Covid-19

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th February 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

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

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 this morning. I confirm at the outset that, with one limited exception, I will not be announcing any immediate changes to the current lockdown restrictions. The core requirement to stay at home will remain in place until at least the beginning of March, and possibly for a period beyond that, although not for any longer than is absolutely necessary.

However, I confirm that the phased and gradual return to school, which I said we were hopeful about when I updated Parliament two weeks ago, will go ahead from Monday, as planned. I will say more about that, and about the importance of carefully implementing and monitoring that change, later.

In addition, I will give an assessment of the current state of the pandemic. I will also signal when and how we hope to give an indication of the criteria for beginning our exit from lockdown, and the order in which we will aim to do so, when the time is right.

First, though, I will briefly recap today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 773, which represents 6 per cent of all the tests that were carried out, and means that the overall number of cases is now 193,148. Currently,1,383 people are in hospital, which is 45 fewer than yesterday, and 100 people are in intensive care, which is two fewer than yesterday.

I regret to report, however, that over the past 24 hours another 49 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 6,764. Once again, I send my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic.

I now turn to an update on the vaccination programme. As at 8.30 this morning, 1,288,004 people in Scotland had received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 32,814 since yesterday. That means that we have now given a first dose to 28 per cent of the adult population. We have also met our mid-February target to offer the first dose of the vaccine to everyone over 70 and to everyone with extreme clinical vulnerability. There will be some overlap between those groups, but in total they represent groups 1 to 4 on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s priority list.

That is extremely good news. However, expressing it in the way that I have just done actually understates the scale of the achievement. Vaccination has not simply been offered to everyone in those categories; almost everyone in those groups has had the first dose of the vaccine. Uptake rates have been exceptional; we have administered first doses to virtually all residents in older people’s care homes, and to more than 90 per cent of residents in all care homes. Virtually all over-80-year-olds living in the community have received the first dose, as have 94 per cent of those in the 70 to 79-year-old age group. In addition, although it was not part of the mid-February target, we have also now vaccinated 58 per cent of 65 to 69-year-olds, who form the JCVI’s priority group 5.

It is important to be clear that there are, in any large-scale programme, bound to be some hiccups. To anyone watching who is aged over 70 or who has extreme clinical vulnerability but who has not yet heard about their vaccination, I say that it might be that their letter has gone astray or that some other administrative problem has occurred. I ask them to get in touch with their general practitioner, call the helpline or, as a last resort, to email me. The address for that is firstminister@gov.scot.

Overall, however, progress so far in the vaccination programme has been outstanding. I thank everyone who has been involved in planning and delivering the programme, and all those who have come forward to be vaccinated. However, I urge people to remember that even if they have now had a first dose of the vaccine, they must still follow all the lockdown rules. The protection from the first dose does not kick in for two or three weeks and, even then, we do not yet know exactly what impact vaccination will have on transmission of the virus.

However, we are very hopeful that vaccination will, in the weeks ahead, start to have a significant impact in reducing the number of people who die from Covid. In fact, we think that it is already having an effect in care homes, where vaccines started being administered in the first half of December. At the end of December, more than a third of all Covid deaths—34 per cent, to be precise—were in care homes. However, in the most recent figures, the proportion had fallen to 18 per cent.

As I have said before, we are in a race between the virus and the vaccine. We have much more reason now than we had just a few weeks ago to be hopeful that we can—and, ultimately, will—win that race, if we are prepared to stick with it.

In the past few weeks, as the figures that I have just reported show, we have been speeding up our vaccination programme. At the same time, we have been slowing down the virus. Lockdown has been working. In the first week of January, an average of more than 2,300 new cases a day were being recorded in Scotland. The most recent figure is 810 cases. There has been a significant and sustained fall.

As a result of that—again, we can see this in the figures that we have been reporting in recent days—we are now seeing fewer Covid patients in hospital and fewer patients requiring intensive care treatment, although it is important to be clear that our health service remains under very severe pressure. Test positivity has also declined significantly—from around 11 per cent at the start of January to around 6 per cent now.

Together with the progress on vaccination, that is all extremely good news, but of course—as always—it has to be seen in context. Case numbers have been falling because we have been in lockdown and, even after six weeks of that lockdown, they have only just returned to the levels that were being recorded back in early December.

In addition, we think that we are seeing some signs that the number of cases is falling more slowly now than it was a few weeks ago. A key factor is likely to be that the new and more infectious variant of the virus is accounting for an increasing proportion of all new cases: as of now, the new variant is responsible for more than 80 per cent of all the new cases that are being identified.

Of course, we already know from our experience last autumn and in December just how easily the virus can run away from us when there is already a high baseline of transmission within the community. That all means that the situation that we are in just now, although it is better and significantly improved, is still very fragile.

I know that that is frustrating and I know that it can seem counterintuitive. Over the past few weeks, the sacrifices that everyone has continued to make have helped to bring about the good progress. The news has all been very encouraging. However, our room for manoeuvre remains limited. Even a slight easing of restrictions now could cause cases to start rising quite rapidly again.

Even if the older and more vulnerable people in the population now have additional protection through the vaccine, we know that more virus circulating in the community would still put huge pressure on the national health service. It would also cause many more people to fall ill. That includes younger people, and we know that they can be vulnerable to what is called long Covid. In addition—this is, perhaps, the key point—we know that when community transmission is high and rising, the risk of the virus mutating and new variants emerging is at its most acute.

