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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 24 November 2020

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Supply and Demand for Medicines, Business Motion, Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time, National Adoption Week 2020


Contents


Covid-19

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement from the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Covid-19.

14:19  

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

I will start with a brief summary of the Covid statistics that were published just a short time ago. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 771, which is 8.6 per cent of the tests carried out yesterday. That takes the total number of cases to 90,081.

There are now 1,197 people in hospital, which is a decrease of 11 from yesterday, and 84 people are in intensive care, which is the same as yesterday. I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further 41 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measure is now 3,544. Those figures remind us of the grief that the virus continues to cause. Once again, I offer my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.

I now turn to the allocation of levels. With the exception of East Lothian, which this morning moved from level 3 to level 2, I confirm that the Scottish Government is not proposing any changes today to the levels that currently apply to each local authority area. The latest data shows that the restrictions are having an impact across Scotland and within most local authority areas.

As I have reported over the past few weeks, the number of new cases across the country has stabilised in recent weeks. We now have grounds for cautious optimism that numbers may be declining. There is also evidence that admissions to hospital and intensive care units are now declining, too, although it is important to note that those figures fluctuate daily. Independent estimates place Scotland’s R number between 0.8 and 1, which suggests that infections may now be declining.

However, as I set out to Parliament last week, the national picture, which is positive, masks some regional variations. That is why we took action last week to put 11 local authority areas into the toughest restrictions. That was to try to ensure that case numbers in those parts of central and western Scotland would fall more markedly. At the time, I indicated that those restrictions would remain in place for three weeks, until 11 December, and so there are no changes for those local authorities this week. That means that the City of Glasgow, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian will all remain in level 4. People living in those areas should stay at home as much as possible until 11 December and should not travel outside their own local authority area unless that is for an essential purpose.

We have also adopted a cautious approach to the levels in the rest of Scotland this week. Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles, Moray and the Highlands will remain in level 1. All those areas continue to have low levels of infection. Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, and Argyll and Bute will remain at level 2. In Dumfries and Galloway and Argyll and Bute, the prevalence of the virus continues to fall or to stabilise at low levels. If that progress is maintained, we will take a view in the coming weeks as to whether those areas should move to level 1.

There have been recent rises in case numbers in both Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City. However, in large part, we have been able to attribute those cases to specific outbreaks, which are being managed by local public health teams, and so our judgment is that those areas do not require a change in level, although we continue to monitor them carefully. In addition, the City of Edinburgh, Clackmannanshire, Falkirk, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, Dundee, Fife, Perth and Kinross and Angus will all remain at level 3 for now. I should advise Parliament that we are monitoring Clackmannanshire and Perth and Kinross particularly carefully, given recent increases in cases in those areas.

The two local authorities that I want to say a bit more about are Midlothian and East Lothian. I indicated last week that both those areas would move from level 3 to level 2 unless data suggested that the epidemic in those areas was becoming worse. I am pleased to say that case numbers have continued to decline in East Lothian and it therefore moved from level 3 to level 2 at 6 am today. However, in recent days we have seen an increase in case numbers in Midlothian—from 61 new cases per 100,000 to just over 97. It is important to say that that is still well below the national average. However, a 50 per cent increase in one week is clearly a source of concern. In addition, test positivity has increased to 5.7 per cent. As a precaution, therefore, we have taken the decision that Midlothian should not move down a level but should stay in level 3 for a further period.

I realise that that will be disappointing for individuals and also for businesses that have made preparations for reopening or for extending their hours. However, we believe that adopting a cautious approach is preferable to a situation where Midlothian moves to level 2 while cases are rising, only to face a move back again almost immediately if they continue to rise. Discretionary funding was made available last week to local authorities and any business in Midlothian that needs to do so should approach the council to find out what support is available to it.

That concludes our assessment of the levels for each local authority for this week. However, our approach to managing the virus is not simply about applying different levels of restrictions; it also involves measures to improve compliance, expand testing and, as soon as possible, distribute and administer vaccines.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport updated Parliament on our plans for a population-wide vaccination programme and, yesterday, we heard more good news from the University of Oxford-AstraZeneca clinical trials. I take the opportunity to congratulate the team there on the exceptional progress that has been made.

