Scotland: Covid continues to impact on us all

Phil Fairlie, Assistant General Secretary for Scotland, reflects on the past 12 months

As the year comes to a close, I am sure we will all reflect back on what has just passed and wonder how much will change in the coming year compared to what we have all just gone through. I doubt any of us thought at this time last year we were going to continue to be in the grip of Covid to this extent, and the numbers were going to continue at this level. We can only hope that this Christmas is the last one we need to sit and contemplate what the future holds for us and our families in the months ahead. 

Throughout the summer and autumn, we have watched the numbers fluctuate significantly of those contracting Covid, both in the prisoner population and amongst staff and their families. We have seen regular outbreaks across the estate, and no two weeks are the same at the moment, with no obvious break in sight. It creates a huge amount of uncertainty for everyone, as well as considerable anxiety and trepidation. We have mentioned this before through circulars to the field and through the pages of the Gatelodge magazine, but it is appropriate that we again pay tribute to the staff who go through those gates every day to maintain the safety and security of our prisons, and every day unsure of what they take home with them each night to their families. 


As I write this the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Keith Brown MSP has just this week announced to the Scottish Parliament that a change in prison rules will be introduced to allow us to start to photocopy prisoners’ mail, which will help enormously with interrupting the flow of psychoactive drugs entering our prisons. As all staff will be aware, in the prisons, the impact these drugs have on the environment and everyone within it, is enormous. The extent to which they are clearly getting through has some of our prisons awash with the substances, and it is clear something significant needs to happen to take back some control of those areas and make them a safer place for staff and prisoners alike. 

This step, while helpful and very welcome by the

staff, is not the whole answer of course, and we continue to work with the SPS in identifying other safeguards and detection/disruption methods to restrict the flow even further. 


The Cabinet Secretary also took part in a podcast recently with myself and conducted by Simon Sapper. It was a focus on the POA work in devolved areas of the UK, to sit alongside a previous one that focused on the NEC and HMPPS. 

The discussions were around the partnership agreement in Scotland, the history and background to how and why it came about and the impact it has had on industrial relations here in Scotland. 

We also focused on the Scottish government returning the “right to strike” to prison officers in Scotland in 2015, and what led to that happening. 

We talked about the three-year pay deal and the fact that it was the biggest anywhere in the UK, and what the history and background was to such a pay offer being made. 

The podcast is available on the POA website for anyone who wants to hear it. 


I was requested to attend a session of the Justice Committee in the Parliament in September along with the Chief Executive and Operations Director to discuss a variety of issues relating to our prisons. We were also joined by representatives from Apex Scotland, HMCIP, Howard League and the Parole Board for Scotland. 

It was a wide-ranging discussion that covered many topics, most of which have direct relevance to our membership. There was particular focus on the impact of Covid at present, as well as our prisoner numbers, which are again starting to creep back up and looking to continue on that trend without any interventions coming into force. Those numbers on remand were of a particular concern, as well as the ageing prisoner population and how we manage them in such a setting.

There was discussion about the condition of the estate and the need for capital investment in the fabric of some prisons. HMP Barlinnie is of obvious interest to the committee, but it was widely recognised that Inverness, Greenock and Dumfries are also of some concern and a priority for replacement and upgrading. 

Drugs, violence and organised crime were also discussed and a clear area of concern and interest for the committee. The session is available online for anyone interested in watching it. 


I am writing this in the week that we have just learned of the very sad news that Shirley Renton has passed away. Shirley is the wife of our HLM John Renton MBE and was a regular and very welcome attendee at our Annual conferences alongside John. 

Shirley was always very bright and cheery whenever you met her at conference, and a pleasure to have in and around the conference. She will be sadly missed by all of us who knew her, and we pass on our very deepest condolences to John and the family. 


Finally, I would just like to pass on Season’s Greetings to all those who celebrate them at this time of year. I hope everyone gets to spend some much welcomed and well-earned time with their families and loved ones. For those who are working through the Christmas period, I hope that it passes safely for all and that our prisons remain calm and stable. 

Here’s to 2022 and hopefully a far different year for the whole planet to the one we have just come through. 


Phil Fairlie 
Assistant General Secretary Scotland

Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.