Covid-19

– in the Scottish Parliament on 15th 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

At the outset, I want to confirm that there will be no changes this week to the Covid levels of protection that currently apply to different parts of the country. I will say more about that later and also look ahead to the more substantive three-weekly review that I will set out to Parliament a week from today—which is, as scheduled, ahead of 28 June, when the next scheduled change and a move to level 0 for the whole country was expected to take place.

First, I will give a general summary of the current course of the pandemic, starting with today’s statistics. The total number of positive cases that were reported yesterday was 974—5 per cent of the total number of tests—which means that the overall number of confirmed cases is now 248,515. One hundred and thirty-seven people are currently in hospital, which is nine more than yesterday, and 17 people are receiving intensive care right now, which is the same as reported yesterday.

I also regret to say that two further deaths were reported yesterday, which takes the total number of deaths registered under the daily definition to 7,683. Once again, I send my condolences to everyone who has been bereaved over the course of the pandemic.

I will also provide an update on the vaccination programme. However, because of a technical issue at Public Health Scotland this morning, I ask members to note that it is likely that the figures that I am about to give underreport yesterday’s vaccination performance. On the basis of the information that I have at this stage, I can confirm that, as of 7.30 this morning, 3,531,461 people in Scotland had received their first dose of the vaccine, which is an increase of 13,793 since yesterday. In addition, 23,347 people received their second dose yesterday, which brings the total number of second doses to 2,470,181. However, I ask people to remember that it is likely that those figures underreport the number of vaccinations that were carried out yesterday. We will update the figures as quickly as possible.

As is clear from the update that I have just given on the range of statistics, case numbers continue to rise. Over the past week, 6,651 new cases have been reported, which compares with a total of 5,475 cases in the previous week, so the number of cases has risen by more than one fifth in the past week and is now more than five times higher than the number in early May. That reflects the fact that the faster-transmitting delta variant is now common across Scotland and accounts for the overwhelming majority of new cases that are being reported.

Given the risk of, for example, long Covid, it is important to point out that we should never be complacent about a rising curve of infections. However, as I have indicated previously, we hope that vaccination is increasingly protecting people against serious illness. If that is indeed the case, our experience of the virus will become different and our ability to cope with it in a less restrictive way will become much greater. That is why we continue to very closely monitor the extent to which the rise in the number of new cases is, or is not, leading to a commensurate rise in the number of people who fall seriously ill and require hospital treatment. Our early data on that point is encouraging—I will say more about that shortly—but we still need further analysis, particularly to more fully understand the impact of the delta variant.

To that end, a new study that was published yesterday by the University of Edinburgh was instructive, and I recommend that members read it. On the one hand, it suggests that the delta variant is associated with a higher risk of hospitalisation than other variants but, on the other hand, it suggests that double-dose vaccination continues to provide a high level of protection against infection with, and hospitalisation from, the virus. That was underlined by another study that was published yesterday, by Public Health England, which shows that there is extremely strong protection against hospitalisation after two doses of the vaccine.

In short, all the evidence so far suggests that, although the link has not yet been completely broken, vaccination is weakening the link between the rise in the number of new cases and a rise in hospitalisations and serious illness, so there is much for us to be optimistic about in the studies about the impact of vaccination.

As I indicated earlier, that is reflected in our hospital data, which is published daily. The number of people being admitted to hospital with Covid has fallen from about 10 per cent of reported positive cases at the start of the year to about 5 per cent now. In addition, since around the start of May, the number of new cases has increased at a much faster rate than hospital admissions.

We are also now seeing some evidence that the people who require hospital care are, on average, younger than those who required it during previous stages of the pandemic. For example, in the latest week, the highest number of new admissions was among people in their 30s and 40s. The next highest number was of people in their 20s. Before the vaccination programme started, people over the age of 50 usually made up the highest number of new admissions to hospital.

Let me stress that we should not be complacent about hospitalisation for anyone—no matter their age—but the fact that more of the recent hospital admissions are in younger age groups might mean that fewer of the people being admitted to hospital are becoming seriously ill or requiring intensive care. That might also help to explain my next point.

Hospital occupancy, which is the total number of people with Covid in hospital at any given time, is not rising at the same rate as hospital admissions or cases of Covid. Indeed, although there has been an approximate fivefold increase in the number of cases since the start of May, hospital occupancy is about just double what it was at the start of May. That suggests that people are being discharged more quickly and are spending, on average, less time in hospital than patients in the earlier phases of the pandemic. Although that is encouraging, it is important to stress that further analysis is needed to confirm it.

That brings me to the judgments that we require to make now and next week. In short, we are hopeful that vaccination is changing the game in our fight against the virus, and that it is doing so in a perhaps fundamental way. However, the emerging evidence still needs close analysis.

More fundamentally—and this may be the most fundamental point of all—we need time to get more people vaccinated with both doses. In the race between the virus and vaccines that we have often spoken about, we are increasingly confident that the vaccines will win, but we must not allow the virus to get too far ahead.

The vaccination programme is going exceptionally well and is being rolled out as quickly as supplies allow, but a significant proportion of the population is not yet fully vaccinated with two doses. To be blunt, that remains our biggest vulnerability at this stage, and it is a significant vulnerability when cases are rising at the pace that they are. Therefore, we must buy sufficient time for vaccination to get ahead and to stay ahead of the virus. That is the reason for exercising caution at this juncture.