There is no doubt that the light at the end of the tunnel that we have been talking about for the past couple of weeks is getting brighter. For now, though, we must continue to do all we can to keep the virus at bay as we navigate our way through what will be a tough winter. As part of that, the health secretary will set out to Parliament tomorrow our plans to extend asymptomatic testing. I confirm that we are now working with the 11 councils and five health boards that are in level 4 to develop and deliver targeted geographical testing in a number of communities. The health secretary will also give an update tomorrow on our plans to extend testing to designated visitors to care homes, care-at-home workers, and further groups of national health service staff. She will also give an update on the on-going preparations to start testing students through the use of lateral flow devices to support their return home for Christmas.

All students who wish to return home for Christmas will be offered two Covid tests a few days apart. I confirm that the student testing programme will get under way next week. I strongly recommend that any student who is due to return home over the holiday period gets tested first. In addition, students should take extra care in the two weeks before travel; for example, by reducing their social contact and going out only for essential reasons. By taking extra care and getting tested before travel, students can help to make the Christmas period as safe as possible for themselves and their families.

The issue of ensuring that Christmas is safe is the final point that I will touch on today. As the chamber just heard from the Deputy First Minister, the Christmas period is the subject of on-going discussions among the four United Kingdom nations. I will take part in a COBRA meeting later today at which it is hoped that we will agree a common framework, albeit that some details—for example, on the precise definition of “household”—might differ to reflect the circumstances in each nation.

I know that everyone has a desire to see loved ones over the festive period; however, there is also a very real and legitimate anxiety that doing so could put those we love at risk, set back our progress as a country and result in unnecessary deaths and suffering. That would always be a worry, but it is perhaps especially acute when we also know that we might be within weeks of being able to vaccinate a significant proportion of the population. The arrangements that we put in place for the festive period will seek to balance those concerns. Any easing of restrictions will be temporary, limited and accompanied by advice on the precautions that we should take to minimise risk. We will continue to ask people to err on the side of caution. Our overall advice will be for people to use any flexibility carefully and only if they believe it right and necessary for their personal circumstances.

That advice will recognise that all of us now have an even greater incentive and motivation to make the months ahead as safe as possible. As I indicated earlier, we have all been heartened in recent days by the increasingly positive news about vaccine development. There is now a very distinct possibility that the first vaccines could be administered before Christmas and that, by the spring of next year, we will have vaccinated our way back to something much closer to normal life.

However, although an end to the pandemic may now be in sight, we have not yet reached that end point, and the winter period ahead will be difficult. At the moment, Covid is still widespread, it is still highly infectious and it is still causing heartbreak to families each and every day. Although it is hard, we must therefore continue to do what is necessary to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Please, continue to stick to the rules. Do not meet in each other’s homes. If you meet outdoors or in public indoor places, please stick to the limit of six people from two households. Abide by the travel restrictions that are now in law. If you live in a level 3 or 4 area, do not leave your local authority area unless for an essential purpose; if you live elsewhere, do not travel into a level 3 or level 4 area. Remember FACTS, the five rules that will help keep us all safe in our day-to-day lives: wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m distance from anybody in other households; and self-isolate and book a test if you have symptoms.

By sticking to all those difficult rules now, we can protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. We will also help to protect our NHS over the winter and we will all be able to look forward to the better days that lie ahead. Please, stick with it.

The Presiding Officer

The First Minister will now take questions.

Ruth Davidson (Edinburgh Central) (Con)

The First Minister talked about the vaccine programme starting this side of Christmas. In her statement last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport outlined plans to vaccinate around a million people by the end of January, with that initial phase to begin as soon as supplies of the vaccine, purchased by the UK Government, become available and are distributed across the four home nations.

In that statement, the cabinet secretary also outlined the expected process for vaccine delivery in Scotland. Its elements include the setting up of vaccination centres and mobile delivery units and the use of some of the existing flu infrastructure and general practitioner surgeries.

