we enter later phases, as and when the evidence allows, more restrictions will be removed—details of the relevant criteria to be met and the restrictions to be eased in each phase are set out in the document.
I am sure that everyone who is watching will want to know what changes will be made as we move to phase 1, but first I offer a word of caution. Not every phase 1 measure will necessarily be introduced immediately on 28 May. Some might be introduced a few days after that, and, depending on the evidence, it is possible that some might have to be postponed, although I very much hope that that will not be the case. Next week, when we have completed our formal review, we will make clear exactly what changes we are making and when, and we will ensure that detailed information is available for the public.
I will now set out some of the likely changes in phase 1. More outdoor activity will be permitted. People will be able to sit or sunbathe in parks and open areas, and they will be able to meet people from one other household—although initially in small numbers—while they are outside. We hope that that change will benefit everyone, but particularly those without gardens and people who live on their own. It is important to stress, though, that different households should remain 2m apart from each other. That will be critical in ensuring that that change does not provide easy routes of transmission for the virus. Because of the much higher risk of indoor transmission, visiting inside each other’s houses will not be permitted in phase 1.
Some non-contact outdoor leisure activities will be allowed to restart, such as golf, tennis, bowls and fishing—subject, of course, to people engaging in appropriate hygiene measures and physical distancing. In addition, people will be able to travel—preferably by walking or cycling—to a location near their local community for recreation, although we are asking people, where possible, to stay within or close to their local area.
Waste and recycling services will resume, as will many outdoor businesses such as agriculture and forestry. The construction industry will be able to carefully implement steps 1 and 2 of its six-step restart plan, which it has developed with us. However, I make it clear that there must be genuine partnership with trade unions—the resumption of activity can take place only if it is done safely.
In the first phase, other industries that are expected to resume in phase 2 will be permitted to prepare workplaces for the safe return of workers and customers. We will no longer discourage takeaway and drive-through food outlets from reopening, as long as they apply safe physical distancing. Outdoor retail outlets such as garden centres will be allowed to reopen. However, non-essential indoor shops, as well as indoor cafes, restaurants and pubs, must remain closed in the first phase.
Some key community support services will resume. For example, face-to-face children’s hearings will restart, using physical distancing, and people who are at risk will have more contact with social work and support services. We are also planning a phased resumption of aspects of the criminal justice system. In addition, we will carefully and gradually resume national health service services that were paused as a result of the crisis. I remind people that, as of now, they should contact their general practitioner or NHS 24, or dial 999, if they need to. That message is really important.
I stress that those phase 1 measures, most of which have an outdoor focus, are not in place yet, and they are dependent on our continuing to suppress the virus. They will also be monitored carefully as they take effect. However, we view them as a proportionate and suitably cautious set of first steps, and I hope that they will bring some improvement to people’s wellbeing and quality of life, start to get our economy moving again and start to steer us safely towards a new normality. It is important to stress, though, that while the permitted reasons for people to be out of their house will increase, the default message during phase 1 will continue to be to stay at home as much as possible.
As we move into subsequent phases, more restrictions will be removed. Details of those later phases and the criteria that we will need to meet are set out in the document.
We will make decisions on when, and to what extent, we can move to those phases carefully, and on the basis of evidence, and we will carry out formal reviews at least every three weeks—although I hope that we can move more quickly than that, if the evidence allows it.
I want to take a moment to talk directly to people who are currently shielding—those whom we have asked to isolate completely for 12 weeks because we know that they are at greatest risk from the virus. We know that the isolation that is imposed by shielding over a long period of time is in itself very difficult and, indeed, harmful, so although we are not changing our advice on shielding yet, I confirm that we will issue new guidance before the initial period of shielding ends on 18 June. I say to those who are shielding that that will aim to increase your quality of life and your ability to make informed choices, while continuing to protect you as much as possible from the risks that the virus poses. I really understand how hard this is for all of you who are shielding, but I want you to know, at this point, that you are central to our thinking, as we move forward—through and out of the crisis.
More generally, the route map sets out what phases 2, 3 and 4 will mean for various areas of activity. It tries to give as definite as possible a sense of when, and on what basis, we might be able to see friends and family on something like a normal basis.
We have set out what the different phases will mean for transport. I confirm that we will publish a much more detailed transport transition plan on Tuesday next week.
We have also outlined the further stages, in which businesses might reopen. I stress that we want to move through the stages as quickly as the evidence allows; getting the economy moving again matters very much to all of us. We have sought to focus first on industries in which people simply cannot work from home. However, safety and the confidence of employers, employees and customers are essential, which is why detailed guidance for key sectors of the economy will follow in the days ahead. I stress that we will continue to require, for the foreseeable future, home working where that is possible. We will also encourage flexible working, including consideration of four-day weeks, for example.
We are indicating the phases in which service industries might reopen—businesses such as restaurants, bars and hairdressers. That last is a priority, I know, for almost every woman in the country—
Members: And men! [Laughter.]
—and some men. I will not go any further than that, Presiding Officer. For restaurants and bars, opening of outdoor spaces will come earlier than opening of indoor spaces.
The route map also indicates when places of worship might reopen, and it makes it clear that while our current guidance on funerals—among the most distressing and heartbreaking rules of the current lockdown—unfortunately remains unchanged for now, we hope to relax it as we move from phase 1 into phase 2.
Finally, I know that a key priority for parents, children and young people is education and early-years services. We confirm that we are planning to allow universities and colleges to have a phased return next term, with a combination of remote learning and some limited on-campus learning.
On schools, early learning and childcare, we have published today the report of the education recovery group, which is chaired by the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, and includes representatives of councils, parent and teacher organisations and trade unions. Through that approach, we have reached an agreed position that will help us to build confidence among pupils, parents and teachers about a safe return to formal schooling. The report can be read in full on the Scottish Government’s website. I stress that all its conclusions are subject to health advice, and to appropriate measures on physical distancing, testing and provision of protective equipment, where required, being in place.
I will summarise the key points. Teachers and other school staff will return during June to prepare classrooms for the new term and a different model of learning. During June and over the summer, an increased number of children will have access to critical childcare such as has been provided for the children of key workers during lockdown. We will provide, where possible, transition support for children going into primary 1 or moving from primary 7 to secondary school.
From 11 August, all schools will reopen. However, to allow appropriate physical distancing, children will return to a blended model of part-time in-school and part-time at-home learning.
Childminders can reopen during phase 1 and, over the summer, all early-years childcare providers will reopen, subject to necessary health measures. Capacity will be prioritised for the children of key workers, early learning and childcare entitlement and children who are in need. The Care Inspectorate will provide further guidance, in due course.
The arrangements will not represent a complete return to normality by August, but we judge them to be the most sensible approach that we can plan for at this stage. To reflect the fact that children will still be doing part of their learning at home, we will invest a further £30 million to provide laptops for disadvantaged children and young people, to enable them to study online.
At this stage, I want to take a moment to say a huge “Thank you” to parents, carers and teachers who are doing so much to ensure that children continue to learn during the lockdown period.
