To say that these are troubling times would be to grossly underplay the seriousness of the current situation. This pandemic is unprecedented in modern times.
Faced by the threat of a rapid spread of this highly-contagious and relatively unknown virus, however, what is an appropriate response? How do we strike the balance between taking every possible precaution to protect ourselves, our families and our fellow citizens, particularly the most vulnerable within our communities, while at the same time avoiding the sort of panic that leaves us less able to think or act rationally and potentially makes matters worse?
First and foremost, we need confidence that decisions taken by political leaders reflect the advice of experts in the fields of medicine, science and indeed human behaviour, based on the best evidence available. Unhelpfully, of course, much of the evidence around Covid-19 is still emerging.
Importantly too, government and health authorities must be clear, transparent and honest in their communication with the public. Again, this is made no easier by the rapidly changing nature of the situation, giving rise to a need to update advice frequently and sometimes dramatically. Moreover, with different countries apparently adopting different strategies, seeds of doubt can be sown as to whether or not more could be done.
It is vital, however, that the public does heed advice and acts responsibly. More draconian powers may yet be sought to increase government’s options for limiting freedoms or requiring action to be taken, but there are risks in introducing these too early and for too long. All the more reason for people to exercise good judgment based on the advice given.
That means not stockpiling unnecessarily. Panic buying spreads its own contagion, prompting others to follow suit and inevitably disadvantaging those least able to buy in bulk, or who rely on others to shop on their behalf. It means supporting initiatives like Orkney Mutual Aid, a community of volunteers across every parish and island in Orkney offering assistance with everything from transport and shopping to visits and calls. Those behind the idea, and those offering to help, deserve enormous credit and epitomise the sort of response we need to see.
For my part, I have been trying to share information and advice, while also responding to constituents who have been in touch. As well as the obvious health concerns, it is becoming increasingly clear that Covid-19 is going to have a dramatic impact on local businesses and our economy. Those reliant on tourism may be in the front line now, but no sector will escape unaffected.
In response, the UK and Scottish Governments have offered welcome support, but vastly more will be required to avoid or mitigate a catastrophic collapse.
Overall, though, I must commend Scottish Ministers, who have been responsive to queries and concerns raised by MSPs but have also made available the Chief Medical Officer and Scientific Adviser to provide reassurance about the basis on which decisions are being taken and the options being considered going forward. At a time of national crisis, that collaborative approach is essential. Politicians, and the media, must be able to question decisions but should do so in ways that avoid encouraging the public to ignore the advice being given. In a social media age of limitless information and misinformation, that is all the more important.
With various close family members who fall into the ‘at risk’ groups, either through age or underlying health conditions, I’m acutely aware of the strain this pandemic is placing on individuals and families. As well as the physical health dimension, therefore, we need to be alive to the mental health risks too, notably from isolation.
The burden, of course, will fall most heavily upon those working in our health and care services. We owe them a debt of gratitude under normal circumstances, but the coming weeks and months could not be further away from normal circumstances. Like the First Minister, I am genuinely ‘in awe’ of health and care staff.
We can best help those staff, however, by acting responsibly, heeding official advice and looking out for each other. These are the most challenging of times, but we can and will get through this.