– in the Scottish Parliament on 1st December 2020.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Our next item of business is a statement from the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Covid-19. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement. 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

Presiding Officer, I will shortly set out the conclusions of the Government’s weekly review of the allocation of levels of protection to each local authority area. However, I will start with a brief summary of the statistics.

The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 754, or 7.3 per cent of all tests carried out. The total number of cases stands at 95,811. One thousand and twenty-one people are in hospital—a decrease of 20 from yesterday—and 70 people are in intensive care, which is 5 fewer than yesterday.

However, I regret to say that, in the past 24 hours, a further 34 deaths have been registered of patients who had tested positive in the previous 28 days, and that the total number of deaths, under that measurement, is now 3,759. Those figures remind us of course that the virus is still taking a toll across the country and, again, my thoughts and condolences are with everyone who has been bereaved.

At the outset, I confirm that the Scottish Government is not today proposing any immediate changes to the levels that currently apply to each local authority area, although, as I will outline in a moment, there are some areas that we are monitoring closely. Overall, though, the latest data shows that the restrictions that are in place are, we believe, having a positive impact.

Three weeks ago—in the seven days to Friday 13 November—an average of 1,116 new cases a day was being recorded. By last Friday, that had fallen to 863 new cases a day, which is a reduction of more than one fifth. Independent estimates also continue to place the R number slightly below 1; again, that is indicative of a decline in infections.

We are also now starting to see a fall in the number of people who are in hospital and intensive care units with Covid. When I updated Parliament three weeks ago, 1,239 people were in hospital with Covid—102 in intensive care.

Today, as members just heard me report, 1,021 people are in hospital and 70 are in intensive care. The figures are coming down, which means that—taking all of that into account—I can say with some confidence that we are making good progress at this stage.

It is important to stress that, because I know that for some people whose area has been in the same level of restrictions for some time, and who are still hearing us report high numbers of deaths and new cases each day, it can sometimes seem as though the restrictions are not working. It is important to stress that that is not the case. The sacrifices that everyone is making are making a difference. They are getting case numbers down, reducing the numbers who get ill and need hospital care and therefore protecting the national health service and saving lives.

That said—and I have made this point previously—the level of the virus overall, particularly in some parts of the country, is still higher than we need it to be. There are still pressures on the health service, which any increase in rates of infection would quickly intensify. As we go deeper into the winter, a number of factors might well push transmission up again, and we could see cases and resulting illness and deaths start to rise again. That means that we have an interest in driving cases as low as we can now. That necessitates continued caution.

In summary, therefore, although we are encouraged by the impact that the current restrictions have had, the need to strengthen and solidify that progress means that we should continue to take care and err on the side of caution. For all those reasons, the Cabinet, when it discussed the matter earlier today, concluded that we will not propose any changes to the levels this week.

I remind members that it is also the case that the level 4 restrictions that are in place in 11 local authority areas will be lifted a week on Friday—11 December—so, as we decide the levels into which each of those areas will go, we will have an opportunity at next week’s review to look at the allocation of levels across the country more generally. I flag up right now that it is likely, therefore, that next week’s review will be more substantial than today’s.

For now, though, I can confirm that Highland, Moray, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles will remain in level 1.

Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Argyll and Bute, the Borders, Dumfries and Galloway and East Lothian will remain in level 2. However, I need to be clear—I indicated this earlier—that we have been looking and will continue to look carefully in the days to come at Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire. Cases in both local authority areas have increased sharply in the past week—by 68 per cent in Aberdeen City, and by 42 per cent in Aberdeenshire. That means that case numbers in those areas—although it is important to stress that in both areas case numbers are still below the national average—are higher than in some level 3 areas, such as Angus. Case positivity has also increased in both areas.

However, there is a need to understand more deeply the extent to which those increases are driven by specific outbreaks that are being actively managed within food processing plants and care settings, for example, versus a wider and more general increase in community transmission, which would obviously be a concern, especially as we go further into the winter. I have therefore asked that the data for Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire be considered in more depth over the next couple of days by the chief medical officer and the national incident management team and then discussed with both local authorities and the NHS Grampian director of public health.

