Crisis in the councils … mental health challenges … key workers still key? … freedom of information

Comment: Four Separate Issues Arising from COVID-19 Response 

Councils in Scotland have been at the forefront in dealing with COVID-19 humanitarian community response, reinforcing public health messaging and ensuring continued safety and well-being of our most vulnerable. Prior to the pandemic, they were already struggling financially with overall revenue funding having fallen by 7% in real terms between 2013-14 and 2019-20 (when Scottish Government revenue had fallen by only 2% in the same period) and the proportion of their revenue ring-fenced for Scottish Government priorities having increased to 61%. The Westminster Government announced an additional £1.6bn of support south of the border, with £155m consequentials for Scotland calculated through the Barnett Formula. This money has only recently started to be drip-fed to councils, with the Scottish Government asking for evidence of need before it has been released.

The Scottish Government has made further announcements which require councils to respond to – such as the roll out of full pay for sickness absence and death in service payments for third and private sector social care staff – at significant cost without any detail on how this will be funded or any clarity on when this will happen.

The Covid-19 crisis has increased the pressure on local authority budgets via increased charges for PPE and procurement of services at the same time as their other revenue streams like business rates and charges have dried up. They are now in desperate need for additional financial support from the Scottish Government – so desperate that we now have Scottish councils applying to the Westminster Government for funding from the furlough scheme to keep directly employed council staff in a job. The return of schooling has highlighted that councils will require significant investment if they are to implement the new delivery model, maintaining social/physical distancing, upgrade of IT systems to cope with blended learning and address the issues of school transport.

SOLACE, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, has issued the following statement to the Scottish Government’s Economic Recovery Group: ’The delivery of strong and sustainable public services is a key requisite for economic recovery – the education of the country’s future workforce, caring for elderly parents and the vulnerable to allow the working age population to contribute economically’. The route to economic recovery cannot be at the expense of public services and public servants, who have responded heroically during the pandemic. Recovery plans need to invest in these services, protect jobs and give due consideration of an ambitious Green New Deal for Scotland.

Mark Ferguson is the chair of the UNISON Scottish Local Government Committee

The COVID-19 crisis has combined mental health stressors that have been studied before in other disasters, but which have never been seen consolidated in one global crisis … There is research on how humans cope with quarantine, mass disasters and ongoing stressors but not on all three’.

This comment by an expert in the treatment of trauma sums up the potentially overwhelming impact of the current coronavirus crisis on the mental health of all of us. Some people have referred to that impact as being like a ‘tsunami’. In one sense, that’s a good description. Like a real tsunami, the multiple stressors produced by the crisis – loss of job and income, social isolation, loss of loved ones, fear of becoming unwell or even dying, uncertainty about the future – can overwhelm our psychological defences, our normal ways of coping. In another sense, however, it’s misleading. For while Covid-19 is clearly a particularly nasty pathogen, as writers like Mike Davis and Rob Wallace have shown there is very little that is ‘natural’ either about its origins, which lie in neo-liberal capitalist agricultural methods or the way it has spread via globalised trade and transport networks.

Nor is there much that is natural about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on mental health. It’s true, of course, that anyone can experience mental distress, including the Royals. And it’s positive to see Princes William and Harry talking openly about their mental health problems – anything that reduces the shame and stigma around mental distress is to be welcomed. But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the pressures on them, self-isolating in the splendour of their different palaces, is in the same league as the mental health pressures on the lone parent with young kids trying to self-isolate in a council flat, or of health and social care workers looking after the old, the vulnerable and the sick without proper PPE.

Like every other aspect of this crisis, its impact on mental health is shaped by the divisions and inequalities of capitalism. That includes the effects of a decade of austerity policies on mental health services. So, for example, recent research shows that young people are one group who are finding the experience of lockdown particularly hard on their mental health. Yet as the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition has argued, despite recent increases in funding by the SNP Scottish Government, mental health services for young people in Scotland remain woefully inadequate. NHS figures released in March 2020 show that thousands of children and young people are failing to be treated within the Scottish Government mental health waiting time target of 18 weeks, with more than 200 waiting for over a year.

So, fighting now for more and better user-informed mental health services is an urgent task, both to address the new pressures arising from the Coronavirus crisis and also to redress the cuts to both NHS and community-based mental health services over the past ten years. And, as the recent experience of the Black Lives Matters movement has shown, by challenging our sense of powerlessness and isolation collectively fighting back can itself be very positive for our mental health.