Those issues are of course also being weighed up by the United Kingdom Government and by other Governments across the UK, and the UK Government yesterday announced a four-week delay to its plans for lifting Covid restrictions in England.

The Scottish Government will also continue to adopt a cautious approach. I have already confirmed that no changes will be made this week to the levels that apply in any part of the country. Our next full scheduled review of the protection levels will take place next week. That will consider whether any changes are possible from 28 June onwards, which is the date when we had hoped that we would see the whole country move down to level 0.

I will confirm our decision to Parliament next week, following that review. However, given the current situation, and the need to get more people fully vaccinated before we ease up further, it is reasonable to indicate now that it is unlikely that any part of the country will move down a level from 28 June. Instead, it is more likely that we will opt to maintain restrictions for a further three weeks from 28 June and will use that time to vaccinate, with both doses, as many more people as possible. Doing that will give us the best chance of getting back on track later in July and of restoring the much greater normality that we all crave.

To that end, we will also do three other things next week and I will report on all of this when I stand here to make a statement this time next week. If our decision is to retain current levels for a further three weeks—and we must go through a proper process to arrive at that decision—we will consider whether any minor changes are possible. I am aware that perceived anomalies have arisen as restrictions have eased. I understand how frustrating that can be, even though there will often be a rational explanation for what may appear to be contradictory. I assure members that, as part of our on-going review of the rules and regulations that are in place, we will consider whether any changes could or should be made to address such issues.

More fundamentally, we will publish two pieces of work next week to coincide with the outcome of the review. Those will look ahead—hopefully not too far ahead—to the restoration of a far greater degree of normality. That work will be of interest to everyone, but it will have particular interest for the businesses and sectors, including much of our arts and culture sector, that still face the greatest uncertainty about what the future looks like.

First, we will publish a paper setting out what we hope life will look like beyond level 0, as we get to the point where we can lift all, or virtually all, of the remaining restrictions. That is important because, although we have had to pause the route map, I emphasise that we still hope that vaccination will allow us to move beyond level 0 over the summer and back to a much greater degree of normality.

Secondly, related to the first publication, we will also publish the outcome of our review of physical distancing. Given the uncertainties of the current situation, in particular the greater transmissibility of the delta variant, we have taken a bit longer to consider that than we had originally planned. However, I know how important that is for many businesses, including those in hospitality and also for theatres and cinemas and the arts more generally, as they all consider how they can operate sustainably over the medium to long term.

In summary, next week we will in all probability, although it has to be confirmed after our full review, pause the further easing of restrictions while we press ahead as fast as possible with vaccination, particularly with double doses of vaccination. However, we will also look ahead in more detail to what we still hope will be possible later in the summer.

I know that the current situation is difficult and frustrating for everyone. We all want to see the back of all restrictions as soon as possible. However, although this setback is not easy and not welcome for anyone, it is worth remembering that we are living under far fewer restrictions now than we were just a few weeks ago. The current situation is not what any of us wants but, equally, it is not lockdown as experienced at earlier phases in the pandemic and vaccination is, with every day that passes, helping us quite literally change the game.

On that point, as well as doing all that we can as quickly as we can to vaccinate fully the adult population, we are making preparations for the possible vaccination of 12 to 17-year-olds should the advice that we get from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommend that. I can tell the chamber that we also expect advice from the JCVI in the coming weeks about whether booster vaccinations will be needed during the autumn, so plans are also under way to deliver those if necessary. The Government has an obligation—one that we take very seriously—to ensure that the vaccination programme is delivered as quickly and as fully as possible and I give an assurance that we will continue to work with health boards and others to meet that obligation. Despite the difficulties of the current situation, it is vaccination that still offers us real hope for the weeks and months ahead.

Getting people vaccinated is the responsibility, first and foremost, of the Government. However, it is also one of the ways in which we can all play a part, so I will end by highlighting again the three key things that we all need to do to help keep us on the right track overall as we emerge from the pandemic. The first of those is vaccination. Please make sure that you get vaccinated when you are invited to do so and please make sure that you attend for both doses. All the evidence tells us that that is crucial. If you need to rearrange an appointment or you think that you should have had an invitation by now and want to check up on that, you can go to the vaccinations section of the NHS Inform website. If you had your first dose of the vaccine eight weeks or more ago, check on the website to see whether you can bring your second dose appointment forward. From next week, health boards will start to reschedule routinely second doses to bring them into the eight-week cycle rather than the 12-week cycle. Getting vaccinated is in our own best interests—it makes it less likely that we will become seriously ill from Covid—but it also helps us protect one another, so when it is your turn, please get the jags.

Secondly, please get tested regularly. Free lateral flow tests are available through the NHS Inform website so that you can take a test twice a week. You can have them sent to you in the post or you can collect them from local and regional test sites. In addition, lateral flow devices can now be collected from community pharmacies. If you have not ordered the tests yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. The more of us who take tests regularly, the more cases we will find and the more we can break chains of transmission. Of course, if you test positive, please make sure that you self-isolate and get the result confirmed through a PCR test—that is important.

