Many analogies have tried to capture the human experience of Covid-19 but one has particular resonance here in Scotland: We may all be in the same storm, but we are all in different boats…and even then, too many of us are with no boat at all.
It's said in times of crisis, look for the helpers – and we have seen incredible examples of individuals and families, public and community services, organisations and businesses coming together to respond, with a spirit of collaboration, resilience, creativity and compassion. We heard countless stories of people going above and beyond; volunteers young and old rallying to help feed families and deliver essential medicines; and organisations of all kinds working in partnership as never before to save lives and protect communities.
But alongside that civic response, this pandemic has brutally exposed the inequalities that still blight the lives of too many, limiting our ability to flourish, control our own lives and contribute our talents to create an inclusive, fairer Scotland. Disabled people, minority ethnic communities, people on low incomes, older people, younger people, and women are amongst those who have experienced disproportionate impacts, with multiple disadvantage making things even harder for many. So, while Covid-19 is still very much with us and evolving in a deeply concerning way at the time of writing, we should not wait for the pandemic to be over to learn lessons and begin to plan a way forward towards social renewal.
This report by the Social Renewal Advisory Board is, therefore, a Call to Action. A call to not hold back the social action which made the difference to so many lives but instead to unleash it so it can grow. A call to turn the tide on poor outcomes created – often unwittingly – by barriers in the systems that shape how our society works. A call to realise in full the change we now know is possible.
The Board was set up by the Scottish Government as a short-term group to come up with transformational ideas on how to deliver real change as Scotland embarks on its journey of renewal after the pandemic.
To do this, we called on the insight and vision of people and communities across the country. We spoke to four Poverty Truth Commission groups: "Community Listening Events" were held in 31 local authority areas; inclusive 'Policy Circles' met multiple times and came up with initial proposals; 'Deep Dive Events' probed deeper into ideas and sharpened the recommendations; and over 100 organisations provided evidence of the impacts of the pandemic and their own ideas for change. We want to acknowledge this incredible response – evidence of the collective capacity Scotland has and the desire from people to be part of building what comes next. There is no doubt the timescales were tight, but everyone understood the urgency of the task and we are so grateful to every one of you.
The Board was not set up to suggest small improvements to make some things better and some things "less bad". We have been clear with Ministers that now is the time to accelerate system change – a call that has also been made by other key groups working to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, notably the Expert Reference Group on Covid and Ethnicity and the Education Recovery Group. We are all calling for a fair and equal society, underpinned by a strong commitment to human rights and economic justice. This is a Scotland already on its way to becoming a reality. We just need to get there faster, using existing levers and creating new enablers.
We have firm foundations – we are a country with modern, progressive politics and an established Parliament that delivers world-leading legislation. We have brilliant young people, passionate about fulfilling their potential and playing their part to make a difference. We have a vibrant tradition of communities coming together to take action, of the third sector delivering locally and nationally, of committed public servants across the NHS and all spheres of government, and of employers innovating to create jobs and support local communities.
We have seen examples of positive change. For example, the Scottish Government's commitment to a radical blueprint for human rights legislation covering all areas of devolved responsibility. The work of The Promise to care experienced infants, children, young people, adults and their families – that every child grows up loved, safe and respected, able to realise their full potential. Our commitments to "Net Zero", recognising our role as custodians for future generations. The firm commitment from Scottish Government and COSLA to ending homelessness. The response to the 'Higgins Review' (report by the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery) and the 'Logan Review' (Scottish Technology Ecosystem Review), plus the speed of the launch of the Young People's Guarantee. A National Performance Framework that talks about "love" as a measure of success.
We are publishing this report 10 years on from the Christie Commission, a powerful, inclusive vision that has acted as a "North Star" for civic Scotland over those years: its central tenets of empowering, of shared systems that focus on prevention, and of equitable partnerships still hold true but they are yet to be delivered in full. It is more important than ever that we revisit Christie's principles and hold to them as we look to renew. It is nearly a year since the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in the UK and since then the economic positions of countries, communities and individuals have been put under enormous strain. The UK's exit from the European Union threatens to make rebuilding more of an uphill struggle, further supercharging inequalities, excluding and marginalising some of our people and communities. Renewal needs to start now, recognising that some people and communities will need extra help and support, with a refreshed ambition for social and economic change with accountability, not only an ambition to make balance sheets look better for some.
The Board's aspiration is not to produce a blueprint for a top down 'to do' list. The spheres of government have their vital role, as do national performance targets, legislation, regulation, guidance and delivery vehicles. But social renewal will not be real unless communities of people, of identity and of place have more say, power and influence; unless we "super-charge" how we address the structural inequalities that still hold us back as a country. We can change some things quickly, but other actions will need several steps, with clear milestones, to get there – so let's start the journey now.
If not now, when?