– in the Scottish Parliament on 1st June 2021.

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Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon on a Covid-19 update. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

In this statement, I will update Parliament on the Scottish Government’s assessment of the course of the pandemic, and on the decisions that flow from it in relation to the levels of protection that will apply to each local authority area from Saturday. In addition, I indicated at the end of last week that I would give an update on the situation in Glasgow by no later than Wednesday, and I confirm that I will do so today.

Before any of those updates, however, I will report on today’s statistics. The total number of reported positive cases yesterday was 478, which is 3.1 per cent of the total number of tests that were conducted. Therefore, the total number of confirmed cases is now 236,389. One hundred and six people are currently in hospital, which is four fewer than yesterday, and 10 people are receiving intensive care, which is two more than yesterday. I am relieved to say that no deaths were reported yesterday, which means that the total number of deaths registered under the daily definition remains at 7,669. However, I want to convey my condolences again to everyone who has lost a loved one.

I will also give an update on the vaccination programme. As at 7.30 this morning, 3,267,290 people in Scotland had received their first dose of the vaccine—around 72 per cent of the total adult population—which represents an increase of 16,152 since yesterday. In addition, 30,978 people received their second dose yesterday, which brings the total number of second doses to 2,075,231, or around 46 per cent of the adult population.

The decisions that we have arrived at today are difficult and complex, and reflect the fact that we are currently at a delicate and fragile point in what we hope is a transition to a different way of dealing with this virus. In summary, we believe that vaccinations are opening the path to a less restrictive way of dealing with Covid—one that is less driven by case numbers. However, not all adults have been fully vaccinated with two doses to date, so we are not quite there yet.

To compound the challenge further, we are also dealing with a new and faster-spreading variant as we make this transition, which is, of course, a new development that has arisen since we set out our indicative route map in March. All of that means that, at this critical stage, we must still err on the side of caution to avoid being completely knocked off course.

I will now share more detail of all the decisions. The considerable downside that we now face is the Indian or April-02 variant, which the World Health Organization last night renamed the delta variant. That variant is spreading faster than previous variants of the virus, and we now believe that it accounts for well over half of our new daily cases. Scotland’s R number is now almost certainly above 1 because of that situation.

As we know from painful past experience, that makes our situation highly precarious. Indeed, many public health experts are warning that the United Kingdom could—I stress “could”—now be at the start of a third wave of the virus. Obviously, it would be wrong to completely ignore that warning; however—this is the considerable upside—we now have a significant advantage that we did not have in the first or second waves.

We are increasingly confident that the vaccines are effective, although we are closely monitoring the vaccination status of people who are admitted to hospital. We now have evidence that the link between cases and serious illness, hospitalisation and deaths appears to be weakening. For example, since January, the proportion of new cases that lead to hospital admission in Scotland has reduced—on current estimates, from 10 per cent to 5 per cent—although it is important to say that we are still assessing the recent impact of the new variant. In addition, the length of time that people are spending in hospital has been reducing markedly since the new year, although we are monitoring the data closely and carefully.

The emerging evidence is providing us with a firm basis for believing that, in the coming phase of the pandemic, we will be able to deal with the virus differently and less restrictively. However—this is why I have described our current situation as a transition—although we are vaccinating as quickly as possible and trying to speed up vaccinations, a sizeable proportion of the population is still not yet fully vaccinated. Full vaccination is vital. After one dose, protection against the delta variant is not negligible, but neither is it substantial. It is after two doses that the protection is much stronger. Therefore, if cases continue to rise significantly for too long a period while significant numbers are not fully vaccinated, we could still see a significant burden of illness and death, and severe pressure on our national health service.

It is also worth pausing to reflect on what protecting the NHS, which has been a key aim throughout the pandemic, means in the current context. After coping with the pandemic for more than a year, the NHS is now seeking to get non-Covid treatment back on track. That means that protecting the NHS cannot only be about preventing it from being completely overwhelmed, although that is, of course, vital; it must also be about protecting its ability to get services back to normal. Therefore, even though the health service coped earlier this year, when more than 2,000 people were in hospital—albeit with enormous pressure on the workforce—that should not be our benchmark. Anything remotely like that again would set back our efforts to get the NHS operating normally again.

This is a key and difficult moment. We remain on the right track overall. I remain confident that with cautious, albeit difficult, decisions now, we will enjoy much greater normality over the summer and beyond. None of our decisions today, even in the face of rising case numbers, takes us backwards. Although I know that it is hard to think in such terms more than a year into a pandemic, that represents real progress from the start of the year. Back then, a new variant and rising case numbers took us backwards into a full lockdown. That is not the case today, and due to the vaccination programme, we can still look ahead with confidence. However—this is the difficult part—in areas in which cases are relatively high or rising, our judgment is that a slight slowing down of the easing of restrictions to allow time for more people to be fully vaccinated will help to protect that progress overall.

