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Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Made Affirmative Procedure, Nationality and Borders Bill, Decision Time, OVO Energy (Redundancies)


Contents


Covid-19

The Presiding Officer (Alison Johnstone)

The next item of business is a statement by Nicola Sturgeon, giving a Covid-19 update. The First Minister will take questions at the end of her statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

14:25  

The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon)

Today’s statement coincides with the publication of the revised strategic framework for tackling Covid. I will set out the key elements of the new framework and explain what it means for our collective response to Covid, now and in the months ahead. At the heart of the framework is a desire for, and increasing confidence in, our ability to achieve a sustainable return to a normal way of life, even as we remain prepared for future threats that Covid might present.

I will start by describing our updated strategic intent and approach. The new approach will see us resorting much less—I hope, not at all—to legally imposed protective measures. Instead, we will rely predominantly on vaccines, treatments and sensible public health behaviours and adaptations.

However, much as we might wish it was not the case, Covid is still a public health risk, here and globally. It is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, so we must remain vigilant and prepared. I will outline how we will, to that end, categorise and respond to future risks—including those from new variants. I will explain why our decisions must be based on a combination of data, evidence and judgment. I will give our assessment of the current situation in Scotland in the light of recent data, and I will set out an indicative timescale for lifting or converting to guidance the small number of legally binding measures that remain in place.

Finally, I will set out our commitment to there being continued access to polymerase chain reaction and lateral flow testing free of charge, while we transition to a system of testing that is more targeted but which retains adequate capacity to support surveillance, rapid response to the emergence of new variants, effective outbreak management, and access to the best care and treatment for those who need it. I confirm our advice that people who test positive for Covid should continue to self-isolate for now.

On testing, I must express frustration at the United Kingdom Government’s position. It is, of course, for the Prime Minister to decide how best to tackle Covid in England. However, current funding arrangements mean that although taxpayers in all four UK nations contribute to the costs, decisions that are taken for England determine the resources that are available to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for testing and other Covid measures.

As of now, we have no clarity on how much of the Covid testing infrastructure the UK Government intends to retain, no clarity on how much investment will support it in the future, and no clarity on whether the Treasury will provide additional resources or demand instead that funding be taken from elsewhere in the health budget. I hope that we will get clarity soon, so that we can set out in more detail our longer-term approach to testing.

However, I give the assurance now—I will say more on this later—that the Scottish Government is determined to retain a robust testing system that is capable of providing Scotland with strong resilience against future Covid threats and is firmly aligned with public health advice and the principles that underpin our national health service.

I will turn to the key points in detail; I start with our revised strategic approach. In earlier phases of the pandemic, it was important to try to eliminate Covid—or to suppress it to the lowest possible level—because we did not have vaccines or treatments to protect against the serious illness and death that the virus can cause. That is why our objective initially was

“to suppress the virus to the lowest possible level”,

although we modified that somewhat last year. In today’s update, it is modified further, and is now expressed as being

“To manage COVID-19 effectively, primarily through adaptations and health measures that strengthen our resilience and recovery, as we rebuild for a better future.”

That change is possible because widespread vaccination coverage and better treatments have reduced the direct harms of the virus. As a result, using restrictions to suppress infection is no longer as necessary as it once was. Given the wider harms that are caused by protective measures, it is no longer as justifiable, either.

The strategic framework makes it clear, therefore, that in the future we will seek to rely much less on legally imposed measures and to rely more on vaccines, treatments, sensible adaptations and good public health behaviours. As a priority, we will continue to ensure the maximum possible availability and uptake of vaccination, in line with expert advice.

Although the success of the vaccination programme has exceeded our expectations, there are still more than 600,000 people over 18 who have had a second dose but have not yet had a third or booster dose, so there is more to do to maximise uptake. We will also continue to extend the scope of vaccinations. Last week, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended that all 5 to 11-year-olds—not just those who are at the highest clinical risk—should be eligible for vaccination. I confirm that vaccination appointments for that age group will be issued from mid March. To allow parents and carers to attend with children, most appointments will be in the evening, at weekends or during the Easter school holidays.

Yesterday, we also accepted JCVI advice on protecting people who are at the highest risk. It is now our intention to offer care home residents, people over 75 and everyone over 12 who is immunosuppressed an additional booster six months after their last jag. That phase of the programme will also start in March, although the scheduling of appointments for individuals will depend on the timing of their initial booster or third dose.

In addition to vaccination, we will also use the best available treatments for people who need them. There are already effective treatments available that reduce the rates of serious illness and death among those who are admitted to hospital with Covid. Therapeutic medicines are also now being offered to patients who have not been hospitalised but are assessed as being at the greatest risk of needing hospital treatment. New oral antiviral treatments are also being evaluated through a UK-wide study. We will make the best use of those treatments, dependent on what the evidence and expert advice tell us about their efficacy.

Vaccination and treatment will play a major—perhaps the major—role in limiting the health harm that is caused by the virus in the months and years to come. However, it is also important to encourage and support people to adopt safe practices and to make basic adaptations that will help to keep us safe. The document that we are publishing today gives more detail on the kinds of behaviours and adaptations that will be encouraged in various circumstances. They include enhanced hygiene across the general population, improved ventilation in workplaces and other settings and—especially when levels of infection might be higher—increased hybrid and flexible working and use of face coverings in some indoor public places. It is now less likely that any of those measures will be legally imposed in the future, but we will advise their use for as long as they help to keep the virus under control and protect the people who are most vulnerable to it.

