– in the Scottish Parliament on 19th January 2021.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a statement by the First Minister 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 button.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I will update Parliament on the Cabinet’s review of the current lockdown restrictions, which took place earlier today.

I will report on some cautious grounds for optimism, I am pleased to say, but I will also set out why it is vital, in order to protect the national health service and save lives, to stick with the restrictions for a further period. I will set out what that means for the timing of getting children back to school, which, of course, remains a priority for all of us. Finally, I will touch on other aspects of our response to Covid, including control of borders, the further expansion of testing and the progress of the vaccination programme.

First, though, I will give a brief summary of the latest statistics and then seek to put them in some context. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 1,165, which is 11.1 per cent of all tests carried out, and the total number of cases now stands at 164,927. I can also confirm that, by 8.30 am today, 284,582 people had received their first dose of vaccine. I will come back to the issue of vaccination and the progress of that programme later on in my statement. There are 1,989 people now in hospital with Covid, which is an increase of 30 from yesterday, and 150 people are in intensive care, which is an increase of four from yesterday. I am very sorry to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further 71 deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive over the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that daily measurement is now 5,376. Once again, I send my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one in the course the pandemic so far.

As those figures demonstrate, case numbers are still high. According to the most recent seven-day average, they stand at more than 200 per 100,000 of the population, and the pressure on the national health service continues to be severe. In short, we are still in a very precarious position.

However, all that said, we see some signs for optimism in recent days. We believe that the lockdown restrictions and the sacrifices that everyone continues to make are beginning to have an impact. Case numbers, which had been rising rapidly, appear to have stabilised and even to have declined.

In the week to 14 January, there were, on average, about 1,900 confirmed new cases per day, which was an 18 per cent reduction on the previous week. Test positivity has also declined slightly, as has the number of cases per 100,000 of the population. The new, faster-spreading variant is now the dominant one that is circulating in Scotland, but the proportion of new cases with the S-gene dropout that is indicative of the new variant appears to have stabilised at about two thirds.

All of that is encouraging and is a signal that the lockdown restrictions are working even against the faster-spreading variant. However, it is important first to be cautious. We need those trends to continue in order to be more certain that this phase of the epidemic is on a downward trajectory. Secondly, we need to be realistic that any improvement that we are seeing at this stage is down to the fact that we are staying at home and reducing our interactions. Any relaxation of lockdown while case numbers remain very high—even though they might be declining—could quickly send the situation into reverse, especially as the faster-spreading variant is now dominant. That would further accelerate and intensify pressure on the NHS.

As we have learned throughout the pandemic, the incubation period and the infectious path of the virus mean that pressure on the NHS—in the numbers of those who are being hospitalised and who require intensive care—continues to increase for a period even after case numbers start to decline. The pressure on the NHS is already acute. As of today, just under 2,000 Covid patients are in our hospitals, which is about 30 per cent more than at the peak of the first wave, last April, and means that about 80 per cent of the NHS Covid surge capacity is being used. The number of Covid patients who are in intensive care remains below the peak of the first wave, but it has increased by more than 90 per cent since the turn of the year.

When we take account of Covid and non-Covid patients, about 260 patients in total are in intensive care beds across Scotland, which compares with a normal intensive care unit capacity of about 170. The pressure that the NHS faces right now is real and severe, and it is, of course, having a significant consequential impact on non-Covid elective care. The number of new cases in the past couple of weeks also means that the pressure is almost certain to rise for a further period. All of that means that we cannot afford to see the rate of infections start to rise again, which it could all too easily do from such a high baseline if we started to interact with one another more than we are doing now.

For all those reasons, the Cabinet decided this morning to maintain the restrictions that are in place. That means that the lockdown restrictions—including the strict stay-at-home requirement—will remain in place across mainland Scotland and some island communities until at least the middle of February. The Cabinet will review the situation again on 2 February.

I will cover two specific issues in a bit more detail. The first is a specific local change that we decided this morning to make. There is a significant outbreak of Covid on the island of Barra, which is part of the Western Isles. As of yesterday, there had been 39 confirmed positive cases, and more than 10 per cent of Barra’s population had been required to self-isolate. There is a significant concern that, without additional measures, the outbreak could spread more widely across the Western Isles, and there is concern about the potential impact on care home and clinical services.

For those reasons, the national incident management team has recommended and the Cabinet has decided—in consultation with the local authority and the local health board—that Barra and Vatersay, which is connected to Barra by a causeway, should move from level 3 to level 4 at midnight tonight. That means that the same lockdown restrictions as are in place on mainland Scotland—including the requirement to stay at home except for essential purposes—will apply there, too. The change, which we will keep under review, applies only to Barra and Vatersay and not, at this stage, to the Western Isles more generally. All affected businesses—including hospitality and non-essential retail, which will require to close—will be eligible for business support. As the outbreak comes under control, which we hope will happen relatively soon, we will consider how quickly Barra and Vatersay can move back to level 3.

The second aspect of the restrictions that I want to talk about is of nationwide and significant interest and relates to our schools and nurseries. School buildings and nurseries have been closed to most children since the start of term and we indicated previously that the earliest possible date for a full return to school premises was 1 February. Getting children back to normal schooling as soon as possible is a priority for us all.