That leads me to the decisions that we are setting out today. It is important to recognise that the picture across the country is not uniform, and so our decisions are not uniform either. That is the benefit of the levels system: we do not need to apply a one-size-fits-all approach with the same levels of restrictions in areas with low or more contained case numbers as we have in areas with high or rising numbers. However, a variable system has its downsides. It is more complex, it is impossible to remove every anomaly, it is not without risk and, of course, it can lead to a sense of inequity. That is why it is important to set out as clearly as possible why different areas are subject to different restrictions, while recognising that those decisions are complex.

Let me turn now to those decisions. Given that it has been in a unique situation for the past couple of weeks, I will talk about Glasgow first and separately.

I reported on Friday that the situation in Glasgow appeared to be stabilising. I am pleased to say that that remains the case. Indeed, case numbers have fallen slightly in recent days from 146 cases to 129 cases per 100,000 people. That provides further evidence that the major public health interventions over the past few weeks are having an impact. In addition, although the number of hospital admissions is rising, the vaccination effect means that admissions are not, at least at this stage, increasing as fast as they might have done from a similar level of cases earlier in the year.

It is important that we consider the harms that are caused by the virus alongside the other harms that on-going restrictions cause. Those include wider health harms, social harms and economic harms. The wider harms are not insignificant in Glasgow, given that it is now more than eight months since, for example, we were last allowed to visit one other in our homes.

Taking all that into account, with the support of the national incident management team, I confirm that Glasgow City will move down to level 2 from midnight on Friday into Saturday. That means that—as has been the case for people in most of the rest of Scotland since mid-May—people in Glasgow will be able to meet in homes in groups of no more than six people from a maximum of three households. It also means that indoor licensed hospitality can reopen, and that people can travel again between Glasgow and other parts of Scotland. A number of venues will be permitted to reopen, and outdoor adult contact sports can resume.

Those changes are significant. As someone who lives in Glasgow, I know that they will make a huge difference to quality of life. However, I ask everyone to remember that, although stable and starting to decline, the number of cases in Glasgow still remains high. Please continue to be cautious. In particular—this applies to all of Scotland, particularly while we enjoy better weather—although limited indoor meetings are now possible, it is still better to stay outdoors, where possible. In level 2 areas, groups of up to eight people from up to eight households can gather outdoors.

The past eight months and perhaps the past couple of weeks, in particular, have been really tough for Glasgow. I thank everyone who has co-operated with all the public health measures and stuck to all the rules and guidelines.

I will now turn to other parts of the country. First, I will set out the difficult part of this statement.

In addition to Glasgow, there are a number of other local authority areas that are not currently meeting the criteria for level 1, either in case numbers or test positivity. Indeed, if we look at just the raw numbers, it could be argued that some of those areas should be in level 3. However, based on the emerging evidence of the impact of vaccines on hospitalisation, which I spoke about a moment ago, and on our assessment of local factors and public health interventions, our judgment is that level 3 would not be proportionate at this stage.

However, it is also our judgment that, with case numbers as high as they are in those areas, and with a substantial proportion of adults not yet double dosed, it is safer and more likely to protect our overall progress if we hold those areas in level 2 for a further period. In addition to Glasgow, that applies to Edinburgh, Midlothian, Dundee, East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, the three Ayrshires, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, Clackmannanshire and Stirling.

I know that that will be disappointing for people in those areas. For those local authority areas, we will provide support to soft-play businesses and other closed sectors that had expected to open or to operate in a different way from 7 June. Full details will be provided tomorrow by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy.

It is important to stress that this is a pause and not a step backwards, and that level 2 is not lockdown. It has an impact on opening hours of pubs and restaurants and the number of people who can attend certain events, but we can still meet indoors in limited numbers or outdoors in groups of eight people from eight households. Hospitality remains open—indoors and outdoors—as does retail, and there are no travel restrictions in place.

Taking a cautious approach now, while more people get fully vaccinated, gives us the best chance of staying on the right track overall, so I ask everyone in those areas to continue to be careful. They should follow all the important guidance on hygiene, distancing and face coverings; they should keep getting tested; and they should come forward to be vaccinated as soon as they get the opportunity.

In more positive news, there are many parts of mainland Scotland where the numbers of cases are at very low levels and are broadly stable, or where case numbers might appear to be rising but we are assured that they relate to clusters that are being managed. I confirm that the following local authority areas will move to level 1 from 1 minute past midnight on Saturday morning: Highland, Argyll and Bute, Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Angus, Perth and Kinross, Falkirk, Fife, Inverclyde, East Lothian, West Lothian, West Dunbartonshire, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders.

The full details of what that means are set out on the Scottish Government website. The main changes are that the limit on meetings in indoor public places increases to eight people from three households, and on meetings outdoors to 12 people from 12 households; 100 people, as opposed to 50, can attend weddings and funerals; and places such as soft-play centres and funfairs can reopen.

Again, I know that those changes will be welcome, but I ask people please to continue to be careful. That applies to all of us right now. In particular, meeting outdoors involves much less risk than meeting indoors.

Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and a number of small remote islands are already in level 1. Those communities are continuing to report extremely low numbers of new cases and, in many cases, a higher than average proportion of adults there have received both doses of vaccine. Those areas will therefore move to level 0, again from 1 minute past midnight on Saturday morning.

