Meeting date: Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 24 June 2020
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Farmers and Crofters (Financial Stability), Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Farmers and Crofters (Financial Stability)
- Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1
- Social Security Administration and Tribunal Membership (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon. Before questions to the First Minister, I invite the First Minister to give a statement.
As it is Parliament’s final full week before a shortened summer recess, I take this opportunity to set out the Scottish Government’s latest assessment of when further changes to lockdown restrictions might take effect. However, I will begin with an update on the latest figures.
Since 9 o’clock yesterday morning, an additional nine cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed, which takes the total number to 18,191. A total of 880 patients are in hospital with suspected or confirmed Covid-19, which is an increase of 15 since yesterday. That includes a decrease of 23 in the number of confirmed cases. As of last night, 23 people were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, which is an increase of two on the number that I reported yesterday.
Unfortunately, in the past 24 hours, four deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed as having the virus, which takes the total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement to 2,480.
In addition, National Records of Scotland has just published its more detailed weekly report. Those figures report deaths in which Covid-19 has been confirmed by laboratory tests, and cases in which the virus was entered on a death certificate as a suspected or contributory cause of death. The latest NRS report covers the period to Sunday 21 June. At that point, according to our daily figures, 2,472 deaths of people who had tested positive for the virus had been registered. However, today’s report shows that, by Sunday, the total number of registered deaths with either a confirmed or a presumed link to the virus was 4,119. Of those, 49 were registered in the seven days up to Sunday, which is a decrease from 69 in the previous week.
This is the eighth week in a row in which the number of deaths from the virus has fallen. The number of excess deaths, which is the number above the five-year average for the same time of year, was 39, which is up from 34 in the previous week. However, for context, I point out that the number of excess deaths 10 weeks ago was 878.
Deaths in care homes made up 41 per cent of the total number of Covid-19 deaths last week, and the number of Covid-19 deaths in care homes reduced again, from 35 to 20.
Those statistics tell of real and sustained progress. However, even though the number of deaths from Covid-19 is reducing, we must never become inured to the statistics. Every death that is represented in those numbers is a tragedy—it is the loss of a unique and loved individual. I send my condolences to everyone who is grieving as a result of the virus. I am also aware that talking about statistical trends will not provide those people with any consolation whatsoever. However, the trends are clear and, for all the pain that the virus is still causing and the real risk that it still poses, they are positive and give us confidence now to set some firmer milestones for our route out of lockdown.
The Scottish Government first published “Route map for moving out of lockdown” on 21 May, almost five weeks ago. The week before we did so, more than 300 people in Scotland died from the virus. At the peak of the epidemic back in April, 660 people died from the virus in a single week. As I have just reported, in the most recent week, the number of deaths has reduced to 49.
At the time of publishing the route map, the reproduction number was between 0.7 and 1; now, it is between 0.6 and 0.8. On 21 May, we estimated that 25,000 people in Scotland had the virus at that time and were capable of transmitting it to others. Our most recent estimate was that 2,900 people were infectious. I expect when we publish the updated assessment tomorrow that that number will have fallen further, to about 2,000.
Of course, that progress is due to people across Scotland doing the right thing and following the rules. I want again to record my thanks to everyone for doing that. The sacrifices that have been made have suppressed the virus—although I know how hard and, at times, painful those sacrifices have been. They have also protected the national health service and have, undoubtedly, saved a significant number of lives. They have also brought us to the position from which we can now look ahead with a bit more clarity to our path out of lockdown.
I stress that each step on the path depends on our continuing to beat back the virus. If we do not do that, we cannot take those steps forward, and if the virus starts to spread again, the steps that we have already taken might need to be reversed. We must do absolutely everything in our power to avoid that. That means continuing with the careful approach that has brought us to where we are now.
Our pace is slightly slower than the pace in England, but in my view it is right for our circumstances, and I hope that it is more likely to be sustainable than it would be if we were to go faster now.
Maintaining our progress also means all of us abiding by public health guidance: wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces, avoiding crowded places, washing our hands, cleaning surfaces regularly, maintaining physical distancing and agreeing to self-isolate immediately and get a test if we have symptoms. All those basic protections matter now, much more than ever. They will reduce the virus’s ability to spread even as we all get out and about a bit more.
The key point is that the virus has not gone away, and will not go away of its own accord. It will pose a real and significant threat for some time to come, so we must never be complacent in the face of it. We must keep working to drive it down further towards the point of elimination, because that gives us the best chance of keeping it under control through testing, surveillance, contact tracing and application of targeted suppression measures when they are necessary.
The prize, if we succeed, is that we will get greater normality back in our lives more quickly than we envisaged we would a few weeks ago, and, I hope, without reversals back into blanket lockdown.
Nowhere does any of that matter more than in our schools. As John Swinney said yesterday, blended learning is a necessary contingency, because we might need it. There are no certainties with the virus. However, the progress that we have made so far makes it possible to plan for full-time return to school in August, with appropriate safety measures in place.
However, to achieve that aim, we must continue to drive down the virus to the lowest possible levels, and keep it there. I hope that the prospect of getting children back to full-time education sooner rather than later gives us all an added incentive to do exactly that.
The same is true of the updated version of the route map that we have published today. It sets out a series of what I stress are indicative dates for the remainder of phase 2 and the early part of phase 3. That greater clarity is possible because of the progress that we have made against the virus, but achieving the milestones depends on that progress continuing.
We will complete our formal three-week reviews as required by law on 9 and 30 July, and I will make statements in Parliament on both those days. However, I hope that today’s statement will provide people and businesses across the country with a bit more certainty in respect of their forward planning.
We will issue detailed guidance ahead of the key dates that are being indicated today. The guidance will be informed by advice that we commissioned last week from our scientific advisory group on two key issues. The first is what, if any, additional mitigations are required at locations that might pose a higher risk of transmission, and the second is in what settings and circumstances, and with what mitigations, it might be possible to allow relaxation of the 2m physical distancing rule. I will receive that advice next week, and will report on it by 2 July. We will issue guidance as soon as possible after that.
However, I want to make three general points in advance of that. First, unless and until that we have confidence that the risk of moving away from the 2m physical distancing rule in certain circumstances can be mitigated, businesses and individuals must continue to comply with the rule. I understand the concerns of businesses and particular sectors about that, so I hope that, in the period ahead, we can find a viable and safe balance.
Secondly, we will take a decision on whether, as we have already done for public transport, to make face coverings mandatory in shops, in light of the advice that we will receive next week. In the meantime, we will join the retail sector in a campaign to promote and encourage their use.
Thirdly, to support our test and protect system, businesses in the hospitality sector will be required to take names and contact details of customers and to store them for four weeks, so they should be preparing for that now.
I turn to the updated route map. As I announced last week, non-essential retail can reopen from Monday. So, too, can workplaces in the manufacturing sector that have been closed until now. Outdoor playgrounds and outdoor sports courts can also open from Monday.
I can now confirm indicative dates for the rest of phase 2 and the early part of phase 3. Let me repeat, however, that they all depend on continued suppression of the virus.
I can confirm that, on 3 July, it is our intention to lift the guidance advising people in Scotland to travel no more than 5 miles for leisure and recreation purposes. Although the tourism sector will not open fully until 15 July, we intend that self-contained holiday accommodation, such as holiday cottages and lodges, or caravans where there are no shared services, can open from 3 July. However, we ask people to use good judgment, abide by the rules that apply to households meeting up, and be sensitive to those living in our rural communities. The advice remains to avoid crowded places.
As we hopefully suppress the virus further, we will also continue to consider any measures that might be necessary to protect against the risk of imported cases of the virus.
