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BENBECULA – STORNOWAY FLIGHT CONCERNS


SIÂN SWINTON


Despite the increase in operating days for the new Benbecula to Stornoway flight, Uist residents
have not welcomed the change.


Hebridean Air is due to take over the Public Service Obligation (PSO) route from Loganair starting
on 12 April, a full two weeks after Loganair halted operations on the route. They are scheduled to
operate return flights on Monday, Tuesday and Friday in their eight seat Britten Norman Islander
aircraft at a cost of £99 per person each way.


Passenger demand vs seat availability


Concerns about passenger capacity and accessibility onto the aircraft have been raised by Uist
residents and community groups who rely on the service for medical treatment in Stornoway and
beyond.


Benbecula Medical Practice Patient Participation Group (PPG) has written to the Comhairle
detailing their concerns:

  • “1. The reduced number of seats available for patients travelling to appointments in Stornoway;
  • 2. The inability of consultants to hold clinics in Uist due both to the reduction in passenger capacity and the proposed scheduling of flights;
  • 3. The difficulties for passengers who have mobility issues to physically access the aircraft.”


The PPG note that the ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) clinic for April/May in Benbecula has already
been cancelled.


The ATR series aircraft used by Loganair had a seating capacity of up to five times more than the
plane now taking over the route.


Pam Roe, a Uist resident who has been making regular journeys to Stornoway for chemotherapy
treatment, told Am Pàipear about her worry of not being guaranteed a seat on the plane going
forward and how this would affect her ability to access treatment. She said:


“The Comhairle has told us that the average number of passengers on this route was six, but I
have made frequent trips for my treatment and there has never been fewer than eight passengers
and very often many more.”


When asked to provide passenger numbers for the route, the Comhairle supplied an average of 8
passengers per flight month to month for the time period March 2020 to April 2021. This period
encompasses the beginning of Covid restrictions when many treatments and operations were
cancelled and no one was travelling for leisure reasons.


A spokesperson for NHS Western Isles Board rejected the Comhairle’s passenger numbers claim:
“Any suggestion that the average passenger numbers for the service averaged no more than eight
is factually very inaccurate if you examine numbers between 2019 and 2024. It is correct that
there was a not surprising, pandemic related reduction in numbers in the 2020/21 period. Either
side of that, the numbers bear no resemblance.”


Patients unable to access the plane would face an hour long ferry journey from Berneray to
Leverburgh as well as a return car journey of up to 220 miles.


Reduced mobility access concerns


When asked about the accessibility onto the aircraft Hebridean Air said:
“The aircraft operated on these routes may impact on our ability to carry passengers with reduced
mobility. There is no mechanical aid available or suitable for assisting passengers to board/exit
this aircraft type. The door sill height is 60cm off the ground. We supply a small step-up to assist
those passengers that need it.


“We would suggest that persons of reduced mobility travel with a companion who can assist with
boarding or exiting if required. In order to ensure the safety of all passengers on board it is a
requirement of the Airline that all passengers must be able to board/exit the aircraft without the
need for staff support.”


The Comhairle has made clear that the contract for the service was awarded to the only compliant
bid. Cllr Uisdean Robertson, Chair of Transportation and Infrastructure said:

“We recognise this is not an ideal situation and we are doing everything in our power to find a
better solution. The fact is that our hands are tied by the limited budget we have at our disposal.
For the most part, this route operates as medical service, yet our Health Board make no
contribution to its cost.”


