First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Parliament at Holyrood.
By Bill Heaney
Jackson Carlaw (Eastwood) (Con): MSPs have been approached by community pharmacists who have been serving customers with flu-like symptoms. Community pharmacists are often the first point of contact for the elderly, but they will not know whether they themselves have the virus. Members have also been contacted by doctors who are at home with what they think is probably just a cold but, without a test, they cannot be sure. The Government’s objective is to expand testing capacity, but can the First Minister confirm whether she believes that, within that expansion, those in front-line service roles should be prioritised?
The First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon) advised Parliament that, as of 9 o’clock this morning, a total of 266 positive cases have been confirmed, which is an increase of 39 from yesterday. As I have done previously, I stress that that is likely to be an underestimate of the true prevalence of the infection across our society. I am also extremely sad to confirm that, as of 9 o’clock this morning, there have been six reported deaths of patients in Scotland who had tested positive for Covid-19, which is an increase of three from yesterday. I put on record that my thoughts are with their loved ones at this incredibly painful time for them.
On testing, front-line critical and key workers, particularly in the national health service and social care, are the priority for our expanded testing services. Broadly speaking, we are seeking to meet three objectives with testing. The first is to protect those who are most vulnerable and to save lives. That is why those who are admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms or with upper respiratory infection will be tested. Secondly, we aim to allow critical workers to be at work unless they are actually ill. Work is on-going in all four nations to define the list of critical workers, but it of course includes those at the front line of our NHS and social care services. The third objective is to allow surveillance to enable us to monitor the prevalence of the infection across the population. Right now, we have three laboratories that are operational, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. Between them, they currently have the capacity to do around 780 tests per day. Work is under way to expand capacity, initially to enable up to 3,000 tests to be done every day. In the longer term—hopefully not too much longer—we hope that new forms of testing will be available. That work is being led by the United Kingdom Government. The new tests will be dipstick tests rather than swab tests, which will allow people to test themselves much more quickly and tell whether they have had the virus. Those are not available right now, but I hope that the testing will be expanded in that way as soon as possible.
Jackson Carlaw: That is a helpful clarification. To respond to the First Minister’s confirmation of the additional lives lost, in our shared endeavour as we confront this emergency, all our thoughts will be with those who are suffering bereavement as a result of it. Turning to the broader economy, I acknowledge that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has stated that everything that has already been announced constitutes but the first step of many and that there is a pressing need for further detailed assistance targeted in support of individuals. On Tuesday, the UK Government unveiled a package of financial measures to support business. Scottish businesses face the toughest of times, but we know that they can, will and must bounce back and prosper with the right help and support. The chancellor has backed business with more than £330 billion. Can the First Minister update us on how the Scottish Government will help Scottish business through the weeks and months ahead? In particular, in response to the many inquiries that MSPs are receiving, can the First Minister confirm to those who recognise the clear advantage of the assistance being offered to their businesses that it will be kept simple and how they should expect to access it?
The First Minister: This is a statement of the obvious, but we are in an incredibly difficult time for businesses across our economy and for the workers who staff those businesses. I welcome, as does the economy secretary, the support that was outlined by the chancellor earlier this week. We have confirmed, and we will continue to ensure, that every single penny of funding that comes to Scotland to support businesses is passed on to businesses in Scotland. The economy secretary has already set out some of the initial detail of that. For example, all small businesses that receive the small business bonus scheme or rural relief will be eligible for a £10,000 grant. We will provide 12 months’ relief for properties in hospitality, leisure and retail and a £25,000 grant if those properties have a rateable value between £18,000 and £51,000. On top of that, we have taken steps to effectively halt the inflationary increase in business rates that was due in April. Taken together, that is a £2.2 billion support package to help sustain businesses and, crucially, to help them pay their staff and treat their staff fairly. As Jackson Carlaw said, that is initial support. It is inevitable that further support will be required and we continue to discuss that constructively with the UK Government. I will be as brief as I can be on the point about how businesses will access that support, which is very important. We want to make it as simple as possible, but given the different kinds of support that we have announced, we are approaching the situation in three different ways. I will briefly summarise those. We are working to make sure that the universal rates relief that is available for all properties will be available automatically so that businesses will not have to apply for it. The 100 per cent rates relief for retail, hospitality and leisure will require some form of application from the sectors involved, but we are working with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authority finance directors on how that can be administered in the most straightforward way possible. In the meantime, we will bring forward legislation next week to enshrine that relief from 1 April. Things are slightly more complicated when it comes to grant schemes. We have set out two grant schemes: the £10,000 small business grants and the £25,000 grants for retail, hospitality and leisure. We are in discussion with COSLA, councils and business associations about how those can be efficiently distributed. I know that the same challenges are being faced in England with grant schemes there. There is no simple answer, but we want to do this as straightforwardly and quickly as possible, and I undertake to make sure that information and guidance are distributed to MSPs and business organisations as soon as the detail is clarified.