It is then our intention that outdoor hospitality such as beer gardens will be permitted to reopen on Monday 6 July. That gives a few days after we receive advice from the advisory group for guidance to be issued and any necessary mitigations to be put in place.
I hope that we will then be able to move to phase 3 of the route map on 9 July, but, as I indicated earlier, I will make a further statement to Parliament on that date. However, as was the case with phase 2, I do not expect that we will do everything in phase 3 at the same time. Instead, we will take a phased approach. The resumption of NHS and other public services, for example, will continue during the three-week period. I will give some indicative dates now for the early part of phase 3 and others will be added later.
We intend that from 15 July, households will be able to meet people from more households outdoors with physical distancing. I will confirm the details of that in my 2 July update. At that point, I also hope to confirm an expansion of the extended household model and some changes that will give young people more opportunities to mix with their friends over the summer holidays. I can confirm now that organised outdoor sports for children and young people can, subject to guidance, resume from 13 July.
We also expect that non-essential shops in indoor shopping centres will reopen from 13 July, subject to guidance on physical distancing and other measures.
From 15 July, we intend that a household will be able to meet indoors with people from up to two other households, subject to physical distancing and strict hygiene measures.
We intend that early learning and childcare services will be able to resume from 15 July, subject to individual provider arrangements. It is likely that capacity will remain restricted initially.
As we have indicated, the tourism sector generally, and therefore all holiday accommodation, can reopen from 15 July. We intend that indoor locations such as museums, galleries, monuments, cinemas and libraries will also be able to reopen from that date, but with precautions in place, such as tickets being secured in advance, and subject to physical distancing and strict hygiene. Unfortunately, theatres, bingo halls, nightclubs, casinos and other live entertainment venues will not reopen until a later date.
We intend that pubs and restaurants will open indoors from 15 July, on a limited basis initially and subject to a number of conditions. Detailed guidance will be issued as soon as possible.
Last, but not least for many of us, we intend that hairdressers and barbers will reopen from 15 July. [Applause.] Other personal retail services will remain closed until a later date.
The other changes planned under phase 3 require further consideration and assessment. They include communal worship, indoor live entertainment venues, outdoor live events under certain conditions, indoor gyms, and the lifting of restrictions on attendance at weddings and, unfortunately, funerals. I am not able to give indicative dates for those today, but my judgment is that those changes are unlikely to take effect before 23 July, although we will keep that under review.
In addition, before the end of July we will provide further advice to those who are shielding. If we can, we want to move away from the current position of blanket guidance for all shielding people to much more tailored advice about risk and how to mitigate it.
Our challenge, which is not an easy one, is to manage all that change while keeping the virus firmly under control. If at any stage there appears to be a risk of its resurgence, our path out of lockdown will be halted and we may even have to go backwards.
To avoid that, we must get as close as possible to elimination of the virus now and build confidence in our ability to control it in the future through surveillance, testing, contact tracing and, where necessary, targeted suppression measures. If we can do that, then the move from phase 3 to phase 4 will become possible, perhaps as we go into August.
That will not be easy and it certainly, at this stage, cannot be taken for granted, but we can all play a part in making it happen. Complying with the requirements of test and protect is absolutely vital. An information leaflet about test and protect is being delivered to every household in Scotland this week, but let me take the opportunity now to remind everyone watching and everyone in the chamber what it asks of all of us.
If you have symptoms of the virus, you and your household must self-isolate and book a test immediately. The symptoms to watch out for are a new cough, a fever or a loss of or change in your sense of taste or smell. If you experience any of those symptoms, please do not wait to see whether you feel better later that day or the next day—take action straight away. You should book a test at nhsinform.scot or by phoning NHS 24 on 0800 028 2816.
I hope that this statement has been useful in providing some further clarity on changes that are likely to take effect in the early part of the summer. Both I and my ministerial colleagues will keep Parliament updated during recess. As I said earlier, I will make further statements in the chamber on 9 and 30 July and I will also provide regular updates in the daily media briefings.
I very much hope that by the time Parliament meets again in two weeks, we will have made further progress in the fight against the virus and be further down the path out of lockdown, but I cannot stress enough that that depends on all of us. The choices that we have made to date as individuals, and collectively as a society, have brought us this far, albeit with a lot of sorrow and anguish along the way.
Arguably, the choices that we make in the coming weeks will be even more important, as we learn to work, socialise and live alongside each other again, but in a way that keeps the virus under control. For us to meet each other indoors again, for more businesses to reopen, for children to return to school on a full-time basis in August—all that depends on all of us acting for the common good. It depends on everyone sticking to the essential public health rules and having the patience to stick with a careful but steady path out of lockdown.
Therefore, for the moment, except for those who have chosen to form an extended household, please continue to meet family and friends only out of doors—if we stick with that for a further two weeks, I am hopeful that indoor meetings will be possible again soon—and please at all times remember our key guidance. Remember the FACTS: face coverings should be worn in enclosed spaces, such as public transport, shops and anywhere else where physical distancing is more difficult; avoid crowded areas; clean your hands regularly and thoroughly, and clean hard surfaces after touching them; 2m distancing remains the clear advice; and self-isolate and book a test immediately if you have symptoms of Covid: a new cough, a fever or a loss of—or change in—your sense of taste or smell.
It is because so many people have done the right things and stuck so closely to the rules that we are now making such progress. That is what has brought us to a position where we can see a route back to living less-restricted lives. Therefore, please stick with it. Be sensible and apply careful judgment. In everything that we do, we should be thinking of not just our own health, but that of everyone around us. If we all continue to do the right thing by each other and by our communities, I believe that we will get through this more quickly.
So, please, my message to everybody is this: stay safe, protect others and save lives.
Thank you. The First Minister will now take questions.
Covid-19 (2m Distancing Rule)
I appreciated advance sight of today’s additional statement and noted the announcements that the First Minister has just made. We will examine the details over the coming days, but anything that offers more clarity is to be supported.
The First Minister will know that the 2m rule is regarded by many as central to the debate that we are having around opening Scotland back up for business. Many bed and breakfasts, restaurants, pubs and hotels will not be able to cope if it stays in place. Indeed, one third of hotels say that they will not be opening because of it, according to the Scottish Tourism Alliance.
On the First Minister’s timetable, we potentially have another eight days before we will know whether that rule is going or whether, like last week, the brakes will suddenly and unexpectedly be applied again. Hotels and the hospitality trade are desperate to know on what basis they can open and to accept provisional bookings now. Literally every day counts for Scottish tourism, so is there any way that the First Minister can bring forward the publication of that review from 2 July, even by a few days?
I say very seriously that I am sure that, if I were to put pressure on an independent advisory group to give me advice earlier than it was ready to do so, Jackson Carlaw would probably be the first to get to his feet to criticise me. The advisory group has been asked to give advice by 2 July. It will do so when it feels that that advice is ready, and I will immediately report on that and on any implications of it.
I understand, sympathise and emphasise with the position of businesses that, for reasons that we all understand, consider that the 2m physical distancing rule makes their economic viability very difficult; some have expressed that they think that it would make it impossible. It is not in anybody’s interests to see businesses deal with restrictions of that nature unnecessarily.
However, let me also say—quite candidly, directly and bluntly—that, if we have a second spike, wave or outbreak of the virus, hotels, restaurants, cafes and whole swathes of the economy will be forced to close again, and all of us will remain in lockdown longer than I believe is necessary. It is therefore important that we proceed carefully, on the basis of the best possible advice, and that I and the Government apply our best judgment to that advice.
