Covid-19

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th March 2021.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on Covid-19. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, and I encourage members who wish to ask a question to press their buttons now.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

My statement will set out our next steps out of lockdown and back towards a way of life that is much closer to normality. I intend to set out in some detail how, and in what order, we hope to ease restrictions between now and the middle of May. I will also set out, albeit in more general terms, our expectations beyond that. I must stress, of course, because it is simply an inescapable fact, that being able to deliver on the plans that I outline today is dependent on continued progress in suppressing the virus and rolling out vaccines. However, I hope that this statement will provide welcome reassurance that brighter days are ahead of us.

Before turning to the detail, I will provide some context on the state of the epidemic. I will start with a summary of today’s figures. There were 597 positive cases reported yesterday, which is 3.8 per cent of all tests carried out. That takes the total number of cases to 210,605. There are 440 people currently in hospital, which is seven fewer than yesterday, and 42 people are in intensive care, which is two more than yesterday.

I regret to report that, in the past 24 hours, a further seven deaths have been registered. The total number of deaths under that measurement is now 7,517. Once again, I send my deepest condolences to all those who have lost a loved one. One week today, when we mark the first anniversary of lockdown, the whole nation will be invited to share in a minute’s silence, as we reflect on those we have lost and on the painful sacrifices that have been made by so many over the past year.

We are currently recording an average of 570 new Covid cases each day in Scotland. Two points about that are important to make. The first is positive: case numbers have fallen sharply since the early part of this year, as a result of the tough restrictions that we are all living under. In January, we were recording more than 1,000 cases a day on average. Just three weeks ago, the average number of new cases each day was 815. We have seen a significant reduction since then, which indicates the progress that has been made in suppressing the virus.

The second point is slightly less positive. The 570 cases per day on average over the past week is up slightly from an average of 490 the week before. That is not a massive increase, but it is clearly not the direction of travel that we want to see, so we will be monitoring it carefully and taking it as a reminder that we have no room for complacency. Care and caution in the face of the virus continue to be essential.

What is unambiguously positive so far is the progress of the vaccination programme. We have now vaccinated virtually all over-65-year-olds; 59 per cent of 60 to 64-year-olds; 41 per cent of 55 to 59-year-olds; and 34 per cent of 50 to 54-year-olds. In total, as of 8.30 this morning, 1,943,507 people in Scotland had received their first dose of the vaccine. That is already more than 40 per cent of the adult population, and it is an increase of 34,516 since yesterday. We expect around 400,000 vaccinations to be administered this week, and we hope that that level can be maintained through April—subject, as always, to vaccine supplies.

It is not just the scale of the vaccination programme that is positive; what we are learning about its impact is also hugely encouraging. We can already see that it is having a significant impact on the number of deaths. According to National Records of Scotland, the number of Covid deaths has more than halved in the past two weeks. There are now positive indications from research, including a study last week by Public Health Scotland indicating that the vaccines reduce transmission of the virus. That is significant.

That now provides us with greater confidence than we could have had previously about the impact of the vaccine on suppression of the virus. That, in turn, gives us more confidence about mapping a path out of lockdown, with a firmer indicative timeline for lifting restrictions.

We have, of course, announced and implemented some significant changes already. Last week, the restrictions on outdoor gatherings and activities were eased slightly. As of yesterday, all primary-aged children are back in school full time, and the phased return of secondary schools is also under way. After the Easter break, which, for some, will be on 12 April, we hope that all children will be back in school full time.

Obviously, we will continue to monitor the impact of the changes. However, I am now able to set out some further changes that we hope to be able to make in early April. I can confirm, first, that we expect to lift the current “Stay at home” rule on 2 April. Initially—we hope that this will be for no more than three weeks—“Stay at home” will be replaced by guidance to stay local: in other words, for people not to travel outside their own local authority area unless for an essential purpose. People will continue to be able to meet up outdoors, including in private gardens, in groups of no more than four from two households.

Our other changes in early April will take effect from Monday 5 April. On that day, we expect contact sports for 12 to 17-year-olds to resume. We also expect that, from 5 April, more students, particularly those in further education, will be allowed to return to on-campus learning. Colleges will prioritise those students whose return is essential, including those who are most at risk of not completing their courses. That includes those who are taking qualifications in construction, engineering, hairdressing, beauty and related courses.

We also expect to begin the phased reopening of non-essential retail on 5 April. Click-and-collect retail services will be permitted to reopen from that date, along with homeware stores and car showrooms and forecourts. Garden centres will also be able to reopen on 5 April, which I know is important as we head towards the summer. Last but, for some of us, definitely not least, we expect hairdresser and barber salons to reopen for appointments on 5 April, too.

Those changes will, I hope, make a real difference to people in a number of different ways. Given the state of the virus and the extent of vaccination, what I have just set out is the maximum that we consider possible to do safely at that stage. However, during April, we expect our vaccination programme to reach an important milestone. By the middle of April, supplies permitting—that is still a necessary caveat—we will have offered first doses of the vaccine to all nine priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. Those nine groups include everyone over the age of 50, all adults with particular underlying health conditions and all unpaid carers. Crucially, those groups account for a significant majority of the country’s adult population. Even more crucially, they cover groups of the population that, between them, account for approximately 99 per cent of all Covid-related deaths.

Reaching that milestone—while taking account of the fact that it takes a couple of weeks for protection from the vaccine to kick in—will give us confidence to ease restrictions much more significantly from 26 April. On that date, we expect all parts of Scotland that are currently at level 4 to move down to a modified level 3. The island communities that are currently at level 3 will have the option to move to level 2 at that stage. However, given what I am about to set out on travel restrictions, we intend to discuss that with those communities over the next couple of weeks.