Given the degree of uncertainty in the information that we have so far, and in recognition of the economic and social impact for any area of a move up to level 3, we have decided to await that further analysis before reaching a firm conclusion. If the information justifies a move to level 3 for one of or both those council areas, we will set that out at next week’s review—or earlier, if the situation merits it.

The other level 2 council that I want to make particular mention of is Dumfries and Galloway. The data there is indicative of a move to level 1 soon. However, the concern right now, in addition to the general winter factors that we are considering across the country, is that Dumfries and Galloway is bordered by areas that have significant, higher levels of infection. That is why the strong public health advice, which the Cabinet accepted this morning, is for the area to remain in level 2 for now.

Angus, Clackmannanshire, Dundee, the City of Edinburgh, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, Midlothian, North Ayrshire and Perth and Kinross will remain in level 3 for now. Last week, I expressed some concern about rising case numbers in Clackmannanshire and Perth and Kinross, but I am pleased to note that numbers in both those areas have stabilised and are improving.

Finally, as I indicated, 11 local authority areas will remain in level 4 for one further week. Those are Glasgow City, East and West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian. We will confirm next week the levels that those areas will move into when level 4 restrictions end on 11 December.

I will update Parliament on three further points. First, I want to highlight the changes that we announced yesterday and will make from next Monday to eligibility for self-isolation support grants. Those changes mean that potentially eligible individuals no longer have to be receiving universal credit to claim the payment if their local authority believes that they would qualify for universal credit if they applied. In addition, the grants are now available for people on low incomes who have to stay at home while their children are self-isolating and who would otherwise lose out as a result. Ensuring that people self-isolate is an essential part of tackling the virus, so the extension of support payments is an important way in which we can help more people to do the right thing.

The second point is to report briefly on the continued expansion of the testing programme. The mass testing of students has started successfully, and all students who are planning to return home for Christmas are advised to take two lateral flow tests a few days apart. Many students have already done that, and many more are booked in for those tests.

In addition, testing is now available for people without symptoms of Covid in several communities across the country where there has been high prevalence of the virus. For example, test sites opened yesterday in Dalmarnock and Pollokshields in Glasgow; in Stewarton in East Ayrshire; and in Girvan in South Ayrshire. Another site opens tomorrow in Johnstone in Renfrewshire. Those trials are important, not only for their own sake, but because they will inform our plans to expand community testing early in the new year. We hope that that will be a useful additional tool in reducing prevalence of the virus in areas with high rates of transmission.

Finally, I reiterate that—subject to regulatory decisions—we remain hopeful that, even before Christmas, we will be in a position to start vaccinating people in Scotland against Covid. The Cabinet reviewed the plans for vaccination this morning and I can confirm that we are ready to begin that process as soon we receive the first supplies of vaccine. We hope that, by the spring, a significant proportion of the people who are most vulnerable to Covid will have been vaccinated. Over time, vaccination will help us all to return to a more normal pattern of life, which means that a possible route out of pandemic for Scotland is in sight. We therefore have all the more reason to keep ourselves and each other safe, as we head towards—we hope—that end point.

Perhaps now more than ever, sticking to the rules continues to be the way in which we can do that. I ask for continued compliance in the weeks ahead. Outside of the three island authorities, none of us should meet in each other’s homes. Meetings outdoors or in public indoor places should stay within the limits of six people from two households. I ask everyone to continue to abide by the important travel restrictions. If you live in a level 3 or level 4 area, do not leave your local authority area unless for an essential purpose; if you live elsewhere, do not travel into a level 3 or level 4 area. Everyone must also avoid non-essential travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK.

Finally, remember FACTS, the five rules that help to keep us all safe in our day-to-day lives: wear face coverings; avoid crowded places; clean hands and hard surfaces; keep 2m distance; and self-isolate and book a test if you have symptoms. If we all stick to those rules, I hope that we will be able to see the progress that I have been able to report today continue in the days and weeks to come, which will pave the way for more parts of the country to come down into lower levels of restrictions in the future.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

I welcome the news that level 4 restrictions will be lifted across 11 local authorities on Friday 11 December, and I encourage people in those areas to stick by the rules for the remaining time. Whether in level 4, 3, 2 or 1, having restrictions on how we live, work and see our loved ones has been difficult for us all this year. I recognise the effort and forbearance that it is taking for people to keep going, and I thank them for those efforts.