I want also to send a special message to children and young people themselves, on the off-chance that any of you are watching a parliamentary statement. I know how difficult it has been for you not to be at school and with your friends, but you have been magnificent during this lockdown period. From the bottom of my heart, I say “Thank you” to each and every one of you.
As I have briefly summarised—I know that all members will take the time to study the document in full—the route map sketches out, with as much detail as we can provide at this stage, how and in what stages we might move back to some normality, as we continue to live with the virus, which we will have to do for some time to come. The route map does not yet set definite dates for all phases, because it cannot do so. We know that the virus is, and will remain, unpredictable.
Of course, to a great extent, the timing of the changes—of moving from one phase to another—will depend on all of us. It will depend on our continued ability to suppress the virus even as we move out of lockdown. Our emergence from lockdown will be faster or slower, depending on the level of continued success that we have in suppressing the virus.
It is also worth saying that in the weeks ahead, our messages will inevitably have to become more nuanced and complex, as we strike the difficult balance between protecting public health and allowing more personal choice. Straightforward strict rules will gradually be replaced by the need for all of us to exercise judgment and responsibility. However, some key advice—for example, on isolating if you have symptoms of Covid, strict physical distancing, washing of hands, and face coverings—will remain the same throughout.
We must continue to recognise that every decision that we take as individuals has an impact on others and on our collective wellbeing. That sense of collective responsibility has been so much appreciated by me and, I know, by all of us throughout the whole period. Indeed, it is only because people across the country have so overwhelmingly observed the lockdown restrictions that we are now able to plan ahead.
It will be absolutely vital that we all continue to abide by whatever rules are in place at every stage. For the moment—until 28 May—I must stress that our key public health guidance as of now remains unchanged. Please stay at home except for essential purposes, such as daily exercise, going to essential work that cannot be done at home, or shopping for essential items such as food or medicine.
You can exercise more than once a day, but when you leave the house, stay more than 2m from other people, and, for now, do not meet up with households other than your own. Please wear a face covering if you are in a shop or on public transport, and remember to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly.
Finally, if you or someone else in your household has symptoms of Covid-19, please stay at home completely. Those symptoms are: a high temperature, a persistent cough, and a change in or loss of the sense of smell or taste.
I am very aware that talk of emerging from lockdown, and the nice weather that we have enjoyed in recent days, make the restrictions even harder, but I want to stress that abiding by them is what makes it possible for us to think about relaxing them. By doing the right thing, all of us have helped to slow the spread of the virus and to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, and we have, despite the grim numbers of people dying, helped to save lives.
As a result of all of that personal sacrifice on the part of everybody, for the common good, we are now able—gradually, cautiously, and in phases—to plan our move back to some normality. I thank everyone for making that prospect possible.
It is now two months since we went into lockdown. In that time, we have seen the best of our NHS, our public services and our communities. However, there is no doubt that the lockdown has been hard and heartbreaking. People have not seen friends or families for weeks, our most vulnerable and our elderly are isolated, and Scotland’s businesses are still just trying to survive. Of course our priority remains to save lives and not to become complacent, but people are now reaching for a way forward, and Scotland is already on the move. A plan to exit the lockdown is therefore welcome—even one that promotes a sense of déjà vu.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement. However, it raises many questions about how any plan will work in practice.
As Scotland is gradually released from lockdown, Government communications must evolve from being simple and direct instructions to being a broader and, as the First Minister has said, a more nuanced schedule of advice. In those circumstances, the need for clarity will be more urgent than ever. Can the First Minister confirm that the Scottish Government will publish specific advice for each sector so that there is no confusion or so that confusion is kept to a minimum as we move through each stage?
Going into lockdown was really difficult for Scotland, as it was for all countries. I have always thought that, in some ways, coming out of it will be even more difficult, because it will involve us giving more nuanced messages and people having to understand what to do and what not to do and continuing to think very carefully about our personal responsibility and the actions that we take, even as we might be getting the impression that the threat of the virus is receding.
Inevitably, when a plan is put forward, some will say that we are going too slowly and others will say that we are going too quickly. Similarly, some people will say that we should have gone into lockdown earlier and some people—not very many, I think—will say that there was no point in doing it at all.
For me, this is not, and never will be, a popularity contest. Every single choice that the Government and I face right now is a hard choice, and we have to get the balance right. As we try to mitigate harm in one area, we open the risk of doing harm in another. There is a very difficult balance to strike, but we must try to continue to do that on an on-going basis.
I gave a commitment at the start, and I will give it each and every day in which we are dealing with the virus. I will try to take the best decisions that I possibly can at every step, based on the best possible information, with the protection of health and human life very much as my guiding principle.
Clarity will be important. In my statement, I said that, in the coming days, we will issue guidance for the public and businesses. Today, we have issued a paper on schools that people are able to read. We will continue to ensure that there is guidance.
I have said previously that we have 14 sectoral workstreams that are looking at guidance for each key sector of our economy. We will publish guidance in all those areas. We have been working with key sectors. I mentioned the work that we have been doing with the construction sector, which Kevin Stewart has been very involved in. We are giving the green light to the first phases of the industry’s own restart plan, subject to continued dialogue with the trade unions.
We will seek to give clarity at each and every single step, and I will continue to do everything in my power and to the best of my ability to communicate the clearest possible messages to the public, so that we all know our responsibilities and we can all make a collective decision to continue to do the right things.
The threat has not gone away, and it will not go away in the near future. As we come out of the current phase, the Government has to be very focused on trying to mitigate the dangers that lie ahead. We will continue to do that as far as possible and for as long as required.
As work resumes, employers need time to prepare, and businesses need to know when they can open, so that they are ready when that time comes. I welcome the conversations that have taken place with the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the many references to those that have been made in statements, and I am encouraged by what the First Minister has just reported in relation to discussions that are taking place with the construction industry. However, many wider employer organisations claim that they have not been consulted or involved in discussions with the Government on future arrangements. Can the First Minister give an assurance, or is she able to report, on those conversations and confirm that they will be an integral part of any return-to-work strategy?
We have weekly discussions with all the key business organisations, and that will continue. If Jackson Carlaw wants to give me the details of organisations that have not had those conversations, I will be very interested to hear them and, of course, I will take steps to rectify that. The key business organisations are, and will continue to be, included in those discussions, as is the STUC, which is a critical partner, as we have to satisfy not just ourselves but workers that workplaces are safe to return to—just as we have to satisfy parents and pupils that it is safe to return to schools. That is an important part of building the confidence that we must build, so I will give an assurance that we will continue to have those discussions on an on-going basis.
I appreciate that members have not had time to absorb fully the detail of the document and route map, but members will see that we are building in time for preparation with each phase. Construction is being asked, and is permitted, to start its phased approach now; that is about preparation. Businesses that will, all being well, reopen in the next phase will be able to start making those preparations now. Dialogue and preparation will continue to be vital.
Everyone is understandably keen for normal life to resume, but the real risk of a phased lockdown, with its many variations, is that it becomes overly complicated and impossible for people to understand what is appropriate or permissible. What role does the First Minister expect Police Scotland to perform at each stage of the exit from lockdown, or will much of the auditing of business practice fall on local authorities? If that is the case, what assessment has been made of their capacity and resource to manage that process?
