Scotland’s Constitution Secretary has said losing the Erasmus scheme was a “huge blow” to the country.
Michael Russell has said that the Scottish Government was clear it wanted to remain in the Erasmus scheme during Brexit negotiations, and will continue to work with the EU to explore options for a “close relationship”.
Russell said that the UK Government had previously refused to publish details of its final value-for-money assessment of Erasmus, which was used as the basis for its decision not to associate with the programme.
He argued that the Turing Scheme proposed “removes all devolved competency from the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government in respect to the replacement scheme’s design or implementation”.
Russell said: “The UK Government’s description of ‘close working’ on Erasmus and its alternative is unrecognisable from the reality.
“The devolved governments repeatedly told the UK Government that our strong desire was to continue as Erasmus+ members.
“Against our will, they withdrew us from the scheme anyway, without providing any supporting evidence or allowing us leeway to continue participating ourselves.
“Our views and analysis were disregarded during meetings, and key decisions were taken without our knowledge or consent.
“Losing Erasmus is a huge blow for the thousands of Scottish students, community groups and adult learners, from all demographic backgrounds, who can no longer live, study or work in Europe.
“We will continue work with the EU institutions to explore the options for as close a relationship as possible being maintained.”
A UK Government spokeswoman said that they worked “very closely” with the devolved administrations for a year in the event the UK chose not to participate in the scheme.
She added: “The UK Government decided to not participate in the next Erasmus+ programme as it was not in the interest of UK taxpayers and our net contribution would have been around £2bn over the programme.
“The new Turing Scheme, backed by £110m, will provide thousands of students, from across the UK, the opportunity to study and work abroad.”
The UK’s Covid-19 alert level has been lowered as the country’s top medics said the threat of the NHS being overwhelmed has receded.
The Level 5 alert was announced on January 4 as lockdown measures were introduced amid fears the health service could be swamped.
The decision to reduce the alert to Level 4 has now been made by the UK’s four chief medical officers because the number of cases in hospital are “consistently declining”.
Scotland’s Dr Gregor Smith, England’s Professor Chris Whitty, Northern Ireland’s Dr Michael McBride, Wales’s Dr Frank Atherton, along with NHS England’s Professor Stephen Powis, announced the decision on Thursday following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
They said health services across the four nations “remain under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital”, but thanks to the efforts of the public numbers are now “consistently declining, and the threat of the NHS and other health services being overwhelmed within 21 days has receded”.
They added: “We should be under no illusions – transmission rates, hospital pressures and deaths are still very high.
“In time, the vaccines will have a major impact and we encourage everyone to get vaccinated when they receive the offer.
“However for the time being it is really important that we all – vaccinated or not – remain vigilant and continue to follow the guidelines.”
The alert level move comes as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced more than 1.5 million Scots have been given their first coronavirus vaccination.
Speaking at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, she said 1,515,980 people had now received their first dose of the vaccine, an increase of 27,903 in the last 24 hours.
Almost one third of the adult population in Scotland have now been given their first coronavirus vaccine, which Sturgeon called “an important milestone”.
Alex Salmond will give evidence on Friday to the Scottish Parliamentary committee investigating how harassment procedures adopted by the Scottish Government came to be deemed unlawful at a cost of nearly £600,000 to the public purse.
The fallout from that event has led to a civil war within the SNP as the party’s two most significant leaders fight an increasingly bitter battle, which appeared to start in a dispute over process and is now a head-on clash over their respective integrity.
At one point in today’s exchanges at First Minister’s Questions, Nicola Sturgeon accused the Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson of resting questions on “the altar of the ego of one man”. Yesterday, she accused her predecessor, Salmond, of peddling an “alternative reality”.
This is not just political, it is now personal. Assuming they can’t both be right about the events in question, this now looks like a fight ending in the shredding of one reputation.
Whatever comes out of the Holyrood committee inquiry or that being conducted by James Hamilton QC into whether the First Minster broke the ministerial code, it is now a certain bet that the opposition parties will use whatever ammunition may flow from these reports to make an election issue of Sturgeon’s conduct.
