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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Virtual) 26 January 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Scotland’s Vision for Trade, University of St. Andrews (Degrees in Medicine and Dentistry) Bill: Stage 1, Post-mortem Examinations (Defence Time Limit) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


Contents


Covid-19

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement from John Swinney on Covid-19. The Deputy First Minister will take questions at the end of his statement. I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to let me know by typing an “R” in the BlueJeans chat function.

14:14  

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (John Swinney)

I would like to update Parliament on the current position in relation to the Covid pandemic. I will not announce any changes to the current restrictions, but I will set out some additional support for students and outline our current thinking on issues such as travel restrictions.

First, though, I will give an overview of the current course of the pandemic in Scotland and to do that, I will give a brief summary of the latest statistics. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,049. That represents 9 per cent of all tests carried out and takes the total number of positive cases to 174,002.

I can also confirm that by 8.30 this morning, 437,900 people had received their first dose of the vaccine. That includes 51 per cent of all 80-year-olds living in the community. There are 2,010 people now in hospital, which is a reduction of six from yesterday, and 149 people are in intensive care, which is a decrease of two from yesterday.

I also regret to report that in the last 24 hours, a further 87 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 5,796. Once again, I send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic.

The figure for new deaths that I have just read out is heartbreaking and the number of new cases and of people in hospital continues to be of deep concern to the Government. However, recent figures should also provide us with cautious confidence that the lockdown restrictions are beginning to have an effect. At the start of the year, in the seven days to Friday 8 January, an average of 2,356 people in Scotland were testing positive for Covid every day, which is 302 new cases for every 100,000 people in the population. Last week, in the seven days to last Friday, that number had fallen from 2,356 to 1,384. That is approximately 180 new cases for every 100,000 people.

There now seems to be little doubt that the lockdown restrictions are reducing case numbers, rather than simply stabilising them, but case numbers remain far too high. In fact, they are still more than a third higher than they were just one week before Christmas, and of course, because we have had high infection rates for many weeks now, our national health service is under considerable strain. As Parliament has just been advised, there are currently around 2,000 people in hospital with Covid, which is about 500 people more than was the case last April. There are approximately 150 people in intensive care with Covid, which is fewer than in the spring of last year, but it still puts a significant burden on the NHS as it tries to handle other winter pressures.

We are now seeing some evidence that hospital numbers may be starting to stabilise, but they will take time to fall and, at the moment, any relaxation of restrictions could cause them to increase further. All that means that although we are definitely seeing signs of improvement, the position in Scotland remains precarious. As a result, at this morning’s Cabinet meeting, as I have indicated, we decided not to make any changes to the current lockdown measures—they will remain in place until at least the middle of February.

That means, among other things, that there is no change to the current position in relation to education. Remote learning for school pupils will continue to be the default position and we will provide a further update on education arrangements next week. For university and college students, plans for a staggered return will be kept under continuous review.

The current restrictions are tough, and the Scottish Government is constantly assessing whether there is additional support that we can provide to the organisations, businesses and individuals who need it most. In relation to business, it is worth noting that this week, new funds are being launched to provide support for brewers, travel agents, our wedding industry and indoor football centres.

In relation to support for individuals, I have just mentioned our colleges and universities. The pandemic has caused additional financial difficulties for students—for example, many students who were reliant on part-time jobs have found themselves out of work. The on-going restrictions around student accommodation are also causing difficulties for students and educational institutions. The Scottish Government has decided today, therefore, to allocate a further £30 million of support, £10 million of which will be used to help colleges and universities that have lost revenue—for example, if they have refunded rents for accommodation that is not being used—and £20 million of which will provide further hardship support for students, including students who are having to pay rent on properties that they cannot occupy.

We are hugely grateful to our students and educational institutions for the way in which they are co-operating with us and helping us to tackle Covid. We hope that that support will help them to manage as they do that.