Let me turn first to the position on travel. We expect that, from 26 April, restrictions on journeys in mainland Scotland will be lifted entirely. However, if restrictions on socialising and hospitality are relaxed more quickly and significantly on the islands, there might be a need to retain some restrictions on travel to and from the mainland to protect island communities from the importation of new cases. However, rather than impose that decision now on our island communities, we intend to discuss it directly with them to determine what arrangements they consider will work best for their circumstances.

We hope that restrictions on journeys between Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom and the wider common travel area can also be lifted, if not on 26 April, then as soon as possible thereafter. However, we need to keep that under review, as part of our efforts to reduce the risk of new cases being imported into Scotland, and we will update the position during April.

Reducing the risk of importing new cases and new variants is also directly relevant to the issue of international travel. We intend to discuss with the aviation sector later this week how and when non-essential travel to some international destinations might be possible again. Like the UK Government, we are certain that that will not be achievable before 17 May, and our view is that it might well not be possible for a further period after that, given the circumstances and situation with the virus in many other parts of Europe and the world. Even when overseas travel resumes, it is likely that a requirement for pre-departure and post-arrival testing will remain in place for some time, but we will keep that issue under close review.

I now turn to the other changes that we hope to make from 26 April. On that date, we expect all remaining retail premises to reopen. All tourist accommodation will be able to reopen from that date too, subject to any wider restrictions that remain in place, for example on hospitality. We expect that libraries, museums and galleries will also reopen from 26 April. Our expectation is that, on that date, indoor gyms will reopen for individual exercise and work in people’s homes will resume, as will driving lessons. We expect that the limit on attendance at weddings, funerals and associated receptions will be raised to 50 people from 26 April.

From that date, the restrictions on outdoor socialising will be eased further too, with six people from up to three households able to meet outdoors, with no mainland travel restrictions in place, as I said earlier. Twelve to 17-year-olds will be able to meet outdoors with up to six people from six households. Unfortunately, given that, as we know, the risk of transmission is greatest inside our own homes, where it is more difficult to comply with mitigations such as physical distancing, we cannot yet say whether it will be possible to have people from other households visit us indoors from that date. However, given how important that point is to all of us, we intend to keep the situation under on-going review.

The hospitality sector will also begin to reopen from 26 April. From that date, cafes, restaurants and bars will be able to serve people outdoors in groups of up to six people from three households until 10 pm. Alcohol will be permitted, and there will be no requirement for food to be served. We also hope, although this in particular depends on continued suppression of the virus, that there will be limited indoor opening of hospitality from 26 April too, which will be limited initially to the service of food and non-alcoholic drinks until 8 pm, for groups of up to four people from no more than two households. As was the case this past year, venues will need to retain customers’ contact details for three weeks after their visit.

Finally, we advise that, from 26 April, people on the shielding list can return to work; children and young people on the shielding list can return to school or nursery; and students on the shielding list can return to college or university. The chief medical officer will write this week to everyone on the shielding list to provide more detailed advice.

As is obvious, the changes that we hope to make on 26 April are significant and we will therefore need to monitor them carefully. For that reason, we do not expect to make any further changes before 17 May, three weeks later. However, from that date, we hope that all level 3 areas, or as many as possible, will move to level 2, and that indoor hospitality can return to greater normality, with alcohol able to be served indoors and within more normal opening hours, although possibly with some continued restrictions, such as a requirement for people to book in two-hour slots. The precise detail of any continued restrictions will depend on an assessment of the situation closer to the time, but we will aim for us as much normality as possible.

We hope that adult outdoor contact sports and indoor group exercise can resume on 17 May and that cinemas, amusement arcades and bingo halls will reopen from that date. Outdoor and indoor events will also restart, albeit on a small scale to begin with, and we will confirm capacity limits with the events sector in the next few weeks.

We hope that colleges and universities will return to a more blended model of learning from mid-May, which will mean that more students can be on campus. Further face-to-face support services will also resume then, as will non-professional performance arts.

Finally on 17 May, we expect restrictions on outdoor social gatherings to ease further. If it has not proved possible before that date, we also expect that people will be able to meet up inside each other’s homes again, initially probably in groups of up to four people from no more than two households. I know that the restriction on indoor meetings has been one of the hardest parts of lockdown for most of us to bear. Unfortunately, it is necessary, and I note that the easing of that restriction is not expected before mid-May in England either. However, we all yearn to meet with friends and loved ones indoors again, and I know that that is especially important for those who live alone, so we will keep that under review and seek to restore as much normality as possible as soon as it is safe to do so.

I now want to give an update on business support. In the past year, we have provided more than £3 billion of direct support to businesses in Scotland. For the entirety of the next financial year, we will provide 100 per cent rates relief for retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation businesses. When I spoke in advance of the UK budget, I said that the strategic business framework, which supports closed businesses, would continue until June, even if some businesses were able to open before then. However, a number of businesses asked us to instead adopt a model of restart grants as we emerge from lockdown, and we have decided to follow that advice. Therefore, I can confirm that, on 22 March, recipients of support under the strategic framework business fund will receive a final four-week payment. No new claims will be allowed after that date. On 19 April, recipients will receive a combined final payment comprising a further two weeks’ closure support and a one-off restart grant. For eligible retail businesses, that will mean a payment on 19 April of up to £7,500 and, for eligible hospitality and leisure businesses, a payment of up to £19,500. That will provide support that is more generous and more flexible than previously envisaged.

The steps that I have outlined today give a significant degree of clarity for the period between now and mid-May. As I hope that people can understand, the unpredictable nature of the virus means that it is difficult to give that much clarity beyond that time. However, our hope and ambition is that, from early June, all of Scotland will move to level 1, which will allow for further easing of restrictions, and that, by the end of June, all of Scotland will move to at least level 0.