Clearly, we all want every phase of vaccination to be delivered as quickly and smoothly as possible to the target groups who need it most, no matter where they live. However, it is also clear that it is an enormous logistical exercise that will depend in large part on the ability of central Government and health boards to equip, resource and staff facilities such as GP practices, which are already under huge strain as a result of normal winter pressures and the extra pressure of treating Covid patients.

Is the First Minister satisfied that every health board is in a suitably enhanced state of readiness? What contingency plans are being put in place for those parts of the health service that are most at risk from competing pressures?

The cabinet secretary also stated that

“we will need over 2,000 vaccinators and support staff by the end of January”.—[Official Report, 19 November 2020; c 38.]

What was not made clear was how many of the 2,000 will be existing healthcare workers who have been removed from other duties, and how many need to be recruited from outwith the NHS. Will the First Minister give us clarity on that point and any further information about progress on recruitment?

The First Minister

It is right to say that this vaccination programme will be perhaps the biggest logistical exercise and challenge that has been undertaken. Although it is absolutely right and proper that the Parliament, now and as we go through the vaccination programme, scrutinises its delivery, progress and effectiveness, I want to give an assurance that neither I nor the health secretary needs to be reminded of how big a challenge and responsibility it is to get this right.

The health secretary set out a number of details last week. She also very candidly said that we will require to update Parliament further as those details develop. There are two significant unknowns that are less unknown than they were just a few weeks ago, but which still have a degree of uncertainty around them.

The first unknown is the final licensing and certification of the vaccines as safe; the quantities of supply; and the pace at which they will be delivered to us. The UK Government is procuring on behalf of all four nations, but, although we have indications about the supply of each vaccine, we do not yet have certainty.

The second unknown is, as I have said, less unknown than it was, because the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises on clinical prioritisation, has put forward some initial recommendations. Although those may change, they have given us an early sense of priorities. In the first phase of priority, of course, will be care home workers and residents, people over 80 and front-line health workers.

We want to get the programme up and running, and the first phase completed, as quickly as possible. However, let me be very clear that we want to vaccinate the entire adult population as quickly as is feasible. We will continue to make more details available as and when we can.

The other uncertainty—and one of the reasons why the news yesterday on the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine was so good—is that each vaccine has its own requirements for storage, including temperature, and for transportation logistics. The AstraZeneca vaccine appears to be more straightforward than some of the others, which is why that was good news.

We will continue to update on the recruitment of the vaccinators. Obviously, right now, the on-going flu vaccination programme is well under way. Around half that programme is already done, and it will complete in the weeks to come. Those who are working on that programme will then shift over to the Covid vaccination programme. There will be a mixture of people who are taken and redeployed from other roles and those who are recruited in a new capacity.

We have the assistance of the military, should we need it, which will be very welcome. We also have an agreement with local authority leaders that local authorities will make their resources available, as required.

We will continue to update the Parliament regularly. I want to give an assurance on the direct question whether I am satisfied that every health board is in the position in which it needs to be at this point. Yes, but that is not a judgment that is fixed in a moment of time; we will continue to monitor the situation and work with health boards to make sure that, as some of the uncertainties become clearer, all parts of the system are doing what they need to do to ensure the successful delivery of the vaccination programme.

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Like too many businesses across the country, businesses in Midlothian are on their knees. We all accept that the situation can be fast moving and that the evidence can move in the wrong direction. However, decisions such as today’s need to be genuinely co-produced between the local elected council, the local business community, workers and trade unions.

In Midlothian, people were told, over the past week and as recently as last Friday, that they would move to level 2. It was only at 10.45 yesterday morning that they were told that they might not move to level 2, and it was only at 16.29 that the Deputy First Minister told them that they definitely would not move to level 2.

As a result, stock that businesses ordered will go to waste, safety measures that have been invested in will lie idle and staff who have been rehired will be laid off again. For some business owners, enough is enough. They are throwing in the towel and closing down for good, making staff redundant. They simply wanted certainty, and they did not get it.

