Thank you for the opportunity to give an update on our response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I can confirm that, as of 9 o’clock this morning, there have been 584 confirmed cases, which is an increase of 85 from yesterday. As always, I make it clear that those numbers will be an underestimate. It is with sadness that I can also report that there have been two more deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19, taking the total number of deaths in Scotland to 16. I extend my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones, and I again thank our national health service staff who continue to care for people suffering from the virus.
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will provide a more detailed briefing in a few minutes, but I will begin with an update on some key points. As everyone knows, last night we announced significant new measures to slow the spread of Covid-19. I will quickly reiterate what those are, because I want people across Scotland to be very clear about what is now expected of us all.
In effect, Scotland is now in lockdown. People had already been told that they must stay at home. We have now set more stringent limits to that. The only permissible reasons for people leaving their homes are: to shop for basic necessities, but only once a day, at the most; to take exercise—again, that should be done no more than once a day—which people should do alone or with their household, not in groups; for personal medical reasons or to provide care to or support for a vulnerable person; or to travel to essential work, if that work absolutely cannot be done from home.
All social events are now banned, and public gatherings of two or more people—excluding households, or for essential work-related purposes—are also prohibited. Communal places such as libraries and playgrounds must close. Places of worship should also close, other than for funerals, which—I am deeply sorry to say—must be restricted to immediate family.
I know that there have been questions about families who live apart. Children under 18 can continue to move between households but, in doing so, they should take hygiene and social distancing precautions.
I also want to confirm that people who have caring responsibilities, or who work in care, should continue to carry out those responsibilities. Again, they should follow social distancing measures as much as possible and hand hygiene at all times.
The overall message is very clear: people must stay at home. I know how hard that is for everybody, but people should not be meeting friends and they should not be meeting family members who live outside their home. As I have said previously, for all of us, life should not be feeling normal. If it does feel normal for someone, that person is almost certainly not sticking to the rules that we are asking people to abide by.
I am confident that the vast majority of people will comply with the rules, and I thank everyone in advance for doing that. However, later this week the emergency legislation that Parliament will discuss shortly will give us powers of enforcement. I want to be very clear that we will use those powers, if necessary.
I will say a bit more about the implications of the current situation for businesses. Since I addressed Parliament last week, the United Kingdom Government has taken helpful and significant steps to support wages. I know that the measures do not come into force until the beginning of April, but I hope that, by working with lenders, businesses will now be able to do the right thing and not lay off staff unnecessarily.
I can also confirm that the application process for the small business grant scheme, which the Cabinet Secretary for Finance announced here last week, is now live. Details of how businesses can access and apply for that are available on the mygov.scot website.
I can also assure self-employed and freelance people that the Scottish Government continues to argue for the UK Government to put in place support for them. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture wrote to the Treasury on that matter again yesterday and, from the signals that the UK Government has given, I am hopeful that positive announcements will soon be made.
I now turn to the issue of work and the closing of business premises. I want to start by acknowledging that businesses face very acute challenges, and I thank the vast majority of them for taking a very responsible approach to protect the health and wellbeing of their workforces.
However, I know that some concern remains that businesses and employers do not know what advice to follow, so I want to be clear about what the Scottish Government is expecting. First, I stress that it is employers who should make such decisions; it should not be up to employees to anguish over whether they should go into work.
I am sure that people will appreciate that it will not be possible for us to make a decision or offer bespoke guidance for every business in Scotland—the situation is difficult for everyone—but I hope that the guidance that I am about to set out, when it is stripped back, will help businesses to navigate those difficult decisions.
It is clear that some categories of business have already been told to close. On Friday, those included pubs, restaurants, cafes, cinemas and gyms. Yesterday, we published a list of essential and non-essential retail. Non-essential retail premises are now required to close, and shopping for basic necessities should be kept to a minimum. That list is being updated to include other forms of establishments and those that are critical for civil contingencies. In particular, it is important that key strategic sites, which are vital to economic resilience and which cannot easily be shut down—such as the steelworks at Dalzell—can continue to work so long as they can maintain the minimum number of required staff and the social distancing requirements.
However, I am aware that many businesses out there do not neatly fit into any of those categories, such as manufacturers and food producers. The advice for those businesses—based on the precautionary principle, given that our priority is the protection of health—is broadly as follows. First, they should allow their staff to work from home if they can do so. Secondly, if their staff cannot work from home, they should ask themselves whether their business is contributing something that is essential to the fight against coronavirus—for example, by making medical supplies or manufacturing essential items—or to the wellbeing of the nation, such as food supplies. We want businesses that are doing so to keep going, if possible, but they must ask themselves whether they can operate their business in line with safe social distancing practice and their normal health and safety requirements. If they cannot answer yes to those questions, in our view they should not continue to be open.
We have been asked specifically about construction sites in Scotland. Our current advice, on the basis of the precautionary principle, is that we expect them to be closed, unless the building that is being worked on is essential, such as a hospital.
We know that some people, such as self-employed gardeners and window cleaners, do not have contact with other people; we would encourage them to go about their business if they can do so safely, as that can be good for the community. Many people are looking to volunteer and help out in their communities; advice on how to do so safely is available on www.readyscotland.org.
It will of course continue to be vital that local authorities put in place arrangements for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. The teachers and other education staff who provide that service are themselves key workers. I want to thank those who have followed the advice so far and, in particular, all the parents who are now looking after their children at home, and the teachers and early years workers who are caring for vulnerable children and those of key workers. We will have indicative numbers on attendance later today; initial reports show that the vast majority of parents are not seeking to send their children to school.
As the Presiding Officer indicated, Parliament is rightly changing how it operates. Although all members—I make this point very strongly—must continue to perform their important scrutiny role at such a time, it has been agreed that Parliament will now meet for only one day per week, rather than three, until the Easter recess at least.
I want to conclude with a basic point. The measures that have been announced in recent days—from the school closures last week to last night’s lockdown—are really difficult for every individual, business and organisation around the country. The reason that we are taking such truly unprecedented measures is that the challenge that we face is unprecedented. As I have said before, this is by far the biggest challenge that our country has faced in our lifetimes, so the measures that we take to deal with it and mitigate its impact must reflect its magnitude.
The changes that we are asking people to make to their lives—difficult though they are—are absolutely essential. They are essential to help us to slow down the spread of the virus as much as we can; to reduce its peak impact; to avoid our NHS becoming overwhelmed, so that it can continue to provide treatment to all those who need it; and to save lives.
The daily reality that we face is quite stark. If we all comply with the measures, many fewer of us will die of the virus than would otherwise be the case. That will mean that many more of us will come out the other side of this and, perhaps more quickly than otherwise, we can resume the lifestyles that we have for so long cherished and taken for granted.
For now, I hope that we all show solidarity for one another, even as we stay apart, by staying in touch with those we care about and by helping one another as best we can. However, collectively, as a Parliament, I want us to be crystal clear that staying at home has become the only way of slowing the spread of the virus, of giving our NHS a chance to cope and of saving lives. Right now, that must be the priority of each and every one of us.
The virus does not spread on its own; it is spread by people. What needs to happen is absolutely clear: please stay at home to save lives, to protect our health and social care services and to avoid unnecessary deaths.
The response of our health and social care staff has been extraordinary. Every single one of them—from consultant to cleaner, from carer to nurse, to driver, to maintenance worker, to paramedic—is vital. Every single one of them matters. We owe it to them all to stick to the rules and stay at home.