I know how much work teachers, school leaders and other staff are doing to support home learning and I am very grateful to them for that, but I also know how challenging and stressful this situation is for families. Above all, I understand how difficult, distressing and damaging it is for children and young people to have their education and their normal interactions with friends so disrupted. However, our reluctant judgment is that, at this stage, community transmission of the virus is too high—and is likely to remain so for the next period—to allow a safe return to school on 1 February. Therefore, the Cabinet decided today that, except for vulnerable children and children of key workers, school and nursery premises will remain closed until mid-February. We will review the situation again on 2 February and I hope that then, we will be able to set out a firmer timetable for getting children back to school.

I can say this today: if it is at all possible—as I very much hope it will be—to begin even a phased return to in-school learning in mid-February, we will do that. However, I also have to be straight with families and say that it is simply too early to be sure whether and to what extent that will be possible. I will update Parliament again as soon as we have completed the review, taking advice from our clinical advisers, on 2 February.

Although I do not imagine that anything that I have said today will have been unexpected, that does not make it any less difficult for all of us—individuals and businesses—to live with the restrictions for a further period. I continue to be very grateful to people across the country for their patience and resilience in the face of this extraordinary challenge. The fact is that, for now, the restrictions remain necessary. Staying at home is essential to protect the NHS and save lives.

However, important though the lockdown is at this stage, I know the damage that it does. That is why the other aspects of our overall effort to control Covid and find a path back to greater normality are also vital. I want to touch briefly on three strands of that wider approach. The first is border control. Suppressing the virus within our own borders is our most immediate challenge. However, as we do that, it is also important to reduce the risk of new cases coming into the country from elsewhere. That is all the more essential as the virus mutates and new variants emerge.

For example, the new variant that has emerged in Brazil, and which is causing concern, has already resulted in the four United Kingdom nations imposing a travel ban on a number of countries. As a result of a more general concern about the importation of the virus, other new travel restrictions are also now in effect. All travel corridors have been suspended, which means that, with some limited sectoral exceptions, everyone arriving in Scotland now has to isolate for 10 days, no matter what country they are coming from. In addition, anyone travelling here must test negative for Covid no more than 72 hours before arrival.

We will continue to assess what further restrictions are needed, and how they should be enforced, so that we can manage the risk of importing new Covid cases as well as we possibly can. However, the strong advice—reinforced in law—is that no one should be travelling at all just now, either within Scotland or to and from the country, unless it is absolutely essential. Restricting travel continues to be a regrettable but vital part of our overall effort to control Covid and, to be clear, it is likely to remain so for some time yet.

Secondly, we are continuing to expand the use of testing within Scotland, including the more widespread use of asymptomatic testing. The health secretary announced on Friday the start of asymptomatic testing for all care-at-home workers. We are also further increasing our fleet of mobile testing units. The mobile units will soon be capable of serving up to 84 different communities at any one time. Shortly, in partnership with local authorities, we will set out our plans for large-scale community testing of people without symptoms. That will build on, and take account of the learning from, the pilots conducted before Christmas.

All these measures are important and will continue to be so in the months ahead. However, nothing is more important right now than the continued roll-out of vaccines. The vaccination programme is progressing well and is picking up pace. We are now vaccinating more than 100,000 people a week. That number will increase progressively from here on and, assuming that we receive the supplies that we expect, we are on track to be vaccinating 400,000 people a week by the end of February.

I must stress that the figures that I am about to give, to share a sense of progress so far, are estimates based on management information. Official detailed statistics will continue to be published weekly, in addition to the overall figure that we publish daily. As of today, I can report that more than 90 per cent of care home residents—the top priority group—have now received their first dose of vaccine. Indeed, a number of health boards have now given the first dose of vaccine to 100 per cent of their care home residents. In addition, more than 70 per cent of care home staff have had their first dose of the vaccine, and more than 70 per cent of all front-line health and care workers have also received their first dose.

We made a deliberate decision, in line with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s advice, to focus first on elderly care home residents, because we know that they have the greatest vulnerability to becoming ill and dying from the virus. We have seen that very painful reality in recent months. Consequently, ensuring that that group benefits from the protection of the vaccine as quickly as possible is likely to have the biggest and most immediate impact on saving lives.

For obvious reasons, vaccinating in care homes is more time consuming and labour intensive than doing so in the community. That is why, at this stage, overall figures are lower than they are in England, where more over-80s generally but a lower proportion of care home residents have so far received the vaccine. However, our pace of progress in the over-80s group is also now picking up. We estimate that between 15 and 20 per cent have already had the first dose, and we are on track for all over-80s and everyone else in JCVI groups 1 and 2 to have been offered the first dose by the start of February.

By the middle of February, we expect to have completed first doses for all over-70s and all those who are deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable. People in those groups will start to receive appointments for February in the coming days. We then aim to complete first doses for everyone who is over 65 by the start of March, and to give first doses to everyone on the JCVI priority list by early May.

That means that, in about three months’ time, approximately 3 million people in total will have received at least the first dose of the vaccine—that is, of course, the majority of our adult population and includes everyone over the age of 50 and many younger people with an underlying health condition. The rest of the adult population will follow after that just as quickly as supplies allow.

I am well aware of how much understandable and legitimate interest there is in the vaccination programme. It is the biggest and, undoubtedly, the most significant logistical operation in Scotland’s post-war history. The Scottish Government will provide Parliament and, of course, the public with regular detailed updates on progress.

