The week started in Orkney, however, and on Monday Alistair Carmichael and I met with the new Chief Inspector for Orkney, Ali Garrow. He outlined his thoughts on community policing, including in the smaller isles, and we discussed the role the police can play, in partnership with others, to protect those at risk within our local community. It was then a quick dash through to Stromness to meet Neil Kermode and Eileen Linklater at EMEC to catch up on recent UK Ministerial visits to Orkney, EMEC's upcoming plans and the next steps needed to unlock our marine energy potential.
Tuesday morning brought back the commute to Edinburgh for the start of the new term. The big news before arriving, however, was confirmation that a deal had been struck between the SNP and Green Party, which parliament debated later in the afternoon. The deal also sees Green Party Co-Leaders, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater added as junior ministers within the Scottish Government, bringing the total number of ministers now to 27.
While the SNP and Greens insist this is not a coalition, it is difficult to see how the Green Party will be able to claim both to be in government and in opposition. Already the parliament has taken a view, with the Bureau removing the Greens’ right to select topics for ‘opposition day’ debates and reducing their rights in asking questions at FMQs and following ministerial statements. Later in the afternoon, I took on Presiding Officer chairing duties during a debate on the government's first 100 days in office since May's election, after which I returned to the office to catch up on casework.
On Wednesday morning, again I spent time catching up on casework and making calls before heading to chair portfolio questions, first on Covid-19 Recovery with Cabinet Secretary John Swinney, and then on Net Zero, Energy and Transport where Cabinet Secretary Michael Matheson and his ministerial team took questions from MSPs. You can watch those proceedings here and read the transcript here.
The First Minister then gave the latest Covid-19 update to parliament. It comes at a time where we have witnessed cases rise more than 80% in the past week alone with Scotland having eight of the top 20 Covid-19 hotspots across Europe. We also see hospitals with new records for A&E waiting times over the past week.
The main development from the update, however, was the First Minister's announcement that she plans to introduce vaccination certification for nightclubs, indoor live events with 500+ people, outdoor events with 4000+ people and any event with 10,000+ people. The decision will be subject to a vote in parliament next week and follows months of mixed signals by both the Scottish and UK Governments over whether to introduce domestic vaccine passports.
If implemented, it would mark the first time a form of medical ID was mandatory on a domestic basis in Scotland. Moreover, there are serious questions about how it will work in practice and whether indeed it will be effective in controlling infection spread. Scottish Liberal Democrats have made clear our opposition to these plans, though indications are that Green ministers will back the move, despite earlier opposition. It is likely, therefore, that they will be introduced. You can read the First Minister's full statement here and my comments on Covid ID cards here. This is also an issue on which I did an interview for Radio Orkney which you can listen to here.
Following the Covid-19 update, parliament debated a motion celebrating the success of Scotland's Food and Drink sector ahead of Food and Drink Fortnight 2021 which begins this weekend. Orkney is home to a thriving food and drink sector with many excellent local businesses and producers boasting national and international reputations. It is clear though the sector faces stark challenges at a local and national level. Brexit has created shortages in the labour market while also disrupting key exports, most notably seafood. The pandemic has exposed frailties in supply chains, which don’t always work in the interests of island communities. The debate in parliament was therefore a timely reminder of the challenges they face, but also a chance to celebrate the importance of the sector. You can watch the debate here and read the transcript here and read my comments here.
On Wednesday evening I had the pleasure of attending a dinner with Consul General of Japan, Mr Takaoka and colleagues from the Cross-party Group on Japan. Mr Takaoka and his team have been very helpful in supporting the development of links between Orkney and Japan, and attended the launch of the Orkney Japan Association in 2019. Ahead of his departure back to Tokyo, I was delighted to present him with a bottle of Skaill House gin as a thank you on behalf of OJA.
Thursday morning began with more casework and calls before I met with my presiding officer colleagues for pre-meetings ahead of the day’s parliamentary business. First Minister's Questions was largely dominated by the debate surrounding vaccine passports and A&E waiting times. You can watch the proceedings here and read the transcript here.
I was then in the chair for Rural Affairs and Island Portfolio Questions followed by a debate on the appalling situation unfolding in Afghanistan. During the debate, many MSPs expressed the hope that Scotland would be able to welcome many of those forced to flee from Afghanistan and urged the government to ensure that local Councils have the resources they need to make this happen. I have written to Orkney Islands Council to ask what consideration is being given to the role Orkney might play in these efforts. You can watch the debate here and read the full transcript here.
On Friday morning it was back home to Orkney where straight off the plane I visited Boots to meet Johann Wallace and her pharmacy team to discuss issues relating to the expansion of the Pharmacy First programme. This has seen pharmacies in Orkney and across the country take a greater and growing role in the treatment of a range of ailments. You can find out more about the initiative here.
It was also interesting to understand the pressures that Covid has placed on community pharmacies and to discuss ways in which things can be improved going forward. I was also keen to explore with Johann and her team ways of improving access to testing for those, for example, looking to travel overseas for work or other reasons. At present, islanders are disadvantaged in comparison to those on the Scottish mainland in terms of access to such testing. The rest of the afternoon was spent virtually interviewing applicants for a vacancy within my Holyrood office.
Coming up next week
Next week parliament will debate the Scottish Government's Programme for Government 2021-22 which will outline the government's intentions for the year ahead. MSPs will also debate and vote on the introduction of vaccination certification as proposed by the First Minister this week. I will be asking a question next Thursday in the chamber about progress to replace Orkney's ageing ferry fleet. Other commitments next week will involve ongoing preparation for the launch of my consultation on proposals for a members bill on Assisted Dying. I hope to be able to publish the consultation later this month.