A spokesperson for NHS WI said:
“It is correct to say that the Health Board does not contribute to the grant CnES receives for the
service. The PSO route is solely a matter for, and the responsibility of, the Comhairle. Western
Isles NHS Board was not party to the assessment, preparation, tendering or awarding of this PSO
contract,
“The figures over the past five years, accepting a dip due to the pandemic in 2020/21, show a
consistent and high use of the flights. As a consequence, Western Isles NHS Board makes a huge
and significant financial contribution in terms of paying for the seats it books.”
Cllr Robertson went on to say: “Ministers have recognised our plight and have encouraged us to
work with our partners in Health. With that in mind, Hitrans recently hosted a joint meeting with
the regions NHS Boards to identify how we can collectively address some of the challenges
patients encounter. Chairs or Representatives from every relevant Health Board were there, but
the Western Isles Board was unable to send any representative at all. If we are to find a way
forward, then the Health Board needs to come to the table.”


Issues with the new proposed flights have been raised at Community Councils across Uist leading
Iochdar CC to organise a meeting with representatives of all the community councils in
attendance to address the concerns collectively.


Peter Bird, chair of Iochdar CC said: “It can’t be a public service if the public can’t use it.” Mr Bird
is keen to use the power of community councils to hold decision makers to account by inviting
them to attend a meeting where the public could, hopefully, receive replies to a lot of unanswered
questions.

Uist causeway remain in dangerous state

Heavy rain, storm force winds and coastal flood warnings issued through January brought renewed calls to make safe the low-lying causeways connecting two of Uist’s townships – in Baleshare, North Uist and in Snishival, South Uist.

In North Uist, a community pressure group is highlighting the risk to life presented by the Baleshare Causeway and pleading with Council officials to commit to upgrade works as soon as possible.

The 350 metre Baleshare causeway was built in 1962 but campaigners say the project was never completed. Crucially, they say, the culvert that was planned for the structure was never installed at the time, which has slowed the dispersal of flood water.

No repairs to the structure have been carried out since 2000, and the damage wreaked by the great storm of 2005 was never repaired.

Lynda Maclean of the Baleshare Causeway Campaign group told Am Pàipear: 

“The worry is that when the tide is high or when we experience the kind of weather we have seen in recent weeks, no one can get on or off Baleshare, at least not without danger to life.

“In bad weather,  those determined enough to risk the crossing face a very real chance of being washed away, a risk made greater still by the poor state of the surface of the road, with water covering the perilous holes and cracks that cover the length of the causeway. 

“There is the risk of someone being swept away whilst crossing, but we also need to factor in the indirect risk of someone needing urgent care facing delays when emergency services are unable to get across.

“In January, we had to rely on the Coastguard to get carers on and off; are we really saying this is a reasonable way for Baleshare residents to access services?”

“Do we need to wait for a major incident before those in power will act?”

“We need to push and keep pressure on those in the correct places to ensure the causeway gets major works, or best case scenario, a full replacement.” 

Hopes have been raised that Baleshare Causeway will benefit from the award of £20m from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund, announced in November last year, however Cllr Uisdean Robertson advised caution: 

“While it is positive news that the Comhairle is to benefit to the tune of £20m, we should be aware that the allocation is likely to come with a host of restrictions. We already know, for example, that it cannot be spent on existing projects. We are pressing the Scotland Office for more information but until we get this detail, we cannot say with any authenticity how the money will be spent.”

“Perhaps Scottish Government could fund a similar resilience fund such as the Local Bridge Maintenance Fund which would target causeways serving vulnerable communities.”

Dr Alasdair Allan MSP and Angus MacNeil MP were both vocal in their support of the Baleshare cause when Am Pàipear covered the issue almost a year ago; 11 months further on and with no progress to report, both politicians have again highlighted the urgency of making the structure safe.

In South Uist, the perilous state of the causeway at Snishival is also causing concern. Am Pàipear last covered the plight of residents faced with attempting to cross the broken and partially submerged road back in December 2022 and residents say there have been no improvements since.

In March last year, the findings of a Stòras Uibhist commissioned Inspections and Options report were shared with the Community Council.

The survey looked in detail at the existing structure and concluded it was ‘serviceable and in fair condition for current light traffic only. However, it is set too low when compared to high water levels in Loch Roag and cannot always provide a safe access to the houses on the east side of the loch.’ 

