I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.
The next item of business is a debate without motion on Covid-19: preparing for winter and priorities for recovery. I call Siobhian Brown to open the debate on behalf of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee.
It is my pleasure to open the debate and to speak as the convener of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee about our work on preparing for winter and priorities for recovery.
In March 2020, the world was caught off guard. We were not prepared. With the emergence of the omicron variant last week, it is evident that the pandemic continues and that the virus remains very much with us. Although we continue to live in that fluid situation, we expect this winter to be difficult. In particular, we are preparing for a more challenging flu season.
Through the pandemic, we have learned that effective, early interventions—often a lot earlier than might seem obvious at first sight—are needed to prevent harm and to reduce the need for stronger intervention later on. We need to learn from the pandemic and ensure that we are never again in the position that we were in in March 2020, when schools and businesses shut and we were all told to stay at home.
Shortly, I will talk about the committee’s work on baseline health protection measures in the run-up to winter. First, however, it is important to stress that many of the issues that are raised with the COVID-19 Recovery Committee overlap with the work of other committees, such as—to name just a few—the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, the Education, Children and Young People Committee, and the Finance and Public Administration Committee. The COVID-19 Recovery committee has made a great effort not to duplicate the important work that is done by other committees. Instead, we have focused on the on-going public health measures that are being used to respond to Covid-19.
At committee, we routinely consider regulations that put in place the on-going changes to health protection and travel restriction measures. However, our inquiry has allowed us to get under the surface of the issues. In the new year, we intend to prioritise scrutiny of Covid-19 recovery, with a specific focus on health inequalities.
This is an important debate—the first of its kind—with the opportunity for all conveners to speak about their committee’s Covid-19 recovery-related scrutiny work. I am looking forward to contributions from other committees on their work, and to the Deputy First Minister’s response.
The COVID-19 Recovery Committee decided to undertake work on what role baseline health protection measures—in particular, ventilation—could play in lessening the impact of Covid-19, especially over winter and as we move forward. We also looked at the measures that are needed to support long-term recovery. During our inquiry, we heard first from ventilation experts and then from those working in health and social care services, the hospitality industry, the business and leisure sectors, and schools. We looked at ventilation and at the relative success of other health protection measures in helping to slow down the spread of the virus.
We all know that one of the main ways in which the virus spreads is through the inhalation of droplets in the air and that ventilation is one of the key measures that is used in reducing spread through inhalation. Although I am aware of yesterday’s debate, not much of the focus prior to that had been on ventilation, so we looked at how improvements in ventilation could be an effective response to a potentially worsening situation. With a difficult winter upon us, we want to do everything that we can to prevent any closures of schools and businesses. No one wants that to happen.
We asked witnesses what could be done to keep businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors open, and how best to keep health and social care services open—services such as general practitioner surgeries, dentists and social care centres. We also considered health protection measures in schools and their impact on young people.
We were told of the challenges that are faced by the retail and hospitality sectors. We heard of the importance of carbon dioxide monitors in assessing ventilation in buildings. We discussed the support that is available to businesses to improve ventilation and install CO2 monitors to reduce transmission, and the challenges that are faced by the leisure industry, which often uses buildings that are not always suited to the ventilation adaptations that are required.
We heard of the impact that the baseline measures have had on health and social care capacity and how services are delivered. We were told that doctors were continuing to provide a mixture of remote and in-person consultations in order to meet demand, and that the wearing of a mask can sometimes be a challenge when it comes to non-verbal communication during in-person consultations. I was delighted to learn yesterday that new transparent face masks that are made in Scotland have been approved for use in health and social care settings and that they will be in use in NHS Scotland from this month.
We were told that more than four million dental appointments have been lost since the beginning of the pandemic, with baseline measures limiting capacity to between 40 and 50 per cent. We also heard that the workforce in social care services has been affected and that the economic stability of the sector is at risk.
The vaccine certification scheme, and possible extensions to it, were issues of concern to the business and hospitality sectors, although there was no consensus among the witnesses on whether the scheme should be extended. We will continue to pay close attention to that debate and scrutinise any proposed changes to the scheme through the appropriate regulations.
I turn to schools. In general, witnesses were supportive of mask wearing in schools as a necessary measure to stop the spread of Covid-19 and to help keep our schools open. However, there was no consensus among parents about the wearing of face masks in schools. Some had concerns over pupils’ learning in relation to hearing and understanding, and thought that masks should be removed in classrooms. We heard about the challenges of achieving an appropriate balance between heating and ventilation in schools. Concerns were raised about the increasing costs associated with providing additional heating and ventilation systems, and whether heating systems would be able to cope with the worsening weather over the winter.
We also took written evidence from members of the Scottish Youth Parliament about their general thoughts on Covid restrictions—for example, how hard it was for them not to see friends and family during lockdown, and their mixed feelings about current restrictions. One MSYP said:
“I’ve got mixed feelings. I agree we need to be unlocked but I don’t like the idea of clubs being open because cases are going up again … I’m a bit unsure … I’m not going to go to a club, not going to chance it. But with Uni being back, I think that should be more prioritised than clubs ... I think some restrictions, seminars being in person is good, but some people want lectures to be in person instead of online. Having 100 people in a lecture hall wearing masks doesn’t feel great”.
What did the committee learn from its inquiry? It showed me how much can be achieved through relatively simple modifications and forward thinking regarding the proper ventilation of our buildings. Although it does not exactly set the heather alight, we learned about the simple things that can help, such as the use, wherever possible, of high-level rather than low-level windows. That prevents cold draughts while still providing good ventilation—it is simple, but effective.
I urge the Scottish Government to review the evidence that we heard and consider any new ways to promote the use of good ventilation to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Would the member recognise that, with a case rate for under-15s of 400 per 100,000, the current rate of Covid in schools is incredibly high? That is with the Government’s current interventions on ventilation, so do we not need to do more?
I believe that the Scottish Government is doing everything that it can that has been advised by the experts at this time but, as we move forward, we might have to investigate other options.
We all have full mailboxes regarding the challenge of non-compliance and current health protection measures, be it the wearing of face masks in shops or people who are, for a variety of reasons, reluctant to get vaccinated. It is clear that more work must be done in those areas to change the public attitude.
We also need to think about how we build for the future and ensure that our buildings are fit for purpose and able to cope with any future pandemics.
I finish by putting on record the committee’s appreciation for the constructive engagement that all committees have had with us. I also thank the clerks who help and support the committee’s work.
On behalf of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
On 9 November, the committee took evidence from a range of stakeholders on seasonal planning and preparedness in health and social care. As we look towards recovery from Covid-19, that evidence highlights the scale of the challenge that we face in the recruitment and retention of health and social care staff across all disciplines.
Many stakeholders told us how extremely tired staff feel, given everything that they have faced over the pandemic. Staff across nursing, general practice and many other health and care professions have experienced non-stop and persistent levels of stress and pressure. Where they see no prospect of that improving, an increasing number are leaving the profession for the sake of their own health and wellbeing. We heard that more flexible working patterns are needed to address that, alongside sustainable and long-term workforce planning.
Covid-19 has impacted on employment opportunities, specifically for younger people. What more can be done to encourage more young people to consider a career in health and social care? With that in mind, I have written to colleagues on the Education, Children and Young People Committee, to see whether there is a way that they can explore the issue further, under the committee’s skills remit.
We also heard about the substantial numbers of vacancies across all allied health professions, which has a knock-on impact on the provision of preventative health measures, which in turn puts additional pressure on hospitals and primary care further down the line. Several of our health and social care colleagues pointed to the more sensational media reporting on general practitioners and hospitals, which they said are putting people off either coming back to work in healthcare, or pursuing a career in health in the first place.
Stakeholders highlighted other key contributing factors. First, there is the lack of a sustainable education model to support workforce development for allied professionals. Again, we need to focus on encouraging more young people to pursue a career in these professions, and we must work with partners in secondary, further and higher education to facilitate that.
The second factor is a short-term approach to funding and late provision of funds to NHS boards, creating an additional barrier to recruitment and workforce planning. We also heard that return-to-work schemes could bring back allied health professionals who are on a career break.
In social care, we heard that staff recruitment and retention issues are
“now acute and are worsening”—[
Health, Social Care and Sport Committee,
9 November 2021; c 38.]
and that they are impacting on the sector’s capacity. In a recent survey, 63 per cent of providers who responded said that they have had to reduce capacity for service delivery due to recruitment shortages.
Training can take years for the majority of health professions. We heard that, by contrast, social care workers can learn on the job. They could start tomorrow, yet there are still significant challenges. The main challenge is that working in social care is not an attractive enough option. Social care cannot compete with sectors such as retail and hospitality, which offer similar or even better rates of pay and comparatively less pressured and stressful working conditions. That is a particular problem in more remote areas.
There is a pressing need to look at improving pay, and terms and conditions, as well as promoting the value of the social care profession. Social care is there to support people to live well, live independently and live the lives that they want to lead. Perhaps that is not portrayed clearly enough in the rhetoric out there.
Some stakeholders suggested that a golden hello for those joining the sector could help to boost recruitment and that a loyalty payment could support retention. However, they also said that, if such measures are to work, a consistent sector-wide approach would be required; otherwise, if only some providers offered incentives while others did not, we could simply see increased staffing churn between organisations.
The stakeholders we spoke to acknowledged and welcomed the additional resources that have been made available to them to support their wellbeing at work through this difficult winter period. However, they said that they are hearing reports that the key challenge for staff is being able to carve out the time to make use of those resources, given that staff shortages mean that they are being asked to take on additional responsibilities and work extra shifts.
To prepare for this most challenging of winter periods, we need immediate action to look after the health and wellbeing of our health and care workforce. As we look towards recovery from the pandemic, a key priority must be to create a sustainable, long-term plan to ensure that we are building the health and care workforce that we will need in the future.
The impact of the health crisis is being felt everywhere, but the way in which recovery policies and priorities are delivered in rural areas, in particular, could have long-term impacts, leading either to more sustainable communities or to further devastating depopulation with impacts across every part of the country.
Rural and remote communities and islands in particular have paid a heavy price during the pandemic. One example is the many residents who were already experiencing loneliness because of their location suddenly being further cut off from society as village and rural life was shut down for months on end. That had a disproportionately high impact because of the ageing profile of our rural areas. Those already suffering from ill health were forced to close their doors on the outside world in order to self-isolate for even longer periods.
We know that there continues to be a digital divide, which is growing as more and more aspects of everyday life require the internet. The impact of the lack of a reliable broadband service was felt even more strongly in lockdown, as many people could not keep in regular contact with their family members and friends. It is important that, while we start the planning for our recovery from Covid-19, those issues are recognised and tackled head on as a matter of priority.
