It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. I am happy to participate today, and I thank Nick Fletcher for opening this wide-ranging debate.
It is important to acknowledge the various concerns and frustrations of all the signatories to the five petitions that we are considering. The extent of what we are debating, from repealing the coronavirus legislation—because the Coronavirus Act 2020 is seen as an existential threat to our rights and freedoms—to closing all early years environments as a way of protecting staff during lockdown, demonstrates the breadth of the worries and uncertainty that the pandemic has created in our lives. The concerns in the petitions reflect the complexities that must be considered as a way out of lockdown is plotted, because we know we cannot continue in lockdown indefinitely or until the vaccination programme is completed.
Conversely, we also know that easing restrictions too fast could mean a rise in transmission of the disease and going back to significant mortality and morbidity and the risk of overwhelming our NHS. Therefore, while acknowledging the petitioners’ concerns during the debate, we should recognise that Governments globally have had to make some difficult choices over the past year. Unfortunately, the difficult choices endure because the virus is not yet gone. As it mutates into potentially more harmful variants—we have witnessed countries entering a third wave—current decisions continue to require a consideration of competing challenges.
The SNP Scottish Government’s covid-19 strategy intends to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there while striving to return to a more normal life for as many people as possible. Additionally, the Scottish Government have made clear their prioritisation of education and a phased return for early learning, childcare and schools. I mention that in relation to e-petition 566718: “Shut all nurseries and early years settings during lockdown”. In Scotland, as in other countries, that was impossible as some had to remain open for childcare provision for our key workers at the forefront of our covid-19 response.
In their phased return of all children to nurseries and early years settings, the Scottish Government took advice from the advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues, which examined the occupational risks of covid-19 infection, hospitalisation and death. The available studies found no evidence of any difference between school staff and the wider workforce in terms of the risk of infection from covid-19. None the less, in order to help educational settings remain as safe as possible and implement safety mitigations, the Scottish Government are providing local authorities and schools with an additional £40 million as part of a wider £100 million package to accelerate school recovery, and will work with local authorities to support young people’s wellbeing in other ways, for example by providing more opportunities for outdoor learning.
Many councils are using some of the funding to monitor and improve ventilation in schools. Additionally, the Scottish Government offer twice-weekly lateral flow testing for all school staff in primary, secondary and special schools. Recent developments with the vaccine roll-out and the increased contagion of covid-19 led the Scottish Government to update their strategic framework, which sets out how they plan to restore in a phased way greater normality to our everyday lives.
Normality for many is playing golf regularly. I refer here to e-petition 557167: “Allow golf to be played with appropriate safety measures”. In Scotland, golf is permitted as an outdoor informal exercise as long as safety restrictions are adhered to. For example, although everyone should stay as close to home as possible, from
Similarly, outdoor gyms can be open in Scotland, which goes some way to addressing e-petition 563904: “Keep gyms open during Tier 4 lockdown”. However, I can understand why outdoor gyms might not always be appealing, given our weather conditions. The Scottish Government know that indoor gyms and fitness facilities provide important services that help improve the physical fitness and mental wellbeing of those who attend, but it was impossible to keep them open while areas were facing high infection rates. Related to that is e-petition 567492: “Open gyms first as we come out of lockdown & fund a Work Out to Help Out scheme”. I am sure the petitioners will be pleased to know that the Scottish Government have not prioritised the opening of pubs ahead of gyms and swimming pools, and have made grants available to help businesses reopen progressively.
On e-petition 313310—“Repeal the Coronavirus Act 2020”—Scottish National party MPs have serious concerns about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the powers in the UK’s Coronavirus Act, and we raised them on Second Reading. That is why the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 contains a range of measures to ensure scrutiny of Scottish Government decisions. Also, where possible, provisions in the Scottish coronavirus legislation have been suspended or have expired when they have either fulfilled their purpose or the Scottish Government have listened to compelling views supporting change.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. I think it is fair to say that we are on the road out of lockdown. Perhaps it is not as fast as some would like, but there is a delicate balance to be struck and we must get it right. To that end, for continued suppression of the virus in the UK as we come out of lockdown, I urge the UK Government to follow the Scottish Government’s example on hotel quarantines. The recent Public Health England study showing that quarantine-free travel corridors contributed to the spread of coronavirus in the UK last year highlights the need for the change. Travel from those European countries accounted for 86% of imported cases between May and September, so I sincerely hope that the Minister and the UK Government will think again on that.
Businesses and individuals must continue to be helped through the remainder of the restrictions. With health measures and covid restrictions being devolved matters, I stress that while restrictions continue in any part of the UK, support must continue as well. While we welcome the extension of furlough at the spring Budget, it should continue for as long as it is needed. There must also be sector-specific support for aviation, hospitality and tourism.
Due to the highly infectious nature of coronavirus, general anti-coronavirus measures may be needed until a sufficient proportion of the population is vaccinated, and unlocking must be driven by data, not dates. In terms of vaccinations, that may mean about 70% of the population and, moving forward, many restrictions remaining in place for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people. With the recent news of disruption to supplies of vaccines in the UK, it is possible that the roll-out may be delayed. If that is the case, the dates for unlocking the last steps of lockdown may need to be postponed. The UK Government should, like the Scottish Government, endorse a data-driven approach to the end of lockdown and not persist with set dates, because they previously over-promised.