Meeting date: Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 27 October 2020
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Inward Investment Plan, Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework, Decision Time, Student Paramedics (Bursary Support)
- Time for Reflection
- Business Motion
- Topical Question Time
- Inward Investment Plan
- Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework
- Decision Time
- Student Paramedics (Bursary Support)
Covid-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-23133, in the name of Nicola Sturgeon, on “COVID-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework”.15:44
In speaking to the motion in my name, I confirm that we will consider each Opposition amendment very carefully. Although we do not necessarily agree with all of them in their entirety, there are good suggestions in each, so regardless of how the votes go this evening, we will seek to take those suggestions forward constructively.
On Friday, the Scottish Government published our new strategic approach to tackling Covid, which included the proposed five levels of intervention. I will not repeat all the detail today, but I will set out some changes that we are proposing as a result of our considerations since Friday, and I will give a very preliminary indication of the levels that we think might apply to different parts of Scotland from next Monday. I draw members’ attention to a technical paper that we have published today that gives more detail of the data and wider factors that will guide those decisions.
First, I will briefly summarise today’s statistics, which were published a short time ago. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 1,327. The total number of confirmed cases in Scotland is now 59,201. The number of positive tests that were reported yesterday was 8.7 per cent of the total.
Currently, 1,100 people are in hospital, which is an increase of 48 from yesterday. For those who might think that we are being too tough with restrictions, it is worth noting that the number of people who are in hospital right now is just 400 short of the number of hospitalisations at the April peak. Eighty-two people are in intensive care, which is eight fewer than yesterday. I am sorry to report that, in the past 24 hours, 25 additional deaths have been registered, which takes the total number of deaths under that daily measurement to 2,726. I again send my condolences to all those who are grieving a loved one.
The rise in the number of cases in Scotland is part of an international pattern. It is reflected elsewhere in the United Kingdom, in Europe and around the world. Indeed, many countries across Europe in particular face a much more severe situation than we do currently. However, it is to try to avoid that kind of deterioration and mounting pressure on our national health service that we are acting firmly at this stage. That is why we acted back in September to stop household gatherings and then took further action earlier this month to restrict hospitality.
The positive news is that we believe that the restriction on household gatherings may already be having an effect. The number of new cases is growing more slowly than it was at the start of the month, and we have not seen the nine-day doubling of cases that was predicted earlier this month. We hope that the effect of the difficult and, I know, unwelcome restrictions on hospitality, which have been in force now for just over two weeks, will soon start to be seen, too. Our hope is that the rate of increase in the number of new cases will slow even further and that we will then see a decline in the number of new cases.
If we do see that progress, it is important to stress that it will be down to a reduction in our interactions with each other as a result of the restrictions that are in place. It is important to bear that in mind as I run through some of the detail of the new levels because, although this is difficult for all of us and for many businesses, it is by reducing our interactions with people in other households and in environments with higher risks of transmission that we will continue to make progress.
All that said, our position just now is still fragile, and it is too early to draw firm conclusions. The number of cases is still rising, which is not a stable position to be in. Given that we are entering winter, Covid is likely to present a significant and continued challenge for us, with higher numbers of cases than we would want to see, for some time to come.
In addition, given the lag effect that is associated with the incubation period of the virus and how it affects people over time, we know that we are also likely to see the number of hospital and intensive care unit admissions and, unfortunately, deaths rise for some time yet, even as, we hope, the rate of increase in the number of cases continues to slow.
All that means that we must continue to be very cautious and take the action that is necessary to suppress the virus to the lowest possible levels. However, given that we are likely to be living with the virus for a while, it also means that we must try to be proportionate and as targeted as possible in the actions that we take.
I am keen to understand where we are on asymptomatic testing. Does the Government now accept that the benefit of the self-isolation of the 80 per cent of people who have the virus but do not show symptoms outweighs any of the disadvantages?
We think that it is important and valuable to extend asymptomatic testing, and we have done that already. The clinical advice from our advisers, which was published in a paper last week, is that the priority should be to protect the most vulnerable. I will come on to that in a bit more detail later.
The first priority is testing people with symptoms, but we will not only extend asymptomatic testing for those who can help us to protect vulnerable groups; as we have set out, we will extend it further, as capacity allows, as part of our increased surveillance and in order to manage outbreaks. I agree with Willie Rennie in principle that asymptomatic testing is important, but we have to balance our capacity with the clinical priorities that have been set.
As I was saying, we know that the virus does direct harm to human lives and health, and we must minimise that, but we also know that the actions that we take to do that cause harm to the economy, living standards and wider health and wellbeing. The difficult task that all countries have is to balance all that and minimise the overall harm of the pandemic.
The strategic framework and the five levels are designed to help us do that. Having five levels does not prevent us from applying restrictions consistently across the country, if that is deemed necessary, but it means that we can avoid a one-size-fits-all approach if it is not. Having five levels will enable a part of the country with relatively low transmission to live with fewer restrictions than will apply to an area with much higher transmission. Such an approach is more proportionate, but the downside is that it makes the messages that we communicate more complex. To help with that, we will launch a new postcode checker that allows people to know what restrictions are in place in their area at any given time.
The detail within each level is intended to give people greater certainty of what to expect at different rates of transmission, but it is important that we retain some flexibility. I want to be clear that we will keep the detail of each level under review as the situation develops, which is a point that may be particularly important for the hospitality industry.
Will the First Minister advise the Parliament whether it will be given the opportunity to scrutinise the regulations connected to the new framework before they are implemented?
Yes. Graeme Dey will discuss with Opposition parties exactly how that will be done, and I hope that those discussions will be fruitful. We suggest that perhaps a dual approach should be taken, in which relatively minor changes to the regulations go through the committee process and more substantial changes involve some plenary input from the Parliament. We are open-minded about that.
It is important to recognise that the levels will be implemented by what are, in effect, template regulations, which the COVID-19 Committee will be able to scrutinise in the normal way. Any changes involving areas going in or out of levels will also trigger changes to the regulations, which the committee will be able to scrutinise. If the changes are more substantial, I suspect that there will be a desire for the Parliament as a whole to be involved, so we will continue to try to seek—
Will the First Minister take an intervention?
I will take one more intervention before I try to make some progress.
Thanks very much. These are extremely difficult times for everybody—and for no one more than the First Minister, I am sure—but scrutiny is absolutely essential. At 12 o’clock today, we were given a number of documents to try to work our way through. This is very complex stuff. We have had no opportunity to consult businesses in our areas, local authorities or constituents, who are writing to us in their droves on a number of issues.
I make a plea to the First Minister. During consideration of emergency Brexit legislation, we were able to do things quickly in the Parliament, which allowed proper scrutiny. We cannot go on as we are at the moment, with things being imposed without scrutiny. [Interruption.] It is absolutely essential that we have proper scrutiny. My plea to the First Minister is that she opens the process up to far more scrutiny than we have had to date.
In principle, I agree with Neil Findlay and with the previous comment. The one caveat that I inject, as I have before, is that, unlike Brexit, we are dealing with an infectious virus. There is a real importance for the Government to be able to act quickly, where that is necessary and merited, and I think that people accept that. I absolutely agree that the further we go into this, the more we need to balance that ability to act with the legitimate demand for the Parliament not just to be consulted and able to scrutinise, but to be able to do that early and before changes are made, wherever that is possible. I give a commitment today to try to facilitate that as much as possible.
We are having a debate and a vote today on the overall framework. When we announce—I will come on to this in a second—the initial application of the framework, that will trigger scrutiny of the regulations that will give effect to it. The regulations will be changed along with any change to the level of framework. There will be scrutiny in the ordinary course of events, but we want to try to build in greater scrutiny.
I appreciate that the Parliament gets information sometimes at short notice. We will try to provide as much notice as possible. Last week, I spent a total of almost three hours with the leaders of the other parties to try to give an early and developing understanding of what we were bringing to the Parliament today, and I found that very useful. I give a commitment that I will try, within the context of what we are dealing with right now, to involve the Parliament in as much scrutiny as possible.
I will try to make some progress and I will summarise for the Parliament the levels that we are proposing. Members should note that levels 1, 2 and 3 of the five levels are intended to be broadly comparable—albeit not identical—to the three levels deployed in England.
On Friday, I explained that the baseline level—zero—is the lowest level of restrictions. It is similar to the state of affairs that applied in August, when we had suppressed the virus to very low levels. We consider that to be the closest to normality that we can get to without better treatment or a vaccine for Covid. Of course, we remain hopeful about the prospects of both those scientific developments over the next few months.
Level 1 is similar to the restrictions that we had in mid-September as cases started to rise again, but prevalence remained very low. Our objective is to get all parts of the country to level 0 or level 1 and remain there if we can.
The restrictions that we propose for level 2 are similar to those that currently apply across Scotland outside the central belt.
Level 3 resembles the tougher restrictions that currently apply in the central belt.
Finally, level 4, which we hope not to have to use, envisages something closer to a full lockdown. For example, non-essential shops would close at that level. However, even at level 4, up to six people from two households could still meet outdoors, and manufacturing and construction businesses would stay open.
Levels 2 and 3 are intended to apply for short periods of time, and level 4 will be deployed only if absolutely necessary as a short, sharp intervention to address extremely high transmission rates.
Under all five levels, we want schools and childcare to remain open if at all possible.
Since we published the proposed levels on Friday, we have consulted various stakeholders. As I said, those consultations included discussions with Opposition leaders. Of course, it is not possible to accommodate all the asks of different sectors and still suppress the virus, but I can confirm that we have decided on some changes that will, I hope, be welcomed. Those changes relate to childcare, shared parenting and child contact centres; outdoor retail; bingo; and the numbers allowed at weddings at level 4. Full details are on the revised table that was circulated to MSPs earlier and they will be made available on the Scottish Government website.
Before I deal with hospitality in a bit of detail, as it is one of the sectors bearing the biggest impact of the current restrictions, I will mention one other, I hope temporary, change. The table that was published on Friday envisaged that, at level 1, we would be able to meet six people from two households in our own homes, but it also made it clear that that might change in some circumstances. The public health advice to ministers is that, if a decision is taken this week to move any area to level 1, the current prohibition on meeting anyone from other households in our own homes should remain in place for a period as an extra precaution. We intend to accept that advice, but that position will be reviewed weekly.
Will the First Minister take an intervention?
I will take one more intervention; I will then need to make some progress.
On that specific point, does the First Minister recognise that, in rural and smaller island areas in particular, the option of meeting in venues or, indeed, outside will be hugely problematic, particularly as we move into the winter months, and therefore the restriction in place is likely to reduce public confidence and possibly compliance with the restrictions that she is setting out?
I will deal with island communities in more detail shortly. I recognise that, and that is why I hope that the change will be a short-term and temporary one. It is advice about how we transition to the new system with appropriate precautions still in place.
I want to turn to hospitality, describe the restrictions that will apply in each level and outline any changes from the current situation. I hope that the changes will be welcome, but I know that the sector will have wanted to see fewer restrictions, especially at level 3. I will explain why we do not consider that to be possible at this stage, but I want to be clear that we will continue dialogue with the sector on the proposals that it has put forward. We also intend to establish an expert advisory group on reintroducing safe low-level music and background noise.
At level 0, hospitality will operate almost normally, subject to rules on physical distancing, limits on numbers and other mitigations, such as table service only.
Level 1 will be similar, but with a curfew closing time. However, that will be 10.30 pm rather than 10 pm.
Level 2 is broadly comparable to the restrictions that are currently in place outside the central belt. Currently, in those areas, hospitality can operate normally outdoors with an early closing time. I know that that gets more difficult in the winter. That will continue to be the case under level 2, but the closing time will be extended to 10.30 pm. [Interruption.]
I will make a bit of progress, if that is okay. I promise that I will come back to the member if I have time.
Just now, premises in those areas can open indoors until 6 pm for the service of food and non-alcoholic drinks only. At level 2, that will be extended to 8 pm and alcohol will be permitted with main meals.
In the central belt areas that are under tougher restrictions just now, only cafes can open until 6 pm for food and non-alcoholic drinks. Level 3 is broadly similar to that, but all hospitality premises will be subject to the same rules: cafes, pubs and restaurants will be allowed to open until 6 pm for food and non-alcoholic drinks. At level 4, hospitality will be closed.
I know that the sector wants to see more activity allowed, especially at level 3, and we will continue to discuss that with it. However, I must stress that the areas at level 3 are those with the highest levels of infection currently. Our judgment is that to ease up any more at this stage, particularly as our progress remains so fragile, could risk tipping those levels closer to level 4, rather than have them make the progress that we want to see towards level 2.
Assuming that the Parliament agrees to the overall framework today, I will confirm on Thursday what level each local authority will be placed in initially. That will be with effect from Monday and it will be reviewed on a weekly basis. Those decisions will be based on advice from the Government’s advisers and the national incident management team and we are also consulting local authorities. While we will initially apply levels to whole local authority areas, we will look in future at any situation where it might make sense to be more targeted; for example, there could be a different approach for the Argyll islands than for the rest of the Argyll and Bute council area.
As I said earlier, we have published a technical paper detailing the factors and data that will guide those decisions. We will look at actual and projected cases per 100,000 of population and test positivity rates and projections for hospital and intensive care unit capacity. Different thresholds for those will apply at different levels. It is important to stress, though, that those decisions will not involve the automatic application of a single statistic or even a basket of statistics—those will inform and guide the decisions, but judgment will require to be applied to them. As we migrate initially to the new system, we will be deliberately cautious. As I said earlier, we are seeing signs of progress, but the situation is fragile and could go in the wrong direction, so we must take care.
I hope that over the next couple of weeks, if progress in slowing the rate of new cases continues, we will see more local authorities dropping down a level. However, initially, most are likely to stay in broadly the same category as they are in now. Final decisions have not yet been taken, but I want to give the Parliament a broad indication of what that means.
The central belt areas that are currently under the toughest restrictions are likely to be in level 3 initially and most of the rest of the country is likely to start in level 2. There are, however, some exceptions under consideration. First, it is hoped that the Highlands, Orkney, Shetland, the Western Isles and Moray might go to level 1. Less positively, we believe that the escalating situation in Dundee City makes it possible that it will go to level 3. As has been reported, we are considering whether the very high rate of transmission and hospital admissions in North and South Lanarkshire may necessitate a move for them to level 4. Those are the only areas that are currently being considered for level 4. There have, however, been some encouraging signs in the past few days that the situation in Lanarkshire may have stabilised slightly, so we will take that decision only if it is deemed absolutely necessary and I hope that we can avoid it. I hope to confirm those decisions to the Parliament ahead of First Minister’s questions on Thursday.
For all of Scotland, our aim is to get to level 1 and then to level 0 of the framework as quickly as possible. We know that that is possible because, over the summer, we got to the very low levels of transmission that would be needed for that. If we can do it once, we can do it again, but it will not be easy. It will take action from the Government to support the wider efforts. That is why our strategic approach does not simply set out restrictions, it also explains how we will expand testing and the steps that we will take to better support people to comply with the rules, especially on self isolation. We set out the details of our testing expansion in the paper that we published last week.
Finally, we know that while Government has the responsibility to lead, success against the virus will depend on us all. It is difficult and frustrating and it is getting more so by the day, especially as we head towards Christmas. However, if we dig in now and get Covid under more control, we perhaps open the door, not to 100 per cent normality by Christmas, but I hope to more than we have right now. We all want to see that. So please: I am asking people to stick with it. As of Monday, make sure that you check what restrictions apply in your area. Please stay out of other people’s houses, except for the limited reasons that are allowed. Follow the rules on face coverings, avoid crowded places, clean your hands, keep 2m distancing and, if you have symptoms, self-isolate and get a test.
All of us must try to be as patient as possible about not being able to go to the football or for a pint or out for a meal with friends. Those are hard sacrifices, but they will protect you and your loved ones, they will help to protect the national health service and they will save lives. Right now, that is what we must all pull together to seek to do.
That the Parliament notes the publication of COVID-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework, which sets out the intended approach to managing the suppression of COVID-19 across Scotland in the coming months; further notes that local NHS boards and local authorities will be consulted on the application of the framework to individual areas; acknowledges the basket of measures that will be considered with data published on decisions; further acknowledges that the Framework takes account of the direct harm that COVID-19 causes as well as the health, social and economic harms that result from the pandemic and the protective measures that have to be put in place; notes the increased support for self-isolation and compliance, the continued support for communities and for individuals, including for mental health, the projected increase in testing capacity and the commitment to increasing routine asymptomatic testing, as well as a commitment to continue to build and enhance the Test and Protect system; further notes the commitment to keeping schools open at all levels and the economic package put in place to support those businesses that may be required to close or have their operations restricted, and calls on the UK Government to enable the Scottish Government to make the same open-ended commitment to funding businesses in Scotland as has been made in England and to improve the support for wages, particularly for low-income workers who may be hardest hit by any necessary restrictions, in order to support people and businesses to comply.16:05
We are where we did not want to be: in the midst of a second wave, with hospital wards filling up and shops and businesses forced to close, with many worried that they will never reopen. We have no date for a vaccine, and there is an increasing realisation that a start-stop approach to shutting down society might buy time and space, but it is not in itself a solution.