However, the question that I will ask the First Minister is about schools and the Christmas holidays. We have just heard John Swinney, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, being asked about what parents and teachers can or should expect, with insufficient information having to be dragged out of him in return. We have said repeatedly over the weeks and months of the pandemic that people need relevant information in good time in order to plan their lives. There are parents in council areas across Scotland who expect their children to be in school until 23 December and there are others who expect them to return to class on 5 January, but three days ago they awoke to press reports that there could be a nationwide break-up on 18 December and no return to lessons until 11 January.

For three days, we have had no confirmation from Government and there will not be a statement in the Parliament today. We are already in December and workers with children need to tell their employers what is going on, so will the First Minister confirm whether there will be a standardised nationwide school holiday this Christmas, when her Government will make a statement to the Parliament to confirm for thousands of families out there what is going on, and what provision is being put in place during this period for the children of key workers, who could be faced with a childcare crisis in little over a fortnight’s time?

The First Minister:

We will confirm the conclusions of our deliberations as soon as we have concluded them and the Deputy First Minister or I will set out to the Parliament what those conclusions are. We are deliberately thinking very hard about all those issues; they are not straightforward and there are arguments for standardising the holidays and perhaps extending them slightly and there are good arguments against that. Those decisions have to be carefully considered and of course they have to be driven by the latest evidence. That is what we will do and I hope that we will set out our conclusions on that some time over the course of this week to give parents due notice. We will take those decisions carefully, given the factors at play.

Everything that we do right now that helps to contain and suppress the virus causes difficulties and harms in other ways—that is the nature of the decision making that is under way, not only here, but across the United Kingdom and much of the world. That is why we are deliberately taking those decisions carefully and we will communicate them as soon as we can. That is also why we have taken the approach—almost every day of the pandemic—of updating the public as we go, and we will continue to do that. It is not so long ago that the Conservatives wanted to take away our ability to do that on a daily basis, but we will continue to do that. We will notify the Parliament as soon as we have come to a decision, which will be driven by the data that we monitor on a daily basis.

Photo of Richard Leonard Richard Leonard Labour

£500 is a welcome gesture for the hard work of those key workers on the front line in health and social care, but for those key workers who have been working on the front line of other parts of the public sector and those in the private sector, such as shop workers, it will be of little comfort. Although I am sure that shop workers would like a bonus this Christmas, what they need is some reassurance that they will have a job in the new year. With the collapse of two huge retailers in the past 24 hours and the real and devastating threat now posed to many retail jobs and suppliers, what assessment has the Government made of the impact of level 4 restrictions on the retail sector and will the Scottish Government now finally get around to establishing the retail recovery group that it has been promising to set up for months to try to save what is left of our high streets?

The First Minister:

First, on the £500 thank-you payment to NHS and care workers, let me take the opportunity again to say thank you to all those workers. Although no payment could ever properly express our gratitude, it is a small but important way of doing that.

All sorts of workers in all sorts of professions, occupations and sectors have gone above and beyond the call of duty in the past nine months and they have my deep and everlasting gratitude for that. We all recognise—it is why we stood on our doorsteps for week after week earlier in the year applauding health and care workers—that the contribution of that workforce is worthy of particular recognition. It is only a matter of weeks, I think, if my memory serves me correctly, since Richard Leonard at First Minister’s questions challenged me to do more to thank NHS and care workers, but, of course, as soon as we do so, he decides that that is not enough and asks for something else. However, in the face of public sector pay freezes being announced by the UK Government, we will continue to do everything that we can to ensure proper reward and recognition for not only NHS and care workers, but workers across the public sector who have contributed so much.

In relation to retail, we assess the impact of all the restrictions carefully through the four-harms analysis that we do. The reality is that, certainly on this side of the chamber, such decisions cannot be avoided. Unfortunately, the Government cannot abstain on such decisions in the way that I understand Labour is doing in another part of the UK today. We have to take decisions that suppress the virus to the extent that we can pave the way for the sustainable opening-up of the economy. If we allow the virus to run out of control, the impact on the economy will be longer lasting and much deeper than it would otherwise be.

