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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, February 1, 2024


First Minister’s Question Time

Covid-19 Pandemic (Scottish Government Decisions)

1. Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

An email that was revealed yesterday at the United Kingdom Covid inquiry included—[Interruption.] Really? Scottish National Party members are groaning because we are asking about the Covid inquiry, so let me start again.

An email that was revealed yesterday at the UK Covid inquiry included senior SNP Government figures discussing the travel ban to Spain in July 2020. The email said:

“I’m extremely concerned about this ... It won’t matter how much ministers might justify it on health grounds, the Spanish government will conclude it is entirely political; they won’t forget; there is a real possibility they will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland as a result.”

That was not a low-level consideration. The people who were included in the discussion were Nicola Sturgeon, who is again absent from Parliament; John Swinney, who is again absent from Parliament; Jeane Freeman; and Humza Yousaf. Why was independence even considered in a decision about public health?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Of course, it was not. Douglas Ross said that the email came from a senior SNP official, but it came from a Scottish Government civil servant. It did not come from John Swinney, nor did it come from Nicola Sturgeon, me or Jeane Freeman. To suggest that the decision on Spain was made for any other reason than epidemiology is, I am afraid, a fantasy.

Even if we accepted Douglas Ross’s framing of the situation—that we were looking at the issue through a constitutional lens and attempting to curry favour with Spain—surely we would have put Spain on the exempt list. We did not put Spain on the exempt list. That is the exact point.

Why did we not do that? Let us look at the epidemiology at that point. Scotland did not include Spain on the exempt list, as England and Wales did. We did not do that because its point prevalence at that time was 0.33. That was four times higher than the point prevalence in Scotland. In fact, at that point, Spain was the only country that was proposed for the exempt list that had significantly higher prevalence than Scotland did.

When I look at the evidence and the advice from the chief medical officer at the time, I see that he expressed concern about the importation risks. Ministers concluded that they should not add Spain to the list of exempted countries due to the lower prevalence in Scotland and the fact that the prevalence in Spain was four times higher.

Douglas Ross can do his best to spin, to throw insults—

Briefly, First Minister.

The First Minister

—to misrepresent facts and to malign not just ministers but civil servants, but I believe that the people of Scotland know that, for all the challenges that we had during the pandemic, the Scottish Government always prioritised protecting the public from the harms of Covid. I do not think that Douglas Ross can say the same of what his party did in the UK Government.

Douglas Ross

Amid pretty stiff competition, that might be the most bizarre answer that I have ever heard from Humza Yousaf. [Interruption.] He is saying that it is fact, so here is a fact.

The day after Humza Yousaf received that email, which spoke about political concerns that there might be with the Spanish Government allowing an independent Scotland into the EU, he announced that the Scottish Government was introducing a travel corridor with Spain. The very next day, the Government opened up travel to Spain and, five days later, it had to close it down again because Covid cases were rocketing. That is the fact and we know it because Humza Yousaf told us. It is down in black and white in evidence to the inquiry that the Government was thinking about independence instead of focusing purely on public health.

We have not seen any evidence of Humza Yousaf’s response to that email and Nicola Sturgeon’s messages from that time have all gone because she deleted them. The former SNP leader destroyed all her WhatsApp messages, despite knowing that a do-not-destroy order was in place, despite promising grieving families that she would be transparent and despite assuring journalists that all her messages would be handed to the inquiry. She unequivocally told the press that her messages would be provided, so why did Nicola Sturgeon say yes when she actually meant no?

The First Minister

I say again that, effective from 10 July 2020, Spain was not included on the first list of exempt countries, due to the fact that it had a four times higher prevalence of Covid than Scotland.

On the subject of WhatsApp messages, Douglas Ross has thrown all sorts of incendiary accusations at people, particularly Nicola Sturgeon, for not retaining WhatsApp messages. He has demanded investigations and reviews. However, not only did his boss, the Prime Minister, not retain his messages, he took the inquiry to court and lost.

In just the last hour, the UK Covid inquiry heard from Alister Jack, who was Douglas Ross’s boss when he was in the Scotland Office. What did Alister Jack say about his WhatsApp messages? He was asked whether he had deleted his WhatsApp messages. He said, “I did delete them”, and he deleted them because he wanted to free up storage capacity on his phone. When he was asked whether there was any Government business on those WhatsApps, he said:

“I didn’t think anything of it.”

