Later this year Am Pàipear will have been in print for 45 years. If there is one issue that has dominated the headlines consistently since 1976 it is transportation. Look through the archive of this newspaper and, across all the decades, there are questions, concerns and, even at times, celebrations over matters of transportation.
Campaigns for new ferry routes, fears over proposed cuts to air services and the realisation of new fixed links between islands are some of the notable examples in this area that have united and sometimes divided our communities. However, where travel across islands and back and forth to to the mainland is concerned, in each instance the issues drive much debate.
It is no surprise, given our location, as we are so beholden to reliable transport connections. In fact it is difficult to think of a single aspect of our lives that does not in some way depend upon the consistent functioning of air services and the ferries network, with ample capacity. It is a dependency that is very real to us all as islanders and, most likely, scarcely imaginable for most of our neighbours on the mainland.
However, to understand our reliance on planes and, in particular, ferries, is to be increasingly aware of the multiplying associated difficulties. Looking through more recent editions of Am Pàipear provides ample illustration, with stories of an ageing and ever more troublesome CalMac fleet, lack of capacity on the ferries network in the summer, and the ongoing debacle of air traffic control services and the seeming intransigence of HIAL.
Reading all of the above, there would seem to be an unanswerable case for a tunnel to the mainland from Benbecula. It would at least remove all problems concerning service reliability and capacity…no more booking weeks in advance and endless observation of the weather forecast for fear of a cancelled sailing!
It is not difficult to imagine numerous further benefits. Tourism could increase tenfold with almost unlimited opportunities for new and established local businesses. Goods of all sorts should become cheaper, decreasing the cost of living, with freight able to be transported more frequently at reduced expense. Crofters and fisherman could access markets more readily with improved choice and flexibility.
Business and public authorities would save small fortunes in travel and accommodation budgets, with it possible to make day trips to destinations such as Inverness and even Glasgow.
Some have spoken about the potential of inter-island and cross-Minch tunnels for some time, although, it is probably fair to say, such notions have tended to be dismissed as fanciful. Even despite the relatively close examples available for comparison, indeed on a far greater scale than proposed here, in Norway, Denmark and the Faroe Islands. Now the concept of a tunnel connecting Benbecula to Skye has been included in a list of potential future transport investments for the Scottish Government, it is very much real and merits serious thought and discussion.
If such a tunnel were created, it would bring about the most profound change in the history of our islands. Indeed there would is a question as to whether or not these could still be considered islands. But aside from that broader, perhaps immaterial question, some thought must be given to the potential downside of a mainland tunnel.
Substantial increases in footfall, possibly all year round, could impact on the natural environment and, as mass tourism has in other parts of the world, lead to a dilution of our culture. Unrestricted access to the islands could make land and property even more attractive, leading to a rise in prices, further squeezing out young people. Easy access to a wider market could diminish, indeed perhaps render redundant, many local enterprises ranging from retail outlets to auction marts.
Such considerations should now be addressed. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar must adopt a policy position on the tunnel proposal, based on whether or not it is a feasible and desirable strategic objective for the Outer Hebrides. Now we are in the midst of an election for the Scottish Parliament, we should know the views of our candidates for MSP.
In order to inform our representatives and decision makers, we as islanders must consider our own opinions and in order to reach a view we must be informed. It is time for a serious conversation and an appraisal of the available options.
If we are to remain dependent on ferries, in the main, we must see a long-term plan for investment that assures improvement in service delivery. But then, perhaps we are all done with any degree of uncertainty and would rather a fixed link with all its advantages and disadvantages. It is time to start digging and some light at the end of the tunnel.
Confirmation that half the adults in the Western Isles have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination is most welcome, indeed, cause for some celebration. Combined with the fact that many of the oldest and most vulnerable in our communities, particularly those resident in care homes, have now also received their second dose, and encouraging data emerging on the effectiveness of the various vaccinations, we can all feel a sense of relief.
It is worth remembering the grave fears that marked this time last year, at the outset of the devastating so-called ‘first wave’ of the coronavirus. We watched and listened as the hammer blow fell hardest on the major centres of population on the mainland, pushing the NHS to the limit, and our own vulnerabilities were foremost in our minds. It has surely been worth enduring the restrictions on activities and contact, despite their own damaging effects, to reach this stage where our most susceptible friends and relatives have gained a significant level of protection.
While we should always be grateful for those who choose to work in healthcare, no matter what role, we are even more indebted to those who have worked so hard to protect us over the last twelve months from COVID-19. We thank those who staff our hospitals, providing care and treatment in the most taxing and frightening circumstances. But at this particular moment and over the months to come, we must also think of those who have worked to test, trace and now vaccinate our population. Many of these individuals are returned from retirement or have been seconded from other vital roles within the NHS and their achievements to date, keeping our islands relatively unscathed and seeing half the adult population well on the way to full vaccination in less than three months, is nothing short of remarkable.
Some reacted with disappointment when the Scottish Government recently announced its ‘roadmap’ out of the current lockdown. Most of Scotland has been in a ‘Level 4’ lockdown since Christmas with the Western Isles placed under the same designation at the end of January. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in her statement to the Scottish Parliament on 23rd February 2021, where the ‘roadmap’ was outlined, said the ‘Level 4’ restrictions will remain until 26th April 2021. Understandably, given the challenges of the past year, not all were pleased that the much anticipated return to ‘normal life’ will not come sooner.
However, while the impacts of prolonged isolation, not to mention the negative economic consequences, are troublesome, it is critical that this exit from lockdown is indeed irreversible. It is not credible to consider a future scenario in which we return to this unhealthy existence. If a more cautious, incremental easing of restrictions will allow the vaccination programme to continue at its impressive pace, giving greater protection to a larger proportion of the population, then we must be patient in the hope this is the last time we will live under such rules.
It is clear the coronavirus has altered the world. Now it seems reasonable to imagine a future with no ‘stay at home’ order and considerably more freedom, some are starting to imagine society after COVID-19. In urban areas, with some element of home working expected to continue, it is thought redundant office units could become residential properties, traffic congestion could be significantly reduced with resultant benefits for the environment, and high streets will be reimagined to reflect changed demand for services.
Here on the islands, the situation will be somewhat different, but it is unquestionable that some change will be realised in the aftermath of COVID-19. It is not clear what progress is being made with the implementation of the local economic recovery strategy, far less what sort of implications, good and bad, will be realised in the Outer Hebrides. However, soon that future will be the present and we will all play a part in the rebuilding, whether helping those who have been in isolation return to more active lives, supporting local businesses or adapting to new ways of working. It will be daunting at first and no doubt there will be challenges and opportunities.
Healthcare workers have adapted, kept us safe and seen many of us vaccinated in impressive time. It is imperative the transition to the ‘new normal’ is also marked by adaptability and the economic recovery keeps up with the pace.