Therefore, Governments across these islands are now adopting a tiered system of response to see us through the winter and into the new year, with national, regional and local variations. The idea, once again, is to suppress the virus, cut infection and reduce pressure on our NHS.
I join the First Minister in thanking—as she always does—the doctors, nurses, clinicians and staff who are now steeling themselves for the weeks and months ahead. Today’s position is a chastening one, but we have a few elements in our favour. We have a public that wants to help and will do its bit if the instructions are clear and the reasoning sound. We have more information and data. We have more examples of good practice from around the world to inform our decision making. There is also, I believe, a political will that transcends party colours to see us through this challenge.
On launching the framework, the First Minister said that she sought suggestions for areas that could be improved, questions to be considered and concerns to be raised. I take her at her word, and the Conservative Party amendment is designed to build and improve on the proposals that are on the table.
Let us start with where we are in full agreement and alignment with the Scottish Government. First, there is the need to recognise the importance of local authorities and health boards in this process, to make sure that the people who are delivering on the ground have the earliest possible input on what they are being asked to enact. There is also the priority of keeping the schools open. The First Minister will know that the Conservatives have been unwavering in our recognition of the importance of the physical opening of and attendance at schools. When plans for blended learning for half days and parts of weeks were being advanced, we were clear that our young people had been damaged enough through the pandemic and that keeping the learning, social contact and structure of school was an imperative. The framework recognises that.
In changes to the First Minister’s proposals of last week, she confirms that informal childcare, which was to be allowed only at tiers 0 and 1, will now be extended to include tiers 2 and 3. That change is welcome. So, too, is the announcement of a postcode checker that will allow people to check which restrictions apply to them.
Where we are disappointed is in the late change to today’s motion to take a swipe at the United Kingdom Government, making no recognition of the £7.2 billion in additional funding for Scotland during the pandemic, including £700 million of support that was announced at the start of October.
Notwithstanding that, the Scottish Conservatives will give their support to the motion, and we ask for support for our amendment as we believe that it tackles some vital areas that are in the interest of all Scots as we move through the next phase of managing the pandemic.
Alongside protecting public health, the most crucial issue is the protection of people’s jobs, livelihoods and standards of living. The past six months have been horrendous for small businesses across Scotland—probably the hardest they have ever faced, even considering the years following the financial crash of 2008. We are not talking about big multinationals but about family-owned firms that are fighting to maintain local jobs in their areas. They are contending with what might be necessary restrictions, but they have no part to play in the process of drawing them up. They need to be on the inside, helping to mould a framework of regulation that supports firms and jobs, rather than being simply the recipients of restrictions that are handed down by ministers. Will the Scottish Government consider establishing a formal coronavirus business advisory council to help advise on the practical needs of businesses during this time of enhanced restrictions and properly inform the decisions that are taken?
I thank Ruth Davidson for the constructive tone of her contribution so far. It may be the case that we cannot support all the amendments in the vote tonight, because they remove parts of our motion that we think are important, but I want to make clear that that does not mean that we are not of the view that there are important suggestions in each of the amendments, including the one that Ruth Davidson has just spoken about.
We will take all the suggestions from all the amendments and try to take them forward as much and as far as we possibly can. I want to put that commitment on the record in relation to her specific point, and more generally as well.
I thank the First Minister for saying that she will take that suggestion on board. I will explain why I think it is so important and why I want to press her to look positively on it. Just last week, business organisations were given two to three days to respond to the Government’s framework before today’s debate. Many spoke about the need to be in the room when those plans were being drawn up in the first place, and about using their experience to inform the thinking behind the plans. Throughout the pandemic, representative bodies such as the Federation of Small Businesses, Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Scottish Retail Consortium have made it clear that they want to play a constructive role. The creation of an advisory council would benefit the Government; it would benefit those on the ground who are doing their utmost to adapt and change and keep their workers and customers safe; and it would benefit us all by keeping more businesses afloat and more people in work. I am therefore pleased that the Government will give consideration to such a body.
It is important to bring businesses into the decision-making process because it would help to answer the questions that they have now. I know that Fiona Hyslop received submissions last night asking legitimate questions about how the framework was going to work. How will areas move in and out of each level and under what criteria? What is the minimum period for staying in the levels? A two-week to four-week spread will simply not work. What advance warning will businesses get before being told that they have to enter or move tiers? What target criteria need to be met for areas to move from a higher level to a lower one?
Those businesses also asked, as the Conservatives have repeatedly asked, for airport testing, and they rightly demand the clarity that so far has been missing. For example, firms across the central belt were told to cut or close for a two-week circuit break that was due to end on 26 October. They were then told that that would be extended by a week. They are now being told that they are about to enter tier 3, with no date of exit. The decisions that firms make about a two-week suspension of business are not the same as the decisions that they would make for indefinite closure, and it is simply not fair of the Government to string them along and not give them that information. They rightly ask why cases, hospitalisation and transmission rates, can be so wildly different between, for example, Edinburgh and Glasgow and yet both cities face the same restrictions. Businesses need clarity about the tier system that we are moving to, and they need clear communication and advance warning.
That is also true of our councils. I understand that council leaders spoke to the Deputy First Minister yesterday and they were advised that there will be movement within tiers, or sub-tiers, so an area could be level 1 with some level 2 restrictions that would essentially make it level 1+. The obvious consequence of that would be more gradations and combinations of restrictions than the five that have been set out. Key to retaining the public’s trust and compliance—
Will the member take an intervention?
Absolutely. I seek clarity on that point.
Whatever has been conveyed to Ms Davidson is not the position. We have been clear that, subject to the modifications that the First Minister has made today, the basis of the levels as set out will be what we commence our arrangements to include. There might be stages at which we can apply different constraints within different local authorities, but that will not happen at the starting point. That is the point that the First Minister made about, for example, the Argyll islands compared to the mainland of Argyll.
That clarity is hugely welcome, but it demonstrates some of the difficulties that we have already seen in the process before these tiers are brought in. In our amendment is a request for provision and publication of more local and regional data. That is one way in which we can help to improve clarity within local authority areas and between local authorities.
Another of our key asks is for thought to be given now to what can be done for people around Christmas. The Government motion rightly mentions mental health. The Samaritans say that they take 300,000 calls across the UK on Christmas day in the average year, and this year is not even close to being average. Research published this month by the Campaign to End Loneliness shows that nearly two thirds of adults are worried that they will not be able to see family and friends this Christmas because of the coronavirus. More than a quarter are worried about being alone on Christmas day and more than half say that they will not see elderly relatives because they are afraid of endangering them, although they know that that will also increase their loneliness. On Sunday, the Deputy First Minister indicated that he was in discussions with the UK Government and other devolved Administrations to develop a plan to allow students to return home for Christmas.
Notwithstanding his remarks yesterday, that is to be welcomed and it would be helpful if we could get more detail on those discussions and receive regular updates on their progress to ensure that students—many away from home for the first time—can return to their families safely for the Christmas break.
However, that is not enough. We need to look at the viability of a plan to allow a temporary and proportionate moderation of household restrictions that will lift the threat of loneliness and isolation hanging over so many people as they look ahead. The five tier framework allows for limited degrees of in-home socialising at levels 0 and 1, but no in-home socialising at all across levels 2 to 4. Safety is of paramount importance along with the need to suppress the virus, but will the First Minister commit today to examining the case, in conjunction with her medical and scientific advisers, for allowing a limited degree of in-home socialising across at least the first four tiers over Christmas day and Boxing day? Even a limited moderation across those 48 hours would help to ensure that parents could see children and, perhaps more importantly, grandparents could see grandchildren, this Christmas.
Counterintuitively, there may be a public health benefit to that. If we want people to continue to work within the rules in the long term, they should not be faced with a choice where family needs override their buy-in to compliance. We know that once that Rubicon of knowingly and purposefully casting the rules aside is crossed, keeping adherence in all other respects becomes harder.
I know that no limited moderation can provide a full solution. The hard truth is that it is impossible for every seat that is normally taken at the family table to be filled this Christmas, but nobody should have to sit alone.
Does the member agree with Bishop John Keenan who said about Christmas that it is important to give people hope?
It is absolutely important to give people hope. It is also important to keep people safe. Those are very difficult questions. I understand the complexity and difficulty. That is why we are not calling for a plan to be announced today; we are asking the Government to take the idea away to look at its viability and at what can be done in those areas. We need a plan for Christmas that, although showing that things will not be normal, still brings the opportunity for families to come together to see and love each other and to support those who would otherwise be condemned to a very bleak December.
The way in which families are structured and the divide that distance has created and entrenched this year, means that any Christmas loneliness strategy should be co-ordinated as much as possible among the four home nations.
We have approached today in a constructive manner and we believe that our proposals for a coronavirus business advisory council, local and regional data collection, advance warning for sectors about proposed tier changes, target data for tier reduction and a Christmas loneliness strategy will help Scotland come through the second wave in better shape. We urge the Scottish Government to consider those proposals.
I move amendment S5M-23133.4, to leave out from “, and calls on” to end and insert:
“; calls on the Scottish Government to establish a Coronavirus Business Restrictions Advisory Council to support Scottish jobs as well as protect public health; recognises the important role of NHS boards and local authorities in controlling this virus; calls for the further development and publication of local and regional data and statistics relating to COVID-19 and partnership working with local authorities to respond to local circumstances and Scotland’s diverse communities; further calls on the Scottish Government to develop and publish a Christmas loneliness strategy to consider the need for families to safely meet relatives across the UK this festive season, and calls on the Scottish Government to continue to work closely with the UK Government and the other devolved administrations in suppressing COVID-19.”16:17
Over the past week, the Government has been trying to build cross-party consensus for the framework. Those of us who have had friends, neighbours and family members struck down by the virus, those who have been hospitalised and will suffer the long-term effects and those who know others who did not make it, know just how serious the situation is—we do not need to be reminded.
We agree that we should strive for a consensus. However, our first duty is collectively to get it right. We need to get it right for Scotland because people are suffering. Businesses are suffering and communities are suffering. Scotland has already paid a price. That is why it remains our firm view that members of the Scottish Parliament need to be able to ask questions of Government ministers, in the Parliament, about the framework, in advance of voting on it.
A week ago, that was the agreed position. Days ago, that was withdrawn, in what was clearly a political decision. That begs the question for many people: what does the Government have to hide? A simple parliamentary debate on the motion is not sufficient. It does not give us the level of parliamentary scrutiny that the people who sent us here rightly expect. Private briefings with Opposition party leaders have their place, but they cannot be a substitute for public and parliamentary debate, scrutiny and interrogation. That is our view.
I appreciate the point that Richard Leonard makes, but I do not think that I can be fairly criticised for shying away from questions. I have given umpteen statements, and answered probably hundreds of questions, in the Parliament, and I will be back in the chamber on Thursday for the weekly First Minister’s questions.
The view was taken that this was the right time to have a lengthy parliamentary debate with a vote at the end; we do not have a vote at the end of a statement. I will come to Parliament as often as necessary, and as often as is wanted, and I will stay here for as long as possible, to answer questions. I have made that clear.
I will no doubt be corrected if I am wrong on this, but I have probably answered more questions than any leader of any Government anywhere else in the world. I am happy to continue to do so, because that is my responsibility.
I thank the First Minister for that intervention, but—as a matter of record—we were looking for a statement by the First Minister today, so that she could be questioned, and then a parliamentary debate tomorrow. We were looking for both those things, not one or the other.
It is a step forward if the Government is now conceding the principle that regulations should be voted on by Parliament before and not after they take effect, but we still need the opportunity to test those regulations and the evidence that lies behind them. Any motion, legislation or regulations passed by the Parliament must reflect that.
We have always said that the gloom of the pandemic must be illuminated by the light of scientific reason, and that means evidence—credible, persuasive and reliable evidence that people can see and understand. We need much greater transparency around the indicators that are being used to determine which tier a local population is being placed in.
The member will see in the technical paper that we published today the data that will be used in the thresholds and how the decision-making process will work. As I said when I intervened on Ruth Davidson, I remind members that most of the data and evidence that we have is already published. Anybody can go to the Public Health Scotland website and look at the daily data for their own neighbourhood.
As I said to Richard Leonard when we met last week, I understand the call for evidence, but some of the additional evidence that has been asked for simply does not yet exist in Scotland or in any other country. We already publish most of the data that is available to us, and we will continue to do so at as granular a level as possible.
We think that clear thresholds should be set out and published weekly so that people can understand which tier they are in and why. We think that clear indicators, such as the level of cases in care homes, and the rate of cases among those aged over 60 in a local authority area, should be published routinely.
I have heard the First Minister say on numerous occasions that the evidence that we are looking for does not exist, but it must be possible to distinguish between the rates of transmission in restaurants, pubs, bars and cafes. Otherwise, how could decisions such as the one that was made in Aberdeen be taken from an informed point of view? That is what business owners and hospitality owners alike were telling me a week ago in Glasgow’s Merchant City. They want better-informed, evidence-led interventions so that at least some parts of the night-time economy might be kept open in our towns and cities.
I am bound to say that it must be possible to do better than the response of the First Minister in her daily briefings, which has been to say that if there is a thin line between a cafe and a restaurant, all cafes will be shut down. That is not a rational response by a Government that is supposed to be winning public consent at a time of enormous sacrifice. The First Minister must understand why there is such anger in Scotland’s hospitality industry.
On Friday, the First Minister said that we were not back at square 1. It is true that schools, for example, are to remain open, and we welcome that. However, although we may not be back at square 1, a second wave is coming as we approach the winter. That is very different from the challenge that we faced as we went into the spring and early summer. We know that emergency hospital admissions in December last year were more than 9 per cent higher than they were in April last year. The challenge that we face is different, and it is greater.
In our amendment to the Government motion, we reflect on the fact that the Government has been too slow at testing, at turnaround times for testing and at turnaround times for contact tracing under test and protect. The expansion of testing capacity is no good on its own if the turnaround time for results is too slow.
Turning to students, those who have come to Scotland’s universities should have been tested on arrival at least once. Now they should be tested before the Christmas break and on return from the Christmas break, so that they can safely have a Christmas break. Families want to be together at Christmas. The people of Scotland have already paid a price, so everything needs to be done to ensure that that can happen, and we will work with the Government to ensure that it does.
We welcome the extension of testing, but it, too, has been too slow. We have been calling for the extension of routine testing to home care workers for months. The Government has finally agreed, but we still do not know when we can expect that to take place. Those workers, who are predominantly women workers, are putting themselves at risk to care for Scotland’s most vulnerable people, so everything needs to be done to ensure that we are caring for and protecting them. They need a date for testing.
Like the lockdown of hospitality and like last week’s extension to that lockdown of hospitality, the new framework that comes into force in six days’ time has not won unquestioning support in the country, so it does not win unquestioning support from Labour. People understand that the choices are stark but, in a democracy, they can be made only with the establishment of trust and the winning of public consent by persuasion, rather than coercion. The rising public hesitancy that the Government is now facing is in part born out of a fatigue or tiredness in the desperate search for light at the end of the tunnel, but it is also born out of a growing restlessness and discontent that yet more is being asked without the compelling and persuasive evidence that is needed to back it up.
The evidence must be central to the winning of public consent, because the selfless sacrifice of the people has been unlimited, and the emotional strength, the effort and the endeavour especially of key workers, who have worked on for month after month with no break, has been heroic.
Many working people are now facing the grim prospect of unemployment and joblessness in the lead-up to Christmas, and that is why they want a Government and a Parliament that are on their side. It is essential that they do not become the victims of a struggle between two Governments—we want the two Governments to co-operate, not compete, in the interests of public health and of people’s jobs. We agree that the Tory Government should increase and extend support for businesses and workers in Scotland, but the Scottish National Party Government, too, needs to be bolder.
It feels like the framework will be with us for some time: that is why it is so important that we get it right, and that is why we need people to be able to support it—not out of fear of the repercussions of not doing so but out of a belief that sticking to it will help us all. That is the test for the Scottish Government, and it is a test for us, as representatives of the people. In the end, this is a test of democracy.
