Covid-19 (Next Steps)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9th July 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Good afternoon, colleagues. Before we begin, I remind members, as always, to observe the social distancing rules that are in place throughout the building, particularly when entering or leaving the chamber.

Our first item is a statement by the First Minister. The First Minister will take questions following her statement. Members may press their buttons to request a question whenever they wish.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government is required by law to review lockdown restrictions at least every three weeks. The latest review falls due today, so I will set out our decisions and the next steps in our careful and cautious exit from lockdown. However, I will first give an update on today’s Covid-19 statistics and a report on our progress in tackling the virus.

Since yesterday, an additional six cases of Covid have been confirmed, which takes the total number of cases to 18,315. A total of 646 patients are currently in hospital with suspected or confirmed Covid, which is an overall decrease of 121 since yesterday. That includes a decrease of 16 in the number of confirmed cases. As of last night, nine people were in intensive care with confirmed or suspected Covid, which is a decrease of two on the number that was reported yesterday.

I am pleased to report that, in the past 24 hours, no deaths have been registered of patients who had been confirmed as having the virus. The total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement therefore remains 2,490. However, we must never lose sight of the fact that every death is a tragedy, and I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one to this illness. I also know that statistical trends do not console those who are grieving.

However, the statistical trends are clear. In Scotland, Covid has now been suppressed to a low level. Indeed, even in the three weeks since I last updated Parliament, there has been significant progress. At that time, we were reporting approximately 20 new cases of Covid a day. The daily average now is around seven cases a day. Three weeks ago, there were more than 540 people in hospital with confirmed Covid, and the figure today is 342. Further, there are now just three patients with confirmed Covid in our intensive care units.

The number of people dying has also fallen week on week, as is shown in our daily statistics and in the weekly reports from National Records of Scotland. In addition, our latest modelling suggests that the R number remains below 1. It has been between 0.6 and 0.8 for most of the past month.

The number of people in Scotland with the virus also continues to fall. Three weeks ago, we estimated that around 2,900 people were infectious. Our estimate for last week was that around 1,000 people in Scotland were infectious. That confirms, as I explained yesterday when setting out our decision on air bridges, that the prevalence of the virus is now several times lower in Scotland than it is in the United Kingdom as a whole.

In determining whether we can move from phase 2 to phase 3 of our exit from lockdown, we have assessed our progress in tackling Covid against the six criteria for this stage that are set out by the World Health Organization, and we have concluded that we meet each of them.

However, I must advise Parliament that the fifth of those criteria, which relates to managing the risk of importing cases from outside Scotland, gave us some pause for thought. The balanced decision on air bridges that we announced yesterday was essential for us to conclude that we are managing that risk in an effective and proportionate manner at this stage. It is essential that we keep the risk under close review. To be clear, that must cover the possibility of importation from other parts of the UK, as well as from overseas.

Taking all the various factors into account, I confirm that it is the judgment of the Government that we can now move from phase 2 to phase 3 of the route map.

I also confirm that, in a limited number of sectors, we will allow an exception to be made to the requirement for 2m physical distancing. However, that will be subject to strict conditions that are tailored to the circumstances of each sector. Let me stress the term “exception”, because the general rule remains 2m.

For public transport and the retail sector, that exception will be permissible from tomorrow. However, it is essential that the required mitigations are in place and that appropriate discussions have taken place with trade unions before it becomes operational in any particular setting. Given some of what I will cover later, it is worth being clear at this point that the retail sector includes personal services such as hairdressing.

I also remind everyone that face coverings, which are already mandatory on public transport, will from tomorrow be mandatory in shops as well. There will be some exemptions: for young children under the age of five, for people with certain health conditions, and for staff in some circumstances. For the vast majority of us, however, it will be the law that we wear face coverings in shops. For the foreseeable future, wearing a face covering on a bus or a train or in a shop should become as automatic as putting on a seat belt in a car.

Although it should not need to be enforced, the police can issue fines for anyone who does not comply. However, I ask everyone to comply not from fear of enforcement but because it is the right thing to do—it helps us protect each other from the virus. That leads me to a general point that is important to stress before I outline the further restrictions that we intend to lift. The virus has not gone away. It is still out there, and it is just as infectious and just as dangerous as it ever was. Lockdown has suppressed it but, as lockdown eases, there is a very real risk that it will start to spread again. That is not conjecture; it is already happening in many parts of the world.

With every restriction that we lift, the risk increases, especially as we start to permit more indoor activity. All of us must therefore do everything that we can to mitigate it. Wearing face coverings is part of that, but so, too, are the other measures that are summarised in our FACTS campaign: face coverings; avoiding crowded spaces; cleaning hands and surfaces; 2m distancing; and self-isolation and booking a test if you have symptoms. I simply cannot stress enough that, as we move out of lockdown, those basic measures become much more important, not less—please, follow them to the letter.

Let me now confirm the key steps in phase 3 for which we are now able to set specific dates. You will find more detail on the Scottish Government website later today. As will be obvious from what I am about to say, we intend to take the same staggered approach to phase 3 that we did to phase 2. Not all changes will happen immediately or at the same time, which means that we do not bear all of the risk at once. However, the first changes, relating to the ability of different households to meet up together, will take effect from tomorrow.

Yesterday, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced important changes for people who are shielding. For example, from tomorrow, you will no longer be asked to physically distance from people you live with, and you will be able to form an extended household if you live on your own or with children under the age of 18. Today’s route map includes a link to the additional changes that we hope to make to the shielding advice up to the end of July.

The other changes that I am about to announce unfortunately do not apply to people who are shielding but do apply to everyone else. Before I set out what those are, let me make a general point. Last week, we said that children under the age 12 no longer had to physically distance when outdoors; from tomorrow, that will also apply indoors. However, for adults and, for the time being, older children, the advice to keep a 2m physical distance from people in other households will remain.

However, from tomorrow, the general rules on household gatherings will be as follows. A maximum of 15 people from up to five different households may meet together outdoors. The advice is to remain 2m distant from people in households other than your own. From tomorrow, limited indoor gatherings will also be permitted. A maximum of eight people from up to three different households may meet indoors. To be clear, that is the household whose house the gathering is in and people from up to two additional households. As long as physical distancing between different households is maintained, that can include overnight stays.

I must stress, however, that that is one of the highest risk changes—if not the highest risk change—that we have made so far. We know that the risk of transmitting the virus indoors is significantly higher than it is outdoors. It is therefore essential that we all take the utmost care and strictly follow all the public health advice. That means keeping 2m distant from people in other households, being very careful to clean surfaces after you touch them, and washing your hands regularly, especially when you first enter someone’s house. At all times, try to avoid creating bridges that allow the virus to spread from one household to another. We are also advising that, between indoor and outdoor activity, adults do not meet with people from any more than four different household in any single day.

Finally, from tomorrow, we will change the guidance so that, regardless of their living arrangements, people who are part of a non-cohabiting couple no longer need to stay physically distant from each other, indoors or outdoors.

The next set of changes will take effect from next Monday 13 July. From Monday, organised outdoor contact sports and physical activity can resume for children and young people, subject to guidance being followed. So, too, can other forms of organised outdoor play.

Non-essential shops inside shopping centres can reopen, provided, of course, that they follow all relevant health and safety guidance. That will mean that, from Monday, the vast majority of retail will be open.

There will also, from Monday, be a further resumption of important public services. Community optometry practices will further increase their services, especially for emergency and essential eye care. Dental practices will be able to see registered patients for non-aerosol procedures. Let me explain that a bit more: aerosol procedures are those that create a fine mist, for example through use of a high-speed drill; we cannot yet allow those. Unfortunately, that means that many forms of dental care will still not be possible. However, procedures such as check-ups and the fitting of dentures and dental braces can resume.

