By Bill Heaney
Green Party leader Patrick Harvie has told First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that he is fed up listening to assurances about the way the Scottish Government is dealing with social isolation during the pandemic – “I am afraid that I still find it frustrating that we are being told that the issue will be looked at again.
“I have lost count of the number of public health experts who have been raising the issue for months—as we have—and saying that the approach needs to be much more proactive.
“If we are expecting that the number of cases will remain high and will continue to rise with the new variant, provision needs to be in place already.”
Earlier Mr Harvie told MSPs: “As we pass another tragic milestone in respect of the number of deaths from the virus, our thoughts are with everyone who has lost someone close to them. We all need to continue to take the crisis seriously. Instead of debating exactly how long people are allowed to sit on a park bench, we should be supporting people to do the right thing, which, overwhelmingly, they want to do.”
He added: “For months, the Scottish Greens have been warning that many people simply cannot self-isolate safely—not just because of income but because of lack of physical space, the risk of losing their job, caring responsibilities and other reasons.
“Way back in May, the First Minister seemed to agree with us that we should provide hotel accommodation for people who need it. By November, she could not say whether that had happened. We now know that most applications for the self-isolation grant are being turned down.
“Is it not clear that the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments need to take a far more proactive approach to supporting people to self-isolate—as the Greens have proposed and as other countries have already done—if that critical part of our Covid response is to be effective?”
The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, replied: “Those questions are important. We have eligibility criteria for the support grant; we have already extended them and will consider extending them further. People who do not meet the criteria will be signposted to other support.
“The outreach services that local authorities provide can offer other support, and we will discuss with them whether they feel that demand for things like hotel accommodation is coming through those services now. We can certainly look again—as we did last year—at whether that should become part of the offer that we make to people. We will always consider what more we can do.
“Although it is very difficult for people in any circumstances to be asked to self-isolate, there is certainly no suggestion that people are not routinely doing it.
“Patrick Harvie is right: people are doing the right things. Although that is important, so, too, is giving people advice about what they can and cannot do during lockdown. I do not think that it is right to dismiss that. My inbox heaves daily with people wanting practical advice. We must support people in all the different ways, which is what we will continue to do.”
She added: ” When I say that we look at things “again”, I mean that we look at them on an ongoing basis. We have already made changes to provision of support for people who are self-isolating. We will never get to a stage in the pandemic when we will say that we have done enough and will not consider doing more. That commitment is on-going and is important.
“We will look into the matter and we will take whatever action is considered to be necessary when there is evidence that private housing providers are trying to frustrate students’ ability to exercise their legal rights. “
Patrick Harvie also raised the vexed question of students and the rent they have to pay fo accommodation while they are away from home studying.
He said: “The First Minister will also be aware of the pressure on students. They have been told that they should not return to colleges and universities yet and have, thanks to Green amendments to the coronavirus legislation, the legal right to cancel unneeded tenancies.
“However, many private housing providers are putting barriers in the way of cancellation or are forcing students to pay rent for accommodation that they cannot use.
“Does the First Minister agree that students who have been told not to return to campus should be entitled to a rent waiver for January and February? What action is the Government taking to ensure that landlords respect students’ right to terminate their leases freely, if that is what they decide they need to do?”
The First Minister replied: “More generally, the issue of rent for students is a matter for universities and housing providers. I know that a number of universities and providers are providing some kind of waiver or rebate, but I encourage them to go further than that and to ensure that the situation students are in is properly understood and responded to.
“We will, through the Scottish Funding Council, continue to discuss with universities the extent to which the Scottish Government can help with that. However, responsibility for addressing the matter is, in the first instance, fundamentally for universities and providers of housing.”