Coronavirus (COVID-19) Debate: Deputy First Minister's statement - 27 May 2021

Opening remarks made by Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for COVID Recovery John Swinney in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 27 May 2021.

Presiding Officer, let me take this opportunity to welcome you to your office and wish you all good wishes as Deputy Presiding Officer.

I welcome this opportunity to open one of the first debates of this new Parliament on a topic of such importance to everyone in Scotland.  Today’s debate allows us to build on the strong commitments made by all political parties throughout the election period that the immediate priority for the next government was leading the country through the ongoing pandemic and into a fair and just recovery. Parliament has shaped our response to the virus; now there is the opportunity and the necessity for Parliament to shape our recovery from the pandemic.

I look forward to setting out the Scottish Government’s ongoing response to COVID, our approach to recovery, and the immediate steps that we intend to take to bring the necessary energy and direction to this particular activity. 

But just as importantly, I also welcome the opportunity to build on the commitment made by the First Minister yesterday to co-operate with all political parties to put the interests of the country first. With that in mind, I look forward to a collaborative debate on how we work together across the Chamber – and across sectors – to realise our shared mission to build for the future.

In reappointing me as Deputy First Minister last week, the First Minister also asked me to lead the cross-government and cross-Parliament work necessary to guide the country through the pandemic and into a recovery that supports the NHS, protects and creates employment, backs our young people and contributes to Scotland’s ambition to be a net zero nation - into a recovery that takes us closer to the kind of Scotland we all want to see.

A country that is more equal and one that eradicates child poverty. 

A country where the economy is guiding us towards a more sustainable future, with jobs and opportunities for all. 

A country that values, protects and promotes its natural environment, its cultural heritage and its technological innovation. 

A country with public services that meet the needs of its citizens - efficiently, effectively and with compassion.

It is a great privilege to be asked to lead that mission, and a responsibility that I am determined to discharge with pace and in an inclusive way.

It is, however, clear that despite the undoubted progress that we have made as a country, the pandemic is not yet over. 

I want to take this opportunity to express my sincere thanks – and the thanks of the whole government – to all of who have already committed so much to supporting the country throughout the pandemic, and continue to do so – in the NHS and social care, in the Police service and across the whole public sector, as well as businesses and third sector organisations. 

The past year has been difficult, stressful and heart-breaking for so many people across Scotland. We must remember those who we have lost as we continue to grapple with the grief and the stress that comes with bereavement. Many people continue to battle the consequences of the pandemic that have impacted people's health, social ties and livelihoods. It has been hard for so many in our country.

I understand the urgency with which all of us want to get back to as normal a life as possible.

ICU and hospital COVID-19 admissions remain at low levels and in much of the country, cases remain at relatively low levels. Due to the progress that we have made in suppressing the virus, we have been able to begin cautiously easing restrictions and even bring forward some of the easings when the data indicated it was safe for us to do so.

We still need to be cautious, not least in terms of international travel. The risk of importation of new cases and variants from international travel remains and so we are asking people to think carefully about whether they really need to travel at this particular time.

And as we begin to look ahead and prepare for life after the pandemic, it is essential we continue to protect ourselves and each other from the spread of the virus.

As we have seen in Glasgow and in some other local authority areas, case numbers can quickly increase. And we are not free from this virus yet.

I am hopeful that over time we may be able to move away from the use of lockdowns and severe restrictions on our freedoms to deal with increasing cases – and instead to take a more targeted approach using our high performing Test and Protect system, enhanced surveillance and local outbreak management to contain and to control increasingly sporadic outbreaks.

But to do that, we still need people to do their part. Maintain good hygiene, wear a face covering and physically distance where required.  If people have symptoms, they should isolate and get tested. And even if they do not have symptoms, people should make use of the universal testing offer and get tested regularly.

But, above all, people need to get vaccinated.

To date 3,155,733 people have received the first dose of the COVID vaccination in Scotland and 1,913,809 people have received the second dose of the COVID vaccination. We remain on course to have offered vaccination to the adult population by the end of July. 

We will look back on this as one of the greatest single achievements of both science, and the value of the public sector, working together in this endeavour.

Presiding Officer, despite the progress on the vaccination strategy we must continue to be on our guard. We have seen that new variants, including the April-02 variant, can impact on case numbers.