Even with the unprecedented measures that are now in place, we will not escape the impact of Covid-19. Having placed Scotland’s NHS on an emergency footing, we have now received mobilisation plans from all our health boards. They set out in detail how the boards will maximise intensive care capacity while seeking to maintain essential services, such as emergency, cancer and maternity care. We are well advanced in our work to double our intensive care unit capacity to 360 beds. Facilities have been repurposed, staff are being trained and beds are being freed up.
Our response—to double our ICU capacity—is the international standard for response to a pandemic, but given the scale of the challenge, we are now planning to quadruple our ICU capacity to more than 700 beds as quickly as possible. A pipeline of ventilators coming to Scotland is slated over the coming weeks to enable that increase, and we are working with suppliers to do all that we can so that they are brought here as quickly as is humanly possible.
We are also mobilising our community services, with a new community pathway for Covid-19. As of yesterday, people with symptoms should not call their general practice, but should first seek advice from NHS 24 or the www.nhsinform.scot website, and they should stay at home for seven days. Only if they do not get the advice that they need, or their condition deteriorates, should they call the 111 helpline. Callers to 111 will be assessed and called back by new local community hubs, if that is clinically required. In each hub, senior clinicians are ready to take calls.
In some cases, patients will need to be seen face to face. Covid-19 assessment centres are being deployed rapidly around the country, with an initial 50 centres planned for this week. That new dedicated pathway frees up our general practitioner service to continue to deliver important non-Covid-19 healthcare to patients.
It is not only our NHS that is integral to the response to the virus; so, too, is social care. With the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, integration joint authorities and providers, we are working to prioritise social care support to the most vulnerable people, in the current circumstances. Front-line social care workers are key workers who will have access to childcare, if necessary, in order that they can carry out their critical roles.
Through NHS National Services Scotland, a triage centre for urgent supplies of personal protective equipment for registered social care providers went live last week. It has been taking hundreds of calls and delivering thousands of face masks, disposable aprons and disposable gloves to providers across the country.
Targeted and clinical advice about Covid-19 has also been produced with respect to nursing home and residential care home residents, and is now available from Health Protection Scotland. Yesterday, with Councillor Currie, who is the lead in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on health and social care, I wrote to all local authorities setting out my agreement that the costs of additional social care would be met. That is an important assurance that people who require vital social care support should not have it removed in order to cope with the Covid-19 challenge.
We need to ensure that our health and social care workforce is safe and protected, so we are working to procure and distribute the necessary supplies of the types and levels of PPE that are required to safeguard front-line health and social care workers. We now have clear distribution workstreams, and clear advice and daily updates to our boards and to the other parts of the service for which we are providing PPE.
It is essential that front-line health and social care staff can remain at work. To help to save lives, we must continue to prioritise testing in hospitals. All remaining capacity must be used to ensure that critical staff can return to work as soon as possible. Today, I am publishing guidance for the NHS to support use of the testing capacity in our laboratories, in so far as it is not needed for essential care, in order to enable health and social care staff to be back at work when that is safe. NHS boards will prioritise testing, based on where the pressure is felt most in their workforce and in social care.
As well as our work to rapidly scale up testing in Scotland, we are working closely across the United Kingdom to increase testing capacity significantly. I can advise members that an announcement on that is due shortly, and will include Scotland’s role in that effort.
There has been a tremendous response to the call that was made by the chief nursing officer last week for nurses and other health professionals to return to help in the current emergency. By yesterday, there had been nearly 3,300 individual queries. People are contacting our national recruitment hub on 0141 278 2719, and are making direct contact with their health boards.
In addition, all final-year nursing and midwifery students will be put on placement for the final six months of their degree programme, which will enable them to undertake paid work in the NHS during that period and still complete their degrees on time. Final-year allied health professionals and biomedical science students will complete their clinical hours, and will then be able to go on to the emergency register and be deployed in the workforce. Second-year nursing and midwifery students will also have their education changed, so that they can undertake paid work in health and social care settings throughout Scotland, while continuing their courses. Discussions are on-going on use of second-year and third-year allied health professional students, but I hope that we can agree similar arrangements. All first-year students will be able to undertake paid work, if they wish to do so.
I very much welcome medical students’ willingness to volunteer to support our services at this time, and I welcome the steps that are being taken by the regulator to support their being entered on the register. We will ensure that all those volunteers are deployed in the safest and most appropriate way. I am sure that every member is truly grateful to all of them for stepping forward to serve us at this time.
We cannot have barriers to staff working in the NHS. Last week, I said that I would act, if I could, to remove parking charges from private finance initiative car parks in our hospital settings. From Monday 30 March, car parking charges will be removed from Ninewells hospital in Dundee, Glasgow royal infirmary and the Royal infirmary of Edinburgh, for the next three months.
Given the figures that we know we are dealing with, it is even more critical that we protect and support the people in our communities who are at the highest risk. That is why we have asked the 200,000 or so people who are at the highest clinical risk from Covid-19 to self-isolate for the next 12 weeks, which includes their being as far as possible from other members of their households. That group includes people who have received solid organ transplants, people who have specific cancers, people who have rare diseases, people who are on immunosuppression therapies, and people who have severe respiratory conditions. That is incredibly hard for them. We are, therefore, writing to those individuals setting out what they and their families need to do to stay safe, and how they will be helped.
Many people will have family and friends who can support them over the next 12 weeks, but others will not. For those people, we are putting in place a package of support. To co-ordinate that work, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has ordered the establishment, as soon as possible, of humanitarian assistance centres across the country. Working through general practitioners and local resilience partnerships, we will provide help with managing medical conditions and with arrangements for delivering medicines and services, including carers. Crucially, that help will also include grocery deliveries through a new national contract that is currently being negotiated.
The key to saving lives—to avoiding unnecessary deaths—is that we all comply with the measures that have been set out by our First Minister, and across the United Kingdom. I know that it is hard, and that life seems to be unsettling and strange, but it is vital that we all accept—now, today, and tomorrow—that that is how it must be. This is how we all honour the hard work of our NHS and social care staff; this is how we go beyond warm words and how we really, truly thank them for their courage and their care: we stay at home and we follow the rules.
On behalf of my party, I offer our condolences to the families of all those who have suffered bereavement since last week.
As the Prime Minister and the First Minister have made clear, we are living through a national emergency. The clear duty that is on us all is to accept and apply the advice that we are given; where clarity is required, to seek that clarity rationally; and where detail remains to be made public, to accept that that detail will be forthcoming.
Our leaders in Scotland, just as at Westminster, are applying themselves with every endeavour to steer the country through this crisis. They need our support, our forbearance and our gratitude. However, that is as nothing to the debt of gratitude that we owe to every last one of those working in our emergency services and, above all, in our NHS, where they are working—and where others are now volunteering to return to work—to keep us all safe.
Last Friday, I endured an exploratory procedure at Glasgow’s Victoria hospital. Thankfully, all was well. However, more appositely, and in the most humbling of ways, NHS workers approached me to say, “We will not let the country down.” I never doubted it, and I am so proud of every one of them. However, that pride in all those working in our national health service—a pride that I hope is felt by every last man, woman and child in Scotland—deserves to be backed up by not just our words but our actions. So, let me repeat: people should stay at home and abide by the guidance that has been given. It is common sense. Although it is true that the problem with common sense is that it is not often very common, people should listen, and listen good. Stay safe, protect our NHS and help to save lives.
I ask the First Minister to do all that she can to work in conjunction with the Prime Minister to ensure that we achieve maximum clarity and, wherever possible, a consistent message. More than anything else, people are seeking clarity. Although I know that both Governments are responding to evolving events, any confusion on messaging is naturally unhelpful and the source of many inquiries that could be rendered unnecessary. Today, that centres on who should be going to work, particularly in relation to those in the construction sector, with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government seeming to give slightly different directions on whether those in the construction sector should be going to work.