When he was asked whether he had considered the needs of the public inquiry—[Interruption.]

Please be quiet, Mr Sarwar.

The First Minister

—here is what he said, which I will quote directly:

“No I didn’t. I was quite keen for my phone to start working again.”

That is what he said. It is astonishing that Douglas Ross demands investigations and reviews of Nicola Sturgeon for not retaining her WhatsApps when his boss and colleague, who deleted his WhatsApps and did not even think about the inquiry, is perfectly fine. There is one word for that and that word is hypocrisy. The people of Scotland can see right through Douglas Ross.

Douglas Ross

It is not perfectly fine. Alister Jack was wrong to delete his WhatsApp messages. He has apologised and he regrets it, but Humza Yousaf cannot step out of the shadow of his disgraced predecessor and say the same. Nicola Sturgeon has not apologised for doing that: she has said that she was right because she was following Government policy. That is a massive difference.

I cannot let the First Minister’s confusion about the travel ban with Spain pass. He is saying that the restrictions concerning Spain were kept in place. On 20 July 2020, the day after the email was sent, Humza Yousaf said:

“We are able to lift the requirement for those travelling from Spain.”

Five days later, he said:

“The decision to exempt Spain earlier this week was taken when the data showed there was an improvement. The latest data has given us cause for concern to overturn that decision.”

He definitely made a decision on the back of that email. [Interruption.]

I ask the Government front bench to resist any temptation to contribute.

Douglas Ross

I think that they are trying to come up with a story, because what the First Minister has said so far does not match what he did in practice in 2020.

We know that the deleted WhatsApp messages were covering up major decisions made by the SNP Government and we know that because of the messages that we have been able to see. When Humza Yousaf was health secretary and was in charge of the national health service, he joked with the national clinical director, Jason Leitch. They laughed about false claims that children were hospitalised because of Covid. In one revealing exchange, Humza Yousaf said:

“I’m winging it and will get found out sooner or later.”

At what point does the First Minister think he was finally found out?

The First Minister

Let us look again at the facts. Douglas Ross is right that Spain was not initially exempt from the travel corridor and then was put on a travel corridor. That was because we had data, presented by the UK Government, from the London School of Hygiene—[Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

We have so many members who want to put questions to the First Minister. That would be more likely if we could get on with our session and if I do not have to keep asking members on the front benches to resist the temptation to contribute when they should not be.

The First Minister

They do not want to listen to the facts. In his own response, Douglas Ross said that the situation improved in Spain, which is correct. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine showed a marked improvement in the position in Spain, with point prevalence going down to 0.015 per cent. That is the reason why Spain was then put on the exempt list. When the situation worsened considerably, just a matter of days later, all the UK nations decided to take it off the exempt list. Again, we made the decisions for purely epidemiological reasons.

When it comes to the UK Government and the messages that we have seen, I remind Douglas Ross of what has been revealed. He had a Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who he not only backed to the very end but invited to his party conference. According to the evidence that we have heard, Boris Johnson allegedly said,

“let the bodies pile up high”.

When discussing long Covid, he called it—forgive me, Presiding Officer, for the language—“bollocks”. We had a Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who partied in number 10 while people missed the funerals of their relatives and loved ones.

Yes, we could have done better when it came to the retention of informal messages, but when it came to steering this country through some of its darkest days, I am very pleased that we had Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government in charge here, as opposed to Boris Johnson.

The Presiding Officer

I remind all members of the need for courtesy. [Interruption.] Members, I would be grateful if you could desist for a moment.

Let us remind one another of the need for courtesy and respect in the chamber. That applies to using quotations to say words that might otherwise be regarded as unparliamentary. I am also very conscious, as I have said, of the number of members who wish to put questions today. I would be grateful for more concise questions and responses.

Douglas Ross

Even after yesterday’s evidence from the former First Minister and the words that we have heard from the Covid bereaved, Humza Yousaf still backs her to the hilt. That tells us everything that we need to know about this First Minister, who is simply the continuity candidate for team Sturgeon.

As health secretary during the pandemic, the First Minister joked about not knowing what he was doing. When he sent that message, by that stage, 10,000 people in Scotland had already lost their lives from Covid. However, he was not the only one who has been found out. Nicola Sturgeon destroyed evidence on an industrial scale. The SNP Government considered independence in making key decisions. It did things for purely political reasons. It broke promises to grieving families and the public, who sacrificed so much. Humza Yousaf was winging it, but has the whole SNP Government not been found out?