That all means that, notwithstanding the good progress that we have made, we need, for a period yet, to continue to be extremely cautious. We need to continue to work hard to drive infection rates down as low as possible and then to keep them low.

Of course, all that being said, we know that we cannot continue in lockdown indefinitely, so we need to balance all the different factors and plan a gradual phased return to as much normality as possible, as quickly as possible. That is what the Government is now focused very much on doing.

However, as we do that, there are two things that are important to stress. First, we must be driven much more by data than by dates. I know that that is difficult, given how desperate we all are to get back to something that is closer to normality, but if we open up too quickly to meet arbitrary dates, we risk setting our progress back. Indeed, because of the new and more infectious variant, our exit from lockdown is likely to be even more cautious than it was last summer.

Secondly, 100 per cent normality is unlikely to be possible for a while yet. In a world where we cannot do everything immediately, we will need to decide what matters most to us. That is why people will hear me and other ministers talk increasingly about trade-offs. I will offer two immediate examples to help to illustrate that.

As I will discuss shortly, we are deliberately choosing to use the very limited headroom that we have right now to get at least some children back to school, because children’s education and wellbeing is such an overriding priority. However, being able to get children back to education might mean the rest of us living with some other restrictions for longer. That is a trade-off that we need to be willing to make, at this stage.

Also, if we want to return as much normality in life as we can within Scotland, the need to live for a longer period with significant restrictions on our ability to travel overseas is likely to be inescapable.

“What matters most?” is a question that we will have to ask ourselves often in the weeks ahead, and it will be important for me and the Government to be very up front about the choices that we face.

I am talking today in general terms, but I can confirm that the Scottish Government is currently preparing a revised strategic framework, which will set out in much more detail when and how we might gradually emerge from the lockdown. We hope to publish the new framework next week, probably at this time, following discussions with the other parties in Parliament and with business organisations, trade unions, third sector bodies and others.

The framework will aim to set out how we will use and balance all the tools at our disposal—restrictions and advice, vaccination, test and protect, and travel restrictions—to restore, on a phased basis, greater normality to our everyday lives. It will set out as far as possible the conditions that we think need to be met, in terms of the data, for us to start lifting restrictions, and it will detail the broad order of priority for reopening, including what a return to a geographic levels approach might look like in due course.

Again, I emphasise that if we want to keep moving in the right direction and avoid setbacks, caution will be necessary, which is why the framework will also try to be clear about what we do not think will be possible for a while longer. To give just one example of that, we are likely to advise against booking Easter holidays, either overseas or within Scotland, as it is highly unlikely that we will have been able to fully open hotels or self-catering accommodation by then. For the summer, although it is still highly unlikely that overseas holidays will be possible or advisable, staycations might be, but that will depend on the data nearer the time.

Given the risks that are posed by new variants of the virus, it is hard for me to overstate the necessity of being careful, cautious and gradual as we exit the lockdown if we want to avoid another lockdown later this year. That means, for now, all of us continuing to abide by the stay-at-home requirement. Indeed, doing that for a further period is essential to permit the headroom that is necessary for the change that I am about to confirm.

In terms of the order in which we exit lockdown, the Government has always made it clear that education should be the top priority. Two weeks ago, I announced our preliminary decision that pre-school children, pupils in primary 1 to 3 and a limited number of senior phase students who need access to school for essential practical work would return from Monday 22 February. I also said that, from the same date, we hoped to enable a limited increase in the provision for vulnerable children—specifically, those with the most significant additional support needs—where schools believe that that is essential.

I am pleased to confirm today that, in keeping with the advice of our expert group, that first phase of the reopening of schools will go ahead as planned on Monday. We will need to monitor the impact of the change carefully before taking any further decisions, but I hope that in two weeks’ time, we will be able to set out the second phase of school reopening. However, to give as much clarity as possible at this stage, particularly for parents, I point out that the need to properly assess the impact of the limited reopening means that, at this stage, we think it unlikely that there will be any further return to school before 15 March.

As we consider those issues, we are of course doing everything that we can to ensure that schools are as safe as possible for children and for the education workforce. As senior phase pupils, teachers and school staff start to return, we will be making at-home lateral flow tests available to them twice a week, as part of a wider package of in-school mitigations. Comprehensive testing guidance has now been issued to schools and local authorities and, as of yesterday, more than 2,200 schools had received deliveries of test kits.

We are also working with Young Scot to provide online information and support for senior phase pupils who want to take part in the testing programme. In addition, senior secondary pupils will be required to observe 2m physical distancing while in school and on school transport in the period immediately after the return. We are also publishing today updated school safety guidance, developed with the education recovery group, which sets out a range of additional safety mitigations. To help implement them, we will provide local authorities and schools with an additional £40 million, as part of a wider £100 million package to accelerate school recovery. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance will confirm the details of that investment later this afternoon.

The final point that I want to make about schools, before setting out a more general message about the phased reopening, is that the national qualifications 2021 group will soon publish further details on how qualifications will be awarded this year in a way that fairly reflects people’s experience of remote learning. We have decided that all teachers and lecturers involved in awarding national qualifications this year will receive a one-off payment of £400, which will be paid to part-time teachers on a pro rata basis. Two days will be set aside for teachers to work on assessments this year. Further details concerning the payment and the assessment support days will be provided shortly.

