In times of crisis: Q&A with Mairi Gougeon
As a keen runner, public health minister Mairi Gougeon tells Holyrood how exercise has helped her cope during the pandemic
Taking over the mantle of minister for public health during a public health crisis must have been daunting. How did you feel being asked to move into the brief and what prepares you for this kind of challenge?
Daunting is certainly one word for it!
It was a complete surprise to get the call and I was just trying not to let the thought of it overwhelm me. The brief is big and so critical at any given time, let alone during a public health crisis on this scale. You feel the immense pressure and responsibility; you just want to do a good job.
But the daunting feeling subsided quite quickly because I saw and still see the role as a huge opportunity. I’ve campaigned on health issues previously; health is an issue that’s important to everyone so of course it’s something I’m hugely passionate about. I knew that while I may not be able to change the world in the few months I had before the election, it was a real chance for me to get stuck in, focus on my key priorities and try and achieve what I can in that time. I think being positive helps, trying not to let the scale of things or the challenges ahead overwhelm you, taking it day by day.
My previous role working across the rural and environment portfolios also helped prepare me where I had a very broad and varied brief with its own set of contentious issues and challenges.
How have you coped personally during the pandemic and what has got you through it?
I think like most people I’ve had my ups and downs, but I really try and stay positive. I lost a member of my family in December and that was difficult, just not being able to see family and grieve with family. You’re all hurting, and you can’t physically be there for each other or comfort each other – that’s hard.
Aside from that, running and walking has definitely helped. I try and fit something in everyday, even if it’s a quick five minutes outside, it really makes all the difference to my day. My husband, Baptiste, has been amazing and we’ve been a real team.
The workload during this time has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, both in terms of the volume of casework my office has received and then the ministerial workload on top of that, so having that support has really helped.
I also just try and find one positive thing a day to look forward to, whether that’s grabbing five minutes to have a coffee outside when the sun’s out or having something nice for your tea to look forward to. The wee things make a difference.
Going into the election in May, two of our experienced cabinet secretaries, Jeane Freeman and Roseanna Cunningham, are standing down as MSPs. You have worked under both, what have you learnt from them?
Firstly, I actually can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to have had the chance to work with them both and I remind myself of that often. Roseanna and Jeane are two of the most fiercely intelligent and just generally fierce women that I’ve known and I’ve always had a huge respect and admiration for them both.
I actually first met Roseanna when I was 15. Because of my interest in politics, my headteacher invited me to a meeting with her when she visited my school. I would never have imagined in a million years that 20 years later I’d be working alongside her! It has been such a massive privilege and a huge learning curve.
There’s the parliamentary skill from taking part in debates and questions alongside them and the learning you take from that – I’ve never envied the opposition in taking either of them on!
There’s also the huge knowledge and expertise they have, their advice and guidance has just been invaluable to me. They really will be a massive loss to the Scottish Parliament, though thankfully not to the party or pursuit of independence.
The First Minister has said that she doesn’t believe she will be the same person that she was going into the pandemic, it will have changed her. Is that true for you too?
Absolutely and I think some of those changes have happened already. I appreciate so much more now, much of which I would have taken for granted before. This job means you’re generally a pretty terrible family member and friend to people because it’s hard to keep in touch, something which you constantly feel guilty about.
Even though work has been busier than ever, I’ve probably been better at keeping in touch with my family. I think the pandemic has shown how you can’t ever take that for granted.
Though in saying that I still have a ‘to do’ list of WhatsApp messages I need to reply to at the end of each week, so maybe I’m not as good as I thought I was.
It’s also given me so much of a greater appreciation for where I live. Even though I’ve lived in Brechin for pretty much my whole life and have loved living here, I feel like I’ve fallen in love with it all over again.
I’ve discovered new paths and trails, new buildings I’ve never really noticed before or paid much attention to. So I think a lot of these changes are for the better.
Is the vaccination programme going as smoothly as you would like and what do you say to people worried about any delays?
This is the biggest logistical challenge in the history of Scotland’s NHS. More than two million people have received their first dose in just over three months. That’s a huge achievement and is down to the massive efforts of our vaccination teams.
I know that lots of people are anxious and just want to get their vaccination as quickly as possible and I would just want to reassure them that everyone is working flat-out to get the vaccine into people’s arms as quickly as possible. With a vaccination programme of this scale there are challenges.
Weather, geography and, crucially, vaccine supply have all meant there have been variations in delivery of the vaccine but we’re still on track and I would just ask everyone to be patient and urge them to go for the vaccine when it’s offered to them.
There are lots of scare stories flying around about the vaccine and its safety. What would you say to people that are hesitating about taking up the offer of the vaccine?
I think it’s important to remember that no matter what vaccine you receive, each one has passed a rigorous three-phase testing process, they are then reviewed by independent regulatory and advisory bodies to ensure they’re safe and effective.
In relation to the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and European Medicines Agency (EMA) have also both confirmed its safety.
So my advice to everyone would be to come forward and take the vaccine when it’s offered because quite simply it will reduce your chance of illness and your risk of dying from COVID-19. By getting the vaccine you are helping to protect yourself and protect others.
The pandemic has starkly exposed existing health inequalities. Coming out of this, where do you see your priorities?
Tackling health inequalities is one of my key priorities in this role and it’s important to remember that Scotland has a proud history of taking ambitious and pioneering action to improve health. I’m really proud that we’re world leaders in the field of tobacco control and we were the first nation to introduce minimum nnit pricing on alcohol.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that the pandemic has had a hugely disproportionate impact on people and exacerbated inequalities. It’s hit people hard in minority ethnic communities, people living in deprived areas, those with obesity, diabetes and respiratory disease.
We’re working to try and fully understand why certain communities are more affected by COVID-19 than others, but what we do know is that socioeconomic factors drive health inequalities. It’s absolutely right that we focus our efforts on tackling these wider issues and that’s why reducing poverty and inequality sits at the heart of our investment across all portfolios in government.
We need to tackle the underlying causes of health inequalities by ending poverty and promoting fair wages.
From my previous portfolio I see food as playing a huge role in this too. Everyone should have access to healthy, nutritious food, but if we have more people out of work or on lower incomes and more people dependent on foodbanks, how do we ensure that happens?
We’ve had great success working with the Soil Association on the Food for Life programme getting healthy, local and sustainable meals served in schools and we can see the benefits from that on health and on local economies.
By tackling poverty and driving work like this forward, to get people eating more healthily and getting more active, I think we can achieve better health outcomes.
As a keen runner, you obviously see the benefits of exercise to your own health. How would you encourage others to take up a sport and take some responsibility for their own health?
I love running and I think it’s one of the main things that’s kept me going throughout this but some days, I just don’t feel it, so on those days I walk instead. It’s less of a thought and effort, I just wake up in the morning, put my trainers on and go. But that bit of physical activity, whether it’s long or short, makes all the difference to my mood and just sets me up for the day.
I know it’s hard right now because of the restrictions and the full range of sports that would normally be open and available to people aren’t, but any kind of physical activity is so important and can have such a massive impact. We’ve had a campaign running, Clear Your Head, which has been really successful so far in providing practical advice and tips on coping with the restrictions and which signposts people to information and support.
If the pandemic has shown anything, it’s that we can’t take our health for granted and even a wee bit of exercise can make all the difference.