Coronavirus Acts Report

– in the Scottish Parliament on 9th June 2021.

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Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by John Swinney on “Coronavirus Acts: seventh report to Scottish Parliament”. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement. There should, therefore, be no interventions or interruptions.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

This is my first statement to Parliament to accompany the publication of a Scottish Government report on the coronavirus acts. I pay tribute to Michael Russell, who not only led the two Scottish coronavirus bills through Parliament last year but subsequently oversaw the publication of six reports on operation of the acts.

Today sees the publication of the seventh report on the coronavirus acts, so I will—particularly for members who are new to the process—take this opportunity to set out the context in which the reporting exercise takes place.

In addition to those in the United Kingdom Coronavirus Act 2020, the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 and the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Act 2020 contain extraordinary measures that were required for us to respond to an emergency situation. In recognition of the far-reaching and unprecedented nature of some of the provisions, the Scottish acts contain a number of safeguards. They include: that the relevant provisions in the acts automatically expire less than six months after they come into force—although the period can be extended by the Scottish Parliament for two further periods of six months; that the Scottish ministers have the power to bring provisions in the acts to an end earlier, when ministers consider that they are no longer necessary; and that, every two months, the Scottish ministers are required to report on the continued need for the measures and on use of the powers in the Scottish acts.

Over the past year, some of the two-monthly reports have recorded significant change in the status and operation of provisions, although some changes have been less significant. With the exception of the anticipated expiry of certain provisions, the seventh report is a relatively routine record of the status and operation, from 1 April to 31 May, of the provisions in the coronavirus acts. Nevertheless, for as long as the acts are in place, the Scottish Government will continue to meet its commitment to publish reports and give Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise them.

The Scottish Government remains committed to expiring or suspending specific provisions as they become no longer necessary. Nevertheless, it is clear that some provisions in the acts will be required after the current expiry date of 30 September this year, in response to the on-going threat that Covid poses to public health in Scotland.

The Scottish coronavirus acts contain provisions that make temporary adjustments for us to respond to the pandemic and to protect the health of people who live in Scotland. The provisions are subject to an expiry date that has been extended by regulations, but which cannot be extended beyond 30 September 2021. To ensure that public services are able to discharge their functions in the way that was intended, a coronavirus (extension and expiry) (Scotland) bill has been prepared, with a view to its being introduced later this month to allow scrutiny by Parliament before the summer recess.

The bill will amend the expiry date of the Scottish coronavirus acts to 31 March 2022—a six-months extension—and will give the Scottish Parliament the power to extend the acts for a further six months, to 30 September 2022. At the same time, the bill will expire a number of provisions that are no longer considered to be necessary. Many provisions in the Scottish coronavirus acts have already been expired, in line with the Government’s commitment to remove provisions that are no longer necessary to support the on-going public health response.

The decision on whether to extend part 1 of both acts is, of course, for the Parliament to make. We look forward to hearing the outcome of consideration of the matter.

As is required by section 15 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 and section 12 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Act 2020, the Scottish ministers have conducted a review of the part 1 provisions of both acts and have prepared the seventh report. We are satisfied that, as at 31 May, the status of the provisions that are set out in part 1 of both acts remain appropriate.

We have also undertaken a review of the Scottish statutory instruments to which section 14 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No 2) Act 2020 applies. The Scottish ministers are also satisfied that the status of those SSIs at the end of the reporting period is appropriate.

A review has also been conducted of the provisions of the United Kingdom Coronavirus Act 2020, for which the Scottish Parliament gave consent. We are satisfied that the status of those provisions is appropriate.

The provisions that we report on today are part of Scotland’s on-going response to the pandemic. The Government will continue to do our duty to report to and be held accountable to Parliament on use of those powers.

Coronavirus continues to pose a significant threat to public health, and the Scottish Government is committed to taking all necessary steps to address that threat. For that reason, public health measures that are needed to control and limit the spread of the virus continue to require significant adjustment to the lives of people who live in Scotland, to businesses in Scotland and to how public services are delivered and regulated. Current guidance continues to require businesses and public authorities to operate very differently to how they have done previously. All restrictions will be kept under review in the event of new developments, such as the emergence of a new variant of concern, to ensure that they remain proportionate and necessary to support the on-going public health response.

