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Merkinch Partnership and University of the Highlands and Islands study details impact of Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic on Merkinch and South Kessock communities in Inverness

By Val Sweeney

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Mekinch area of Inverness in top ten deprived areas in Scotland...Picture: HN&M.
Mekinch area of Inverness in top ten deprived areas in Scotland...Picture: HN&M.

Money problems and both mental and physical health issues have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic for the hardest-hit people in a deprived Inverness community, according to a new report.

Detailed research carried out in Merkinch and South Kessock reveals the high level of challenges, problems, inequalities and disadvantage experienced by residents during the crisis.

The project, involving Merkinch Partnership and the University of the Highlands and Islands, is one of four studies examining the experiences of some of the hardest hit people in the Highlands and Islands.

Funded by the Scottish Funding Council Uplift Fund, in Merkinch in-depth interviews were carried out with more than 100 people including school children and nine service providers.

The responses highlight issues such as food and fuel poverty, stress and fear, digital exclusion and increased drug and alcohol addiction.

The findings are being shared with the community along with organisations including Highland Council, NHS Highland and Police Scotland, and will be used to come up with an action plan to help people recover and move forward from the last 16 months.

Anne Sutherland, manager of Merkinch Partnership, co-wrote the report with Dr Vicky Johnson, director of the Centre for Remote and Sustainable Communities at Inverness College, and research assistant Matt Curran.

Ms Sutherland felt one key challenge which had emerged was a lack of digital access, particularly as many organisations moved to provide services online.

Anne Sutherland.
Anne Sutherland.

“A lot of people in Merkinch do depend on face-to-face support,” she said. “They can’t do digital, or they don’t want it.

“Generally, in day-to-day life they get by doing face-to-face.

“When that stopped in lockdown, many didn’t know what to do. Some simply couldn’t function.”

Other issues raised by the hardest hit included the impact of having to spend more on food and fuel as lockdown and furlough saw them having to stay at home for longer.

There are concerns the situation could become worse when the temporary £20 Universal Credit uplift ends in October.

The report also contains positive comments, with over half those interviewed welcoming support they received from family and friends as well as the wider community.

Local community projects were also commended though much of the funding they received during the crisis is running out.

The report states: “There is now general concern that the support provided in the area during the pandemic, including funding for food parcels and fuel vouchers, might come to an end.

“Individuals also worried that the welcome increase in Universal Credit will be discontinued as restrictions are lifted.”

The report has been presented to Merkinch Locality Plan Working Group and will act as the driving force for a new plan to be produced next month.

It will include a range of initiatives focussing on support for the community and the development of skills, resources, assets and resilience for a more successful and healthy future.

It will also help shape a three-year action plan to be produced by Merkinch Partnership identifying future projects to be delivered.

“We have to start to pick out some of the priorities,” Ms Sutherland said.

“We are right at the start of the process”

Dr Vicky Johnson said: “It is so important to listen to the hardest hit in communities so that we can understand how the pandemic has widened inequalities.

Dr Vicky Johnson.
Dr Vicky Johnson.

“This includes listening to those who are marginalised across the Highlands and Islands through long term unemployment, food, fuel and digital poverty, as well as those living in remote locations.

“We also need to turn our attention to young people who have experienced disrupted education and loss of employment, but can help to provide solutions for recovery and renewal in the future.”

Related story: Residents riled by 'deprived' label defend Merkinch area

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