That is how we have proceeded thus far, and I believe that it is why we now have the virus closer to the point of elimination in Scotland—and why we see lower infection rates and, thankfully, a lower number of people dying—than in some other parts of the UK. That says to me that we should stick to our careful, evidence-based path and, at every single stage, put the health and wellbeing of people across this country first.
The practical outcome of today’s statement is that, from 3 July, with the abolition of the 5-mile rule, Scots can travel on holiday to England, but not in Scotland. The reason that those industries are worried is because they say that every day that passes risks more jobs being lost.
Let us take the case of one of the jewels of Scottish tourism: Crieff Hydro. I know that the First Minister has spoken to the chief executive, so she will know that the hotel is on its knees, with only 10 per cent occupancy booked for next month, and is losing tens of thousands of pounds every day. In July last year, the hotel took £3 million. Here is what the chief executive Stephen Leckie told us:
“What is gut wrenching is the thought of losing that and customers leaving Scotland and going to other countries. England and Ireland are ahead of us. We need to put the message out right now that Scotland is open for tourists”.
Does the First Minister not see that leaving all that to a possible reopening on 15 July is too little, too late? Does she not understand the need to act more quickly on the 2m question? Will she at least consider acting more proactively so that we can save Scottish jobs?
Jackson Carlaw talked about livelihoods being at risk and, believe me, that weighs very heavily on me each and every day. It is not something that I dismiss in any way and it is certainly not something that I dismiss lightly. However, the other thing that weighs on me very heavily, and which has done so throughout the past three months, is the fact that every step that we take that potentially risks the virus running out of control again puts not only livelihoods at risk, but lives. I am not prepared to do that in some kind of reckless race with other parts of the UK.
I am determined to get this right and to balance the various harms that we know are being done to our country and economy in a way that builds as quick a recovery as possible and, fundamentally and even more importantly, a sustainable recovery. I want to act as quickly as I possibly can, but I want to make sure that it is on the basis of evidence. I have tried—and I will continue to try—not to criticise other leaders who are taking very difficult decisions, because I do not think that that is fair or justified.
However, in relation to the decision that was taken on the 2m rule yesterday—which is not, incidentally, a complete abandonment of the 2m rule—I personally have still not seen the evidence that underpins it. I have to make sure that those decisions are based on evidence. That evidence may not answer all the questions, but it will allow me to apply judgment in a careful way. That is why I have asked the advisory group to give me that evidence on a very short timescale. We will have that evidence next week, and I will then report on that and the implications of it. That is the best way forward.
I understand the pressures that businesses and everybody across the country are under. However, the worst thing that I could do right now would be to take decisions that I thought were hasty and not properly based on evidence, and that risked a second wave or further outbreaks of the virus. That would send all of us back, it would put lives on the line, and it would not be good for businesses or for our economy in the long term. Our careful approach has brought us to where we are now, and our careful approach will get us safely out the other side of this.
That is also the answer that the First Minister gave me last week when I asked for a plan to fully open schools. Within six days, the Government had changed its position completely.
Livelihoods are at risk, too. Together with clarity and a timetable to re-open Scotland, we also need better guidance. As the chief operating officer at BrewDog told BBC Newsdrive yesterday, there is a lack of certainty, a lack of a pathway and a lack of communication.
The sector does not require just dates. If people are to have confidence to travel in Scotland, and if hospitality businesses are to have the confidence to open safely, we need crystal-clear advice from the Government setting out how to go about that. We cannot have a repeat of last week’s situation when pubs made preparations to open up outdoors, only to be told that it was all off.
Whenever we do open up, will the First Minister commit to giving clear guidance and to giving the sector the certainty and the time that it needs to prepare?
Not only will I do that now; I did it in my opening remarks. That is why we have to be careful and give notice of changes, so that the guidance, based on the best evidence, can be put in place.
We are making judgments. We recognise that we live in an uncertain and changing situation. A global pandemic virus does not allow for certainties—I wish that it did. We are putting the safety of the country at the heart of everything that we do at every stage.
Jackson Carlaw mentioned schools. In some ways, the debate on schools sums up the real problem at the heart of the approach that he is taking. When it looked like full-time education would not be safe for children, we developed a contingency. Now that our progress against the virus makes it possible, we are planning for full-time education. We have a contingency plan, should we need it, because there are no certainties with the virus.
It turns out that that is exactly what Jackson Carlaw asked us to do. Five days after we published the blended learning plan, the Conservatives published a paper on 26 May called “Helping Scottish Schools Through the Coronavirus”. It did not demand a return to full-time education—far from it. It called on us
“to commit to flexibility on what happens in August”.
It asked us to report monthly from 11 August on the continued need for blended learning and then it said:
“Only if evidence emerges that it would be safe to move faster to a full re-opening should we do so.”
What the Tories are criticising us for now is exactly what they called on us to do. I think that sums up Jackson Carlaw’s approach. It is not leadership. It is not putting the safety of kids and country first. It is, frankly, grubby political opportunism, and no serious person should indulge in that at a time of national crisis.
It is a bit disappointing that the First Minister relies on pre-scripted abuse from her advisors at First Minister’s questions.
It is pretty clear what I asked the First Minister last week; it is pretty clear what other leaders in Parliament asked the First Minister last week; and it is pretty clear that she said last week that I could do whatever made me happy but that she was not changing her plan. That was what she said. Six days later, there was a complete U-turn. It is there for everyone to see.
As the Fraser of Allander institute warns today, this is already the deepest recession in living memory. A full-scale depression is possible. The First Minister is right to say that we must avoid a second wave of the disease and that caution is vital. But, as the Fraser of Allander institute also points out, if we are to do that, an effective testing and tracking regime, at scale, is urgent. It says that it is a concern that that is still not in place. Scotland’s economic recovery and the return of schools depend upon it.
Will the First Minister guarantee that the ability for us to test at scale will be delivered by the time that Parliament resumes in August?
The ability to test at scale will not be delivered by the time that Parliament returns in August; it is in place in Scotland right now. The latest test and protect figures have just been published. Yes, we need to build and to test and to refine the resilience of that system on an on-going basis. That is what all countries are doing now and we will continue to do that.
Jackson Carlaw asks why more people are not being tested under test and protect. Test and protect is there to test people who have symptoms of the virus. The prevalence of the virus is reducing right now, which is why we hope to continue to see fewer people being tested through test and protect. That is pretty basic stuff.
Over and above that, we will be building up surveillance testing, which allows us to make sure that we do not miss any outbreaks of the virus. That is the other strand of testing that we will build up over the summer. We are not basing that on untested technology that never transpires, regardless of the promise. We are building it from the bottom up, based on the expertise of public health teams around the country.
None of that is easy or straightforward, and none of it—unfortunately—contains any certainties as we look to the path ahead, but we will continue to do the hard work and careful planning that it is incumbent on us, as a Government, to do to get the country through this crisis as safely as possible.
I welcome robust scrutiny and criticism, but I think that people in Scotland, in looking to all their leaders right now, expect that criticism to be constructive and to be rooted in an understanding of the complexities of the issues that we are dealing with. That is the spirit in which I will proceed, because that is my responsibility as First Minister.
Care Homes (Covid-19)
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement.
We all welcome the news that the number of Covid-19 deaths continues to fall and that we can look forward today to an easing of the lockdown. However, if we are going to turn the page, we should also look back on the chapter just written.
Of Scotland’s population, only 0.7 per cent live in residential care homes, and yet today’s figures confirm that more than 50 per cent of all deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in that tiny section of our community. We do not need hindsight to tell us that, at a time in their lives when they were at their most susceptible and in need of greatest help, those most vulnerable people were badly let down.
Writing to me last week, Judith Robertson, the chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, stated:
“The situation experienced in care homes raises a number of serious human rights concerns.”