The steps that I have set out are clearly of great importance, but there is a more general and overriding message that I need to set out and emphasise today. The success of that limited reopening and the prospect of getting, we hope, more pupils back into school later in March very much depends on all of us continuing to abide by the wider restrictions. The evidence suggests that the key risk in reopening schools is not transmission of the virus within schools; instead, the risk comes from the increased contact that the reopening might spark among the wider adult population. The risk is that schools going back might lead to parents socialising more, at the school gates for example, or returning to the workplace rather than working from home. I know how difficult it is, but I am asking parents and employers to make sure that that does not happen. If you are an employer, please understand that employees who were working from home while their children were being home schooled should still work from home next week, even if their children are back at school. It is, of course, a legal obligation for all employers to support employees to work from home as far as is possible.

In addition, if you are a parent whose children will soon be going back to primary school, I can only imagine what a relief that will be, but please do not use it as an opportunity to meet up with other parents or friends. The hard but really inescapable fact is this: if the return to school leads to more contacts between adults over the next few weeks, transmission of the virus will quickly rise again. That will jeopardise our ability to sustain even this limited return and make it much less likely that we can get more pupils back soon. It would also set back our progress more generally.

For now—I cannot emphasise this point strongly enough—please treat Monday’s important milestone as a return to education for children only and not as a return to greater normality for the rest of us. If we all do that, I am hopeful that this return to school will be consistent with continued progress in suppressing the virus. If that proves to be the case, I am optimistic that we will soon be able to set out the next phase in the journey back to school for more young people. Although I cannot set out an indicative date for that today, I hope to be in a position to do so in two weeks’ time.

As I said earlier, between now and the next review date in two weeks’ time, we will publish the new strategic framework, plotting a gradual route back to greater normality, we hope, for all of us. The framework will continue to prioritise education, followed by greater family contact and the phased reopening of the economy, probably with non-essential retail starting to open first. It will be clear on the trade-offs, not least the continued travel restrictions that will be necessary to make more normality within our own borders possible.

For now, though, the most important priority, if any of that is to be attainable in the weeks ahead, is to continue to firmly suppress the virus. That means sticking to the current lockdown rules. I know that, by acknowledging how hard those rules are, I do not make them any easier for anybody. I desperately wish that I could be firmer now about exactly when and how we will exit lockdown in the weeks ahead, but I am acutely aware that moving too quickly or getting the balance wrong will cause cases to rise again. That would mean more people ill and in hospital, more pressure on the national health service and the prospect of more, not fewer, restrictions as we have to start all over again in getting the virus back under control.

The fact is that a cautious approach, however frustrating it is for all of us, will be more successful and sustainable. Please continue to stick to the letter and the spirit of the rules. Stay at home, except for essential purposes. Do not meet people from other households indoors. Follow the FACTS advice when you are out. Work from home whenever you can. If you are an employer, support your employees to work from home. By doing all of that, especially as children start to go back to school, we will continue to protect each other, our communities and the NHS. It will allow us, we hope, to keep the virus under control while we vaccinate more and more people, and make our way, slowly but surely and steadily, to better and brighter days ahead. I urge everyone to continue to stick with it and stick together. Stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

The Presiding Officer:

The First Minister will now take questions.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

I thank the First Minister for advance notice of her statement. We have come to the chamber many times to call for the pace of the vaccine roll-out to pick up; we are delighted that it has happened. Scotland and the United Kingdom now lead the whole of Europe and much of the rest of the world in delivering the vaccine as quickly and efficiently as possible. Front-line health staff, volunteers, retired returners and our armed forces deserve the highest praise for all their heroic efforts. Although the road ahead will be rocky as vaccine supplies face hold-ups everywhere, the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.

Our schools are seeing a similar ray of light, with confirmation today that they can start to reopen again safely in the near future. We have called for a schools catch-up plan, built around a national tutoring service to stop the growth of the attainment gap, to be published as soon as possible, and we hope that the Scottish National Party will take that proposal on board.

To get us closer to normality, we need to get all key workers vaccinated as soon as possible. The Scottish Government has not yet confirmed details of phase 2, but it would be helpful if we could begin to understand more of its thinking on the matter. JCVI guidance on the next phase states:

“Vaccination of those at increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 due to their occupation could also be a priority in the next phase. This could include first responders, the military, those involved in the justice system, teachers, transport workers, and public servants essential to the pandemic response.”

Has the First Minister reached a decision on whether any of those groups, or any other group of key workers, is to be prioritised as part of the roll-out of phase 2 of the vaccination programme and, if not, when will that decision be made?

The First Minister:

As I have done regularly in recent days, I record again my thanks to everybody who is involved in the planning and delivery of the vaccine programme. The progress would be exceptional at any time but, given the severe weather that Scotland encountered this past week, it has been beyond exceptional. I will never be able to convey my appreciation sufficiently to everybody who is involved.

It is important to point out that, as well as the fact that we have such large numbers of people vaccinated—28 per cent of the adult population already—in the most vulnerable groups, what is most significant is our uptake rates, which stand favourable comparison to anything in any other part of the UK. I hope that the protection that has been given to older people in care homes and to the oldest and most vulnerable in the community will allow us to soon see a significant reduction in the impact in the form of serious illness and death from the virus. As I said earlier, we are already seeing that impact materialise in care homes. We should not underestimate just how important that point is.

