Orcadian Column, 23 May 2024

23 May 2024

It takes a special talent to dislocate your hip during a football match when you’re not playing, or even on the substitutes bench. Miraculously, I achieved this feat while cheering on Sanday in a Parish Cup tie away to Holm in 2021.

In fairness, the underlying injury had been sustained a fortnight earlier during an infamous clash with Westray, which saw three Sanday players stretchered off. Leaping to catch a ball as it flew into the Rockworks crowd, however, I felt the joint give way and landed in a crumpled heap on the ground.

Memories of this misadventure came flooding back on hearing news of the Rovers keeper whose leg had been broken in a recent match at the Bignold Park. His injury sounded more serious and painful than the one I suffered, but the experience thereafter had uncomfortable echoes.

A fifty-minute wait for an ambulance based three minutes down the road at the Balfour is unacceptable when it is unnecessary, as appears to have been the case on this occasion. The same was true for me when I waited 45 minutes at the side of the pitch in Holm buried under a pile of coats and training tops.

In both instances, once dispatched, the ambulance arrived quickly and the paramedics could not have been more helpful. However, even they struggled to understand why it had taken so long for them to be tasked with the job.

It was a question I posed to Michael Dickson, Chief Executive of Scottish Ambulance Service, when I spoke to him last week. Given his previous role at NHS Orkney, Mr Dickson recognised both the concern and the case for treating the islands slightly differently, albeit still within the overall SAS call centre system. I await details of what changes might be introduced, but it can’t be in anyone’s interests for hard-pressed SAS medics, struggling to manage high volumes of calls across Scotland, to be trying to work out when to prioritise a call back for a non-life-threatening incident in Orkney or Shetland.

Meantime, I’m grateful to the Rovers coach I met earlier this week, who talked through events at the Bignold after the initial 999 call, all of which sounded eerily familiar.  Thanks also to others who have been in touch over recent days to share their own experiences, confirming that this problem is all too common and modifications to the call-handling process are urgently required.

For years I campaigned for a second ambulance, which is now on call at least some of the week. However, it doesn’t matter how many ambulances you have if they aren’t being tasked in a timely fashion. Hopefully this can now be addressed and improvements made.

On the subject of football, I was happy to join fellow MSPs last week in lending my support to Mental Health Awareness Week, with its focus this year on the importance of keeping active. The link between physical and mental health has long been established and whether it’s running around a football pitch, taking the dog for a walk or going through daily exercises in a chair, it all helps our general well-being.

Mental Health Awareness Week was perhaps not the best moment for the Scottish Government to signal its intention to withdraw funding from the men’s shed movement. Sheds have proved invaluable in efforts to keep men active and socially engaged, improving mental health and reducing isolation in the process. So it’s been wonderful to see Men’s Sheds opening their doors across Orkney in recent years, first in Stromness and more recently in Sanday, Westray and Flotta.

Having successfully led a cross-party campaign twelve months ago to persuade the then Finance Secretary, John Swinney to reverse a similar cut to Men’s Shed funding, I found myself making the same argument again at Topical Questions in parliament last Tuesday. Fortunately, as with last year, another last-minute reprieve was granted but this really is no way for Ministers to treat the Men’s Shed movement. Sheds, like the third sector more generally, need and deserve greater stability in funding support. As with ambulance call-outs, when the demand for services is so high, surely it makes sense to do everything possible to ease the pressure.

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