This morning, the Cabinet also discussed the support grants that are paid to people who are self-isolating. We will make an announcement soon on extending eligibility for those grants, and Parliament will be updated at the earliest opportunity. Providing help for those who need it most, while they are self-isolating, is the right thing to do, and it will help us to keep the virus under control. It is one way in which we can strengthen our test and protect system in the weeks and months ahead.

Travel restrictions will also play an important part in keeping the virus under control, by reducing the risk of new cases and new variants being imported. We have engaged with the United Kingdom Government for some time on improving border controls. We have had discussions on measures such as quarantine hotels, but we have not yet been sighted on what the UK Government intends to announce or when it intends to make an announcement. I understand that that decision has been deferred to this evening.

Border controls will work best on a four-nations basis. If, for example, Scotland established a supervised quarantine regime and England did not, that could be problematic if unrestricted travel between Scotland and England resumed.

The Scottish Government believes that a comprehensive system of supervised quarantine is required, so I can confirm that the Scottish Government will initially go at least as far as any UK Government announcement does in enhancing quarantine arrangements, including through the use of hotels. If the UK restrictions are at a minimal level, we will look at other controls that we can announce—including additional supervised quarantine measures—to protect us further from importation of the virus, and we will set them out next week.

Any additional travel restrictions will create further difficulties for our aviation industry, and we believe that the UK Government should provide support that recognises that. Any support for the aviation sector that the UK Government provides will be passed on to the sector in Scotland through consequential funding.

In addition to travel restrictions and the test and protect system, our vaccination programme will play an increasingly vital role in keeping the virus under control. We have now given a first dose of vaccine to more than half of the over-80-year-olds in Scotland. In addition, 95 per cent of older care home residents and 95 per cent of front-line health and social care workers have received their first doses. Letters are going out to people in the 70 to 79 age group, and we expect to have given a first dose of vaccine to everyone in that age group by the middle of February.

In time—not immediately, but in the near future—vaccination should start to significantly reduce the number of people who die from Covid. In the longer term, as more and more people are vaccinated, we should see an impact on hospital admissions and transmission rates.

Ultimately, the vaccination programme—combined perhaps with some continuing restrictions—offers us a way out of the pandemic. However, as I have outlined, very strict restrictions continue to be necessary in the immediate future. As part of that, it is essential that people who have had the vaccine continue to follow the rules and that we all still physically distance from such people.

I know that the restrictions remain difficult for people across Scotland to endure, but they are essential and they are working. They are reducing case numbers and, by doing that, they are saving lives. I appeal to members of the public to stick to the letter—and the spirit—of the rules.

If you live in a level 4 area—level 4 applies to the whole of mainland Scotland—you must stay at home, unless you are going out for an essential purpose. Do not have people from other households in your house and do not go into theirs. Work from home wherever that is possible and, if you are an employer, support your employees to work from home if they can. Follow the FACTS advice at all times when you are out and about.

By doing that, we can protect ourselves, our loved ones and our communities; we can relieve some of the pressure that health and care workers face; and we can keep the virus under control while vaccinations proceed. Please stay at home, protect the national health service and save lives. I express the Government’s thanks to everyone who is doing exactly that.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank the Deputy First Minister for advance sight of his statement. We offer our condolences to those whose loved ones have lost their lives in recent days.

We heard this morning, from education expert Professor Lindsay Paterson, that the learning experience of half our school pupils is still not satisfactory. We know that, despite the best efforts of our teachers, the plans for online learning are still letting down many parents and pupils. We welcome the extra funding that was made available today for students who are at university. The Conservatives had called for that. I hope that we will see some urgency from the Scottish Government in giving all pupils the online learning experience that they deserve, and in preventing the attainment gap from growing even wider.

Today, I want to ask the Deputy First Minister about our key weapon in the fight to get our pupils back into the classroom and to get life back to normal for everyone. The Scottish National Party’s Covid vaccine roll-out has been slow and sluggish. Yesterday, the First Minister tried to blame that on delayed figures. We can see from today’s statement that that is simply nonsense. People do not understand why the Government has half a million doses of the vaccine sitting there, unused. The SNP’s vaccination plan says that those doses are available for “next day delivery”, but we know that the vaccines are not getting out to general practitioners quickly enough.