The unknown question—at least one of them—is how much impact vaccination will have on transmission. Does vaccination stop us getting or passing on the virus? The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I had another discussion yesterday afternoon with Astra-Zeneca, and the early data on the matter is encouraging and positive—certainly in relation to the variant that is circulating in the UK. We need more data to be absolutely sure about that.

On the second point, on schools, I said that we would make additional funding available to schools to accelerate a school recovery programme, and both the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, with regard to money, and the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills will set out more details shortly.

I re-emphasise my point. If the gradual, phased return to school is to be as successful as we want it to be and if it is to lead to a more substantial return, the rest of us have to shoulder our responsibility to ensure that, at this stage, the return is limited to children going back to school and does not trigger a wider return to greater normality, because that would set us all back considerably.

Ruth Davidson has said that the Scottish Government has not set out the next phase of the vaccination programme yet. I do not think that any Government in the UK has set out the detail of that phase yet. We are all not just considering provisional advice from the JCVI but waiting to see whether it has more considered advice on the order that we prioritise vaccination of the rest of the population after we have done everybody over 50 and everybody with underlying health conditions.

We will set that programme out as quickly as possible. All Governments take care to take and follow the expert advice so that we get the programme as right as possible. We will focus on the completion of the JCVI priority groups now and give an indication of the order of priority for the rest of the population over the course of the next few weeks.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I thank the First Minister for an advance copy of her statement. I, too, wish to pass on my condolences to those who have lost loved ones to Covid.

First, I thank all those who have been involved in delivering vaccinations. They have done a tremendous job and deserve our gratitude. The First Minister will be aware, though, that both NHS England and NHS Wales have said that they will complete the vaccinations of the JCVI target list—that is, all those over 50 and the clinically vulnerable—by the end of April but that here in Scotland we will not have completed those groups until the end of May. Will she explain why there is a month’s difference, and will she commit to also completing those vaccinations by the end of April?

Secondly, the First Minister will be aware of the concerns—[

Interruption

.] If John Swinney would care to stop muttering, Presiding Officer, I might be able to progress with my question. The First Minister will be aware of the concerns about supply, which have resulted in the partial closure of vaccination centres such as Ravenscraig, which is down to weekends only; Port Glasgow and Greenock, which are down from seven to two days a week; and Paisley and Renfrew, where reduced hours are reported. When will the supply issues be resolved? Will the Government be able to ramp up vaccinations again so that we can catch up on the backlog, and will she guarantee that everyone who is due their second dose of the vaccine will get that within the 12-week timeframe?

The First Minister:

On that last point, the answer is yes. That is partly why we have indicated a slight slowing in the pace of vaccination over the next couple of weeks. I will come on to that in more detail.

On the vaccination of the remainder of the JCVI priority groups, we are all working to pretty much the same timetable. We have said that we will do it by early May—I think that I have said that on repeated occasions, and we are being a little cautious on that because of the continued uncertainties about supply. However, given the pace that we have set, in which, for the past week or so—or perhaps for slightly longer—Scotland has been recording a daily vaccination rate that is the fastest not just in the UK but in the whole of Europe. Although we monitor that literally daily, that success gives me great confidence that, if we have the supplies that we need, we will be able to vaccinate quickly and—I hope—not just meet those targets but even exceed them.

Jackie Baillie asked me whether I was aware of the concerns about supply. Actually, it is the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I who have alerted people over the past few days to concerns about supply. We are being transparent about the issues that we are grappling with. I will set out briefly what they are. We are dealing with three factors that come together. First—and this is really good news—we have vaccinated more than 75,000 extra people compared with the deployment plan that we published a few weeks ago, because uptake rates have been so high. At this stage, we have vaccinated more people than we thought we would.

Secondly, Pfizer has not reduced the overall number of doses that we will get, but it has rephased the delivery of those. We know that, over the next couple of weeks, we will get slightly less in supply than we originally thought.

Thirdly, as I have already alluded to, we are now at the stage of the programme at which we have to start keeping back some doses in order to start vaccinating people with their second doses.

That combination of factors means that, for a couple of weeks, we think, instead of doing the 60,000 vaccinations a day that we were doing over the past week, we will be doing in the region of 30,000 a day. That means that some vaccination centres, although they have not closed, will go from seven days a week to five days, just to manage that reduction. As soon as the supplies start coming through, which is the bit that we are just not in control of, because we do not manufacture the vaccine, that will ramp up again and we will be hitting the pace that we were hitting last week, which I remind everybody was the fastest of any vaccination programme anywhere in Europe.

There are big challenges in this, and we are trying to be open about them while making sure that we vaccinate people as quickly as possible. The people across the country who have been delivering that deserve our grateful thanks, because they have been doing a fabulous job, and it is to their credit that I can say, for the third time in this answer, that we have had the fastest programme in the whole of Europe.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

I extend my thanks to all those involved in delivering the vaccination programme in Scotland.

The roll-out of regular testing for school staff and senior pupils, as proposed in a Green motion that was agreed by the Parliament last year, is very welcome. However, as we advance through the first phase of priority vaccinations, the Scottish Government needs to be making decisions about the next phase. Given that the First Minister has said that getting all children back to school is her top priority, and notwithstanding that she said in her answer to Ms Davidson’s question that the JCVI will decide, can she confirm whether teachers and all school staff will be prioritised? Can she outline what else is being done to ensure that schools are as safe as possible? For example, will funds be made available to improve ventilation in classrooms? That measure has been shown to reduce transmission.

