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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Boats and Planes

For the next two-three days Orkney is without it's lifeline ferry service supplied by Northlink and subsidised by the Scottish Government* led by the Scottish National Party (SNP). This is due to the knock on effect from the volcano eruption in Iceland and cancelled flights etc.

According to BBC Radio Orkney bulletins the Scottish Government have been in discussions over the last couple of days to take the ferry which runs the main Scrabster (North Scotland) to Stromness route (the Hamnavoe) and use it to rescue 200 stranded passengers in Scandinavia. This would be a once only trip but would mean the ferry is out of operation in Orkney for THREE days. OK not too bad as there is the Aberdeen-Kirkwall (Orkney)-Lerwick (Shetland) route and folk are stranded and in need of help. Only it seems that the Scottish Government and ferry operators Northlink, omitted to tell Orkney politicians that as well as taking the Hamnavoe out of service to Orkney, the "Aberdeen" service would not stop at Orkney until further notice due to a backlog of passengers and freight bound for Shetland (which is a hub for North Sea Oil rigs/workers/supplies and of course locals).

Both the Northlink services receive £10m annual subsidy from the Scottish Government as they are declared "lifeline" services. Hmmm OK so the SG can take our so called lifeline service away when it wants then? Accepted this is an emergency and I think folk would have been more amenable to the decision to take the Hamnavoe out of service for a couple of days had it not been that the Aberdeen service is now not available.

There is ONE service running. A single private operator, Pentland Ferries, run by Andrew Banks from Orkney (who receives no subsidy from the SG). He had been involved in discussions relating to the Hamnavoe being out of service and had said that he could take up the slack but it seems even he wasn't told about the Aberdeen service being out of commission for a while. So now it's uncertain whether there is capacity.

You may think this is us pleeping about nothing, but - the majority of supplies for our local shops and supermarkets are transported via these boats, as well as other essential supplies (fuel, supplies for businesses etc) and when there are no flights available it is the ONLY way folk can get south either for business, or vitally visiting Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, as well as the route for post and newspapers.

Northlink said in an interview on Radio Orkney today that they had the only "Euro Class" ferries available in Scotland that could go over to Scandinavia on the rescue mission, and that Shetland had a huge backlog as it provided the only ferry service, and with no planes for days folk needed to get to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary for hospital appointments and treatment. That is true - but they omitted to say that the same is true for ORKNEY!

Aberdeen RI is our nearest main hospital - the NHS Balfour Hospital in Orkney provides a limited service (and it is a good service!). But it is more of a "community hospital" providing limited medical and surgical services, Accident & Emergency etc. However if you need a CAT or MRI scan, major surgery, medical treatment, difficult delivery of a baby etc it's a trip by plane to the ARI. But with planes grounded, including the air ambulance (leaving medical evacuation to the Coastguard) the only other option was the Aberdeen ferry. Not now it's not! Although some flights have gone over the last couple of days, it's just been announced (11.25) that ALL flights in and out of Orkney are now grounded!

It begs the question in Orkney as to just what the Scottish Government led by the SNP think of us! Especially as they were not open with our local politicians as to WHAT they wanted (eg TWO not ONE boat). Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP, said when he came to power he wanted a "Scotland independent of Westminster" and wanted a referendum for independence for Scotland. Seems to me that the SNP are as partisan as the Westminster government. Think Alex, you may well have lost a large proportion of the 20,000 potential votes in Orkney for "independence" with this decision!

More on the topic at All About Orkney and BBC News

Interestingly though - a couple of folk I know have said they now understand how it felt on Graemsay when, until recently, we would be without a ferry to Stromness on 3 out of 4 winter weekends!

*For those outside the UK a quick explanation - "domestic matters" such as transport, housing, social care, health care, education and one or two other matters are "devolved" to the Scottish Parliament which sits in Edinburgh. However the Scottish Parliament receives huge amounts of funding from the central Westminster government, but it makes the decisions on where and how to spend it. In Scotland therefore each constituency has an MSP (member of Scottish Parliament) and an MP (member of Westminster Parliament). Currently the Scottish Parliament is governed by a minority government of the Scottish National Party - SNP, who many feel are as equally partisan in dispensing their favours as the Westminster government can be eg SNP stronghold is in the West of Scotland, including the Western Isles, who get greater subsidies for a range of matters than other parts of Scotland, including Orkney which has been "Lib-Dem" for many years.

Note - Radio Orkney also have a page on Facebook - it's been a great way to keep up with developments of news!


  1. Could it be that the SG realise that Orkney has been Liberal Democrat for a long time, and probably will remain so.Therefore he doesn't bother trying to win our votes and will only do something if there are votes in it for him.

  2. Yip I'm certain that has a lot to do with it!

  3. I'm struggling to share the outrage that some folk were showing about this issue when I was in town yesterday. This is a very unusual situation and it would be mean-spirited if we were able to help and didn't.
    The Hamnavoe will be back tomorrow and the Aberdeen boats next week. I can live without bananas until then.

  4. Hi Malc - like you I can live without bananas and other supplies for a few days. I think there are two concerns which are angering people - one - due to lack of flights folk needing urgent treatment, or diagnostic tests have had to go via the ABereen boat anyway, now that's not available, or they go via Banks and have a long journey. Also for me it's the concern that both the boats were taken away without consultation or at least a "Please" to our local politicians. It sets a precedent for more than just emergency situations. There were other vessels in the UK (eg Newcastle) which could have been sent to rescue the folk in Norway. I think folk would have accepted one boat going, but not both.

  5. It sounds to me like a big part of the problem is a lack of communication. Knowing your going to be cut off like this is one thing, finding out bit by bit is frightening.

  6. Starting to catch up little by little with other blogs after 2 weeks' enforced 'not reading'. I guess/ hope your transport is back to normal now but this post still makes me very indignant on your behalf. As you say, let's by all means help out in a crisis, but the lack of communication is dreadful. Holyrood is at least as urban in its outlook as Westminster. The SNP, for all its bluster (and the odd good individual MSP), seems to me to be dominated by the central belt and not to give a stuff about rural communities when it comes to the crunch. Short of moving to the central belt (no thanks!) what do we in the rest of Scotland have to do to get a voice in government? Ach. Rant over, sorry.

  7. Hayley - I think the concern was that Orkney would be potentially without a lifeline service for three days, and with no flights, no way for people to get to hospital appointments in Aberdeen etc, businesses suffering etc etc. Taking one boat would have been acceptable to most folk, but two both seemed to be taking the mickey!

  8. Dancing Beastie - the SNP seem to give quite a few subsidies to the Western Isles - certainly in terms of transport. They are piloting a scheme there which reduces transport/ferry costs for the population considerably. Won't give it to Orkney & Shetland though - we don't vote for them!! I'm with you on the rant!