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Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, April 17, 2024


New Petitions

Vapes and E-cigarettes (PE2066)

The Convener

Item 3 is consideration of new petitions. To those who might be watching our proceedings because this is the first consideration of their petition, I say that, ahead of the consideration of any new petition, we seek a view from the Scottish Government, because otherwise that would be the first thing that we would do.

We also receive a briefing from the Scottish Parliament’s independent research body, SPICe. I thank everybody in SPICe for the work that they do on behalf of the committee. Most committees draw on the experience and advice of SPICe on core subjects so that they can follow a clear narrative path. The Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee’s varied agenda means that we go to SPICe with the broadest possible diet of requests for supporting information and the committee members are grateful for the detailed briefings that we receive, particularly when we are taking evidence on a new petition.

The first of the new petitions is on familiar territory, given the conversation that we had a moment ago. PE2066, lodged by Lewis McMartin, calls on the Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to treat vapes and e-cigarettes in the same way as we treat tobacco and cigarettes by banning the brightly coloured packaging and contents and/or removing the devices from public display so that they are only available from behind customer service counters, and by preventing special offers that promote the sale of multiple units for a cheaper price.

The petition notes the legislation that was passed in 2010 to prohibit the display of tobacco and smoking-related products and suggests that, if vapes and e-cigarettes are to be sold as tools for smoking cessation, they should be tobacco flavoured. As noted in the SPICe briefing, the Health (Tobacco, Nicotine etc and Care) (Scotland) Act 2016 restricts the marketing, advertising and sale of vaping products. The act also gives Scottish ministers powers over restricting or prohibiting displays and promotions of nicotine vapour products. However, those powers have yet to be exercised.

As I did during our consideration of the related petition a moment ago, I draw members’ attention to the ministerial statement that was provided to Parliament on 26 March that updated us on the Scottish Government working towards a tobacco-free Scotland by 2034 and tackling youth vaping. The statement also mentioned the introduction of the Tobacco and Vapes Bill to the UK Parliament that would give ministers the power to regulate retail displays of vapes and other nicotine products, as well as extending existing provisions on the regulation and distribution of nicotine products.

There is a lot to digest in that. Do members have any comments or suggestions in the light of all that about what action might be appropriate?

Fergus Ewing

First, I wonder whether we might close the petition under rule 15.7 of standing orders on the basis that the Scottish Government is actively considering next steps following the consultation on proposed rules to tighten existing restrictions on the advertisement and promotion of vaping products. Secondly, UK-wide legislation has been introduced to the UK Parliament, and it would extend the powers that are available to Scottish ministers on the regulation and distribution of nicotine products and give them the power to introduce regulations on the display of vaping and other nicotine products.

The Convener

Are we content to proceed on that basis? Unlike the previous petition, which we will hold open to see whether what was promised occurs, in view of the information that we have received, I propose that we close the petition. Does the committee agree to do that?

Members indicated agreement.

I thank the petitioner, but, for the reasons stated, I hope that they will understand the limit on how we can proceed.

Airborne Infections (Health and Social Care Settings) (PE2071)

The Convener

PE2071, lodged by Dr Sally Witcher, is on taking action to protect people from airborne infections in health and social care settings. Jackie Baillie has endured our proceedings since her earlier contribution, to stay with us and contribute to our discussion of this petition, too.

The petition calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to improve air quality in health and social care settings through addressing ventilation, air filtration and sterilisation; to reintroduce the routine wearing of masks, particularly respiratory masks, in those settings; to reintroduce routine Covid testing; to ensure that staff manuals fully cover preventing airborne infection; to support ill staff to stay at home; and to provide public health information on the use of respiratory masks and high-efficiency particulate air—HEPA—filtration against airborne infections.

The Scottish Parliament information centre’s briefing states that the highest-risk list ended on 31 May 2022, and that the guidance on extended use of face masks and coverings across health and social care settings was withdrawn on 16 May 2023.

The Scottish Government’s submission explains that a robust process is in place for creating, updating, and removing Covid-19 guidance and that the information sources and decisions remain under continual review. Routine testing has now been paused, with the exception of such testing pre-discharge from hospitals to care homes and hospices.

On staff manuals, the Government explains that it has no ownership or control over the content of the “National Infection Prevention and Control Manual”. It also notes that new guidance on ventilation for non-clinical workplaces was published in October 2022, which included refreshed advice on measures to improve ventilation for individuals and workplaces, as well as new guidance detailing the most appropriate use of air-cleaning technologies.

The petitioner has provided two written submissions, which are available to members in their meeting papers. She emphasises her concerns about the on-going risks of Covid-19 at a national level. She notes that the Public Health Scotland dashboard for acute hospital admissions revealed a higher rate over the winter just past than that when the mask guidance was withdrawn.

The petitioner highlights that an estimated one in 10 infections results in long Covid, and that care workers are disproportionately affected. She points out that NHS England has guidance on the use of HEPA filters and sterilisation in hospitals, whereas Scotland focuses on ventilation. On face masks, she highlights the Royal College of Nursing’s support for reinstating mask wearing and that individual person-centred clinical risk assessment for respiratory protective equipment does not work when there is a risk for everyone in the environment. On public awareness, the petitioner asks why nothing has been done to share important information with the public about the on-going risks of Covid-19.