In the extraordinary circumstances that face the economy and people of Midlothian, will the First Minister provide additional funding, over and beyond the £30 million that was announced last week, which is to cover the whole of Scotland? Will the Government act to compensate and support the businesses and working people who have been caught out by its 11th hour decision?

The First Minister

I will go into funding, specifically, in a second.

I know how difficult the general situation is for individuals, for businesses and for everybody right now, and I will never seek to sugar coat that; this is a torrid period for all of us to be living through. I recognise that a big part of the difficulty is the uncertainty that is inherent in dealing with something of this nature—a virus that, unfortunately, does not, at all times, behave in the way in which we want it to behave. Therefore, to protect the population—to try to limit the health impact and limit the number of people who die—we have to be prepared to be flexible.

That is why, when I was standing here in the chamber this time last week, I made very clear that the decision to allow East Lothian and Midlothian to move from level 3 to level 2 was contingent on there not being a deterioration in the data. We have been monitoring the position over the course of the week; of course, figures are published daily by Public Health Scotland. The deterioration in the position in Midlothian was such that, as recently as yesterday morning, the national incident management team discussed the matter and came to the conclusion that it would not be sensible, given the rise in cases, to take Midlothian down a level.

There were discussions between the council and the Deputy First Minister. When we have such discussions, we invite councils to put a different point of view, because these decisions are always finely balanced. However, I think that the overall view was that, while cases were rising, it would not make sense to have Midlothian go down a level, only to go back up a level immediately in a week’s time, if the situation continued. That is not ideal, but it perhaps offers greater stability than the alternative would have done.

I cannot stand here, any week, and guarantee that there will be no changes to our planning, because if we are not prepared to stay flexible, the virus will too quickly get the better of us.

The reason why we announced, last week, a £30 million discretionary fund for local authorities was to give local authorities more ability to act flexibly, in terms of not just the decisions that we took last week but unforeseen developments. Midlothian will have a share of that £30 million and will be able to consider whether any particular business that had planned to re-open today has had losses because of the situation. That is why, in my statement, I encouraged businesses in Midlothian to contact the council to explore what support is available to them.

This is a difficult, uncertain, unpredictable situation. I know that that makes it difficult for everybody, but we have to continue to take decisions based on what is best to protect the country if we are to get through these next few months—hopefully, these final few months—as safely as we can.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

The First Minister confirmed in her statement that 8.6 per cent of recent tests have proved positive, which is above the World Health Organization threshold of 5 per cent, at which point the WHO states that the virus is out of control. We all very much understand that any loosening of restrictions over Christmas is a trade-off. Will the First Minister ensure that the Scottish Government publishes the evidence base behind the arrangements, and can she ensure that that includes modelling of the impact that the arrangements will have on the number of new infections over the Christmas period? For example, what level of increase in infection will be considered acceptable?

The First Minister

We will continue to publish evidence and modelling, as we think that that is helpful and appropriate.

There is an important point about being candid with people. I think that, across the UK, we all recognise that this will be difficult but important to communicate. We are seeking to give people the option, should their personal circumstances require it, of a bit of flexibility over Christmas, whether that is providing a window of time or some flexibility in the number of households that can come together. What we are absolutely not doing is encouraging everybody to go out and use that to the maximum. This is about people continuing to make judgments.

I would say to anybody who thinks that they can get through the Christmas period without mixing more than we are advising right now that they should do that. The intention is to acknowledge that, for some people, particularly at Christmas, social isolation and relatives being on their own and distant is much more difficult. However, saying that something might be permissible is not the same as an encouragement to use that flexibility to the maximum. That will be difficult to recognise, but if we are all very careful, we can minimise any impact.

As other Governments will be doing, the Scottish Government is, of course, considering the implications of that for the advice that we might give people who see other people—what they might do before, during and after that—and what advice and precautions we might recommend for the post-festive period. While we will hopefully come to an overall agreement with other UK nations today, we will continue to develop the guidance around the issue in the days to follow.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The balanced and proportionate enforcement of travel restrictions by Police Scotland is vital to ensuring compliance with the restrictions. That duty is Police Scotland’s and only Police Scotland’s. The First Minister will have seen the disgraceful tweet from Ian Blackford to his 100,000 followers last night, singling out and bullying a private citizen who had relocated here from England. Does she support such vigilante action from her MPs, and what steps is she taking to address Mr Blackford’s behaviour?