I understand from my own local authority in East Renfrewshire that the uptake at schools by critical workers has been low and manageable. However, I also know that the variable sector inclusion on the key worker list between Scotland and the rest of the UK remains troubling to key sectors in Scotland, particularly food processing and distribution and agriculture, as does the further variable application by individual local authorities. Our priority must be to have as few children at school as possible, and only as a last resort. Will the First Minister update members on the current uptake and the discretionary position across Scotland?
My final question is about myriad issues such as vehicles that need immediate MOTs and the burden of compliance with freedom of information requests on local authorities that have reduced and refocused staff complements. Where should general inquiries of a practical consequence about other issues be directed?
As Churchill observed,
“it is not enough to do our best; we must do what is required.”
I offer again the support of my party to the First Minister and her colleagues as they do what is required.
I thank Jackson Carlaw for his comments and his exhortation to the population to follow the advice to stay at home. It is important that we all consistently, coherently and unequivocally advise the public to do exactly that.
A number of points of detail have been raised, and I shall cover them as quickly and as generally as possible. If there are points that I do not cover here, we will come back with a detailed answer later.
With regard to the NHS, members know that I spent five years as health secretary and I feel this as First Minister: there is not a day goes by when I am not in awe of the contribution of those who are on the front line, particularly in our NHS, and of everybody who works in our health and social care services. I am acutely aware every day just now that we will never owe them more than we will owe them in the weeks to come. I want to make sure that the Government is doing everything that we can reasonably and possibly do to support them. That is why the car parking charge announcement that has been made by the health secretary is so important.
I understand that we are working hard to resolve issues that have arisen around the distribution of protective equipment. Those are examples of how we will absolutely do everything that we can to support our front-line workers.
Most of us will be able to cite examples of that. My sister works on the front line of the health service. She was in a hospital ward yesterday morning, she was in a hospital ward this morning, and she will be there again tomorrow morning, so I know first hand the pressures that those staff are under right now and I know my responsibility and that of the Government to support them. The thing that we can all do to support them most is to follow the advice. That is what will help, if not to alleviate pressure in the weeks to come, to keep it at manageable levels, so that the people who need treatment can get it.
On co-ordination across the UK, I know that we are working very hard to do that—not just the Scottish Government but the UK Government and the Welsh and Northern Irish Governments, too. We are being very successful in co-ordinating our response and our messaging. The overall response is the same in all parts of the UK in terms of the advice that we are giving to the public. Last night on the Cobra call before the lockdown measures were announced, we agreed to co-ordinate the timing and the content of our messaging; that is important. I have always said that there will be operational differences, and people can understand that. The structure of our NHS is not the same, so the way in which we are contacting the most vulnerable people will be slightly different. We also have a responsibility to make sure that the overall approach is translated into the advice that we think is appropriate.
I cannot speak for other Administrations on some of those operational issues. We will try to make sure that the advice is as consistent as possible. On construction, for example, my judgment, based on the advice that I have, is that right now the safest and most precautionary principle is for construction sites not to continue. We have undertaken to look at whether guidance can be put in place for the safe operation of construction sites, taking all the social distancing advice into account. If we think that that can be done, of course we will share that and amend the position if we think it appropriate. We will continue to be as consistent as possible, taking account of those operational differences.
Similarly, on schools, we have to remember that they are closed for health reasons. The experts have told us that it will help to delay the spread of the virus not to have large numbers of children congregating. We defeat the purpose of that if large numbers of children congregate in other ways. We have had to be very rigorous about key workers and vulnerable children. The priority has to be those who are on the front line of the NHS, but we have said that we will seek to accommodate others as and when we can, based on rigorous prioritisation. The Scottish Government is applying a brokerage function to that issue.
I said in my statement that we do not yet have figures for uptake, but when we do, we will share them. Our evidence so far shows that the majority of parents have not been sending their children to school, which might give us some more—limited—capacity to look at other areas.
The points about FOI requests have been covered in our emergency legislation. On the point about general inquiries, I will endeavour—I undertake—to give advice to MSPs, particularly given that we will not be sitting as often as normal, about the best route for inquiries and questions and for the many offers of help that MSPs are also getting from across their constituencies.
I express the condolences of Scottish Labour to the families who have lost loved ones through Covid-19 in the last few days.
At a time of national emergency, we think that this national Parliament should not go into Easter recess but should continue to scrutinise what is happening in the midst of this emergency. We think that that is our job, and we genuinely think that that is what the people who sent us here would want us to do. Therefore, I ask all parties to consider whether we should go into recess. We do not think that we should.
I pay tribute again to all NHS and social care workers, not just for what they have done, but for what they are about to do. Nobody knows what the future holds—it is unwritten—but one thing is certain. We will all be reliant for our health and our safety, and some even for our lives, on their skills and their judgment. We will all be forever in their debt. That is why, now more than ever, we must give them our total and unflinching support and must recognise and exercise our full duty of care to them, as they exercise their duty of care to us.
We must listen to their calls and give them the best personal protective equipment when they need it, which is now. We must give them the reassurance of access to testing when they have any symptoms. Also, because many of them are working in the community—home care workers, community nurses, ambulance crews—I ask, indeed implore, the First Minister to give them an undertaking that she will reconsider the case for community testing. It is the case that was made by the World Health Organization: the case for community testing and then tracing and tracking to help slow down the spread of the virus and to keep people safe. Will the First Minister hear that call?
I thank Richard Leonard for his comments and for all his questions, which I will take in turn.
First, it is not up to me when Parliament sits; that is up to the Parliamentary Bureau. I do not expect to have an Easter recess, so in a sense it makes no difference to me whether Parliament is sitting—I will be working, as I am sure all of us will be. However, our practices must reflect the guidance that has been issued to the general public, and I think that today they do. Cutting down the sittings this week does that. I am sure that the bureau will keep that matter under review.
I have said it consistently, but at a time like this, we absolutely come to understand, even more than we do normally, how important the function of scrutiny is. We are living through unprecedented times, when we are asking people to do unprecedented things. In a democracy, there must be scrutiny of that. There must be regular scrutiny of that. I said last week and I will say again that we in Government are trying to think of everything right now. We are trying to make sure that we have all bases covered, but we will miss things or there might be things that we are not doing as well as we could. Therefore, the questions that are being asked are really important. I would only say that the way that that scrutiny happens has to change, because of the guidance that has been given, but the fact of the scrutiny does not have to change. If anything, it is more important than ever. I mean that absolutely sincerely.
The duty of care that we owe to NHS staff is one that I feel acutely and personally every single day, not just during these periods, but particularly during this period. We are listening. Concerns were raised about the Ambulance Service and PPE, and the health secretary met the Ambulance Service last week to resolve those issues. We will do that systematically: if concerns are raised during this difficult, challenging, uncertain period, we will address them as far as we possibly can.
I return to the issue of testing. We slow down the spread of the virus by staying at home and following the advice. We are ramping up testing capacity. We have set three key objectives for our testing capacity and they are the right ones, given the stage of the spread of the infection that we are at—I am saying that not from my own knowledge as a politician, but from what I have been advised by our chief medical officer and other experts.
The key objectives of our testing are, first, to make sure that we are dealing with those who are most seriously unwell, which is why patients in hospital will be tested; secondly, key workers—the announcement that the health secretary indicated will be coming soon will have a significant impact on key worker testing; and thirdly, surveillance. Over the weeks to come, surveillance testing will be critical in ensuring that our judgments about whether more measures are necessary or, indeed, whether or when we can start to lift some of those measures, are based on what the infection is doing, how fast it is spreading and where it is in the country. That is why surveillance testing is so important.