Full details of what those changes mean can be found on the Scottish Government’s website: for example, that people can meet indoors in groups of up to four households; that local licensing laws apply to hospitality venues—there is no set nationwide closing time; and that the maximum attendance at weddings and funerals will be 200, rather than 100 at level 1 and 50 at level 2.

Again, though, as well as asking islanders to exercise continued care, I remind anyone travelling to any of the islands to use a lateral flow test before doing so. In that way, they will minimise the risk of taking the virus to any of those communities.

I appreciate that today’s decisions will feel like—and are—a mixed bag. That reflects the fact that we are in a transitional phase. The vaccines make the outlook positive, but the new variant means that the road ahead is still potentially bumpy. Caution is therefore necessary.

That said, no part of the country is going backwards today. Before the vaccines, that would have been impossible in the face of such case numbers. However, the vaccines are changing the game, so we can still be very optimistic about our chances of much more normality over the summer and beyond.

In the days ahead, albeit that life beyond level 0 might still feel a long way off for many of us, we will publish more detailed work on what we expect that to look like as, hopefully, greater normality returns. Indeed, one reason for proceeding with more caution now is to make it easier in the future to resume that progress to level 0 and then beyond it.

The point on which I will finish is to say that, as always, we all have a part to play in beating the virus back, so, please get tested regularly. Free lateral flow tests are available through the NHS Inform website. I encourage everyone to order those and to test themselves twice a week. The lateral flow tests give results in about half an hour, so they are a quick and useful way of finding out whether you have the virus, even if you do not have any symptoms. In essence, the more we all get tested, the more cases we will find, and the more we will break chains of transmission. Getting tested regularly is a way for us all to contribute to the collective effort.

Secondly, make sure that you get vaccinated when you are invited to do so. That includes going for second doses. To repeat what I said earlier, second doses are vital in providing substantial protection against the virus—in particular, against the new variant. If you cannot make an appointment—and there will often be good reasons why that is the case—then please make sure that you rearrange it. If you have not received an appointment letter yet but think that you should have, you can go to the vaccinations page of the NHS Inform website to arrange your appointment.

Getting vaccinated is in the best interests of each of us; whatever age we are, it makes it much less likely that we will become badly ill from Covid. However, it is also part of our wider civic duty to each other; it means that we can all help to suppress the virus and reduce the harm that it causes. That will allow us to get to being able to deal with the situation in a less restrictive way than has been the case.

Finally, I ask everybody please to continue to stick to the rules where they live, and to follow the public health advice. Physical distancing, hand washing and face coverings are all still important. Those basic precautions will reduce our chances of getting or of spreading the virus.

In summary: please get tested regularly, get vaccinated when you are asked, and continue to follow the public health advice. If we all do that, we can—despite a pause for part of the country today—keep on the right track and make progress, over the summer, towards living much less restricted lives. I again thank everyone across the country for helping us to do exactly that.

The Presiding Officer:

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 40 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

I had hoped to say that today’s statement is a move in the right direction, at least broadly. For the people of Glasgow, our largest city, the move to level 2 from Saturday will be a most welcome step, which will bring to an end a period of 277 days during which they have lived under some of the toughest restrictions. However, for people all over the country, in 14 of our 32 local council areas, today’s statement is a disappointing setback. Half the country will move forward while the rest remains stuck in limbo, with no clear idea of when the restrictions will ease.

We understand the need for caution, but we think that more emphasis needs to be placed on the impact of restrictions on businesses, jobs and people’s mental and physical health. A more local approach is necessary, with targeted interventions to tackle local outbreaks, rather than sweeping measures. The approach of council-wide restrictions is out of date; it was designed before we had an effective and successful vaccination scheme. The First Minister said in her statement that 72 per cent of adults in Scotland have had the first dose and 46 per cent are now protected by both doses.

The First Minister also said today that we do not need to apply a one-size-fits-all approach. However, that seems to be exactly what is happening. Keeping whole councils or cities in level 2 is not a targeted or local approach. Will she consider moving to an approach of targeted interventions instead of council-wide restrictions—[Interruption.] I am sorry that some Scottish National Party members feel the need to heckle. We have had a 20-minute statement from the First Minister on an extremely important issue for our country and it is now appropriate—we do not get this on the BBC, I know—that Opposition politicians should question the Government. That is healthy in a democracy.

Will the First Minister say what plans are in place to speed up vaccination in areas with local outbreaks, beyond the measures that she has already set out? What further support can businesses expect? The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy will update the Parliament tomorrow, but has the First Minister looked into the issue that I raised last week and which was identified by, for example, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, which said that funding that was promised to businesses has not been delivered?

What evidence is there of imminent severe pressure on the NHS, as the First Minister outlined in her statement? Can she inform the public in that regard?

How will the Government ensure public compliance with the restrictions, given the upheaval in people’s lives over the past year, and given that hospitalisations are at such a low rate? People are at the end of their tethers.

The First Minister:

Let me say, first, that whether people in this Parliament and across the country agree or disagree with the decisions that I have taken—and it is perfectly legitimate to question and indeed to disagree with them—I hope that everyone accepts that the Government and I do not take any of these decisions lightly. I absolutely long for the day when I can stand here and say, “No more restrictions are required anywhere in Scotland.” There is no part of me that wants to hold us back from that for a single second longer than is necessary.

