Iain demands clarity for parents on return of schools

Speaking during today’s Topical Questions in the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray MSP asked the Cabinet Secretary for Education John Swinney why the Scottish Government have not published a detailed route map for the re-opening of Scotland’s schools in August.

Mr Swinney’s defensive reply, perhaps understandable given the shambolic communication on the issue over the last couple of days, was that his framework published nearly a month ago provides such a route map.

In fact, the framework only considers questions about the partial re-opening in August with no plan or timetable for getting children back to school full-time.

Speaking after his question, Iain Gray MSP said:

“The Scottish Government have produced a detailed route map for the reopening of economic and social life, it’s not perfect, but at least it is a timetabled plan towards normality for every part of Scotland. So why on earth is there not a route map for a return to full time school for every pupil in Scotland?

“I’ve had emails from parents across Scotland asking for more details about schools returning to normal and for greater clarity from the Scottish Government following the mixed messages from John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon over the past 48 hours.

“I’m not sure those angry and concerned parents will be reassured by this response. The framework he refers to simply gets us to partially open schools in August – for only one day per week in some parts of Scotland. It has no plan never mind a timetable for moving our children back to full time schooling.”

Mr Gray’s question and the Cabinet Secretary’s response can be viewed here.

Save Our Scotland campaign

Iain Gray MSP is urging local people to consider supporting a new emergency fundraising campaign launched by The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) to maintain its heritage work as it expects to lose almost half of its income this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The charity has launched the Save Our Scotland campaign with the aim of raising at least £2.5m to make sure it can continue to protect the 88 visited properties, 300,000+ artefacts and more than 76,000 hectares of countryside and gardens it is responsible for.

NTS expects to lose £28m in income in 2020, which represents about half (48%) of the charity’s total income (£57.9m) in 2018/19. The trust has said that “a drop in income will see sites mothballed or worse still sold to private owners”.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“NTS is the guardian of many of Scotland’s most important cultural heritage properties and sites, including some, like Preston Mill, here in East Lothian, as well as carrying out important conservation work. The charity’s ability to protect some of Scotland’s most iconic and special places is now under threat.

“I know many charities are experiencing dramatic falls in their income due to the pandemic, but the potential loss of so many important historic and heritage sites would be a national disaster. That is why I am helping promote the Trust’s new fundraising campaign.”

Find out more about the Save Our Scotland campaign and the work of NTS at www.nts.org.uk/donate.

RNIB funding boost welcomed

Iain Gray MSP has welcomed the news that sight loss charity RNIB has been awarded £38,220 from the National Lottery Community Fund to extend support to blind and partially sighted people during the coronavirus lockdown.

The charity already has a grant from the fund to provide welfare benefits advice and support to clients across Scotland, and the additional funding announced today will cover costs associated with its community response to Covid-19.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“Like many other charities, RNIB has continued to provide invaluable advice and support to its clients throughout the coronavirus pandemic. The charity has seen an increase in calls for assistance during the crisis, so I’m glad that it has received this funding boost from the National Lottery to support its vital work.”

Gillian Hallard, welfare benefits team leader at RNIB, said:

“As a result of the funding we have already received through the National Lottery, RNIB has been able to provide welfare benefits advice to 1,400 blind and partially sighted people.

“This has been influential in shaping the advice and support we can provide and has enabled us to strengthen our offer and meet the needs of people across Scotland.”

“We want ensure we are there for our customers to offer advice, provide support, or just listen to whatever challenges they are facing. The funding from the National Lottery supports us to continue this vital work.”

The RNIB Scotland helpline number is 0303 123999 or visit www.rnib.org.uk/scotland for more information.

Iain praises East Lothian’s support for refugees

At the start of this year’s Refugee Week (15-21 June), Iain Gray MSP has thanked East Lothian Aid for Refugees, East Lothian Welcomes Refugees, East Lothian Council and other groups and individuals involved in supporting refugees here and around the world.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“Around the world millions of children and families have fled persecution, violence and famine and are now living as refugees.

“There is a real risk that many who are already living in vulnerable situations with limited health systems, poor sanitation and cramped conditions – where self-isolation is impossible – will be hit hardest in the face of Covid-19.

“I am proud of the work that local groups and individuals have done in East Lothian to welcome and support refugees, and all those who have been incredibly supportive of countries and communities hosting those seeking sanctuary.”

Refugee Week runs from 15-21 June and is the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees and promoting understanding of why people seek sanctuary.

Find out more about Refugee Week at https://refugeeweek.org.uk/

One in three contacted by scammers during lockdown

New research by Citizens Advice has revealed 36 per cent of people have been contacted by scammers since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Polling conducted on behalf of the charity also showed that certain groups were at an increased risk of being contacted by a scammer, often those who could least afford it.

Around half of those with a disability, long term illness or at an increased risk of coronavirus or shielding said they had been contacted.

The charity has seen calls from members of the public concerned about bogus testing kits, vaccinations and government refunds. It has reported a 19 per cent rise in people coming to its website for scam advice.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“The huge number of pandemic-related scams we have seen over the last few months has been another negative aspect of the crisis. It is despicable that scammers are preying on the most vulnerable members of society under these circumstances.

