Meeting date: Tuesday, June 22, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 22 June 2021 [Draft]
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Presiding Officer’s Statement, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Curriculum for Excellence, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Decision Time, MND Scotland (40th Anniversary)
- Time for Reflection
- Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill
- Business Motion
- Presiding Officer’s Statement
- Topical Question Time
- Curriculum for Excellence
- Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- MND Scotland (40th Anniversary)
The next item of business is a Covid-19 update by Nicola Sturgeon. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.14:51
Today’s statement contains several important updates. First, as I indicated last week, I can confirm that no part of the country will change Covid level next week. Apart from some minor amendments that I will cover later, from Monday, restrictions in all parts of the country will be unchanged. I will also provide an update on vaccination milestones and set out indicative dates for the further lifting of restrictions as we hope to move into and beyond level 0 and back to normality.
I turn first to today’s statistics, which demonstrate why, at this stage, caution is still required. Yesterday, 2,167 positive cases were reported, which represents a positivity rate of 9.1 per cent. The total number of confirmed cases is now 257,742; 171 people are currently in hospital, which is 12 more than yesterday; and 18 people are receiving intensive care, which is three more than yesterday. Sadly, four deaths were reported yesterday, and the total number of deaths under the daily definition is now 7,696. Again, I send my condolences to those who have lost a loved one.
On vaccination, I can report that, as at 7.30 this morning, 3,664,571 people have received a first dose, which is an increase of 17,134 since yesterday. In addition, 15,783 people received a second dose yesterday, so the total number of second doses that have now been administered is 2,602,753.
The news on vaccination continues to be extremely positive, but that must be balanced against the continued rise in cases. The number of new cases recorded over the past week increased by almost 40 per cent on the week before. That total is seven times higher than it was in early May, and it is higher than it has been at any point since late January.
That reflects the fact that the faster-transmitting delta variant is now dominant. Obviously, we cannot be complacent about that. However, we have evidence that the link between new cases and serious health harm is weakening. The number of people who are being admitted to hospital with Covid has fallen from around 10 per cent of reported positive cases at the start of the year to around 5 per cent now and, on average, Covid patients are spending less time in hospital, although we should remember that even if they do not need hospital treatment, some people will suffer significant health harms, including long Covid.
However, overall, the evidence that vaccination is helping to protect people from serious health harms is allowing us to change how we respond to the virus. Today’s total of new positive tests is the largest that we have seen since the peak in January. The numbers still shock. The virus is still with us, but the vaccines are protecting more of us.
I will never regard any single death from this virus as other than a human tragedy, and as cases rise, we can expect to see more deaths in the coming weeks. Back in January, however, we were seeing daily figures of more than 50 people dying. I expect, and profoundly hope, that the link between cases, hospital admissions and deaths will continue to weaken as more and more of us are fully vaccinated.
In making decisions about when we lift restrictions further, progress with vaccination is a significant factor, so I will now set out the milestones that we will reach in the coming weeks—assuming, of course, that supplies are as expected. By this Sunday, we will have vaccinated with two doses everyone in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s top nine priority groups. Of course, some people might not be able to attend an appointment this week and so will get their second dose a bit later; further, some people—very few, I hope—might not attend their scheduled appointment. Those caveats apply to the other vaccination milestones that I am about to set out.
Essentially, by the end of this week, we will have completed vaccination for priority groups 1 to 9. Those groups include everyone over the age of 50 and all unpaid carers and people with underlying health conditions, and they account for well over half the adult population. It is also estimated that, prior to the vaccination programme, those groups accounted for 99 per cent of all Covid deaths, so the fact that virtually all of them will be fully vaccinated by the end of this week is hugely significant.
The next milestone will be 18 July. By then, all adults will have had the first dose of vaccine, which is significantly ahead of schedule. By 26 July, we expect to have given second doses to all 40 to 49-year-olds, and by 20 August, all 30 to 39-year-olds will have had a second dose. Finally, we expect to have completed second doses for all adults by 12 September. We are also planning for possible future vaccination programmes. Depending on the advice that we get from the JCVI, those programmes could include booster jags this autumn and the potential vaccination of 12 to 17-year-olds.
Vaccination offers us the route out of this pandemic. We know that getting both doses provides good protection, including against the delta variant, so the milestones are important and inform the decisions that I will set out today.
We are publishing two substantive new papers today that underpin those decisions, too, and provide more context for them.
The first is our revised strategic framework for tackling Covid. Central to the framework is an updated strategic aim for our pandemic response. Up until now, the Scottish Government’s strategic intention has been to
“suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there”.
From now, our aim will be to
“suppress the virus to a level consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future”.
That change reflects the fact that vaccination is reducing—significantly, we hope—the harm that the virus causes. Vaccination means that it is now possible, and perhaps necessary, to shift our strategic aim and reduce the wider health, social and economic harms that strict lockdown measures cause.
The second paper that we are publishing today is our review of physical distancing. Physical distancing has been an important mitigation against the virus but it is also burdensome for individuals and costly for businesses. Therefore, as vaccinations bear more of the load of controlling the virus, we need to consider when and to what extent we can reduce the legal requirement for physical distancing. Ultimately, we hope to remove the legal requirement for it, even though we might continue, for a period, to advise people to think about safe distancing when interacting with people outside their close contact groups.