Public transport—more accurately, the current lack of public transport—will play a major part in rural recovery. Although passenger numbers on buses and trains have fallen dramatically, it is vital that the provision of services returns to pre-Covid levels. Now is not the time to cut train and bus timetables, because we desperately need rural workers to be able to get to work—otherwise, the work will disappear.
There is a strong argument that ideas such as the 20-minute community model can be looked at through a rural lens and as possible starting points to address the scenario that we see all too often in rural areas of “Which comes first?” Is it job creation, the availability of the workforce, housing or public transport? The answer is difficult, as we need them all at the same time.
As the convener of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, I, with my colleagues, have asked that recovery policies be rural proofed. That will ultimately slow and start to reverse the trend of rural and remote communities being depopulated, with young people, families and, potentially, elderly residents now being forced to move into towns and cities to access services. We have a fantastic opportunity with more people working from home in rural areas right now, but we must ensure that that trend is not reversed. The important message is that the post-Covid recovery plans need to be rural proofed and should not result in centralised services in health, for instance. We need greater support for rural GPs so that residents can be treated locally and not forced to travel greater distances to larger towns.
The issues of how precious, fragile and precarious our food system is and the requirement for urgent transformation of our food supply chain were among the many issues that the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee examined. Scotland Food & Drink admits that it has been on a crisis footing as a result of the pandemic. It has revealed that many people who were heavily reliant on exports found that they disappeared overnight with Covid.
In the committee, James Withers from Scotland Food & Drink said in response to a question from Ariane Burgess:
“Over the past 18 months, one of the silver linings to the very dark cloud of Covid has been the huge amount of support from the Scottish public and consumers for businesses in their areas. The local food movement has taken a step forward, but that has emphasised some of the challenges in local supply chains.”
“Although the food supply chain did a remarkable job in a pandemic ... we have a very centralised system of food distribution, and the most resilient supply chains are often the shorter ones within communities.”
The chair of the Scottish Food Coalition, Professor Brennan, added that Argyll and Bute
“has shown huge innovation in how it has responded to Covid, supporting and working creatively with local suppliers in what is a geographically complicated area. That shows agility in contracts, in bringing in, encouraging, mentoring and supporting new suppliers, and in reducing bureaucracy.”—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
, 1 September 2021; c 14-15.]
It is encouraging that local convenience stores have come into their own during the pandemic. They have become more flexible, they make decisions more quickly, and they respond to changes in customer demands. Indeed, their connection with local suppliers will grow in importance over the next few years. Local shops are, and will remain, absolutely central to rural communities throughout Scotland. Throughout the pandemic, they have shown fleetness of foot by changing where they have got their deliveries from, getting more local produce, and working with people and suppliers who are different from those with whom they would normally work.
That diversification of the supply chain is to be welcomed, and it has to be a big plus for the sector. That needs to be at the heart of Covid recovery now, and it must continue to be. The food supply chain in Scotland should develop and flourish in the months and years ahead through creating relationships with local suppliers, especially in horticulture and the agriculture sector.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate on behalf of the Economy and Fair Work Committee. I will speak about our work on the on-going impact of the pandemic, the position of the Scottish economy and the support and policies that are needed to encourage investment and employment as part of the recovery effort.
The committee wants to see support to encourage investment, growth, prosperity and employment opportunities, while resilience and protection against any future economic shocks are built. We have heard evidence from stakeholders in business, employment and skills, including the economic development agencies and VisitScotland, and we have identified a number of specific spending priorities for the Scottish Government’s forthcoming budget to support and drive economic and business recovery for a post-pandemic society.
We recognise that there is now a considerable opportunity to challenge and reset what we do and how we do it. Of particular interest to the economy is the fair work agenda. The pandemic has disrupted our economy, creating further insecurity for many sectors. There is now a choice between trying to rebuild an economy that returns us to our old ways of working and building one that is driven by increased fairness and equality in employment. Many of the witnesses we have heard from over recent weeks have emphasised the importance of skills, and we will look to work with the Education, Children and Young People Committee on that agenda.
There were practical calls from businesses. They are asking for more of a one-stop approach to business support, with improved joint working between agencies and support that is more tailored to local needs. The Economy and Fair Work Committee recognises the creation of the Find Business Support portal, but, as the cabinet secretary acknowledged to the committee, there is more to be done to simplify the landscape. With a view to the imminent 10-year economic strategy, our approach must match the scale of effort and ambition that is needed if the economy is to fully recover.
The effects of the pandemic on small and medium-sized enterprises have been uneven. Although most businesses have returned to trading, many smaller businesses accumulated significant debt during the pandemic. The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland made a number of suggestions on how to help small firms, such as extending the terms of loan repayments, repayments only starting when a certain level of profitability is reached, and controlling costs such as non-domestic rates. The committee has asked the Scottish Government to consider those suggestions in the context of next year’s budget.
We had an evidence session to explore support for SMEs in the move to net zero. Although we heard about some good work that is taking place, we also noted concerns that many businesses are still in survival mode, and they may not feel able to look any further ahead at this point. Businesses recognise the importance of the transition to net zero, but there is understandably little appetite to take on further debt to invest in the measures that are needed. The committee is calling for a clear road map for businesses to drive the necessary and sustained efforts that they need in order to decarbonise.
We recognise that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women’s employment. Women were in the sectors of the economy that were the most exposed and that were more vulnerable to the virus. The committee recognises the vital role that women play as part of the workforce—as employees, entrepreneurs and business owners—and we welcome the commitment in the programme for government to progress with a women’s business centre. We would like that to be prioritised in the forthcoming budget to ensure that women’s contribution to economic recovery can be realised.
As we consider winter pressures in this afternoon’s debate, our inquiry into supply chains illustrates the pressures in our economy. We have identified the pressures of labour and skills shortages, the impact of Brexit and our changed trading relationships, and the pandemic, which has created global supply-chain challenges. Supply chains are all under even greater pressure as winter approaches, and that brings a new set of challenges in dealing with Covid. The committee’s work on that is on-going and, at its conclusion, we hope to propose practical solutions, including short-term and longer-term actions that can be taken to support Scotland’s supply chain as we continue through the pandemic.
We received evidence from VisitScotland. At the moment, the tourism and hospitality sectors will be concerned about the emergence of the new variant of the virus. The committee intends to consider the Government’s budget proposals seriously to ensure that those sectors have sufficient support.
It is clear from the committee’s work so far that there are no easy answers to the challenges that we face, but there are choices that we can make about what sort of society we want to be and what our economy should look like and do for us.
If the pursuit of net zero and the wellbeing agenda is to be core to our recovery, we must be realistic about where we are as we identify and respond to the challenges that arise. The forthcoming budget and the 10-year economic plan must respond to the significant challenges that we face as we all strive for a recovery that is fair for everyone.
I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Finance and Public Administration Committee about the priorities for pandemic recovery.
Others have spoken about the devastating impact that Covid-19 has had and the work that the committees are doing to shine a light on the needs of the public sector and the economy as we look ahead to recovery.
Whatever the impact on our lives, health, jobs, businesses and the way that we work, it has required an unprecedented level of public investment. That is why our committee was keen to look at the overall impact of the pandemic on Scotland’s public finances, as part of our pre-budget scrutiny. We found that, in total, £13.6 billion has been spent on Scotland’s Covid response to date, with a further £500 million expected as a consequence of the United Kingdom autumn budget.
Although it is perhaps understandable in an ever-developing situation, we heard in evidence that it has not always been easy to identify and track the flow of Covid spend. That could become even more challenging as we continue our recovery. Therefore, the committee asked the Government to commit to providing transparent and timely information on all Covid allocations. That will not only allow proper scrutiny of where and how effectively money is being spent but enable us to learn lessons for the future.
In the early months of the pandemic, HM Treasury provided a funding guarantee of in-year resource to devolved Governments, which gave more certainty to budget planning. With no such guarantee this year, the Scottish Government was in the difficult and uncertain position of having to allocate spend without knowing whether all the resources that the UK Government announced would actually flow to Scotland. There is no doubt that that has made budget management more challenging in Scotland.
In the short term, we have asked the UK Government to commit to a funding guarantee if the fiscal situation develops rapidly. Looking to the longer term, we have called on both Governments to examine whether funding guarantees could be a better way of managing devolved finances.
Based on the pandemic experience, we also made recommendations regarding the upcoming review of the fiscal framework that governs the budget process in Scotland. Although the framework has broadly worked as intended, that has been more by accident than design. The economic impacts have largely been the same across the UK, with additional in-year Barnett consequentials. The committee would like the review to look at how the fiscal framework can be strengthened so that it can withstand a situation in which future health or economic shocks disproportionately affect one part of the UK.
Some sectors, including hospitality, retail, leisure and travel, have been particularly affected by Covid. Some businesses have built up significant debt in the process, and Claire Baker talked eloquently about their concerns just a few moments ago. Therefore, we asked the Scottish Government to consider how it might best support those sectors to recover, rejuvenate the high street and grow the economy. It might not be possible within next year’s spending envelope to provide a similar level of relief from non-domestic rates to businesses that struggled the most, but we welcome the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy’s commitment to
“ensure that ... taxation enables businesses to fully recover and ... trade.”—[
Official Report, Finance and Public Administration Committee,
5 October 2021; c 12.]
We also understand the continuing pressures on local government finance: income was lost during the pandemic, and additional reliance on reserves is expected in 2022-23. The Scottish Government was asked to explore whether greater flexibility can be afforded to councils to enable them to better respond to local priorities in the next budget round.
The economic outlook for the UK is better than was forecast at the start of the year, the omicron variant notwithstanding. Forecasters have recently revised up their expectations for growth over the next five years, following stronger than predicted growth in the first half of 2021, which was supported by the vaccine roll-out. The Office for Budget Responsibility now expects the UK to reach pre-pandemic levels at the turn of the year and to surpass February 2020 levels by January next year.
Although unemployment and economic scarring are predicted to be lower than was anticipated last January, inflation has risen sharply, which has prompted fears of a cost of living crisis. That is evident in the cost of fuel at the pumps, heating bills and our weekly shopping baskets.
We will look to the Scottish economic and fiscal outlook in the Scottish budget on 9 December to find out the latest on how the Scottish economy is faring and how the Scottish Government plans to invest in recovery. Members will also have an on-going interest in the framework for the upcoming resource and spending review and the medium-term financial strategy, which is published on the same day, to see how the Scottish Government proposes to address some of the longer-term impacts of Covid-19.
I look forward to exploring in more detail other aspects of the committee’s report, including the pre-existing challenges to Scotland’s public finances, in our new year pre-budget debate.