Beyond that, what consideration has her Government given to mass testing of those living in level 4 so that travel restrictions might finally be relaxed?

The First Minister

On the first point, I suspect that people watching have myriad things that they want to hear addressed in the Parliament, and hopefully they will do so this afternoon. I am not sure that that would have been at the top of the list. I saw that Ian Blackford had apologised for doing something that he recognised he should not have done on Twitter. When people get something wrong, the right thing is to readily apologise for it. That is the grace and dignity that I associate with Ian Blackford every day of the week.

The travel restrictions are in law for a good reason right now. If we are to maintain a proportionate, targeted approach across the country, we must not take the virus from high to low-prevalence areas or have people from low-prevalence areas travelling to high-prevalence areas and taking the virus back with them. That necessitates travel restrictions.

The early indication that I have from the weekend is that, as I would have expected, people have responded magnificently. We have information that suggests that in level 4 areas, road traffic reduced by more than 30 per cent compared to the previous Sunday, and in level 3 areas, it was down by more than 10 per cent. That reduction is the case across different modes of transport and shows that people are doing the right thing for what they understand to be the right reasons.

We keep the regulatory basis of travel restrictions under review as we move parts of the country in and out of levels. We will not keep those restrictions in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary, but I will be very clear: we deem them to be absolutely necessary at this stage.

The Presiding Officer

I see that around 17 members wish to ask a question. This item of business will not run any later than 3.05 pm, so please keep your questions and answers concise.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

I am sure that the First Minister will understand that there was considerable disappointment that the Stirling area was placed in level 4 restrictions last week, but given that the seven-day positivity rate per 100,000 rose from 214 on the day of the decision to 224 on Sunday past, I believe that the decision was correct in order to save lives. Will the First Minister join me in sincerely thanking staff of NHS Forth Valley, Stirling Council and the Scottish Ambulance Service for carrying out mass community testing in areas such as Bannockburn, Fallin, Cowie and Plean in my Stirling constituency, in order to identify people in the community with the Covid-19 virus, including those who are asymptomatic, save as many lives as possible and protect the NHS?

The First Minister

I will readily join Bruce Crawford in thanking those working in the NHS, the Ambulance Service and in front-line roles more generally who do a number of things to keep the population safe. The decision to place any part of the country into level 4 last week was not taken lightly, and Bruce Crawford has demonstrated, through the figures, why that was the right decision to take in relation to Stirling. We hope that the restrictions will, over the next couple of weeks, start to cause case numbers and test positivity to fall.

As I said earlier on—this is relevant to Bruce Crawford’s question—the health secretary will set out tomorrow detail of the work that we have been undertaking with the 11 local authorities and five health boards across the level 4 areas about targeted geographic mass testing, which will be a mixture of polymerase chain reaction and lateral flow testing and which will, by definition, include people who are asymptomatic. That is a part of the overall approach that we need to take in addition to the restrictions that we are asking people to abide by to get the infection levels down, and I am sure that the chamber will be interested in the detail of that when the health secretary sets it out tomorrow.

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

Many hard-pressed businesses are still waiting to receive support a week after restrictions were announced, which is all the more frustrating given the 11-day wait the last time. Will the First Minister agree to publishing regular data on the grants that businesses have received?

The First Minister

Yes, I am sure that, as we did previously, we will make that information available. It is important that it is available.

The money is made available through and administered by local authorities, and those grants have been open for application since last week. Significant financial support is available for businesses, but I do not pretend that it will compensate every business for every loss that they are making. I know that this is a much more severe situation than would allow for that, which is why it is important to get levels of the virus down so that we can start allowing businesses to trade more normally again.

We have not only sought to match the business support that has been made available in the rest of the UK by the UK Government, but in a number of ways exceeded that. The discretionary funding that I set out last week exceeds the relevant and comparable schemes in England, as I understand it. I have seen some commentary that I think was from a select committee in the UK Parliament over the past few days about steps that we had taken in Scotland to make support available for newly self-employed people, which is not available in some other parts of the UK. We will continue to make sure that support is available to the maximum that we can provide it and that that support is accessible for businesses as quickly and effectively as possible.

