Labour leader Anas Sarwar and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon clash over isolation question.
By Bill Heaney
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar paid tribute to the vaccinators, who continue to go above and beyond in carrying out their duties.
He told MSPs at Holyrood: “Over the Christmas period, all our front-line workers have worked tirelessly to keep us all safe and secure, so I thank each and every one of them and, of course, their families.
“I also thank all those who have come forward during the holidays to get their boosters, and I repeat the plea to people who have not yet received their first or second dose, or a booster dose, to book an appointment or visit a drop-in centre.”
Mr Sarwar said he noted what the First Minister says about isolation periods and announcing a decision on 5 January, but staff absences are spiking now, and “that is having a knock-on effect on services and, indeed, on industry.
He asked Ms Sturgeon to share the scientific evidence that she is relying on when asking people who have tested negative to remain in isolation for 10 days?
The Labour leader added: “I note, for example, that some countries are looking to reduce the period to five days—that was announced just today.
“Every restriction has a knock-on effect for workers and businesses, particularly in hospitality and retail, so I repeat calls for the UK Government to work with devolved Governments to support workers at this time of crisis, because many are fighting for survival.
“Industries associated with hospitality, events and retail appear to have fallen through the cracks. What action is the Scottish Government taking to ensure that all those who are eligible for support are receiving it?
“What plans are in place to widen support for affected businesses, such as the taxi trade, that have seen their income collapse but are not currently eligible for extra help?”
Mr Sarwar said he recognised the burden that staff absences are placing on not only businesses, but many services across the country.
He added: “That is why it is important that we make the self-isolation rules more proportionate if we can.”
Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs: “The science that Anas Sarwar asked me to share is to do with the incubation period. We know that people can become infectious and test positive for the virus after a period of seven days.
“In fact, if we cast our minds back to the earlier part of the pandemic, we will remember that the isolation period was not 10 days, as it is now, but 14 days. It has already been shortened, which has already introduced greater risks.
” If we shorten it further, for no good reason, we have to be aware that we will increase that risk. If we get it wrong and increase the risk too much, any benefit will be outweighed by faster spread of the virus, which
will not solve but compound businesses’ absence problems.
“I am not disagreeing with anyone who says that it is an important decision, but I ask people to understand why it is important to get it right.
“It is correct to say that different countries are coming to different conclusions. As I understand it from what I read this morning—although I might not be getting this entirely right—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has reduced the isolation period to five days for asymptomatic cases only.
“There is some difference of opinion about the appropriate degree of risk. That all says that we need to weigh these things carefully because, if we do not, any benefits that we might get in the immediate term will be outweighed by the increased risk in the longer term.”
She added: “I continue to hope that the UK Government will increase the level of support that it is making
available to business, so that we are able to do likewise—although proportionately we are already
delivering significantly higher levels of business support.
“As I said in my statement, we have made decisions and confirmed announcements on the allocation of £207 million of the £375 million that we have made available. We are consulting different sectors on allocating the remainder of that support.
“That will include looking at the taxi sector. We have previously provided support for the taxi sector and we know that it is one part of the economy that suffers considerably from fewer people going out and socialising, so it is very much in our minds as we reach decisions on the allocation of the remainder of that money. We will set out those decisions as soon as possible.”
Anas Sarwar: replied: ” I welcome those comments, particularly in relation to the taxi trade, and I look forward to seeing the details of that additional support.”
He added: “We know that testing is the key to breaking and reducing transmission—from lateral flow tests
before visiting friends and family to the PCR tests that determine the spread and pace of the virus, testing is core to our response.
“I note what the First Minister said about looking at the booking system 30 minutes before the meeting started, but constituents—and, indeed, people across Scotland —have been in touch to say that they have not been able to access tests, including lateral flow tests.
“There have been issues around online ordering and delivery and people have been asked to travel to different parts of the country or isolate for as long as 72 hours before getting their results.
“I ask the First Minister to consider the disruption that that is causing for front-line workers and for services and businesses. It is putting livelihoods on the line. What action is being taken to increase testing capacity, availability and the speed of results?
“As we approach Hogmanay, testing is the way to get us through this crisis.”
However, the First Minister said: ” Testing is one of the ways of getting us through the crisis—it is really important—but I would not want to give the impression that it is the only way. Getting vaccinated is also really important.
“Following the advice to slow transmission is also vital. As I said in response to a previous question, as demand was constrained for England, an administrative error led to slots also being removed for the other three nations. That has been resolved.
“There will be fluctuations in availability. Sometimes, slots will be available in places that are not easily accessible. That is why I say to people to go back and check later, because new PCR test slots are made available throughout the day.
“The work goes on of ensuring that there is an adequate supply of testing—from the sampling capacity, which is the local test sites and the mobile testing units where the tests are taken, through to the laboratory processing capacity— and that all of that is fit for purpose.
“Because we know that, for some people, getting speedy access to test results is even more important than it is for everybody else—and it is important for everybody—we are making sure that, within the available capacity, priority is given to essential workers, those who are most clinically vulnerable and those who are now eligible for some of the new treatments for Covid.
“Those are on-going issues of priority work for the Scottish Government. However, it is a UK system, so we
require to ensure that that is done in partnership with the UK Government and the other nations.
“I say to people that the testing capacity is there. If you have a positive LFT, if you have symptoms or if you are advised to get a PCR test, please make sure that you book one. There is also a supply of lateral flow device tests from test sites or pharmacies or by ordering online, so please make sure that you make full use of that.”