The First Minister:

Any teacher or member of the education workforce who is in one of the initial priority groups will be getting vaccinated right now. That is important because of what we know about the vaccine. We do not yet know that it reduces transmission, but we do know that it reduces illness and death. The priority has been vaccinating most quickly those who are most clinically at risk, and that includes teachers and anybody in any profession who is in one of those groups b ecause of their age or clinical vulnerability. After that, we need to ensure that we take account of all the clinical and expert advice that we get.

I am sure that Alison Johnstone did not mean to dismiss the role of the JCVI but, to give people an understanding, I think that in other parts of the UK—certainly in England—the Government is statutorily bound to follow the JCVI. That is not the case here. However, the Government has never in the lifetime of the Parliament gone against the JCVI’s advice on immunisation and vaccination. That is extremely weighty, so it would be wrong for us not to pay attention to it or not to give due time for the JCVI to give any advice that it wanted to give.

As we go through the rest of the current priority list, that consideration is under way, and we will set that out as quickly as possible. It may be—I cannot say this for sure right now—that occupations will have more priority in the next phase, regardless of clinical risk, given that the first phase has focused so much on clinical vulnerability.

On wider mitigations in schools, testing is very important. The availability of lateral flow devices is allowing us to do that. The guidance that I have talked about in addition to the 2m distancing for senior phase pupils sets out some of the other steps that will be in place. As I said in my opening statement—the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will talk more about this in her statement later this afternoon—we are making significant additional funding available to local councils and schools. If changes to ventilation in individual schools are required, for example, we are making money available to do exactly that.

Let me be very clear. We want children back to school, but we will not compromise the safety of children or those who work in our schools.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

The First Minister was silent on care home visiting in her statement, even though she indicated, when we discussed it in the chamber last week, that it could be allowed soon. Conditions are increasingly safe. Almost all residents were vaccinated weeks ago, and the vaccine has been found to be as effective in real life as it was in clinical trials. In her statement, the First Minister highlighted the reducing impact of the virus on care homes. The toll of separation on families and their loved ones is heavy, and it grows every single day. When will families be allowed to get together? When will care home visiting start?

The First Minister:

As I have said before, that is of the utmost importance. Willie Rennie said that conditions are increasingly safe. That is a lot more glib than I would ever be—certainly on the basis of the advice that I have access to. We cannot afford to make assumptions about the safety of the most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable settings.

We think that, with vaccination and other mitigations, they can be a lot safer, but we still need to be cautious.

In my statement—I will go into more detail about this when we publish the strategic framework next week—I said that we will set out the order of priority for reopening, with education the top priority. I cannot remember the exact phrase that I used, but I talked about increased family contact as the next priority. Care home visiting is very much part of that.

As I said last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is working on revised guidance right now. I think that she has a meeting with providers of care homes this week—she is telling me that it is some time tomorrow—in order to try to finalise that guidance. I hope that I will be able to say more about that next Tuesday, if not before then, and that we will have greater normality back, but we must continue to be cautious.

The toll that the virus has taken on our care homes is significant and it will be subject to scrutiny—rightly and properly—for some time to come. We think that we have substantially reduced the toll during the second wave, and vaccination is helping us to do more of that, but we cannot throw caution to the wind when we are dealing with the people in our society who are the most vulnerable to the virus.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

We all want to see a safe return to nurseries and schools, and we understand the importance of that for education and overall wellbeing. I support the approach that has been set out today.

The First Minister will be aware of the various studies that have shown that the learning of those who come from more deprived communities has suffered disproportionately as a result of Covid-19. Will she say a bit more about what actions the Government is taking to ensure that those vulnerable groups receive the extra support that they need and deserve?

The First Minister:

That is one the most important questions in the whole of the situation that we are grappling with right now. As we did prior to the pandemic, we are targeting additional support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we have said previously, we have supplied devices to support digital learning at home, and provided support for home-school link workers to maintain regular contact with children. We have also supported the delivery of summer learning and support programmes, including family support workers, provision of food, and additional learning materials.

We are also investing, and have invested during the past few years, in the Scottish attainment challenge, which includes money that councils have been able to use to deal with the poverty-related impacts of Covid.

Those are important issues that will not go away as we start to come out of the Covid situation. They will require attention and investment for some time to come.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

The limited return of school pupils is welcome, but questions remain. The current approach suggests that cohorts of pupils will return in three-week blocks. Adding in the Easter holidays, it could yet be some months before pupils are back in class, which would mean the loss of an entire term of classroom learning. Will the new social distancing measures that have been announced for school transport and the school estate be practically feasible to introduce and enforce? Many on the ground think that they will not. Can the First Minister guarantee that every school seeing a return of pupils on Monday will have a comprehensive testing regime in place?

The First Minister:

First, I caution against the assumption—although I am not saying that it is an unreasonable assumption, based on what I have said—that it will be cohorts in three-week blocks and that it will take a long time. I am certainly not standing here today and ruling that out, because I cannot. Equally, however, if the data allows it, we will try to get children back to school much more quickly than that. I know that it is difficult to avoid sometimes, but we should stop making fixed assumptions. We will do everything that we can to see that return to school happen as quickly as possible.