She went on to reference:
“the right to life, the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to a private home and family life and the right to non-discrimination”.
I agree with the Scottish Human Rights Commission. When the SHRC wrote to the Scottish Government to raise those concerns back in April, I agreed with it then, too. Why did the First Minister not agree?
I agree with the Scottish Human Rights Commission, and I actually agree with the sentiments—and, to be fair, the tone—of Richard Leonard’s question.
I feel, as we all feel—more deeply than I can find the words to articulate—what has happened in care homes in Scotland over the past three months. I do not say this in any way to minimise or excuse that, or to imply that we do not have to look hard at what has happened, but we have seen it happening in countries across the world, and I simply say that we should not consider it as something that has happened only in Scotland. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to consider what has happened in Scotland and to make sure that we learn lessons, and I have a very deep commitment to doing that.
Where I disagree with Richard Leonard—I hope that he will take the spirit and intent of what I say—is on the connotation of what he said that we have somehow not acted as best we can to try to protect people in care homes. Richard Leonard may think—he is perfectly entitled to do so, and I am sure that there will be others across the country who think the same—that we did not do the right things or that we did not do things at the right time. That is a perfectly legitimate view to hold.
However, at every stage, from making sure that we issued guidance stressing the need for clinical risk assessments of people going into care homes; to issuing guidance for care homes around isolation and moving away from communal living, to the strenuous efforts led by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to ensure that care home providers had top-up supplies of personal protective equipment for their staff; to some of the things that we have done to ensure that care home workers get a death-in-service benefit and a top-up of their statutory sick pay if they have to be off because they have the virus; through to the work that we are doing around testing, we have taken steps to protect older people in care homes as best we can.
I will say two things finally. First, as I have said before, we will require to take a long, hard look at everything about the virus and, within that, the situation in care homes. Secondly, as I have also said before, looking ahead, there is a big debate to be had for us in the Parliament—I look forward to Richard Leonard taking part in that debate—about the future structure and model of our care home sector in Scotland. We should all engage in that debate constructively.
The First Minister mentioned Government advice. One of the issues that the Scottish Human Rights Commission raised back in April was that, despite what the First Minister has said in Parliament, the clinical advice that the Scottish Government issued was that care home residents should not be treated in hospital if they were suspected of having Covid-19. That policy remained in force until 15 May.
It is not just the Scottish Human Rights Commission that has questions; many grieving families desperately want answers, too. This week, I was in contact with the family of Margaret Laidlaw. Margaret lived in an intermediate care home until late April, when her family were informed that she would be moved to Drummond Grange care home in Midlothian. Residents in both homes had Covid-19. Not long after moving, Margaret displayed the symptoms and caught the virus. She was kept in the home and her family were told that, because of the Government’s policy, she would not be treated in hospital. Sadly, within weeks, Margaret passed away. She was 65 years old. Margaret’s family are angry. They want to know why the care home was so unprepared and why hospital care was not available.
Sadly, Margaret’s story has been all too common. What does the First Minister have to say to Margaret’s family and families like them? Does she regret that it took so long for the Government’s official advice to be replaced?
I say to Margaret Laidlaw’s family what I would say to any family that has lost a loved one to the virus and, in particular, to anyone who has lost a loved one who was in a care home: I cannot find the words to adequately sum up the sense of sorrow that I feel and the depth of my condolences to them.
It is not possible, and it would not be appropriate or helpful to the family, for me to start to comment in the chamber on individual cases that I do not have the full details of. However, I agree that families have a right to answers. They have a right to know what happened to their loved ones, to question things that were done and were not done, and to get the answers as far as possible. As I have said on previous occasions, I have a very deep and strong commitment to doing what is required to facilitate that process.
On what Richard Leonard has described as Government policy—he will have heard not just me and the health secretary but the chief medical officer say this—it is not a matter of policy whether an individual in a care home or anywhere else is admitted to hospital. Clinical advice that will have been issued in many different circumstances for many different scenarios is applied and interpreted by clinicians, who have the job, often in consultation with families, of deciding where the best location of care is for an older person. Richard Leonard will have heard the chief medical officer say in the past that, in some cases—perhaps in many cases—admission to hospital for older people and, in particular, admission to invasive and intensive care, is not in their best overall interests, but if the clinical view is that it is, that should happen. It is simply wrong to say that any Government policy stops that happening. It should be clinicians who decide what the best circumstances and the best location of care are for the people whom they are caring for.
I have the clinical guidance with me. It says:
“It is not advised that residents in long term care are admitted to hospital for ongoing management but are managed within their current setting.”
That is what it says. That has been one of the greatest scandals of the pandemic.
Just yesterday, the heads of the royal colleges sent an open letter, calling for a rapid review of our preparedness to tackle the virus, warning that
“local flare-ups are increasingly likely and a second wave a real risk.”
The question whether the Scottish Government is ready for that is a matter of concern for us all, but is especially concerning in the setting of our residential care homes. We cannot allow a second wave to result in a second scandal.
On 27 May, ahead of the move to phase 1 of the easing of the lockdown, I called on the First Minister to conduct an urgent review of the Government’s approach to care homes, so that we would be prepared for the future. She gave no such commitment.
Today, will she listen? Will she listen to the heads of our royal colleges? Will the Scottish Government rapidly review the support and guidance for care homes, so that they are ready for any second wave, or any flare-ups? Will she do it, so that the rights to health and safety of care home staff, and the human rights of care home residents, are protected?
I will start at the end of Richard Leonard’s questions, with what I hope is a helpful answer.
In principle, yes; we are reviewing on an on-going basis all aspects of our handling of the virus. Although some of the more fundamental look back will take longer, and will have to wait until we are out of the crisis, we are trying, as we go, to learn any appropriate lessons.
I am very happy to consider how we open that process, particularly on care homes, so that others have an opportunity to feed in to that and an opportunity to scrutinise it in Parliament. I will take that away, and I will discuss with the Cabinet Secretary for Health how we facilitate that.
Richard Leonard has read from clinical advice. I make the serious point that clinical advice is prepared by clinicians who advise the Government. It is not prepared by ministers; I am not qualified to give clinical advice. The chief medical officer—with the chief medical officer’s office—acts independently in such matters, on the basis of clinical knowledge and expertise. Advice is given to cover the generality of a situation.
My point—which many clinicians will make—was that it is often not in the best interests of an older person to go into hospital when they can be better cared for in their own home. Fundamentally, however, decisions about care lie in the hands of individual clinicians. That is as it should be, as it has been, and as it always will be.
Richard Leonard is right to warn of the risks of a second wave. It is not fair to me to say that I am not cognisant of that risk. I spend much of my time in advising and warning people that the virus has not gone away, and that we face a real risk of the resurgence of the virus—I do not like the phrase “second wave”, because it presupposes that we are out of the first wave, or that somehow it lies in the future.
That risk is there and will be there all the time, and we must guard against it. Everything that we do right now, therefore, from the pace of coming out of lockdown, through the care that we are taking over all those decisions, to the continued building of test and protect, is all about avoiding that. As we go, we genuinely want to learn lessons. At the very outset of this, I said that mistakes would be made. I absolutely readily concede that that will have been the case.
To end my answer where I started, I am very happy to look at how Parliament contributes to a review of our experience to date on care homes, so that we can learn any lessons as appropriate.
Jobs Guarantee (Young People)
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement. My thoughts are with each and every person who has lost a loved one during this pandemic.
Half of working Scots are concerned about losing their jobs, and thousands have already done so. With the tourism season shrinking, and pubs and many shops still closed, new employment opportunities are scarce. Fifty thousand young people are leaving education and entering the toughest of labour markets. A jobs guarantee for young people has therefore never been more necessary, and I welcome the widespread support that exists for that. Such a proposal, which our young people need, featured in my party’s manifesto.