I move amendment S5M-23133.2, to leave out from “further notes that local NHS boards” to end and insert:
“welcomes measures to control the spread of the virus but calls for greater transparency in the decision making over when different levels will be imposed; calls for clarity on the full range of indicators that will be considered and believes that these should also include the rate of positive cases by area, rate of cases in individuals aged over 60 and the level of cases in care homes; considers that each level should have clear thresholds set out within these indicators and that data for each of the relevant indicators should be published at least weekly to ensure public and parliamentary confidence; calls for the Parliament to be allowed the opportunity to fully scrutinise these decisions; further calls for the extension of routine testing for vulnerable people and people working on the frontline, as well as asymptomatic testing for key groups, including testing for students before they can safely return home for Christmas and then again when they go back to university after the holidays; further calls for improvements to the Test and Protect system to ensure quicker turnaround times for contact tracing; notes the Scottish Government’s commitment to keeping schools open at all levels and calls for greater communications and support for families when COVID-19 cases are confirmed within a school; further calls for greater support for people self-isolating, including financial and mental health support, and further calls on the Scottish and UK governments to work together to put in place greater economic support for wages and for businesses that may be required to close or have their operations restricted, in order to support people and businesses to comply.”16:28
It is vital that the Scottish Government’s strategy to tackle Covid-19 is properly scrutinised by Parliament and that we have the opportunity to work towards political consensus.
As our amendment states, the Greens believe that the ultimate goal should be “elimination” of the virus. The Scottish Government’s framework states that the strategic intent is
“to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there, while we strive to return to a more normal life for as many people as possible.”
People worked hard to suppress the virus over the summer, but it has subsequently escalated out of control. We have to learn; we need to understand why. We also need the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the Government’s response on an on-going basis. We cannot to continue to lurch from one lockdown to another until an effective vaccine becomes available.
I note what Alison Johnstone said. I therefore wonder whether she might be able to tell me why the Green Party did not support the idea of having a statement with questions today, followed by a debate with a vote tomorrow, in order to have better scrutiny this week of the framework and what has gone before during the past 16 days.
I am comfortable with the Green Party’s scrutiny in relation to the pandemic.
As my amendment says, routine asymptomatic testing will be an important tool in an elimination strategy. We know that those who are carrying Covid-19 can be asymptomatic while contagious and we cannot continue to wait for people to show symptoms before we test them. The framework refers to an expansion of asymptomatic testing to certain groups, but we need to go further and faster.
For example, the framework limits ambition for asymptomatic testing in universities—it will be used only in response to an outbreak, but the damage will have been done by then. Universities in England are increasingly developing their own testing capacity, using innovative techniques to routinely test as many staff and students as they can. As part of its screening programme, the University of Cambridge can now test up to 16,000 people per week. I therefore call on the Scottish Government to work with Scottish universities to let that happen here as soon as possible. We must not forget that the return of students to universities in September helped to propel us into the second wave and caused misery to thousands of students who are confined to overcrowded halls. We cannot let that happen again.
I am interested in the number that the member gave when she spoke about a university testing 16,000 people a week. In Scotland, we are still not testing home care workers every week, which is absolutely appalling, and NHS staff, who are on the front line, are still not being tested every week. That is the reality, and that is why we require more scrutiny than we have at the moment.
I agree whole-heartedly with Mr Findlay. In April, I presented the Government with a paper that called for asymptomatic testing and outlined research from Imperial College London, which showed that such testing could help reduce transmission of the virus by up to a third. The fact that the framework speaks of the introduction of the testing of community nurses is shocking; a lot of people will be surprised to learn that such testing is not happening as a matter of course.
Asymptomatic testing has not yet been delivered at the required scale and speed, despite clear evidence of its importance in detecting the virus, breaking chains of infection and saving lives. The framework states:
“Testing, on its own, does not reduce transmission”.
I am sure that every person in this chamber understands that, but we have to look at the research that has been done.
As my amendment states,
“a coherent response to the ongoing pandemic requires effort to build political consensus”,
and it is vital that we are properly enabled to examine and debate the Government’s approach. We are in the privileged position of representing the people of Scotland, so we have to understand the Government’s intention in introducing specific restrictions and the scientific advice that underpins them. Therefore, I will continue to call for every opportunity to allow Opposition parties to do that.
Every opportunity should also be taken to share information with wider civic society, which is essential in ensuring on-going public support when new measures that are intended to curb the spread of Covid are introduced. It is entirely reasonable for people to want to know why they are being asked to do certain things, and, with people expressing anxiety when restrictions were being lifted, the sharing of information also provides confidence.
Like many others in the chamber, I have received correspondence from constituents who are confused about the science that underpins certain measures; they give an example of one measure and compare it with another. Therefore, clarity of messaging is key.
I understand that there is a tension between maintaining a flexible approach, which enables the Scottish Government and partners to respond quickly to emergency situations, and delivering clarity. Although it would be neither fair nor productive to impose strict measures on areas where there is a low number of cases, imposing different levels of restrictions on different parts of the country might cause confusion. I think that the First Minister appreciates that challenge, so I would appreciate it if, in closing, the First Minister or the cabinet secretary could outline the form that the new marketing campaigns that have been mentioned will take.
As we know—and I will begin to close, Presiding Officer—the virus affects different communities differently. People in our most deprived communities are more than twice as likely to die with Covid than those who live in the least deprived areas. I am pleased that the framework contains a commitment to work with minority ethnic communities and organisations to ensure that the Scottish Government gets its messaging right, but I would also appreciate more detail in that regard.
The public needs to know that we have an effective exit strategy, that we are striving to eliminate the virus in Scotland, and that robust scientific evidence underpins the approach. Increased and meaningful public dialogue, the expansion of asymptomatic testing and on-going debate in the Parliament will go some way towards achieving that, so I ask members to support my amendment.
I move amendment S5M-23133.3, to insert at end:
“; believes that the ultimate goal must be elimination of COVID-19; recognises that the expansion of asymptomatic testing will play an important role in this endeavour, including in higher and further education settings, and considers that a coherent response to the ongoing pandemic requires effort to build political consensus, and that, in addition to formal parliamentary scrutiny, this must include greater sharing of the Scottish Government’s scientific advice with opposition parties and civil society, opportunities for discussion of all policy options under consideration rather than only finalised proposals, and proactive efforts to identify known challenges ahead as well as responding to events as they happen.”16:35
We have worked constructively during the pandemic and will continue to do so.
The good news is that the Government now seems to accept much wider use of asymptomatic testing. The 80 per cent of those who have the virus but who have no symptoms can now self-isolate with a positive test. That is a major change. I believe that that benefit outweighs any negative behaviours that may come from a negative test.
If we had accepted that principle earlier, we might today have been able to snuff out any outbreaks before they spread in our communities, and we might have been able to avoid the imposition of the generic, crude restrictions that we are talking about.
I know that the First Minister disagrees, but over the summer the Government got carried away with talk of elimination, and it missed the opportunity to get ready for the widely predicted second wave by having more testing and by improving capacity for tracing and quarantine spot checks.
Will the member accept that the Government was not “carried away”, that what was said about what was achieved by the Scottish public as we reached the summer was entirely accurate and that we did not waste time?
Mr Rennie knows that we are able now to look at wider cohorts of asymptomatic testing because we have built up NHS Scotland’s testing capacity. That, along with what the UK Government can manage with the Lighthouse labs, will allow us, as we enter winter, to have headroom in capacity and to introduce more cohorts into asymptomatic testing.
Notwithstanding that we continue to disagree, it is entirely wrong to say that the Government was either complacent or foolish in what we said and did over the summer months.
I ask that interventions be kept a bit shorter, please.
I am sorry to disagree with the health secretary. I do not think that she was foolish; I think that the Government had an ideological objection to asymptomatic testing, because it believed that the negative behaviours that would come from that would not be of benefit. It has now evolved and changed its position, and it accepts wider asymptomatic testing. I think that that is a good thing, but I wish that it had happened earlier, because we might have been in a better position today; we might have had that testing and been able to snuff out the virus in our communities. The Government had that objection, rather than building up capacity.
There has been much chopping and changing in recent weeks, so we need some stability with the restrictions. I want greater involvement of the Parliament in approving the big changes to the levels. I support the idea of various committees of the Parliament approving regulations in advance of any change. I also support the idea of debates in the chamber on any substantial changes, such as whether schools should move to blended learning, whether there should be widespread travel restrictions, or whether every council should be moved up to level three or four. I hope that the cabinet secretary, in her summing up, can respond positively to that proposal.
The Liberal Democrat amendment, which I will move, seeks fairness, hope and clarity.
I am pleased at the detail that has been provided in the documentation over the weekend and today on the data, on the criteria and on the thresholds. We asked for that, and I am pleased that it has been forthcoming.
However, there are issues of clarity. For example, on local flexibility, we have 32 councils, but, as has been indicated this afternoon, there is a possibility of including some areas within councils, such as the Argyll islands. There is huge potential variation across the country.
Then there is the issue of flexibility of the levels. There are not just five levels: we learned today that there is, in effect, a level 1.5, with the possibility of maintaining a ban on indoor meetings in the Highlands and Islands. There are therefore five-plus levels—and the two to four-week periods in which measures may be introduced. There is the potential for different parts of the country to bob in and out of different levels at different times, for different periods. It will take a huge effort to communicate the position. Such flexibility might enable the Government to target areas with the necessary measures with greater precision, but the job of communication has just got much harder. We are talking about 32 local authorities, five and a half levels, different places and different times. It will be a real challenge to get the message across. I will assist in making that happen, but I hope that the Government is on top of the issue, because the situation is going to get an awful lot more complicated.
There is level 0, but there appears to be no route to get there. In the documentation that has been provided over the past few days, we see that there are councils that have a zero under various indicators. However, that takes them only to level 1. How are such areas to get to level 0? Is that possible? We need clarity and we need to give people hope that there is a route to the best-case scenario—which is still pretty restrictive. Are we to have indicators of minus 1? Is there such a thing? What do councils need to do to get to level 0?
A much more fundamental point is that we need to debate the longer-term goal. Of course we hope for a vaccine and that we can suppress the virus until we have that, but we need to consider that that might take longer and might not be possible. We know about the various competing health, societal and economic harms—we understand about that. We can cope with those harms for a short period, but if they are to go on for much longer, their burden will become much greater. That, I think, will tilt the balance and change things. Therefore, we need to consider whether it is possible to continue with restrictions at their current levels.
Hospitality is expected to bear the brunt of some of the changes. The construction and manufacturing sectors made changes and are now able to operate safely, under all circumstances and at all levels of transmission. The same is expected of schools and hospitals. If that is possible for those sectors, why cannot it be possible for hospitality, tourism and the entertainment sectors? When the—
You need to move things along, please.
I will do, Presiding Officer. When the 2 Sisters Food Group chicken factory in Coupar Angus was hit by an outbreak, there was no decision to close every chicken plant in the country. Why cannot we take a targeted approach to hospitality businesses that comply with the rules?
I am not proposing specific measures; I want us to come up with a plan for the future, because people need to have hope that it is possible to get there. This is going to be a long, long winter, and we need a long-term strategy.
I move amendment S5M- 23133.1, to insert at end:
“; believes that additional capacity is urgently needed within Test and Protect, in light of the low level of quarantine spot-checks and long waits for interviews by contact tracers, alongside the extra demand that will be generated by the new routine asymptomatic testing required to protect groups, including students, and calls on the Scottish Government to provide communities with fairness, clarity and hope by sharing the criteria and thresholds for their moving up and down between the levels of restrictions, and the data that will underpin these decisions.”
We move to the open debate. Can we have speeches of up to six minutes, please?16:43
We are all living through really difficult times. We have lost friends, family members and members of the communities that we represent to the virus. It is with all those people very much in my mind and heart that I speak today.
We face a global pandemic of a nasty virus that represents a serious risk to life. Scotland is not alone in facing the virus. The decisions that the Scottish Government is taking might not be palatable and they are not being taken lightly; they are about trying to protect health and life in the most proportionate way possible. Where there is serious risk to life, serious and sometimes difficult action is required. Scotland is not unique in that regard.
The new strategic framework that we are debating today sets out the work that is required to suppress the virus, which is based on clinical evidence, expert advice and a balanced assessment of the risks. I welcome the approach that the First Minister and her Government have taken in being open, providing honest reflections of the decisions that need to be made and acknowledging that it is required that a balance be struck between the four harms that we know the virus causes. None of this is easy.
As we seek to tackle the direct and very real harm to health and life that is caused by Covid, it is crucial that we recognise the wider health harms that will result if our NHS is overwhelmed by Covid, the social harms that are caused by lockdown restrictions such as increased isolation and inequality, and the economic harm that is suffered by business and workers across the country, which in turn causes physical and mental health problems. None of those issues can be viewed in isolation.
We must strike the best balances that we can in the interests of minimising the overall harm that the pandemic is causing. It is very important that we remind ourselves that if we allow the virus to run out of control, all the other harms will be exacerbated. That is why everything that we do must be consistent with suppressing Covid as far as possible. The five levels of protective measures are helpful in that they allow a national approach to be taken if required, while also providing the opportunity for local flexibility, which can ensure that restrictions are not placed on people unnecessarily. That last point is important.
I know about the personal toll that Covid is taking on people. If we are among the lucky ones, we are simply missing family and friends whom we cannot see, and the activities that we used to take part in. Others are carrying even greater burdens, and are worried about their long-term health, their families and how they will cope with caring responsibilities if they fall sick. They are worried about their jobs, making ends meet or putting food on the table for their children.
We know that people who are already facing inequality are most likely to be negatively affected by Covid-19, with an increased risk of them facing financial and physical insecurity. For example, women are affected in terms of their health—not only as front-line workers and carers, but because of the policies that have been introduced to manage the impact of the virus. Periods of isolation and social distancing can exacerbate women’s experiences of domestic abuse by, in effect, trapping them in unsafe situations, with limited access to vital support and means of escape.
Inclusion Scotland tells us that on top of years of exclusion and austerity, disabled people have been dealt a triple whammy: the virus, lack of control and lack of support. They need that control and support to enable them to endure the pandemic and whatever comes after it. I note Inclusion Scotland’s point about disabled people being able to self-shield, because they are the experts on their own conditions. I ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to comment on that when she sums up.
Earlier in the year, I amended coronavirus legislation to place a requirement on the Government to
“have regard to opportunities to advance equality”.
Even during a public health emergency, current policies should have equality and human rights at their centre. Although I acknowledge how challenging being asked to advance equality is at this time, we have some examples of where that has been possible. I urge the Scottish Government to continue to fully utilise equality impact assessments in order to find ways of advancing equality, and not merely to highlight issues that people are facing.
We hear phrases such as “unprecedented times” so much that we have probably become a bit inured to them, but it is the truth that for many of us Covid poses the greatest challenge that we face as a nation. To succeed—to get through this—we need everyone’s help and adherence. We need continued collective care, courage and resolve to do our part, so that our communities, our health and care services, and our economy can be best protected.
By following the measures and playing our individual parts, and by taking care of ourselves and looking out for each other, this will pass and a better future can lie ahead.16:48
Governments the world over are having to make decisions that nobody would ever want to have to make. That is why, all those months ago, the Scottish Conservatives put party politics aside and lent our support to the Scottish Government’s efforts to tackle the Covid-19 threat. That remains our position, and it remains the right thing to do.
However, to help to maintain that unified approach, it is important that communication between the Scottish Government and Parliament remains as open as possible. We acknowledged that, in navigating the pandemic, mistakes were bound to be made. That has never been an issue. The issue, however, has been that the Scottish Government has been less than forthcoming with evidence and opportunities to properly scrutinise and input into the decisions that have been made. Furthermore, to date, the Government’s response to other parties’ inputs and suggestions has been frustrating, to say the least.
We are now eight months into the Covid crisis, but there is little sign of it abating any time soon. I say quite frankly that I am sure that the expectation of the Scottish Government—and of many of us in the chamber—was that the worst would be over and the virus would be under control by now. The reason why I say that is that the Government’s approach continues to be predominantly reactive, and without an overall framework and direction that the Scottish public can work to. Most important is that there has been little discussion on a strategy for our exit from the pandemic.
There is a balancing act between the two needs to protect the public from the virus itself and to protect them from the impact of the restrictions. As well as the obvious economic pain, significant physical and mental health issues definitely arise from the imposition of Covid restrictions. As has been mentioned already in the context of mental health, Christmas is now looming large in the public consciousness. There are rising concerns about the impact of loneliness and people being away from their loved ones—some of whom have not had the chance to see one another since March. What are the chances of the public adhering en masse to being asked to stay away from their loved ones? They need hope, and to see a ray of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Will the member take an intervention?
I thank Brian Whittle, both for his contribution and for giving way.
Everybody wants to see their family at Christmas—I desperately want to see mine. We will plan as well as we can, but we cannot absolutely foresee the future for the virus.
However, does Brian Whittle agree that the best way to try to open the door to as much normality as possible at Christmas is for all of us to dig in right now, and to abide by all the advice in order to get the virus to levels that are low enough for us to do that? It would be good for all of us to continue to come together behind that message, as members are already doing.
I absolutely agree with the First Minister that, across the whole country, we need to adhere to the strategy. However, one of the issues here is that it has bounced about a bit, so it is becoming more difficult for people to understand what it now is.
Scottish Conservatives have asked for the development of a Christmas strategy to be considered. We do not know what that might be, but we would like the idea to be considered, because hope is in short supply at the moment.
I will move on. I want to put forward the case for the voice of business to be heard when decisions on restrictions are being made, so that we protect as many jobs as can safely be protected. That echoes the Scottish Conservatives’ amendment.