However, although there is no doubt that vaccines give us real hope for the future and will help us significantly on the path back to greater normality, it is important at this stage to add a note of perspective. The vaccination programme across the UK is focusing initially and rightly, on the JCVI’s advice, on those who are most vulnerable. That means that it is unlikely to have a significant impact in the immediate future on overall population-wide case numbers. That, we hope, will come later. However, we expect that vaccination will have an earlier impact in reducing the burden of severe illness and death. I am sure that everyone will agree just how important that will be.

My second point of perspective is that experts cannot yet tell us whether, or to what extent, the vaccines stop transmission of the virus. We know that they alleviate the burden of serious illness, which is extremely important, but we do not yet know whether they stop us getting and passing on the virus. That means that certainly for now—and, possibly, for some time to come—there will be a continued need for all of us to play our part in suppressing transmission in the ways that we have been doing for the past few months. Obviously, I hope that that will not entail the strictest form of lockdown for too much longer, but some mitigations—for example, physical distancing, hygiene measures, face coverings and possibly travel limitations—are likely to be necessary for some time yet.

All of what I have just said is an essential part of being open and transparent with the public about the challenge that we, in common with the UK and other countries, still face. However, none of it should detract from the fact that now, more so than at any time since the start of the pandemic, we have hope of a path to much greater domestic normality, which we all crave. For now, progressing along that path requires continued discipline and sacrifice from all of us. Lockdown, including the stay-at-home requirement, however tough it is—and it is really tough—continues to be necessary, so I am asking everyone to please stick to the letter and the spirit of the lockdown rules.

We should not be thinking in terms of the maximum interactions we can have without breaking the rules. Instead, we should all be thinking every day about how we can reduce our interactions as far as we can to remove as many opportunities as possible for the virus to spread. Therefore, except for genuinely essential purposes, please continue to stay at home. Please—and this is vital—do not have people from other households in your house and do not go into theirs.

Work from home whenever possible, and remember that, if you are an employer, you have a legal duty to support your employees to work from home as far as possible. Follow the FACTS advice at all times when you are out and about.

That is how we best look after each other. It is how we can help our health and care workers manage the pressure that they currently face, and avoid adding to it, and it is how we continue to slow down the virus while the vaccines get on with doing their work. I know that it feels hard. I know that it is hard, but I also know that it is working. It is already saving lives. So please stick with it.

Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.

The Presiding Officer:

The First Minister will now take questions.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

Parents, pupils and teachers all expected today’s news. Indeed, it was almost pushing credibility to tell parents that schools would be closed until 1 February, reopen for a week and then shut again for the half-term break seven days later. All that they asked was for the Government to be straight with them from the start. Parents, pupils and teachers will be concerned about the impact that this on-going disruption will have on children’s education. The way that we get pupils back into school and everyone back to some normality is by rolling out the vaccine as quickly as possible. During the weekend, we saw the Scottish National Party’s vaccine roll-out lag behind its own targets. As of yesterday, the Scottish Government has taken receipt of 717,000 doses of the vaccine, but more than 400,000 have yet to reach patients.

The Scottish Conservatives called for Scotland to roll out the vaccine in care homes first. Although that is being done, it does not explain how slowly the vaccine is reaching general practitioners’ surgeries and, eventually, the public. On “Politics Scotland”, Dr Andrew Buist, the chairman of the British Medical Association Scotland and a GP, said that

“the supply of the vaccines so far has been quite patchy”.

Today, he was asked whether GPs and others could

“work faster at getting those 700,000 into arms”.

He replied:

“Absolutely. I mean, the workforce is there and that’s why it is so incredibly frustrating when the patients want the vaccine, we are very keen to give it to our patients, but we just don't have the vaccine in our fridge.”

Every member can attest to the fact that people across Scotland are anxious to know when they will be called. I quote:

My Mother is approaching 85 and lives in East Lothian. My Father-in-Law is 80 and officially shielding following a serious procedure in August. He lives in West Lothian. At this moment in time, neither of them has received any letter or form of correspondence regarding the vaccine.”

“I am becoming increasingly frustrated at the limited information on when my 81 year old housebound mother in law will receive her vaccine. She lives in EH2.”

“My father, who is nearly 94 and in poor health and who lives at home with a live-in carer in your constituency has not yet had a letter from his GP surgery.”

“I am 84 and whilst in a shop last week I announced that it was my birthday and still awaited my jab. That is nothing, said the shop owner, my mother is 93 and still awaiting hers.”

All our inboxes will be the same. People are not only anxious; they are concerned that they will get left behind. On their behalf, I ask the First Minister for an explanation of the following.

We know how many doses of vaccine have so far been delivered to Scotland. We know how many GP practices have agreed to take part in the process, and GPs know who their patients are and how to contact them. The only thing that is missing is that too many practices across Scotland have not yet actually received any supplies. Can the First Minister explain why that is, where the hold-up in the system is and what she is doing to unblock it?

Last Wednesday, the health secretary said that the vaccine would be rolled out seven days per week. Yesterday, we saw reports that the NHS Louisa Jordan was closed on Sunday and no vaccinations took place there. Can the First Minister confirm whether that is the case? With 400,000 doses as yet undelivered, can she tell us when the roll-out will go to seven days a week?

The First Minister:

The NHS Louisa Jordan will now be open seven days. There was a particular issue on Sunday—I believe with pharmacy—that meant that it could not operate that day. However, it will be open seven days.

On Saturday, 5,000 vaccinations were done during the course of the day, and it is expected to increase the number of vaccinations that it does.

