A Happy New Year to all - I hope that after a tough year, the festive period still gave a chance to recharge and to have time with those closest to us, even if circumstances meant that had to happen virtually rather than physically.
We learned in the last week that the Oxford University-AstroZeneca vaccine has been approved for roll-out. As the NHS progresses with administering the vaccines - firstly to priority groups and then to the wider population more generally - our collective line of defence against this virus will strengthen. The more people who can be given the protection of a first vaccination, even if that delays a ‘booster’ shot, hopefully, the more difficult it will become for new, more infectious variants of the virus to spread further.
Meantime, the number of infections has again been rising at an alarming rate across the UK. While numbers are not as dramatic right now in Scotland as they are in London, we have learned the hard way that the time to act is always sooner rather than later. The enhanced restrictions for mainland Scotland, while tough, will help to stop the virus from spreading through person to person contact and allow the vaccination programme to get ahead of the virus.
I’ve written before about my frustrations over how the UK Government was refusing to allow digital participation in House of Commons debates, something which excluded MPs who needed to shield or and which disenfranchised their constituents. I’m pleased that the Government has at last for the time being relented and is now allowing for this to take place.
Over this time, I have been travelling to Westminster to take part physically in proceedings. Just prior to Christmas, I led the SNP Group of MPs in debates about telecoms security, digital access and the future of the high street.
The Telecommunications (Security) Bill will be going through Committee Stages in the early part of the year. Introduced to tackle the potential security threat posed by telecoms vendors thought to be ‘high risk’, it will mean mobile phone networks having to strip out and replace some 4G equipment already installed.
For parts of Aberdeenshire with no existing 4G coverage, the potential impact on roll-out is clear, as is the potential impact that any delayed roll-out could have on the ability of people to access the UK Government’s ‘Universal Service Obligation’ for broadband, which relies on having good quality access to 4G and above mobile signals. I’ll be using my place on the committee to seek assurances as to how we can ensure that the security objectives of this bill can be achieved without harming rural connectivity.
In better news, the legal dispute over the award of the North package for the Scottish Government’s R100 broadband programme was resolved towards the end of last year. The fact that this can now go ahead will see a further £384 million being invested in delivering high-speed broadband across the North, which taken together with the recently announced Scottish Government broadband voucher scheme, will start to bring many more people within the scope of affordable, reliable high-speed broadband connections in the months ahead.