I turn to the changes that we hope to make in the weeks ahead. At the moment, the high number of new Covid cases that are being recorded is a significant consideration. To use the race analogy that many have used previously, we must not allow the virus to get too far ahead of the vaccines. Therefore, as we indicated last week, we intend to maintain the current restrictions that are applicable in each part of Scotland for the next three weeks.
Within those levels, though, we will make some minor but important changes to the rules on weddings and funerals, which will take effect from Monday 28 June. For example, suppliers of wedding services and other people who are employed by a couple who are getting married will no longer count towards the cap on numbers; those who accompany a wedding couple down the aisle will no longer need to wear face coverings; and live entertainment at receptions will be possible, although people will still need to be seated at tables.
We will also change the guidance for funerals so that people from more than one household can help carry a coffin and take a cord when lowering it.
We expect those changes to have a relatively minor impact on transmission—they are relatively minor changes—but I hope that they will make some difference to the people organising and attending weddings and funerals, ahead of the more substantive changes that we hope to see at level 0 next month. With the exception of those changes, our assumption, based on recent case numbers, is that current levels will remain in force until 19 July, although we continue to keep that under review.
Let me turn now to when we hope to lift remaining restrictions. I want to be clear that what I am about to set out represents our best judgment at this stage of what is likely to strike a sensible balance. It is intended to give as much clarity as possible. However, it is contingent on meeting our vaccination milestones and, of course, the revised strategic aim of alleviating the harms of the virus.
If the data in the coming weeks suggests that we can go faster, we will do so. Conversely, if the data says that we need to slow down, we will do that, too, although I very much hope that that will not be necessary. The next scheduled review point will be 19 July, but we will confirm the position a week in advance, as usual. By 19 July, three weeks will have elapsed since the completion of the vaccination programme for over-50s, which means that the vaccine will be giving everyone in that age group a significant level of protection.
Therefore, assuming that we are meeting the revised strategic aim, we hope that all parts of Scotland that are not currently in that level can move to level 0 on 19 July. That means, for example, that the limits for household gatherings indoors will increase from that date and that up to 200 people will be able to attend weddings and funerals. We also hope—assuming that the data supports this—that the general indoor physical distancing requirement can be reduced from 2m to 1m from that date and we also hope to lift altogether the outdoor requirement to physically distance.
In addition, in recognition of the reduced risk of outdoor transmission and the desire, therefore, to encourage people to stay outdoors as much as possible, especially over the summer, we hope that limits on informal outdoor social gatherings—in private gardens, for example—will be removed at that stage and that, rather than retaining the current rules for level 0, which state that up to 15 people from 15 households can meet outdoors, informal social gatherings of any size will be allowed. We will, however, keep in place temporarily the rules and processes that are currently applicable at level 0 for organised outdoor events, given that those can attract much larger crowds.
If we can, as hoped, move to level 0 on 19 July, that will be a significant step back to normality, but we have always been clear that level 0 cannot be an end point. Some of the restrictions that it entails are still significant—for example, the household limit for indoor gatherings—so we want to move beyond level 0 as quickly as it is prudent to do so.
The updated strategic framework sets out what that means. In short, while we are still likely to need some baseline measures, it means the lifting of the remaining major legal restrictions. In reaching a view on when that can be done, we have considered the harm to health and the strain on the national health service that could be caused if Covid cases continue to rise. I must stress to Parliament that, even with a reduced ratio of cases to hospitalisation, case numbers at the level that is being recorded just now could still put significant pressure on the NHS. We must be mindful of that.
However, we have also considered the wider harms that restrictions cause and how reasonable and proportionate it is to require people to comply with those legal restrictions as we meet vaccine milestones and if evidence continues to show, as we hope that it will, that vaccination is protecting more and more people from serious health impacts. I mentioned earlier that we expect to have completed second doses for all over-40s by 26 July. We know that the protective effect of the second dose takes a bit of time to build up, but within two weeks, by 9 August, we would expect the vast majority of over-40s to have a significant level of protection.
We need to remember that vaccination does not provide 100 per cent protection and that it will not be until later in September that all adults will have the protection of full vaccination. However, our assessment, on balance and assuming that we meet the necessary conditions on vaccination and harm reduction, is that it would be possible and proportionate to lift the major remaining legal restrictions on 9 August. Nearer the time we will consider and make a final assessment of whether, as we hope, that could include the lifting of the legal requirement to physically distance indoors, as well as outdoors.
The move beyond level 0 will be a major milestone and it will signal a return to almost complete normality in our day-to-day lives. Of course, although that is a longed-for moment, it is important to recognise that we still have a difficult path to navigate over the next few weeks to meet those milestones and that, even assuming that we do so—we hope that we will—the pandemic will not be completely over at that stage. As our strategic framework update paper sets out, basic mitigations will still be required as we move through summer and into the autumn, when we face the risk of a further resurgence in cases. Measures such as rigorous and regular hand washing, cleaning surfaces and good ventilation will continue to be vital.
Even if we lift the legal requirement, as we hope to do, we may still advise keeping a careful distance from people outside our close contact groups, especially if they are not fully vaccinated. At least for a period, we are also likely to require the continued wearing of face coverings in certain settings—for example, shops and public transport. Test and protect will remain a vital part of our approach. Regular testing will still be advised for a period at least and, while we are considering the impact of vaccination on self-isolation, isolation will continue to be necessary in certain circumstances, especially for those who test positive.
There will also be a need to manage outbreaks as and when they arise. The levels system will still be available to help us to do that if necessary. We all hope that we will not see a further variant against which our vaccines are less effective, but we need to retain the ability to respond if that happens with updated vaccines and, if necessary, other measures.