The survey report found that the central bridge was in poor condition, adding ‘it is doubtful if it is suitable for heavy traffic; particularly fire appliances.’

The surveyors proposed improvement works at an estimated cost of £274k, which would make safe the causeway and realign the central section slightly to the south.

A spokesperson for Bornish Community Council told us:

“The engineers report has formalised what we already knew; the causeway is unsafe and needs urgent attention. While it is good to have the details set down with such authority, we are now faced with the reality of progressing what will be a very costly  solution.”

Stòras Uibhist CEO Darren Taylor said he was supportive of the Snishival residents but said the community owned estate did not have the available funds to pay for the work:

“We remain committed to finding a solution for Snishival but the projected cost based on the report we commissioned is beyond the scope of the organisation at the moment. We are looking into the possibility of securing grant funding or alternative solutions. 

“We will be happy to meet again with the Bornish Community Council to review all options.”

Key information remains inaccessible

Siân Swinton 

servers remains inaccessible almost three months after the initial suspected ransomware attack.

The attack, which took place on 7 November last year, resulted in the Comhairle’s website going down and access to services becoming severely restricted. A temporary website has since gone live but many services remain affected.

When asked how the cyber attack may have happened and whether we can be certain the data will not be released publicly, a spokesperson from the Comhairle gave no answer.

The Comhairle has assured Am Pàipear that the recent Short-Term Lets application deadline has been unaffected by the issue.

“While some information is inaccessible, the cyber-attack has not stopped the Comhairle from approving and processing Short-Term Lets licences. To date the Comhairle has issued 504 licences with an additional 172 licences pending. No fines have been issued.”

However, there have been issues with accessing HR and payroll systems.

“Arrangements were made for all Comhairle staff to be paid the same amount that they were paid in October 2023 in their November pay. This presented an issue for staff who had worked more or less hours than in the previous month.” and that, “Any staff who did not receive the correct pay were asked to contact their line managers so that any adjustments could be made.”

Ransomware is an increasingly common form of cyber attack, feared to be on the rise due to the prevalence of AI technology. It works by gaining access to data and encrypting it so authorised users can no longer access it. Sometimes the attackers will leave a ransom note requesting money in exchange for the return of the data. 

If organisations can restore their data from backup servers, they may refuse to engage with attackers; however, the Comhairle has said that “The interim results of the forensic investigation following the cyber-attack on Tuesday, 7 November, has established that data stored on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s operational and backup servers cannot be accessed.”

They have also said that “There is currently no indication that any data has been extracted from the server or published. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar will communicate with those impacted if this situation changes.”

Councils are increasingly becoming victims to ransomware attacks “as a government target is exceptionally high-profile” according to data encryption experts Galaxkey. Attackers may not necessarily expect payment from government bodies, but the news coverage of the attack may intimidate other victims into paying the ransom.

The UK is a member of the International Counter Ransomware Initiative (CRI), who met at the beginning of November last year to discuss the growing threat of ransomware attacks and how they can be both prevented and fought back against. 

The joint statement released by the CRI instructed that “member governments should not pay ransoms” and that the initiative would agree to “assist any CRI member with incident response if their government or lifeline sectors are hit with a ransomware attack.”

Many other councils within the UK have been hit with cyber attacks in recent years, resulting in millions of pounds of damage.

Gloucester City Council was forced to pay more than £1 million to recover from a cyber security incident which occured in 2021 and Redcar and Cleveland Council had an incident in 2020 which cost them more than £7 million. In both of these instances the full extent of the damage and the cost of recovery was only revealed more than two years after the initial incidents.

Three more UK councils were affected by cyber attacks resulting in websites and services becoming inaccessible just last month.

Malcolm Burr, Chief Executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said: “This incident once again demonstrates the vulnerability of all public bodies to the growing threat of cyber-attacks.”

Local Post Offices share concerns

Siân Swinton 

Post Offices are still experiencing complications with their accounting software, say local Postmasters, and they’re not getting paid enough to put up with it.