Although children are not physically in school, they are learning remotely. We know that that has an impact on their education and their wider wellbeing. I am sure that not every parent would agree with this, but certainly many of those who have contacted me have said that the provision of remote learning has improved significantly from what happened with the school closures during the first lockdown. We continue to work with councils and make provision for them to continue to support that.

Similarly, every reasonable step will be taken to make sure that school buildings are as safe as possible for children as they return. In that context, I am assured that every school to which senior phase pupils return next week has testing provision in place. As I said in my statement, more than 2,000 schools have had test kits delivered, and there is guidance about how they should be used and how their impact will be monitored. That is an important step forward, and we continue to work with those across education to take whatever additional steps are necessary.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

Given the increased transmissibility of the new variant of the virus, will the First Minister confirm that, in reviewing the strategic framework, the metrics that are used to determine what level any part of the country falls within might require to be adjusted, and is she in a position to indicate at this point what any such adjusted metrics might look like?

The First Minister:

That is an important question. Before I come to it, the Deputy First Minister told me when I sat down after answering the previous question that some schools had their test supplies disrupted last week because of the weather, but steps are under way to make sure that they get those supplies as quickly as possible. That does not change the information that I gave earlier.

On Annabelle Ewing’s point, we are obviously thinking very carefully about that and we will suggest a number of metrics in the strategic framework next week that will guide the different phases of lifting lockdown. I anticipate that that would initially be on a national basis, apart from those islands that are in a different position already. We hope that at some point we would move back to a more regional basis, with areas in different levels depending on the prevalence of the virus, and we will also start to set out what metrics would guide that.

One of the most difficult metrics for us to determine at the moment—it might take longer than the next week to do so—is, to be crude about it, what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to start easing restrictions. One of the reasons why that is difficult right now is that we do not yet know exactly what impact the vaccine has on the transmission of the virus. That is an area of uncertainty. We are spending a lot of time with clinical advisers trying to understand that and see how definitive we can be around that metric. It may take a bit longer than the next week to get to a settled point on that.

People will remember the metrics and indicators used in the previous version of the strategic framework that guided the decisions on levels. We are looking to amend those to take much more account of the World Health Organization advice on those matters. That is what we will set out, among other things, in the document that we will publish next week.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

In her statement, the First Minister invited people to email her, and I do not want to put anyone off doing that. However, I wrote to her at the start of the year about the closure of places of worship, explaining the importance of communal worship for spiritual, social and psychological benefits, and I have received no response as yet. With schools beginning to return and Lent starting tomorrow, will the First Minister give some reassurance to Scotland’s Christians that she will prioritise churches in her strategic framework so that they can be among the first places to reopen? We hope that that might be in time to celebrate Easter.

The First Minister:

We will try to get places of worship back to normality. They are not closed, but the ability to worship normally and freely is restricted. I deeply regret that, as I know that everybody does, and we want to get that back to normality as quickly as possible. I do not want to pre-empt what we will set out in the strategic framework next week, but members will see a priority given to getting places of worship open again, given the importance that we attach to that. We will continue to do that as quickly as possible. I know that many people feel strongly about it and I understand that, but nobody in the Government, including me, wants anywhere to be operating less than normally for any longer than is necessary. It is easier for people to bear that with some settings than with others. We know how difficult it is with schools and care homes, and it is difficult for places of worship as well.

As we get the virus suppressed and continue to make progress with vaccination, that is what I mean when I say that we will have to make choices about what matters most to us. Sometimes those will be difficult choices, but the more we can build a consensus about the things that really matter—I would include places of worship in that—the more we can come out of this lockdown in a sensible and sustainable way and, I hope, avoid the need for another one later in the year.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Will the First Minister expand on how the phased reopening of schools that she outlined in her statement reflects the need to balance the harms associated with keeping children out of school with the latest clinical and scientific advice? How will the Scottish Government continue to support childcare providers who have experienced financial pressure due to the pandemic and the restrictions placed on them?

The First Minister:

We have given financial support to childcare providers, and we will continue to look favourably at that as far as we can. We made some additional support available to childminders—just last week or the week before, I think—in recognition of the particular difficulties that they are facing.

The balance that we are trying to strike is not an easy one, and the judgments are often quite fine. We recognise the harm that is being done to young people of all ages as a result of being outside school, away from their friends and the normal experiences of growing up, so we want to introduce normality there as much as possible.

We think that school environments, with the right mitigations in place, are safe, and that is why I emphasised in my statement the following point. We know that the risks around school opening—those risks are real, in terms of the impact that they can have on wider community transmission—come not so much from transmission inside schools as from the contacts that go around school opening, and parents feeling that they are able to go back to the workplace or socialise more because their children are in school. That is what will make school opening unsustainable if we do not all make a concerted effort to make sure that it does not happen, which is why I will keep repeating this to parents and other adults out there: please, please do not take Monday’s milestone in education as a return to normality, because if we do that, there is a real risk that we will go backwards rather than continue to move forward.

Photo of Elizabeth Smith Elizabeth Smith Conservative

I have a constituent in Auchterarder who is currently working as an aerospace engineer with Bristow in Nigeria and is due back home on leave in March. Under the rules in England, he would not need to quarantine when he flies home, because Nigeria is not on the red list and aerospace engineers are exempt. In Scotland, however, he would face quarantine, with the heavy costs that are involved, and he would not be exempt. How will the First Minister address that situation?