As convener of the Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee, I will focus my contribution on the vital role that local government will play in driving recovery from the pandemic. That was the focus of the committee’s pre-budget scrutiny.
The experience of the pandemic emphasised how critical local authorities are to the communities that they serve. Through the dedication and hard work of council staff and collaboration with community and third sector workers, local authorities ensured that communities were able to access vital services throughout the pandemic, and they continue to do so as the pandemic endures.
If there is to be meaningful and transformative recovery from the pandemic, local government needs to take a leading role in that process, because simply returning to the status quo is not good enough. Any recovery from the pandemic must involve tackling inequalities, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Doing that can be achieved only with the full involvement of local government. However, local government needs to have the finances, certainty, workforce and tools to deliver that transformative recovery.
In the rest of my speech, I will talk about what needs to be in place for local government to be able to play a full role in recovery from the pandemic.
First, local government needs sufficient resources and funding. The intention of any local government funding settlement is to enable local government to deliver core services. In the current circumstances, leading the economic recovery from the pandemic is a crucial part of the work of local government, so it is an important aspect of local government funding arrangements.
Differing views were presented to the LGHP Committee about whether local government funding has gone down in real terms. Irrespective of anyone’s view on that, funding is not keeping pace with the ever-increasing demands on local government, and that needs to be recognised.
For local government to play a leading role in recovery, not only does it need be sufficiently resourced, it needs more long-term certainty about resources. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities stressed how important multi-year funding settlements from the Scottish Government are to local authorities. Not only has the absence of multi-year funding frustrated the ambitions of local authorities by preventing them from developing long-term plans, it has also impacted on their partners. Without certainty about their own funding, local authorities are unable to make long-term commitments to their partners. We recognise that, to date, the Scottish Government has not been in a position to offer multi-year funding, but with the UK Government now setting out a three-year spending plan, the opportunity is there. Long-term certainty would enable local authorities to work with their partners to make the kind of long-term plans that could help tackle inequalities and make transformative societal changes. I would welcome any update on progress towards a multiyear settlement.
Witnesses also raised concerns with us about the extent of ring-fencing and the constraints that it places on local authorities to act flexibly to meet local needs. Funding that was provided to local authorities during the pandemic was, to a large extent, not ring-fenced, and that enabled local authorities to act flexibly to meet the greatest need in their areas. I think that we would all accept that there will always be some funds that it is appropriate to ring fence. However, local authorities were able to act effectively and responsibly during the pandemic because of the flexibility that was afforded to them. The positive lessons of the pandemic must not be lost.
The need for a fiscal framework for local government was also repeatedly highlighted to us, and we will pursue that issue in the context of our considerations of the local governance review over the coming years. The consistent message to the committee so far has been that local authorities must be able to act flexibly to deliver locally.
It is a privilege to speak in today’s important debate as the convener of the Criminal Justice Committee. I thank the convener and members of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee for securing the debate. It is especially valuable that we will have an opportunity to hear so many contributions from a range of committees—it reminds us all that Covid is not just a health issue, but one that has impacted on almost every part of our lives. To echo the words of the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Veterans when he last spoke to us about Covid, it has certainly not gone away; the pandemic is far from over.
Like many other sectors, the criminal justice sector has been significantly impacted by the virus. As a committee, we have tried to ensure that the sector has been able to cope and continue to function to the greatest extent possible during the lockdowns.
As we slowly start to recover, we have tried to ensure that we retain some of the incredibly innovative changes to practice that the pandemic has brought about, while carefully studying Government plans to make some of them permanent. As the committee said recently in its pre-budget report, any proposals
“must enjoy the support of the sector and any fundamental changes to the ways we currently conduct business must be carefully studied and the impact on rights considered. The balance of justice must also not be undermined by any changes.”
I thank everyone who works and volunteers in the sector for their incredible efforts to keep the criminal justice system functioning. Their professionalism and commitment have been second to none. However, I also acknowledge that the pandemic has left the sector with massive challenges. One of the largest of those challenges is the backlog of cases in our courts—in particular, our sheriff courts and High Courts.
As we heard recently, before the pandemic there were approximately 1,330 trials outstanding in our sheriff and jury courts and there are now in excess of 3,500. Every one of those cases represents not only a victim who is awaiting justice, but an accused who is waiting to come to trial. With those figures, it is not surprising that the Cabinet Secretary for Justice recently told the Parliament that remand numbers have jumped to nearly 30 per cent of the prison population.
A growth of nearly 2,000 extra trials is challenging enough, but we also know that a significant proportion of those are for serious offences such as rape and crimes of sexual violence. That means that many of the 3,500 trials will result in a conviction and imprisonment, which will put yet more pressure on the prison system, healthcare sector and voluntary groups that work in prisons supporting education and training and responding to drug misuse and mental health issues.
We also know that it is likely to take years to tackle that backlog. Can members imagine the strain on a survivor of rape of having to wait another three or four years for their case even to come to court? We were privileged recently to hear from a group of such survivors. I can honestly tell members that their stories and journeys were some of the most powerful evidence that I have ever heard. We simply must take action to address the situation.
The committee will publish further reports, including on Covid recovery, in the coming weeks to set out our suggestions for improvement. We look forward to helping in any scrutiny of a Covid recovery bill and will play our part, working with the Scottish Government and others, to do all that we can to recover from this brutal pandemic.
It is a privilege to be the convener of the Public Audit Committee because it lies at the heart of parliamentary scrutiny and democratic accountability. It is the guardian of not only the public purse, but the public interest, too, promoting openness, good governance and strong leadership. It does that in the cause of public trust and confidence in not just public spending but public outcomes. At no time have those principles been as important as they are today.
The Auditor General for Scotland reported that, last year alone, Scottish Government spending on Covid-19 was at least £8.8 billion. A further £4.9 billion is expected to be spent in 2021-22. That spending has been aimed at saving lives and jobs and at keeping our children in school and our national health service going.
In the midst of human suffering and the awful loss of life—almost 10,000 of our fellow citizens have died from Covid-19 in Scotland alone—a new spirit of social solidarity has also been rekindled. Only last week, the committee heard at first hand about a new dawn of community empowerment in neighbourhoods across Scotland in response to the pandemic, but we have to ensure that that new dawn is not a false dawn. That means providing longer-term funding for the voluntary sector so that vital services are sustained. It also means that all public bodies, not just local government, must understand that they have an obligation to support and empower the communities that they serve.
The pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on the lives of young people and children, disrupting their learning, harming their wellbeing and plunging too many of them into even deeper poverty. That is set out starkly in the joint Auditor General for Scotland and Accounts Commission report, published earlier this year, on “Improving outcomes for young people through school education”.
To put it bluntly, pupils who live in the most challenging circumstances have been most affected by school closures. They are the ones who are less likely to have access to devices, broadband and suitable study space and more likely to have caring responsibilities. That is why the committee agrees with the Auditor General that improvement needs to happen faster, that we need to address inconsistency across the country and that we must start to measure properly our young people’s outcomes—not just by exam results, but by their health, wellbeing and confidence—to make sure that they are going forwards and not backwards.
Audit Scotland has also reported that the number of children and young people who have been
“waiting more than a year for treatment has trebled in the last 12 months”.
The Scottish Association for Mental Health warns us that, as we recover from the pandemic, an even greater wave of mental health problems across our communities is likely and that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service referrals will continue to rise. However, we know that one in four referrals to CAMHS was rejected last year and that no national data is collected to establish whether alternative services were accessed or, critically, what difference they made. Cabinet secretary, it must be a priority for the Scottish Government to work with Public Health Scotland to improve the quality and scope of data on the provision of CAMHS as a matter of urgency and to improve the quality and scope of services as well.
I now turn to the vaccination programme. During our scrutiny of the “Covid-19: Vaccination programme” report, which Audit Scotland published, we heard that 90 per cent of people who are aged 18 and over have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. That point is critical, because, as the report highlighted, people who are not vaccinated at all are twice as likely to contract the virus, three times more likely to be hospitalised as a result, and five times more likely to die from Covid than somebody who is doubly vaccinated. The truth is that people who live in economically deprived communities, our younger people and some minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in that unvaccinated category. While this is a matter of public health, it is also a matter of social justice and economic inequality.
The road to recovery will be a prominent feature of the Auditor General for Scotland’s work programme in the months ahead, as it will be for the Public Audit Committee. We look forward to scrutinising further Audit Scotland reports. We will challenge Government directorates, take to task public agencies and take evidence from people on the ground. We will follow the pandemic pound, be guided by the facts and so hold Government to account. That it is our job and it is one that the entire committee, on behalf of the Parliament and the people, is determined to get done.
I am grateful to Parliament for the opportunity to respond to the important scrutiny work that the COVID-19 Recovery Committee has undertaken and to the contributions from other committees so far. We thank each of the committees for their work and the scrutiny that is a vital part of the process of parliamentary accountability, which will strengthen our approach to recovery.
As we look towards an uncertain winter period, it is clear that the pandemic is far from over and that we must all continue to take the appropriate steps to keep ourselves, our loved ones and our communities safe.
Because of the measures that we have all taken to control the virus and the outstanding efforts of those who have developed and deployed the vaccine, we find ourselves in a stronger position than that in which we were this past year. However, the risk that we could see a dramatic rise in cases in the coming months remains significant, especially with the identification of the omicron variant and the fact that we are moving into winter, when people are less able to spend more time out of doors.
Public Health Scotland is working rigorously to assess how many cases of omicron there are likely to be in Scotland. Together with local test and protect teams, it will work to identify how the virus might have been transmitted and to break further chains of transmission. However, we should not await the outcome of that work before taking necessary action. We must act now to reduce the virus’s opportunities to spread.
As I explained to the COVID-19 Recovery Committee this morning, the Scottish Government considers the state of the pandemic each week on the basis of assessing the case for proportionate action in the context of the evidence that is available to us. We always work on the precautionary principle, given the necessity of acting as swiftly as we can to interrupt the spread of the virus.
As was set out to Parliament on Tuesday, the Government has so far taken the stance of asking people to significantly step up and increase compliance with existing procedures rather than introduce new protections. Existing procedures include getting vaccinated; taking tests more regularly, particularly in relation to levels of socialisation in our society in the run-up to Christmas; maintaining hygiene measures; working from home wherever that is possible—the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy has been encouraging the business community so that more organisations enable more of their staff to work from home—and showing Covid certification, where needed.
I take this opportunity to thank everyone who continues to play their part to protect Scotland. During the past few months, the committee has necessarily focused on baseline measures and our approach to trying to live with the virus. For that reason, I will focus my remarks on some of the issues that have arisen from the committee’s scrutiny and on the importance of ensuring that the emphasis on baseline measures is a message that is clearly understood by members of the public and applied to how we all live our lives.