The issues with the Post Office Horizon accounting software have been a hot topic recently, especially with the airing of the ITV series Mr Bates Vs The Post Office in January. 

Sadly, the scandal had a local effect in Uist, devastating the lives of Bill and Anne Quarm, who ran a Bed & Breakfast and a shop with a Post Office counter in North Uist.

The Quarms’ story has been one of Scotland’s highest profile Horizon cases, but at least four other Post Offices in Uist have also been affected, thankfully with less tragic consequences. Some are even still experiencing issues with the Horizon software, Am Pàipear has heard.

Bill Hogg and Donna Hogg of the Carnan and Balivanich Post Offices told us: 

“Unexplained discrepancies as shown in the TV drama have happened and continue to happen in Post Offices and we, like so many, have had personal experiences in our Post Offices. The public are unaware that Horizon still doesn’t work properly even to this day.”

Another local Postmaster spoke of small discrepancies in their system:

”With hindsight and new information these unexplained discrepancies make sense.”

Some Postmasters will be unable to prove these discrepancies as they paid the shortfall from their own pockets.

“I’d thought I must have messed up but was positive I hadn’t, so I paid it. My paperwork won’t show it as I put money in when balancing to correct what was showing on screen.”

Since the broadcasting of the ITV drama, approximately 100 more people have come forward to say they were affected by the software errors.

Another concern for local businesses operating Post Office counters is the low rate of pay, which has led some to question whether the risk of unreliable accounting software is worth it.

Donna Hogg says the money made from the counters “doesn’t even cover the electric to run the Horizon computer, never mind cover staff wages or for us to live off.”

The counters make between £1.25 and £1.97 per hour, according to Donna’s last tally. 

“We always knew having a Post Office would not make us millionaires and we took it on as it is a vital service to our communities and we’re proud to provide this service even when it’s financially not viable.”

The Horizon scandal has shocked the nation and, here in Uist, the severity of its impact has been keenly felt. Anne Quarm has recently spoken of her own experiences following the overturning of her husband Bill’s conviction. 

The Post Office accused Bill of embezzling tens of thousands of pounds and, under threat of imprisonment, he pleaded guilty to the charge. Bill was convicted and ordered to undertake 150 hours of unpaid work in 2010, and passed away only two years later.

Bill tragically died before his name could be cleared. The distress caused by the accusation and the subsequent loss of their business and family home impacted his health significantly, believes Anne.

The accounting software responsible for the scandal had issues that were known by the Post Office and by Fujitsu, the company that created it. 

In the time between 1999 and 2015 more than 900 Postmasters were prosecuted for theft and fraud when the software showed shortfalls in their accounting. These shortfalls were actually errors within the system rather than deliberate false accounting.

The Horizon IT Inquiry in London was ongoing as Am Pàipear went to print.

Sarah Jane MacSween – Executive Head, Uist Primary Schools

Discover your inner kindness this Christmas – ‘tis the season to be jolly and kind!

As we approach Christmas, we start to hear the word ‘kindness’ and are reminded that this word is commonly used at this time of the year.

I recently heard that kindness was contagious. It got me thinking, whether this was true and more importantly, is there any evidence to back that statement? My immediate thoughts led me to events and celebrations that unsurprisingly, all occurred within school settings. A school environment is arguably the most likely place to see evidence of natural and unconscious kindness. The evidence can be found on corridor and classroom displays, children’s work and Achievement and Celebration Walls to name but a few. Kindness can also be observed through the caring and thoughtful interactions between adult and child and their interactions with each other. I then asked myself the question, is kindness something that can be learned and how and when does it get taught?

Kindness is more than random acts. Being a kind person is about having an awareness and a willingness to respond to the needs of others.