The First Minister

I go back to the point that I have made several times in these exchanges over the weeks. I absolutely accept whole-heartedly that our retention policy on informal communications clearly could have and should have been better. That is why I have commissioned an externally led review. However, on the big calls, many of the decisions that we made helped to save lives.

If we look at the evidence from Professor Sir Ian Diamond that has been presented to the Covid inquiry—[Interruption.] Jackie Baillie is shouting, but she might want to listen to the evidence of Professor Sir Ian Diamond, who is the chief executive of the UK Statistics Authority and the UK national statistician. He gave details of age-standardised mortality rates per 100,000 right across the four nations. This is his data, not my data. That analysis shows that, in Scotland, we had the lowest level of deaths per 100,000, according to the ASMR data. Every single one of those lives lost is undoubtedly a tragedy—in fact, many of my colleagues on these benches lost a loved one to Covid. However, on those calls, the decisions that we made have helped to save lives.

Let us look at what the World Health Organization said. Again, this is not my data; it is the World Health Organization’s data. It estimated that 22,138 lives in Scotland were saved as a direct result of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. I fully accept that, when it comes to informal communications, we could and should have done better. We can also look at other decisions that we made and think that we could have moved quicker or earlier, or done things differently.

Although political opponents may well try to rewrite history and engage in, frankly, smears and insults—

Briefly, please, First Minister.

The First Minister

—towards Government ministers and civil servants, I can stand up here and say that I know that, every single day of the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon and the rest of us in the Scottish Government, civil servants included, worked for one reason and one reason only: to protect the people of Scotland from the harms of Covid.

Covid-19 Inquiry

2. Anas Sarwar (Glasgow) (Lab)

This is what we have learned after three weeks of the Covid inquiry in Scotland: the most senior ministers and officials knowingly deleted evidence of how they operated during the pandemic, they subverted the Covid inquiry and broke freedom of information laws, and they plotted how to maximise their own political advantage while thousands of Scots fought for their lives. That is a betrayal of the trust that the people of Scotland put into the Scottish National Party Government.

Nicola Sturgeon did not tell the truth to the public, and Humza Yousaf seems to have misled the Parliament in an attempt to defend her. Now, the SNP deputy leader is supporting attacks on the inquiry itself. Why is protecting the SNP more important to Humza Yousaf than getting to the truth?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

That is simply a complete and utter mischaracterisation of what we have heard. On every occasion that I have had exchanges on the issue, I have, first, acknowledged the impact on the Scottish Covid bereaved of the decisions that we made on informal communications. I do so again, and I apologise again, unreservedly, as I did at the inquiry and directly to those who were representing the Scottish Covid bereaved, for our mishandling in relation to informal communications. We could and should have done better.

However, I go back to the point that I just made to Douglas Ross, which I will repeat to Anas Sarwar. Yes, we should have done better on the retention policy for informal communications but, over the course of the pandemic, when it came to the important decisions that helped to save lives, I believe that we took the decisions for the right reason.

We can evidence very clearly that protecting the people of Scotland from harm was the number 1 overriding priority. Through the actions that we took, when it came to one measure—I accept that it is only one measure—which was that of age-standardised mortality rates per 100,000 across the four United Kingdom nations, Scotland’s rate was 124.9 per 100,000. That was different from England, which had 145 per 100,000; Wales had 144 per 100,000; and the UK averaged 143 per 100,000. That is not to diminish the number of lives that continue to be lost to Covid to this day.

The decisions that we took also ensured that we had, at one point, one of the fastest booster vaccination programmes in the world—certainly the fastest in the UK by quite some distance.

I fully accept that we could and should have done better on message retention. I handed over the messages that I had, of course, and was questioned about them for almost three hours. However, on the big calls that helped to save lives, I believe that we can evidence—we have seen that evidence—that not only did we do things for the right reason, but our interventions helped to save lives here in Scotland.

Anas Sarwar

Ministers and officials knowingly deleted evidence for the Covid inquiry. The answer to that betrayal of the Scottish people is a review into how the Scottish Government records information. In 2020, when we had the Salmond inquiry and there were accusations of a cover-up, what did the Scottish Government do? It promised a review. In 2022, when we had investigations into the ferry scandal and there were accusations of a cover-up, what did the Scottish Government do? It promised a review. Now that we have the industrial-scale deletion of evidence for the Covid inquiry, what is the First Minister’s answer? It is a review. The Scottish Government simply does not get it.