If your children are asked to self-isolate by their school, please ensure that they do that. That means staying at home, not just away from school. I know that it is hugely frustrating when that happens, but I assure parents that, as part of our wider work, we are considering whether and to what extent the requirement for young people to isolate can be significantly reduced in future, particularly as we look ahead to a new school term. However, for now, to anyone who is currently helping a child to self-isolate, I say thank you. I know that it is frustrating and hugely disruptive, but it is also an important way at this stage to help keep schools as safe as possible and keep as many of them as possible open as we head towards the summer holidays.

Finally, I ask everybody to continue to stick to the rules where you live and follow the public health advice—that is still important. The virus is still out there and, for all the success of the vaccination programme, it is still resulting in hospitalisation for some people and, of course, long Covid is still a risk. Please meet outdoors as much as possible. No environment is ever entirely risk free, but we know that meeting people outdoors poses much less risk than meeting indoors. If you are meeting people indoors, please stick to the limits and make sure that the room is as well ventilated as possible. Obviously, that includes meeting indoors to watch the football over the next few weeks. Please also continue to follow advice on physical distancing, hand washing and face coverings.

We continue to ask everybody to get tested, to get vaccinated when asked to do so and to follow the public health guidance. If we all do that—it is not easy; it is tiresome for everybody—we will help to get things back under control, while the vaccination programme continues to do its work. That will help us to keep ourselves and each other safe. I really hope that, notwithstanding the current frustrations, that will allow us to move to much greater normality with far fewer restrictions as we go further into summer.

The Presiding Officer:

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

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

People all over the country will be frustrated at the news that restrictions might continue for weeks or even months. We had all hoped for a summer of freedom, but the stubborn virus is determined to keep us scunnered instead.

We are all thoroughly fed up with Covid and the damaging consequence that it is having on jobs, businesses and people’s mental and physical health. The vaccine remains our best hope of beating Covid. Our national health service, volunteers and armed forces are already pulling off incredible feats to vaccinate the numbers that the First Minister has outlined. We need to target as many resources as possible in their direction to ensure that the vaccine wins the race against the virus. When is the Government projecting that all adults will have received both doses of the vaccine?

Secondly, the on-going uncertainty is crippling to businesses, especially those that still do not know when they will be able to fully reopen. It is also hurtful for people planning major life events. For example, people still do not know whether they will be able to have more than 50 guests at their wedding. As I asked her last week, will the First Minister consider lifting the capacity constraints on weddings, especially in areas that are in level 2?

Yesterday, the national clinical director suggested that the new variant could delay lockdown exit by up to 10 weeks. Is the Government seriously considering delaying the move to level 0 until September?

Finally, but crucially, Cancer Research UK published figures today that show a ticking time bomb in cancer care. Around 4,000 fewer people have started cancer treatment in general, including 1,000 who have not commenced breast cancer treatment. Those figures must set alarm bells ringing. The cancer care crisis will continue to spiral without urgent action. When will the First Minister publish a catch-up plan for cancer care, and will she consider our proposals for a clinician-led NHS re-mobilisation task force to bring treatment times under control?

The First Minister:

I ask members and, indeed, those watching, to pay attention to what I have said. I think that the situation that we are in is frustrating and difficult enough for people without—inadvertently, I am sure—words being put into my mouth that I did not use. At no point today did I say—this is relevant to Douglas Ross’s question about September, too—that I thought that restrictions would be in place for a period of further months. I did not say that.

I have tried all along not to commit to firm dates, way into the future, that nobody can be certain can be delivered. Earlier this year, I was criticised for not saying that 21 June would be “freedom day”, but I did not think that it was responsible to do that. I am not going to give false guarantees. Equally, it is important not to suggest that I have said something that I have not.

Today, I have said that we are not lifting any restrictions this week and that it is likely that—though we have to go through the proper process of arriving at this decision—next week, we will pause further easing for a further three-week period, to allow more people to be vaccinated. I hope that that greater vaccination will allow us to lift restrictions and not just get to level 0, but get beyond level 0 later this summer.

Can I stand here and give a 100 per cent guarantee of that? No, because this virus is unpredictable and, at times, behaves in unpredictable ways. However, that is what we are working towards, and we know that vaccination is the best route for getting there. It is important to understand that these situations are difficult enough without any of us trying to suggest that I have said something that I have not said.

On vaccination, we have set the target of offering everybody in the adult population a first dose by the end of July. In fact, by the end of next week, everybody in the adult population will have been offered their appointment for a first dose; many 18 to 29-year-olds will already be getting those appointments by text and email, with letters to the remainder going out next week. In other words, by the end of next week, appointments will have been scheduled for the entire adult population who have not already had their first dose. Of course, we are now seeking to give second doses within eight weeks of the first dose, and people can work out from that the outer limit with regard to seeking to get the adult population vaccinated with a second dose. Obviously, all of this is subject to getting sufficient supplies, which remains our biggest constraint, but we are doing this as quickly as supplies allow.

With regard to weddings, I have said that we will look next week at whether we can make any changes, albeit we might have to stay at the same levels. I absolutely understand the heartbreak of people wanting to get married who have planned and then might have to reschedule their weddings, so we will look at what flexibility we can give within the clinical advice. I will say as much as possible about that next week.

As for NHS care remobilisation in general and cancer in particular, the health secretary will set out the remobilisation of the health plan, as we have committed to do in the first 100 days of our Administration. Of course, many cancer procedures were kept going during the pandemic, given their urgency, but we know that some people will not have come forward with concerns about symptoms and we need to get that back on track.

