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Meeting date: Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 18 January 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Topical Question Time, Business Motion, Covid-19, ScotWind Offshore Wind Leasing Round, Retrofitting Buildings for Net Zero, Judicial Review and Courts Bill, Parliamentary Bureau Motion, Decision Time, Scottish History in Schools


Contents


Covid-19

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon, giving a Covid-19 update.

14:21  

I will report on the current and, at this stage, much more positive course of the pandemic. I will explain why, although significant pressures and uncertainties remain, the latest data nevertheless gives us confidence that we have turned the corner on the omicron wave. I will then confirm our next steps in lifting the protective measures that were introduced before Christmas. I will also indicate what we can all continue to do in the immediate period ahead to keep cases on a downward trend and reduce the pressure on the national health service and the wider economy. Finally, I will provide a further update on the vaccination programme.

First, though, I turn to today’s statistics, which show that 7,752 positive cases were reported yesterday through both polymerase chain reaction and lateral flow tests. There are 1,546 people in hospital with Covid, which is 21 fewer than yesterday. There are 59 people in intensive care, including 17 who have been in intensive care units for more than 28 days. That is one more than yesterday. Sadly, a further 31 deaths have been reported, which takes the total number of deaths under the daily definition to 10,093. Once again, I send my condolences to everyone who is mourning a loved one.

As we can see from the data, omicron is continuing to infect large numbers of people here in Scotland, across the United Kingdom and indeed in many other countries around the world. Hospital admissions and overall hospital occupancy associated with Covid also remain high.

However, notwithstanding the very real challenges that Covid continues to present, the evidence that I set out last week suggesting that the situation was beginning to improve has significantly strengthened over the past seven days. A combination of booster vaccinations, the willingness of the public to adapt their behaviour to help to stem transmission and the temporary protective measures that were introduced in December has helped to blunt the impact of the omicron wave.

Last week, I said that the data indicated that cases were falling across most age groups. I can report today that that trend has continued. Some caution still needs to be applied in interpreting case data at this stage, given the recent changes to guidance on PCR and lateral flow testing. However, data for the past 13 days, taking account of both PCR and lateral flow tests, shows a significant fall in the number of new positive cases.

To put some detail on that, I note that, on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of last week, 36,526 new positive cases were recorded through PCR and lateral flow tests. This week, on Sunday, Monday and today—Tuesday—20,268 cases have been reported. That represents quite a significant drop. If we look just at PCR tests, although I ask everyone to bear in mind the limitations in doing so, we see that cases have fallen from an average of almost 13,000 a day to just over 4,600 a day. That is a decline of 64 per cent, and cases have fallen across all age groups. Test positivity in PCR tests has also declined, from almost 30 per cent in early January to under 20 per cent now.

The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics, which covers the week to 7 January and therefore has a time lag associated with it, reinforces that more stable and positive assessment. It indicates that the number of people with Covid in that week—around one in 20—was broadly the same as in the previous week.

Taking all of that into account and triangulating the various sources of data allows us to say with some confidence that the rise in cases that was driven by omicron peaked in the first week of January and that we are now on the downward slope of that wave of cases.

That assessment is reflected in the data on hospital admissions. Hospital occupancy—the number of patients who are in hospital with Covid at any given time—is higher than it was seven days ago, having increased from 1,479 then to 1,546 today; however, that increase of 67 is significantly smaller than it was in the previous seven days. In addition, encouragingly, admissions to hospital of people with Covid, albeit still too high, are nevertheless now falling. In the week to 7 January, 1,040 were admitted; in the week to 14 January, that was down to 960. The number of people in ICUs, which, this time last week, was rising, has also fallen slightly over the past seven days—from 65 to 59.

All of that is very positive news and comes as an enormous relief, I am sure, to all of us. Of course, we need to recognise that there are still some uncertainties ahead, and that throwing all caution to the wind would therefore be a mistake. For example, the full impact of the return to work and school after the festive break will not yet be apparent in the data, so it is possible that we will see case numbers tick upwards again in the next couple of weeks. In addition, just as the introduction of some protective measures may have helped to slow down transmission, it stands to reason that the lifting of those measures could have the opposite effect. That is exactly why it makes sense to lift measures on a phased basis. Lastly, although cases are now falling, the NHS remains under acute pressure, and staff absences are still causing some disruption across the economy and our critical services.

Therefore, although we can take great heart from the latest data, we know from experience how important it is to be responsible and appropriately cautious in the face of the virus. That is the context for the decisions that the Cabinet reached this morning.

Yesterday, the limit on attendances at outdoor public events was lifted. The remaining statutory measures that were introduced in response to omicron are as follows: limits on attendance at indoor public events; the requirement for 1m physical distancing between different groups in indoor public places; the requirement for table service in hospitality premises that serve alcohol on the premises; and the closure of nightclubs. Given the improving situation—and as I said last week that we hoped to be able to do—I can confirm today that all those measures will be lifted from next Monday, 24 January. From that day, we will also remove the guidance that advises adults against non-professional indoor contact sports, so that those can resume as normal, and we will lift the guidance that asks people to stick to a three-household limit on indoor gatherings.