However, at this juncture, if we are to maintain progress overall in the right direction, it is important that we are cautious and careful. I have been criticised for erring on the side of caution—again, criticism is perfectly legitimate—at various points over the past 14 months or so. I do not pretend that the decisions that the Government and I have taken have been perfect—far from it. However, every time we have erred on the side of caution, I think that time has told that that was the correct or necessary thing to do. It is important that we do that now.

We are not taking a one-size-fits-all approach to this. If we were taking a pure public health approach—indeed, some public health voices might prefer us to be doing that today—we would simply have held the whole country in the levels that they are at right now. On some of the raw figures, it could be argued that some areas should be at a higher level. We are taking all the different factors into account, not least the progress with vaccination.

I can give an example to illustrate that. Case numbers in Highland look as if they are going in the wrong direction quite fast, but we know that there is an issue particularly in the Fort William area that we know is being managed. We are not applying higher restrictions to Highland overall. We are allowing the public health interventions to do their work, just as we did in Clackmannanshire and East Renfrewshire in the past few weeks. We are taking a targeted approach, but we also have to recognise travel patterns and the interactions between different areas. This is not perfect and it is not ideal, but we are taking the most proportionate and balanced approach that we can.

I will briefly refer to some of the other points. We do not have to go very far to hear public health experts warning against a lack of caution right now but also pointing to the fact that, although vaccination is proving to be effective—all the news on vaccination is good—slightly more than 50 per cent of the adult population has not had both doses. While that is the case, we remain vulnerable to the new faster-spreading variant. That is why we need to be cautious.

Vaccinations are speeding up. For example, today we have reported just under 31,000 second doses; yesterday the figure was 21,500. We are speeding up on vaccination, and we continue to do that and to make the process more flexible, too.

I did not say that the health service was at “imminent” risk of “severe pressure”. What I said—again, it is based on public health advice—is that, if we do not act with caution, it is possible that, from the unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated pool, we will still start to see hospital numbers go up.

The other key point that I made is that although, earlier this year, the NHS coped at 2,000 Covid patients at peak, we do not want to get back to anything like that, because that means that the health service can do virtually nothing else. We are trying to get the health service back to normal.

Presiding Officer, I am sure that I have missed some points, but I will end with this. I do not want to keep a single part of this country in tougher restrictions—or any restrictions—for longer than necessary, but I have a duty to continue to navigate us through this safely and, where necessary, cautiously, so that we can keep to our progress overall.

My very last point in response to Douglas Ross is that level 2 is still tough. I do not pretend otherwise. However, it is not lockdown, and we do nobody any favours by suggesting that it is. We can go into one another’s homes and hospitality can stay open indoors. There are significant steps forward there that are important for businesses and for the mental and physical health of the population.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

This is largely welcome news for people in Glasgow and for others across the country, but for many in those parts of Scotland that were expecting to move down a level, the news will come as a bitter blow.

I want to focus on our response in the hotspot areas. It is paramount that we learn from the Glasgow experience and design proper protocols for what happens in current and future hotspots. Those protocols must include walk-in vaccination centres for everyone aged 18 and over, the mass roll-out of polymerase chain reaction tests, increased support for local businesses and greater access to isolation support grants. That must be our first point of call in future outbreaks, and not further lockdowns, which damage the economy and have a negative effect on people’s mental health and wellbeing

Glasgow has been a hotspot area for almost three weeks but it still has the second lowest level of vaccine uptake among local authorities across the country, and we still do not have walk-in vaccination centres for people aged 18 and above. At the same time, we are hearing stories daily about a high level of unattended appointments.

What urgent investigations has the Government done? What steps are being taken to address that high level of missed appointments? What urgent action is being taken to ensure that we increase vaccine uptake in hotspots? When will we have walk-in vaccination clinics for people aged 18 and over in hotspots? Will the First Minister commit to the publication of hotspot protocols for future outbreaks?

The First Minister:

Those are all perfectly reasonable and legitimate points and I will run through them one by one—more briefly, I hope, than I did in my previous answer, Presiding Officer.

Over the past few days, I have heard people say—again, not surprisingly—in relation to Glasgow, “Why are we not going door to door with testing?”, “Why do we not have drop-in vaccination clinics?” and “Why do we not have surge testing?”. All that was happening in Glasgow and has been happening in Glasgow over the past couple of weeks. We believe that that is why we are seeing the situation in Glasgow not continue with exponential rise but stabilise and now start to decline.

The lessons in Glasgow are important and it is important that they are applied elsewhere. I am going to use a different word, because it is the one that we are using in the Government. A toolkit is being prepared that is taking the lessons and learning from Glasgow and making that available to all other health boards. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care is meeting all health board chief executives tomorrow to talk about the importance of that, as well as the wider issue. I am sure that it is very technical in many respects, but I am certainly more than happy to look at how we can publish something that is available to the public so that they know what should be expected, not when areas become hotspots but when there is any emerging evidence that that is the direction of travel.

