Covid-19 (Prisons)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

1. To ask the Scottish Government what steps prisons are taking to reduce the risk of the coronavirus, Covid-19, spreading among prisoners and staff. (S5O-04270)

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

The safety and wellbeing of those who live and work in our prisons is a priority for this Government and the Scottish Prison Service.

The SPS’s national coronavirus response group has implemented its national pandemic plan, which includes governors in charge overseeing the delivery of local plans that are tailored to the needs of their establishments. Those groups are meeting on a daily basis.

Like other public sector bodies, the SPS has in place robust phased contingency plans that reflect escalation demands. At this time, the SPS is following the advice of the chief medical officer, which means that anyone in custody who displays symptoms will self-isolate. Similarly, prison staff who display symptoms have been advised to follow the same advice and self-isolate.

The SPS is in regular communication with prisoners in custody to provide guidance on how to prevent the spread of infection and to update them on how the virus may impact their daily routine. That includes the sending of letters to every prisoner across the estate, as well as video messaging via in-cell televisions.

The SPS has established clinically led protocols for the testing, management and care of those who may contract or be suspected of contracting Covid-19, and it has secured a sufficient level of personal protective equipment to support those protocols, which are designed to minimise the risk of contamination spread.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

How should visitors to prisons such as Saughton, in my constituency, proceed as we enter the new phase of self-isolation with Covid-19?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Gordon MacDonald raises a hugely important point. In the unfortunate case in Italy, there were prison riots and a number of people lost their lives. That was not precipitated by an infection or a case of coronavirus in the prison; it was precipitated by tensions rising because visiting was stopped altogether and prisoners were being kept in their cells for practically 24 hours a day.

We are keen not to do that, so we will follow the chief medical officer’s advice. We will continue to allow visits, but visitors must follow guidelines. They will be asked not to attend prisons if they are displaying symptoms. They should follow the chief medical officer’s advice, which is to self-isolate in those circumstances. There are posters at the entrances of all establishments advising visitors of that, and information is also provided on the external website and social media accounts.

As the member knows, the situation is fast moving and very fluid. We will continue to explore other ways in which family contact can be maintained, including via digital means.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Three members would like to ask supplementary questions. I wish to call them all, but I ask for questions and answers to be quick.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

As Gordon MacDonald identified, the Scottish Prison Service and Police Scotland are organisations that must, for the safety of the Scottish public, continue to interact with many different people and communities. Given the obvious current health risks to both groups, will the cabinet secretary outline any contingency plans that he has in place to help with personnel shortages? For example, has he considered bringing in retired officers or using trainees, if that were safe?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I thank Liam Kerr for his very important question. Just over an hour and a half ago, I spoke to the chief constable, who has operational independence on the matter in relation to the police. It is fair to say that he and his senior management team are looking at exactly the kind of things that Liam Kerr suggested. The police are looking not only at those who have retired but at what more can be done with special constables, and I know that Liam Kerr has had an interest in that matter previously. Police Scotland is looking at a range of measures. The SPS is also looking at contingency plans in relation to those who have recently left the organisation but who clearly still have a number of skills to offer. I am happy to keep Liam Kerr updated as those plans develop.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

Given the confined conditions in which prison officers and prisoners operate within the prison estate, there is clearly a high risk of the spread of Covid-19. If any prisoner or prison officer presents with any medical condition, including symptoms of Covid-19, can the cabinet secretary guarantee that they will get an immediate and appropriate medical follow-up?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Yes, that will certainly happen under the Covid-19 pandemic plan that has been put in place. It is essential that everybody—those within and outwith prison establishments—follows the chief medical officer’s guidelines. Helping to stop the spread of the virus will, first and foremost, involve ensuring that our prison staff—who do an excellent job, as we all recognise—have the appropriate PPE. As things stand, the Prison Service has about a couple of months’ supply of such equipment. I am speaking to the Prison Service about upping its stocks and whether we can assist with that.

Following the chief medical officer’s advice, by people self-isolating if they present with symptoms, will be key. There are people in the Prison Service who are self-isolating, and I suspect that, unfortunately, more will end up having to do so. We will continue to follow the protocols that are in place.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I am particularly concerned about how elderly prisoners or those who have long-term pre-existing conditions can practise social distancing in the close confines of a prison, given that there is not an awful lot of spare capacity. How will the cabinet secretary manage that?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

That is very much part of the conversations that are taking place. We will have to think about radical solutions. In some respects, there is a greater ability to self-isolate or to keep people contained within the prison estate than there is outwith it. However, I do not for a second take anything away from the challenges for the Prison Service.

Willie Rennie raises an important point. We have an older population in prisons, and that population is growing year on year, so we are thinking about how we ensure that their health needs are met. These issues are all part of the pandemic plan. We have challenges within the prison estate relating to the numbers that are there. So far, we are managing those challenges, but we are keeping an eye on what more can and should be done.