Covid-19

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd September 2020.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

W e move on to a statement by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Covid-19. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement and I encourage all members who wish to ask a question to press their request-to-speak buttons.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I want to update the chamber on additional restrictions that the Scottish Government believes are now necessary to get Covid back under control as we enter winter. I will also set out why those measures are essential and the principles and priorities that have guided our decisions.

First, though, let me provide a summary of today’s statistics. Since yesterday, an additional 383 cases of Covid have been confirmed. That represents 7.6 per cent of people who are newly tested and takes the total number of cases to 25,009. A total of 73 patients are in hospital with confirmed Covid, which is the same as yesterday, and 10 people are in intensive care, which is two more than yesterday. I am also sorry to report that, in the past 24 hours, one further death has been registered of a patient who had tested positive. The total number of deaths in Scotland under that measurement is now 2,506.

That reminds us of the impact of Covid. Those deaths are not just statistics; they are of real people whose loss is a source of heartbreak, and my condolences go to everyone who has lost a loved one to this illness.

Today’s figures reflect the course that the virus has taken in recent weeks. In mid-July, we were recording an average of nine new cases every day. Around four weeks later, that had risen to an average of 52 cases a day. Three weeks after that, it was 102, and as of today the average daily number of cases is 285.

We have also seen an increase in the percentage of tests that are coming back positive. In late August, that percentage was consistently below 1 per cent. Today, it is over 7 per cent. The reproduction number is above 1 again. It is possibly as high as 1.4.

It is worth stressing that that growth in cases, because of the collective sacrifices that we all made to drive infection levels down over the summer period, is from a low base. It is also, at this stage, far less rapid than it was in March. However, it is rising faster than we can be comfortable with and we cannot let it continue unchecked.

Although, in recent weeks, the biggest number of new cases has been in people under the age of 40, we now see an increase among the older population, too. Unsurprisingly in light of that, hospital and intensive care admissions and also deaths are starting to rise as well.

All of that underlines what, for me, is and always has been a key point: we cannot and must not be complacent about Covid. It kills too many old and vulnerable people. For younger, healthier people, although the risks of dying from it are much lower, they are not non-existent, and it can still result in long-term serious health problems.

That is why action to bring it back under control is necessary. To bring the R number down again, the action that we take now must go beyond the step that we announced almost two weeks ago to restrict indoor and outdoor gatherings to six people from two households.

Over the weekend and in the course of yesterday, the Scottish Government considered a range of options. On Saturday, I had a discussion with other devolved Administrations, and I spoke to the Prime Minister yesterday. I also took part in this morning’s COBRA meeting. I am pleased to say that, at that meeting, all four UK Governments committed to suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level and keeping it there. Our challenge in the weeks to come is to ensure that our actions are commensurate with that objective.

Following on from the COBRA meeting, measures to further control the virus were agreed at the Scottish Government Cabinet. I confirm that we will introduce measures on hospitality that are similar to those outlined for England by the Prime Minister a short while ago, and thereby align as far as possible with the rest of the UK.

However, the advice that has been given to the Cabinet by the chief medical officer and the national clinical director is that that on its own will not be sufficient to bring the R number down. They stress that we must act not just quickly and decisively, but on a scale that is significant enough to have an impact on the spread of the virus. They advise that we must take account of the fact that household interaction is a key driver of transmission.

To that end, we intend to introduce, as Northern Ireland did yesterday, nationwide additional restrictions on household gatherings similar to those that are already in place in the west of Scotland. I will say more about the detail of those measures shortly and, of course, full details will also be published on the Scottish Government website.

First, however, let me be clear about the priorities that have guided our decisions—and it is essential that we think in terms of priorities. Faced with a global pandemic of an infectious and dangerous virus, it is not possible to do everything and it is not possible, unfortunately, to live our lives completely normally. No country is able to do that just now. Instead, we have to decide what matters most to us and make trade-offs elsewhere to make those things possible.

Of course, the most important priority for all of us is saving lives and protecting health, but there are other priorities, too. First, we are determined to keep schools open and young people in education. That is vital to the health, wellbeing and future prospects of every young person across our country.

Secondly, we must restart as many previously paused NHS services as possible so that more people can get the non-Covid treatment that they need. Our national health service must be equipped this winter to care for those who have Covid, and it will be, but it must be there for people with heart disease, cancer and other illnesses, too.

Thirdly, we must protect people’s jobs and livelihoods, and that means keeping businesses open and trading as normally as is feasible.

To achieve all of that, we must stop the virus spiralling out of control, and we can only do that if we accept restrictions in other aspects of our lives.

The more positive news is that, because we did drive Covid down to low levels over the summer, and because we now have the test and protect system in place and functioning well, the restrictions can be more targeted than was the case earlier in the year. The measures that I am announcing today are tough—I will not pretend otherwise—but they do not represent a full-scale lockdown of the kind that was imposed in March. On the contrary, today’s measures are an attempt to avoid the need for another lockdown.

I also want to address the talk that there has been in recent days about restrictions being needed for six months or more. It is certainly the case that, until scientific developments such as a vaccine change the game in the battle against Covid, it will continue to have an impact on our lives. However, that does not necessarily mean that all the new restrictions that I am announcing today will be in place for six months. Our hope is that, because we are acting early and substantially, the new measures will be in place for a shorter period than would be the case if we waited longer to act. In the first instance, we will review them in three weeks but, given the nature of the virus, it is important to be clear that they may be needed for longer than that.

Let me set out the package of measures that we hope can bring Covid back under control. I will focus first on the areas in which we intend to reinforce existing guidance and provide better support for compliance.

First, everyone who can work from home should do so. That has been the Scottish Government’s advice throughout, but we are reinforcing and underlining it today. To employers who have encouraged workers who could work from home to go back to the office, I say, “Please rethink that now.”

