Covid-19 Restrictions (Christmas)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 20th January 2022.

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Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

1. Does the First Minister agree with Pete Wishart, who is currently the Scottish National Party’s longest serving MP at Westminster, who said earlier this week that it was “a fair point” that her Government had imposed too many Covid restrictions over Christmas?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I am not sure that that is a fair representation of Pete Wishart’s comments.

First, I want to take the opportunity to recognise that Pete Wishart is, I think, Scotland’s longest serving member of Parliament, which goes to show what an outstanding service he does for his constituents. I am sure that Douglas Ross will join me in taking the opportunity to pay tribute to Pete Wishart’s public service.

I think that we introduced a series of balanced protective measures over the Christmas period, which, coupled with the extraordinary response of the public in changing their behaviour and, of course, the extraordinary success of the booster programme, means that we are, thankfully, now in a better position than we might have been when we looked ahead before the Christmas period.

However, we not in a position that allows us any complacency. Covid rates are still high and there are still significant uncertainties ahead, which is why doctors, nurses and national health service managers and trade unions all expressed some concern about yesterday’s announcement by the Prime Minister to lift all restrictions at this stage, including the requirement to wear face coverings.

We will continue to take a proportionate and balanced set of decisions to get through the next—and, I hope, final—phase of the pandemic and to keep the country as safe as we can while we do so.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The First Minister said that what I put to her was not a fair representation of Pete Wishart’s comments. It was a direct quote. When asked whether the First Minister in Scotland had introduced too many Covid restrictions over Christmas, his response was:

“That is a fair point.”

He agreed with the premise of the question.

The First Minister went on to laud Pete Wishart’s parliamentary career; perhaps she could listen to him, when he, an elected SNP representative, said that the restrictions that were imposed over Christmas were too much.

The First Minister imposed restrictions that had a massive impact on jobs, businesses and people’s mental and physical health, but we can now see that they were not needed. It was the Scottish public’s actions, not the SNP Government’s restrictions, that got this right. The First Minister has tried to build a reputation for caution during the pandemic, but she was far too gung-ho in imposing extra restrictions last month. Will she now accept that her Government went too far?

The First Minister:

The public did comply—they complied with what the Government asked them to do.

I think that Douglas Ross is striking rather a desperate note right now. If he is seriously describing Pete Wishart showing—as all elected representatives should—some respect for the point that somebody was making to him as evidence that he agrees with Douglas Ross rather than with the Scottish Government, all that that says to people is that Douglas Ross is showing rather more political desperation than even we thought he might have done.

We have taken a balanced approach.

“Let me just say what I think. At the moment, this cautious approach is the one that we should be taking.”

That is my sentiment, but those are not actually my words. Those are the words of Sandesh Gulhane MSP on BBC Scotland on 7 January. If Douglas Ross is basing his entire line of questioning to me on something that Pete Wishart said, what is his response to his own MSP saying that the cautious approach is

“the one that we should be taking”?

In addition, Professor Susan Michie, who is a member of the United Kingdom Government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies, said:

“Scotland is doing something that is very good from a public health point of view”.

The Scottish approach is in line with the Welsh Government’s approach and the Northern Irish Government’s approach. We are taking a sensible approach through this. That is why infection levels, although they are now, thankfully, dropping in all parts of the UK, are lower in Scotland than they are in England right now. Over the festive period, the number of people who were in hospital was proportionately lower.

We are not out of the woods yet, although things look far more positive. I will continue to take a cautious approach because, frankly, the price of throwing caution to the wind is not paid by Governments; the price of throwing caution to the wind is paid by people across the country in ill health and, in some cases, serious illness and death. I do not think that I should impose that price on the people of Scotland.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Serious illness and death come not only from Covid; they come from restrictions being put in place that have a massive impact on people’s mental and physical health.

We have been living with the pandemic for two years. The First Minister would do better to respond to the points that have been made. She may not like them, but she should answer those points and questions rather than launching personal attacks on Opposition politicians who raise them.

Not only did the First Minister impose unnecessary restrictions, but she actually wanted to go further. Throughout December, the First Minister repeatedly claimed that the UK Government was holding her back from putting Scotland into lockdown again. She wanted to close down the economy, no matter the impact that that would have on Scottish jobs and businesses.