It is also, of course, vital that we remain vigilant for new developments. It is, unfortunately, highly likely that the virus will continue to mutate and confront us with new and potentially more harmful variants in the future. In order to identify and respond to such threats quickly, we will maintain a strong surveillance capability. We will set it out in more detail next month but, subject to the point that I made earlier about the overall resources that are available to us, our surveillance system will include extensive PCR sampling and processing capacity, waste-water sampling and genomic sequencing capability.

We also welcome confirmation that the UK-wide Covid infection survey, which is conducted by the Office for National Statistics, will continue. It is essential, however, that it continues at scale, so we will seek to work with the UK Government to ensure that that is the case.

That surveillance capacity will help us identify new threats rapidly. It will also help us assess the potential severity of any new threat and quickly determine the appropriate level of response.

The strategic update that we are publishing today sets out a clear framework for any decisions that we might, in the future, have to take in response to new developments. I want to stress that the framework is intended as a contingency; we hope, of course, that we never have to use it. However, it recognises the on-going challenge that Covid presents and sets out three broad levels of future potential threat: low, medium and high.

The framework also offers illustrative examples of the types of protective measures that could be deployed in response to the different threat levels. It might be helpful to illustrate that through some general examples. If a new variant were to emerge that was more transmissible and more severe, perhaps with the ability to evade vaccines or natural immunity, that threat would likely be classified as high. In those circumstances, we might advise people to limit social contact for a period and to work from home where possible, and we might introduce some temporary protections for high-risk settings.

If a new variant was either more transmissible or more severe, but not both—as is the case with omicron—the initial threat assessment would likely be medium. In those circumstances, there might be a legal requirement to wear face coverings in some settings, and we might issue guidance for businesses and service providers on reasonable measures to reduce the spread of Covid in their premises.

Lastly, in the absence of a new variant, or if a new variant was neither more transmissible nor more severe—and if vaccines continue to be effective—the threat classification would likely remain low. Obviously, that is the level that we hope to reach and to stay at on a sustainable basis. In those circumstances, there would be no legally imposed protective measures; instead, we would continue to advise individuals and organisations to adopt sensible public health behaviours. It is important to stress that any decision about the threat level and what the appropriate response should be will be guided by data and evidence.

However, that is not an exact science—it will also, by necessity, involve judgment. That is because the kind of developments that we might face in the future—principally, new variants—will not be uniform in their potential impacts. A new variant that is highly transmissible but less severe would obviously require a different response to one that was less transmissible but more severe, so we must guard against taking a one-size-fits-all approach. That is why the framework does not propose fixed thresholds for action—for example, by stating that we will take certain pre-determined steps if the number of cases rises above a specified level. Such thresholds might be superficially attractive because of the certainty that they appear to provide, but they pose a very significant risk of both underreaction and overreaction.

The framework that I have just described can be used to categorise our current threat level and to help to guide decisions in the coming period. I will return to that shortly.

First, I will summarise the latest data and trends. Today, we are reporting 6,427 new cases from lateral flow and PCR tests; 1,060 people are in hospital, which is 9 more than yesterday; and 25 people are in intensive care, which is the same as yesterday. Sadly, in the past 24 hours, 18 deaths have been registered of people with Covid under the daily definition. Once again, my condolences go to everyone who is mourning a loved one.

Over the past week, reported cases have fallen very slightly, by about 1 per cent. They have fallen in all age groups under 45, and have risen in all age groups over 45. The latest available data shows that hospital admissions have slightly increased again, from 619 in the week to 11 February to 654 in the most recent week. Total hospital occupancy has also increased again, so we will obviously continue to keep a close watch on that. The number of people who are in intensive care with Covid—25—continues to be relatively low.

In summary, we continue to face a highly transmissible variant that is causing a high level of community infection. However, although it is far from harmless, omicron’s overall impact is less severe than delta’s. Therefore, using the framework that I described earlier, we have assessed the current threat level to be medium. However, assuming that the level of infection and its associated impacts—for example, hospital admissions—fall or broadly stabilise, we expect the level to be reassessed as low in the period ahead. That has enabled the Cabinet to agree this morning to an indicative timescale for lifting, or converting to guidance, the small number of legally imposed protective measures that remain in place at this stage.

First, I confirm that the Covid certification scheme, which requires certain venues and events to check the vaccination or test status of attendees, will come to an end next Monday, 28 February. However, the app that supports the scheme will remain operational, so that any business that wishes to continue Covid certification on a voluntary basis in order to reassure customers will be able to do so.

Secondly, as of 21 March—assuming that there are no significant adverse developments in the course of the virus—we expect that the legal requirement to wear face coverings in certain indoor settings and on public transport will be converted to guidance. However, we will continue to strongly recommend wearing of face coverings in shops and other indoor public places, and on public transport.

In addition, on 21 March, we expect to lift the legal requirement for businesses, places of worship and service providers to have regard to guidance on Covid, and to take the reasonably practicable measures that are set out in the guidance. The legal requirement on businesses and service providers to retain customer contact details is also expected to end on 21 March.

Governments, obviously, must act lawfully. That means that we cannot impose legal restrictions when it is disproportionate to do so. As the situation improves and the severity of the impact from Covid reduces, we are duty bound to remove legally imposed restrictions. However, that should not be taken as a signal that Covid no longer presents any risk to health: it clearly does. Therefore, even though certain measures—wearing of face coverings, for example—might not be legal requirements in the future, we will still recommend voluntary compliance as part of the range of behaviours that will help to keep us safe, as we manage Covid in a more sustainable and less restrictive way.