We will not advise an immediate return to full office working on 9 August. Instead, we will continue to work with business to agree an appropriate phasing of that, beginning when we enter level 0 on 19 July, we hope. However, I think that many would agree that, as a general principle, home working should be more possible post-Covid than it was before. Therefore, although we recognise that a return to the workplace will be right for many, we will encourage continued support for home working where that is possible and appropriate. That will not just assist with control of the virus; it will help to promote wellbeing more generally.
We will continue to keep the need for travel restrictions under review, but it is likely that some targeted restrictions will be needed after 9 August, as new variants continue to pose the biggest threat to our progress.
We will work over the summer to plan for the return of schools, colleges and universities. For the moment, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone in education. Most schools and many early learning and childcare settings are about to break for the summer holidays. Colleges and universities are also nearing the end of term. For everyone working in education, this year will have been the toughest and most distressing of their professional career. I am grateful for everything that they have done to keep nurseries and childcare facilities, schools, colleges and universities going in such difficult circumstances. We will work to do everything possible to minimise any further Covid disruption in the next academic term.
We must remember that it is a global pandemic. It will not be completely over here until it is over across the world and, unfortunately, the world is still some way from that. However, in Scotland, although transmission is causing concern at the moment, vaccination is giving us much of the protection that only harsh restrictions have been able to give us so far. That means that we can now plan to move much more firmly and with much greater confidence from the need to control the virus through tough restrictions to being able to live much more freely. That is good news. We must still be careful but, from 19 July and then more substantially from 9 August, assuming that we are meeting our revised strategic aim of alleviating the harm of the virus, life should feel much less restricted for all of us. A very significant degree of normality will be restored for individuals and businesses.
As I said earlier, the dates are indicative, but they allow us to plan ahead with more clarity. As always, we all have a part to play in keeping us on track. I will end with a reminder of the key asks of everyone across the country.
The first key ask is vaccination. Please get vaccinated when invited to do so, and please attend for both doses. If you need to rearrange or if you think that you should have had an invitation by now, please go to the vaccinations section of the NHS Inform website. If you had your first dose of the vaccine eight weeks or more ago, check on the website to see whether you can bring forward your second dose.
Secondly, please test yourself regularly. Free lateral flow tests are available through NHS Inform. They can be ordered through the post or collected from local and regional test sites, and also now, of course, from community pharmacies. If you test positive, please self-isolate and get the result confirmed through a polymerase chain reaction test.
Finally, please continue to stick to the rules where you live and follow all the public health advice. That is still really important. The virus is still out there and spreading, so please continue to follow advice on physical distancing, hand washing and face coverings.
Try to meet others outdoors as much as possible. No environment is entirely risk free, but being outdoors is much less risky than being indoors. If you meet indoors, please stick to the limits for now and make sure that the room is well ventilated.
That applies when watching the football, too. We all know that tonight’s game is absolutely massive. On behalf of all of us, I am sure, I wish Steve Clarke and the Scotland team well. We will all cheer Scotland on this evening, but please do it safely and within the rules.
When I confirmed to Parliament that tough restrictions were being reimposed six months ago, it was the day after the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. That was one of the darkest moments in the pandemic. For the past 15 months, we have endured restrictions that would have been considered impossible just two years ago. The pain that has been suffered and the people who have been lost along the way must never and will never be forgotten.
In a global pandemic, we cannot be certain that there will not be difficult moments to come, but I hope and believe that today’s statement—made a day after the summer solstice—marks a positive turning point. We live in more hopeful times. We can now see a route to lifting restrictions and to enjoying again the simple but precious pleasures that we have all missed so much.
I do not pretend that the path ahead is obstacle free, but it is clearer now than at any point so far. Thanks to vaccines, normal life is much closer and is within sight. Let us all stick with it and do whatever is required to get us there.
The First Minister will now take questions on the issues that her statement raised. I intend to allow about 40 minutes for that.
I, too, express my sympathies and condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one in the past 24 hours and throughout the time that we have dealt with this awful virus.
The penultimate sentence of the First Minister’s statement started, “Thanks to vaccines”. I am pleased that she acknowledged that there is more evidence that the success of the Scottish and United Kingdom vaccination scheme is significantly reducing hospitalisations. We all welcome that.
We also welcome the fact that we will finally have changes to wedding and funeral guidance, although it is disappointing that that has come late, after many occasions have been affected. After the statements in the past two weeks, I stood in the chamber and asked the First Minister to consider making immediate changes to the numbers who could attend funerals and weddings, but neither MSPs nor the businesses in the sectors that made such requests got a response.
The changes are welcome, but the First Minister called them minor, which they are not—they are major changes for the couples who asked for them and the businesses that sought them. For too many, the changes will come too late and will not be in time for ceremonies.
It is welcome to have more of an indication of when we will be free from restrictions; I will come on to that in a moment. In speaking of welcomes, I echo the First Minister and say that I hope that we will all welcome a solid Scotland win tonight. I wish Steve Clarke and the team all the best for kick-off at 8 o’clock.
I will ask the First Minister about the basic mitigations that will remain in place after 9 August. Will those mitigations include social distancing, particularly in hospitality venues? [Interruption.] The First Minister asks whether I listened to what she said. I listened carefully; she made clear what will happen when we move to level 0 and what she hopes will happen when we come out of restrictions on 9 August, but the statement made it clear that basic mitigations will remain in place.
