Distance Aware scheme, HIAL and fixed links

The First Minister’s Covid statement on Tuesday saw some restrictions lifted and people who have been able to work from home will be able to make a phased return to their workplace. It’s encouraging but the virus is still around and appears prevalent in schools. I wrote more about this in my Shetland Times column for this week, which you can read here.

I also welcomed the launch of the Distance Aware scheme, this week, which provides badges and lanyards displaying a yellow shield to indicate the wearer would like others to give them extra space. Badges are free from libraries and Asda stores, as well online for a postal fee. I have called on the Scottish Government to make them available in local community shops to ensure everyone has easy access to a free badge, considering there is no Asda in our area! You can read more here.

On Tuesday I asked a Topical Question of the Scottish Government on Endometriosis, and you can watch my question here. This followed the publishing of Endometriosis UK’s report, which you can see here. Research found that this base level of care “is not currently being met”. An estimated 1.5 million women in the UK are affected, similar to the number of women who have diabetes. As high as 30-50% of women affected by infertility have endometriosis. The condition is where tissue, similar to the lining of the womb, starts to grow in other places such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. There is no definite cure, and the cause is still unknown. If there were a similar painful medical condition that affected the same amount of men then I believe there would have been greater action taken by now. We must improve awareness of the condition to drive down the time taken for diagnosis and waiting time for treatment. I want to take the opportunity to thank Endometriosis UK for the work they have done on this report, and the many women who have contacted me about their experience of the debilitating condition. Details of the North Highland support group for Endometriosis UK, which covers Shetland, are online and would be welcoming with support for anyone living with the condition.

I was also proud to have voted in support of the Transvaginal Mesh Removal (Cost Reimbursement) bill which, now passed, has led to a reimbursement scheme for those who had vaginal mesh surgery in Scotland but have paid for private surgery to remove it. Patients who had no alternative but to seek private treatment will now be able to apply to the government fund to get their money back. You can read more here.

This Tuesday also saw the appointment of a new Transport Minister after Graeme Dey stepped down for health reasons. I thank him for the engagement we have had and I wish him well for the future. Jenny Gilruth is the new Transport Minister and I look forward to meeting with her to discuss the transport issues facing Shetland, such as the route to net zero, fixed links and the cost of travel.

Alistair Carmichael and I will be leading a community discussion next Saturday, 5th February, on the subject of fixed links. While fixed links or tunnels could be transformative for Shetland, the varying needs, aspirations and challenges for each island community is important in this infrastructure debate. We had originally hoped to have face to face meeting but it has been moved online because of the ongoing situation with Covid. That, of course, presents problems for those who cannot access broadband or get a good mobile signal but anyone with questions can contact the local office to submit them.

Indeed if you are facing any issue you believe I may be able to assist with please do not hesitate to contact me. I can be contacted at:

Email: [email protected]

Phone: 01595 690 044

On transport matters I also responded for the Scottish Liberal Democrats on the Scottish Government’s electrical vehicle (EV) charger network statement. I asked about ensuring the robustness of the network as the expected demand increases. Rural, remote and island communities such as ours will rely heavily on the network, and our future cannot be of one where, for example, a community nurse can’t get to patients because the public charger they need is already in use or broken. As part of our plans for ‘New Hope for the Climate Emergency’, Scottish Liberal Democrats would: Increase the timeframe for repayments on interest free loans to buy an electrical vehicle, ensure all new public sector vehicles are electric and allow people the chance to trial an EV. Not all travel can be done on public transport or through walking, wheeling and cycling. Where there are cars in the future, they should be clean and sustainable.

Also this week, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) and the Prospect union reached an agreement on an "alternative delivery" of the Air Traffic Management System (ATMS). The new five-year agreement will retain air traffic controllers in the isles. I am pleased that skilled jobs will remain at Sumburgh and I hope this will end the long running dispute between workers and HIAL, the agreement will go to a ballot of Prospect members. 

The initial ATMS proposal to centralise air traffic control in Inverness would have seen skilled jobs lost in Shetland. Since I first elected, I have been speaking against the centralisation plan. This is a five year-agreement but HIAL must now remove any possibility that plans to move jobs to Inverness could resurface. Staff and communities have been put through the wringer with worry, and the Scottish Government (which wholly owns HIAL) should have listened sooner to voices of opposition to the plans.

Earlier this week a breakdown was published of the £9 million spent on ATMS to date, revealing over £220,000 has been spent on the remote towers project with more than £530,000 spent on professional/consultancy fees.

As my Scottish Liberal Democrat and Orkney MSP colleague, Liam McArthur, put it:

"Over recent days, the First Minister has been rightly critical of the Prime Minister for ‘blowing’ £900,000 on a study that proved a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland wouldn’t work.  Yet she seems happy for her government to help blow over half a million pounds on consultancy fees to establish that centralising our air traffic services similarly wouldn’t work. In light of that, staff and island communities are due at least an apology."

This week the Rural Affairs Committee (Rural Affairs, Islands, Natural Environment or RAINE Committee) took further evidence on the Good Food Nation Bill. Shetland was well represented in the session with Claire White, Manager of Shetland Food & Drink Limited outlining the fantastic produce we have here in Shetland as well as the challenges, including the many issues facing the fishing sector.

I attended two Cross Party Groups (CPGs) this week. First up was the newly-formed CPG on Poverty where I wish to also pay tribute to Neil Gray MSP as he had to step down as convener of the group following his appointment as a minister. I wish him well in his new post. I also attended CPG on Oil and Gas. This was among other meetings including with Fidra which looks to rid the environment of things like single use plastics and chemicals that can stay in the environment forever. This is a daunting task but it is through holistic action that we can make change, for example speaking to stakeholders giving evidence on the Good Food Nation Bill about how the bill could address the issue of food packaging to make it more sustainable.

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