– in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd March 2021.
The next item of business is a statement by the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on Covid-19 reflections and next steps.
This will be my final full parliamentary statement on Covid before Parliament rises for the election.
As Richard Holloway noted in his thoughtful and moving remarks, today marks exactly one year since the country first entered lockdown. A year ago today, we all felt scared and uncertain. We did not know exactly what lay ahead or how long it might last, but we knew that we had to come together to save lives. I know that I will never be able to adequately express the depth of my gratitude for all the sacrifices that have been made by so many over the past year.
Today, I want to reflect on the anxiety, isolation, loss and grief that have marked the past 12 months, but I also want to acknowledge the compassion, solidarity and love that has brought hope and light to these darkest of times.
Before I do any of that, I will, as usual, give an update on today’s figures. The total number of positive cases reported yesterday was 495. That is 3.6 per cent of all the tests carried out, and takes the total number of cases to 214,383. As of this morning, 2,214,672 people had received a first dose of the vaccine. That is almost half of the whole adult population of Scotland, so we are approaching an important milestone. We remain on course to offer first doses to the nine priority Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation groups, which is everyone over 50, all unpaid carers, and all adults with particular underlying health conditions, by mid-April.
I can also report that 341 people are now in hospital, which is 12 fewer than yesterday, and 28 people are receiving intensive care, which is five fewer than yesterday.
However, I regret to report that in the past 24 hours, a further seven deaths have been registered of patients who first tested positive during the previous 28 days. The total number of deaths under that measurement is now 7,559. Tomorrow, however, National Records of Scotland will publish its weekly update, which uses a wider definition. That will show that almost 10,000 people in Scotland have now died of Covid.
Every single one of those deaths is a tragedy. Each one has left a gaping hole in the lives of the people who loved them. Yet again today, I want to pass on my condolences to all those who are grieving.
Yesterday, I met representatives of families who have been bereaved as a result of Covid, and I pay tribute to their strength and resolve. In that discussion, I acknowledged, as I have done before, that the Scottish Government did not get everything right in our response to the pandemic; I do not think that any Government did. It is vital that we reflect on that and learn lessons, which is why I also confirmed that establishing a statutory public inquiry will be a priority for this Government if we are returned at the election.
Returning to this sad anniversary, today has been designated a national day of reflection, and I know that many people will be thinking about those whom we have lost during the past year, whatever the cause of their death. Earlier today, I stood with others to observe a minute’s silence, which was, I know, observed by many thousands across the country. Later this evening, Scottish Government premises and many other public buildings will be lit up in yellow.
The Scottish Government is also helping to fund the creation of a national memorial garden in Pollok park in Glasgow as part of an initiative led by
The Herald newspaper. We have also confirmed today that we will support Covid community memorial projects in locations across the country. Artists from Greenspace Scotland will work with community groups, faith groups and those hit hardest by the pandemic to develop projects such as commemorative gardens, memorials and public artworks.
Those acts of collective remembrance are especially important because one of the cruellest aspects of the pandemic has been its impact on our ability to grieve. When someone whom we loves dies, it is a natural human response to gather with others to mourn our loss and to celebrate their life. The fact that this shared ritual has not been possible has, I know, been an additional source of grief for many during this most difficult of years. I hope that today’s day of reflection and the memorials that communities will plan will help. They are a way in which we can begin to pay those whom we have lost the tribute that they deserve.
Of course, today is also a time to mark the sacrifices that so many people have made during the past 12 months. Many of us, I know, will be thinking especially about our health and care workers. We have been reminded once again just how much we owe to their dedication, expertise and compassion. I am acutely aware that no words of thanks can ever be sufficient for the service that has been given over the past year, but I am sure that I speak for everyone in the Parliament and across the country in stressing once again how deeply grateful we are for everything that they have done and, indeed, continue to do.
Other public servants have also played a crucial role. Our police officers and their support staff have enforced tough restrictions proportionately and sensitively. Our teachers and all those who work in schools have done an outstanding job in difficult and regularly changing circumstances. Other local authority staff, too, have provided vital help and support to those who most need it and in some cases—for example, in the speed with which they helped to protect homeless people—they have provided us with valuable lessons for the future.
I also pay tribute to Scotland’s diverse business community. Many companies have met specific needs relating to the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, for example, some distilleries started making hand sanitiser. We have also been able to develop a personal protective equipment supply chain in Scotland, which did not exist before the start of the pandemic.
Virtually all companies have made immense efforts to create safe conditions for staff and customers. They have supported home working for employees, complied with regulations that have often stopped them from trading normally and shown a sense of social responsibility through all the concerns that they have faced about their own businesses. The Scottish Government has done everything that we can to support the business sector and we will continue to do that, but I know that this has been the most difficult year that many employers and their workforce have ever faced. Again, I am immensely grateful for all of those efforts.
