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Meeting date: Thursday, January 20, 2022

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 20 January 2022

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Nuclear Weapons Treaties, Portfolio Question Time, Strategic Transport Projects Review 2, Prestwick Airport, Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Motion Without Notice, Decision Time


Contents


Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-02792, in the name of John Swinney, on the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.

15:58  

I am pleased to present the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill and to set out the rationale for introducing it.

I am grateful to the COVID-19 Recovery Committee for its consideration of the bill and for the opportunity to discuss the bill with it, and I am grateful to the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for its assessment and valuable contributions. I am also grateful to the various stakeholders and members of the public who have provided their views.

The bill relates to provisions in the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008, which confers a duty on health boards to provide compensation to people who have been notified to isolate as a result of an infectious disease and to carers of such people. That power was intended to apply to small-scale outbreaks, such as E coli outbreaks, in which a small number of households may be isolated for a short period of time and may lose out on income as a result. It was never intended to apply in a global pandemic such as Covid-19. Had the duty not been suspended at the start of the pandemic, health boards would have faced the need to deal with a significant financial and administrative burden, rather than managing essential care and fighting a pandemic.

For that reason, in March 2020, the UK Coronavirus Act 2020 modified the duty on health boards to pay compensation so that it became a discretionary power. Health boards now have the option to provide compensation to those who are isolating, and to their carers, should they wish, but they are under no obligation to do so. The bill maintains that position until the end of October 2022 for coronavirus isolation only, with regulation-making powers included for Scottish ministers so that they can either enable the early expiration of the modifications or prolong them as required. Should we want to keep them beyond the expiry date for which the bill provides—31 October 2022—an affirmative vote of the Parliament would be required.

The Scottish Government recognises that people who are notified to self-isolate as a result of Covid-19, especially those on low incomes, may require support. That is why we have put in place financial and practical support for people who are self-isolating. That support includes the self-isolation support grant, which is a one-off payment of £500 for those who are isolating as a result of Covid-19 and earn the real living wage or less, and practical support such as the local self-isolation assistance service, which helps with food and essential medical deliveries, social support and practical advice. That support has been distributed to those in most need on low incomes.

As of the end of November 2021, the latest month for which we have data available, 56,317 grants of £500 each have been provided to people on low incomes who have been asked to self-isolate. That means that more than £28 million has been awarded in self-isolation support grants. That established support for isolation as a result of Covid-19 will continue for as long as necessary. The bill relates purely to whether the current suspension of the compensation duty in the 2008 act should remain in place.

The Scottish Government has conducted an indicative analysis of what the cost to health boards would be should the bill not be passed and the original 2008 act compensation duty be restored. According to that indicative analysis, the cost of reverting to the 2008 act would be approximately £320 million per year.

In addition to the cost of compensation, health boards would require significant administrative resource for processing and evaluating each claim. Those are not additional challenges that health boards, which are rightly focused on managing pandemic pressures and providing essential care, should be required to meet, nor could the Scottish Government provide that financial support from within our fixed budget without a substantial impact on public services and on the financial support that we have provided to business in response to the pandemic.

The Scottish Government has conducted a public consultation and engaged with key stakeholders on the bill. A full consultation analysis and response is available on the Scottish Government’s website. We have ensured that any requirement to extend the modifications of the 2008 act under the bill is subject to appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. Should the modifications still be required after October 2022, an affirmative vote of the Parliament would be required. Scottish ministers would also need to lay a statement of reasons before Parliament, explaining why the modifications were being retained for a further period of time.

The point has been made that the 2008 act was not intended for pandemics. In the future, would it be good to have one act that covers both pandemics and minor outbreaks?

I am not sure that it would be necessary to have the provisions in one act. The provisions in the 2008 act for the purposes of a small localised outbreak are a perfectly sustainable and effective set of provisions. The gap relates to pandemic provisions, where there is a more extensive requirement. It is entirely fair and appropriate for Mr Mason to raise the longer-term issue.

The bill ensures that health boards are protected from the significant financial and administrative burdens that they would face if the modifications were not to be continued. I hope, therefore, that Parliament will agree to the general principles of the bill.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill.

16:04  

It is my pleasure to speak on behalf of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee on our stage 1 report on the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill. I thank everyone who gave the committee evidence, which informed our stage 1 report and led us to support the general principles of the bill. I also thank the Scottish Government for providing its response to our report so quickly and in time for the debate.

As the Deputy First Minister outlined, the bill is needed to extend temporary modifications of the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 so that health boards have discretion as to whether to pay compensation for self-isolation in connection with Covid-19 rather than a duty to do so. The bill is needed as a consequence of previous temporary modifications made to the 2008 act by the United Kingdom Coronavirus Act 2020 expiring or ceasing to have effect.

In light of the increasing number of people who are being asked to isolate because of omicron and the fact that the existing modifications are due to expire in March, the committee understands why the Scottish Government has introduced the bill now and agrees that it is needed. That said, in undertaking our stage 1 scrutiny, we became aware of some issues relating to the availability of support for people who are asked to isolate, including the self-isolation support grant. I will talk briefly about some of those issues.