I will tackle as many of Ruth Davidson’s points as I can. I set out in some detail the strategy that, for good and important clinical reasons, we have followed in the early stages of the vaccination programme to protect most quickly those who are most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill and dying.

More than 90 per cent of Scotland’s care home residents have been vaccinated. That is, by some considerable distance, a higher percentage than the position in England, with which we are being compared. We are now picking up pace in vaccinating the over-80s in the community. We are not behind our targets. We expected to be vaccinating in the region of 100,000 people per week in January; in the most recent week, we exceeded 100,000 vaccinations. The figure is progressively increasing and we have set a target—supplies permitting—to reach 400,000 per week.

All four nations are working to the same target of completing the vaccination of JCVI priority groups 1 and 2 and then, by mid-February, groups 1, 2 ,3 and 4. We may be going about that in a slightly different order, but we are all following the same targets.

I will be—perhaps brutally—blunt about supplies. Last week, we published detailed estimates of supplies for now and for well into the future. We put those estimates in a document that went on the web and was circulated. I hope that I am not about to use unparliamentary language: the United Kingdom Government had what I can describe only as a hissy fit about us doing that. We agreed, in consultation with the UK Government, to take away the publication of those supply figures.

For reasons of commercial confidentiality, the UK Government does not want us to be open about supplies. Although I do not necessarily agree with the reasoning behind that, we have agreed to the request. Now we have the UK Government briefing and spinning misleading figures about supply. It must be clear about which approach it wants us to take. Supplies are allocated to and drawn down by Scotland, and we vaccinate as quickly as we can. That will continue to be the case as we go through the different groups in our vaccination programme.

Ruth Davidson read out some emails from people in the over-80 category who have not yet been vaccinated. I have had emails from people in that position too; I have also had lots of emails from people over 80 who have had their vaccination. All over-80s will be vaccinated by the start of February. By definition, there will still be some who have not yet had the vaccination. Teams around the country are working hard on that.

Let me recap. By the start of February, not only all over-80s but all care home residents and staff and all front-line health and care workers will have been vaccinated. By mid-February, the over-70s and those who are classed as clinically extremely vulnerable will be vaccinated. That will happen not only in GP surgeries but in community and mass vaccination centres. By the start of March, all those in the over-65 age group will be vaccinated. By early May, everybody on the JCVI priority list, including those of us who are over 50—I hesitate to say that that includes me—and younger people with underlying health conditions will be vaccinated.

The vaccination programme is the Government’s highest priority. We continue to ensure that it is rolled out as quickly and as effectively as possible, but I do not and never will apologise for prioritising the most vulnerable.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement.

Although I welcome the First Minister’s grounds for cautious optimism, she also acknowledged that we have some way to go.

The roll-out of the vaccination programme is critical to progress. The Scottish Government’s target is to vaccinate priority groups 1 and 2—about 560,000 people—by the first week of February. We are about half way there. Is the First Minister confident that she will meet that target by 1 February? Will she say what is being done to ramp up the programme to meet the target?

Secondly, this morning, the BMA was still reporting “patchy” distribution of the vaccines. GPs are ready and desperate to start the vaccination programme. We hear that 400,000 doses of vaccine are apparently available in Scotland. If that is the case, will the First Minister tell us when those will be distributed to GPs so that they can proceed quickly to vaccinate those who are over 80?

Finally, I welcome the involvement of the Army in the logistics of setting up 81 new vaccination centres. That is positive news. When does the First Minister expect those centres to be in place?

The First Minister:

A number of centres are already operational and others will come on stream over the next period. It will not be a case of their all coming on stream on the same day. As we have been doing all along, we will align the centres coming on stream with the supply of vaccine that we have.

I will not repeat the points that I made to Ruth Davidson on whether we can be open and transparent about the number of doses and the supply that we have and expect. We tried to do that last week and it did not meet with everybody’s approval. However, I am happy to republish what we published last week if the UK Government is now willing for us to do that.

On the doses that are in Scotland, many have already been put into people’s arms, and the rest will meet the target by the start of February. On the allocation of doses, I remind people that, until relatively recently, we had JCVI advice to hold back 50 per cent of doses and to give the second dose within three weeks. Therefore, we had been holding back doses, but they are now flowing through the system because the advice changed.

Yes, I am confident that we will meet the early February target for groups 1 and 2. To recap, those are care home residents, almost all of whom have already been vaccinated, care home staff, front-line health and care staff and the over 80s group. It was always the intention to increase vaccination progressively as supplies increased and the infrastructure came on stream. As I said, we are already vaccinating at the rate of more than 100,000 a week and I am confident that, supplies permitting, we will meet the targets that we have set after that.

The Army has been involved to a greater or lesser extent, depending on which phase of our epidemic response we have been in, since the outset. The Army was based in St Andrew’s house for a significant number of months last year and I am grateful to it for the logistical support that it has given us, as it has done for the other nations across the UK, on personal protective equipment, supply chains and, in the early stages of the NHS response, the NHS Louisa Jordan.

I am also grateful to the Army for some logistical support that it is giving us now around the vaccination programme. However, the programme involves people at all levels of Government, people in the NHS and many in our country’s community health services. That is right and proper because it is the most important task that the Government has right now.

Photo of Patrick Harvie Patrick Harvie Green

Nobody will be happy about keeping schools closed to most pupils for longer, but nobody should be surprised, either. We have been clear that full re-opening can happen only when that is safe. School staff, pupils and parents will want to know what additional measures the Government is putting in place to ensure that re-opening schools will be safe for everyone when the time comes.