How quickly will that jobs guarantee be put in place, and has the First Minister considered the role that it can play in shaping Scotland’s fairer, greener future?
Yes, we are considering that. For those who might not know this, the jobs guarantee proposal was contained as one of more than 20 recommendations in the report of the advisory group on economic recovery, chaired by Benny Higgins, which was published on Monday.
One of those recommendations was that the Scottish Government should respond to the report and all its recommendations by the end of July, which we have undertaken to do. How we take forward the proposals for a jobs guarantee—on which, as I said on Monday, and I readily say again today, I am hugely enthusiastic and sympathetic—will form part of that consideration. That is one aspect—but not the only one—of how, as we hopefully come out of this incredibly difficult period, we can use the process of recovery to further and accelerate progress towards things that we were already aiming for. Indeed, we know how important those things are. Part of that lies in our transition to a net zero economy and society.
Using a jobs guarantee to ensure that the skills and opportunities that we are giving young people through this difficult period are those that we need for that and those that will stand them in best stead for the future is an opportunity, coming out of a crisis, that we should grab with both hands. The Government looks forward to doing that, working with business.
I welcome the First Minister’s positive response. We know that unemployment scars, and a week is a long time, particularly for young people who face such uncertainty, so we need to create jobs and apprenticeships now. One area in which the Scottish Government could do that is energy efficiency. By improving our housing stock, we could create thousands of jobs for builders, roofers, plumbers, heating engineers, joiners, window fitters, insulation specialists, plasterers, electricians and painters and decorators. That has been tried and tested. Energy efficiency investments in Germany and South Korea were central planks of their recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.
Earlier this year, the Greens secured tens of millions of pounds for such programmes. Will the First Minister now commit to going further and faster and investing in that urgently?
I agree with Alison Johnstone. In summary, yes, I commit to that. However, we have to turn that commitment into detailed plans: that is the process that we will go through as we respond to the advisory group’s report and beyond that. There is no doubt that we have invested heavily in energy efficiency.
For the economic reasons that Alison Johnstone mentions and those involving opportunities for young people, as well as for reasons connected with our environmental ambitions, this is absolutely an opportunity to pick up the pace and the scale of what we are doing. I hope that there will be a lot of common ground on that front as we go through the weeks and months ahead.
On a more general point, I absolutely believe to my core that we all have an obligation—not just Government, but all of us, including business—to ensure that this generation does not bear the brunt and long-term legacy of what we have lived through over the past three months and will undoubtedly continue to live through for some time to come. Like others in the chamber, I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s through the worst of the Thatcher years, when unemployment and youth unemployment in particular were an ever-present scourge. I remember that vividly, and I remember the impact that it had on people in the community where I grew up. I do not want Scotland to go back to that.
We all have an opportunity, and I hope that it is one on which we will work together, to ensure that, whatever else comes out of the crisis, our young people do not pay the long-term price of it. That will be true in schools, colleges and universities, and regarding young people’s employment opportunities, now and in years to come. I commit myself to that aim right now.
I know that we have our differences, but I want to thank the First Minister for her work and personal efforts over the past three months. Daily press conferences and extensive behind-the-scenes work will have taken a toll on her. I also thank ministers, who have made a special effort to work with MSPs from all parties. That is the type of co-operation that people should expect at a time of national crisis. We should all thank them for that effort.
I support the return to full-time schooling, but these are the last few days before the end of term and teachers are exhausted. Can the First Minister tell teachers whether they will get a break and have enough time and resource to prepare for the new set-up for full-time education?
Teachers are anxious. Will they have access to testing? What about teachers and children who are shielding? Will they return to full-time schooling in August?
First, I thank Willie Rennie for his opening comments. I and ministers do not need thanks—we are simply doing our jobs—but his comments give me the opportunity to place on record my heartfelt thanks to everybody working behind the scenes in the Scottish Government. They have put in a shift and a half—that is an understatement—and I will be forever grateful to them for all the work that they have been doing.
On the substance of the question, of course teachers will get a break—they have been working very hard throughout all this. I thank teachers and councils for their work to make sure that we have the contingency of blended learning, because we may need that; I want to be clear about that. We have no certainties with the virus and if there is a resurgence, nationally or locally, that model may be needed—that work has not been wasted and it is important that nobody suggests that it has been. Of course, teachers need a break like everybody does.
The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney, has had discussions with teachers this morning and that will continue through the education recovery group to make sure that the commitment that we have to return to full-time education in August is achieved; that will be the hard work of the next period. In part, that is work for all of us, because the prerequisite is that we keep the virus suppressed and we all have a role to play in that. However, other safety measures need to be put in place, including the arrangements around physical distancing and testing. I believe that there is a big role for testing in assuring teachers and parents of the safety of schools, but the detail of that is the work that we will now do and which the Deputy First Minister will lead to make sure that, before schools go back, teachers, parents and young people have confidence in the safety of their education.
We need that detail as soon as possible, because teachers need as much certainty as possible so that they can get that get break and be ready for August.
I will move on to an issue that I have asked about repeatedly recently, which is childcare over the summer for the thousands of parents who will be returning to work. If parents are being asked by the Government to return to work, the Government has a duty to ensure that there is enough childcare for them. The First Minister knows that I am cautious because I want people to be safe, but the new plan remains disjointed. Why are parents being asked by the Government to go back to work when childminders and nurseries will stay closed for another three weeks on a full-time basis? Why are outdoor children’s summer clubs and activities not allowed to open for another three weeks? Parents need that detail, because they are returning to work from now—when will they get that detail?
First, in the spirit of agreement and consensus, Willie Rennie is right to raise the issue. I said last week—I do not relish saying it, because it is not the position that anybody in my position wants to be in—that there are imperfections in how we do things right now given the nature of what we are dealing with. We are trying to align those plans as much as possible. Although the slightly slower pace out of lockdown that we are taking in Scotland is for public health reasons, we also have an objective to align, as far as possible, if not perfectly, the return to work with the build-up of childcare.
Childminders are open, although they have restrictions on their operation. Outdoor nurseries are also able to be open. What I announced today envisages the opening of all early learning and childcare from 15 July. Clearly, to some extent that will be dependent on individual provider arrangements and initially I would imagine that capacity will be restricted but that it will build up again.
Last week, although it was not the driving motivation, we also opened up the extended households model, which opens the possibility for some informal childcare. I had hoped that we might have been able to extend that by today, but we have to do a bit more work to understand the impacts of that. I hope that, by this time next week, we will extend that model a bit further.
Does all that add up to an absolutely perfect plan? I readily concede that it does not; I am not sure that perfection in any of that is possible given what we are dealing with right now, although we strive for it where we can. We will continue to make sure that those different pieces are aligned as far as possible and we absolutely understand the importance for parents of having appropriate childcare as they increasingly go back to work.
Meat Processing Facilities
To ask the First Minister what guidance the Scottish Government has provided to meat processing facilities to ensure the health and safety of their workforce, in light of recent closures of such facilities across the United Kingdom due to large numbers of staff being diagnosed with Covid-19. (S5F-04246)
That is an important issue in the light of developments in other parts of the world. Food Standards Scotland has provided comprehensive guidance and a risk-assessment tool to help the food industry ensure that its staff are protected from the risk of Covid. The guidance supports the industry in implementing physical distancing, personal hygiene and cleaning and disinfection measures to prevent transmission in food production settings, including meat processing facilities, while maintaining high standards of food safety.