The vaccination programme has fundamentally changed the balance of harms that are associated with the pandemic, with the relationship between infections and serious health harms weakening significantly. The fact that we have a significant level of protection in the population has meant a strategic change in how we are able to handle the pandemic. As of 2 December, 88 per cent of the adult population in Scotland have been vaccinated and 39 per cent have received a booster or third dose.
We have to take steps to ensure that the vaccination programme is available to individuals. I am certainly satisfied that we have comprehensive availability of vaccination venues in accessible locations.
One of the questions that has been raised with us is on the possibility of creating mass vaccination centres—Dr Gulhane has raised that point in the chamber previously. There is an argument to be had about whether we should have a wider range of locally accessible facilities that maximise convenience, reduce travel costs and provide a more reliable way of securing access to vaccination for some of the people in the communities to which Dr Gulhane refers or whether we should have facilities in larger, more centrally located venues, which is what the Conservatives have been arguing for, although I noticed that Mr Carson was rather arguing against a centralised approach during his speech this afternoon.
We have to ensure that we have available facilities that are accessible to members of the public and, crucially, the communication to encourage and motivate individuals. The best messaging around that is the significant protection that the vaccine offers people to reduce the risk of serious health harm.
The vaccination programme has a crucial role to play in protecting the public and reducing the pressure that the national health service faces, which will be significant as we go through the winter.
The Scottish Government set out a significant NHS recovery plan on 25 August. We have also set out measures to invest in the national health service, to ensure that we have sufficient staff capacity and sufficient investment in facilities, such as the new national treatment centres, which will enable us to make progress on addressing the delivery of care that has been interrupted for some individuals by the pandemic in the past 18 months or so. The recovery plan focuses on ensuring that we have the necessary resilience in place over the winter, and it complements the work that is being undertaken to ensure that we have population-wide protection as a consequence of the vaccination programme.
I turn to the Covid recovery strategy, which was set out to Parliament in early October. It is focused unreservedly on tackling the inequality in our society that existed before Covid and has been exacerbated by Covid, a point that was raised by Ariane Burgess and Richard Leonard. The strategy is unapologetic about focusing on the necessity of tackling child poverty by focusing on increasing financial security for low-income households, enhancing the wellbeing of children and young people by undertaking early intervention activity rather than waiting for CAMHS support, and creating good green jobs and fair work to enable families to access higher-quality employment.
We have developed the strategy very much in collaboration with the local government community in Scotland. I will chair a joint board with the president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to monitor the implementation of the Covid recovery strategy, because we accept that there has to be alignment between the activities of the Government and local government and those of the voluntary and private sectors, to ensure that we make as much progress as possible on the work of Covid recovery.
Covid recovery has to be about ensuring that we protect the population from the risks of the virus at this stage and that we create a fairer and more equal Scotland in which every individual has the option to prosper and thrive. That is the focus of the Government’s work on Covid recovery.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests. I am a practising NHS doctor.
Many of us learned a new Greek word this week: omicron. Is omicron more dangerous than the delta strain? We do not know yet. For now, we are on heightened alert; we wash our hands and wait for the data. Artificial intelligence and data have been at the heart of the international Covid-19 response.
Data is key to our amazing vaccine development programme and the trialling of new treatments. Without data, there would be no contact tracing apps that ping in the night. Data-driven innovations are transforming how we do healthcare in general. For example, drones are delivering medical supplies to remote regions and new optometry technology will soon be trialled to support clinical decisions in primary care.
I seek to make a case for data-driven innovation and for how we can build back better if we harness for healthcare the world-class skills we already have in Scotland. The data-driven innovation and AI landscape in Scotland is thriving. Through UK and Scottish Government programmes and funding from major donors, more than £1 billion pounds is being pumped into innovation and skills development in Scotland.
In healthcare, Scotland has greatness at its fingertips—literally. Scotland has the potential to be a world leader in developing, testing and proving medical technology. We just need to want it more and embrace home-grown and home-funded start-ups and university spin-outs. I would argue that we do not have a choice.
W e have the spectre of 100,000 Scots struggling with long Covid. Many months ago, I had a productive meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Social Care and Sport, Humza Yousaf, but it seems that all momentum has stalled. Although the announcement of money is welcome, actually providing help via long Covid clinics is what we need.
Our NHS and social care services face huge workforce crises and challenges.
Yes, we can increase our medical school numbers by funding more places, and I support that. Yes, we can incentivise experienced consultants to put off retirement—that is possible—and, yes, we can ethically recruit excellent qualified staff from overseas, which I also support.
However, w e will not be able to increase our staff numbers enough to meet patient demand. We need to be innovative, and the solution lies in data-driven innovation.
Things are also difficult for our home-grown talent. Many get seed funding from us initially, but it is hard to get a foothold in our NHS, where bureaucracy so often slams the door on innovation. People are asked, “Where are your accounts for the past three years? Do you employ more than 50 staff?” When businesses are lean and mean, they do not qualify. That is why we have lost some great ones to the US, where they have secured venture capital and built up their companies.
Surely we should be adopting medical technology solutions at scale here, in Scotland, to manage patient care, shorten hospital stays, reduce hospital readmission rates, improve patient satisfaction and bring about better patient outcomes. As one tech entrepreneur said to me yesterday, our smart start-ups do not want yet another Government grant; they want their first order.
Here, in Scotland, we need a new strategic innovation model so that our NHS regions can pilot home-grown cutting-edge solutions that will improve healthcare delivery and efficiency. I spoke to another tech start-up company, which has developed a remarkable antibody test that uses high-performance assays to detect new strains of the virus at five to six times less cost than we are paying at the moment. That technology has been heralded as a game changer. We need it.
If we can crack that nut, we will not only improve services and cut costs, we will help our smart young medtech companies to grow and capture markets overseas. Public support for data-driven innovation depends on trust in good governance, but we need to have in place the right rules and regulations that support our model of publicly funded healthcare rather than holding it back.
Innovation has been at the heart of our fantastic response to the pandemic. Let us pull together and harness innovation to see us through the crisis and into recovery—from omicron to beyond.
The impact of Covid-19 across Scotland has been devastating, and our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones. More than 12,000 deaths have been recorded in Scotland as a result of Covid-19. That is a heartbreaking milestone, but we are not through this yet.
With the arrival of the omicron variant in Scotland, the immediate focus must be on resourcing the test and protect system so that it has the necessary surge capacity, and urgently speeding up the roll-out of the booster jab to eligible people. I know that the cabinet secretary will agree that that means greater use of mobile and walk-in vaccination centres and the provision of many more local opportunities for clinics.
Members have raised complaints about vaccination centres turning people away, even though the eligibility criteria have been changed, with people having to wait only three months, rather than six months, to get the booster. The Government has apologised for the confusion, but it would be helpful to know when people can attend without being turned away.
Vaccinators will undoubtedly face an enormous task, given that more than 2 million people who are eligible for a booster jab are yet to receive one, and around 280,000 people have yet to receive their second vaccination. I thank the vaccinators in advance for their work.
My experience in my local area is that some of the drop-in clinics have not had enough people and that letters—certainly in the Helensburgh end of my constituency—have not arrived with constituents. Therefore, they have taken the novel approach of just going to the vaccination clinics to get their booster jabs, and the vaccinators have welcomed that. Whatever arrangements are put in place, it is a case of working at pace, and I think that the Government recognises that.
Many people remain uncertain about what will happen at Christmas, whether they will be able to visit family and whether they will be able to travel abroad. We support a four-nations approach, but the Scottish Government has powers in that area. If it decides that a quarantine needs to be put in place, I ask it to make sure that that is accompanied by a package of support for the travel industry. I would welcome any assurance that the cabinet secretary can offer on that point.
I want to focus my remaining comments on health and social care. Even before Covid-19, health services were struggling to keep up with demand and there was a growing backlog of care requirements. The pandemic has exacerbated long waits. More than 650,000 patients are waiting to be seen, and, unless urgent action is taken, lives will be lost.
Ambulance delays are still too long, waiting times at accident and emergency departments are the longest ever recorded, and there is no capacity in our hospitals because the SNP has stripped out more than 1,000 beds. Social care is in crisis.
Although the number of Covid patients in hospital remains relatively low, any increase, as has been seen with the new variant in South Africa, would be a catastrophe. Staff are already working flat out and are under enormous strain. So, too, are staff in social care, where vacancies are increasing as people leave for other jobs in hospitality and retail because the pay in social care is so poor. Care packages are being cancelled because of those workforce shortages and families are being left to cope without support.
Family carers have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic. Without their efforts, we would have struggled to cope. Where is their recovery plan or respite? In many local authorities, respite has not restarted and family members are now being told that they must step into the breach yet again because care packages can no longer be provided.
The Scottish Government must act urgently or the strain will become too much. It could start by spending the £165 million in Barnett consequentials that languish, as yet unallocated, in the health budget. The Government cannot sit on the money; the NHS needs it now. Winter pressures have been with us for a few months and could become even worse because we do not yet know what the impact of the new variant will be. We need adequate workforce planning because there is insufficient staffing. We need increased bed capacity to make up for the current lack.
I thank today’s other speakers. It is important that we hear about the work of all the committees and about how the Covid recovery is being addressed by each.
I will reiterate the importance of vaccines and of messaging by Governments and public bodies, talk about long Covid and finish by saying something about the resilience of young people living through this period.
I, too, pay tribute to our healthcare professionals, who are exhausted. This has been a relentless time for them and for everyone in front-line services. We know that the public are grateful. We used to hear that gratitude in the streets every Thursday evening. I hope for a time when those workers can step down from the top tier of unremitting struggle.
Scottish Liberal Democrats have proposed a burnout prevention strategy. That would include a commitment that new staff will be trained and recruited until safe staffing levels, as recommended by the royal colleges, are met, and new guarantees about time off in lieu and annual leave, backed by joint Government and health board guidance, to guard against overwork and to ensure that planning places greater emphasis on guaranteeing staff leave and provides new protection for precious time off.
The new omicron variant that has been discovered in southern Africa is a stark reminder of the existential threat posed to our own recovery by the collective failure to help vaccinate the whole world. It is only when we are all vaccinated that we will truly destabilise the Covid pandemic. The fastest way to end it is to ensure that vaccines are available to everyone globally. We are all interconnected and interdependent.
Our Governments and public bodies must be clear with their messaging. They have been clear about the need for vaccinations, and I urge everyone who is eligible to go and have their first, second or booster jab. The situation is complex and fast moving. Our Governments and public bodies must strive to make things clear and simple. There has been some confusion when messages for the islands have been different to those found in national media outlets.