It would be useful to have clarity on three points. Under the basic mitigations, will social distancing remain in place in hospitality venues? Will limits continue on indoor social gatherings? After 9 August, will the mitigations include wearing masks in offices and schools?
I will try to address those points as briefly as possible.
The evidence is strong and increasing that vaccination is reducing the harm of the virus, in terms of reducing the number of people who are going to hospital and the length of time that they are in hospital. That is partly reflective of the fact that, as vaccination pushes down the impact of the virus, the age range of people who go into hospital will be younger than was the case earlier in the pandemic.
That is really good news, but I want to reiterate a point that I made in my statement, because it is important that the Parliament is aware of this. Back at the start of the pandemic, we dedicated almost the entirety of the health service capacity, apart from that of urgent healthcare, to potentially dealing with Covid cases. We are not able to do that again, because we are trying to catch up on a backlog and to ensure that people get non-Covid treatment. Our margins in terms of what will and will not put pressure on the NHS are narrower than they were before, which means that even if the ratio of hospitalisation is falling—we think that it has probably halved or perhaps reduced even more than that—the going to hospital of 5 per cent of a big number of cases is still going to put significant pressure on our health service. The link is weakening, which is good news, but it does not mean that we can be completely complacent about case numbers. That is why continued caution is required over the next three weeks.
On weddings, I hope that I was not misunderstood—if I was, I apologise. I was not trying to suggest that the changes were not important. When I called them minor, I meant relative to the changes that I think that people really want to see for weddings, which is a significant increase to the current cap on numbers. If, as I hope, we go to level 0 on 19 July, that number will be increased to 200. What I am announcing today will slightly ease up the numbers, because certain people will not be included in the cap, but I am not announcing an immediate increase in the cap. If I had described it as a major change, people would have suggested, more justifiably, that I was overstating it. It is an important change, but the major change will come when the cap increases on—I hope—19 July. Over the past two weeks, as Douglas Ross has been asking me these questions, case numbers have been rising, which I am sure that he concedes, so there is a need to continue to balance these things carefully.
On basic mitigations, what I set out in my statement and what we hope will be the case—remember that this is all caveated, because we must assess the data nearer the time—is that as we go to level 0 on, I hope, 19 July, the legal indoor physical distancing requirement will reduce from 2m to 1m. In hospitality, it is already 1m. We hope to remove the legal outdoor physical distancing requirement at that point. If we go beyond level 0 on 9 August, we hope that the legal requirement to physically distance will be removed indoors as well as outdoors, although we will have to assess the data.
If all goes according to plan, there will be no legal requirement for physical distancing when we go beyond level 0. Our advice to people might still be that, if they are with someone who is not fully vaccinated or who is more vulnerable, or if they are in a place where the ventilation is not particularly good, it would make sense to continue to pay attention to safe distancing with people who are not in their close contact group. However, that would be advice and not law or regulation. Further, although no final decision has been taken on this yet, it may be that, in some settings, which might include schools, for example, we ask people to continue to wear face coverings for a period longer.
Those are the kind of basic mitigations that we might require once we lift the major legal restrictions that are currently in place. However, when compared with what we have lived with over the past 15 months, many of us will think that basic mitigations such as washing our hands regularly, ventilating a room and cleaning surfaces are, although not insignificant, a relatively small price to pay to keep the virus under control.
I send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one in recent days or at any time throughout the pandemic. I share the concern about the increase in the positivity rate and the continued spread of the virus across Scotland. We all hope that we continue to make progress so that we can return to a version of normal by 9 August.
To maintain wider health and wellbeing, we must make sure that the last lockdown really was the last lockdown, and to maintain public trust and confidence through the pandemic, we have to make sure that we maintain effective communication and consistent decision making. I am sorry to say that that has frayed in recent weeks.
I welcome what the Government has said about setting a clear timetable in relation to the vaccine, but can we get a commitment that, if supplies allow, we will ramp that up much faster? Can we replicate what has happened in London, for example, where there are walk-in vaccination centres for those who are not registered with a general practitioner? That would ensure that we spread the vaccine as much as possible.
Are there still hotspots where we are targeting resources? If so, we are still waiting for the publication of those hotspot protocols. Can we get a recognition that there is frustration, particularly among lots of business sectors, about a lack of communication and working together with the Government? Can we have much clearer financial support protocols and much clearer communication with those sectors, to recognise the specific challenges that they face, so that we can give confidence to the public, employees and employers and come through the crisis together?
Intensive work continues on all those things. Local public health teams will continue to take action in relation to hotspot initiatives as appropriate—for example, at the moment we are doing a much higher rate of polymerase chain reaction testing than other parts of the UK. That partly reflects some of the surge testing that is being done in local areas; it is for local public health teams to decide what is appropriate while following the protocols that are in place.
We are vaccinating as fast as supplies allow. Yes, if supplies allow it, we will accelerate that further, but there is one important caveat to that that has to be understood, particularly as we go on to second doses, which is that there is a recommended eight-week gap between the first and second dose. Clinically, we cannot accelerate that, which will to some extent limit the pace that we are able to go at with second doses. That is clinical advice that it would be not be appropriate for us to change, but we will use supplies as quickly as possible within the clinical advice that is available to us.