I turn, finally, to testing. Testing has been, and will continue to be, a vital part of our management of Covid. However, as the nature of the threat and our approach to managing it evolves, so, too, will our approach to testing. It is reasonable, over time and barring adverse developments, to move away from mass population-wide asymptomatic testing towards a more targeted system that is focused on specific priorities. Those priorities will include surveillance, rapid detection of and response to new variants, effective outbreak management, particularly in high-risk settings such as care homes and hospitals, and ensuring access to care and treatment for those who need it.

However, it is vital that we make the transition in a careful and phased manner. In March—by which time we will, I hope, have more clarity from the UK Government on available resources—we will publish a detailed transition plan for test and protect, setting out our priorities in more detail and describing the scale of infrastructure that will remain in place for the longer term. The plan will also confirm the duration, beyond the end of March, of any transition period during which the system will operate—broadly—on the same basis as it operates now.

The public health reasons for ensuring a careful phased transition from the current arrangements to a more targeted testing system are obviously most important. However, we should also remember that hundreds of people in test and protect, at testing sites across the country and in our processing labs, including Glasgow Lighthouse, have worked tirelessly to keep us safe over the past two years, and these decisions affect their jobs and livelihoods, which is a point that was, seemingly, overlooked by the UK Government yesterday. I record our thanks to them today, and give an assurance that we will engage closely with them in the weeks ahead.

As we do that work in the coming weeks and for the transition period, access to testing will continue—subject to one change that I will set out shortly—on broadly the same basis as it exists now. We will be considering separately advice for schools and health and care workers, in line with expert advice. However, for the general public, I will set out clearly what that means from now until further notice.

First, if you have Covid symptoms, you should continue to go for a PCR test. Access to those tests will remain free of charge at testing sites across the country. Secondly, you should continue to make regular use of lateral flow tests even if you do not have symptoms.

The only immediate change that we are making to current arrangements on lateral flow tests for the general population is in our advice on frequency of testing. Instead of advising people to test before going anywhere to mix with others, we will, from next Monday, revert to the advice to test at least twice a week, in particular if you are going to a crowded place or mixing with people who are clinically vulnerable.

Lateral flow tests will remain free of charge in the transition phase. Indeed, we consider it to be important—in line with the principle of healthcare being free at the point of use—that they remain free of charge for any circumstances in which Government recommends testing. That is a principle that we will seek to uphold in our longer-term plan for testing.

I also want to emphasise that in Scotland we will, for now, continue to ask people who test positive for Covid to isolate for the recommended period, and we will continue to make self-isolation support payments available to those who are eligible.

We will, of course, keep the recommended period of isolation under review. However, it is worth stressing that isolating and staying at home when you test positive for the highly infectious virus, and the follow-up tracing that test and protect does, remain among the most fundamental public health protections that are available to us. That helps to limit transmission overall and, in helping to keep workplaces and other settings safer, it also provides protection for people who are most at risk of serious illness from Covid, thereby enabling them, too, to return to more normal lives.

Covid is, unfortunately, still with us, so we must therefore remain vigilant and prepared for the threats that it poses, but today’s new framework is an important moment in our recovery. It marks the point at which we move away—sustainably, we hope—from legal restrictions and rely instead on sensible behaviours, adaptations and mitigations.

Our return to normality must, though, go hand in hand with a continuing determination to look after one another. All of us have a part to play in ensuring a safe and sustainable recovery, so I will close by again urging everyone to follow advice on getting vaccinated, on testing as regularly as appropriate, on wearing face coverings when required or recommended, on keeping rooms ventilated and on following hygiene advice.

All that still matters, even as we lift the remaining legal requirements. It is how we will keep ourselves and one another safe as we recover from Covid and look forward together to brighter days ahead.

The Presiding Officer

The First Minister will now take questions on the issues 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. Members who wish to ask a question should press their request-to-speak button now.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I begin by saying that, as we debate this afternoon, the grave situation in Ukraine is at the forefront of all our minds. The Prime Minister has made a statement to the House of Commons and, rightly, there has been cross-party condemnation of the actions of President Putin and Russia.

For weeks, we have seen a build-up of activity and threats, and last night’s statement from President Putin showed in the starkest possible terms the reality of what Russia is seeking to do. We must stand together, supporting the UK Government and Governments around Europe and across the world as they seek to deal with current and future threats from Russia. Above all else, we have to make it very clear that we stand with the people of Ukraine.

I turn to today’s statement. We welcome the move away from blanket legal restrictions towards an approach that is based on public health guidance. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Conservatives published our blueprint for living with Covid, “Back to Normality”. Our approach focused on personal responsibility, trusting the Scottish public to make their own adjustments to protect themselves and their families.

When our plan was published, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care claimed that it was reckless. Today, large parts of it have been adopted by the Scottish Government. It is moving the wearing of face masks from law to guidance, it has finally scrapped vaccination passports and it is getting rid of mass testing. That was reckless two weeks ago, but it is Government policy today.

In her statement, the First Minister said that the Government is moving to a system of representative sampling and away from mass testing, so why did the First Minister create a fight with the UK Government over that issue just weeks before her own plans to scale back testing?

Secondly, the First Minister said in her statement that

“using restrictions to suppress infection is no longer as necessary as it once was”

and that

“Given the wider harms that are caused by protective measures, it is no longer as justifiable, either.”

If so, will the First Minister explain why her Government intends to extend the Covid powers that it has at its disposal for a further six months until September? If it is no longer “necessary” or “justifiable” to keep restrictions in place, why is it necessary or justifiable for the Government to cling on to control over those powers and keep the threat of restrictions hanging over the public?

Finally, throughout the pandemic, Scottish businesses have been left in the dark. They have been an afterthought for the Scottish Government. The document published today is a plan for living with Covid. Will the First Minister tell us whether she personally had discussions and consultations with Scottish businesses before publishing that guidance and document and what their feedback was?

