I updated Parliament on the Scottish Government’s strategic framework. When I update Parliament next week, I hope to be able to confirm some changes to the level 4 restrictions. Between now and then, and in the light of the positive data that I will report on today, we will consider whether it might be possible to accelerate exit from lockdown in any way—consistent, of course, with the care and caution that we know continue to be necessary.
Later today, the public health minister will support resumption of competitive football in Scottish Professional Football League’s leagues 1 and 2, the Scottish Women’s Premier League’s league 1 and, for the purposes of playing Scottish cup ties, for certain Scottish Highland Football League teams. I hope that that news will be welcomed by football fans across the country.
However, the focus of my statement today is education. In particular, I will update Parliament on plans to get all children back to school full time as soon as possible.
First, however, I will give a brief summary of today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 542, which was 4.4 per cent of the tests that were carried out. The total number of cases is now 203,012; 784 people are in hospital, which is 40 fewer than yesterday; and 71 people are in intensive care, which is the same number as yesterday. I am sorry to say, however, that in the past 24 hours a further 33 deaths have been registered, and the total number of deaths under the daily measurement is now 7,164. Again, I send my condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one.
Yesterday, we marked the anniversary of the first case of Covid being confirmed in Scotland. The Scottish Government is currently talking to health charities and family organisations about how we intend to remember all those who have lost their lives, and to mark the many sacrifices that people have made. We intend to say more about that soon.
I will now give a short update on the vaccination programme. As at 8.30 this morning, 1,634,361 people in Scotland had received a first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 22,783 since yesterday. There is good and increasing evidence that vaccination is already reducing the number of deaths, particularly in care homes. In time, as a growing proportion of the population gains protection through vaccination, it should also start to have an impact on hospitalisations and on transmission rates.
There was further positive news yesterday with the report from Public Health England that a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine reduces the chance of needing hospital treatment by more than 80 per cent. That confirms research that was published last week in Scotland by the University of Edinburgh.
We remain on course to offer a first dose to everyone over 50, all unpaid carers and all adults with an underlying health condition by mid-April. We understand that we might face some supply issues next week, which could affect appointments, but we are working hard to avoid that. I stress that such issues will not affect the mid-April target.
In addition to the progress on vaccination, we are making good progress in suppressing the virus. I said last week that the decline in case numbers had appeared to slow down and that that was a concern. However, I am pleased to report this week that more recent data has been much more encouraging, and strongly suggests that case numbers are still declining.
This time last week, we were recording an average of 815 new cases a day. That has now fallen to 657 new cases a day on average, which is the lowest level since the first week of October last year. The average test positivity rate has also fallen and is now below 5 per cent. Hospital admissions are also falling. In the first half of January, more than 1,000 Covid patients a week were being admitted to hospital. In the week to 23 February, that number had fallen to 468. The number of people in intensive care has also continued to decline.
The sacrifices that everyone is making are undoubtedly having an impact. Collectively, we are suppressing the virus and, as a result, lives are being saved. There is more reason to be optimistic now than perhaps there has been at any time since early autumn last year. That said, we know that we need to take care to avoid sending progress into reverse: 657 new cases a day might be the lowest level for five months, but it is still 13 times higher than the numbers that were being recorded in mid-August. The reduction in hospital admissions is very encouraging, but hundreds of people every week are still falling seriously ill.
We know that the new variant, which now accounts for more than 85 per cent of new cases, is highly infectious. We were reminded over the weekend of the significant risk that we face of other new variants—such as the P1 Brazilian variant—being imported into the country.
The news—on vaccines and on suppression—is overwhelmingly positive, but we must be sensible, which can be harder to do when things appear to be going in the right direction. We must continue to be sensible in the decisions that we take over the next few weeks if we want to make sure that we keep going in the right direction. That provides context for the decisions that we have taken this week, which Cabinet has confirmed this morning, about our next steps in enabling children to return to school. Those decisions follow consultation with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities, discussions with the Covid-19 education recovery group, and scientific advice from the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues. That advice will be published tomorrow.
Children in primaries 1 to 3 are already back at school full time. We continue to monitor the impacts of that, although it is too early to be certain of them. Some secondary school students have returned to take part in essential practical work for national qualifications, and childcare and early education premises are also now open for children below school age.
The next phase of reopening education will take place on 15 March. I confirm that, from that date—15 March—unless new evidence or new circumstances force us to reconsider, which of course we hope will not be the case, all children in primaries 4 to 7 will go back to school full time. All primary school children will also be able to return to regulated childcare, including after-school and breakfast clubs.
