I first came into contact with Dr Kevin Woodbridge in 2005, as I sought selection as the Lib Dem candidate to fight the Holyrood election in 2007. While I was able to meet most of the local party members face-to-face, the logistics of getting out to North Ronaldsay defeated me and so a phone call was hastily arranged.
It turned out to be one of my lengthier discussions during that selection campaign, but also one of the most rewarding. Over the course of an hour or more, we covered issues ranging from lifeline transport links to broadband connections; from air ambulance provision to housing in the isles.
In the years since, and before his sudden and untimely death last week, Kevin and I returned to these and others issues on a regular basis. More often than not, the discussions were fuelled by a bowl of mutton soup or cheese ‘n’ ham toastie, and set against the backdrop of the stunning views commanded by the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory. I always came away with at least food for thought, and invariably a lengthy ‘to do’ list.
Kevin was a passionate and articulate advocate on behalf of his community. I am grateful to him for keeping my feet to the fire, but also for his advice and most of all his friendship. He will be sorely missed and fondly remembered and I offer my heartfelt condolences to Alison, Heather, Gavin and the wider family.
Given his medical background, I sorely regret not having had the chance to seek Kevin’s views on proposals that Orkney act as a ‘pilot’ for easing restrictions, as the country looks to emerge from the current ‘lockdown’. Interest in these ideas has grown significantly in recent weeks, sparked by the interventions of Dr Alyson Pollock and, more recently, Professor Hugh Pennington.
Both make the case for using the low confirmed incidence of Covid-19 in our islands, and the relative ease with which movement in and out could be managed, as the basis for taking, if not a different approach then earlier decisions on the lifting of restrictions.
Any such an approach, of course, would have to be driven by public safety. To that end, Professor Pennington argues that rigorous contact tracking and tracing, as well as extensive testing, would need to be undertaken. Nevertheless, with testing facilities now available locally, support for the idea is growing here as well as in Shetland and the Western Isles.
Scotland’s Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch has voiced understandable concerns about the potential for public confusion with different messages being directed at different parts of the country. Nevertheless, I believe the Scottish Government and its Scientific Advisory Committee need to engage meaningfully in this aspect of the wider debate on an ‘exit’ strategy. That is why I wrote to the Health Secretary and First Minister earlier this month asking them to do just that. To date, there has been no response but I will continue to press the issue.
Likewise, I will continue my efforts to see improvements to the supply chains serving our islands. Over recent weeks, local wholesalers and shop owners, who continue to go above and beyond in trying to meet the needs of their customers, have kept me updated on the problems they are experiencing in sourcing some key foodstuffs and other essentials. Not only is this a concern for small shops locally, it potentially affects our care homes and hospital, which are also supplied by the wholesalers.
I have been raising this issue consistently with the Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, most recently during a ‘virtual’ ministerial Question Time last Friday. I argued that, at a time of crisis like this, supply chains for essential goods must be made to operate in the interests of the whole population, including islanders. Mr Ewing agreed and has now written to 60 of the main food suppliers in the country, reinforcing the message that island wholesalers and shops must be treated with fairness.
I am sure Kevin will have approved. After all, fairness for our islands and island communities was the underlying message of almost every conversation I ever had with him. RIP Kevin.