Children learn from the examples set by the adults that surround them. Some say that they begin to imitate others from the moment they are born. As their first educators, parents/carers have the duty to allow their children to experience kindness themselves first hand and so give them the best possible start in life. Of course schools play a significant role in moulding and creating our future generation. However, it is not just the work of the school; the whole community can shape and influence young learners. Family and friendship groups can also make a significant contribution to the attitudes that our children form.

One of the building blocks of kindness is to understand and respect the rights of others. Across the Uist primaries, we pride ourselves on the quality of our Teaching and Learning about rights. Our schools have achieved silver, gold and reaccredited gold Right Respecting Schools status. Teaching and learning about rights involves whole school community involvement, our curriculum, assemblies, interdisciplinary learning, focus days and weeks and the children’s creative and informative displays within the school.

The Uist primaries will continue their Rights Respecting Schools Award journeys as a means to keeping our young children at the centre of everything that we do. We are committed to putting children’s rights at the heart of our school life. We strive to create safe and inspiring places to learn, where children are respected and learn to respect others. By enabling children to have positive attitudes to themselves and others, we enable them to form relationships characterised by kindness.

The school curriculum aims to ensure that all children and young people in Scotland develop the knowledge, skills and attributes they will need to become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens. Underlying these capacities is the capacity to be aware of the needs of others, in a way that treats them with dignity and respect.

Each year our children and our families participate in a number of ways in responding to the needs of others at Christmas. For example, families contribute generously to the Blythswood Shoebox Appeal and a Christmas Swap Shop gives families the chance to find pre-loved party gear or Christmas jumpers. Within our schools, efforts are made to reduce family expenses through the effective use of The Cost of The School Day Toolkit. Families are encouraged to sell unwanted toys/clothes etc. on the schools’ Facebook pages, where all proceeds go towards school funds. Children and their families also reach out to the needs of the wider community by supporting local and national charities, such as WICCI, MacMillan Cancer and Marie Curie.
Another important contribution was when a school and Parent Council purchased electric trikes in partnership with the local care home as part of the Cycling Without Age Scotland initiative.
Across our Uist primaries, themed assemblies and special days highlight local, national and international issues and concerns, ensuring that children are well informed about the needs of others.

A wide range of activities that demonstrate our children’s experiences of expressing kindness take place through the course of the year. These include The Poppy Scotland Appeal, harvest festivals, donations to the local foodbank, panto/concert matinee performances for senior citizens, The Big Scottish Breakfast, sharing of pre-loved school uniform items for exchange free of charge and many other important acts of kindness.

Our schools are very fortunate to have such a high level of generous support and kindness shown to us by our local communities and businesses. Through the kindness of many donors, we receive support for school projects and events such as involvement in Mod preparation, purchases of healthy break time snacks, participation in Remembrance Sunday and sharing in intergenerational activities.

When I reflect on this range of activities in families, schools and communities, I think I can say with confidence that kindness is indeed infectious and alive and well in the Western Isles.

Uist nominees line up

Chaidh sgioba beòthail agus tàlantach ainmeachadh airson 21mh Duaisean Ceòl Traidiseanta na h-Alba aig MG ALBA a tha a’ taisbeanadh na tha de thàlant ann an saoghal ceòl traidiseanta na h-Alba.
Fans of the genre were able to vote for who they think deserves to take home each prestigious award, with the winners announced at the annual glittering awards ceremony at Caird Hall in Dundee on Saturday 2nd December 2023.

Le cànan is ceòl aig cridhe nan eilean, chan eil iongnadh ann gu bheil a leithid as na h-eileanan air an ainmeachadh airson na duaisean urramach a tha seo. Tha na duaisean seo a’ sealltainn an luach a thathar a cuir air na tha a h-uile duine air a’ gheàrr-liosta air a choileanadh fad bliadhna.
Le ath-bheothachadh drùidhteach air a’ ghnè, a’ ruighinn luchd-èisteachd nas fharsainge le fèisean is tachartasan ùra a’ tighinn am bàrr bliadhna às deidh bliadhna, tha na duaisean – air an cur air dòigh leis a’ bhuidheann ‘Hands Up For Trad ‘– a’ seasamh mar theisteanas air tarraingeachd leantainneach an t-saoghail.