Many businesses that traditionally work to a one-year, three-year or five-year plan currently cannot plan even a week in advance. Continually opening up and shutting down is unworkable. Business is not a tap that can be turned on and off; it might be easy to shut it down, but it takes time to turn the tap back on.
Businesses were asked to innovate and to find ways of operating in a Covid-safe environment in order to safeguard as many jobs as possible. They rose to that challenge, but then the rules changed and all the investment and innovation were lost. Many businesses have demonstrated their ability to operate safely, but they believe that they are being penalised, instead of those who flouted the rules. They say that we should not punish those who fully comply with the rules because of the stupidity of those who do not. Instead, we should seek out those who break the rules.
For example, the problems in the hospitality industry have been well documented. To understand the extent of the problem we have only to drive through a city such as Glasgow to see the rise in the number of “To let” signs, where restaurants or cafes were trading only recently.
However, it is not just the hospitality industry that is suffering; the whole food supply chain is under threat. On Friday, I spoke to a major wholesaler who, to use his words, is “haemorrhaging money”, to the extent that he is considering shedding 70 staff because he does not know what is coming down the line. He has only a fraction of his delivery trucks out there, and they are running half empty, while trying to maintain supplies for his customers who are still able to carry out some trading.
One member of my local chamber of commerce has said that most businesses will not be on the list of those that are mandated to close, but they are expected to remain open under some restrictions. However, the overwhelming mood music from the Government is that customers are being asked to stay away. The Government needs to speak to the Scottish Wholesale Association, which will tell it the stark reality of the cliff edge that it faces, in a sector that is worth £2.9 billion to Scotland and supplies some 5,000 convenience stores, as well as hospitals, schools, prisons and hospitality businesses. Wholesalers have high overheads and carry significant stock, but have been left out of the support schemes such as that which provides rates relief.
If supply chains fail, they will be extremely difficult to rebuild. There will be a post-Covid period, so business needs to know that preparations and plans are being made to which they can work; they need to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel so that they can be confident about retaining their employees. Scottish Chambers of Commerce has said that if there is to be
“Hope and confidence in the data and evidence being collated and analysed by the Government, it needs to be open, detailed and regularly reported and communicated.”
Come to a close, please.
That will be critical to regaining trust that there is still an ambitious and innovative strategy being applied to guide us through the crisis.
We need to protect lives and livelihoods—it does not need to be either/or. Eight months in, our response should be more sophisticated. It is time to take a breath and to let those who are most affected by restrictions have their say.16:55
As an English Scot, I put on record my anger and disgust about comments made by Willie Rennie at the weekend. His appalling attempt to bring naked constitutional politics into Covid-19 ill-befits any party leader in the Parliament. I am sure that Willie Rennie will not have found the First Minister or any SNP politician spouting the rubbish that he claims. Mr Rennie said that
“Anti-English rhetoric has reared its ugly head at different points throughout this crisis and there is no place for it.”
Just as he is not responsible for the comments of his supporters, no other party leader in the Parliament is responsible for the people who support them, and no party leader is responsible for people who are not members of their party but who support their particular cause. If Willie Rennie wants to intervene, I will take his intervention.
I certainly do.
That was an astonishing remark. Nationalists right across the country have claimed directly that the source of the rise of the virus in Scotland is England. That is something that has not been refuted enough by the leadership of the various political parties in this Parliament. I will stand up and do that at every opportunity, because we are one United Kingdom and we should be standing together against the virus, rather than trying to divide the country. I regret the comment from Stuart McMillan.
Sadly, I regret the comments from Mr Rennie, because once again he cannot rise to the occasion on the issue of Covid-19.
It has been clear from the outset that a four-nations process to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic is important. The Scottish Parliament and the First Minister have attempted to deliver that. The Scottish Government continues to press the UK Government to ensure that an adequate four-nations approach is taken, in particular on the necessary funding for Scottish businesses and workers. The support that the Scottish Government is providing is the maximum that can be afforded under current powers and with the resources that are available. That is why dialogue and discussion must continue.
Earlier this year, the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, called for a UK-wide lockdown strategy and criticised the UK Government for its policy and its
“tendency to keep its cards too close to its own chest and then late in the day revealing their thinking to other governments.”
I disagreed with Mr Drakeford then, and still do, about a full UK wide lockdown. I agree with Jackson Carlaw’s comment that
“a national strategy can allow for variations, different nations operating at a different pace reflecting their circumstances.”
I agreed with Jackson Carlaw when he said that, and I think that the comment is still relevant today. If a full UK-wide strategy were to be implemented, it would not be able to provide for local actions for local situations, which Mr Rennie talked about. He spoke of wanting plans to allow people to follow the rules, but he also spoke of the potential confusion of messaging in local authority areas if there are differing circumstances in those areas.
The UK Government’s three-tier system will be helpful for England, and I welcome that, but I also believe that the Scottish Government’s five-tier strategy improves on what has been in place in Scotland. In the future, another strategy will come along that will improve on what has been announced today.
Covid-19 does not stand still, and scientists are learning every single day. That is why I genuinely welcome what has been published. I welcome the framework and the fact that it is based on local authority areas and not solely on health board areas.
Inverclyde is surrounded by areas, apart from Argyll and Bute, in which the rate has been a lot higher than ours. I would like Inverclyde to be placed in a tier that helps the economy to reopen under the appropriate measures. Tier 2 would be ideal. The proposals today for the new set of tier 3 rules are a huge step forward, but tier 2 would be advantageous for my local area. On 24 October, Inverclyde had 52 new cases, while neighbouring Renfrewshire had 383 and North Ayrshire had 310, although I accept that North Ayrshire is in the NHS Ayrshire and Arran area. Our rate is certainly lower than that of our neighbours. Inverclyde has 68.1 cases per 100,000 whereas Renfrewshire has 222.8 per 100,000 and North Ayrshire has 239 per 100,000.
I accept that there would be a challenge if there was additional flexibility, because people will travel. It has been documented that people travelled from Glasgow to Helensburgh last weekend. That would certainly happen in Inverclyde as well. That could take the risk into areas that have lower numbers of cases.
I genuinely welcome the five-tier strategy and the framework, which I know will be beneficial for every community. We are very much aware that we have to do what we have to do, because we want to have a Christmas, and we want a better outcome for every single person—not just in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but globally.17:02
Scotland has already paid a heavy price in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, but we have reached a critical point. We need to reassure the public that the latest strategy, which was published over the past few days, is workable. It needs to win the trust and support of ordinary people. We await the official announcement on Thursday of how the country is to be divided up, although the First Minister has given us a rough indication, and it already feels grim.
We know that the problem is global and that we are not alone. We are doing better than we were, but we are still far from having the issue under control by WHO standards. The failure of the track and trace system is one of the key reasons why we are not doing better. We have had low compliance rates, and I know many people who are still waiting to be contacted when they know that they have been in the presence of someone who has had a positive result. There is still much to be done on that. We need to learn the lessons of the countries that have had success in that regard. The key is to test, track and trace—over the past seven months, that message has not really changed.
We must also aim for a mass testing strategy to open up the economy. Many workers who play key roles on the front line, such as our health workers and care workers, as well as retail workers, who face the public every day, are beginning to ask whether they should be tested. I just mention that in passing.
The basic principle should be that, if an area is shut down because of a decision based on public health, there has to be support for people and businesses in that area. We will have to see how effective the recent restrictions prove to be, although the First Minister has said that there are early signs that the figures are improving. We are now moving to a five-tier matrix, which is already causing considerable confusion and raises many questions about how decisions will be made and whether we are on the right path. Transparency and simplicity are paramount; without them, there will be confusion, which helps no one.
As other Labour members have said, I would have preferred to have been a full participant in the process of scrutinising the framework, which I believe is my job. The Government’s business manager said earlier that the view was that we should just have a debate, but I want to make clear that that was not Labour’s view. For the past seven months, we have been used to questioning the First Minister. I give her credit for standing at her desk in the chamber and answering our questions, but I just do not see why today should be any different.
As Neil Findlay said in his intervention, we must have a chance to consult businesses and people on our approach to the framework.
Our constituents demand of us that decisions be backed up by clear data and that it be possible for the process to be easily followed, because the businesses that will have restrictions put on them, which should receive conventional financial support, still have many questions that have not been answered.
The well-worn statement that “We’re all in this together” might be true, but some people are suffering considerably more than others, and each of the decisions that are taken will affect ordinary people as well as businesses. We must be mindful of the people who have lost their jobs as the lockdown framework has impacted on some of the biggest sectors, such as hospitality. Sadly, more people will lose their jobs as that impact continues.
There is already confusion and divisive arguments about what a cafe is and what a restaurant is. Members of the hospitality sector know that it is their sector that is expected to have more closures in the coming months, depending on what level they happen to be in. Therefore, we must ensure that their questions are answered.
I understand the difficulties for hospitality in general and for cafes and restaurants in particular, but does Pauline McNeill recognise that, under the new proposals, all premises will be subject to the same rules under level 3, so there will be no distinctions between cafes, restaurants and pubs? I hope that she welcomes that as a useful step forward.
I absolutely welcome that. I also welcome what the First Minister said about listening to some of the ideas of the hospitality sector about how to make the process smoother. It is extremely important that people sign up to a strategy that is in no way divisive, as the previous regulations were. Therefore, I whole-heartedly welcome the change in that respect.
However, although the strategic framework provides indicators, it does not tell us when the threshold will have been reached. I think that the First Minister said earlier that that is clear, but it is not clear to me, from what I have read so far. She has given an indicative view on the position that North and South Lanarkshire and Glasgow might be in. I can see that North Lanarkshire has a rate of 335 positive cases per 100,000 of the population, South Lanarkshire has a rate of 375 per 100,000 and Glasgow has a rate of 308 per 100,000, but I am not clear about what level they would need to be at to be put into tier 3 or tier 4, because only indicators have been provided. It would be helpful to get an answer to that.
The ranges at each level are set out in the technical paper that we have published today, although I appreciate that members will not have had a chance to absorb that in full.
The point that I made earlier is important. The statistics—the number of cases per 100,000, the test positivity rates and the projections for health service capacity—will guide the decisions, but it is inevitable that a degree of judgment will have to be applied in relation to the interconnections between different areas, whether the number of cases is going up or down and whether there is community transmission or a series of smaller outbreaks. It will not be an algorithm-based approach. The statistics will guide fuller decisions.
All that I ask is that the way in which that judgment is applied is clear and rational, because the use of the term “judgment” implies that the decision that is made might not be clear cut. That is what I ask for. I appreciate the answer that the First Minister gave.
I think that I must close but, in doing so, I want to end on a very positive note. I welcome the First Minister’s announcement on the setting up of an expert group—which I, along with Claire Baker and others, have campaigned for—to look at whether music could return to the hospitality sector. I also ask the First Minister to address the level 0 issues for the night-time economy, because in no scenario would such venues ever open up. I hope that the Government will engage with night clubs and the night-time economy on that.
Some members are having a wee bit of trouble offline, so I am looking to see who we can go to next. Graham Simpson is ready.17:09
I am always ready.
It is good that we are having this debate today. So far, Parliament has been an after-the-event bystander when it comes to dealing with Covid-19. We have not had any meaningful votes. We have scrutinised some quite restrictive measures, but only after they have come into effect, and important matters relating to the pandemic have been announced at daily press conferences rather than to the Parliament. Both those things should make the Presiding Officer as angry as the Speaker of the House of Commons clearly is.
At the start of the pandemic, I thought that the advice that we were all getting was clear and easy to understand: if you do not want to catch the virus, stay away from other people, keep your hands clean and do not touch your face. I felt pretty safe sticking to that, as did most people.
Now, though, we have a somewhat confusing muddle of rules and regulations, and people are finding it hard to comply with what they do not understand. Members will know, because they can see it for themselves, that many people are struggling with the law that says that people cannot have visitors to their home, for example. That brings me on to Christmas. People will go to see family over Christmas. They will travel within Scotland and between the nations of the UK, so the Governments of the UK need to pull together to find a way that makes things work for people over the festive period.
The plan that was unveiled by the First Minister last week was, to me, a document devoid of hope, because there was nothing about what needs to happen to get us back to normal. People who are making so many sacrifices and businesses deserve a plan that shows them how we can get there. We will support the plan, but it runs the risk of confusing people even more than they are now.
The mood music about getting a vaccine is encouraging, but what if we do not get one any time soon? The restrictions could last for years. The plan provided no detail on what has to happen, and what evidence is expected, to allow an area to move from one tier to another. People and businesses have a right to expect some clarity on that, so the paper that was released earlier today, which sets out some of the indicators, was useful and should be updated for MSPs weekly.
I turn to reports that South Lanarkshire and North Lanarkshire may—I stress “may”—be put into the highest tier. I hope that that is not the case because, if it is, it will mean that the numbers have gone in the wrong direction. The paper that I referred to a moment ago does not look good for Lanarkshire, so we might be heading for the top tier. The paper says that an area will be considered for level 4 if it broadly meets one of five conditions. What do we mean by “broadly”, and why must it meet only one of the conditions? As a local member, I want to know where the cases are, how the experts think they have been spread and what the situation is in Lanarkshire’s hospitals.
On the question of where cases in a particular local authority area are, every day, people can go on to the Public Health Scotland website, where that information is updated and goes down to the level of neighbourhoods of 4,000 people. That information is available.
On the second point, there are limits to the evidence on where cases spread, without genomic sequencing, which scientists in Scotland are doing. Beyond that, we have to make assumptions based on the information that comes through the test and protect system. Some of the data cannot be provided in that timescale, but we are working to provide as much as detail as possible, and some of the information that Graham Simpson has called for is already available.
I thank the First Minister for that answer, and I was very pleased to hear earlier that we will get a postcode checker, which is a great idea.
We have had hospital figures Lanarkshire-wide, but a further breakdown hospital by hospital would be useful. If the Government is to go down the route of putting Lanarkshire into the top tier, it must say how it will protect businesses that will be forced to close. If there are to be travel restrictions, the Government must say how they will work and how they will be enforced. People travel in and between council areas as part of their daily lives. People might drop the kids off at school or do their shopping—normal stuff—in a different council area, so I appeal to the Government to show some flexibility, if that is possible.
The First Minister mentioned this earlier, but would it be fair to apply restrictions in rural areas of Lanarkshire, such as Clydesdale, if the numbers there do not justify that? In all this, I urge the Government to work with elected members in any area that is likely to go into the top tier. I do not think that we have to put things such as areas moving between tiers to a vote every time, but we need detailed discussions so that we can all agree on what is needed to protect public health, while also protecting the economy.
Government has a tough job. Difficult decisions have to be made, and there is a difficult balance to be struck between taking public health measures and protecting the economy and the fabric of our society. I do not envy it, but it is vital that the Government carries the country with it on this journey, which is why it needs to do better at explaining what it wants to do, and why.17:15
I welcome “COVID-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework”, and particularly the emphasis that it places on the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, including through the extension of asymptomatic testing to those who are most at risk. I will focus my remarks on one of those groups: people with learning disabilities, whose interests I have raised before. People with learning disabilities do not command the same headlines as some of the other groups who are most affected by the pandemic, but that is all the more reason to draw attention to their needs in the debate.
The Government’s keys to life strategy acknowledges that people with learning disabilities already have poorer health outcomes and die earlier than the rest of the population. Last week, the journal Annals of Internal Medicine reported that people with Down’s syndrome have at least a 10 times greater risk of dying of Covid-19 than the general population, based on UK data of 8 million people. In June, the Care Quality Commission in England reported a 134 per cent increase in the deaths of people with a learning disability during the height of the pandemic. However, neither learning disability nor Down’s syndrome is listed in the four-nations guidance as a condition that makes people more vulnerable to Covid-19.
If people with a learning disability live in a care home, they will have the additional protection that comes from asymptomatic testing of the carers who support them. I very much welcome that and the fact that such testing is moving to the NHS. However, most people with a learning disability do not live in a care home, and their carers are not tested weekly—even though the strategy document says that routine testing includes “non elderly adult settings”. It would be good to get some clarity on that.
Many people with learning disabilities, including those with very high support needs, have been moved into community settings, but, in practical terms, those settings carry the same risks as care homes. People with significant needs will live in small complexes, perhaps with five to 20 other people, receiving 24-hour support that includes close personal care. That means that the infection risks that apply those complexes are similar to those that apply to care homes. People in such supported accommodation are subject to the same curtailments of their freedom as people in care homes, because they are vulnerable.
I know that charities such as Enable and Epilepsy Scotland have called for routine testing in those settings, so I welcome the Government’s commitment and look forward to more detail on when it is delivered. I understand that home care workers should also be included, as they look after people with learning disabilities as well. If there is a capacity issue, I would suggest that those complexes where people receive 24-hour care alongside other people in supported accommodation should come first.