Yesterday, Pamela Thomas, who lost her brother during the pandemic, said:

“I don’t think they’re capable of actually telling the truth or being transparent.”

Pamela is right, is she not?

The First Minister

I express my condolences to every single member of the country who lost a loved one through Covid, including Pamela.

I make the point again to Anas Sarwar that all of us, including members of this Government, lost loved ones to Covid. I have ministerial colleagues who have relatives who continue to suffer the long-term effects of Covid. I have colleagues who had to restrict the numbers who could attend the funeral of a loved one. Many of us, myself included, had children who were impacted by the closure of schools, because of Covid. I say that not because I am trying to garner any sympathy from Anas Sarwar or anybody else, but because we were all in it together. We were not somehow detached from the impacts or the effects of the pandemic. That is why every decision that we made was made with one overarching priority in mind: how to protect as many people as we could from the harm of Covid.

Do I think that we got every decision right? No, I do not. I do not think that any Government or Government leader in the world could put their hand on their heart and say that they got every single decision right. What I can say is that we did it for the right reasons and that, when it comes to the big decisions that were crucial to saving lives, I believe that we got many of them right. Some, of course, we will not have got right.

I promise the families of those who have been bereaved by Covid that we will not only continue to co-operate with both inquiries, but learn the lessons of those inquiries.

Anas Sarwar

The Covid bereaved families do not believe the First Minister when he gives those reassurances. The Covid inquiry is about learning the lessons so that what happened can never happen again, but they have been obstructed by this Government, with evidence supplied late or not at all.

The decisions that the inquiry is investigating still weigh on people across this country. Why were Covid-positive patients sent into care homes? Why was inadequate personal protective equipment being supplied to care workers and leaving people exposed? What impact did lockdowns have on our young people, who missed out on years of education?

Three years ago, in an election during the pandemic, many people in Scotland voted for the First Minister’s party because they thought that Nicola Sturgeon did the best that she could. They trusted her when she said that this Parliament would be about Covid recovery. Now, those same people have had their trust broken by this Government, and they are appalled at the cover-up.

First Minister, is it not true that it is not just the messages that have disappeared, but the trust in this SNP Government?

The First Minister

I tend to leave the verdict on trust to the people of Scotland.

Anas Sarwar is right. One of the major factors why the SNP is back in power is our handling of the pandemic. That was not judged—


The First Minister

Anas Sarwar is shouting, “Wow”. I am saying to Anas that he is absolutely correct, and that that is one of the reasons why we are standing here.

During the 2021 election, I do not think that our retention or record management policy was an issue; it was about whether we got the calls right in relation to the vaccination programme and did the right thing in relation to introducing non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Anas Sarwar talks about, in his words, an “industrial-scale deletion”. We handed over 28,000 WhatsApp messages and 19,000 documents.

Anas Sarwar is right to ask questions about care homes, PPE, and lockdown and its impacts. Those are exactly the questions that the inquiry is examining.

On Anas Sarwar’s suggestion that we are somehow not being transparent, I remind him that not only are we co-operating with a UK inquiry, but we are the only nation in the UK to specifically establish an inquiry in our country. We will also be co-operating with the Scottish inquiry.

Nicola Sturgeon did more than 250 media briefings and ministers in this Government attended this Parliament on not dozens but hundreds of occasions, explaining the reasons why we took decisions.

I go back to the very central point. We did not get everything right, and certainly not in relation to retention of messages. What we did get right was the intention behind our decisions, which was to protect people from harm. According to the World Health Organization, what we did, through the interventions that we took, helped to save more than 23,000 people’s lives. Those are 23,000 people who would not be here if it were not for vaccinations and the non-pharmaceutical interventions and decisions that this Government took. I make no apologies for that.

Cabinet (Meetings)

To ask the First Minister when the Cabinet will next meet. (S6F-02773)


Alex Cole-Hamilton

Yesterday, we heard striking testimony from the former First Minister at the United Kingdom Covid-19 inquiry about a personal phone on which she retained WhatsApp messages for the Salmond inquiry but deleted them for every aspect of the pandemic, forever denying the bereaved families an insight into the mind of the person who held all the power. Hospitality rules were seemingly made up at random, sending some businesses to the wall, and there are unanswered questions about care homes and school closures. It seems that a secret central committee was in charge of everything, about which the finance secretary knew nothing and of which there are no minutes. It was a Government within a Government.

