POLITICS: PATRICK HARVIE SEEKS ASSURANCES ABOUT SAFETY IN SCHOOLS

Education secretary John Swinney, Green Party’s Patrick Harvie and FM Nicola Sturgeon.

By Bill Heaney

With schools closing for longer than planned, there is a need for a package of practical support for parents, not only from Government but from employers, Patrick Harvie, the Green Party leader told the Scottish Parliament today.

He said: “Once again, we are seeing the announcement of new measures, which everyone will find regrettable, but which I think the vast majority of people will recognise are necessary.

“However, with schools closing for longer than planned, there is a need for a package of practical support for parents, not only from Government but from employers.

“That need will be particularly significant for single parents, people who live in cramped conditions and people who are coping with working from home while schools are closed. People struggled last time, but they got through. They need and deserve our help if they have to do it again.

“The First Minister recognised the uncertainty around the new variant’s impact on transmission among young people.

“Does she agree that over the next couple of weeks, before the review period, we will need clarity on such issues?

Pupils from St Michael’s PS in West Dumbarton.

“We will need answers that give us confidence on the question of transmission among young people before we can know whether it is safe to fully reopen schools or what additional measures are necessary to keep young people safe.”

The First Minister agreed. She replied: “As everybody knows, we have been determined, from the moment that schools reopened in August until now, to keep schools open.

“That has been contentious at times and legitimate concerns have been raised. However, at every stage I have been satisfied—on the basis of the advice that I have been given and my understanding of the situation and the data that we have gathered and that has been published by Public Health Scotland and the Office for National Statistics—that schools could safely reopen.

Although not all teachers and parents have agreed with that, I have felt able to look them in the eye and say that that is my clear judgment, based on the advice that I have been given.

“That has changed, at this time, for the two reasons that I set out: the high level of community transmission and the uncertainty among the scientific community about the impact of the new variant on transmission among young people.

“Some evidence or opinion that I have seen, read and tried to understand suggests that the new variant might be more likely to infect young people.

“Others think that that might be only an apparent effect, because in England during the November lockdown schools were open while many of the places to which adults would go were closed. We need to understand that more and I hope that we will have a greater understanding of that in the weeks to come.

“There can be no greater responsibility than that of making sure that the schools to which we send our children are safe.

“Therefore, in order to get schools open again—as I desperately want to do and will strive to do as quickly as possible—I need to be satisfied that I can say to teachers and parents that it is safe to do so. We will be looking at all those issues very carefully.”

She added: “Before I touch briefly on the other point that Patrick Harvie raised, I will say that we all have a part to play here. If we all abide by and accept the tough restrictions that we are setting out today, we can bring community transmission down. That creates the best possible conditions for getting schools back open.

“I agree with Patrick Harvie that we need a package of support for parents over the next period. The Government will play a part in that, and we will work with businesses to ensure that they do, too. We will be working with councils, with additional resources to make sure that support can be made available.”

Mr Harvie, who went to school at Dumbarton Academy, replied: “It seems from that answer that the Scottish Government is committing to taking a precautionary approach, should scientific uncertainty still exist two weeks from today, when the decision about schools is to be reviewed.

“I hope that the First Minister agrees that teaching unions are rightly concerned about the safety of pupils and the wider community, as well as the safety of school staff. It has been appalling to see some people—including prominent political figures, who should know better—appearing to question the judgment and even the integrity of unions in their call for a precautionary response to the pandemic. Will the First Minister commit to work with teaching unions on the challenges that schools face?

“I welcome the fact that today’s statement appeared to acknowledge that more needs to be done to accelerate vaccination for teachers and other school staff. Will the First Minister assure us that teachers and school staff will see meaningful progress on that before the review date of 18 January?”

Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs: “First of all, because many parents will be watching this, I take this opportunity to say that there is no evidence that this virus is leading to more severe illness among young people, and there is no conclusive evidence that it is more likely to infect young people—not that Patrick Harvie tried to create an alternative impression, but it is important to reassure parents of that.

However, there are some uncertainties about the impact that the new strain has and whether—even if it does not lead to greater risk of infection in groups of young people—young people might be more likely to carry it and infect older people, be they parents or teachers. It is important that we give the scientific community time to come to a more certain view on that.

Secondly, we work with trade unions. The Deputy First Minister [John Swinney], in particular, works with the education unions. They are integrally involved in the education recovery group, which met this morning and made the recommendation to Cabinet that I announced today.

“I respect the views of unions. I would never, for a single second, doubt their integrity or motivations on this, and I deprecate anybody who does. That does not always mean that we will reach a position in which we are in absolute agreement; the issue of schools has been contentious.

“However, I give my commitment that I will always take the utmost care in decisions about schools, and that I will satisfy myself—as the Deputy First Minister does—with the advice that we get about the safety of schools. That has been true in the past, and, in these changed circumstances, it will be true in future.

“I do not want to oversimplify the complex issue of vaccines in any way. We all want to get everybody vaccinated as quickly as possible. Vaccinating key groups, such as teachers and school staff, would allow us to give greater assurance to teachers in the determination to reopen schools.

“However, we have clear, expert clinical advice on the need to prioritise those who are clinically most at risk of getting ill and dying from this virus, and ethically we have a duty to ensure that we use the supplies that we have to do that first.

“Many teachers will be in those groups—for example, teachers who are over 50 or who are under 50 and have other health conditions. Beyond that, we want to get teachers and school staff vaccinated as quickly as possible, but we must ensure that we follow advice about those who are clinically most in need.

“We will discuss—internally in Government, with our advisers, and with teaching unions and local authorities—how we can accelerate that whole process, because we understand the central importance of it.”

LibDem leader Willie Rennie then asked about childcare: “There will be a price to pay for these measures in mental health, economic well-being, health services, inequality and loss of education. However, I agree that evidence supports the return of stricter measures. It would be a tragedy if the NHS was overwhelmed and more lives were lost when the protective coat of the new vaccine is within touching distance for millions of people.

“I want to ask about childcare. More people will be back at work—especially as construction and manufacturing continue—compared with the situation in the spring, so what advice does the First Minister have for working parents who are not key workers? What advice, support and childcare will be available for those people? The availability of informal childcare and childminders is much more restricted than is necessary. Therefore, what advice would the First Minister give to affected families to ensure that they have appropriate childcare in place?”

Nicola Sturgeon replied: “I agree that there is a price to pay for all sorts of aspects of this pandemic, which will definitely be paid back for some time to come, in Scotland, the UK, Europe and the world.

“However, there will be a much bigger price to pay if we do not act to get this virus under control. That is the central, driving imperative that motivates the Government every single day.

“I will not insult the intelligence of any parent in relation to childcare—this is a very difficult situation and nothing that I can say, standing here, takes away the challenges with which parents are confronted. We will do everything that we can to help, in a range of ways, firstly through the key worker provision and the flexibility that we have left local authorities.

“There is the possibility—although it is more restricted—of informal childcare, where there are no alternatives. As I said a couple of times in response to previous questions, we will work with businesses to make sure that they help parents in their work-forces who have childcare responsibilities.

Businesses should make sure that they help parents in their work-forces who have childcare responsibilities.

“We will consider, in very short order—including with additional resources—what further practical and financial support we can provide to those who need it.

“There will be a package of support, but I do not want to suggest that that will take away every difficulty that working parents will face over this next difficult period.

“That is why the most important thing that we can do—it is a job for Government and for all of us—is get the virus under control so that the period in which schools and early years education do not operate normally is as short as we can possibly make it.”

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