There are a couple of things that I know people understand about vaccination. First, we need to ensure that we have the supplies to do everything. Supply continues to be our biggest constraint, but it is even more complicated than that because we have different vaccines and they can be used differently for different age groups. Supply is tighter for the Pfizer vaccine, for example, which is being used for the younger age groups, than it is for the AstraZeneca vaccine, so we have to balance all that.

Secondly, but most importantly, we know that, although getting over-18s their first dose is important—appointments have already started in Glasgow and we will look at having drop-in clinics as supplies allow—the most vital thing that we can do is to get people who have had the first dose to have their second dose, which increases the level of protection from the vaccine substantially. That is why, over the next few weeks, there will deliberately be an emphasis on completing second doses. All of that is important, all of it is work that is under way and we continue, every single day, to do what we can.

Back at the start of the year, I was not the only one who did this, but I used the terminology of a race—the vaccine against the virus. We are going as fast as we can with the vaccine and we have to continue to look for ways to speed up. Unfortunately, though, the virus keeps learning to run faster, and that is the big challenge that we are up against right now. That is what makes the decisions still as difficult as they are.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

The First Minister is aware just how challenging the pandemic has been for household budgets. Many people have spent much of the past year on the furlough scheme earning 80 per cent of what might already have been a low wage, while others have lost their jobs completely with little hope of finding another.

The eviction ban has been a lifeline for people, but that protection has been swept away and many face eviction now if they cannot cover their rent. The job prospects of a recovery are just not there yet. Will the First Minister urgently consider reinstating the eviction ban across the whole country for as long as Covid restrictions remain in place?

The First Minister:

Yes, we will keep all those things under consideration. The ban on evictions was extended for level 4 and level 3 areas but, as of Saturday, no part of Scotland will be at level 3, so we need to continue to consider the nature of our response.

I do not underestimate the importance of the eviction ban—we have extended it on more than one occasion, I think—but it is also important that we do as much as we can to help people with the causes of rent arrears and to deal with those rent arrears. For example, the loan fund that we set up to help people who are having difficulty with paying their rent is important, as is getting more money into people’s pockets through help for low-income families. There needs to be a package of measures and we will continue to keep that under on-going review.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Although the limited easing is positive for many, I am deeply concerned about the lack of services for adults with special needs. After a year, it has certainly taken its toll on them. One family told me:

“We feel completely let down and abandoned”.

Does the First Minister agree that, if we can open up pubs and football fan zones, we should be restarting community services for adults with special needs?

The First Minister:

I absolutely recognise how difficult the situation has been for everybody, but particularly for people who are vulnerable—adults with special needs are definitely in that category. As far as is possible in difficult circumstances, I ask people to take it in good faith—as I know Willie Rennie does—that we are managing the issues as carefully and sensitively as we can, with safety being paramount.

We are in a phase in which more of the services that Willie Rennie talked about can get back to normal. I understand why people compare events with such services, but very different issues are often at play, so doing that can be an oversimplification.

We want all the services that are most important for people back as quickly as possible. To widen the point slightly to cover the NHS, that is why we should not be complacent and say that we have only 100 people in hospital today and we know that the health service can cope with 2,000. We do not want to get anywhere near that figure, because it would mean that we had to pull back again on non-Covid services.

Some of today’s caution relates to opening up as much normal service provision across the piece as we can. I give the assurance that adults with learning disabilities and groups with vulnerabilities remain absolutely at the top of our list of priorities.

Photo of Elena Whitham Elena Whitham Scottish National Party

Has the Scottish Government assessed the impact that Covid-19 and its resultant isolation have had on people with mobility issues? Are more physiotherapy services needed, particularly for our elderly citizens and those with disabilities, to stop early and preventable admittance to care home settings?

The First Minister:

This is the first opportunity that I have had to formally welcome Elena Whitham to Parliament; it is good to see her here.

As I have just reflected in response to Willie Rennie, the Covid pandemic has had an effect on everyone, but in different ways, and that undoubtedly includes the impact of decreased activity on mobility and independence. The rehabilitation framework highlights the importance of access to rehabilitation and self-management for everyone, which includes access to services such as physiotherapy, to supported activities in a community and to supported self-management across the health and care system. Supporting such activities and getting them back to normal as quickly as possible remains a priority for us.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

I welcome you to your position, Presiding Officer.

A number of constituents told me that their emergency accommodation in guest houses and serviced apartments in the capital was to be terminated as of yesterday and that they had no information about where they would go. That breaches the requirement for councils to provide four weeks’ notice.

During the pandemic, welcome steps have been taken to provide accommodation for homeless individuals and families. What is the Scottish Government’s position on that critical issue? Will the First Minister agree to ministers making a statement on the post-pandemic homelessness strategy and policy before the Parliament breaks for the summer recess?