We know that not everyone wants to work from home, and that it has an impact on our town and city centres, but, with the virus on the rise again, home working limits the numbers of people on public transport or gathering together for lengthy, prolonged periods indoors. That is why it is so important. We want employers to comply with that advice voluntarily, as the vast majority do. However, today I want to be clear that, if necessary, we will put a legal duty on businesses to allow home working where possible.

Secondly, in the coming days, we intend, through the media and social media, to reinforce the central importance of the FACTS advice: using face coverings, avoiding crowded places, cleaning hands and hard surfaces, keeping 2m distance, and self-isolating and booking a test if you have symptoms.

At the start of the pandemic, compliance with basic hygiene measures was very strong. We know that it really makes a difference, and it is just as important now—perhaps even more so—as it was back then. Therefore, I am asking everyone to make a conscious and renewed effort to comply with all that advice.

Thirdly, and related to the last point, we will introduce a package of support for people who are asked to self-isolate. Self-isolation of people who have symptoms and are awaiting a test, of people who test positive, and of household and other close contacts of such people is absolutely essential to helping to break the chains of transmission. However, we know that self-isolation is hard. It asks a lot of people and, for some, the financial implications make it even more difficult—perhaps even impossible.

We therefore intend, first, to raise awareness of the importance of self-isolation and what it entails. I believe that ensuring that people fully understand why we are asking them to do difficult things, and exactly what they need to do, is the first crucial step towards ensuring compliance.

Next, we are working with local authorities to ensure that, when someone is asked by test and protect to self-isolate, they will be contacted proactively and offered essential practical support—for example, help with delivery of food and other essentials. Most importantly, we will introduce financial support of £500 for those on low incomes. More details of that scheme will be published shortly.

As I said yesterday, we will keep issues of enforcement for non-compliance with a requirement to self-isolate under review. However, at this stage, our judgment—particularly given the spirit of solidarity that is essential in our fight against Covid—is that supporting people to do the right thing is much more effective than threatening harsh punishment if they cannot.

Let me now turn to the new restrictions that we consider to be necessary to bring the virus back under control.

First, as I indicated earlier, we will introduce a strict nationwide curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants. From Friday, they will be required to close at 10 pm.

People sometimes ask me why we do not just close pubs again altogether, and I understand that sentiment. The answer, to be frank, is that we are seeking to find a balance between action to suppress the virus and the protection of people’s jobs and livelihoods.

If the Scottish Government had greater powers to borrow money, or the ability to extend the job retention scheme, for example, it is possible that we could reach a different balance of judgment on some of these issues, but we do not. This decision means that we can reduce the amount of time that people are able to spend in licensed premises, thereby curtailing the spread of the virus while still allowing businesses to trade and to provide jobs. That is the best balance that we can strike for now.

However, I want to be clear with the hospitality trade about this. Notwithstanding the economic implications, further restrictions, including possible closure, will be unavoidable—locally or nationally—if the rules within pubs and restaurants on hygiene, face coverings, table service, maximum numbers in groups and the distance between them are not fully complied with. I want to thank those businesses—I believe that they are in the majority—that are making huge efforts to ensure compliance. However, to ensure that this is the case for all, we will be providing resources for additional environmental health officers and asking local authorities to significantly step up inspection and enforcement.

I turn now to the most difficult part of today’s announcement—further restrictions on household gatherings. We know from the data that is available to us through test and protect that a high proportion of new cases come from social interactions between different households in people’s homes. We also know from test and protect—and perhaps more so from our own experiences—that it is much more difficult to maintain physical distance and to have good ventilation, for example, inside our own homes.

We know that when the virus infects one person in a household it is highly likely to affect others in the same household. It will also infect people visiting that household, who will in turn take it back to their households. Therefore, difficult though it is, any serious effort to reduce the R number below 1—which must be our objective—must take account of this key driver of transmission and it must seek to break that driver of transmission.

After careful consideration, we have decided that from tomorrow—to be reviewed every three weeks, and with exceptions that I will come on to—visiting other households will not be permitted. To be clear, this extends the restriction that has been in place across the west of Scotland for the past three weeks to the whole of Scotland. Regulations giving effect to this change will come into force on Friday, but I am asking people to comply from tomorrow.

One of the reasons that we have decided to do this is because our early data suggests that this restriction is starting to slow the increase of cases in the west of Scotland, so if we take the difficult decision to extend the restriction nationwide now, in an early and preventative way, we hope that it will help to bring the R number down and the virus back under control.

There will be exceptions for those living alone, or alone with children, who form extended households; for couples in non-cohabiting relationships; for the provision of informal childcare by, for example, grandparents; and for tradespeople. However, for everyone else, visiting each other’s houses will, for now, not be permitted.

Those new restrictions apply to people’s homes—in other words, to private indoor spaces. Rules for meeting other people in public indoor spaces that are subject to strict regulation and guidance remain the same—people can meet one other household only and in groups of no more than six people.

As I said earlier, we will be working with local authorities to strengthen inspection and enforcement in indoor public places and enforcement action, including closure if necessary, will be taken against shops, pubs, restaurants or other premises that do not ensure compliance. People can also continue to meet one other household in groups of up to six people outdoors, including in private gardens.

Outdoors, though, we intend to exempt children under 12, both from the limit of six and the limit of two households. There will be no limits on the ability of children under 12 to play together outdoors. Young people aged 12 to 18 will be exempt from the two-household limit—they will be able to meet outdoors in groups of up to six, although we will need to monitor that carefully, and I stress that that is outdoors only.

Let me say to teenagers, in particular, that I know how miserable this is for you and I am so grateful for your patience. We are trying to give you as much flexibility as we can at this vitally important time of your lives. In return, please work with us and do your best to stick to the rules, for everyone’s sake.

The last new restriction that I want to cover today relates to travelling by car. It may seem minor, but it is important. We know, again from test and protect data, that sharing car journeys presents a significant risk of transmission. We are therefore advising against car sharing with people outside your own household.

It is important that I indicate today, in light of the current situation, that the route map changes with an indicative date of 5 October are now unlikely to go ahead on that timescale.

I want to touch briefly on an issue that has been the subject of media speculation in recent days—namely, the possibility of a so-called circuit breaker that is timed to coincide with the October school break and during which people would be given much more comprehensive advice to stay at home. The Scottish Government has not made any decision at this stage to implement such a policy, but we are actively keeping it under review. What I would say to people now is this: please think of the October break as an opportunity to further limit social interaction, particularly indoors, and, given that this is a global pandemic, please do not book travel overseas for the October break if it is not essential.

Finally, I want to say a few words to people who were shielding earlier in the year. I know that you will all be feeling particularly anxious. However, the best way to keep you safe is by reducing the spread of the virus in our communities, which is what today’s measures are all about. The steps that I have outlined today will help to keep you safe, so please follow the guidance for the general population with great care and, if you have not signed up for our text alert service, please do so.

Fundamentally, I want to assure you that your safety is uppermost in our minds, but we do not believe that asking you to return to shielding is the best way to secure it, given the impact that it would have on your mental and physical health. In our view, all of us acting together collectively to reduce the spread of the virus is a better way to keep you safe.

Those are the changes that we are making now. I cannot and will not rule out the need to make more changes, nationally or locally, in the weeks to come. It is essential that we suppress the virus and get the R number below 1 again, and we will act in a way that can achieve that. Indeed, we will publish soon an overall strategic approach to escalation in areas with particularly high rates of transmission.

I am acutely aware that the restrictions that I have announced today will not be welcome, but it is our judgment that they are absolutely essential. Inevitably, some will think that they go too far and others will think that they do not go far enough, but we have tried to get the balance as right as possible and to act urgently and in a substantial and preventative way now to try to get the situation under control quickly. We judge that that will give us the best chance of avoiding tougher or longer-lasting measures later.

I know, however, that that does not make this any easier. Many people—me included—will find not being able to have family and friends in our own homes really difficult, especially as the weather gets colder. Today’s measures, although tough, are not a lockdown; they are carefully targeted at key sources of transmission, and we believe that they can make a significant difference while keeping our schools, public services and as many businesses as possible open.

The success of these measures depends on all of us. The decisions that we all make as individuals in the weeks ahead will determine whether they work and how quickly they can be lifted. That fact is not just a reminder of the responsibilities that we all owe to each other; it is a reminder that we are not powerless against this virus. None of us can guarantee that we will not get it or pass it on, but we can all make choices that significantly reduce our own risk and help to keep our communities safer.

So, please make those choices. Stick with this. Please do not meet people in their homes or your home, because that is where the virus often spreads. Limit how often you meet up with people in public places and abide by the rules that are in force there. Work from home if you can. Follow the advice on self-isolation if you have symptoms, test positive or are a contact of someone with the virus. Download the Protect Scotland app. When you meet other people, remember FACTS at all times: face coverings in enclosed spaces; avoid crowded places; clean your hands and hard surfaces; keep a 2m distance from other households; and self-isolate and book a test if you have symptoms. Keeping to all those rules is not easy, but they remain the best way for all of us to protect ourselves, each other and the NHS, and, ultimately, to save lives.

All of this is incredibly tough, and six months on it only gets tougher, but we should never forget that humanity has come through even bigger challenges than this one, and that it did so without the benefits of modern technology that allow us to stay connected while physically apart. Although it does not feel like it now, the pandemic will pass. It will not last forever and, one day—hopefully soon—we will be looking back on it, not living through it.

Although we are all struggling with this—believe me, we are all struggling—let us pull together. Let us keep going, try to keep smiling, keep hoping and keep looking out for each other. Be strong, be kind and let us continue to act out of love and solidarity. I will never be able to thank all of you enough for the sacrifices that you have made so far, and I am sorry to have to ask for more, but if we stick with it and if we stick together, I know that we will get through this.

The Presiding Officer:

The First Minister will now take questions. I encourage all members to press their request-to-speak buttons if they wish to ask a question.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

I thank the First Minister for advance notice of her statement. We are back where we did not want to be, with infections rising, transmissions concerning and medical facilities being put on alert. The public are worried, confused and, in some cases, feeling cheated because they have done exactly what was asked of them, when it was asked, often at great personal sacrifice, and they are now being told that it is not enough.

That is a tough message to hear. It is tough for those in high-risk groups, who are worried that, if they catch it, they are in trouble; tough for those who live alone and have spent the past six months working from home, on most days speaking to another person only through a computer screen; and tough for those not able to work at all or watching time run out on a business that they have built from scratch.

There is a palpable sense of dread surrounding the months ahead, but there were reassurances in the First Minister’s statement today: children, whose lives and education have been disrupted too much already, will stay in school, and that is welcome; our NHS services, which we were all concerned about in March, coped well and have continued to build resilience in the months since; shops will remain open; and those employees who have been able to find new ways to work remotely will continue to keep the wheels of the economy turning

However, for all those steps forward since March, there is no denying that this is going to be a hard and dark winter, and for one group of people the impact has been particularly cruel and continues to be so. That group was not specifically addressed in the statement. Although restrictions on care home visiting have eased a little over recent months, which has been welcome, the reality is that some family members have not been able or allowed to visit their loved ones for a full six months, causing enormous distress and even an impact on health.

The head of Scotland’s care home industry, Dr Donald Macaskill, said this week:

“The longer we keep people apart, the more people will be lost to our Covid response rather than to the disease itself.”

He set out a range of suggestions to allow families greater access including testing, private-room visiting and building Covid-secure visiting capacity inside and outside homes.

Everyone here recognises that the safety of residents and staff comes first but, as the country tightens restrictions, we also need to recognise that personal relationships have a part to play in helping people through. What further steps, exemptions or mitigations can the Scottish Government take to ensure that families have the ability to maintain contact with relatives, especially as the winter nears?

The First Minister:

That last point is of fundamental importance and I will come to it directly. However, I want to make a further comment about the generality of the situation that we face.

I understand people’s feelings of despair right now—believe me, I share them—but I want to make it very clear to people something that I think they know. The past six months and the sacrifices that everybody has made have not been in vain. They have allowed us to take the virus to low levels, given us time to build test and protect, which is functioning well although there have been frustrations along the way, and allowed us to continue to ensure that the NHS is ready for winter.

To be frank, without all those sacrifices and the outcomes of those sacrifices we would not now be able to have and keep schools open, be preparing to restart our NHS and be in a position to apply difficult but, nevertheless, targeted measures. People’s sacrifices have helped to put us in a stronger position now and—difficult though it is for people to hear this and for me to say it—we need to stick with it in order to get that progress back on track as we go into winter and to keep the fight against this virus where we need it to be.

I put care home visiting in the same category as keeping schools open, making sure that we can restart our NHS and keeping businesses trading as far as possible. Part of the reason for acting quickly and substantially to try to drive community transmission down again is so that we do not have to go backwards in our plan to open up care home visiting. A plan for that is being implemented right now. Not everybody, but many more family members have access to not just outdoor but indoor visiting.

There are greater restrictions in place in what I will describe as the hot-spot areas in the west of Scotland, but we do not want to go backwards in that plan across the country generally. That is why it is important that the rest of us do the things that are being asked of us to try to keep the virus low.

On Friday, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport met representatives of families of care home residents and she talks regularly to Scottish Care. We want to listen to people about how, as quickly as possible, we can safely get care home visiting back to as much normality as is possible. The importance of visiting to the wellbeing of older residents of care homes is as fundamental to them as being at school is to children’s lives. That is extremely important, and we will continue to ensure that it is a priority.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement. I begin by restating that Labour wants the Government to succeed in containing the virus and saving lives and livelihoods. However, that also depends not just on the renewed effort of the people but on the consent, trust and confidence of the people.

When the Scottish Government announced its route map four months ago, we said that public consent depended on three guarantees being met. The first was that

“the Government should publish the evidence behind the decisions that it has taken”,

but the local data that has driven local decisions in recent weeks has not been published.

Secondly, we said that

“we need to see maximum testing capacity and a fully working test, trace and isolate system that is rolled out universally”,

but the system is not working and access to testing is chaotic. Too often, the system is overwhelmed, so public confidence in it is ebbing away.

Thirdly, we said that

“the Government’s strategy must be flexible”,—[

Official Report

, 21 May 2020; c 14.]

but the route map that was published in May was too linear and the new restrictions, as well as local lockdowns in the west of Scotland and Aberdeen, make clear that that old route map is now defunct.

Will the First Minister now publish in full the evidence that she is relying on, provide clarity on how the test and trace system will cope with increasing demand and, for these new times, produce a new route map that commands the consent of the people?

The First Minister:

I will try to be constructive in response to points that are perfectly valid. First, Richard Leonard talked about consent, trust and confidence. I believe to my core that those things are vital. Not everyone agrees with it, but that is why, day after day, I have continued personally to update the public and take questions from the media, so that people understand not just what I am asking them to do but why I am asking them to do it, as well as the thinking and rationale behind it. I take that responsibility seriously. I am not complacent about it but, thus far, as a collective in Scotland, I think that we have managed to proceed as one, with a degree of unity that is important. I hope that that will continue, and I will expend every effort that I can to ensure that it does.

On the three points that Richard Leonard made, first, I hope that we will soon publish data at a much more local level. Currently, we publish data by local authority and/or health board area. We plan to publish data at much more local geographies of around 4,000 people. When we go down to that level, we must guard against breaches of confidentiality and privacy, but it is important to give people as much clarity as possible about the virus in their localities. Those plans are under way and will materialise soon.

We publish a lot of evidence and views on things; the advisory group publishes its minutes and a number of expert papers. I do not underestimate the importance of that. We will try to continue to do that as expansively as possible but, at the heart of that, there is a fundamental and simple truth. This is an infectious virus and the ways in which we have to try and stop it spreading are difficult but simple: we have to reduce our interactions with each other—particularly indoors in our homes—and we must follow all the FACTS advice. Yes, the evidence and science are important but, at its heart, the truth is not complicated. That does not make it easy, but we know what we have to do and we all have to do it.

Secondly, I am not complacent about test and protect, but I disagree with Richard Leonard’s characterisation; test and protect is working well. In

The Times at the weekend, I saw a map of access to testing in the UK, which showed that it was working well in Scotland. We had a challenge with that when schools went back but, over the past couple of weeks, access to testing has not been an issue. We have had an issue in the UK-wide lab network with the speed of processing those tests, but as of now that problem has significantly improved, and the turnaround time of tests has speeded up again. We monitor that very carefully.

Our contact tracers are successfully contacting not just index cases but close contacts of people, and they are reaching well over 90 per cent. By any standard, that is successful. We monitor the system carefully and we will take steps to make improvements where necessary, but I do not want people out there to get an impression that test and protect is not working. That would be counterproductive, particularly when it is working so well and people should have confidence in it, because the experience is there to suggest it.

