By Bill Heaney
Tory interim leader Ruth Davidson said she was proud to be part of the day of reflection and the minute’s silence at noon, as Scotland remembered all those who have lost their life to Covid.
She added, however, that she was struck beforehand when she read of a man who wanted his son remembered today too.
Ms Davidson, standing in for Douglas Ross, told MSPs:”Ross McCarthy was 31 when he took his own life during the restrictions, and his family are raising money for the CALM—Campaign Against Living Miserably—charity.
“Today, of all days, we remember that Covid, while it has taken far too many lives, has also taken a huge toll even on those who have not contracted the condition. I echo the words of Dr Richard Holloway in expressing gratitude to all those doctors and nurses, bin collectors and shop workers who have kept us going over the past year.
“We support the continuing efforts of the vaccination teams across the country, and delivering 2.2 million first doses is a real achievement.
“However, a newspaper report today revealed that, last week, one in seven vaccine appointments were missed because of delays in delivering the letters.
“The delay impacted around 60,000 people, and for that reason the central vaccine target was missed. A Scottish Government spokesman said that the “issue was later resolved”, and added that the Government was still establishing whether it was “a localised issue or more widespread”.
“We are pleased to note that the vaccine roll-out is still powering ahead, but I ask the First Minister to clarify a few points.
“Was the issue localised, or was it countrywide? Have those people who missed appointments been contacted again, and when can they expect a new date for their jag? If anybody is, understandably, worried that they have missed their chance, where can they go for information and reassurance?”
Ms Sturgeon told her: “First, I say, as I have done already today, that I think not only of those who have lost their lives to Covid in the past year, and their grieving families, but of everyone who has lost their life over the past year, and those who are missing and grieving them.
“The past year, with all the difficulties and challenges that it has thrown up, has affected people in a multitude of ways, and it is important that we remember, and reflect on, that today.
“The vaccination programme is progressing extremely well. If I cast my mind back to the turn of this year, I recall that I was optimistic about the speed and scale of the roll-out of vaccination, but I think that I would have been sceptical if anyone had told me then that we would have reached quite as many people as we have now.
“I put on record today my thanks to everybody in the central team and all the vaccinators and teams across the country who are responsible for that success.
“When we implement a programme of this scale, and at this speed, it is inevitable that there will be glitches and things that do not go as well as we want. That is true of the scheduling, printing and posting of letters that are associated with the programme. We are aware of issues with the delivery of appointment letters in the early part of last week.
“With NHS National Services Scotland and Royal Mail, we are still trying to understand all the details of that issue, but I have been given an assurance that it has been resolved. Around 60,000 appointments were not attended last week and I apologise to anybody who has been affected.
“We closely monitor day-to-day uptake versus projections and try to understand the reasons why people might not be attending appointments. This past week, that undoubtedly would have been partly down to the issue with letters, but there are other issues as well.
“Although these concerns have not materialised, we were concerned last week about the impact that the publicity around the Astra-Zeneca vaccine might have. We are working on those issues all the time to ensure that people are coming forward for appointments and are supported to do so.
“The process to re-book any appointments that were not attended last week is under way and that will be done as quickly as possible. People are able to telephone the helpline on 0800 030 8013 if they have any issues on which they wish advice or support.”
Labour leader Anas Sarwar referred to the fact that since Scotland went into the first lockdown, almost 10,000 Scots have lost their lives “and my thoughts are with all their families”.
He added: “This past year has been tough for us all. We have been distant from loved ones, unable to share good moments and—hardest of all—unable to grieve together. We are all indebted to the heroes on the front line who have helped to save lives and to those who kept our country running.
“There is finally some hope, and we will get through this. We cannot return to normal after this pandemic; I hope that we are all united on that point.
“Although there is optimism and hope again, there is a creeping rise in cases in some parts of Scotland. We must avoid a potential third wave, and our test and protect system will be crucial to that. Does the First Minister have confidence that test and protect is finally robust enough to enable us to avoid another lockdown?”
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “Test and protect is robust and has been so since it was established. It has played a vital role in trying to break chains of transmission and minimise the spread of the virus.
“It will undoubtedly have helped to save a large number of people from contracting the virus and it will have saved lives as part of that. I am grateful to everybody who is working across that system. Test and protect is a vital part of our defence and of our response but, as I have said all along, it is not our first line of defence against the virus. The first line of defence is still all of us taking the precautions and mitigations that we are asked to take. Increasingly, the most important line of defence is the vaccination programme.
