Shona Haslam: English “tiers”? Scottish “levels”? We need a national response to the pandemic. Not this confusion.

20 Nov

Cllr Shona Haslam is the Leader of the Scottish Borders Council.

So in England we have Tiers, and in Scotland, Levels. In England we have Three tiers; in Scotland five but they start at zero, so Level 5 is actually Level 4, and our Levels 1-3 are the same as Tiers 1-3.  Confused, you betcha.

Local Government in Scotland is struggling with the new system that the SNP Scottish Government has introduced, and that it is constantly changing does not help with our confusion.  On a Friday afternoon we are offered a call with the Deputy First Minister that we can either accept or reject.  On the call we discuss the five “indicators” that the Scottish Government has set to determine what level your authority will go into.  These indicators are:

  • Cases per 100,000 now
  • Test positivity rate – of those tested how many are positive.
  • Cases per 100,000 forecast over next seven days
  • Hospital bed forecast over next 21 days
  • ICU bed forecast over next 21 days.

To be in Level 4 you have to have more than 300 cases per 100,000, over ten per cent positivity rate, probability of over 75 per cent of 500 cases in next five days, and expect that you will exceed capacity in hospital and ICU beds within 3 weeks.

In comparison, Level 1 (I’m not going to even talk about Level 0) is between 20 and 75 cases per 100,000, between 1.5 per cent and three per cent positivity rate, probability of 75 per cent of 50 cases over next seven days, and plenty of room in hospitals.

So that is quite clear I hear you say – well yes it is, or would be if the Scottish Government actually stuck to this. You see Highland has exactly the same scoring as Aberdeen City, but one is in Level 1 and one is in Level 2.  And Perth and Kinross which has a scoring of Level 2 was this week put into Level 3.  So it all becomes clear as mud.

Then out of the blue, this week the Scottish Government decided to change the numbers to letters, see attached pictures.  So it has now become even more difficult for local authority leaders, such as myself, to understand what tier we should be in.

I am leader of the Scottish Borders Council, and you can see from my figures in the attached diagram that we are actually at level 0 on 3 of the indicators, we only go into level 2 on the test positivity rate.  But what the figures don’t tell you is that very few people are actually going for tests in Scottish Borders, so even a couple of positives push that percentage figure up.

Now I am very grateful that we have not had to go into full lockdown in Scotland at this point, and our early ban on people meeting in homes appears to be working, but it is very frustrating for local businesses who are trying to plan for the future to have such a confused system of levels that we don’t really know whether we are coming or going.

The issue with all of this is that confusion leads to people not understanding or following the rules, if you don’t trust the system then you don’t pay attention to the restrictions that system puts on you.

The other issue is that we are one nation, so the lockdown in England and travel restriction is Scotland (you can’t leave a Level 3 area apart from essential travel) means that businesses in other areas are suffering hugely, without the business support you get if you are in a lockdown area.  In the Scottish Borders, most hospitality business comes from the north and south but that has stopped.  But business in the Scottish Borders are in Level 2, so do not qualify for the same grants as Level 3 areas or lockdown areas. This puts them in an impossible situation.

A national pandemic requires a national response. One thing is very clear, without the support from the UK Government on furlough and Barnett consequentials we would be in a far worse place.

Shona Haslam: Advice from Scotland on getting schools reopened

17 Aug

Cllr Shona Haslam is the Leader of the Scottish Borders Council

It’s back to school in Scotland and for thousands of pupils (and parents) it has been a looooong summer…

Local councils have been planning for two different scenarios.  The first: “blended learning” with a combination of in-school and home learning, using technology. The second: a full return with Covid measures in place.  The Scottish Government told us that they would announce which model we were to go for, and Covid containment measures, on 30th of July.  The Government also announced that pupils were to return to school on 11th August, which was a week before we had planned to bring our pupils back in my local authority.

This gave us 12 days in which to put everything in place that was required. It was a mammoth task.

In the Borders we have 16,000 pupils, 68 schools, and 2,500 staff.  All of our schools had to be risk assessed, one way systems put in place, additional cleaners and cleaning measures implemented, additional cleaning materials purchased (including wipes for every classroom and pupil), extra ventilation measures etc etc.

The Scottish Borders is a rural authority, almost half of our pupils travel by bus to school; this was a major headache for our school transport teams.  Again the guidance from the Government came out on 30 July: buses were to be viewed as an extension of the school estate and therefore users would not need to wear masks or socially distance. However, we also have children who use normal service buses for transport to school. We have had to commandeer these buses for schools transport and take them out of service.  Windows have to be open all the time, fine in August but what happens in January in Scotland? We had to turn around bus passes for all the children in record quick time with staff working solidly for 12 days in order to get everyone the information that they needed.

Our poor children who were going into their first years of primary and secondary had missed out on any transition and were obviously worried – and the poor parents were only getting information days (and in some cases hours) before the kids were returning to school.

And none of this is cheap: our antibacterial wipes bill for next year is £2.5 million and we are a relatively small authority.  The strain on local council budgets as a result of Covid cannot be underestimated.  Just to put this into context: in the Borders, a one per cent Council Tax rise generates £500,000 of income.  So the wipes bill alone would require a five per cent Council Tax hike.  Governments must step up and help local authorities cover the full cost of our Covid responsibilities, so that we are not forced to push the costs onto taxpayers.

But, we did it.  All of our kids returned successfully on Tuesday morning at 8.45 and in the words of the first year in my house, “secondary school is awesome”.  We do have to remember that our kids are resilient and will get through this and often it is the parents who are more anxious than the children.

So here is my advice for our English neighbours as they return to school. Make sure you get more than 12 days notice of what measures are required. Get information out to parents as quickly and as simply as possible. Five emails on five topics are better than one long email with lots of information.  Work with all of your staff, teachers, cleaners, support staff they are all important.  In Scotland our support staff felt ignored as the Government only spoke to teachers unions and not our support staff.  Reassure parents as much as possible but don’t make false promises.  There will be Covid outbreaks, be clear how you will handle them when they do happen.  And finally show your working.  Be clear how you came to decisions that you have come to and be as transparent as possible.