The First Minister

First, on the dreadful developments in Ukraine, the actions of Putin are utterly indefensible and he must face the most severe sanctions as a consequence of those actions. The announcement by the Prime Minister a short time ago does not go nearly far enough. He described the limited sanctions that were announced today as a “first tranche”, but it is essential that we see further tranches soon, with very severe sanctions imposed on Putin and interests in Russia. We must all be—I hope that, across the Parliament, we will be—united in standing in solidarity with Ukraine and its people as they defend their independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. I am sure that that will unite us across the Parliament and the country.

I turn to the issues that were raised in my statement. Douglas Ross says that we have now done what he asked us to do all along. I pause to note that he opposed the use of face coverings and Covid certification ever being legal requirements. He has opposed almost everything that this Government has done to try to control the virus and keep people safe from it.

The Government will continue to take a responsible approach to steering the country through the pandemic. We will take decisions in a timely manner; we will be driven by the data, the evidence and the application of judgment; and we will not follow the opportunistic and thoroughly oppositionalist approach that is and has been recommended at every interval by the Scottish Conservatives.

Of the specific issues that were raised, I will start with testing. It is a bit rich for Douglas Ross to accuse me of picking a fight with Boris Johnson, but we will leave that to one side for the moment.

I have had many discussions on testing with UK Government representatives over the past few days, and we all agree that, in time—at least, I think that it should happen in time—we should move to a more targeted system of testing.

The difference between the Scottish and UK Governments is that we think that we should do that in a careful, phased basis and that we should put great care and thought into the testing infrastructure—built up over the past two years—that we retain for the future. To dismantle that in a significant way would be inexcusable negligence, given the threat that Covid still presents to us.

Yesterday, we had an announcement from the UK Government about what it will stop doing, but there was no clarity on what it intends to retain or on the funding that will be in place to support that. That is deeply regrettable. We will continue to work with the UK Government to try to get clarity so that we can set out our longer-term plans. We think that we should retain testing on the current basis during a transition period and then, in a managed and careful way, move to a more targeted system that, nevertheless, retains the capacity and contingency that we might need in future.

On issues around continuing to have contingency measures that we might use in the future, I note that Covid has not gone away. It will not simply disappear because we want it to. I heard the chief medical officer for England make the point yesterday that it is highly likely that we will face new threats from the virus in the form of new and potentially harmful variants. We need contingency measures in place and we need to ensure that we have laws that are fit for purpose, which is why the Parliament is currently scrutinising coronavirus legislation. We will continue to do that.

Finally, my ministers engage with businesses on the detail of Covid measures, as is right and proper. We will continue to do so and to take appropriate steps to keep businesses safe while we keep the overall population of the country safe. I am sure that many people across the country will breathe a sigh of relief that Douglas Ross has not been in charge of these decisions.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I associate the Scottish Labour Party with the comments about the situation in Ukraine and our determination, which I hope is shared across the chamber, to defend it against Russian aggression.

Boris Johnson’s decision to dismantle the infrastructure that we rely on to keep Covid under control is “premature” and “incredibly concerning”, and it “neglects” and “fails” those who are most at risk from Covid. Those are the words of the British Medical Association. On that, we can surely agree.

I have always, particularly at times of crisis, expressed a desire for the Scottish and UK Governments to work together in the interests of Scots. Instead, we see conflict.

At the start of the month, Scottish Labour published its plan for “Living Well with Covid”. It set out our priorities to keep people safe, provide them with certainty and build resilience into our services. Central to that is the continuation of testing, contact tracing and isolation. The First Minister talked about a transition phase, in which testing will remain free of charge. That appears to be up to the end of March. It is not clear from the statement what will happen thereafter. Will she set out her plans for focused testing? It is also not clear what circumstances the Government will recommend testing for. Are the categories going to be the same as those that the UK Government is using, or are they different—and will the First Minister outline what the difference is?

Will the First Minister also tell us what constitutes a low, medium or high threat level? Will that be based, for example, on numbers infected, numbers of hospitalisations or other data? In the interests of us all having a shared understanding and of transparency, it is important that we understand how that will be determined.

There is little mention in the framework of long Covid, which is affecting more and more people. There is a particular problem in that their experience on the ground is not as it is painted in the framework. They are not getting access to services.

At a time when people are looking for more certainty about the future, there are not yet answers to some fundamental questions about what will be in place to protect Scots. We were promised a framework; this one appears to be more like a progress report. I appreciate that the First Minister is waiting for the UK Government to decide. However, as public health is devolved, will she commit now to funding testing and contact tracing, in order to protect the people of Scotland?

The First Minister

There is not conflict on those issues, but there is a UK Government that is failing to take decisions in an orderly and competent fashion. That is the reality. As recently as Friday, we fully expected that, yesterday, the UK Government would set out in detail the testing infrastructure that it intended to retain and the funding that would accompany that. Yesterday, I had two conversations with Michael Gove; between those conversations, a UK Cabinet meeting was postponed because its members were still having conflict among themselves. I deeply regret that, because it has a knock-on effect on Scottish Government decision making, and I hope that they get their act together quickly.

Jackie Baillie is right to point to the fact that public health responsibilities are devolved. However, that takes us to the very heart of the issue. Public health decisions are devolved, but decisions that determine how much resource is available to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland flow only from the public health decisions that are taken for England by the UK Government. I do not defend that system, because I think that it is unacceptable and unsustainable; unfortunately and regrettably, it is defended by Jackie Baillie and her party. If she is not prepared to take my word for how unacceptable that is, perhaps she will listen to the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who has made exactly the points that I am making about the complete unacceptability of the position.

