SafeZone bus suspends operations as volunteers resign

Public Health Minister Maureen Watt, right, helps launch the SafeZone service last year at City Chambers. Picture: Toby Williams
Public Health Minister Maureen Watt, right, helps launch the SafeZone service last year at City Chambers. Picture: Toby Williams
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EDINBURGH’S late-night “drunk tank” has suspended operations after volunteers resigned in protest at “mismanagement” by the charity which runs it.

As many as 27 of the SafeZone workers are said to have quit and managers confirmed the project would not operate tonight or for at least the next two weekends.

They love what they do – you have to love it to be holding a bowl under a vomiting drunk at 4am”

VOLUNTEER

The SafeZone bus normally parks outside St Mary’s RC Cathedral at the top of Leith Walk on Fridays and Saturdays as a refuge for people who have had too much to drink or become separated from friends.

Two ambulances run by the project patrol city centre hot spots such as the Cowgate and Lothian Road, ready to go to the aid of vulnerable people.

The project, which won last year’s 999 Local Hero Award, began as a pilot in 2013 and was relaunched in its current form in December 2014.

But volunteers said management at Working on Wheels, the charity in charge of the scheme, had repeatedly failed to respond to concerns raised about lack of equipment, maintenance of the vehicles and official clearance for volunteers working with vulnerable groups.

One senior volunteer among those who have resigned said: “It’s down to mismanagement coming from the trustees.”

He said volunteers were forced to buy their own first aid kits and a defibrillator after Working on Wheels failed to provide them; safety concerns about the bus were not addressed; and background checks on volunteers were not completed.

The source said: “We asked for emergency meetings to discuss these problems, but our requests were just ignored. And anyone who put their head above the parapet to raise concerns was suspended.”

Another volunteer said the situation had cause a lot of heartache. “Volunteers are in tears,” he said. “They love what they do – you have to love it to be holding a bowl under a vomiting drunk person at 4am. There’s real passion and dedication, but they have felt forced to resign for their own safety and the protection of the public.”

He said SafeZone would see an average of up to 30 people each night, saving hours of police time and unnecessary visits to A&E.

Working on Wheels said “a series of allegations” had been made over the way SafeZone was being managed and it had been decided to “temporarily suspend” the service for “these issues to be fully assessed and for the implementation of any remedial action that may be necessary”. It said the service would return on February 26.

A spokesman for Police Scotland said: “We are keen to see the return of the SafeZone bus to the city centre and are working closely with our partner agencies and with the organisers themselves to reinstate this scheme as soon as possible.

“In the meantime, our dedicated policing plan for Edinburgh’s night-time economy will continue as normal providing a visible police presence and working towards ensuring the safety of the public.”