All of that involves considerably increasing the capacity of our testing facilities. That work is under way in a variety of strands right now and Parliament will be kept updated on that.
First, I echo the comments of others: all our thoughts are with those who have been directly affected by the virus, having lost a loved one or, indeed, being unwell at the moment. We wish them a speedy recovery. Our thoughts are also with the very many dedicated professionals who are helping people through the crisis in every way possible in our public services and elsewhere.
None of us in Parliament expected to be here to deal with a situation like this, or to pass the kind of emergency powers that are being contemplated, and I am sure that no one in the Government wants to be in a position of issuing the kind of instructions to the public that were given last night. However, this response is clearly necessary, so the Government will have the support of the Scottish Green Party in ensuring that the advice is heard and heeded so that we all stay at home and save lives.
In order to do that, of course, we need to have a home. I am sure that I am not alone in hearing, on a daily basis, from people in the private rented sector who are being given notice to quit by landlords for a range of grounds that are not always connected with rent arrears, or being given demands for on-going rent payments, sometimes from landlords who are enjoying a mortgage holiday. I know that there are good landlords out there who are being as responsible and as flexible as they can be in supporting their tenants, but sadly, that is not always the case. We need to ensure that there is a more robust response to protect private rented tenants.
How does the First Minister respond to the proposals from the National Union of Students, which come in five parts: clear public health advice for landlords and tenants; every landlord offering a no-penalty release from tenancy contracts; Government banning evictions for all tenants for the duration of the crisis; ensuring that tenants who are financially impacted by the crisis have their rent subsidised, reduced or waived for the next three months, with the option to renew; and finally, a universal restriction on rent increases for the next 12 months.
Surely we need to take the opportunity afforded by the emergency legislation that is being brought forward by the Scottish Government later this week to ensure that we give the maximum possible protection so that no one loses their home as a result of this crisis in what are in deeply dangerous circumstances.
I thank Patrick Harvie for those points and questions. I am very clear that the emergency powers are necessary, but that they should be used only if and when we deem it necessary and t hey should exist only for as long as they are needed. I go back to the point that I made earlier: at a time when we are taking emergency powers and we are asking the public to do things that restrict the liberty of all of us, scrutiny is absolutely essential and we should all reflect on that in how we operate in the weeks to come.
On the private rented sector, I am very happy to look closely at the NUS plan. I will ask Michael Russell, who is overseeing the emergency legislation, to look quickly at whether there is material from that, or suggestions in that, that we can include in the legislation, or even whether there are aspects of that that we could undertake without emergency legislation. Aileen Campbell will be involved in that process.
I am clear—I was clear last week at First Minister’s question time and I will be clear again today—that nobody should be evicted from their home as a result of this crisis. I will make that clear at every opportunity. We have already indicated that we will make a legislative change to expand to six months the three-month period during which people cannot be evicted due to rent arrears, and we will continue to look at how we can give people additional security over and above that.
I hope that it is helpful that we will look urgently at the suggestions from the NUS and seek to incorporate them as far as possible. We will also look for other opportunities to send a very clear message, not just to private sector landlords but to landlords across all tenures.
My sympathies, too, are with those who have lost family, friends and neighbours. I do not know anybody who has been afflicted by this disease yet, but I think that, when we know someone affected, it becomes much more real and, in some quarters, people might take the disease a bit more seriously. When it comes, it will hit hard, which is why it is important that people heed the advice of the First Minister to stay at home to protect the NHS and save lives.
I commend the Government and the civil service. We are effectively creating a new government system within the space of two or three weeks. As the First Minister said, we will make mistakes. Today is about helping the Government to try to mend some of those mistakes.
First, there seems to be an issue about who childminders can accept. Is it vulnerable children and the children of key workers, or is it a broader group? I have been speaking to some of the First Minister’s colleagues about that, but it would be helpful to have some clarity on that now.
As I was driving to work today down the M90, a whole suite of vans was going up the motorway to building sites. Those vans were sometimes packed full of workers, who were obviously not complying with the social distancing guidance. I would hope that we could send a special message to those workers that they, too need to comply with the guidance if we are going to halt the spread of this condition. If those workers are self-employed, they may be worried that they need to go to work to earn an income. The UK Government needs to come forward with a self-employment package to take the pressure off workers in that sector and give them something to live on.
I appreciate the clarity on factories and workplaces, and the difference between essential and non-essential. While I have been in the chamber, I have had businesses contacting me about that, because they are still a bit unclear about what is essential to make society work. Perhaps the First Minister could say more about what we mean on that front.
On PPE supply, I continue to hear a lot of concern, not just from NHS workers but from social care and nursing homes, about the lack of PPE equipment. I would like to understand where the problem is. Is it in the distribution mechanism, or is it in sourcing PPE equipment in the first place?
There are a lot of questions there, but I hope that the First Minister can address a few of them.
I thank Willie Rennie for that range of questions. I will try to give an overview now, but I will come back on any points of detail if necessary.
Willie Rennie is right about people taking this seriously. My impression—it is impressionistic—is that people are taking this seriously in the main, but I guess that a situation such as this can feel surreal. The majority of us have not come into contact with somebody who has the virus. That will change, but my message would be that the best way to continue to reduce and minimise the number of people who have the virus is to do the right things now.
Although the global estimate and the data that we have here indicate that the mortality rate from the virus is perhaps around 1 per cent, we know that the percentage increases steeply as people’s age increases, and is much higher than 1 per cent for the over-70 and over-80 age groups. However, it is a mistake for young people—not that I am calling myself a young person—to think that they are not affected, that they will not get the virus or that they will get only mild symptoms. There is no guarantee of that, but even if that were true, if young people do not follow the advice, they are taking the risk of infecting an older loved relative who is potentially at significant risk. We have all got to think about our responsibilities here.
We are reconfiguring an entire Government and everything that sits behind the Government. I put on record my huge thanks to the civil service. I have already given my most important thanks to the NHS and will continue to do so. The civil service has been working at pace and is doing a very good job. The burdens and challenges that it will face in the weeks to come are considerable, too. The chief medical officer, the deputy chief medical officer and the ubiquitous Jason Leitch, who is our national clinical director, are all doing an incredibly good job and I want to thank them for that.
We have not been overly prescriptive on the issue of childminders. I will consider whether we need to give a bit of guidance to childminders on the parameters in which they should be operating.
On construction, what Willie Rennie witnessed on his way here this morning is why it is right to take a precautionary approach. My advice is that construction sites, apart from essential sites such as hospitals, should not be operating. If we can put in place guidance and rules that would satisfy us that safe working on a construction site is possible, we may change that in the future. That is a general principle; we do not want to stop things happening if it is not unsafe for them to happen but, at the moment, it is important that we take that precautionary approach, because this is about protecting health.
Supplies of PPE are getting through. If people feel that they are not getting the supplies that they need, they should let us know. There is a global pressure on those supplies right now. Ivan McKee is leading work for us to look at whether we can repurpose some manufacturing to improve and increase those supplies, but there are supplies in the country and we are working hard to get them where they are needed. MSPs should continue to tell us if they hear of problems with that.
I have been inundated, as I am sure we all have, with very worried emails from self-employed people and freelance workers. I believe that the UK Government is taking the issue seriously and is working on something, and I hope that it comes soon. I reiterate how important it is that we see something for self-employed people that is similar to the wage subsidy that we have seen, because without that those people will be in significant difficulty. I may have missed one or two points of detail and, if I have, I will review the
Official Report and come back to Willie Rennie at a later point.
