Orcadian Column, 1 June 2023

1 Jun 2023

Pulling out of Eday aboard the Varagen on Saturday morning, it wasn’t long before Dave Gray was helpfully explaining to passengers what to do in the event of an emergency. Unusually, on this occasion Dave’s advice about donning lifejackets was set to a close harmony backing track courtesy of VRi, a trio of Welsh folk singers.

The Muster Stations remix will surely take the charts by storm but illustrates the sort of impromptu musical entertainment on offer during an Orkney Folk Festival. VRi were joined by Shetlanders, the Peter Wood Dance Band, Ryan and Ross Couper as well as young Orkney musicians, Kirsty Harrison and Owen Griffiths in a jamming session that kept passengers, including the travelling Sanday Parish Cup football team and supporters, royally entertained all the way into town.

Celebrating its 40th year, the Orkney Folk Festival has also been busy breaking all sorts of records this year in terms of ticket sales. This is no small achievement for an organising committee many of whom are relatively new in the role, but testimony to the hard work put in by everyone connected with the festival. In the past, it sometimes felt like Orkney was trying to emulate the longer-established Shetland Folk Festival. If that was ever true, it isn’t now as Orkney’s showcase of local, national and international talent confidently embraces its own distinct personality.

As distracting as the music aboard the Varagen was at the weekend, it couldn’t disguise the increasingly urgent need for this and other vessels in Orkney’s internal fleet to be replaced. A Task Force was set up by the former Deputy First Minister, John Swinney and OIC back in January, amid solemn promises that it would consider ferry replacement options and feed into future budget processes. Since then, Mr Swinney has stepped down, meetings have been postponed and whatever momentum there might have been has stalled.

I raised this with the latest Transport Minister, Kevin Stewart in parliament last week. Worryingly, Mr Stewart was unable to confirm when the Task Force would next meet, but insisted he was committed to continuing collaboration with the Council and hoped to visit Orkney in the coming weeks. All very well, but it hardly conveys a sense of urgency and suggests the future of these lifeline ferry links is still too far down the Scottish Government’s priority list.

Another issue that has not been registering nearly high enough on that list is the crisis in NHS dentistry. Serious problems had emerged pre-pandemic, but the situation is now markedly worse. While Covid restrictions have been lifted across the board, dentistry remains almost uniquely affected by ongoing limitations to the way things can be done. A new long term, funding model is desperately needed to reflect this reality and provide some sort of stability and certainty going forward. With practitioners exiting NHS dentistry at an alarming rate, it feels like we are close to a tipping point.

It was another concern I took the opportunity of raising in parliament last week, reinforcing the need for detail of the funding reform to be made available well ahead of the November deadline set by the Scottish Government. I also pressed the Health Minister, Jenni Minto to introduce targeted support for recruitment and retention of dentists in rural and island areas. While problems exist nationwide, the challenges in places like Orkney are particularly acute. The Minister can’t afford to spread her limited resources too thinly. For it to be effective, Ms Minto needs to direct support to where it can make most difference.

In Orkney, this could help build capacity, reduce backlogs and waits to register. It may even help in addressing the specific, long standing problem around a lack of NHS orthodontic care. This is something I have regularly been raising with Ministers and NHS Orkney, though sadly with little success to date.

Speaking of his role in delivering the safety announcements onboard Orkney Ferries vessels, Dave Gray once observed that he might be ‘the most ignored man in Orkney’. When it comes to the warnings raised about replacement ferries – as well as future NHS dental provision – SNP Ministers cannot be allowed to ignore these any longer.