From Monday, a woman can have a designated person accompany them to ante and postnatal appointments and can designate, in addition to their birth partner, one other person to attend the birth and make ante and postnatal ward visits.

Further important changes will then come into force from Wednesday next week, that is, 15 July. From that date, indoor restaurants, cafes and pubs will be able to reopen. However, just as with indoor household meetings, opening up indoor hospitality poses significantly increased risks of transmission, so it is essential that the guidance on health and safety is followed rigorously by businesses, staff and customers. That includes guidance on physical distancing and taking customer contact details, for use, if necessary, by test and protect.

Like public transport and retail, outdoor and indoor hospitality venues will be granted an exemption from the 2m rule from 15 July. However, that is dependent on the implementation of all relevant mitigating measures and appropriate discussions taking place with trade unions. Mitigating measures in this sector include clear information for customers that they are entering a 1m zone, revised seating plans and improved ventilation.

The tourism sector can also reopen from 15 July. That means that all holiday accommodation, including hotels, can reopen, as long as the appropriate guidance is followed.

Museums, galleries, other visitor attractions, libraries and cinemas, including drive-ins and other venues screening films, can also reopen on 15 July, although physical distancing and other safety measures will be required and for many if not most of those facilities, tickets must be secured in advance.

The childcare sector can also fully reopen from next Wednesday—I know that that is important to families across Scotland.

I can also confirm that, from 15 July, hairdressers can reopen, subject to enhanced hygiene measures being in place. The finalised guidance for hairdressers will be published this week.

Finally, I am pleased that we are able to bring forward two changes that we were previously keeping under review for later in phase 3 but now judge can be undertaken safely next week, provided that necessary mitigations are in place.

After careful consideration, we have decided that, from 15 July, places of worship can reopen for communal prayer, congregational services and contemplation. However, numbers will be strictly limited, 2m physical distancing will be required, and there will be a requirement to collect the contact details and time of attendance of those who enter a place of worship. Unfortunately, given what we know of transmission risks, singing and chanting will be restricted.

Detailed guidance is being finalised in consultation with our faith communities, but I hope that today’s announcement will be welcomed by all those for whom faith and worship is important and a source of comfort.

In addition, and linked to that change, we will ease restrictions on attendance at services and ceremonies for funerals, weddings and civil partnerships. However, numbers will be even more limited than for worship generally and physical distancing will be required. I stress that that change applies only to services. Associated gatherings, such as wakes or receptions, must continue to follow the limits on household gatherings and hospitality.

I am acutely aware that the restrictions that we have had to place on attendance at funerals in these past few months have been particularly hard to bear and I am very grateful to everyone who has complied, in what I know will have been heartbreaking circumstances. Although the changes that come into effect next week will not allow full-scale gatherings, I hope that they will allow more people to find solace at a time of grief, as well as allowing more people to celebrate happier occasions, such as weddings and civil partnerships.

The next set of changes will take effect from 22 July. At that time, personal retail services that have not yet been able to reopen—for example, beauticians and nail salons—will be able to reopen with enhanced hygiene measures in place.

Universities and colleges can implement a phased return to on-campus learning as part of a blended model with remote teaching. Motorcycle instruction and theory and hazard tests can also resume from that date. However, driving lessons and tests in cars will, unfortunately, have to wait a bit longer.

Unfortunately, there are other activities that are included in phase 3 of the route map that we are not yet able to attach a firm and specific date to. However, although we will keep these under review and, as we have done with communal worship, will bring dates forward wherever possible, it should be assumed at this stage that those further activities will not restart before 31 July. Those activities include the reopening of non-essential offices and call centres, the resumption of outdoor live events and the reopening of indoor entertainment venues such as theatres, music venues and bingo halls. They also include the opening of indoor gyms and the resumption of non-professional adult outdoor contact sports.

We will continue to work closely with relevant sectors on the reopening of all those activities as soon as possible. For example, we will work with the outdoor events sector to review the range of events that could take place, as we recognise that a one-size-fits-all approach might not be appropriate. However, I hope that it will be appreciated—as difficult as it is—that a number of those activities present particular challenges. Although I know that it is difficult, it will take a bit more time to work through how those can be safely addressed.

I also want to indicate that our current expectation is that phase 3 may well last longer than three weeks. Given the scale of the changes that we are making in phase 3, it might be wise not to rush them or go into phase 4 too quickly. However, we will keep that under close review.

Let me reiterate that it is our ambition and intention that schools will return full time in August. That is dependent on the virus continuing to be suppressed to very low levels, and it is therefore one of the reasons that we are being so careful and cautious in everything else that we do right now.

There is no doubt that today’s statement marks the most significant milestone yet in Scotland’s emergence from lockdown, and I hope that the measures that we have announced or confirmed today are welcome. All of them depend on us keeping the virus under control. Eliminating it as far as we possibly can now, ahead of what I am afraid to say are the almost inevitable challenges that we will face come winter, remains our objective. We will not hesitate to reimpose restrictions if we consider it necessary to halt the spread of the virus and save lives. I will make a further statement to the Parliament on 30 July, and will deliver regular updates through the regular media briefings between now and then.

I end by stressing the point that I made at the outset, which is, perhaps, the most important one of all. This is undoubtedly a time for cautious hope and optimism. There is no doubt that Scotland, through our collective efforts, has made great progress in tackling Covid. We should all savour our first indoor meetings and meals with friends, our first pint in a pub or catch-up over coffee. I know that many of us are looking forward to our first non-amateur haircut in many months. There will be other milestones and reunions that we will enjoy during the next few weeks. They have all been hard earned by each and every one of us. However, I have a duty to be crystal clear with the country that this is also a time of real danger. Next week represents the most substantial easing of lockdown so far, and we know that meeting people indoors poses far greater risks than going to a park or to someone’s garden.

We see signs of resurgence in many countries across the world and we must all be aware of that in everything that we do. We must remember that Covid, although at very low levels in Scotland, is still out there. Everything that we learn about this still new virus—its infectiousness, ability to kill and potential to do long-term damage to health—should warn us that we mess with it at our peril. Therefore, perhaps more than ever, now is a time for great caution. Remember that life should still not feel entirely normal and that at all times, especially when we are meeting indoors with people in other households, we must constantly be alert to the steps that we need to take to deny the virus the chance to spread.

That is why the most important things that everyone must remember and abide by are the FACTS. They are as follows.

Face coverings should be worn in enclosed spaces such as on public transport, in shops and anywhere else that physical distancing is more difficult.

Avoid, literally like the plague, crowded places indoors or outdoors.

Clean your hands regularly and thoroughly and clean hard surfaces after touching them.

Two-metre distancing remains the clear and important advice.

Self-isolate and book a test immediately if you have symptoms of Covid.

The symptoms to be aware of are a new cough, a fever, or a loss of or change in the senses of taste or smell. People can book a test at nhsinform.scot or by phoning 0800 028 2816. I ask them, please, to act immediately and to err on the side of caution. If they have any reason at all to worry that they might have Covid symptoms, they should get tested straight away.

It is only because of our collective action—our love for and solidarity with each other—that we have made so much progress. Now is not the time to drop our guard. Let us all keep doing the right things to keep ourselves safe, protect others and save lives.

The Presiding Officer:

There is already quite a lot of interest from members who wish to ask questions. I encourage all those who wish to do so to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

I thank the First Minister for early sight of her statement. As we exit lockdown, I reiterate her call for all of us to follow the rules, which, so far, the vast majority of people across Scotland have done commendably. In particular, I welcome the fact that places of worship will soon be reopened, which is a sign that our communities are coming back to life.

Today’s statement confirms that businesses and employees across many sectors can now plan to return to work. I therefore ask the First Minister about her decision to put on hold her commitment to expanding free childcare. Many returning employees are parents who have waited nearly five years for that policy to be enacted, as was promised, so its postponement will come as a deep disappointment to them. It comes at a time when we need to do all that we can to make it as easy as possible for parents to get back into the workplace, as we all seek to get Scotland back on its feet.

The First Minister has said that she will review the position in December, but that is still five months away. Could that review take place sooner, to give parents who are returning to work hope that the promised policy may yet be delivered before the end of the coming school year?

The First Minister:

Our commitment to double the provision of state-funded childcare—one that has not been made by a Government anywhere else in the United Kingdom—is not on hold. Inevitably, its timescale has had to be re-evaluated because of the impact of Covid. We have seen an interruption to construction work, and local authorities, which lead on implementing and delivering the childcare policy, have been obliged to divert resources to tackling and dealing with the pressures created by the virus. We are simply being frank with people about the inevitable and unavoidable consequences of that.

As I said yesterday, we will of course keep the position under review and will look for all opportunities to accelerate progress. I want to see our commitment—which we might say is the Government’s flagship commitment—delivered as quickly as possible. I know the benefits that it will deliver to young people as they go through their school education and the rest of their lives. However, I also know the financial benefit that it will deliver to families at a time when that will be both necessary and welcome.

As I have done throughout the crisis, I have tried to be straight about the challenges that we face and to set out the reasons why some things that we would like to happen either cannot happen or cannot do so in a particular timescale. I will continue to keep the public updated in the same open and frank way. We will continue to be committed to delivering that policy. When we deliver it, I hope that Jackson Carlaw will be one of the first to welcome it.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

I hope that that answer means that there is potential for the review date to be brought forward, even if by only a couple of months

I turn to the detail of the chancellor’s summer statement, which he delivered yesterday. Scotland will benefit hugely from many of his actions, such as the job retention bonus, the VAT cut for the hospitality sector and the eat out to help out scheme. However, his decision to cancel stamp duty on the sale of homes valued at up to £500,000 will not benefit Scots, because it relates to a devolved matter. His plans are a welcome step not only for home buyers but for all the employed people whom we want to see getting back to work. I refer to self-employed tradespeople, such as joiners, plasterers and electricians, who will be hoping that as they come out of lockdown there will be work for them to do. They often rely upon there being an active housing market for such work. Will the Scottish Government match the chancellor’s action?

The First Minister:

This afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will set out, in her own statement in the chamber, the Scottish Government’s response to yesterday’s statement from the chancellor, so I will leave it to her to do that.

As we did yesterday and as I have done throughout the crisis, we welcome the interventions that have been made, as far as they go—they are all important and welcome. Where there are consequentials from those announcements, we will continue to deliver their benefits here in Scotland, as we have done throughout.

We will take account of the different structure of the housing market in Scotland as we make decisions on stamp duty—the land and buildings transactions tax, as it is in Scotland. I read some comment from the Institute for Fiscal Studies this morning about the need to be careful around the impact of such decisions on first-time buyers in particular, and we will be particularly mindful of that. The finance secretary will address all those issues later.

Every penny of consequentials is welcome, but the additional cash to be delivered to the Scottish Government, particularly in relation to the employment aspects of the chancellor’s announcements yesterday, amounts to around £21 million, as the Fraser of Allander institute has confirmed. We will make sure that every penny of that benefits people in Scotland, but we want to consider what more we can do over and above that.

Over the course of this month, we will formulate a response to the economic recovery advisory group’s report. One of the central recommendations in the report was for a job guarantee for younger people. Yesterday’s announcement goes part of the way towards that, but of course we want to consider whether we can go further in Scotland and deliver something of scale and ambition that can avoid a legacy from Covid of increasing and substantial youth unemployment.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

Yesterday, the First Minister decided to keep Spain off the list of quarantine-exempt countries. As the First Minister knows, the Scottish Tourism Alliance has described the decision as

“a blow to the aviation sector and our tourism industry”.

The First Minister will know, because she expressed it yesterday, the disappointment felt by some 60 per cent of holidaymakers who would have had plans to visit Spain this summer. The decision extends to all Spanish destinations, including Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, Tenerife and La Gomera in the Canary Islands, and Majorca, Minorca and Ibiza in the Balearic Islands. All have a very low incidence of Covid—in some cases, significantly lower than Scotland has. Will she examine whether those popular destinations could be added to her list of quarantine-exempt countries now? Such a measure would be welcomed by many Scots, who understand the need to balance the actions that she took arising from the incidence of Covid in mainland Spain with the risk here just as much as we do.

The First Minister:

I was starting to wonder whether Jackson Carlaw was outlining his own summer holiday plans.

I am particularly interested in what appeared to be a proposition from Jackson Carlaw that, when there are different prevalence rates within a country, different arrangements around travel should apply. Perhaps Jackson Carlaw may want to reflect on that in relation to different circumstances in future, recognising that, right now, the prevalence rate of the virus in Scotland is several times lower—five times lower, based on the most recent data that we have—than it is the rest of the UK.

I will be very straight, as I was yesterday, on the decision about Spain. I understand how difficult that is for our aviation and tourism sectors, and indeed for those who might want to go overseas over the summer—although my advice to people in Scotland who want to go on holiday is to support the Scottish tourism industry by staying in Scotland to have a holiday, if they are able to. We do not yet have sufficient data broken down to subdivide Spain into different areas. I said yesterday that we want to work to develop that picture, so that we might be able to take a more targeted decision in the near future.

Yesterday, I had data that showed that the prevalence rate of the virus in Spain right now is more than 10 times higher than it is in Scotland. Jackson Carlaw may want to argue that that should be ignored and that we should cast that aside, but I point to what I said in my opening remarks: as we go from one phase of the route map into another, we assess ourselves against the WHO’s six criteria. This week, the one that was most difficult for us to give that assessment on was that of guarding against the risk of importing infection from other countries. The decision yesterday was vital in giving us assurance to enable the move into phase 3 at this stage, but we will continue to assess that and seek as granular a picture of the situation in different countries as we can get. That is not just about prevalence because, as I am sure that Jackson Carlaw is aware, there are two factors at play here: prevalence and any particular circumstances around outbreaks or approaches in controlling the infection. Work is on-going among the four chief medical officers across the UK right now to allow us to make more targeted assessments on that basis.

Photo of Jackson Carlaw Jackson Carlaw Conservative

That was a bit disappointing, because the prevalence in some of the Spanish islands is significantly less than it is here in Scotland. The difference, of course, between Spain and the islands is that there is 1,000 miles of water in that case, which there is not between Scotland and England, however much the Scottish National Party might wish it were otherwise.

What people will have noticed yesterday was the gap between the negative response from some SNP politicians to the chancellor’s statement—particularly at Westminster—and the positive response from Scotland.

For example, the SNP described the kick-start employment programme as

“a kick in the teeth”, while Liz Cameron at Scottish Chambers of Commerce called it

“a practical step in the recovery”.

The SNP said that the hospitality and tourism VAT measure was “not enough”, while the Scottish Tourism Alliance called it

“a huge catalyst for the tourism economy and ... a huge relief”.

Further, on oil and gas, the SNP claimed that the chancellor’s statement was “a hammer blow” and “shameful”, but Oil and Gas UK said that the announcement provides

“welcome support for companies in the ... offshore oil and gas industry.”

What Scotland is looking for is prompt, radical and ambitious action from this Government to support our tourism industry, to keep young people in jobs and to rebuild our country. Therefore, when the Cabinet Secretary for Finance sets out her plans later, rather than complaining again about what she cannot do, will she set out what she can do and must do for Scotland?

The First Minister:

The most important thing that this Government needs to do for our tourism sector, for our economy, for society in general and, frankly, for every individual in the country is to provide the most sustainable basis for the recovery from the Covid crisis.

I know that Jackson Carlaw will never accept that anything that this Government does is any good at all, but anybody who takes a step back from what is going on will see that, right now, Scotland is being successful in tackling and suppressing this virus—perhaps more than is the case elsewhere in the UK—and that we need to continue with the approach that has achieved that, so that we can build that sustainable basis for recovery. [

Interruption

.]

I think that I just heard Jackson Carlaw say from a sedentary position that I should have listened to what he said earlier. Perhaps he should have listened to what I said, which was that I welcomed the chancellor’s announcements yesterday, as far as they go. However, I reserve the right to point out, as my colleagues have, that if we compare the totality and the scale of the fiscal stimulus in terms of its proportion of gross domestic product with what is happening elsewhere, we can see that it falls short of what many other countries are doing. All of us have a duty to point that out. We want to ensure that there continues to be a response to the economic crisis from the chancellor—because he holds the borrowing powers and the vast bulk of the other financial levers right now—that is commensurate with the scale of the challenge that we face.

Here in Scotland, as we have done from day 1, we will apply whatever consequentials that there are in a way that supports Scotland, the economy and other parts of the country, and we will look to see what more we can do to add to that response. That is very much the spirit in which the finance secretary will set out her statement this afternoon.

Whether in relation to the health crisis or the economic challenge and the many other aspects that flow from it, this Government is absolutely focused on getting the country through this as safely as possible, and I believe that the vast majority of people across Scotland support us in that endeavour. In fact, we would not be making the progress that we are making now without not just the support but the co-operation of everyone across Scotland, for which they all have my grateful thanks.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement, and I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests.

In June, the Scottish Government announced that it was establishing a Rolls-Royce working group to protect jobs under threat at Inchinnan in Renfrewshire. Further, on 3 June, the First Minister told Parliament that she would

“work very closely with trade unions” and spoke of

“a team Scotland approach”.—[

Official Report

, 3 June; c 19.]

I am sure that the First Minister believed what she said at the time, but she was wrong. The Scottish Government’s Rolls-Royce working group does not include one Rolls-Royce trade union representative. If it was a team, it was a team that did not include the players.

This is not just about the future of a site; it is about the future of jobs, at a time when Scotland is on the precipice of a major unemployment crisis. It is about the future of work in Scotland and the future of workers in Scotland.

Rolls-Royce workers are lobbying Parliament today. Just a few minutes ago, I spoke to Tam Mitchell, who is Unite the union’s convener. He has worked for Rolls-Royce for nearly 35 years. He asked me to directly ask the First Minister this question:

“We face the loss of 550 jobs and a business closure in a matter of weeks. Can you NOW share with the workforce what has been done to secure their jobs?”

The First Minister:

First of all, if there is a concern about the membership of the task force, I will take that away and we will look to address it. The Scottish Government has no interest in not having everyone involved in a collective effort to do everything that we can to secure jobs and, if it is at all possible, to secure Rolls-Royce’s presence in Scotland.

On what has been done, I spoke to the chief executive of Rolls-Royce a few weeks ago. We have established a working group with the company, which is looking at a number of matters. First, it is considering what the Scottish Government can do in the short term to try to protect jobs. Globally, Rolls-Royce faces huge challenges, given the fall in demand for its products, and I cannot stand here and pretend otherwise. We cannot magic that away, unfortunately, but we have committed to look at what can be done in the short term.

Importantly, the working group is looking at the medium to long term and whether the Rolls-Royce presence in Scotland can be repurposed into, for example, electric provision and technology in future and at what we may be able to do together to provide a bridge between the short term and the medium to longer term. That work is on-going, and, of course, the task force will have a role to play in feeding into that.

We should not see this as the point of tension between us, particularly not between Richard Leonard and me. We are, I hope, absolutely on the same side on the issue.

As we have done in the past with other major parts of our industry that have been under threat, the Scottish Government will leave no stone unturned and will do everything that we can to protect jobs and to retain as many as we feasibly can. However, neither Richard Leonard nor I do anyone any favours if we underplay the particular challenges in the aviation sector right now.

I hope that we are able to work together. As I said at the outset, if there are genuine concerns that we have not got some things right along the way, particularly when it comes to the membership of the task force, I am happy to address that quickly.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

Tam Mitchell also said to me that he had been told officially by the company that maintenance, repair and overhaul—MRO—is not even on the agenda of the working group’s meetings, because the First Minister’s office was told by Warren East, the chief executive officer of Rolls-Royce, that “those jobs are gone”. A Scottish Government and Rolls-Royce working group to protect jobs at Rolls-Royce should not have written off 700 Rolls-Royce jobs.

Today, Parliament is also being lobbied about jobs by aviation workers from Scotland’s airports, organised by the GMB trade union. Some of them are employed by Menzies Aviation. That company continues to claim 100 per cent rates relief from the Scottish Government while attempting to fire and rehire its workers with their terms and conditions slashed by almost half.

Pamela Ritchie, who is demonstrating outside, has worked at Glasgow airport for 15 years. She works for Swissport. Some 800 out of 1,000 Swissport jobs in Scotland are at risk. She told me:

“Everyone understands how difficult the situation is for air travel, but to be losing so many airport jobs without any action from the Scottish Government to help us just feels like we are the collateral damage in the coronavirus crisis.”

We cannot continue to see more workers feel like they are “collateral damage” during the pandemic. Will the First Minister work with the aviation trade unions and not just the airport owners and operators? Will she make 100 per cent business rates relief conditional on good employment practices? Will she listen to and meet those workers before more jobs are lost?

The First Minister:

I do not know where Richard Leonard has been this week, but I am not sure that I am the most popular person in Scotland with the airport owners either. That is the nature of the difficult decisions that we have to take.

Before coming on to aviation, I want to round off on the subject of Rolls-Royce. What Richard Leonard quoted at me from Warren East, the chief executive, to whom I spoke a few weeks ago, relates to the fact that the demand for MRO services has plummeted. That is part of the challenge.

We want to work to ensure that, if there are things that can be done to protect jobs in the short term, we do them. There is an even more important responsibility to work with the company to repurpose the facility for the longer term, so that we can secure that presence, not just in the short term but for some time to come. We will continue to examine every option there. However, I am not going to stand here and pretend to anybody that the challenges are easy to overcome, given the global circumstances that are contributing to them.

A similar point has to be made with aviation. For reasons on which we have just been reflecting, there has been a collapse in demand for international air travel. I hope to see that recover as we come out of the Covid crisis, although we also have climate change responsibilities that we need to meet. The recovery element is the most important. We will work with all companies to do everything that we can to protect jobs, but we cannot just snap our fingers and take away the global reasons why these challenges exist. I will listen to any practical suggestions that anybody wants to make about the things that the Scottish Government can and should be doing.

On the issue of business rates relief, there are always difficult decisions to make. We want to support as many companies through this time as we can. We have been very clear about this. Indeed, Fiona Hyslop and the Scottish Trades Union Congress agreed fair work principles at the start of this period. We are absolutely clear that any company that is in receipt of public funding—not just through this crisis but generally—should have fair work practices embedded in what they do. We will continue to send that message loudly and clearly to all companies, both during and after the crisis.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

Let me turn to another aspect of jobs, referring to yesterday’s statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who announced the UK Government’s new kick-start jobs scheme. Does the First Minister share my concerns that it will deliver low-paid, part-time employment for just six months, using a scheme that cuts off everyone over the age of 24, when what we need is jobs for good and a quality jobs guarantee?

Last week, the First Minister announced that Sandy Begbie would draw up an implementation plan for the jobs guarantee scheme recommended by the Scottish Government’s advisory group on economic recovery. Can the First Minister assure us right now that the jobs and training that are delivered by that scheme will last longer than six months, that those on it will be paid the living wage or the union-negotiated rate for the job, and that they will be offered full-time employment or training? With unemployment in Scotland now above the UK average, will the First Minister roll out such a quality jobs guarantee scheme as a matter of great urgency?

The First Minister:

The principles that Richard Leonard outlines are principles that we seek to apply across all our interventions on skills and youth employment—not just a potential jobs guarantee but our interventions through colleges and universities. That is important to us; it always has been, and it always will be.

I share some of the concerns that Richard Leonard has expressed about the chancellor’s announcement yesterday. Hopefully, the announcement can play a part in a more comprehensive jobs guarantee scheme, which is why we are now doing work to respond. On the point of urgency, we will respond to Benny Higgins’s report, which includes a recommendation of a jobs guarantee, before the end of this month, but when it comes to the implementation work, we want the jobs guarantee to be more comprehensive than what was outlined yesterday.

There is one point that I am not sure about—I have perhaps misunderstood what Richard Leonard said. Of course, we do not want unemployment to rise for any section of the population but, on the point about age that Richard Leonard made, it is important to have a particular focus on younger people, because the challenge of youth unemployment is likely to be even greater than unemployment generally. As I am sure is the case for Richard Leonard, I remember only too well from the time of my youth the scarring effect of youth unemployment, and we must do everything that we can to avoid that, so I am not sure that I agree with his criticism regarding the age of 24.

Again, while scrutiny and parliamentary debate have an important role to play, I hope that there will be lots more that unites me and Richard Leonard and his colleagues on such issues than ever divides us. We are on the same side here. We might have slightly different views sometimes on how we go about it, but we all want to ensure that the present generation of young people do not pay the long-term price for a crisis that is not of their making.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

I am sure that the Parliament will wish to send its sincerest sympathies to the family and friends of three-year-old Xander Irvine, whose funeral took place in Edinburgh this morning. The huge number of people who turned out on Morningside Road to pay their respects is testament to the love that the community has for Xander and his family. He will never be forgotten.

Yesterday, the Minister for Children and Young People tweeted:

“Children aren’t able yet to attend blended placements unless essential to support critical childcare.”

I warmly welcome the First Minister’s confirmation in her statement that the childcare sector can fully reopen from next Wednesday. Can the First Minister confirm that the reopening means that it will be possible to move from one childcare setting to another? The Scottish Childminding Association, its members and parents urgently need clarity on that.

The First Minister:

First, I associate myself completely with Alison Johnstone’s comments about the tragic death of little Xander Irvine. None of us in the chamber can come close to understanding the heartbreak and devastation that his parents are suffering right now. I saw on social media the pictures of people lining the streets for his funeral this morning, and I think that all of us would struggle to find the words to convey the sense of sympathy that we feel for everybody who loved the little boy. I am sure that the thoughts of everybody in the chamber are with his family today and will be for a long time to come.

Alison Johnstone’s substantive point is important. We absolutely hear and understand the concerns that have been expressed by the Childminding Association.

We are not immediately changing the rule on blended spaces, but it is one that we are reviewing and we are taking scientific advice as we do so. I hope that over the next couple of weeks we will move to change that rule so that children are able to go from one childcare setting to another. However, I hope that Alison Johnstone will understand that, notwithstanding the very real and understandable views that childminders have expressed, we have to do that carefully and on the basis of the best possible evidence.

From memory—I am looking at him to check whether this is correct—in two weeks’ time, the Deputy First Minister will make a statement in the Parliament on education and that will be one of the many matters on which he will update the chamber.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

I appreciate the First Minister’s comments, but the lack of clarity on childminding is threatening the viability of many businesses and their opportunities.

For the past three months, residents of tenements across Scotland have had a welcome respite from commercial short-term lets operating in their stairs. My colleague Andy Wightman wrote to the First Minister yesterday highlighting testimony from residents who share their stairs with short-term lets and who described antisocial behaviour including fighting, spitting in stairwells and threatening messages.

Today’s announcement means that all holiday accommodation will be open next week. Will the First Minister share the scientific advice confirming that it is safe to open up residential buildings where elderly and vulnerable residents are still shielding to unregulated and out-of-control businesses operating in them? Does the First Minister really think that that is safe?

The First Minister:

I hope that Alison Johnstone will accept that the Government and I are taking great care in all the decisions that we are taking. None of them is easy or straightforward. If at any stage there is a view that we have not got some of them quite right, we are always willing to listen and to review that.

Before I come to the substantial question, I will close off the point about clarity. This is not about somehow refusing to give clarity—the advice up until now has been that it is not safe. Alison Johnstone is saying that safety should be the key consideration, and the advice on childcare up until now has been that it is not safe for children to move from one place to another. If we are going to change that advice, we need to make sure that we are doing it on the basis of the best possible evidence. That is why it is taking a little bit longer to do it.

What Alison Johnstone has outlined in terms of Airbnb properties or accommodation that is let out and that shares facilities, such as accommodation in tenements, is not acceptable behaviour during this crisis or at any time. That behaviour must be tackled by the relevant authorities.

Anybody who is using an Airbnb property has to comply with the rules that I have set out today and that are clearly set out in our guidance, just as anybody else does. If concerns are raised about the operation of any of the changes that we announce today, including that there is a risk of a resurgence of the virus, we will act on those concerns. Part of the difficulty for businesses and individuals around the country is that none of what I have said today can be set in stone, as it all depends on our continued assurance that we are driving the virus to the lowest levels possible.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

For weeks, I have been making a positive and constructive case for a joined-up approach on childcare. Thousands of parents have been asked to go back to work without childcare arrangements being in place, so I am relieved that we might finally have something that might work. If physical distancing indoors for under 12s has gone and childcare fully reopens next Wednesday, that might allow parents to get back to work.

However, the advice on childminding needs to keep pace with the education advice, because the risk to the childminding sector is clear. More than 80 per cent of childminders fear for their future, which is serious. I hope that the First Minister will respond to that.

The First Minister knows that I am an advocate for good early learning and childcare and that I support the expansion to 1,140 hours of provision. I understood that many of the nurseries could not be built or refurbished in time for the expansion in August because the construction industry had to shut, but I was surprised to learn that the nursery expansion has been delayed for a year. Why does a three-month lockdown result in a 12-month delay for parents, carers and children around the country?

The First Minister:

I substantively addressed the point about childminders in response to Alison Johnstone, so I will not repeat everything that I said.

I do not want any childminder fearing for the future of their business; indeed, I do not want anybody fearing for the future of their business when we can do something to avoid that. However, equally, I do not want parents fearing for the health and safety of their children, and it is really important that, as we take these decisions, we take them on the basis of the best possible evidence. That is why some decisions have taken longer than any of us would have liked—it is unavoidable. We are looking carefully at this decision, but we must ensure that the safety of children is central to everything that we do. I am sure that Willie Rennie agrees with that.

I addressed the point about the expansion of childcare earlier. There is not a uniform position; some local authorities will deliver the commitment more quickly than others and much closer to the original timescale. Beyond that, we will take every opportunity to accelerate the roll-out where we can. We cannot magic away the inevitable impact that Covid has had on the timescales, but nobody—certainly nobody in Government—is keener than I and the Deputy First Minister to see the commitment delivered as quickly as possible. We will work with local authorities to ensure that that happens.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Families are banking on the expansion of provision to enable them to get back to work. Children have already missed out on nursery education because of the months-long lockdown. The inequality gap continues to grow and the price of delaying the roll-out will be paid by families and children around the country through lost opportunities.

The First Minister says that she wants to support an economic recovery, but there is no way to a strong recovery that does not include strong and growing childcare provision. This week, her minister signed off a statement saying that there would be no review until December and that, for six months, the position would not change. A few minutes ago, the First Minister said that that was not fixed. I want some clarity: if it is not fixed, have the December review date and the six months’ notice period also gone?

The First Minister:

Willie Rennie has been constructive throughout the Covid crisis, so I do not want to turn this into an adversarial exchange. Please accept that.

However, the reality for almost every aspect of life right now is that nothing is fixed, which is really difficult.

Willie Rennie talked about timescales. Given that we have inevitably and unavoidably lost time in the delivery of the provision over the Covid crisis period, we are trying not to raise the expectations of parents before we know that we can deliver. This will probably happen in a range of ways. We will build a bit more time into things than we genuinely hope might be necessary. We are trying to strike a balance. We will do everything here—as well as across the whole range of our other responsibilities—to accelerate things as much as possible. There are significant uncertainties around how plans can be recast and accelerated as quickly as possible and around what we face with the virus.

Our key challenge over the next few weeks is to ensure that we do not allow the easing of the lockdown to lead to a resurgence of the virus, because that will set everything back even more. We will then go into a winter period in which the risks of a genuine second wave are significant.

Believe me, given the uncertainty of the past four months, I would love nothing more than to be able to give people in every sector cast-iron certainty about the future, but it would be irresponsible of me to do that. We try to build the most realistic timescale that we can, on the basis that we will bring it forward where that proves at all possible. That will be the case with childcare and everything else that we are dealing with.

The Presiding Officer:

A large number of members wish to ask questions. I urge everyone to be succinct.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

On the important issue of face coverings, with reports from the World Health Organization that the virus might in fact remain in the air for longer than previously thought, would the First Minister encourage people to wear face coverings in any location where they feel unsafe, as well as, of course, when on public transport and in shops?

The First Minister:

Yes, I would.

The statement that the WHO made two nights ago that it is looking further into the issue of possible airborne transmission—it is not yet a definitive statement; it was in response to an opinion from a large number of scientists—is of serious and significant concern. I hope that this does not happen, but if at any stage the WHO’s view is that the virus can be transmitted through the air, that would pose significant challenges for us in managing the situation. Our current understanding is that if somebody sneezes, anybody who is not far enough away can be infected immediately by droplets and that the droplets can rest on a surface, so if somebody touches it, they can get infected. If it turns out that the virus can be airborne, that means that, if somebody sneezes, the droplets can stay in the air for quite some time and then somebody coming into the same room, perhaps a couple of hours later, is still at risk. I just want to put it on Parliament’s radar that that issue is now under active consideration by the scientific community.

Annabelle Ewing is right that the issue underlines the importance of wearing face coverings in enclosed spaces. I reiterate to people that that will be law as of tomorrow in shops, as it already is on public transport, but you should not do it just because it is the law or because it can be enforced and you can be fined by the police if you do not do it. You should do it because it is the right thing to do. If you wear a face covering in an enclosed space—that could be any enclosed space where you feel a bit uncomfortable or where physical distancing is difficult—that protects other people from you passing the virus to them and, if other people wear face coverings, that protects you. So, please wear face coverings in enclosed spaces, because that is collectively helping us to protect everybody.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

On Monday, the First Minister confirmed that not a single follow-up check had been conducted on international arrivals coming into Scotland. Two weeks ago, her Cabinet Secretary for Justice told the Health and Sport Committee that quarantine checks had taken place on

“approximately 20 per cent of travellers”.—[

Official Report

,

Health and Sport Committee

, 23 June 2020; c 3.]

Instead of taking responsibility and apologising, he has blamed his officials and even Police Scotland for those inaccurate statements. Will the First Minister promise to publish in full the advice that the justice secretary was given from his officials and from Police Scotland so that we can establish precisely the truth of the matter?

The First Minister:

The matter is as was set out by the justice secretary. What he said was what he believed was going to be the case—that the checks were starting on that day or, in fact, had started the day before. As I have narrated publicly on more than one occasion in the past few days, we now know that it took longer than we had thought that it would take to agree the memorandum of understanding with the Home Office that allows those checks to be carried out. Humza Yousaf has set that out. Also, when he spoke to the committee, there had been no referrals to the police for non-compliance with the regulations.

More importantly, the member might be interested to know that, as at 10.15 today, 94 checks had been made since they started earlier this week, and 72 were in progress. The case reports indicate that contacts are aware that they should self-isolate and that there is high compliance with that. I know that the Conservatives do not like good news on these matters, but that is some good news for them to enjoy today.

I come back to a central point. If the Conservatives’ proposition is that everything that the Scottish Government is doing is somehow not good enough, the question that they have to answer is this: how is it that prevalence of the virus in Scotland is five times lower than it is in England?

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

An investigation by

The Courier has today revealed that senior health officials regularly raised concerns about personal protective equipment stocks before coronavirus hit Scotland. We still do not have firm dates for the full remobilisation of all NHS services, and concerns are growing about non-Covid health risks, including excess cancer deaths and a mental health time bomb.

Will the First Minister advise whether PPE stock levels are a barrier to restarting NHS services and whether we will have enough PPE to cope with winter pressures and a possible second wave? Will she also advise when face-to-face mental health services will return?

The First Minister:

The health secretary will keep the chamber updated on the remobilisation of the NHS and the resumption of routine health appointments. However, my response to the direct question is no, lack of PPE is not a reason for not resuming services.

I remind Monica Lennon—and, indeed, the whole chamber—that at no point during this crisis has Scotland run out of any aspect of PPE. We have worked hard to make sure that the supplies are there, overcoming the challenges that we readily acknowledge we have faced along the way to make sure that the distribution is getting to where it needs to. Where we have had to make changes, we have made those changes. Along the way, that has involved the revalidation of some items of PPE that were date expired. We have done all of that and made sure that the staff working in our NHS have the PPE that they need. We will continue to take that responsibility very seriously.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

The First Minister might be aware that last weekend, more than 20 people were charged with irresponsible camping and environmental damage in the areas of Loch Earn, Loch Venachar and Loch Ard, which are all in my constituency. Not only was there large-scale littering, with the discarding of tents, sleeping bags and camping seats, but fire damage was caused to trees.

Does the First Minister agree that although individuals might have wanted to let off a bit of steam following the easing of lockdown, such behaviour—at any time—is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated, and that, if the individuals involved are found guilty, the full weight of the law should come down on them?

The First Minister:

I agree. The behaviour that Bruce Crawford outlined is not acceptable at any time and, where it happens, it should be dealt with seriously. I make the point that, if any of us is behaving in that way or in any way that is not in compliance with either the normal rules and laws or the public health guidance that is in place right now, we are—I am not exaggerating here—potentially putting other people’s lives at risk.

All of us have an individual duty and responsibility to make sure that we are not doing that and that we are thinking very carefully about how we are behaving in relation to the application of public health measures. If every single one of us does that, we will continue to reduce and minimise the risk of the virus spreading out of control again.

I cannot emphasise enough that that risk is very real. Anyone who doubts that need only look at large numbers of states in America, at Melbourne, at parts of Spain and at Serbia—Belgrade in particular. A growing number of parts of the world are experiencing resurgences of the virus. Those resurgences are not second waves—that danger will be there for us in winter—but are happening because, as lockdown eases, people’s behaviour is meaning that the virus is finding it too easy to spread. We must all be conscious of that in every decision that we make right now.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

We know that more than 4,000 people in Scotland have lost their lives to Covid-19, and we know that 2,000 lives have been lost in our care homes alone. What we do not know is how many Scots have had the virus. Will the First Minister advise what programme of antibody testing is being undertaken in our care homes and among the general population? Given that we are now more than three months into the crisis, if there is not a programme, what plans are there to introduce one?