I am also grateful to Scotland’s faith groups, which have helped their communities and have found new ways of reaching out to their followers. I am pleased to confirm that, from Friday, collective worship will again be permitted in groups of up to 50, if the premises can support such a gathering with appropriate physical distancing. That is an important change and I hope that it will be especially welcome as we head towards important religious festivals over the next few weeks.
Community groups and third sector organisations have also rallied round, helped by the support of hundreds of thousands of people across the country. In fact, the great outpouring of community spirit that we have seen has been a source of light in an otherwise dark year. Last March, when we launched the Scotland cares website to help find roles for people who wanted to volunteer, it received more than 80,000 sign-ups. There are many more people who might never have registered formally as volunteers, but have gone out of their way to support others by helping out with shopping, calling on friends and neighbours who needed company and providing essential care for those in need.
All of us have really struggled in the past year with the paradox that the virus has created. We have had to stay physically apart from each other—from those we love most—at a time when we have never needed each other more. None of us should be surprised that this year has been filled with difficulty, anxiety and, for too many people, grief, but we can and should also take some heart from the extent to which it has been filled with compassion and love.
That is true, also, of one of the most important ways in which we have all tried to look after each other. By sticking to incredibly tough rules and restrictions, all of us have helped to save lives. We have helped to keep the virus under control and to create the situation that we are now in, where we can start to plan our route out of lockdown.
The final point that I want to make today about our collective efforts during the past year is directed towards our young people. To children—if any children are watching this, which I doubt—I say that I know how difficult it has been for you to spend time out of school and to have strict restrictions placed on how and when you can see your friends. You have been truly magnificent during these strange and worrying times. You have stuck to the rules, done your home schooling—I am sure, most of the time—and helped out your parents and carers. Everybody across the country is incredibly proud of you. Thank you for everything that you have done.
I also acknowledge the impact of the past year on young adults. Many young people have been furloughed; many have lost their jobs. Anyone who has been studying at college or university has had significant restrictions placed on how they study, and in some cases on where they live, at one of the most formative times in any young person’s life. Although the restrictions on socialising are difficult for all of us, they are especially tough for people in their late teens and early 20s. By sticking to the rules, as the vast majority have done, you have protected yourselves, but you have also helped to protect older adults. I hugely appreciate that, as does the entire country.
For all those reasons, one of my overwhelming emotions on looking back over the past year—which is why Richard Holloway’s remarks resonated so strongly—is gratitude. I will never be able to thank people enough for the sacrifices made and everything that they have endured over the past 12 months.
In addition to gratitude, all of us—perhaps politicians in particular—should feel a sense of resolve. As we recover from the pandemic, as we will, we must create a better and fairer country for everyone. The way in which people have responded to the pandemic has been defined by solidarity, compassion, love and sacrifice, but the way in which people have been affected has been defined by the inequalities that still scar our society. Inequality has massively affected people’s quality of life during lockdown, and deprivation has significantly increased some people’s chances of getting Covid and of dying from it. None of us can be satisfied by the idea of returning to life exactly as it was before.
That is why, for example, the Scottish young persons guarantee makes it clear that our young people must not pay the price of the pandemic throughout their lives. All of them must get a fair shot at education, employment or training as they start out in life.
It is also why we are working to establish a new national care service. The past year has powerfully reminded us of the importance of care and of the dedication of our care workers, but the death toll in care homes has been a national tragedy. We must consider, reconsider and reimagine how we support our care workers and look after our older citizens.
We must learn other lessons from this pandemic, too. That includes reflecting on our mistakes: the timing of the first lockdown and the decision to ease travel restrictions last summer. It also includes ensuring that we are prepared for future public health emergencies.
More generally, there is a lesson for all of us in never seeing any change that we want to make as unthinkable or unachievable. The past 12 months have shown us that, when it is necessary, human beings can achieve quite incredible and extraordinary things. Scientists across the globe have developed vaccines at record speeds. Testing infrastructures have been established from scratch. People have changed their behaviour and their way of life at a moment’s notice to protect and care for each other.
The conditions that the Scottish Parliament will face in the next session will, I hope, be nothing like the ones that we have encountered and endured over the past year, but the Parliament in the next session will have an even greater responsibility than in this and previous sessions to tackle inequality, support economic recovery and achieve a just transition to a net zero society. I hope that, if we can all summon just some of the urgency, resolve and solidarity that we have shown in the face of the virus and bring that to bear in tackling those big issues and others, we will not simply return to normal, but instead will create a better and fairer normality for the future.
Those choices will, of course, be for the Parliament in the next session and for the next Government. For today, the focus for everyone is on remembrance and reflection but, given that this is the last time that I will speak about Covid in the chamber before the election, I want to say a few words about the weeks ahead. Covid updates will obviously be much less regular during the pre-election period, but the Government will still be monitoring the pandemic constantly. I will be doing so on a daily basis, taking and announcing decisions as required. That is vital because, although we can now see a route out of lockdown, difficult judgments still lie ahead.