We intend to lift the level 4 restrictions on 11 December. We will set out this time next week the levels that those areas will go into after the level 4 restrictions come to an end. We will continue to work with sectors, including retail, on recovery as we move into the next phase, start to vaccinate people and, I hope, quickly get back to a position in which the economy starts to trade and operate on a basis that is much closer to normality than it is right now.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

I am grateful for advance sight of the First Minister’s statement. The slow rate of improvement in the number of infections over the past few weeks reinforces my concern that reducing the restrictions at the end of next week and reducing them further over Christmas might mean that a sharp increase in January becomes inevitable.

I would like to ask the First Minister about compliance with level 4 restrictions. I have heard about constituents who are working for an employer whose core business of food supply is deemed essential, being expected to go out to work not to deliver food, but to do marketing, door to door and up and down tenement stairs, to drum up sales. Particularly given the extension of the furlough scheme, does the First Minister agree that employers should be deeply cautious about sending people out door to door and generating unnecessary social interactions, purely in order to drum up sales? Does she agree that such activity should not be deemed essential and that employers should think again?

The First Minister:

I agree with that in general terms. In the absence of details about precisely which companies might be doing what Patrick Harvie is talking about, I will avoid going into specifics, but I would be very happy to get more details so that we could consider the matter further.

I get lots of emails and other contacts with suggestions that some companies and individuals are not complying with the letter or the spirit of the restrictions. When it is appropriate, we follow that up. In general, compliance in level 4 areas and in areas in other levels is good and strong. Where we can, we gather data on compliance. For example, in relation to transport and travel, the police gather data on the penalties that they issue.

The evidence suggests that compliance is good, but there will always be exceptions to that. The vast majority of employers are operating responsibly but, again, there will be exceptions to that. I urge all employers to behave responsibly towards their workforce and to stay within the letter and the spirit of the restrictions because, although I recognise that it is hard now, it is to the medium to long-term benefit of employers for all of us, collectively, to get the levels and rates of infection down.

I agree with Patrick Harvie on the generality of his point. I am very happy to look at the details and, if there is more that we can do or more comments that it would be appropriate for me to make, I would be happy to do that.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

People are doing what is expected of them, which is why the indicators are improving in many parts of the country. However, 10 days after the number of cases started to increase in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, the First Minister still cannot tell us whether the increase is because of isolated outbreaks or community transmission. That was the problem when there were rises in cases of the virus in Fife and Tayside, and the situation does not seem to have improved. First, when will the tracing system be able to tell us what is going on?

Secondly, last week, I asked about visits to care homes for families. With the virus in decline in many parts of the country, when will families be allowed to see their loved ones in advance of Christmas?

The First Minister:

I and Cabinet colleagues have looked at very detailed data on Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire over today and the past number of days. We can do that because test and protect and the tracing system are working well—we would not have that information if that were not the case. However, we need to better understand and have a degree of certainty about whether those cases that we believe are largely associated with particular outbreaks—members will be aware of some of the outbreaks that we are talking about, such as those in food processing—can be contained and have not resulted in wider community transmission. Given the economic and social implications of a move up a level, I have asked that a bit more work is done on that.

In Fife and Angus, which are areas that were moved up a level some weeks ago, the situation is improving. The virus is a difficult one to contain, but the number of cases is coming down. That is happening largely because of the compliance of the public with the restrictions, but also because of the very good work that test and protect and our public health teams are doing, which they will continue to do.

The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has set out the guidance on care homes. Local public health directors are working with care homes to normalise—as far as possible—care home visiting, while continuing to keep safe people in care homes. The further measures that the health secretary set out last week to extend testing to designated visitors of care homes will help with that process, too.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

With regard to the Scottish Government measures to help people to self-isolate, will the First Minister set out what the proposed changes to the Scottish Government support are and explain how she believes that those changes will facilitate further compliance with the self-isolation rules and therefore help to stem the spread of the virus?

