Warning that undermining proven health interventions “costs lives”, experts spoken to by The Independent accused Ms Mordaunt of “punching down on a group of people who are some of the most marginalised and vilified in society” – and urged ministers to prioritise dealing with England’s own overdose crisis.
Scotland’s overdose rate is the highest in Europe, with 1,051 drug-related deaths last year despite a record reduction in fatalities, amid a national push to tackle the crisis. South of the border, drug deaths have also soared three-fold in less than a decade to hit an all-time high of 4,859 in 2021.
Despite longstanding opposition from the UK government, backing from Scotland’s most senior law officer in September has now paved the way for a planned drug consumption room in Glasgow – a space where people can take drugs in the presence of medical professionals on hand to prevent overdoses should they occur.
But Ms Mordaunt sought to use the scheme as a punchline on Thursday in a tirade against the SNP’s “appalling legacy” for Scottish children, as she criticised “a wrecked education system, a widening attainment gap, fewer teachers, maths scores declining in every PISA survey, science at a low record and plumetting literacy rates”.
“But they will, of course, have somewhere safe and warm to take heroin,” the cabinet minister told the Commons.
The comments were met with consternation both north and south of the border among experts and politicians, including those who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses.
Gavin Heron, who lost his 25-year-old brother Evan to a heroin overdose in November 2021, said: “He died alone in his home, a week after moving in from a heroin overdose. Penny Mordaunt used people like my brother to score cheap points today but we know that safe consumption rooms work.”
Recalling personally witnessing an overdose reversal at a facility in Lisbon, Mr Heron added: “I’ve seen the criticism that ‘they only delay death’ or that [they] are ‘palliative care’. To that I say – who are you to say that someone should die due to their use of drugs? Tell that to receivers of liver transplants – would you sentence them to death and deny the gift of life?
“I don’t know if a safe consumption room would have saved my brother – but we need different kinds of help for different people and different circumstances. People are injecting in squalor and without dignity – would you want to be part of a society that shuns you so brutally and views your needs and life as surplus to requirements?
“Let’s give everything we can to solving this crisis. We owe it to people like my brother and everyone who has died a drug related death in this country.”
Responding to the former Tory leadership hopeful’s jibe, SNP MP Stewart McDonald wrote on Twitter/X: “You disgrace yourself, Penny Mordaunt.
“My brother died of a drug overdose at his home. If he had access to a healthcare facility such as a safe consumption room – somewhere ‘safe and warm’ as you put it – in order to manage his addiction then he might well still be alive today.”
Speaking to The National newspaper – which carried criticism of the “disgraceful” remarks on its front page – Scottish Drugs Forum chief executive Kirsten Horsburgh warned that “undermining harm reduction approaches costs lives”.
“This is an unhelpful perspective and derides an evidenced service which engages and supports people who are particularly vulnerable to drug-related harms,” Ms Horsburgh said.
Peter Krykant, who risked the prospect of criminal conviction by setting up a mobile overdose prevention centre in an ambulance in Glasgow three years ago in defiance of UK laws, described Ms Mordaunt’s remarks as “cold-hearted”.
“Scotland drug death rates are the highest in Europe, we are implementing something proven around the world to reduce deaths and harms but the contempt from Ms Mordaunt is brutal,” said Mr Krykant.
Experts also highlighted the fact that fatal overdoses are a public health crisis across the UK – not just in Scotland – and accused the UK government of creating a “hostile environment” for people who use drugs.
“Mordaunt’s comment was a cheap shot, punching down on a group of people who are some of the most marginalised and vilified in society,” Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the charity Release, told The Independent.
“She talks about the SNP but nearly 11,000 people have died of a heroin-related death in England alone since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. Every year since 2011 drug related deaths have broken records across all four nations.
“We are currently experiencing an increasingly toxic drug supply leading to increased overdose deaths. Focusing on the crisis that is happening in England and other parts of the UK should be Mordaunt’s priority not glib comments about the Scottish Government wanting to provide ‘safe and warm’ spaces.
“These spaces can save lives, but clearly the UK government wants to continue to create an unsafe and hostile environment for people who use drugs.”
The row comes after cross-party MPs on the home affairs committee urged the government to support a pilot of drug consumption rooms.
“Overdose Prevention Centres have been proven around the world to reduce the harms caused by drugs, as well as reducing drug related deaths,” Megan Jones, director at the charity Cranstoun told The Independent – and urged ministers to back the committee’s report.
“At a time when right across the UK we face a public health crisis when it comes to people dying from overdose, we would urge the government to look at the evidence relating to these facilities.”
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