We are tracking the latest science which indicates that while more transmissible, two doses of either vaccine continue to offer high levels of protection against the April-02 variant. That means we should hopefully continue to see a significant reduction in the number of people hospitalised and who die from COVID.

But to achieve wider protection we need the whole adult population to be vaccinated. So when citizens are offered the vaccine, even if individuals think they are fit and healthy, they should take it. If not for themselves, then for the sake of everyone else who may be more vulnerable to the effects of infection.

Too many vaccination appointments are being missed. Sometimes that is unavoidable. But we are taking steps to make it as easy as possible and to reach those who are often furthest away from health services.

If we can continue to progress on vaccination and make full use of Test and Protect, I firmly believe we can progress in the way that we have set out in our plans.

We have, Presiding Officer, substantial reviews coming up that could see large parts of Scotland move to Level 1.

In parallel we intend to publish more detailed work on our expectations for life beyond Level 0 as we return hopefully to something that we all recognise as much closer to normal than even Level 0 restrictions.

In that work, we will set out the protections we all need to keep in place, and how we can all play our part.

We will give clarity to people and businesses, looking beyond Level 0 to the summer and the second half of the year.

However, as we have seen, the situation can change quickly, and we will continue to monitor the situation constantly, and respond effectively as soon as we judge it necessary to do so.

Where we need to take tough decisions, we will share the data and the reasoning behind the judgements that we make, and give as much notice of any changes as we possibly can do.

Presiding Officer, the Scottish Government will of course continue to take the necessary decisions to guide the country safely through the pandemic. But thanks to the success of the vaccination programme and thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices made by people across Scotland over the past 14 months, we can be optimistic about the future and start the journey towards our national recovery.  

A serious recovery needs a quick response from government, which is why we have published the key health, social and economic actions we will take within the first one hundred days of this government. 

Our immediate priority is to lead Scotland out of the pandemic to re-open the country as quickly and safely as we can. Alongside our work on recovery, we will take rapid action to boost jobs, tackle the climate crisis, support our children and young people and protect our NHS. 

The NHS has faced extraordinary pressure during the pandemic and as we move towards recovery, we must help the NHS to do the same. We have already implemented a 4% average pay rise for NHS workers. Within one hundred days we will publish a NHS recovery plan to increase activity by 10% and start a consultation on a National Care Service. 

Our resilience to the pandemic has been drawn from our sense of community. The Scottish Government will continue to invest in our communities and in our homes. We will support our most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities to ensure that those who have been worst affected by the pandemic are prioritised in our recovery.

We will roll out a £20 million Summer Programme of help for pupils, supporting activities that allow our children and families a much-deserved chance to socialise, play and reconnect. 

We will also provide low-income families with the first £100 of a total of £520 of support – the equivalent of the Scottish Child Payment.   

We have set out how in the first one hundred days, we will establish a cross party steering group looking to progress the delivery of a Scottish Minimum Income Guarantee. We will begin to develop a new Rented Sector Strategy and start cladding safety assessment.  

We will start work to develop our new five-year social isolation and loneliness plan, backed by £10 million over the duration of the Parliament.

On the economy, within one hundred days we will create a Council of Economic Transformation to shape a new ten-year strategy for economic development.   

We will re-open the Digital Boost Fund – backed by £25 million – providing technology support and training for small and medium sized businesses. 

We will set up a new Green Jobs Workforce Academy to help people get the skills they need to move into new, greener jobs.  

This is one example of how our recovery from the pandemic must be linked to actions that address the climate crisis.

We will be put centre stage as a country as we play host to COP26, the UN climate summit in November. Last week, the First Minister appointed a new Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport and Ministers for youth employment and Just Transition. 

In the first hundred days of government, we will launch a national campaign to raise awareness of the climate crisis and announce the locations of Scotland’s first low-carbon vertical farms.  

Whilst being far from everything we will do in these one hundred days, the plan touches on almost every area of government policy. It will also help create the right conditions to build on our existing commitments to the reform and renewal of Scotland’s public services in ways that improve the lives and experiences of our people, communities and places. With these commitments, we set the stage for a bold and ambitious programme for a better, fairer, and more prosperous future for our country.