The Scottish Women’s Convention told the committee that none of the 100 women who responded to a consultation exercise that was sent to more than 4,000 women had successfully accessed the self-isolation support grant or local self-isolation assistance services, even though they have been required to self-isolate. That is a real concern, particularly as we were told that some women did not know that the support existed and others said that they did not know how it would affect their benefits.

We also heard concerns about the eligibility criteria for the grant, particularly for people just above the low-income bracket, who do not qualify for it.

Having heard that evidence, although it is not directly related to the bill, we asked the Scottish Government to review the level of support that is currently provided and the eligibility criteria for people who qualify for it. We also urged the Government to consider how best to increase public awareness of the support that is available to people who are asked to self-isolate. I am pleased that the Scottish Government’s response confirmed that those issues are kept under regular review and that it will continue to review its public communications on self-isolation support. That is to be welcomed.

The committee routinely considers regulations that put in place the continuing changes to health protection and travel restriction measures. It is, therefore, no surprise that we were interested in the powers in the bill to change the expiry date of the modifications by regulation. In light of the evidence that we heard, we recommended that, in the interest of effective parliamentary scrutiny,

“when making emergency regulations … the statement of reasons”

that is required by the bill

“should also explain why it is necessary to make the regulations urgently”.

I am pleased to note that the Scottish Government has taken that on board in its response to our report and will provide that information in such circumstances in future.

I look forward to hearing other members’ views on the bill and to considering any amendments to it, as outlined in our report, if the Parliament agrees that it should progress to stage 2.

16:08  

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests and remind them I am a member of the Law Society of Scotland.

I join the committee convener in thanking the bill team, the committee clerks and advisers, the Scottish Parliament information centre and everyone who gave evidence to the committee for its stage 1 consideration of the bill.

As we heard, the bill might appear to be technical and modest but, nevertheless, it deals with an important issue. The Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 places a duty on health boards to provide compensation to a person whom a board has asked to quarantine or otherwise be restricted for the period for which they have to isolate. That is an important measure to deal with outbreaks of contagious diseases. It is important that people who are affected by such requests have financial compensation so that they are not put in difficult situations. However, in the context of Covid-19, had those provisions continued, they could have led to a substantial financial burden on the public purse.

Accordingly, in the original coronavirus emergency legislation, the obligation to provide compensation was replaced with a discretionary power. The bill that is before us will ensure that that discretionary power continues, even if the emergency coronavirus powers lapse. Therefore, the bill is about saving the national health service money. The financial memorandum estimates that the cost to the public purse in 2021-22 would be £380 million, if the bill were not passed.

We recognise that people who have to self-isolate due to Covid-19 should receive financial assistance. Presently, that is done through the Scottish Government’s self-isolation support grant, which is administered by local authorities using the Scottish welfare fund statutory guidance. However, a protection is needed for the public purse to ensure that the total costs do not rise exponentially, given that, as the cabinet secretary said, the 2008 act was predicated on small outbreaks of diseases such as E coli, where it was expected that only very limited numbers of the public would be asked to quarantine. The bill provides that protection.

The committee’s consultation showed general support for the principles of the bill. We heard some comments about access to the self-isolation support grant and concerns that numbers of people on low incomes were not accessing those payments for a variety of reasons. Sandra McLeod, who gave evidence on behalf of the Aberdeen city health and social care partnership, told the committee about experiences in Aberdeen, where there had been some concern from recipients that there was stigma and discrimination attached to claiming benefits and not enough publicity around access to the SISG. The committee also heard views that better transparency was needed around the reasons for claims being rejected, which were not always provided.

The convener referred to one technical issue raised by the Law Society of Scotland in relation to the bill—namely, that a statement of reasons should be provided by the Scottish Government when making regulations under section 3(2) to extend the expiry date of section 1, or when making emergency regulations under section 3. I raised that in the evidence sessions and was pleased that the call was supported by the committee. I am also pleased that the Scottish Government has accepted in its response that the issue will be dealt with in a stage 2 amendment, which the committee will address next Thursday.

This is an important bill. Although it might appear modest in scope, it has significant financial implications. We need to keep supporting people who have to self-isolate due to Covid, particularly those who are in a financially vulnerable situation, and the bill will ensure that it is affordable for us to do that in future. For all those reasons, the Scottish Conservatives will support the bill at stage 1.

16:13  

Scottish Labour, too, supports the general principles of the bill. I add my thanks to the committee for its work and to all who gave evidence to the committee. We agree with the Scottish Government that separate legislation is required to ensure that help continues to go to the people who are most in need of it. I understand that failing to continue with the temporary modifications could have crippling financial implications for our health boards at a time when they are already struggling.

In March 2020, Covid-19 was a public health crisis of a magnitude that we had not seen before—certainly not in my generation. It was also an economic crisis, the consequences of which we will continue to live with for a period after the immediate threat to our health has been brought under control. The financial implications for both individuals and businesses have been devastating.