Jackson Carlaw: That is all very helpful. That clarification will be much valued by business, and we will obviously lend our support to any legislation that is required to give that assistance effect. The childcare sector faces an uncertain future. This afternoon, John Swinney, will expand on yesterday’s confirmation by the First Minister, and by the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, that schools and nurseries across the UK, including private nurseries, will close from tomorrow. The medical advice is clear, and we must keep people safe. We also know that childcare is vital to keeping the UK working through coronavirus and, once we have beaten the virus, to returning to prosperity. We all fully appreciate that closure is unavoidable, but could the First Minister tell us what help we can give that vital sector?
The First Minister: Jackson Carlaw is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the childcare sector for the business reasons that he set out and for the care of young children right now and for the future, when we are on the other side of this virus. Obviously, we have ambitious plans to double the provision of early years learning and childcare. We want to work to mitigate the impact as far as possible, although I have to be straight with people: we will not be able to do that completely. John Swinney will set out more details on that, among other things, in his statement this afternoon. However, I take the opportunity to confirm to Parliament that we have decided, as the Government, to guarantee the funding that private and third sector nurseries currently receive from the Scottish budget. That funding pays for the statutory entitlement that children receive in those nurseries and across the private and third sectors, and it is worth around £220 million. We will keep that cash in place, even while children are at home and not at nursery, so that we can help to support businesses through what is a very difficult time. That will be in addition to the work that we will do with councils to maximise the use of private and third sector nurseries to provide childcare to key workers who need it. There will be more detail on that when John Swinney makes his statement later.
Jackson Carlaw: That confirmation of funding will be hugely welcomed by the sector. Key workers will be crucial in the battle with the virus, but the definition of “key workers” needs to be clarified. It is not as straightforward as it at first seems because, however desirable it may be, if everyone becomes a key worker we are right back where we started. Yesterday, the First Minister mentioned nurses, doctors and other critical staff. Can she confirm that police officers will be included, and will she tell us which other groups will or may be part of the key worker plan? Finally, will the First Minister join me in asking people to be patient as information is confirmed and made available? These are evolving responses to a national emergency, and it is unreasonable to expect every t to be crossed and every i to be dotted on the detail with immediate effect. The public should know that both Scotland’s Governments are working to ensure that as much clarity as possible is provided as quickly as possible, and we should all support the people who are working flat out to achieve that.
The First Minister: I absolutely echo those comments. On the issue of key workers, we are in difficult and not straightforward territory, and we must get the balance right. Jackson Carlaw asked me directly about police officers. I fully expect police officers to be included—in fact, I think that it is inconceivable that police officers would not be included. Indeed, I fully expect all who work in the emergency services to be covered by the definition of “key workers”. Beyond that, work is being done across all four nations to come to the right definition. I will make a couple of points about that, the first of which is the obvious one that Jackson Carlaw made. If we go too far and end up having too many children in our schools, we will undermine the public health reasons for regretfully having to close schools. Secondly, while we will try to get as much national consistency on the matter as possible, it will undoubtedly be the case that some local flexibility will be required. The definition of who might be considered to be key and critical workers in a remote rural or island community might not be exactly the same as that definition in the centre of Glasgow or Edinburgh. It is important that we have that flexibility. Understandably, the focus is very much on those workers who are required to keep our health and social care services running to cope with the Covid-19 crisis. Beyond that, there are the workers in some obvious other areas, such as the energy sector, who will make sure that we can continue to heat our homes and keep the lights on. Those workers who are required to get food to different parts of our country are another example. That work is on-going, and we will continue to update Parliament on it as the definition of “key workers” becomes clearer. I began my answer by agreeing with Jackson Carlaw’s final point, and I do so again. I have given an assurance to people across the country that the Scottish Government will be as open and transparent as possible on an on-going basis. I have never been as acutely aware as I am right now of the inability of Government alone to deal with the challenge that we face. As First Minister, I will do my best to lead that operation in the months ahead, but I need the help of everybody across Scotland. What I can do is share as much information as possible. That will sometimes involve being frank about not knowing the answer to something immediately or being honest about the fact that certain things take some time to be put in place. I will give an example of that. John Swinney will give as much detail as possible about the alternative arrangements that we are putting in place in the light of the school closures but, to be frank, that planning work will continue over the days to come. This has to be a collective national endeavour. It will not be easy, but if all of us—Government, the public and all parts of the economy and the public sector—pull together, I have confidence that the country will be able to get through the current situation, notwithstanding how incredibly difficult and challenging it is.