The focus of opposition attacks has shifted the longer this affair has dragged on. They have now broadened their concerns to ask why the Crown Office sought to redact Salmond’s evidence to the committee.
Ruth Davidson told MSPs on Thursday the redacted parts were the paragraphs that expose the First Minister, claiming that there was “a culture of secrecy and cover-up”, before asking: “Is saving your own skin worth all the damage that you are doing?”
Sturgeon was having none of it. Cover-up? She had actually explained her actions in a submission to the committee anyone can access on the web. Conspiracy? It was the opposition who have peddled that and in the process have sought to undermine confidence in the independence of the Crown Office.
Jackie Baillie for Labour always seems to needle the First Minister more. She is also pretty unflappable in pursuing her question even with attendant noises from the government benches.
She claimed the identity of one of the women making allegations was revealed at a meeting with Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein, which was “an extraordinary breach of confidentiality”. She wanted to know on whose authority the name of the complainer was revealed.
The First Minister seemed bemused that in pursuing this line, Baillie was accepting Salmond’s account as being beyond reproach. The Labour politician brought howls from the government benches with her assertion that there was “something rotten at the core of the SNP”.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader Willie Rennie pursued the same point. He said: “Jackie Baillie’s just made a very serious point about the handing of the name of a complainer over to Alex Salmond’s chief of staff”. He asked the First Minister to be clear that did not happen. Nicola Sturgeon replied “to the best of my knowledge I do not think that happened”.
So where does this week leave us?
Well, it means the noise around this, already pretty loud, just got louder. The role of the Crown Office has been questioned, too, with some MSPs believing their intervention has sought to censor Salmond’s evidence and limit scrutiny of it.
From the government’s point of view, their intervention has been entirely a matter for the independent office of Lord Advocate and was for legal reasons for which they are accountable.
Still, the allegations of conspiracy abound with those close to Salmond believing his criminal prosecution was rooted in concerted efforts to frame him for political reasons.
Now the best conspiracies are the ones that can be proved. I doubt the remit of the two existing inquiries is wide enough in scope to allow Salmond to put on record all of the evidence he says he has to prove the conspiracy. For that reason, I do not believe that the testimony he will give tomorrow will be the final word on all of this.
What has been noticeable this week is that Sturgeon has become increasingly bullish and has gone on the offensive. For much of the last couple of years, her tone has smacked of “more in sorrow than anger”. Not now. The gloves are off and some of her remarks this week are truly astonishing given that they are directed at her mentor and friend of 30 years.
She has also thrown down a challenge to Salmond. Show us the evidence of conspiracy. In short, put up or shut up.
In his long career culminating in leading the Yes side in the 2014 independence referendum, Salmond has argued for his beliefs and rolled with the punches that come with politics at a high level.
Rarely, if ever, has he had to fight for his reputation. When he takes the oath at 12.30pm tomorrow before MSPs, he has the opportunity, after a prolonged silence, to fight not for a cause but for himself.
The master of the big occasion needs a big performance as he finally gets the chance to put on the record why he believes his reputation has been traduced.
Thousands of jobs under threat at supermarket giant Asda
The supermarket giant has launched consultations with around 5000 workers.
Asda has launched consultations with around 5000 staff over a major restructuring which could put around 3000 back office store workers at risk.
The supermarket giant said the restructuring has been driven by the “structural shift” towards online grocery shopping during the pandemic.
The grocery firm said it also plans to create around 4500 separate jobs in its online operations this year and will look to hire staff impacted by the potential cuts.
Nevertheless, Asda said the consultations will impact about 3000 back office store workers, particularly affecting staff with cash and administrative roles amid the continued slump in cash transactions.
The firm said it plans to close its Dartford and Heston home shopping centres, with around 800 jobs affected, as it looks to shift more picking operations into stores.
It added that around 1100 of its store management roles will be changed to support online grocery operations as more picking takes place in stores.