We will also take the next steps in a phased return to secondary school from 15 March, with a clear expectation that all secondary school pupils will be back in school full time following the Easter holidays. However, it is intended that all secondary school pupils will return to spend some time in school from 15 March until the Easter break.
Students in the senior phase of secondary school—years 4 to 6—who are taking national qualifications will have priority for face-to-face lessons in school. That will ensure that they can have their hard work fairly recognised with qualifications under the alternative certification model.
However, although years 4 to 6 may have priority, we expect that all children in secondary school will receive some in-school education each week until the Easter break and will then return full time following that. That will allow pupils to get used to being back in school and to start seeing friends again. I am sure that everyone would agree that that is important for the wellbeing of young people, as well as for education.
Because there will be a blended-learning model, before Easter we will also continue to ensure that remote learning is of the highest standard possible. Reports from Education Scotland inspectors have shown that delivery of remote learning improved greatly between the first and second lockdowns. I am immensely grateful to all the teachers and other education professionals who have done so much to build on the experience of the first lockdown. We will work with Education Scotland to ensure that enhanced online resources continue to be available over the coming month, and we will work with local authorities to support young people’s wellbeing in other ways, for example by providing more opportunities for outdoor learning.
Over the next few days, Education Scotland will publish guidance for local authorities on the phased return, and local authorities will have flexibility in how they implement the phased return to allow them to take account of local factors in deciding how to make the return as safe as possible. However, we want to ensure that local authorities are able to maximise the amount of time that secondary school pupils can safely spend in school in the period up to the Easter holidays.
Obviously, we recognise that the safety of staff and children must continue to be a key priority. All local authorities will, therefore, at least until the Easter break—this is one of the limitations—continue to observe the current requirement for 2m physical distancing in secondary schools. When secondary schools return, face coverings will need to be worn at all times.
The advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues has noted the continuing importance of ventilation. We have provided local authorities with £375 million of education recovery funding to date, and many councils are using some of that funding to monitor and improve ventilation in schools.
In addition, we will continue to offer twice-weekly lateral flow testing for all school staff in primary, secondary and special schools, and all secondary school pupils in years 4, 5 and 6. I encourage use of the tests by as many staff and senior phase pupils as possible when they return. It is another important way to ensure that schools remain as safe as possible.
The final point that I want to make on schools is simply to say thank you—first to all school leadership teams and all school staff, including, of course, all teachers, for everything that that has been done to support our children and young people in the past few months. I know that everyone is looking forward to having children back in the classroom as soon as possible.
I also want to thank parents across the country. I can only imagine how difficult all this disruption continues to be, but I hope and I believe that the end of it is now firmly in sight.
I offer my thanks to children and young people, too. I know how hard it must be to be separated from friends and teachers, but you have all responded magnificently to all the difficulties of the past year. I hope that you are looking forward to getting back to school later this month, and I hope that you will start to feel life becoming much more normal very soon.
The phased approach to school return can be frustrating, I know, but it is necessary and it is firmly based on the expert advice that we have received. It is the best and the most sustainable and enduring way to get as many children as possible back to school, as safely as possible.
There is one further issue that I want to highlight briefly. I confirm that we are clarifying guidance on an issue that is directly relevant to parents of newborn children. There are currently a number of essential purposes, such as essential care, that enable us to go into someone else’s house. We are amending guidance on that today to make it clear that essential purposes include support for the welfare and wellbeing of parents of children who are under the age of one. I hope that that gives clarity and will enable vital support for parents of very young children.
As we come out of this lockdown—which is, I hope, the last lockdown—we are prioritising, as we said we would, the education and wellbeing of our children. In addition, although we remain cautious—as we have to be, in the face of a dangerous and highly infectious virus—I hope that people will take heart from the data that I have reported. It shows real, significant and sustained progress in getting the virus back under control.
Next week, I hope to confirm to Parliament the other changes to the level 4 restrictions that will take effect from 15 March. The week after that, I am scheduled to set out a firmer timetable for the period after 26 April. As I said at the outset of this statement, and as I said last week, we will consider between now and then whether the data allows us to bring forward any relaxation of the rules. I have always said that if we can go further and faster, we will not hesitate to do so. All of us want to move on as quickly as possible and, as a priority, to see friends and family again. That will be very much the focus of our considerations over the next week; I hope that the day for that is now not too far away.
To make sure that we do not see a reverse in our progress that would put that in jeopardy, it is really important that, for now, we all abide by the lockdown rules, so please continue to stick to their letter and their spirit. Stay at home except for essential purposes. Do not meet people from other households indoors. Follow the FACTS advice when you are out and about. Work from home if you can, and if you are an employer, please continue to support your employees to do that.