The Care Inspectorate has written to draw attention to its updated guidance, which makes it clear that care homes must not rely on mechanical ventilation only and must have the ability for fresh air to be provided. In response, the petitioner asks what the Care Inspectorate would consider to be adequate and suitable ventilation and how that is to be addressed and enforced.

The issues raised in the petition are similar to those on which we took evidence in respect of an earlier petition that was subsequently closed, on which we heard from long-term Covid sufferers on sustained issues arising from the former pandemic.

Before I ask members how we might proceed on the petition, I invite Jackie Baillie to address us again.

Jackie Baillie

I thank Dr Sally Witcher for bringing the petition to Parliament. I am one of the co-conveners of the Parliament’s cross-party group on long Covid, so I am well aware of the calls to improve air quality in both health and social care settings and indoor settings such as schools. We have debated the issue in Parliament.

I was interested to read the Scottish Government’s response, because it sets out quite clearly what it is not doing. Covid has not gone away. Just because the Scottish Government believes that nobody is still at risk does not make that true. Those who are immunosuppressed are still at risk of contracting Covid, and we must ask what we can do to protect them.

As I said, Covid-19 has not gone away. The clinical risk continues. There is a direct impact not just on someone’s health but on the economy. Many of the statistics that we have seen in recent times, which show the number of people who are not employed, suggest that there is a problem that we must consider.

We also know that reinfection with Covid-19 increases someone’s chances of developing long Covid, and, as Dr Witcher has said, one in 10 people are likely to get long Covid and suffer long-term symptoms.

The impact on the economy is significant and can be seen in our public sector as well. I recently attended a long Covid group in Inverclyde, and everyone at the table who had long Covid was a front-line worker. Whether they worked in a school or in a health and social care setting, they were the ones without PPE at the beginning, and they have been impacted the most. The issue is having a significant effect not just on the economy in its widest sense but on our public services and their ability to run.

No one is immune to the risk. All of us here could get Covid. Vaccination is now restricted to those over 75 and people who are immunosuppressed. Regular testing has been stopped in health and social care settings, so we do not know who has got it and whether they are passing it on, and the use of face masks and covering is no longer mandatory. That is an issue specifically in health and social care settings; I am not talking about what is happening in the wider population, where we do not even bother to count incidences anymore, so we do not know whether the rate is bad or not to any great degree.

The introduction of improved air quality in health and social care settings would be an important step in preventing people from being infected and reinfected with Covid-19 and suffering the subsequent effects of long Covid. Other things that would make a huge difference include making PPE available to those who work with vulnerable people, bringing back testing so that we can monitor prevalence and direct our response, and supporting people at home.

In her submissions, the petitioner has shown that clinically vulnerable people are more likely to experience poorer outcomes as a result of Covid. They report that they feel that healthcare is unsafe and that action on clean air and the use of respiratory masks in healthcare settings would make a difference.

Of course, we are talking not only about Covid but about other respiratory illnesses. A study in Europe found that people who were exposed to dirtier air spent as many as four days longer in hospital and were 36 per cent more likely to need intensive care treatment. That shows that the petition’s proposal works in relation to other illnesses as well. The research, which was published in the European Respiratory Journal, said that cleaner air brought health benefits that are almost as great as some of the medical treatments given to Covid-19 patients. However, in response to the petition’s call for ventilation systems, the Scottish Government said that health boards should

“use their delegated capital budgets to maintain their estates, replace equipment and minimise risk to patients, staff and visitors.”

That is funny, because health boards are facing enormous budget pressures on a scale that we have not seen for a while, and they are going to be forced to make cuts to their existing budgets, with all capital projects basically halted. Therefore, without assistance and direction to do so, it will be almost impossible for health boards to fund the air filtration systems in hospitals that are needed to make clean air.

Of course, the issue is about not only hospitals but care settings, including care homes and care at home. Vulnerable people surely deserve a level of protection that reduces risk. For example, if someone who is immunosuppressed has carers coming in, PPE should surely be available. The Care Inspectorate’s submission does not really consider that point at all, which is disappointing.

In closing, I will say that, in 2022, as a result of the expertise and learning that they acquired during the pandemic, and their awareness of the importance of good indoor air quality for health, Belgium passed a law to improve indoor air quality in all closed spaces that are accessible to the public. However, we seem not to have learned any lessons at all, and certainly none in relation to protecting those who are most vulnerable or are immunocompromised, and I hope that this petition will start the process of ensuring that the Scottish Government pays attention to what it needs to do.

The Convener

Thank you. This is our first consideration of the petition, and it may well be that there is further evidence that we would want to take and other views that we would want to hear. Do colleagues have any suggestions for action?

Foysol Choudhury

I suggest that we write to the Scottish Government to ask when its latest review of information sources and decisions relating to the pause in or withdrawal of Covid-19 guidance took place, and what the outcome of that review was.

