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Coronavirus (Older and Vulnerable People)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

3. Balhousie Care Group has asked non-essential visitors not to visit its homes. That begs the question about our approach to people who are cared for in their own homes. If the symptoms of the coronavirus do not show until some time after a person is infected, what is the advice? How has the Government evaluated the risks of visiting elderly and vulnerable neighbours, and how will isolated people who have no family support get help when the peak of the virus hits home?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I thank Willie Rennie for raising those important issues. As a general matter, I am sure that members understand that there are a number of issues like those, which are all important, and we are seeking to work through them on the basis of the best advice. Right now, the advice to people about when they should seek advice and testing is clear, but that advice is likely to change.

The issues around care homes have been raised with me directly, and I know that they have also been raised with the health secretary. Scottish Government officials and Health Protection Scotland are looking right now at the advice that will be provided to the care home sector on all those issues. We will ensure that members of the Scottish Parliament are provided with information about that as soon as possible.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

That is a very helpful answer. The issues are very difficult. Everybody in the chamber will try to help to get clarity on exactly what is required and advised.

As intensive treatment unit capacity is limited, how will the Government create enough isolation spaces for the predicted numbers of patients who will need respiratory support, and where will those spaces be? It has been suggested that options could include clearing wards with lots of single rooms, stopping elective operations and using theatres for isolation support.

The new neuroscience building at the children’s hospital in Edinburgh has capacity for 70 beds. What obstacles are there to using that building, and can they be overcome in the next few weeks, before the peak of the outbreak hits?

The First Minister:

The new neurosurgery facilities at the hospital in Edinburgh are being looked at right now. Obviously, we have to ensure that any facilities would be safe to use, but we want to ensure that we are able to utilise all the capacity that can be used within the national health service.

The health secretary mentioned ITU capacity in the statement that she gave earlier this week. She will give further details in the statement that she will give to the Parliament next Tuesday. We are seeking to double the provision of intensive care capacity. That will involve using different facilities within hospitals—theatre facilities, for example. All of that is being progressed right now as part of the implementation plan to scale up NHS resources.

Although we will provide more detail as we go along, I want to be very clear that there will, inevitably, be an impact, and I anticipate that it will be a significant impact, on non-urgent, elective procedures within the national health service. However, it is important that we set that out properly once the planning has been done. That planning is under way, very intensively. We are doing everything that we can to increase intensive care capacity, and also to expand general hospital capacity and the number of beds that are available. The health secretary will be able to give more information about that when she further updates Parliament at the start of next week.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Constituents with cystic fibrosis have significantly reduced lung function and so will experience severe consequences as a result of coronavirus. Some are self-isolating already, but others remain at work. I have become more concerned since a local general practitioner contacted me this morning, urging the Scottish Government to act now to institute isolation measures across the population. He strongly believes that the true extent of the virus’s spread is much wider than the amount among those who have been tested. He said:

“Every extra 24 hours that we leave it now will mean more deaths in two weeks’ time.”

I therefore urge the First Minister not to wait until next week, and ask her to accelerate action in order to protect the population.

The First Minister:

I am grateful to Jackie Baillie for raising the issue. I am acutely aware of the importance and urgency of the issue. She will understand that because I am not a clinician it is important that I, and all those who are in positions such as mine, listen to, and are guided and informed by, the advice and expertise of the people who are best placed to give it.

On many occasions—most recently, this morning—I have discussed with the chief medical officer the issue of people who have underlying health conditions. The four chief medical officers of the United Kingdom are considering how to give specific advice quickly to people who have particular conditions, of which there is potentially a large number. As I said earlier, there is existing guidance for people who have severely compromised immune systems, and that guidance should be followed.

I make it clear to Jackie Baillie and other members that the issues are being treated urgently. That is true not just of the Government but of our medical advisers. It is important that we give people the right advice. The behaviour changes that we will ask people to make will be in place for, potentially, a significant period and not just for a couple of weeks. It is important that that advice is right, that people can rely on it and that it is informed by people who know what is the right thing to do. I will continue to have discussions regularly, as will the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

The First Minister made important points earlier about the resilience of front-line workers. I have a constituent who runs a day nursery whose insurers are not adding Covid-19 to the list of notifiable diseases, which will potentially leave the nursery uninsured and having to lay off staff and close. Is the Scottish Government aware of such issues? Can ministers provide any advice or support, given the important role of nursery provision for the wider workforce?

The First Minister:

Yes, we are aware of insurance issues for daycare nurseries and more generally. The Scottish and UK Governments intend to get more clarity on those issues and to encourage insurance companies—and businesses—to be as flexible as possible. We will endeavour to keep members updated on that.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

The precedent of school closures in response to Covid-19 in other countries—Ireland, most recently—will naturally concern school pupils who are planning to take exams after the Easter holidays. What communication has the Scottish Government had with the Scottish Qualifications Authority? What contingencies are in place, should this year’s exam diet be impacted by potential restrictions and disruptions as a result of the pandemic?

The First Minister:

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has already had extensive discussions with the SQA, and those discussions will continue. Work is under way, as it is across the whole range of our areas of responsibility, to put in place sensible contingency plans. That work will develop in the days to come.

The advice right now is not that schools, colleges and universities should be closed, but—as I said earlier—we must keep that under review. In the interest of time, I will summarise and generalise advice in relation to schools. If schools are closed, children will inevitably gather together in less formal settings, which might be a greater risk in terms of spread of infection than their being in school, where they are encouraged to use proper hand-hygiene practices. That is the advice right now, but we will continue to keep it under review—informed, of course, by the experts from whom we are seeking advice.