Finally, I would simply highlight a reason for being cautious right now. When, earlier in the pandemic, we talked about not overwhelming the NHS, we assumed at that time that almost the entire capacity of the health service would be available for dealing with Covid-19. We do not want to get anywhere near that now, because we want our NHS to get on with non-Covid treatments, to catch up with the backlogs and to get treatment back to normal. That factor will be really important as we take the decisions that we will face over the next couple of weeks.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

I thank the First Minister for advance sight of her statement. Like her, I extend my condolences to the two families who lost a loved one and, indeed, to all those who have suffered a loss during the pandemic.

To maintain public trust and confidence, we need consistent communications and decision making, as well as adequate support for businesses and employees alongside a robust vaccination programme and hotspot protocols. I accept what the First Minister has said about speculation with regard to delays of three or eight weeks, but there have been mixed messages that I think do not help to maintain public trust.

There has also been inconsistent decision making. Why, for example, is it okay to allow 3,000 fans in a fan zone while parents cannot attend a nursery graduation that is being held outdoors? I agree with the First Minister about the need to extend furlough, but does she also accept that we need much more significant business support, particularly in areas that are under further restrictions, and better communication with individual sectors?

The three-week delay from 28 June will take us to 19 July. Can we have a commitment that, by that date, almost all those who are 40-plus will be double dosed and every 18-year-old will be single dosed, to ensure that our vaccination programme is truly being ramped up? Will the First Minister also publish the hotspot protocols, as was promised just a couple of weeks ago?

Finally, does the First Minister accept that, ultimately, we will have to learn to live with this virus, and will the plans that she publishes next week include how we can do so as safely as possible?

The First Minister:

I will try to answer all those questions in turn as briefly as possible—if I can read my own handwriting with my glasses on.

I will do my best, as I have done all along, to communicate as clearly and as regularly as I can with the public in what, as we start to ease restrictions more, will become an increasingly complicated environment. As an aside, I would just point out that, at regular intervals during the pandemic, Anas Sarwar’s deputy has tried to stop me communicating directly with the public, so perhaps he should have a word with her as well as with me. The easiest message in the world to communicate is: “Don’t do anything—don’t leave the house.”

As we try to lift restrictions, two things arise, the first of which is the potential for genuine contradictions that we just get wrong. We have to be prepared to fix those as we go, and I give an assurance that we will seek to do that. The second thing that arises is the potential for measures for which there is a rational explanation to appear contradictory. The example of the fan zone in Glasgow has been used. People are going to watch football over the coming period, and the fan zone provides a relatively safer way for some people to do that outdoors, with lots of physical distancing, in a highly regulated environment.

Over the past few days, I have asked the advisory sub-group on education to look again at nursery graduations. Its advice is still to continue with the current position. One of the reasons for that is that we know that, if cases are identified in an educational setting, that can often disrupt the whole setting, with many young people and teachers having to isolate. Of course, many early years establishments run right through the summer. Often, there are rational reasons for apparent contradictions, but that does not make it easier for people to understand them.

I do not have the magic solution to all of this, but I will do my utmost to make sure that our decisions are consistent, that we set them out as clearly as possible and that, if we get things wrong, we fix that as we go.

We will continue to give as much business support as we have the wherewithal to give. We are making representations to the United Kingdom Government on furlough and the provision of further support in other ways, but we will continue to maximise the support that we can give within our own resources.

On vaccination, we are literally going as fast as supplies allow. If we cannot reach milestones on vaccination, that will be only because we do not have the supplies to do that. In response to the previous question, I set out the milestones that we are working to. All over-18s will have had their first dose, or an appointment for their first dose, by the end of next week. We will then bring forward second doses and will go as fast as supplies allow, while planning for extending the vaccination programme into other cohorts.

I will certainly look to publish any protocols. These things are sometimes highly technical, but we will publish what we can to give as much transparency as possible.

Anas Sarwar also asked about learning to live with the virus. I am always a little bit hesitant to use that language because, for some people, the virus has resulted in the loss of loved ones, while others will experience long-term health complications. If those of us who are lucky enough not to have had the virus or not to have had close family members affected by it use language such as, “We just have to learn to live with it,” it can sound as though we are oversimplifying things.

If the link between cases and serious illness continues to weaken and—we hope—to break as we vaccinate more people, we will move to a fundamentally different way of dealing with the virus, which will involve having far fewer restrictions; in fact, I hope that we will have no meaningful restrictions at all. That is what the paper that I referred to on life beyond level 0 is designed to look at. We will publish that paper next week, to coincide with the statement that I will make then.

Photo of Lorna Slater Lorna Slater Green

The recent exponential growth of Covid cases in Scotland is a cause for concern, and there is a risk of yet more people dying or suffering from long Covid before the vaccination roll-out can be completed.

The Scottish Greens have supported a cautious approach throughout the pandemic, and I welcome today’s decision to delay the lifting of restrictions.

The travel industry is already advertising and selling holidays, and it is actively encouraging people to travel—even to amber-list countries—for non-essential reasons, not just for family reunions, despite the risk. Does the First Minister accept that, if we want to end restrictions in a safe and permanent way, non-essential international leisure travel will have to be the last thing to return to normal?