A significant number of measures have been introduced, such as increased cleaning and disinfection, screens on production lines and physical distance marshals. Food Standards Scotland has also maintained a presence in all 27 Scottish slaughterhouses and has worked with meat cutting plants throughout the outbreak, agreeing physical distancing protocols and ways of working to protect the health and safety of staff. However, as we see from outbreaks in meat production facilities and other parts of the food processing industry in other parts of the world, we need to remain extremely vigilant in the area.
Can the First Minister give me assurances that the guidance from the Scottish Government to the meat processing sector and, indeed, other sectors, will always be based on the most up-to-date scientific and medical advice and that it will draw on international examples to ensure that we have the highest possible levels of safety in our world-renowned food supply chain, so that we continue to move forward out of the pandemic and do not go backward?
I can absolutely give an assurance that the guidance will be based on the best scientific and medical advice, as we are trying to ensure that all guidance is. Food Standards Scotland’s guidance and its risk assessment tool have been cleared by Public Health Scotland and the guidance takes account of the United Kingdom Government’s guidance as well as international guidelines from the World Health Organization and other public bodies.
Food Standards Scotland is also in regular dialogue with counterparts in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the USA and is sharing experience and advice. Of course, we will continue to look closely at examples of outbreaks in facilities elsewhere, such as the recent outbreak in Germany, to make sure that we learn any appropriate lessons.
To ask the First Minister how the Scottish Government will support community sport restarting as lockdown restrictions are lifted. (S5F-04254)
We continue to prioritise the return of grass-roots sport for our communities and particularly for our young people. We are supporting community sports clubs and organisations to prepare to reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. Sportscotland is working with Scottish governing bodies of sport to ensure that sport-specific guidance is available to sports clubs and community organisations at each phase of the route map. We are also helping sporting organisations and groups to access the various funding streams that are available. For example, to date, the third sector resilience fund has awarded sports organisations 169 grants, with a value of more than £2.3 million.
Throughout the pandemic, we have recognised the benefits of physical activity and have ensured that people could get outside to exercise every day. We have also been able to allow a number of outdoor sporting activities to return, with strict guidance in place on physical distancing.
I know that the First Minister is aware of the importance of being active, especially within a social environment, and that it is important to physical, mental and emotional health. Our sports clubs and organisations across the country are key to that. However, sports clubs report a serious reduction in membership, having missed a whole year of recruiting, and arm’s-length external organisations are under extreme financial pressure. I think that we are in danger of losing vital community assets just when we need them most, and a lack of physical activity will manifest itself in increased pressure on our national health service. What assurances can the Scottish Government offer the thousands of sports clubs and volunteers across Scotland that their contribution will be valued in the months and years ahead?
We will do everything that we can not only to ensure that that contribution is protected but to encourage and enhance it in the time to come. I absolutely agree with Brian Whittle that physical activity for young people is of paramount importance now and in the future. Today, I confirmed that organised sport for young people can resume from 13 July, but we will continue to work with councils and organisations in this area to ensure that we provide whatever support we can. The issue is important, and we will continue to pay close attention to it.
Presiding Officer, I am being told that, when I delivered the statement earlier, I said that a household will be able to meet indoors with people from up to two other households, subject to physical distancing and strict hygiene measures, from 15 July. That was a mistake. The route map actually says 10 July. I just wanted to take this opportunity to correct that.
Thank you for that rapid correction.
Court System (Backlog of Cases)
To ask the First Minister what action is being taken to minimise the backlog of cases in the court system. (S5F-04251)
We all recognise the devastating impact that delays and uncertainty can have on all those who are involved in civil and criminal court cases. In his statement to Parliament last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice outlined some of the measures that are being progressed and considered with stakeholders to address the backlog. I welcome all the work that is being done to resolve cases before a trial date is set, to make the best use of modern technology and to resume court business, including jury trials, with physical distancing in place. We are also working with the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service to explore options that safeguard the interests of justice and the health of all involved.
The delay in court cases is particularly challenging for victims of crime, those who are on remand and witnesses. It is important to make progress but to safeguard the important principle of fair justice. Will the progress that has been announced today allow more buildings within the court system to open? Will the Government consider reducing from 15 the number of members on a jury, in order to make headway with the backlog of cases?
With the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, we will keep all those options under review. I agree with James Kelly that the backlog has to be cleared as soon as possible, for all the reasons that he cites. It is not in the interests of justice, of those who are accused of crime or of victims for there to be delays.
At the outset of the pandemic, when the first piece of coronavirus legislation was being put through, Parliament legitimately had a discussion about initial proposals that the Scottish Government made—which we then withdrew—to have solemn trials without juries. To be fair, I think that Parliament was right about that but, at the time, Humza Yousaf made clear that not taking that approach would have an implication later on. We are having to manage all that. The Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, has been chairing a judicially led working group that is looking at how we take forward High Court jury trials and clear the backlog. We need to continue that work and make sure that, as we go along, all the different options, such as those that James Kelly cited, are kept under review.
Does the First Minister agree that those who prey on vulnerable people, using financial scams related to the coronavirus pandemic, are the lowest of the low? What can the Scottish Government do to protect vulnerable people from such shocking activities at this time by some very bad people?
Bruce Crawford is absolutely right. Anybody who perpetrates a scam at any time on a vulnerable person is, to use Bruce Crawford’s phrase, the lowest of the low. That behaviour is disgraceful and disgusting and those who indulge in it should be deeply and utterly ashamed of themselves. That is true all the time, but to do that at a time like this, when everybody, individually and collectively, is dealing with an unprecedented crisis and going through the most difficult circumstances, is beyond my comprehension. Therefore, I share Bruce Crawford’s condemnation of anybody who would behave in that manner.
The Scottish Government already has work under way to educate people and make them aware of the risks of scamming; we will continue to go forward with that. In light of Bruce Crawford’s question, we will look again at whether there is further action that we can take in the particular circumstances that we are living through.
Childcare (1,140 Hours)
I return to the important issue of childcare. The measures that have been announced today to reopen more nursery settings are welcome, but opening nurseries is not the same as ensuring their on-going viability. Today, I have had a number of calls with evidence of local authorities not honouring their previous commitments to fund 1,140 hours. In the absence of a statutory obligation to do so, many local authorities have already reversed existing promises. Parents and nurseries had already planned around 1,140 hours but, if it is not delivered, they cannot go to work. When will that flagship policy resurface? Will the First Minister give assurances to councils that they will be not just told to deliver 1,140 hours but resourced to enable them to do so?
Councils were fully funded to allow them to deliver 1,140 hours. As part of our understanding of the additional pressures under which councils are operating, we allowed them to use for other purposes the money that they no longer had to devote to the policy for that period, because of the inevitable and unavoidable pause in that work. That is on top of the additional money that we have made available to councils.
We want to get the programme back on track as quickly as we can. It stands to reason—anyone who applies common sense to the situation will realise this—that, given that part of the expansion involved construction at a time when construction activity was not allowed, there will inevitably be delays to the policy. However, we want to get it back on track as quickly as possible. We have committed to and fully funded the provision of 1,140 hours, and we are determined to, and will, deliver it in full.
A contrast is emerging between people who have already returned to work and those who are still waiting patiently at home in the hope that they can return to work. Many furloughed workers are not receiving the 20 per cent of their salary from their employers. Some employers are paying that, but others are not. People are also concerned that, if there is no date for them to return to work, there will probably be more redundancies.
I really appreciate the level of detail that the First Minister has given today. That is very welcome. Does she agree that we need all sectors to have as much specific information as possible about when people can return to work, so that planning can be done on getting workers back safely?
