Protecting and improving public health

Protecting and improving public health as restrictions are lifted must be a priority, says Alison Johnstone.

While pubs have been open for over a month across most of Scotland, gyms and swimming pools have had a longer wait. The re-opening of these important facilities, valued by communities, will be warmly welcomed. Scotland’s health challenges are considerable and it’s essential that local and national governments alike strive to ensure local people have access to swimming pools and leisure centres. Swimming is not only a great and low impact way to keep fit, it’s a life skill which all should have the opportunity to learn. Professor Hugh Pennington says he is “slightly puzzled” about why swimming pools have remained closed so long. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this pandemic it’s that transparency is critical and I would welcome greater sharing of the advice on which decisions are based.

We also urgently need transparency regarding the shocking scale of deaths in our care homes during the pandemic. I welcome that the Scottish Government has promised a public inquiry into this tragic loss of life, but it cannot happen quickly enough. The Scottish Government has maintained that decisions to move elderly and vulnerable citizens from hospital into care homes were taken by clinicians. This is called into question by the publication of a letter this weekend from the Health Secretary to health and social care partnerships, highlighting a target to reduce delayed discharges by 900 by the end of April. There is no doubt that care homes urgently require more funding to prepare for the challenges over the coming months, but it’s clear that there must also be long-term system change to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. We need appropriate investment in staffing, training, beds and buildings as well as strong working relationships and a properly integrated health and care system. Many tributes have been paid to the heroic efforts of our social care staff in recent months, and rightly so, but this gratitude must be followed up with action. We cannot allow our care workers to return to propping up a creaking system.

Young people across Edinburgh have returned to school, but already it’s clear that despite the best efforts of staff and pupils, further urgent action is needed to keep people safe. James Gillespie’s High School now requires that face coverings be worn indoors whilst moving around between classes. Stronger national guidance from the Scottish Government would be welcome and I hope that they will act quickly to encourage other high schools to follow suit.

Last week my colleague, Patrick Harvie MSP, asked the First Minister to deliver on the Educational Institute of Scotland’s calls for 3,500 extra teachers. Having more teachers is key to reducing class sizes. As cases rise in schools across the country, it’s more important than ever that we leave no stone left unturned in our efforts to keep our schools and communities safe.