Thirdly, on our route map, we are going into a different phase. In my statement—I appreciate that I did this in a single line, so we will set out more detail—I indicated that we are going to publish a strategic approach to escalation in particular areas where there is high transmission. That will move us from a route map that applies countrywide into something that allows us to flex, on a much more transparent basis, depending on rates of transmission.

All those points are important and we will continue to take all of them forward. I hope that we can continue to have a spirit of collective endeavour, not just across the country but across this Parliament.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The Scottish Greens have throughout supported a precautionary approach to dealing with the pandemic. It is now quite clear that the virus is spreading and further action is urgently needed to get on top of it, so we support the measures that have been announced today.

The First Minister will be aware of the huge toll that months of restrictions have taken on the country’s mental health. The thought of weeks or months more, although necessary, will be devastating for many, so it is vital that mental health support is available to all who need it.

The furlough scheme has been essential in supporting thousands of people who have been unable to work throughout the pandemic, through no fault of their own. Bringing an end to furlough while introducing additional restrictions is simply dangerous and wrong. Support for workers, including the self-employed, must be extended.

To suppress and, ultimately, eliminate Covid, we need the Scottish public to continue to abide by the rules, but none of us should be in any doubt that this is an enormous ask of everyone across the country, young and old alike. Equally, the Scottish Government must step up to the challenge and move mountains to make mass testing happen in Scotland. Mass testing, including weekly tests for those who are at heightened risk of exposure to the virus because they work in our hospitals, in our schools or provide care, is critical. If it is to be delivered, we need a new strategy to rapidly expand NHS Scotland’s capacity. Will the First Minister commit to investing in making mass testing happen in Scotland, rather than continuing to rely on the UK Government’s failed testing programme?

The First Minister:

I thank Alison Johnstone for all those points, and I will try to respond to them as briefly as possible.

I absolutely agree about the impact that all this is having on mental health. I doubt that there is a person in the whole country who would not identify with that, but the pandemic will be taking a particularly heavy toll on some people’s mental health. That is why we thought very carefully about the household restrictions and made sure that there are some exemptions from them, particularly for children and younger people, but also for couples and those who live alone, to try to help with the burden on them. It is also why it is important to take action now to get the transmission of the virus down, in order that we can continue to open up the health service, which includes mental health services as well as physical health services.

I agree very much with the points on furlough. At the COBRA meeting this morning, all three devolved Administrations raised issues of on-going financial support for businesses, including for those in the hospitality sector that will be affected by the curfew that has been announced today. We continue to seek to persuade the UK Government to do more on that, as well as to extend the job retention scheme, which, given the position that we are in now, is even more essential, it seems to me, than it was just a few days ago.

On testing, I absolutely endorse the sentiments behind Alison Johnstone’s question and agree with them, but there are perhaps points of detail that I would come at from a slightly different perspective. Our testing system right now is appropriate and clinically driven and it is providing access to the groups of people in Scotland whom we consider need access to testing. We are not deprioritising certain groups in the way that might be happening elsewhere in the UK.

We all want to see mass rapid testing, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. The technology for that is not yet there, but we need to continue to work towards it.

Alison Johnstone is absolutely right in saying that there have been problems, over the past couple of weeks, in the UK testing system. I know that. I have spoken about them. I do not think that it is entirely fair to characterise them in the way that has been done. We need to work through those problems and to build up our own capacity. We are doing that. We continue to make progress in all those things.

One of the most important things that I want to get across today is that test and protect is functioning well. It is really important that we all encourage people to have confidence in that system, because it is important both in identifying cases and in allowing the follow-up that supports self-isolation.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I thank the First Minister for agreeing to publish the local data to which she referred—I have been keen for that to happen—and for the on-going dialogue on care home visits.

I will assist with the amplification of today’s important messages, because it is important to help keep people safe. I am keen to explore, however, how this situation has happened. The First Minister told us in spring and summer that she was taking a more cautious approach, which we supported. She said that she was aiming for the elimination of the virus, and she praised people for sticking to the guidance.

Now, however, the R number has doubled and is broadly similar to that in the rest of the UK; and the incidence rate in some parts of Scotland is just like that in many parts of England. Having sacrificed so much, people want to know why this has happened. Will the First Minister help to explain why?

The First Minister:

Yes; I hope that I can do that. I appreciate that things are complex and frustrating, and I think that the questions are perfectly legitimate.

I still think that our approach at all times should be to aim for the maximum possible suppression, to the point of elimination. I go back to everything that I said over the summer. I have always said that it is not the same as eradication; it is not a point in time. We do that when we can, in order to put ourselves in the strongest possible position for facing the more difficult periods.

We always knew that coming out of lockdown—and, in particular, going into winter—would put the situation under strain again, with the virus spreading more widely. That has happened. We were always going to have to face a situation in which we would potentially have to turn up the dial again, and that is what we are doing right now.

This morning’s four-nations agreement is important. If we all work on the basis of refusing to let the virus spread out of control, suppressing it to the lowest possible level is really important. Now that we have other tools to bring to bear—as well as test and protect—our measures, while still tough, can be more targeted.

I know that it is difficult. I do not think that any country in the world is not having to face these challenges. The virus has run out of control again in many countries across Europe. Some are ahead of us, and we are trying to avoid following that trajectory. It is difficult for everybody. I understand that.

This is a global pandemic of an infectious virus and, until we get a vaccine, we are going to have to flex the way in which we live our lives, in order to contain it. Sometimes, during summer periods, a harsh lockdown will have allowed us to drive it further back, which helps us to be in a stronger position to tackle it when it will be on the upswing again. That is the complexity of the situation that we are having to deal with.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

For those who are being asked to self-isolate because they have come into contact with someone who has tested Covid-positive, there are worrying reports that, in effect, they are being forced to choose between going to work—risking spreading the virus—or losing their pay.