“It can sometimes feel embarrassing to fall victim to a scam but the numbers revealed in this poll show just how prevalent they are and how important it is for people to report them. The more information the police and local authorities have about scams, the better placed they are to help stop them.”

Citizens Advice Scotland chief executive Derek Mitchell said:

“People in Scotland are targeted by scams every day, and in the Citizens Advice network we see cases of people who have lost money to them, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of pounds. This campaign is all about raising awareness of scams and encouraging people to be more confident about how to spot them and fight them.

“When someone steals money from you in a scam, that is a crime, and should be treated as such. That means reporting it to the police, and telling other people about it so they don’t get caught out by it.

“The coronavirus epidemic has seen new scams, with scammers trying to sell fake cures and seek donations to fake charities. It is distressing that they are trying to take advantage of people in this way, but the answer is for all of us to fight back against them.

“That means being constantly vigilant, reporting scams when they happen and talking more about them in general. Anyone in Scotland who has been hit by a scam can get advice from their local Citizens Advice Bureau.”

Find out more at www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scotland/consumer/scams-s/scams-s/

Call for continued support as forecast suggests local economy could shrink by 7.2%

A new economic forecast suggesting East Lothian’s economy could shrink by 7.2 per cent this year underlines the importance of maintaining state support for local businesses as they ease out of lockdown in the coming weeks and months.

That is the message from county MSP Iain Gray who has written to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance Kate Forbes to urge her to explore ways of supporting businesses, especially those in some of the hardest hit sectors such as tourism and hospitality, in the short to medium term as they recover from the pandemic.

The latest KPMG quarterly Economic Outlook forecasts that the Scottish economy will shrink by 6.8 per cent in 2020 and is unlikely to fully restart until a vaccine or effective treatments for the virus are available. The most likely of the scenarios considered for the timing of the recovery assumes that a vaccine will be available from July 2021, enabling social distancing measures to be removed and pandemic-related uncertainty to end.

If that is the case, the report suggests Scotland’s economic output or gross added value (GVA) could grow by 3.4 per cent next year, with East Lothian’s growth forecast to be 3.9 per cent. However, if a vaccine or treatment is not found by next summer then the economic outlook could be considerably worse.

The KPMG forecast was published just days after a Scottish Government report which painted a similarly bleak picture of the prospects for Scotland’s economy, with economic output not expected to recover until 2023, a swathe of business closures and a sharp rise in unemployment predicted. The report also suggests that around 40% of jobs in East Lothian are in sectors considered to be most exposed due to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, figures released this week by HMRC on the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme show around 12,500 jobs in East Lothian are currently furloughed. This underlines the importance of further measures, including a Jobs Guarantee Scheme, to help protect local jobs in the recovery period.

Commenting on the recovery of the local economy, Iain Gray MSP said:

“Until now the focus during this pandemic has largely and rightly been on how to keep people as safe as possible, protect the NHS and save lives. However, as we move out of lockdown and into the recovery period, the full scale of the economic impact of this crisis is becoming more evident by the day.

“For many businesses in East Lothian the outlook is very uncertain. Even if more optimistic scenarios on the development of a vaccine or effective treatment for Covid-19 transpire it still looks likely that the County’s economy is going to take a significant hit in the aftermath of the emergency.

“This reflects the fact that much of our economy is made up of sectors that have been particularly badly affected by the virus. It will be vital that businesses in these areas continue to receive support through the recovery period until they can hopefully get back to something like normality when we have a vaccine.

“East Lothian Council’s support for businesses during the pandemic has been outstanding and I know it will continue to do everything within its power to help get the local economy back on its feet during the recovery phase.

“The Scottish Government’s plans for supporting the economy must also include implementing a Jobs Guarantee Scheme to protect workers and prevent mass unemployment.”

Residents invited to have ‘A Wee Cup of Tea for MND’ this month

Throughout the month of June, Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Scotland is inviting Scots to join its ‘A Wee Cup of Tea for MND’ fundraising campaign to support the charity’s fight against the progressive neurological condition.

In the run-up to MND Action Week (15-21 June), Iain Gray MSP is joining the charity’s call for people to help it maintain its vital work providing care and support to people affected by MND by having a cuppa with family or friends, donating to the charity and then sharing on social media. Find out more at www.mndscotland.org.uk/tea.

As well as this campaign, MND Scotland is also running a national virtual relay race on 21 June to mark Global MND Awareness Day and help raise more funds to assist its support services and pay for research to find a cure for MND.

Iain Gray MSP said:

“l’ve lost several friends to this disease and know there are a number of families across East Lothian who have been affected by it. It is a debilitating disease affecting around 5,000 people across the UK which can affect how you walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe. While everyone is affected differently it is always life-shortening and there is no cure. 

“MND Scotland is an outstanding charity with a reputation for not only providing vital support, advice and information to those affected by the disease, but also for campaigning for the change needed to improve public services and support for those with MND.