However, the company said this could increase the total headcount in these roles by around 60, as part of the consultations.
Roger Burnley, Asda chief executive and president, said: “The pandemic has accelerated change across the retail sector, especially the shift towards grocery home shopping, and our priority is to serve customers in the way they want to shop with us.
“The last 12 months have shown us that businesses have to be prepared to adapt quickly to change and I am incredibly proud of the way we demonstrated our agility and resilience through the pandemic.
“We know that these proposed changes will be unsettling for colleagues and our priority is to support them during this consultation process.
“Our plans to transform the business will result in more roles being created than those we propose to remove and our absolute aim is to ensure as many colleagues as possible stay with us, as well as creating the opportunity to welcome new people to our business.”
It comes months after the billionaire Issa brothers and private equity backer TDR Capital agreed a £6.8bn deal for the supermarket chain.
The takeover is still awaiting approval from competition regulators, so the new owners are yet to take control of Asda’s operations.
Roger Jenkins, GMB National Officer, said: “Asda workers have had a torrid two years. The failed Sainsbury’s takeover, twelve months working on the pandemic frontline and now the uncertainty of a new take over, sidling the company with huge debts and potential sell-offs.
“This is the last thing they need.
“The scope of today’s announcement means 5000 people have their lives put on hold. It’s not right
“Asda is a profitable company that does not need to enforce redundancies.
“GMB will battle hard to make sure no one leaves their job unless they want to.”
The SNP remain on course for a majority at the Scottish Parliamentary election in May, according to a new STV News/Ipsos MORI poll.
However, support for the party has slipped slightly, with the ongoing Alex Salmond inquiry making some voters think twice.
Backing for Scottish independence has also fallen in the latest poll – although 52% of the most likely voters said they would back separation from the rest of the UK.
Scotland goes to the ballot box on May 6, with the poll projecting that the SNP will win 72 of the 129 seats – nine more than now and giving them a majority of 15.
The Scottish Conservatives would be the second biggest party on 26 seats, with Scottish Labour on 17, the Scottish Greens on nine and the Scottish Liberal Democrats on five.
Ipsos MORI polled a base of 1031 voters in Scotland between February 15-21.
Emily Gray, managing director of Ipsos MORI Scotland, said: “This latest poll from Ipsos MORI and STV News shows a fall in support for independence, and a corresponding increase in support for staying in the union – though Yes still has a four-point lead over No.
“That’s important for Scotland’s political parties, since independence is the top issue voters say will help them make up their minds about which party to vote for in May’s Holyrood elections.
“At this point the SNP look on course to win a majority of seats, but the next few weeks are set to be challenging for the party, with the Salmond inquiry ongoing.”
• SNP: 52% (-3 compared with November 20-26) • Scottish Conservatives: 23% (+1) • Scottish Labour: 15% (+1) • Scottish Liberal Democrats: 5% (-1) • Scottish Green Party: 3% (+2) • Other: 2% (unchanged)
The ongoing inquiry into how the Scottish Government botched its investigation into harassment claims against the former first minister Alex Salmond is affecting some voters’ thoughts.
Among a number of claims, Salmond says his successor Nicola Sturgeon breached the ministerial code. If that’s proved in a separate investigation due to conclude in the coming weeks, the First Minister would be under huge pressure to resign.
The poll found that 36% of all voters and 21% of those who voted SNP at the 2019 general election felt ‘less favourably’ towards the party as a result of the Salmond saga.
There’s been a four-point reduction in support for Scottish independence since the last STV News/Ipsos MORI poll in November.
Backing for separation from the UK now leads 52-48 – a shift from 56-44 in the previous projection.
And while 56% believe an SNP majority in May should lead to a second referendum within the next five years, that’s down eight points from the previous poll.
Nicola Sturgeon retains a sizeable lead in the satisfaction stakes, although her approval rating has fallen from 72% to 64% since November.
Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross’ popularity has increased, with 28% satisfied with his performance, up from 22%.
Willie Rennie of the Scottish Lib Dems and Patrick Harvie of the Greens both leave 35% of voters satisfied.