From new events and festivals making history to the country’s best bands and composers, the successful nominees represent the past, present and future of a world traditional Scottish music and are located all over the country.

Home grown Meals on Wheels service

Tagsa Uibhist and MacLeans Bakery launch new home-grown Meals on Wheels service in Uist.
Biadh Blasta Uibhist will supply and deliver over 500 nutritious meals to those being cared for at home this winter. The meals have been made with local Uist lamb, venison, salmon and vegetables and will be delivered using zero-emission vehicles.

Tagsa’s Local Food Development Manager, Alex MacKenzie said: ‘These delicious meals are all made using local Uist meat, fish, and vegetables. The Tagsa staff and volunteers have been working with local crofters, the North Uist Estate and with local salmon companies and have grown huge amounts of potatoes, carrots, onions, and rhubarb here at Tagsa and in the community. The meals are traditional, healthy, and nutritious and have been prepared, packaged and blast frozen by MacLeans Bakery, meeting all required food safety standards. We will start our deliveries in the week of the 20th of November, reaching a total of 23 Tagsa clients over eight weeks.”

Allan Maclean, Director of Maclean’s Bakery, said: ‘We were delighted to be asked to help our friends at Tagsa Uibhist with their project as we share a passion for local produce and community gardens. We are lucky in Uist that there are so many excellent food producers and we are strongly supportive of any project that highlights their good work. We wish them every success for the future.”

Tagsa’s CEO, Chris MacLullich added: ‘A recent study carried out by Tagsa shows that the cost of food in Uist is 28% higher than on the mainland and that the availability of fresh, nutritious food is limited due to erratic deliveries and the lack of large supermarkets. These factors combined mean that eating fresh, nutritious, and healthy food can be very difficult for many in Uist, particularly those who find it difficult to prepare fresh meals themselves. We are grateful to the Comhairle for a grant of £2,500, which goes some way to making this pilot project possible. Our hope is to do the same and scale up in the coming years.”

Biadh Blasta Uibhist will initially run for a period of eight weeks but the hope is to establish the service on a permanent basis.

Prestigious ‘charity MBE’ for local charity

In November, members of the SHARE/ Daliburgh Thrift Shop were thrilled to learn that they were recipients of one of the first prestigious King’s Awards for Voluntary Service (KAVS).
Equivalent to an MBE, KAVS is the highest Award given to local voluntary groups in the UK and champions the outstanding work of groups of volunteers working in their local community. SHARE was one of just 262 organisations across the UK to be honoured in this way.

Avril Campbell, Chairperson of SHARE said:

“We are delighted that the hard work and commitment of our loyal team of volunteers over many years has been recognised with this award. The thrift shop has carved out a unique and special place in the heart of the community and is truly something created and enjoyed by one and all.

“Indeed the entire community deserves this recognition. SHARE acknowledges that their success depends not only on the hard work of volunteers but also on the continuing support of their loyal customers and the generosity of people in the community who donate so many wonderful high quality goods for sale.”

The first seeds of the thrift shop were sown nearly a quarter of a century ago by the then Church of Scotland minister, Rev James Lawson, who had the vision to realise that the Church Hall could be used for the benefit of the whole community. After much discussion and canvassing of the views of members of the community, it was decided to develop the first thrift shop and tea room. By June 2005, the thrift shop was constituted as SHARE (Sharing, Helping, and Reaching Everyone) and charitable status was granted.

Funding for the renovation of the Hall was secured and on 15th March 2007, the thrift shop reopened and of course it seemed only right that Rev James Lawson returned to Daliburgh to dedicate the building. Since then, SHARE has gone from strength to strength.