Although we are all eager to see the vaccine programme delivered quickly, the First Minister is clearly indicating that that will not mean life getting back to normal straight away. If measures such as social distancing will remain necessary, is it not also clear that supported isolation will remain a high priority over the weeks and months ahead and that both the UK Government and the Scottish Government need to make major improvements on that?

The First Minister:

T he most important thing that we have to do to get schools back safely is to suppress the levels of community transmission. When we opened schools in August—it was an achievement by teachers and other staff in schools that they remained open from August right through to the Christmas break—we said that a precondition of schools remaining open was relatively low levels of community transmission. We do not have low levels right now, but I hope that, over the next few weeks, we will return to a situation that allows schools to open. We will then continue to liaise with councils, teachers and individual schools, as we have done throughout the pandemic through the Covid-19 education recovery group, to make sure that all the appropriate mitigation steps are in place as well.

As the vaccination programme rolls out in this first phase of the JCVI priority list, many teachers will be in the priority groups. As I have said before, when it rolls out to the rest of the population, I hope that we can see teachers vaccinated as well in an early phase of that next part of the programme. We are also planning—we will do this on a test basis over the next period—in-school lateral flow testing and at-home polymerase chain reaction testing for school pupils and staff. We hope to have a more widespread testing approach in schools when schools return.

Therefore, we are progressing a range of measures that are intended to ensure that, when schools go back, which I hope will be quickly—although not as quickly as I know that parents want—we are able to keep them open safely.

On some mitigations being required even with the roll-out of the vaccination programme, I am not saying anything that other Governments all over the world are not saying, too. There is much that we must still understand about the impact of the vaccine on transmission. It will absolutely—I am confident about this—offer us the path back to greater normality. However, for a period, it may well be that we have to do other things as well, and it is important to be up front about that.

Our continuing to self-isolate when we have the virus is one of those things. We have put in place the outreach service through local authorities. We have already expanded eligibility for the self-isolation support grant and, as I think that I said last week, we are looking again at how we can widen that further. We will continue to take great care to do what we can to support people when they have the virus or are required to self-isolate because of it.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Last week, the health secretary admitted that 200,000 doses of the vaccine were in storage in England. This week, we hear that that figure might have doubled. Today, I have heard that GP practices in Fife are cancelling vaccination appointments, because they have run out of vaccine. Is the First Minister seriously saying that all the problems with the supply of vaccines into Scotland are to do with the production and not the Government’s distribution system? Will she admit that she has got a problem with distribution?

The First Minister:

No, I will not. As all Governments do, we face a big challenge in making sure that, as vaccine is allocated, there is a supply flow. We get an allocation of doses, which we then draw down. Those are transported to Scotland, distributed further and then get to the point at which they are injected into people. We have to keep that supply flowing. I have already said why we have agreed not to talk about supply numbers, although I am happy to do that if the UK Government has a change in heart about it.

Of course, we have a restriction on the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in some settings, because of the particular logistical issues with it. Therefore, we are prioritising the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for GP practices and we have been using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in care homes, 90 per cent of whose residents have been vaccinated.

I do not underestimate the issues. I regularly have, and as recently as late yesterday had, detailed discussions with the Scottish Government team of officials leading on the work. I do not underestimate the on-going challenges, but I do not think that it would be right to say that the programme is not progressing well. We have prioritised vaccination in a particular way, and we will continue to increase the pace of it in line with the priorities and targets that I have set out.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

As the MSP for Cowdenbeath, I know how vital equality of educational opportunity is for the life chances of young people. Will the First Minister outline what Scottish Government support has been put in place to support digital inclusion in Fife and across Scotland to ensure that pupils are not losing out on their education?

The First Minister:

I thank Annabelle Ewing for raising a question that I think everyone agrees is of fundamental importance. It is such a regret to all of us that children are having another period of learning out of school and at home, and I know that family and parents are struggling considerably with that.

In the past week or so, I have had a great deal of feedback to the effect that the provision of online education is much better than it was in the first lockdown; nevertheless, it is still a struggle for families to cope with the juggling of work and looking after and schooling their children. It is important that we recognise the equality impacts of the pandemic and ensure that we level those as much as possible and, in particular, give younger people in more deprived areas greater access to online provision.

Since the start of the pandemic, we have invested £25 million to support digital inclusion specifically among school-aged children, supplying digital devices across all local authorities, benefiting around 70,000 children and young people. Just last week the Deputy First Minister announced an additional £45 million of funding to assist with remote learning, and Education Scotland has published information on entitlements for remote learning, balancing live learning and independent activity, which will be regularly monitored. The first overview report on remote learning is due later this week. We continue to treat these issues with the utmost seriousness.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

The extension of the lockdown will mean that business support funding to protect jobs is more important than ever. Reports on the ground indicate that councils are being overwhelmed as they try to process business support payments, with Scottish National Party ministers having created a complicated and convoluted support system, so much so that SNP ministers are apparently considering outsourcing some schemes away from councils. Can the First Minister confirm whether that is the case? If so, which support payments will be outsourced?

The First Minister:

What I can confirm is that we are exploring all options to get money to businesses as quickly as possible, something that the Conservatives have called on us to do—and rightly so.

We will continue to look at the administrative support that we give to local authorities to help them to allocate money as quickly as possible.

