Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd December 2020.

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The First Minister:

Those are all important issues. First, I accept that many teachers feel that their safety is not being prioritised. I do not accept that that is true from the Government’s perspective, but, if teachers feel that, I recognise and accept that we continue to have work to do to assure and reassure them, and we will continue to do that.

For the past few weeks, we have been developing plans for more mass testing in schools in the new year. We are trying to do that sensibly and on a sustainable basis. Some of the plans that have been set out in other parts of the UK, as we have seen from the reactions of teachers in recent days, perhaps do not give that sense of deliverability and sustainability, but that is very clearly a part of our thinking.

As I said in my response to Richard Leonard—and it is worth repeating—at the moment, one question that we are seeking to have answered is whether lateral flow testing devices are effective against the new strain of the virus. I hope that that will be clarified in a positive way very soon.

The safety of pupils and everybody who works in our schools is a priority, and we have taken public health advice at every step of the way. Although I recognise the concerns, I think the fact that we have managed to keep schools open while keeping the prevalence of the virus at a lower level than in many other areas is a success. However, the new development means that we have to be precautionary until we learn more about the virus—not least its transmissibility among young people. We will be precautionary and we will take great care over the decisions that we make.

On blended learning, I think that it is in the interests of young people to be back in school full time as quickly as possible. However, you will have heard everything that I just said about precaution and safety. The fact of the matter is that blended learning has always been an option on a school-by-school basis if it is required, and that will continue to be the case. We will not compromise or gamble with the safety of teachers and young people, but I think that everybody recognises that it is in the interest of young people to be in school full time if that is at all possible. That is what we want to get back to as quickly as the virus allows.