The First Minister:

If Miles Briggs wants to send me the detail of the specific issue, I will be more than happy to look at it. The matter is principally for the council, but I am happy to look at what the Scottish Government might be able to do more generally. At the start of the pandemic, through a lot of joint working, we made significant inroads into reducing homelessness and rough sleeping. It is essential to continue that as we come out of the pandemic; that is a key area of work for the Government and we will publish our updated plans as quickly as possible. As I said, I am happy to look at the specific detail and to reply in more depth, if that is necessary.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I welcome the First Minister’s announcement that the Borders will move to level 1, but I will focus on the vaccination roll-out. I have constituents who have been failed by the national vaccine helpline and the missing appointments process. Will the efficacy of such processes be assessed, which includes asking the public about their experiences? A small minority have been affected, but the situation is stressful for them.

The First Minister:

If any individual finds it difficult for whatever reason to access their appointment, that is stressful. A minority are affected but, to someone who is in such a position, it does not matter if I say that a minority are involved.

The overall programme is working incredibly well. It is not just me who says that; it can be seen from the figures that we report every day. As we go through the programme, we are making changes where we can if that will improve people’s experience. We are trying to make it more flexible. The walk-in vaccination clinics that have been operating in Glasgow are an example of that. We want to see more of that flexible walk-in approach across the country.

Having said that, we also need to ensure that we stick with the systems that we have in place so that we get through the programme as quickly as possible. When we get to the end of the first programme—I suspect that it will not be a one-off vaccination programme—it will be important to reflect and take stock, hear people’s experiences and try to evolve and develop the system if we have not been able to do that as we go along.

Notwithstanding the difficulties that some individuals are having, I pay tribute once again to the people who are working so hard to deliver the vaccination programme in every community across Scotland.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I, too, welcome the announcement on West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute moving to level 1.

The majority of people are getting their vaccinations, and that is welcome. Unfortunately, that is not the experience of some of my constituents: some people are waiting more than 12 weeks for their second dose; at one clinic, people were sent home because supplies of the Pfizer vaccine had run out; and people in West Dunbartonshire were told to go to the Hydro or Easterhouse for their vaccination, thus breaking the law by travelling into a level 3 area. As the First Minister accelerates the programme across the country, will she try to ensure that vaccinations are delivered as locally as possible?

The First Minister:

I reassure anyone who might be in that position that it would not be breaking the law to travel to another area for an essential purpose such as getting a vaccine. Of course, that is not what we want in the bulk of cases.

We are restricted by supply, and that factor is outwith our control, unfortunately. We are trying to strike the right balance. There will never be a perfect balance between very local access and mass vaccination clinics that get people through as quickly as possible. There will be some people for whom travel to a mass vaccination clinic is not desirable or possible, which is why people have the ability to reschedule and rebook appointments.

Introducing and implementing a programme at such a scale and pace means that it will not be absolutely perfect for everyone on every occasion—I wish that I could say otherwise. There are many people—including in the Government, although that is the least of it—across the country who are working hard to avoid difficulties for individuals. The programme is going well and we continue to try to improve it and to iron out any issues that individuals are experiencing.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

Can the First Minister give an update on the take-up of vaccine registrations among over-18s in Ayrshire? What action is being taken to combat no-shows, given the recent increase in case numbers in parts of the county?

The First Minister:

We have seen good uptake of registration among 18 to 29-year-olds across the country, as well as in Ayrshire, using the online portal. I can get the precise figures for Willie Coffey, although I am not aware of any particular difference between the figures for Ayrshire and those for Scotland as a whole.

NHS Ayrshire and Arran has written to all those who did not attend their appointment to invite them to arrange a subsequent appointment. A second letter to all those who did not attend their appointment, inviting them to reschedule, has been sent nationally. There was a drop-in clinic for those who missed their first dose on 23 May at Kilwinning academy, and the health board is planning a further drop-in session. It is also carrying out outreach vaccinations to support its inclusivity plans.

It is an on-going process. No one who does not turn up for their vaccine appointment will simply be forgotten; considerable efforts will be made to reach out and get people who have missed their appointment to reschedule and come forward for vaccination. I encourage all members to continue to play their part in encouraging their constituents to do that.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Many colleagues have raised the issue of no-shows, but the First Minister did not respond to Anas Sarwar’s specific question on that. Will the First Minister and her Government commit to streamlining and improving the system of booking and rearranging appointments as restrictions are easing, given that many people have work and family commitments? Will she commit to publishing the data so that there is better decision making to ensure that no-shows are kept to a minimum as we enter this crucial stage in lockdown easing?

The First Minister:

I apologise if I did not respond to a question earlier. Understandably, in some of these questions, I am being asked multiple questions and I am trying to answer as many of them as I can while the beady eye of the Presiding Officer is urging me to be briefer.

We are working to understand the reasons why people do not attend and to address that. As we go down the age bands, the approach is more about having flexible drop-in appointments than about having booked appointments. The online portal for registration is also helping to make sure that people’s address details are fully up to date.

Let me reassure people that health boards are overbooking appointments daily so that, if a percentage of people do not turn up, that does not reduce the overall number of vaccinations that they do in a day. We are seeing the expected daily numbers notwithstanding the number of DNAs, but, for protection purposes, we want to get the number of DNAs down.

We publish a lot of information on vaccination, but I will look to see what more we can publish as we go through the programme.