Dr Andrew Buist, of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said this morning that reaching the target of vaccinating all over-70s by the middle of February is a big ask. We have had many reports today from over-70s across the country being told that they will have to travel miles from their GP to get the vaccine. That is the postcode lottery that we have been warning about for months. We must end the vaccine postcode lottery.

Will the Deputy First Minister commit to publishing each health board’s vaccination plan so that the public know what is going on, right across Scotland? In the light of the BMA Scotland’s concerns, is he fully confident that the target to vaccinate all over-70s and clinically vulnerable people by the middle of February will still be achieved, or has that target now slipped, just as the target to vaccinate the over-80s did?

Finally, can the Deputy First Minister explain to everyone who cannot understand what the hold-up is why half a million doses of the vaccine are not getting out faster to our GPs and into people’s arms?

John Swinney

There was a vast amount in that question, Presiding Officer, so if you will bear with me, I will walk my way through all the different topics.

First, on education, I listened to Professor Lindsay Paterson on the radio and was encouraged to hear him say that there has been significant strengthening of delivery of remote learning in January 2021. That is a fair reflection of the superb efforts that are being made by our teaching profession.

Education Scotland has already published the first of the thematic reviews of the approach that is being taken by local authorities. It presents encouraging news about how education is being delivered to children and young people around the country. Our educators are doing everything that they can do to ensure that the needs of the children and young people in their classrooms are adequately met by delivery of education. Huge progress has been made, which is having an impact on the education of children and young people around the country.

Secondly, I will move on to issues around the vaccine. As I have rehearsed—and as other ministers have—there are not, in our hands in Scotland, 500,000 doses of the vaccine that can be used at this present moment. More vaccines have been allocated to Scotland than the number that we have in our hands. Those will be drawn down as soon as the distributors are able to verify the supplies and to distribute them to us in Scotland. That is the orderly path that we are taking.

We are on course to complete vaccination of all over-80-year-olds by the end of the first week in February. The progress that has been made reaffirms the pattern of delivery. Letters are now arriving at the households of individuals in the over-70s group, inviting them to come for their vaccinations.

Some of the vaccinations will be given in centres other than local general practices, but that is for a very good reason. Many of those centres will undertake vaccination in significant volumes, which is more suited to delivery of the Pfizer vaccine because it comes in much larger batches than the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. There is a clear rationale for taking that approach.

I reassure the Parliament and members of the public that good progress is being made on delivery of the vaccine to the over-80s. We have already reached more than 95 per cent of care home residents, whom we know are most at risk of morbidity from Covid. We have reached the majority of over-80s and the task will be completed by the end of the first week in February. We will then move on to complete first doses for the next priority group by the middle of February, as we announced.

The Presiding Officer

I hope that not all questions will be quite as long as Mr Greene’s.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I thank the Deputy First Minister for the advance copy of his statement. I, too, regret the further deaths from Covid in Scotland and send condolences to all those who are affected.

We know that many families are worried about the continuing closure of schools. There are multiple cases of families in my constituency—and, indeed, across Scotland—who are struggling to home school their children. Education Scotland points to a lack of Chromebooks and poor information technology and broadband, and teachers report lack of support and guidance. Children are simply falling through the gaps, and far too many are being left behind.

Local councils are struggling to provide the resources for the scale of the education challenge that they face. Today, we heard from Audit Scotland that councils have a staggering budget gap of £767 million as a result of Covid. Why, therefore, is the Scottish Government sitting on £800 million of unspent money from the UK Government for Covid-related expenditure? Why is it not being allocated to help struggling families to home school their children? Why is the SNP not putting our children’s education and wellbeing at the very top of the agenda?

John Swinney

That was Jackie Baillie’s familiar take on all education issues, but—of course—it is far from the reality. The Government has provided resources to support delivery of education in the exceptional circumstances that we face. We provided money to recruit 1,400 additional teachers and in excess of 200 additional support staff to our education system. A couple of weeks ago, I allocated £45 million to assist delivery of education through recruitment of more staff or enhancement of IT connectivity for individual pupils.

