Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 4th January 2021.

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The First Minister:

First of all, because many parents will be watching this, I take this opportunity to say that there is no evidence that this virus is leading to more severe illness among young people, and there is no conclusive evidence that it is more likely to infect young people—not that Patrick Harvie tried to create an alternative impression, but it is important to reassure parents of that.

However, there are some uncertainties about the impact that the new strain has and whether—even if it does not lead to greater risk of infection in groups of young people—young people might be more likely to carry it and infect older people, be they parents or teachers. It is important that we give the scientific community time to come to a more certain view on that.

Secondly, we work with trade unions. The Deputy First Minister, in particular, works with the education unions. They are integrally involved in the education recovery group, which met this morning and made the recommendation to Cabinet that I announced today.

I respect the views of unions. I would never, for a single second, doubt their integrity or motivations on this, and I deprecate anybody who does. That does not always mean that we will reach a position in which we are in absolute agreement; the issue of schools has been contentious. However, I give my commitment that I will always take the utmost care in decisions about schools, and that I will satisfy myself—as the Deputy First Minister does—with the advice that we get about the safety of schools. That has been true in the past, and, in these changed circumstances, it will be true in future.

I do not want to oversimplify the complex issue of vaccines in any way. We all want to get everybody vaccinated as quickly as possible. Vaccinating key groups, such as teachers and school staff, would allow us to give greater assurance to teachers in the determination to reopen schools. However, we have clear, expert clinical advice on the need to prioritise those who are clinically most at risk of getting ill and dying from this virus, and ethically we have a duty to ensure that we use the supplies that we have to do that first. Many teachers will be in those groups—for example, teachers who are over 50 or who are under 50 and have other health conditions. Beyond that, we want to get teachers and school staff vaccinated as quickly as possible, but we must ensure that we follow advice about those who are clinically most in need. We will discuss—internally in Government, with our advisors, and with teaching unions and local authorities—how we can accelerate that whole process, because we understand the central importance of it.