First though, he praised “all our social care and national health service staff, who are working tirelessly under some of the most challenging conditions that we have ever faced. I am sure that I speak for all of us when I say that they have our unwavering support and our unconditional backing.”
Nicola Sturgeon told him: “That work is under way at pace as we speak. This afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport will meet the Scottish Ambulance Service and the trade union that is associated with it, the GMB, to make sure that front-line workers’ concerns are being properly and quickly addressed. I give an undertaking that we will do everything possible to ensure that that is the case. Health Protection Scotland has issued clear guidance on the types of protective equipment that is required in different circumstances, and we have made supplies available. At the moment, there are pressures on supplies of protective equipment not just in Scotland but globally, but we must do everything that we can to support people on the front line.“We always owe those in our front-line health and social care workforce an enormous debt of gratitude, but I can say candidly that we will never, ever owe them more than we will do in the weeks and months to come. My job as First Minister, along with the health secretary, is to make sure that we do everything that we can do to support them, and I treat that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.”
Richard Leonard replied: “More supplies of personal protective equipment were delivered to ambulance stations across Scotland yesterday afternoon, but they were not the full-face protection FFP3 masks that are needed. What was received was another batch of paper surgical masks with expiry dates of April 2016. When we raised the concern on Tuesday that that same batch of masks had been supplied to general practitioners, the cabinet secretary said that she was aware of the issue and was taking steps to ensure re-supply and that the situation would not be repeated. Regrettably, it has been repeated. We all know that we cannot afford to put our front-line NHS staff—our key workers—at increased, unnecessary and avoidable risk. What guarantee can the First Minister give that the appropriate supplies will be made available, and what advice can she give to workers, such as those in the Scottish Ambulance Service, who believe that they have been put at risk?
The First Minister said: “We will do everything that we can to protect those on the front line. Health Protection Scotland has issued guidance on the question of the type of protective equipment that is required by different categories of health workers. In a service such as the Scottish Ambulance Service, a mix of masks will be required, some of which will be those described by Richard Leonard. Other parts of the workforce will require other types of mask. It is not for politicians such as me or the health secretary to say what is required; it is for Health Protection Scotland to do so. We will continue to work with GPs and with the ambulance service to make sure that those supplies are there. I say again—it is important to understand this—that, as is the case with ventilators, there is a global demand at the moment for that type of equipment. Supplies are under pressure, which is why we are also looking at how we can get alternative supplies. The health secretary [Jeane Freeman] has considered, and will continue to consider, the issue of expiry dates. There will be circumstances in which supplies will be revalidated for use—by experts, not by politicians—because it will be judged that they are safe to use, notwithstanding the expiry date. The priority in all of those decisions will be the safety and security of those who are looking after us. That is something that everybody has a right to expect from Government. I am sure that Richard Leonard will understand that my decisions must be informed by the best expert advice. I am conscious of that in every decision that I take on the response to this situation, and that is what I undertake to do.”
Richard Leonard responded: “The cabinet secretary for health has confirmed that, no matter what precautions are taken, rising absence rates are expected during the next few weeks of the outbreak. Absence rates of between 25 and 30 per cent of the NHS workforce at any one time have been predicted. It is because of that that medics, nurses, paramedics and other health professionals are calling for the testing of key workers as swiftly as possible. They do not want to spread the virus if they have it, but they also want to be able to continue to work to support their colleagues and to provide essential care for patients if all they have is a cold or if they are no longer contagious. I appreciate that the First Minister has committed again today to expanding testing. Is she able to tell us the timetable for that, how frequently she expects front-line testing to take place, and, if the possibility of self-testing has been explored, when that is likely to be widely available to key workers in Scotland?”
The First Minister: “I cannot answer the question of when new and different kinds of tests are likely to be available. That is one of the things I must be honest about. It is a global issue. Discussions are happening with pharmaceutical companies in the United Kingdom about the provision of new and quicker types of test. I hope that that happens very soon. That is in everyone’s interests, but Richard Leonard will understand the processes that must be gone through to provide new approaches in that regard. On the more general issue of testing, as I have set out previously, we are committed to testing key and critical workers. It is in everyone’s interests for that to happen, because we want those who care for us to be at work whenever possible, and we want them to be as safe as possible. There is a need for us to be guided by expert opinion with regard to how often key and critical workers require to be tested, just as there is the on-going work, about which I have already spoken, to make sure that we are properly defining that list of who is categorised as a key and critical worker. Obviously, that list includes those on the front line of our national health service and social care services. On timescales, we are working at pace. There are large numbers of people quite literally working around the clock on this. That includes the Scottish Government, but that is the least of it. People across our emergency services and health and social care services, in particular, are working to do all of this as quickly as possible. I have already talked about the work on expanding our testing capacity. That was expanded at an earlier stage of this outbreak, when we brought the laboratory in Dundee on stream. We are now working to expand it beyond that in order to ensure that we are using all possible capacity that we have. We are working hard to make sure that, as quickly as possible, there is an understanding of which workers are being tested and how that is to happen.”
These things are happening at pace. I would go back to Jackson Carlaw’s point: few people—actually, that is not true. Everybody understands the seriousness of this situation. I say to Richard Leonard that he should take some assurance from the fact that I absolutely understand the urgency of all these issues and I want to make sure that all of these things are put in place as quickly as possible. I will continue to do everything that I can, as head of the Scottish Government, to make sure that we are taking all the necessary steps to do that.