The Government has also already provided £25 million for the purchase of Chromebooks and connectivity solutions for 70,000 pupils the length and breadth of the country, which is the estimated number of children and young people who had difficulties accessing technology. Local authorities provided us with the figures. The Government has provided a huge amount of financial support to assist delivery of education at local level.

Education Scotland has provided what I would describe as well-received curricular advice for the education system. That advice has been endorsed by the education recovery group, which, of course, includes local authorities and professional associations.

In addition, Education Scotland has been working with local authorities on the online learning resources that are provided by e-Sgoil and by the west of Scotland and Tayside collaboratives. They provide more than 500 recorded lessons that can be utilised by schools around the country, in addition to tutorial support for senior-phase pupils who are in pursuit of their qualifications.

A huge amount of very welcome support is available to educators around the country. We will continue to enhance that support as each week goes by. I thank members of the teaching profession for the extraordinary efforts that they have made to ensure that young people are well supported through remote learning, in the difficult circumstances that we face.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

[Inaudible.]—back at the beginning of the vaccine programme, but the explanations simply do not add up any more. Scotland is around 140,000 vaccines behind where we should be, compared with the equivalent in England. The programme in England is getting faster; in Scotland, it is getting slower. It may take more time to vaccinate care home residents, but that should not hold back the rest of the roll-out of the vaccine. I listened carefully to his earlier answer, but is the Deputy First Minister really denying that he has any vaccines in storage that could be with GPs?

John Swinney

There are obviously vaccines that are being distributed to general practitioners at present, and there will be supplies available in general practices. Clearly, if a GP gives a commitment to vaccinate an individual in several days’ time, they must be confident about the supplies that they have. For a vaccination that is to be undertaken on Friday, for instance, the GP will have to be confident that they have a supply in store to enable that to happen.

We are of course constantly distributing supplies to general practitioners. They will continue to be drawn down according to the requirements and needs of GPs in fulfilling the categorisation that has been agreed through the acceptance by the Government of the priorities of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

We are drawing down the vaccine to enable us to fulfil the commitments that we have given in the priority groupings within the timescales that are set out. It is a pretty understandable and simple point that GPs will have to be assured, when they are giving commitments to members of the public that vaccinations will take place, that they have the supplies available to them to enable them to undertake those tasks. That is of course what GPs and others in the health system are focused on ensuring is the case.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I am grateful for the advance copy of the statement.

I welcome the progress towards a quarantine policy for new international arrivals, in particular the use of quarantine hotels, which has been successful in many other countries. Will the availability of hotel capacity place a limit on the number of daily arrivals, ensuring that we do not have people arriving with nowhere to send them to if they are required to quarantine?

More important is that if quarantine hotels are to be an effective policy for the relatively small number of international travellers, why is that approach not also being taken for the much larger number of people in our population who are required to self-isolate? Some of the countries that have been most successful in tackling Covid have been much more ambitious about supported self-isolation. The quarantine hotel policy should reflect our approach to those people who need to self-isolate, too.

John Swinney

There are two distinct but related issues in the question that Patrick Harvie has put to me. The first relates to quarantine hotel arrangements. Mr Harvie will understand that the Government is considering many of the details about that question, and we will update Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity. That work is very actively under way in the Government just now.

I do not think that there would be an issue about capacity being available. There is clearly capacity in the hotel sector, given the absence of tourism and business travel activity at present. I do not think that there would be any operational challenges in that respect. We must ensure that there is an aligned system so that all cases can be properly dealt with as appropriate.

On the questions regarding self-isolation, as I indicated in the statement, the Government has already put in place measures on self-isolation financial support. We are considering that afresh to determine whether it is adequate, and we will make further announcements on that in due course.