If we do all that, we can and will make it easier for children to return to school and for us all to return to more normality soon. We will protect ourselves, our communities and our national health service, and we will keep the virus under control while vaccinations do their work. For the moment, please continue to stick with it, stick together and stay at home.
I thank the First Minister for advance notice of her statement. I also take this first parliamentary opportunity to welcome Anas Sarwar to his new role as Labour leader. It is the fifth time that I have been able to welcome a new Labour leader in my time here. I truly wish him well and I extend all offers to work together constructively when it is in Scotland’s interest to do so in the weeks ahead—even if it is only weeks that I have.
The news this week that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine can reduce hospital admissions by 80 per cent after one dose is welcome indeed. The fact that infection rates, hospitalisation rates and fatalities are all down significantly should be of huge reassurance to us all.
This week has also been a week of milestones, with more than 20 million people across the United Kingdom and 1.5 million people across Scotland receiving their first vaccination. Of course, vaccinations do not help just those who receive the jag; they help us all. With just over a quarter of adults in Edinburgh now having been vaccinated and up to nearly half in Dumfries and Galloway, the trend is clear: the greater the roll-out, the greater the reductions in case numbers and the severity of cases. It is therefore right that the Scottish Government should reconsider its reopening plan for the country with respect to the improved results that we are seeing.
I welcome the fact that Scottish Conservative calls for an earlier return to school for many pupils have been listened to. That is hugely welcome for young people’s mental health and wellbeing, social development and educational attainment, but getting all pupils to return while still observing Covid rules poses some logistical questions. Face coverings and social distancing are now concepts that we take for granted in many areas of our lives. However, teachers and headteachers are rightly asking what support they will receive if their school estate does not allow for the 2m social distancing in classrooms that the Government requires in secondary schools. If they cannot fit all pupils into their usual classrooms with the 2m rule and there are no extra classrooms or staff to man the split or composite classes that have been created, what support and solutions will be made available for them?
All the developments that I narrated earlier on and which have just been reiterated are very welcome. I do not want to overstate this, because I do not think that doing so is fair to people—I have tried not to give people false promises—but I think that we have every reason now to believe that the exit from lockdown might be quicker and might come sooner than we believed would be the case just a few weeks ago. However, we know that the worst thing that we could do and what would make that less likely would be moving too quickly right now and jeopardising the situation that is now beginning to emerge in such a positive way. That is why we need to be careful. That caution, as well as the determination to get children back to normal, lies behind the decisions on schools that I have outlined today.
We continue to work with schools to ensure that, although it is not possible to have all young people back to school as normal, there is good provision of remote learning for the period between now and Easter. There will be a blended learning approach for secondary schools, and we continue to work with schools and local authorities to ensure that that is of the quality that young people and their parents expect.
We have given local authorities significant funding to help with practical arrangements in schools. In my opening remarks, I mentioned ventilation. That funding will cover a range of other things.
The key to this, as it was last August, when we managed to support the full-time return to school for all pupils and to keep schools open virtually for the remainder of last year, is to get the prevalence of the virus as low as possible so that as much normality in schools becomes possible and some of the restrictions can be eased to allow normality to open up. The additional factor that we have now that we did not have last August, of course, is what we hope will be the suppressive effect of the vaccine.
We monitor these things on an on-going basis, and we take advice and work with local authorities and schools to facilitate things. I hope that, by the time we come out of the Easter break, we will have made further progress that will allow much greater normality in our schools than has been possible up until now.
I thank Ruth Davidson for her very kind comments, and I look forward to welcoming in a matter of weeks the second Conservative leader—perhaps even the third Conservative leader—in my short spell as Labour leader.
I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement and extend my condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. This has been a difficult year for us all, and our thoughts and condolences go out to all those who have lost a loved one.
As the First Minister said, it is 12 months since the first Covid-19 case was identified in Scotland. In that time, we have seen our NHS staff, our social care staff and all our front-line workers continue to go above and beyond. We give our heartfelt thanks to every single one of them and their families.
The vaccine roll-out is the light at the end of the tunnel, and it is great to see the evidence of its efficacy giving us all hope. However, as the lockdown restrictions begin to lift, I urge the Scottish Government to focus also on our recovery. I will support all efforts by the Government to bring our communities together and to rebuild our nation. That must be the collective priority for everyone across the Parliament.
