John Swinney has been accused of “dithering” over a coronavirus quarantine exemption for oil and gas staff amid growing anger over a lack of clear answers for workers and their families.
The deputy first minister was unable to say on Friday what further discussions had taken place after Nicola Sturgeon agreed to “consider” easing a requirement for offshore workers to stay in hotels when they return from overseas.
The Scottish Government has been under growing pressure to extend the list of exemptions from its new “managed isolation” policy for arrivals in Scotland to allow returning staff to self-isolate at home instead.
Under the current rules, anyone arriving in Scotland on an international flight must self-isolate in a hotel room for 10 days at a cost of £1,750 a head.
But unions and industry representatives have warned the new policy means oil and gas workers may only be able to spend a handful of days at home at a time, potentially having a “significant impact” on their mental health.
Others have raised concerns about becoming trapped abroad because of the cost of returning home, with one worker setting out how it could cost more than £10,000 over the course of the year to get to and from their job in Oman.
‘I can’t give you a timescale’
At the Scottish Government’s daily briefing on Friday, Mr Swinney was asked what further conversations had taken place since the first minister’s pledge, and when a clear answer will be available for oil and gas workers.
He said: “I can’t give you a definitive timescale on that. We are obviously conducting those discussions within government and talking to the relevant stakeholders about these points.”
Mr Swinney acknowledged the “difficulty for oil and gas workers that are working abroad, the disruption to family life and the strain that individuals are suffering”.
“I don’t dispute that for a moment because these are tough days, for everybody, and they’ll affect people in very different ways,” he said. “And certainly for those involved in activity outside of the country it is a difficult time.
“So we will get to conclusions as quickly as we possibly can do but what we have to be able to be assured about is that we’re taking every possible step we can to avoid the re-importation of the virus back into the country.”
Mr Swinney was then challenged on whether it was actually the case a decision could be announced as early next week if the issue was discussed during cabinet lockdown talks this weekend or at a scheduled meeting on Tuesday.
He was asked whether there are specific data the Scottish Government needs in order to make the decision.
Mr Swinney said: “There’s obviously work on a number of topics that we’re taking forward. Some issues come to a conclusion earlier than others.
“As soon as we’ve reached that conclusion, we’ll share that more widely and make clear what we’re able to do in addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised with us.”
North East MSP Liam Kerr, whose query at first minister’s questions earned Ms Sturgeon’s commitment to consider the issue, accused the Scottish Government of “ignoring” the north east in a time of need.
“It’s now been almost a week since the SNP introduced the hotel quarantine rules yet overseas oil workers are no closer to any clarification on the issue – it’s a farcical situation,” Mr Kerr said.
“This wall of silence from Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney, as well as the lack of care for oil workers and their families, is an absolute disgrace.
“As it stands, workers, who are more than willing to isolate at home, have told me they face the prospect of not seeing their families at all.
“Oil companies are now getting in touch with me to say they need answers yet they are getting nothing back from the Scottish Government.
“This constant dithering and lack of clarity is having a detrimental impact on families in the north east. Yet again the industry across the region is being ignored by the SNP at a time of need.”
UK Government petition
Meanwhile, an Aberdeen-based drilling contractor has launched a petition urging the UK Government to give oil workers a full quarantine exemption.
Stena Drilling said forcing workers to quarantine after extended periods away from home could be “extremely detrimental” to their mental health and wellbeing.
The petition, set up on Thursday by Stena’s Nick Anders, had garnered almost 11,000 signatures as of 5pm on Friday. The company hopes to reach 100,000 signatures, at which point it will be considered for debate in parliament.
Under UK Government restrictions, people arriving from any of 33 red-list countries must isolate in an approved hotel for 10 days, unless they have an exemption.
In Scotland those arriving from any country outside the common travel area of the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands must quarantine in a hotel.
Stena said on Facebook: “The requirement to quarantine before travelling to work has already resulted in our crews having to spend longer away from their families than their normal work routine requires.
“Extending this to include additional quarantine on return in such a safety-critical industry is unacceptable.”
The company argued it had developed its own “gold standard” quarantine protocols for UK residents working on its drillships offshore Guyana and Suriname, both of which are red-listed.
Stena crews isolate in a London hotel where they receive daily temperature checks and routine PCR testing. They are then taken by bus to the airport where they board a charter flight with no interaction with any other travellers.
Once in Guyana, crew members are flown aboard helicopters straight to the drilling vessel. The company insisted it ensured the same level of security during the return journey and has never had person arrive home with a case of Covid-19.
A spokeswoman for the UK Department of Health and Social Care said: “We recognise the impact restrictions have on many people and are grateful for the public’s continued efforts to comply with the rules and help us tackle this global pandemic.
“Coupled with our enhanced testing regime, the new border controls we have introduced are necessary to provide a further level of protection against Covid-19 variants.
“There are limited exemptions to our managed quarantine, which are set out on gov.uk.”