However, it is important to stress that, notwithstanding the improving situation, the level of Covid infection that is circulating in the community is still high. To minimise the risk of getting the virus, therefore, it would be sensible for all of us to remain cautious in our social interactions at this stage. Even though, from Monday, we will no longer recommend a fixed upper limit on numbers of households, if we all continue to keep gatherings as small as our circumstances allow for now—and, I suggest, until the end of this month—we will reduce our chances of getting infected.

Of course, we should continue to take lateral flow tests before meeting up with people from other households. I ask people please also to remember to record test results, whether those are positive or negative, through the UK Government website. I stress that that is even more important now that we are no longer advising confirmatory PCR tests for those without symptoms who test positive through lateral flow devices. Recording those results ensures that we are able to make better assessments of the trends in infection.

Finally, we will continue to ask people to work from home whenever possible at this stage, and for employers to facilitate that. However, we will engage with business now about a return to a more hybrid approach from the start of February.

The baseline mitigation measures that were in place before omicron, and the requirement for businesses, service providers and places of worship to take reasonable measures to minimise the spread of Covid on their premises, will be retained at this stage to help keep Covid contained as this wave recedes.

That means that face coverings must still be worn in public indoor settings and on public transport, that businesses and other organisations should continue to have regard to guidance and take reasonable steps to minimise the spread of Covid, and that hospitality premises should continue to collect contact details for customers, which is important for the effective operation of test and protect.

In addition, the Covid certification scheme will continue to apply for now to large indoor and outdoor events and to late-night venues—all settings where transmission risks can be higher. As of yesterday, guidance stipulates that organisers of events with 1,000 or more in attendance should check the certification status of at least 50 per cent of attendees or 1,000 people, whichever is higher.

I indicated last week that the Cabinet would consider and decide today whether to extend the certification scheme to other premises, such as licensed hospitality venues. That was undoubtedly the most difficult decision that we faced this morning and—yet again—the judgment that we have arrived at was finely balanced.

On the one hand, extending Covid certification could offer public health benefits. Ensuring that people attending certain venues are vaccinated or tested reduces, to some extent, the risks of transmission and the risk of serious illness should an individual contract the virus in one of those settings. On the other hand, we understand that extending certification could create additional costs for businesses at an already very challenging time—and, of course, the smaller the business, the more difficult those costs can be to bear.

The task for the Cabinet today was to weigh those considerations and decide what—in the current circumstances—would be proportionate. Given that cases are now falling quite rapidly and that the current wave is receding, we decided that we will not at this stage extend the Covid certification scheme to other premises.

We will of course reconsider that should circumstances—and therefore the balance of judgment—change in any significant way. If cases were to start to rise very sharply again, extension of certification may well be a more proportionate alternative to other, more restrictive measures. However, our conclusion today, given the improving situation, is that extending certification would not be proportionate at this stage.

However, we will propose one reasonably minor change to the certification regulations. At the moment, nightclubs and other late night venues must apply the Covid certification scheme if they have, in use, a designated area for dancing. We intend to amend the definition here to provide greater clarity and to prevent premises from avoiding certification simply by having tables on a dance floor—and therefore claiming that it is not a dance floor—but nevertheless permitting dancing to take place. That change will take effect from Monday when late-night venues are able to reopen.

Finally, let me say a few words about the updated rules on self-isolation after a positive Covid test. Those rules, which were confirmed two weeks ago, remain in place. If you test positive, you will be advised to self-isolate for 10 days. However, if you do not have a fever and you take two negative lateral flow tests more than 24 hours apart on day 6 and day 7, you can end self-isolation on day 7.

Last week, the United Kingdom Government announced further changes to self-isolation in England. That was publicised as allowing people to end self-isolation after day 5. In essence, however, that change simply brings England’s rules into line with those already in force in Scotland. That is because, in Scotland, we count the day of a positive test as day 1 of isolation; in England, that is counted as day zero. In addition, in England, you can end self-isolation only after day 5; in Scotland, you can end it on day 7.

The slightly different ways of defining the beginning and the end of the self-isolation period has therefore given the impression of difference. However, the substance—the period that people are actually required to self-isolate for—is, in fact, the same in Scotland and England. It is important that people are clear about that.

The lifting, from Monday, of the protections introduced in response to omicron is possible, in part, because of the efforts that everyone has made—voluntarily and as a result of guidance and statutory measures—to help stem transmission. I put on record again today my thanks to people across the country.

It is also, of course, down to the success of vaccines. At this stage of the vaccination programme, we continue to offer boosters and implement the latest advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

Just before Christmas, the JCVI recommended that booster jags should be offered to 16 and 17-year-olds, 12 weeks after their second jags. Therefore, any 16 or 17-year-old who had a second jag 12 weeks ago or more, or who is just approaching that point, can now book a booster appointment online through NHS inform. They can also turn up at a drop-in centre and get the booster there.

In addition, second doses of the vaccine are now available for 12 to 15-year-olds who had a first dose at least 12 weeks previously. Again, appointments can be booked online. Alternatively, young people can choose to go to a drop-in centre. Parents and carers are, of course, welcome to attend with them.