Will the First Minister clarify whether she has received confirmation from the UK Government as to how much the Scottish Government will receive in Barnett consequentials to support those who cannot work from home and who lose income as a result?

The First Minister:

It is important that we have financial support for people and I am pleased that the UK Government has made similar announcements. We cannot expect people to choose between self-isolating for the greater good and, because they have done that, being unable to pay the rent or feed their families. People will not comply if that is the case, so it is important that we provide support.

I prefer supporting people to penalising them, because my guess is that the vast majority want to do the right thing. The reasons why they do not do so are often practical reasons that make the right thing impossible.

The financial support that we have announced today will be important, as will the work that we are doing with local authorities to offer people additional support, similar to that which was provided for the shielded group, of having shopping or medicines delivered, if that is needed.

We are still in discussions with the UK Government about the quantum of the consequentials, which it has confirmed will go through the Barnett formula. All three devolved Governments were pressing for an answer at the COBRA meeting this morning on whether that would be additional to, or part of, money that has already been announced. Discussions on that are on-going. We also have to accept, to a large degree, that such support will be demand-led. In my view, arrangements will need to be made in the provision of funding that take that into account. We want to conclude those discussions as quickly as possible.

Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

Even before today’s statement, a significant backlog in scheduled hospital operations and routine tests had built up as a result of Covid-19. Further restrictions could impact on such services to the point at which the delays become insurmountable. The First Minister mentioned restarting paused NHS services, but does she have a plan to ensure that already postponed procedures go ahead? How will today’s announcement affect that plan?

The First Minister:

Yes—there is a plan and the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has talked about it in detail in the chamber and further afield. I am sure that she would be happy to write to Donald Cameron with updates on that.

This comes back to what I spoke about earlier: when we live with a global pandemic of an infectious virus, we cannot do everything that we want to do, so we have to make choices. We have chosen to prioritise keeping kids at school and trying to open the NHS again for non-Covid-19 patients. That means that we have to accept other restrictions in trying to keep the virus under control.

What we have announced today is about ensuring that we can continue to deal with the backlog of procedures and have patients seen within the timescales in which we want them to be seen. However, doing so depends on the measures being successful. The really important point is to say that we must all comply with everything that the Government has set out in order that we allow other things to happen as we want them to happen. That will not be easy over the winter months, but right now we are placing more restrictions on people than other Governments might choose to place on them, because we want to create the space, if possible, to do those other very important things.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Although it is absolutely vital that we reduce Covid-19 transmission rates, action to do so has an economic impact, as many members have suggested. How important is it that the UK Government extends the coronavirus job retention scheme while financial measures are being put in place to limit job losses, particularly in the hospitality sector?

The First Minister:

My views on furlough are well known and have been widely shared. I know that other devolved Administrations, business organisations and trade unions have made similar points. I hope that we will see a change of stance on furlough over the next couple of weeks. I do not know exactly what that will look like, but we continue to seek to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer not to withdraw the scheme without putting something appropriate and substantial in its place.

The need for that was obvious before now, but today the Prime Minister gave in the House of Commons his view that some restrictions will be needed for six months. We can debate whether we think that that is essential or inevitable, but if that is the Government’s view, it seems to be obvious that support for business will be required over that period.

The curfew in hospitality allows pubs and restaurants to continue to trade, but will curtail their trade. That curfew is likely to be in place in some form or another across the UK, although other Governments have to confirm that. It is important that we ensure that there is UK-wide financial support for businesses. I raised that at COBRA, and we will ensure that those discussions continue.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

The First Minister said that she does not believe that asking people to shield again is the best way to secure their safety, given the impact that it would have on their mental and physical health. What evidence has the Scottish Government used to inform that position, and will the learning from that evidence be published? Does that mean that shielding has been ruled out for the future? How does the learning apply to what is happening in our care homes and to young people and children who are in residential accommodation and are not seeing their families very often at the moment?

The First Minister:

On the shielding group, we take clinical advice from the chief medical officer and others. In the earlier stage of the pandemic, as we were seeking to develop the route map out of shielding, we were advised by a clinical group, and we continue to take that advice.

We have also heard a lot of feedback from people who have been shielding about its impact on them and what they want. Although this is not its only intended use, the neighbourhood data that I spoke about is intended to provide shielded people with much more visible information about any heightened risk in their areas.

It is a difficult issue. I suppose that the direct response to the direct question is to say that I do not rule anything out. Of course, we will not rule out a return to shielding for any group of people, if we are advised, and consider it to be the case, that it is necessary in order to keep them safe.

For me, the shielding debate goes to the heart of the debate about how we as a country deal with Covid. Right now, some people are of the opinion—they include scientists, and they are entitled to hold this opinion—that we should basically seal off the vulnerable groups in our society, let everybody else live their lives normally and let Covid do what it will do among the healthier population.

I do not agree with that, practically or ethically. We cannot segregate our lives in that way. We live interdependently; younger people live with older people. I also do not think that it is ethically right to expect one group of the population to bear all the burden of dealing with the pandemic. We must all shoulder some of the burden. Ethically, that is important.

I also think that not doing that gives younger and healthier people the misleading message that they are not at risk. They are at lower risk, but they are not at no risk either of dying or—which is perhaps more likely—of infection having serious health implications.

Those are important ethical and practical considerations. It is better that we all try to keep shielded people safe than that we expect them to hide themselves away and take all the impacts while the rest of us go back to complete normality.

That is my view, but, of course, we have to continue to take advice and do what is required in order to keep people safe. That is what we will continue to do.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Home is not safe for everyone, and some women and children will feel fear and anxiety about the prospect of tightened restrictions. For the benefit of people who are watching at home now, can the First Minister outline where anyone who is experiencing, or who is at risk of, violence and domestic abuse in their home can get the help that they need and deserve in order to be safe?

