Edward Mountain MSP
Next year, the National Health Service will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Since its establishment, in 1948, the NHS has become a much-cherished institution and indeed a source of national pride. Doctors and nurses have been everyday heroes to generation after generation. We respect them as we do the remarkable advances in health care we have witnessed in the UK.
The celebrations of the NHS birthday are truly deserved; however, we must also ensure that the next seventy years are also ones we can cherish and celebrate. Thus the well-documented problems affecting the NHS in the Highlands and across all of Scotland should not go without comment. Communities are rightly concerned. Not a week goes by without more troubling news of overstretched services, under-supported staff and unfilled posts. In recent months, the Board of NHS Highland has overseen a number of crises.
In July, the Board of NHS Highland were forced to apologise after a Scottish Public Services Ombudsman found there had been unreasonable delays to knee surgery. In August, admissions to New Craigs Hospital and the Cambusavie Unit at Lawson Hospital were suspended due to staff shortages. In September, it emerged that a shortage of radiologists had led to serious delays in surgery and emergency reporting, with 8,000 films unreported. In spite of these problems our doctors, nurses and consultants have continued to show incredible fortitude and dedication which we must always acknowledge. I have heard many tales of our nurses and doctors going above and beyond the call of duty, while under extreme operational pressures.
Whilst doctors and nurses are rising to the challenge, I am concerned that both the Scottish Government and the Board of NHS Highland are falling short in supporting them and meeting expectations especially in the Highlands and Islands. The current redesign of health services for the Isle of Skye and Wester Ross to name just two, is a case in point. The centralisation of health services in Broadford has rightly angered communities in North Skye and the Isle of Raasay who feel their needs are not being fully considered, given the proposed service reductions that will affect them. The Scottish Government and the Board of NHS Highland continue to plough on with the controversial Highlands health provision redesign despite growing public dissent.
It is not yet too late for them to change course and I call on them to do so. There is still time to urgently address the concerns of those, not only in North Skye and Raasay, but also those in Caithness, Sutherland and Strathspey. Whilst I understand the financial pressures that the Scottish Government and the Board of NHS Highland currently face, they must ensure they put patients and medical staff first. And put people before politics. For too long, we have seen a Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport who, when challenged about staff shortages and suspended services, has too readily relied upon the excuse that the remoteness of the Highlands and Islands presents difficulties when it comes to recruitment and health service design.
We have heard this excuse on too many occasions and there is a danger that such thinking is sapping the energy and ambition of the Scottish Government and health care administrators to act. The Highlands and Islands present some significant geographical challenges, but these are obstacles that can be overcome if we set our minds to it. In the last century, glens and lochs did not stand in the way of healthcare visionaries from providing medical care to remote crofting communities where health services where almost non-existent.
From 1913 to 1948, the Highlands and Islands Medical revolutionised care for 300,000 people in the region, offering doctor and nursing services, local hospital surgery and specialist care. Working in remote areas became an attractive career option for medical practitioners and healthcare provision was of a higher standard than much of Britain. In 1948, the National Health Service further built upon these achievements by guaranteeing universal, comprehensive and free at the point of need health care to all in the Highlands and Islands. As the country gears up to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS, the Scottish Government and the Board of NHS Highland must reflect on the past. They must channel the pioneering work of the Highlands and Island Medical Service and maintain the founding principles of the National Health Service.
It is time for them to match the commitment of doctors and nurses and take more urgent action to provide the best possible health care. Time to build and support teams, not dismantle them. In every one of the 40 surgeries I held this summer, from Portree to Bettyhill and Dalwhinnie to John O’Groats, and every business I visited, there was a common call to ensure everyone was connected.
Not just by roads but also by broadband. To allow our businesses to flourish and our children to make the most of their education and employment opportunities, we need fast broadband. It is not just rural areas that are suffering but also urban areas. I believe that all politicians will be held to account if this is not delivered as quickly as possible. The SNP-led Scottish Government missed a golden opportunity to announce greater strides in improving mobile 4G and broadband connectivity across Scotland when they launched their programme for Government.
There is huge scope to accelerate delivery, bringing the roll out of high-speed broadband and giving our businesses the boost they desperately need. Investing in digital infrastructure sooner rather than later would ensure a growing Highlands economy leading to more jobs and more income. But no acceleration for the delivery of broadband was announced – those in the Highlands and Islands will still have to wait in the digital slow lane until 2021.