Humza Yousaf saw all that, and yet did nothing. Why is he now standing in the way of a ministerial code investigation into gold command record keeping, which only he can instruct? Does he agree that Nicola Sturgeon now has a duty to come back to the chamber—which he says that she addressed hundreds of times—and, once more, finally explain herself?

The First Minister

Nicola Sturgeon gave hours of testimony and evidence under oath; she was questioned extensively. It will now be for the inquiry to make its judgment. We respect the inquiry, and we hope that others will respect the inquiry and give it the time and space that it needs to make its judgment. [Interruption.]

The First Minister

I do not know what Anas Sarwar and others are shouting about; I am simply saying that the inquiry should be respected.

Can I say that Nicola Sturgeon or the Government got every decision right? [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer

I am sorry to interrupt, First Minister, but I am being distracted by a conversation going on across the aisles. I ask members to refrain from making such contributions while we are trying to hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

I think that the Opposition should try to respect the inquiry—that is the point that I am making. As I have already said, and as I can say without a shadow of a doubt, our overarching and overriding priority was always to protect the people of Scotland from Covid harm. Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership was in stark contrast with the leadership in other parts of the United Kingdom. She may not have got every decision right, and the Scottish Government may not have got every decision right—I accept that fully—but it is for the inquiry to examine and explore that issue.

On gold command meeting minutes, which Alex Cole-Hamilton asked me about, the Government is urgently examining and exploring that, and it will hand over to the inquiry any notes that we have on gold command minutes and meetings.


To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to prevent a resurgence of measles in Scotland. (S6F-02778)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Cases of measles in Europe and England continue to rise, due to undervaccination, while we have seen only two laboratory-confirmed cases of measles to date in Scotland since October. We are acting now to prevent the spread and to protect people. Public Health Scotland has alerted NHS Scotland, and its representatives have met local health protection teams and immunisation co-ordinators to set out measures that need to be taken. Those include early detection and notification, infection control, contact tracing and post-exposure prophylaxis for vulnerable contacts to try to ensure that cases are contained and do not spread any further.

Immunisation remains the most effective way to prevent illness from infectious disease, and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is extremely effective at preventing measles. Anyone who has not had both doses of the free MMR vaccine should visit the NHS Inform website and find out how to arrange an appointment.

Stephanie Callaghan

Although Scotland continues to perform really well across the four nations of the United Kingdom in its uptake of childhood immunisations, recent data from Public Health Scotland highlights a gradual decline. The overall uptake of both doses has fallen below the World Health Organization’s target of 90 per cent—a critical level that protects against the return of large outbreaks. What steps is the Scottish Government taking to highlight the importance of receiving both doses of the MMR vaccine? What strategies are in place to ensure easy access to follow-up appointments for children in cases where vaccinations—whether one or both doses—have been missed?

The First Minister

Given the very serious nature of measles and the current risk of importation and onward transmission, we are working with Public Health Scotland and NHS boards on a range of measures to promote vaccination uptake. NHS Inform has been updated to ensure that information is available for the public on how they can receive the measles vaccination. Letters were issues to parents of pupils at nursery schools, in primary 1 and in secondary 1, highlighting the importance of ensuring that young people are up to date with their vaccinations.

Boards have been requested to undertake an MMR status check of all pupils in S1. That check was previously performed in S3, but bringing it forward to S1 provides more opportunities for those who are unvaccinated or undervaccinated to obtain the vaccination that they require.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I am very grateful for the previous answer from the First Minister. Work has been undertaken in our universities to ensure that measles vaccinations are up to date. He has talked about the work at S1. Can he give us information on any initiatives that are aimed specifically at increasing awareness among parents, guardians and teachers about the importance of maintaining up-to-date measles vaccination by having the two doses?

The First Minister

I thank Martin Whitfield for his very important question, and he is right to refer to higher education, too. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care to write to Martin Whitfield with the full detail of what we have done, including the issuing of letters to parents of nursery school pupils and other pupils in the 2023-24 intake.