So far, the JCVI has recommended that booster jags should be offered only to those 12 to 15-year-olds who are at particular clinical risk from Covid. Any 12 to 15-year-old who is in that position will receive a letter inviting them for a booster 12 weeks after their last primary dose. There is no need to book an appointment.

Finally, 5 to 11-year-olds with specific medical conditions that put them at greater risk from Covid will be invited for their first vaccination from this week onwards. Again, I stress that they will be contacted directly: there is no need for them—or, more appropriate, their parents or carers—to book online. In due course, 5 to 11-year-olds who are household contacts of people with immune suppression will also be invited to receive vaccination. Of course, we stand ready to quickly implement any updated advice from the JCVI about vaccinating all 5 to 11-year-olds.

There are good reasons why the JCVI has given different advice for different age groups, but I realise that it can be confusing. The NHS inform website now has a self-help guide for parents, carers and children, which sets out what young people need to do to get vaccinated, and when they can do it. People who cannot get online can get that information by phoning the vaccination hotline on 0800 030 8013.

The final point that I want to make relates to vaccinations for adults. Scotland has achieved very high rates of vaccination. We are the most vaccinated part of the UK in terms of first, second, third and booster doses. However, there are still more than 600,000 people over the age of 18 who are eligible for a booster but have not yet had it, and there are hundreds of thousands more who have not yet had a first or second dose. I encourage anyone who falls into one of those categories to make an appointment as soon as possible or go to a drop-in clinic: there is plenty of capacity and you will be made welcome.

The latest available data, adjusted for age, shows that someone who is not fully vaccinated is at least four times more likely to require hospital treatment than someone who has had a booster or third dose. Although being fully vaccinated does not eradicate the risk—for any of us—of getting Covid, it reduces that risk and therefore reduces the risk of our passing Covid on to others.

Therefore, if you choose, without good reason, not to be fully vaccinated, you are putting your own and others’ lives at unnecessary risk. If you have not had a booster or third jag yet, please come forward as soon as possible, and if you have not had a first or second dose yet, please do so without delay. It is never too late to get the Covid vaccine and to start getting the protection that the vaccines offer.

The situation that we face today is undoubtedly less severe and much more positive than it might have been without the sacrifices that everyone has made over the past few weeks, although, despite what people might be hearing from media commentary, we have not yet moved from the epidemic to the endemic phase of Covid. I hope that that transition is under way.

We are, I hope, once again entering a calmer phase of the epidemic. That then allows us to consider the adaptations that we might need to make to build our resilience and manage the virus in a less restrictive way in future, as we move into an endemic phase. As I have indicated in previous weeks, we have started work on an updated strategic framework; we will consult on that over coming weeks.

All that gives us much cause for renewed optimism. That said, we are still in a challenging position. The NHS remains under very significant pressure. Indeed, as is reflected in today’s accident and emergency waiting time figures, the past couple of weeks have probably been the most difficult that the NHS has ever faced, as Covid-related staff absences have compounded the other pressures with which it is dealing.

The number of Covid cases across Scotland, although declining, also remains high, and because omicron is so infectious, there is still a significant risk attached to social meetings and interactions. That is why, although we can be increasingly optimistic at this stage, we must all still play our part in helping to further slow the spread of the virus.

I highlight again the steps that we can all take to help to do that. First, as I have just talked about at length, please get fully vaccinated if you have not already done so. Secondly, take care when socialising. Until Monday, keep indoor gatherings to a maximum of three households. I suggest that, after that, for the rest of this month, try to keep indoor gatherings as small as your circumstances allow. Test before you go, every time. Lastly, please take all the other precautions that we know make a difference. If you are meeting indoors, keep windows open. Continue to work from home for now if you can. Wear a face covering on public transport, in shops and when moving about in hospitality settings, and follow all advice on hygiene.

Those measures make a difference. The fact that so many people have stuck with them has helped to make it possible to lift the protective measures that were put in place before Christmas. If we continue to stick with those measures, we can all continue to do our bit to keep each other safe, protect the NHS and keep us firmly on the path—even if only metaphorically speaking—to a much sunnier spring and summer.

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues that were raised in her statement. I intend to allow around 40 minutes for questions, after which we will move on to the next item of business. I would be grateful if members who wish to ask a question were to press their request-to-speak buttons now or to enter R in the chat function.

I begin by urging everyone to keep getting vaccinated. Even if you have, so far, been against the vaccine, there is still time to change your mind and get your first jag.

The First Minister’s statement begins a sea change in the Government’s policy, starting to shift from a rules-based approach more towards trusting the Scottish public, as the Conservatives were pushing for. Yesterday, we called for an end to all business restrictions, an end to guidance on household mixing and social distancing, and an end to the ban on indoor sports. We did so because the data shows that we are past the peak of omicron. At this stage, protecting mental health, physical health and Scottish jobs is every bit as important as slowing the spread of Covid. Most of the approaches that we have called for have been taken, but the Government has still not gone far enough in two key areas. First, we welcome the move away from guidance on working from home, but can the First Minister explain the evidence behind that decision? Why, at this stage, can we not go further? Perhaps she could publish all the evidence that was used to make that decision.