In the past three months we have significantly reduced the number of Covid cases in Scotland. We know that the vaccination programme is now reducing deaths, and recent research gives us confidence that vaccination will reduce transmission rates. That opens up the fantastic prospect that we can come out of lockdown on a sustainable basis.
Indeed, I can confirm that, from 6 pm tomorrow, the Western Isles will move from level 4 restrictions to level 3—the level that currently applies to Orkney, Shetland and some of Scotland’s other islands. That reflects their success in reducing transmission in recent weeks.
Across the country, we hope to reopen parts of the economy during April, with more retail services reopening on 5 April, and a full reopening of shops on the 26th. We hope that hospitality will start to reopen on 26 April as well, and that travel restrictions in mainland Scotland will come to an end on the same date. Above all, we hope to see all children back in school after the Easter holidays. We also look forward to it becoming easier for all of us to meet up with each other again, particularly loved ones, initially in outdoor settings but then, we hope, indoors as well.
As vaccination proceeds and we go further into spring, life should feel a bit less restricted and a bit more hopeful than it has done for some time. As a higher and higher proportion of the population gets their first dose of vaccine, we hope to be able to relax restrictions even more.
As I indicated last week, we have real hope that, later this year, gigs can be allowed again; nightclubs can reopen; social gatherings can be permitted; and family reunions can take place so that we can all enjoy simple pleasures such as hugging our loved ones—pleasures that I am sure none of us will ever take quite as much for granted again.
However, although that point may be in sight, the end is not quite here yet. Hundreds of people in Scotland are still getting the virus every day; it is still highly infectious and dangerous, including for many younger people; and many countries across Europe now appear to be on the brink of a third wave. All that should remind us of the need to be careful and cautious.
As we emerge from lockdown, we must do so steadily and surely, in a way that does not allow the virus to run out of control. We must keep in place other measures—for example, travel restrictions—for as long as they are needed. In order to lift restrictions in the future, we need to keep suppressing the virus now. I say to everyone across the country: please continue to stay within the rules, for your own safety and the safety of everyone else. Stay at home for now, except for specific purposes; please do not meet people from other households indoors; and remember to follow the FACTS advice when you are out and about.
By doing that for the past 12 months, we have all helped each other to get through what has been, for all of us—certainly the majority of us—the most difficult, challenging and exhausting year of our lives. By continuing to do all that in the coming weeks, we can and will continue to look after each other. We can also start to look ahead to the future, not just in hope, but in increasing expectation of the better and brighter days that lie ahead.
I offer my sincere thanks to everyone across the country for all the sacrifices of the past 12 months.
The Presiding Officer:
Thank you, First Minister. We move to questions, starting with Ruth Davidson.
Presiding Officer, I was proud to join you and the other party leaders for the day of reflection and the minute’s silence at noon today, as we remembered all those who have lost their life to Covid. However, I was struck beforehand when I read of a man who wanted his son remembered today too. Ross McCarthy was 31 when he took his own life during the restrictions, and his family are raising money for the CALM—Campaign Against Living Miserably—charity. Today, of all days, we remember that Covid, while it has taken far too many lives, has also taken a huge toll even on those who have not contracted the condition. I echo the words of Dr Richard Holloway in expressing gratitude to all those doctors and nurses, bin collectors and shop workers who have kept us going over the past year.
We support the continuing efforts of the vaccination teams across the country, and delivering 2.2 million first doses is a real achievement. However, a newspaper report today revealed that, last week, one in seven vaccine appointments were missed because of delays in delivering the letters. The delay impacted around 60,000 people, and for that reason the central vaccine target was missed. A Scottish Government spokesman said that the “issue was later resolved”, and added that the Government was still establishing whether it was
“a localised issue or more widespread”.
We are pleased to note that the vaccine roll-out is still powering ahead, but I ask the First Minister to clarify a few points. Was the issue localised, or was it countrywide? Have those people who missed appointments been contacted again, and when can they expect a new date for their jag? If anybody is, understandably, worried that they have missed their chance, where can they go for information and reassurance?
First, I say, as I have done already today, that I think not only of those who have lost their lives to Covid in the past year, and their grieving families, but of everyone who has lost their life over the past year, and those who are missing and grieving them. The past year, with all the difficulties and challenges that it has thrown up, has affected people in a multitude of ways, and it is important that we remember, and reflect on, that today.
The vaccination programme is progressing extremely well. If I cast my mind back to the turn of this year, I recall that I was optimistic about the speed and scale of the roll-out of vaccination, but I think that I would have been sceptical if anyone had told me then that we would have reached quite as many people as we have now. I put on record today my thanks to everybody in the central team and all the vaccinators and teams across the country who are responsible for that success.