Both Police Scotland and local authorities are central to our planning and discussions. Rightly, both take part in the Scottish Government’s regular resilience meetings and both make a valuable contribution. Police Scotland will continue to have a role as we go through the phases of lockdown but, as we do that, we will inevitably move from having rules and regulations to having more of what we are asking the public to do contained in guidance. That balance is already there, but it will change as we go through the coming weeks. Therefore, there may be less of what we are asking people to do that is legally enforceable by the police, but it is important that, while there are regulations that are enforceable, the police continue to have an input in advising us on the enforceability of everything that we do. Police Scotland already does that and it will continue to do so.
It is important that the public understand what they are legally required to do and what we are asking them to exercise judgment about. Local authorities have a key part to play, both with businesses and individuals. To take one example, we have been working with local authorities in the past couple of weeks on the reopening of waste and recycling centres, and there will be many other examples where we will be working with them.
There is no risk-free path ahead of us right now—everything that we do and do not do comes with risks. My job as the leader of the Government, and the job of the whole Government and all of society, is to find the best balance in mitigating those risks so that we can get back to normal but without allowing the virus to run riot again, because that will cost more lives. That is not a risk that I am prepared to take.
I ask that question because employees will want to know what to do if they feel that their place of employment is not safe and will want to have a clear understanding of what their recourse should be if that is the case.
There is a risk that, without a proper testing and tracing plan, we will not get ahead of the virus, and a return to lockdown will then be the consequence. I do not think that, as things stand, the First Minister has yet secured that plan for testing and tracing. We heard this week that the recruitment of contact tracers to achieve the target of 2,000, which the First Minister confirmed in the chamber a fortnight ago, by 1 June, is lagging behind. We know that, even now, actual testing is running at around half of available capacity.
Does the First Minister accept that, for Parliament and the public to have confidence and for Scotland to feel safe as we come out of lockdown, it is essential that the infrastructure for testing and tracing, or test and protect, is in place?
Before I come on to test and protect, I will finish the point about making sure that workers have confidence that workplaces are safe. Police Scotland has been mentioned, but it is also worth mentioning that we will continue to work with the Health and Safety Executive and regulators, where necessary, to provide that assurance. I have been, and will continue to be, cautious and will not move into phase 1 until the end of next week at the earliest, because I want to align our lifting of lockdown with our ability to implement a substantial, significant test and protect operation. We will be able to do that from the end of next week in every health board area in the country.
The plans for that are not lagging behind. They are moving at pace. The health secretary confirmed at the weekend that health boards have already identified 600 individuals who are ready to do that. We will have a capacity of 2000 in place by the end of this month. We have the testing capacity that we need for that. I appreciate that testing is important in every phase, but it is important not to look at the reasons for, the demand for, and the purpose of testing now and equate that with testing in the test and protect phase. They fulfil the same purpose, but they are different phases.
The plans are in place. They will continue to bed down and to develop and they must be flexible, because the number of tests and of contact tracers that we will need will depend on the prevalence of the virus at any time. We must keep it as suppressed as possible. Also, at times when we may see a resurgence, even in local areas, we must have the ability to adapt that capacity to cope. It is a crucial part of what we are doing, but it must sit as part of an overall approach that involves all of us physically distancing and following all other relevant advice.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement.
I begin by restating that Labour wants the Government to succeed in defeating the virus. We want to support the Government to get that right, so we have supported the lockdown and today we support a gradual easing of the restrictions.
However, that must be done as safely as possible. It must follow the science, and it must be done at the right time. We need a national consensus to build public confidence in the plan. Any decisions to ease restrictions must respond to the facts on the ground.
To achieve that, we need three guarantees. First, the Government should publish the evidence behind the decisions that it has taken and will take in the future. Secondly, we need to see maximum testing capacity and a fully working test, trace and isolate system that is rolled out universally. Thirdly, the Government’s strategy must be flexible and able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Can the First Minister give us those guarantees?
I can do that in broad terms. We will be scrutinised on the detail and we will develop that in the weeks to come.
I agree that safety, and an approach that is informed by the best science, are vital. We have tried to prioritise that all along. We have built, and will continue to build, a national consensus. If you look at the work that the Deputy First Minister has led to get us to the position on schools that we have set out today, you see that it has had that consensus approach at its heart, and we do not take that for granted. There is a lot of detail to work through. We now have all of the key stakeholders in broad agreement on the direction of travel and the timing. We want to take that approach to every aspect of the crisis.
I turn to Richard Leonard’s three asks. On the evidence, I said earlier that we publish all the data. We publish data on a daily basis. This afternoon, we will publish a paper that goes into more detail about how we calculate the R number and the different considerations relating to that. The advisory group that is one source of our advice publishes its minutes on its website. We will always look at how we can be more transparent about the data, evidence and advice that inform our decisions.
Ultimately, however, decisions must be taken. The advisors advise us and we pay close attention to the science, but I, and the whole Government, must make judgments and decisions based on that. We are ultimately accountable for those decisions.
I will not go over all the detail on test, trace and isolate that I covered in my answer to Jackson Carlaw. One reason why I have not wanted to accelerate our speed out of lockdown, and why I have taken a slower and more gradual pace, is that I want to be able to align the steps with test, trace and isolate. We will continue to do that. The roll-out to 14 health boards will coincide with going into phase 1. We will bed that down, develop it and make sure that we have got all the ways in which it works right, and that will align with further phases. It is really important that we have that relationship and that it is tested.
On Richard Leonard’s third point, we have to be flexible. There is no alternative to having a plan that can be flexible and adapt. I cannot stand here and rule out to the people of Scotland that, at some point over the next few months, we will have to go back the way, because the virus is unpredictable. We talk about “defeating” it but, until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment, “defeat” is the wrong word to use; we are trying to contain, live with and suppress the virus, and we are using every tool at our disposal to do that. We must be prepared to be flexible, because we know that the virus is flexible and will take every opportunity to spread further. Flexibility will be at the heart of everything that we do.
It is clear to my party that we need a plan for the economy. That starts with a plan for a return to work on a sector-by-sector basis that is strategic, thought through and, above all else, safe, rather than there being an arbitrary “If you can’t work from home, go out to work” message. As the STUC has said, such a message would be nothing less than “dangerous”.
We broadly welcome the Government’s approach, but the route map cannot end there, because the truth is that we are facing a massive rise in unemployment and the potential collapse of our town centres. Our night-time economy is going bust and, because young workers are two and a half times more likely to work in shut-down sectors such as hospitality, hotels and non-food retail, we are facing the return of youth unemployment at levels that have not been witnessed for decades. Therefore, for many, an uneasy feeling persists, with people having looming worries about not just present but future job losses.
Will the First Minister work with us, other parties, trade unions and employers to establish a new industrial strategy, a new plan for the economy and a new plan for jobs, including a job guarantee scheme that targets the under-25s, so that we do not see the return of mass unemployment, especially among young people?
I broadly agree with Richard Leonard’s questions and certainly with the sentiments behind them. We have a duty to steer the country safely from where we are now to a position in which the economy is operating again, but none of us is under any illusions—I am certainly not—about the damage that has been done by the lockdown restrictions, essential though they were to the economy, or about the action and efforts that will be needed to repair that damage. As we come through the phases, we will be working hard to look at how we do that.