Since the summer, I have been asking constituents to get in touch with me and with NHS Shetland about long Covid, so that we are able to determine the needs in the isles. Scottish Liberal Democrats led the first debate here about long Covid. I am grateful to other members of the cross-party group on long Covid, many of whom joined Alex Cole-Hamilton and me in the recent debate. As my party leader reminded the First Minister today, 99,000 people in Scotland are now living with long Covid.
Before I conclude, I want to reflect on the importance of our young people in the recovery from Covid. We know how resilient they have been during it and how much they are needed in the recovery. The Deputy First Minister will recall that I have raised with him concerns about the on-going student experience. Young people are our investment in the future and we want them to be learning for all our sakes. We cannot afford to have a brain drain. We need their talents, skills and knowledge.
However, people are telling me that they cannot understand why university learning is still mostly online, with students being in university for in-person lectures less than a day a week, while pupils and staff can attend schools daily. A constituent told me that their young person would be better off flying from Shetland to their mainland university for a day each week, rather than spending most of their time isolated, away from home, struggling and learning online in small and expensive student accommodation.
We do not want to have high drop-out rates in education as another consequence of the crisis. We need to have everyone contributing to the recovery from the pandemic.
As a member of the Covid committees in both the previous and present sessions of Parliament, it has been interesting for me to see how things have changed. The present committee was keen to use today’s debate to strengthen the links with other committees and to try to ensure that we are not overlapping with one another or leaving gaps that someone should be covering. Covid’s impact has been so wide ranging that, as well as the committees that focus on the economy and education, many other committees—in fact, all of them, probably—will have some kind of angle on it. I am keen to see Parliament functioning well and having a joined-up approach as much as we can.
One of the challenges for the COVID-19 Recovery Committee has been to decide exactly what its role is and what its focus should be. It was clearer for the previous Covid committee, which was ably led by Donald Cameron—I do not know who wrote that part of my speech notes—because things were changing so dramatically from week to week that it was almost the case that all that we had to do was react to that. Now that things have settled a bit and seem to be gradually improving, it is all a bit less clear.
I think that we need to accept that, in some sectors at least, full recovery is going to take quite some time. Older people who might have travelled overseas as tourists both to and from Scotland may well be wary for some time about making such trips, and that will impact on the tourism sector. Most obviously, the NHS cannot possibly get waiting times back to normal any time soon—and I note what we have heard about the waiting times in the justice system. I accept that that is hard to hear for people who are waiting for hip replacements or similar non-emergency procedures, but I do not think that there is any quick way round it.
I will move on to some more specific issues. We face a number of challenges as we go into the winter, but one that concerns me is the number of people who are still not getting their vaccinations and those who are arguing against either the existence of Covid or the vaccines as the main way of tackling it. I accept that our overall vaccination rates are very good and stand comparison with those of most other countries, and I certainly do not want to see vaccination being made mandatory. However, we see a hesitancy or a reluctance to get vaccinated in certain quarters, especially among some ethnic minorities and in poorer areas. Health services have always found it harder to reach younger men in constituencies such as mine, and I do not have an easy answer to that. The committee will focus on some of those issues next Thursday.
More serious is the fact that some people, for whatever reason, spread misinformation or downright false statements about Covid and the vaccines. That is perhaps seen most clearly on social media, but I do not entirely blame social media for it. Twitter, Facebook et cetera have been extremely useful for all of us and for the health services in communicating with the public.
However, let us remember that we all have a role to play as MSPs in supporting and building trust in our health services. Of course we need to be asking questions of Government and others about how the pandemic is being handled. Mistakes will inevitably be made and it is right that they are explored and learned from, but we all need to be careful not undermine the tremendous work that our doctors, nurses and other health staff are doing.
Looking further ahead, there is still a lot that we do not know. Will most office workers return to their offices over time? If they do, will they return full time or just for some of the time? We are not yet sure about the answers to those questions, but they will have a huge impact on our town and city centres and on our public transport, especially if there are no longer the peak time rushes that there used to be.
Finally, I thank those who have supported the previous and current Covid committees. In particular, being able to regularly question people such as Gregor Smith, Jason Leitch, Linda Bauld and Helen Stagg, to name but four, has been both a great opportunity and a great privilege.
I will focus my remarks on the most recent comments that have been made by the business community, which build on exactly what it told us five or six weeks ago, when we had our previous Covid debate in this chamber. Business is still very much of the view that, although minimising the Covid threat absolutely has to be the priority, especially with the dangerous new omicron variant, the second priority must be developing our ability to secure a strong economic recovery that is sustainable in not just in the short term but the years ahead. That economic growth is absolutely critical not just for jobs, investment and tax revenues, but to encourage the greater economic optimism that we all so desperately need.
What is the business community—whether that is the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry, the Scottish Retail Consortium or the Federation of Small Businesses—asking for as it faces up to the on-going pandemic, supply chain issues, the increased cost of living and national insurance increases? First and foremost, those organisations are very much talking about making their businesses secure for the future.
The FSB—of course, it is small business Saturday this weekend—is very clear that to complement the existing measures that have been agreed by this Parliament, we need a package of discrete measures to assist with the small business recovery. I have a great deal of sympathy with that, because small businesses are very much the bedrock of our economy and they have been at the heart of our local communities during the pandemic—I know that the Deputy First Minister recognises that in his constituency, and Richard Leonard referred to it in his remarks this afternoon. That is why the Scottish Chambers of Commerce has been so strong about the need to revitalise our towns and cities not just with short-term measures such as extending the business rates relief and the small business bonus scheme, but with longer-term measures, too.
The Scottish Government should be credited with showing some generosity in its approach over the past financial year, in that it permitted some business rates relief. I hope that that will be true in next week’s budget as well.
Business is keen to remind us that, although the short-term measures are helpful, they will not be nearly enough. The Chambers of Commerce and the CBI want to see reform of the non-domestic rates system and the planning system, and the FRC wants reform of the commercial property market. Of course, it is absolutely essential that Scotland is not at any competitive tax disadvantage with anywhere else, including England.
It is noticeable how much business is focusing on upskilling, training and building an effective digital infrastructure. We know that unemployment has not risen quite in the way that we were once expecting, and we also know that job vacancies are higher than expected, which clearly tells us that there are some mismatches on skills in the economy and perhaps a lack of flexibility in the labour force. It would be helpful if the Scottish Government could spell out exactly what it will do to address some of those labour issues as quickly as possible.
The critical issue is the provision of greater certainty and stability—I think that those are the words that Kate Forbes used—when it comes to economic policy making. We need a much more coherent and holistic approach to policy making, to ensure that Scotland remains fully competitive with other economies. People in business want a Scottish Government that fully engages with them, not one that just gives them a quick phone call to tell them that some new regulations will be coming out in a few days’ time. They want a Scottish Government that brings a clarity of purpose to business support and planning ahead, and a Government that provides clear supporting evidence to underpin the decisions that it is making, because those decisions are absolutely crucial if we are going to have public trust in the way forward from Covid. We know that there has been a great deal of confusion and contradiction in that regard at times, so clarity of purpose is vital.
Next week’s budget, of course, presents us with an opportunity. I look forward to responding to the budget statement and to the engagement process between stages 1 and 3 after Christmas.
We face our second winter and second Christmas having to deal with Covid. Everyone is tired of the personal impact and the impact that it is having on our local and national services. The discovery of the omicron variant is, of course, worrying and it will be a few weeks before we discover the full impact.
We all have to play our part in keeping the virus under control. As the First Minister indicated on Tuesday, the vaccination programme is our best line of defence. We all need to play our part in our constituencies to ensure that as many people as possible get vaccinated. We heard this morning that our booster programme is the best performing in the UK. Lateral flow testing needs to be a regular occurrence for us all, not only when we go to events and socialise but outwith such activity.
Only yesterday, a poll by Ipsos MORI showed that 84 per cent of the people who were asked held a favourable opinion of the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic. Clearly, the messaging on the vaccine booster programme and on adherence to rules and regulations is working.
Prior to vaccination, Covid had a very telling impact in a number of ways and across all sectors of life in Scotland, including in my constituency of East Lothian. In retail, many of our high streets were closed for months on end. That impacted not only on those businesses but on the supply chain. Our highly successful tourism trade struggled as the visitor tap was turned off overnight. This week, I have met representatives of the aviation sector and Marc Crothall from the Scottish Tourism Alliance. Both sectors are recovering, but they need their pipeline of visitors in order to build up for summer 2022.
In caring for our most vulnerable, our community resilience teams have worked amazingly over the months during the pandemic. I know that, in my constituency, they are ready to step up again. I thank Volunteer Centre East Lothian and the area partnerships.
A few months ago, I brought forward a members’ business debate on mental health. Covid has exacerbated that issue and has highlighted other inequalities in our society. My office manager, Lyn Jardine, made a very good point in recent meetings with anti-poverty groups. We have often heard in discussions that some groups in society are difficult to reach; she pointed out that we should talk about them as being easy to ignore. We must continue to reach out to all our communities and ensure that no one is left behind.
Of course, the most important issue that we face is in relieving the pressures on our care and health services. The care sector has been impacted by Brexit, as have our hospitality, farming and logistics industries. The pool of available people has been reduced, due to Brexit, and that has placed pressures on our care services.
The recent announcement by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on boosters for all age groups will, of course, require resources in staff and buildings across East Lothian, Scotland and the UK. The vaccine programme in Scotland has saved an amazing estimated 27,000 lives. East Lothian’s share of that is more than 500 people whose lives have been saved. We just have to look at the large increases in cases across Europe to see what happens if vaccinations fall behind. The balancing act between staffing hospitals and vaccination booster centres is a very difficult one. The quicker we can reduce pressures on the NHS nationally and recruit additional staff, the quicker we will return to a more sustainable delivery of services.
In conclusion, all of us in this building and everyone in Scotland must adhere to the guidelines more than ever. We must get the vaccine, wear masks, wash our hands and test regularly. We owe that to our retailers, our tourism sector, our voluntary sector and, most importantly, our care and NHS workers.
On Monday, the First Minister addressed the country and offered new advice on Covid-19. Once again, we are at a significant moment in the pandemic. In that update, the First Minister announced that the first cases of the new omicron variant had been detected here in Scotland, including in Glasgow, which I represent. The First Minister told people in Scotland to redouble their efforts to suppress the virus. The same must be true for the Scottish Government. We must see prompt action, which must be taken with us all—and the long term—in mind.