Last weekend, I was approached by many self-employed people in Paisley—particularly those who work in the leisure and entertainment industry—about how this will affect them financially. I know that we are in talks with the UK Government on the issue. Can the First Minister provide an update on the engagement with the UK Government that the Scottish Government has had and on any financial protection for self-employed and freelance workers in leisure and entertainment?
I will hand over to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, in a second. We have been pressing the UK Government and, as I said earlier, I am very optimistic that we will see a solution to that, and I hope that it comes soon. Kate Forbes can update members on the correspondence and other conversations.
George Adam is right: there are about 330,000 self-employed workers in Scotland and they are critical to the economy. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture, Fiona Hyslop, and I have had a number of calls with our respective counterparts in the UK Government, and I believe that the UK Government understands the issue and is looking at delivery mechanisms. Our point, which we most recently made in a letter on Sunday, which we both signed, was that, although things such as the minimum income floor have been removed, it does not go far enough to support the self-employed. Action that has been taken in other countries suggests that there are critical mechanisms to support self-employed people—for example, in Norway and Denmark, wage support schemes have been extended and we believe that that should also be the case here in the UK.
My question is for the Cabinet Secretary for Justice. Many Scots will wonder to what extent the police will enforce what is in effect a lockdown. Keeping things to a practical level and to emphasise the importance of compliance, can the cabinet secretary help people to understand what they might expect to be asked by the police if challenged, and can he outline what powers Police Scotland have already—before the emergency legislation is passed—to ensure that these essential restrictions are obeyed?
I reiterate the approach that the chief constable has outlined over the past few days. First and foremost, we thank the majority of the Scottish public, who have complied with the guidance that has been forthcoming from the UK and Scottish Governments. I heard the chief constable saying on the radio this morning that the vast majority of people are complying.
The chief constable has also made a point about his operational responsibility and independence. He has a responsibility to keep the public safe and, where he has enforcement powers, he will certainly use them. We saw that when closure notices were forthcoming for the pubs and premises that did not comply with the order to close.
There are existing public health measures that apply in Scotland, and there are similar measures across the UK. They already permit, for example, court orders to quarantine persons who are suffering from an infectious disease. However, as the member will be aware, the emergency legislation that is going through respective parliamentary processes will give the police powers that are more stringent and can be used on the spot, rather than requiring court orders.
Of course, we are appealing to people to heed the advice not only for their safety but for the safety of the public at large. The police will continue to take that approach with the public, but the chief constable has already demonstrated that, where it is necessary that he uses enforcement powers, he will do so.
I have a question for the health secretary, then a brief one for the communities secretary.
On the letters that are going out to high-risk individuals, can the health secretary say when people can expect to get them? We have heard today that there are almost 600 confirmed cases in Scotland. What is community surveillance telling us about what the number of cases is likely to be?
Last week, there was the very welcome announcement of the £50 million wellbeing fund. Charities and others are waiting to hear when they can access that money. This will not be a unique example, but Barnardo’s Scotland has told me that it has identified more than 2,000 children who could be doing with that money right now, and it can get that out to those families. Can we have an update on how quickly charities such as Barnardo’s Scotland and others can access that critical fund?
The direct information for that group of 200,000 patients began to go out today, and it is going out by various means. Some of the groups are easier to contact directly; for others, the contact is through their GP. I am happy to write to Ms Lennon to explain the detail of that. We anticipate that all that work, through all those routes, will be completed within a week.
At this point, it is too early to answer the question about community surveillance with any sense of definiteness or robustness. As the surveillance data comes in and we get that additional information, we will, as the First Minister described, keep Parliament up to date with what it is telling us.
I am aware of the situation that Barnardo’s described to Monica Lennon. It is using its own funds to support the families that it has identified as being at risk. We have its submission, and there will continue to be discussion with our officials about that, but we want to work at pace to get the support out to the communities that we know require it and the community groups that are emerging to support the resilience of their communities. We are working with our third sector and local authority partners to get the right balance and blend, so that that very local support gets through to the local level, alongside the bigger, broader and more thematic work that organisations such as Barnardo’s can provide.
We should also make sure that anyone who is facing financial hardship
looks to the welfare system to receive the support that they are entitled to and puts their claims in so that they can overcome any financial challenges that they have been plunged into as a result of the pandemic.
We are certainly aware of Barnardo’s ask, and we are working on it. That has been happening over the past couple of days.
My question is for the First Minister. I have been contacted by a number of self-isolating elderly and vulnerable people who cannot get food delivered by the supermarkets, which in many cases have all their delivery slots booked until mid-April. Those people feel that the shopping hours that have been set aside by supermarkets, although well intentioned, are not safe, because going shopping contradicts the self-isolation advice. Are there any plans for the Government to work with the supermarkets to prioritise deliveries to vulnerable people?
Will the First Minister also clarify whether, in off-grid areas, suppliers of wood fuel and biomass are essential services that people can continue to use in order to heat their homes?
With regard to elderly people, the advice that we have now given is that everybody should stay at home, although they can go out for basic necessities, preferably no more than once a day. That is also the case for an elderly person, if they are able—unless they have symptoms or are in one of the groups that require to take more of an isolation approach. I want to make that point clear.
We have been in dialogue with the supermarkets—Fergus Ewing has had conversations with them—and I know that they are working hard to have supplies flowing and to make sure that people who are the biggest priority get the earliest and most prioritised access to them. The supermarkets continue to work hard to make sure that that is the case.
I take this opportunity to send another general message to the public about not panic buying and stockpiling, because that, and not any underlying shortage, is what is causing supply issues. There is no shortage of food in the country, so if people act, shop and buy responsibly, such issues should not arise.
Our resilience partnerships are working locally, and local authorities are doing everything that they can to identify any particularly vulnerable people who are not able to get the supplies that they need themselves or through their family networks. That work is really important.
I am happy to take the biomass point away and give an answer that is based on proper advice. However, I repeat the general advice that we have given to businesses. We have given information on those that should definitely be closed and on those that should definitely be open because of the essential nature of the work that they are doing, For those that are in between, we have provided some key checkpoints on whether they can operate safely. There will always be a number of specific questions—I am certainly getting lots today—and we will not be able to answer every single question with specific bespoke advice. However, we will do our best to give every company and sector the detail and guidance that they need to make the right decisions.
This is a question for the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. For the 200,000 of our fellow Scots who will receive letters this week, it will be a deeply concerning time, but for those who are currently going through or are about to commence cancer treatment, it is a terrifying time. I know that from the emails that I have been receiving.
When will the Government update the Parliament on the cancer action plan that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced last week, so that we can continue to deliver cancer treatments throughout this public health emergency?
I am happy to make every effort to update Parliament next week on the cancer action plan. It is important that we recognise that our national health service is not only stepping up to address the particular challenge of the virus but is continuing to treat patients and provide emergency and urgent care, which includes cancer and maternity care.
I appreciate that this is a worrying time for everyone—particularly that group of people, whom we strongly urge to isolate in their own homes for three months. It is a very stringent measure because they are most at risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract the virus. There is much for those people to worry about, but many of them already know all the steps that they need to take in normal course to protect themselves, due to the condition that they suffer from.
I am happy to set this out in more detail for members in the coming days, through a letter or by some other means, but, as I tried to outline, those people really need to know that the additional support that they need will be provided. In cases in which that support—which needs to be provided very carefully in terms of the contact that is made—cannot be provided by family or friends, we will make sure that, as far as possible, additional support is provided by our local authorities through the resilience partnerships along with an army of volunteers.
My question is for the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. In previous statements, the First Minister rightly referred to the crucial role of ventilators and ICUs and the critical shortage of them worldwide. Does the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport welcome the breaking news of the development of rapidly manufactured ventilation systems, which are lightweight and robust and require no more than 30 minutes of training for our hard-working medical staff to use?
