15th May 2020

While the rest of us continue to live with the constraints of lockdown, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) has pushed ahead with plans to centralise air traffic control services. Last week it issued an £8.5m tender for the provision of technology at the new surveillance centre in Inverness.

When parking charges were introduced at Sumburgh Airport, no impact assessment was undertaken until after the event. It demonstrated how little consideration was given to the local community by HIAL, which is 100% owned by Scottish ministers.

My Orkney MSP colleague, Liam McArthur, asked the government if major costs for the centralisation strategy could be deferred during the Covid crisis. It emerged this week that the business case will not be reviewed and that work on the Island Impact Assessment will, according to the Transport Secretary, “continue in parallel with work to prepare the IIA (Island Impact Assessment)”.

This makes a mockery of island-proofing, which is supposed to ensure the interests of islanders are reflected in legislation and policy, and may explain why the retrospective aspect of the Islands Bill has been slow in coming forward.

The concerns about safety and loss of highly skilled jobs have not gone away while the aviation industry reels globally from the massive impact of Covid-19 on airline travel.

As one constituent put it to me, “a project designed to gather up all your controllers from across the country into one room looks pretty daft right now - one case of COVID19 in your new centre and the lifeline services to all the isles is going to stop”.

A second Coronavirus emergency Bill was introduced in parliament this week, and on Tuesday the Covid-19 committee took evidence from the Law Society of Scotland. It’s considered to be a mostly “technical” bill. We have to be careful to avoid unintended consequences, but it includes proposals to introduce further protections for people facing bankruptcy, and for students an important change in notice to leave student accommodation and halls of residence.

Everyone’s focus is on Covid-19, and how we come out of lockdown. There’s talk of renewal as many will not come through this crisis unscathed. The business support schemes are very welcome, as have the adjustments that have subsequently been made to them. But there are still too many falling through the gaps, and I continue, along with other colleagues, to push for further amendments so that more can get the support so badly needed.

Last week I suggested that the government develop a framework to explain how schools might be safely and gradually re-opened when the time is right. Something similar to the New Zealand 4-level alert system, giving different measures to be taken at each stage of the virus response, would give a clear, staged plan for parents, teachers and pupils and provide certainty and assurance. And it would help employers understand their employees’ needs when planning their return to work.

Stay safe, stay home. Save lives.

We will get through this.

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