The chief medical officer has also sent a variety of letters to health professionals about their interactions with parents and families on the importance of the vaccination, which are often in primary care. I will ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care writes to Martin Whitfield with more details about the actions that we have taken in that regard.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

The worryingly low uptake of the MMR and flu vaccines in the Highlands increases the risk to public health and the risk of an outbreak of measles. Will the First Minister and his Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care ask NHS Highland to work with general practices such as that in Nairn, which is keen to resume local provision of the vaccination service from general practices, to bring up vaccination to safe levels? I believe that that approach is favoured by the British Medical Association.

The First Minister

Fergus Ewing is right to raise the issue of the particularly low levels of vaccination in Highland, which are concerning. I give him some reassurance that engagement with the health board is already happening.

Fergus Ewing has raised the issue before—he raised it with me in relation to Covid vaccinations, as well—but I am worried about levels of vaccination in Highland. We are taking that up in engagement with the NHS board and will ask the direct question about what the barrier is for general practices that want to resume. We will examine whether the lower uptake in vaccination in Highland is the result of the model that is in place there. I will ensure that Fergus Ewing is kept up to date on those discussions.

Water Charges

To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to reports that Scottish Water plans to increase charges by 29 per cent over three years. (S6F-02770)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Let me start by clarifying the arrangements for setting water charges. They are set out in the Water Industry (Scotland) Act 2002, and decisions on charges are rightly a matter for the board of Scottish Water, which will announce its charges for 2024-25 shortly.

Charges for future years have not yet been agreed. They will be set annually by Scottish Water’s board, with approval from the independent economic regulator, in line with the price cap across the 2021-27 period. In 2023-24, the average charge in England and Wales is 10 per cent higher than in Scotland, at £448 compared with a charge in Scotland of £408.

I am not interested in what is going on in England and Wales—[Interruption.]

Let us hear Mr Simpson.

Graham Simpson

Scottish Water is reported to want to increase bills by 8.8 per cent in 2024-25 and then do the same every year until 2026-27. That might be all right for its new chief executive, Alex Plant, who can well afford it on his £295,000-a-year salary, but it is not okay for normal people who are struggling to pay their bills.

Water bills are paid through our council tax. The First Minister has committed to freeze council tax. Is he not prepared to do the same with water charges?

The First Minister

The brass neck of a Conservative talking about the impact on people’s household bills is quite something to witness.

Let me talk about Scotland and Scottish Water. I have already said that the charges have not been announced but will be announced shortly. They will be reviewed and announced annually.

With Scottish Water, we end up getting better levels of service in comparison to England and Wales. We get lower water charges in Scotland than in England. We get a publicly owned water company, in which every penny of profit is reinvested in the public service, unlike in England, where the member’s party is in charge and shareholders get millions in dividends. We get water quality at 87 per cent good or at a high level, as assessed by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

As on so many issues, the Conservative United Kingdom Government would do far better to look at how we run Scottish Water and our public services for the good of the people of Scotland. It seems that the UK Government runs its services into the ground for the profit of shareholders, unlike Scottish Water, which is publicly owned.

National Treatment Centres

6. Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

To ask the First Minister when the Scottish Government expects the remainder of the national treatment centres to be opened, in light of reports that national health service capital infrastructure projects have been paused. (S6F-02767)

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

The next two national treatment centres—NTC Forth Valley and phase 2 of the Golden Jubilee national hospital—are due to open in the coming months to provide additional orthopaedic, endoscopy and general surgery capacity. Our ability to fund capital projects has, of course, been detrimentally impacted and affected by the twin challenges of unprecedented levels of inflation, which have been caused in some part by Brexit, and disastrous United Kingdom Government decisions, one of which is the cut in our capital budget. Our infrastructure investment plan identified priority health capital projects, including national treatment centres, for funding within that period. As a result of the almost 10 per cent cut in our capital budget from the UK Government, a revised pipeline of infrastructure investment will be published in the spring this year. All due consideration will be given to what projects can be included and on what timescales. That will, of course, include national treatment centres.

Jackie Baillie

The First Minister knows that national treatment centres are key to the Scottish National Party’s national health service recovery plan. We have learned that those promises to patients and staff are in tatters. Treatment centres in Ayrshire and Arran, Lanarkshire, Lothian, Grampian and Tayside are all delayed and at risk of cancellation, but those treatment centres are not the only NHS capital infrastructure projects that have been put at risk. The Aberdeen Baird family hospital and ANCHOR—Aberdeen and north centre for haematology, oncology and radiotherapy—project are delayed. The institute of neurosciences in Glasgow is delayed. The Monklands replacement project in Lanarkshire is delayed. The Edinburgh cancer centre and the eye pavilion are delayed. The Caithness, Raigmore and Belford projects are delayed. Health centres in Kincardine, Lochgelly and East Calder are cancelled. Barra community campus has been cancelled. I could go on. With almost one in six Scots on waiting lists, how will the First Minister end their suffering when those developments were so central to his plan?