This will come as disappointing news especially to communities and rural economies who have fibre cabinets within touching distance but still out of reach. The harvest season has arrived and would be finished if it stopped raining. The temperature has dropped and the nights are closing in. In the Highlands, the swallows have gone, the geese are here, the leaves are falling – all signs that summer is past. Some, like Keith Brown MSP and Transport Scotland, appear to be autumn deniers.
They don’t accept the word of meteorologists who say that autumn begins on September 1st and also disagree with astronomers who claim the autumnal equinox on 22nd September is actually the start of autumn. So why the confusion? It is really quite simple. If autumn has started, then both Keith Brown and Transport Scotland would have to admit that the ?35 million A9 dualling Kincraig to Dalraddy programme is now late. They have repeated claimed it will be finished in the summer of 2017, a claim repeated barely three weeks ago.
All we can hope is that both he and Transport Scotland don’t confuse summer with winter. Winter is coming which will be welcomed by skiers and climbers who visit the Cairngorms National Park. Let’s hope we can all shortly welcome, and definitely before the ‘gritters’ deploy, the opening of the Kincraig to Dalraddy section of the A9.
Edward Mountain, Conservative MSP Highlands and Islands
More from the Press and Journal
A major study has revealed the areas of Wales with the slowest broadband speeds. The map below shows the areas worst served by broadband connections in the lightest colours. Wales has some of the slowest speeds of any part of the UK.
Four of the 10 constituencies with the slowest download speeds in the UK are in Wales, with Carmarthen East and Dinefwr in the top position. This is based on Which? consumer-tested broadband speeds.
This is the UK table of shame, dominated by Wales and Scotland:
1. Carmarthen and Dinefwr
2. Ross, Sky and Lochaber
3. Na h-Eilanan an Iar
4. Orkney and Shetland
Argyll and Bute
6. North Herefordshire
8. Brecon and Radnorshire
9. Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
There were another three Welsh constituencies in the worst 20 for broadband speeds, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (15th) and Monmouth (19th).
How the study worked
The researchers for the British Infrastructure Group (BIG)1 also looked at the total number of broadband connections in the constituency. They they used Ofcom data at how many of them had connections of above 10 MB/s (million bits per second) or 24 MB/s.
Families who want to have a number of members watching videos, listening to music or playing games at the same time are advised they would need speeds of around 24 MB/s to avoid problems. Anything below 10 MB/s would be insufficient to reliably stream videos even for a single user. The researchers found that 6.7m UK broadband connections didn’t even reach 10 MB/s and only 40.8% achieved over 24 MB/s.
The constituencies with the least substandard broadband
(% broadband connections slower than 10 Mb/s in 2016)
- Bristol West 11.3%
- Edinburgh South 14.1%
- Edinburgh South West 14.1%
- Hampstead and Kilburn 14.5%
- Westminster North 14.7%
- Reading East 15%
- Sutton and Cheam 15.1%
- Belfast South 15.3%
- Leicester South 15.3%
The Welsh constituencies with the least substandard broadband
(% broadband connections slower than 10 Mb/s in 2016)
Swansea West 20.0%
- 2. Cardiff Central 22.6%
- 3. Cardiff West 24.5%
- 4. Swansea East 25.2%
- 5. Gower 26.3%
- =6 Newport East 26.8%
- =6 Aberavon 26.8%
- 7. Cardiff South and Penarth 28.7%
- 8. Cardiff North 28.9%
- 9. Neath 29.4%
- 10. Newport West 30.0%
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Governments must ‘stop passing the buck’
More than 50 MPs from across the party divides have come together to press for action amid concern that nearly seven million connections may not deliver the proposed minimum standard.
Dwyfor Meirionnydd Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts, one of the supporters of the report, said: “Far too many people across Wales are unable to access what Ofcom recognises as the speed required for basic tasks such as web browsing, streaming and video calling, and this digital divide undoubtedly contributes to the wider economic divide, depressing wages and living standards. The British Government and the Welsh Government must stop passing the buck and commit to connecting the whole of Wales with ultra-fast broadband.”
It is understood that less than half of all UK connections receive superfast speeds of 24 Mb/s. The MPs say it is “almost impossible” to determine how many households do not receive the speeds set out in their contracts.
Lack of access is ‘stifling the potential of local business’
Newly elected Gower MP Tonia Antoniazzi
Gower Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, another supporter of the report, said: “Access to fast broadband is a fundamental requirement for rural economies to thrive. Gower continues to lack consistent connectivity across the constituency, this includes mobile coverage.
“Gower is home to a mix of micro and small and medium businesses, from creative industries to food production. It is essential for my constituents and their businesses to be served with high quality broadband and mobile coverage.