George Adam (Paisley) (SNP)

Tomorrow marks the annual international day for the elimination of violence against women. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted to us all the importance of protecting women and girls who find themselves isolated and vulnerable because of the actions of an abusive partner. In what ways will the Scottish Government continue to tackle domestic abuse?

The First Minister

A major concern for all of us during the pandemic has been that people might be subject to domestic abuse and that people who had been subject to domestic abuse would become more susceptible to it. We asked people to stay at home when, for some, home was not a place of safety.

During the crisis, we have seen it as a priority to highlight the front-line services that can help people. We allocated additional resourcing to some such services so that they could respond to an increase in demand from victims of abuse. It is important that anyone who experiences domestic abuse knows that help is available, that the services are there and that Police Scotland is there for them, too.

We have published today the final report on equally safe, which is our joint strategy with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to prevent and eradicate violence against women and girls. That report details the response to Covid and outlines key actions to date. It shows that we have continued to make progress to tackle domestic abuse and overcome the challenges of the past year, many of which have been heightened by the challenges of the pandemic.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I welcome the extension of testing to care-at-home workers and to family care givers and the additional testing capacity to allow for 65,000 tests a day by the end of the year. I understand that 13,000 tests were carried out yesterday, which represents just over a third of the available capacity. Given that the announcement that testing would be extended to care-at-home workers and family care givers was made a month ago, on 23 October, why is such testing not yet happening in my area, which is in a level 4 lockdown because of the prevalence of Covid?

The First Minister

Jackie Baillie raised a few issues that it is important to disentangle. The 65,000 capacity, which we are on track to meet and—I hope—to exceed by the end of the year, is for PCR testing. The main PCR programme, on which we report testing numbers every day, is largely demand driven—although it has exceptions, such as care home weekly testing—so, when the prevalence of the virus reduces, demand for testing falls.

On the extension of testing, it sometimes frustrates me—as much as I know that it frustrates other people—that it takes time to put into practice substantial programmes of testing delivery. That is why the health secretary will give an update on that tomorrow. Care-at-home workers and designated care home visitors will soon be tested. However, the bit to disentangle is how we will increasingly use lateral flow testing, which is different and has a different processing requirement from PCR testing.

The availability of lateral flow testing will allow us to substantially extend the reach of mass testing, particularly to asymptomatic groups. A constraint on lateral flow testing, which we hope will change soon, is that it is not yet licensed for unsupervised use—we cannot yet give tests to groups of people and ask them to do the tests themselves, although that will become possible in time.

A number of interrelated and technological issues are at play in testing. However, as the health secretary will demonstrate tomorrow, we continue to make good progress in expanding the reach of testing and seeing testing as part of the variety of tools that we have to combat the virus until we can vaccinate against it.

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

The Deputy First Minister just responded to a topical question that my question is similar to. How will the Scottish Government continue to support people in rural communities, including those in Dumfries and Galloway, to ensure that they do not suffer from loneliness and social isolation over the Christmas season because of the restrictions to deal with Covid-19?

The First Minister

The Deputy First Minister just addressed that in response to a topical question. One reason for seeking agreement with the other UK nations on some flexibility over the Christmas period is to recognise that social isolation and loneliness can be exacerbated over Christmas, although it is important to recognise that that is an issue for people who are on their own not just at Christmas but all year round. That is a key thing that we are doing to deal with the situation in the coming period.

We support a number of initiatives, including mental health initiatives such as the Clear Your Head campaign. Our supporting communities fund has supported a range of national and local organisations to help people who are directly impacted by Covid, which includes people who are suffering from loneliness and social isolation.