We must avoid a situation whereby people are left without the support that they need in order to live or the income that they need in order to get by. The pandemic, and all that has come with it, has had a disproportionately detrimental impact on women, unpaid carers, black and minority ethnic people, poorer people, older people and disabled people. It has also had a disproportionate impact on the people of Glasgow. For those groups, things were already impossibly hard before the pandemic, but the pandemic has made things worse.
I have made it my mission to be a voice for the people who have been left behind. Our unpaid carers are one such group. They are terrified at what lies ahead. Families are having care packages cut as local authorities ask relatives to step up and step in where social care has been stopped and not yet reinstated. The social care system is not ready, prepared or resourced for another wave of Covid-19. As a result, unpaid carers, who are predominantly women, will bear the brunt. They are already broken. We cannot continue to lock down social care services with no end in sight. We need an effective track and trace system—something that we have not really had—to protect people from the virus and allow us to remobilise key services such as social care.
When I talk to carers, they tell me that they feel abandoned, let down and forgotten. Last week, one unpaid carer said of the decision to live with Covid that unpaid carers had been
“sacrificed at the altar of economic growth.”
The pandemic has had a huge impact on disabled people’s human rights too. Inclusion Scotland has said that it is
“not just the” direct and
“catastrophic impact of the virus” itself that has had an impact on disabled people, but the
“Inaction, turmoil and ... indifference to our lived experience”, which has shut them out and left them behind.
Too many decisions have been taken about those groups without them. I have said many times in the chamber that our recovery journey must not repeat those mistakes. We must take all those groups with us, and that includes ensuring that decisions that are made as a result of the new variant and the need to double down on our efforts once more are made with the wellbeing of those who have been hardest hit in mind.
That includes our financial wellbeing. The First Minister set out new guidance that, should test and trace contact us, we must self-isolate, regardless of our vaccination status. That marks a significant change in the guidance. The difference now is that we are faced with no furlough, and much of the support and protection has gone. We do, however, have the benefit of hindsight. We can learn from where we went wrong, perhaps understandably, and where things did not work, and we can support those who were left behind through this uncertain moment.
That starts with ensuring that anyone who needs to self-isolate is able to do so without fear of losing out on income. Affordability must not be a barrier to isolation. That is why I have written to the Scottish Government this week to ask it to update eligibility for the self-isolation support grant to include people who are advised by NHS track and trace to self-isolate, which will now be not just those who are unvaccinated. That is merely reverting to previous guidance. There cannot be additional restrictions without additional resources. The public are doing all that they can to protect themselves and each other, and the Government must do the same and ensure that everyone, regardless of their income, is able to follow the First Minister’s guidance safely without putting themselves at risk of ill health or hardship.
We cannot force people to choose between paying the bills and surviving the virus. There is much that we still do not know about the virus, but we have known from very early on that it does not discriminate in who it affects and that, without proper support, the impacts are felt disproportionately by those who already face significant disadvantage. I hope that the Government will consider my proposal seriously and give people confidence in the new guidance, and that it will reflect carefully on those who have lost the most this year and learn from that, listen to those people and take action to protect us all.
I place on record my thanks to the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, which is convened by my colleague Siobhian Brown, and to all the committee conveners for their contributions today. All have made some important contributions to our understanding of how the public, whom we serve, are feeling about the current situation.
I was privileged to serve on the COVID-19 Committee in the previous session of Parliament, which was very ably chaired by Donald Cameron. It was established pretty much as an emergency committee to consider the changes and regulations that were brought in to try to cope with and thwart the virus as it spread throughout the country.
We have come through the early lockdown and the various levels of restrictions in different parts of Scotland, the emergence and life-saving impact of the vaccine, and the gradual reopening of the economy, if I can put it like that, yet Covid is very much still here.
In the three full months since September, there have been more than 270,000 new positive cases in Scotland, which is 37 per cent of the entire case numbers. There have been just under 1,500 deaths, which is 14 per cent of all deaths. That is just in the past three months. If there is anything that we should learn about the virus, it must surely be that it will find a way to mutate and keep spreading. That is why we need to keep a step ahead of it—to rely on science and the advice from our experts, and to take the measures that we think will protect our population, save lives and help to ensure that our NHS does not become overrun.
I think back to the start of the pandemic and the tragic scenes in Italy that we surely all must remember. There were large numbers of people dying; communities in fear and in isolation; people singing from balconies to try to recover some kind of community spirit; and people experiencing the heartbreak of losing family members without being able to see them. I recall looking at Italy’s figures at that time and thinking, “This could kill 500 people in Scotland.” I also recall someone writing, “This is what’s coming our way next,” and come it did.
Now look where we are: we have lost nearly 10,000 people directly to the virus, but it could have been so many more—possibly 27,000 more—without the vaccine and the baseline protection measures that we have had to put in place. Make no mistake, we are still in a battle to save lives. The virus has not gone and it is still killing people every day in Scotland and all over the world. Yesterday, we lost another 27 people to this dreadful virus.
The COVID-19 Recovery Committee is right to be considering how we prepare for winter and looking ahead at what our priorities for recovery should be. It is deliberating on issues such as how to have effective ventilation and CO2 monitors in our schools, offices, businesses and homes in the middle of the Scottish winter. We have heard some of that debate today.
It was good to hear the testimony of members of the Scottish Youth Parliament on their thoughts and concerns. I ask the committee to keep taking such evidence as it carries on its work.
We owe the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, the various experts who offer it advice and the parliamentary staff who support it a huge debt of gratitude for the vital work that they are carrying out on our behalf. We are all doing what we can on our committees.
As we move into winter and grapple with the new omicron variant, I sincerely hope that the members of the Parliament will come together, in the main, to agree how best to promote the public health measures that are needed in order to save lives. We dare not drop our guard—far too many lives depend on us getting it right.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and will focus my remarks on how we can help public health to recover from the pandemic. The omicron variant is a painful reminder that we are not out of the woods yet and that Covid-19 is still a very real threat. The Greens have been clear that we need to take a precautionary approach and ensure that a range of mitigation and health protections are in place, including a robust test and trace system, asymptomatic testing and PCR testing for international travellers.
It is indisputable that the pandemic has put severe and serious pressures on all areas of health and social care. Once again, I thank all those who have worked so hard during the pandemic.
Before the pandemic, Scotland was known for its poor public health. The “sick man of Europe” moniker has been hard to shake off. As I have said before, in this session, I would like the Parliament to be the public health Parliament. We need a renewed focus on improving people’s standard of living and tackling non-communicable diseases. We should be building on people’s increased awareness of their health, which has arisen from the pandemic.
We know that inequality is a main driver of poor health and, as we have heard, the current rise in the cost of living has put a real squeeze on incomes. Everyone has the right to an adequate income to live on, and the Greens have long supported a universal basic income. At the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, we heard from Professor Sir Harry Burns and others about the positive impact that such a policy could have on health and wellbeing. Although our preference would be for a UBI, I am pleased to see that work on a minimum income guarantee is under way. I look forward to monitoring progress on that.
During the earlier part of the pandemic, we saw that emissions fell significantly along certain routes as we took fewer car journeys. Many of those routes are seeing a return to normal and those living, working and playing along them are again being subjected to a high level of pollution. As part of our recovery and to improve health, we need to tackle environmental harm such as air pollution, as well as health-harming products.
We know that more people have been drinking at home during the pandemic and that that is contributing to more alcohol-related deaths, which increased by 17 per cent in 2020. We need to address the ubiquity of alcohol. Given that we are constantly told of the health benefits of sport—and rightly so—why do we allow alcohol brands to sponsor sporting events? That seems counterproductive to say the least, particularly when combined with the fact that more people are engaging with sport at home, where we know that more drinking has been taking place. That also has impacts on children in households.
I have expressed my support for the uprating of minimum unit pricing. The policy was bold when it was introduced, but in order for it to continue to have an impact, we must ensure that it keeps up with inflation. I would also like to see mandatory unit calorie and ingredient labelling as well as prominent health warnings on alcohol products, so that people can be better informed about what they are consuming. We put calorie and ingredient labels on food and other drinks and we need to ensure that alcohol is not the exception to the rule.
Turning to mental health, we know the impact that the pandemic has had on mental wellbeing. The Greens are clear that everyone should have access to the support and treatment that are right for them, whether that be medication, counselling, social prescribing or in-patient treatment. We want treatment options to be diversified, particularly in the community. People should be able to access services through their GP surgery, for example. We also need to make better use of social prescribing. Clinicians’ time to engage with social prescribing was limited before the pandemic and, as we know, health services are under more pressure than ever. The provision of social prescribing can also be patchy.
Alongside an expansion in provision, I would like it to be made easier for clinicians and other professionals to signpost patients to resources and for patients to self-refer. I hope that community mental health link workers will play an important part in that.
While we deal with the on-going impact of the pandemic, it is never too early to set out our positive vision for Scotland. Now is the time to implement bold and radical policies to improve Scotland’s public health now and for generations to come.
As members who serve on committees of the Parliament will know, there is no doubt that Covid has put a massive strain on our public services. The Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament have passed sweeping new laws that have given local authorities, health boards, the courts and other public agencies emergency powers to respond to the pandemic. That has allowed them to act quickly in the eye of the storm, often with little or no consultation. However, that is not an approach that any democratically elected representative should be comfortable with.
I want to touch on two issues, both of which are relevant to my constituents in South Scotland, and both of which are in East Lothian. Both show the risks and the damage that can be done when public authorities act with little or no consultation.
The first issue concerns the future of Edington cottage hospital in North Berwick. I hope that the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee will look into that. That hospital is a valuable local resource. It has nine beds for respite and palliative care and a minor injuries clinic. However, it was closed—albeit temporarily—by NHS Lothian in September with no consultation. There was no consultation with GPs or local residents, or even with the Friends of the Edington Hospital. The decision was taken by NHS Lothian and the East Lothian health and social care partnership under emergency gold command powers.
The health board says that the move was taken to ease pressures that were caused by high levels of absence due to sickness and self-isolation as a result of Covid. However, we know that patients do better when they are in their own communities, which is why local health services are so important. That is why 97 per cent of the 1,929 residents who participated in a recent survey that I conducted said that they wanted the hospital to be reopened.
I raise that issue now because NHS Lothian will review the future of Edington cottage hospital next week. So far, the local health authorities’ and the Government’s engagement levels have been poor. At a recent meeting, Paul McLennan MSP said that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care had agreed to meet local campaigners but, as of just a few moments ago, the chairman of the community council was still waiting for a reply to the request for a meeting. I hope that Mr McLennan has not overpromised or that Humza Yousaf will not underdeliver.
An email that offers dates has been sent to the community council this afternoon. I am quite happy to forward that email to Mr Hoy. A request that asks for feedback on dates has been sent to the community council this afternoon.