Level 1 and, even more so, level 0 will be a massive improvement on where we are now. However, those levels still involve some restrictions, so we hope that we will be able to get beyond even that. As people would expect, we will continue to assess the situation, with a view to restoring as much normality as possible. It is our fervent hope—and our tentative but increasing expectation—that vaccination, continued and effective use of the test and protect system, and, probably, continued compliance with precautions, such as good hand hygiene, will allow us to keep Covid under much greater control. That will allow us to enjoy many of the things that we took for granted before the pandemic, such as normal family gatherings where we can hug our loved ones, sporting events, gigs and nightclubs.

Setting a precise date for all that now would involve plucking a date out of thin air, and I would probably be doing it to make my life easier, not yours. Therefore, I am not going to do that. However, over the coming weeks, as more and more adults are vaccinated, it will be possible to set a firmer date by which many of these normal things will be possible, and I am optimistic that that date will be during the summer. I know that I will not be the only one who is now looking forward, with a real sense of hope, to hugging my family this summer.

Three months ago—when we had to reimpose lockdown in the depths of December—was a dark moment in an unbelievably tough year. I know how difficult the past few months have been, and I will never underestimate, or stop being grateful for, the hard and painful sacrifices that everyone has made.

However, now, thanks to those sacrifices and the success of the vaccination programme, we are in a much brighter position. As we move further into spring, children and young people will be back in school full time, we hope that shops and services will reopen, we will be able to travel more widely, we will see more of our friends and loved ones, and we will start to meet again in bars, cafes and restaurants. As we move into the summer, an even greater degree of normality—I hope that it will be something much closer to actual normality, with the ability to hug those whom we love—will become possible. All that should fill us with optimism. This is certainly the most hopeful that I have felt about the situation for a long time.

However, as people would expect, I need to add a note of caution. I know that this is the bit that none of us wants to hear, but the route back to normality depends on continued suppression. Right now, things are much better, but hundreds of us are still getting the virus every day. Last week alone, more than 200 people were admitted to hospital with the virus. We are getting the virus under control, but it is still dangerous and is now even more infectious, so we must continue to suppress it to the lowest level possible as we try to get our lives back to normal.

For now, please continue to stay within the rules. Until 2 April, please stay at home, except for specific purposes. Please do not meet people from other households indoors, and please follow the FACTS advice when you are out and about. By doing all that over the past long and difficult months, we have protected one another and saved lives. By doing it in the few weeks ahead, we can make steady and sure progress back to normality, and we will continue to protect one another as we journey towards those brighter days that I firmly believe are now in sight.

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you, First Minister. We turn to questions.

Photo of Ruth Davidson Ruth Davidson Conservative

Today’s update, as briefed, has started to give some clarity on when various sectors can reopen. Frankly, they were calling for and expecting that clarity three weeks ago, when the First Minister said that she would reveal her road map out of the restrictions. Notwithstanding that, her statement will give much encouragement to those who are desperate to get back to work, to shops that want to welcome customers and to hairdressers who want to welcome clients.

However, a statement can be as instructive by what is not mentioned as it can be by the information that is mentioned. We know that there is a huge job to get public services that have been affected by Covid back online, whether that is national health service testing and treatment, the backlog of court cases or support services for those with special needs.

For a week that began with international women’s day and ended on mothering Sunday, last week was a particularly tough week for women. The disappearance of Sarah Everard and the discovery of her body shocked us all. It led to an outpouring of stories from women across the country of times when they had been attacked, intimidated, catcalled, flashed at, followed, stalked, abused or threatened. The First Minister recognised that and used her social media channels to offer support. Of course, she cannot solve all those problems, but she could offer specific action in specific areas to make things just a little better.

This week, the First Minister will have been as struck as I was by the number of women explaining how their horizons have narrowed during Covid and that basic pursuits that most men do not think twice about—such as going for a walk or a run, or taking other outdoor exercise, in the evening or after dark—are simply not an option for them if they want to feel safe and stay safe. I ask the First Minister to look again at moving up the reopening date for well-lit and well-supervised safe exercise spaces, such as gyms, so that people across Scotland—but especially women—can get out of the house and do basic exercise without fear.

Another improvement would be to reopen all scans and stages of pregnancy treatment to partners, so that women do not have to go through so much of the patient pathway alone.

In addition, the First Minister has previously talked about restarting diagnostic testing, but we know from recent data that the number of urgent referrals for treatment of possible cervical cancer has halved compared with the number for 2019. London is trialling at-home smear tests, so will the First Minister commit to looking at a similar catch-up scheme here?

Finally, we have seen a rise in violent crime across Scotland at a time when the backlog in court cases has soared. Can we increase the number of High Court sittings and take the court on circuit, so that those waiting for justice—particularly those who have been subjected to violent or sexual crime—can get that justice earlier?

The First Minister:

First, had I announced three weeks ago everything that I have announced today, I would have been doing so without the confidence I now have that we would have reached a stage of having suppressed the virus and vaccinated enough people to make it safe. What I have tried to do—some people will agree, and some will disagree—from day one of the pandemic, literally every single day, is to take balanced decisions that put the overall safety of the country first. That is what I am going to continue to do each and every day. That is more important than headline grabbing or doing things to make the lives of politicians easier, because my job is to protect, as well as I can, the safety of the population at large.

I repeat that, because of the cautious nature of the approach that we took in coming out of lockdown last year, we kept things open for longer than other parts of the UK—and, of course, we are coming out now from our second national lockdown as other parts of the UK are coming out of their third. It is important to get such decisions right.

Opening up public services that have had to be paused is a priority. It is because we give it that priority—schools being at the top of that list—that we have to be more cautious with opening some parts of our economy. We cannot do everything when headroom to suppress the virus is so limited. We have therefore unapologetically and unashamedly prioritised the return of schools.