I have said that we will continue to secure free access to PCR and lateral flow testing for a transition period. Today, I have said that I expect that transition period to extend beyond the end of March. We will set out the detail during March. However, before we can set out that detail, we need to know, based on the decisions that the UK Government will take, what resources will be available to support it. The assurance that I can give is that it will be the maximum possible testing capacity and infrastructure. I do not want what we have created over the past two years to be dismantled, and I want our testing arrangements to be fit for purpose and appropriate for the future.

When it comes to whether the categories of people who we routinely recommend for testing will be the same as the UK Government’s, the UK Government has not given clarity on what its categories will be, so I cannot answer that question. I have set out the broad priorities for testing, and we will continue to develop the detail.

Finally on that point, in line with the fundamental principle of healthcare free at the point of use, which I and, I think, Jackie Baillie’s party support—I am not so sure about the Conservatives—in any circumstance in which the Government recommends testing for Covid, it should provide those tests free of charge. To the best of our ability, we will seek to uphold that principle in any future strategy.

Presiding Officer, I have taken some time, but there were a lot of questions in Jackie Baillie’s contribution.

Finally, on the categorisation of low, medium and high threat levels, I have set out in summary in my statement—it is set out in more detail in the document—why it would not be appropriate to rely on fixed thresholds of numbers of cases per 100,000 or numbers of people in hospital. That is because different threats do not have a uniform impact.

It stands to reason that, if we face a variant that is very highly transmissible but less severe, like omicron, that will demand less of a response than a variant that is both highly transmissible and more severe, which puts more lives at risk. That is why we—of course—look at all that data, but we will have to continue to apply judgment to it. Significant detail is set out in the document on that, and on long Covid, which is a significant challenge and something that this Government and other Governments will have to respond to for some time to come.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

On behalf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I echo the support and solidarity that have been expressed across the chamber for the people of Ukraine in this deepening crisis.

Far from abolishing Covid identity card vaccination passports, the statement will normalise their use by some businesses, which will bake them into everyday life, perhaps indefinitely. From now on, venues will have carte blanche to ask for private medical information without a public health imperative for so doing. A person can have a Covid passport and still have Covid. There is no comfort or reassurance to be offered by such a system. Can I ask the First Minister to revisit that assault on medical privacy and abolish it in totality today?

The First Minister

I think that Alex Cole-Hamilton does a disservice to his argument with the hyperbole that he uses. This is a proportionate measure that businesses, after it is no longer a legal requirement, will have the choice of using or not. The app is there and everybody can see the information that is available on it.

For every person who has contacted me to say that they do not agree with Covid certification, I have had at least one other person who has said that it makes them feel safer, in going to places, to know that people there are vaccinated or have tested recently. I think that there will be some businesses that see the advantage in still doing that in order to make people feel more confident about using their services and buying what they have to offer.

This is about giving choice and making sure that we have a package of measures in place that will collectively help to keep us safe as we continue to navigate our way through a challenge that is, we hope, receding but which will continue to pose difficult times for us in the months and years to come.

Stephanie Callaghan (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

This morning, the UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, commented on Scotland taking a different approach from that taken by the Government at Westminster to managing the effects of the pandemic, saying that Scotland can

“pay for it in the same way that we pay for decisions in England”.

The Prime Minister said words to the same effect yesterday. Can the First Minister confirm that that means that the Scottish Government will have powers to borrow in the same way that the UK Government can, in order to be able to spend and deal with public health decisions in Scotland?

The First Minister

These are really important questions. Traditionally, we may debate such things through a constitutional prism, and we will differ in that. However, even if we do not approach the issue from a general point of view, this is about the best ways of dealing with an unpredictable public health challenge.

Right now, the fact is that, through the Barnett formula, the only way that money flows to Scotland, or to Wales or Northern Ireland, to allow us to discharge our public health functions is if the UK Government takes a decision that generates additional spending for England. If it does not take such a decision or it takes a decision but does not provide any new money to support it, no resource is made available to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I am not the only First Minister who is making these points. Mark Drakeford is making them, and the Executive in Northern Ireland—which, of course, is not functioning normally right now—makes them as well. It is a basic fact, and it is compounded by the fact that the devolved Administrations do not have borrowing powers. Anybody who wants this Parliament and this Government to be able to take public health decisions without being constrained by other Governments’ decisions on resources should support us in getting to a more sustainable way of dealing with these matters. I encourage people across the chamber to engage with those issues seriously.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

One of the emergency Covid powers that the Government is seeking to retain is the ministerial power to release prisoners on the ground of public health. In itself, that is fine, but when that power was last used during the pandemic, some 40 per cent of those who were released early went on to reoffend within just six months of their release, and that was not due to one or two isolated incidents. What happened, I am afraid, is exactly what we warned might happen, and behind every one of those offences is a victim of crime. Will that particular emergency power be ditched, not least as a token of apology to those who suffered the disastrous consequences last time it was used?

The First Minister

We continue to take decisions in a proportionate way. If further future action was necessary, ministers would set out specific criteria for which prisoners could be released. That would exclude types of prisoners that raise particular concerns. Since that power was created in April 2020, it has been used only once.

The bill, which will undergo full scrutiny in this Parliament, only extends the temporary power; it does not make it permanent. As I understand it, the equivalent power in England is permanent. That is not the proposal here.

This is about ensuring, whether on this issue or on a range of other issues, that we have at our disposal the means to respond proportionately and flexibly in the face of public health challenges.

I recently heard Aileen McHarg, a professor of public law, say something that I think is worth quoting:

“There’s a difference between having access to emergency powers and using those powers … There is a better opportunity now to design an effective control framework than there would be if powers”

were

“to be acquired urgently again in the context of another health emergency.”