Health boards are using drop-in clinics where they think that that is appropriate; obviously that is more important, and is being used in other places, for younger people. All four UK nations are much of a muchness in terms of vaccination uptake, but we are clearly ahead of England and Northern Ireland on first-dose vaccinations, which suggests that we are doing all the things that everybody else is doing and getting through the population quickly.
We will work with health boards to make sure that they have the support that they need. The finance secretary will continue to work with businesses to make sure that the financial support that is available is understood and, more important, that it is accessed by businesses as we continue the journey back to, I hope, significant normality.
I join others in once again expressing my condolences to those who have lost a loved one and those whose health and wellbeing has been seriously harmed for the long term by the virus. I also share the sense of hope that we might, finally, after such a long and difficult period, be coming to the end of the restrictions.
I want to ask about the change of strategic approach from the Scottish Government—in particular, about the fact that the strategic intention to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level is no longer the Government’s position. Does that imply that the Scottish Government is open to what Matt Hancock proposes, which is ending the requirement of international travel quarantine for vaccinated people and replacing self-isolation with lateral flow testing, which has been criticised by public health experts? Or does the First Minister share my concern that, wherever in the world more dangerous variants emerged, that approach would almost guarantee that those variants would be imported and spread?
The latter does not automatically follow from the former. The change in the strategic intent recognises the way in which, and the extent to which, vaccination is changing the reality of the impact of the virus. When there was no vaccine, it was essential, in my view, to suppress cases of the virus to the lowest possible level because there was no other way of reducing the harm. Although the restrictions that were necessary to achieve that did other harm, the harm that would have been done by the virus outweighed that.
The balance changes when there is a vaccine that helps to mitigate the harm of the virus. Therefore, to continue seeking to suppress cases of the virus to the lowest possible level becomes potentially disproportionate, because the harm that has been done by the restrictions that were necessary to achieve that outweighs the harm of the virus. That is the reason for the shift in strategic intent. Both approaches are about reducing harm from the virus, but, with a vaccine, there are different ways of doing that than was the case previously.
We want to see testing and vaccines progressively reduce restrictions domestically and, in time, on travel in and out of the country. We must consider that carefully, because we must be satisfied that there is a degree of effectiveness in those substitutes that will allow us to move forward. As I said in my statement, we will consider whether testing coupled with vaccination can, in the future, lead to a different approach to self-isolation, particularly for contacts with positive cases even if not for positive cases themselves. We are not yet at the stage at which we can make that decision, but it is under active consideration.
We all want to look to a point—hopefully in the not-too-distant future—at which vaccines can open up travel. We know, however, that the biggest risk that we face is a variant of the virus undermining the vaccine’s effectiveness at some point, which means that we need to continue to take care and look at all the issues carefully before we come to final decisions. All of those things are, and will continue to be, under active consideration.
Every week, families of adults who have special needs ask me when their day services will reopen. Every week, I ask the First Minister the same question and, every week, nothing changes. Last weekend, those families witnessed thousands of football fans travelling hundreds of miles to gather on the streets of London against the Government’s advice. The families were surprised that there were few words of criticism, especially from the First Minister. Can the First Minister understand how angry they feel? They feel that they have been left behind, as do others. All they want is fairness and their services to be reopened. Will the First Minister agree to that today?
I am sure that Willie Rennie was paying close attention, so he will have heard something today that might make the biggest practical difference.
First, however, I could not have been clearer that I advised against football fans travelling to London—as I advise against football fans gathering in groups outwith the limits. I have spent the past 15 months trying to persuade people to stick to the rules that are there to keep them and their loved ones safe, and the majority of people have complied with them. I get frustrated when people do not do that, but we all have personal responsibility and we are moving into a phase in which that personal responsibility will become more important as we ease the legal restrictions. Every day, I will continue to seek to persuade people to behave in a way that is within the spirit and the letter of the rules, to keep us safe and as firmly on the right track as possible.
As I said last week, it is not the case that services for adults with learning disabilities cannot open. Local authorities must consider how they can open safely. At the moment, the biggest restriction is the 2m physical distancing rule, and we are keen to reduce—to the point of completely eliminating—the need for a legal requirement for physical distancing. If we go to level 0 on 19 July, and if that allows us to reduce indoor physical distancing to 1m, that will significantly increase capacity in services for adults and in many other settings. That does not mean that such services are closed between now and then. It does mean, however, that local authorities or the providers of such services can continue to plan for increasing capacity further.
No matter how frustrated we might get when people, whoever they are—football fans or anyone else—are not complying with the advice, the response to that is not to reduce protection for other people, including, and in particular, vulnerable people. I understand that the situation is really difficult for people who are in that category, but getting everybody through as safely as possible continues to be most important.
I welcome the First Minister’s statement. Wearing face coverings in shops, while travelling and at work has become second nature to many and continues to be necessary, but doing so is neither pleasant nor particularly comfortable. One or two public health advisers are even suggesting that face coverings should become permanent. Although no change is envisaged at present, does the First Minister agree that, ultimately, we should aim to return to being mask free once it is safe to do so?
Yes—I do not want to have to wear face coverings for longer than is necessary and I cannot imagine that there are many people across the country who do. I want us to get to a position where we do not have to think about Covid in our day-to-day lives in any respect.
We are much closer to a position where we can lift legal restrictions, and that is welcome. However, if we want to continue in that way, we might all have to accept basic mitigations for a longer period. I hope that the period is not significantly longer, but if measures such as wearing face coverings, washing hands and—even if it is not legally required—keeping a careful, safe distance from other people in certain circumstances are required in order that we can live without limits on having people in our homes or limits on what we can do in the more fundamental parts of our lives, such as in services for adults with learning disabilities, I think that people are willing to pay that price. Nevertheless, we all hope that it will not be for any longer than is necessary.