I have just been in touch with the chairman of the community council, who has pointed out that there are just four working days until the decision on the hospital will be taken. She had not heard anything at that point. However, I very much welcome the fact that the cabinet secretary will reach out. In fact, there will be a meeting at 6 pm tonight. I have the Zoom link, and I would be very happy to forward that, via the Deputy First Minister, to the
The second issue of concern locally is the X5 bus. Again, this development took place with very little or no consultation. In early October, my office contacted East Coast Buses, which issued a standard response outlining the reasons for the continued withdrawal of the X5 service. They included challenges with recruitment, the need to prioritise key services and the focus on delivering the 124 service. I recognise those challenges, but I also recognise that they apply to all routes across the whole of the Lothians, and that they are not confined to the X5 route. I hope that East Coast Buses will engage further with me, other local MSPs and local communities.
Both of those cases reveal the real risks of using emergency powers in the long term. I hope that, once we emerge from Covid, committees of the Parliament will look into that to ensure that local communities’ voices are heard, even during emergency situations.
Today’s debate is very welcome. Trying to sum it up, with the huge scope and variety of issues raised, is a challenge in itself, although it is a very small one in comparison with the many that the whole country faces, which we have heard about today in all the speeches.
Early in the debate, I was struck by Gillian Martin’s continued use of the phrase, “As we look towards recovery”. For many of us, this week, in particular, that feels like a distant horizon, given the advent of the omicron variant and the challenges that we can anticipate, although we still hope that they can be avoided. If, God willing, the results of the current research into the new strain come back in a more positive vein, some of the plans that we have been talking about today may be more possible in the near future.
John Mason spoke about the challenge of balancing the two competing topics of recovery and management, both in the Parliament and in the functions of Government. It is a question of what we are trying to do. The answer, of course, is both, but that is a particularly pressing challenge for the Government to manage. We are absolutely clear about the scale of the present challenge that people are continuing to face throughout Scotland—in our public services, in our households and in our communities.
Jackie Baillie was incredibly eloquent—as usual—and was very much grounded in the reality that people are facing in the NHS and in our social care services. Beatrice Wishart spoke about universities and the challenges that people are facing in having to travel or in doing online learning. I hope that universities are able to open up more broadly.
Pam Duncan-Glancy spoke about the challenge of disabled Scots and the absence of respite services, not just in Glasgow, as she described, but in my home city of Dundee, where those services have not been reactivated, and they have not been part of the remobilisation, which presents huge challenges for people across Scotland and for families who are often the hardest pushed.
When we talk about the scale of the challenge now, we might also think about the huge disruption that we know will leave a very long legacy and that we will collectively have to try to manage.
Audrey Nicoll described the challenges in the justice system, including the huge backlog in the number of cases. I think she gave the figures of 1,330, rising to more than 3,000. Those are staggering figures. Audrey Nicoll was right to highlight the point that behind every single one of those cases are the families of a victim and people who are seeking justice and some form of resolution that will allow them to move on with their lives. I have dealt with constituents who have already been waiting for years—and Covid has come to them as yet another barrier to the emotional resolution that they are hoping for. It is right that the Criminal Justice Committee has taken a close view of that.
I did not hear much about what the solutions to that might be. In recent years, the closure of local courts across Scotland, which has removed capacity from our local communities to deal with those situations, has contributed to that backlog. We need a concerted effort from Government so that we can see what can be done about that.
We have discussed the situation in education, and the education challenges that we face in this country were highlighted. I have huge concerns about the Covid cohort of young people who are coming through our schools, particularly those in transition as they go into primary school or into secondary school, or as they leave secondary school. Without familiarisation with their new environment they can struggle to adapt. Trade unions have approached me and said that we require a programme to address such needs urgently. There is little evidence that that is happening, however.
I will close by talking about Mr Swinney’s focus on inequality, which he said has to be at the heart of our recovery process. I will believe that when I see it, because, during the pandemic, there was an election in which Mr Swinney’s party stood on a manifesto of regressive taxation, and it has not been an ally to those of us who have argued for a fairer society through our approach to taxation and by using the resources of this country to create a more equal society.
Next week, his Government will be judged on what it does on pay for carers and whether it meets the £15 per hour demand. That can be the first step that we put in place to ensure that we begin to build out of this situation, give people respect and realise some of the warm words instead of the cold comfort that we have seen from this Government in recent times.
I am delighted to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives.
I have always tried to remember that we are called the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, and that we need to start looking beyond the current pandemic, with an eye on how we enable society to recover, where necessary, and get back to a more normal pattern of life.
In our private briefing this morning, I suggested to our advisers that the emergence of the omicron variant was predicted, given that most viruses mutate; that the pattern would probably continually repeat as we move forward; and that the battleground would be in science and medicine as we make sure that vaccinations and treatments stay ahead of those mutations. However, it became apparent that the omicron variant matches a scenario that is worse than was previously modelled by medical science. That means that Governments need to balance their response to the omicron Covid strain while medical science investigates it alongside transmission rates, serious illness potential and the impact on the NHS as well as vaccine effectiveness.
Several members, including Beatrice Wishart, raised education during the debate. Governments must consider how school pupils can recover their education. Despite the huge efforts of teachers, and with the best will in the world, online learning is unlikely to be as effective, academically and socially, as face-to-face learning. That is demonstrated starkly in the rise of poor mental health, with one teach telling me that one in 10 pupils has been referred for mental health issues.
In considering mental health, as an aside, I note that protecting our outdoor learning sector is paramount. We cannot afford to lose that educational tool, so I ask the Scottish Government to support the sector. School heads are desperate to use outdoor learning, but insurance costs are now prohibitive, as Liz Smith and I heard just yesterday.
John Mason discussed how we balance the challenges. I have asked the Deputy First Minister and Professor Leitch several times about the balance between taking steps to prevent and treat Covid and dealing with the rising issue of non-Covid-related conditions. Cancer identification, chronic pain and many other conditions have a mortality attached to them. The current national death rate sits at about 12 per cent above what is expected, and much of that increase is not due to Covid. That is a dilemma, and I fully recognise that the Government faces that pull between treating Covid conditions and treating non-Covid conditions. However, it is incumbent on the Scottish Government to collect the data. In his speech, Sandesh Gulhane recognised that we must collect data on as many conditions as possible, because that would undoubtedly help map the journey ahead and prepare us for what might be coming. As an example, I highlight the need to collect data on the stage at which cancer is being diagnosed now, in comparison with pre-Covid times. That would allow crucial workforce planning to happen and give our NHS an indication of where resource will be needed.
I am focusing on recovery—post-Covid, if you like, although it is unlikely that there will ever be a true post-Covid period. I asked Professor Leitch for his estimate of when normality would return and he suggested that it would be next spring for the UK and five years globally. I am sure that that estimate will have been revised already.
In focusing on recovery, I recognise the real and present danger that Governments face here and now in tackling Covid. However, recover we must. We must move on from the current scenario. It cannot continue indefinitely, especially if we are to continue to take the public with us.
My ask of the Scottish Government is that, as it works to tackle Covid, it is always aware of non-Covid health issues, educational recovery and economic recovery, and that it has a route map out of the worst of Covid. In the end, we have to believe that vaccines and medical interventions will deliver our pathway out of Covid. What happens next must be planned for.
This debate was initiated by the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, which it has been my privilege to appear regularly before since the election; I appeared before its predecessor committee on some occasions prior to the election as well.
I agree with Willie Coffey’s comments about the role of the committee; I will come back to some of his further comments in a moment. The committee offers a generally thoughtful place to reflect on the difficult dilemmas that are at the heart of handling the Covid-19 pandemic. I say a “generally thoughtful place”, because sometimes some committee members just cannot help themselves, but I, as always, am on my best behaviour in those situations.
In Mr Coffey’s reflections on the work of the committee, one of his important points was that he learned, from the expert opinion that the committee has heard from many sources, the importance of not lowering our guard against Covid at any stage. Those are particularly wise words for us to reflect on in this debate, because, at different stages over the past 18 months or so, there have been moments when we could have felt incredibly optimistic about the situation that lay ahead of us, only to have a development come along to challenge us. Just last week—a week past Tuesday—the Cabinet, in its assessment of the pandemic, took a fundamentally optimistic view of where we were. That view was reflected in the First Minister’s statement to Parliament that afternoon, but, by Thursday afternoon, we were dealing with the hard realities of omicron and what it can do to drive the path of the virus. Mr Coffey put on the record some very important words about not lowering our guard at any stage.
Another central point about the COVID-19 Recovery Committee’s work is that it airs the dilemmas that lie at the heart of handling Covid. Its predecessor committee heard from me, as the Parliament has on many occasions, about our development of the four harms framework in the summer of 2020. We developed it because we had taken dramatic action to lock down our society and economy in March 2020 for everything other than essential purposes, and we had to have a means of establishing the safest route out of that and of navigating a way through. Therefore, we created the four harms framework, which acknowledged the relationship that exists between the direct health harm of Covid, the non-Covid health harms in our society, and the economic and social harms that could be created. Mr Whittle has regularly revisited the questions about non-Covid health harms; indeed, we rehearsed some of them again at committee this morning.
Those honest dilemmas are difficult to resolve. I will share one illustration that I presented to the committee today. One body of opinion can pressurise us to speed up the vaccination programme, which could involve taking staff out of elective care to put into that programme, at the same time that another body of opinion is quite legitimately asking for more elective care.
Those are the dilemmas that we have to honestly air. Indeed, we have heard about some of them during the debate. Pam Duncan-Glancy talked about the fact that carers feel sacrificed at the altar of economic growth, while Liz Smith argued for our getting on with delivering economic growth. Those are some of the dilemmas that have to be wrestled with, and they are at the heart of the way in which we navigate our recovery from Covid.
Liz Smith added to the debate the aspirations of the business community that we minimise the impact of the virus while securing recovery and growth. I suppose that I agree with both those aspirations. However, we will probably not be able to agree with everything that the business community wants, because we want both those aspirations to have the same volume. Fundamentally, as a minister, I have to ensure that the public are protected from the impact of Covid to enable us to move on to economic growth.
Pam Duncan-Glancy’s point drew out the fact that we can try to make progress on the recovery of our society but, to use her words, that risks saying to carers that their interests do not carry as much weight as the move towards delivering economic recovery.
The unpaid carers made the point last week not only that they were not involved in discussions, which is a point that we should not lose, but that health and social care services remain locked down while so much else seems to be open. That has an impact on them: they are providing unpaid care and support to family members at a time when social care services are not back up and running in a way that other areas of the economy and society are.