Mr Stewart is absolutely right. He and I have talked about the ventilator situation more than once; indeed, we did so only this morning in the Health and Sport Committee. Any innovation that is robust, that we know is evidenced and that exists is to be welcomed. My colleague Mr McKee has a very focused group that is looking at manufacturing those innovations and testing them with a degree of expertise and skill in order to advise me, as the health secretary, whether there is a genuine opportunity for us to actively pursue them. That cross-Government look at how to acquire the equipment that we need to address the particular challenge is really important, and I very much welcome it.
I thank the First Minister for her statement.
My question is for the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills.
I have received numerous pieces of correspondence from foreign students who have been told that they have to go home and that they have to pay their rent until August. Other students were working but are not working now and cannot afford to pay the rent for their student accommodation, although they have been told that they have to pay it. Can the Student Awards Agency for Scotland or another organisation give them some form of financial help in this situation?
Those issues are under active discussion between the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead, and a number of providers. A lot of the accommodation to which Sandra White referred is in the private sector and, obviously, we are working to protect the interests of students who face increased costs as a consequence of the situation that they face. The furthest that I can go today is to say that we are actively pursuing the issue, that we recognise its seriousness as it affects individual students and that we will, of course, update members and, in particular, Sandra White, on the progress that is made in those discussions.
Many parents are grateful for the work of local authorities, which have, in just a few short days, set up provisions for schooling and childcare for those who most need them. Many other parents are doing their best to teach and care at home in very difficult circumstances.
My question is for the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills. What role is Education Scotland playing to assist COSLA and local authorities to support parents and equip them with the resources that they might need to best teach at home? More important, when will the Scottish Qualifications Authority be forthcoming with detailed advice on the completion and submission of course work and the new process for awarding qualifications?
On Mr Greene’s question about the SQA, I ask members to be patient and to understand that we are having to move to a significantly new way of working in a very short space of time. I expect the SQA to make a statement this afternoon on course work, which I hope will clarify the position. Obviously, the material that I set out to Parliament last week in relation to the certification approach is being actively developed.
I appreciate that there is anxiety and nervousness, but we have to take time to get that correct, because young people’s qualifications will rest on it.
On the availability of online learning, a huge amount of outstanding work is being done by teachers around the country. Yesterday morning, the Swinney household was involved in an online physical education lesson, with all members of the household—except its oldest member—taking part.
A lot of really good work is being undertaken, and Education Scotland is actively working with individual local authorities and schools to support that work. Schools have done a really good job in trying to ensure that they have digital connectivity with young people and students, and Education Scotland is supporting the development of any appropriate resources that are required as part of that process.
I do not envy the Government’s position. The First Minister has said that the Government will make mistakes, and we all accept that. However, does she recognise that some Scottish professors of global health are saying that we are making a mistake now by not following the World Health Organization advice to trace, to test and to isolate every case?
I will address that point in detail, as I have asked my advisers many questions about it. The WHO advice—I am not qualified to second guess it—is, as I understand it, for the contain phase of an infection outbreak. We are in the delay phase.
To be blunt, based on what I have been told, the UK, and Scotland within it, probably has the greatest testing capacity of any country in the world proportionately, per head of population, but we could not test every person with symptoms. That would overwhelm not only our testing capacity but the overall resources of our NHS. We are significantly ramping up testing capacity in our labs. The health secretary and I have both alluded to another significant announcement that will substantially add to UK testing capacity. However, we will still have to prioritise where that testing capacity has greatest effect, and that is in the three areas that I have set out.
I understand Neil Findlay’s question about testing, tracing and isolating. I have set out the position on testing. We are asking anybody with symptoms to isolate. That is the point of the advice that has been given. If people have any symptoms indicative of coronavirus—for the avoidance of doubt, that is a new persistent cough or a fever—they should stay at home for seven days. Those who are in the household of somebody with those symptoms should all stay at home for 14 days. If we had the capacity to test everybody with symptoms and we found positive cases, the advice that we would give to those positive cases is exactly the same as the advice that we are giving to those with symptoms.
We are in the delay phase. That is why the approach to testing and all the advice that we are giving is, in the opinion of the experts who advise me, the health secretary and the Government, the appropriate action to take. I repeat that that is testing for those who are most seriously ill, testing for key workers and testing to allow us to monitor the spread of the infection and how it is behaving. That is similar to what we do every year with flu, but on a bigger scale.
The First Minister said that she is aware of the incredible work that is being carried out across our health service during what is a difficult time for our NHS staff, many of whom are my former colleagues.
Can she or the health secretary provide assurances that mental health support will be available to NHS staff should they need it?
That is an important issue. As the First Minister, the chief medical officer and I have said, with all the measures that are now in place, we are attempting to reduce the peak level of cases so that our health service can cope and so that we can reduce the number of avoidable deaths. However, that means that our health service will be working under significant pressure for longer, so the health and wellbeing of our NHS and social care staff is really important. That is why Ms Haughey, the Minister for Mental Health, is leading a piece of national work with individual health boards and extending to local authorities and social care providers to look at what more we can do—in addition to what they are doing—to assist them to ensure that support is available to staff in situations of high stress and anxiety.
There is practical support such as the provision of rest areas, which give the ability to make a cup of tea and take five or 10 minutes out. Other support is available online or directly, depending on what makes most sense or is of most use to staff. As that work consolidates across the country, we will be happy to ensure that members understand what we are doing and to hear from members if they think that we can do more. Please be assured that we take that issue very seriously.
I am aware that the sector has raised a number of concerns about the challenges that it faces in relation to its ability to provide the level of resilience that is necessary in roadside recovery, particularly in helping to support our logistics and haulage industry, in relation to which the sector plays a critical role in helping to maintain essential links. We are in discussion with the UK Department for Transport with regard to further measures that could be put in place to support the industry during what is a challenging time.
It is, of course, essential that we maintain our transport and logistics network at this crucial time. The essential work that the recovery services play within that is fully recognised by the Scottish Government, and, from the discussions that I have had with the UK Government, I know that it recognises that, too. I assure the member that we are aware of the issue and that we will continue to work with the UK Government to try to resolve some of the concerns that the sector has.
My question is to the cabinet secretary with responsibility for housing. I thank the First Minister for her statement that there should be no evictions, which she made in response to Patrick Harvie’s question. However, will the Government legislate as soon as possible for that? The Government’s previous announcement in that regard was extremely narrow. There are 17 grounds for eviction, and we need to remove them all.
Rough sleepers are among the most vulnerable people and are unable to self-isolate. Can the Government ensure that they are not criminalised in any way, and can the cabinet secretary give details of any package that the Government intends to announce to help rough sleepers?
We have been clear that nobody should lose their house as a result of measures to cope with this pandemic. There should be no evictions as a result of Covid. Our emergency legislation will have provisions to ensure that there can be no evictions from the private rented sector or the social rented sector for six months.
Aside from the legislation, I have had assurances from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations that its members will not evict anyone during this time. However, of course, we will still take forward the legislative packages.
Under the old tenancies—the assured and short assured tenancies—there are 17 grounds for eviction; the new tenancy has 18. We are looking to extend the notice period in relation to the majority of those grounds. We will continue to explore with the member any issues that she wishes to raise in relation to the issue, but I hope that I have been able to give her some certainty that we are taking action in relation to not only arrears but the grounds for notice of eviction. The extension of the notice period for the majority of those grounds to six months is in order to give effect to our desire for no one to lose their house over the actions that are being taken in our attempts to cope with the pandemic.