Our vaccination rates are broadly in line with those in the rest of the UK. We are all dealing with these challenges in slightly different ways, but we are continuing to make progress, to learn and to evolve the system as we go.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

South Africa has reported that it is entering a third wave and has reimposed lockdown restrictions, and we have heard similar reports from Poland, France and Germany. This week, Professor Ravi Gupta warned that the UK could be heading for the same.

I was particularly concerned to see, over the past week, images of people not adequately socially distanced in airport queues. Will the First Minister reiterate the importance of isolating when returning from abroad, particularly from red list countries, and will she give details on what quarantine arrangements are in place for those who work abroad—particularly those who work in oil and gas?

The First Minister:

I am happy to write to Gillian Martin with specific details on the oil and gas sector. Generally, we ask people to comply with the rules that are in place for red, amber and green list countries. We continue to discuss with the UK Government how we can ensure that the controls at the borders are as tight as they need to be. I will not go into detail now, but I have spoken about the frustration that I have had about that in the past. We continue to try to make sure that we have as tight a system as possible.

Gillian Martin is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that the global pandemic is not over. The World Health Organization is at pains to remind countries, almost on a daily basis, that we are not out of it yet. The UK as a whole is in a relatively strong position because we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, but we also have the new variant—the Indian variant, or the delta variant as it is now called—which is spreading quite significantly.

There are upsides, as I said, but there are also significant challenges, which means that we must continue to abide by all the rules—particularly those around international travel, which are important. My advice remains that, unless it is essential, people should not travel overseas right now. Not doing that is another important way in which we can reduce the risk that new variants of the virus pose to us.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Does the First Minister agree that it is time for a specific recovery plan for Glasgow, a city that has been in lockdown for nine months? Glasgow serves people beyond its boundary and has metropolitan status, and the economic damage has been deep. The vaccine roll-out has not matched the density of our population, which has high levels of the virus.

I plead with the First Minister to recognise that Glasgow will continue to be in trouble. It is such an important city for the west of Scotland, and 90 per cent of its businesses did not qualify for additional support. I did not get the impression that that issue registered with the Government when it was raised last week.

The First Minister:

I hope that Pauline McNeill will recognise that I am not somebody who needs to be reminded of the importance of the city of Glasgow. It is my home and it is where my constituency is, so I know personally and on behalf of my constituents how important it is that we get Glasgow out of the current situation and back on track, and then, in the medium to longer term, work with the city council to support economic recovery.

The Deputy First Minister has had discussions with the city council. Its preference is that the Government work to support it in its recovery plans, and that is what we will do. As I said, the specific and bespoke measures that we have taken in Glasgow in the past couple of weeks will now inform learning in other parts of the country. Those measures have been effective. We are back on a better track in Glasgow, but the need for economic support will continue for a significant time to come, and we will continue to work on that with the city council.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I welcome the fact that Inverclyde is moving to level 1. Can the First Minister indicate what updates regarding the easing of travel restrictions have been provided to the cruise line sector, bearing in mind how important that sector is to my Greenock and Inverclyde constituency?

The First Minister:

I hope that Stuart McMillan will forgive me, because I know that that is under consideration, but I am struggling at the moment to remember whether we have taken a final decision and notified it, or whether we are still in the process of doing that. I will check that after I leave the chamber following my statement, and I will write to him. The cruise sector is important economically and for people who enjoy taking cruises, but we also know from experience at the outset of the pandemic that cruises can be a high-risk environment, which is why continued care and caution about the necessary mitigations will be required. I will get back to Stuart McMillan as soon as possible.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

Figures released this week reveal an increasing number of assaults on the police that are linked to coronavirus. Will the First Minister join me in condemning such abhorrent behaviour and in thanking police officers and staff who have done a tremendous job throughout the pandemic, despite the extremely challenging circumstances?

The First Minister:

Yes—100 per cent. I take the opportunity to thank police officers and staff for the incredible job that they have done throughout more than a year of significant challenges. There is never any excuse for any assault on a police officer, but some of what we have heard in recent days is particularly inexplicable and is beyond the comprehension of decent people everywhere. This has been a really difficult time for the police, who have had to police sensitively—as they have done under the regulations that are in place—and to help people in a range of different ways. They deserve our gratitude for the wonderful job that they have done, often putting themselves at risk in the process.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

I echo the First Minister’s comments.

Constituents in my region moving from North Ayrshire to Inverclyde, to Renfrewshire and then to West Dunbartonshire are moving from level 2 to level 1, to level 2 and back to level 1 again. In order to avoid any potential public confusion, can the First Minister tell us whether travel restrictions between levels will remain in place? What specific advice has been given to Police Scotland on how to enforce today’s latest restrictions?

The First Minister:

The member is right to say that travelling between the areas that he has just mentioned would involve moving between level 1 and level 2 areas and back again, but that is because we are not taking a one-size-fits-all approach. If I was to follow the advice that Douglas Ross gave me earlier, there would be many more subdivisions, and people in Inverclyde, perhaps, or in one of the Ayrshire council areas would be going between different levels of restriction within those council areas.