I have a personal interest in the matter, as I have said before. My sister has Down’s syndrome and lives in supported accommodation in Inverclyde. When it was a bit warmer and I was sitting with her in the shared garden there, one of the fantastic members of staff who look after her told me that her husband worked in a care home nearby and was tested every Monday morning. She simply could not understand why the people she cared for were not offered similar protection. It was the people she cared for, not her own health, that she was thinking about.
The strategy document also places a welcome emphasis on wellbeing—particularly that of the most vulnerable. I know that the cabinet secretary for health has written a very welcome letter to directors of social work on the isolation that is experienced by people with learning disabilities as a result of the closure of adult day services—or adult resource centres, as they are sometimes known. In that letter, the cabinet secretary emphasised the importance of those services and urged their safe reopening, and she emphasised the importance of putting meaningful alternative provision in place where capacity is reduced. However, the feedback that I have had from all over the country is that little or nothing has been put in place to compensate for the closure of ARCs. Because of that, hundreds of people have been left at home, and their carers are under enormous pressure.
In South Scotland, where I live, one local authority is now undertaking remote needs assessments before it provides alternative support, and that process is causing real distress. A carer in my constituency who supports her learning-disabled sister was told that, if they moved to self-directed support to replace the day centre provision while it was closed, the funding would cover only basic needs such as feeding and washing. The social stimulation, leisure and friendship that her sister got at the day centre would not be replaced, and the carer was told that, if she hired a personal assistant to fulfil those basic needs, her sister could permanently lose her place at the adult day centre, which would cut her off from all the familiar activities that had given her life meaning for the past 20 years. That is not a person-centred approach, and I am sure that all members agree that it is not an acceptable approach.
In concluding, I ask again that people with learning disabilities be given the health protections that they need by the testing of anyone whom they rely on for close personal care, and that local health and social care partnerships and local authorities ensure that people with learning disabilities, as well as having their basic needs looked after, are treated as human beings with a right to companionship, recreation and meaningful activity.17:21
Yesterday, 442,721 people across the globe tested positive for Covid-19. On a seven-day rolling average, that is the highest-ever number, as was the 21,926 cases across the UK. Worldwide, 5,922 deaths were recorded and, sadly, it looks likely that there will be more than 1.5 million deaths by the end of the year.
However, the virus seems to have hugely varying impacts. Singapore has had 57,980 positive tests and 28 deaths. That is a mortality rate of less than one in 2,000. Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands, with 670 and 490 positive cases respectively, have reported not a single fatality between them. In dealing with a seemingly idiosyncratic virus, it is no wonder that leaders across the world are struggling to know how best to reverse the pandemic.
It is clear that Covid-19 will impact our lives for the foreseeable future. I am sure that we have all been contacted by constituents demanding full lockdown or a complete lifting of all restrictions—and, no doubt, everything in between. Folk are exhausted and often bewildered. The Scottish Government is constantly striving to balance national and local restrictions to best protect Scotland’s health and economy. The introduction of a more comprehensive levels system in place of ad hoc restrictions is welcome in such circumstances.
As the First Minister stated in introducing the framework, it must be approached with an open mind. We must listen to stakeholders and communities to ensure that they are properly supported through the next phase of the pandemic. My view is that that support should include more nuanced restrictions once the new local authority provisions bed in.
Until last week, the Isle of Arran had been virus free for four months, but people and businesses were put under the same stringent conditions that the central belt was put under. The small cluster of confirmed cases on the island have been effectively contact traced and managed. That shows that, even with the recent return of coronavirus, Arran is not the same as the mainland. In Argyll and Bute, which other members have already mentioned, the differences are even starker. One can see the Western Isles from Tiree but not Helensburgh, which is 142 miles away by road and ferry.
As we move into a new phase of fighting the virus, we need more targeted restrictions, which I look forward to seeing in due course.
The widespread adoption of masks is one of the most obvious ways in which the public have complied with regulations to make Scotland safer. The Scottish Government acted decisively and before other parts of the UK in making face coverings mandatory on public transport and in shops, and it has provided comprehensive guidance on proper hygiene while wearing a mask.
We know that a mask should cover our face and nose, to wash our hands before putting a mask on and to avoid touching our masks and faces. However, there is some confusion regarding other aspects of correct usage. Constituents have asked pertinent questions that have not yet been addressed by guidance. The advice is to wash face coverings after use, and
“after a school day, or a trip to the supermarket”
are given as examples. It would be helpful to have clarity on what counts as one use, as the examples that are given vary. Should a face covering be washed at 60°C after every single wear? If a person travelled on a train and took a mask off at the end of the journey, would a clean mask be required for the journey home? The advice is to wash our hands after removing a mask. Should we also wash our face? It may seem that mask hygiene is simple common sense, but it is brand new to most of us. I am sure that we can agree that the more clarity and guidance that is provided, the safer mask compliance will be and the more effectively we can control the virus.
We must also recognise that Covid-19 is not the only risk to health and wellbeing this winter. As the nights draw in, we face a wave of loneliness and isolation. I have been contacted by older constituents who are deeply concerned about the coming months. They are, of course, wary of coronavirus and follow all the necessary guidance and regulations.
The First Minister announced in Friday’s briefing that, right up to level 4 restrictions, six people from up to two households will be allowed to meet outside. That compromise was first reached in the summer, as a way of allowing people to safely interact with others outside their own households. It undoubtedly helped many people over the warmer months. However, we are asking much, much more of people if they can meet up only in that way over the winter, when it is cold, wet and dark. Some of my older constituents, in particular, are worried that they face a choice between braving potentially hazardous weather conditions and spending their winter alone, not seeing anyone at all. Liam McArthur has already touched on island communities, where meeting places are perhaps fewer and farther between.
I therefore ask the Scottish Government to increase the flexibility for single people and even couples to meet safely indoors. That might take the form of couples and individuals having a chance to meet in each other’s homes—perhaps three or four people from a maximum of two households—while observing social distancing and any additional regulations that are deemed necessary. Any increased risk of transmission must be balanced against the positive impact on people’s physical and mental health.
The next few months are going to be hard for us all, but we will get through it. However, those months cannot be about just avoiding the virus: being alive is about more than having a heartbeat. We must continue to work with our communities and give people the chance to live, not just survive.
Thousands of men and women play organised amateur football, which is the only adult grade of Scottish football that has been stopped, even though they follow all the same protocols as all clubs outside the top two leagues. In 2018, the Union of European Football Associations reported that amateur football saved NHS Scotland £690 million by helping to prevent 5,000 mental health cases and by reducing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, among other diseases, as well as adding £200 million to the Scottish economy and providing £300 million in social benefits. I therefore urge the Scottish ministers to allow amateur football to restart so that it can continue delivering those benefits, which will otherwise be lost both to the individuals and to Scotland.
The Scottish Government has acted commendably throughout the crisis, and it would be inconceivable to expect it or any other Government to navigate such difficult, unprecedented times without putting a foot wrong. Like elsewhere, some things have been handled well and some have not gone to plan, and there will be more of both as we progress. However, the next phase must continue to be informed by the science in order to protect quality of life as well as life itself. It will be a balancing act, but, provided that we proceed with open minds and that we are prepared to listen and adapt where necessary, we can bring Scotland through this.17:26
In starting any speech on the subject of Covid-19, we must remember all those who have died and send our condolences to their families. Many people are also suffering from long Covid, and although the majority of them might fully recover, it is certainly not a virus that anyone wants to catch, particularly not those with underlying health conditions.
I am also acutely aware, from constituents, that other health service provision is suffering: cancer treatments have been stopped, symptoms have not been picked up and elective surgery has been cancelled. Undoubtedly, people have died because of the restrictions that have been put in place to battle Covid. Their deaths are equally tragic.
People are suffering, whether that is their mental and physical health, or because of their financial situation and the loss of personal contact with family and friends. The havoc that the pandemic is wreaking on our society, particularly on our health and the economy, would have been quite unimaginable just a year ago; so, too, would the idea that our civil liberties and human rights would be so restricted.
The Scottish Government’s framework document, which the Parliament is being asked in the motion to note—not to endorse—speaks of principles that include a commitment to fairness to
“uphold the principles of human dignity, autonomy, respect and equality”.
However, with rising inequality and the gap between rich and poor growing, the Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly impacting people differently across our country not just by local authority or health board area, but by class.
The equality and human rights impact of some of the steps that are laid out in the framework that was published last Friday in the different tier levels do not seem to have been scrutinised. It is crucial that those aspects are scrutinised not only to combat the virus successfully, but to meet the obligations on equality and respecting our human rights.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation pointed out in its latest poverty in Scotland report—“Poverty in Scotland 2020: The independent annual report”—that thousands of families who have never accessed the social security system before will now be seeking support. Women, disabled and young people are the hardest hit. I do not think that the interventions are quite bold enough, nor do the proposals tackle isolation and loneliness.
The First Minister told us that the 16-day period was a short and sharp action. However, last night’s leaked information told us that—the First Minister has confirmed this today—Lanarkshire may be put into even more draconian measures, despite being an area of higher deprivation. We need clarity on where the outbreaks are. Are they in care homes, schools or hospitals? Can the outbreaks still be in the hospitality industry when many locations have been closed for so long? To consider if the measures are proportionate, we need specifics.
I will make what is perhaps the third plug today for the Public Health Scotland website. Anybody can go on to it, and it is updated daily. People can look at their local area and see the breakdown of cases at a very local level. There is a demographic breakdown and an age breakdown. We have tried to improve it as much as possible, but given some of the comments in the chamber today, it is clear that people are not as aware of it as they should be. I hope that this debate will help to rectify that.
Maybe that will help to make the public more aware, because it is obvious that they are still confused. I do not know whether infections are still increasing in hospitality settings given that many of those have been closed. We need answers on that.
From listening to my constituents, I know that anxiety is on the rise, support is hard to find and a sense of confusion is evident, despite what the First Minister has said. Perhaps that is why we need more scrutiny and questions in Parliament, rather than just having plans put in front of us for us to note.
The restrictions do not deliver consistency in a way that is understood or in a way that gives confidence that the growing inequalities will be addressed.
Will the member take an intervention?
If the First Minister wants to intervene again, Presiding Officer, I am happy to let her do so, as long as you give me the time back. I think that we should have had a question-and-answer session today.
Sorry—I might be wrong, but I had understood that Labour wanted us to have a motion that said “note” and not “endorse”. If I am wrong about that, I will stand corrected.
We were given sight of the First Minister’s proposal, but we did not comment on whether we wanted a motion that said “note”. We wanted a question-and-answer session today and a debate tomorrow, when we all would have had more time to digest what she had put in front of us. That would have provided a much better level of scrutiny all round—including for her, I would suggest—rather than having all this back and forth with interventions and questions.
As I said, the restrictions do not deliver consistency. There are so many variations, and the rules are not easy to make sense of. For example, visiting a lonely friend or relative in their home can be a crime, but meeting them in a busy cafe is allowed; and attending a wedding reception in a hotel with 20 others is acceptable, but social distancing in a local restaurant where strict safety measures have been introduced is not acceptable. So many services are accessible only online, but thousands of my constituents have no access to wi-fi or a computer, so there will be no digital Christmas for them. On the one hand, the Government speaks of the importance of the high streets, communities and local economies; on the other hand, small businesses that have put in practice health protections are facing closure.
Of course the UK chancellor should increase and extend support packages for businesses and individuals, but the Scottish Government needs to be bolder. For example, it needs to give priority to local suppliers for the school meals contracts, to ensure the necessary food deliveries and to ensure that local shops remain open in the future.
The framework speaks of the principle of evidence, but the rules are changing so quickly that it does not seem possible even to have collated the evidence, let alone draw conclusions. For the rules to be followed with confidence, people need to know more about exactly what works and what does not. The rule of six was brought in for private homes, but it was hardly given any time to be judged when it was then ruled out. There has been no explanation of the science that allows hundreds of schoolchildren to mix with each other and their teachers and support staff. Of course no one wants schools to close and children to lose out on vital education, but many children have been sent home to isolate for 14 days due to Covid outbreaks in the classroom. How is that affecting their learning? With regard to students, will they be tested before returning to halls of residences after Christmas? That is hugely important.
Hospitality businesses were asked to put in place safety measures, and the vast majority spent money doing so. Why are they all being treated as though they have broken the rules? Why was Scotland the only country in the world to ban background music in pubs and clubs? What was the science behind that?
With businesses closing, travel and tourism devastated and the economy shrinking, how is the loss of jobs and the resultant poverty going to affect our children and young people’s future? If those decisions are political instead of science based, we need to hear that from the First Minister; then people can judge whether they are proportionate.
We are now being asked to support a five-tier system, which starts at 0 and ends at 4—actually, we have been asked to note rather than endorse the plan, which means that we are merely observers. What will be the indicators be for the proposed tiers? Will they include rates among the over-60s, care home outbreaks, or testing-positive cases by area?
At the start of the pandemic, when it was clearly an emergency, and, as described by the First Minister, beyond politics, it would surely have been preferable for the Scottish Government to be truly non-political and set up a coalition unity executive to tackle the situation in a cross-party way. However, the First Minister chose to do it herself. Parliament has handed unprecedented power to the First Minister and her Government, but we must now have a much greater role in scrutinising all of this. It must be transparent, and we must have the raw data that underpins the decisions. When such information is made available, there might be more democracy.
Can you wind up, please?
Despite the First Minister somehow laughing about that, we all want to see the Government and wider society succeed in the fight against the virus, but members of the Parliament must be able to hold the Scottish Government to account, to publicly scrutinise its decisions and actions and to help in the national effort to tackle the pandemic. I urge support for Labour’s amendment.17:35
I am speaking as a member of the Scottish Parliament and a resident of North Lanarkshire, which, as we all know, is currently one of hardest-hit areas in the country. Last week, we learned from NHS Lanarkshire that our hospitals were coming close to capacity and that university hospital Monklands, which is only a mile or so from where I live, was again closing to non-essential procedures.
I recently spoke to a friend who works at Monklands. She worked on the specialist Covid ward during the earlier part of the year. I could hear the worry in her voice as she warned that things were getting bad and that pressure was building, and she was worried about going through it all again. She pleaded with me to make sure that others take Covid seriously. We must listen to the people on the front line. Our NHS cannot be allowed to become overwhelmed.
Lanarkshire is in a hard place. I am sure that I am not just speaking for the Coatbridge and Chryston part of the local authority when I say that, whatever tier we go into, we will do whatever it takes to get the virus under control.
The member said that we must listen to the people on the front line, and I agree with him. Does he agree that it is extraordinary that, almost eight months down the line, front-line healthcare workers are not being tested regularly?
I thank the member for that intervention, but I think that the testing system is working well. I will come to that later in my speech. Test and protect is working well in Scotland and constant attacks on it are not helping anybody.
I fully welcome the strategic framework. It gives more clarity about what is acceptable and what is essential in terms of activities and travelling in and out of areas that have different infection rates. That clarity is needed because there is evidence in front of us every day that people are not always clear about matters. I am not playing the blame game because I believe that the majority of people are trying to do the right thing by putting personal safety measures in place. We have got from the summer to the point where we are now gradually and, as we approach winter, it is time to take stock and do things a bit differently.
Even before we saw last night’s leaked email, most of us in Lanarkshire expected to be in tier 3 as an absolute minimum. If that is the case, businesses in our area will need more support. Some could be shut for six to eight weeks, or longer, and we know that they employ a significant number of people in some of our most deprived areas. The grants are good, and they are welcome, but the reality is that we will need more.
This is when I turn to the members who are sitting on my left. I am well aware that this is a Scottish Parliament debate, but we cannot escape the hard reality that the UK Government needs to step up to the plate and support businesses in our most deprived areas. It is unthinkable that a blank cheque has been given to other parts of the UK but not in Scotland. No way could any Tory—whether they are a constituency MSP in central Scotland or are a list member for the region, or anywhere else—sit back and allow central belt areas to be put under tougher restrictions and for us to be treated as second rate.
To go back to what the Scottish Government can do, I welcome today’s news that nightclubs and soft play centres will be given additional funding. I have contacted the Government several times on behalf of those who operate such businesses in my constituency, as have many other members. It is great that the Government has taken action.
Last week, I publicised on social media that I was hoping to speak in today’s debate, and I asked constituents to get in touch. I have already had answers for most of them, especially given the updated framework that was sent around this morning. For example, I was contacted by Buzz Bingo in Coatbridge, which outlined the benefits of bingo and the safety measures that have been put in place. I was therefore pleased that it is now anticipated that bingo will be able to resume at tier 2. I thank the manager, Gordon Barr, for getting in touch.
Similarly, given some of the queries that I have received, I am happy to hear that there is clarity about travel when there are shared parenting arrangements. It is important that we avoid placing additional pressures on families that might harm children and young people as we move into winter.
Some constituents who have contacted me about weddings will be happy to learn of the proposal to increase the number of guests to 15, even in areas that are placed in tier 4—as might happen in Lanarkshire, as we heard from the First Minister, although we hope that that will not happen.
