Covid-19 Restrictions (Impact on Health and Economy)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 27th October 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government what analysis it has carried out of the impact of the most recent restrictions on both health and the economy. (S5T-02478)

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Decisions on protective measures are taken on the basis of public health advice from the national incident management team that is chaired by Public Health Scotland, and then on the basis of a broader four-harms assessment by senior clinical and policy advisors, looking at the likely impacts of protective measures, not only in reducing transmission of the virus, but on wider health, society and the economy. The impact is closely monitored and is taken into account in considering whether to maintain, ease or strengthen measures that are currently in place.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Will the Deputy First Minister publish that assessment so that we can inform our constituents on the background to the Government’s current work? The strategy is now to move from four phases to five tiers, so what baseline has the Scottish Government adopted that will inform policy decisions on the five categories of measures that were published last week, and which will lead to decisions on local restrictions from next Monday that the First Minister will, I understand, announce on Thursday?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Government publishes a significant amount of the evidence base that underpins the decisions that we take. An evidence paper was produced as part of the information that was put into the public domain before the October recess. In our dialogue with local authority partners, we have also shared a vast amount of data and information on prevalence of the virus and the circumstances in which it is spreading. That takes into account many of the issues that Sarah Boyack has raised. Of course, if there is other specific information that she believes it would be helpful for the Government to publish, I would be very happy to consider that.

On the baseline for the levels framework that the First Minister set out on Friday, which will be the subject of debate later today, level 0 is, essentially, the position that we reached when we entered phase 3 of the route map out of lockdown. That enabled a significant proportion of our economy and society to reopen; 96 per cent of our businesses reopened, our schools reopened, our colleges and universities returned and many aspects of people’s lives went back to a semblance of normality. That is the baseline for the levels framework. Obviously, the levels indicate the degree of more serious challenge in different localities. As I have said, that issue will be discussed by Parliament this afternoon.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Will the cabinet secretary accept that, even though we got a raft of information this morning to inform the discussions that we MSPs will have this afternoon, we do not have information on the first issue that I asked him about, which is the impact of the two weeks of restrictions that we have just experienced? We need to be able to demonstrate to our constituents what works and what does not work as well as is needed, in order to inform their habits and their compliance with the new restrictions that we will all be issued with, and which will start next week.

The cabinet secretary mentioned the four-harms analysis and the five indicators that inform the levels that he is adopting. Can we have clarity on how those relate to each other and how they will inform the decisions that the Government will take this week that will put us on the new levels? Can he demonstrate what has happened thus far that will inform those decisions? Reading the paperwork does not give the clarity that our constituents are asking for, regardless of the position that they are coming from.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

One of the challenges of addressing that question is the fact that the gestation period of the virus requires that sufficient time pass before we can see the effect of the restrictive measures that we have put in place. For example, the two weeks of restrictions that were applied shortly before recess—which we have said we will extend for a further week, until 2 November, when the new levels framework comes into place—is essentially one gestation cycle for the virus. As a consequence, we will see the progress of the measures that have been taken to tackle the virus.

I say to Sarah Boyack that the best means by which we can identify what works is our seeing its impact on the prevalence of the virus. The extensive data that has been published by Public Health Scotland on prevalence of the virus, on a day-by-day and neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood basis, gives some of the strongest possible fine detail on the effectiveness of measures. For example, the city of Aberdeen has gone from being in a very acute situation of infectiousness some weeks ago to a position in which there is much lower prevalence of the virus, because of the measures that were put in place. Other parts of the country have moved in the opposite direction.

There is data available. That is the material that I am discussing with local authority leaders, as we prepare for application of the levels framework. I have more calls to make on that, to which I have to return very shortly. That data will enable us to have proper and full dialogue with local authority partners about how we make decisions.

The Presiding Officer:

There are a number of supplementaries.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

Aberdeen and Edinburgh have shown the biggest falls in jobs vacancies anywhere in the United Kingdom during the crisis. How can local economies be expected to recover if the Scottish National Party’s business support measures are failing to such an extent?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I simply do not follow the logic of Mr Golden’s incoherent question. The Government is putting in place support that is commensurate with the resources that are available to it. We are assisting individual local economies and businesses to deal with the current circumstances. The issue that Mr Golden has raised—the performance of the Aberdeen and Edinburgh economies—is a product of a global pandemic that all Governments are trying to tackle by putting in place business supports that are commensurate with what is available to them.

