Minister reacts to cuts to drug and alcohol service provision in response to  COVID-19 pandemic

The Scottish Government Minister For Public Health, Joe FitzPatrick, and the Interim Chief Medical Officer, Dr Gregor Smith, have written to chiefs of Health Boards, Health and Social Care Partnerships (HSPCs) and Alcohol and Drug Partnerships (ADPs) seeking assurance that they are maintaining ‘service level provision’ for people affected by problem drug use.

While expressing relief that the Covid-19 Mobilisation Plans of ‘several’ HSCPs’ include ‘some detail’ on alcohol and drug service provision, the Minister clearly implies that the majority do not.

The Minister repeats the Chief Medical Officer’s determination that drug services are defined as ‘essential’ and not ‘elective’ which means that normal service levels should be maintained for people who have a drug problem. This covers both harm reduction and drug treatment services.

While the Minister concedes that social distancing will impact on the way that services are delivered, he repeats the need to continue to provide services as fully as possible.

The Minister mentions that the Drug Death Task Force, established to address Scotland’s record drug overdose deaths, has had its attention drawn to the fact that in some areas drugs services have been ‘scaled back’;  services have closed their doors to new clients; key staff in drug treatment services have been re-deployed to other work; ADP co-ordinators have been redeployed to COVID-related tasks. The Minister explicitly states that staff should not be re-deployed to other work and that any staff who are off work due to self-isolation should be replaced.  He encourages innovative working including involving third sector services.

The Minister repeats that not only has service delivery to be maintained for existing service users, but that this is a time of expanded demand and that services need to respond to an increased need for help.

Finishing, the Minister described people using services as an at risk group and points out that effective drug service provision will contribute to the response to the pandemic by cutting hospital admissions.

Responding to the statement, David Liddell, CEO of Scottish Drugs Forum, said:

“We have established a national COVID key informants network where local staff report on developments in their area. Through these channels, we have identified innovative practices which we are sharing through webinars and other activity.  However, we have also identified significant failures in maintaining services and some deeply concerning practices including the re-deployment of key staff in several areas. Of course, we have been concerned and passed on this information to both the Government and the Task Force.

“The Minister’s concern and clarification is helpful and it is to be hoped that there is an immediate and adequate local response.  Lives are at stake – they are at risk in terms of drug overdose and COVID-19 in a very vulnerable group.”

The letter can be viewed on the Scottish Government website, which contains details of how drug and alcohol services are being supported during COVID-19.