On other issues about which I have been contacted, no change is proposed. For example, people have asked me about adult outdoor contact sports, particularly amateur and other football, which Kenny Gibson mentioned. I think that other members who represent central Scotland have had similar queries. I think that tier 3 is, unfortunately, the right one in this context. I say that as a footballer—I use the word lightly—who is not likely to get back to the game for some time. Tier 3 is probably the right level in relation to adult contact sports.
However, as someone who has organised football as well as played it, I know the social and emotional benefits that it and similar sports bring to people. We must hope that the current tiers deliver and that people can, over a short period, work towards getting down to tier 2, at which such activities can resume. That is a benefit of the tier system—it is not that there is no end in sight.
Perhaps the most contact that I have had has been about schools. As a father, as well as an MSP, I agree that schools should close only as a last resort. The enhanced and targeted measures in the framework should be fleshed out a bit, to make clear what they mean. I think that people expect there to be the power to close schools for short periods if necessary, but there should be a planned end to the closure, unlike the situation that we experienced earlier this year.
There are cases of infection in schools. Every day, North Lanarkshire Council provides data to elected representatives—there has been excellent communication from the council throughout the pandemic. Almost every night, we learn of at least one school where a pupil or staff member has tested positive and a number of people are isolating, and the numbers have been increasing gradually. In last night’s briefing, we learned that 27 schools are affected across the authority area. That reflects the wider situation in Lanarkshire. It also shows that test and protect is working.
Let me be crystal clear: I endorse the plan and very much want schools to remain open—at almost all cost. However, constituents are telling me that if we need short and sharp action against the virus—as opposed to action that lasts for months—everything should be on the table and they would be willing to accept such measures.
I have run out of time. I welcome the framework, the scrutiny of it and the opportunity to raise constituents’ concerns.17:42
It is clear that Scotland is in a precarious place. People have made enormous sacrifices to halt the spread of the virus, but it remains incredibly stubborn. Cases remain worryingly high and each tragic death that results from Covid-19 reminds us of the gravity of the situation.
As the spread of the virus accelerates, the only logical option is to adapt by introducing more restrictive measures. My party agrees that such an approach, although it is painful, is the only effective way to safeguard public health.
On Sunday, it was reported that in El Paso County, in Texas, hospitals have reached full capacity, as cases have risen sharply, putting the health service under immense strain and requiring health officials to seek additional morgue space. Although El Paso is far from home, such news from around the world reminds us of the value of our NHS and those who work in it. It is vital that we protect it if we are ultimately to save lives.
Having said that, I want to talk about two serious concerns that my constituents have raised. Everyone understands that saving lives is the number 1 priority, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the restrictions will place enormous pressure on individuals and businesses across the country. For example, the effects of redundancy can be financial insecurity and immense strain on mental health. That is why I expect businesses in Glasgow to be disappointed by the SNP Government’s treatment of them. The confusion about the definitions of “restaurant” and “cafe” continues to cause frustration in the hospitality industry. However, I am also pleased to hear that the First Minister has acted on that, in the new guidance.
A local eatery in Glasgow’s east end, whose owner employs 17 people, was forced to close by Glasgow City Council. The owner is rightly angry, as the council could not provide an answer to his question concerning the difference between his establishment and other businesses in the local area whose premises remain open. I have written to Glasgow City Council to urgently clarify what the specific guidance is for such businesses.
However, that gets to the heart of the problem with the new guidance, in that the SNP has consistently failed to engage with businesses. That has direct consequences for people’s wellbeing and livelihoods. People’s jobs are on the line. The SNP must start to take those concerns seriously, before it is too late.
I turn to the impact of the pandemic on our elderly and vulnerable. In my view, which I am sure that members will share, the fortitude that they have shown throughout the crisis has been an inspiration to us all. For those who are most vulnerable, this is an especially difficult time.
That has hit close to home, as my mum, who has always prided herself on her work, has had to make the difficult decision to retire, due to her anxiety about contracting Covid. Her work was her lifeline, as it allowed her to speak to friends and co-workers; she cherished that social contact, which she and many others will dearly miss. Naturally, I want to support her through that and to be with her as much as possible, but because of the restrictions and the social distancing guidelines, and because she has a son who stays down south, my mum, along with many others, will feel the pinch of the new measures. That is why I am delighted to support the amendment in Ruth Davidson’s name, which calls on the Scottish Government to develop and publish a Christmas loneliness strategy. These past few months have been brutal, and my mum and others need hope that families can be reunited, in some form, for Christmas.
I want to draw attention to the shambolic situation with the flu vaccine. Despite the Scottish Government’s pledge to scale up the seasonal flu vaccination programme, its roll-out in the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde area has been disgraceful. I have received countless emails from constituents, many of whom are contacting me on behalf of their elderly parents; one described the process as “farcical”. Vulnerable people are having to wait far too long to receive their jab, and many have still not received it. With many remaining anxious because of the prevalence of Covid, that is simply not acceptable.
If a coronavirus vaccine is developed in the next few months, the SNP must put in place more robust provisions to ensure that we avoid the problems that people have experienced so far with the roll-out of the seasonal flu vaccine.
Around the world, everyone accepts that we will inevitably encounter difficulty as we combat the virus. However, as Opposition MSPs, it is the job of my colleagues and me to hold the SNP Government to account. It is failing business and offering little reassurance to our most vulnerable people. That is deeply regrettable.17:48
I speak in support of the Scottish Government’s motion, but I also welcome many of the suggestions that have been made in the debate from across the parties. I think that people in Scotland want us in the Scottish Parliament to operate as part of team Scotland, and the tone of the debate has been very helpful indeed.
I particularly welcome some of the announcements that have been made today. I think that, in deciding who is in which tier, it is a good idea to move from health board areas to local authority areas, for the simple reason that there is wide variation within large health board areas such as Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. It is therefore appropriate that we look at local government areas, in which we can pinpoint more accurately where the real problems exist.
I also welcome the flexibility that has been introduced in going below the local authority level into localities. We have already heard about the possibility of different treatment for different islands in Scotland, and about the likes of small remote rural communities coming into a similar category. That is quite right, and I think that it is progress.
I welcome the relaxation in relation to bingo, for example, and the money for soft-play businesses and nightclubs. I particularly welcome the fact that restaurants and pubs are now on an equal footing with cafes.
I agree with Kenneth Gibson that it would be helpful if the Government reconsidered the status and standing of amateur football. There is irritation among amateur footballers that they are not on a similar standing to players at senior and junior clubs, particularly given their importance in tackling issues such as obesity among many younger and middle-aged people. I hope that that will be reconsidered.
I have a number of suggestions to make about what we also need to be considering on top of everything else that the Government is doing. Right at the core of the strategy is the need to reduce the level of hospitalisation. The need for the restrictions that we have had to impose is driven, to a large extent—[Inaudible.]—is not overwhelmed by the number of people who are admitted to hospital.
Some progress has been made with some of the new drugs that have been developed since the beginning, which allow the length of stay in hospital to be reduced. That is very much to be welcomed; let us hope that many of the other antiviral drugs that are currently in development come on stream reasonably quickly, which will help.
A lot of work has been done, particularly down south, on profiling patients who are most at risk of needing hospitalisation. I think that those profiling protocols could be very helpful in identifying early on those in the community who are most likely to need hospitalisation. At the same time, we could put in place a strategy for earlier intervention using drugs and treatment to see whether it is possible to reduce the number of people identified as likely to need hospitalisation once they reach a certain stage and to prevent at least a number of them—albeit probably not anything like all of them—from ending up in hospital.
We need to do a bit more work on what is happening in other countries, most notably Japan, where people have focused on the need to deal with so-called superspreaders. The research seems to show that a small number of people with Covid pass it on to a very large percentage of those who get it from someone else. Some studies show that up to 80 per cent of people are infected by a relatively small number of superspreaders. It would be helpful to identify superspreading situations and to intervene very quickly, as that has been shown to be helpful in countries such as Japan in reducing the prevalence and spread of the virus.
A suggestion has been made by one of the Scottish Government’s own advisers that, instead of just isolating contacts who have been identified through test and protect, we should also be testing those people. As the capacity ramps up to 65,000 in the weeks ahead, I hope that some of that capacity could be used in that way. If that testing is done quickly, it might prevent a lot of the spread that is happening.
If the so-called swab in the gob, as it is being referred to, is introduced more quickly, with turnaround times in minutes rather than days following analysis of the test, that will allow for a scale of testing that has so far proved to be impossible. Getting to mass-scale testing would clearly be beneficial.
Somebody mentioned the need for an exit strategy. The exit strategy is a safe and effective vaccine, hopefully coupled with safe and effective antiviral treatments, which we do not have at present. However, we need a bridge, not just until a vaccine is authorised but for the time it will take to distribute that vaccine to people.
We need a vaccination strategy that, among other things, takes on the anti-vaxxers and tries to pre-empt any damage that they might do, as they did with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine many years ago. We cannot afford not to vaccinate the requisite number of people in order to put an end to this nightmare that we have been going through since February and March and which, unfortunately, we are likely to be going through for some time yet.17:55
I pay tribute to all those who continue to work on the front line to try to suppress the virus and save lives. I recognise the efforts of all those who are working round the clock to try to beat the virus, whether that be those in government, officials or those on the front line. I send my condolences to anyone who has lost a loved one during the pandemic.
At this point, seven months into Covid-19 and into the second wave, it is right to reflect on and recognise what has worked and what has failed or gone wrong, and to decide what the focus and priorities should be going forward. Fundamentally, this is about saving lives and livelihoods.
To be clear from the outset, even today, I want the Government to succeed. I will support it, and I have done so, when I think that it has got the approach right, and I will continue to constructively challenge in the right tone and in the right spirit when I think that the Government has got things wrong or that it can do better.
I put on record that, although I support attempts to control the virus, I do not think that we can be blind to the challenges and consequence of how we respond to it. I fear that how we have responded may in itself cost more lives than the virus will cost. There is an impact on health, both mental and physical, through things such as the pause in cancer services and screening and issues with speed of diagnosis and cancelled operations. There are also issues of isolation and loneliness and the hurt of loss. There is poverty, and in some cases extreme poverty. There are job losses and unemployment, and general uncertainty. Many families across the country, particularly many women and children, are having to live in difficult circumstances and perhaps in really difficult households. We need to be alive to all those issues.
One area in which we rightly commend the First Minister is communications. I accept that, thankfully, the First Minister is a better communicator than the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, although perhaps that is not a high bar. However, we have a hard lesson to learn as we enter the second wave, and that is that an effective communication strategy is not the same as a virus elimination strategy. There will be communication challenges as we go forward, and they will be even more difficult. We will have 32 different local authorities perhaps having different sets of restrictions. Having five tiers of restrictions will not help to keep the message simple, which will cause challenges.
Willie Rennie mentioned that, a few months ago, we were being told that we were in the midst of a zero Covid strategy and that we had a chance to eliminate the virus by the end of the summer. That was simply untrue, and we should not have allowed it to happen.
The member talks a lot of sense, and I take him seriously, but that was not untrue. We probably did virtually eliminate the virus but, with winter coming on and lockdown being lifted, that becomes much more difficult, as countries across the world are finding. Does the member agree that, had we not suppressed the virus so firmly in the summer months, we would now be in a much more challenging situation? We face challenges but, if we look across the UK and Europe, we see that our position is not as severe as that of some other countries. We should not be complacent, but that is because we put so much emphasis on elimination over the summer months.
I completely agree with that, and I supported the suppression that we did over the summer months, but it is important to recognise that, in those summer months, we still had the third or fourth worst death and infection rates anywhere in Europe. The Government and senior advisers said that we had a zero Covid strategy and that the world could learn from Scotland. We have to accept that we are now in this for the long haul and that getting people back into restrictions again is much more difficult if they think that the restrictions that happened before were not just a one-off exercise but could now be cyclical until we have a vaccine.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the flu vaccination roll-out programme, it is that we have a lot of work to do to ensure that people have confidence in the roll-out of the vaccine. That programme should have been the dry run, but the dry run has sadly not been good enough.
Going back to my earlier point, I think that the communication is very important, because we have to maintain confidence and public support. As the restrictions get more complicated and as there are some perceived contradictions or inconsistencies, that risks public support and buy-in for what we are trying to do.
We were told that the full lockdown was about helping to strengthen our systems. Yes, it was about protecting the NHS and saving lives, but it was also to give us time to prepare and strengthen our systems. One of those was our test and protect system, which we were told would help us to isolate the virus and stop its spread. It is doing that, but it is not doing it anywhere near as much as we need it do. The test and protect system was meant, largely, to be the answer.
Will the member give way?
I am in my last minute; the cabinet secretary can perhaps respond in her closing remarks.
The test and protect system has not helped to suppress and defeat the virus. People’s intentions to support the test and protect system and to isolate are high, but adherence is low. A study that was done by King’s College London, which looked at figures right across the UK, showed that, of those people who had Covid symptoms, only 18.2 per cent self-isolated, only 11.9 per cent requested a test and only 10.9 per cent reported staying in quarantine for two weeks. I am not saying that people did not have the right intentions. We have to recognise that people have difficult financial constraints. They sometimes have caring responsibilities, restrictions on their accommodation or difficult personal circumstances at home. We have to ensure that any decisions that we take are rooted in the real world and in real lived experiences.
I recognise that I am in my final seconds. We keep hearing about testing. There are not adequate levels of mass testing and rapid testing. People can go to Boots to get a test kit that gives a result in 12 minutes—that is certainly what the advertisements are saying will happen. Every Scottish Premier League-registered footballer gets a test every week. Why can every care home staff member, NHS staff member or home carer not get a test every week?
In 1957, when we had the tuberculosis crisis, the Glasgow Corporation set up 35 mobile X-ray clinics and units in Glasgow. In two months, it tested 715,000 people. We should be testing at that level of scale and size in order to beat the virus. The legacy of the virus has to be what we learned from it, how we built back better and how we prevented harm in our society. The legacy of the virus cannot be a scarred generation.18:02
I have just viewed the PHS Covid-19 profile, which highlights what we face and needs more exposure to the public. I was actually quite shocked when I read it.
“COVID-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework” sets out the intended approach to managing and suppressing Covid-19 across Scotland. I note that local NHS boards and local authorities will be consulted on the application of the framework to individual areas, but I have to ask whether local MSPs will also be consulted. There is a commitment to keep schools open at all levels and a promise that an economic package will be put in place to support businesses that might be required to close or have their operations restricted. There will also be support for workers who will be hardest hit by the necessary restrictions.
What will be announced shortly will have a cost for all, and we have to meet that cost. We must support every citizen and family during the pandemic. We cannot see the virus. We might unknowingly touch it. We cannot taste it, but it is still there. We have to defeat the virus, whatever the cost.
Today, I want to speak about what my constituents are facing during the pandemic and how they want clarity and information in relation to going into a higher tier. To respect their privacy, I will give them other names. Ann says that she operates two restaurants, both of which were forced to close on 9 October at 6 pm. Of the 70 staff across both restaurants, only 22 qualified for furlough during the 16-day closure. She cannot take bookings with no knowledge of whether the restaurants will ever operate again. It is very difficult for her, and she says she had to offer some security to staff who were receiving little or no pay during the closure. In the time between 15 July and 9 October, they had a report of one customer with Covid. They had to close for 24 hours and deep clean at their own cost. They need to continue. They want help and they want to be able to survive. Will Ann get that financial help?
John is a taxi driver. He asks when he will be helped. Business is very bad and he cannot pay his bills. “Please help me,” he says. He is self-employed, and every fund that he has applied for has turned him down. He needs that support. He is one of the many who have been missed.
One of the other problems that we have is how we can make regulations or tiers clearer. Most of the emails that I am getting—and I am sure that everyone else is getting—ask why one thing has closed but another thing is open. I certainly do not want to get into the same mess that Wales got into. People could not buy a kettle or certain other products—how daft was that? People want to participate, but quite rightly they ask for clarity and common sense.
Like others, I have been contacted by bingo operators. Bingo clubs in the central belt are currently closed, and I am informed that bingo clubs have had no Covid outbreaks. Regulatory bodies have made multiple visits, but no concerns have arisen. Bingo clubs operate with 2m social distancing, when everybody else is in the hospitality sector operates at 1m. They have certainly not seen any evidence that would justify a decision to close, and hopefully that will not come about.
I have been contacted by bowling centres, which are also under threat. They say that they are particularly socially distanced and should be allowed to open, as bowling centres in England are. They believe that they are in the wrong tier, and I would like to know why they are in that tier.
John asks why amateur football clubs currently prevented from playing. He says:
“We may well be placed in tier three, when others operating under the same protocols and strict guidelines are allowed to play, we are clearly of the opinion that Amateur Football has not been treated fairly”
He is asking that we do something about it.”