We have a large number of funding streams for different sectors and different parts of the economy. This is no criticism of anybody—I understand why this has been the case—but that is in large part due to the plethora of calls for different funding streams to be allocated to different parts of the economy. We will continue to seek opportunities to streamline that as we go forward, as it is very important that businesses get money as quickly as possible.

This is management information that was published earlier this week. Between the start of the pandemic in March and the beginning of October last year, 383,000 business support awards were made, totalling £2.3 billion. Between October and December, an additional £60 million was paid out to businesses through a variety of different schemes. There will be a further allocation of money, including one-off top-ups for hospitality and leisure, paid at the end of January. That is an on-going priority, to which we continue to give attention, and that includes the different ways in which we can improve the speed of money getting to where it is needed.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party

GPs in my Stirling constituency are receiving vaccine, some later than others, which is not entirely unexpected. However, for maximum clarity for people watching at home, could the First Minister confirm that the distribution of vaccine supplies to general practices is co-ordinated by the UK logistics company Movianto? Can she also confirm that it is that company, and not NHS boards, that is responsible for vaccine delivery to thousands of sites across the UK, including direct delivery to general practices in Scotland? Finally, will she confirm that, while the level of supplies will undoubtedly vary, people should be reassured that the vaccine deployment is on schedule, despite the noise from the Opposition to try and make it seem otherwise?

The First Minister:

It might be helpful—and I will ask the health secretary to do this in short order—to set out to MSPs exactly how the distribution process works. Movianto is a key part of that, and general practices will order from the distributor, but health boards of course have a big role in that, too, as does the Scottish Government by way of co-ordination. It would be useful—if this has not already been done—to set that out for greater understanding.

As for what we are absolutely certain of at this stage, it is always possible that there will be interruptions to supply but, based on our expectations right now, we are confident of the supplies, which allow us to meet the targets that we have set and I have reiterated today around the milestones that we will meet for the key JCVI groups, with the over-80s being the first, after care homes, in the order of priority to be completed at the start of February. We will of course keep MSPs and the wider public up to date with any supply issues and any implications that they will have on the overall delivery programme.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I have been contacted by a constituent on Mull, who told me that the slow vaccine roll-out is causing alarm across the island and that the vaccine will not arrive until the beginning of February, by which time, the First Minister stated today, all over-80s elsewhere will have had their jabs. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport reassured the Parliament that there would be no postcode lottery with the vaccines, especially in rural areas, where there has been inadequate testing. Can the First Minister reassure people over 80 on Mull that they will have their vaccine before the beginning of February?

The First Minister:

All over-80s are to be vaccinated by the first week in February. I will look into the particular issues that the member has raised about Mull and come back to her as soon as possible. I know from the information that I have been given by the team in the Scottish Government that some of our island communities have had the fastest pace of vaccination, perhaps because of the nature of the population groups that are being vaccinated, but I will look into any particular issues that might exist in relation to Mull and get an answer as soon as possible.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The First Minister described the situation as “precarious” and pressure on the NHS as “severe”, yet despite the actions of the majority, who are observing the Covid rules, on my brief walks I see groups who are ignoring social distancing and a supermarket with no directional arrows and lax social distancing—it has even run out of hand sanitiser at the entrance. What more can be done to drive home to an offending, selfish minority the impact that they are having on the rest of us and on lockdown? What more can be done to get supermarkets to return to the Covid security measures of last March?

The First Minister:

Those are important issues. First, I want to again thank the majority of people who are abiding by the restrictions—and it is very difficult for everybody to do that. If it was not the case that the majority of people were abiding by the restrictions, we would not be seeing these albeit cautious signs for optimism that I spoke about earlier.

Of course, we want to increase compliance as much as possible. I will take away the repeated point about supermarkets. Supermarkets have made a lot of commitments in recent weeks about strengthening some of the mitigations, including being much tougher on the wearing of face coverings, which I welcome. However, it is important that all supermarkets do that and we will continue to have a dialogue with them about that.

To individuals, I would say that I know from personal experience that it can be very easy on the spur of the moment to let your guard slip and forget a face covering or perhaps forget that you have to keep a 2m distance. We all have to constantly remind ourselves of that.

To people who perhaps think that this is all fake and that it is not something to be taken seriously, I say that you are wrong—you are flatly wrong. We only have to look at the number of people who are seriously ill in our intensive care units right now to know that. People are losing their lives; there are bereaved families the length and breadth of this country. You are not just putting yourselves at risk—you are putting others at risk.

This is a time—more so, perhaps, that at any other time in our lifetime for most of us—when we are all so interdependent that anything that we do to flout rules or decide that they are not important does not just affect us; it potentially affects everybody around us, including the people we love. I make an appeal to anybody who is in that category to please think again. This is serious and it is affecting many people very severely, and if we do not all abide by the restrictions, it will get worse, not better, and nobody wants to be in that position.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

If schools remain closed to the majority of pupils, the Government has to ramp up efforts to prevent our most disadvantaged pupils from falling further behind in their education. Can the First Minister therefore shed some more light on what the phased reopening of schools might look like and what criteria will need to be met for ministers to give the go-ahead to get these young people back into the classroom, where they belong?

The First Minister:

No, I cannot give more detail on that right now, because if I did, I would not be being straight with people about the uncertainties that still lie ahead. I will give more detail to the extent that it is possible to do so as soon as we have had the 2 February review.

