Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 13th July 2021.

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The First Minister:

First, I will never find words that adequately express my gratitude to people across the country, but I hope that everybody knows that I feel that sense of gratitude for the sacrifices that they have made and continue to make.

Secondly, thanks to those sacrifices and the power of vaccination, we are moving forward but—and it is a critically important point—we are choosing to do that at a responsible pace, not an irresponsible pace, because, in the face of a pandemic of an infectious and dangerous virus, the price of irresponsibility would be more people becoming seriously, acutely ill, more people suffering the impacts of long Covid, more people dying and more damage to our economy and society in the longer term. Therefore, a gradual, steady, careful, cautious path forward is the right one and I am absolutely prepared to defend that.

On the specific questions, test and protect is always going to be under pressure when cases are rising. We are making additional resources available as appropriate, and additional staff are being employed to support the test and protect operation. We believe that, because of that approach, some of the pressure that we have seen in the past week or so is abating. As we go through the pandemic, just as we are changing the approach to self-isolation, changes are being made to ensure that the approach to contact tracing is effective, proportionate and notifies people as quickly as possible. That is the work that test and protect has been doing and will continue to do, because it remains a vital part of our protection. Again, I thank all those who are working so hard in that system across the country.

On vaccine roll-out, I will be blunt: anyone who suggests that a slowing down of the vaccine roll-out is associated with anything other than perfectly understandable reasons is either deliberately or inadvertently displaying a lack of understanding of the issues behind the vaccination programme. There are two constraining factors on the pace of roll-out: one that has always been there, and one that has kicked in as we have gone into second doses.

The first factor is the volumes of supply, which tend to ebb and flow, although they are healthy at the moment and not causing us concern. The second factor, as we have gone into second doses, is the clinically advised gap of eight weeks between the first and second doses. Once someone has had their first dose, we cannot give them the second dose until eight weeks have passed, so if we did a certain number of vaccinations on this day eight weeks ago, that limits the number of vaccinations that we can do today. We are vaccinating as quickly as possible within those constraints, and any look at our vaccination rates relative to England’s would show that we are all achieving the same performance in that respect. We continue to do everything that we can to make sure that the roll-out continues.

Hospitals are under pressure because of the reasons that I set out. Last week or the week before, we announced significant additional resources to help health boards cope, but the way that we reduce pressure on our hospitals is to reduce the impact of Covid, which is another reason for the cautious path that I set out today. There is no logic or consistency in, on the one hand, asking us to go faster in easing restrictions and, on the other, complaining about pressures on our hospitals, because the latter would be exacerbated by the former. A bit of consistency in that regard would go a long way.

With regard to long Covid, we will take the necessary steps. We have invested heavily in research so that we understand the required specialist and greater generalist provision, but people suffering from long Covid should consult their general practitioner, who will point them to the proper services, which we will continue to develop as our knowledge develops.

Lastly—I apologise if I have missed any points of detail; I am happy to come back to them later—it is right that we consider the points about schools properly. We must consider in the round a number of interrelated issues, including self-isolation from school and other mitigations such as the wearing of face coverings and the use of bubbles in parts of our education system. The decision that will, I hope, come soon from the JCVI on vaccinating younger people will have a bearing on that. We are rightly taking the time to try to get this right. As I have said, we will set out our conclusions well ahead of the start of the new term, and I hope to have advice from the education expert advisory group soon.

We are on track to meet the vaccination milestone by 9 August. There is nothing to suggest that we will not meet that. However, the Government and I will have to take a rounded view, as we have done today, ahead of 9 August on what is safe, responsible and sensible to do. That is what we will do. My job right now is not to take easy decisions for the benefit of good headlines, although I am not sure that it would be wise of me to do that for a range of other reasons. My job is to take the decisions that I think are best to keep the country as safe as possible.

I hope that 9 August will see the further lifting of all the major remaining legal restrictions. However, I will take that decision not to make my life easier or to generate good headlines, but in the interests of the country overall. I will be prepared to accept any of the flak and criticism from those who disagree with my decisions. That is my job—that is my responsibility.