However, as a result of the work that has been undertaken over the past year and the sacrifices that have been made by the entire nation, real progress has been achieved, and we are moving cautiously but steadily into the recovery stage.

In my statement to Parliament on 27 May, I set out the Government’s on-going response to Covid, our approach to recovery and the immediate steps that we intend to take to bring the necessary energy and direction to that activity. The Government’s first priority is to lead Scotland out of the pandemic and to reopen the country as quickly and as safely as we can. In carrying on with our work on recovery, we will also act to boost jobs, tackle the climate crisis, support our children and young people and protect the national health service.

Alongside the extraordinary efforts that have been made by all our people over the past 14 months, the success of the vaccination programme has allowed us to be optimistic about the future and to start the journey towards national recovery. Roll-out of vaccination continues at pace. As at 7:30 this morning 3,422,431 people had received the first dose of the Covid vaccine and 2,313,695 people had received the second dose.

The last figure that I would like to cite is that 2,162,865 people aged 50 and over have now received their first dose of the vaccine, which accounts for 99 per cent of the total over-50 population. That is an impressive milestone and a massive logistical achievement for all our vaccination teams across the country. We remain on course to have offered first doses to all adults by the end of July.

The challenge now is to build forward on a fairer basis, but the Government cannot meet that challenge alone. That is why we are committed to bringing together people from a wide variety of sectors and backgrounds in pursuit of the strongest possible recovery. Recovery from the pandemic will be achieved only if the people and institutions of Scotland unite in common cause. We must work together across organisational, sectoral and political boundaries to make sure that the recovery is broadly based and enjoys the full support of the people of Scotland.

Finally, I reiterate the commitment that was made by the First Minister: the Government is intent on co-operating with all political parties to put the interests of the country first to guide Scotland through the pandemic and into a recovery that supports the national health service, stimulates the economy, creates sustainable employment and contributes to our ambition that Scotland will be a net zero nation.

We welcome the opportunity for engagement with Parliament, as it considers the seventh report on the relevant legislation.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The cabinet secretary will now take questions on the issues that were raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 20 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business. Members should press their request-to-speak buttons now if they wish to ask a question.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement and for the detail on the latest report. I join him in paying tribute to his predecessor, Michael Russell, with whom we always had constructive engagement, although that was not always apparent in the chamber.

I would like to ask the cabinet secretary about the proposed new bill, which would extend ministerial powers for up to another year from the end of September. It is hard justify extending the extraordinary and unprecedented powers that were granted last spring to deal with a health emergency for that additional length of time—two and a half years from when they were first acquired—particularly given the success of the vaccination programme, which the cabinet secretary referred to.

Even more worrying is the proposed timetable for the bill. In the two weeks before the summer recess, the Scottish Government is trying to railroad through Parliament a new law extending extraordinary powers, with no time for detailed consultation and scrutiny, and more than three months before the current powers are set to expire. Why can it not wait until early September, by which time we will all be much clearer about the Covid situation going into the autumn and whether the powers are still necessary? Further, the Government will have more time to consult on the bill over the summer. Why can we not do that instead of rushing the bill through in the next two weeks?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Let me try to reassure Murdo Fraser about the issues that he has raised. First, the bill will provide for a temporary extension of some of the powers that are already in place. That temporary extension is for a six-month period; then, if Parliament agrees, it can be extended for a further six-month period. It is therefore not accurate to say that the extension is for 12 months; it is for two six-month blocks.

Secondly, the bill will introduce no new measures. It will set out the basis for taking forward a depleted set of provisions that Parliament agreed to put in place under the previous arrangements.

Thirdly, the bill needs to be in place before the summer recess because the existing provisions will expire at the end of September 2021. We have been through the election period and summer recess is now coming up, and we want to make sure that there is no dubiety for the public services that depend on some of the provisions to execute their current functions. As Mr Fraser will know, some of the extraordinary arrangements do not give ministers a lot more powers; they give organisations that exercise functions, such as the courts, the ability to operate under a different model. I suggest that the courts and other such organisations will require more notice than they would get if we were to handle the legislation at the start of September.