Scottish universities are reporting that the number of students who are likely to arrive from red-list countries for the start of the new academic term in September is likely to exceed the hotel quarantine allocation, and they are complaining that the issue has not been addressed in good time. Why is that the case and what will be done to address those serious concerns?
We are working with universities and I will ask the education secretary to write to Liz Smith on that specific point. Of course, universities also have an obligation to make sure that they have in place the services and support that international students, who are fee paying, need. We are also giving access to the vaccination programme to international students who arrive here having not already been vaccinated in their country.
We will take such issues very seriously. We learned a great deal—not all of it good—from the experience of university return last year, and a lot of work has gone on to make sure that the right arrangements are in place this year.
A constituent of mine has got in touch to point to studies in other countries of vaccine efficacy in people who are solid organ transplant recipients. Those studies indicate a much lower efficacy rate among those people than there is in the rest of the population. What has been done to ascertain the efficacy of the vaccines in people whose immune systems are suppressed, and what steps have been taken to maximise their protection?
As I said in my statement, the JCVI priority list represents 99 per cent of preventable mortality from Covid. Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable were prioritised for vaccination, and around 95 per cent of those in the shielding list have now received both doses. The JCVI considered emerging advice that suggested that people who are severely immunosuppressed might not always get the same protection from vaccination as others. However, households with adults who are severely immunocompromised should now be vaccinated, alongside JCVI priority group 6, in order to gain additional protection. Of course, there are on-going studies—I am sure that there will be for some time—into the efficacy of the vaccines, both generally and in relation to particular groups.
This week, Dumbarton academy completely closed due to an outbreak of Covid and it will remain closed for the final week of the term. The situation is bad at the Vale of Leven academy and it is concerning that parents and pupils were advised late—in one case, four days after contact with the person who tested Covid positive. Pupils had also visited elderly relatives over the weekend. A local gymnastics club, which has 40 members, was not told of a positive Covid case until seven days later. Does the First Minister agree that, unless we speed up the time in which people are notified by test and protect—or, indeed, the school—the virus will continue to spread?
The length of time that test and protect takes to contact and trace people is published on a weekly basis, so people can look at that. Test and protect performs a very good service to short timescales but, in some circumstances—particularly in complex outbreaks—it takes time to go through all contacts, and it might take time for some contacts to come forward, although I am not saying that that is the case in the situation that Jackie Baillie mentioned. Speed is of the essence, but different characteristics in different outbreaks will determine the complexity of that. I cannot comment more on the specific cases, because I do not know the specific details.
As the First Minister knows, churches and other places of worship have been keen to follow the guidelines. However, they are also keen to reduce social distancing and to sing again. Can she clarify when that will happen?
I know that singing, particularly congregational singing, is important to faith communities. The guidance for the safe use of places of worship advises that congregational singing can take place from level 1 and that small groups, such as a choir or a band, can sing and play from level 2. At all other levels—3 and 4, which no part of the country is in at the moment—singing should be avoided because of the heightened risk of transmission.
From 19 July, we will be in a position to reduce physical distancing in all indoor spaces, including places of worship, to 1m, assuming that that is supported by the data. We will continue to engage with and support faith and belief communities as we move forward. I know that they are very keen to get all aspects of worship back to normal.
One welcome success of the pandemic has been the support offered to the First Minister by signers. On behalf of the deaf community of my constituency, I thank the signers for the outstanding and sustained job that they have done. However, that belies a much more complicated pathway for the deaf community to public services and particularly to general practitioner services.
Initially, many members of the deaf community received letters saying that they should make telephone appointments—I assume that was inadvertent. Subsequently, online appointments have often taken place without a signer. When a signer is provided, they can join the consultation from anywhere in the UK. Sign language, just as any other language, has nuances and many in the deaf community are concerned that very delicate matters relating to their health are not being properly translated. They are looking to have the right to direct face-to-face contact with GP services once again. They look to the First Minister to champion that, so that they can enjoy that right at the earliest opportunity.
Many people have put off seeking a GP consultation for far too long. Will the First Minister intervene to allow such consultations to take place?
As I have done before—and no doubt will again—I thank the signers who have worked so hard and so well to help people to access the Scottish Government’s health messages during the pandemic. There has been justified criticism that the same provision has not been made for number 10 press conferences—perhaps that is something that Jackson Carlaw might want to champion on behalf of the deaf community. It is the deaf community, among others, who have made that criticism.
The comments on the difficulties that many in the deaf community face in accessing services, particularly through the pandemic, are legitimate. As we get services back to normal, that should be alleviated. However, right now, services should be catering for those needs.
I responded to a question last week on the subject. GPs should already be offering face-to-face appointments where that is appropriate. As we go down the path that I have set out today and as physical distancing is reduced—and then, hopefully, removed altogether—and more restrictions are eased, we will see a much greater return to face-to-face services. The Scottish Government will certainly be championing that.
I welcome the continued positive roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccination programme in Scotland. However, we must not be complacent. Australia, for instance, which has been highly successful in managing the initial spread of coronavirus, has experienced a series of small outbreaks in recent months. Those are related to a slow vaccine roll-out and vaccine hesitancy.