The First Minister:

At the moment, the grant is for low-income workers who are in receipt of universal credit or other benefits and who will lose earnings as a result of having to self-isolate. The two specific extensions will help more people. First, someone will no longer have to be in receipt of universal credit if the assessment of the local authority says that, if they applied for universal credit, they would be likely to get it. That will extend the number of people on low incomes who will be eligible for receipt of the grant.

The other extension, which, in some ways, is perhaps even more important, is to recognise the situation of some people on low incomes who will have to stop working for a period if their children are asked to self-isolate, in order to provide childcare for their children. At the moment, because the adult is not the person who is having to self-isolate, they are not eligible for the grant. From Monday, they will be eligible for the grant if their child is having to self-isolate. Again, that will extend quite considerably the reach of the support payment. I think that that will make it easier for people to do something that is inherently very difficult: to self-isolate for such a lengthy period.

We will continue to look for opportunities to strengthen the support that we are giving people so that we can continue to improve compliance with what is one of the most important restrictions—if not the most important restriction—that we are asking people to abide by at the moment.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The First Minister will know that Renfrewshire has been under heightened restrictions since 14 September. Many businesses complied with the Government’s guidelines, which resulted in their trade being limited or their doors being shut completely. Sadly, some might never reopen.

Two months in, Renfrewshire still has the highest weekly infection rate in Scotland, which is double the national average and is reducing at half the rate. It is clear that something is not working. People will rightly ask why months of lockdown are still not reaping benefits. What is not working? What is being done about it?

The First Minister:

Renfrewshire has been one of the areas that have remained at stubbornly high levels, which is why it was put at level 4 and will continue at level 4 until 11 December.

However, the last seven days of data—this is the data that we will publish today—show that case numbers in Renfrewshire are down by 16 per cent, which is bang on the national average, and that test positivity is down by 1.2 per cent over that seven-day period, whereas the national average decline in test positivity is 0.5 per cent.

That means that we are starting to see signs of that reduction in Renfrewshire, which will be, in large part, due to the level 4 restrictions kicking in. We want to try to accelerate that, which is why one of the mass testing pilots that I spoke about earlier is in Renfrewshire, and we will look at extending that further.

I think that we are starting to see signs for some cautious optimism about Renfrewshire, like other parts of the central belt, starting to turn the corner.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

Can the First Minister clarify whether any consideration has been given to flexibility around the dates of relaxed restrictions for national health service and other key workers who are required to work over the stated five-day Christmas period?

The First Minister:

We recognise that the relaxation of restrictions to allow families and friends to come together if absolutely necessary is necessarily limited. The guidelines set out what we think is a proportionate and careful approach to rules around socialising. We cannot ignore the fact that any relaxation of measures carries additional risk, so the temporary easing is about helping people, particularly those who might otherwise be on their own at Christmas.

We have considered the impact of the changes on those working through the festive break as well as on key workers, but, reluctantly, we will not be able to extend that period any further for any particular groups. We appreciate that many people will not be able to celebrate Christmas in their usual way, but we believe that we have put forward a sensible position that will help us through this period, hopefully on the way to greater normality as a result of the vaccinations that will begin soon.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

In July 2020, the First Minister said that Scotland did not have a problem with Covid deaths in care homes. Deaths from care homes are not included in the daily figures. About two weeks ago, the numbers stood at 2,240 deaths—some 42 per cent of the total from Covid so far. That is more than 10 per cent higher than in England, and the trend is, unfortunately, increasing, with more than five times as many deaths now than there were a month ago. Therefore, there is a need to work faster than is proposed.

Families will be visiting loved ones in care homes at Christmas, so will the First Minister ensure that there is rapid, even daily, testing for staff, residents and families in all care homes over Christmas, to keep everybody safe?

The First Minister:

First, I genuinely think that Jackie Baillie misunderstands the basis of the daily figures that we report on deaths. They include anybody who has a registered death and who tested positive within the previous 20 days, regardless of the setting in which they died, and the wider National Records of Scotland figures include cases of people who have died where the relationship to Covid is presumed, not confirmed through a test, so it is not true to say that care home deaths are not included in the daily figures.