The First Minister:

I am happy to look at any individual case but, although it is difficult for people, particularly if they are in the kind of situation that Liz Smith has outlined, those rules are in place in Scotland for a reason. The biggest risk—certainly one of the biggest risks—that we face in the next few months, which would set us all back and put us back in lockdown, is the importation of new variants into the country. They might circulate more quickly and might be more severe, and crucially—as we fear could be the case with the South African variant—they might beat the vaccine or at least reduce its efficacy, so we must be vigilant and stringent in trying to avoid that.

I wish that there was a common UK-wide position in this area, and I hope that there will be in the future. Nevertheless, I, along with my colleagues, have a responsibility to ensure that we do everything in our power to avoid the importation of new variants of the virus to Scotland, and that is what we will continue to do.

We will continue to be as flexible as we can be, both with exemptions for good reasons and in considering individual cases that may involve unique circumstances. However, the more exemptions to the rules we allow, and the more individual circumstances we cater for, the leakier a system like this becomes, and the more chance there is that, a few months from now, we will be back in lockdown because a new variant is beating the vaccine and circulating faster, and we need to get it under control. We have to do everything that we can to guard against that.

Photo of Emma Harper Emma Harper Scottish National Party

The First Minister responded to a question on wider preparations for testing of senior students and teachers. Can she give any update on testing and vaccinating more police officers?

The First Minister:

My answer is the same; the answer does not vary depending on which occupational group I am talking about. Right now, police officers, if they have underlying health conditions or are in one of the older age cohorts—that is perhaps less likely, although ultimately it includes everybody over 50—will be included in the initial JCVI priority list. We have not yet come to final decisions about whether there will be an order of priority in the rest of the population after that, or whether we will just vaccinate the rest of the population as they come. We are waiting to see whether there is any more detailed expert advice, but we will take those decisions as soon as possible.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

Teachers have performed an outstanding job in delivering learning by virtual means. However, I know that the First Minister will agree with me that today’s announcement is welcome because it should be the beginning of the end of those arrangements, which were made necessary because of Covid.

Given the desire to get back to face-to-face learning, does she share my alarm, and that of parents and students at James Gillespie’s high school in my constituency, at the school’s proposal that blended learning be continued through the next academic year for secondary 6 pupils, not because of Covid or social distancing requirements but because of a lack of physical space in the school buildings? It is being proposed that 40 per cent of teaching will be provided online for S6 next year. I do not expect the First Minister to be able to comment on the detail of that but, given the announcement today, can she confirm that blended learning should be limited to dealing with the pandemic and should not continue any longer than strictly necessary? Does she agree that virtual and blended learning cannot be allowed to become the new normal for any school students, let alone those in S6 at Gillespie’s next year?

The First Minister:

I would agree with much, if not all, of the sentiment in that question. I might not be able to go as far as the member would like on some of the detail, because I cannot see that far into the future regarding the control of the virus, unfortunately—I wish that I could.

I certainly do not want blended learning to become the new normal. As far as I am concerned, it is necessary right now because of Covid, and we should not have it in place any longer than is necessary, but we need to have it in place for as long as it is necessary to help with the suppression of the virus.

I have been clear that it is the priority of the Government to get children back to in-person, face-to-face learning on a full-time basis as soon as possible, just as we did quite successfully last August for an extended period.

As for what the phasing of that looks like beyond 22 February, I hope that I can give more of an indication of that when I am standing here two weeks from now, but I cannot be definitive about that now. However, I certainly do not want blended learning to be necessary for any longer than the virus absolutely necessitates.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

Can the First Minister clarify when general patients who are in hospital over the medium-to-long term will get their vaccine?

The First Minister:

There was a story about this matter in some of the media yesterday. It is down to clinical judgment. I do not have the vaccine green book in front of me, but I was reading the extract on this point yesterday, so I am talking from memory to an extent: the general position is that patients should be vaccinated before they are discharged from hospital. When exactly that happens within their stay in hospital will be down to clinical judgment.

There will be some circumstances in which the clinical judgment is that, while a patient is still in the acute phase of their illness, it would not make sense to vaccinate in case any side effects from the vaccination confused the symptoms of their illness. In those circumstances, the clinical judgment would be to wait until the person was better and closer to discharge. The general position is that any patient in those circumstances should be vaccinated before they are discharged from hospital.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

I am sure that we are all aware of the impact of the restrictions on mental health. People of all ages have been left isolated from their friends, family and support groups. Has any additional support been provided during this lockdown, given that a recent study showed a rise in suicidal thoughts among young people?

The First Minister:

We have provided additional support at various stages throughout the pandemic so far. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance may have more to say about further support for mental health later this afternoon or in the course of budget considerations over the next couple of weeks.

We are all acutely aware of the impact on mental health, from a milder impact right through to very severe impacts. As with so many implications of the pandemic, there will be a need to give due support to people for that for some time to come.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I welcome the return to school of P1 to P3 pupils across Scotland, including in my constituency. Composite classes, which have a maximum of 25 pupils, are not uncommon there. Given that class limit, will the First Minister confirm that, in a P3/P4 composite class, only P3 pupils will return while their P4 classmates will remain at home, or will there be flexibility?

The First Minister:

Where P3/P4 composite classes are in place, P3 children should be taught in school from Monday and remote learning should continue for P4 children, except in exceptional circumstances. That will all be confirmed today in guidance relating to the phased reopening of schools.