When we implement a programme of this scale, and at this speed, it is inevitable that there will be glitches and things that do not go as well as we want. That is true of the scheduling, printing and posting of letters that are associated with the programme. We are aware of issues with the delivery of appointment letters in the early part of last week. With NHS National Services Scotland and Royal Mail, we are still trying to understand all the details of that issue, but I have been given an assurance that it has been resolved. Around 60,000 appointments were not attended last week and I apologise to anybody who has been affected.
We closely monitor day-to-day uptake versus projections and try to understand the reasons why people might not be attending appointments. This past week, that undoubtedly would have been partly down to the issue with letters, but there are other issues as well. Although these concerns have not materialised, we were concerned last week about the impact that the publicity around the Astra-Zeneca vaccine might have. We are working on those issues all the time to ensure that people are coming forward for appointments and are supported to do so.
The process to rebook any appointments that were not attended last week is under way and that will be done as quickly as possible. People are able to telephone the helpline on 0800 030 8013 if they have any issues on which they wish advice or support.
A year since Scotland went into the first lockdown, almost 10,000 of our fellow Scots have lost their lives, and my thoughts are with all their families. This past year has been tough for us all. We have been distant from loved ones, unable to share good moments and—hardest of all—unable to grieve together. We are all indebted to the heroes on the front line who have helped to save lives and to those who kept our country running. There is finally some hope, and we will get through this. I join both Ruth Davidson and the First Minister in sending gratitude to all our citizens across the country for their sacrifices. We cannot return to normal after this pandemic; I hope that we are all united on that point.
Although there is optimism and hope again, there is a creeping rise in cases in some parts of Scotland. We must avoid a potential third wave, and our test and protect system will be crucial to that. Does the First Minister have confidence that test and protect is finally robust enough to enable us to avoid another lockdown?
Test and protect is robust and has been so since it was established. It has played a vital role in trying to break chains of transmission and minimise the spread of the virus. It will undoubtedly have helped to save a large number of people from contracting the virus and it will have saved lives as part of that. I am grateful to everybody who is working across that system. Test and protect is a vital part of our defence and of our response but, as I have said all along, it is not our first line of defence against the virus. The first line of defence is still all of us taking the precautions and mitigations that we are asked to take. Increasingly, the most important line of defence is the vaccination programme.
Test and protect is there; it does, and will do, a good job and we will support it with the resources that it needs to operate at the level that is required. All of us will help test and protect if, for the time being, we continue to abide by all the rules and restrictions and play our part in keeping the virus under control, as everybody has done so well over the past 12 months. Every day over the past 12 months, this has been a collective effort above all else. We all have our part to play, and each one of us must continue to play that part as we steer our way through and out of this—hopefully soon.
Nobody wants to go backwards, but we should look across to Europe now with concern at what is happening there. Vaccination rates are higher across the United Kingdom than in many other European countries. Nevertheless, a third wave looks to be starting and we cannot be complacent about that here. This remains an infectious virus, so we have to be cautious and take all the precautions. If we continue to do that, I remain hopeful that we might be on the final straight back to normality. The worst thing that we could do is entertain any complacency about the situation, and I hope, and expect, that nobody will do so.
It is the little things—the things that we took for granted—that I think we now miss most, such as hugging our mums, walking in the mountains and coffee mornings. My wife has certainly missed her Zumba classes.
The fabric of a liberal society has been locked up in a cupboard. There has been pain, too, such as the long-awaited hip operation or the cancer that was not detected until it was too late. The freedom that is provided by our national health service has been rolled back, and there is the tragedy of the thousands of people who are no longer in our lives. Something good must come from these dark days. For years, social care workers have been undervalued, but they did not waver when we needed them most. Does the First Minister agree that it is time to pay our social care workers the wages that they deserve?
Everybody will have lots of things that they miss and are desperate to get back to. Hugging my mum is probably the thing that I miss and look forward to doing most of all.
Over the past year, social care workers have gone above and beyond the call of duty, as have those who work in our national health service. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult, traumatic and challenging it must have been, on a day-to-day basis, to be caring for older people in one of our care homes at the height of the first wave. We talk about gratitude—I have done so today—and I regularly talk about things for which I cannot find the words. However, in this case, I genuinely cannot find the words. What we asked of our care workers, and what they gave, was truly exceptional.
I do think that it is time to pay care workers what they deserve. In Government, it is not as easy as just saying that we will do so—we have to work out what we mean by that and how we will deliver it through budgets and a policy programme. It is time that we transformed and reformed the way in which the whole social care system works. The national care service is an opportunity to transform the quality of care for our older citizens and the way in which we value and remunerate those who work in it. Should I be in a position to influence it in the next parliamentary session, that is something that I am determined to drive forward as an absolute priority.
On this national day of reflection, on behalf of the Scottish Green Party, I send my deepest sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one in the most challenging of times, particularly when our ability to grieve together has been so impacted. I give my heartfelt thanks to our health and care workers, teachers, shop and postal staff, bin collectors, delivery drivers and all those on the front line who have kept the country going.
This week, the Prime Minister said that the third wave of coronavirus that has hit mainland Europe will
“wash up on our shores”.
Does the First Minister share his view—his acceptance—that such an outcome is inevitable? What progress has the Scottish Government made in urging the UK Government to tighten border controls?
I will make two points about the prospects of a third wave. First, we cannot guarantee that it will not happen here. It is an infectious virus, and one of the many things that we have learned over the past 12 months is that just wishing away the virus, or hoping or saying that we do not want a further wave or lockdown, does not bring any of those things into reality. We have to act in a way that minimises the chances of a third wave. That involves all of us doing so domestically by being cautious as we come out of lockdown and continuing to comply with the rules and restrictions for as long as is necessary.
The other point is that a third wave washing up on our shores is not inevitable. When I look back, one of my regrets about last year is that, because we suppressed the virus so hard and so successfully in Scotland, we perhaps opened up international travel too much and too quickly. The reasons for doing so were not wrong—the industry was in dire straits and people wanted to be able to travel again. However, in retrospect and on reflection, I do not think that that was the right thing to do, and I am determined that we will not do it again.
The importation of cases and new variants of the virus is one of the biggest risks that we face. We continue to have rules in place for managed quarantine of people who come directly into Scotland, but the rules are not as restrictive in the rest of the UK. I have tried hard to persuade the UK Government to emulate our policy, but the UK Government does not wish to do so—that is its decision and I cannot force the policy on it. However, it leaves us with a greater vulnerability to importation than I would like us to have.
As we approach the mid-May point, which is when the UK Government has said that it may allow international travel again—we have said that it will certainly not be allowed before that—we must be very cautious. I was heartened to hear Michael Gove say on a call last week that it is by no means certain that international travel will be reopened in mid-May. We will try to be very cautious on a four-nations basis, and we will take whatever decisions we can take here to protect the public as much as possible.
As we mark the anniversary of lockdown, I am sure that the First Minister will wish to join me in paying tribute to people in Scotland’s islands, many of whom have gone so long without seeing family and friends who live elsewhere. The news that the Western Isles are moving into level 3 is very welcome. Will the First Minister say when decisions will be taken on what that means for travel advice on movement to and from the islands?
As I said last week, over the next few weeks, we will have discussions with island authorities in order to come to a view on whether, as the rest of the country goes down to level 3 at the end of April—as I hope it will—our island communities will stay at level 3 or go down to level 2, which the data will probably justify. The reason why that decision is not as straightforward as it might appear is that, if our islands were at a significantly lower level of restrictions, with hospitality more open, we would need to protect them from the possible importation of cases. There might therefore be merit in their staying at a similar level of restrictions, to allow people to travel to see loved ones, for example. We will have those discussions and will come to a conclusion over the next few weeks, and we will report back on that when we announce the decision about whether we are moving forward—as I hope we will be—with the easing of restrictions that I set out to Parliament last week.
I pay tribute to people in our island communities. Lockdown has been tough for everyone, but I guess that it has been tougher for those who live in more remote communities, where long distances already made it difficult to see loved ones. Lockdown has undoubtedly exacerbated that already difficult situation.
I have been contacted by a 65-year-old constituent with an underlying health condition who still has not had the vaccine. The options on the helpline do not allow for someone who is not on the list; rather, they are for rescheduling and missed appointments. My constituent has been going round in circles, and I have contacted the health board. Will the First Minister agree to look into the matter?
If Maurice Golden sends me his constituent’s details, I will, of course, look into the matter. I have made it clear that, if people are not getting answers from the routes from which they should be getting answers—their general practitioner or the helpline—they should contact my office. If Maurice Golden sends me the details, I will have that looked into.
As we mark a year since the start of lockdown restrictions, it is impossible to ignore the toll on people’s mental health and the subsequent demand for mental health services. Will the First Minister outline the Scottish Government’s plans to respond to the increase in demand for those services?
The mental health recovery plan has already been set out by the Minister for Mental Health. We have announced increases in funding for and investment in mental health, and we will continue to respond appropriately to the increased demand that will undoubtedly exist for some time. Mental health support is one of the many ways in which the legacy of the pandemic will live with us for some time, and there is an obligation on the Government to respond appropriately. It is a priority that we acknowledge and are determined to take extremely seriously.
If this is Maureen Watt’s final contribution in the Parliament, which it might be, I take the opportunity to wish her well in her retirement. Maureen is a longstanding friend and colleague of mine who has made an outstanding contribution to the Scottish Parliament. She will be greatly missed by us all.
Businesses in my community have struggled during the pandemic, and they have been grateful for rates relief. Many members across the chamber asked for and welcomed the extension of rates relief for the financial year 2021-22. However, I am told that businesses have until 31 March to apply or the relief may well be lost in the new financial year. The window for applications is, in effect, one week. Will the First Minister recognise that that is too short a timeframe and allow some flexibility—at least a month—in the application period so that businesses do not lose out?