Secondly, it is right that the First Minister has backed down on extending the vaccine passport scheme. For many Scottish businesses, it remains a burden and a potential risk. The First Minister has twice threatened to extend the scheme to Scottish businesses, and twice she has backed down. Is it not about time that the First Minister accepted that the scheme is a dud and scrapped it altogether?

Finally, although we are past the peak of the omicron crisis, we are at the peak of the crisis in A and E departments. The latest appalling A and E figures show the worst-ever waiting times for patients. Double the number of patients were waiting more than the target time, compared to the same week last year. My colleagues on the front line of the NHS are overwhelmed. Covid is making things worse, but the root of the problem is not omicron; it is the lack of a credible plan from Humza Yousaf. How many wake-up calls does the health secretary need before he finally devises a coherent strategy to tackle the unacceptable emergency waiting times in Scotland?

Throughout the past two years, Government policy and approaches to tackling Covid have adapted—and they will continue to adapt—in line with changes in the path of the virus. Keeping the public as safe as possible will continue to be our driving imperative. The approach that we are taking and have taken is balanced. It is appropriately and suitably cautious, and it is data driven. For all those reasons, it stands in stark contrast to the approach that the Conservatives have proposed at each and every stage.

I gently remind the chamber and, indeed, the public at large that, at every turn, whenever decisions have been taken, the Conservatives have—in my view, rather opportunistically—opposed whatever the Scottish Government has recommended. That has been the case on face coverings, working from home and mitigations in our schools. With the greatest respect, given that the Conservatives have called it wrong at every key juncture in the tackling of this virus, forgive me if I continue to follow clinical advice and make careful judgments rather than follow the advice that the member is offering today.

The member raised two specific issues. On working from home, I continue to be surprised that Dr Gulhane asks me for evidence of things that even non-clinically qualified people now see as being pretty obvious. When we are coming out of a wave of this virus, the worst thing to do would be to lift the restrictions at exactly the same time and allow the mixing and interactions that we have been trying to restrict to happen again all at once. What is the evidence for saying that people should work from home so that they do not have to, for example, travel to work and come together in canteens at lunch time? It is that, when we reduce that interaction, we reduce the opportunities for the virus to spread. While we are lifting other restrictions, it is prudent to keep that piece of guidance in place for a couple of weeks longer. I would argue that that is common sense, and I think that most people across the country understand that.

Secondly, on accident and emergency departments, going back to my earlier point, I would simply say in passing that, had we followed the advice—to use a polite term—of the Conservatives and lifted measures prematurely at previous stages and not had the mitigations that we had in place, we would be in a much worse position with Covid than we are in right now, and the pressure on our health services and A and E departments would be even greater.

We continue to support our national health service. The figures for A and E today reflect that the past couple of weeks have probably been the most difficult period in the history of the national health service, with staff absences compounding the other pressures. I hope that those figures will start to improve in the weeks ahead. We will continue to support the NHS in every way that we can, but the most important thing that all of us can do to support the NHS right now is continue to act in the careful way that we have been doing in order to keep cases on that downward trajectory.

I start by sending my condolences to all those who have lost a loved one during this pandemic.

Today’s announcements offer hope to a lot of people, who can look forward to once again getting some more normality back in their lives. However, too many businesses are still teetering on the brink and too many workers have found themselves waiting for weeks with no support. I will give the First Minister one example from my home city of a situation in which she needs to do more now. More than 100 staff who work at two Glasgow theatres have been left without pay for an entire month. That is just one example from one sector that tells a story about the lack of urgency on the part of this Government.

The scheme that will support those workers will not even publish its guidelines until tomorrow, and applications will not open for another week, never mind the disbursal of the actual money. Those workers have bills to pay and families to feed. What will the First Minister do today to support those workers and all like them across Scotland?

We are two years into this pandemic and, by now, we should have a system that has built-in resilience. We all hope that the worst is behind us, but, going forward, any changes in the restrictions cannot be ad hoc. We need a system that sets clear trigger points for what people can expect when cases rise and that lays out what support will be made available to people, when they will be entitled to it and when it will be received.

When can we expect a meaningful debate in this Parliament on detailed proposals for such a framework? Although the restrictions are well intentioned, they have had a detrimental impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, and we cannot expect people to live their lives like that indefinitely.

First, on business support, I remind people that much of the money that is available in Scotland is not available in other parts of the UK. It is flowing, where appropriate, from local authorities and, in the case of theatres and people in the culture sector, from Creative Scotland—which, for example, has already started paying successful applicants to the freelancers hardship fund, and other funds will follow.

As I said last week, we are working with local authorities and other agencies to get the money out the door and into the bank accounts of those who need it as quickly as possible. However, there are checks and processes that have to be applied to guard against fraud. Yesterday, I noted the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying that £4.3 billion that had been fraudulently claimed earlier in the pandemic was being written off. I can imagine Anas Sarwar’s reaction if we took decisions here without doing the appropriate checks. Work continues to get that money out to people as quickly as possible, because we understand how badly needed it is.

On the second point, I have already said that we have started work on the framework. In the coming weeks, we will consult parties across the chamber, businesses and others across society, and we will bring it to Parliament for debate and a vote.