Does the First Minister agree that that highlights the absolute importance for as many people as possible to take up the vaccine when offered their appointment, not just for their safety and the protection of others, but because there is a clear link between vaccine uptake and Scotland continuing to ease restrictions?
I could not agree more—I am sure that everyone across the Parliament agrees.
I appeal to everyone—as I do almost every day—to get vaccinated when they are invited to an appointment and particularly to get the second dose. We know that the first dose of the vaccine gives some protection, but it is the second dose that gives significant protection, including protection against the delta variant. Please turn up for the vaccine appointment.
The more people who are fully vaccinated, the more the link between cases, serious illnesses, hospitalisation and death will weaken, hopefully to the point of being broken almost completely. Every person who is not vaccinated is someone who is still vulnerable to the virus. As a way of protecting yourself, but also as part of the collective civic duty that we owe to each other, please come forward for the vaccine.
We have seen an extraordinarily high uptake so far. Uptake is not as high in younger groups as it is in older and frailer groups, but it is still high in comparison with other vaccination programmes. Every one of us can play a part in encouraging everybody we know to get double vaccinated. That is absolutely the way out of this for us all.
The First Minister referred to the importance of the clinical advice on an eight-week period between first and second vaccine doses. We are seeing an increase in the number of errors in the letters that invite people for vaccination. For example, in Dumfries and Galloway, some 800 children were invited for vaccination despite being too young, and we know that thousands of people in Glasgow have recently been invited for a second dose less than eight weeks from their first dose. Will any review into such errors cover all health boards to ensure that, as we move towards potentially providing booster jabs, procedures are tightened up to avoid future errors?
All administrative glitches in the system are quickly identified and rectified. We do not want them to happen, and lessons are learned from them all. It is important to put the issue in context, not least for those who are working round the clock to deliver the vaccination programme. This is the biggest ever population vaccination programme that the country has delivered, and it is going exceptionally well. In that context, the administrative glitches that have been mentioned are tiny. They are not unimportant, but let us not take away from how well the vaccination programme is going. It is running smoothly, and it is accessible. We will learn all lessons as we, potentially, go into a booster period in the autumn and a further round of vaccination next year or the year after.
I pay tribute to everyone who is running the vaccination programme. Yesterday, I got my second dose at the NHS Louisa Jordan, which was running like clockwork. All the people who are delivering the programme deserve our grateful thanks.
Local businesses and charities in Dundee have been in touch to ask about bulk ordering lateral flow devices to support their efforts to drive down case numbers in the city. What opportunities are there for such organisations to obtain bulk orders of lateral flow devices to support our Covid recovery?
In the event of an outbreak, a broad range of testing interventions are available to local authorities and health boards to deploy quickly, as many are doing. Businesses that have been identified as being high risk or that have been nominated by local health board leads are also considered for inclusion in workplace testing. At the start of June, we wrote to local health boards to invite them to nominate businesses that could be considered for targeted tested. Such nominations are at the discretion of health boards; they need to use local judgment and their engagement with local authorities to decide which businesses they think will most benefit from such testing.
In addition, lateral flow tests are universally accessible. People can collect test kits from test sites or pharmacies, or they can order online for home delivery. We will keep all aspects of the testing policy under review. There is no need for businesses or individuals not to have access to lateral flow tests, because they are widely accessible on a universal basis.
I welcome the First Minister’s statement, particularly the parts relating to the festivals and the fringe, which will start in Edinburgh in a couple of months. Will she confirm that the 1m rule will be introduced for all cultural venues, whether they are standing or seated, and that there will be no restrictions at all for any outside venues? Is she confident that theatres and cinemas will be able to have no restrictions come the autumn, so that they can plan for productions that are taking place?
I will insert the caveat that I have inserted throughout my remarks today: that is all dependent on meeting the vaccination milestones that we have set out and on meeting the strategic aim of keeping cases at a level that allows us to alleviate the harms. If we do that, I hope that by 19 July, the legal requirement for physical distancing outdoors will be removed and the requirement on indoor premises, including those that do not already have a 1m dispensation, will be reduced from 2m to 1m.
If the data allows it—and I stress that “if”—our intention is to completely remove the legal requirement for physical distancing indoors and outdoors by 9 August. As I said, we may still advise people to take care with safe distancing, but we want to bring the legal requirement to an end as soon as it is safe to do so. We are setting out those expectations today so that businesses, including those in the culture sector, can begin planning along those lines. We will keep people as updated as possible as we review the data in the weeks ahead.
There is still a great deal of interest in asking questions of the First Minister. I would be grateful if colleagues could pick up the pace whenever possible.
Last week, I met my constituent, Kevin McPhillips, regarding his soft play business, which is in my constituency. He is concerned that although competitors in level 1 areas can reopen, his business is without income. Will the First Minister outline the support that is available for soft play centres in Strathkelvin and Bearsden? Is the Scottish Government re-examining the position of soft play centres within the protection levels?
I do not underestimate the significant impact that the pandemic has had on soft play centres. In recognition of that, the finance secretary announced additional funding for the 14 local authority areas, which include East Dunbartonshire, that remain in level 2. That funding includes £100,000 for soft play centres that remain closed, which receive funding each week.
We keep plans under review and, as I have said today, we will accelerate the lifting of restrictions if possible. I hope that what we have set out today regarding the move to level 0 for the whole country will also be positive for the soft play sector.