Secondly, I have never said that we do not have a problem with care home deaths. What I have challenged—and I will demonstrate this—is that there is a particularly severe problem in Scotland relative to other parts of the United Kingdom. I have recognised and will recognise forever that we have had a problem with care home deaths, and I do not think that it is fair to suggest that I have said anything other than that.

The point that I have challenged is the point that Jackie Baillie has made, which is that, somehow, the level of care home deaths in Scotland from Covid is significantly higher than that in other parts of the United Kingdom, and England in particular. Members can see the reason why I challenge that. Let me say that the number is too high—I am not suggesting otherwise. However, the reason why I challenge that suggestion is that the figures, which are drawn from the NRS for Scotland and the Office for National Statistics for England and Wales, show that excess deaths in care homes in England have been higher than they have been in Scotland. In Scotland, a greater proportion of them have been attributed to Covid. It is for other people to say what the excess deaths in England that are not attributed to Covid have been caused by, but it strikes me that, perhaps, one of the reasons for the differential in figures is that we are attributing more of those deaths, perhaps accurately, to Covid.

On testing in care homes, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport has set out the plans for that, and we will take them forward in a proper and considered way. It is because we are concerned about any potential for the number of deaths in care homes to start to rise again that we are being cautious about things such as visiting, which is difficult for families but is part of the important balance that we have to strike.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

I have been contacted by a number of taxi drivers in my constituency who have been severely impacted by the necessary restrictions—particularly those on the night-time economy. The discretionary funding that was announced two weeks ago is welcome news for many and provides a glimmer of hope at the end of this difficult year. What plans does the Scottish Government have to distribute that funding? What further support can be provided to self-employed taxi drivers who have been affected by the pandemic?

The First Minister:

We all appreciate—the Government certainly appreciates—the devastating impact that restrictions have had on the taxi and private hire vehicle sector. On 17 November, we announced an additional £30 million in business support funding, which is being provided through the local authority discretionary fund. It is for local authorities to distribute that money, and I said that taxi drivers and others in wider supply chains should receive that support.

We have made further funding available through the Covid public transport mitigation fund to support the installation of equipment that reduces the risk of Covid transmission on public transport, which includes taxis and private hire vehicles. We are also considering support for fixed cost pressures on taxi drivers and others, which will be distinct from the new strategic framework business fund.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

On 10 November, the First Minister said that up to six people from two households in Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles would be allowed to meet in homes, because of the lack of meeting places and the need to address isolation. Given that the Highlands and Moray have the same issues and have had the same levels in the allocation of levels tables on 24 November and today, will the First Minister consider mirroring the islands home visit rules in the rest of the Highlands and Moray?

The First Minister:

We are considering that. The advice to date has been not to make such a change, on a precautionary basis, but we will consider the issue up to and through next week’s review. If there is any change next week, I will set that out to Parliament.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

Tomorrow, a new testing centre for asymptomatic people will open in Johnstone town hall and—[


.] I live in Johnstone and I have no symptoms, so I will definitely go along to get tested. Will the First Minister join me in encouraging other Johnstone residents, as well as those who work in the town, to head along to the town hall to get tested?

The First Minister:

I very much encourage people in Johnstone to go to the testing centre and take advantage of the opportunity to be tested. One testing site in Glasgow is in Pollokshields, in my constituency, and I continue to encourage people there to get tested.

There are two benefits. Individuals who get tested and have no symptoms but happen to have Covid will have that detected, so that they can be given the advice to isolate. The more people take up the opportunity, the more we can test the operation of the system, which will inform our planning for the greater roll-out of mass testing early in the new year. I hope that people in Johnstone take up the opportunity for their own good and the collective good.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The First Minister will be aware of the concern that was expressed in the most recent Scottish attitudes survey that the Scottish Government’s efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 might have been hampered by the public’s weak understanding of the FACTS message. Given the Christmas bubble arrangements and the need for full public trust in and confidence about the health message, what action is the Scottish Government taking to improve the clarity of Covid messaging?