Getting the health service back to operating normally is also a real focus. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and I had a round-table discussion just yesterday with representatives from across the health service and heard directly from them about their priorities and needs. We have just established a new centre for sustainable development in the national health service, which is looking at innovative ways of doing things—for example, at-home smears, although I think that we have to be careful about exactly how we describe certain things. All of that is part of what we are now doing to take forward the sustainable recovery of the national health service while supporting it to treat Covid patients for as long as is necessary.

There has been significant investment in justice. Significant work with the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service has meant that, again, creative and innovative ways were found to keep court hearings and trials going—although there has been an undeniable impact on that—and we will continue to bring those services back as safely as possible.

I hope that gyms will reopen on 26 April for individual exercise. Group exercise outdoors, so that people do not have to face exercising outdoors on their own, is particularly important for women, and particularly so in the current circumstances. We allowed that from last week, recognising its importance for people’s physical and mental health.

None of that is easy. It would do nobody any favours if I rushed to do everything at once, because that would set us back. We are setting out a sustainable and steady path out of lockdown and back to normality. I believe that the vast majority of people across the country will support that.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement and I, too, pass on my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one.

Steps to reopen our society and economy are welcome, particularly as those, too, impact on health and wellbeing, and I know that they will give much-needed hope to people across Scotland. That is why we need to make sure that the current lockdown is our last.

In the past week, we have seen a rise in the number of cases, and there are local areas in which rates are much higher than average. Although we want progress, we need to make sure that infection rates do not rise with the lifting of restrictions.

To have finally reached 400,000 vaccinations a week will also be welcome. However, last week, almost 420,000 gold-standard polymerase chain reaction tests went unused. Will the First Minister commit to using those in our schools and workplaces, as restrictions ease? Effective testing and tracing are what will stop us going back into another lockdown.

We also welcome the commitment of additional funding for businesses, but the eligibility and the speed of disbursal is crucial. Does the First Minister recognise that it will take time for businesses to recover, even after the restrictions are lifted and lockdown ends, and does she agree that transitional support must be made available over the longer term, to avoid businesses having to close and people losing their jobs?

The First Minister:

First, we all want this to be the last lockdown, but making that happen is not as easy as a politician simply saying that, as a soundbite.

Making sure that this is the last lockdown involves taking careful, cautious and sensible decisions—and sometimes having to take unpopular decisions—in order that we can make sure that our exit from this lockdown, even if it is a bit slower than we are all desperate for it to be, is a steady one and that we go firmly in one direction and do not end up setting ourselves on a backward track. That is what I and the Government are focused on, every single day.

On testing, we are using lateral flow devices in schools and increasingly in workplaces, because they get results quicker. It is not that there is no purpose in using PCR for asymptomatic testing, but it takes longer to get the results, so we are using lateral flow testing and if those tests are positive they are then confirmed—or otherwise—by PCR testing.

The reduction in the use of PCR testing is because prevalence of the virus has fallen. PCR testing has been prioritised for people with symptoms of Covid, because that is really important. We will continue to use all our testing capacity, which is much more varied now than it has been, as effectively as possible. We are using testing in many more settings than was the case previously.

On business support, what I set out today in relation to the start-up grant is, for eligible retail businesses, equivalent to about three months of additional support, and for eligible hospitality and leisure businesses it is equivalent to about six months of support. Additional support will be provided even after businesses start to reopen; the support is more expansive than we had previously planned.

There will continue to be a need for business support in the medium term. We have always recognised that, which is why we made the commitment to 100 per cent rates relief for the worst-hit sectors, for the entirety of the next financial year. Through the various mechanisms that we have, we will continue to support businesses appropriately as they get back to trading and, we hope, making profits.

Again, that is why it is so important that we get these decisions right, so that when businesses start to reopen this time they stay open and can get back to normal, just as we all want to do.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The fact that we are in a position to start planning to reopen things and get our lives back will be welcomed by everyone. As always, the Scottish Greens support a cautious approach.

The First Minister flagged an increase in daily cases compared with last week, which is concerning. There have been reports of an increase in cases being linked to the unsafe gatherings of football fans in Glasgow. Does the First Minister think that those gatherings are reflected in the figures?

Although the rate of positive cases is broadly decreasing across age groups, there is a marked increase in cases in children under 14. What measures is the Scottish Government taking to address that trend?

Will the Government introduce lateral flow testing for college further education and higher education students as they begin a slow return to campus so that we avoid a surge in infections such as was caused by last year’s chaotic reopening of universities?

The First Minister:

There will be a gradual return of students to further and higher education and we will use lateral flow testing as appropriate and in a targeted way to support that. The increase in students on campus that I set out today for the early stage, from the early part of April, will be focused not exclusively but largely on further education, because that is where there is a greater need for students to get some face-to-face learning on campus if they are to complete their courses.

On case numbers, we have seen an increase in the past week. As the chief medical officer said yesterday, there is a small number of cases among people who gathered as part of the football incident last weekend. Given the incubation period of the virus, we might see more of that; it will not have fully worked its way through yet.

We need to be open eyed about this. After a year of the virus, I think that we have learned that any time that we open up and people start to come together, there is a greater opportunity for transmission. Schools have returned, and in that regard the worry is not as much about transmission in schools as it is about the activity that happens around the return of schools. I am probably one of the last people to be complacent about any increase in cases, but if I cast my mind back two or three weeks, I think that we worried then that the increase in cases that we would see after the beginning of the return of schools would be bigger than it is right now. We will monitor that very carefully. The mitigations in schools are important to try to reduce transmission among the younger age groups as much as possible.