“I run a wedding videography business based in your constituency and am writing for help in changing a seemingly small detail, which is currently in place in England, in the current restrictions for weddings in Scotland which would make a massive difference to our industry.
Personally, our income has been completely wiped out for 2020 and it now looks like this will be the case for most of 2021.
The detail I refer to is the fact that videographers are included in the restricted numbers of guests meaning that couples need to choose between having a very close family member as part of their already reduced numbers, or having a videographer and photographer at their wedding. This is resulting in couples going ahead with smaller weddings, but cancelling our services.”
If that restriction could be changed, that would make a difference.
I have left the best till last. Again, I refer members to my entry in the register of interests. Showmen have not earned a penny since last March. They have fallen down for every fund that the Government has put up. They stand ready with PPE and cleaning materials, but they cannot use them. Councils are refusing to deal with them, due to Government guidance—or how they interpret that guidance.
Would the member agree that it is unfair that showmen’s businesses are unable to qualify for Covid grants because their premises are not business rated?
I totally agree with that. Again, I make a plea that showmen need help. Level 2 states that cinemas and amusement arcades remain open—those are indoors, by the way. Why are outdoor funfairs in level 2? They are outdoors and should be treated as outdoors. I just do not get it. Funfairs are a fine example of why I would agree that we need to make regulations clear, concise and explainable, and we have to help funfairs financially. For the first time ever, there will be no funfairs in Scotland at any proposed Christmas market.
We must continue to refine the clarity of the regulations. We must continue to help all our citizens who have no income and no prospect of earning over the next few months, and I ask the Government to do that to the best of its ability.
Jamie Greene will be the last speaker in the open debate.18:09
I know that none of us wants to be having this debate. I have participated in almost every Covid-related debate since March. Nothing has irked me more during the pandemic than knowing that the voices of those most affected by the restrictions that we set have not always been heard. Some in my region were given just two days’ notice to shut up shop for two weeks, which was then extended by another week. They have learned today that that could be indefinite.
My vote to grant the Government emergency powers did not grant consent to learn about new or extended restrictions via media speculation, press briefings, leaked documents or on social media, not least during recess. That is a job for Parliament.
I do not disagree with the essence of the new framework. I believe that ministers are working earnestly to tackle this awful virus and I thank them for that. However, people rightly expect transparency about the rationale and the thinking behind those decisions, because of the impact that they have on their lives.
The new tiered approach, if properly implemented and communicated, will recognise the diversity of our demographics, our population densities and, crucially, the differing rates of virus transmission. The real test of the framework will not be whether it commands the support of Parliament but whether it commands the support and confidence of the public.
Cafes, shops and bed and breakfasts in our regions and constituencies want to do the right thing to tackle the virus, but they also want to make a living, be part of thriving communities and offer job opportunities to our young people. Goodness knows that we need all those things now. Businesses must be confident, when the Government limits their ability to earn revenue, to grow, or even just to stay open, that those decisions are not taken lightly and that they will be consulted and supported. Those are reasonable demands.
People on Arran are asking me why their lives will be restricted if virus levels rise in Ardrossan. I have no justifiable answer to that question. Does the Government have one? If controlling human interaction is the primary tactic to suppress the virus, that will inevitably suppress the economy, too.
People deserve three simple things from us. The first is clarity of messaging about the tiers, rules and restrictions. The second is clarity about what support is available to them and how easily it can be accessed. Thirdly, they deserve clarity about the measurements that the Government will use to trigger the raising or lowering of those restrictions, and about how they move from one tier to another. Uncertainty and confusion are no one’s friends in a pandemic.
Changes to guidance are welcome when they are sensible, such as those issued today covering childcare and early years, or the commitment to keep schools open. I hope that that is a positive sign of the Government’s willingness to listen.
The Government must listen. Households have been unable to mix indoors for more than a month, and for longer in some places. Most people who were asked to work from home are doing so. Most small businesses, including those in hospitality, have complied with social distancing since July. People are justified in asking us what is working and what is not, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable it is to answer those questions.
The need for action is undeniable. Yesterday there were 82 people with Covid-19 in intensive care units, up from six people in early September. We must all know and understand what drives that data. How many of those patients were admitted from care homes? How many were already in hospital and contracted the virus there? What does test and protect tell us about the source of those cases? More important, how do the answers to those questions justify the restrictions in other areas of life?
The problem is that if we cannot confidently and fluently answer those questions every day and week, our job of taking the public with us is made even more difficult.
By Christmas, many thousands of vulnerable people will have been shielding themselves from society for almost nine months. We all know someone who is in that boat. The University of Glasgow’s Professor O’Connor said that the effects of lockdown would be long-lasting. That is an understatement; it is already having an effect.
I can best sum that up by referring to a conversation that I had recently with an elderly constituent. She blankly and bleakly told me that she would rather die of Covid if that meant that she could spend a few precious days with her grandchildren this Christmas, than spend the next year alone without them. How sad and how eye-opening is that? Christmas offers an opportunity for many to escape chronic loneliness. That is true whether someone is a pensioner or a pupil.
Today, I argue that it is our duty to leave no stone unturned in finding a solution to that conundrum: first, by testing through whatever means and on whatever scale is necessary; secondly, by offering clear guidance to people—students or otherwise—before, during and after the festive period; and thirdly, by treating people responsibly and with responsibility. We must know that the state cannot account for every situation in every family or manage every moment of every person’s life.
The public need reassurance that the new road map, as opposed to any other incarnation of it, will actually work. This year, almost 80,000 women in Scotland have missed breast cancer screenings, and according to leading charities, there could already be hundreds of undiagnosed cases. Youth unemployment in Scotland now sits at 14.5 per cent, which is more than double what it was in February of this year. People out there are scared—they are worried and tired—and I think that they need hope. We cannot tackle one health emergency by creating many others, either knowingly or even unwittingly. That is my biggest fear.
If we are truly in this for the long haul, we must be honest with people. We must be honest about the fact that we cannot and will not save every job or every life, or fix every problem. However, we can and we will listen, and sometimes that is all that people ask of their politicians. Today has been a good start; let us keep it up.
We move to the closing speeches.18:16
So much has changed since the start of the year, and at such speed, that things have often felt very disorientating. It will take years for us to fully process everything that has happened, but it remains important to reflect and learn lessons as we go.
As other members have said, most people are trying to do the right thing. It took great sacrifice to bring levels of the virus down over the summer. The emotional and economic blows of the virus are terrible, but people understood that they were buying time. Without a vaccine, normal life hinges on the Government keeping its side of the deal. That is why it was so important to use that summer progress well. Regrettably, that did not happen. Problems were foreseen but not dealt with. It took four months for the Scottish Government to get quarantine spot checks up to the promised 20 per cent, and more than 1,000 travellers were lost in the process.
Students were treated shabbily. The spike in cases that came after they returned to campus was predictable and predicted. It was a scheduled mass migration. Nowhere near enough was done to keep students safe. I am glad that the Scottish Government is to look at asymptomatic testing for students, for which Willie Rennie has been making the case since July.
Scottish Liberal Democrats have sought to be a constructive Opposition during this pandemic. Where there have been problems, we have sought to offer solutions.
On that note, I hope that the Scottish Government will soon address the issues that vulnerable teachers are facing. Since August, many teachers have been telling the Government that the guidance does not reflect the realities of teaching. They feel as though they have just been expected to get on with it—vulnerable teachers have felt that especially. There have been reports of teachers who had been shielding being given no work-from-home options. In Denmark, doctors’ orders on working conditions have to be followed. That builds trust and ensures safety. The same needs to be done here.
People are craving certainty, stability and—as many members have mentioned—hope. We need a plan that can stand the test of time. There needs to be meaningful engagement with communities to understand their needs, and guidance needs to be provided on quarantining before operations and on the fact that the process of students returning home must involve public transport. The islands cannot be an afterthought.
It has taken a great community effort to keep the levels of the virus so low in Shetland. However, the rules on in-home socialising have weighed heavily on families and friends, and I know that that is replicated across the country. When the going gets tough, those support networks are often what get us through. Shetland has a harsh winter, and stopping people meeting inside at all will add further to feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation. If the Scottish Government is to continue to ask people in Shetland to keep to that rule, it needs to provide explicit evidence that shows that the Covid risk in Shetland continues to outweigh those social harms.
I hope that, in the wake of this debate, the Scottish Government is clear that its strategic framework needs to be part of a two-way conversation. If it wants to continue to bring people along with it, for the greater good, and for the health and safety of all of us, that is essential.18:19
Like everybody else here, I hate what we have all been living through these past months. The basic reality of needing to stay apart from one another is horrible. I am sick of it; we all are, but we all also know how important it is that we continue to do what is necessary to save lives.
I welcome the fact that we have had this debate. It was regrettable that we divided on a matter of process rather than substance at the start of the day, but the debate has offered the opportunity for MSPs to make meaningful contributions on questions of substance, as I think most of our constituents want us to do. We should do that more often and allow these richer debates to happen.
There are issues of process that matter, and the Greens have sought to raise some of those issues in our amendment by offering constructive proposals, recognising that it takes effort to build political consensus. That does not happen by magic; we have to work at it, and it requires the Government to do more—to share not just data and evidence but the expert scientific advice that it has and that the rest of us need if we are going to build that consensus. We also need to allow ourselves the opportunity to consider all the options that the Government is considering before it makes a policy proposal to the chamber, rather than scrutinising a policy proposal that has been decided on already.
However, such process issues are for inside these walls; most people outside want us to focus on the substance, and one of the most important matters of substance that many members have talked about today is the role of routine, regular, asymptomatic testing. As Alison Johnstone said, we have been keen to push on that since this business began. Obviously, social care and healthcare settings are important places for that approach to begin. The nosocomial review group decided, about a month ago, to base its testing strategy on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control approach. That seems to suggest, at least on paper, that throughout health and social care there should be regular, routine, asymptomatic testing. As we have heard from a number of members, that is not the day-to-day experience on the ground everywhere, but it needs to become that, now that it is the strategy on paper. The approach has wider application and Unite hospitality has been making the case for the same approach to testing in hospitality settings. As retail settings come higher up the list of places where people who tested positive had been circulating, we should look at that as well.
Our amendment also talks about further and higher education settings, and I draw members’ attention to the Educational Institute of Scotland’s view on schools. We know that, across the country, social distancing is not happening in schools and teachers are deeply concerned that their health is being put at risk in confined spaces. The restrictions at level 4 of the new system are parallel to those that, in many other countries, including other nations in the UK, are triggering school closures. I agree that we should try to avoid school closures if at all possible and keep schools open if it is safe to do so, but teachers, as well as pupils and families, need to have clarity about what the conditions would be in the future if closures, even for short periods of time, became necessary. The Scottish Government should publish evidence and advice on the decision that has been made about keeping schools open at level 4 and what future decisions could be made.
I will briefly touch on the Labour and Liberal Democrat amendments, which add something positive and constructive. I would have been able to vote for both of them, but the Labour amendment, I regret to say, removes too much that is valuable in the original motion. Like Richard Leonard, I would love to have all the information that we could about how many people contracted the virus in pubs compared with restaurants, but we simply cannot have that information. We can have the information about where people who tested positive have been, but it is not possible to know precisely where they contracted the virus. The information that we have available can be used as a basis for deciding how best to reduce social mixing, because that is what we must do.
I turn to the Conservative amendment, which also removes too much from the motion. I recognise the requirement to have the voice of business heard in relation to how we implement, communicate and mitigate restrictions. However, if the Government is going to take Ruth Davidson’s proposal seriously, there needs to be a clear distinction between that kind of advice and the advice on where restrictions are necessary, which must be led principally by public health expertise. We know that, as well as many responsible businesses, there are those that are putting their business interests ahead of the health and safety of their workforce and customers, as I put to Mr Ewing earlier.
I know that I have run over time. Clearly, this is an unprecedented situation with unprecedented powers given to ministers. There is now an expectation that we start to shift some of that power back from the Government towards the Parliament. However, if we are going to do that, the Parliament needs to have access to the information as well as the expert advice that the Government has, and it will require a level of responsibility from us all.
I commend the amendment in Alison Johnstone’s name.18:26
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate.
I will start by talking about the simplicity of the message, because we know that simplicity is important in ensuring compliance. I am genuinely worried that the framework is complex. We have gone from a four-phase strategic route map to five tiers of a framework that is numbered from 0 to 4; a complex basket of indicators to determine which tier each local area is in; a lack of clarity about the length of time that the approach might apply for and what flexibilities might apply in exercising judgment. I do get, though, that being more targeted does increase complexity; there is a fine balance to be struck.
I am concerned, however, that compliance is reducing. That has to worry us. A recent survey told us that only 27 per cent of people fully understand the guidance. Not very many could tell you what FACTS stands for, despite the First Minister’s herculean efforts. In that case, the UK Government is marginally better; even I can remember hands, face and space. We all agree that for the public to be able to follow those messages and to keep themselves and others safe, we need clarity on what they are being asked to do. I welcome the postcode checker, but we need to go further.
Common sense, consistency and clarity are essential if we are to take people with us. Richard Leonard was right to acknowledge the frustration that people feel, whether it is individuals who are separated from families or unable to see loved ones in care homes, or indeed businesses that are in danger of making staff redundant or closing for good.
For people to buy into restrictions, they need to understand what underpins the approach. We have talked about data, but we need to see the scientific evidence. I welcome the commentary from the chief medical officer and the national clinical director. They have an important role to play but are not the scientific experts.
The Scottish Government set up a Scottish equivalent of the scientific advisory group for emergencies—SAGE. I welcome that, but we do not know what that body thinks, because its papers are not published. We need to see that evidence, because if we want to improve compliance, we need to improve understanding. That means that the scientific evidence needs to be published. I know that the First Minister said that she would consider that, but I genuinely believe that if we treat people like adults, they will respond in kind.
The member talks about the need for clarity. Could she clarify on behalf of Labour where the party stands on the Government motion seeking the Parliament to note, rather than endorse, the plan? Earlier, Elaine Smith criticised the “noting” approach, yet in the lead-up to the debate, it was Scottish Labour that asked the Government to take that approach. I am confused. Could Jackie Baillie end my confusion?
I think that it was interesting that people were criticised earlier for talking about process instead of substance. I think that Graeme Dey is trying to take us back there. My understanding is that there was a discussion between special advisers and not politicians; at the end of the day, what matters is what is said in the chamber.
Can I also make a plea for geographical guidance? In constituencies such as mine that straddle two local authority areas, people are used to working and socialising across local boundaries. One of my areas is tier 2, as I read it; the other is likely to be tier 3. Understanding what you can do to allow you to plan your life accordingly is going to be quite important. At the start of the most recent restrictions, thousands of people ignored the First Minister’s injunction to stay in their health board area, and it seemed that all of them ended up in Helensburgh. I am curious to know how that will be handled in the five-tier framework, because the travel restrictions are not entirely clear. There were real problems with travel restrictions previously, and that, coupled with the closure of car parks and toilets by national parks, Forestry and Land Scotland and councils, caused chaos. I ask the First Minister whether we can avoid that chaos occurring again.
This is a genuine question, and I am genuinely interested in the answer: is Jackie Baillie arguing that we should not give advice on travel restrictions, or is she arguing that that advice should be put in law and become much more enforceable?
When Richard Leonard and I spoke about it a few weeks ago, I think that the view—this is not a criticism—was that travel restrictions were not a good thing, so which way does Labour want us to go? It is a genuine question, and I am genuinely interested in the answer.
It is one that I would happily reflect on with local businesses in my constituency, because what we saw was that the train from Glasgow to Helensburgh was suddenly mobbed and the hospitality industry was overwhelmed. I am happy to discuss that issue; there is not an easy answer, but those were the very real problems, and the closure of toilets and car parks were part of it. I am glad that the First Minister understands the problems and I am happy to help her work on a solution that works for business.
Let me turn to the impact on business, and in particular hospitality and tourism businesses. The overwhelming majority of hospitality and retail businesses have been following the rules. They do so in part because it is required of them, but also because they want their customers to feel confident in returning to their premises. They care about their customers, and they also care about their staff. Restaurants, pubs and hotels are in danger of closing down, and that would result in huge job losses. They cannot operate on the basis of a two-week temporary lockdown that is extended without notice to 2 November and is likely to be extended even further. They cannot begin to plan for the future.
Consultation with business is essential. I echo the earlier point that groups such as Scottish Chambers of Commerce, FSB Scotland, the Scottish Retail Consortium and umbrella organisations in hospitality and tourism all want to help to arrive at solutions. I hope that the First Minister will engage their expertise on an on-going basis.
We must also align restrictions with financial support. I agree that the UK Government needs to step up to do more, but I also expect the Scottish Government to work with it and to use the money in the Scottish Government’s budget that is currently unallocated to start the process of ensuring that there is adequate business support.
Let me tell the chamber that today, a hotel in my constituency told me that it had been rejected for assistance from the business closure fund, because the Scottish Government said that hotels were not eligible for it. Why? Hotels are having to close too. Why is the First Minister not looking at that again? As we approach the busy Christmas period, which matters to the hospitality and retail sectors, I hope that the Scottish Government will balance health concerns with economic concerns.