It is important to understand the uncertainties that still exist. I understand the clamour for certainty—we all want certainty—but we are dealing with an unpredictable virus. At the moment, fixed trigger points would not serve anybody well, because we need to continue to apply judgment. To use omicron as an example, it was a new variant but we quickly found out that it does not behave in exactly the same way as delta behaves; therefore, trigger points that were designed for delta or that were later designed for omicron might not be appropriate for the variant that comes along next. We have to retain a degree of flexibility, and anybody who suggests otherwise will not navigate a path through the virus that serves the country well.

Much of what we have done has been in line with other countries across the world. In the latter phase of the pandemic, we have had far fewer restrictions than some other countries have had. No country has the magic answers, but, as we learn more, we can have more certainty about the path that we take. However, I say very forcibly, based on all my experience of the past two years, that it is really important to retain that degree of flexibility.

It is gratifying to hear that the Scottish Government has determined that it would be disproportionate to roll out the further use of vaccination certification at this stage. The Liberal Democrats have always said that Covid identity cards are disproportionate, full stop, and I hope that they will now fall away.

Today’s announcement will represent light at the end of the tunnel for many people, not least in the hospitality sector, which was hobbled by the restrictions over Christmas. Many of those people are still looking for answers, and answers matter. People need to trust that, if further restrictions are required in the future, they will be based in transparency and in a science that they can see. Therefore, it is concerning that, last week, the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled that the Government acted unlawfully in withholding projections about a second wave.

In the light of the rebuke by the Scottish Information Commissioner, will the Government commit to moving forward with transparency?

On the issue of vaccination certification, the difference between the Scottish Government and Alex Cole-Hamilton is that we assess the proportionality on the basis of the evidence, and we make balanced judgments. If the evidence shows us that certification is a less restrictive option than other measures, we will consider it. Alex Cole-Hamilton takes a fixed, ideological position, which, in the face of an infectious virus, is not appropriate. That is perhaps the key difference.

None of us wants to go back to restrictions. Even the further protective measures that have been in place over the past few weeks were far less restrictive than those at earlier stages in the pandemic, because, as we have been doing for most of this year, we are gradually learning to live with Covid in a greater way. However, we need to continue to assess matters on the basis of the evidence.

The Government has been totally transparent—we publish figures every single day. People say, “Show us the data,” but we publish the data every day. The evidence is in how the virus behaves, and we know from epidemiological evidence that the virus spreads when people come together—more so in particular settings. We will continue to enhance the data as our knowledge becomes more developed.

On the freedom of information issue, the commissioner actually found that the information being withheld was of a type to which the exemption that covers development of Government policy applied. He accepted that the information was intended to assist in developing policy in relation to a possible second wave, but he took a different view in assessing the public interest issue. We will consider the commissioner’s decision carefully and respond appropriately.

I call Ruth Maguire. On behalf of the Parliament, I take the opportunity to welcome Ms Maguire back. [Applause.]

I was hoping to slip in quietly, but thank you anyway, Presiding Officer.

On Saturday, NHS Ayrshire and Arran held a drop-in vaccination clinic for pregnant women and women who had recently delivered their baby at Ayrshire maternity unit. That was a very welcome initiative. It is crucial that women who are looking to conceive, including those who access specialist in vitro fertilisation treatment, are also provided with timely information and advice on vaccination and how that might impact their hopes of conceiving. An example of where that did not happen was raised with me recently. Those involved were left devastated. What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that women who are looking to conceive and those who provide their healthcare are kept properly informed about the importance of vaccinations?

It is brilliant to have Ruth Maguire back with us as a friend, a colleague and, indeed, the MSP for my home town. It is absolutely brilliant to see her back in Parliament and looking so well.

Ruth Maguire has raised an mportant issue. It is important to stress that Covid continues to pose a serious risk to unvaccinated pregnant women and their babies. Data from Public Health Scotland shows that 98 per cent of pregnant women with Covid who required intensive care in Scotland were unvaccinated. The decision was therefore taken by ministers to temporarily defer fertility treatment for women who are not fully vaccinated.

I fully understand that undergoing fertility treatment is an emotional experience for those involved. Treatment centres provide counselling to women who want to discuss vaccination in more detail, and they are in touch with patients to provide further information on treatment and vaccination. Public Health Scotland has also produced information leaflets and online information to encourage vaccine uptake among pregnant women, and additional guidance on fertility and vaccination can be found on our Parent Club and NHS Inform websites.

Throughout the pandemic, I have raised with the First Minister the issue of hospital parking for NHS staff. I welcome some of the steps that the Government has taken, but, from the start of this week, NHS staff in Edinburgh are having their parking rights removed at Edinburgh royal infirmary. More than 20,000 people have signed a petition that calls for a rethink. Does the First Minster agree that front-line NHS staff who work night shifts should always be given the option of a parking space? Will she agree to a national review of hospital parking for NHS staff?

I agree that NHS staff should not have to pay to park their cars when they turn up to work. I was the health secretary who removed car parking charges at NHS-owned car parks, and, at the start of the pandemic, when Jeane Freeman was health secretary, she managed to secure the removal of car parking charges from the private finance initiative car parks that still had them. That is an important principle.

