by Colin Campbell
A YEAR ago we were in the last days of semi-normality, before change started happening with bewildering speed.
Inverness stores were besieged from Monday onwards as some shelves were stripped bare. Mothers of babies and infants were receiving tip-offs from relatives if there were any sightings of essential items for their kids. The Great Toilet Roll Raid was underway. Paracetamol was snapped up as if it had lifesaving properties.
Shops, hotels and restaurants began to close. Then toward the end of the week the shutters went up in pubs. And by Saturday the city centre was a ghost town where the normal relaxed weekend atmosphere of shopping, browsing and meeting for a coffee might never have existed.
The fact that we’ve now clocked up a year of all this scarcely induces a feeling of reflective nostalgia. The Year of the Virus is chronicled on Inverness news and views in over 200 articles. Sometime in the future we might look back over them with some pride in our labours, but as of now there is no inclination to revisit a single one.
Twelve months on we are now in Year Two of the Virus. Much has changed. But confusion and uncertainty remain. Sometimes it feels like the end is in sight, and sometimes it doesn’t.
The vaccine has changed everything, with all the main risk groups and more than a third of the country having received a first dose, and nearly 200,000 of the most vulnerable people having received a second.
But the clear message from the Scottish Government – just about their only clear message – is: Don’t get optimistic.
As things stand, restrictions are now even tighter than they were a year ago, and for the months that followed as well.
It’s illegal to travel outside your local authority area, which means that it’s against the law for someone who has been vaccinated in Aberdeen or Perth to travel to visit someone who’s been vaccinated in Inverness.
And last week Nicola Sturgeon tightened restrictions which will apply to the tier system, which is supposed to come into effect from the end of April.
Under the changes the number of virus cases for a Tier One zone will have to be fewer than 20 per 100,000. The number in the Highlands just now is 33.5. So with much of the population here vaccinated by the end of April we may not even get back to the level we were in for many months before the vaccine arrived.
The changes mean that people from vast swathes of the country could still be unable to travel to the Highlands in two months time to rescue the tourist industry and the thousands of jobs that go with it.
And last week one of Sturgeon’s advisers, Professor Devi Sridhar, casually tossed out the prospect of a third lockdown being necessary later in the year if there’s a spike in infections. Sridhar may – or may not – relish the prospect of another full shutdown but she didn’t seem to have any conception of the bafflement bordering on anger such a declaration could evoke among many who heard her.
How many of the people dominating our lives are, even subconsciously, on a power trip that they don’t want to end?
Sturgeon and co have been very clear in getting across their never-ending Stay at Home message – not too difficult a task.
But they’ve been much less informative in explaining why draconian restrictions will be in place for some time to come – we don’t really know for how long – after so many people have been vaccinated.
A second dose of the vaccine should enable anyone not in the grip of acute virus paranoia to finally feel very close to being “safe”, although face masks will be around for some time yet. That will provide 95 per cent protection against the virus and, according to real life data from world leader Israel, virtually 100 per cent protection against serious illness. The number of people in the very highest risk over-80 category who have been fully vaccinated, have caught the virus, and ended up in hospital there is down to single figures.
Of course a significant number of people may well be in the grip of virus paranoia. No wonder, given the year-long bombardment of disease and death warnings. How long they’ll take to shake it off – if they ever will – is wholly unclear.
And the new blitz of warnings being directed at a worn-down populace concerns “variants”. There may some reason for concern over this. But my own feeling – and that of other folk I’ve spoken to – is that if shock waves spread every time a new “variant” is discovered this could go on for ever.
And shops and hotels and restaurants – and pubs – can’t stay closed for ever, in the same way as the “free money” furlough scheme can’t go on indefinitely.
It may not be the best time to bring politics into it but it’s inevitable. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK Government led the world in securing supplies of the vaccine for Scotland and the rest of the country. They have poured billions across the border for the furlough scheme to prevent the personal and economic catastrophe that would have hit so many people if that money wasn’t there.
Sturgeon’s priority has been to appear more cautious and “responsible” than the nationalists least favourite “buffoon”, while her SNP minions have devoted their efforts to depicting the Tory Government as callous and heartless, while keeping up their grievance-mongering demands for more, more, more.
It’s been an easy ride for Sturgeon to be ultra-cautious and supposedly responsible when she doesn’t have to worry about where the next few billions are coming from, with the onus on Westminster to provide them. And she continues to want to set herself apart from England, quite probably just for the sake of it, given her track record of refusing ever to ease restrictions at the same time as Boris Johnson.
There is bound to be increasing restlessness among very many people in Scotland who have been vaccinated for a return to something close to normality, albeit with basic precautions, as the weeks drag by.
As of now Inverness city centre, like town and city centres everywhere, remains desolate and empty, and the prospects for businesses and jobs remain highly uncertain. For how much longer?
We are in a vastly different situation from where we were a year ago, one that is so much better. So when will Nicola Sturgeon and her ultra-cautious advisers, who have had a year of extraordinary power over every single aspect of our lives, finally begin to surrender that stranglehold and “allow” a vaccinated population to resume living life as we want and choose to live it?