What matters to voters?
Voters were asked what issues they considered ‘very important’ when deciding which party to support.
It has been almost a year since 121 junior doctors graduated early to support Scotland’s biggest health board in its response to coronavirus.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde placed the volunteers at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Royal Alexandra Hospital, Inverclyde Royal Hospital and the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital – the biggest teaching hospital in the country.
Junior doctors were also placed at other NHS health boards across the country.
STV News has followed two doctors as they embarked on the start of their careers.
Ruaraidh Campbell’s career started abruptly when he returned from volunteering in Samoa to help the NHS in the fight against coronavirus.
His graduation date was pulled forward by two months, and soon after he started on the wards.
“I thought there’s no point in sitting at home,” the 25-year-old says. “I’ll get there and help if I can.”
Since March, Ruaraidh has worked on the respiratory and orthopaedic wards, and the high-dependency unit.
“We’ve often seen not just one person coming in with Covid, but multiple people close to them.
“It can often mean that multiple family members or friends can all get very sick at the same time. And unfortunately, when people do pass away, that can be really, really tough.
“Sometimes we’re dealing with situations where relatives are passing away in very short time spaces. That can feel very difficult and you come home and you think, ‘well, this could be my mum and dad, this could be my granny and grandad’.
“When you think about that, when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it can feel quite heavy at times.”
One of the things that has shocked Ruaraidh the most is the age of some of his patients.
He says: “Another really difficult thing is seeing patients who are approximately our age, who despite being young and fit are very unwell with Covid.
“That always gives you a bit of a shock.”
Senior consultants say it has been the “most challenging year” junior doctors could have had.
“We’ve had to deal with more death and dying than you usually would,” Ruaraidh said. “But more than that it’s dealing with it in a different way.
“With some visiting restrictions that unfortunately had to be in place because of the pandemic, it’s meant you often have to give tough news or deal with patients and families over the phone.
“I always find breaking bad news difficult. It’s an incredibly personal moment and you have to properly prepare for it. Because, however tough it is for you, it’s tougher for the person listening.
“It can be really difficult to speak frankly and honestly and lay out the facts, because you feel like you’ll hurt the person if you do that. But in most cases by being open and honest, that’s an empowering process.
“I remember the first time doing that, having to speak to a patient’s family and say that it’s not good news. I remember caching myself, when they asked me the question ‘is my relative going to die?’.
“It’s a tough question to answer, you need to compose yourself and say ‘unfortunately, yes but this is what we are going to do to make the person comfortable’.
One of the main problems facing junior doctors is staff illness, with many requiring time off to self-isolate while others work extra shifts to fill the gaps in the rota.
Ruaraidh caught the virus at work.
“I had Covid myself and it really took it out of me,” he says. “Especially for someone who is pretty fit and healthy. I take care of myself and work out most days. It hit me much harder than I thought it would. It was quite nasty and I’ve been quite tired and breathless since.”
Having only worked in Glasgow for a matter of months, Ruaraidh is looking forward to getting to know his new colleagues over a beer when restrictions ease.
“Junior doctors work long hours and shifts can be tough emotionally and physically and when you have time off you value that,” he says.
“It’s been hard outside of work. Because you do a difficult job, there’s this old adage about ‘work hard play hard’ – and I don’t think that’s 100% true anymore, but it speaks to a certain truth that we really valued our time off because after a difficult long job, you want to make the most of your time off.
“And, like everyone else, we’ve struggled with not being able to see our family and our friends and to do the usual hobbies we’d enjoy. So I think that’s been quite tough on people. It’s not just the work but it’s when you come home, it’s been difficult to switch off.”
Ruaraidh’s virtual graduation was a proud day for his family. His mum and older sister are also doctors.
Although he hasn’t been able to see them, his family and girlfriend Sophie have been a great support.
“You have days that are tough, and you do see some sad stuff. And that is the nature of being a junior doctor.
“Sometimes you get home and you just need someone to listen and give you a hug if you’ve had a tough day, which we have quite often.