This is always going to be a balancing act. Any relaxation of restrictions is not neutral, because it increases the risk of transmission, so we have to get all the pieces as much in balance as we can. We have a significant additional piece now with vaccination, which will help to substitute for some of the lockdown restrictions. However, it remains absolutely essential that we navigate the easing of restrictions really carefully, based on all the experience that we have had over the past year.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

I am sure that people will feel a little bit of hope today. Their sacrifices, and the brilliance of the vaccine scientists, mean that our liberty may return soon. The dark cloud hanging over people struggling with their mental health might start to clear, too, so we must have the services ready to help them.

The First Minister has been insistent that decisions on easing would be based on data not dates, yet the statement today has quite a few dates but very little data. When will we see the indicators that will allow people to understand when they will be moving from one level to the next in their area? Can the First Minister be clearer about the indicators and the data?

The First Minister:

P eople want some clarity about the indicative timeline, which we are trying to give them. All of that is predicated, though, on the data continuing to go in the right direction. Clearly, if the data starts to go wildly in the wrong direction, all bets are off. That is why it is so important for all of us to continue to convey the message about the importance of sticking with the discipline for a little bit longer.

On the move down from level 4 for all of mainland Scotland and some parts of our island communities, we want to try to do that as one country, because that will allow us to lift travel restrictions. Even though some parts of the country are at lower levels of prevalence now, because vaccinations are not yet at a critical point it would still be very risky to lift the restrictions more quickly in those parts of the country.

When we have done that, if there are outbreaks or variable transmission across the country, we will have the option of using the levels, and we will publish shortly the latest indicators that we would intend to use. As I had to say repeatedly before, it is not an exact science. However, at the moment, for the whole country, it is about getting the virus as low as possible and keeping it there, recognising that, as I said, easing restrictions is not neutral. We need to keep in mind a combination of all of that, as we try to navigate our way through the next few weeks.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

T he setting of indicative dates for the initial easing of lockdown is welcome news. However, the First Minister has struck a cautionary note. Will she clarify by what date any change in plan would be communicated, in the event that the Covid-19 data dictated a change of approach? That would be important information in allowing my Cowdenbeath constituents and people across Scotland to start to make firm plans as they seek to return a greater degree of normality to their lives.

The First Minister:

W e would aim, as we have generally done throughout the pandemic, to confirm, hopefully—or otherwise, if things were not going in the right direction—a week before each of those dates whether changes were going to happen. I very much hope that that will be confirmation.

The point that I have raised and that Annabelle Ewing has underlined is that, with an infectious virus, nothing is set in stone. If we take our foot off the brake too quickly and ease up too much over the next couple of weeks, and if the slight increase that we have seen in the past week accelerates, obviously we will need to reconsider. That will be true for any country. If we want to keep on this firm, steady path forward, all of us need to continue to be sensible.

One thing that should give all of us cause for concern, or at least cause us to guard against complacency, is that there are now many parts of Europe where things look as though they are going in the wrong direction again. This virus will take any opportunities. However, we are in a better position with vaccination, and that is really good. We increasingly think that vaccination will do the job that restrictions are doing. We are not there yet entirely, so we continue to need to have that balance, but, if we all keep doing the same things that we have been doing for a long time, I believe that, as we go into the summer, there is every reason to feel very optimistic about how we will be able to live our lives.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

When will the Scottish Government publish updated guidance on restrictions that are contained in the tier system, especially the restrictions in level 0?

The First Minister:

We will publish some of that later today, which will back up what I have said today. The update to the document is possibly already published. In relation to level 0, we need to have further discussion about taking account of the data closer to the point at which we might get into level 0—for example, on such things as the number of people allowed in stadiums or at events. We do not want to prejudge that too much and set that number too low or, on the other side, raise expectations too high at the moment. We will take a bit more time to come to a final view on that, as I indicated in my statement.

The further out we are, the less possible it is to be absolutely crystal clear about things, and the more we try to be crystal clear, the more chance there is that we will end up having to change our position. We are trying to give clarity as far out as possible but be up front with people that we will need to assess things further down the line and a bit closer to the time.

Photo of Clare Adamson Clare Adamson Scottish National Party

What reassurance can the First Minister give to parents, carers and staff following reports of an outbreak of coronavirus at St Ignatius primary school campus and its associated nursery in my constituency?

The First Minister:

One of the difficult things with the virus on an on-going basis is that, even as we get its prevalence and incidence down—as I hope that we will—we will see outbreaks. Unfortunately, those outbreaks will sometimes affect schools and nurseries. Even if they are not in the schools or nurseries, people associated with them will be affected, and those outbreaks will need to be managed in line with all the protocols, guidance and correct mitigations. I know that that will be difficult for parents and young people, but it will continue, unfortunately, to be a feature of dealing with the virus. However, the more we suppress community transmission, the more we will reduce the possibility of outbreaks.

We have already published a suite of comprehensive guidance on mitigations to reduce risk in schools, and that is supported by regular at-home testing for pupils and all staff in secondary schools, which should further reduce the risk of outbreaks. Hopefully, as community transmission continues to fall, so, too, will the number of young people affected in school-related outbreaks.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Age Scotland, Engender, Inclusion Scotland and around 20 other civil society organisations have written to the First Minister, welcoming her commitment to a public inquiry into Covid-19. They are asking her to work with civil society to take a human rights-based approach and consider the impact on a wide range of groups, including care home residents, front-line staff, women, people from the black and ethnic minority community and older people. Will the First Minister ensure that the remit captures all of that, and, given the length of time that public inquiries take, will she commission that inquiry now and ensure that it reports in interim phases?

The First Minister:

I have already given a commitment to a human rights-based approach to a public inquiry. I believe that we still might be the only Government in the UK that has given a clear commitment to a public inquiry, but, if I am wrong about that, I stand to be corrected. We will work with civil society as we decide the remit and take all the other decisions that have to be taken.