Finally, I have asked for the maximum amount of parliamentary time to be available for the consideration of the legislation before Parliament rises for the summer recess. The Government will propose to the Parliamentary Bureau that the debate is not held over one day, which is often the way in which emergency legislation is handled, but is conducted over three separate days, which will provide members with the opportunity to reflect on the provisions in the bill. I stress that Parliament has already legislated for the provisions in the two current coronavirus acts.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Everybody will agree that this has been a really tough year for people. Key elements of the coronavirus legislation have provided a safety net for those who are struggling to get by because of the impact of the pandemic. People who are struggling to stay out of debt or keep a roof over their head must continue to be protected. As the furlough scheme unwinds, more people may lose their jobs and so will struggle to make ends meet.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that eviction proceedings are already before the courts. There were 16 in Edinburgh yesterday and there are 28 in Glasgow today, so it is imperative that we maintain the safety net.

Can the cabinet secretary confirm that he intends that the new coronavirus bill will keep in place vital lifeline protections, including eviction bans in relation to people who are living in level 1 and level 2 areas and the extension of eviction notice periods, in a package of measures that will make it more difficult for somebody to lose their home?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Jackie Baillie raises entirely legitimate issues, and I acknowledge the seriousness and significance of the points that she makes. Indeed, the substance of her question illustrates why we need to put in place longer-term protection for the exercise of public functions and for individuals.

Jackie Baillie raised in her question specific points about eviction provisions, but what she set out is not contained in the existing legislation. However, she raises a legitimate question about whether it should be. I give her the commitment that the Government will engage constructively on that question, recognising the seriousness of the issue and the threats that are posed to individuals as a consequence of eviction. We are living in unsettling times for many individuals who face disruption to their income and their livelihood as a consequence of Covid.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

In February, I moved a motion to extend the self-isolation support grant so that it would become universal, which would ensure that no one would be forced to choose between working and isolating. The Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People at the time agreed to further extend eligibility but argued that universal provision could cost a whopping £700 million a year. Given that only £2.5 million has been spent on self-isolation grants this year and that over 40 per cent of those applying have been rejected, will the Government look again at making provision universal?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I would certainly be very happy to look at that question and explore whether the provisions that we have already extended are satisfying the needs and requirements of individuals who have to self-isolate. I think that Mr Ruskell will accept that this is an area where we have to make sure that provisions are appropriate to the need in society. The Government accepts that principle and will use that as the guide for the analysis that we will undertake on the question that he raises.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

The previous coronavirus legislation—passed, as it was, in those weeks of high infection as the nation moved into lockdown—went through this Parliament at breakneck speed, by necessity. As a result, some disabled people had certain rights suspended, and we still have illiberal mental health powers. In addition, the Government would have ended hundreds of years of trial by jury in a single line of text had Liberal Democrats not worked with others to stop that. That is why scrutiny matters.

Further to Murdo Fraser’s line of questioning, will the Government publish the bill now, so that we can consider what measures are still required, allow everyone to have their say over the summer, then give Parliament adequate time for scrutiny when it returns in September? Surely we can give lead-in time for changes that need to be made in the courts and other such places.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The issue that Alex Cole-Hamilton raises will, I hope, be addressed by the provisions, of which he will be aware, that the Government has to go through to introduce legislation to Parliament. Legislation has to be considered by the Presiding Officer. Those provisions are being fulfilled and we want to publish the bill at the earliest possible opportunity, when we are able to do so, and my hope is that it will be published on 18 June.

Obviously, members of Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise that legislation over an extended timetable, compared to the original timetable that was in place back in early 2020. I reassure Mr Cole-Hamilton that we have now published the seventh report on the application of the provisions of the coronavirus acts, so we can see in detail how they have—or, in some cases, have not—been used, which I hope will provide Parliament with a substantial evidence base to inform the scrutiny of the legislation when it looks at that detail.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

I welcome the cabinet secretary to his new role.