I welcome the announcement about the potential grocery contract to get food to the most vulnerable 200,000 people, to whom the First Minister referred. What clear and practical advice is being given to the people who are addressing food need in our communities now or who will be doing so imminently? I am thinking about people who go to food banks or food hubs to make a donation or to receive support, because there are safety issues in that regard, or who volunteer at food hubs to prepare and supply food to people, which sometimes involves co-ordinating home delivery. It is important that that service can function but also that people are as safe as possible and that they exercise sensible social distancing so that they do not inadvertently spread the coronavirus as a result of that vital on-the-ground strategy.
Bob Doris makes a range of good points. The First Minister mentioned the readyscotland.org website. Bob Doris should direct queries to that website, which gives people good guidance about how to keep themselves, and everyone who wants to volunteer and play their part, safe.
We are continuing to work with FareShare Scotland, which is one way of distributing food and support to food banks, but we also know that there are food banks that are facing particular pressure. Again, with the £17 million that we announced last week, we want to ensure that there continues to be an adequate food supply for people who require it or who face financial hardship. We are also working with Social Bite in relation to people who are homeless. At the moment, Social Bite is distributing food to people who are particularly vulnerable.
Among all that, there is also scope for local initiatives to ask for support if they require it, so that they can help with the resilience of their communities. Bob Doris’s point is well made: we need to ensure that there is a balance between people staying at home and people receiving the advice and support that they require to ensure that volunteering efforts can continue.
I have a question about food supply and food security that I think should go to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism but, as I do not think that he is here, I will let the First Minister decide who will answer it.
Soft fruit growers in my region of Perthshire and Fife are very concerned about the availability of labour to harvest crops in the summer season, because the migrant workers on whom they normally depend might not be able to travel to the United Kingdom. What advice would the First Minister give to those who are looking to plant crops at the present time? What assistance can the Scottish Government give to the sector on accessing the labour that it needs?
Rather than give advice, right now, that might not be the right or the best advice, I undertake to take those questions away and to come back to Murdo Fraser very quickly with advice. We will then disseminate that advice to the wider sector, because it is an important point that we want people to do the right things now in order that they do not compound issues for themselves in the future.
I want to ask the Deputy First Minister about the designation of key workers. Police officers, who are considered to be category 2 workers, are being denied childcare, which is severely compromising their ability to do their job. Pharmacy and food retail workers, who have been working really hard, are defined by the Scottish Government as being part of the “critical national infrastructure”. Can he confirm that those workers are also in category 2 of the key worker definition, because in some areas they are being denied support? Will he therefore ensure that the guidance to local authorities is clarified in order to avoid a myriad of different approaches being taken, so that our category 2 key workers receive the childcare support that they need?
I understand the seriousness of the issues that Jackie Baillie raises, but there is an important point that must be borne in mind, which is that we have to minimise the number of children who are brought into learning and childcare settings. If we do not do that, we will defeat the public health advice that is driving this exercise. I am sorry if that sounds hard, but we must be conscious of the need to limit the number of children who come into such settings. That is why I appeal to employers and families to follow the tiered guidance that we have put in place, which is about trying to find alternative solutions for childcare before trying to secure places in childcare settings through local authority provision.
Jackie Baillie asked for clarity about the guidance, and I confirm the points that she made about the composition of category 2 workers. We have deliberatively left flexibility in the hands of local authorities, so that they can take into account the circumstances that they are presented with. Some sectors are more prevalent in some parts of the country than they are in others. If we specify a uniform national approach, we will just create a different set of anomalies from those that Jackie Baillie has raised. We need to allow the key workers whom we need to contribute to the national effort to be able to get childcare support. That is the objective that we jointly share with our local authority partners.
My question is for the finance secretary. Last week, the Bank of England cut the base rate to a record low of 0.1 per cent, but few banks have passed that on to borrowers, and many have actually increased loan and overdraft charges. For example, HSBC has increased charges on unauthorised overdrafts from 9.9 per cent to 39.9 per cent. Does the Scottish Government agree with former pensions minister Baroness Altmann that credit card charges should be cut to 0.5 per cent for the next 12 months? Will the cabinet secretary raise the issue of loans, overdrafts and credit cards with the Financial Conduct Authority?
Fiona Hyslop and I are in regular contact with banks and the wider financial industry. I would be more than delighted to raise particular areas of concern directly with the banking industry.
All the available support—whether that be banking support, Government support or support through the welfare system—is designed to allow people to continue to pay bills, to feed themselves and to go about their daily business. Any form of Government support is designed to be supportive to people’s cash-flow issues right now, in the light of the redundancies and other situations that they face.
The expectation on banks is that they look favourably on any request whatsoever from individuals about payment deferrals, and that they reduce their costs, not increase them. Where there are specific issues, please raise them with us; those should be passed on, so that we can raise them with the banks directly.
I welcome the health secretary’s pledge to expand testing for NHS staff, but the current guidance tells NHS staff with symptoms that they will not be tested. Will that message—which has been sent out on a daily basis and again this afternoon—be updated t o ensure that the concerns of front-line NHS staff and, indeed, the concerns about sustainability, are addressed as a matter of urgency?
Yes, the message will be updated. There was no point in telling people that they would be tested until we had in place the processes and systems to do that. Now that we have, to begin that work—in the way that I have described—we will update the guidance, but it needs to be very clear about how we are testing to the capacity. As the capacity increases, we will be able to increase testing.
This question is for the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity. Can he advise on the position that a front-line ambulance driver finds himself in? His car’s MOT runs out at the end of the month, his garage is now closed, he cannot get another MOT appointment and the hospital where he works is 30 miles from where he lives.
I am not necessarily expecting an answer today, but that person will not be the only emergency worker in such circumstances. Is there a case for the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency waiving MOTs in the circumstances, or is there another way forward for such important workers?
The member has raised a very important issue: the growing challenge of individual car owners accessing an MOT. Naturally, that can have an impact on their being able to tax their vehicle, and no longer having a valid MOT will invalidate their insurance.
The member might be aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has powers in that area, has given a three-month exemption certificate for heavy goods vehicles, buses and trailers, although it has not yet done so for cars. That is because we are in discussion with the Department for Transport to identify whether there is a means by which we can provide a UK-wide exemption for a limited period for those who own a car that is four years old or older.
I recognise the specific challenge that the situation is creating. We have raised the matter with the Department for Transport. The obvious solution would be to give people an exemption certificate for three months, which would allow their insurance to be renewed, if necessary, or to remain valid; it would also allow them to renew their tax disc, if necessary.
I recognise the issue, and I will continue to press the DFT on the matter with a view to obtaining a quick resolution.
The First Minister will recognise the tremendous upsurge in community spirit, with mutual aid groups, neighbours doing favours for neighbours and thousands of seemingly tiny acts of community service.
An example of that goodwill can be seen in the hot meals that are being safely prepared and delivered free of charge to vulnerable people in self-isolation. I highlight two organisations operating in my constituency—Scran Academy and the Torfin pub—which will deliver more than 1,000 meals this week alone. They are concerned that, when the police begin to enforce the lockdown, their drivers and cooks might be prevented from providing that vital service. Can the First Minister reassure them that their work will be allowed to continue during the lockdown? Will she explain the system that will operate to allow key workers to move freely during the lockdown period?
First, I take the opportunity to thank the countless numbers of people across the country who are stepping up to volunteer and contribute. I have seen lots of examples of that, and I have had many emails from people offering their help. I am not at the stage where it is possible to put a silver lining on this horrible cloud, but we are seeing examples of the best of people and the best of communities. That is certainly something to hold on to and be inspired by.
