Budget statements are traditionally moments of high political drama, where the parliamentary chamber is usually packed and government opponents and supporters indulge in a pantomime of heckling and applause.
Not so this year. Social distancing requirements and travel restrictions have drastically reduced MSP attendance at Holyrood, meaning Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes delivered her budget statement last week to a chamber barely a third full.
Even had this not been the case, it would still have been a subdued affair. A pandemic is hardly the time to be seen engaging in theatrics while any ‘good news’ in the budget had to be set in the context of an economy on life support and public services stretched to breaking point.
It was still pleasing, though, to see additional funding allocated to Orkney’s internal ferry services, including support for RET on these routes along with Sunday sailings. Having argued for fair ferry funding over many years, it’s a move I certainly welcome.
As for the timing, surely the upcoming election in May is mere coincidence. Then again, perhaps not.
I first got the SNP Government to accept the principle of fair ferry funding in 2017, after parliament overwhelmingly backed my motion to hold Ministers to the promises they had made repeatedly to the islands Councils.
Since then, however, Orkney and Shetland have been short-changed to the tune of millions as government funding failed to keep pace with the annual increase in costs. Where this has happened in relation to UK Government funding, Scottish Ministers have been the first to demand ‘rebates’.
As for the funding itself, not only does the timing look highly suspicious. SNP politicians rushing to pat themselves on the back have also been quick to argue that these services are entirely the responsibility of OIC and SIC and nothing to do with the Scottish Government.
Such comments will do little to inspire confidence amongst islanders that this is an enduring commitment to adequate funding in future years, not just an election ‘inducement’, which risks seeing both communities continue to be held to ransom on an annual basis. The deafening silence over funding for replacement vessels, now desperately needed to operate these lifeline routes, only reinforces those misgivings.
More generally, with public money being sprayed around in response to the pandemic, it’s hard to gauge the likely impact of what Kate Forbes announced last week. However, concerns have already be raised that it falls far short of what is needed to address the crises faced in areas such as mental health, education and support for business.
While negotiations will continue over the budget, the political ‘drama’ has shifted to what is increasingly seen as ‘sluggish’ progress in rolling out the vaccine in Scotland. Here in Orkney, thankfully, this seems to be less of an issue. Elsewhere in Scotland, however, there is mounting criticism, not just form people left waiting for jabs, but also amongst GPs and frontline NHS staff ready and waiting to administer them.
To date, the First Minister has justified the lower numbers of vaccinations in Scotland on her government’s decision to prioritise care home staff and residents. However, with care home vaccinations largely complete both north and south of the border, yet the gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK still widening, that argument looks less persuasive.
Nicola Sturgeon’s case was not helped at the weekend when Scotland recorded its lowest number of daily vaccinations since the programme was launched, just 9.628. At a time, when we need to see a rapid expansion and acceleration of the roll out, things appeared to have stalled, at best.
While the First Minister has rightly earned plaudits for her handling of the pandemic, in contrast often to the hapless behaviour of UK Ministers, when it comes to getting jabs into people’s arms, her government’s record to date pales by comparison. She enjoys healthy levels of credit with the Scottish public, but will not need reminding that an issue like this can quickly erode that trust.
Having characterised this phase of the crisis as a ‘race between the virus and the vaccine’, Nicola Sturgeon urgently needs to move Scotland out of the relative slow lane.