The First Minister:

This has not been an easy message—it has been particularly difficult for the travel industry, which has rightly raised questions—but I have made it clear all along and I will continue to say that, right now, people should not travel overseas for non-essential reasons, because the biggest risk that we face is the importation of new variants. We are living with a new variant, which is what is making things so difficult right now. In the past—I will not go into more detail now—I have spoken about my intense frustration at the lack of more robust controls around the UK border more generally. If I can be very blunt, I think that we are paying a price for that right now.

We need to continue to be careful and cautious. That is tough. International travel is likely to be one of the last things to go back completely to normal. I know that, for many people, going overseas is about family reunion, which many people will see as essential, but if we continue to be cautious about and to limit international travel for non-essential reasons, we will give ourselves the best chance of avoiding new variants and getting the current situation back under control.

Photo of Willie Rennie Willie Rennie Liberal Democrat

Last week, in response to me, the First Minister said that she would look at speeding up the reopening of services for adults with special needs. What was the outcome of that work?

Today, universities are seeking early guidance for the return of students in the autumn. When will that Government guidance be published?

The First Minister said that it is likely that the restrictions will not be eased for five weeks. I want to explore how certain that is. If hospitalisations do not go out of control and vaccination progresses, will she ease restrictions earlier than that?

The First Minister:

I will ease restrictions as quickly as I think is safe and responsible. Nobody has any interest in keeping any restriction in place for any longer than is necessary.

On adults with severe learning disabilities, and vulnerable adults more generally, the guidance that is in place has been in place for some time. It allows local authorities or local partners to open up services as and when they consider it safe to do so. There has been communication between the Government and local partners to encourage opening up of services, so I will ask the relevant minister to write to Willie Rennie with a full update on the work that has been done on getting them back to normal as quickly as possible.

We will also be offering vaccinations to international students who come here this year, which is an important additional protection. Of course, we are working, and will continue to work, with universities and colleges to make sure that the right overall guidance is in place as quickly as possible, to ensure that there is as much protection as we can provide for what will—as we know from our experience last year—be a risk, as we go into the autumn.

We will keep the Parliament updated on all those things, as they develop.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I understand the delayed publication of the review of physical distancing, but it is impacting on businesses in my constituency, including the Pavilion cinema, which is family owned and run, and on amateur performers including pipe bands, silver bands and choirs, none of which can even rehearse outdoors. Will particular consideration be given to businesses and the performing arts—amateur and professional—when the review is published? Can I be given some guidance on when it will be published?

The First Minister:

As I said in my statement, the guidance will be published a week from today, to coincide with the statement that I will give next week. The guidance will look at physical distancing more fundamentally so, as I also said in the statement, it will not be exclusively of interest to the arts and culture sector, although I think that it will be of particular interest to it. I acknowledge how difficult it has been, and continues to be, for arts venues, because they are in one of the sectors that has least certainty about what the future looks like.

We had hoped to have published the review of physical distancing by now but, as people will, I hope, understand, we have been trying to develop understanding of the degree to which the delta variant is more infectious and more transmissible, so it did not seem sensible to publish the review while we were still trying to do that. We will publish the review next week. It might not answer every question with 100 per cent certainty, but like the work that we will publish on what life will look like after level zero, it will give more of a sense of what kind of environment businesses and individuals will be operating in as we—I hope—get back to greater normality.

Photo of Meghan Gallacher Meghan Gallacher Conservative

I wrote to the First Minister yesterday with a final plea on behalf of parents and guardians for them to be able to attend nursery and school graduations and sports days. Parents are understandably frustrated by the growing number of inconsistencies in the Covid restrictions. Will the First Minister consider the suggestions in my letter, such as outdoor-only events, so that parents can attend those important occasions?

The First Minister:

I absolutely recognise how important the issue is and I really feel for parents who are not able to mark in the normal way the transitions in young people’s lives. Nobody is underplaying the significance of that in any way, shape or form.

As people would expect, I have been looking at the issue particularly closely over the past week. As I said earlier, I have asked the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues about the matter, and its advice is that we should still restrict gatherings of that nature. Although it is not the only reason, one reason for that is overall protection of educational establishments in order to try to minimise the potential for whole nurseries or early years establishments having to close.

We look at those things on an on-going basis. I know that it will not be of comfort to everybody, but it is important to say that nursery graduations have not been cancelled. I know that many nurseries are looking at different ways of doing them. In the past two days, I have heard of nurseries filming ceremonies and allowing parents to watch online—which is a poor substitute, I know. Others are taking photographs of the children that are provided to their parents, and some are arranging staggered pick-up times, so that individual parents can see their child get a graduation certificate and take photographs themselves.

A lot of thought and care is being given to the situation. I wish that we could just take away all the restrictions, but I have to be mindful of the advice that is coming from experts and the reasons for it.

Photo of Michelle Thomson Michelle Thomson Scottish National Party

What preparations are being made to reassure the international community that the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—which is due to take place in Glasgow in November, can be held safely, considering the logistical challenges of the pandemic and the potential emergence of more strains?

The First Minister:

This is the first opportunity that I have had to welcome Michelle Thomson to the chamber.

I assure her that we are working closely with the UK Government, Glasgow City Council, public health bodies and the UN itself in order that we deliver a safe, successful and—as far as it is possible—in-person COP26 in November.

We recognise that there are significant public health challenges, but there is an urgent and overriding need to agree action to tackle climate change.

