As Orkney confirmed its first Covid-19 case this week, almost the last local health authority to do so, let me start by again offering my heartfelt thanks to all those in our health and care services for the work they are doing. Much of it has been preparatory to date, but the pressures are now likely to start building significantly.
That will require everyone to continue playing their part: from those working hard to deliver essential services, or stepping in to enable others to do so, through to the volunteers coming forward to offer whatever support is required. Even if you don’t fall into any of these categories, there is still a role to be played in acting responsibly, heeding advice and looking out for others.
Of course, this task is not made easier by the pace and frequency with which the advice and restrictions have changed over recent weeks. At times, this has caught authorities, businesses and individuals by surprise but reflects the extent to which governments and their expert advisers are having to respond to emerging evidence and what is happening on the ground.
Only time will tell whether these responses have been adequate or timely, though I do share the reservations of many at how long it appears to have taken for both the UK and Scottish Governments to sanction more widespread testing, particularly of those in our health and care services. Similarly, delays in getting appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to those on the frontline have been a concern. In neither instance, it seems to me, was the wisdom of hindsight required.
On a personal level, the McArthur household went into ‘lockdown’ over a fortnight ago, when the Prime Minister extended restrictions from individuals to households. In response, a ‘virtual’ office materialised in Burray, from where I have been trying to manage a veritable tsunami of emails, texts, calls and social media messages, ably assisted by Barbara, Tanya, Lily and Johnny, my outstanding staff team, working remotely in Orkney and Edinburgh.
The volume of casework has been truly unprecedented, driven largely by the devastating impact this pandemic is having on businesses across our community and the country. Almost inevitably, the various support packages from UK and Scottish Governments have emerged in piecemeal fashion with detail following only days after the original announcement. This has created uncertainty and given rise to many questions, which my team and I have been doing our best to answer.
The scale of the UK Government’s intervention, however, has been eye-watering and utterly crucial: from bearing 80% of wage bills for ‘furloughed’ workers to tax breaks, loans and grant support for businesses and the self-employed. In turn, it has allowed Scottish Ministers to tailor support north of the border. Having argued for targeted support to our fishing sector, I welcome the moves made in that direction. By contrast, the less generous support offered to self-catering businesses, a key part of Orkney and Scotland’s tourism sector, is certainly disappointing and needs reviewed.
Meanwhile, despite the reach of these national programmes, Orkney Islands Council will almost certainly need to step in to help plug gaps and pave the way for rebuilding our local economy.
The last week has also seen the stripping back of our lifeline ferry and air services. While only temporary, these drastic changes will put real pressure on our island communities, but underscores the urgency in limiting movement of people and supplies to only what is absolutely essential. In return, ferry companies and airlines will need compensation, in line with other businesses affected by this crisis.
The collapse in air travel has at least allowed Loganair to offer additional capacity to the air ambulance service. From my discussions with both Scottish Ambulance Service and Loganair over recent days, I’m greatly encouraged by the moves to deploy Loganair aircraft to help in transferring Covid-19 patients.
Like the local gin distilleries producing hand sanitiser, this is a further example of how the priority must be to help support our health and care services. They will be doing their upmost to look after us in the weeks ahead. We can return the favour by acting responsibly, heeding advice and offering help where we can. We will get through this, if we all pull together.