Sacking her Public Health Minister in the midst of a global pandemic can’t have been easy for the First Minister, particularly as Joe Fitzpatrick also happened to be responsible for rolling out the government’s vaccine programme. Nicola Sturgeon had little choice, however, as Mr Fitzpatrick’s position had become wholly untenable, even to many in the SNP ranks.
Thankfully, the vaccine programme appears to be progressing relatively smoothly, touch wood, though Mr Fitzpatrick’s updates to parliament were less than assured. When figures emerged last Tuesday showing Scotland’s death rate from drug overdoses is three times the rate in the rest of the UK, and amongst the highest anywhere in the world, the Public Health Minister found himself in a hole.
These appalling statistics can’t be laid solely at the feet of Mr Fitzpatrick and represent a scandal many years in the making. However, the former Minister’s appeal for time to turn things round rang hollow given his government’s 13 years in office. Attempts then to discredit the figures and claim it was the fault of Westminster, despite Holyrood having full control of public health policy and spending, sealed Mr Fitzpatrick’s fate as the First Minister eventually acknowledged there could be no excuses. It does perhaps illustrate, however, the risks when Ministers convince themselves that someone else can be blamed.
Mr Fitzpatrick’s departure sees Mairi Gougeon step into the Public Health role. A likeable and effective Minister on the rural brief, Ms Gougeon will certainly bring energy and drive to her new role. While she will not be responsible for the vaccine programme, which shifts to her boss, Jeane Freeman, Ms Gougeon will take the lead on testing.
In that capacity, I’ll be looking to have early discussions with her about the possible introduction of testing at airports and ferry terminals. Following the First Minister’s announcement at the weekend of a significant escalation in restrictions across Scotland, including Orkney, it seems clearer than ever that testing at ports of entry offers the best route for our islands to return to some level of normality.
During a call on Monday, National Clinical Director, Professor Jason Leitch outlined to MSPs the evidence underpinning Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on Saturday evening. While virus mutations are nothing new, the sharp increase in transmission rates for the new strain of Covid has obviously spooked governments across the UK. And not only in the UK. Counterparts on the continent have moved to impose temporary travel bans and freight blockades. All of which reinforces the compelling case for delaying the Brexit process.
Monday’s conference call confirmed the Scottish Government’s determination to stick to its guns. However, it offered me a chance to highlight the immediate and disproportionate impact on island communities. With no ferries operating on Christmas Day or Boxing Day, I pointed out that the First Minister’s one-day ‘window’ for family visits is rendered redundant in parts of the country at lowest risk, while perfectly possible in areas at highest risk. Moreover, unlike in other parts of the country, restricted internal ferry travel will prevent many islanders being able to move around their level 3 area.
As I say, an immediate change in policy seems unlikely but these anomalies must pave the way to identifying ways of easing these new restrictions as soon and as safely as possible. With a review of the restrictions planned for mid-January, the First Minister and her new Public Health Minister must now use that time to work with the island councils, health boards and others to explore potential options, including increased testing, which some airlines already have in place.
I appreciate that this would not offer any guarantees, but it could provide the assurance necessary in relation to movements in and out of our islands that in turn allows a relaxation of restrictions within Orkney. It is certainly worth proper consideration.
Meantime, I deeply regret that this will be a Christmas none of us would have wished for at the end of a year to forget. Thankfully, with vaccines rolling out, and more on their way, the signs for the year ahead remain positive. For now, I wish you a peaceful Christmas and a happy, healthy and virus-free 2021.