By Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland
Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Scotland’s most vulnerable citizens, and there is a risk that it will widen the gap between the haves and have-nots.
How the Scottish Government and public bodies respond to that challenge will be a big focus of our audit work in the months and years ahead.
Poverty is on the rise and mass unemployment is being predicted on a scale not seen since the early 1990s. All at a time when you are already twice as likely to die with Covid-19 if you live in one of this country’s most deprived areas.
Nearly half of all families in Scotland with dependent children are already in “serious financial difficulty” or “struggling to make ends meet”, according to the IPPR.
And they are increasingly struggling to feed themselves.
Trussell Trust research predicts that there will be around 850,000 food parcels given out across the UK from October to December – the equivalent of six emergency parcels a minute.
There are other signs of rising inequality.
Nearly 200,000 children under 6 are expected to be eligible for the delayed Scottish Child Payment benefit at the end of 2020. That’s a 14% rise on pre-Covid-19 forecasts.
In general, it’s younger people, women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic Scots who are suffering most economically.
Young people tend to be employed in the industries that have been hardest hit by the pandemic – hospitality, tourism, and retail.
Women are more likely to have low-paid and insecure work and are twice as likely as men to leave a job to cover caring responsibilities.
Ethnic minorities are also more vulnerable and often found in low-paid and precarious roles. And we know that Covid-19 is twice as likely to contribute to deaths amongst Scots of South Asian ethnicity as Whites.
Meanwhile, we’re seeing a rise in depression and other mental health issues when services are already stretched.
Nearly a third of Scotland’s population lives alone. And the most vulnerable, including disabled and elderly citizens, have been affected by reductions in social care services. Home care visits, for example, fell by 34 per cent in Glasgow between January and April 2020.
Digital exclusion is another real risk.
Poorer children, young people and students have faced greater barriers to learning during lockdown. And nearly 60 per cent of over-75s don’t use the internet, making it harder to access vital information and services. Many of those same services have changed quickly since the pandemic without involving vulnerable groups in decisions.
But none of these themes are new. The last decade has been one of austerity. Long-standing funding constraints have meant the public and third sectors have struggled to deliver services to those that need them most.
Covid-19 has now shone an uncomfortable light on that landscape and added to its complexity.
Greater collaboration – across the public and third sectors, and with communities – will be key to the recovery, and we’ve seen some evidence of that happening already.
The seldom heard need support to increase control of their lives, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent poverty report makes clear.
The Scottish Government is committed to reducing poverty, but the numbers are running counter to the aspirations laid out in the National Performance Framework.
Reversing that trend is a daunting task. I recently briefed the Scottish Parliament’s Public Audit and Post Legislative Scrutiny Committee on the key themes that will shape my forward work programme. Reporting on how well public bodies rise to the challenge of tackling inequalities is my top priority during my time as Auditor General for Scotland.