Richard Leonard is right to talk about the risk of unemployment, particularly for certain groups including young people and women, as we spoke about in the chamber yesterday. I spoke about that briefly the other day when we announced additional funding to support young people in particular back into work when we come through this. These will all be pressing and difficult challenges, but they are vital challenges. We are already working with the STUC and trade unions, and I give a commitment that we will continue to do so and will seek to work with parties across the chamber.
This is one of the things that will be easier for all of us to say than to do, but it is important that we remind ourselves that, although we want to repair the damage and get things back to normal, we must also take care not to simply slip back into old and bad ways of doing things. There are opportunities for change, and all of us want to try to grasp them.
The announcements that I have just made on schools mean that, for a potentially considerable time, parents will have a very difficult balancing act between the need to work and the need to care for children when they are at home rather than in school. That is one reason, but not the only reason, why we have to look at different working patterns. We should no longer only be talking about things such as a four-day week; we should be encouraging employers to look at embracing them. There is a whole range of things that fall into that category.
The Presiding Officer is about to get justifiably irritated by the length of my answer. In short, Richard Leonard is right about this. We will not agree on everything, but I hope that we find the space to work together and find consensus on as much as possible.
Yes. People have seen a glimpse of a different kind of future, and there is demand for change.
Let me turn, finally, to the crisis in our care homes. That crisis, the unnecessary deaths in our care homes and the anxiety and fear of their staff have not gone away. As lockdown measures are eased, there is a real risk that they will increase and intensify.
The Government was too slow to take responsibility for care home residents for the first two months of the crisis. Now, as lockdown is lifted, they must be a priority. That is about the protection of their physical health through testing and personal protective equipment but it is also about their mental and emotional wellbeing, which we know will have been damaged by months of fear, isolation and—not least—separation from their families.
As the rest of the country gradually returns to some kind of normality, how will the Government ensure that the rights, wellbeing and dignity of our care home residents are respected and upheld?
Nothing matters more to me than making sure that we protect the health, dignity and rights of everybody in society, particularly those who are most vulnerable. That undoubtedly includes care home residents, and we will continue, each and every step of the way, to take the actions that we think are right and necessary to provide as much protection as possible.
Every single one of us who has been in a position of taking decisions to deal with this crisis will have made mistakes—I have no doubt about that. That is in the nature of dealing with an unprecedented situation—and doing so without the hindsight that many are now trying to apply. The responsibility of dealing with this will certainly bear heavily on me for probably the rest of my life, and I am sure that many people in my position will feel the same.
What I want to make clear is that, at every stage, based on the best information and knowledge that we have, we try to do the right things. In relation to care homes in particular, there will undoubtedly be very legitimate and hard questions for us all to reflect on—that is how we learn. However, some of what people say now fails to take account of the situation that we were dealing with.
For example, I hear people say now that care home residents should not have been discharged from hospital; however, back then, we were waiting for a potential tsunami of coronavirus cases going into our hospitals. If we had not tried to get people who did not medically require to be in hospital out of there, that would also have exposed people to very significant risks. [Interruption.] I hear people saying “testing” from a sedentary position, which is, again, legitimate. However, we must remember that our knowledge of the efficacy of testing in asymptomatic people back then was different from what it is now.
The point that I am making is not that there are not legitimate questions—there are, and I ask myself those questions every single day. The point that I am making is that, at every step of the way, we have acted with care and thought and with the best intentions to provide the best protection for everybody, including the most vulnerable. That is what we will continue to do every step of the way.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement. I welcome today’s route map, which provides clarity on how we can suppress the virus and lift restrictions, in contrast to the reckless approach taken by the United Kingdom Government, which has eased restrictions in England without a robust test, trace and isolate strategy in place, contradicting World Health Organization guidelines.
Although I of course fully support continuing to follow the scientific advice and staying in lockdown for another week, does the First Minister agree—particularly given the scenes in Portobello in my city of Edinburgh yesterday—that the lockdown is getting harder to sustain? Does she also agree that, if we had been using testing capacity to its full potential throughout the pandemic, we would be better informed about the virus, better able to protect people, and able to move to the test, trace and isolate strategy at a faster pace?
On the first part of Alison Johnstone’s question, I will continue to do what I have tried to do throughout this, which is to resist all and any provocation to be party political about it. I do not think that it is appropriate in these circumstances.
All of us are trying to do the best we can. We will come to different decisions along the way, and I hope that we come to those different decisions for the right reasons. Every leader of every Government anywhere in the world—well, there may be some exceptions to that—is trying to do the best that they possibly can. That is what I will continue to do, as well as keeping politics—as far as possible—completely out of the equation.
We will be debating the issues around testing—what we did and did not do and what we should and should not have done—perfectly legitimately for a long time, and I accept that.
We set out early on the plans to build testing capacity. I remember talking in Parliament at a very early stage about our priorities for testing in this phase, which were to protect the sickest and most vulnerable, to ensure that we tested key workers and to have surveillance and monitoring. We have also set out our plans for test, trace and isolate and will continue to do so. It is really important that those plans are aligned with the steps that we are taking to ease lockdown and with what we have sought to build into the heart of the route map that we published today.
The public have been truly magnificent in how they have complied with the restrictions, and my final point is an appeal to them to continue to do it for a little bit longer. If we see a regression between now and next week, I will not be able to introduce the changes that I have talked about today, and I do not want to be in that position.
I almost felt like crying when I saw the pictures of Portobello beach yesterday. I know why people felt the need to do that and I completely sympathise. However, every time people get together in ways that provide opportunities for this virus, we risk the progress that we have made together. I appeal to people to stick with the restrictions for a bit longer so that we can work through these phases much quicker and get back to the normality that all of us so badly crave.
The Scottish Government has previously said that it would consider adopting a different approach for different parts of the country, based on current scientific advice and local circumstances. Should it become apparent that there were different levels of infection in different parts of Scotland, can the First Minister confirm whether she would still consider a differential approach to lifting lockdown and moving through the phases that are set out in today’s strategy, in close collaboration with local government?
In short, yes. If memory serves me correctly, that point is explicitly made in the strategy document, both in general terms about the speed at which we move through phases and on some particular issues around public transport, for example, where we might require different approaches in different areas for obvious reasons. The evidence might, of course, lead us in that direction.
I have always said that we do not rule out that approach, although we have to balance it with issues of practicality, deliverability, ease of understanding and ability to communicate clear messages. So much of what we are dealing with just now involves difficult balancing acts. We will continue to strike that balance as best we can, and try not to rule anything out that might be helpful at some stage in what we are trying to achieve.
I appreciate the advance copy of the statement and the work that the officials and ministers have invested in creating the plan. The stage that we now enter is probably the most difficult, and we will do everything that we can to help steer us through this period, as we have always sought to do.
I have some practical questions. Phase 3 on schools starts on 11 August; phase 3 in call centres starts in August too. Will that be the start time for all other areas as well? In August, will we be in phase 3 for getting around, seeing family and friends, and for sport and leisure, for instance? It is stated that in phase 3
“pubs and restaurants can open indoor spaces”.