The First Minister:

Our polling shows good understanding of the key messages, but we are not complacent about any of the issues. Those who have watched television in recent days—I am sure that that does not include many members—will have seen a new advert for the FACTS campaign. Perhaps I would say this, but it is very good and it sets out clearly the steps that we are asking people to take. We keep all those things under review so that the public understanding is as wide and as good as possible not just of what we ask people to do but of why we ask it and the benefits that it brings to them and others.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

The majority of my constituents have followed the guidance to keep the spread of the virus under control—I see that in the communities that I represent. It is disappointing that case numbers and test positivity rates have increased in Aberdeenshire. The fact that Aberdeenshire remains at level 2 shows that decisions are not as straightforward as looking at a general increase in numbers; we have concentrated clusters of infection. What work is the Government doing with Aberdeenshire Council to avoid imposing more restrictions on the area?

The First Minister:

First, it is important for me to reiterate—and Gillian Martin would agree with this—that it is not anybody’s fault when cases rise in an area. This is an infectious virus, and we all know what we can do, individually and collectively, to try to keep it under control. However, I do not think that we should conclude that there are different prevalence rates in different areas because people in some areas try harder than those in others to stick with the restrictions.

Gillian Martin raised good questions about the role of local government in our decision making. Local government is represented on the national incident management team and the four harms group; the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers attend both those forums as observers. Those meetings discuss the identification of emerging risks across different parts of the country, as highlighted by our suite of indicators and other research. They also consider different means and methods to manage those risks more proactively.

The Deputy First Minister spoke to Aberdeen City Council and Aberdeenshire Council yesterday, and we will have detailed discussions with them this week about Covid rates in their communities.

All local authority chief executives receive daily updates of the indicators that are produced by Scottish Government analytical officials at the same time as the updates are sent to directors of public health. Ministers look at the same information on a daily basis.

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

An answer to a written question shows that NHS Lanarkshire received the lowest flu vaccine allocation, compared with its over 65s population, on the Scottish mainland. I have been inundated with complaints about appointments. Can the First Minister assure people in Lanarkshire that a fair share of Covid vaccines will be allocated to the health board, that everyone who needs the vaccine will get it and that the programme will be handled better than that for the flu vaccine?

The First Minister:

The short answer to all of that is yes. I am happy to look into the particular point about Lanarkshire. We allocate flu vaccine supplies fairly, based on the estimates that health boards give of needs and uptake in different eligibility groups. Therefore, there is no unfairness in the system for allocating the vaccine. However, if there has been a particular issue in Lanarkshire that I am not aware of, I am happy—as is, I am sure, the health secretary—to look at it.

The health secretary has already made a statement to Parliament about the plans for the roll-out of the Covid vaccination programme. As I said, she updated the Cabinet, which reviewed those plans this morning.

This is a complex logistical exercise. It is more complex than the flu vaccinations exercise, partly because of the storage conditions and temperatures required to store and deal with some of the vaccines. Also, it is likely that, for all the vaccines that we expect to get, people will need two doses three weeks apart, or thereabouts.

It is a complex exercise. However, planning is under way and is in a good state, and we are ready to start vaccinating people as soon as the vaccines are licensed and we start to get supplies through. We are very hopeful that that might happen in the next couple of weeks.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Many workers do jobs that they cannot do from home. Will the First Minister set out what resources are available to employers and what responsibility they have to support employees who are advised to self-isolate but are unable to work from home?

The First Minister:

We expect employers to be very sensitive and responsible, and I have no reason to believe that the majority are not being so.

If someone can work from home, it is important that they are supported to do that. However, if they cannot work from home, it is important that, if they are told to self-isolate, they are not put under pressure to come into work;. it is important that they isolate. Where companies can continue to support them financially, they should, but one of the reasons why we have put in place the self-isolation support grant is to take account of circumstances in which that is not possible, particularly for those on low incomes.

I take this opportunity to thank businesses across the country. This is an incredibly difficult time for them and I know that the vast majority are working hard to support their employees as much as they possibly can.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Does the First Minister accept that she could ask the full Parliament to agree to major changes in Covid regulations before they come into effect rather than always ask for approval after they come into effect—sometimes up to 28 days after?