Parents throughout the country are worried about their children’s education and mental health. Can the First Minister confirm when her Government will set out details of a national recovery plan for Scotland’s pupils and our education system? Figures published today on child and adolescent mental health services show that more than 1,500 children on waiting lists have waited more than a year to be seen by a specialist and, in the last quarter, 25 per cent—one in four children—had their referral rejected. What more can the Scottish Government do to give support to children who need it right now, particularly in crisis services?
Finally, the Scottish Government has a target of 400,000 vaccinations a week, which is a target that I have welcomed and I support, but the numbers from the last week in February show an average of around 29,000 vaccinations per day and yesterday fewer than 23,000 people were vaccinated. Today, the First Minister has suggested that vaccinations could slow even further. When will that target of 400,000 vaccinations per week be met so that we can collectively get out of this crisis?
I, too, take the opportunity to welcome Anas Sarwar to his position. I do not want to brag and I would have to count, but I think that I am probably well above five when it comes to Labour leaders that I have faced across the chamber. In all seriousness, there is a historic nature to Anas Sarwar’s election as leader of the Scottish Labour Party and it speaks well of the diversity of our country, so for that reason, if for no other reason, I wish him well in the job. [
Anas and I will not just face off across the chamber as respective leaders of our parties, as we are also opponents in the constituency of Glasgow Southside, so we have just proved again over the past few days that Glasgow Southside is the centre of the universe, which I know everybody in the chamber will agree with as much as Anas and I do. I wish him—I was going to say that I wish him all the best, but I wish him a modicum of success in the weeks ahead.
In answer to Anas Sarwar’s question on a national recovery plan for education, I say that the work to support recovery in education is already under way and I have set out the steps that we are taking to support local authorities—for example, the provision of tutoring support through e-Sgoil, the money that we have made available for additional teachers and the extra funding for local authorities that they can use flexibly based on what they consider is most appropriate—and we will keep that under review. The Deputy First Minister and I have said that supporting children to come through and catch up from the experience of the past year—not only educationally but in a whole range of ways—will be a long-term project.
Similarly on mental health, we have already published a mental health recovery plan and the Minister for Mental Health will continue to keep Parliament updated. Before the pandemic, transforming and redesigning the provision of child and adolescent mental health services was a priority; one of the things that we had made progress on was mental health counsellors being available for all secondary schools. That work needs to pick up and intensify as a result of the experience of the pandemic.
Finally, on vaccination, we exceeded 400,000 vaccinations a week when we had the supplies to do so. The constraining factor right now is supply, which is not in our control. The dip in daily vaccination rates in the past couple of weeks, which we flagged in advance, was entirely down to the supply. The numbers across the four nations show that same dip. We expect that there might be another dip in supply next week, but we do not expect that to affect the mid-April targets. I am not complacent about this—it takes a lot of work by a lot of people across the entire country—but we are able to go as fast as we have the supplies to vaccinate people. The constraining factor is the supplies, and that is why we continue to talk regularly to the pharmaceutical companies to get as long term a line of sight on their manufacturing and supply prospects as we can. We will vaccinate people just as fast as we have the vaccine to do so.
I, too, welcome Anas Sarwar to his new role as Labour leader.
The Scottish Greens have long called for action to be taken to make our schools safe and particularly for regular testing for staff and senior pupils. Parliament voted in support of our proposals before Christmas and I welcome the fact that they have finally been delivered. Another proposal that we and the Educational Institute of Scotland have made is that teachers and school staff be prioritised for vaccination. So far, that has been accepted only for some additional support needs staff, but even that is not yet being delivered across Scotland as planned; for example, I understand that special school teachers in Lothian have been turned down for vaccination. When will all ASN staff be vaccinated and will the Government take action to ensure that that is delivered?
I will certainly look into the claim that there is a particular problem in Lothian. Directors of education have been asked to identify staff who fall into that category, so that they can be vaccinated as quickly as possible. I say to members across the chamber that, if there are particular issues in particular parts of the country, they should make us aware of them so that we can immediately get on to them and try to resolve them. I will come back to Alison Johnstone on that point, or ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to do so.
More broadly, we are following the advice and recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. That is the right and only thing to do. While supplies of the vaccine are still constrained to some extent, we have to make choices about who gets vaccinated and following the expert advice is the right way to make those choices. We are following the initial prioritisation plan which, as I have said before, we will work to do as quickly as possible. Then we will move into the rest of the population, which the JCVI recommends should continue to be done on an age basis, and teachers will be done in line with that priority.
Many teachers will already have been vaccinated if they fall into one of the categories that have already had priority; many will be being vaccinated right now, because they fall within the category of people with underlying health conditions; and we are working to do everybody over the age of 50 by mid-April. I know that that is not every teacher, but we will then move down the age range to have everybody in the adult population vaccinated by the end of July. As soon as we start to depart from the expert advice, we start to make choices that are political, not expert driven. Given the importance and sensitivity of the matter, it is important that we stick to the clinical advice.