The First Minister

As always, Jackie Baillie comes to the chamber ignoring the fiscal reality and effectively acting as a human shield for the Conservatives, who are cutting our capital budget by 10 per cent. The fact that she thinks that a 10 per cent cut can be imposed on us with no consequences shatters any credibility that she has on the issue.

We have, of course, made a dent in waiting times through the improvements that we are looking to make. When it comes to activity in the NHS, new out-patient activity was up on the previous quarter and up 2.3 per cent on Q3 last year. Over the 12 months to September 2023, activity was up by almost 1.24 million, which is 2.5 per cent more than in the previous 12 months. In-patient day-case activity for Q3 was at its highest since the start of the pandemic.

We are doing what we can, notwithstanding the financial constraints and the cuts that we are receiving from the UK Government, and we will continue to invest in that capacity.

It would, of course, be very helpful if Jackie Baillie could use any influence that she has with her UK Labour colleagues, who have thus far refused to confirm that they will reverse the capital cut.

Miles Briggs (Lothian) (Con)

Last year, 59,240 patients attended the Princess Alexandra eye pavilion. For a patient in Edinburgh or the Borders with a detached retina, the need for urgent emergency surgery is critical. The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care has suggested that, if the Edinburgh eye pavilion is not replaced, more surgery will be centralised in the Golden Jubilee national hospital in Glasgow. Does the First Minister think that it would be acceptable for eye surgery to be centralised in Glasgow? Will he agree to meet Lothian MSPs urgently to discuss those concerns and get ministers to change their mind and commit to a new, replacement eye hospital?

The First Minister

The clue is, of course, in the name. We are building national treatment centres and, where they can offer assistance across the country, they should be utilised in that way. We know that patients are willing to travel if necessary.

Our commitment to the eye pavilion remains. That is why we will bring forward details on what we can take forward with regard to our investment plans.

I am more than happy to ensure that the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care meets Miles Briggs, but it would be more helpful if Miles Briggs demanded that his UK Government Conservative colleagues reverse their 10 per cent cut to our capital budget. They could do that in the spring budget next month. Let us see whether Miles Briggs and the Scottish Conservatives, who come to the chamber demanding that money be spent on capital projects, have any influence. Somehow, I think not.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

Plans for a new Belford hospital have made great progress in recent years, with Scottish Government support. It is deeply unfortunate that the UK Government’s 10 per cent cut to our capital budget has postponed the actual build. Will the First Minister commit to enabling the design process to progress so that the project is shovel ready when capital funding becomes available, in order to allow the actual build to start?

The First Minister

We are absolutely engaged on that issue at the moment. Kate Forbes has suggested a sensible approach, and we will certainly seek to do that. It is essential that NHS boards continue to plan for how they will improve and reform services, and we remain committed to supporting them in that process. I go back to the point that many capital projects across the country are under threat not because of anything that the Scottish Government has done, but because of the UK Government’s disastrous mismanagement of the economy, as well as the 10 per cent cut to our capital budget, which will impact not just health projects but capital projects across the country. Once again, we appeal to the UK Government to use the spring budget next month to reverse that devastating cut in order to allow those important health capital projects to go ahead.

We move to general and constituency supplementary questions.

Northern Ireland Assembly Negotiations

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

Will the First Minister join me in welcoming the very positive progress that has been made in the negotiations that are likely to see the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont? Will he also welcome the huge boost to jobs and investment that could be delivered as part of the proposed investment zone extending to Stranraer and Cairnryan, in my constituency, which is the main point of entry for goods from Northern Ireland that go to Great Britain along the A75 and the A77?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

I absolutely welcome what I hope will be the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland. For too long, the people of Northern Ireland have had to put up with no elected Government being in place. It is good news for the people of Northern Ireland, and we welcome it whole-heartedly.