Patrick Harvie’s substantive point is correct: one of the most effective ways to interrupt the spread of the virus is by ensuring that individuals self-isolate when they test positive. That will be easier for some individuals, given their domestic and financial circumstances, than it will be for others. We must approach that issue respectfully. The Government is working to determine the appropriate level of support to enable that.

The Presiding Officer

All the parties have had long opening questions. I hope that we will make progress through the other questions.

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Will the Deputy First Minister highlight the funding that is available to taxi operators? They do not seem to be eligible for the taxi and private hire drivers support fund, yet they often cover the costs of licences and overheads for their drivers.

John Swinney

The eligibility criteria for that scheme have been set out. If a taxi operator meets those criteria, they will be able to receive appropriate financial support. I encourage taxi operators to consult the criteria and to identify the routes by which they can access the financial support that is available for the taxi sector.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

As more of the most vulnerable people are vaccinated, that will have an effect on the need for restrictions. What modelling has the Scottish Government done to adapt restrictions and to develop a road map out of those restrictions as more of the most vulnerable are protected? I am especially concerned about people’s access to loved ones in care homes and in the impact that vaccines will have on those care homes.

John Swinney

I understand the significance of Mr Whittle’s question and the sensitivity and necessity of people being able to visit their loved ones in care homes.

The Government is anxious to stress the importance, even once a vaccination has taken place, of individuals following the rules on physical distancing and the wider regime that we have put in place to prevent circulation of the virus. We are worried that there is a sense that the pressure is off once people have been vaccinated. The pressure is not off, as Covid will still be in our communities. That is why I made a point in my statement about the importance of continuing to follow the rules and restrictions that are in place, even after people have been vaccinated, in order to provide the maximum protection for our society.

We will continue setting out the safe way to proceed, but I stress the importance of following the rules that are in place to minimise the spread of the virus.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

A number of businesses in my Motherwell and Wishaw constituency have been unable to access financial support as they lack a business bank account. Will the Scottish Government consider widening its support schemes to allow local authorities to verify applicants in other ways, such as through their council tax or their VAT registration, in order to get financial assistance to businesses that do not have a business bank account?

John Swinney

Our framework is based on the fact that most businesses will have business bank accounts, but we have recently widened the eligibility criteria to give some flexibility to local authorities to use other data, if they are satisfied that a business is operating in the way we would ordinarily expect. There is now more flexibility for local authorities to use other evidence, in addition to the existence of a business bank account.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

After Covid business support funds are announced, there is a delay while the Scottish Government issues the criteria for those funds to councils. That creates delays and, because the moneys are ring fenced, it makes it difficult for councils to meet specific needs in their areas. Although discretionary funds are available, those are comparatively small. Will the Deputy First Minister consider removing the ring fence from all Covid business support funding and allow councils to deal with the differing needs of their communities?

John Swinney

I understand the difficulty, but I invite Rhoda Grant and members to reflect on the fact that the Government is often encouraged to put in place specific funds for specific sectors in order to assure them that financial support is available. I was asked by Mr McMillan just a short time ago about the support that is available for taxi drivers, for example. There have clearly been parliamentary and community proposals for such ventures to be brought forward.

There is a need to reflect both the general levels of business support, which the strategic business framework fund that we have in place is designed to do, and the specific funds that are available for individual sectors in order to try to ensure that we meet the needs of everybody in these circumstances. We move at pace with local authorities to agree the eligibility criteria to ensure that we can distribute money as quickly as possible. That is very much the thinking that goes into the approach behind the various schemes that we have in place for local authority distribution.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

In my constituency, food bank volunteers in Penicuik have already received their first vaccination from NHS Lothian, which defended that by saying that the Scottish Government guidance was not clear. Category 2 of the JCVI priority list refers to

“front-line health and social care workers”,

as does as NHS Lothian’s frequently asked questions website. I applaud the value of the contribution of food bank volunteers, but I would not define them as front-line social care workers. Is NHS Lothian just plain wrong?