Does that mean that they will reopen in August?
That is a valid and important question, which gives me the opportunity to clarify matters, although some of my clarification will take in the flexibility and continued uncertainty around some of the decision making.
Let me be clear that the specific mention of 11 August applies to schools and does not indicate that all of phase 3 will start on that date, because we have to be guided by the evidence and take decisions as we go. Willie Rennie might understandably be getting at the point that we want to align such things as parents going back to work and kids going back to school, as much as possible—although it might not always be possible—so that we give as much consideration as we can to people’s practical ability to live their lives. Even the date of 11 August for schools is subject to the evidence allowing that to happen.
Apart from when we hope to go into phase 1 next week, we cannot give people definite dates right now, and it would be a mistake to do so. That is why the review period of every three weeks at least will be so important, so that we build in as much clarity as possible as we go, as quickly as we can.
Therefore, it could be that we are in phase 4 for some areas and in phase 2 for others, depending on what the evidence indicates.
Clarity will be really important, so we will have to work very hard to make sure that the message gets across. The message this week remains “Stay at home”. The First Minister has indicated that, in phase 1, the message will be “Stay at home as much as possible”. Will that be the message for phases 2, 3 and 4, or will we have different overarching messages for each of those phases? How will that develop? Will we have an opportunity in Parliament to debate the matter, to make sure that we get it right?
Yesterday, I asked about restarting non-urgent healthcare and operations, because a lot of people out there are suffering. I am pleased to see that the plan includes measures to restart some of that. I would like it to be done faster, but perhaps the First Minister can explain why that is not possible.
Willie Rennie is right to say that it is possible—although it is not certain or inevitable—that we might be in different phases for different things. The document is very explicit about that. In all of this, the need for clear public communication will be even more important than it was last time around, and we are very mindful of that.
It is not for me to decide parliamentary business, but I would welcome a debate in the Parliament on the document and how we best pitch the messages going forward. At the moment, through phase 1, the default message is still to stay at home. We have an expanding list of reasons why people can leave home, but that default message to stay at home as much as possible is still important. As we go through the phases, we will keep that under review because it is important that the messages that we are giving people have a relationship to the way in which we are asking and expecting people to live their lives. Therefore, the input of the Parliament on such considerations would be very welcome.
On healthcare, I want to move faster through every stage if we possibly can, but probably in no area more than in resuming health procedures that have been postponed. We set out a careful, phased way in the document. We have to make sure that we are doing things safely and that, as we resume things, we do not take our eye off the potential need later this year for significant hospital capacity to deal with coronavirus. I am not trying to scare or depress people, but if I have a fear right now, it is that people are starting to think that this is over. Hopefully, this phase is drawing to a close, but the risk of a second wave of the virus later this year is real, and we cannot take our eye off that. Therefore, we need to get the balance right. “Balance” is a word that I use repeatedly at the moment, but we will try to do as much as we can as early as we can, guided always by the science and the different considerations that we have to bear in mind.
The First Minister will understand that people in some sectors might be frustrated that we have not gone further in easing the lockdown at this time. However, I believe that the vast majority will support the route map as we attempt to save as many lives as possible while navigating Scotland’s way out of the grip of Covid-19.
I might be getting ahead of myself, but I want to look further ahead, because we potentially face previously unseen levels of debt and poverty. In response, there will be a requirement for a truly historic and massive increase in public expenditure to help to boost recovery. What plans does the Scottish Government have to discuss that matter with the UK Government? As we all know, the current fiscal arrangements in the UK leave the devolved Governments with very little room for manoeuvre in that regard.
That is a really important question, which will continue to be important. We have good discussions with the UK Government across all aspects of the handling of the crisis. Despite our political disagreements, I would say that it has been a constructive process. I want that to continue, and I hope that it will.
Many of our discussions have been about the initial responses, including on the economy and helping business, but, increasingly, we are seeking to discuss how we respond in the longer term. That will include discussion about how the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government can be better equipped fiscally to deal with the challenges, which is an area that I am sure that every party will want to be involved in.
We must also make sure that, as we come out of the immediate crisis, we—by which I mean all of us, including the UK Government and the Scottish Government—take a very different approach to the one that was pursued after the financial crisis, whereby we treat the debt that has been accumulated through the crisis separately, almost as in wartime, and do not see an austerity approach as being the way to deal with it. That would be a disastrous thing to do, as it was after the financial crisis.
Instead, we must rebuild carefully and must be prepared to think about doing things differently—I have spoken previously in the chamber about my growing support for the concept of a universal basic income. We must think about how we support people, we must get the economy growing again in a sustainable way and we must get our focus firmly back on the need to move to net zero, as was the case before the current crisis. An austerity approach or anything like it would be devastating for all of that, so we must resist it with everything that we have.
Willie Rennie’s first question was timeous, because yesterday Aberdeen was rocked by the news that the Doubletree by Hilton hotel will close immediately, with the loss of all jobs. Difficult trading conditions were cited, which include the current crisis and punitive business rates.
Scotland’s tourism industry will have noted that, in phase 2, pubs and restaurants can open outdoor spaces with distancing and hygiene routines in place, but that will take some time. As the First Minister made clear, it will be some time before tourism businesses in general reopen to full capacity, so there is a real risk that many will not survive between now and reopening. Will the First Minister remind the former Hilton employees what support is available? What support can she offer the sector more generally until the lockdown measures allow full operation?
It is important that the support that is now in place for individuals and businesses, which we have warmly welcomed and translated into programmes here in Scotland, continues for as long as is necessary. That includes the job retention scheme and the different grant routes that can help businesses. Over and above that, we will seek to do as much as we can to support the businesses in the sectors that will be hit hardest for longest. We want to support those businesses to restart as safely as possible.
The importance of the tourism sector to Scotland is definitely measured in pounds, but it is also measured in much more than that. It is fundamental to our perception of who we are as a country and to our international standing. Therefore, it is really important that we support the tourism sector, and it will be vital that, as we move forward, we have tailored programmes of support to help those businesses that will take longer to come out of the current situation.
For employees, whether of the Hilton in Aberdeen or of any business whose workforce faces redundancy, as well as doing everything that we possibly can to avert those situations, our partnership action for continuing employment—PACE—initiative will always work with affected employees to support them into alternative employment as quickly as possible.
Parents and teachers will be pleased to have a confirmed date for when they can expect schools to reopen. However, they need the confidence of seeing and understanding the scientific advice and public health modelling that is behind the decision for such reopening. The education framework that was published today refers to specific modelling and advice and draws conclusions from that, but it does not share it. In the interests of the transparency that the First Minister spoke about earlier, will she publish that advice and modelling now?
We do publish the data. I have referred to an additional document that will be published today, which is on how we do the R number. We are putting as much of that information as possible out there, and we will look at what further advice—for example, from the expert advisory group—we can share. However, ultimately, we have to make judgments based on all that advice, and we have to do that in partnership.