That decision has already been taken in principle. Given that the Parliament is about to break for an election, I think that it will be—I hope that the status of the virus will allow this—a priority for the incoming Administration to get the public inquiry properly up and running. If that incoming Administration is me and this Government, we will take that inquiry forward as quickly as possible. If it is somebody else and another Government, I hope that they will have the same commitment to doing likewise.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I thank the First Minister for her statement. Many businesses across Scotland will appreciate the clarity that was given on the course out of lockdown and—I hope—back to more normality as soon as that is safe. Will the First Minister provide further reassurance for businesses that have to remain closed for the time being that financial support will be made available to help them through what will be a difficult and turbulent period for many?

The First Minister:

The approach to business support that I set out is intended to combine, on the one hand, on-going support for businesses that must remain closed or that still have significant restrictions on their ability to trade with, on the other hand, financial support for businesses with the costs of restarting and reopening, such as the costs of ordering stock or doing other things to get a business ready to trade again.

Businesses have asked for that combination, which provides flexible support. I hope that, by the time we get into summer, the vast majority of businesses will be operating again, but we have always recognised the need to support those who cannot operate, for whatever reason.

As well as focusing on that, we are focusing on getting businesses and the economy operating as normally as possible, as quickly as possible.

Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

The First Minister will know that a recent report said that, during the second wave of the pandemic, more than half of severe Covid cases involved transmission in hospital and that Scots were nearly 13 times more likely to become seriously ill from Covid if they had been in an NHS Scotland facility in the fortnight before they tested positive. Will the First Minister explain what action she will take to prevent that from happening again as we remobilise the NHS?

The First Minister:

There is a direct correlation between community transmission of the virus and nosocomial infection and transmission. As community transmission rates have fallen, so have infection rates in hospitals. Initially, therefore, the most important thing is to get community transmission rates down. A range of work is undertaken in hospitals—not just in relation to Covid, but generally—to reduce the risk of infection.

The University of Edinburgh study is an important paper that highlights a number of issues that the nosocomial review group has considered. It shows a strong epidemiological association between hospital exposure and severe Covid, but it does not confirm causality between the two. That does not make the information unimportant, but it is important to understand the difference.

The paper makes it clear that the reasons for the association are likely to be complex. The report does not say this—it is me saying it—but, for example, people who are in hospital are likely to have health conditions already, so, if they get Covid, they might be more vulnerable to becoming more ill with it. We will consider the paper carefully and feed any learning from it into the wider work to reduce, as far as possible, the risks of hospital-acquired infection.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I was delighted to get the AstraZeneca vaccine on Saturday. I guess that I am slightly older than the First Minister, so I might have been vaccinated before her.

Will she reassure people who have concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine because of what has been seen in other countries?

The First Minister:

I do not want to be churlish, but I think, from memory, that Mr Mason is significantly older than the First Minister. I anxiously await my vaccination appointment, as I am in the age group that is beginning to be called for vaccination.

Like most people across the country, I am anxious—enthusiastic is probably a better word—to be vaccinated. As soon as I get the invitation, I will be there to get my vaccination, whether it is with the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The chief medical officer said quite a lot yesterday to reassure people. Vaccine safety is paramount and is monitored on an on-going basis. There are well-established schemes, such as the yellow card scheme, to record adverse events, so the monitoring is very careful. We are aware of no evidence that suggests a risk from the AstraZeneca vaccine. Our firm view is that the benefits of that vaccine far outweigh any risk that there might be. That is the view of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which is the UK regulator, and the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have said the same thing.

My advice to people is to come forward for vaccination as soon as they are invited. That has massive benefit. People should be assured that the safety of vaccines is taken seriously on an on-going basis.

Photo of David Stewart David Stewart Labour

I am considerably older than the First Minister, and I am delighted to say that I have had my vaccination. Does the First Minister share my view that the good news from the European Medicines Agency today, that the number of blood clots in vaccinated people does not seem to be higher than in the general population, is a positive message for those who have been vaccinated or who are awaiting vaccination?

The First Minister:

It is good news. I was paying close attention to the news from the European Medicines Agency earlier today. The agency is carrying out further review over the course of the next week. I am not a clinician or an expert, so I summarise the evidence as I understand it, based on the advice that has been given to me by the chief medical officer: there is no greater incidence of blood clots in people who are vaccinated than there is in the general population, and there is no definite association of causation between the vaccine and the blood clots in those who have experienced them.

The advice from the MHRA, which is the UK regulator, is that the risks are far outweighed by the benefits and there is no reason for people not to take the vaccine. That is also the view of the European Medicines Agency and the WHO. Getting vaccinated seriously and significantly reduces people’s chances of becoming ill or dying from Covid. That is why everyone should come forward to be vaccinated as soon as possible. I am delighted to hear that David Stewart has already done so.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

Today’s announcement is positive, but many families—particularly those on low incomes—who are sick or find themselves in vulnerable circumstances are struggling as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic. Will the First Minister outline what measures the Scottish Government is taking to assist those people?

The First Minister:

That is an important reminder that, in many different ways, the impact of the pandemic will be felt long after the Covid restrictions have been lifted. That will be true for many businesses, for public services and for individuals, some of whom were already struggling before the pandemic and others of whom have been plunged into financial difficulty because of the pandemic.

We have taken a range of different measures, including direct payments to low-income families with children, the extension of free school meals over holiday periods, increased funding for the welfare fund and for discretionary housing payments, and the introduction of protections against eviction. The new Scottish child payment was planned before the pandemic, but it has now come on stream and is starting to put money into the pockets of the lowest-income families. However, there is more to do. Just as we will continue to think about support for business, we will continue to support individuals who have been impacted the most.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

Does today’s framework announcement confirm that we are moving out of lockdown nationally at the same pace, with no scope for local easing? Can the First Minister assure businesses that the strategic business framework fund will continue if virus suppression and lockdown milestones are not met?