Last week, I mentioned organisations that we have supported and which do very good work, including Generations Working Together, the Scottish Pensioners Forum, Outside the Box, Hourglass and Age Scotland. The additional funding that we have made available helps them to increase their work to provide support, advice and friendship to people. Initial figures for the first phase of our connecting Scotland digital programme, to get people online and connected, have shown that more than 40 per cent of people who have benefited from that are over 60 years old. We will continue to act in a range of ways to mitigate the impact of loneliness, not just at Christmas, but perhaps particularly over the next few weeks.

Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

The figures for suicides in Scotland in 2019 were released today. They show that the number of suicides has risen to its highest level for almost a decade. Given those deeply concerning statistics from last year, combined with the impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health this year, can the First Minister today commit to publishing more up-to-date figures on suicides? What specific action is her Government taking on suicide prevention during the pandemic?

The First Minister

The figures today are very distressing and give us cause for extreme concern, not least because they predate the pandemic and we know that there has been an additional impact on people’s mental health over the course of the pandemic. Figures on suicides are published annually, but we will consider whether there is anything that we can do, consistent with the publication of robust and reliable statistics, to publish statistics, particularly for the pandemic period, more regularly or frequently. I cannot give a commitment to that today, but I am happy to ask for that to be considered.

The Minister for Mental Health has already set out detail of the work that we are doing through the mental health transition programme to recover mental health services and to look at the additional work that needs to be done to respond to the pandemic. That will include suicide prevention work, but I know that the minister will want to respond in full to today’s statistics and to set out in more detail the work that we will be doing over the coming period, as we seek to recover in many ways from what Covid has thrown at us.

Annabelle Ewing (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)

A while back, the First Minister referred to the excellent compliance that there has been with the level 3 and 4 travel restrictions thus far. However, with a view to ensuring that that remains the case, I ask the First Minister to underscore for my constituents in Cowdenbeath and people across Fife and Scotland the reason for such restrictions, what they are designed to do and the vital importance of folk adhering to them, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.

The First Minister

Given how restrictive those rules are on people’s day-to-day lives, it is important to take every opportunity to explain and underline the reasons for them. As people know, we are seeking to avoid the whole country being in level 4 and having the same restrictions because, from a purely epidemiological public health perspective, the spread of the virus in each part of the country does not necessitate that. However, if we are to maintain a targeted approach, whereby we have higher levels of restriction in areas where the virus is at higher levels but lower levels of restriction in areas where prevalence is not as great, we must avoid the virus spreading from area to area.

Therefore, it is very important that people who live in level 3 or level 4 areas, where prevalence is higher, do not travel outside of those areas, because doing so risks taking the virus to other areas and makes it more likely that they will need tougher restrictions in the weeks to come. People who live in an area where the levels of the virus are lower should not go to higher-level areas, because they might get the virus there and take it back, and that same problem with spread will happen. Therefore, if we are to maintain a targeted approach, travel restrictions are essential. That is true internationally and domestically when we face an infectious virus.

As I indicated earlier, the figures that we have for travel across all modes of transport over the weekend show that people are complying with the restrictions; there was a significant reduction in the use of roads, buses and trains over the weekend, particularly in and out of level 3 and level 4 areas. We might not have looked at those figures quite as robustly as the way in which Transport Scotland monitors travel. However, we have also looked at, for example, figures for shopping centres in level 3 areas that are adjacent to those in level 4, to give assurance that there has not been a displacement effect. We found that, on the contrary, it looks as though footfall there was down, even in level 3 areas.

We continue to monitor all such matters carefully. However, let me be clear. If we are to maintain our targeted approach, it is essential that people abide by the travel restrictions.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

People who live in areas with restrictions at levels 1 and 2 are able to travel to other parts of Scotland that have similar levels of restriction—for example, to meet up with their loved ones. However, even when the lockdown south of the border is lifted in the next week, if those loved ones happen to live in England and in an area with a tier restriction that is equivalent to our level 1 or 2, travel from Scotland to meet them in England will still be against the law.

Will the First Minister set out the science that justifies why my constituents and other people in, for example, Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders and East Lothian can travel within the boundaries of those areas to meet their loved ones but, if their families happen to live south of the border, it would be a criminal offence for them to visit them in England, even in an area that is covered by a tier similar to a low Scottish level?