We should all encourage businesses to apply timeously—as most do, for obvious reasons—for the support that is available, so that it can be got to them as quickly as possible. We have tried to be as flexible as possible with all those support schemes over the course of the pandemic. I will raise the point with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, who, I am sure, will reply in more detail.
Travel restrictions have been a vital component in controlling the spread of Covid-19. I was therefore very concerned, over the past weekend, when constituents contacted me in alarm about the number of day visitors, motorcyclists and motorhomes appearing in places such as Callander. I also know that there will come a time, hopefully not far off, when visitors will be welcomed back to my fabulous Stirling constituency. However, in the meantime, a stay-at-home order remains in place, and only from 2 April does the requirement become to stay local. What more can be done to strengthen the crucial messages about travel restrictions in order to allay the fears of my constituents and stop the spread of Covid?
That is a really important point. I think that all of us are frustrated by the inability to travel across local authority boundaries to see loved ones. I know that I feel that, and I think that everybody does. We look forward to the point at which we can start to ease those travel restrictions across mainland Scotland. However, right now, the restrictions are in place for a purpose and it is incumbent on all of us to articulate that message and urge people to abide by those restrictions. Right now, we are asking that no one travel for any reason other than essential purposes and that people stay in their own local authority area.
As Bruce Crawford said, we hope to lift the current stay-at-home rule on 2 April. Initially, though—although we hope for no more than three weeks—stay at home will be replaced by guidance to stay local, and the continued legal requirement in level 4 areas for people not to travel outside their own local authority area unless it is for an allowed reason will remain in place. We will ensure that our marketing and messaging emphasise that message, particularly over the forthcoming Easter holiday period, but it is important that we all take the opportunity to reinforce that.
In what may become a theme today, I suspect that this is Bruce Crawford’s last contribution to the Parliament before he retires. Bruce, too, has being a valued colleague and a great friend of mine since I was a wean, so I am going to miss him dearly. It is hard to imagine the Parliament without Bruce Crawford. I wish him all good wishes for his retirement and I look forward to seeing him on some campaign trail, somewhere or other, very soon.
On this day of reflection, one year since the first lockdown, I join others in remembering all who have lost loved ones to Covid-19.
I have been in contact with a concerned constituent, who has informed me that they and their spouse, despite being over 65, have not yet received an appointment for their first dose of the vaccine. After contacting NHS Inform, they were told that they were not on the central register, so they were not invited for an appointment.
That situation is obviously unacceptable, given that it has caused unnecessary anxiety. Although the majority of over-65-year-olds have received their first dose, will the First Minister explain what action the Government is taking to ensure that no further vulnerable people fall through the cracks?
Nobody is going to fall through the cracks. I ask Annie Wells to recognise that people are working really hard and are delivering exceptional success in the vaccination programme. If people are waiting for appointments, that is not deliberate; it is not because people have wanted them to fall through the cracks.
In cases that have been sent to me directly—this is not an attempt to say that it is anybody’s fault—there have often been administrative problems. For example, somebody who has recently changed general practitioner might not have had their address updated, and there is an explanation. When we are made aware of such cases, we take the necessary steps to fix them. That will be the case. Nobody is going to be left behind in the vaccination programme.
Again, I say to people across the country who believe that they should have had their vaccination appointment and who have not yet had it that they should call the helpline, call their own GP or, in extremis—if they are not getting the answers that they want—contact my office and we will try to resolve things. I say to members across the chamber, particularly given that Parliament will rise for the election shortly, that they should contact the Government if such issues are being raised, and we will do everything to resolve them as quickly as possible.
Many of my Cowdenbeath constituents—and indeed people across Scotland—have relied on the First Minister leading us through the coronavirus pandemic and are very grateful to her for her unstinting work, seven days a week, week in and week out, for more than 12 months. Notwithstanding the election campaign, can she reassure them that, in the run-up to polling day, she will continue to take charge of the daily management of the pandemic and will be able to provide regular updates?
Yes, I can give that assurance. Notwithstanding the election campaign, all the requirements of which I will respect and observe—it is important that there is a level playing field—I have a duty, as First Minister during a crisis, to make sure that I continue to oversee and manage the response to the pandemic, because we are in a crisis and direction is required. That will have my daily attention.
I will ensure that updates are given—by me or by appropriate personnel—and that decisions are communicated clearly to the public. An important part of our response over the past 12 months has been very clear communication about what we are asking people to do, and that will continue to be important over the next few weeks.
Will the First Minister get the Government to look at local authority business funding? Categories of business such as dog kennels, laundry services, commercial cleaners and driving instructors have been able to take advantage of the local authority discretionary fund that the Government put in place, and Fife Council told me this morning that there is incredible pressure on the fund and that it is likely to run out. Will the Government consider whether additional funding can be put in place?