I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to engage with the health board on that particular issue so that we can ensure, particularly at this exceptionally challenging time for those who work on the front line of our NHS, that they are not being penalised unfairly.

As we all know, the challenges of the pandemic and, more recently, the omicron variant have placed increased pressures on social care settings. The health and social care partnership in Aberdeen is having to take staff away from other services and redeploy them to ease that pressure. What impact does the First Minister anticipate that the funding of Scottish Social Services Council registration and protection of vulnerable groups checks will have on staffing levels in the sector? Is there anything more that we can do to help the social care front line?

The introduction of Scottish Government funding for SSSC registration fees and PVG checks aims to assist the easing of winter pressures across the sector by removing any financial barriers that might prevent people from applying for a career in care. It is all about supporting those who work in the sector.

Health and social care partnerships continue to face significant challenges in providing social care, due to increased levels of demand and staff absences, so we will continue to look at all options to further support the workforce. Indeed, later today, the Deputy First Minister, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government will meet council leaders, local authority chief executives, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, NHS boards and the third sector to discuss the need for a whole-system response to prioritise social care and agree what more can be done nationally and locally.

People who live in care homes in which self-isolation is 14 days—it can last longer—were not mentioned in the statement. Many of them fear that they are being forgotten as the rest of us move on. Some families from care home relatives Scotland describe their loved ones as having no visitors, no freedom and, worst of all, no hope. Will the First Minister listen to their concerns and reassess the proportionality of the 14-day isolation rules? While we wait for the Government to give effect to Anne’s law, will she ensure that full use is made of personal protective equipment, testing and vaccines to facilitate safe visiting and contact between care home residents and their loved ones?

Care homes should ensure appropriate visiting for residents and make full use of PPE and testing. I know that they are working hard to do that.

Specifically on self-isolation, although decisions have understandably been subject to question and criticism, our overriding priority throughout the pandemic has been to safeguard and protect residents and staff in care homes. At times, during the pandemic, those have been some of the most difficult decisions with some of the most challenging and difficult outcomes. However, it remains really important that we take very careful decisions on the matter, given the frailty and vulnerability of the people we are discussing.

The measures that are in place ensure that loved ones can have contact with residents while balancing the Covid risk and the need to keep people safe, in line with clinical and public health advice. That is especially true given the emergence of omicron, which is much more infectious. However, as I think that I said in the chamber last week, given the recent changes to self-isolation more generally that we announced two weeks ago, we had already commissioned public health experts to review the guidelines that are in place for care home residents. We expect to be able to announce an updated position on that imminently, but I hope that Monica Lennon and, indeed, all members will accept that it is important that we do so on the basis of quality clinical and expert advice.

My understanding is that the latest round of business grants for hospitality and similar businesses has gone to businesses that got support in the previous rounds. Is it possible for businesses that are new or whose circumstances have changed and that missed the first round on a technicality to get a grant in the latest round?

Yes, it is. New hospitality businesses that did not previously receive funding can complete an application form. That means that local authorities will be able to assess their eligibility and will contact them within 14 days of receiving the application. The application form is live on the Scottish Government website.

The reason for support automatically going to businesses that previously got it is for speed of getting money to people, but we do not want to exclude anybody who did not get support previously if they are entitled to it now.

I am pleased that there is a downturn in cases but, as we know, the situation can change rapidly, so it is essential that caution is maintained. I am relieved that we are not following the reckless advice of the people who suggested scrapping self-isolation for those who test positive. We need to ensure public compliance with measures, which means supporting people who need to isolate. Will the First Minister confirm that the Scottish Government will continue to make support available for those who need to isolate?

Yes, I confirm that. It is an important point to raise. Isolation remains a really important part of our response to the virus to help us to break the chains of transmission. That is obviously particularly the case when someone has tested positive. One of the unanswered questions in what the Conservatives called on us to do yesterday—which, as I read it, was just to remove everything and take our chances with Covid—is whether they were actually suggesting that we should remove self-isolation for people who test positive. Perhaps they will take the opportunity to clarify that.

We will keep in place support for people who are self-isolating, because we recognise the financial challenges. None of this is easy or what any of us wants to be doing but, particularly at this stage—almost two years into the pandemic—it is really important that we take basic precautions to avoid, as far as we can, the situation going into reverse again.

The vaccination certification programme has been pivotal in allowing people to take part in activities in Scotland during Covid restrictions and in allowing those who travel abroad for work or pleasure to meet the requirements of the country that they are visiting. Will the First Minister give any advice to people who rely on a paper copy of the vaccination certificate to ensure that they can prove their booster status and access an up-to-date QR code?

Paper certificates are available, as I set out again last week. They are accepted at domestic venues where the certification scheme is in operation, and they are accepted by most countries around the world for entry through borders. Boosters were added to paper certificates on 13 December. People should request a new copy if their certificate was issued before that date. In addition, QR codes are regularly updated for security reasons, and paper copies should be renewed every three months to ensure that a valid QR code is used.

