Nothing speaks more powerfully to the genuine heroism of our frontline health and care workers than seeing confirmation over recent days of the growing numbers who have lost their lives to Covid-19. Each tragic case lends extra force to growing concerns about the way in which personal protective equipment (PPE) has been made available to staff across both sectors.
This issue has certainly occupied much of my time over the past fortnight. Locally, I have been contacted by care workers, GPs and nurses, as well as patients and constituents concerned about family members, all looking for reassurance. In turn, I have spoken and been in contact regularly with Scottish Ministers, NHS Orkney and the local Council, seeking to establish what more can be done to get the right PPE to where it is needed, not just when it is needed, but in advance of it being needed.
One of the frustrations has been that, although the equipment apparently exists in sufficient quantities, failures in the supply chain have delayed distribution. These failures are now being ironed out, but it is far from clear why it has taken so long. Meanwhile, businesses and members of the public, including here in Orkney, have again been stepping up to the plate, helping contribute to the production of PPE.
Less helpfully, when asked last week to respond to the concerns of health and care staff, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel inexplicably offered the most unapologetic ‘apology’. Even for a minister who seems to court controversy, it was a tactless performance, lacking empathy or any understanding of what the circumstances required.
Ms Patel’s ‘own goal’ also comes at a time when more pointed questions are starting to be raised about the overall approach taken to combating the pandemic in the UK, which has one of the highest mortality rates anywhere. Indeed, with less testing being carried out, the number of confirmed deaths from Covid-19 is assumed to be a significant under-estimation.
The figures for Scotland are better, though still comparatively high. They also mask the increased mortality rates for other conditions.
Into this mix were thrown proposals from Dr Alyson Pollock, a Public Health consultant at Newcastle University, who suggested this week that a more tailored approach should be taken to controlling the spread of Covid-19, particularly in an island community such Orkney. I have written to the First Minister and Health Secretary seeking a response to these proposals, though I know that National Clinical Director, Prof Jason Leitch has previously warned of the increased risk of public confusion over advice that differs across the country.
In the main, the approach and messaging from both the UK and Scottish Governments remains strikingly similar. Where differences have begun to emerge, however, is in the application of various support measures. On the upside, this has allowed Scottish Ministers to target aid at the fishing and creative sectors. Less positively, eligibility criteria for some businesses, including self-catering, those that operate from home or have multiple premises appear less generous in Scotland than in England. Schemes developed at such short notice will always need fine-tuning, so I will continue trying to persuade Scottish Ministers to review criteria and ensure as much flexibility as possible.
I also plan to keep making the case on behalf of local wholesalers. They have played a critical role in keeping small shops supplied with essentials, not to mention local care homes and the hospital. Unfortunately, some large suppliers have started either refusing to deliver to the islands or demanding minimum orders that are way beyond what is realistic for a population of our size. On a call with the Rural Affairs and Islands Ministers last week, I urged government to step in to protect supply chains to the islands as well as allowing wholesalers access to the same financial support as major supermarkets.
Whether it is the availability of PPE, eligibility for business support or integrity of supply chains, there is no lack of challenges around at present. By the same token, the current crisis continues to reveal countless examples of individuals, groups and businesses, in Orkney and elsewhere, responding magnificently. These are so uplifting and give further confidence that we will get through this.