What I will say right now is that we will do everything that we can to, at the very least, begin a phased return from mid-February. Clearly, we have the mid-term break in February; the dates for that vary around the country. In terms of the criteria, as I said earlier—in response to Patrick Harvie, I think—we need to get levels of community transmission much lower than they are right now. That is the most important thing.

The rest of us have a part to play in making sure that that happens. As I have said before, I do not think that anybody should see this as a binary choice between schools being open and schools being closed. I am simply saying this by way of illustration, not as an indication that this is a definite decision, but if it is possible, for example, to have younger children back before older children or to have schools in parts of the country where transmission is lower back earlier than schools in parts of the country where it remains higher, we will look at all of that. We want to get as many children as possible back to in-school learning as quickly as we can. However, it must be safe both for children and for those who work in our schools.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party

I have been receiving inquiries from NHS office support staff who believe that they could perform the majority of their work from home but who are being denied or refused the chance to do so as a result of a lack of remote access tools such as laptops or supported virtual private network access. Given that working from home is the default position, what guidance and support is being given to NHS boards with regards to home working for staff, and what avenues are open to those who feel that their concerns are not being addressed?

The First Minister:

We are clear that anyone who is able to work from home right now must do so. That is a statutory requirement, and we are clear that all employers, including the NHS, should facilitate that whenever possible. Obviously, as I think we all recognise, given the nature of what the NHS does, that is not possible for everybody who works in it, but it will be possible for some who work in the NHS and, where it is possible, it should be facilitated. Employers must make every effort and they must be flexible in their approach. That must include considering individual circumstances and providing staff with relevant and necessary equipment, information technology services and infrastructure.

If Maureen Watt wants to pass the specific issues that she is raising in more detail to the health secretary, I am sure that she will look into them. That will help us to assess whether we can do more to help NHS boards to help their staff work from home where that is possible. Furthermore, we would expect staff to engage with the trade unions and employee directors should they have any concerns about the issue.

Photo of Iain Gray Iain Gray Labour

I understand that the vaccination programme is following JCVI priorities, but I have been contacted by 20 school hub staff in my constituency who have to continue to work with vulnerable young people up to the age of 17 or 18 who have complex needs. They point out that that requires providing care that is very similar to that provided by front-line care workers, who have been prioritised for vaccination. Will the First Minister acknowledge that they may have a point and reconsider the prioritisation of additional support workers in school hubs?

The First Minister:

I have already acknowledged that publicly. In fact, I discussed it directly with Larry Flanagan of the Educational Institute of Scotland yesterday, in the context of one of my regular meetings with the Scottish Trades Union Congress. The issue is not so much about reprioritising additional support needs staff who are in those circumstances; it is instead about treating certain ASN staff more as social care staff, given the nature of what they do, and I have undertaken to go back to the EIS with more detail on that as soon as we can. I recognise the point, and I hope that we will resolve it to everybody’s satisfaction soon.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

I have been contacted by many constituents across Dumfries and Galloway who supply close-contact services, such as James Devlin, who is a driving instructor. Because they are newly self-employed, they cannot provide enough income information to meet the criteria for the business support that is available. Although I welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement of the newly self-employed hardship fund and the mobile close-contact fund, I am concerned about the timeframe for the money going into constituents’ bank accounts. Can the First Minister indicate when those funds will be available and how my constituents in Dumfries and Galloway can apply for them?

The First Minister:

As Emma Harper indicated, we have set aside funding of £15 million for mobile close-contact services in particular and £15 million for the second iteration of the newly self-employed hardship fund, which we first introduced in April to recognise and mitigate the financial challenges for those who were not able to access the UK Government’s self-employed income support scheme. We will provide more information on both those funds over the remainder of this month so that money starts to flow from them.

The £30 million local authority discretionary fund is empowering local authorities to direct funding to specific groups or sectors in their areas where they think that there is a particular need that might not be catered for by some of the more general funds. That includes supply chain businesses. To go back to the point that I made earlier about building up a complexity of provision, we will continue to take account of particular needs, even in terms of some of the smaller parts of the economy, to ensure that we get funding to as many people as possible.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

It has been reported that of 700,000 doses, approximately 35,000 are expected to be wasted. What appropriate planning arrangement does the Scottish Government have in place to ensure that hard-working general practitioners and their teams can know exactly how many Covid vaccine doses they will receive per week so that they can manage and reduce that waste? Is there flexibility to use the projected 5 per cent of vaccines that would otherwise be wasted to vaccinate other groups, such as front-line police officers, as suggested by Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation, or, indeed, key workers?

The First Minister:

If I may say so, there was quite a lot of misunderstanding in that question, which even a cursory reading of the deployment plan that we published last week would have cleared up, so I recommend it to anybody who has not had the chance to read it. Members will find that it no longer includes clarity on expected supplies, because the UK Government asked us to take those figures out of the document, but if it is now happy for us to put them back in, that would answer part of Rachael Hamilton’s question. The Conservatives who are keen to know what the supplies are might want to make that case to their UK Government colleagues.

On wastage, I would recommend reading the deployment plan, which, for planning purposes—as I understand it from my clinical advisers, this is an international standard when it comes to planning for wastage—makes an assumption that up to 5 per cent could be wasted. That takes account of what we hope will not happen, but we have to plan for what might happen—a large-scale freezer might fail, or there might be some other large, unforeseen and unexpected problem in the supply that means that that quantum could be wasted. However, that is not what we expect the wastage rate to be, so we cannot start allocating those doses to other groups.