We encourage people to use the app where possible for domestic purposes and for international travel certification requirements, as it updates all QR codes each time the app is activated. However, paper copies continue to be available.

Today, the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service published new data about tens of thousands of pending criminal trials, many of which have been delayed by Covid. Its most recent figures, from December, show that 760 of those are in the High Court. In every single one, there is a victim or a murder victim’s family waiting for justice.

The Scottish Government rejected my party’s call for additional funding to clear the backlog. What would the First Minister say to those victims and their families?

We are, of course, making funding available to the courts service to help with the backlog, and we have ensured in the draft budget that was published a matter of weeks ago that the justice system more generally, including the courts system and the Crown Office, is getting a fair settlement in the light of the circumstances that we face.

I deeply regret the impact of the virus on everybody who has suffered because of it. Many people have suffered health impacts because they have had the virus and have become seriously unwell. Sadly, too many people across our country are bereaved as a result of the virus. Even for those of us who have not had the virus or who have not lost a family member, there have been a plethora of other impacts, and that undoubtedly includes victims of crime having trials delayed.

I wish that none of this had happened, and I wish that we were not in, and had never been in, this global pandemic, but we are, and we need to continue to manage its impacts. Getting and keeping Covid under control and moving into a phase where we can manage it much less restrictively is a key part of that. Supporting and funding organisations to catch up on the backlog is work on which we will continue to focus this year, and that will undoubtedly be the case, in some respects, beyond that. We continue to give all of that our utmost priority as we move forward.

What further help can the Scottish Government offer vaccine trial participants so that they are not disadvantaged by recent changes to rules on self-isolation and international travel, in particular the requirement for a booster, which is something that many trial participants do not yet qualify for?

That is an important question for those who took part in trials. I stress that clinical trial participants are treated in the same way as the rest of the population. They are therefore eligible for boosters and are offered them in line with the normal eligibility criteria for the booster programme.

For domestic and international travel and self-isolation on return to Scotland, clinical trial participants are treated as if they are fully vaccinated. Therefore, they should follow the guidance on testing and self-isolation that is detailed on gov.scot. For travel to other countries, all travellers should follow the relevant individual guidance and entry conditions required. Further information on other countries’ entry requirements is available at gov.uk.

On 5 January, the First Minister confirmed that £375 million would be made available for business support. I believe that, to date, only £262 million has been allocated, leaving £113 million. If that is correct, when will that sum be allocated? Will the provision of that support afford the Government the ability to address the issues that were outlined by Mr Mason and to extend support to sectors that, so far, have completely missed out, such as retail, given the deeply damaging impact that restrictions have had at this most critical trading time of the year?

I remind the Parliament of my entry in the register of members’ interests.

We continue to liaise with individual sectors to try to make sure that any remaining funds that we have to allocate are targeted as effectively as possible. We started by allocating funds to those that are most obviously impacted, but there are a variety of other impacts, which we want to ensure that we properly understand and, as far as resources allow us to, address and respond to. Further announcements will be made in due course and as quickly as possible.

We will also publish, as we did in previous stages of the pandemic, outturn data on the disbursement of moneys. That will be published towards the end of January.

We will do everything in our power to make sure that all businesses across different sectors that have been impacted by the latest phase get some help and as much help as we are able to provide.

People throughout Scotland have been disgusted by the hypocritical behaviour of the Prime Minster, who has flouted the rules of his own Government on numerous occasions yet continues in his role. What would the First Minister say to those people who feel that that situation undermines the credibility of the public health message?

I have made my views clear, as many other people have, about the reports of repeated—serial—breaches of the Covid rules on the part of the Prime Minister and those working for and around him. I absolutely understand the intense anger that people feel about that, given the very painful sacrifices that so many people have made over the past couple of years.

Of course, all that has the potential to undermine compliance with the things that we are still asking people to do. However, this is what I would say to people: the reason for complying with any guidance or protective measures that are in place at any time during the pandemic is not because a Prime Minister, First Minister or any politician tells you to do so; the reason for all of us to do that is to keep ourselves, those we love and the whole country as safe as possible.

While we are still in the pandemic, I appeal to everybody not to allow understandable and justified anger at politicians to get in the way of doing the right thing for themselves and their loved ones.

With so many people contracting Covid over the festive period, many will not be able to get their booster for another four weeks. As the First Minister said in her statement, more than 600,000 people over the age of 18 are eligible for a booster but have not had it yet, and there are hundreds of thousands more who have not yet had a first or second dose. Will the First Minister commit to keeping mass vaccination centres, such as the Scolty centre in Banchory, open for the foreseeable future?

I give the assurance that we will keep vaccination open, available and accessible. It will never be too late to get vaccinated.

I will not stand here and say that every single centre that was open and necessary while we were vaccinating large numbers of people on a daily basis will remain open because, as we go through different phases of the vaccination programme, different models of provision will be more appropriate. A large vaccination centre, when we are dealing with more of a trickle of people rather than a big flood of people, would not be a good or efficient use of resources. We will judge that on an on-going basis, as we have done throughout.

I do not pretend that, on any aspect of handling the virus, we have got everything right all the time; manifestly, we have not. However, right now, on first, second and booster doses, we are the most vaccinated part of the UK. That would suggest that the approaches that we have taken so far have been effective, and we have a responsibility to ensure that they remain so.