I have been to a number of British-Irish Council meetings over the years and during my time as First Minister. In the past couple of meetings that I have attended as First Minister, the absence of any elected members from Northern Ireland has been noted, and their presence has been missed. As part of the Good Friday agreement, it is incredibly important that power sharing be restored.

It would be fair to say that we were not given any advance sight of the command paper that was published by the UK Government yesterday. There was no meaningful engagement by the Westminster Government. The UK Government appears to have decided unilaterally that there will be no border control post at Cairnryan—it has not consulted us on that decision. I note that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland offered a £3.3 billion package to address public spending and pay pressures in Northern Ireland. Again, that is welcome, but those pressures exist in Scotland and, I suspect, in Wales, too. I know that the Deputy First Minister and her Welsh counterpart have said to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that devolved Governments should be treated fairly, in line with the Barnett formula.

Mark Scott Leadership for Life Award (Funding)

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

Mark Scott was murdered in 1995 as he walked through Bridgeton on his way back from a Celtic game. The murder was a brutal, unprovoked sectarian attack. However, from that tragic murder came hope in the form of the Mark Scott leadership for life award, which is now delivered by the Outward Bound Trust and brings young people together to share experiences and reduce racism, sectarianism and intolerance. The Scottish Government has provided core funding since 2012, which has allowed the award to leverage other funding from alternative sources. That amount stands at £75,000, but the trust has been told that the funding will be removed from next year. Surely the First Minister agrees that this life-changing award for young people that tackles sectarianism in the best way that I can think of cannot be allowed to fail due to Government cuts? Given that I am meeting the trust today, will he engage with me to find a solution and reinstate the funding?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Paul O’Kane raises a very important point. I know of the work that the Mark Scott foundation has done over the years, alongside the Outward Bound Trust. I have met some of those who have taken part in the project. The organisation has done incredibly well. It has had a really positive impact on young people, and I have engaged with the organisation over many years. I confirm to Paul O’Kane and to the chamber that the Mark Scott foundation will receive £75,000. We will ensure that it is funded fully to carry on the excellent work that the leadership award has done over many years, which is a lasting legacy for, and testament to, Mark Scott and his family.

Higher Education (Widening Access)

Kaukab Stewart (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

This week, Liz Smith endorsed the reintroduction of back-door tuition fees, which would deter disadvantaged students from going to university. That follows Labour leader Keir Starmer ruling out free tuition under a United Kingdom Labour Government. Can the First Minister outline what progress the Scottish National Party Scottish Government has made in widening access? Will he reaffirm his commitment to keeping tuition free? [Interruption.]

It is hardly a surprise to hear the Conservatives heckling when we mention free education—[Interruption.]

Let us hear the First Minister.

The First Minister

I was absolutely delighted to see the progress that we have made in that regard highlighted this week by the commissioner for fair access: there has been a 45 per cent increase in the number of students from our most deprived communities entering university since 2013-14. It is no wonder that the Conservatives were groaning—they do not like it one single bit.

The commissioner also points out that that increase has not been at the expense of other cohorts of Scottish students, with increases in the number of home students across the board. Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, we are absolutely committed to the principle that access to education should be based on the ability to learn, never on the ability to pay.

Health Visitors

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

Mums and babies across Scotland are missing out on vital health visitor appointments. I know that, because it happened to me—my daughter was not seen for more than 10 months. Parents in Angus have been told that their babies could be without a visit for up to a year.

Health visitors are important, because they check on a child’s wellbeing but can also identify if mums are experiencing postnatal depression. The First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care cannot bury their heads in the sand over the issue. Will the First Minister therefore intervene urgently to ensure that mums and babies are not denied those crucial visits because of staff shortages?

The First Minister (Humza Yousaf)

Meghan Gallacher is absolutely right about the importance of health visitors, for the range of reasons that she articulated very well. Health visiting remains a universal service, and teams across Scotland work hard to deliver that entitlement. The latest published data that we have show that the overwhelming majority of eligible children receive their key health visitor contact between 10 days and five years of age.

That is not to say that there are not challenges. I am happy for the health secretary to write to Meghan Gallacher to give her the details of not only what we are doing to invest in the service but what we are doing in particular to further support health visiting services in areas where we are seeing disparities. I put on record my thanks to every single health visitor for the incredible work that they do.

The Presiding Officer

That concludes First Minister’s question time. There will be a short suspension to allow those who are leaving the chamber and the public gallery to do so.

12:47 Meeting suspended.  

12:48 On resuming—