We keep all those things under review. The local authority discretionary fund has been increased since we first established it. Obviously, money is constrained; the funding that we have is not unlimited. However, we look, on an on-going basis, at where the greatest need is for funding, and some of the categories of business that Alex Rowley set out undoubtedly have need. We will keep the matter under on-going review.
Given the well-publicised issues to do with vaccine supplies, particularly in April, what assurance can the First Minister give to people who are awaiting their second dose that they will receive it within 12 weeks of their first dose?
I can give an assurance that people will receive their second dose within the 12-week window. As I said last week, because we will have, over the next four weeks, around 500,000 fewer doses than we had anticipated, there will be a period, as we go into April, when we predominantly focus on second doses. The number of first doses is likely to reduce as a result, to ensure that people get their second dose on time, but—this is an important assurance—we still expect to be able to offer first doses to everyone in JCVI categories 1 to 9 by mid-April, as we anticipated.
Yesterday, I talked to members of Unite the union who represent the taxi trade. Some taxi drivers have had help during the pandemic, but in no way has that covered their costs and many drivers are desperate. Forty per cent have had little or no support. Unite is asking for two things: first, a scheme to help operators; and secondly, something to help all taxi drivers, such as an extra grant from what is left of the £57 million that was announced in January. Will the First Minister agree to look at those requests, to ensure that we get a fair deal for cabbies?
We always look at requests from trade unions or other organisations, so I am sure that we are already doing that—if not, we will do it.
The support that we have made available, whether it has been for taxi drivers or any other affected part of the economy, is not and was never going to be able to compensate for all losses. We are seeking to do as much as possible, and that will continue to be the case for as long as is necessary.
I listened to the First Minister’s response to Alasdair Allan regarding island authorities. I have been contacted by Arran businesses that are keen, for community and economic reasons, for the island to stay within mainland Scotland’s rules and guidelines. Current messaging regarding the timetable for easing restrictions states that
“travel within mainland Scotland is not allowed”.
Can the First Minister confirm that, from 2 April, non-essential travel within local authorities will apply to Arran, that Caledonian MacBrayne will be informed that there are no travel restrictions within North Ayrshire and that, from 26 April, all conditions related to mainland Scotland will apply to Arran? The tourism economy depends on it.
Yes, I understand and appreciate Kenny Gibson’s point, and we certainly take that issue very seriously.
As I said to Alasdair Allan, we have given a commitment to have discussions with our island communities about how best we ensure that the restrictions keep them safe from the virus and allow maximum benefit as we open up the economy. I absolutely appreciate the point that has been made about making sure that Arran is on the same level of restrictions, so that there can be that freedom of movement and travel. If that is the view of communities such as Arran, that is certainly the view that we will take as we come out of lockdown.
The Scottish Government’s strategic framework is silent, in its timetable for easing restrictions—as was the First Minister today—on the important issue for my South Scotland constituents of cross-border travel. Can the First Minister give my border constituents an assurance that the criteria that she will use to decide whether cross-border travel can resume from 26 April will be the same criteria that she has been using to determine that cross-Scotland travel is likely to be allowed from that date? There would be understandable anger if politicians can travel the length of Scotland next month for an election but families in Gretna cannot travel a mile to safely visit a loved one in Cumbria, even outside, unless there is a very good reason for that.
First, I would hope that all politicians are really responsible in what they choose to do over the next few weeks.
I point out to the member that I have not been silent about cross-border travel. I stood here last week and said that we hoped to ease the restrictions on cross-border travel on 26 April but that, because of the different factors that we have to take into account, we would finally confirm that during April. I said that if we did not ease those restrictions on 26 April, we would do it as soon as possible after that. Obviously—or, at least, I think that it is obvious—although those decisions depend on prevalence and incidence of the virus in Scotland, they have to take account of prevalence and incidence of the virus in other parts of the UK, too.
These are not straightforward decisions. If they were straightforward decisions, we would just take them and be done with it. We are trying to keep people as safe as possible from a virus. I have no interest in stopping people, without good reason, travelling to see their loved ones in Scotland or other parts of the UK. This is about trying to continue to suppress the virus, as we vaccinate more people, so that we do not have—to the extent that we can avoid it—more and more people dying from the virus, as we had over the past 12 months. I would ask everybody to remember that and to be as patient as possible, and I would ask politicians to continue to lead by example.
Many of my constituents in Motherwell and Wishaw will be carrying out vital roles as unpaid carers, supporting vulnerable friends, neighbours and family members. Is the Scottish Government promoting information on vaccines for unpaid carers, so that people who may not have realised that they are eligible are encouraged to come forward? Also—[Inaudible]—those who may not have identified as unpaid carers—[Inaudible]—as they may also be eligible to come forward for a vaccine.
We will see whether I got enough of it to answer when we determine whether the answer bears any relationship to the question.