Iain Ferguson is Honorary Professor of Social York and Social Policy at UWS and author of ‘Politics of the Mind: Marxism and Mental Distress’ (Bookmarks, 2017).

Usdaw is calling for a New Deal for Workers, after the Coronavirus emergency has shown that millions of low-paid workers have stepped up in the most difficult of circumstances to keep our country going. Too many key workers are low-paid, with insecure hours and few employment rights. They have been undervalued for too long and deserve a new deal. So, Usdaw is calling for a new deal for workers based around:

• Minimum wage of £10 per hour for all workers: To provide some recognition of the value of our key workers and help relieve the financial burden faced by too many low-paid working people.
• Minimum contract of 16 hours per week: An end to the use of short-hours contracts that do not benefit the worker. A minimum 16 hours, for those who want it, ensures that work is offered on a meaningful basis that can only be reduced through express agreement from the worker.
• Contract based on normal hours of work: Those regularly working over their contracted hours should have them guaranteed in their contract. Regular hours enable workers to plan their lives and finances.
• Protection of workers legislation: Abuse, threats and assaults should not be part of the job. The current law fails to protect retail staff and the Government must ensure stiffer penalties for those who abuse workers.
• Improved sick pay provisions: Workers should not face significant debt because of sickness. Usdaw is calling for Statutory Sick Pay to be paid from day one and reflect average earnings for all workers.
• A proper Social Security system: Universal Credit has been besieged by problems ever since it was launched. Usdaw is calling for the five week wait to be scrapped and for the system as a whole to be overhauled.
• A voice at work: The Government needs to promote union recognition, remove the current hurdles around statutory recognition and include trade union representatives on all business review bodies.
• Job Security: We need stronger protections against redundancy and dismissal, from day one of employment. We also need proper consultation about new technology and investment in skills so that workers are able to keep up in a changing workplace.
• Fair treatment and equality for all workers: Most underpaid frontline key workers are women. These essential roles have been undervalued and underpaid for too long. Women workers need equal pay and they need decent pay, along with new family friendly rights that support parents and carers to juggle work and family life.

Further information on Usdaw’s campaign can be found at:
Stewart Forrest is Usdaw’s Scottish Divisional Officer

History alerts us to the practice of governments trying to limit human rights during a national crisis. Scotland was no different and Freedom of Information (FoI) rights were weakened by emergency legislation so that public authorities could ‘better utilise resources to deal with the effect of coronavirus’. The measures were controversial as the extent of interference with FoI rights was unreasonable and disproportionate. By mid-May the vociferous Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs were joined by Green MSPs and FoI rights were restored plus two measures introduced to mitigate the harm caused: requiring regular performance reports from Scottish Government and providing a public interest test when people complain to the Scottish Information Commissioner about delays in providing information from 7 April to 26 May 2020. How the public interest test is applied in these cases requires monitoring.

What cannot be undone are the changes to culture and practice on gathering, storing and pro-actively releasing information in the 10,000 public bodies affected such as health boards, individual GP practices, local government and regulators such as the Care Inspectorate. The ‘all hands-on deck approach’ reflected the national mood to do everything to prevent and treat those infected. Failing to realise that good record management was essential to achieving those aims was a mistake, and not an understandable one. Transparency and accountability help public servants, politicians, unions, civil society, and the private sector to understand what went wrong and identify a better way forward. Preparing for a second or third wave makes access to official information critical to enable evidence led solutions. Although we are all in this together, it is a matter of fact that some groups are far more at risk than others including the very elderly, obese and disabled people. So targeted, preventative action is essential.

Anecdotally we hear about what is happening to the management of information locally such as GP practices requiring care homes to return the apparently unilaterally issued ‘verification of expected/predicted death forms’ that had accompanied the ‘do not resuscitate forms’ for individual people. Clearly what might be missing from a file is just as important as what remains.

Ultimately, we should not be distracted from the urgency of reforming the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 which has been confirmed as operationally inadequate, failing to keep up to date with how information is stored and communicated and still being resisted within some public bodies. The thorough report produced by the Public Audit and Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee of the Scottish Parliament, prompted by a unanimous motion passed exactly three years ago, requires prompt attention by politicians to convey the clear message that FoI rights are permanent and need to be strong to be effective. Developments are keenly awaited.

Carole Ewart is Convener of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland