First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Labour leader Richard Leonard.

By Bill Heaney

Will schools and school buildings be open and fit for purpose for schools to re-open when the Scottish Government deems it is safe to do so?

Labour leader Richard Leonard told First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that an affirmative answer to this question was crucial.

He told MSPs: “It is about how much preparation the Government has made for the continuation of our children’s education; whether the remote learning materials that we were promised were ready back in July are ready now, six months later; and whether teachers have the support that they need, whether plans are in place and whether they have the resources that they require to back that work up.

“It is also about how much support there is for working parents and what the plan is for them. For example, does the First Minister have a plan to encourage all businesses to furlough all working parents who need to take time off to support their children? Can she assure us that all that is in place?”

Ms Sturgeon said: “I will not pretend to people that any of these decisions are easy—they are not easy for the people who have to live with the consequences, nor are they easy for any Government, anywhere. Nonetheless, we will do everything that we can—as we did earlier in the pandemic, and at the outset when we were in lockdown previously—to help people to navigate their way through those decisions and deal with the impact of them.

“We have taken significant steps on online learning. For example, the national e-learning offer, which is a collaborative programme involving the Scottish Government, Education Scotland and local government, has already helped to improve the options that are available to schools and enhanced the provision for live remote learning, recorded lessons and supported learning via online digital learning. One initiative within that is e-Sgoil, which has been refreshed with an expanded range of study support courses, ranging from national 5 to advanced higher.

“That support has already been strengthened in a number of ways, but we will seek to do that on an on-going basis. Fundamentally, however, the priority in getting transmission down again is to keep the period during which schools are closed as short as possible.

“We will discuss with business organisations—starting today, with the economy secretary [Fiona Hyslop]—the expectation on businesses to do everything that they can to support their workers to work from home and to support workers who have childcare responsibilities.

“We will keep Parliament updated on any further initiatives that arise from that, but I know that businesses have already worked hard to do those things. Again, we are at a stage when we need a massive national collective endeavour to overcome the severe challenge that we face, and I know and expect that businesses will play their full part in that.”

Mr Leonard proceeded to ask: “Last October, the Government promised to protect low-income workers from financial hardship, should they be asked to self-isolate by test and protect. However, the £500 grant does not seem to be reaching many of the low-paid workers who have applied for it.

“According to the Government’s most recent data, published in December, 23 per cent—less than a quarter—of individuals who applied to the self-isolation support scheme received a payment.

“With the infection rate rising, more and more working people will be required to self-isolate. Can the First Minister tell us why the award rate for that vital payment for low-income households is so low and what she will do to drive it up?”

Ms Sturgeon replied: “The eligibility criteria for the £500 support payment were set out at its establishment, and they are tied to entitlement to benefits, although we sought to have a degree of flexibility around that in Scotland. The payment is administered through the Scottish welfare fund.

“We will continue to consider how we ensure that support for self-isolation and more general support for the new circumstances in which we are now in reaches more people.

“At the outset of the pandemic, we made significant resources available to support communities and people in deprived communities in particular. We will be discussing with local authorities how we refresh and supplement that.

“There was also the £100 million winter support package, with grants going to low-income families before Christmas, as well as a range of other support for organisations supporting people and different groups living in poverty.

“We have done a great deal, but we recognise that, in the new, more severe circumstances that we are now in for the next period, we must continue to increase what we are doing.

“We will make announcements about additional resources covering many key aspects, with support for communities and vulnerable groups in particular, parental support and any support in addition to the support strands that are already in place for business that we can make available for affected companies.”

Richard Leonard replied: “It seems to me that, if 77 per cent of the people who apply to the self-isolation support scheme do not receive a payment, there is something wrong with how the scheme is operating.

“We all recognise that the new variant of Covid-19 demands new action to suppress its spread. The advice from the scientific advisory group for emergencies—SAGE—is that actions such as delaying the second dose of the vaccine form only one part of a comprehensive, ambitious strategy to do that. However, less than two weeks ago, one senior Government adviser, in response to a question about people’s immunity from the first dose, said:

“They get a little bit … but it is not like 50 per cent and then another 50 per cent. These numbers are not right … it is more like 10 per cent and 90 per cent, so the second dose is much more important on top of the first dose.”

A week later, a statement from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said: “Short term vaccine efficacy from the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is calculated at around 90%, short term vaccine efficacy from the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine is calculated at around 70%”.

The Labour leader added: “Maintaining public confidence in the vaccination programme is critical, but that means ensuring that messages are clear and consistent from all Government advisers.

“Can the First Minister take responsibility for that? Can she today set out the expected number of people to be vaccinated each week, based on current assumptions?”

The First Minister said: “I take responsibility for all aspects of the Government’s handling of the situation—I have never tried to shy away from that. Consistent messaging is important. 

Before I come on to the issue of vaccine dosage, which is important, I will round off on the first point on the support payment. We have already extended eligibility for the payment since it was introduced, and we will continue to look to do that.

“On the issue of the two doses and the period of up to 12 weeks between them, that is clinical advice. I take responsibility for every aspect of the Government’s response, but I am not clinically qualified; I rely on advisers to give us the best possible advice.

“The four chief medical officers have collectively given their advice to the four Governments on dosing, and they have done that on the basis that the proposed approach allows us to vaccinate more people with a significant degree of immunity more quickly than under the original strategy.

“Given the race that we are in and the circumstances that we face, if they believe that that is a safe and sensible thing to do, it is incumbent on politicians to follow that advice.

“The short-term efficacy from the first dose is 90 per cent for the Pfizer vaccine and 70 per cent for the AstraZeneca vaccine. That is set out in a letter that I think went to MSPs yesterday or this morning, and a briefing on the matter from the chief medical officer has been offered to all MSPs.

“It has been suggested that people might get their first dose of one vaccine and their second dose of another vaccine.

“That is not our policy in Scotland, and it is not what the chief medical officer advises—unless there were exceptional circumstances in which, for example, it was not known what vaccine had been given in the first dose. The policy at this stage is that people will get both doses with the same vaccine.”

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