“The charity’s activities this month are all about raising funds to support its vital work and awareness and understanding about this disease. I am urging East Lothian residents to consider taking a moment to find out more about the fundraising activities and support this excellent cause during June.”

For more details on MND’s fundraising and other activity this June visit www.mndscotland.org.

Carers Week is topic for latest Letter from Holyrood

My latest Edinburgh Evening News Letter from Holyrood column focuses on Carers Week and the vitally important contribution made by unpaid carers in East Lothian:

8 to 14 June is Carers Week, the annual campaign to highlight the challenges unpaid carers face and recognise the contribution they make to families and communities throughout the UK. It also helps people who do not usually think of themselves as having caring responsibilities to identify as carers and access much-needed support and advice.

The theme for this year’s week is ‘Making Caring Visible’. The need for greater visibility is a constant issue for carers, whose contribution can too often be hidden. It is particularly relevant, however, during the Covid-19 outbreak when so many carers have been shielding with vulnerable family members.

To help mark Carers Week, the campaign is asking supporters to visit its website at www.carersweek.org and add their voice to help make caring visible. It takes less than a minute to add your voice to the online voices wall.

Many carers have also had to take on additional caring or financial responsibilities during the emergency, adding to the existing pressures they live with. The Scottish Parliament has agreed an additional one-off Coronavirus Carer’s Allowance Supplement payment of £230.10 which will be paid later this month. It is a small gesture but will hopefully go some way to helping carers who have struggled during Covid-19.

Again in relation to the pandemic, Carers Trust Scotland is seeking to find out more about the experiences of young carers and young adult carers during lockdown. Its online survey can be found at www.carers.org/our-work-in-scotland.

Carers in my constituency are fortunate to have Carers of East Lothian supporting and championing them all year round. Ahead of this year’s Carers Week, I was pleased to hear that the group received an award from the University of Edinburgh’s Community Grant Scheme to help fund a project to deliver music therapy workshops for unpaid carers. It has also been organising virtual activities for local carers throughout the week.

Find out more at www.coel.org.uk.

New wellbeing line for young people

Scottish charity Health in Mind has announced the launch of a new one-to-one mental health and wellbeing service for young people aged 16 to 25 living in the Lothians and the Scottish Borders.

As a result of the impact of COVID-19, young people aged 16 to 25 are a particularly at-risk group with new mental health support needs. The significance of how we support them during this period will be long lasting for their future wellbeing and resilience.

According to recent evidence, more than 80% of young people with a history of mental health difficulties have reported their conditions have worsened and a number have seen their existing peer support groups and face-to-face support stop.

Young people can call the charity’s Wellbeing Line and speak to someone about the impact Covid-19 has had on their lives. It’s a Freephone number 0808 801 0614 and it is open 2pm to 6pm Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 11am to 3pm at the weekend.

Welcoming the new service, Iain Gray MSP said:

“All the evidence points to COVID-19 having a significant impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, with young people aged 16 to 25 being a particularly at-risk group. They can also be one of the hardest to reach groups when it comes to help and support, so this new helpline is a welcome addition to the resources available for young people struggling with their mental health.”

Martin Oxley, Health in Mind’s Depute Chief Executive, said:

“We are very pleased to receive the funding to support this important work.  COVID-19 and the present restrictions on day to day life are directly responsible for new and changing needs, leaving young people with increased support requirements around coping with change, loss, isolation, structure of days, having a purpose, and long term vision.  We look forward to supporting people and enabling them to make a positive difference in their lives.”

Find out more about Health in Mind and the support it is offering with coping with COVID-19 at www.health-in-mind.org.uk

County tourism sector needs guidance and support on re-opening safely

Iain Gray MSP is calling for comprehensive and ongoing guidance to be published quickly on how East Lothian’s tourism sector can re-open safely on 15th July.

The Scottish Government announced yesterday (11th June) that tourism and hospitality businesses should start to prepare for re-opening in stage three of Scotland’s route map out of lockdown.

This date is subject to change if the scientific evidence indicates it is too soon to do so, and there will be understandable apprehension from the sector about the staffing decisions they make, the orders they place and changes they should expect to their future capacity.

Commenting on the implications for the local tourism sector, Iain Gray MSP said:

“Our tourism and hospitality sectors were among the first to be ordered to close as the Covid-19 lockdown began, which has had a devastating impact on many local businesses and visitor attractions.

“It is welcome that they are now being given the go ahead to start planning to re-open, but we have to get this right first time. Businesses and others in the sector have faced huge financial losses due to this crisis, and there must be absolute clarity about what this announcement means for different parts of the sector.

“With the possibility that this date could be pushed back for safety reasons, it is vital that Scotland’s tourism and hospitality businesses, their staff and customers have absolute transparency from the Scottish Government about any potential changes that may need to be made.

“There must be comprehensive support and guidance made available to businesses and the public so that there is no confusion about how this can be handled safely.

“Businesses in the tourism and hospitality will also need ongoing financial support through the recovery stage and I have written to the Finance Secretary to ask what the plans are for delivering this support.”