This is about making sure that our law is sensible and gives the Government, with appropriate scrutiny from Parliament, the ability to respond to such emergencies.

What steps is the Scottish Government taking to tackle health misinformation, especially in relation to Covid-19 vaccinations?

The First Minister

We continue to work with colleagues across all four UK nations to ensure that we are sharing learning and intelligence. That applies in particular to the learning from the vaccination programme. The work includes monitoring misinformation and disinformation that could adversely affect the success of the programme and proactively sharing information about such campaigns with stakeholders, once we are aware of them.

Research has shown that having Governments directly challenge conspiracy theorists can be counter-productive—although I do not think that we should ever rule that out—often because the conspiracy theorists use such attacks as a validation of their world view. Our policy, which is shared by other Governments, is to continually provide the public with information and reliable sources of truth about the vaccine, such as our own website and the information available on NHS Inform. I think that all MSPs and all politicians have a role to play in helping to ensure that we tackle misinformation and disinformation and that we encourage people to take up the opportunity of vaccination whenever that is available to them.

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

A constituent recently contacted me after they were wrongly administered four times the correct dose of the Pfizer Covid vaccine in one sitting. Despite UK Government guidance stating that any person who is given more than the recommended dose should be monitored and treated for symptoms, my constituent received only one phone call following that event. She was not monitored at all in the days following the error, despite displaying negative symptoms and repeatedly reaching out to health services.

I do not believe that the Scottish Government is doing enough to support hard-working NHS staff and patients. This situation reflects that. Does the First Minister agree that the NHS is in a critical condition, that it is critically underresourced and that that has resulted in patients not receiving the care and attention that they deserve? Will she act urgently to address that?

The First Minister

I do agree that the NHS is under significant pressure. We are working hard with the NHS to ensure that it can address that pressure, recover from Covid and get back on track in a range of ways.

I do not think that I could conclude from what I heard in the question that those pressures are responsible for the individual situation that was narrated, although it does of course sound unacceptable. I would be happy to ask the health secretary to look into that in more detail if Pam Duncan-Glancy wants to send me the details.

The arrangements for what should happen in the very small number of cases where errors are made in the administration of vaccine are clear and should be followed. If that has not happened in this case, we would want to ensure that the relevant health board reflects on that. If the details are sent to my office, I will ensure that that happens.

Evelyn Tweed (Stirling) (SNP)

The announcement of the new £80 million Covid economic recovery fund, targeting support for businesses and communities, is welcome. Can the First Minister provide any further information about the flexibility that local authorities will have to ensure that that funding can be best used to maximise economic recovery in their respective areas?

The First Minister

The £80 million Covid economic recovery fund that I set out yesterday will give councils the ability to consider the needs of local businesses, communities and households in their local areas, and will let them target support and maximise economic recovery as we move into the new phase of the pandemic. We have given councils the flexibility on how to use that money. They may give money to individual businesses but also support initiatives such as Scotland Loves Local, business improvement districts or some place-based investment programmes as they see fit and in ways that they think best contribute to the recovery from Covid. I know that that flexibility has been welcomed by local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and, as I was hearing from businesses in Edinburgh yesterday, that money will go a long way towards helping with that recovery process.

Gillian Mackay (Central Scotland) (Green)

On behalf of the Scottish Greens, I associate ourselves with the solidarity with the people of Ukraine that has been shown across the chamber.

The UK Government’s decision to scrap the requirement to self-isolate and to scale back free testing will undermine Scotland’s ability to recover from Covid. It also signals the abandonment not only of a four-nations approach but of people who were previously asked to shield. How can those people protect themselves from the virus if they do not know where it is? What steps can the Scottish Government take to mitigate the risk that is being posed to clinically vulnerable people and ensure that they continue to be protected and supported?

The First Minister

This is an important issue and I stress again that we are not changing our advice to people who test positive. That advice remains that they should isolate for the recommended period. We will keep the recommended period under review, but it is important that people who are positive with this highly infectious virus stay at home to reduce the risk of infecting others. That has always been in guidance in Scotland rather than in law. I think that the position is well understood and we are not changing that position.

Crucially, though—again, unlike the position that was outlined by the Prime Minister yesterday—we will retain self-isolation support grants for those who are eligible, in order to help people to do the right thing by isolating. I think that that is one of the most basic but most important things that we can all agree to do. The converse of that, of course, would be saying that it is fine for someone who tests positive with this highly infectious virus to go to work, to go shopping or to go to restaurants as normal, knowing that that would then allow the virus to circulate and infect others. That would be counter-productive overall in terms of our efforts to control the virus, but it would also make all of those settings much less safe for people who are highly vulnerable and are at highest clinical risk. I think that, as we return to normality, it is important that, as a matter of principle, we all get to return to normality and we do not create a situation in which those of us who have other health conditions or are, for example, frail by virtue of age have to continue to effectively shield while those of us who are not in that position can go about our normal lives.

Let us all continue to do the basic and important public health things to keep the country as safe as possible for everybody so that we can all get back to normal as safely as possible

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s erroneous claim yesterday about immunity, in order to continue to help to protect the Scottish population, what would the monthly cost be to the Scottish Government of providing testing kits free at the point of need, and would that be borne solely from the health budget?

The First Minister

Those are details that we continue to work through ourselves but also with the UK Government. There is no doubt at all that the testing system that we have in place right now is extremely expensive and resource intensive—I think that the UK-wide cost is about £15 billion a year. However, it is important that we recognise the cost of not delivering a testing system that is fit for purpose and helps us guard against these risks in future.

We want to be able to provide an appropriate testing system in Scotland—one that provides free access to testing for the people who need it, aligned with the purposes that I spoke about in my statement, allows us to have proper surveillance and respond to outbreaks and ensures that those who most need it get access to care and treatment. That is what we will be working on. We need the UK Government to provide clarity in order for us to set that out in detail, but it has not done so yet.

Craig Hoy (South Scotland) (Con)

Yesterday, the First Minister announced the final allocation of Covid-related funding for businesses that have been hit hard by her Government’s restrictions in December. Despite that, many businesses are still being overlooked and have had little or no support. Will the First Minister therefore urgently look into these two areas: support for outside catering operators such as Jo’s Kitchen in East Lothian, which, despite losing £42,000 in orders in December, secured only £1,000 in support, and support for close-contact businesses such as Pure Spa and Beauty, which, despite employing 130 people at 12 locations across Scotland, qualifies for a grant of only £1,500?

The First Minister

As a result of the announcement yesterday, we will give money to East Lothian Council, which will allow it, using the flexibility that councils often ask us for, to consider whether the businesses that the member mentions merit that kind of funding. Given the stage that we are at, it is not for the Government to step in and make those decisions for councils. We have given councils the balance of funding so that they can make those decisions on the basis of what they think is right for their areas. I am sure that the member will engage with local councils on behalf of the—I am sure—excellent businesses that he just mentioned.

Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

Many households in Scotland face financial pressures as a result of the pandemic, which have been compounded by the additional pressures arising from the Tory cost-of-living crisis. What clarity has the Scottish Government received from the UK Government that the consequentials that were announced on 3 February are more than the position that was outlined in the spring budget revision?

The First Minister

We know that the position that we expected to be in at the end of the year is not as good as we hoped it would be and that the consequentials from the measures that the chancellor set out to address the cost of living have not flowed through into a net increase in the Scottish Government’s budget. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy set that out when she presented the final stage of the budget just before the recess. She continues to discuss with the UK Government—the Treasury, in particular—those year-end issues, so that we can present a final position to Parliament as soon as possible.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has announced the final tranche of £80 million of the original £370 million of business support funding that was initially announced in January. However, that was to deal with omicron. Given the urgency that many of those businesses face, when does the First Minister expect the £370 million to be fully paid out and in the hands of businesses? Although the change from regulation to guidance of public safety measures such as face masks will be welcome, there may be some confusion given the on-going recommendation to wear face coverings. Will there be updated guidance and information to avoid that confusion?

The First Minister

Yes, there will be updated guidance, and we will ensure that there are updated marketing and public awareness campaigns to help people to understand the changes that I have announced today. That is a very reasonable point to raise.

On the issue of funding, members often call for us to give local authorities more money and the flexibility to spend it. We have, rightly, given the balance of funding to local authorities to ensure that flexibility for the rest of the money that is flowing to businesses right now. For example, if we look at the management information on the local authority-delivered funds for hospitality and taxis, of the almost 23,000 applications that were received, so far almost 22,000 have been paid out.

There is a range of other schemes, such as those that are administered by Creative Scotland, and that money is also flowing to businesses. We will continue to work with the stakeholders that are responsible for delivering that money to ensure that it all gets to the businesses that need it as quickly as possible.

Michelle Thomson (Falkirk East) (SNP)

Experience tells us that significant public health issues remain prevalent after a pandemic has ended. For example, the incidence of strokes and heart attacks increases after every flu season, infection of the brain can occur in patients with measles, and I have a friend who still suffers from post-polio syndrome 65 years after their illness. Given that, does the First Minister share my concern that the potential removal of wider infrastructure by the UK Government will impact on important data gathering and might ultimately condemn more citizens to the longer-term consequences of Covid-19?

The First Minister

That is a really important point. We must and do recognise the possible longer-term impacts of Covid, including on heart disease and stroke. We continue to work with Public Health Scotland, for example, to understand that wider impact on the population as deeply as we can, but it will be some time yet before we properly and fully understand the impacts of the pandemic.

That underlines the importance of continuing to be very vigilant about any future threats that the pandemic presents for us, because such threats will also have long-term consequences. At the heart of living with Covid, which is the phrase that we hear more and more, must be a very robust and very developed system of surveillance, so that we can identify new risks very quickly and respond quickly to them to minimise the impact that they have on the population.

I hope that our discussions with the UK Government in the period ahead will allow us to have the clarity that enables us to set out our plans for a longer-term testing infrastructure that meets all those needs.

Sharon Dowey (South Scotland) (Con)

The £2 million that was announced last week for the events sector is welcome, but the fact that it covers all events in Scotland means that independent music festivals might be short changed. It has been suggested that festivals are caught between the events and culture funding streams, with neither quite fitting the bill. Will the First Minister consider creating a dedicated fund for Scottish music festivals, to encourage festivals, artists and audiences back to Scotland?

The First Minister

I will take that point away and give it consideration, but the question is likely to be whether there is anything that we can do within the funding that has already been announced.

In addition to that funding, the money for local authorities that we announced yesterday gives local authorities additional flexibility to meet the needs of any businesses, organisations or events that have not been properly catered for by other funding streams. Local authorities will have the ability to look at music festivals in that context.

Beyond that, I will take the point away, give it further consideration and ask the minister to write to the member in due course.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

Douglas Ross referred to “personal responsibility” but, in my supermarket at the weekend, there was more than one group without face coverings. By no stretch of the imagination were they all exempt—so much for their personal responsibility!