The way in which the work on schools has been done—led by the Deputy First Minister—is a template for how we do such work in future. It has been done in a way that will give parents, pupils and teachers confidence, which is particularly important when we are dealing with children. There is lots of commentary and narrative about whether the virus affects children less than it does other people; we do not know for sure whether that is true. There are also worrying reports about Kawasaki syndrome, which seems to affect some children, although we should not yet be overly alarmed about that. We have to be cautious about all this.
To members who say that we should publish more, I ask—this is a genuine invitation—that they look at all the data that we publish, including the further information that we will publish and what the expert advisory group publishes, and then we can work to see whether there is more that we can helpfully put in the public domain.
We are not trying to hide anything, but as this key debate develops right around the UK, we as accountable politicians have to make our decisions based on the best advice. I am keen to publish as much as possible—I genuinely mean that—but members must understand that the data will only ever take us so far, as the decisions still have to be made.
The First Minister outlined how a phased return could be achieved in a way that protects people from Covid-19 while ensuring that key justice agencies can function. Will she take us through how the Scottish Government will seek to balance harms, given that we rightly have to strike a balance between the health harms of coronavirus and the social harm that continued lockdown measures could cause?
That is probably the key question, and the key challenge, at the heart of everything that we are doing. In the paper that we published a few weeks ago, “COVID-19—A Framework for Decision Making”, we set out clearly the framework in which we try to take decisions that balance all the harms. We know the harm of the virus—we have seen it day and daily for the past few months—but, increasingly, we have mounting evidence of the harms of the steps that we are taking to combat the virus.
As I keep saying, every choice that we make right now is a difficult choice: when we try to reduce harm in one area, we at least run the risk of it increasing in another area. There is no perfect answer; unfortunately, there is no magic science to tell us exactly how to do this. For all that we still face a risk from the virus, my judgment is that we face mounting risks from what we are doing to deal with it, which is why we have to take the risk of starting to ease the lockdown in a measured and careful way. That will continue.
We will publish, as I think we did at the previous review date, some of the assessments of the different harms that are feeding into the decision-making process.
What guidance and support will be available from the Scottish Government to prevent the closure of several of Scotland’s outdoor centres? As the First Minister will know only too well, those centres could be so important in fostering the wellbeing of our young people—especially of many in disadvantaged communities—as they come out of lockdown.
We want to enable as many outdoor activities as possible to restart—not just outdoor activities for individuals, but outdoor leisure activities and outdoor sport. The document goes into some detail on that.
For much of the early phase of the work, there is a focus on outdoor activity for a very important and obvious reason: although we do not have definitive answers on many aspects of the virus, the evidence suggests that the risk of transmission is lower outdoors than it is indoors. We therefore feel more confident in lifting the restriction on outdoor activity. I hope that that will be positive news for outdoor centres, because it offers a route to restarting activity—albeit on a carefully planned basis—and we will continue to support that as much as we can.
During phase 3, a blended model of school education is proposed, and is planned for 11 August. When can parents expect to know what their child’s school week will look like, in terms of how many days they will attend school? What consideration has been given to school transport needs? Many high schools in my region rely on buses, and social distancing is not possible. Will local authorities be funded to provide additional capacity?
On the first part of Claire Baker’s question, parents will be communicated with directly, over the summer, so that there is an understanding of exactly what the school provision will be for their child or children. Again, that is subject to the health advice. Teachers are keen to get back during June, so that they can do the preparatory work that is needed. We will take care that that is communicated clearly to parents and to young people.
Transport is also a very important issue. I mentioned that Michael Matheson will next week set out a transport transition plan. That will cover the totality of public travel and transport; however, as part of those discussions, how children travel to and from school is important, because there will be restrictions on transport, given physical distancing requirements. We also know that some provision of transport has been under pressure because children have not been at school recently. More detail on that will be provided, and we will be working closely with local authorities. Right now, I give the assurance that it is a key part of our thinking, as we work out how in practice children get to school safely—and when I say “safely”, I mean in all its different respects.
The First Minister highlighted the work that the education recovery group is undertaking regarding the proposals to expand the school estate and the education workforce in preparation for pupils being phased back to school to allow for social distancing and classroom learning to recommence. Can she confirm that schools will not be opened unless and until it is deemed safe to do so and that, in accordance with local circumstances, councils, as education providers, will be best placed to talk about the physical infrastructure that they have? Can she confirm that, crucially and unlike what has happened in England, the process will be carried out in consultation with teachers, parents, trade unions and other stakeholders?
Yes, I can give assurances on all those issues. We have got to where we are today by working in consultation with teachers, local authorities and parents organisations, and that partnership approach will continue. Keith Brown is right to talk about the lead role of local authorities, particularly in relation to the physical infrastructure in schools, which will have to be adapted to accommodate the model that will be necessary.
I absolutely give an assurance that we will open schools only when we think that it is safe to do so. If we were to take any other approach—although we would not do so because we should never compromise children’s safety—we would not persuade parents to send their children back to school. If we are to get children back to school, the Government and local authorities have to do the work that we have to do, teachers have to make the preparations that they have to make and we have to persuade parents and pupils that it is safe to go back, because otherwise the whole thing will not work.
That is why it is important to take a careful, cautious and deliberative approach. Although we all want children back in school as quickly as possible, if that careful, cautious and deliberative approach means that it takes a little longer to give people confidence, that is worth while, rather than try to rush things in a way that does not command the confidence that is required. We will always try to do it in the most careful way possible.
My question follows on from that previous answer. Parents will understand why schools cannot open this term, but the idea of blended schooling in the autumn term means that parents are likely to have to balance work, childcare and home schooling for months, perhaps until the end of the year. The education framework that has been published today suggests that there were different views among the advisory group about the need for social distancing in schools. Can the First Minister explain the rationale behind the proposed blending of in-school and in-home learning?
Our knowledge and understanding of the virus, not just in the area of education but in all aspects of handling the virus, will undoubtedly develop. However, all the advice that I have access to is strong on the importance of physical distancing. We should be clear about that. There are different approaches in various countries and debates about whether the distance is 2m, 1.5m or 1m. No doubt, discussions will continue on that between scientists and decision makers for a time to come. However, certainly in my mind, the importance of physical distancing is not in doubt. That creates a range of challenges for us in the school environment and in almost every other environment that we are all used to being in. We have to work through those issues if we are to get back to some kind of normality without taking unnecessary and unacceptable risks with people’s health and wellbeing.
I think that people understand this, but it is important to stress that, although we have made huge progress against the virus, it is still there and it will resurge in no time if it finds the bridges between people to jump over. Therefore, all the physical distancing and other measures will be important. They will make life much more challenging for a significant period of time to come, but we have to work through those challenges as best we can and try to do so in a way that maximises convenience, particularly for parents, who will be juggling childcare, home schooling and work potentially for quite some time to come.
We are all affected by the virus, but some people are disproportionately affected by it and the restrictions that are in place. With that in mind, how did the Scottish Government ensure that the views and experience of disabled people, carers and black and minority ethnic communities informed the route map, and what steps will the Scottish Government take in future to ensure that any voices that have been excluded will be heard?