John Swinney

We expect all health boards to follow the clear guidance that the JCVI has set out. Further detail on that has been provided by the chief medical officer for Scotland to aid understanding. The guidance is clear and unambiguous about the criteria. I assure Christine Grahame that the Government is setting out a clear and simple message about the priorities that the JCVI has set. It is prioritisation based on the risk of exposure to Covid and the risk of mortality. A serious set of criteria has been set out and I think that the criteria are clearly understood by all.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

In remote Highland communities, vaccination of the 80-plus group is patchy. I hear of some GPs who will receive their first batch of vaccine for that group only this week, which makes the original target of vaccinating the over-80s by the end of January unachievable. Can you confirm that the revised target for completing vaccination of the 80-plus group by 6 February will be met in the Highlands and Islands? The GPs are not convinced, so if the target is not met, what additional support will the Scottish Government provide to speed up vaccine roll-out across my region?

John Swinney

Mr Mountain’s question gets into some of the detail that I rehearsed with Jamie Greene earlier. Obviously, there will be challenges for some of the more remote communities in the Highlands and Islands because of the vaccine batch sizes. The batch size for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is 80 or 100 and, if memory serves me right, the batch size for the Pfizer vaccine is much closer to 1,000. Obviously, there are constraints on the opportunities to utilise the different vaccines in different parts of the community.

I assure Mr Mountain that very good progress is being made by NHS Highland in distribution of the vaccine, and we are confident that the targets that we have set of completing the vaccination exercise for the over-80s will be met by the end of the first week in February. We believe that the supplies are available to ensure that that is the case, and I know that general practitioners are wholly committed to ensuring that that can be done in the timescale that has been set out.

George Adam (Paisley) (SNP)

Does the Deputy First Minister agree that ending the furlough scheme in March could cause further uncertainty for businesses and their employees? Surely I am not the only MSP who dealt with issues as a result of constituents losing their jobs or facing uncertainty in the chaos that ensued at the end of last year. Is the Scottish Government making representation to the UK Government to ensure that businesses will have greater clarity and certainty, should current restrictions need to stay in place beyond March?

John Swinney

The extension of the furlough scheme, albeit that it came at the last minute, was very welcome and has provided important stabilisation support in the economy. We believe that there is a strong argument for it to be maintained, and we are making those representations to the United Kingdom Government. We hope that it will recognise that the gravity of the economic challenge that we face merits the continuation of the furlough scheme for an extended period.

Jenny Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

Why have unpaid carers moved down the vaccination priority list from the first wave to group 6, which will be vaccinated in May?

A constituent of mine has been refused the Covid-19 vaccine because of an allergy to penicillin. Given how many people have such an allergy, does that not mean that large numbers of people will be excluded from being vaccinated? If the Deputy First Minister does not have the answer to hand, could he write to me on the issue, please?

John Swinney

On the first question about the priority for the vaccine, we are following the advice that has been given to us by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which we believe to be a robust and reliable assessment of the groups who face the greatest risk from the virus. We are following its advice to ensure that we reduce the risk of mortality as a consequence of the virus.

On the second question, about a constituent’s case, I will explore the issue directly and arrange for the health secretary to reply to Ms Marra. Obviously, it is important that clinical advice is offered in all circumstances in relation to the virus. I will ensure that that detail is supplied to the member in due course.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Finances are dire for families at this time. The £20-a-week uplift in universal credit has been an essential lifeline for hard-pressed families, helping them to keep their heads above water during the pandemic. However, the Westminster Government is intent on removing that crucial extra funding, which will plunge already struggling families into financial turmoil. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with the Westminster Government about extending that vital support?

John Swinney

Mr Lyle is correct that that funding is a critical lifeline support for individuals in our society. The Scottish Government has written on four occasions to the United Kingdom Government to press for continuation of the uplift. Obviously, that is a live issue in the UK Government and Parliament, and we will continue to add our voices to the necessary and legitimate argument in support of continued payment of the uplift to ensure that that vital support is made available to members of the public.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you very much, Deputy First Minister and colleagues. We will have to conclude that item of business. I apologise to Pauline McNeill, who was waiting to ask a question.