We could also write to stakeholders to seek their views on the action called for in the petition. Those stakeholders could include the Royal College of Nursing, Scottish Care and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland. We could also write to the Care Inspectorate to ask how “adequate and suitable” ventilation is defined in practice and how it assesses and enforces the ventilation standards.

The Convener

I am particularly interested in Mr Choudhury’s suggestion in relation to the Care Inspectorate, which I think is quite right. “Adequate and suitable” is very vague terminology, and I would have thought that it is certainly not a benchmark against which any definable standard introduction could be monitored.

Maurice Golden

I think that we should also write to the Royal College of Physicians. In our correspondence to the Scottish Government, and perhaps to other stakeholders, we should include questions about monitoring indoor air quality, which could be relevant to what factors we might wish to consider in order to improve it. We need to get evidence on that.

The Convener

As there are no other suggestions, does the committee agree to proceed on that basis?

Members indicated agreement.

We will keep the petition open, and we will begin our inquiry. I thank Jackie Baillie again for her participation.

Covid-19 Vaccine Boosters (Teachers and School Staff) (PE2072)

The Convener

PE2072, lodged by Peter Barlow, calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to offer Covid-19 vaccine boosters to teachers and school staff. The Scottish Government’s response to the petition explains that its decision making throughout all Covid-19 vaccination programmes—as with all other vaccination programmes, I think—has been guided by the independent expert clinical advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. The submission states that the JCVI did not advise that teachers and school staff should have been offered a winter vaccine and that the Scottish Government had no plans to make Covid-19 vaccination available to groups that are not covered by JCVI advice. A statement on vaccinations from JCVI in February did not advise vaccination for teachers and school staff.

The petitioner’s submission states that he believes the JCVI advice to be inadequate in preventing transmission in schools, and he questioned the basis for the Scottish Government relying so heavily on JCVI advice. The petitioner shares a tweet in his submission that sums up his view that that approach from the Scottish Government is “not good enough”.

Do members have any comments or suggestions for action?

Maurice Golden

As a committee, we genuinely try to follow up on every petition, particularly in our consideration of new petitions. In this case, I think that we should close the petition under rule 15.7 of the standing orders, on the basis that the Scottish Government intends to continue to follow the JCVI’s advice on vaccination programmes, that the JCVI’s advice on spring 2024 vaccination does not suggest offering vaccinations to teachers and school staff and that it indicates that the autumn campaign will be smaller than in previous years.

The Convener

In the light of the advice that we have received and of the Scottish Government’s clear intention, are members content to accept Mr Golden’s proposal?

Members indicated agreement.

The Convener

We will close the petition. Unfortunately from the petitioner’s point of view, we have to have a realistic expectation of taking matters forward, and the Government advice is very clear in relation to vaccinations and the empirical evidence basis for them.

Court Summons (Accurate Information) (PE2073)

The Convener

We come to our final new petition this morning. PE2073, lodged by Robert Macdonald, calls on the Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to require the police and court services to check that address information is up to date when issuing a court summons and to allow those being summoned the chance to receive a summons if their address has changed rather than the current system of simply proceeding to issue an arrest warrant.

The petition was prompted by the arrest of a paramedic who had missed a court date after the summons was sent to an old address. The petitioner insisted that, as the police were able to obtain the correct address for the individual, the court should have been able to issue the summons to the correct address. In essence, I think, the police were able to get the correct address to arrest the individual, but they were not able to get the correct address to issue the summons to.

The SPICe briefing outlines provisions in the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995, including provisions for granting a warrant to apprehend the accused if it is proved to the court that the accused received the citation or has knowledge of its contents.

The Scottish Government has responded that the petition relates to an area in which it has no policy position or role, and that it is an operational matter for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and Police Scotland.

We have also received a submission from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which adds further detail to the SPICe briefing on the processes and circumstances for seeking warrants for summary court proceedings. It notes that prosecutors should only seek initiating warrants where it is in the public interest to do so, for example, because there is information the accused is avoiding citation. It also notes that, where information is provided that the accused is no longer at their address, and their whereabouts are unknown, there is a mechanism for the outstanding warrant to be reviewed by a prosecutor who will, taking into account the prospects of tracing the accused and the nature of the offence, consider whether there is a public interest in pursuing the prosecution.

Do members have any suggestions for action? I am minded to keep the petition open at the moment. It struck me that there was a lack of basic shared communication that could have resolved the matter. Might we write to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service and Police Scotland to seek their views on the issues that have been raised by the petition—in particular, in the case that the petitioner raises, to ask how Police Scotland was able to identify where the individual was in order to perform an arrest, but it was not possible for that information to be made available when it came to sending the summons? Does that seem reasonable?

Members indicated agreement.

We should also ask whether there is any data on whether that circumstance is common in Scotland and the percentage of cases to which it applies.

The Convener

I am quite happy to try to establish what information exists on the number of such occurrences.

That concludes the public part of our meeting. We will meet again in public on 1 May. We move into private session to consider items 4 and 5.

11:42 Meeting continued in private until 12:03.