All possible Covid security measures are being explored. Vaccination and test and protect will be key. At the G7 summit just a few days ago, the UK announced provision of vaccines for COP26 delegates who are otherwise unable to access them, and it has also engaged delegates on Covid plans.

Scottish Government ministers and officials are closely involved in planning for all COP26 Covid measures and all aspects of event delivery. As we get closer to the time of COP26, we will keep Parliament fully updated on arrangements.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

My constituent Emma Gildea has been denied the opportunity to see her four-year-old daughter Remy graduate from nursery. A small number of parents and children outdoors in a garden, socially distanced, observing the rules for an event or a nursery, to mark the children’s transition to primary school—that is not allowed. Attendance at school sports days—that is not allowed. Six thousand fans a day at the Euro 2021 fan zone, with alcohol and no mandatory testing—that is allowed. All schools are operating full time.

The lack of logic or consistency in application of the rules is causing confusion and upset. I heard the First Minister say that the guidelines have been reviewed, but perhaps we could consider inviting parents to test before they attend such events. Will she undertake to publish the evidence that informs any decision about restricting access to nursery graduations and school sports days?

The First Minister:

I will ask the advisory sub-group what more we can publish to explain the basis of its advice to ministers. We are going by its advice. If I did not do that, Jackie Baillie would no doubt be questioning that, perfectly legitimately.

I do not know whether the tone of Jackie Baillie’s question was intended to suggest that somehow I do not care about any of this; I care deeply about it all. Very few things are more upsetting for parents than missing milestones in their children’s lives; we all understand that. We are trying to get as much as we can back to normal and we will continue to do that, but we have to do it in line with advice—for reasons that everybody understands.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

Over the past week, Dundee has seen a surge in cases. The latest figures show 294.7 cases per 100,000 people, which is twice the national average and is substantially higher than, for example, Glasgow’s 156.5 cases per 100,000. Dundee is also in the top five council areas for newly reported positive cases.

Other areas, including Glasgow, have targeted measures, such as walk-in vaccination centres. Dundee operates one centre for people for whom it is longer than 12 weeks since their first dose. Will that be extended to people who have not been vaccinated at all? If not, why not?

The First Minister:

The local public health teams in Dundee will be deciding on the appropriate response in exactly the way that the local public health teams in Glasgow did. Those teams have the Scottish Government’s support in relation to assistance or resource that they need to implement their response.

Although people can already go on to the NHS Inform website to bring forward their second-dose appointment, from next week—as I said in my statement—as part of our efforts to speed up second-dose vaccinations, all health boards will routinely bring forward appointments that are on a 12-week cycle so that they meet the eight-week cycle.

Local health boards will use surge testing and walk-in clinics as they think appropriate. I am sure that, as local health teams in Glasgow did so effectively a few weeks ago, the local health teams in Tayside will keep local members updated, and will be happy to answer more detailed questions from them.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

The First Minister spoke about this in an earlier response, but does she think that the UK Government’s delay in tightening the borders contributed to the delta variant getting loose in the UK?

The First Minister:

I do not think that I am the only person who will say this, but there is no doubt that the lack of very robust border controls in recent months has been a factor in the situation that we are dealing with right now. That is deeply frustrating, but we are where we are, and we all have to take responsibility for navigating our way through this.

Let us cast our minds back to mid-February. The Scottish Government decided to insist on mandatory managed quarantine for all direct arrivals into Scotland, regardless of which country they came from. That would have included India. At that time, despite our pleading, the UK Government insisted on managed quarantine only for red list countries. It took until the latter part of April to put India on the red list.

People have heard me say many times that that left us seriously vulnerable to people coming into English airports and travelling to Scotland, such that they were not caught by our managed quarantine arrangements.

We pleaded with the UK Government to put in place common provisions across the UK and to introduce an arrangement whereby people who were coming into an English airport but were intending to go to Scotland would be made to quarantine at the point of arrival. Back in February, Michael Gove wrote to the transport secretary and refused point blank to do that. The UK Government would not

“legally treat people differently in England based on their final destination within the UK.”

I have a deep frustration about the situation, but we are where we are, and we have to deal with it. However, there is no doubt at all that too lax border controls around the whole UK have played a part in where we are right now.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Why can there be a live band with singing in the fan zones in Glasgow, but not at a wedding, in a pub or even outdoors in a music venue? On behalf of musicians in the wedding sector and in pubs and clubs, will the First Minister clearly set out the public barriers to singing and dancing at weddings and in pubs? When will she set out the conditions that would allow that to happen? Will she consider a proposal that I and those from the industry are putting together on the mitigations that the industry could support? Will the First Minister engage with us and consider running a pilot scheme that other countries and cities have run, to give musicians, publicans and those in the wedding sector hope that there is a road map on which we can work together and that we can trust?

The First Minister:

I, along with ministers and clinical advisers, will be happy to engage in that process. We want to get all parts of the economy and society back to as much normality as quickly as possible.

I think that people understand that there is a very significant difference between things happening outdoors and things happening indoors. As was set out previously when we published one of the updates to the route map, there is a process that organisers can go through to get permission for larger attendances at outdoor events. That is effectively the process that has been gone through for some of the activity around the Euros in Glasgow.

Such matters are difficult, and they demand very close consideration, because we have to mitigate as much as possible the risks of transmission, while recognising the realities of some of the things that we are dealing with. However, w e will engage in an on-going basis as we try to get everything back to normal as quickly as we can.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

I thank the First Minister for her statement. She has mentioned long Covid several times; I have a constituent who is suffering badly from that. I am aware that the Scottish Government is looking at how best to help sufferers of long Covid and that such help may well be in the form of clinics, once we know what specialties are most suited to the best outcomes. In the meantime, can the Scottish Government offer sufferers any other support, either practically or financially?

The First Minister:

I thank Jim Fairlie for an important question. Obviously, we feel as if we have been living with Covid for ever, but it has been for only just over a year. It is a relatively new illness, and clinicians and experts are still developing their understanding of it and the effect that it has on people, so that we can ensure that people, including those who have long Covid, get the best possible care and support.

The NHS already delivers services that are tailored as far as possible to the individual needs of people who are experiencing long Covid. In consultation with clinicians and patients, we have developed support for primary care teams to identify, assess and support people who have long Covid. We are also working with Chest Heart and Stroke Scotland to develop its long Covid support service, which complements the work that is being done by the NHS.

We encourage employers to apply fair work principles to support those with long Covid and to make full use of the current furlough scheme. As our understanding of long Covid develops, so too will the services that we are able to put in place to support people. In time, that will include specialist services. The process is one of understanding the impacts and helping people as much as we can as we go along.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Constituents who are planning essential travel have contacted me about delays in processing their Covid vaccination status through the NHS Inform system. Those delays have caused concern that their travel plans will have to be delayed or cancelled. What steps has the Scottish Government taken towards developing an app-based vaccination certification scheme? Will the First Minister update me on progress on the publication of no-show data for Covid vaccination appointments? On 1 June, she said that she would look into them.

The First Minister:

On essential travel, I think that people are told that it can take up to 21 days to get a certificate, so they should make sure that they apply in good time. I am not aware of any delays beyond that, but I am happy to look into that. As I said earlier, we are encouraging people not to travel overseas unless that is essential. However, in cases in which that is essential, they have the ability to do that. Only a relatively small number of countries are still asking for proof of vaccination. We are continuing to work with and to have dialogue with other UK nations on the further development of solutions to that issue.

I apologise that I did not quite pick up the last part of Rachael Hamilton’s question, probably because I was conferring with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care. I think that it was to do with the technology that is in place and how we are developing that. I will check the record and get back to her as quickly as possible.

Photo of Gordon MacDonald Gordon MacDonald Scottish National Party

Many people have been shielding for a very long time and are experiencing anxiety as restrictions ease. Their anxiety levels can only have further increased following yesterday’s announcement in England about halting the lifting of restrictions and because it is possible that the current Covid levels in Scotland may remain in place for a further three weeks. What advice can the First Minister provide for my constituents who were previously required to shield?

The First Minister:

In levels 0 and 1, we ask people who are at the highest level of clinical risk to follow the same advice that we ask the rest of the population to follow—which is, of course, to continue to take care.

There is extra advice for people who live at the higher levels of protection, which we continue to review on the basis of up-to-date evidence. We have also prioritised for vaccination adult household members who are on the shielding list, and we have encouraged them to take up the offer of free test devices, for extra reassurance.

Almost 92 per cent of people on the shielding list have now had both doses of the vaccine. I hope that the protection that that offers will, over time, make people feel less anxious about returning to some form of normality. I am acutely aware of the impact that shielding has had on people’s mental health and wellbeing, and we do not intend to ask people to shield in the same highly restrictive way that we saw in March 2020.

Photo of Dean Lockhart Dean Lockhart Conservative

When the Scottish Government announced its draft guidelines for physical distancing in the hospitality sector, in April this year, there was widespread confusion, and there was concern that the measures were impossible to implement and had been published without meaningful consultation with the sector. What conversations has the First Minister had with the hospitality sector this time in relation to the update on physical distancing, to ensure that the same mistakes do not happen again?

The First Minister:

If memory serves me correctly—no doubt I will be corrected if I am getting this wrong—I think that, when the concerns to which the member referred were raised, some people in the industry went public to say that the concerns were unfounded and were the result of a misreading of the guidance. As I recall, it was the

Scottish Beer and Pub Association that did that.

We will engage as we go, to try to make sure that not just the arrangements that we ask people to follow are in line with clinical advice but that they take account of the practicalities within which businesses are operating. In a situation as difficult as this, I do not expect any guidance or set of regulations to please everyone, but we continue to work hard to ensure that we take account of the views that people express.

Photo of Siobhian Brown Siobhian Brown Scottish National Party

I thank the First Minister for the update on Covid.

A constituent of mine, who requires a gluten-free diet, recently had to self-isolate in a hotel for 10 days on her return to Scotland. Will the Scottish Government confirm, for any person who enters Scotland and has to self-isolate in a hotel, that hotels will be able to cater for all dietary requirements?

The First Minister:

We will continue to do all that we can to ensure that that is the case. We liaise regularly with the quarantine hotels in Scotland to ensure that individuals’ dietary needs are met wherever that is reasonably practical.

People are asked to notify of any allergies or dietary requirements in advance. The managed quarantine service contract overall is managed by the United Kingdom Government, but we will continue to liaise, as I said, to ensure that all such issues are taken account of.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

The fan zone and the Euros have been mentioned a few times. Will the First Minister give an update on how she feels the first four days have gone, especially in relation to Covid?

The First Minister:

Before I do that, let me say again that I understand why some people are nervous about the fan zone and others think that it should not go ahead, given that we are still living under restrictions. As I said, we know that people will watch the football and we are trying to provide environments in which that can be done as safely as possible.

The fan zone is a highly regulated environment: it is a big, big space, outdoors, with lots of mitigations in place.

So far, behaviour and compliance have been very good. The health secretary visited the fan zone over the weekend. The organiser, Glasgow Life, reports a good atmosphere on site, with a mixed demographic that includes families and children. With all the mitigations in place, including the advice that we are giving people on testing, we are confident that it is low risk, based on public health advice. A review team has been set up, at the health secretary’s initiative, to make sure that we can take account of any emerging evidence that might change our approach as we go through the tournament.

Wherever people go to watch football right now, it is really important that they follow public health advice. That is true in the fan zone, but the fan zone is a big, outdoor space. It is particularly true if people are gathering in other people’s houses or in pubs: people should take care to make sure that all the advice is being followed.

Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Labour

The First Minister made points about the impact of international travel in the context of the highly transmissible delta variant, and the constraints in that regard. Has she considered the provisions in part 7 of the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 and the potential to introduce further measures—in particular, a statutory offence of not complying with quarantine rules? Could such an approach be used to communicate more effectively and tighten up the position in relation to transmission as a result of international travel to Scotland?

The First Minister:

We will continue look at all the possible levers that are open to us, and I will write to the member about the provisions of the act to which he referred. The managed quarantine arrangements that are in place, which have been changed along the way since mid-February, have exemptions that are very limited and restrictive. It is important that we do what we can to ensure that any arrangements in Scotland are as robust as possible, and we are open to making further changes.

That will not take away the vulnerability that I spoke about, which relates to people coming into Scotland via other parts of the UK. Even if we apply tighter restrictions here, if there are less tight restrictions elsewhere, the risk remains that that vulnerability remains. Although some people would perhaps think of this as counterintuitive for me, I have been an advocate of four-nations consistency around travel rules as far as possible, and I will continue to make that argument.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Concerns have been raised about the UK Government’s plans, which the First Minister mentioned, to phase out the furlough scheme from 1 July, despite the fact that we are still under restrictions. Does she agree that the UK Government must urgently rethink those plans and extend the furlough scheme until Covid restrictions are fully lifted?

The First Minister:

We have consistently made the case—along with others, it is fair to say—that the furlough scheme should remain in place for as long as it is needed. We have also asked the UK Government to review the rules that will require contributions to the cost of the scheme from July and which currently exclude people who have started a new job since 2 March from being furloughed.

What further assistance will be in place to support jobs and necessary labour market transitions in sectors that are most deeply affected by Covid must also be clear to businesses and workers well in advance of the scheme ending.

Given the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday and the situation that all of us across the UK are dealing with, the case for the need to extend furlough further is really strong, and is getting stronger all the time.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

The UK Government needs to boost funding for the economy with major fiscal stimulus so that we can secure an investment-led recovery from the pandemic. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Scottish Government’s latest engagement with the UK Government regarding funding in support of a recovery?

The First Minister:

I would hope that everybody would agree that the need for fiscal stimulus to support economic recovery is very clear. There is an absolute requirement on the UK Government not to go back to the Tory austerity that we saw in recent years.

Alongside the finance ministers of Wales and Northern Ireland, our finance secretary is writing to the chancellor setting out the Scottish Government’s commitment to building on the constructive discussions that we had at the recent Covid recovery summit to ensure that as far as possible we work together to build a sustainable recovery. That includes discussion of important matters such as clarity about the job retention scheme and the forthcoming UK spending review.

Given where powers over the economy and finances currently lie, i f we are to ensure that Scotland and the whole UK recover well from the pandemic and build a sustainable recovery, we need the chancellor to take the appropriate decisions to support that for all of us.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

In April, the First Minister advised visitors to Scotland’s islands to voluntarily take two Covid tests prior to travelling. Will the First Minister advise how the Scottish Government has advertised that advice to travellers, what monitoring it has undertaken of compliance, and what information is available on the proportion of visitors who are taking the recommended tests?

The First Minister:

We take every opportunity, as I have again today, to encourage people to get lateral flow tests. I take every opportunity at regular daily briefings, which the Conservatives were very keen to stop me doing, and all other opportunities to promote all the things that we are asking the public to do. [

Interruption

.] The Conservatives do not like that, but one minute they are asking me to communicate regularly with people and the next minute they are asking me not to do that. [

Interruption

.] I will continue to do my very best.

This is a really important point, which is also relevant to the discussions about the fan zone. For lateral flowing testing to be effective, it depends on people doing it voluntarily and responsibly. I think that the pilot events in England will increasingly recognise the limitations of mandatory lateral flow tests. Anyone who has done one knows that, if someone wants to, they can generate a negative text or email simply by opening the test and putting in the barcode—although that will be a tiny minority of people. Effectiveness therefore depends on people doing the tests voluntarily and responsibly, which the vast majority of people are doing. That is why we continue to promote it, and I will continue to promote it and other matters as regularly and as vociferously as I possibly can, notwithstanding the irritation that that causes our Conservative colleagues.

The Presiding Officer:

That concludes the Covid-19 update.