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Covid-19 (Guidance)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

1. To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the change of guidance being issued to the public in England. (S5T-02172)

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government had no prior sight of the details in the Prime Minister’s statement, the document that was published yesterday, the proposed levels system or the change in message. Over the course of the past week, following requests by the devolved Administrations, discussions were held with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, in which respective views were shared on changes in regulation and guidance that might take place in each nation, but at no point was the detail of the proposed levels system or the change in message shared with the Scottish Government.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

We know that the R number is still uncomfortably close to 1 in Scotland at the moment. Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that the UK Government’s failure to make it absolutely clear that its announced changes to guidance applied only to England was irresponsible and could result in the virus taking off again here, if people do not adhere to Scottish Government guidance?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

It is really important that people understand that the changes that the Prime Minister announced on Sunday apply only to England—not to Scotland. I have seen a number of broadcasters make that point expressly clear in their communication of the Prime Minister’s message. Our counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland have taken a similar position to that of the Scottish Government and have all maintained the same headline message of “Stay at home”, which sums up the strategy of the Scottish Government.

It is important that members of the public in Scotland are clear that the guidance and the approach that the Scottish Government sets out are what applies here and to anybody in Scotland, whether they live here or choose to come to Scotland on any particular occasion.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

Can the cabinet secretary give an indication of the preparations that the Scottish Government is making in advance of the gradual easing of restriction when our infection rate becomes low enough for it to be safe to do so?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Government is working across all policy areas on the issues that are relevant to Rona Mackay’s question. Work is on-going throughout the areas that are reflected in the framework for decision making, which we will debate this afternoon.

Some issues are relevant to the non-Covid-19 health harms that exist in our society today and to the social and economic harms that are arising out of Covid-19. How the Government collectively sets out a path will reflect the consideration that we give to all issues that are raised in those areas of policy.

My colleagues in the Cabinet, as well as the ministerial team, are engaging with all our different sectors—the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture with the business community, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport with the health community and the relevant trade unions, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity with our transport providers, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice with the justice community, and I with the education community—to ensure that we understand all the issues that we will have to carefully consider as we ease the constraints under which we are operating. I stress that that easing can come only when we are in a safer position to do it.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

The cabinet secretary says that the guidance applies only in England. That will have a massive impact on my constituents in South Scotland, many thousands of whom work in Cumbria and Northumberland. What will the impacts be, particularly for those who have children?

Is the cabinet secretary considering a review of the current criteria for key workers, so that those who work in the south of Scotland but are now told to get back to work in Cumbria can be added to that list in order to access childcare? If the position of the Scottish Government is still that that matter should be left to local authorities, will consideration be given to the provision of additional resources to those authorities in the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, to ensure that they can cater for an increase in demand for childcare?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On the resourcing point, as I am sure Mr Smyth is aware, there is greater capacity in the provision of early learning and childcare and educational support for children and young people across the country than has been utilised by those who have come forward to access that support, so there is surplus capacity.

Mr Smyth’s question raises some of the sensitivities there are inevitable in the decisions that have been taken by the UK Government as those decisions apply to England. A consequence of those decisions is that members of the public who are employed in England may be put in the rather invidious position of being more obliged to go back to work than they feel is appropriate at this time. In those circumstances, individuals should discuss the situation with their employers. Education and childcare support for the children of key workers is available in the Borders and in Dumfries and Galloway. However, I maintain my fundamental point, which is that people in Scotland should take the Scottish Government’s guidance as their reference point.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

A s I understand it, the Government does not know what the R number is in Scotland, because not enough testing is being done throughout Scotland. We have an increased capacity, but we are not using it—Mr Swinney should correct me if I am wrong. When will we be using the capacity to the full and then increasing it so that we can find out what the R number is?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The R number—whether in Scotland or England—is considered within a range of numbers. It is currently estimated in Scotland to be in the range of 0.7 and 1.0. There is testing capacity available in Scotland—there has been more than a tenfold increase in capacity since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak. The health service and those delivering the tests are working extremely hard to maximise the number of people coming forward for testing. It is an essential part of our strategy and we encourage and motivate individuals who fit the criteria to come forward for testing to enable us to use that capacity to the full. That is one of the Government’s objectives.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

I am grateful for the clarity from the Deputy First Minister today, because the statement from the UK Prime Minister and Government is creating confusion—it is important that we have clarity in Scotland.

This week, the Todd & Duncan mill at Loch Leven reopened, causing concern for many of the workers there. Is the Government having talks with the trade unions on developing a process that will reopen workplaces safely, over a period of time? More importantly, how do we police that to ensure that safety measures and social distancing are in place, particularly in non-unionised workplaces that are less likely to have health and safety reps present?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Rowley raises a significant issue and it is timely that the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture has just arrived, because she is involved in detailed discussions with employers and trade unions on exactly that question. The objective of the economy secretary is to put in place guidance and a framework so that, when it is reasonable and permissible within the assessment of the public health issues for employees to return to work, they can do so with the assurance that they are returning to a safe working environment in which social distancing is a characteristic of the workplace design. Such workplace design will be very different from the design of workplaces that existed before Covid-19—or it certainly should be—to enable social distancing to be undertaken.

On the question of policing that, the issue must be tackled workplace by workplace and business by business, which shows the importance of companies exercising responsibility consistent with the guidance that the economy secretary is developing with the trade unions to ensure that businesses are operating a safe working environment. I assure Mr Rowley that that is a significant priority for the Government and the economy secretary and one that is being actively pursued in dialogue with businesses and trade unions.