Social Distancing (Older People’s Health)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 5th May 2020.

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Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

2. To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has carried out of the impact of the lockdown on the mental and physical health of older people, in light of the views of the British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners that age alone should not determine social distancing rules. (S5T-02133)

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

The framework, “COVID-19—A Framework for Decision Making”, which was published on 23 April 2020, is clear that the current lockdown measures are absolutely essential right now. However, we acknowledge that they have damaging consequences of their own for physical and mental health, including that of older people, for our economy and for our living standards.

We recognise the challenges that many older people face and we have provided a range of support, such as the national helpline and the £350 million funding package, to help local authorities and voluntary organisations assist where required.

Looking ahead, it is important that there are clear criteria to guide decisions on whether to maintain, tighten or relax the lockdown. As a Government, we will listen to the best scientific advice and to the people of Scotland as we make our judgments.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

Does the minister accept that, in many cases, older people are well placed to make their own judgments on how best to shield or distance themselves while maintaining a healthy balance to protect their mental health and combat loneliness? Other countries have ruled out legally enforcing age-based restrictions. As decisions on the next phase are made, is it the Government’s view that age-based restrictions are discriminatory?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

We have to differentiate between those who are shielding and the vulnerable groups that we are asking to adhere to the guidance that the general population is asked to adhere to, which includes washing hands frequently, staying at home and not socialising with people who are not part of one’s household.

The research so far shows that mortality from the disease is higher for the over-70s and that a large proportion of those suffering from the disease are in that age group, even when pre-existing conditions are taken into account. Although the risk is hard to quantify, we know that diseases that make people immunosuppressed, obesity and respiratory diseases all worsen outcomes.

We know that age matters with this infection, which is why we have taken the precautionary step of asking the over-70s to be particularly careful about physical distancing, hand washing and not mixing with other households.

I appreciate that this is a difficult time for everyone, and particularly for those of an older generation. My parents are in that age group and they find it really difficult not being able to spend time with their children and grandchildren. However, this is about protecting and saving lives and keeping our national health service safe.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

As we go into the next phase, people want to understand whether the guidelines will be advisory or legally enforceable.

I turn to a related point. The minister will be familiar with the seniors together project, which represents older people in South Lanarkshire. Helen Biggins, the project chair, told me that the group is concerned about elder abuse, which can be physical, mental or financial in nature. She fears that it could become much worse as older people are stuck behind closed doors.

What is the Government doing to actively protect and support older people who are feeling more vulnerable and alone as a result of lockdown and who would feel more confident if they could have contact with people who they trust?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I am sure that Monica Lennon agrees that elder abuse is not acceptable. If anyone feels that they are vulnerable or that they have experienced abuse, help is there for them and they should reach out to get it. Domestic violence services and other abuse services are still available during lockdown; it is really important that we get that message out there.

We all have a responsibility to look after our communities. Right around South Lanarkshire, including in my constituency, there has been a fantastic local community response in reaching out to neighbours, supporting vulnerable people and providing food packages, as well as providing social support, listening ears and befriending services.

Although we still have to follow the guidance on maintaining social distancing, it is really important that we reach out to our communities, friends and families to ensure that people feel safe when they speak out.

Photo of Miles Briggs Miles Briggs Conservative

Carers Scotland has warned that half of Scots carers face burnout because support services have been cut. When will the Scottish Government produce a plan for the safe return of respite care services?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I cannot give Mr Briggs a concrete answer to that. We will review all the services that support carers, of which there are a lot. There is no longer face-to-face support, but there is still online and telephone support.

It is really important that people realise that those services are still there during lockdown.

On respite, we would need to look at the available evidence and science around how safe it is to reintroduce the service, to ensure that residents who go into respite and the people who care for them are safe.

Photo of Fulton MacGregor Fulton MacGregor Scottish National Party

What additional support is the Scottish Government providing to key mental health services during the coronavirus pandemic, to help people to look after their mental health and wellbeing?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

We recognise a range of possible effects on people’s mental health during this time. Some people might feel anxious or emotionally distressed. There might be escalating distress or mental ill health as a result of the pandemic, and effects might be exacerbated by unemployment, financial uncertainty, isolation or bereavement—and for many other reasons.

We want to ensure that people who are identified as needing support can get services that are appropriate to their needs. We have developed guidance to help individuals to maintain good mental health, through NHS inform. We have ensured that the NHS Covid-19 website carries advice on maintaining mental as well as physical health during the outbreak. In addition to the expansion of NHS 24 that has been announced, we will continue to explore the extension and development of mental health and wellbeing services that people can access from home should they need to do so.

It is important to note that mental health services are working just now. If people feel that they are becoming unwell, general practitioner and primary care services are there for them, and secondary care mental health services are available should people require referral to such facilities. In addition, over the past few weeks, we have opened—I think—17 mental health assessment centres across Scotland, so that people do not have to access accident and emergency to get a mental health assessment but can go to a special facility and access services more quickly.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

Some of the most difficult pieces of correspondence that I get at the moment come from grandparents who are desperate to see and hold their grandchildren. Given that we are moving into a new phase, with mass testing, will the minister consider introducing a scheme that uses a combination of testing and voluntary self-isolation to enable family members safely to visit older relatives in self-isolation? Does she recognise that such a scheme would give much-needed help to some of our older residents right now?

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I think that we all recognise just how difficult not being able to access parents or grandparents is—for all of us—and that it is particularly difficult for people who are shielding or who are over 70 and cannot access their grandchildren, which is absolutely heartbreaking. I have heard tales of people who have had a grandchild born during lockdown who they have not been able to see or hold as they would normally do. I have every sympathy for those people—and I think that we are all going through a difficult time in not being able to hug our parents.

The member makes an interesting proposition, and I am sure that all the science will be explored in that regard. We need to be careful and cautious in how we move forward; we have made a lot of gains in reducing the spread of the virus and we need to be careful not to lose them. We need to proceed with caution.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Lockdown can work only if everyone accepts its parameters. David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary, is leading a petition that calls for healthy older people to be treated in the same way as everyone else is treated when lockdown ends. What incentive is there for someone in their late 70s who is in good health to comply with lockdown long after everyone else has stopped doing so, if they feel that they have only a few years of life left and want to make the most of them? Surely such people should be given the same consideration as is given to any other healthy person of any age.

Photo of Clare Haughey Clare Haughey Scottish National Party

I refer Mr Gibson to part of my answer to Monica Lennon. We know that people in that age group are much more at risk, we know that the mortality rate is higher in that group, and we know that the measures that are currently in place are helping us to tackle the pandemic.

We are all responsible for our own actions, but we all need to follow the guidance, which is led by the science. I would caution anyone against going against that guidance. We all need to follow the Government’s guidance: to socially isolate, stay at home, not mix with other households, and wash our hands frequently.