I welcome the changes for newborn babies, for which we on the Liberal Democrat benches have been arguing for some time.
Perhaps it was unwise for the First Minister rather to sneer at other Governments for making up dates when the dates that she set last week have not lasted seven days. The three-week review has changed to a weekly review and, although I want schools back as soon as possible, the result of that last-minute change is that there is no guidance ready and teachers have been left to clear up this issue and make it work.
If two thirds of the class will be at home because of the 2m physical distancing, how will teachers juggle the additional workload? There are no more hours in the day. Teachers are exhausted. They have been working incredibly hard with the remote learning. Is this the way to reward them?
I will come on to the point about teachers directly in a second but, with the greatest respect, Willie Rennie’s overall characterisation is just not correct. We have set dates and we are sticking to those dates, but we said last week that, if the data allows it, we will accelerate. That is the right and proper way to do it. I said last week that we hoped that all primary school children would be back from 15 March. We had to confirm that today, which I have done, and I think that I said last week that we wanted to try to get as many secondary school pupils back, as much as possible, into school and we have been working to confirm what I have just confirmed today.
I said last week, I think, that I would confirm next week the other changes that we hope to make on 15 March and that the week after that we would set out more timelines for the period after 26 April. I have just confirmed all of that today, so that has not changed.
What has changed, which is a good thing, is that the data is slightly more promising than it was when I stood here last week. Last week, we were looking at a plateauing of cases, which now seem to be back firmly into decline. That allows us to assess whether there are more things that we can do, earlier than we previously anticipated. That is the way we have always done this and it is the right way to proceed.
I have every respect and huge gratitude for what teachers have done over the past year. I do not doubt for a minute that they are exhausted, in the way that many people working across many different sectors of our society will be, and we owe them a huge amount. I think that most teachers want to see children back in school as quickly as possible. We have to do that in a phased way to make it safe. We listen very carefully to the views of teachers through the EIS, for example, and the education recovery group and we come to a balanced decision.
I cannot imagine that there are many people across the country right now who do not think that it is right to prioritise the wellbeing and education of young people—I am not suggesting that Willie Rennie is doing that—but we need to be able to take decisions as quickly as we can and try to get to a maximalist position with young people’s education. That involves all of us—particularly those who are on the front line of education—adapting to accommodate that, but that is better than having a period when young people are out of school more than they need to be.
I listened carefully to the First Minister’s response to Alison Johnstone, but I will still raise an issue that has been raised with me locally, because it is worth looking at the specifics. The concern has been expressed to me that some classroom assistants who provide close personal care for children with additional support needs are not being included in the vaccination programme. One worker told me that they feel that the threshold for vulnerability is too high and that, by not being vaccinated, they are putting in harm’s way the child who is in their care.
Will the First Minister say a little more about how vulnerability and risk are being assessed? Will the guidelines be checked to ensure that they do not have a gap?
Of course we are happy to look at the guidance if there is a sense that it does not cover sufficient numbers or categories of people. The guidance was issued on 29 January and was shared with all local authority chief executives. On the inclusion of some education staff in cohort 2, the guidance clarified that staff who work very closely with the children and young people who have the most complex additional support needs should be vaccinated under the order of priority.
The guidance sets out that
“Staff should be offered the vaccination if they are supporting … children and young people who have ... complex healthcare needs which require the co-ordination and provision of support from education, health … or social care services within school settings … Staff who are eligible will undertake regular healthcare and social care duties with multiple children/young people, and moving and handling, all of which mean they” often
“work in close proximity for prolonged periods of time providing a range of interventions, including personal and intimate care”.
The most recent letter from the chief medical officer to health boards, which was issued on 5 February, included the same detail about how to identify eligible staff.
There is clear guidance, but I am happy to ask the health secretary to look into particular concerns that Ruth Maguire or any other member has. If any member wants to pass more detail to the health secretary, I encourage them to do so.
No one doubts the strain that Covid-19 has put on services, including those in the Scottish Prison Service. Last summer, the Government decided to release several hundred prisoners early as a response to the pandemic, but figures that are just out show that more than 40 per cent of those who were released are already back in jail. I warned at the time that the Government needed to put in place a robust monitoring strategy to protect the public. Why did it not do that? Given the statistics that she has just set out, will the First Minister confirm whether the Government intends to release further prisoners early?
