So you wait eleven years for a recall of the Scottish Parliament and then two come along in a week.
First, MSPs returned to consider the last minute deal struck on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU. Carefully choreographed to go down to the wire, the agreement at least avoided the UK crashing out of the EU with ‘no deal’. Yet this should not allow it to be presented as an example of great statecraft or a deal that will do anything other than hurt jobs, the environment and the UK’s standing in the world. Indeed, it must be one of the few trade deals ever signed that erects barriers where they previously did not exist.
The substantive vote on the trade deal, of course, took place in the House of Commons, where the result was never in doubt, given the UK Government’s majority and the backing it received from the Labour Opposition. However, the Presiding Officer recalled Holyrood to allow MSPs a chance to debate the implications for Scotland.
Having consistently opposed the UK government’s Brexit strategy and approach to these negotiations, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I could not reasonably have been expected to support this deal either at Holyrood or Westminster. Responsibility for the long-term consequences of the agreement lies wholly with Boris Johnston and his government.
For those advocating independence, though, this deal and the four years preceding it provide a salutary lesson about the difficulty, pain and costs involved in trying to disentangle a long-standing economic and political union.
Having got the taste for recall, we were back again on Monday, this time for a statement by the First Minister on the latest Covid situation. The mood was sombre, following days during which news cycles invariably led with reports of rapidly rising cases across most of the UK.
While Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles avoided the ‘stay at home’ lockdown imposed throughout mainland Scotland and indeed south of the border, we did not escape unscathed. Schools here, as in the rest of Scotland, which had been due to return to classroom learning from 18 January, will now continue in virtual form until the start of February. An exception will be made for pupils deemed most vulnerable and those whose parents are key workers, but experience suggests these numbers are likely to be very limited.
For children and young people whose education over the last ten months has been so profoundly disrupted, this latest decision is a hammer blow. Nursery and primary school pupils will be affected most, but in truth the effects will be felt across the board.
The First Minister repeated assurances that additional support will be provided, including laptops and ipads for those who need them. Such devices are only of any use, however, if they can connect to the internet, something that cannot be guaranteed in more parts of Orkney than anywhere else in Scotland. Even where a household has a decent broadband connection, the learning environment may often be far from ideal.
The decision on schools will be reviewed in a fortnight, but there seems little prospect of the 1st February date being brought forward as the ‘race’ between vaccine and virus unfolds. This was reinforced during a briefing for MSPs later on Monday, where the Health Secretary and her clinical advisers talked through in more detail the figures showing the pace at which the new strain of Covid is spreading, allied to problems caused by non-compliance, or just ‘under-compliance’ with government advice and rules.
Thankfully, the new restrictions should not interrupt the Doddie Gump, which appears to have half of Orkney busy walking, running, cycling and even swimming around the islands in aid of the fight against Motor Neurone Disease. Inspired by former Scotland and Lions rugby player, Doddie Weir, the fundraising initiative provides a perfect way to help people look after their physical and mental health while the photos being posted on social media are showcasing Orkney at its best. Hopefully restrictions are eased soon so we can welcome back the visitors who must be chomping at the bit.
Meantime, keep safe, look out for others and ask for help if you need it. Better days lie ahead.