On the member’s question, we are very clear that we want the voluntary effort to continue. We want people who are caring for others to be able to continue doing that. I am confident that the police will not have to carry out enforcement, because the majority of people will comply with the rules with which we are asking them to comply.
We have good, community-based policing by consent in this country. I spoke to the chief constable last night, after Cobra took its decisions, and he is confident that he and his officers will be able to police the situation appropriately, and that any enforcement will be for the minority of cases—I expect it to be a tiny minority of cases—in which people flagrantly breach the rules, with no consideration for others. I know that the chief constable and the police are mindful of the need to allow the voluntary caring effort to continue, because we all need it to continue.
I am still getting messages from worried constituents who are being dragged into work by employers who are not in the key categories that the First Minister mentioned. What enforcement powers will be used to force such employers to close, to protect their staff and the wider public?
I want all employers to behave responsibly and I think that the vast majority of employers are doing so.
If someone is running a business of the type that has already been told to close—pubs, restaurants and non-essential retail—closure will be enforced if necessary. The police did so over the weekend with closure notices, and the new emergency powers are coming into force. However, I fervently hope that that will not be necessary.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are categories of business that we know have to continue, because they are vital to the effort to fight coronavirus as well as being vital to wellbeing and to keeping the country going—I am talking about food supplies and energy to keep the lights on.
There is a difficult group of business in between, and we cannot give a categoric answer for every single one, on a bespoke basis. That is why I am trying hard and will continue to try hard to set out clear guiding principles.
The first principle is that employers should take responsible decisions, based on the precautionary principle. If an employer is in any doubt about whether what they are doing is in any way putting the health of their workforce at risk, they should not do it and they should not be open. That is the first principle.
Secondly, employers should be allowing staff to work at home whenever possible. The nature of some businesses is such that that is not possible, so if people consider themselves to be doing essential work they must ask whether they are able to have safe social distancing, obviously while complying with all the normal health and safety requirements.
For a business, if the answer to any of those questions is no, the business should not continue as normal and the employer should not continue to expect its workers to come to work. In addition to giving that guidance, we will do our best to offer specific guidance to sectors or companies, as these issues arise.
The overall point is that, just as we are saying to the public, “Do the right thing for the right reasons”, I have to say to businesses, “Please do the right thing for the right reasons.” This is a horrendously difficult situation for everybody—nobody doubts that—and I do not doubt for a minute that businesses are having to take really difficult decisions. However, I come back to the central point. These measures have been put in place to save lives.
I say this to everyone: whenever we are feeling frustrated about all the inconveniences and disruption to our daily lives—individual lives and business lives—we must remember that what we do now will ultimately determine how many people die from this virus. The more that individuals and businesses do the right thing, the fewer people will die. That should be the motivation for each and every one of us.
My question is for the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport.
There are individuals with addiction issues who, until now, have been receiving treatment from the NHS or support from groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous and Gamblers Anonymous. There are individuals with addiction issues who might not yet have sought treatment and who face the possibility of three weeks of being unable to feed their addictions while living in a household with family members who might not be aware that they are living with an addict.
Those are three very different categories of people who require very different advice, support and reassurance. Will the cabinet secretary say whether that is under active consideration? What steps will the Scottish Government take to support such individuals and their family members, who might be supporting them through their addiction or might not yet be aware that they have an addict in their household?
I am grateful to Mark McDonald for raising that important issue. Joe FitzPatrick and I have been discussing it, and what we might do is under active consideration. Because of the nature and ethos of some of the organisations that Mark McDonald mentioned, they will want to be self-contained and to maintain social distancing as they continue their work. They are actively looking at the means by which they can do that. We will ensure that they have our offer of support should they wish to take it.
How we might offer support to the final group that Mark McDonald mentioned is particularly hard for us to work through. The problem is not to do with individuals who have addictions and related difficulties managing to isolate or stay at home; it arises when their families do not know about those problems. We are giving that active consideration.
I would welcome any specific propositions on the issue that members think the Government should be considering. As we make progress, I will be happy to ensure that members are updated.
I have a question for the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. Is there an update on when the antibody test that was previously talked about will be available? Will that be a crucial test in identifying who has had the virus, and will it be particularly important for those in the front line?
Fulton MacGregor raises an important question. When the test is available, it will be an important one for us. Our current understanding—and our hope—is that it will be available in the near future. I recognise that that is completely without specificity but, as the First Minister said, it is better to give members accurate answers that we are confident about. Unfortunately, at this point, all that I can say is that we are hopeful that the test will be available in the near future.
I have a question for the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government. She is of course aware that the third sector is under a lot of pressure just now while working with the most vulnerable in society, including those with poor mental health, addictions or Alzheimer’s disease, and the homeless, for whom isolation has traditionally been seen as the enemy, yet now the advice is completely the opposite. What support or advice can the cabinet secretary give third sector organisations that are trying to work through this difficult time?
I pay tribute to the third sector, which is fundamental and crucial to the country’s pandemic response. My officials are actively working with some organisations that cover the issues that Brian Whittle raised. Last week, we announced a general resilience fund to help the third sector to continue to function and provide support to communities, and to reprioritise some of its existing work so that it can cope with the demand that is placed on it.
Officials are working with a number of organisations, including the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Corra Foundation, the Hunter Foundation and similar organisations, to get resources to the right place as quickly as we can to support the need that Brian Whittle recognises.
I thank the First Minister, all other ministers and their officials for their positive engagement.
Yesterday, I heard the cabinet secretary say that the minor ailment service will be expanded, which will put more pressure on pharmacies. What actions have been taken to ensure that personal protective equipment is being supplied to pharmacies?
A number of opticians, dentists, dental nurses and other medical professionals have skills that can be used by the national health service. What is being done to draft them in to support existing NHS staff?
On a sensitive issue, a number of doctors, for a variety of reasons, have opted out of the Scottish Public Pensions Agency scheme, meaning that if they were to contract the virus and die of it, their families would not get a death-in-service payment. What immediate action has been taken to reassure those individuals that their families would receive such a payment? After all, they are the heroes at the front line in this crisis.
I will start with Anas Sarwar’s final question. At the moment, we are actively looking at what we can do in such circumstances. I fully take on board the points that he makes. We are in discussions with the UK Government and the Scottish Public Pensions Agency in that regard.
As has been said, we have 1,257 community pharmacies and 2,500 community pharmacists around Scotland. That is a huge resource that is keen to be actively involved in the extension of the minor ailment service. Community pharmacists’ access to the emergency care record came as a direct result of our meeting last week. I am grateful to our chief pharmaceutical officer for ensuring that that happened in the space of days. That is a huge resource for healthcare in the community. We have also had discussions with community pharmacists about their particular PPE requirements, and other requirements. I am confident that that will make a significant difference.
Anas Sarwar is absolutely right about the other professionals that he described. Dentists in particular, and the others, all have significant skills. I am pleased that many of them have been in touch to ask how they can help and what more they can do, given that they are undertaking emergency treatment only as a result of guidance from the chief dental officer. He is actively looking at how we can harness that particular workforce.
Optometry professionals will be able to provide significant support and emergency eye treatment. To ensure that their businesses will be sustainable throughout the period, we have reached an agreement with them about the sustainability of their funding while they are not able to undertake some of the work that they normally do and are paid for, and they will continue to undertake that emergency eye treatment.
All of that is fed into NHS 24 and others, so that people can be pointed in the right direction for the care that they need.
The Presiding Officer:
Thank you very much.
A number of members have sat patiently through the session, waiting to ask questions; I am afraid that I cannot take any more, as there are two substantial statements coming up from the Lord Advocate and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, as well as emergency legislation and the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order. We therefore have to move on to the next item of business. I thank members and ministers for their understanding.