As with most things, it is the people on the lowest incomes who have been hit the hardest. Self-isolation grants are not only key to ensuring that people are not left struggling when they are required to self-isolate but vital in ensuring greater and more widespread adherence to self-isolation guidance. For workers on a low wage with a family to support, if they had to choose between self-isolating and going without an income, especially when they might be asymptomatic, or continuing to go into work so that they could get paid, I know that many would be forced into making the wrong choice. The provision of self-isolation grants undoubtedly helps people who are low paid, but it also protects public health.

I understand that the Scottish Government awarded around 43,000 self-isolation support grants, coming to a total spend of £22 million, up to September 2021. Although I welcome the fact that people have been able to access that support, I fear that many more who have been eligible and in need of financial assistance have simply not known about it. I echo the COVID-19 Recovery Committee’s recommendations that there must be a serious increase in public awareness campaigns about the availability of, and eligibility for, self-isolation support and that a review of the level of support should be provided. I hope to see details from the Scottish Government on how it plans to actively do that ahead of stage 2.

I have previously raised concerns with the First Minister about the speed with which self-isolation support grants are paid out. I raised in the chamber the case of one constituent for whom it took 11 weeks to receive the funds that I am sure we agree are required almost immediately to allow individuals and families to survive and meet their financial commitments.

I understand that local authorities make the payments, and I thank all those who are processing them. However, local authorities did not have adequate resources to respond quickly, especially when significant numbers of applications were coming in. Ensuring that local authorities build in surge capacity is critical, so that they can cope with the volume of applications and so that there are no further delays to the receipt of payments.

I would like to touch on the need for ensuring levels of transparency in Government, which is a point that other speakers have already raised. I agree with both the recommendation of the committee and the view of the Law Society of Scotland that the Government should produce a statement of reasons when making regulations to extend the expiry date or when making emergency regulations. Without an agreed definition of the term “emergency”, it is essential to allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny and ensure that the necessary statement is provided. I welcome the fact that the Deputy First Minister has acknowledged that point.

The pandemic is not yet over, so it is only right to allow for an extension of those particular provisions. Scottish Labour is therefore happy to support the bill at stage 1.

16:17  

Scottish Liberal Democrats will support the bill at stage 1. For the time being, we support the retention of compensation for self-isolation as a discretionary policy.

During the strictest lockdown measures, there was not a great difference between self-isolating and staying at home. Other financial measures ensured that support was in place for those who could not go to work. For the small pool of people without financial support during their requirement to self-isolate, discretionary payments were a possibility.

Thankfully, we have moved on from those early days in 2020. As we continue through the pandemic, we might wish to return to the model that we had before Covid. I am pleased that the duty on health boards to provide compensation for isolation for reasons other than Covid will return. As we interact and travel more, there might be more cases of those isolation requirements for other reasons.

The policy that the bill extends has not been perfect, but we recognise that a balance has to be struck, which is not easy—that has been a theme throughout the pandemic, as we know. Although it would have been ideal to provide compensation to every case of requested self-isolation, it was less necessary at the start of the pandemic for reasons to which I have alluded. It would have also been a great financial and administrative burden on health boards, especially at the peak of infections.

Some people considered Covid-19 and lockdown measures as the great leveller, but that was simply not the case. Inequality and poverty have been laid bare during all that we have been through these past two years. Those who work in front-line roles with many one-on-one interactions are often paid less than those in jobs that could be done from home, yet they are more likely to be exposed to the virus through the volume and proximity of contact with others. Ensuring support to those with less means who are required to self-isolate is critical for those individuals and anyone they happen to support.

There are issues with the available financial self-isolation support, and I hope that the Scottish Government will consider the limited financial criteria, the lack of awareness of the grant among the public, the delays in receiving support and the practical barriers that leave claim rates low.

I will give an example of one of my constituents who tried to get support. Her son had a positive Covid test. My constituent and her partner did not test positive but, nevertheless, the household self-isolated. As a self-employed beauty therapist who works from home but who was unable to have clients in her house, my constituent had no income for 10 days. She applied for the self-isolation grant but was told that she did not qualify for several reasons: she had not tested positive, her son is an adult and her partner’s income rendered her ineligible. The latter criterion has a patriarchal feel to it.

Despite the impact of losing client bookings on her business, my constituent did the right thing by isolating, and I thank all those people who, when asked to do so, have self-isolated over the past two years, ensuring that they did not infect others. Compliance rates with all Covid restrictions have been high and we must thank the public for their great sacrifices to protect one another. We must ensure that, when financial support is needed, it is there.

We now move to the open debate. There is a wee bit of time in hand, if members wish to intervene or accept interventions.

16:20  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am sure that we can all make an effort to spin it out, if you want. [Laughter.]

Mr Mason, that is not what I seek.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I am a member of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, which has been through the bill fairly thoroughly. As other members have said, there is not really anything contentious in it. There is some suggestion that it is a technical bill, but I suggest that it is a little bit more than that. As Murdo Fraser spelled out, if we did not pass the bill, the NHS would face additional costs of some £360 million, which is quite a substantial amount of money. If we had a bill before us that would require spending £360 million, it would not be considered to be just a technical bill.