The First Minister:

When I and my ministerial colleagues are taking these decisions, that is one of the issues that is always high in my mind.

It causes me a lot of anxiety, as we try to navigate our way through the situation, because I understand that, for those who are experiencing domestic abuse, any measures that keep people more in their homes and not at work and interacting with others can increase the risk that they face. We do not disregard that risk at all.

I want to be very clear: there is support for anyone who is at risk. Services are open and available. Police Scotland continues to prioritise responding to domestic abuse. Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for anyone who is seeking support. It is available by telephone, web chat or email, and details are on its website.

We have recently announced additional funding to enhance the ability of front-line services in domestic abuse. Those services stand ready to support anyone who is experiencing violence or abuse.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

The First Minister advised people not to book travel overseas for the October break. Many of our constituents will already have booked, or will be looking to book, breaks within the UK for October. Does the First Minister have any advice for people in that situation?

The First Minister:

I will try to be as frank as possible. I want the Scottish tourism industry to continue to recover and prosper. We all want that. However, I must also recognise that with the virus being on the rise, sometimes—even when there is not a lockdown—advising people to stay close to home and not to travel far is important. As we go through the next few weeks, we will try to get the balance as right as possible.

These are not easy issues for any Government anywhere. I know that the situation is difficult for our aviation sector and our airports, but right now, in an accelerating global pandemic, travelling overseas increases the risk of bringing back more of the virus. It also raises the risk for people that rules will change while they are away. The clear advice that I want to give people right now is this: please, do not book to go overseas during the October break. Think about how you might use that break to reduce your interaction as much as possible, and perhaps think about staying closer to home than you might otherwise have done.

We will continue to work with the tourism industry, which has done so much work to try to open safely, in order to ensure that the messages balance the various considerations of which we must take account.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

Earlier in the pandemic, there was a huge rise in demand for online orders for deliveries from supermarkets, which resulted in long waiting lists and some people not being able to arrange deliveries at all. That was a particular issue in my rural South Scotland region, including in Dumfries and Galloway. Will the First Minister outline the measures and arrangements that have been put in place to ensure that people who are self-isolating can be prioritised for deliveries?

The First Minister:

First, I stress that there is no need for people who are not isolating to change their shopping habits or to take up slots that could be used by people who are isolating. For people who are isolating, in many cases—as it was for people who were shielding—support from friends, family and neighbours will often be the quickest and simplest way to access the food and essentials that they need. The national assistance helpline is available to anyone who needs to access support from the local authority. The number for that is 0800 111 4000.

As I said earlier, we are working with local authorities to ensure that, as well as the financial support that I talked about, a proactive approach is taken to people who are being asked to self-isolate, in order that we ensure that they have the support that they need.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

The restrictions will be hard on everyone, but particularly on those in the 16 to 25 age group, who are at a critical stage in their lives. The further restrictions on pubs and the hospitality sector will mean that they miss interacting and socialising with friends. It is important to address that group directly.

How can we avoid a generation of young people in that age group being mentally affected by further restrictions on their lives at a critical stage of adulthood? Has any specific thinking been done about those in the 16 to 25 age group when planning for better times, to recognise what they have been through?

The First Minister:

Of all the things that weigh on my mind and on all our minds every day, that is one of the most significant. I have a few relatives who are in that age group, so at a personal level I am constantly being asked what thinking we are doing about them.

What I am saying is really important, although it does not cover all those in the age group that Pauline McNeill spoke about—I will come on to talk about them more generally in a moment. We thought about this carefully, and as late as this morning I was discussing with the chief medical officer the extent to which we could exempt those in the 12 to 18-year-old age group from the outdoor household restriction. We decided, not without reservations, to allow them to meet as six people without applying the two-household limit, because that is not the way that teenagers live their lives. We are mindful of that, which is why I am saying to teenagers that we are trying to give them as much flexibility as we can and that, in return, they should try to work with us.

It is important to keep older young people in education—not just school education but university and college education—if not entirely normally, then with some semblance of normality. We recognise the need for interaction and we are trying to be as flexible as possible. Of course, we also recognise the economic implications for that age group, which is why the job guarantee is such an essential part of our thinking: that we do what we can economically to make sure that that generation does not bear a long-term legacy.

There will be other things that we try to do, because the issue will occupy us for some time to come. However, it is of absolutely central importance to all our thinking.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

Will the First Minister outline the measures that are in place to support blended education for those children who have to self-isolate but are not unwell?

The First Minister:

Supported by councils, Education Scotland and the Scottish Government, schools are taking steps to ensure that they continue to provide a full curriculum to all young people in all circumstances.

The national online learning platform, Glow, has seen a huge increase in the number of users and usage since March, and it continues to be a vital source for learners and teachers across the country. We are working closely with partners to develop and roll out more resources for schools to draw on.

Education Scotland is also providing training for teachers to ensure that they can manage students learning at home where that is necessary, and support for parents is available via the Parent Club website. We are also investing to support digital inclusion among school-aged children and young people.

Those plans will be important in supporting any young person who cannot be in school full time for any period. However, our central ambition is to do everything possible to keep schools operating as normally as possible, because that is in the best interests of the majority of young people.

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

In the early days of the pandemic, those who are over 70 and have underlying health conditions were on the shielding register and were able to receive up-to-date information either by letter or text message. However, we know that many older people slipped through the net, and were not able to access the most up-to-date information about what they needed to do. I know that shielding has not been reintroduced, but it is important that the same people are well informed about new restrictions and the actions that they need to take. Has the First Minister considered what the Government can do to make sure that those people receive the messages that they need?

