I feel the tide has turned this week. We’ve seen the start of the Covid-19 vaccination programme but we’ve also watched in horror as HMS Brexit flounders in the stormy seas of frantic last-chance negotiations.
On both fronts, we don’t know where the new tide will take us next year. It’s also been a week of shifting waters on climate change and our education system. I need to dig out my sou’wester.
Nurse Paula McMahon was the first person to receive the vaccine in a grand ceremony at the NHS Louisa Jordan hospital in Glasgow on Tuesday. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said watching it brought a lump to her throat. “Finally,” she said, “there is light at the end of the tunnel.” The plan is to have a million of the most vulnerable Scots vaccinated by the end of January and every adult by the spring. Already over five thousand people in Scotland have received the vaccine.
We learned a valuable lesson this week from the scientists studying the genetic heritage of the Covid-19 virus in Scotland. They identified 300 strains of the virus in the first wave in April to July and concluded that almost all of them had died out by the summer. We had all but eliminated the virus. Then the second wave arrived, from outside Scotland – half the strains from England and Wales, a quarter from the rest of Europe and the rest from Asia and North America. It’s now making us wonder if we should have closed our borders in August. And should we do so in the future?
As it is, we are still struggling to supress the virus. There were 232 deaths in the week up to last Sunday, bringing the total to 5,868. And the semi-lockdown continues, though west central Scotland has now been released from the strictest Level Four restrictions and non-essential shops could reopen this morning from 6am.
Even as we grapple with the pandemic, Boris Johnson is fighting on the beaches to hold back the tide of European “bureaucracy” – the same bureaucracy that has given us 40 years of peace and prosperity, not to mention decent working conditions and clean beaches. To at least 62 per cent of Scots this is an outrage and we stand aghast waiting to see what deal, if any, is reached with the continuing European Union.
It seems there may be a compromise over fishing – a transition period in which French and Spanish boats will be allowed to catch a percentage of the fish in British waters. We learned this week that there will, after all, be a border down the Irish Sea and that has prompted the SNP leader at Westminster Ian Blackford to call for Scotland to be given the same special European trading status as Northern Ireland. But where we shall be, as a whole, on 1 January only the next few days will tell.
Boris is also playing the part of King Canute, trying to hold back the rising tide caused by climate change. He’s been outlining what Britain will do to set an example at this weekend’s online International Climate Summit. He’s promising to cut carbon emissions by 68 per cent by 2030. This includes several measures particularly relevant to Scotland, the transition away from oil and gas and towards off-shore wind and a large reforestation programme.
This week the independent Commission on Climate Change urged him to go further, towards a 75 per cent cut by 2035 which would require a total investment, public and private, of £50bn a year, an affordable one-per-cent of national income. With China, Europe and the USA now signing up to similar measures, it looks to me like a sea-change is taking place in our treatment of the planet and its climate.
Is there a sea change taking place in our schools? This week the education secretary John Swinney cancelled next year’s Higher exams – because of Covid – but he also hinted at a permanent move towards continuous assessment. I was always a last-minute crammer but Mr Swinney says it’s all about fairness for pupils from less privileged backgrounds. Debate.
And while I’m thinking about sea-changes, I ought to mention the national embarrassment of our ferry-building programme. A committee of MSPs has branded it “a catastrophic failure”. The two latest vessels, which were supposed to be sailing among the west coast islands two years ago, are still lying uncompleted in Ferguson’s shipyard on the Clyde. And the cost has doubled to nearly £200m. The committee blames the management of the shipyard, which had to be nationalised in 2019, and the government’s ferry-building agency. Big changes are obviously needed.
Finally, the tide has turned on the greatest living Scotsman, Donald Trump. Rumour has it he will be retiring to his golf resorts in Scotland. But alas, he will find that his self-built golf course at the Menie Estate on the Aberdeenshire coast has, this week, lost its wildlife status as a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” – just as everyone said it would if he was allowed to despoil the sand dunes there.
It would indeed be a case of natural justice if the rising tides caused by climate change were to wash his whole resort away.