The First Minister:

We are doing antibody testing for surveillance purposes.

The advice that we have is that that is the useful way of using it right now. Although tests have become more reliable, they are not yet reliable enough for it to be reasonable for us to use them among the wider population to tell individuals whether they have had the virus and—crucially—whether they are immune to Covid. In fact, a letter was written last week or the week before by a significant number of clinicians in support of the approach that we are taking in Scotland, which I have just outlined.

We have to be really careful about this, because even if we get to the point—and from my layperson’s understanding, I think that we are getting closer to the point—at which a test can tell an individual whether they have antibodies to Covid, we do not yet understand what that means. We do not understand whether that gives a person immunity for a week, a month, a year, five years, or indeed at all. Therefore, we have to be very careful about raising the public’s expectations of what antibody testing of individuals can do.

However, we are using antibody testing for surveillance and we will continue to extend that programme as the science tells us that it is useful and effective.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

The First Minister announced air bridges, but thousands of airport workers face losing their jobs. Two weeks ago, following my question to her, I wrote to the First Minister to ask her urgently to meet the airport unions GMB and Unite. I have still not received a reply.

Menzies Aviation is putting Scotland to shame by its practices and Swissport workers are so dismayed that they came to stand outside the Parliament and demand action.

The Renfrewshire and west of Scotland economy simply cannot sustain airport job losses and Rolls-Royce job losses on the scale that we are seeing. We are one of the areas that has been worst hit by the virus, and many constituents are asking why we have to pay the economic price, too.

There are global challenges, of course, but right now there is no task force or plan for Scotland’s airports. The First Minister said that she is open to suggestions; will she, at the very least, personally meet airport union representatives to hear theirs?

The First Minister:

If this has not yet been conveyed, I am sure that it is about to be: I think that Jamie Hepburn is planning to meet the unions. I am willing to meet unions; I meet all sorts of people and do so happily, but of course I have a team of ministers, because the Government has a lot of work to do and we want to be able to do all of it.

I understand acutely the severity of the challenges that face the aviation sector. To be frank with Neil Bibby, simply to refer to global conditions as if they are some kind of incidental matter does not do justice to the issue.

Yesterday’s decision on air bridges, albeit that it perhaps does not sound like a difficult one, was one of the most difficult decisions that the Government has had to take in all this so far, because public health considerations tell us that the risk of importing the virus is possibly the biggest health risk that we face, and yet we understand the importance to the aviation sector of allowing international travel to start to resume. Therefore, we had to make that balanced decision. Getting people able to travel again is one of the most important things that we can do to help companies such as Swissport and Menzies, and airports and airlines.

These are not easy challenges, but we will continue to try to do everything that we can and we will work with trade unions and others to deal with some of the longer-term implications of the situation. Anyone in my position in any country in the world who stands up and blithely says that we can wave a magic wand and take these challenges away is not doing justice to the issue. Just as we have worked day and night for the past three months to tackle the virus, we will work day and night to do everything that we can to mitigate and deal with its economic impact.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

As the First Minister said, the chancellor’s announcement of a kick-start job creation scheme is a welcome start. However, given the disproportionate longer-term impact that Covid will have on young people, does she agree that young people in Scotland need and deserve more certainty than a six-month programme?

The First Minister:

Yes, I agree with that. Although I repeat, as Shona Robison did, my welcome for the chancellor’s announcement yesterday, right now in Scotland we are looking at what we can do to build on it, to give greater certainty and perhaps a longer-term commitment to young people.

As I have said before, including in my earlier response to Richard Leonard, all the economic aspects of this situation are important and must be addressed, but probably none is more important than the need to avoid the scarring effect of a significant rise in youth unemployment. We are very focused on trying to make sure that we deliver an intervention that is capable of avoiding that effect.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Driving lessons and tests in cars restarted in England on 4 July. The First Minister said that in Scotland we will have to wait longer, but she did not say why. Will she explain why and tell us what needs to happen to get things restarted?

The First Minister:

This virus spreads between people who are in close proximity to each other. Therefore—with respect—I thought that the reasons might have been obvious in relation to people who are from different households being in a car together. I do not underestimate the importance of that—[

Interruption.

] The member asked why it is happening in England and not here. Let me turn that question around and ask why the prevalence of the virus is five times lower in Scotland than it is in England.

It is for the UK Government to take the decisions that it does, and I have been at pains all along to say that I will not criticise it for those decisions. However, I will not simply follow those decisions if I do not think that they are right for the objective that we have set, which is to drive the virus to the lowest possible levels. Therefore, if we are going a bit slower on some things it is because we think that the risk of going faster is too great and will compromise what we are trying to do.

I have said this a couple of times, but I want to say it again to be absolutely blunt with people: if we do not get this virus to the lowest possible level now, then the situation that we will face in winter—which, for all countries, might be significant regardless of what we do now—will be even more difficult to address and hopefully overcome. Therefore, we will continue to do things at a pace that is consistent with trying to eliminate the virus.

Other Governments are perfectly entitled to take different decisions. However, I would rather be standing here today announcing that, thankfully, nobody died yesterday from this virus than announcing that more than 10 people have died from it, as I would be if the figures were proportionate to England’s. I will continue to take decisions that I think are right for Scotland and that protect the maximum number of lives.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, almost 45 per cent of those who rent their homes in the private rented sector have seen a drop in their income since March, and almost 60 per cent have had to borrow or use up savings to pay rent. That is the highest proportion of any housing tenure, and those people are already in arrears with other bills.

Last week, the Local Government and Communities Committee said that it did not have enough time to take my proposed fair rents bill through the parliamentary process. That legislation is needed now more than ever. I hope that the First Minister will at least accept that rent pressure zones have been a failure and that we need something else.

In view of that, will the First Minister consider adopting my bill, and give stronger protection to renters? I accept that she cannot give me an answer now. However, could she tell me that she will have a discussion with the housing minister, and, if not, tell me what action the Scottish Government will take to prevent renters in the private rented sector from high rents at this important time?

The First Minister:

That is an important issue. I am acutely aware of it in general across Scotland and, given the nature of my constituency, I know how important it is.

During the past few years, we have taken a number of measures to try to better protect those in the private rented sector. We will continue to look at what more we can do. During this crisis, we have also increased the Scottish welfare fund and other sources of support for people who have financial difficulties, which is also important.

The Local Government and Communities Committee took a decision and I cannot interfere with that decision. However, I will consider any reasonable suggestion that is made and will ask the housing minister to have a conversation with Pauline McNeill about whether anything is possible.

I have to be frank and say that parliamentary time between now and the dissolution of Parliament is very limited, and there are particular pieces of legislation—not least the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law—that we want to prioritise before the end of the session. However, we will look at what is possible and, if something is possible, we will certainly give it serious consideration.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I thank the First Minister for her statement and for the mention of music venues in particular. I also welcome the earlier commitment of £10 million and a further commitment of £90 million to the arts, culture and creative industries.

However, music venues, of which there are many in my constituency, will be one of the last types of business to reopen. Can the First Minister confirm that support will be made available for them?

The First Minister:

It is undoubtedly the case that further support will be needed for music venues, because the impact of the pandemic has been devastating on not only venues but the music industry more widely.

People in the sector have, of course, benefited from some of the funding packages that were announced at the outset, such as the pivotal enterprise resilience fund; the creative, tourism and hospitality enterprises hardship fund; and Creative Scotland’s bridging bursaries. We want to do more and we are already in close contact with representatives of the industry to understand its specific needs in order that we can tailor further financial support. There is no doubt that further financial support will be necessary.

Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Independent

The lifting of restrictions is welcome, because it demonstrates the progress that is being made, particularly around households being able to meet indoors. However, for individuals who have family members in care homes, there remain challenges and difficulties, understandable as they may be.

I have a constituent whose mother is in a care home and nearing the end of her life. As is the situation in care homes, she is unable to meet anyone outdoors and can have only one member of the family to visit her, although there are other family members—including siblings—who would like to see her as she approaches the end of her life. Given the restrictions around face coverings and so on, will the First Minister give consideration to what flexibility care homes might be able to offer families who are in the position that my constituent’s family find themselves in?

The First Minister:

The situation around visiting and care homes is a difficult one. The relaxation that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport announced last week is important, but I know that we want to go further than that as soon as it is safe to do so.

I remind Mark McDonald that, all along, there has been flexibility around end-of-life visiting. If he wants to pass the details of the particular case that he mentioned to the health secretary, we can see why that flexibility has not been accommodated in this instance and how it can be in future. I repeat that end-of-life visits have always been recognised as being necessary, and flexibility has always been available in that regard.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Last weekend, pubs in England opened, bizarrely, from 6 am. Within 24 hours, at least three establishments were forced to close again due to customers testing positive for coronavirus. The chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, John Apter, said that it is “crystal clear” that drunk people will not socially distance, adding that officers in some areas had been assaulted.

Although most pubs will, no doubt, reopen safely and responsibly, how closely will they be monitored to ensure that we see no repeat of the scenes that we witnessed down south?

The First Minister:

As I said a moment ago, it is for each of the Governments across the UK to take decisions that they think are right. However, with regard to our opening of hospitality, we have chosen to do that during the week—Monday this week for outdoors hospitality and Wednesday next week for indoors hospitality—because that is one thing that we can do to ensure that the transition into that situation is as safe as possible.

I urge everyone to behave responsibly. Many people will be looking forward to going to a pub for the first time in a long time. However, they should behave responsibly because, particularly if they are doing that indoors, they are taking and posing a greater risk than has been the case for almost four months. People must comply with all the measures that staff ask them to comply with and should remember to take care with their own personal hygiene and other measures.

Of course, the police—as they always do in relation to hospitality—will take enforcement action where necessary and will police our pubs and clubs in a way that is appropriate. They do that at all times, but it is particularly important over this period that they do so in the sensitive and appropriate way that they always do.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

It is more than two weeks since the Deputy First Minister announced that schools should plan to reopen fully on 11 August, but we already know that at least one council will not be opening its schools fully on that date. Why has no detailed guidance on how schools can open safely and fully been issued since that announcement? How many more councils might also not be opening their schools fully on 11 August? More important, what advice does the First Minister have for parents who had planned to return to work that day but who now cannot?

The First Minister:

The answer to the question about why there is no guidance yet is that we are working on it. Through the education recovery group, the Deputy First Minister is working on the guidance to ensure that we take account of all relevant scientific advice. It is important that we do that in a careful and considered way. Some local authorities might well decide to have a situation in which younger people have a softer start into full-time education, because they have been away from school for four months. However, the absolute intention is that schools will open full time from August.

The final point that I will make on this, which is probably the most important one, is that the ability of schools to reopen full time from August is dependent on our continuing to suppress the virus. The thing that would put that most at risk is if I were to give in to some of the requests I get—not exclusively from those on the Conservative benches, but mainly from them—to speed up the exit from lockdown. That would jeopardise our suppression of the virus and would do more than anything else to compromise our chances of getting education back full time.

If anyone is feeling frustrated about the pace of exit from lockdown, they should remember that the prize that we are aiming for is getting our children back into full-time education in August, so let us stick with it.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Scottish mesh survivors are one group of patients who are desperate to know what the reopening of full NHS services means for their health and wellbeing.

Yesterday’s very good report by Baroness Cumberlege should have made uncomfortable reading for surgeons, medical profession regulators, Government ministers, manufacturers and the medical establishment, who have collectively failed women across Scotland, the UK and, indeed, the world.

The report includes a list of recommendations for the NHS in England, much of which could be implemented in Scotland, too. Will the First Minister now take responsibility and urgently look at how we can implement the recommendations of the report in Scotland? Will she ensure that there is a debate in Government time on the report immediately after recess? Will she commit to the NHS paying for women to travel abroad for full mesh removal, as the Canadian Government has done?

The First Minister:

Yesterday, the health secretary confirmed that we would consider the recommendations in the Cumberlege report for their applicability to Scotland and that we will respond in full to the report.

I understand that the health secretary will soon have a meeting with certain members, including, I think, Neil Findlay, to discuss issues around mesh. We will also continue to consider how we support women to get the treatment that they understandably and rightly feel that they need. That will be part of that consideration.

We have recently announced the establishment of a support fund to help women with some of the other costs associated with the difficulties to do with their mesh treatment. The health secretary will be able to give a fuller update to the members whom she meets next week.

Although it would be for the Parliamentary Bureau to decide, I am happy to give an undertaking that, as soon as possible after the end of recess, there should be a parliamentary debate when that is appropriate and we have had a chance to consider the recommendations in full. I think that we could all support that.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

I ask this question on behalf of our shielded group. Most of that group have been isolating since March and they will be pleased to learn of the latest relaxations that were announced yesterday. However, could more be done with the tourism and hospitality sectors to set aside safe zones or safe spaces for our shielders, so that they might also be able to enjoy many of the facilities that the rest of us will shortly start to enjoy once again?

The First Minister:

We will certainly take up that good and reasonable suggestion with different sectors. Willie Coffey is right about how difficult it has been, and continues to be, for those in the shielded category. The changes that have been announced that will take effect from tomorrow are important, and I hope that they will make a real difference to the quality of life of those who are shielding.

Although they will be looking forward to greater interaction, many in the shielded category will also be anxious and nervous about that. We have produced and will continue to produce guidance in that regard. We have also produced guidance for the hospitality industry, which includes the taking of precautions such as regular disinfection of objects and surfaces that are touched regularly.

I think that I said this in my statement, but in case I did not, I remind anyone watching who is in the shielded category that they will find more detail on the Government website. That detail is not just about the changes that will take effect from tomorrow, but the further changes that we hope that we will be able to announce between now and the end of July, when it is still our hope that the shielding advice can be paused.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

The First Minister will be aware that all deaf people, including those who use sign language, need to be able to see people’s faces. Will she ensure that all transport providers and shop owners are aware that they should not wear a face mask when dealing with someone who has a hearing issue, so that they can communicate clearly with them? Will she make sure that all NHS care workers have clear face masks, to enable easy lip reading?

The First Minister:

Yes, I think that that is extremely important. The member’s points are well made, and I give him an undertaking that I will make sure that we act on all those issues and that the right guidance and support are available, as he has set out. I am happy to ask the health secretary to write to him with more detail of that when we have done that.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I am sure that the First Minister will agree that hospices have done a tremendous job during the pandemic, as they do all year round. They were promised additional resources—£19 million in Barnett consequentials—in April. Why have some hospices not yet received that money? Will she ensure that the funding is released immediately?

The First Minister:

I will check this, but the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is indicating to me that it has already been agreed with the hospice sector that that money will be made available. However, since Jackie Baillie seems to have different information, it is probably better that we go away and check the position. The intention to ensure that the money is available, released and distributed as appropriate is absolute.

The Presiding Officer:

I am afraid that that is all that we have time for. My apologies to members who did not have the chance to ask their question.

I suspend the meeting; we will resume at 2.30.

13:45 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—