We all agree that, unfortunately, economic turmoil is ahead. Will the First Minister ensure that the recovery plan is informed by the widest level of engagement, involving all age groups, unions, workplaces and ordinary people’s experiences? I am pretty sure that she will agree with that, because that is the best way to go forward with our recovery plan.
Let me make three very quick points. First, I agree with Pauline McNeill’s final point, because that is important. Earlier this week, there was a debate in Parliament, which I was not able to attend in person, on the economic recovery group’s report. Engagement not only in Parliament but further afield, involving stakeholders, trade unions, the third sector and the wider business community, is essential. That is how we intend to proceed.
Secondly, I agree with the need for as much certainty as possible. Every step of the way, that is what I will try to deliver. However, I will not give false certainty, because that does more damage than good. There will always be a degree of uncertainty, given the nature of the virus, but when I say that a particular sector can open on X date, I want to be as sure as possible that that is deliverable, based on the information that we have at the time. I also want to be sure that doing so is as safe as possible, because that will allow me to ensure that I get fully behind the retail or tourism sector, for example, and encourage people to get back to using those parts of our economy. It is important that we get that in sync and that it happens in the right order.
Thirdly, the furlough scheme, which has been very welcome and helpful, has prevented a wave of redundancies so far, for which we should all be grateful. However, it is really important that the scheme is not prematurely withdrawn and that the United Kingdom Government is willing to continue it for as long as is necessary, whether in a general sense or by targeting particular sectors that we know will be hit for longer. We are seeking to have that discussion with the UK Government, and I hope that members across the chamber will call on it to follow the example of countries such as France and make it clear that such support will not be withdrawn before the economy is ready for it.
Coaches and Personal Trainers
Will the First Minister advise whether consideration is being given to allowing coaches and personal trainers to work with more than two households a day, when physical distancing can be maintained, given that so many people depend on those professions for their income?
We continue to keep the guidance under review. We want to get as many people back to work as quickly as possible. Although that is important generally, we recognise that it is particularly important for the self-employed, and many coaches and personal trainers will fall into that category. We continue to work closely to review our guidance to ensure that we can do things safely.
Coaches who are self-employed can receive support through the self-employment income support scheme or the newly self-employed hardship fund, which provides up to £2,000 for coaches who became self-employed after 6 April 2019. Sportscotland has also provided advice for coaches, including information on funding, which can be found on the Covid-19 dedicated pages on its website.
Business Rates (North East Scotland)
On Monday, yet another established retailer on Aberdeen’s Union Street, Molton Brown, announced its closure. It is another business lost to Aberdeen and more local people unemployed during very difficult times for the north-east. That is due in no small part to this Government’s business rates regime. Has the First Minister got any plans beyond the immediate virus response to review a rates regime that punishes the north-east disproportionately?
That is just not true. I absolutely understand the burden of rates on businesses at the best of times, but particularly right now. That is why we have invested heavily in rates relief schemes throughout this crisis. We will continue to consider the support that we are able to give as we come out of this crisis and as businesses such as the one that the member mentioned can start to open and trade again. All of that is really important.
However, I come back to the point that this is an unprecedented crisis and all of us need to ensure that we bring all of our resources and focus to dealing not only with the immediacy of it but with the aftermath as well. I look forward to having the support—and, yes, the scrutiny and constructive criticism—of those who genuinely want to tackle these issues, as opposed to those who only want to make party-political points about them.
Glasgow Airport (Job Losses)
Swissport has announced today that 4,500 jobs are to go at United Kingdom airports. That is yet more bad news and means that there are likely to be more job losses at Glasgow airport.
The First Minister has turned down the suggestion of the GMB, Unite and myself that she establish a task force to save airport jobs at places such as Glasgow airport. I have asked the First Minister three times now about aviation jobs, and I welcome talks on the future of aerospace. However, we also need urgent action now to save airport jobs for my constituents.
As the GMB has said, those jobs are the backbone of the Renfrewshire economy. Doing nothing is not an option, First Minister. What will be done to stop more airport workers being abandoned? What representations are being made to the UK Government for a support package, and what is the plan for our airports?
To do nothing on any aspect of this crisis is not only not an option; it is not in any way, shape or form what this Government is doing. Even our sternest critics would recognise that reality.
Not only in Scotland, but in the UK, Europe and worldwide, we are dealing with a multitude—a plethora—of very significant challenges because of the virus and the measures that we have had to take to tackle it. Some of those create problems for businesses, and others compound and exacerbate problems and challenges that they already faced.
There are no easy answers to any of this, and I will never criticise anybody in the chamber who stands up for jobs in their constituency. In fact, I welcome and praise that. However, we all have to recognise the real challenges and difficulties that we face, and we must try to do that in as constructive and consensual a way as possible.
I gave commitments to Neil Bibby around his involvement in our work on the aerospace sector, and I will do the same in other sectors. As I said last week, we have to guard against having a plethora of task forces. We must focus on the actions that we need to take. I hope that he will join me, not in a party-political way but in recognition of the reality—[Interruption.] The Tories clearly seem to think that all of that is funny. I do not think that it is funny: I think that it is really serious stuff.
I was going to say to Neil Bibby that I hope we will be able to join together to make a case to the UK Government for ensuring that the right support is in place for businesses and sectors. I hope that we can all join together in that endeavour.
Ferries (Social Distancing Measures)
Even when it is deemed completely safe to visit our islands, residents and businesses will remain disadvantaged. Ferry sailings have decreased markedly, and social distancing has diminished capacity by 80 to 90 per cent on some routes. By contrast, people who fly to the northern isles and to the Inner and Outer Hebrides do not have the same social distancing rules applied, which Professor Jason Leitch agreed on Monday is an anomaly. Therefore, without pre-empting the advisory group, how soon are we to move to 1m social distancing on ferries, with a mask on while on enclosed decks?
I am not going to pre-empt the advice of the advisory group for Kenny Gibson—tempting though he always is—any more than I was prepared to do so for Jackson Carlaw. It is right that we wait for that advice and then interpret, apply and implement that advice where appropriate.
I absolutely recognise the issue of reduced capacity on ferries. It not only applies on ferries but will be the case across our public transport network. Therefore, there are, of course, practical as well as economic advantages to having a situation in which the 2m distancing rule can be relaxed.
It is wrong to see it as a simple, binary choice between 1m and 2m. As Kenny Gibson has alluded, if there can be a relaxation of the 2m rule in some settings and circumstances, that will come with the necessity for other mitigations. It is important, therefore, that we get that right, because it is unlikely to be—pardon the pun—a one-size-fits-all approach.
I know that Kenny Gibson is not trying to do this, but public safety cannot simply be cast aside. We do not do the country, businesses or any aspect of our society any good at all if we take reckless decisions that allow the virus to start to spread again.
Economic Recovery (Collaboration)
One of the key findings of the advisory group on economic recovery—led by Benny Higgins—was that there needs to be much more communication and collaboration between the Scottish Government and key stakeholders in the economy. Does the First Minister agree with that? If so, what specific steps will she take to address those concerns, especially in the context of the Covid crisis?
I agreed with that on Monday, so I am happy to do so again. In any aspect of what we do right now, irrespective of our differing views on whether what we did before this crisis was good, bad or indifferent, we would all be making a mistake if we came out of the crisis only to pick up where we had left off. We would not tackle challenges sufficiently and would miss opportunities to do things differently. That applies to relationships between Government and business and to all sorts of other things.
As I said earlier, we will respond in detail to all 25 recommendations in the advisory group’s report before the end of next month, and we will put specific recommendations down in relation to that. However, any relationship goes two ways, so we also have to listen to the stakeholders—the other part of that relationship—about the changes that they want and the ways in which they think it should be enhanced. We will take those discussions forward over the next few weeks.