The convener has explained the background to the bill and the fact that this subject was previously covered by United Kingdom legislation but will now be handled by us. The Law Society is positive that it will be an improvement, because the bill deals specifically with Covid-19, rather than being a blanket modification of the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008. Therefore, at least theoretically, if someone were to get Ebola or a similarly rare illness in the next few months and had to self-isolate, they would be entitled to the full compensation regime.

A number of points were made during our work on the bill and it is worth spending a little time considering some of them. When asked about the 2008 act, the Law Society said:

“the whole vista of emergency legislation needs some revision in relation to whatever emergencies there might be.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, 2 December 2021; c 10.]

The committee broadly agreed with that point, as the 2008 act was clearly aimed at small numbers of people having to self-isolate and not at the possibility of a pandemic. The Government’s comment was that the 2008 act was fit for purpose but that the intended purpose had been more limited. I feel that it would be better to have legislation in place that deals with both smaller cases and pandemics.

Another issue that came up was how many people self-isolated when told to do so. Many, 94 per cent, said that they self-isolated, but when that was studied in more detail, it was found that a lower proportion, 74 per cent, did so. Some people did not know about the compensation that was available, while others thought that it would impact on their benefits. Some people found compensation difficult to access and some were knocked back without reasons being made clear.

As we have just heard from Beatrice Wishart and other members, for people on low incomes, being off work for even a few days is a serious step and some employers are more supportive than others. In future, therefore, the level of compensation should be carefully considered. Although the bill is not about the specific support of £500, that figure was raised in the consultation process. Household incomes and circumstances vary greatly around the country, not least because the cost of living varies, and some households already face fuel poverty and food insecurity. Although £500 is a nice, round and simple figure, it could be more nuanced.

Practical support such as health and social care was also raised, and I understand that the Government has committed to considering that point.

In response to the committee’s consultation, the Law Society pointed out that there was no definition of “emergency”, and that the Government should be proactive in setting out why regulations might

“need to be made urgently”.

In one sense, this issue is perhaps less important at this point as we are, I hope, coming out of the pandemic and the proposed legislation is of a temporary nature. However, the committee is also thinking ahead to future pandemics, and it would be good if we could have the best structures already in place when that happens. I think that the Government accepts that point.

Overall, I am happy to support the bill. To fully compensate everyone in the country for all their losses because of self-isolation or other aspects of the pandemic has not been, is not, and cannot be afforded or possible. A more limited and targeted support scheme has been required, and the bill seeks to continue that.

I call Sandesh Gulhane, who is joining us remotely.

16:25  

I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a practising NHS doctor.

In all honesty, there is not a huge amount to say about the bill at stage 1. Basically, the public have done the right thing. People have isolated as appropriate and taken their vaccines.

Murdo Fraser eloquently expressed the concerns of the Law Society over a technical point, so I do not wish to go over that again.

The bill seeks to reinstate the duty on health boards to pay compensation requests for self-isolation for reasons other than Covid-19, which was, understandably, being done at the discretion of health boards during Covid. As has been said already, the 2008 act was intended to be used for people who were isolating because of diseases such as tuberculosis and was never intended to be used during a pandemic.

The bill looks to save £360 million and we should welcome that. We need to be clear, however, that help is available for people who need to isolate, and they can get that help through the Scottish Government’s self-isolation support grant, although I must say that, having seen the papers and the application process, it is a rather daunting prospect to have to go through, and it would be good to streamline it, because some people might give up on the paperwork. I also agree with Jackie Baillie that the payments are required quickly by those who apply.

The bill’s scope is narrow, and it is aimed at doing what is required. For that reason, the Scottish Conservatives and I will support it at stage 1.

16:27  

Others who have spoken before me, particularly my fellow members of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, have dealt with the intentions and implications of the bill in a more specific and detailed manner. I hope to avoid going over the same ground in my speech this afternoon.

In considering the bill at stage 1, the committee took a sufficiently wide-ranging selection of evidence from health and social care partnerships, the Law Society of Scotland, the Resolution Foundation, the Scottish Women’s Convention and the Scottish Government itself. We heard from the Deputy First Minister, the Scottish Government legal directorate and the team leader for Covid-19 legislation and daily contact testing, as well as from the head of contact tracing and supporting isolation policy.

In essence, the bill is a consequence of Covid still being with us and the desire to extend some of the unusual provisions relating to the way in which we are responding to the pandemic for a further six months. It is an acknowledgement of that fact. The provision allows the legislation to run until October instead of expiring in March, and, in agreeing to it, we are protecting the public purse from a potential 20-fold increase in cost, which, as we have already heard, would be about £360 million in year 1.

Covid has wreaked havoc with our economy, our social interactions and our day-to-day lives in so many ways that were almost unimaginable to us before March 2020. The need to insist that vast numbers of people isolate themselves for more than a week at a time was a big part of those previously unimaginable consequences. It was felt to be prudent to take that decision in 2020, and I am not convinced that we are sufficiently free of the threat posed by the on-going pandemic to cast that protection aside just yet. This is a short-term legislative bill to prevent a long-term financial bill.

It is essential that we bear it in mind that, as has been said, the requirement to compensate that is contained in the 2008 act was not introduced with a worldwide pandemic in mind. It was intended as a response to outbreaks that were far more limited in geography and scale. However, that is not the position we are in. We are far from that right now.

That does not mean that the Scottish Government does not recognise the importance of providing financial support to those who are most in need and are required to self-isolate as a consequence of the virus, and I welcome the fact that, in the year to September 2021, the Government awarded self-isolation support grants totalling almost £28 million.

As a committee, we were not without questions and concerns about the contents of the bill, but I am satisfied that the Scottish Government’s responses to those concerns properly addressed and dealt with any misgivings that we had.

We recommended that, separately from the bill, the Scottish Government should review the level of support that is currently provided and the eligibility criteria for all those who qualify for that support, and we were assured that the Government will keep those criteria, and the level of support, under constant review. I welcome that.

We recommended that the Scottish Government should consider how best to increase public awareness of the support that is available to those who are asked to self-isolate, and we received an assurance that that, too, will be kept under review. The importance of messaging in that regard is probably one of the biggest messages that the COVID-19 Recovery Committee has taken out of this process.

The most complex of our recommendations was probably the one that related to an issue that was, perhaps inevitably—I apologise to the lawyers in the chamber—brought to our attention by the Law Society of Scotland, which led to the concession by the Scottish Government that, should a statement of reasons be required in relation to regulations being required in urgent circumstances, that statement will contain an explanation of the nature of that urgency as well as of the proposed extension that is required. I welcome that. When it comes to regulations, it is nice to know why they are being made.

Finally, we recommended that, at an appropriate time, when the emergency nature of the current deliberations is behind us, the compensation provisions that are contained in the 2008 act should be revisited to ensure that they remain sufficient for the purposes for which they were intended—for isolated examples of self-isolation. That relates to what John Mason said. I, for one, certainly hope that never again in our lifetimes will we find ourselves in the position of having to distribute large-scale levels of financial support as a consequence of a global pandemic, but we never know.

The bill allows for support for people who are required to self-isolate to be targeted at those who need it most. There may very well be a case for the level and the scope of that targeted assistance to be amended, upgraded and improved, but that is for another day.

Compliance with the self-isolation requirements has, in the main, been very high, and I pay tribute to all those members of the public who, over the course of nearly two years, have tholed the impositions that have been put upon them with a remarkable level of stoicism, fortitude, community spirit and understanding.

16:32  

For the past 22 months, as a result of the requirements to stay at home or to self-isolate, we have all temporarily given up our freedoms and some of our human rights—our rights to liberty, to education, to work, to health, to free assembly and to respect for private and family life, to name but a few. Although we have all experienced the same restrictions, the impacts have not been shared equally.

I believe that it is incumbent on all of us to work tirelessly to do all that we can to ensure that no one’s human rights are disproportionately restricted during, or after, a pandemic. That means that we must do everything in our power to ensure that, when we restrict rights, it is proportionate, justified and managed in a way that, as far as possible, protects people from hardship and inequality.

Self-isolation is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim—that of protecting lives—but that does not make the curtailment of rights any nicer or easier for those who are forced to curtail them.

It is also crucial that we remember that some find self-isolation harder than others. That is why, when we restrict rights, we must have regard for the disproportionate impact on some groups, especially low-paid workers, women, unpaid carers and disabled people. For many, self-isolation means more than just a curb on their freedom to leave the house or see other people. Without proper Government intervention, for them it can be a choice between self-isolating and being able to pay the bills, and there are some groups who find it harder than others because of structural inequality.

The Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee heard evidence of the significant and disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on low-paid workers, and specifically on women, who are more likely to work on the front line and risk contracting Covid-19, as well as being more likely to work in insecure jobs and on zero-hours contracts. As we have heard, the COVID-19 Recovery Committee found that women who work in those conditions and sectors are concerned about the impact that self-isolation might have on their ability to get shifts following their isolation period.

Many people cannot afford to self-isolate without jeopardising their ability to feed their family, pay their rent or cover the cost of rising energy bills. The self-isolation support grant is available to those who earn less than the living wage, but many people do not access it or are not awarded it. The latest figures suggest that only 49 per cent of people who have applied for the grant have been successful in getting it, and the amount that is provided to people who get it is often very low.

As it stands, the grant is capped at £500. To put that in perspective, for a worker who earns the minimum wage of £8.91 per hour and works for 35 hours a week, self-isolation, even with the grant, would mean losing almost £130 over 10 days of isolation. For people who are already on the cusp of poverty, that could be the difference between making ends meet and not doing so. We must ensure that the available support is sufficient and reaches the people who need it most. To prevent entrenching inequality further, the Government must also listen to people who are impacted and must act to identify and then mitigate any unequal consequences that are caused by restrictions.

Although more than 1 million Covid cases have been recorded in Scotland, uptake of the self-isolation support grant has been only around 6 per cent of that number. That support must be not only increased and improved but promoted, and I welcome that suggestion in the committee’s report. People cannot claim support that they do not know exists. Television adverts promote the importance of self-isolation but do not highlight the self-isolation support grant, although that could be a key opportunity to remind people of the help that is out there.

The Government should promote the grants to the people whom we know are most negatively impacted, such as women and those working in care, hospitality and the creative sector. We have asked the Government to do that, and I hope that it will today set out its intention to do so. People must be offered the grant at any and every opportunity, beginning with the moment when they are told that they should self-isolate.

I know that many people are concerned that the support available and its promotion vary across the country. It cannot be left to a postcode lottery; the Scottish Government must issue proper standards and guidance. For as long as self-isolation is used as a mechanism to contain the spread of the virus, we must make adequate, provide and relentlessly promote all the financial support that is available, and we must seek to mitigate the unequal impact of restrictions at every turn. The Scottish Government must do all that it can to encourage and empower people to comply with its guidance and ensure that no one has to choose between protecting themselves and others and paying their bills.

16:36  

The bill is a vital piece of legislation that will protect health boards from facing unaffordable self-isolation payments. As has been observed, the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 was not written with a global pandemic in mind. Health boards would be severely financially impacted if the mandatory compensation power in the 2008 act were to resume. The Scottish Greens therefore support the general principles of the bill and agree with its intention. I agree that it is not financially sustainable for the power contained in the 2008 act to resume. However, I have some points regarding eligibility for the self-isolation support grant.

Several eligibility issues were raised during the COVID-19 Recovery Committee’s consideration of the bill at stage 1. In its response to the call for views, Shetland Islands Council acknowledged the targeted nature of the support provided by the self-isolation support grant but said that it

“would like to highlight the potential socio-economic impact on those with lower incomes or in areas where there is a significantly higher cost of living if this bill is passed and no consideration is given to reviewing the self-isolation support grant scheme, qualifying criteria and financial support”.

The Scottish Greens have long made the case for comprehensive financial and practical support for people who are self-isolating. There are financial and practical barriers to self-isolation, and addressing those will help to boost compliance. The Scottish Government’s own literature review of the evidence of compliance with self-isolation and quarantine measures found that

“Rates of compliance are heavily influenced by financial constraints and are dependent on income support, job protection and support with accommodation.”

We are two years into the pandemic, and the cost of living is rising. There have been serious financial consequences for individuals and their families. Many people are undoubtedly worse off than they were before the pandemic. Although I recognise that the 2008 act is not the appropriate means of providing financial support for those who are self-isolating, support must be on-going and should be regularly reviewed to ensure that it continues to be adequate.

The need for better communication of what support is available has been highlighted. In its response to the Government’s consultation on the bill, the Scottish Women’s Convention said that none of the women to whom it had spoken had successfully accessed the self-isolation support grant or the local self-isolation assistance service. Many women said that they had not heard of the scheme, and those who had heard of it did not think that they would be eligible. They also said that the application process could be daunting and confusing.

During the pandemic, many people have had to apply for benefits for the first time in their lives and were unfamiliar with the process, while many public and third sector services that would previously have assisted them were closed or reduced. I would therefore be grateful to hear from the cabinet secretary what steps can be taken to better publicise the grant and simplify the application process.

I will finish by focusing on the need for further pandemic-related legislation. The bill is intended to address a very specific issue, but we must consider the on-going relevance of the 2008 act. It was highlighted to the committee that, if it was not drafted with a global pandemic in mind and is not suitable to be invoked in that context, there needs to be a review of all pandemic-related legislation.

In an evidence session on the bill, the Law Society of Scotland said:

“We have recommended that the whole vista of emergency legislation needs some revision in relation to whatever emergencies there might be ... We need to consider a law for emergencies and make sure that it is fit for purpose and flexible enough to meet every contingency.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, 2 December 2021; c 10.]

We need to consider what further legislation is required to prepare us for future pandemics and ensure that we are ready to respond, as far as possible, without the need for emergency legislation.

As many others have done, I take this opportunity to thank the public for their efforts in self-isolating and keeping one another safe.

We move to the closing speeches.

16:41  

I thank everyone who has spoken in this necessary debate for their contributions. I thank Siobhian Brown, who spoke on behalf of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee. I hope that she will take back to the committee an account of how we have progressed through the debate and the fact that everyone wants to get the bill through stage 1, so that we can offer people support.

As many speakers have noted, the evidence tells us that Covid is responsible for the greatest shifts in our health service, our economy and our society for generations. I thank Jim Fairlie for his remarks on that. Few other things have wreaked the damage that the virus has, and we will require significant legislation both now and well into the future to deal with it. I note Murdo Fraser’s points about legislation, which Gillian Mackay also commented on. I think that we all agree that we are glad that we are getting on with the job and will support the bill at stage 1.

As many of us have continued to say throughout the pandemic, and as has been remarked in this afternoon’s debate, the pandemic is not only a health crisis but an economic one, too. The startling effects that multiple lockdowns, limits on travel and unpredictable self-isolation rules have had on businesses and workers are truly incredible. Nearly two years into the pandemic, we still cannot fully grasp the extent of the damage, and it will be felt for many years to come.

As has been mentioned, the damage is always felt the most by those who bear the brunt of other things—people who are underpaid, overworked and, often, underappreciated. For a minimum-wage worker to have to self-isolate and take on all that that entails continues to be a harrowing experience. Such people have desperately needed our support and they still need it now. Far too few people even knew about the grants. Siobhian Brown made a very good point about women not knowing that grants were available and therefore not accessing them. I have also heard that the lengthy process that people require to go through in order to receive them has put many people off applying. We have talked about the fact that that inefficiency has to change, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will address that.

It is important that no one feels that they have been penalised simply for doing the right thing. Properly administered self-isolation grants will enable people to self-isolate without having to worry. Equally, they will provide great benefit to the rest of society, as they will maintain the number of people who follow self-isolation rules, simply because people will know that they can afford it. That is essential for us all. Jackie Baillie and Dr Gulhane spoke about that. We all, perhaps, know someone who has worried when they have been required to self-isolate. Such people may have had no desire to breach the rules, but the financial consequences of self-isolating may be too much for them. Low-wage workers, the self-employed and precarious workers are just a few examples.

The grants therefore represent an investment in us all and in public health. They are not, as some might have characterised them, a handout. As such, I reiterate my party’s position that we broadly support the bill at stage 1. The Scottish Government is correct in its intention to introduce separate legislation so that we can distribute help to those who have faced the sharpest end of the problem, but we must do so with full recognition of the extent of the financial penalty that so many have faced.

We will continue to scrutinise the bill as it progresses, to ensure that it is fit for purpose—and, in particular, to scrutinise how the Government will raise awareness of the grants. Many members spoke about that. If we cannot adequately inform people of what they are entitled to, we cannot be surprised when they fail to take on board what they require to do.

I thank everyone for the debate.

16:45  

I am pleased to close the debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. It is one of those debates that, on the face of it, seems more technical in its content. However, as my colleague and fellow COVID-19 Recovery Committee member, Murdo Fraser, suggested, it covers some very important issues.

As was mentioned by the Deputy First Minister in his opening remarks, the Public Health etc (Scotland) Act 2008 was not put in place with the current Covid situation in mind. That act put a duty on health boards to compensate any employee asked to isolate or quarantine. As Jackie Baillie pointed out in her contribution, the Covid-19 pandemic could have put significant financial pressures on health boards, to the tune of some £360 million, if they had been required to compensate those who needed to isolate. Given that potential pressure, the obligation to compensate for the requirement to isolate was replaced by a discretionary power in the UK Covid emergency legislation. The essence of the bill that we are considering is that that support will continue even if the emergency coronavirus powers lapse.

As Murdo Fraser also mentioned, there was broad support for the bill in the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, albeit that a few amendments will be required. I note the Government’s willingness to address at stage 2 those concerns, including the committee’s conclusion that the Scottish Government needs to be more transparent on eligibility for application and on reasons for rejection.

The convener of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee has highlighted that, in evidence, some issues were raised on the accessibility of the self-isolation support grant and that numbers of people on low incomes were not accessing those payments as they should have done. The convener also highlighted the difficulty that some applicants had had in accessing the grant, despite having to self-isolate. For example, none of the 100 applicants in the test group that we heard from was successful. Pam Duncan-Glancy pointed out that only 49 per cent of applicants had been successful. The Scottish Government needs to ensure that those who require support can receive it, and can do so timeously.

We heard evidence from recipients that stigma and discrimination were attached to claiming benefits. In his contribution, John Mason raised the issue that some potential claimants thought that applying for the grant could impact on their current benefits.

We note that more could be done to highlight how the grants are targeted, in order to destigmatise those who need to access them, especially in the demographics that are shown to be least likely to access those grants but in which they are most needed.

The bill may appear technical and to have a narrow scope, but it is nonetheless an important bill with significant financial implications. It ensures support for those who need to isolate due to a positive Covid test. It is right that we continue that support, especially for those who are in a financially vulnerable position. For all those reasons, the Scottish Conservatives will support the bill at stage 1.

I call John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, to wind up the debate for the Scottish Government.

16:48  

I thank colleagues for their contributions to the debate and I welcome the clearly evident support from all parties for what is a practical and pragmatic bill that will address an issue that could distract health boards from their central purpose and from the demands that are placed on them at this very challenging time.

A number of members have highlighted and paid tribute to members of the public for their willingness to self-isolate and fulfil their obligations when it comes to the relevant provisions. In particular, Beatrice Wishart and Jackie Baillie made that point. I associate myself and the Government with those remarks. We are indebted to members of the public who have fully co-operated with the self-isolation requirements, which has helped to interrupt circulation of the virus. It is a commitment and contribution that individuals who have self-isolated have delivered for all the rest of us.

As Pam Duncan-Glancy made clear, the implications of that aspect of the pandemic, just like those of every other aspect of the pandemic, have not been felt equally across the population. In particular, the impacts of self-isolation have been particularly profound on people on low incomes and on women. That is widely understood within the Government. That is why the Covid recovery strategy, which I launched in Parliament in October, is focused exclusively on intensification of our efforts to tackle inequality. So much of the Government’s attention and thinking is focused on ensuring that we use the Covid recovery strategy to address some of the inequalities that existed in our society before Covid but have been highlighted and exacerbated by it, and which must be addressed in its aftermath. I give that commitment to Parliament today.

The committee convener, along with Pam Duncan-Glancy, Gillian Mackay and Jim Fairlie, made a number of comments about awareness of and accessibility of the self-isolation grant. That issue concerns the Government. Research that was undertaken on the Government’s behalf by ScotCen—the National Centre for Social Research—shows that more than 80 per cent of participants in its study who had contact with their local authority indicated that they were satisfied that their support needs had been met.

Many opportunities to raise awareness of the schemes that are available have been taken in the briefings and the statements in Parliament that ministers have given, and in promotional campaigns, such as the text messages that have been sent to individuals when they have come forward in the testing infrastructure.

I have two observations to make about all that. First, I do not put those points on the record to say that the situation is perfect. I hear members of Parliament, and if the feedback is that those measures have not been adequate, we will have to look at the situation again.

Secondly—this point has been made by a number of members in the debate—as well as increasing awareness of grants, we have to make it clear to people who are in fragile low-income situations that they can safely take them up without jeopardising their wider financial position. It is all very well to have awareness, but it has to be awareness with a certain depth of understanding, so that individuals realise that jeopardy will not be caused to their financial circumstances if they take up the grants. I will take those points away from the debate.

A number of colleagues, led principally by John Mason, Jim Fairlie and Gillian Mackay, discussed the wider legislative framework, which raises a number of issues. As we would with any emergency of the nature that we have experienced in the past two years, we have to review the experience of it and its impact, and consider whether we had in place all the arrangements to deal with it when it happened to us.

Obviously, a huge amount of new legislation has had to be put on the statute books in Scotland and in the United Kingdom Parliament to deal with the practical issues of the emergency. We have to look in retrospect at whether the statute book needs to be revised and strengthened to ensure that we now have in place all the necessary arrangements. Indeed, the Government is consulting on some of the provisions. They have not gone down perfectly with all sides of opinion in Parliament, but I hope that we will navigate ourselves through that with the usual persuasive style that I bring to these discussions, to try to assure members of Parliament—[Interruption.]. I have not come to Ms Baillie’s remarks yet, but I shall.

The substantive issue that we have to examine is whether the legislative framework is adequate for all circumstances. In his intervention on me, John Mason asked whether the provisions for self-isolation support in a small and compartmentalised local outbreak need to be in the same legislative framework as those for a pandemic. We need to look at all such questions.

Am I right in thinking that the Law Society is pushing for a wider review of the law in relation to pandemics and so on? Is the Deputy First Minister open to such a review? Who would carry it out?

We have to look at all those issues. I dare say that we probably also have to consider carefully what comes out of the public inquiry into the Covid emergency in order to understand what issues we might need to consider in a wider review of the legislative framework. As I have announced to Parliament, Lady Poole will progress the inquiry on the Government’s behalf.

There are short-term steps that we can take, such as the bill that we are considering today, which the COVID-19 Recovery Committee and Parliament will consider at stages 2 and 3. However, there will be other deeper questions. I have more legislation to introduce; it will be the subject of more detailed consideration than is the case in the expedited process that we are going through for the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill.

I have absolutely no idea why Jackie Baillie felt the need to raise issues of transparency relating to the Government. As she knows, as a result of voluminous amounts of parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and letters that she submits to the Government, we are transparent about everything to Jackie Baillie.

Will the Deputy First Minister take an intervention?

I shall do so in a moment, given that I have thrown out such provocation. The Government has accepted in its response to the committee the importance of setting out the rationale for using an emergency procedure to extend the provisions in the bill. Obviously, the Government will introduce amendments to that effect at stage 2.

Far be it from me to remind the Deputy First Minister that some people in this chamber served on a committee in the previous session of Parliament from which information was actively withheld. However, I do indeed welcome any recent conversions to transparency by the Deputy First Minister.

I encourage Jackie Baillie to get over the difficulties that she had in the previous session of Parliament, because the Government was more than transparent and open with Parliament. I encourage her gently, in the nicest possible way, to move on. She will have a happier life if she does so.

I thank members of Parliament for their engagement on the issue. It is a substantial issue, because there was a danger that the important work of our health boards in focusing on and addressing management of the health emergency could have been diverted by the application of provisions that would have been an administrative and financial burden on them. I appreciate that members across the political spectrum have recognised the importance of that point and are committed to supporting the bill.

The Government will engage on the issues that arise at stages 2 and 3. I look forward to engaging on those points with Parliament, in due course.

That concludes the stage 1 debate on the Coronavirus (Discretionary Compensation for Self-isolation) (Scotland) Bill.