Clare Adamson asked about unpaid carers and their access to vaccination, and what we are doing to try to promote take-up. On 15 March, I think, we launched the system for unpaid carers to register to receive the vaccine, and we are currently running a national marketing campaign, mainly via digital channels, press and radio, to make sure that unpaid carers are aware of the system and what they need to do.
All carers in touch with local carer services have also been contacted to encourage them to register, and national carer organisations have contacted carers on their lists. Carers are able to self-register, either online or through the national helpline. Carers identified through general practitioner and social security data have already received a letter with their vaccination appointment, but others can access the helpline.
I hope that that answers Clare Adamson’s question, but if there were any parts of the question that I did not hear and have not answered, she can write to me later and I will make sure that an answer is provided.
The First Minister is aware of the continuing anxieties and tensions in our communities resulting from vaccination anxiety, the worry about appointments for other illnesses being delayed and the lack of contact with friends and loved ones. Mental health issues are emerging and will inevitably continue to grow for some time. Social work services and other third sector agencies will be at the front line of dealing with that growing problem. Does the First Minister have any plans or, more important, budgets to further support the growing workload of those agencies? If so, what are her plans?
With the greatest of respect, I say to John Scott that the Conservatives did not vote for the budget that we passed in the Parliament just a couple of weeks ago, but if he cares to go and read it, he will see that there are plans to continue to support, through budgetary provision, organisations that are working on the front line. Support will also be applied in a whole range of other ways. That is important from a monetary point of view, but all of us owe those organisations a great debt of gratitude for the ways in which they have supported communities across the country every day of the past 12 months, and this Government will continue to do everything that we can to support them in every possible way.
Access to the internet and digital services has been critical for keeping family, friends and colleagues connected over the past year, but the introduction of the crucial measures to control the spread of the virus shone a light on the digital divide. The Scottish Government’s investment in digital inclusion was therefore welcome. Will the First Minister provide an update on the support that the connecting Scotland programme has provided to date and the plans that the Scottish Government has to enable more people to get online?
The connecting Scotland programme was set up specifically in response to the pandemic. It was intended to provide digital devices, data, training and support to those who need it most to get online, and we initially planned to provide 9,000 people at clinical risk from Covid with a device and a connection to get online. However, those plans have significantly scaled up since then and I am pleased to say that, over the past year, we have delivered more than 35,000 devices to people at clinical risk of Covid, families with children and isolated older and disabled people. The third stage of the programme has started; it is backed by more than £48 million and is intended to support 60,000 households to get online by the end of the year.
Some people will have been faced with impossible choices during the pandemic, such as deciding whether to go to work to earn enough money to eat or to stay at home and self-isolate. Can the First Minister ensure that any gaps in the safety net, which some will have inevitably slipped through over the past 12 months, will be looked at and that we emerge from the pandemic with the strongest level of wraparound support for all people in Scotland?
I appreciate and agree with the sentiment behind the question, but it is quite a generic question to ask. I hesitate to give a guarantee that nobody will slip through the cracks. As far as we can within our resources, we are trying to make sure that people are not in the position of having to make invidious choices between going to work or self-isolating and protecting others. We have established and extended eligibility for the self-isolation support grant, but Mark Ruskell has rightly raised a legitimate question about whether we can go further. We have taken a number of other steps to get money into the pockets of those who need it most, so a huge amount has been done. We will continue to do that work, but I readily acknowledge that we have work still to do to protect people from the immediate impacts of the virus. We also have work to do as we come out of the pandemic to reorder and redesign how we provide support to the most vulnerable so that we lift people out of poverty and avoid the invidious choices of the kind that Mark Ruskell outlined.
I have raised this issue with the First Minister a number of times, but I will raise it again. It concerns one of the most depressing things that has happened during the pandemic: families finding out that their power of attorney has been overruled or loved ones finding that the do not resuscitate form has not been given consent. What investigation into that issue has taken place during the pandemic? Will the First Minister, having met families yesterday, agree to an independent investigation so that we can see what has happened?
I will certainly consider any investigation that is considered necessary if aspects of our response to the pandemic need to be looked at. We might want to pursue discrete areas of investigation, but the best way to proceed overall is through the statutory public inquiry that we have committed to.
I have addressed the important issue of DNR orders on many occasions in the chamber. Through our clinical advisers, we have taken steps to reiterate the guidance and messages to front-line clinicians. Nobody and no family should be under any pressure to sign a DNR authority that they have not fully understood or with which they do not absolutely agree. Clinicians do not want to be in such a position. Any member who has concerns raised with them should convey those concerns to us so that, if we need to address issues, we can do so—we are keen and willing to do that.
The Presiding Officer:
That concludes the statement on Covid-19 reflections and next steps. I ask members who need to leave or come into the chamber to please follow the one-way systems, wear their masks and follow the social distancing rules.