“I don’t know how often people in a normal job shed a few tears, but it’s not uncommon here.
“I also have my lovely girlfriend, who’s a massive support as well, she brings me back down to earth, she’s fantastic. It’s been tough at times, but that’s experience shared by many people throughout the UK.”
Annie Evans moved 400 miles from her family home in Sheffield to start as a junior doctor at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.
“It’s always going to be difficult to start as a doctor, but when you have to start in a new city, in the middle of a pandemic, when you don’t really know anyone… it was difficult,” she says.
Living so far away from home, Annie hasn’t been able to spend time with her family.
“I think my parents are proud. When I speak to my extended family as well, it’s always quite shock if you’re telling them stories.
“I don’t think anyone realises how difficult it can be.”
Annie also works as a representative for her year of junior doctors. She says an extra focus is being placed on support.
“When the number of deaths goes up, then there are more people that do die in the hospital. And sometimes that can be quite difficult, if you’re having to go in and see that, just because that’s not really why you go into medicine.
“So it can be kind of demoralising when you have to experience lots of death all at the same time.”
Doctors have raised concerns over access to training. Pressures of the pandemic have meant lectures can only take place online, and senior consultants can only do so much to mentor their junior colleagues.
Dr Colin Perry, head of education at NHSGG, agrees that there has been less access to training.
But he believes the experience of the past year will shape an entire generation of junior doctors.
“It’s been the most challenging year that they could have had,” he says.
“A global pandemic of a new disease none of us had ever seen before. And so normally when they would look to us for guidance, and I suppose advise on how to treat these diseases, we’ve had to learn with them about how this disease is developed and in the midst of all of that, this is unfortunately a disease that’s associated with a higher mortality than perhaps they would have seen in the wards.
“Certainly they have had to have deal with perhaps more difficult situations than they may normally have encountered.
“I think they will come out of this having learned a great deal very quickly. And I think that might be one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic.
“And I think that has also changed the way we look at junior doctors. We’re very aware of their needs to training and education, but we do look at them more now as able colleagues, and a great resource within the system.”
Scotland’s Six Nations Rugby match against France has been postponed after a coronavirus outbreak in the French camp.
The whole team and backroom staff have been forced into isolation following the outbreak.
The game, which was due to take place on Sunday, will now be rescheduled for a later date.
Scottish Rugby confirmed the news on Twitter.
Organisers ordered daily testing before announcing on Wednesday that this weekend’s Stade de France clash would go ahead following a full sweep of negatives results.
But less than 24 hours later they have been forced to shelve the Saint-Denis showdown, with the entire Les Bleus squad placed into quarantine after the French Rugby Federation reported an 11th player had contracted the virus.
The news will come as a major blow to Gregor Townsend’s Scots, who fear they will be without 10 of their biggest stars if the game is moved to a date outside of the international window.
The Six Nations said in a statement: “The Six Nations Testing Oversight Group met today to review the situation in the French camp.
“They unanimously recommended the postponement of the France v Scotland match. This will be ratified later today by the Six Nations council.
“We will be working on the rescheduling of this fixture and will communicate the date in due course.”
Scotland coach Gregor Townsend accepted the call but made it clear that the rescheduled game shuold not see his side disadvantaged in any way.
He said: “While we fully accept the decision of the Testing Oversight Group to recommend postponing our match against France on medical grounds, it is disappointing not to be able to play this fixture on Sunday.
“We have had a good week with our players who were focused and ready to represent their country in Paris and continue our progress in this year’s Guinness Six Nations.
“Throughout this tournament, and the previous Autumn Nations Cup, we have worked hard to maintain strict Covid protocols which have enabled us to select our strongest possible teams for these important international fixtures.
“We will wait to see what options are available to play this match against France, but it remains our position that we want to have all our eligible players available to us for that fixture, so we can compete to the level we would have done this weekend.
“We wish all the French players and staff affected by Covid well in their recovery and look forward to playing them at a future date.”