Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 14th December 2020.

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Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business and Industry) 6:43 pm, 14th December 2020

Allow me to begin my remarks by sharing the sentiments that have already been expressed about our gratitude to everyone who is currently working to keep us safe and comfortable in our homes, whether that is the NHS workers toiling tirelessly or those in the care sector or, as we have heard, the posties. I thank everyone who is keeping the wheels of society turning to make sure that our lives can go on as normally as possible in what have been deeply abnormal times.

The first vaccinations have taken place in Scotland in care homes this week, which is a tremendous source of optimism. The first care home resident in Scotland to receive the vaccine was 90-year-old Annie Innes. Annie worked as a carer herself for over 14 years and has been living in the Abercorn House care home in Hamilton for six months. Out of much darkness over the last few months, that gives us at least a glimmer of hope—not just that we will be able to see our relatives in care home settings again, but, more generally, that normality is hopefully not too far away.

I would like personally to thank everyone who has been involved in the roll-out of the vaccination programme. If anything gives us hope, it is this. I absolutely concur with all that has been said: when the vaccine is available, please, please, please get it. People should know that it is not just about keeping themselves safe; it is about keeping everybody around them safe as well. This is what will get us through this. There are obviously huge logistical challenges involved in distributing the Pfizer vaccine. It will be an extremely challenging task, but it will give us an additional layer of protection that none of us has had until now.

As more vaccines and different variants of vaccines become available over the coming months, it is the intention of the Scottish Government—in line with advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—to continue with the roll-out, initially focusing on care homes, for older adults and carers, but also rolling out to other vulnerable adults, and, gradually, to the wider adult population. It is to be hoped that the roll-out marks the beginning of the end, but it certainly cannot be the end of our collective caution. We all still need to do all we can to keep our loved ones safe, whether that is through restricting our unnecessary contact with others or just facing facts: wearing face coverings; avoiding crowded places; maintaining appropriate hygiene and social distancing; and ensuring that we self-isolate and book a test if we have symptoms. We all need to continue to observe that public health advice.

In Scotland, the R number is now currently estimated to be between 0.7 and 0.9, which is confirmation that some of the very tough decisions that have had to be taken over the last few weeks have been having the desired effect. As a result, some 16 local authority areas have been able to reduce from level 3 to level 2, but there is a real need to remain vigilant throughout and not let our guard down, even as the Christmas period comes.

I draw particular attention to one allocation of resource that has taken place in Scotland that I hope the UK Government might take on board: a payment of £500 that is available to those who are on a low income and who have to self-isolate. The Scottish Government are going to maintain that, but it does mean that anyone who is required to self-isolate is not placed under any financial pressures to not do the right thing. From the position we occupy, it can sometimes be easy to miss the very real day-to-day pressures that people face, such as choosing between doing the right thing and doing what they need to do to support their families. If we take that problem away from them with a small amount like that, it can make all the difference—not just to those families, but to curtailing the spread of the virus.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance in Scotland announced details of how a further £2.2 billion of support will be allocated. It includes an additional £600 million for the health and social care sector, wider public health initiatives and welfare support, a £500 bonus for health and social care workers, and funding for a winter plan for social protection that helps people to pay for food, heating, warm clothing and shelter. Second in that package is support for business and the wider economy, including funding for local business support packages, a hardship fund for the newly self-employed who have not received support through any other means, and local authority discretionary business funding. A further £500 million is there to support transport services, and to cover pandemic-related income shortfalls in organisations such as the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and Police Scotland. There is £15 million for the second part of that newly self-employed hardship fund, and £15 million to support the wedding sector and its supply chain, including photographers.

Adam Holloway mentioned hospitality. All aspects of the hospitality industry are crucial. It is not just the jobs done and the employment created, but everything else in the supply chain: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Those are the businesses we need to and can support through the financial support we make available. Those grant schemes, and many more that I do not have time to go into, will be available for application from January.

The Treasury made it very clear that the funding that has come to Scotland is to cover the period up until March, which means that the Scottish Government have held back £300 million. I can understand that people might be frustrated about that. Every year, covid or not, we go through the ritualised pantomime of Opposition politicians saying, “Why didn’t you spend all your money?” Frankly, the Scottish Government have to operate within a fixed budget. They have no borrowing powers. If they had borrowing powers, they might not need hold that money back and those numbers could be increased to other areas where support has not been able to be forthcoming.

I would add at this juncture that the £300 million that has been held back also has to cover any contingencies arising from anything that may or may not be decided in terms of the ongoing Brexit negotiations. It would be remiss of me not to say at this point that, with just over a fortnight to go until the end of the transition period, it is astonishing that we still do not know what it is we are supposed to be preparing for.

A no-deal Brexit would pose a very, very significant threat indeed to the NHS as it prepares to face the most challenging spell of the year throughout the winter. That is when the NHS is under its greatest strain and when demand on resources is at its greatest. To couple that with the impact of a no-deal Brexit would be an act of wanton recklessness.

Whether it is a low deal or a no deal, one of the main concerns for the NHS must be to ensure that sufficient drugs and medical equipment continue to arrive in the UK throughout the winter. The Tories’ extreme Brexit plans are posing a threat to that, with many experts and industry leaders acknowledging the disruption at the borders that will be the effect of leaving the single market and customs union without a deal. The Government’s own documents, which reached the press, suggested that the flow of medicines could initially be reduced to 60% to 80% over that initial three-month spell. I can only imagine the anxiety of families reliant on medicines for vulnerable children and other vulnerable family members not having the certainty and security that the supply can be maintained over the weeks and months ahead.

Many people will be facing a lonely Christmas this year, notwithstanding any seasonal relaxation of travel restrictions, but how much more difficult must it be for those who are facing that Christmas without financial support to put food on the table, to keep heating on, electricity in the meter and to keep their family warm? I again make the plea that there are so many people who have been excluded from the Government’s financial response that the Government need to look at that again.

In conclusion, I observe that the rise in the rates of infection in London and the south-east shows just how easily the virus can spread anywhere. It is a cautionary warning that we need to maintain our guard. The vaccine gives us hope, but it is the solidarity that has been shown between individuals, communities and their families which has sustained us in the months past, and which will continue to sustain us in the months ahead.