Will the First Minister remind us all that wearing face coverings in public places, lateral flow testing and isolation, rather than being for the person who does those things, are for others and that they protect not only that person’s family and friends and work colleagues but, more important, people whom they pass by, whom they will never know, who may be very vulnerable to the virus that they may give them?

The First Minister

That is possibly the most important point to make as we go into the next phase. Governments cannot impose legal restrictions that are not proportionate, which is why we are lifting the legal restrictions. However, that does not mean that the risk of the virus has gone away. Therefore, we will continue to encourage voluntary compliance.

Christine Grahame is absolutely correct in the point that she makes. We do things such as wearing a face covering, getting vaccinated and testing regularly to protect ourselves, obviously, but also to protect others and, in particular, those around us who—we may not have knowledge of this—may be clinically vulnerable and who, despite being vaccinated, may be at risk of serious illness or death if they get the virus. Therefore, taking such measures is about solidarity and looking out for—and looking after—one another. That will become more important as we go into the next phase, so I encourage everybody to continue to do all the right things for all the right reasons.

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

The guidance around the 1m rule still applies. That is affecting universities and, as schools reopen more, it will affect parents’ ability to go into schools. Will the 1m rule be reviewed? If so, when will it be reviewed?

The First Minister

I have said today that we intend—assuming that there are no adverse developments between now and then—to lift on 21 March the requirement for businesses to take account of Government guidance, and to take all practicable measures to reduce the risk of infection on their premises. We will continue to update guidance to give businesses and other organisations the right steer on what to do. We anticipate moving to a position whereby none of those things is a legal requirement for businesses or for others. However, as we have just been talking about in the context of individual behaviour, businesses, for obvious reasons, will want to operate in sensible ways that allow them to keep their staff and customers safe. We will continue to engage with businesses about the nature of that over the coming weeks.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

As we lift Covid requirements, households continue to face significant financial pressures as a direct result of the pandemic—compounded, of course, by the additional pressures arising from the Tory cost of living crisis. On 3 February, the UK Government announced spending for England to tackle such pressures. [Interruption.] What clarity has the Scottish Government received from the UK Government that the associated Barnett consequentials will provide additional funds overall to Scotland, over and above Scotland’s spring budget revision, to allow the Scottish Government to tackle significant household pressures in Scotland?

The First Minister

People outside the chamber might not see this, but members on the Conservative benches seem to think that the cost of living crisis is something to laugh about. [Interruption.] I do not think that many people across the country share that view, and I encourage members to have more respect for the difficult circumstances that people face.

It is the case—as it is very often the case—that what the Treasury appears to announce does not translate into actual money for the Scottish Government. The UK “Supplementary Estimates 2021-22”, which were published today, confirmed that the Scottish budget is receiving £17 million less than the Treasury provisionally indicated before the chancellor’s cost of living announcement.

That is something we have come to expect from the Treasury. We will continue to work with the UK Government to get the maximum support for people across the country, who are really suffering as a result of the pandemic and other factors that are driving up the cost of living—which might, unfortunately, be exacerbated by developments in Ukraine. Undoubtedly, we need the chancellor to take much more action in the days and weeks to come.

Paul O’Kane (West Scotland) (Lab)

In anticipation of this announcement and in response to it, many people who have disabilities or who are immunosuppressed, and their carers, have expressed worries about what the new framework could mean for them and their loved ones. They have also expressed frustration about their lack of dialogue with the Government.

What engagement have the First Minister and the Government had with people who have a disability, carers and the organisations that represent such people, in the preparation of the framework? Will the First Minister commit to further engagement in the coming weeks?

The First Minister

We have had significant engagement with stakeholders who represent people who are more at risk, and that will continue. It is because we recognise the issue—I recognise the issue—that, even as we lift legal restrictions, we continue to recommend basic protections and mitigations. It is why we think that access to testing continues to be important. It is why we think that any of us who tests positive should continue to be asked to isolate, to reduce the risk to those who are most vulnerable.

We all have to recognise that the desire to get back to normal, understandable though it is, has to be tempered by the understanding that, for those at greatest risk, the anxiety is very real, so that we can all behave in a way that reduces the risk that people face and, I hope, reduces that anxiety.

The Scottish Government will continue to take those considerations very much into account as we take decisions in the future about the handling of the pandemic overall.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I know that the First Minister agrees that everyone should be able to benefit from a return to greater normality and that no one should be left behind. Like other members, I have constituents who previously had to shield or who were vulnerable because they could not get the vaccine, and they are feeling a bit scared at the prospect of restrictions being lifted and what that will mean for their quality of life. What further assurances can the First Minister give to those people that her approach, unlike the UK Government’s approach, is taking their wellbeing into account as protections are relaxed?

The First Minister

Further to my previous answer, let me again give an assurance that we have considered, are considering and will continue to consider people who are at the highest clinical risk in every strand of the phased approach that we are taking to managing this pandemic.

There are a number of practical ways in which we give life to that. People at the highest risk continue to be prioritised for vaccination. Our testing programme continues, to support the effective management of Covid. People who are at higher clinical risk might also benefit from the new treatments that have been identified—I set out some of that in my statement. Also, as I said in my previous answer, we continue to encourage and recommend that everyone across the country adopts the safe behaviours and practices that help to keep the people who are most vulnerable as safe as possible.

This has been a collective endeavour from day 1. We have all had to look out for and look after each other. Even as we go into what are, I hope, calmer waters of this pandemic, that remains the case. I urge everybody, however frustrated they may be about wearing a face covering or having to isolate when they test positive, to continue to do those things, because they are about the protection of those who are most vulnerable in our society.

That concludes the First Minister’s statement on a Covid-19 update. There will be a brief pause before we move on to the next item of business.