Covid-19 (Emergency Surgery and Procedures)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

4. Jackson Carlaw, Patrick Harvie, Nicola Sturgeon and I met yesterday. We agreed that we will keep on meeting, and that we are going to work together, because this crisis demands that we work together.

I got this letter—which I opened here in the chamber—from a constituent, who says:

“Right now, I am scared to death. After blood tests and a scan by my GP, my GP has said I will be referred to a surgeon to save my life after the next test, but now the Scottish Government is saying that they are cancelling all non-urgent surgery for three months due to the Covid-19 virus. As you can see, I might not get the surgery that I require to save my life. I would like to live a bit longer”.

We know that it is not the case that the person will not get the surgery. However, people are worried about that announcement and what it means for their operations and treatments. What reassurance can the First Minister give to people like my constituent, and others across the country, who are worried about life-saving treatment right now? We need to be clear about what we are doing so that people are not afraid about their future. What can the First Minister tell us?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I would appreciate Willie Rennie’s passing the letter and the details of his constituent on to us.

Let me try to set this out really clearly. What has been announced by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport—it is being replicated in all nations of the UK, I think—is a decision that we have not taken lightly, but it is unavoidable and essential because it will allow our national health service, and in particular our critical care services, to cope with what we know is coming down the track. What has been announced is postponement of non-urgent elective procedures in our NHS. We want urgent emergency and life-saving procedures, and cancer and maternity services to go ahead. Without having seen the detail, I think that what Willie Rennie has outlined sounds like the kind of procedure that should not be postponed and will go ahead.

It is important that we all take a responsible approach, as I know we are doing. I appreciated yesterday’s meeting with party leaders; I am keen to continue to hold such meetings. We all want to work together, and part of working together will be our being clear about what is changing and what we are striving to ensure does not change. We are facing a big challenge and I do not want to scare people because, in my experience, scaring people is not productive.

However, I want people to understand that this is not a drill; this is real and it is happening. We all have to take seriously our responsibility to follow advice. I take this opportunity to remind people of the advice that we are urging—not asking, but urging—them to follow for their own sakes, and for the sakes of their loved ones and everyone else in Scotland.

If you have symptoms, stay at home. If you are in a household with somebody who has symptoms, stay at home. All of us are to cut down on our social interactions. That is particularly important if you are over 70, if you have a health condition for which you get the flu vaccine or if you are a pregnant woman. We have already said that people who are the most vulnerable due to their health conditions and those who have compromised immune systems will get tailored advice.

I repeat: the advice is not optional, and should not be seen as being optional. It is about saving lives. I have never before had to stand up in the Parliament and say anything so blunt. My job right now—it is not just me who is doing this; I am leading an effort that is enabling everybody to do it—is about saving lives, so we all have to follow the advice for that purpose. [

Applause

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Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I appreciate the work of the First Minister, the clarity that she is providing and the professional way in which she is going about it.

It is really important that we flush out these issues so that people understand what is happening, are not afraid for their lives and get the treatment that they urgently need.

There is little doubt but that the United Kingdom Government will need to do more to provide money to put food on the tables and keep the roofs over the heads of our constituents. Using existing Government tax and spend mechanisms is the best way to get money to them speedily. The Confederation of British Industry is recommending reverse national insurance contributions. We also need to boost the social security system. Those are probably the best ways to deliver some sort of citizens income.

Is the First Minister talking to the Prime Minister about that? Does she agree that we need an early statement on that from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because people are worried not just about how exactly they will survive the virus, but about having enough food and a roof over their heads?

The First Minister:

Across the Scottish Government, we are talking to the UK Government about all those matters. I am sure that Willie Rennie and others will appreciate that most of my and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport’s interactions over the past couple of weeks have been on the immediate health emergency that we face. However, the health emergency is undoubtedly fast becoming an economic emergency for businesses, for the economy as a whole, and for households and individuals around the country. Willie Rennie is right to make that point.

I welcome what the chancellor outlined earlier this week. I perhaps did not expect to be saying this, but the UK Government is, like the Scottish Government, trying very hard to do all the right things. However, UK ministers know, and we know, that much more will be required. We will work together on that. We will do everything that we can within our powers and resources; we have already set out a lot of initiatives, and there will be more to come from us.

However, there undoubtedly needs to be more from the UK Government, which holds most of the relevant levers. To move through this situation to a universal basic income or citizens basic income approach is the right thing for us to seek to do, and might be the necessary thing to do.

We will continue to have those discussions, because we cannot allow this health emergency to wreck the lives, livelihoods and incomes of so many people. We all have to pull together. It is really important that we do that in Scotland and around the UK, but it also requires a global economic intervention. I hope that countries will work together to beat the virus and to ensure that the rebuilding that will be required when we are on the other side of this situation is not as difficult as it will be if we do not take the right action now.

The Presiding Officer:

As members will appreciate, there is a huge amount of interest in asking supplementary questions, from members of all parties. We will not be able to get through them all, but I hope that members will be succinct.