Mesh Implant Removal
In November, after eight years without meeting mesh-injured women, the First Minister asked for a meeting in the middle of the general election campaign. She said all sorts of sympathetic things and gave those women her personal commitment to do all that she could to ensure that Dr Veronikis, the United States mesh surgeon, came to Scotland to help them. He made his offer in good faith more than a year ago, and all that there has been since is delay, deliberate blocking and inaction by vested interests that never wanted him here in the first place. He has walked away in disgust at that behaviour.
For those women, who have been horribly injured and disabled, the prospect of Dr Veronikis coming to Scotland is their last hope of ridding their body of this poison. The First Minister should listen to what one woman said this week in an email to me and her:
“For years, I thought I had some kind of mental problem as I didn’t know other people were similarly affected. I had to retire from the job I absolutely loved in a school. I had to give up the gym. I used to do Race For Life every year and the MoonWalk. I danced my socks off at family gatherings. That person doesn’t exist anymore and I’m left a pain-ridden shell of the person I was. I hate me and suffer from depression.”
For a decade, the Government has failed those women and I am sorry to say that the First Minister has too. Does her Government intend to do anything to help hundreds of women live a life that is free of the brutality of mesh pain?
I know how strongly Neil Findlay rightly feels about the issue, and I pay tribute to the way in which he has consistently brought it to the Parliament. I take very seriously the commitments that I made to the women when I met them and I will continue to do so. We have already taken steps, including the creation of the fund to help women who have been affected by mesh.
On Dr Veronikis, I genuinely say to Neil Findlay and to others who are interested in the issue that they should try to work with us on it. First, we have not received any correspondence from Dr Veronikis to say that he has withdrawn his offer to come to Scotland—that is a statement of fact. The former chief medical officer wrote to him on 24 and 27 February, and the international recruitment team at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde wrote to him on 3 March. We did not get responses to those letters. The interim CMO wrote to Dr Veronikis on 24 April to reiterate that the invitation still stood and that we looked forward to welcoming him when restrictions around Covid were lifted. On 5 June, there was a response that expressed frustration at a lack of progress. There seems to be an issue here. We thought that we had made progress, when Catherine Calderwood spoke to him, around the need to ensure that a surgeon cannot simply operate on a woman with whom he has had no prior contact and that pre-operative and post-operative care need be in place. Those seem to be the arrangements on which we have struggled to make progress with Dr Veronikis.
The offer is still there and we have been trying to get those arrangements finalised. I repeat today my personal willingness—although I am not a clinician—-to speak to him directly, as I did before, to try to get the arrangements in place that would allow that visit to happen. It is not the case that that has not happened because of blockages or an unwillingness on the part of the Scottish Government to have him here, and it is an unfair and inaccurate characterisation to say that. My personal opinion is that the contrary is absolutely the case. I hope that others who have a genuine concern about the issue will help with that rather than try to characterise the situation in an inaccurate way.
Covid-19 Lockdown (Pace of Easing)
The Fraser of Allander institute economic commentary that was published today states that if there were to be a second wave of Covid-19 infections, the economy might not recover until 2024 at the earliest.
The First Minister has outlined what her Government is doing to ensure that the virus is kept at the lowest possible level, but does she agree that a slower, more cautious approach now is ultimately the most effective economic approach and that far more jobs and businesses will be in danger if we risk a second wave by easing restrictions too fast?
I agree wholeheartedly with Gillian Martin, as I think is evident from everything I have said and the decisions I have taken so far during the pandemic. We should pay close attention to the warning in today’s Fraser of Allander institute report that, if we have a second wave—or spike, or whatever we want to call it—of the virus and we do not manage to keep it under control, our economy might not recover until 2024. That demonstrates the economic impact of moving too quickly and with too high a risk, which would be in addition to what we know would be the inevitable health impact and the effect on the number of lives that are lost.
I firmly believe—and this is backed up by evidence—that, if we move at an appropriate pace now, we will build a firmer foundation for recovery and minimise the chances—because we cannot eradicate them—of having to go backwards into lockdown. If we go too quickly now and take too high a risk, the danger is that we will end up in lockdown for longer.
We have to get this right. Fundamentally, that is in the interest of health and lives, but it is in the interests of livelihoods and the economy as well.
Covid-19 Lockdown (Short-term Lets with Communal Stairways)
The First Minister gave an indicative date of 3 July for opening self-contained self-catering accommodation without shared facilities. She also mentioned the risk of imported cases. Can she confirm that such a definition does not include short-term lets with communal stairways, given the risk to residents from visitors from all over the world? Can she also confirm whether advice is being, or will be, sought on that question and that guidance that does not currently cover it will cover it in due course?
I will give an undertaking to come back to Andy Wightman and to make sure that the guidance is clear on what is and is not covered for the indicative date of 3 July that I gave today. We anticipate that, all being well, a more general opening of tourism and all holiday accommodation will occur from 15 July.
However, I would stress that, at this stage, we want to avoid people sharing facilities and accommodation outside their own household, because that is where the risks of transmission of the virus are highest. I am happy to come back to Andy Wightman on the detail of his question.
Shops Reopening (Public Guidance)
Further to the First Minister’s announcement, many shops will be preparing to open next Monday, and they will be following Government guidance. To support consumer confidence, will the Government continue to issue guidance for members of the public on how to shop safely, including on the use of face coverings, which many believe should be worn in shops?
I will do. I think that safe shopping, and the behaviour that all of us display when we are in shops, will matter hugely. The Scottish Retail Consortium has already put out a five-point piece of advice for shoppers, which I would endorse. I would add to it—and I hope that the consortium will add to it—the importance of face coverings.
We are still considering mandatory face coverings in shops. We are awaiting advice from the advisory group on high-risk transmission areas on the 2m distancing issue before we take a final decision on that, but we intend to undertake an awareness-raising campaign with the retail sector in the meantime. Making sure that shoppers wear face coverings, abide by physical distancing rules and follow the other advice that has been given for spaces outside and inside shops is really important.
Above all else—I repeat what I said last week—people must respect those who work in our shops. If they are asking you to do things that you would not normally have to do in a shop, they are doing it for your protection. They do not deserve, and should not get, abuse from anyone. Instead, they should have our thanks and respect.
Covid-19 Shielding Groups (Return to Schools)
Yesterday’s announcement on the return to our schools will be welcome news for many parents, but for one group it creates a whole new layer of anxiety. Lockdown has been hardest for children who have been shielding or who have been living with someone who has been doing so. Parents of such children will now be wondering what the new term means for them. Should they risk their children returning to crowded classrooms, with all the hazards that that will entail, or should they hold them back and accept the impact that that will have on their learning and social development? The same concern exists for teachers who are shielding. Will the First Minister outline what provision she intends to make for such groups?
That is an important question. Before the end of July, we will issue further general advice for people who are in the shielding category. As I indicated in my statement, we want to move towards a much more tailored approach for them, in which we will focus on how they can mitigate risks.
However, issues that particularly affect children will have to be worked through carefully. I believe that the chief medical officers in all parts of the United Kingdom are currently considering whether a change in the current advice on issues that particularly affect paediatric groups in the shielding category would be appropriate. I do not want to pre-empt that, because it is important that it is considered by clinicians.
Whatever the situation might be as we go into the period leading up to the return to our schools, the position for those in the shielding category—both pupils and teachers—will be properly considered and catered for.
That concludes First Minister’s question time. I advise members who are leaving the chamber that they should be careful to observe social distancing measures. We will resume at 2.45.13:46 Meeting suspended.
14:45 On resuming—