On the central question, we will, of course, absolutely make sure that anybody who is not already vaccinated and wants to come forward to be vaccinated is able to do so.

The support that the Scottish Government has announced in recent weeks has been welcome, particularly given that such support is not available to businesses elsewhere in the UK. However, my office has been contacted by a local independent travel agent, who continues to struggle due to Covid. Given that the Scottish Government does not have the powers to borrow resources to extend support to other businesses, what representation has the First Minister made to the UK Government to provide funding for those businesses that are currently not eligible for financial support?

We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to increase the level of support that is made available during the omicron wave across the UK, or—we have been joined in this call by the Governments of Wales and Northern Ireland—to make available a process whereby our devolved Governments can do so.

Some new money has been provided, but not nearly as much as I think would have been appropriate. However, we continue to ensure that we maximise what we are able to provide from our own resources and to get the money to businesses as quickly as possible.

As I said in relation to a previous question, there are some funds that we have made available that we have not yet allocated. We are consulting affected sectors—this might be relevant to Marie McNair’s question—about how that can best be targeted.

I want to press the First Minister on my constituents who have been affected by the closure of theatres in Glasgow. They have gone a month without wages and they need direct assurance from the First Minister that they will be helped. That is a serious financial imposition at this time, so I ask the First Minister to take direct oversight of the issue. Up to 150 workers are affected. Can they please get a clear solution from the First Minister? I am happy to follow up the matter with the First Minister, if necessary.

I have oversight of all aspects of the response to Covid. That is my job and my duty. I understand how difficult it is for any organisation, whether a theatre or another business that has been impacted by the recent restrictions. That is why we have allocated money and are working to get that money to organisations and, therefore, to those who need it most, as quickly as possible. I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy to follow up in more detail with the member, should that be helpful.

Last week, it was announced that a £4 million funding package would be put in place to support unpaid carers. What impact does the First Minister anticipate that that will have on the lives of unpaid carers, who have faced greatly increased pressures during the pandemic?

Lots of people—almost everybody in the country, but particularly certain groups of people—have been severely impacted by the pandemic, but there are few groups who have been impacted more severely than unpaid carers. They already carry a significant burden and they have had that burden seriously exacerbated because of the pressures and strains of dealing with Covid.

There is no amount of money that will ever repay unpaid carers for the debt that we owe them, but through a number of strands, such as the supplement to the carers allowance, we try to do more to help. That additional money will help to provide some respite for carers and additional support in different ways to help them to deal with the burden that they are currently carrying. We will continue to look at all ways in which we can further support unpaid carers in the period ahead.

From large-scale events, such as Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, to smaller ones, such as Prestwick’s Christmas market, events organisers have had a tough festive period. That has had a knock-on effect on other businesses, including bed and breakfasts, which have already had a difficult year. Cancelled events have only added to their problems.

My question is twofold. How much of the £21 million to support culture and events is now in the pockets of recipients? What support has been provided to B and B owners and other providers of short-term accommodation since December 2021, and what plans are there to introduce additional support?

The money that we have made available across different sectors is in the process of flowing to businesses. As I said in response to Paul Sweeney’s question—or it might have been Daniel Johnson’s question—we will publish outturn information on each of the strands of business support that will show exactly how much of it has been allocated. We will publish that information at the end of January. We will continue to ensure that we are doing as much as possible to support businesses—whether it is B and Bs or businesses in other parts of the hospitality and leisure sectors—that have been very badly affected by the pandemic generally, but in the past few weeks in particular.

I repeat a central point: the most important thing that we can do—perhaps it is not the most important thing, because in the immediate term that is providing financial assistance but, overall, the most important thing that we can do—is keep Covid under control. That is why I appeal to everybody across the chamber to understand why a careful and cautious path out of this wave is really important in the wider economic interests, as well as the health interests, of the country.

How does the Scottish Government plan to ensure that the inequality gap does not widen as a result of the thousands of people who are being plunged into debt due to the pandemic, along with soaring energy prices and food costs, coupled with the cut to universal credit?

In this Government, we are taking a range of actions to tackle inequality, such as the national mission to tackle child poverty and the commitment of more than £800 million to provide more affordable housing.

In the Covid recovery strategy, we set out specific actions to tackle the inequalities that have been exacerbated by Covid. That includes work to increase financial security for low-income households. In this financial year, we are providing more than £7 million to support free debt advice, including funding to meet increased demand over the winter period. Starting this week, we have had TV adverts through our money support campaign, which make it clear that people do not have to deal with financial problems alone and signpost them to free debt advice services. That is just some of the support that this Government is providing.

Evelyn Tweed is absolutely right that all that support is being undermined by the lack of action on the part of the UK Government to help with soaring energy costs and wider inflationary pressures, and it has all been severely undermined by the completely wrong-headed and cruel decision to remove the £20-a-week universal credit uplift. As we take action, it is incumbent on all of us in the chamber to call on the UK Government to live up to its responsibilities to ensure that inequality does not get worse as a result of the pandemic that we are living through.