SHARE currently has a team of 35 volunteers, a number of whom have been with the organisation since it started. The SHARE volunteers make for a happy team, says Avril:

“The hard work and friendliness of the whole team mean that all customers, both local and those visiting the islands, can be assured of a warm welcome. Indeed there are so many lovely comments to that effect.”

“Every Thursday and Saturday many people go along to the thrift shop from 11 am to 1 pm to enjoy a friendly chat over tea, coffee and home baking and to find bargains. We pride ourselves on offering great value for money especially in these tough times of hardship. Once running costs of the hall are deducted, all proceeds from sales and teas are donated to local charities and good causes.”


Since 2008, SHARE has donated an impressive £86,478 to over 75 organisations.

Libby Learmond

Service Manager – Penumbra Western Isles

IS IT TIME FOR A NEW APPROACH TO DELIVERING MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES IN UIST?

What do you think of when people mention mental health or wellbeing? These phrases are thankfully more commonplace in our everyday language these days with many more public conversations taking place. It feels like there is less stigma in talking about how we are feeling. This has to be a good thing, hasn’t it? And it is to an extent … but I worry that this could have the unintended consequence of almost masking the immense impact on lives when someone experiences mental ill health… There is hope though. With care and support the impact can be minimised, and wellbeing restored. Recovery is possible.

My lived experience is of having a family member being very seriously ill and needing intensive medical and psychological support for over two years. She is well now and did get amazing care, but it changed the lives and perspective of our whole family. We were lucky, I had a very understanding and flexible employer. I also, to put it bluntly, had the money to take her to Stornoway on a weekly basis and to Inverness to receive treatment. A person’s access to the support they need should not be dependent on their ability to afford the transport costs or the time from work to get to the help they need.

During the pandemic, (I’ll get to the psychological impact of the pandemic in a moment), we were all taught about the value of preventative care. For a physical, potentially serious condition you can take precautions, washing your hands, keeping your distance, staying at home and taking lemsip or suchlike if you feel unwell. There was an emphasis on how to look after ourselves and knowing what we could do to get through the symptoms. The seriously ill got treatment, most of us had a grotty couple of weeks, others needed ongoing help or hospitalisation, some, sadly, died. We need to take the same proactive, recovery focused, approach to our mental health and for there to be the support services available to enable us to do so.

The statistics tell us that each year in Scotland, one in four people have a mental health issue. Some are medical conditions, some brought about by life experiences, others by a sudden shock or a change to a person’s way of life, stress, addiction, losing a job, relationship issues or bereavement. If a person can receive compassionate support through a crisis or to manage longer term anxiety their prognosis can be changed. They don’t need to be “medicalised” or dependent on the stretched statutory services. They can be supported through their own, person-focused recovery, here in Uist and Benbecula in their own timescales.

Now, I do need to make it clear that I am definitely not criticising any of the people out there providing much needed support. The medical folks, Community Psychiatric Nursing Service (CPNS), Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), Social Workers and support staff do an amazing job in incredibly difficult conditions. At times I worry for the stress they are under and have nothing but respect for their commitment and how they work with as many people as they do. But they will tell you themselves that they are stretched beyond belief. We need another way of doing things to get the people the help when they need it and not to burn out the health of professionals that we have.

I can almost see you rolling your eyes and saying that’s all very well but where is the help and support going to come from? The Comhairle has no money, the NHS is understaffed, there are precious few Care Assessors in the Social Work department. All that is true. But what is also true is that Uist has a very strong and capable third sector, providing mental health support, befriending, substance use counselling and a range of services. As a community we could do more if third sector activities were coordinated with the Integrated Joint Board for Health and Social Care . This joint approach could prevent a crisis in someone’s life becoming a life- threatening emergency. The problem is that while there is minimal grant funding, it isn’t enough, nor coordinated or targeted effectively towards the mental wellbeing of our community. While I would never put a price on a person’s mental health, local early support is far cheaper than emergency intervention or a long stay in a mainland hospital with all the disruption to families and services that causes. A more holistic view needs to be taken towards where and how the money is spent.