Jamie Greene is, in a sense, illustrating my point: the easiest thing to do is to have a one-size-fits-all model, but that is not the most proportionate thing to do and, in a public health sense, it is not absolutely necessary. We are trying to be as targeted as possible, while also trying to recognise existing travel patterns.

No travel restrictions are in place below levels 3 and 4. That means that people are able to travel freely, but it also means that, as we rightly give people the ability to do more, we must all exercise more responsibility and take care. That is not easy, but that is the nature of having a situation that is not a blanket, one size fits all. It also illustrates the need to work at a sensible level, not in the way that Douglas Ross has been advising me to work.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

In light of the news that the Janssen one-dose vaccine has been approved for use in the UK, can the First Minister indicate whether vaccination centres in Scotland will use it and who is most likely to have priority to receive it?

The First Minister:

It is good news that the Janssen vaccine has now been authorised for supply to the UK. We expect to secure around 20 million doses for the UK overall, with Scotland receiving a proportionate population share of all vaccines that are procured. Although this is not yet certain, we anticipate that some doses of that vaccine will be available for use in Scotland later this year. If that is the case, we will incorporate that into our modelling. We base our current modelling on the supplies of the vaccines that we know are available and that are already flowing through the supply chain; we will continue to do that.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Scottish National Party

I understand the balanced decisions that the Government had to take today, particularly around North Lanarkshire, with its move from level 2 being delayed. Although it is clear that we must proceed with caution, can the First Minister advise whether the 2m rule is under review as we move through the levels? That is of particular concern for churches in Airdrie and Shotts that have been in touch with me. Can she also advise what support is available for people who are apprehensive about readjusting to changes in restrictions as we move forward—a particular concern highlighted by mental health charities?

The First Minister:

I thank Neil Gray for two very pertinent questions. I set out two or three weeks ago that we intend to have an overall review of physical distancing. We have not concluded that yet, but when we do so, we will publish the outcome. As we go further into the summer, and if we stay on track, as I hope we will, I hope that we will be able to reduce the distancing requirements in many settings, if not immediately in all settings. I know that churches have a particular interest in that, so it is very much something that is under review.

I understand the second point, as I know people in my own life who have that tentative feeling about getting back to normal again. It can make people anxious and stressed. What I would say to people is this: take comfort from the fact that we are continuing to take a cautious approach to it. If you have had your two doses of the vaccine, you have significant protection against the virus. However, it makes sense to continue to be cautious about face coverings, hand hygiene and distancing for the moment, because those are the things that we know help to keep people safe from getting and transmitting the virus.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

The fan zone for the UEFA European championship was mentioned earlier. Can the First Minister reassure my constituents who live near Glasgow Green and are a bit nervous about so many people coming into the area?

The First Minister:

I can understand people’s nervousness. Many of my constituents also live reasonably close to Glasgow Green. These are difficult decisions. On the one hand, all of us want to be able to see Scotland play in the euros and to see the euros more generally, to have fans in the stadium and to have fans being able to enjoy the tournament more generally. We also want to see events start again and to have the assurance that they can happen safely. On the other hand, however, I know that some people—perhaps those to whom football is not as important as it is to many others—think “Well, if I’m still under restrictions, why do we have large-scale events?”

We are trying to get the balance of all that as right as we can. We are working closely with the event organisers on preparations for the proposed fan zone. The situation with the virus will be continually reviewed in the run-up to the euros, taking into account all the latest evidence and information. However, the action that we are all taking is not about allowing a football tournament to go ahead; it is about allowing us to get everything—or as much as possible—in our society back to normal.

The arrangements for the proposed fan zone have lots of mitigations in place to minimise the risk of transmission. I think that there has been a meeting today—if it is not today, it is tomorrow—around that, and those matters will continue to be kept under review. We want to allow fans to enjoy the euros safely—with “enjoy” hopefully being the operative word—and we will work hard to make sure that that is the case. However, public safety and protecting people against the virus continues, of course, to be our overriding priority.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

The news today that East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire and North Ayrshire will remain in level 2 is disappointing, particularly for local people and businesses. I have been contacted by people in my region aged between 30 and 39 who are anxious that they have not yet been called for vaccination, despite the encouragement for people in the 18-to-29 age group to register. We heard last week from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care that the online portal that is used for 18 to 29-year-olds was being urgently considered for extension to the 30-plus age bracket. It would be useful to understand from the First Minister whether she will urgently consider extending online registration and, indeed, whether there could be a more standard online booking process and walk-in provision for areas of concern that remain in level 2 at the moment.

The First Minister:

First, I welcome Paul O’Kane to the chamber. We are certainly considering extending online registration as we go into another round of the vaccination programme and we will perhaps consider online booking, too. Those developments will be kept under review.

On the over-30s, all appointments should have been scheduled. If anybody in that age group has not had a letter, rather than wait for an online registration system, I would encourage them to go through the vaccinations page to check what has happened and, if there has been a missed appointment, to get that scheduled as quickly as possible. Yes, we will consider extending online registration, but that is not the solution right now for anyone in that age group who has not had the appointment that they have been expecting.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the Covid-19 update. I take this opportunity to ask that members continue to observe social distancing measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please only use the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.