The First Minister:

Yes. We will keep the infrastructure of the strategic business framework fund in place so that if we have outbreaks or there is a need for any regional lockdowns—although I hope that there will not be—it can be used to provide support for businesses, just as we did when we came out of lockdown previously and had to put regional measures in place.

We intend that all the country, which is currently in level 4, will come down to level 3 on 26 April. It would be impractical to do things regionally before that because of the need to get sufficient people vaccinated for it to be safe to lift restrictions.

Doing things that way allows us to ease travel restrictions, too, which is important for many people, especially in relation to family connections. However, as I have already said, we need to talk to island communities about some issues.

The levels system will be there if we need it. By the time we get to 17 May or thereafter, if much of the country can come down a level but there is one part that has stubbornly high prevalence, we will be able to use the system to vary the levels. That is important, because we do not want to hold any part of the country back because of the levels of the virus in others. Moving out of lockdown on a uniform basis, so that everyone has maximum benefit, is the best way to proceed in the immediate term.

Photo of Ross Greer Ross Greer Green

Colpi ice cream in Milngavie is one of a number of businesses that have struggled to access a business restrictions grant. It appears that that is because the guidance explicitly excludes takeaways, but the relevant regulations have since been amended to restrict the operation of takeaways. If a takeaway business incurs a cost in adapting to meet the regulations, is it now eligible for a business restrictions grant?

The First Minister:

If Ross Greer does not mind, I would like to look into the detail of the particular business so that I can give an answer that is accurate and appropriate to its circumstances, rather than a generic answer. If he wants to email my office now or later, I will get that looked into and come back to him with a specific answer.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I say to the First Minister that, as soon as questions on her statement are over, I will be off to the Edinburgh international conference centre to get my vaccination. I am looking forward to it—at last.

I turn to the serious bit. When the pandemic is over, will the First Minister learn the lesson that the Government should not introduce laws that are impossible for Police Scotland to enforce? Such laws put the police in an impossible position. Many normally law-abiding people honour the stay-at-home law and, in particular, the travel restrictions more in their breaching of them than in their observation, which simply undermines the rule of law.

God forbid that this situation should ever happen again, but although I recognise that it is, of course, quite right for the Government to advise and encourage people to stay at home, it should not rely on unenforceable laws, because that undermines the rule of law for many normally law-abiding people.

The First Minister:

First, I wish Mike Rumbles well with his vaccination. There is no truth—none at all—in the rumour that I will immediately get on the phone to the vaccination centre to ask for a particularly sharp needle to be used this afternoon. [

Laughter

.]

To be serious, however, it is really good and heartening for everybody to hear so many stories of people now getting their vaccination appointments.

We have not introduced laws that we know are unenforceable; we have, rather, of necessity introduced laws that we know are difficult to enforce, and we have worked very closely with Police Scotland throughout that. It has been frank with us when it has thought that we should change the balance of what we were doing and when it has thought that a particular regulation might be more difficult to enforce than others. However, it has done a sterling job in trying to work with the population and encouraging people to comply, and in using enforcement only where necessary.

I hope that we never have to be in such a position again and that, as we start to lift all the restrictions, we will never have to think about reimposing them. Overall, there is lots for us all to learn from this, but one of the most positive things that has happened, I think, has been the way in which the vast majority of the general population have done everything that has been asked of them. They have made painful sacrifices and have got us again to a position from which we can start to look forward with some optimism. I, for one, will never be able to properly and adequately convey my gratitude for that.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

The First Minister will be aware that the UK Government is again failing to practise caution when it comes to air travel, thereby leaving us potentially more exposed to new strains of the coronavirus. The safeguarding of international entry routes is vital, but is the Scottish Government’s approach working when travellers can arrive—and are arriving—at English airports then simply travel north?

Given the UK’s laissez-faire approach, our airports could lose a huge number of routes and, ultimately, jobs, as travellers simply dodge Scotland’s airports, with no discernible health gain. How will the Scottish Government address that difficulty?

The First Minister:

We continue to work with the UK Government and to seek to persuade it to take a more effective approach. There is no getting away from the fact that the position on manag ed quarantine would be more effective if it was applied uniformly across England, Wales and Scotland—and Northern Ireland, but particularly on the island. We continue to try to persuade the UK Government to do that, although thus far it does not appear to be willing.

We will continue to enforce the approach to the best of our ability, because it minimises the risk of new variants being imported. Of course, the main message right now is that people should not travel overseas unless it is essential; there should be very few people travelling overseas. I hope that as we go through the next few months, that will start to change as well, but it is likely to be one of the last things to change, because of the risk. In some countries, the position remains very volatile, and the risk of importing cases—especially of new variants of the virus—remains very real, so we must continue to be cautious.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

At the end of last week, it became clear that there had been a major problem with the issuing of blue letters, in that people between the ages of 60 and 64 in the Lothians had not been receiving their appointments. That resulted in the health board making pleas on social media for people to call and find out whether they had an appointment.

I am informed that the problem has persisted and that some vaccination centres have had literally no patients over the past two days. Staff have been asked—I am using a source here—to go out and drum up support from police stations or anywhere else to fill slots.

What has gone wrong? How did that happen? How many people have missed their appointments? Most important, how will those appointments be rescheduled, so that no one misses out on their vaccination?

The First Minister:

That is an issue that I am aware of. We have been investigating it over the past few days and trying to work out where the problem lies—whether it is with NHS National Services Scotland, which is administering the centralised system, or with Royal Mail. We believe that it is possibly a Royal Mail issue, because other letters have been arriving, but we are still trying to bottom that out and resolve it. I will get the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport to update the member as soon as possible.