In the apparent absence of mental health objectives, targets or intended outcomes from either the Comhairle or locality planning, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be confident that we know what our communities need in respect of mental health and wellbeing treatments or recovery.

 The last two years, during the pandemic we suffered a marked increase in social isolation and indeed anxieties around our own health and vulnerability. People were not able to or didn’t want to ask for help for what they considered minor or unimportant symptoms; we are seeing the consequences of this now. People are struggling when they deserve to be able to enjoy life. It is not too much to ask.

I am not asking for a magic wand or for hard-working professionals in the health and social care sector to try and do more. But I do believe with new and emerging national strategies on mental health and wellbeing, suicide prevention and selfharm, community partners have an opportunity to come together to plan a Western Isles response that meets the needs of our people. We know money is tight – it is for everyone – but if community partners work and plan together, I am confident they can address much of what is needed to make a real difference to the wellbeing of our community.

NATIONAL GP SHORTAGE TAKES ITS TOLL ON ISLAND PRACTICE

In April next year, Benbecula Medical Practice will join the growing number of Scottish GPs making the move from independent businesses to NHS owned and operated services.

The news comes a year after Barra’s Castlebay Medical Practice made the same transition following the unexpected departure of its GP.

The move has been driven by a national shortage of GPs and exacerbated by a local recruitment crisis that has made it impossible for Benbecula Practice to recruit the GP Partners it needs to run the business.

Dr Kate Dawson told Am Pàipear of her disappointment with the move but says she and her fellow Practice Partner Dr Mark Johnson were left with no other viable option:

“For many years the Practice was shared between four GP Partners. This allowed for a range of additional specialist services and allowed us to take on the medical services contract for the Uist & Barra Hospital.

“One by one our Partners have retired; Dr Senior in 2015 and then Dr Tierney in 2017. We have been actively searching for replacement partners throughout this period but despite our earnest and continued efforts, we have not been able to do so.

“While we have successfully recruited salaried GPs and Locum doctors as and when required we have not found the new partners we need to share the risk and responsibility of running the business.”

“Having invested our time and money into the business over the last 25 years, it is very disappointing to be in this position, but after nine years of trying to recruit GP partners, six years intensively so, we have had to accept that we can not carry on as we are.

“By taking this proactive approach, we aim to ensure the change is as positive as it can be. We could soldier on with fewer and fewer resources but by doing this now we can make sure we do it well.

“While it is a disappointment for us as a business I am reassured that the Western Isles Healthboard will ensure the transition to NHS control will be carried out smoothly and with no adverse effects for patients or staff.”

Dr Dawson anticipates that she will continue to work in the same way, although on a salaried contract. Dr Johnson is retiring, with the option of returning to work on a part-time basis

NHS Western Isles Medical Director, Dr Frank McAuley, said: “I’d like to take this opportunity to commend Drs Dawson and Johnson for the gold standard service they have provided to patients on Benbecula over the years. Their commitment and dedication to providing patients with the best possible care has been unwavering.”

A spokesperson for the Board added: “The move to Health Board managed medical practices is seen throughout Scotland, indeed the Western Isles has been late in seeing such transitions. This is definitely a sign of the times, and should in no way be seen as failure on a Medical Practice’s part. .”

 “The service provided by Benbecula Medical Practice will continue to provide the excellent patient-focused care it has provided over many years. We look forward to working with the Benbecula Medical Staff, as healthcare provision on Uists and Benbecula enters a new era.” The Board was unable to confirm its commitment to maintaining the same GP/patient ratio after the Practice transitions to their control, saying:

“NHSWI is not in a position to commit to staffing numbers or skill mix due to sustainable recruitment issues and changing models of healthcare delivery. Clearly a move away from reliance on any form of locum cover is preferred throughout the healthcare teams.”