Covid-19 (Travel Ban)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 22nd June 2021.

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Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

1. To ask the Scottish Government on what basis it has introduced a ban on non-essential travel between Scotland and Manchester and Salford. (S6T-00090)

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The common travel area restrictions were introduced in November 2020. Decisions on which areas are subject to the restrictions are made on the basis of incidence and test positivity rates; other epidemiological factors such as the number of hospitalisations, intensive care admissions and deaths; and the presence of variants of concern.

Restrictions on travel to and from Blackburn with Darwen and Bolton, in north-west England, and Bedford, in the east of England, were introduced on 24 May. We removed the Bedford restrictions, as well as restrictions on travel to and from the Republic of Ireland, on Friday 18 June because we judged that the relative risk of travel to and from those areas had reduced.

Additional restrictions were introduced on travel to and from Manchester and Salford from 21 June, because we judged that the risk had increased. Those additions were all linked to severely elevated case rates associated with the delta variant. All the recent changes were notified to Parliament in a written statement through a Government-initiated question and were announced to the public in the First Minister’s media briefing, with an accompanying press notice and guidance being placed on the Scottish Government website.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I notice that the cabinet secretary gave no figures whatsoever in his answer, so the public will be quite bemused by it.

The legislation is completely incoherent. It says that a person has to leave Scotland with the “intention” of going to Manchester in order to be in breach of the law. I do not know how anyone could prove that. I could set off from my home in East Kilbride, go down to visit my mother in Carlisle, suddenly decide to pop down to see a mate in Manchester and not be in breach of the law. How can it possibly be enforced? Will we have police at the border asking people where they are going? Of course we will not. The law is unworkable and unenforceable.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

Will you ask a question, please?

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

How does the cabinet secretary answer the fair point that infection rates in parts of Greater Manchester, such as Bolton, are lower than those in Dundee? Bolton has a Covid rate of 269 cases per 100,000. How is that consistent or fair?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Bolton was added on 24 May. That was announced to Parliament through a Government-initiated question in exactly the same way that the announcement was made about Manchester and Salford.

I completely accept and respect what the Presiding Officer has said today, and the Government will reflect carefully on the points that she has made. We felt that we were notifying Parliament properly because we had used the mechanism before for the Bolton example. If that mechanism is no longer judged to be appropriate, the Government will of course reflect on that, but we were simply using the same mechanism that we used back in May when we announced the decision on Bolton.

The Government will take away what the Presiding Officer has said, because we respect Parliament. We notified Parliament on Thursday afternoon. If members of the Conservative Party could not be bothered to look at their emails at 2.39 on Thursday afternoon then, as the saying goes, you can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

When Bolton was added, case rates were at 283 per 100,000 people, which was nearly three times the rate in Glasgow at that moment on 24 May. That was the reason: the variation in elevated case rates. Mr Simpson asked me for more data. Manchester was sitting at 348 cases per 100,000, and Salford at 337. Those figures were in excess of any case rates in Scotland and well above the Scottish average.

We took those decisions to try to minimise the contact that we know enables the spread of the virus. That is what all the restrictions have been about and that was the basis of our decision: to protect people in Scotland from the spread of the virus.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

If the cabinet secretary thinks that an email shows respect to this Parliament, he is looking at it in completely the wrong way, because it does not.

The fact is that case rates in Manchester were very similar to those in Dundee. He has not addressed that point.

I move on to another point. Because of the First Minister’s edict, some people have lost hundreds of pounds, but it is not just individuals who have lost out; the travel sector, which has been hollowed out, is also the loser here. Will the Scottish Government compensate individuals and businesses who have lost money because of the decision?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The Government answered a Government-initiated question on Thursday. I have already gone through the details. Nobody raised an issue about our using a Government-initiated question to set out the restrictions for Bolton, Bedford and other places on 24 May. If the view now is that that is not an acceptable way, the Government will of course reflect on that and address any issues that Parliament wishes to raise.

Mr Simpson raised the issue of Manchester and Salford again. On the case numbers in that area, 337 was the lowest number, which can be compared with the seven-day incidence rate in Scotland at that time. The case numbers and the epidemiological advice are what drives these decisions.

In relation to the question of any compensation, the Government does not believe that that would be appropriate. Travel to the north-west of England was previously prohibited last year, before the local levels regulations were introduced, and no compensation was offered. We are all responsible for putting in place in our respective parts of the United Kingdom the financial support arrangements for business, which is exactly what the Government will continue to do here in Scotland.

The Presiding Officer:

There is a great deal of interest in the subject. I would be grateful for short questions and succinct responses.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the mayor of Manchester is seeking compensation for those people who had booked holidays in Scotland that have now been cancelled as a result of the Government’s decision. The tourism industry has had a really difficult time, and losing bookings will come as a bitter blow, whether it is from Manchester or anywhere else. Will the cabinet secretary commit to putting in place an additional support scheme so that tourism businesses do not have to bear the brunt of decisions about travel bans?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

As Jackie Baillie knows, the Government continues to keep business support under review. The First Minister will make a statement in a few moments’ time that will set out some further developments in relation to the wider context and the strategic framework for the handling of the coronavirus. Some of the issues that Jackie Baillie raises will be addressed in the First Minister’s statement, so I will not pre-empt that.

However, the Government has put in place a range of different supports for tourism businesses, as with many other businesses, to take people through these difficult times. We will continue to ensure that we address any issues that are raised by individual sectors to our greatest ability with the financial scope that we have at our disposal.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

Mr Swinney was heard in the media saying that decisions by the Scottish Government are now based on vaccination levels and hospitalisation levels, which is contrary to what Nicola Sturgeon suggested, with the ban on travel to Manchester—[Inaudible.]—100,000. Is the Scottish Government following the science? What is it? Or is the Scottish Government now just making it up, as many of us think?

The Presiding Officer:

I am not sure to what extent the cabinet secretary was able to understand that question.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

All that I would say in answer to Mr Whittle’s question is that the Government has set out clearly over many weeks and months the focus that we have had on applying restrictions where it is appropriate, based on the development of the pandemic. Increasingly, in the past few weeks, we have begun to focus, as vaccination rates have increased, on the relative balance between case numbers, levels of hospitalisation, levels of intensive care unit presence and admittance, and the level of cases around the country. As we see the effect of the vaccination programme, that will continue to be the basis on which we make our decisions. That has informed the decision making that the Government has undertaken in this particular case as well.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The Deputy First Minister has used a number of times the example of 24 May, saying that a Government-initiated question was used and no issues were raised then. Does he know and understand that 24 May was a Monday and therefore not a parliamentary sitting day, and that last Thursday was a sitting day, when ministers such as he could have announced it to Parliament and been questioned by MSPs?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

All that I would say to Mr Ross is that I hear what he has said. The Presiding Officer has made her remarks. We will, of course, reflect very carefully on the points that she has raised. Government-initiated questions are frequently lodged on sitting days on many issues in relation to Covid.

We will reflect on what the Presiding Officer has said in order to make sure that we properly advise Parliament of changes. However, I say to Mr Ross again that Government-initiated questions are an acceptable means—accepted by the Presiding Officer—of the Government notifying Parliament of particular developments. We have followed that route, but we will of course reflect on the points that the Presiding Officer has raised this afternoon.