I will ask the justice secretary to write with the details of the monitoring that is in place. I do not say this flippantly, and I am happy to look into the detail but, although we should take no pleasure if a proportion of prisoners are back after being released, it might suggest that people are being monitored and that appropriate actions are being taken. We might not see that if nobody was bothering about what prisoners who had been released were doing. I will ask the justice secretary to write with more detail.
Some of what has been done throughout the pandemic has been inescapable—they have been actions that no Government would want to take. All Governments across the UK—and, I suspect, many around the world—have had to do similar things in relation to prisoners. As we face the new, more infectious variant, one risk that is materialising is institutional spread, which has manifested itself in recent prison outbreaks.
This is not easy and it is far from over in vulnerable institutional settings. Decisions that we had to take in the past might also require to be taken in the future as we try to get through this with transmission in situations of vulnerability as limited as it can be.
The First Minister knows that the tourism industry is a crucial part of my Stirling constituency’s economy and that a large part of the sector is made up of small self-catering, guest house and bed and breakfast operators. For some such operators, their business provides their only income. Some are struggling financially. Some people might receive strategic framework grants, but I ask on behalf of such operators for the Scottish Government to consider providing a one-off top-up grant to ease the huge pressure that they are under.
Tourism is central to the Scottish economy, and I know that it is particularly central to constituencies such as Bruce Crawford’s. Although many small accommodation providers will already be receiving support via the strategic framework business fund, I am pleased to say that we have also agreed the expansion of a scheme to provide equivalent support to such providers who pay council tax. That is in recognition of the on-going challenges that businesses such as B and Bs, guest houses and self-catering accommodation face. It is intended to ensure that we reach as wide a range of businesses as possible. It is planned to release details of the expansion by the end of this week. Beyond that, we will continue to review the support that is in place and will work with businesses to explore all options.
Public Health Scotland statistics show that teachers have a 47 per cent greater chance of getting Covid than the general population. We all want to get our children back to school as soon as possible, but all teachers and all school support staff also need to be safe, especially if we want to ensure continuity of education. Will the First Minister ensure that all teachers are vaccinated before 15 March, given the data from the experts at Public Health Scotland?
I am not going to get into a debate about interpretation of the data. There is a range of data about the risk of transmission in schools, among teachers and among young people. It is important not to oversimplify it. Suffice it to say that the safety of teachers and everyone who works in a school environment is paramount. That is why we are taking a phased approach to the return of schools and not taking the decision to have all secondary school pupils back full time from 15 March. In our judgment, and that of our expert advisers, to do so would involve taking risks that would not be appropriate.
As for the question on vaccination, much as I would dearly love to stand here and agree to every request that is made for priority vaccination, if I were to accede to that request I would be driving a coach and horses through the JCVI’s expert clinical advice. We would also be doing so in a way that no other Government across the UK is doing. While we have limited supplies of vaccines, and so cannot vaccinate everybody at once, we have to choose the prioritisation basis according to the best clinical advice. As people will know, such advice is for vaccination of the first cohorts—groups 1 to 9—and the JCVI’s advice is to continue to do so progressively, based on people’s ages. Many teachers will have been vaccinated already, and many others will be vaccinated over the next couple of weeks. Those in the younger age groups will be vaccinated as we move to cover the whole adult population by the end of July.
I do not make this comment in relation to teachers in particular, but every time that we take somebody who is younger and fitter, and who is therefore at lower clinical risk from the virus, and vaccinate them ahead of somebody who is at greater clinical risk, we make political choices that are not backed up by clinical advice.
The latest figures that we have show that just under 14,500 care home residents have now received their second dose, which means that roughly 48 per cent of residents in care homes for older people have completed the two-dose schedule. On the Scottish Government website, we are now publishing weekly statistics on supply so that people will also have transparency about the supply that is available.
We prioritised care homes not just in the sense that people there were the first group that we vaccinated; on our behalf, the vaccinators also spent a lot of time and effort on maximising the uptake of vaccine there. We are starting to see the benefit of that, given that the sharpest falls in mortality due to Covid have been in care homes as the vaccine starts to have effect. Completing the second doses as quickly as possible will therefore give residents of and staff working in care homes an added layer of reassurance.
Several parents from island communities such as Mull and Islay have contacted me to seek an earlier full-time opening of schools on those islands than is currently planned. Has the First Minister given any consideration to that, beyond what has just been announced, given the relatively low levels of Covid-19 cases there? Will the Scottish Government consider the potential for a more general easing of restrictions on our islands in light of their particular circumstances?