I want to ask about the guidance around transition events for children and young people, particularly nursery graduations, which parents have been contacting me about in great numbers over the past week. Such moments are obviously special for children and parents. Just last week, we acknowledged in the chamber that children have in many ways taken the brunt of the restrictions over the past year and a bit. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether events such as nursery graduations are permitted to go ahead under the guidance, subject to appropriate mitigation, and can he outline what steps have been taken to ensure that local authorities, nurseries and parents understand what is and is not permitted, and whether there is work to suggest alternatives, such as holding such events later in the summer?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Government takes advice on that question from the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues. The Covid-19 safety guidance that emerged after the taking of that advice seeks to minimise the number of contacts that children and staff in early learning and childcare settings have, by limiting adult visitors to those who are strictly necessary.

The application of that guidance would mean that such events, which involve parents attending the nursery or its grounds, would generally currently not be permitted. Obviously, that advice is available to local authorities and through the work that is undertaken in the education recovery group.

Of course, a number of early learning and childcare settings are bringing forward alternative ways in which they can celebrate those landmark moments, which do not involve groups of parents gathering at settings. The Government will certainly be happy to share information on the different alternatives that are being taken forward by a variety of ELC settings to inform wider discussion on that question.

Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

The Deputy First Minister will be aware that the powers of the Scottish Government to introduce health protection measures, such as introducing or relaxing restrictions, arise not under the Scottish coronavirus acts but under the overarching UK coronavirus legislation. That UK legislation remains in place. Does he therefore agree that

, in terms of health protection, there is no need to extend the Scottish legislation beyond 30 September 2021?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I do not accept that point. It lies fundamentally at the heart of the judgment that we have to make about ensuring that we have in place appropriate arrangements that enable our public services, among a wide variety of other examples, to be conducted within a context that is compatible with the current public health environment in Scotland. The question that Mr Cameron raised needs to be addressed by considering the public health emergency that I expect we will still be facing in September, because of the nature of coronavirus and the mutations of the variants that we are all facing and having to respond to. On that basis, the necessity of the provisions being in place is apparent for me.

However, I stress the point that I made to Murdo Fraser a moment ago, in that we are already dealing with a depleted range of measures that are in place, because we have removed any provisions that are no longer necessary. The bill that is brought forward will do that as well. It is important that we have those provisions in place to provide the necessary protection for members of the public.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have eight more questioners, and I would like to get everybody in. It would therefore be helpful if we could have succinct questions and answers.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

As the cabinet secretary will know, the situation has been challenging for some time, particularly in recent weeks, when the numbers of cases have meant that different areas have required different degrees of lockdown measures. Will he provide further information as to how that will inform the Scottish Government’s decisions regarding the expiring provisions of the coronavirus acts?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

That judgment lies at the heart of the bringing forward of the legislation. As Mr McMillan rightly indicated, we are facing an increase in the number of cases just now. We are monitoring those cases very closely to see what the implications are for acute and serious ill health. The number of cases today was more than 1,000, which is an indication of the development of the new variants. We therefore have to make sure that we have in place a legislative framework that adequately addresses the public health emergency, which is the issue that I addressed in my response to Mr Cameron.

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

I heard what the cabinet secretary said in response to colleagues about wanting to be constructive in the forthcoming bill. Mental health has been a huge issue across the nation during this period. He will be aware of the concerns that have been raised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and others about provisions in the legislation on the detention of people, particularly in relation to mental health.

Mr Swinney will also be aware that provisions such as debt repayment programmes, in which there has been a 21 per cent increase over the period, have undoubtedly had a positive impact on health and mental wellbeing across Scotland—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Could we get to a specific question?

Photo of Paul O'Kane Paul O'Kane Labour

In the forthcoming bill, will the cabinet secretary commit to removing provisions that are dangerous for human rights and implementing those that are more positive for mental health?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I am happy to engage in those questions. I am not in a position today to give specific commitments to Mr O’Kane, but he raises legitimate issues and highlights the fact that this bill gives us not only an opportunity to remove certain provisions that are no longer necessary but also an opportunity to maintain provisions that are necessary to protect members of the public. I will engage constructively on all those questions.

Photo of Willie Coffey Willie Coffey Scottish National Party

The UK Government plans to end the job retention scheme in September. That will cause great concern for sectors of the economy that, for understandable reasons around stopping the spread of the virus, are unable to open. Can the cabinet secretary provide an update on the Scottish Government’s latest engagement with the UK Government on the issue?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

That is an important issue, because the furlough scheme that was initiated by the United Kingdom Government has been an absolutely central tool in enabling us to withstand a severe economic shock of the magnitude that many of us feared. The removal of the furlough scheme has the potential to lead to economic and employment disruption. For that reason, the First Minister raised the continuation of the furlough scheme with the Prime Minister at the Covid recovery summit that took place last Thursday and in which I participated, along with ministers from the devolved Administrations and from the UK Government. I give Mr Coffey the assurance that ministers are regularly raising that issue with their counterparts in the UK Government.

Photo of Annie Wells Annie Wells Conservative

The vaccination programme has been described by the First Minister as a route out of restrictions. Why, then, does the Government need to extend powers to introduce restrictions after the point at which the vaccination programme will have delivered two doses to all adults and, potentially, many children as well?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

We are in a situation where we still do not have absolute clarity on whether we could extend the vaccination programme to children. The situation looks encouraging, but we do not have absolute clarity and authorisation to do so. Indeed, there will be many individuals over the age of 18, at the very least, who will still require the second dose of the vaccination, and they will not get that until later in the year.

The provisions that we are discussing are not new ones that have been introduced. To reiterate the point that I have made a number of times already, we are simply extending certain provisions to ensure that we have the capacity and the capability to manage the public health emergency if we need to do so.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

International travel has been quite a contentious issue, especially in relation to which countries are on the list that requires people to go into quarantine after having visited them. Will that be touched on in the bill, and how is the Government considering that?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Government undertakes that analysis based on work that is prepared by the joint biosecurity centre, which uses methodology that is endorsed by the four UK chief medical officers. The travel regulations are devolved public health measures but, obviously, we work across the other countries of the UK on that question.

Last Thursday morning, I took part in a discussion with ministers from the devolved Administrations and the UK Government at which the decision in relation to the situation arising in Portugal was taken, which was the subject of announcements by the UK Government in the course of the day.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

My constituent Pauline Boris runs LBS Event Design and Wedding Planners in Glasgow. She got in touch with me today to highlight her frustration that another wedding season is being lost because there is no flexibility on the number of attendees or on any form of outdoor entertainment, and her business has been specifically excluded from further financial support. Meanwhile, she is watching big corporate organisers being allowed free rein to set up a Euro 2021 fan zone for up to 6,000 people a day on Glasgow green, with no testing or vaccination safeguards. The obvious unfairness of those double standards is now undermining the credibility of ministers’ public health advice—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Can we get a question, Mr Sweeney?

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

Will the Government now urgently extend financial support to the wedding industry and put in place a level playing field, so that all outdoor sport and entertainment events can take place again, and not those just those that are run by big corporate interests?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The work on financial support for individual companies is kept under constant review by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy, who updates the Parliament on such questions. Clearly, a number of changes have been put in place regarding the arrangements for weddings and other life events as a consequence of the change in levels. It has been a disappointment to us that, when decisions were taken on levels 2 and 1, we were not able in some parts of Scotland to get to the lower levels that we had hoped for. However, I assure Mr Sweeney of the Government’s determination to make progress in that direction as swiftly as possible and to move to lower levels when it is safe for us to take that action.

Photo of Jackie Dunbar Jackie Dunbar Scottish National Party

Will the cabinet secretary confirm that guidance for local authorities on how to respond to domestic abuse will continue to be regularly refreshed in order to reflect any changes in the lockdown measures that are in place?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

One of the central features of the legislation that the Parliament has passed—and, to go back to the point that Jackie Baillie raised with me earlier, another argument for continuing such provisions—is the great focus on tackling domestic abuse. On no occasion should it be tolerated in our society but, clearly, in the context of the restrictions during the pandemic, it has been of heightened concern.

The Government makes guidance available and funds a range of services along with our local authority partners. We will continue to do so, in order to make sure that the scourge of domestic violence is not present in our society.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, cabinet secretary. I am afraid that I have to move on now to the next item of business. I will pause for a moment to allow the front bench team to change over.