I give assurance to everybody who is expecting or receiving appointments that they will get their vaccination, and that if there is a need to rebook any appointments, that will be done through the system that is already in place.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I endorse Daniel Johnson’s concerns. I hear many of the same concerns about NHS Lothian, in my constituency—but that is not what my question is about.

As the First Minister will expect, I very much welcome the opening of gardening centres—an issue that I have pursued—from 5 April. Can the First Minister clarify whether that will be affected by the stay-local rule—the rule that people should stay within their local authority area? For example, Dobbies Garden Centre and Pentland Plants are just outside the City of Edinburgh Council boundary, to the south. Will they be able to have people visiting from Edinburgh?

The First Minister:

I would describe it less as Christine Grahame pursuing the issue and more as Christine Grahame pursuing me on the issue over the past few weeks. Between 5 April, when garden centres will reopen, and 26 April, the stay-local rule will apply, including to people visiting garden centres. Within the regulations, there is the ability, if it is essential, to go 5 miles outside one’s local authority boundary, but the central rule for that three-week period will be to remain within one’s local authority area.

As we start to ease restrictions, we have to mitigate against taking cases of the virus to different parts of the country. Once the stay-at-home rule is lifted, if people want to visit a garden centre or visit their family outdoors in a garden, they should stay within their own local authority area until 26 April when, we hope, travel restrictions across mainland Scotland will be lifted completely.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I welcome the news that travel restrictions are going to be lifted, but the First Minister did not say when we will be able to travel across the UK. Can she tell us when she will decide that? At the same time, can she say when she will be able to give us clarity on when families will be able to stay with each other?

The First Minister:

Where I have not given specific dates it is because I do not yet feel able to do so. I hope that the travel restrictions between Scotland, other parts of the UK and the common travel area can be lifted on 26 April or, if not, as soon as possible thereafter. I said that we would update Parliament on that during April, because we need to guard against importation of cases and we need to be mindful of varying prevalence and, of course, varying levels of restrictions being in place or lifted in different parts of the UK. That is something that we have to consider carefully.

The position is similar on the ability to visit family indoors. It is already possible to see people outdoors in small groups—no more than four people from two households—albeit that initially, that must be within people’s own local authority areas. From the end of April, travel across mainland Scotland will be allowed.

We hope that around that time we will be able gradually to reintroduce the ability to visit family members in their houses but, again, it is not possible to say that definitively right now. That is difficult, because, after everything that I have said today, it is the one thing that I want to be able to say to people, because it is the one thing that we all desperately want to do. However, the risk of transmission is greatest inside domestic dwellings, because it is harder to comply with mitigation in them. That is why I have said that we will not wait to review that every week, every two weeks or every three weeks; we will review it on an on-going basis so that we can return to that position just as quickly as we deem it safe to do so.

Photo of Tom Arthur Tom Arthur Scottish National Party

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen quite significant levels of variation in prevalence of the virus among and within local authority areas at neighbourhood level, with some communities having stubbornly high prevalence. What action is the Scottish Government taking to support communities in which suppression of the virus has proved to be more challenging?

The First Minister:

Throughout the pandemic, we have worked very closely with Public Health Scotland, our senior clinicians network and the test and protect programme to try to support communities in which there are particular local challenges and higher than average or stubbornly high prevalence. We will continue to do that and to provide support to local health boards and local councils where appropriate.

We have a national incident management team that regularly meets local directors of public health to share best practice and agree actions that will help to control outbreaks and drive down prevalence in local areas. One of the additional tools that we now have at our disposal and have been using is, of course, community asymptomatic testing. That has been targeted at areas in which prevalence has remained stubbornly high. We will make that available to communities in which we consider that it might help to get rates down.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The First Minister will be aware that two primary schools in my Ayr constituency have had to close, having reopened, because staff had caught Covid or had to self-isolate. Are such temporary closures to be expected in other schools across Ayrshire and the country? Will the First Minister again consider whether early vaccination could be considered for teachers and the police, who are still very much in the front line?

The First Minister:

Like all the UK Governments, we are vaccinating in line with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s advice on priorities. As I have said many times, teachers and police officers will be included in those priority groups. By mid-April we will, supplies permitting, have vaccinated everybody over the age of 50 and, by the end of July we will have vaccinated the whole adult population. Teachers and police officers who have underlying health conditions or are older will be vaccinated earlier in the priority list.

If we were to depart from that approach, we would rightly be criticised for prioritising other considerations over the advice from clinicians on the best clinical strategy to reduce the impact of the virus.

On the question about schools, while the virus is still circulating, there will, I regret, be outbreaks. I cannot stand here and say that those outbreaks will never affect schools. To do so is simply not possible or realistic. It is better to have schools open with, unfortunately and regrettably, some schools perhaps being affected by outbreaks, than it is to have all schools closed. If all schools are closed, we will never have that problem, but it would affect the most children.

We know that the more we bear down on community transmission, the less chance there will be of outbreaks in schools; that the more mitigations in schools are followed, the less chance there will be of outbreaks; that the more adults around schools follow all the rules, the less chance there will be of outbreaks; and that the more use that is made of the testing offer to staff and pupils in secondary schools, the more we can reduce outbreaks. We cannot remove the prospect of outbreaks; all that we can all do is act in a way that reduces risk as much as possible, while we get as many children as possible in schools full time every single day.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes questions. I thank members for their understanding. I let the questions run on a little as it was a substantial statement and we wished to accommodate a number of members.

Before we move on to the next item of business, I encourage all members who are leaving the chamber to follow the one-way systems, make sure that they maintain social distancing, wear their masks, and observe the other rules that are in place on mitigation measures around the campus.