I know that making those arrangements for

P3/P4 composite classes will be challenging, but we encourage schools and local authorities to use sensible flexibility in how they deploy staff and deliver learning.

Ultimately, though, we have to consider the question in the context of the pandemic. Routinely allowing exceptions for some P4 children would increase the number of children in school, which might start to send mixed messages about which children are returning to school and might compromise the safe and sustainable phased reopening that we are seeking to achieve.

Photo of Mark Griffin Mark Griffin Labour

Ravenscraig sports centre has the capacity to vaccinate 2,000 people a day, but reports state that it is open only at weekends due to a lack of demand. Its unused capacity could be used to vaccinate the entire North Lanarkshire education workforce in just three days, ahead of schools reopening; to vaccinate retail workers; or to start vaccinating other priority groups. How will the Scottish Government ensure that vital capacity is not lying unused?

The First Minister:

People just need to look at the performance of our vaccination teams over the past couple of weeks to know that we are not leaving capacity “lying unused” if we have the vaccines to vaccinate people. We cannot do what Mark Griffin has set out for reasons that are beyond our control. Vaccine supply is controlled by the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines, and we do not have enough supply to do what Mark Griffin has set out while getting through the priority JCVI groups and starting to give second doses.

The key constraint that we will face for the next couple of weeks will not be our capacity or our ability to vaccinate quickly; it will simply be the number of vaccine doses that we have at our disposal. As soon as the supply ramps up, the operation will ramp up again. In recent days, I have been trying to set that out very clearly for people, so that everybody understands the challenges that we are confronting. One of the reasons that the health secretary and I spoke to AstraZeneca yesterday was to get as much clarity as possible on its expectations of forward supply, so that we can factor that in.

Our performance speaks for itself. The key constraining factor that we face right now is supply. We hope that that will not constrain us for more than a couple of weeks and that supplies will then start to improve again. That is certainly our expectation, but we can go only as fast as the total number of doses that are available to us allows us to go.

Photo of Maurice Corry Maurice Corry Conservative

Travel to and from Scotland for our merchant navy crews is vital for their continued essential work and employment contracts. Can the First Minister confirm that the Scottish Government will continue to comply with the arrangements that are currently in place, which have been agreed between the UK Government, the UK Chamber of Shipping and officer and crew unions? The arrangements cover quarantine procedures when people return on leave to the UK, often from extended tours of duties, particularly during the current Covid pandemic.

The First Minister:

Off the top of my head, I know of no reason why we would change those arrangements, but I will double-check whether there is anything that I am not immediately aware of and confirm that with Maurice Corry. Essential work—what he has outlined is, of course, included in that category—is permitted.

I appreciate that people want—for very good reasons—to make the case for exemptions, but let us not lose sight of the fact that we should all be seeking to get the message across to people that, unless it is essential, they should not travel. The more we get that message across, the less worried we will be about some exemptions for genuinely essential purposes. If there is any reason for the position to change, I will get back to Maurice Corry, but I am not aware of any such reason at the moment.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

There is huge disparity in online teaching by schools. Some children are being taught via Teams and others have online access only. Some children are not adapting very well to the situation. Does the First Minister think that there is a case for a more national approach to ensure that there is some basic uniformity in what children receive? Will she encourage more one-to-one tuition when that is safe and possible? Many children have struggled through the pandemic and will need one-to-one tuition to get them back on track.

The First Minister:

There is always a difficult balance to strike. If we had tried to impose national uniformity, I suspect that lots of members would have said that schools know their young people best and that we should allow schools greater flexibility. I do not say that to criticise; it is just a fact of life.

Schools do know their young people best, and it is important to trust teachers’ professional judgment in how they provide their teaching. We know that, while some children are out of school, we need to continue to ensure that the remote learning offer is what it needs to be. Of course, e-Sgoil has provision for tutoring and additional support, which is really important.

All of that brings us back to the central point that we want to get children back into in-person, full-time schooling as quickly as possible. That means that the rest of us all need to agree to live with these tough restrictions for a little while longer, so that we can create the headroom in the fight against the virus to make that possible.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Earlier, in response to my question, the First Minister said that places of worship “are not closed.” However, the regulations state very clearly that they are closed for communal worship and private prayer and are allowed to open only for very small funerals and weddings. Therefore, will the First Minister take this opportunity to correct the record, as is allowed by our rules, because many people will be confused by the earlier assertion—[

Interruption.

] I think that we all know that it is absolutely essential to be clear about the regulations that are in place. The importance of that cannot be overemphasised.

The Presiding Officer:

That is not a point of order, but it is a helpful point of correction that I am sure the First Minister will—[

Interruption.

]

The member has made a point about the information that was given, and I am sure that the First Minister will pay attention to it. I will give the First Minister a chance to respond, if she wishes to do so.

The First Minister:

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I would not normally do this, but it is a really important point for many people across the country. Any careful listening to Elaine Smith’s reading of the regulations and to what I said would show that there is no inconsistency.

Places of worship are not closed, but they are able to open only for very limited purposes. It is because I know how difficult and distressing that is for many people that I am so intent on all of us trying to get into a better position as quickly as possible. I would not want anyone to think that there is glibness or an inability to understand how serious the issue is. It does nobody any good for us to quibble over the precise wording when, in fact, we both articulated the decision correctly, although perhaps we put the emphasis in different places.