Orcadian Column, 5 May 2022

With the return of the Orkney Rugby 7s last Saturday, the Picky was a riot of noise, colour and excitement from the minis tournament in the morning to the men’s final late in the afternoon. At the culmination of a season that has seen all the Orkney teams enjoy some measure of success, it was always going to be a day of celebration. Even the cool breeze and persistent drizzle couldn’t dampen spirits.

The same was true of another event on Saturday, this time marking the formal reopening of St Peter’s Kirk at Eastside in South Ronaldsay. I had the privilege of being invited to unveil a commemorative plaque, and thoroughly enjoyed sharing in the reminiscences of those with a personal connection to this very special place, including one memorable tale of a windswept wedding and a bride with a vertical veil.

The project has blossomed as a collaboration between the local community and Historic Churches Scotland, ensuring a building with a wonderful history also now has a bright and optimistic future. By all accounts, this is something that Orkney does better than most.

Both these events offered another welcome sign of life returning to normal. A further symbolic indication of this was confirmation by the Scottish Government that the Covid vaccination app is finally being switched off. With little evidence that the app helped limit the spread of the virus or drive up vaccination rates, its demise will scarcely prompt an outbreak of national mourning.

For a time, the so-called ‘Covid passport’ was in use across the UK. However, rather than apply the same scheme UK-wide, the First Minister insisted on Scotland developing its own app. As a result, costs went up and delays left Scots unable to access their digital ‘passport’ for months after it was available to those in England and Wales. It also created needless problems for those who had received vaccinations in different parts of the UK.

It now appears that history is repeating itself, this time in relation to the census. Ever since 1801, this nationwide survey has been conducted simultaneously throughout the UK once every ten years. It provides an invaluable snapshot of data, allowing public policy decisions to be informed by accurate comparisons across the population.

Not so on this occasion, however. While the rest of the UK went ahead with the census as planned last year, the Scottish Government cited Covid as a reason to delay by 12 months. It was a decision described at the time by one Edinburgh University academic as ‘scientific vandalism’.

In the event, 97% of households in England, Wales and Northern Ireland responded to the census. By contrast, the response rate in Scotland has been a meagre 77%, forcing Scottish Ministers last week to extend the deadline by a month in the hope of turning things around.

There is no guarantee that this move, which will cost a further £10m, is likely to be successful.  Even the potential threat of a £1000 fine facing the 700,000 households who have so far failed to comply with their legal and civic duty may not shift the dial sufficiently.

In making the announcement to parliament last week, the Minister responsible, Angus Robertson sought to blame, amongst other things, the Ukraine conflict for ‘distracting’ people in Scotland. Such deflection has only served to heighten the sense of embarrassment for the Scottish Government, which appears to have been poorly prepared to carry out the census. By decoupling the process in Scotland from the rest of the UK, Scottish Ministers also denied themselves the possibility of benefiting from a wider publicity campaign that successfully drove up return rates elsewhere in the UK last year.

Devolution, of course, allows us the opportunity to do things differently here in Scotland where the need arises. It is a flexibility that, by and large, has stood us in good stead since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.  However, doing things differently just for the sake of it, irrespective of cost, complexity and even deliverability, makes no sense. This is all the more so when, in order to make a political point, the Scottish Government leaves us all paying the price.

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