In fact, our experience in the programme so far is that the actual wastage is around 1 per cent. We try to get that down, and we will continue to do that as far as that is possible. That will involve things that will always happen, such as spillages or broken vials. We will try to ensure that the wastage is as minimal as possible and nowhere near 5 per cent.

Again, I recommend to all those who might not have got round to it yet that they read the deployment plan that we published last week, as the answers to such questions are all in there.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

The recruitment of vaccinators to deliver the various Covid vaccines is well under way. Quite rightly, the focus is on the recruitment of registered healthcare professionals.

A constituent of mine who is an airline pilot informed me that in England, some pilots and cabin crew are now assisting as vaccinators, following appropriate training. How is the recruitment of vaccinators in Scotland progressing? Might there be a need to widen out the recruitment to other groups of workers, depending on the success of the recruitment campaign?

The First Minister:

The recruitment of vaccinators is progressing well. I am looking for the specific number in my folder; I think that it was 5,000, but from what the health secretary tells me, I think that 7,000 people have gone through or are going through that training. Currently, we have active in the vaccinator programme the number of vaccinators that we need to match the vaccine supplies that we have, and that number will scale up as the supplies scale up.

We included in the deployment plan that we set out last week detail of the number of vaccinators that we will require when the programme is at its peak, when we can support that with the supplies.

The process is going well, but we will keep that under close and on-going review, as we will do with all aspects of the programme.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

The First Minister will be very aware of the comments that Scottish Care made last week about the concerns about the anti-vaccination movement targeting many of our care homes. Could she update the chamber on what action the Scottish Government is taking to counter that?

The First Minister:

I share the concerns of Scottish Care. We are putting in place a number of things, such as webinars with staff to address directly some of the concerns that they might have. Some concerns might be legitimate, but others might be being fuelled by the anti-vax movement, which we must be careful to ensure is not allowed to cause damage to the programme here or in any other country.

In response to an earlier question, I referred to discussions that took place yesterday with the STUC, which made the helpful offer to be part of that discussion with staff so that we can encourage maximum uptake.

When I first heard about the issue, I was concerned, and I am still concerned, but the figures on uptake among members of the social care workforce that I reported earlier give me cause for reassurance. As I said earlier, more than 70 per cent of care home staff have now been vaccinated with the first dose. Overall, in terms of NHS and social care front-line staff, the figure is also above 70 per cent. That suggests that there is good, positive uptake, but we want to get it as high as possible.

We all have a part to play in making sure that those ridiculous, unfounded and baseless fears and smears that are spread around by the anti-vax movement do not get any purchase at all.

The Presiding Officer:

I have three further supplementaries, and I think that we have time to squeeze them all in.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

Earlier, the First Minister spoke about funding to assist businesses. Will she clarify whether pet grooming businesses can access support through the strategic framework business fund, given that, by law, they must remain open for essential services that, if not carried out, would negatively impact an animal’s welfare?

The First Minister:

My apologies—it may be my hearing rather than a general problem, but I did not catch all of Stuart McMillan’s question. I think that he was referring to pet services. Our funding streams take account of the needs of businesses that are not legally required to close, but are restricted in what they can do. That is important. If Stuart McMillan could email my office later with the fine detail of his question that I might have missed, I will make sure that he gets a full answer as soon as possible.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

This week, I was contacted by a senior consultant, who advised that significant numbers of vaccine shots are being wasted in their hospital because they have no standby system for the use of any excess. When they raised the matter with management, they were told in no uncertain terms that they should keep quiet about it. This is not about spillages or broken vials, but excess vaccine that they want to put in the arms of patients. Will the Government look closely at having a standby system through which the vaccine can be used up?

The First Minister:

As far as I understand it, boards have standby plans in place, but I will get health secretary to follow that up, to make sure that they are all working as they should be.

If they are experiencing something that is of concern to them, no member of NHS staff should keep quiet about it—I have always been clear about that.

It is in the interests of nobody—certainly not the Scottish population, and not me or the Government—to have a single dose of the vaccine wasted in a way that is avoidable. In a vaccination programme, there will always be some unavoidable waste, which we want to minimise. However, the suggestion that we would not take seriously any reason why there may be avoidable wastage does not make sense. Anybody who hears about such things should tell us straight away, so that we can get on to and resolve the issue. For the smooth and efficient operation of the process, it is important that there are plans in place to deal with people not attending appointments, or other issues, so that doses of the vaccine are being used to the maximum extent.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The vaccination supplies for the over-80s and under-80s that are reaching GPs in Ayrshire and elsewhere appear to be patchy—that is beyond dispute. Is there a particular reason why delivery of vaccinations to GPs surgeries has become such a postcode lottery, and what is the Scottish Government doing to resolve the matter?

The First Minister:

The word “patchy” is being used, but it is not necessarily one that I would use. As the supply, particularly of the AstraZeneca vaccine, continues to increase, things will even out. It is not a postcode lottery—it is about getting supplies as quickly as possible to GP surgeries.

As I said earlier, there are logistical restrictions around the use of the Pfizer vaccine in GP surgeries. As we speak, GP surgeries will be vaccinating over-80s, and that will continue to pick up pace. We are getting towards 20 per cent of the over-80s nationwide having already had the first dose, which will increase progressively as we get towards the target of all over-80s by the start of February.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes our statement on Covid. I encourage all members who are leaving the chamber to use the aisles and gangways, and not walk behind or in front of other members or their chairs.