Q&A: Monica Lennon on the health of the nation
Dealing with COVID-19 and its knock-on effects will continue to be the priority for the health service for the foreseeable future. But what do you think is the most pressing concern on terms of the country’s health at this particular stage of the pandemic?
The impact of lockdown and slow re-start to normal NHS services is a huge concern. Everyone understands the need for COVID-19 caution, but we also need to balance risk and avoid unintended consequences. There are thousands of patients who are still waiting for operations or other treatment. Cancer screenings in particular have been badly affected by lockdown, with at least 400,000 screenings delayed. The potential of delayed operations means that tens of thousands of lives will be put at risk without urgent intervention.
What are the key questions you believe should be addressed by any inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of COVID-19?
The impact of Covid-19 on older and disabled people in care homes needs to be central to any public inquiry, particularly around when and how decisions were taken around discharging hospital patients to care homes in March, April and May.
Important issues around our overall preparedness for a pandemic in terms of testing and PPE also needs to be understood. Progress has been painfully slow and even now there are still huge issues with testing capacity. Despite previous Scottish Government reports and pandemic planning projects, it certainly seems that those recommendations weren’t acted on and the public inquiry will need to examine why and how that happened, to ensure lessons are learned.
The NHS is treasured across the country by people of all political persuasions but does that put it beyond criticism and can you see areas that need to change?
Every family has reasons to be thankful for the NHS, and we’ve seen that gratitude for frontline workers come to the forefront of national consciousness more than ever as a result of the pandemic. However, our NHS and its frontline workers need more than just goodwill, they need adequate pay and enough resources to do their jobs properly. Applause doesn’t pay the bills.
Years of poor workforce planning from the Scottish Government is leading to a staffing crisis that is pushing the health service to breaking point. This is what really needs to be addressed, especially in the aftermath of Covid-19 when the reality of a pandemic exposes the stresses on the system. I support the campaign for a Patient Safety Commissioner as it’s important that the interests of patients are properly represented. The NHS isn’t perfect nor is it beyond criticism. Unfortunately, there is a culture of bullying in parts of our health service and Jeane Freeman has attempted to address this. Our NHS needs to be values-driven for the sake of patients and staff and should always be focused on getting the best outcomes for the people of Scotland.
What should the future of elderly care look like?
The future should be one where every older person has the ability to live with dignity and the human rights of every individual is respected. Scottish Labour believes we can achieve this through a national care service that ends the postcode lottery in care standards whilst reflecting the personalised needs of people and their local circumstances. It is important that people are supported to live independently at home for as long as possible and that means our local councils need to have the resources to meet people’s needs quickly – whether that’s installing a handrail or an assessment by an occupational therapist. We also need to value the social care workforce and end low pay and poor conditions. Care should always be about delivering for people, not for shareholders. It’s wrong that there are care providers are earning millions of pounds whilst paying their staff little more than the minimum wage.
I certainly hope the future of social care will see an the end to profit leaking offshore as it often does. We need public services that are accountable to the public.
Mental health issues have clearly come to the fore in recent times and only exacerbated by the pandemic, do you think more could be done to bring parity of care for mental health in line with physical health?
From the experiences that I hear from my constituents, I fear that we still have a long way to go in this country before mental health is given parity with physical health.
Far too many people are still having to wait months upon months for vital help – people in crisis need help there and then, not six months from when they first reach out. As a first step, I’m calling on the Scottish Government to extend and increase the provision of ‘mental health A&Es’. The Covid-19 crisis has prompted the set up of dedicated mental health assessment centres, to take the pressure away from general A&E. This is exactly the type of innovation that we should see increased and become a more permanent feature of the NHS.
Too many times, I have witnessed people fall through the cracks in the system, and an increase in dedicated crisis centres alongside more investment in the general workforce is something I’d like to see progressed. All public services need to become trauma-informed and I’m passionate about the drug and alcohol treatment services and mental healthcare becoming more joined-up.
Before the pandemic, the drug death crisis was regarded as one of the most urgent health challenges facing the country. What can be done to make up for lost time in addressing this?
It’s frankly scandalous that there can be considered to have been any ‘lost time’ on tackling the drugs deaths emergency. I’ve consistent called for the crisis to be treated as a public health emergency, but there is a complete lack of urgency on turning the tide on drug deaths.
The taskforce set up by the Scottish Government to reduce drug deaths has failed on its one very important objective.
We need the Scottish Government to take bold action before more lives are lost, including rapid investment in residential rehab.
The pandemic has shown how compliant Scots can be in terms of public health messaging, do you think we should use that lesson to know address issues such as obesity?
There are a range of public health messages that the Scottish Government could be more focused on, including obesity and other health harms such as drinking too much alcohol.
There have been positive steps in recent years, but tackling obesity requires more than just targeted public health messaging, as important as that is – it also needs action to target harmful multi-buys as well as wider efforts to eradicate poverty.
Public health should always be a priority for any government and the pandemic has taught us that we must up our game in terms of improving the health of Scots and take serious action to tackle health inequalities. Poverty and underlying health conditions make it harder to survive and recover from COVID-19. Investing in a healthy future must be the top priority for the next Health Secretary.