That is an entirely reasonable and understandable point for unpaid carers to make. Although I am certain that there will be dialogue with unpaid carers’ organisations, I will ensure that that is the case as a consequence of the debate and the issues that have been raised in it.
A range of different tools are available to us as a society to deal with the challenges of Covid and to enable us to make progress in recovering our society while meeting the challenge of not lowering our guard. That involves us all participating in the baseline measures: hand hygiene, cough etiquette and physical distancing. It also involves the use and maximisation of the vaccination programme. That incredibly successful programme is delivered by hard-working people, and the result is that, on every possible permutation of the programme, we are leading vaccination levels in the United Kingdom. There is a huge amount to be confident about in the resilience that we have in place.
One other tool that it would be helpful to have is financial flexibility. Pam Duncan-Glancy made the point that financial support should be provided in the absence of furlough. That is precisely why, in the aftermath of the discovery of the omicron variant, the First Minister, along with the First Minister of Wales, wrote to the Prime Minister to indicate the need for us to have sufficient financial flexibility to tackle such issues.
I mentioned the letter that I have written to the Government, asking whether it would review the criteria for the self-isolation support grant so that money is available to people if they need to self-isolate and whether it would change that grant to account for new guidance on the omicron variant.
We will consider those issues carefully. The self-isolation support grant is material to ensuring that people who are not in a financially strong position are able to fully comply with the self-isolation arrangements. That, of course, is material to interrupting the spread of the virus. Pam Duncan-Glancy is right that we must ensure that that tool is effective in interrupting the spread of the virus.
I am pleased that the Government has agreed that the tackling of inequality must be at the heart of the Covid recovery strategy. Mr Marra knows that he and I part company on the rhetoric that he adds to the debate. The first big test of Labour’s commitment to take measures on child poverty will be whether it decides to support the Government in doubling the child payment from April next year. That will be the big test of the budget. We will wait and see whether we get any rhetoric out of the Labour Party about that.
If, in the spring of next year, the Labour Party decides to find another excuse not to vote for the Government’s budget and not to support doubling the child payment, that will say to all the children and families around our country who live in poverty that it is more interested in political rhetoric than it is in putting in place the practical solutions to tackle poverty. The Government will have no truck with that, because it is prepared to put its money where its mouth is to tackle child poverty. We will see whether the Labour Party is with us.
I look forward to those generous seven minutes. How splendid.
As deputy convener of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, I am delighted to close the debate and thank all the members who have contributed. I listened with great interest—in particular, to the contributions that mentioned the important Covid-19 scrutiny work that is done in committees other than our own.
During our inquiry into the baseline health protection measures, it has been helpful to hear from people who work in health and social care services, in the hospitality, business and leisure sectors, in schools and in a range of other different environments, about how the measures that have been put in place have affected them and how they have sought to adapt.
Like the convener, I have been struck by how effective some relatively simple measures can be in reducing the spread of the virus. I hope that our evidence sessions and the debate will have helped to highlight those measures.
As politicians, we have strong opinions and differing views about the baseline health protection measures that the Scottish Government should put in place. It is no secret that some of us have different views on the place of vaccination passports, for example. In the main, the debate has been free of party-political division, with the exception of the contribution of the Deputy First Minister, who did his best to wind up the debate.
Willie Coffey made some important points about the challenges that we face. The country faces a unique public health challenge, so it is right that everybody should try to work together in so far as we can. Although we will disagree at times on the approach that is taken, in most cases there is more that unites us than divides us.
I want to respond to a few of the points that members have made. We heard from a succession of committee conveners. I do not know the collective term for committee conveners—a cacophony of conveners, perhaps. It is interesting that there were many common themes.
Several members spoke about health. Gillian Martin highlighted, in particular, the issues around the workforce in health and social care, who are under unprecedented strain. In our committee a few weeks ago, Donald Macaskill from Scottish Care talked about the issues in social care, and about the big problem of experienced care workers leaving the care service because of pay and conditions, which clearly need to be addressed.
Sandesh Gulhane talked about innovation in medical care and the opportunity that it provides. We can perhaps learn from some of the things that have been done differently over the past year and build on that learning in the future.
Many members talked about the vaccination programme. Jackie Baillie raised concerns about the programme, which we discussed in our committee this morning, and Beatrice Wishart highlighted the importance of vaccines.
A few members—Richard Leonard, Paul McLennan and Gillian Mackay—talked about mental health, which is too often forgotten. They mentioned concern about a rise in mental health issues, which lockdown restrictions and isolation have exacerbated—in particular, in their impact on young people—and that we should consider the funding of CAMHS.
Several members spoke about the economy. Finlay Carson, Claire Baker and Kenneth Gibson, as committee conveners, highlighted the need for on-going business support, and Liz Smith talked about what might be done in the upcoming budget in relation to on-going rates relief for sectors that have been hit hard.
Claire Baker made an important point about debt. Many businesses have built up substantial debt over the past two years, which is a challenge, because we need businesses to be able to invest in order to move on delivery of our net zero ambitions. That process will be difficult for them if they are already carrying substantial levels of debt from the experience that they have had over the past 18 months.
Finlay Carson talked about the impact on rural communities. One of the interesting things that he said was that changes in working patterns are driving the population out of cities. There are people who, previously, had to work in a city centre, perhaps for five days a week, who might now have shifted to a working pattern in which they are expected to be in the office one or two days a week, which means that they no longer need to live within daily commuting distance of a city centre. I know of several families who have moved out of Edinburgh into Fife, Perthshire or West Lothian because they can afford to buy a nicer house in a nice community setting, now that they no longer have to make a daily commute into Edinburgh.
If we want to encourage that—it is a positive thing for many rural communities—it requires improved connectivity, good transport links, good broadband and, as Finlay Carson said, improved rural services such as access to GP practices. That will be significant as we consider the way in which the economy will develop in the years ahead. Craig Hoy picked up local issues that are impacting people whom he represents and that arise directly from that issue.
We see a significant role for local government in the Covid recovery. Ariane Burgess referred to that in her speech and made important points about local government’s need for finance, for certainty in order to be able to plan ahead and, in particular, for multiyear budgeting. We look forward to the Scottish Government’s budget next week, when we will hear how the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy will respond to some of those points.
Richard Leonard and Pam Duncan-Glancy talked about communities and tackling inequality, and about how that will be really important as we move forward and rebuild society in the wake of Covid.
Audrey Nicoll talked about another aspect of our public services: justice. She highlighted the impact that Covid has had on that public service, with 3,500 delayed trials, a substantially increased prison population and many more prisoners on remand, and an enormous emotional impact on the victims of crime and people who are waiting to give evidence as witnesses, especially people who are victims of crimes such as domestic abuse or sexual offences. There is a major social impact in that.
We talked a bit about what is happening in schools. Richard Leonard referred to the long-term impact that the pandemic has had on pupils’ learning—especially pupils in deprived areas and those with additional support needs—and the negative impact that the pandemic has had on attempts to close the attainment gap.
We can agree that, as we move into the winter, we now face a new and unexpected challenge from the omicron variant. At this stage, we do not know exactly what that has in store for us and we do not know how serious it will be. It is right that we take a precautionary approach, as Governments across the United Kingdom are doing, which means us all adhering to the current baseline health protection measures that are at the heart of the work that the COVID-19 Recovery Committee has been doing.
I close by echoing the convener’s words: we owe it to the people of Scotland to ensure that there is strong parliamentary scrutiny of the measures that are proposed by the Scottish Government in response to the pandemic. Today’s debate has helped to enhance that scrutiny.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. As a new member, I seek your guidance. During the debate that we have just had, I said that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, who I see has now joined us in the chamber, had not yet been in contact with North Berwick community council in respect of the closure of Edington cottage hospital.
In an exchange with me, Paul McLennan said that the cabinet secretary had, in fact, been in touch to set a date. Immediately following that, I received an email that was sent directly to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care from the chairman of the community council, who said:
“Hi Humza, I am watching the live parliamentary meeting. Craig Hoy MSP has stated that we are still awaiting a reply with a meeting date from yourself. However, Paul McLennan MSP rebutted this by advising that meeting dates had been sent to me earlier this afternoon. To confirm, I have received no emails from yourself or your office with dates. However, we would very much welcome this at your earliest convenience.”
Now that the cabinet secretary is here, he might be able to say whether a meeting confirmation has been issued. If not, Presiding Officer, I seek your guidance as to how I might correct the record, which might be inadvertently inaccurate.
The Presiding Officer:
Please take your seat for the moment, Mr McLennan.
All members are expected to be courteous and respectful in their conduct, which includes being accurate during proceedings. I say to members that, although the point of order mechanism has been used to raise questions about the accuracy of contributions, those are not, in fact, points of order.
Members are responsible for the accuracy of their contributions, and that is not a matter for the Presiding Officer to rule on. As noted earlier, if a member believes that inaccurate information has been provided, there are a number of mechanisms available for the record to be corrected. Those include seeking to make an intervention and inviting the member to reflect on the accuracy of what has been said. If timing does not allow that, the matter could be raised in writing with the member and, if relevant, the point could be pursued in written questions, follow-up questions or by lodging motions for debate. In the event that a member wishes to correct information that they have provided in the course of proceedings, there is a mechanism that enables them to do so.
I would now like to move on.
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I rise to make a point of order in relation to section 1.3(c) of the Scottish ministerial code, noting your previous comments. It sets out the
“importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament”.
On 27 October, the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, Michael Matheson, was addressing the Parliament about ambitions for COP26 when I asked him how many times he had personally met the United Kingdom Government in support of the Acorn project for carbon capture in Aberdeenshire. He informed members that he had done so
“on at least two, if not three, occasions”—[
, 27 October 2021; c 36.]
in “the past month alone”. However, information released as a result of freedom of information requests about the cabinet secretary’s diary shows that no such engagements with the UK Government ever took place, despite the cabinet secretary calling the decision on carbon capture not coming to Aberdeenshire “wholly illogical” and saying that it will
“materially affect the businesses and communities in the north-east of Scotland”.—[
, 26 October; c 55.]
I share those sentiments, but it seems that there was no direct ministerial effort or engagement to persuade the UK Government to invest in that technology in the north-east of Scotland. Our country and my region needs a Scottish Government that is prepared to knock on any door, no matter how little it might like doing so, to make the case for co-operation, new projects and jobs in green industries.
Presiding Officer, what action can you and the Parliament take, given that breach of the ministerial code?
The Presiding Officer:
I know that many members are aware of this, although I appreciate that that may not be the case for all members, but for clarity I reiterate that matters relating to the ministerial code are not standing orders matters and are therefore not for me to rule on. Such matters should rightly be addressed to the First Minister.
Mr McLennan has a point of order.