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Covid inquiry call as Scottish social security commission chief lifts lid on personal challenge

Dr Sally Witcher
Dr Sally Witcher

The head of Scotland’s social security commission said she resorted to contacting the government’s national clinical director after problems getting help in the pandemic – raising concerns about how many people have been falling through gaps.

In an exclusive interview, Dr Sally Witcher revealed she had to push to get onto the proper shielding list months into the crisis, eventually using her contacts to reach Jason Leitch.

A wheelchair user with rheumatoid arthritis, she also revealed difficulty getting her paid personal assistants to get vaccine appointments.

Dr Witcher was appointed to head the new Scottish Commission on Social Security in 2019, holding the Scottish Government to account as powers were transferred from Westminster to Holyrood.

The pandemic disrupted some of the work, but gave her a new insight into the interaction between the public and state support. It also led her to back calls for any public inquiry to hear from people who dealt with the impact of government policies.

I personally phoned the national Covid helpline a couple of times.”

Dr Sally Witcher

Dr Witcher, speaking about her personal experience rather than professional role, said the past year “enhanced” her understanding.

She described the struggle to help her personal assistants, who provide support with some care and housework, to get onto the system for vaccinations. Both should have been in an early priority group, she said, but neither of them received a letter about it.

“I tried to follow it up, they have as well. The main person who provides me with support double checked with her GP that she was registered and down as a paid carer,” she said. “I personally phoned the national Covid helpline a couple of times.”

She also had to get in touch with her own GPs to explain she should be on the shielding list.

Dr Witcher, who lives in Edinburgh, said: “The receptionist said, ‘who told you that, was it 111?’ I said no, it was a senior government official.

“Two minutes later I was on the shielding list. That was January this year.”

She added: “There were loads of people in this situation … that, in turn, gave rise to meetings with senior officials, very senior officials.  I was in touch with Jason Leitch, who I knew from my day job.”

She added: “If I hadn’t been able to say that, I’d have been fobbed off. How many people who don’t have my level of confidence, or contacts, would have persisted?

“It brings me back to why we need an inquiry, otherwise we just won’t get to hear about it. It’s about being able to hold people to account.”

Social security challenges

Dr Witcher’s role at the social security commission gave her more insight into how the pandemic led to thousands more Scots confronting the welfare system.

It also revealed the unprecedented challenges facing governments across the board.

“You can’t deny, and I certainly wouldn’t begin to attempt to, that people’s experience of the last years or so has been absolutely appalling for all kinds of reasons – some of which are in the control of government, some of which are not,” she said.

“A lot of people have been at risk, not just from Covid but from some of the responses to Covid that haven’t taken their needs into account. But it comes back to the question of to what extend there really has been scope to do things differently.”

She added: “It would be foolish of anyone to start pronouncing judgement. One of the thing when it comes to disabled people is that death rates have been extraordinarily high, there weren’t statistics in Scotland about that until relatively recently. It’s been absolutely horrendous. What is needed is a proper inquiry. There is a lot of evidence of appalling situations for disabled people and unpaid carers.”

I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I can exert some influence to bring that about with regard to Scottish social security.”

Dr Sally Witcher

Dr Witcher said she looks forward to focusing on the transfer of more welfare payments to Holyrood, which she claimed gives Scotland an opportunity to make significant improvements.

She said: “I am at the sharp end myself. My experience is my experience and I’m in a very privileged position that many other people won’t be. It won’t be representative of everyone else’s.

“But I have to go to a PIP (personal independence payment) assessment just like anyone else, to go through the humiliation, the indignity of having to describe in great detail of things you can’t do. Personal things that are the antithesis of dignity and respect.

“That’s why I feel very fortunate to be in a position where I can exert some influence to bring that about with regard to Scottish social security. There are opportunities to make that happen and I intend to push that as much as I can. That’s what I personally want to do. That’s what, in this role, I’m compelled to do.”

Four-nations inquiry

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had previously committed to a public inquiry which is now being lined up as a UK-wide plan.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Following the UK Government’s decision to join us in committing to take forward a four-nations full public inquiry, detailed work will be done on the terms of reference and the timescale.

“When we have a greater sense of that remit, we will make a judgment as to whether the UK-wide inquiry covers all of the issues that need to be covered for Scotland or whether there is a need to have a part of the process that looks at other issues.

“We are also clear that we expect it to begin its work by the end of this year. If the UK Government does not take this forward swiftly, we will determine if a distinct Scottish inquiry is required to meet the needs of families who have been impacted by the pandemic.”

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