The purpose of our plan for the first hundred days of government is to bring energy, direction and momentum to recovery. It will also set the tone for delivery of the longer-term recovery commitments made in our manifesto and set out yesterday by the First Minister in her statement to Parliament on the priorities of the Government.

The delivery of the commitments that we made to the country is my immediate priority. Achieving that will require the government to work across boundaries and across sectors. A key part of my role is to ensure that the Scottish Government’s combined effort delivers the greatest possible impact for the people of Scotland. 

In embracing this fundamental delivery challenge - of working creatively and collaboratively across organisational and sectoral boundaries – I am conscious of the inspiration that can be derived from the way Scotland has responded to the pandemic up to this point. In responding to the shock and disruption that COVID-19 brought to all our lives, national government, local government, businesses, third sector organisations and individual citizens found new and creative solutions to the challenges that faced us. We did it because we had to.

The national vaccination programme provides an obvious example of that. But so do the times where we were not constrained by the way the system had previously worked and instead focussed on delivering for the individual. 

Examples, such as the cash-first approach to supporting disadvantaged families, where national and local government worked together to ensure the people who needed it the most received money direct to their pockets to provide meals for their children during periods of school closures or school holidays and to address financial insecurity during the winter months. 

It was also seen in the collaborative response from local authorities, health boards and frontline homelessness organisations, supported by funding from the Scottish Government, which has brought the number of people sleeping rough in Scotland to a record low – a position that we would not have believed possible before the pandemic.

I am determined to harness the spirit of solidarity, collaboration and innovation that was so evident during the toughest periods of the pandemic and focus that on our recovery. 

In so doing, I am challenging my Ministerial colleagues to work across their portfolios to deliver the first hundred days commitments and to ensure that cross-cutting issues  - such as net zero, the tackling of poverty, the addressing of inequalities, the expansion of our digital footprint, and ensuring that public services are holistic and focused on the needs of individuals – are fully incorporated within recovery planning.

It is also a challenge I am making to our delivery partners to retain the collaboration that has guided us through our continued COVID response and refocus that on our COVID recovery.

One of the other examples of collaboration is the work the Government is taking forward with the Hunter Foundation, where we are partnering with the Hunter Foundation to deliver an ambitious programme of mentoring and leadership, which was announced back in March to support young people most impacted by the pandemic. 

The contribution of £7.5 million from the Hunter Foundation over the next six years will add value to this programme and, combined with our existing £19.4 million commitment, will significantly improve the life chances of the young people who participate – many of whom are young people who have been most affected by the pandemic.

When I met with partners from across the public, private and voluntary sectors on Tuesday, I was struck by the common conclusion that the last 14 months have seen a step change in how we work together for the benefit of all of our citizens. And a number of partners stressed the point that COVID has shone a light on and magnified inequalities in our society.

I also heard vividly that some of our small businesses feel that they are still in the middle of the pandemic and that we need to listen to the frustrations they have felt in their interactions with both national and local government, and to address those particular questions.

Our challenge now is to use recovery as an opportunity to build forward and on a fairer basis. The Scottish Government cannot do this alone, this must be a national endeavour using all the levers we have at our disposal, but working with partners and across sectors to lead the change that we want to see.

This is the challenge that I address before this new Parliament today. 

I know that our best chances to build a legacy out of the pandemic, for the generations that come after us, lie in working together. The Government is committed to bringing people together from a wide range of sectors and backgrounds, in pursuit of the strongest possible recovery. And I know that all parties in the Scottish Parliament are determined to support this endeavour, which is why I have established a new cross-party steering group on COVID recovery. 

This group met for the first time yesterday and had a positive initial discussion. We have agreed to consider in detail some core issues that need to be addressed in COVID recovery, and we have committed to working together to make sure that recovery is as broadly based in our society and supported as it possibly can be.

There will of course be many issues for us to confront - but the more that we can do that in open, honest conversation between parties, the better and the stronger will be the reaction and the response to the challenges that lie ahead.
In closing, Presiding Officer, I am immensely proud of – and grateful for – the way our country has come together to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Everyone in this country has been impacted in some way, and that continues today.

But as we focus our energies on our recovery, we have the opportunity to come together again – across organisational, sectoral and political boundaries – to work with the communities we serve to improve people’s lives. That would be a legacy of which we could all be very proud.

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