When her restrictions were introduced, the First Minister promised compensation. Now that we are coming out of those restrictions, that compensation still has not been delivered to many businesses. They have not received a single penny. This week, the Federation of Small Businesses said:

“Thousands of Scottish businesses needlessly go under every year because of late payment.”

Will the First Minister accept that her Government is currently the worst offender in Scotland in making late payments?

The First Minister:

No. I say to Douglas Ross that it is the pandemic that is causing the serious impact on businesses and individuals across Scotland, the UK, Europe and the entire world. Much as we might all like to be able to do so—and, believe me, I would love to be able to do so—we cannot just magic that away. No country is able to do that.

Since Douglas Ross returned to this chamber, he has stood here at every key juncture in the management of the pandemic and has opposed the decisions that the Scottish Government has taken, even at times when exactly the same decisions were being taken by his colleagues in the Westminster Government. He has decided to take an entirely opportunistic approach to the handling of a global pandemic. People will judge that, and I do not think that they will judge it kindly.

If we had listened to Douglas Ross over the past months, we would not have had sensible measures such as asking people to wear face coverings. We would not have had other mitigations in our schools. We would not have sensibly advised people to work from home. Therefore, we would not be in the stronger position that we are now, when we are able to lift those protective measures from Monday of next week. Given that Douglas Ross has called it wrong at literally every juncture of the pandemic, forgive me if I do not start listening to him now.

On business support—[

Interruption

.]

Incidentally, on the issue of Opposition politicians quoting people, Douglas Ross opened his line of questioning today by misrepresenting, in my view, Pete Wishart. Then he took issue with the fact that I used a direct quotation from Sandesh Gulhane. I will repeat that direct quote:

“At the moment, this cautious approach is the one that we should be taking.”

On business support, much of that support will not be available to businesses suffering the same impacts south of the border. [

Interruption.

] If Douglas Ross does not think that they are suffering the same impact, I suggest that he needs to get out a little bit more.

All local authorities have begun processing payments. Some have made very good progress and say that they have already paid almost all the hospitality and leisure businesses that are eligible for support. All local authorities are on track to complete 100 per cent of payments to hospitality and leisure businesses that were affected by Christmas cancellations and physical distancing by 31 January. That is support that is available here but not available elsewhere. We will continue to do the right thing by businesses.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The First Minister needs to make her mind up. She accuses the Conservatives of opposing every measure that she puts forward, but then, in the same breath, she accuses the Conservatives of wanting a cautious approach.

It is not opportunistic to trust that the people of Scotland can learn to live with Covid rather than having to live with her Government’s restrictions. Those restrictions are having a massive impact on jobs and on businesses and communities across Scotland, which are not getting the money or the support that they were promised.

The First Minister has got the big decisions wrong over the past few months. She was too quick to bring in unnecessary Covid restrictions, too late to launch mass vaccination centres, too late to change the self-isolation rules and too late to get funding to businesses that need it. The First Minister says that she does not shy away from mistakes that she has made in the handling of the pandemic. Can she finally just admit that, by introducing the tough restrictions here in Scotland before Christmas and by wanting to introduce even tougher restrictions, she has simply made the wrong call?

The First Minister:

I will let the people of Scotland judge the impact of the calls that I and my Government have made, but let me say this: right now, on first doses, second doses, third doses and booster vaccination doses, Scotland is the most vaccinated part of the United Kingdom. If Douglas Ross’s proposition is that we left it too late, what on earth does that say about his colleagues in the Westminster Government?

The Office for National Statistics figures this week show that infection levels in England are over 20 per cent higher than those in Scotland. I do not think that it is a competition, but if Douglas Ross wants to make these comparisons, there is the data.

I say gently to Douglas Ross, because I know that he is having a tough time politically, that it is entirely inconsistent—there is no consistency in this—to say, as his health spokesperson did, that the cautious approach is the one that we should be taking, and then oppose every cautious measure that we choose to take, for opportunistic reasons.

I suggest that Douglas Ross gets his own house in order, perhaps suggesting to more of his colleagues that they obey the rules that are in place when they are in place, and leaves this Government to get on with steering this country responsibly and in a mature, grown-up fashion through the global pandemic.