I point to what I said in my statement, because it has particular relevance to the legitimate question that is raised. I said that Education Scotland will issue guidance on the phased returns of secondary schools later this week, but we want local authorities to have a degree of flexibility in that guidance, in order for them to maximise the time that secondary school pupils spend in school between now and Easter.
In smaller authorities—island communities, for example—there might be a small number of pupils who go to a particular school. If all of them could go back full time while the 2m distancing continued to be respected, a local authority should have flexibility over that.
The position of the Government is that we want secondary school pupils to have as much time physically in school as it is possible to give them in the period between now and Easter, but that position has to be consistent with the safety measures that still require to be in place. In some parts of the country, that will involve a greater degree of in-person school education than would be the case in other parts.
Many people want the schools to open as soon as possible, but some parents, pupils and teachers are nervous about the risks that might be in school. Can the First Minister offer any reassurance to parents, pupils and teachers in that position about personal protective equipment, testing and so on?
The main words of reassurance that I want to give, again, is that we take all decisions carefully. My position, which I suspect is that of most—if not all—parents across the country, is that parents would want to get children back to school full time tomorrow if it were safe to do so. However, it would not be safe, so we have to do that return on a phased basis, which is the main thing that we are doing to ensure that safety is prioritised.
Beyond that, we are in regular contact with unions and parent representative bodies about measures to reduce risks in schools. The Covid education recovery group, which the Deputy First Minister chairs, meets weekly. The guidance for schools is developed with input from all those stakeholders and others, and it sets out clear requirements for infection control measures and the use of PPE in appropriate circumstances. As I said in my statement, we have introduced twice-weekly at-home asymptomatic testing, which is available to all school staff and senior phase pupils and is another layer of assurance.
Every step that can be taken to ensure that the school environment is as safe as possible will be taken. As I said earlier, I am grateful to everybody in the school community for all the work that they are doing to put those plans in place.
There are many reports that vaccinators who work the same shifts at vaccine centres have vastly different rates of pay. Nurses with years of experience in vaccination are, in some cases, paid up to a third less for the same work. One nurse wrote to me and said that
“not only do contractors book shifts before nurses, as we don’t get direct access to the system, in my last shift I worked with dentists and optometrists, I was much faster but I was paid a lot less.”
A general practitioner also wrote to me to say that he had the same concerns and that the unfairness in pay rates was “harming solidarity among staff”. Is the First Minister able to take any action to ensure that pay rates are reflective of a person’s skills? Can she do anything to order health boards to ensure that there is fairness to nursing staff during the vaccination programme?
The issue has been raised with me and it is something that I have asked to be considered. I cannot give a definitive answer right now, but I recognise the sense of unfairness. In summary—apologies if I am not getting all the details right—the rate at which a vaccinator will be paid is based on the rate of pay in the job that they do. Obviously—I am not making any comment on the fairness or unfairness of that fact—certain workers in health and social care roles are paid more than others, which is reflected in the rate of pay that they have for vaccination.
Given the particular circumstances of vaccination, there is a question mark in my mind as to whether that is fair. Given that the issue has been raised with me, I have asked for it to be considered. Once it has been and I can offer more detail, I am happy to come back to Pauline McNeill and the chamber.
I also welcome the clarification in the First Minister’s statement for parents of newborn babies. What discussions has the Scottish Government had with councils and out-of-school care providers to ensure that those vital services will be able to resume when it is safe for them to do so?
The rules already allow informal childcare to be provided where there is an essential childcare need, which we understand is one of the reasons why other Governments have made changes in that regard too.
As I set out in my statement, we will make clear that there is an extension of essential purposes, and will continue to work with providers to make sure that that is reflected in practice with regard to formal childcare, and that the required support is made available.
I hope that answers Shona Robison’s question.
Last week, the Scottish Government made a welcome announcement that non-contact sports for 12 to 17-year-olds can resume on 15 March. Will the First Minister confirm that schools will be able to open all their sports and games fields facilities on 15 March to allow that to happen?
The answer that I want to give—and I think it is the correct answer—is yes, but I will double check that there are no caveats or restrictions. We want to be able to facilitate the resumption to the full, because it is one of the important ways in which we can try to redress the wellbeing imbalance that is being created for too many young people across the country.
My office has been contacted by third sector support workers who provide a variety of services for vulnerable people, including food preparation and delivery. Those workers in my constituency of Motherwell and Wishaw are not being identified as vaccine priorities by the health board. Will the First Minister ensure that NHS boards’ understanding of how such workers should be prioritised is consistent both with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation guidance and across Scotland?
I am happy to look into the matter to make sure that I can come back with the answer that it is consistent across Scotland—it certainly should be broadly consistent. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will look into that matter a bit more.