Throughout this period, we have tried to be as open and consultative as possible with the population at large and, as Ruth Maguire rightly says, with particular groups in the population. From the publication of the framework for decision making through to today’s publication, we have made it clear that fairness, dignity, equality and human rights are key principles that have to underpin our response at all stages. The harms that are caused by the pandemic are, to a greater or lesser extent, being felt by everybody, but they are not being felt equally, and how we respond has to take account of that inequality.
Christina McKelvie has been leading much of our work engaging regularly with organisations that directly represent the voices of some of the most disadvantaged groups in society, including people who have disabilities. We will continue to ensure that that approach is central to everything that we do.
The First Minister conceded in her statement that lockdown has caused, and is continuing to cause, a number of serious and potentially long-term health harms, from cancer to mental ill-health. Will the Scottish Government publish its assessment of the adverse public health impact of lockdown, so that we can balance its effect against the undoubted threat of Covid-19?
Perhaps this is a small point, but I do not think that I “conceded” that; I have said it all along, and I think everybody has said it all along. We all understand those differing harms and the need to balance them as best we can. That will be an on-going challenge, not only for Government but for Parliament and society as a whole.
If my memory serves me correctly—and I think it does—we published a document at the time of the last review date, which was two weeks ago, assessing all the different harms, and we will do that at every review date. If Adam Tomkins has not seen that document, I suggest that he has a look at it. If there are more areas of information that he, or any member, thinks it would be helpful for us to include, we are happy to try and accommodate that in future iterations.
Cancer is Scotland’s biggest killer and Scotland’s cancer organisations are warning that we are at risk of an unprecedented cancer crisis. Some cancer services were struggling pre-Covid-19, due to major staff shortages. However, one of the issues caused by Covid-19 is the pausing of the screening programme. There are 2,000 fewer people being referred for early diagnosis and the sad reality is that many people will die because they were not diagnosed early enough or are not able to access the treatment that they need now. I welcome the route map to normality, but will the Scottish Government install immediate measures so that we can, as best as possible, restore Scotland’s cancer services to normality now and help to save lives?
We are doing so, and we will continue to on an on-going basis. At this stage, the route map sets out an assessment of some of the order in which we will seek to do things. Although we will want to accelerate as much of that as possible. The resumption of screening services is in phase 2 right now, but we will look continuously at whether that can be brought forward.
The suspension of screening services was probably one of the most difficult in a panoply of horrible, difficult decisions that we have had to make over the past few months. The judgment that was arrived at was informed by the clinical advice that it was less harmful to suspend appointments than it was to carry on and have people missing appointments because they might have been ill or worried about going to their appointment because of the risk of catching the virus. If we had done the latter, people would not have been seen until the next time that they were due to be screened in the three or five-year cycle, whereas, if we pause the process, we can pick up as we resume screenings again and nobody will miss out completely. Neither of those options was good, but that was the decision.
However, I want to get those screening services resumed as quickly as possible, as does the health secretary, and we will seek to do it as quickly as possible. We will also continue to talk to cancer organisations about how we mitigate the harm of that, and about other actions that we can take in the short term, and as quickly as possible, to try to deal with extremely serious issues that absolutely none of us is complacent about in any way.
I rise not only as an MSP but as a dad to two young children. Like many parents, I am terrified of what schooling might be like for children and what impact social distancing could have on their learning and development. That is why I am fully supportive of the measured, cautious and evidence-led approach of this Government. I thank the First Minister and Deputy First Minister for that.
Given the evidence that outdoors is safer than indoors—as the First Minister said—and that being outside and active is beneficial for kids, what steps is the Government taking to increase outdoor education as one in a suite of measures to allow schools to reopen safely?
Before the crisis, we had already been doing work to increase the provision of outdoor education; Maree Todd has been a champion of that in the early years context. We now have not only an opportunity but a necessity to look at doing that even more, within the constraints of the Scottish winter weather with which we are all familiar. It is an important aspect of what we will need to do.
It will be a difficult conundrum to work through, which is why it is important to do it in partnership. None of us wants children to be unsafe at school, but we all want to see children back at school and in a way that allows them to be children. None of us relishes the prospect of kids—particularly, young kids—having to socially distance or to be as aware of the risks as we will require them to be. For children in particular, it is important to get as much normality as possible in the school environment. We should not underestimate the challenges of that, but it is central to all the careful planning that is under way.
In her statement, the First Minister talked about the need for the public to “exercise judgment and responsibility” in the months ahead. As a species, we are instinctively used to handling risks when we travel to work or decide what to eat, and many people are engaged in dangerous activities that involve calculating risks. However, the virus situation is different—many people who have been stuck at home are fearful and overestimate the risks; some are more complacent. What will the Government do to ensure that the public are as knowledgeable as possible about the risks and, importantly, that people can assess and manage them?
Arguably, that is one of the most important questions at the heart of the next phase and the phases that we will go through. Like so many of the questions, there is no easy answer. I will talk about the shielded group briefly before I come on to the more general point. We need to move from asking people to shield themselves completely, to thinking about how society best protects them and allows them, as far as possible, to go about their normal life and make informed decisions. Through the test and protect strategy, testing will be an important part of that. It will also be important to make sure that we give people information about whether there is a higher transmission in their area or community, so that they can adapt their behaviour accordingly. We are thinking through all those important considerations.
That is also true for the general population. Increasingly, this will be about making sure that people understand and equipping them to make decisions about the balance of risk. Over the next couple of months, my biggest worry is that there will be a perception that the virus has gone away and we will slip back into old ways of doing things. None of us will be immune from that, and it will be important to combat it. It will be important to give people the information and tools that they need to make the best decisions and to remind everybody that, more than ever before in our lifetimes, our individual decisions impact on the collective wellbeing. We will try our best to get that right. Government cannot do it alone; in the weeks and months to come, as elected politicians and representatives, we will all have a big role to play.
The First Minister rightly highlighted the importance of transparency as the Government takes forward its test, trace and isolate strategy. Therefore, will she agree to make publicly available details of the testing that is taking place at a local health board level? That localised detail is already available in relation to confirmed Covid cases and Covid-related deaths. However, without knowing how much testing is taking place, it is impossible for the public to make sense of the information that is published. In the interests of public confidence, will she agree to publish data on testing at a local health board level?
Yes, I will be happy to look at how we do that; it will be important to do that. I will not give a straightforward commitment, because I will need to discuss the practicalities but, in principle, yes. What will be most important is making sure that people have an understanding of whether transmission of the virus is higher in their area than it might be elsewhere, so that, to go back to Andy Wightman’s question, we can equip people with the ability to know what risks they should and should not take. Transparency around that will be important. Once we have had a chance to consider it in more depth, I will come back to Liam McArthur with more detail about the information that we will provide as part of the test and protect strategy.
Given the demographic fragility of Scotland’s island and rural populations, health must remain the primary consideration as the lockdown eases. Many holiday home owners are, understandably, champing at the bit to visit their properties, however many of my island constituents feel that unleashing thousands of holiday home owners and day-trippers from mainly urban areas into their communities will undoubtedly carry the risk of local flare-ups of the virus and even potential animosity. There is little support among island residents for visitor restrictions being lifted soon.