I will contrast that with what is happening at Westminster right at this moment, where MPs are debating and voting on major changes in their regulations before they come into effect.

The First Minister:

If my memory serves me correctly, the last time that we put areas into level 4, Parliament did vote before the changes took effect.

I am looking to the Presiding Officer, because he is probably more aware of those discussions.

I have made it clear that all that I care about is that we do what is necessary to control the virus. I have no objection to Parliament being involved up front and as early as possible, as long as that does not hinder any of us in doing what is necessary. I am open to any discussions or ideas about how to facilitate that better. We are not proposing any changes this week, but that may well be different next week as areas come out of level 4. I am open to trying to maximise parliamentary scrutiny and consent as far as is possible.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

What engagement has the Scottish Government had with local authorities such as Renfrewshire Council about the mechanisms for coming out of level 4 in a way that is responsible and that does not cause a rise in Covid-19 cases?

The First Minister:

That is an important point. We will have discussions with all the councils that will come out of level 4, both about the level that they will go into and about the precautions that they should all be taking with health boards and others in their areas to prevent a rise in infections. We had those discussions with East Lothian Council when it came down a level last week.

That is important, because it is always vital to remember that going down a level is not a neutral act for any area. Going down a level means more opening up of the economy and society, which gives more opportunities for the virus to spread. Unless mitigating steps are taken, there is a danger that we will start to see transmission rise to the point at which we will have to consider the area going back up a level. Those discussions with Renfrewshire Council and with other local authorities will be important in the collective attempt to avoid that happening.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

When will guidance be published to ensure that small businesses do not miss out on the new funds that have been announced? What publicity will there be to help businesses to find out whether they are eligible? When will those funds be available for distribution, and what support will be available to assist local authorities in processing those funds?

The First Minister:

When we announced the additional funding, at the time of announcing the level 4 areas a couple of weeks ago, there was also an allocation for local authorities, to help them with the administrative costs of processing the grants. We will continue to discuss those costs with local authorities.

The grant scheme is already open for applications, and people can find out from their local council website how to apply. We will continue to raise awareness. There is a suite of guidance on almost every issue under the sun—almost too much guidance—and we will continue to look at where we must issue more guidance to help people to navigate their way through a complex situation.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Level 4 restrictions will be lifted at 6 pm on 11 December. I have had representations from businesses, asking whether they could be allowed a full day’s trading on that day. Is that something that the First Minister would consider? Will she tell us whether the travel restrictions will be also lifted on that day—and if not then, when?

The First Minister:

On the question of time, we have decided that, just as those restrictions came into force at 6 pm, they should be lifted at 6 pm on Friday 11 December. Although I will always consider anything that I am asked to consider, I do not want to raise expectations that we will change that position.

We will consider travel restrictions when we consider next week’s review and the levels that different councils will go into when they come out of level 4. I cannot say what that decision is, because we have not taken it yet. I will set that out next week. Travel restrictions will be kept in place for no longer than we think is necessary, but for as long as we think is necessary to sustain a proportionate and tiered approach to the restrictions. As I keep saying, if we do not have travel restrictions in place when those are necessary, there is a danger that we will move the virus from area to area, which raises the risk of needing to have nationwide restrictions.

Those are important issues that we must think through carefully to get them as right as we can.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I would hate to think that the First Minister had inadvertently misled Parliament, but I think that, in her answer to me—correct me if I am wrong—she said that she believed that Parliament had had a debate and a vote on the tier 4 regulations. As far as I am aware—please correct me if I am wrong—the Parliament had a debate and a vote only on a motion that was non-binding. In fact, before the debate started, you mentioned that fact in the chamber. I ask for your help in making sure that the facts are accurately recorded in the

Official Report.

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Mr Rumbles. Yes, it is the case that we had a vote on a motion that was non-binding, and I specifically said that it was not a vote on the regulations. The First Minister has made the point that these are matters for the Parliamentary Bureau and business managers to consider.

We will now move on to the next item of business, but we will have a short pause while we change seats. I remind members to observe social distancing, to wear masks when they leave their seats and the chamber, and to follow the one-way systems.