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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 24th March 2020.

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Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I begin with my heartfelt thanks to the committee, the First Minister, all Scottish Government ministers and Aileen Campbell, in particular, who made the right decision on evictions.

As Joan McAlpine said earlier, we live in the starkest of times, so we need the fullest extent of our powers, our resources and our joint working. As we have heard, some people are still going to work and disobeying the guidance. The message must get through loud and clear: they can no longer do that.

If I could add one power to prevent further chaos, it would be to prevent traders from escalating the prices of basic goods such as hand sanitiser and toilet rolls, as a small number of traders are doing during an unprecedented crisis. Would it be possible to consider that? State intervention would be justified, in my view.

As Ruth Davidson says, the legislation must be clear and reviewed constantly, because we live in difficult times. The minister rightly says that we are acting as four nations working together across parties. The public expects clarity. It expects to understand why there is a three-week lockdown. We need emergency powers, and new powers, to ensure that we can function in these difficult times.

Despite all the pressures and burdens on ministers and officials, we need regular updates and reports on a number of things, including some of the legislation that has been talked about—mental health orders, for example. Transparency in planning and in contingency decisions are paramount to retaining public trust. The third sector has put out a particular plea, as it is very concerned about resources, and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland has put out an important briefing. Let us not forget the important work that our third sector does.

The bill contains powers to close schools, to apply quarantine to school boarding accommodation, and to prohibit access to educational establishments for public health protection. It confers powers on constables and immigration officers, who can be enlisted to remove potentially infected persons to a suitable place for screening. There can be a period of detention for up to 24 hours, and the person must be informed of the reason for their detention. That can apply to a child, in which case the requirement rests on a responsible adult. A person commits an offence if they fail without reasonable excuse to comply with any of the directions or reasonable instructions, and they can be forced to do so.

Scottish ministers may give directions relating to events, gatherings and premises, as we have heard, but it is important to get across to the public that those powers can only be used in this public health crisis. Ruth Davidson made a really important point: we must reassure the public that it is a temporary measure until we are over this, and that, at the end of it, normal society will continue.

Clause 34 of the bill as introduced modifies section 40 of the National Health Service (Scotland) Act 1978, replacing the requirement for vaccinations and immunisations to be administered by medical practitioners or persons under their direction with a reference to the Scottish ministers. The purpose of that provision is to broaden the arrangements that Scottish ministers can make, if necessary, to decide who can immunise and vaccinate people.

As Bruce Crawford says, the bill treads a fine line between protecting lives and normal freedoms and human rights. We hope and believe that that will be temporary, and that normal life will resume if we all work together, believe together, stay at home, and support our medical services in doing amazing work during the crisis.