“Test and protect is there; it does, and will do, a good job and we will support it with the resources that it needs to operate at the level that is required. All of us will help test and protect if, for the time being, we continue to abide by all the rules and restrictions and play our part in keeping the virus under control, as everybody has done so well over the past 12 months. Every day over the past 12 months, this has been a collective effort above all else. We all have our part to play, and each one of us must continue to play that part as we steer our way through and out of this—hopefully soon.
“Nobody wants to go backwards, but we should look across to Europe now with concern at what is happening there. Vaccination rates are higher across the United Kingdom than in many other European countries. Nevertheless, a third wave looks to be starting and we cannot be complacent about that here. This remains an infectious virus, so we have to be cautious and take all the precautions. If we continue to do that, I remain hopeful that we might be on the final straight back to normality. The worst thing that we could do is entertain any complacency about the situation, and I hope, and expect, that nobody will do so.”
LibDem leader Willie Rennie told the FM: “It is the little things—the things that we took for granted—that I think we now miss most, such as hugging our mums, walking in the mountains and coffee mornings. My wife has certainly missed her Zumba classes.
“The fabric of a liberal society has been locked up in a cupboard. There has been pain, too, such as the long-awaited hip operation or the cancer that was not detected until it was too late. The freedom that is provided by our national health service has been rolled back, and there is the tragedy of the thousands of people who are no longer in our lives.
“Something good must come from these dark days. For years, social care workers have been undervalued, but they did not waver when we needed them most. Does the First Minister agree that it is time to pay our social care workers the wages that they deserve?”
Ms Sturgeon agreed: “Everybody will have lots of things that they miss and are desperate to get back to. Hugging my mum is probably the thing that I miss and look forward to doing most of all.
Over the past year, social care workers have gone above and beyond the call of duty, as have those who work in our national health service. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult, traumatic and challenging it must have been, on a day-to-day basis, to be caring for older people in one of our care homes at the height of the first wave.
“We talk about gratitude—I have done so today—and I regularly talk about things for which I cannot find the words. However, in this case, I genuinely cannot find the words. What we asked of our care workers, and what they gave, was truly exceptional.
“I do think that it is time to pay care workers what they deserve. In Government, it is not as easy as just saying that we will do so—we have to work out what we mean by that and how we will deliver it through budgets and a policy programme.
“It is time that we transformed and reformed the way in which the whole social care system works. The national care service is an opportunity to transform the quality of care for our older citizens and the way in which we value and remunerate those who work in it.
“Should I be in a position to influence it in the next parliamentary session, that is something that I am determined to drive forward as an absolute priority.”
There were additional questions at FMQs:
Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP) asked) : “Given the well-publicised issues to do with vaccine supplies, particularly in April, what assurance can the First Minister give to people who are awaiting their second dose that they will receive it within 12 weeks of their first dose?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “I can give an assurance that people will receive their second dose within the 12-week window. As I said last week, because we will have, over the next four weeks, around 500,000 fewer doses than we had anticipated, there will be a period, as we go into April, when we predominantly focus on second doses.
“The number of first doses is likely to reduce as a result, to ensure that people get their second dose on time, but—this is an important assurance—we still expect to be able to offer first doses to everyone in JCVI categories 1 to 9 by mid-April, as we anticipated.
Tory Graham Simpson stood up for taxi drivers. He said: “Yesterday, I talked to members of Unite the union who represent the taxi trade. Some taxi drivers have had help during the pandemic, but in no way has that covered their costs and many drivers are desperate.
“Forty per cent have had little or no support. Unite is asking for two things: first, a scheme to help operators; and secondly, something to help all taxi drivers, such as an extra grant from what is left of the £57 million that was announced in January. Will the First Minister agree to look at those requests, to ensure that we get a fair deal for cabbies?”
Ms Sturgeon told him: “We always look at requests from trade unions or other organisations, so I am sure that we are already doing that—if not, we will do it.
“The support that we have made available, whether it has been for taxi drivers or any other affected part of the economy, is not and was never going to be able to compensate for all losses. We are seeking to do as much as possible, and that will continue to be the case for as long as is necessary.”