What precautions will be taken to protect rural and island communities as the lockdown eases and tourists and second-home owners from across the UK begin to return?
That is where having locally available information will be important. That point links back to the questions from Andy Wightman and Liam McArthur. Fundamentally, my main message right now is that we are still saying to people that they should not travel to rural parts of Scotland—to visit holiday homes or go to places that have fragile infrastructure and health services—because they risk taking the virus with them.
We hope that phase 1 will kick in a week from today and in that phase we envisage people being able to travel more for recreation and leisure. However, in that phase, travel should continue to be within people’s own locality, where possible. The document says, as a guide—it is not a prescriptive rule—that people should stay within 5 miles of the locality. That may mean something different in a rural area from what it would in an urban area—it is a guide.
The general principle of people staying within their community and locality is important because, over the next phase, we do not want to see tourist spots flooded with people out for day trips. I want to be very clear and specific about that. The virus is always looking for bridges to hop across and the more people there are together in crowded places, the more chance that it has of doing that. It is important that people stick to the advice that we are giving, even as that advice evolves through the different phases.
I want to return to Jackson Carlaw’s point on transparency. Given the events of the last few weeks and the information relating to the Government’s handling of the Nike outbreak in Edinburgh, my constituents are not filled with confidence.
On the radio this morning, the Deputy First Minister said that the Government had recruited 600 people out of its target of 2,000 people by the end of May. How many of those 600 people in the isolate team have been moved from other coronavirus response departments, such as the shielding contact group?
Health boards will be making judgments about what is appropriate; as we go through the different phases, tasks that were being done may no longer be necessary, so people will move. We have given health boards the responsibility in the first instance to look at recruiting staff from their own resources where those individuals can do the job. Although people will need training and guidance, many people will be experienced in this area. The proper checks and so on need to be in place.
In addition, we will recruit people to those roles. We have a live recruitment advert just now and the closing date is 22 May. There will be recruitment from that pool to augment the team. All of that is in place to ensure that we are using the resources at our disposal in the most sensible way.
The First Minister said that the proposed test and protect system will be available in every Scottish health board from the end of the month. She knows that many of my constituents cross the border every day for work, education, health and leisure. The numbers will rise in the days and weeks ahead. Can she give us an assurance that any interaction that my constituents have with people who live in the north of England who test positive for Covid-19 will be picked up by the test and protect system? Will interactions with people from England who work in Scotland also be picked up, and will that include the technological solutions, meaning that systems and processes on both sides of the border are compatible?
The answer is yes to both those questions, although work is still on-going on the latter question. Public health experts are used to dealing with infections across borders, which will be particularly important given the geography that Colin Smyth asked about. When a person tests positive on one side of a border, there will be contact tracing on the other side, although a different organisation might do it. Integration and collaboration are important and are already well established when it comes to dealing with such issues.
On the technology—forgive me, as I am not an expert on all the fine details—as I have explained, the Scottish test and protect system will have its own digital system. That will be for use by contact tracers and, as soon as possible, for people to use as a way into the system. It is important that it is integrated with our standing health systems. Work is on-going to do that.
In addition, we have been in discussions with the UK Government about the proximity app, which we want to be able to use. We do not yet know exactly how it is going to be rolled out, but as well as needing to be confident about how the app works, we need to ensure that it is integrated with systems that we use in Scotland. I think—although I might be wrong—that English health trusts will also want to make sure of such integration.
Discussions are on-going, and I am advised that they are progressing well. I will continue to keep members updated.
This is Scottish learning disabilities week. In England, data from the national learning disabilities mortality review suggests that there is among people with learning disabilities a higher death rate from Covid-19 than there is among people in care homes. Many learning-disabled people live together in supported or residential accommodation, and many have underlying health conditions and require help with personal care. My sister is in that situation.
As is the case for people in care homes, those individuals have had no visitors since the beginning of lockdown, which can be very distressing. It also means that their main risk of catching Covid-19 comes from asymptomatic care workers.
Does Scotland have comparable figures on deaths among learning-disabled people? When will learning-disabled people’s care workers be able to access the routine testing that it has been announced this week care home workers will receive? Finally, what consideration will be given to the needs of people with learning disabilities as we move out of lockdown?
Some very important issues are contained in those questions. If I do not cover all the detail in them, I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to write to Joan McAlpine with additional detail.
The data that she asks about is not currently collected on death certificates. We are working with National Records of Scotland and the Scottish Learning Disabilities Observatory to ascertain whether the data from death certificates can be linked with census data to give an indication of how many deaths related to Covid-19 have been of people with learning disabilities or autism.
All social care and social work staff who work with vulnerable people in the social care system—in care homes, care at home and children’s services including residential and secure care—and social care personal assistants are in priority group 1 for testing. That testing will continue to be routed primarily through NHS testing at local NHS facilities.
We are working with clinical advisers to develop guidance on minimising the distress of testing for people who might be anxious about being tested. We are also very conscious of the need to ensure that appropriate visiting of people is possible, even within the current restrictions.
As I said earlier, I will ask the health secretary to write to Joan McAlpine with additional detail on the key points that she raised in her questions.
The First Minister mentioned a number of non-contact outdoor activities that people will be allowed to pursue. That will be very welcome across Scotland, because it has been most frustrating in the past few weeks being locked down with the weather having been so good.
The First Minister mentioned golf, bowls and fishing, among other activities. I have two questions. First, are only those specific activities allowed, or are they indicators of other sports that could be pursued, because a number of sports, such as croquet, for example, which I have an interest in—[Interruption.]
Mr Mason, we heard “croquet” being mentioned. [Laughter.] It caused a bit of a reaction in the chamber, and I did not hear the last part of your question. After “croquet”, what did you say?
I said that I have an interest in croquet. Secondly, I asked whether the operation of sports and activities will be the subject of negotiated regulation or self-application of regulation.
We expect the non-contact outdoor sports that are allowed to recommence to pay due regard to social distancing, physical distancing and public hygiene. An issue that has been raised with me is that, in bowling, for example, the bowls can be picked up by different people, so people will have to ensure that hygiene is observed. That is not something that can be regulated in every single circumstance, so we are asking people to make sure that they take the proper steps.
On the sports that are mentioned, the list is illustrative, not exhaustive. I am not sure that I am giving an undertaking specifically to add croquet to the published document, although I am open to lobbying on that. I am not sure—although I suspect that my inbox this afternoon will tell me—how many croquet players there are in Scotland, so I had better not say anything that could mistakenly be construed as being insulting to croquet players.
I thank Tom Mason for the question. If there is more detail that I have missed—I did not hear everything that he said—I will be happy to deal with it in writing afterwards.
I do not know whether that was the last question, Presiding Officer. However, just for public information, I point out that I have been told by the Deputy First Minister that the website has had a massive number of visitors to it—understandably, to access the route map document. There have been more than 100,000 visits while we have been in the chamber. I make a plea that the public bear with it; if the website is a bit slow because of demand, they should not give up, because they will be able to access it later on today.
Thank you very much. I thank all members for their participation. I suspend proceedings until half past two, when we will resume with questions on local government and communities.14:06 Meeting suspended.
14:32 On resuming—