“There are 7,408 broadband connections in Gower not meeting the basic minimum download speed. This is a matter which the UK Government and providers must address immediately.
“I fear lack of access to decent broadband is stifling the potential of local business and preventing growth within the region.”
Grant Shapps, the former Conservative chairman who chairs the group, said: “Although broadband is increasingly considered to be an essential utility, the quality of customer services has simply not caught up with demand. It is unacceptable that there are still no minimum standards in the UK telecoms sector to protect customers from protracted complaints procedures, and ensure that broadband providers are fully accountable to their customers.”
The MPs say it is “unacceptable” Ofcom has not considered automatic compensation for households that consistently get a poor service below what they are paying for.
Governments have ‘dragged their heels for too long’
Ceredigion Plaid Cymru MP Ben Lake (Image: Marian Delyth)
Ceredigion Plaid Cymru MP, Ben Lake, one of the backers of the report, said: “Poor broadband speed, as well as poor mobile data signal not only impacts on residents but on businesses who are unable to reach beyond their local areas.
“Digital connectivity simply isn’t good enough in Ceredigion and in many other parts of Wales and the result is our rural communities are being cut off.
“Whilst businesses in cities such as Cardiff could feasibly rely on passing trade, rural areas have to go beyond their local high street. It is vital that we ensure businesses, and every resident in Wales, including rural Wales, have access to high-speed broadband and mobile data signal. Westminster and the Welsh Government have dragged their heels for too long – we’ve waited long enough.”
This year’s Digital Economy Act set out a so-called universal service obligation across the country, which defined a minimum broadband download speed of 10 Mb/s.
This is what the Welsh Government is doing:
The Welsh Government insists it is making progress on broadband
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “There has been tremendous progress in the availability of superfast broadband across the country thanks to the work of the Welsh Government. Over 647,000 premises can now access it in Wales as a result of the Welsh Government’s Superfast Cymru programme.
“The latest Ofcom report shows that Wales has the highest availability of superfast broadband among the devolved nations, largely thanks to the Superfast Cymru programme, with eight out of 10 premises with access. This compares with just over half in 2014.
“Areas such as Gwynedd, Conwy and Anglesey would have no access to superfast broadband without the intervention of Superfast Cymru. Now, for example, over 49,000 premises in Gwynedd can access it…
“We know there is more to do to reach the final premises including those not part of the Superfast Cymru rollout, and we are already looking at how to do this. We’ve recently announced potential funding of ?80m to reach the small percentage of premises not part of the Superfast Cymru project or commercial rollout.
“Once superfast broadband has been made available people will not receive it automatically. If they wish to receive it they will need to contact their internet service provider in order to change their package so that they can receive the faster speeds.
“Our Access Broadband Cymru scheme can also offer assistance to those currently not able to access superfast broadband by providing grant aid to receive it through other technologies.”
See how your constituency ranks for high speed internet access
(% broadband connections slower than 10 Mb/s in 2016)
- 1. Carmarthen East and Dinefwr 58.2%
- 2. Montgomeryshire 58.0%
- 3. Ceredigion 55.1%
Dwyfor Meirionnydd 50.9%
- 5. Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire 49.8%
- 6. Monmouth 49.1%
- 7. Brecon and Radnorshire 48.9%
- 8. Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney 47.3%
- 9. Aberconwy 44.3%
- 10. Islwyn 44.2%
- 11. Preseli Pembrokeshire 44.1%
- 12. Clwyd South 43.8%
- 14. Alyn and Deeside 43.1%
- 15. Delyn 42.8%
- 16. Wrexham 42.0%
- 17. Rhondda 41.6%
- =18. Clwyd West 41.2%
- =18. Torfaen 41.2%
- 19. Cynon Valley 40.9%
- 20. Anglesey 40.5%
- 22. Llanelli 39.8%
- 23. Ogmore 38.9%
- 24. Pontypridd 37.4%
- 25. Arfon 35.9%
- =26. Blaenau Gwent 32.6%
- =26. Vale of Glamorgan 32.6%
- 27. Vale of Clwyd 32.1%
- 28. Newport West 30.0%
- 30. Cardiff North 28.9%
- 31. Cardiff South and Penarth 28.7%
- =32. Aberavon 26.8%
- =32. Newport East 26.8%
- 33. Gower 26.3%
- 34. Swansea East 25.2%
- 35. Cardiff West 24.5%
- 36. Cardiff Central 22.6%
Swansea West 20.0%
- ^ http://www.britishinfrastructuregroup.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Broadbad-2.0-Final-2.pdf (www.britishinfrastructuregroup.uk)