The First Minister:

Although we are not reintroducing shielding, the advice and information route to people who were in the shielded category continues. Many have signed up to the SMS text service—if they are not, they can get the details and do so. A message giving some up-to-date information went out just last week—I know that because my mother-in-law got it. That is a route that we continue to use. As I said earlier, the provision of more local information will help with that. I come back to the point that continuing to update the public daily through the medium of television is important. More older people will see information in that way than by using phones or social media. All those things are important.

It is also appropriate for me to stress a point about the household restrictions. Earlier, I talked about exceptions, and one of the exceptions, which I do not think that I mentioned, is that, if people care for or deliver shopping to older or vulnerable people, they can continue to do so. We continue to take such matters seriously, and we will try to get people the information that they need in a way that is as accessible as possible.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport asked health boards to identify 2,000 contact tracers, yet there are only 874 of them—less than half what is required—and most are redeployed from existing work in the NHS. Given that we agree how important contact tracers and testing are to the control of the virus, what urgent steps will the First Minister take to increase the number of contact tracers? Specifically, what will she do to improve testing at airports to assist the aviation sector and to provide more local testing facilities, given that community transmission is high?

The First Minister:

On the first point, I think that there is a bit of a misunderstanding. We have a pool of contact tracers in health boards that they can draw on if they need to. Right now, our contact tracers are tracing well over 90 per cent of index cases and close contacts, which I think is probably a higher percentage than in any other part of the UK.

As we said we would do at the outset, health boards initially identified the pool of people from within their workforces to be called on when needed. We are going through a recruitment process to permanently fill those posts, to allow people who are in the pool to be released as they are no longer needed. There is no shortage of contact tracers, but that does not mean that the system will not be under stress sometimes. That is why the national contact centre is so important to building resilience into the systems.

On airports, I will not go into detail—I have done so several times—but all four Governments are considering the issue. There is a balance of risk—we know that quarantine is not completely effective and that there will be people who get through the net. However, if we substitute quarantine for testing, it might be that more people get through the net. Therefore, we have to try to work with airports and come to a view on what is the best method of protecting ourselves against the importation of the virus. Those considerations continue.

We are expanding local access to testing all the time. We are expanding the number of mobile testing units that we have and, as I said, we are in the process of establishing a number of walk-in testing centres. The one in St Andrews was the first, one opened in Glasgow at the weekend, and others will be opening over the next couple of weeks.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

The Government’s website states that

“Test and Protect ... aims to prevent the spread of coronavirus”.

If test and protect is working well, as the First Minister claims, surely we should not be seeing rising case numbers on such a scale. What is going wrong? Are the index cases not self-isolating, are they not reporting all their contacts, and/or are all their contacts not self-isolating?

The First Minister:

Nothing is going wrong in that sense. Test and protect is part of the suite of measures that we have to prevent the spread of Covid.

However, as we have said all along, test and protect will never be capable of doing that on its own—anywhere—so we all have to do our bit to help. Given the spread of the virus, if we did not have test and protect, we would probably be faced with a much stricter lockdown than we are faced with right now. Given that we have test and protect, we can be more targeted in what we are asking individuals to do. However, unfortunately, that does not mean that individuals are not expected to do something as part of all this.

Test and protect is working very well. The contact rate for index cases and contacts is very high. We need to keep that rate high. As I have spoken about in the past couple of weeks—and this has improved—we need to make sure that the turnaround time for tests is quick so that contact tracers can get on with that bit of the process as quickly as possible.

The system is working well. I am the last person to be complacent about that, because I know the strain that there will be on the system as we go into winter. That is why we continue to take steps to build the resilience of the system. I want people out there to have confidence in the system, because it merits such confidence.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the First Minister understand that forbidding people from visiting their family and other households cannot hold for long, and for the state to say that people cannot meet their family at home but can meet in the pub is simply wrong?

The First Minister:

I do not agree. Mike Rumbles is probably on a different side of the debate from me on how we deal with Covid. That is fine. I suspect that he is much more of the libertarian view that we should let people live normally and let the virus take its course. I think that that would be disastrous and is fundamentally wrong

.

On the issue of pubs versus households—

The First Minister:

I apologise to Mike Rumbles. Perhaps I was a bit intemperate. I did not mean to offend him in that way—I hope that he will accept that. I was being generalist and I should not have been. I apologise to him for that.

Let me get to the heart of the issue. It is a difficult balance to strike. I understand that as the person who has to communicate such things. However, we have to strike different balances. We need to protect people’s jobs as far as possible—particularly given that we do not have the financial levers that would allow us to do more to mitigate the impact on jobs—and to try as far as possible to suppress the spread of the virus. The environment in our houses is less regulated—understandably—than that in pubs, and we know that that is a key driver of transmission right now. In pubs, we can put more regulation in place.

Those balances are not easy to strike—I get that. However, we are trying to do our best to get them as right as possible and to protect people from a virus that is, unfortunately, infectious and dangerous. We will keep trying to get that balance right for as long as we need to.

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, First Minister. I apologise to the half a dozen members whom I was not able to call to speak.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. The First Minister’s statement is extremely serious for the country. Previously, she has been very generous with her time and has answered all questions—and you have allowed that to happen, Presiding Officer. Is there no opportunity to allow us to do that today?

The Presiding Officer:

It is not possible to do that by extending this particular statement, Mr Findlay. However, I was about to finish my remarks by saying that First Minister’s questions will be an appropriate opportunity on Thursday. I have taken note of the half a dozen members who were not able to answer ask a question today, and I encourage them to press their questions on Thursday.

There will be a short pause while members change seats before we move on to the next item of business. I urge all members to be careful when leaving the chamber and to observe social distancing.