The decisions are all being guided by the JCVI prioritisation list. There are some issues. For example, we have just been talking with people who work closely with children with multiple complex health needs, for whom we have defined a particular category in order to include them. We have taken a similar decision for people with mild to moderate learning disabilities—previously, only people with complex learning disabilities were included.
We are trying to flex each cohort sensibly, and as much as possible. However, as far as we can, we have to stick to the list, so that we are genuinely vaccinating those with greatest clinical need as early as possible in the prioritisation list. Perhaps the most important point to make in relation to the questions about vaccinations is that, for the initial JCVI prioritisation list, everyone will have been offered first doses by mid-April—that is, everybody above the age of 50 and everybody with an underlying health condition. That is a significant proportion of the adult population. By the end of July, supplies permitting, all adults will have been offered a first dose.
One of my constituents, who is a merchant seafarer who left Scotland to join his cargo ship before the quarantine rules were introduced, now finds himself unable to continue his job unless he accepts not returning to his home and family, and pays most of his salary in quarantine costs between ships.
Today, he arrived at Edinburgh airport to be told that he could not be quarantined in Edinburgh, but will be bussed to Paisley. That has only added to his deteriorating mental health due to the stress of a lack of shore leave since the outbreak of the pandemic, and the stress of the impact of the quarantine rules. He has been running an 80-metre loop of his ship’s deck to help to manage his wellbeing, and the prospect of being locked up for 10 days without exercise or fresh air is now devastating.
Is the First Minister aware that there appears to be no rooms for managed quarantine in Edinburgh, and will she give permission for my constituent, who has now been forced out of his job by the decision not to allow him to quarantine at home, to at least run in the fresh air during his 10-day forced quarantine, in order to prevent his mental health and wellbeing from deteriorating further?
I will not comment on the individual case, because I do not have all the details. If Michelle Ballantyne wants to send them to my office this afternoon, I will make sure that they are looked into.
I will also look into the issue of whether there is an inadequacy of rooms at Edinburgh airport, which requires people to go to Paisley. I imagine that that would mean that they go to hotels in the vicinity of Glasgow airport. I am not aware of such an inadequacy but I am happy to look into it.
I ask Michelle Ballantyne—I say this sincerely—to consider that it is for people in positions of responsibility such as ours not to describe managed quarantine as being locked up with no fresh air or exercise. Managed quarantine is a vital public health intervention. People are entitled to fresh air and exercise. The reason that we are insisting on quarantine was well demonstrated at the weekend, when we identified the first cases in Scotland of the Brazilian variant. We worry that, as variants come in, they will undermine the vaccine and all the good work that everybody has been doing. Quarantine is there for a reason. Nobody wants to ask people to quarantine for one day, two days, 10 days or whatever, but it is an essential part of the protective measures that we need to put in place. We all have a responsibility to explain that to our constituents and to encourage people to see the need for it. Nobody is expecting anybody to be happy about any of this right now, but we need to explain and help people to understand the reasons for it.
The circumstances of Michelle Ballantyne’s constituent sound very distressing. I have huge sympathy for that, so I am happy to look into the case. However, it is not for me, as First Minister, to give people permission not to comply with such measures. It is really important that we do these things properly and that decisions are based on the right considerations.
Businesses that pay business rates can claim £2,000 a month from the strategic business fund, which follows from grants that have already been paid. That has been necessary for their survival. However, businesses that do not pay business rates have similar overheads but have received nothing. They hope to access one-off discretionary grants of £2,000 from local government to compensate them for a year of disruption and closure. Many such businesses have already closed their doors permanently due to lack of support. For many months, I have repeatedly raised the issue with the First Minister and cabinet secretaries, and I make no apology for raising it again. When will the First Minister offer such businesses a safety net?
That is an important point. I understand how difficult it is for all businesses and, particularly, for businesses in the category that have been described. That is why we established the discretionary funding route for local authorities. Since then, we have significantly increased the money that goes to local authorities to give them the ability to flexibly provide for businesses that fall through the cracks of the other support schemes. In addition to that, we will continue to look at how we fill the cracks and, within the resources that we have, ensure that we help as many individuals and businesses as we can.
The most important thing is to get businesses trading again as quickly as possible, which is why it is so important to continue to suppress the virus and get people vaccinated. We need to get the economy opened and businesses making money through their normal trading, rather than relying on the support that Government is providing.
The Presiding Officer:
That is the end of the statement. I apologise to members whom I was not able to call.
There will be a short pause while some of the seats and desks are cleaned to allow ministers and others to change over.