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COVID-19: One man, two perspectives

by Rory Mair CBE, Chair of Citizens Advice Scotland.

NB This article appeared in the Herald on 1 April 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted every one of us in different ways. I can certainly vouch for this, personally.

As Chair of Citizens Advice Scotland I am responsible for overseeing our network’s response to the crisis and for making sure we can meet the high demand for accurate, quick advice that will help people through the most frightening circumstances many of us have ever encountered.

And as an individual - and double-transplant survivor - I am also in one of the highest risk groups, so my own personal appetite for advice and support is urgent and considerable.

Being in both camps around advice – helping provide it for others and needing it for myself - certainly gives me an interesting perspective on what is going on.

When ‘lockdown’ was announced last week, looking out over the small Highland town I live in, I felt an overwhelming respect and affection for my neighbours and community. Not a car was moving, not a dog was being walked and everyone was observing the advice that individuals like myself need shielding.

What a wonderful thing, that to keep me safe everybody around me was willing to heed advice to alter their work life, their social life and even their home life to give me the best chance of good health in the face of a deadly threat. I have never admired my community more or respected the power of its joint action.

However over the next few days came another equally human emotion, one that I am sure lots of people are feeling. I was scared! Scared of catching the virus, scared of being seriously ill and scared of dying. Churchill’s ‘black dog’ kicked in and I despaired.

It seems that if the government has to issue advice to the whole country about how they need to behave just to protect me, then I must have a target on my back the size of a small country. I began to feel that should I get the virus I have no chance. So my long term prognosis is poor.

Of course fear is not a rational emotion. And it was when I started thinking through my role in providing vital advice through the CAB network that I began to find reassurance and confidence.

The intent of ‘shielding advice’ is not that we can stop this virus in its tracks. That will not happen. What we can do and must do is manage the pace and scale of the spread.

I may get this virus and it may make me very ill, but what my community - my human shield - will do by following the latest advice is to ensure that if that happens I will get the intensive medical support appropriate for my needs.

I will see specialist doctors and nurses, I will have a place if necessary in intensive care and I will have access to all the sophisticated technology my illness might demand.

By following the advice and understanding it’s intent my community can create that situation for me and quite literally save my life.

Quality, accurate advice is as powerful a tool in this crisis as direct medical intervention. From my perspective of necessary and enforced isolation I see the incredible efforts of the Citizens Advice network in Scotland in responding to totally changed circumstances, and ensuring that local bureaux are still operational and able to help people. Our staff and volunteers are doing an outstanding job, as always, providing free, confidential and impartial help to anyone who needs it. Though forced to close their physical doors, every CAB in Scotland is offering advice by telephone and online.  

That help will be more important than ever in the coming weeks, as the strain on our welfare state pushes personal finances to the limit.

We have already seen a flood of new applicants for Universal Credit as a result of the crisis. Universal Credit has been correctly made more generous by the Chancellor in recent weeks but there remain significant difficulties with the system, such as the five week wait for an initial payment and the digital-only means of applying. Our advisers will be crucial in helping the most vulnerable navigate the system to ensure they get the support they need.

Employment, and the anxiety caused by the uncertainty of what support will be available to people, will also be a vital area. The early signs show that employment concerns, particularly around sick pay and people’s rights at work, are a huge area of concern for the people who are turning to us for help over the virus.

As always, we will be there to do our bit, just like the NHS and the emergency services. But it is impossible to over-state the scale of this crisis, and of the need for us all to make every effort to help and protect each other.

And as I look out at my small town’s empty streets and consider my own health, I for one know how essential those efforts are.