If Mr Golden was to put any muscle that he has into encouraging the United Kingdom Government to deal with Scotland in a level and fair way, compared with how it is dealing with England, and to provide the Cabinet Secretary for Finance with the degree of flexibility that has been given in England, that would certainly help to address the core of Mr Golden’s question.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Given what the cabinet secretary has just been saying, what representations will he make to the UK Government about the financial assistance that is needed now to help Scottish businesses and employees to get through this economic crisis?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Government is in regular contact with the UK Government on that question. Indeed, the finance secretary was involved in a finance ministers quadrilateral meeting just last week. She continues to make vigorous representations to the UK Government, and did so in a further letter on 20 October.

All this matters, because the support that has been available to businesses in Scotland has been a combination of the financial support that has been offered by the Scottish Government and the coronavirus job retention scheme that the United Kingdom Government made available. Dr Allan will be familiar with the fact that the furlough scheme has been severely curtailed as a consequence of decisions that have been taken by the UK Government. We are urging it to revisit those decisions to enable us to put stronger financial support in place for businesses and to complement the assistance that is available from the Scottish Government.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

Yesterday’s reports that North and South Lanarkshire are being considered for tier 4 restrictions have been met with anxiety across the region. A move to tier 4 would undoubtedly result in job losses and businesses closing. What financial support will be put in place to avoid a catastrophic impact on local communities? When will the decision be taken about Lanarkshire? What interaction will there be with local council leaders, business leaders, and parliamentarians?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

On the situation in North and South Lanarkshire, Mr Kelly is correct that the correspondence that the Government sent to the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities set out the detail that came from the national incident management team, to which I referred in my answer to Sarah Boyack. It suggests, based on current prevalence of the virus, that there are concerns that could see North and South Lanarkshire being allocated to tier 4 within the framework. I stress to Mr Kelly that the Government wishes to avoid that, if it is at all possible, but we have to be cognisant of the evidence and data that are put in front of us by our public health experts.

On the question about our interaction with local authority leaders, just before I came into the chamber I spoke to the leader and the chief executive of North Lanarkshire Council. When I leave the chamber—it might be helpful to say to you, Presiding Officer, that I will leave the chamber when I have answered the question—I will speak to the leader and the chief executive of South Lanarkshire Council to hear their perspectives. The call that I had with the leader and chief executive of North Lanarkshire Council was helpful in that it provided some clarity and specific information about what that authority is doing to tackle the issue.

I appreciate that people in Lanarkshire will be anxious, so I assure Mr Kelly that the Government wants to avoid making that designation if we can, but we must take cognisance of the evidence.

In relation to financial support, the Government has set out the measures that will be available to support business over the period. We will continue to hold dialogue with businesses. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture and the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism have been in dialogue with the hospitality sector and the business community over the weekend. I hope that gives some reassurance to Mr Kelly about how the Government is approaching the issue.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Covid data is being published locally, and I note what the Deputy First Minister said about discussions with local authorities. Is the Scottish Government considering applying restrictions by local authority area rather than by health board area? Midlothian, in my constituency, is lumped in with the city of Edinburgh. That will possibly put it in the same tier as Edinburgh, with all the restrictions that might not be suitable for the area, and the consequences for businesses and individuals in my constituency that will flow from that.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The building blocks of the levels framework will all be set by local authority area. That is a move away from where we have been, so far.

I did not answer Mr Kelly’s question about timing and decision making. We expect to come to final decisions on the first allocation of levels on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, with regulations being put before Parliament on Thursday. The regulations will set out what levels local authorities will be going on to. That will be done by local authority area, not by health board area.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

I listened to the response to Sarah Boyack’s question on the gestation period. Hospitality has now been closed for more than two weeks, so I presume that it cannot be a source of transmission. To assist understanding of the decisions that are being taken, will the Scottish Government tell us exactly where transmission is taking place?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

My point about gestation of the virus is about contacts between individuals. The virus is spread by human transmission and by contamination of surfaces. The gestation period is not related to how long a sector has been closed or operating on a restricted basis. There are elements of hospitality that are still operating and there will be seeds of the virus in the community. We are trying to reduce the prevalence of the virus.

I know that Elaine Smith takes a close interest in the Lanarkshire area. We are seeing a slowing of the rate of increase, which is a cause for optimism. It has not yet gone into decline, but the rate of increase has slowed. That is welcome in the decision-making process in which we are currently involved.