The funding that I have spoken about is in addition to rates relief, funding through the contingency fund and closure grants. We will continue to do everything that we can to get as quickly as possible to a position where soft play centres are able to open again.
While recognising that any—[Interruption.]
I will call Sharon Dowey.
I hope that I will not freeze, too, Presiding Officer.
For more than a year, patients the length and breadth of Scotland, many of them vulnerable and elderly, have been suffering from chronic foot pain. Podiatry treatment used to be provided by the NHS, but since the pandemic, GPs have turned patients away, sending them instead to the private sector, where bills for simple procedures can stretch to hundreds of pounds. After a tough financial year, patients have had to choose between paying for private medical treatment or enduring chronic pain, lack of mobility and the associated strains on their mental and physical health. Many have been forced to choose the latter option, confined indoors while the rest of Scotland enjoys newly found freedoms.
Now that NHS workers and those in vulnerable groups have had both jags, and with all of us placing so much importance on staying active, why is podiatry treatment still not available on the NHS? When will those urgently needed services resume?
Podiatry services, like all the health services that people require, should be available on the NHS. The member raises an important issue. As she has said, podiatry services can make the difference between being able to get out and about and be active and not being able to do so. I will ask the health secretary to write to the member in more detail about specific plans and the work that is under way to get podiatry and other services back on track as quickly as possible.
I note that free lateral flow home testing kits can be made available online, but not everyone is online. The statement says that tests can be collected from community pharmacies, but I have a constituent who is unable to do that. Is it possible to provide a list of the community pharmacies where people can uplift those tests for themselves, rather than having to go online?
More than 90 per cent of community pharmacies have opted into providing that service. Not all community pharmacies will be able to do so, but I think that 93 per cent are. Since the community pharmacy service was launched at the start of June, more than 18,000 free home test kits have been collected from more than 1,100 community pharmacies. At least 87 per cent of the population live within a 30-minute walk of a pharmacy collection point, and the journey will be much shorter in urban areas.
We will continue to work to try to open up access and make the process as flexible as we can, but I think that the system and the service that community pharmacies now provide have been a step change in making test kits accessible to people across the country.
A number of constituents have been in touch with me who are concerned that, although they are looking forward to starting their university careers this autumn, they will not be eligible for their first vaccination until after September because they will not turn 18 until then. I understand the importance of JCVI guidance, but does that situation not require flexibility at the margins of the guidance? Will the First Minister look at finding a way for people who have not yet turned 18 to receive their vaccinations before they start university in the autumn?
No Government in the history of devolution has done anything other than base its vaccination and immunisation decisions on JCVI advice. I will be corrected if I am wrong in any way here, but I think that that is a statutory requirement in England and Wales, although not in Scotland.
As members know, I spent many years as health secretary. One of the most difficult things that politicians can be asked to do, and one of the things that any politician should resist doing, is to interfere with that advice when it comes to whom to vaccinate. I understand the point that has been made, but we are eagerly awaiting the JCVI’s advice and will act on that advice.
There has been speculation in the media about what direction the advice might go in, but it is likely that the vaccination programme will not be a one-off and will continue. Regardless of what the JCVI advice is right now for younger age groups, those at the margins are likely to be vaccinated in a future programme anyway, even if the advice is not to lower the age recommendation.
I understand all those points and the reasons why calls such as Mr Johnson’s are made, but it is such an important principle that we follow clinical advice on vaccination, given the need to maintain public confidence and address some of the sensitivities and concerns around the issues
Although the vaccination programme is going well, we know that it is likely that booster vaccinations will be required. Can the First Minister indicate when she expects to receive guidance about that from the JCVI?
We expect to receive JCVI guidance on that point over the next few weeks, but I do not know when exactly that is likely to be. I very much hope that it will be sooner within those few weeks rather than later. I know that all UK Governments are in that position.
In a small number of cases, those who were vaccinated at the earliest stage of the vaccination programme got their first dose of the vaccine in December and January, so a booster campaign might well be needed through the autumn. We are making sure that we are planning for that right now so that, whatever the advice may be on whether to do booster vaccinations in the autumn, we are ready to get going with that as soon as possible. We hope to get the advice within the next few weeks.
Regarding the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) (Scotland) Bill, external groups such as Amnesty International and Inclusion Scotland have expressed concern that the timetable will mean that there is no time for consultation on plans to extend ministers’ extraordinary powers for up to another year. Given that the powers do not expire until the end of September, why is the bill being rushed through in the next three days with no consultation and limited parliamentary scrutiny?
I was not in the chamber earlier, but I understand that the Parliament had a vote on that matter and that members of the Conservative Party, rightly, had the opportunity to make their views known. Such things are always a difficult balance. I do not want to have to take emergency legislation through the Parliament if that can be avoided, and I do not want to have emergency powers in place. In fact, the legislation will allow some emergency powers to expire because we do not think that they are necessary any more.
Given that the Parliament is about to go into recess for two months and that, although we face a much more hopeful prospectus on Covid because of the vaccines, we still face an uncertain period ahead, I think that it is prudent that, with the debate and deliberation that will take place today, tomorrow and Thursday in the Parliament, we have those contingent powers, should they be necessary. However, they are used only if they are absolutely necessary, and Parliament has the opportunity to scrutinise them over the next three days.
That concludes the First Minister’s Covid-19 update. I apologise to those members I was unable able to call.
There will be a short suspension before we move on to the next item of business.15:55 Meeting suspended.
15:56 On resuming—