The First Minister

I will come on to the science in a second. I am not going to stand here and suggest that I am an expert on the detail of the regulations in England, but people have to be aware that there are restrictions on travel there as well. Aside from whether they would be breaching the law were they to travel from Scotland to England in such circumstances, they might be breaching the current law in England, which is, of course, that people should remain within their own homes unless there is an essential reason for them to travel. Various parts of the UK might have slightly different restrictions on travel in place, but such restrictions are in place in all such parts right now.

That brings me to the science. I understand people’s constant demand for us to give them scientific proof. However, if they were to take a step back from the situation, they would see that we have here an infectious virus that spreads between people so, unfortunately, the way to stop it doing so is for people to stay apart from each other and to minimise their contact and travel. That is most important when we are dealing with high-prevalence areas, which is why we put some aspects of the restrictions into law.

Difficult though it is, my general advice to people is that, in the midst of a global pandemic, they should not travel right now unless they really need to. That is hard to say, and it is also hard for people to hear. However, let us just remind ourselves that we are in the midst of a global pandemic that involves an infectious virus. The general advice to people—wherever they intend to go—is that, if their trip is not necessary right now, they should think twice about taking it.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

On a number of occasions, the First Minister has said that the virus will not stop just because it is Christmas. Further, as my constituent Mrs McShand said to me yesterday,

“You can’t relax a virus.”

To protect our NHS in January, what steps are being taken—and what steps could we all take—to mitigate any increase in case numbers as a consequence of more people meeting over the Christmas period?

The First Minister

First and foremost, people should think carefully about what they find it necessary to do over Christmas. I hope that this afternoon we will agree some permissibility on gatherings, which is not there right now. However, that does not mean that everyone has to exercise such a freedom. It is there to recognise that there are some family situations in which people will want to come together—for example, where a loved one will be on their own, or where a family has a loved one who is nearing the end of their life and might not be with them next Christmas. It is important to do what we can to recognise such situations and to allow that. However, if others can get through this Christmas without coming together with other households, and they would rather wait until Easter, by which time it is to be hoped that lots of us will have been vaccinated, I encourage them to do so.

This is a situation in which it is difficult for anyone in my position to legislate—I use that word colloquially as well as literally—for every eventuality. We are trying to strike a balance that recognises the particular circumstances of family interaction over the Christmas period while still asking people to be sensible and not to do things that they do not really have to, because a risk is attached to everything that we do.

We will also be very clear with people about the precautions that they should take in the run-up to any interaction and when they come together. I am not standing here suggesting that it will be easy for anybody, if they are with family members on Christmas day, to remember about hand hygiene and cleaning hard surfaces and to perhaps open a window in the depths of December to allow for some ventilation, but those things will all be important.

We all have to remember our individual responsibilities in the midst of this to minimise risk as much as possible. I will do what I can from now until Christmas to get the advice, messages and understanding across to people.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

In answer to a question that I asked a few weeks ago, the First Minister confirmed, on behalf of her Government, that vitamin D would be available to anyone in the shielding category and that the situation for supply in care homes was being considered. Can the First Minister confirm that a four-month supply of vitamin D has now been deployed to people in the shielding category? Will she also confirm her Government’s position on the supply to care home residents?

The First Minister

If I get any of this wrong in any way, I will clarify the position with Rachael Hamilton after the session, but I do not believe that the situation has changed since I answered her previously. When she asked me the question previously, I believe, from memory, that we had just sent the text to people in the shielding category to make them aware that they could request a four-month supply of vitamin D. That is the case. People in the shielding category should have had that text, and they can get that supply. There is also advice that people should be wary about any interaction with other medication.

When it is judged that there is a clinical need for someone in a care home to have vitamin D, they will get that supply. Of course, individual advice will be given, because many people in care homes will be on other medication and any interactions have to be taken account of.

I think that I narrated that position the previous time the question was asked. I do not think that the position has changed but, if there has been any change that I am not remembering right now, I will advise Rachael Hamilton of it as soon as possible.

The Presiding Officer

I am afraid that we have to conclude the questions on the statement. I apologise to the members whom we were not able to reach.