I want to cover a couple of things very quickly. The strategic framework does not specifically mention learning disabilities, and I associate myself with Joan McAlpine’s remarks on that issue. Several key points have been made to me by members of Enable. First, there needs to be easy-read guidance on the new tier levels. Secondly, there is anxiety among people with learning disabilities when they see people flouting the rules and they do not know who to contact to enforce those rules. Lastly, there is a lack of local community opportunities—that view is widely shared.
I will finish by talking about test and protect. I welcome the expansion of testing. Home care workers in my constituency who work for the local authority are not routinely tested. In fact, some are not tested at all and they work with older vulnerable people. We need regular, routine, asymptomatic testing. We are not testing enough people, yet we have the capacity to do so. We do not have enough contact tracers, and that is reflected in the decline of the numbers who are traced within 72 hours.
When I raised that with the First Minister, she told me that there was not a problem, there was nothing to see, and that contact tracers deserve our thanks. They absolutely do, but they also deserve to have enough colleagues to make their workload manageable. They deserve to have the resources to deal with the challenge that they face. We need to learn from countries that have suppressed the spread of the virus because they have more comprehensive and more robust testing and tracing systems in place. We have one of the worst testing rates in the UK and one of the worst death rates, not just in the UK but in the world. We simply cannot afford to be complacent.
Finally, I have no doubt that winter will be tough for the front-line staff who care for us, for the businesses that are forced to close, and for individuals and families, and a vaccine cannot come quick enough. I hope that the Scottish Government will put in place a vaccination strategy very quickly indeed.18:36
I am grateful for the opportunity to close for the Scottish Conservatives in what has, rightly, been an important debate, especially because it has offered the opportunity for greater scrutiny of the Scottish Government’s intentions. That will be very warmly welcomed by the public at large, never mind by the Parliament, for exactly the reasons that Alex Neil and Jamie Greene spoke about.
I join Jackie Baillie in saying—and we cannot say it often enough—that we must thank all our front-line and key workers, particularly those in the NHS and social services, who, as we know, are once again under increasing pressure.
As Ruth Davidson remarked in her opening speech, this is an unprecedented challenge. The decisions are therefore undoubtedly extremely tough. However, it is also an unpredictable challenge for the reasons that Kenny Gibson cited in his speech. Can we therefore pay tribute to all the people who have worked so hard behind the scenes—unsung heroes in many cases—and to all the businesses across Scotland that have had to adapt significantly to meet the challenge of reducing the spread of Covid-19?
As we have learned more about the virus and about how we have to adapt to it, many of our businesses have had to do that at significant cost, in terms of expense and time, and many business owners face continued uncertainty. I will come back to that point in just a moment.
The Scottish Conservatives have made it clear that we welcome some elements of the Scottish Government’s motion and, indeed, several aspects of its framework. We note that the tiering system will be applied by local authority area rather than by health board area, and we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to consult local authorities and health boards on the application of the framework to individual areas. Those are extremely welcome changes in approach that will go a long way towards reducing a lot of the confusion.
We also acknowledge the Scottish Government’s commitment to continue to build and enhance the test and protect system and to aim to deliver 65,000 tests a day by the winter. Indeed, we welcome the expansion of lab capacity through the proposed regional hubs in NHS Grampian, NHS Lothian, and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, as well as through commercial and partner routes. I also think that the new app, which the First Minister announced today, will be very helpful in identifying some postcode regulations.
With that in mind, however, we also note that the Scottish Government’s review of its testing strategy has recommended faster test turnaround times, stating:
“in considering the principles of the Testing Strategy, our advice is there should be greater focus on the importance of fast turnaround times, so that testing achieves its intended purpose of reducing transmission by enabling prompt contact tracing and isolation of potentially infectious close contacts.”
That is particularly important in the light of the growing evidence—some of which we saw this morning—that antibody immunity might not last as long as we previously thought it would, particularly among the older population, and the fact that caution has been expressed in some medical journals about the value of some data on negative testing.
Above all else, we recognise that there is a need for a system of measures that are straightforward, easily understood, flexible and able to help to reduce the spread of the virus with as limited a social and economic impact as possible. However, as my colleagues have expressed throughout the debate, we have concerns.
Many have rightly been critical of the SNP Government for its failure to supply the full evidence behind the decisions on recent measures, and that has become a bit of a theme through much of the pandemic. Professor Hugh Pennington recently noted his frustrations at
“the low level of information about outbreaks and the evidence that is being used”
to support the closure of some businesses.
Although more information has been made available today, more clarity is still needed about the methodology that has led to the creation of the five-tier system. We are somewhere along the road, but any clarity that we can get about the methodology would be hugely welcome. For example, Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire, East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire council areas have all been subject to restrictions on household movements for more than two months now, but we do not know whether that has been effective in suppressing the virus, because the SNP Government has not published the full data on that. The First Minister’s advisers have told her that there is a question about the data.
I am absolutely committed to providing as much data as possible. We probably provide more detail than many other countries do, and we want to enhance that. If Liz Smith can point to any pieces of data that are being provided in other parts of the UK that are not being provided here, I will look at those. However, I suspect that she will not find any, because some of the data that is being called for, on a scientific basis, simply does not yet exist.
People such as Hugh Pennington are making the case that, to have public trust, which is essential when dealing with the virus in order to ensure that there is compliance, it is absolutely essential to have the data that goes with the methodology in order to back up the measures that the Government wants to put in place. There is an issue of transparency.
We do not know whether there is evidence to support the closure of licensed premises across the central belt. That is another issue about the methodology and the evidence. As members from across the chamber have said, if we are to make the changes, some of which might be absolutely admirable and sensible, it is crucial to have the methodology in order to ensure that the public agree and comply with those changes.
As I said, Liz Smith or any other member can come to us with requests for specific data that exists, but, across the UK right now, hospitality is closed in many parts of England and it is closed completely in Wales and Northern Ireland, yet I am not aware of any of those Governments providing any greater level of data and evidence than we are, because we are all providing as much as exists. However, if there are examples of something being provided elsewhere that we are not providing, I am happy to look at those.
One reason why the First Minister is getting some knock-back from the business community and one reason why the Scottish Conservatives are asking for greater transparency on the issue and for the business community to be involved is that people need to understand the reasons for and evidence to support the decisions that the Scottish Government is making. That is what is being asked for, and that is what we are keen for the Government to produce.
Thousands of Scottish businesses have had huge benefit from the UK’s investment. I have heard the cries from the SNP that there should be endless support from the UK Government. We have heard time and again that we cannot stop the furlough scheme or this, that and the next thing. However, there is no endless pot of money. I urge the SNP to understand that, time after time, the UK Government has put its hand in its pockets to provide a huge amount of financial support, which otherwise would not have been possible. Therefore, the criticism that the SNP is levelling at the UK Government is unnecessary and we cannot support it.
I am conscious of the time, but I want to raise a couple of other issues before I finish. I strongly believe that, over the next few weeks, in the lead up to the Christmas period, when anxieties, fears and concerns about what the future holds will inevitably increase, we need to be clear about what we can support. It is important that people in Scotland know exactly what Parliament will have to do to scrutinise the Scottish Government’s decisions. I accept what the Labour Party has said on this, but scrutiny is essential because it helps us to understand the process of decision making, methodology and the important reasons why people should do what they are being asked to do. I will finish on this point because I think it is one of the most important points. We cannot expect public trust and compliance unless we are crystal clear about the instructions that we are giving to people in all the different parts of the country and unless they know that those decisions have been based on clear evidence and clear thinking that they can accept.
I support the amendment in the name of Ruth Davidson and thank members for their time.18:46
I start by expressing my gratitude to members across the chamber for their contributions this afternoon, as we shape Scotland’s strategic response to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic through the next phases.
As the First Minister reported earlier, we have today seen the loss of 25 more of our fellow citizens to the virus. That means that 25 families are in mourning for a loved one. They have our sincere condolences.
At its core, reducing the impact of the virus is about preventing further loss of life. However, it is also about preventing the long-term health impacts for many people who become infected with Covid-19. There are 1,100 Covid-19-positive people in hospital just now and, of those, 82 are in ICU. There are also people who are now enduring long Covid; we know about them and we are reading more about them every day. They will testify to the impact of surviving Covid then enduring long Covid.
The rise in the number of cases recently in Scotland is cause for considerable concern, but we are seeing signs of improvement, and we contend that the steps that we introduced in September have prevented the scale of acceleration that we have seen elsewhere in Europe. As the First Minister outlined, in shaping the new levels, we have consulted a range of stakeholders since we published the outline on Friday. Clearly, we cannot make every change that we are asked to make without reducing the intended impact of the restrictions at different levels, but as the First Minister said earlier, we have acted where we believed we could.
That leads me to an important point about judgment and balance that I will return to, in closing the debate. As health secretary, I am acutely aware, as winter begins, that the challenge of Covid-19 will sorely test our health service, so I cannot proceed with my closing speech without thanking, from the bottom of my heart, our health and social care staff for everything that they have done during the past nine to 10 months, and for everything that we will ask them to continue to do.
What percentage of the unfortunate and sad deaths that are due to Covid are currently occurring in care homes? Seven months into the pandemic, what lessons have been learned about how we manage the rise in the number of cases in our care homes? What will the Government do during the winter that will be different to what it has done in the past seven months?
The answer to the first part of that question is in the statistics that are published every week by National Records of Scotland.
On what we will do to prepare and what lessons we have learned, I will shortly set out in the chamber the winter preparedness plan for adult social care, as a follow-on to what I intend to do tomorrow in respect of the NHS. I hope that we can have a constructive debate about that, and that what I say will give Jamie Greene some assurance not only about lessons learned, but about how we are applying them.
The five-level framework has been made with protecting our health service firmly in mind—to protect our NHS from being overwhelmed, to save lives and to continue to deliver healthcare as safely as we can. We do not want to go back to the situation in which we had to pause significant areas of healthcare in our NHS in order to deal with the first phase of the pandemic, but we will decide not to pause those areas of healthcare only if we are successful in reducing the prevalence of the virus.
Our aim is to allow a more proportionate response, through which areas of the country with very low levels of transmission do not have to live under the same restrictions as areas that are experiencing very high levels of transmission. It is clear that, with that, comes the challenge of helping people to see and understand the level that is in place in their area.
I completely agree with Mr Sarwar and others; the communication challenge simply gets more difficult the more we try to address in a proportionate way our response to the pandemic. I am therefore pleased that members have welcomed the new postcode checker service, which will help to do exactly that and will explain the restrictions that are in place where people are, tailored to their area.
The cabinet secretary said that the restriction levels in each area will reflect effectively the level of Covid cases in that area, so the approach will be more locally tailored. However, the First Minister said earlier that, when we move into the new regime, local areas will have levels of restrictions that are similar to those that they currently have. That means, for example, that the Scottish Borders—the Scottish Borders is being told this—will be at level 2. However, if we look at the criteria that the Government has published today, we see that, in respect of four out of five of the indicators, the Scottish Borders is at level 0, and that it is at level 1 in the fifth one. Based on the Scottish Government’s own criteria, it is nowhere near level 2. How can we get adherence from the public if we are asking them to adhere to a level that is seen to be unfair?
Colin Smyth will recall that the First Minister set out very clearly that we will look at actual and projected cases, test-positivity rates and projections for hospital and ICU capacities, and then make a judgment. It was also said clearly that, in applying the tiers in the framework in the first instance, we will apply precaution and caution.
I am sure that Colin Smyth recalls that we have also said that we will look every week at where local authorities will be in all those levels, and that we will make changes where we see consolidated progress. However, in moving from where we are now to the five levels, it makes sense to take a precautionary approach.
As the First Minister set out, our levels 1, 2 and 3 have been designed to be similar to the three levels that are in place in England. Although it is clear that our level 4 is closer to lockdown, it is not a full lockdown, which we saw in March. Should Parliament give its broad agreement to the framework today, we will set out on Thursday the level at which each local authority area will be set, as of Monday, which will be kept under weekly review.
Our actions are focused in such a way that, in the coming weeks, the rate of growth in new cases will, we hope, continue to slow. That would allow council areas potentially to drop down levels, in time. It is clear that we want to get to a position in which all Scotland is at level 1 and, ultimately, at level 0. We achieved exceptionally low levels of infection over the summer, and we want that again.
As members have said, testing is important not on its own, but as part of an overall package of measures to help us to suppress the virus. Over the next few weeks, our capacity will grow to 65,000 tests a day. In addition to continuing testing of care home staff, we will look to test others regularly, and we have begun our planning to map additional groups—as our clinical and professional paper sets out, that action is designed to protect the most vulnerable people—against scale-up of that testing. We will keep members in touch with that work, and we are open to discussion about it.
Will the cabinet secretary tell us when she will test care-at-home workers? I have constituents who have care workers coming into their homes but they are not being tested, at the moment.
I understand, and I have just said that we are planning how to map the scale-up of additional capacity against the groups that we will bring into asymptomatic regular testing, and when to set the date at which all those groups will begin testing. I am open to discussing that with members, and to taking on board their particular views. However, as the member will have read in the paper that we published on Friday, care-at-home staff are one of the additional cohorts that we want to bring into asymptomatic regular testing precisely because it is about protecting the most vulnerable people.
Test and protect is a vital part of our defence. Those who are involved in our test and protect program deserve our thanks and recognition, so it is vital that I clarify, for the record, what some members have asserted. Between 21 September and 18 October, when case numbers were rising, 91 per cent of positive cases were successfully completed to interview within 48 hours. Within that, 74.7 per cent were successfully completed within 24 hours. I think that that is a system that is working; as well as thanking those who work in that service, we should recognise what they are achieving.
Before I finish, I turn to the question of scrutiny. I repeat that we welcome scrutiny, questions and the debate. That is exactly how we all learn—no one in this chamber has a monopoly on good ideas. However, we do that in the context of a virus that does not respect rules and procedures. With a doubling time of 10 to 15 days, the desire and intent for greater scrutiny must be matched by a recognition of the need for pace, and of the need and responsibility of the Government to act quickly and to be accountable. As the First Minister has set out, we have proposals to get to a better place the balance of proper scrutiny, increased scrutiny and pace, so we will continue to engage across the chamber to agree how that can be achieved.
I do not have time in responding to do justice to every contribution and point that members have made. As the First Minister has said, although we cannot vote for all the amendments, because two of them seek to remove parts of our motion that we think are important, we will look at all the proposals in all the amendments and will seek to consider them fully and, where we can, to take them on board.
I will make two final points before I finish. First, on data, I absolutely understand—
Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?
I am afraid that I need to finish.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am trying to be helpful, because this is important. The cabinet secretary referred to amendments, but did not say which amendments the Government will accept. It would be helpful for members to know that.
That is not a point of order, but a point for the cabinet secretary.
I will happily tell the member that we cannot accept the Labour or the Conservative amendments, but will accept the amendments from the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.
I want to talk about data; I need to repeat that I completely understand why people want to see more data. The fact is, however, that some of the things that people are asking for simply do not exist. We cannot make data up. I carry around two full sides of A4 that contain, in closely typed lines, all the data that we publish weekly, daily and monthly. The difficulty for us all is not the data that we publish. It is in being able to triangulate, understand and apply it, and to recognise that, in dealing with the virus, political judgment, on top of good clinical and scientific advice—in the context of a virus that the world is learning about, therefore our understanding and knowledge change constantly—mean that we do not have binary choices, where we might quite like to have binary choices. They are simply not there for us.
We face a serious situation, but it is a less severe situation than many other countries face—not only in the United Kingdom, but across Europe. That is partly because, collectively, we suppressed the virus to a very low level over the summer. That has been because of the effectiveness of the test and protect system and our health staff, in particular. We are not in the least complacent about that, but our situation right now would be worse, if we had not done that.
There has been a lot of talk today about hope. I firmly believe in the importance of hope. Actually, I believe in the power of hope, and I think that we can draw hope from what we have achieved so far, from the lessons that we have learned and applied in the past nine months, from the dedication of our NHS and social care staff, from the expertise of clinicians and scientists here and globally and from the efforts of people across the country.
This pandemic challenges us every day, but working together, not without debate and disagreement and certainly not without argument, we can get through it. Every single one of us in the chamber has to be an advocate for a strategy and an approach that puts lives first and recognises what we need to do to mitigate other harms, and through which we work collectively and with strength to get Scotland through the pandemic.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. [Interruption.] Once the groans die down, I will make my point of order.
Before we turn to the vote on the motion, can we clarify that, although the cabinet secretary talked about Parliament broadly agreeing, we are noting the Government’s new strategy, not endorsing it? It is important to make that point prior to voting.
Again, that is a point of argument or debate; it is not a point of procedure for me to rule on.
That concludes our debate on “COVID-19: Scotland’s Strategic Framework”.