Covid in Scotland: Drones to carry Covid samples

Drones are being used to carry Covid-19 samples and test kits in some parts of Argyll and Bute – in what has been described as a UK first.

image captionA three-month project has started following a trial last year

Following a trial last year, the project has been expanded, with medical cargo now being carried up to 40 miles (64km).

Flights from Mull, Clachan-Seil and Lochgilphead to Lorn and the Islands Hospital in Oban have been authorised.

NHS staff will be able to request drone deliveries.

The drones can carry a payload of up to 3kg (2lbs) and cover distances faster than they can be by road. Some of the road journeys also involve a ferry crossing.

Drone operator Skyports has been given permission by the Civil Aviation Authority for the flights.

View from a drone
image captionThe NHS in Argyll and Bute said the drones would be used in some of the region’s hardest to reach areas

Skyports said deliveries – which are being done for the Argyll and Bute Health & Social Care Partnership – were the first of their kind in the UK.

The service will initially operate between Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban, Mid-Argyll Community Hospital in Lochgilphead, Easdale Medical Practice in Clachan Seil and the Mull and Iona Community Hospital in Craignure.

Both a scheduled service and an on-demand service will be run, with orders able to be placed by NHS staff through an online system developed by digital consultants Deloitte.

The Swoop Aero drones will be controlled from an operations centre in Oban and fly automatically along predefined routes. 

Skyports said communication between the drone and the ground control station will be provided by Vodafone’s 4G network and satellite communications to ensure connectivity coverage is provided at all times.

The project has been funded by a joint initiative between the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency.

image captionNHS staff have been offered scheduled and on-demand services

Stephen Whiston, head of strategic planning for Argyll and Bute Health and Social Care Partnership, said the aim of the project was to improve services for patients and clinicians in “some of our most remote and island communities”. 

He added: “This three-month project working with Skyports will provide critical evidence on the real benefits this technology can bring to the NHS not only in Argyll and Bute but across Scotland.”

Skyports chief executive Duncan Walker said: “Using drone deliveries within supply chains can create significant time and cost savings. 

“This initiative is a natural progression from our recent trials with the NHS in Scotland as we scale our operations, supporting a wider network of hospitals and medical practices as they continue to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Mr Walker said it was hoped the initiative would bring permanent drone medical flights a step closer.

Covid In Scotland: business clicks but doesn’t collect

  • As public compliance dips below the level of last spring’s lockdown, attention shifts to business to take the burden of infection control.
  • New funds are available, though it’s not clear where they come from, and they are focussed on firms that can be easily identified.
  • The many smaller businesses that aren’t easily reached – from taxi drivers to wedding organisers – are having to wait even longer for government support

Douglas Fraser
Business/economy editor, Scotland

There is a mathematical formula at work in the massive national mission to get the ‘R’ rate of infection down.

In manipulating the formula, the variable over which ministers have least control is compliance by the public.

And if that is low, it means more has to be done with the elements in the formula which can compensate for it .They’re the ones over which ministers have more control.

These include the regulated parts of the economy which can influence public behaviour. Most regulated of all is alcohol, which helps explain why businesses based on out-of-home consumption take a disproportionate burden. 

bar worker carrying beer
image captionAlcohol sales is the most regulated of trades and has been hit by restrictions

No controls have been placed on drinking at home. Put simply, if people are drinking at home, they’re not going out, and that’s the outcome that public policy seeks.

In the current lockdown, Scots can buy alcohol for takeaway from bars and restaurants, whereas English people cannot. That divergence could be closed, as ministers seek to set the alcoholic part of the formula as close as possible to zero.

Attention then shifts to other hospitality and retail, and that is where the Scottish cabinet is also turning its attention at its Tuesday morning meeting

To get people to comply with the “stay at home” message, to reduce footfall and road traffic, ‘click and collect’ is now in ministerial sights.

It’s a tribute to the ingenuity of business that it has adapted online and customer behaviour to the point that click-and-collect is seen as a public health threat.

Government support

A joint letter by trade bodies representing smaller independent stores, garden centres, booksellers and electrical retailers on Monday pleaded with the Scottish government not to cut off this ‘lifeline’.

The compensating part of the formula for such businesses is the government support regime in grants. If they are required to close down, they should be getting compensation. 

The allocation of money to sectors of the economy has become ever more complex, But allocation is becoming increasingly dislocated from actual money reaching bank accounts.

On Monday, Scotland’s finance secretary Kate Forbes announced top-up grants, with a headline-grabbing £25,000 aimed at larger hotels. That’s more than in England, pointed out the Scottish National Party politician.

For others in hospitality, leisure and retail, the most they could hope for is a £9,000 top-up on top of grants off £2,000 or £3,000 per month required to close. That’s in line with sums available to English businesses from the UK Treasury.

Where this money comes from is not clear. Somewhere in the system, there is supposed to be £375m attaching to the expanding Holyrood block grant from the Treasury, but neither Treasury nor the Scottish government seem to be able to say where that money is. 

That other formulaic part of government spending, named after Lord Joel Barnett, a Labour Treasury minister in the 1970s, is becoming more mysterious than predictable and functional.

Either the money is there, and Kate Forbes has found it, or it’s not there, and she’s taking a big gamble on spending a lot of money without knowing she can meet her legal obligation to balance the books this fiscal year. 

Caledonian Waldorf Astoria Hotel
image captionHotels have recieved government support

The Scottish finance secretary’s apparent generosity to larger hotels forced to close by the lockdown rules is seen by some business lobbies as an easy way to get the money out the door. That’s in contrast with £220m announced on 9 December, which is looking increasingly stuck in bureaucracy.

The assurance from Scottish government officials continues: “We were clear in the announcement then that this funding would be available to businesses in January and will be open to applications from an estimated 100,000 eligible businesses, including taxi drivers and others who are self-employed.”

But Conservative MSPs on Monday highlighted a government spreadsheet that appears to show few of the 30 schemes promised show much sign of opening for business to access funds this month. Only seven of them have launched, they say.

The one for taxis and private hire vehicle drivers was due to open on Monday, but there was little sign of it turning up on the financial taxi rank.

Where companies lack connection with government data, it’s becoming more difficult to identify those in genuine need and attach relief funds to them. 

Two points of connection are effective: tax collection and business rates. Therefore much of the money has gone into systems that can be operated through HM Revenue and Customs (the furlough scheme and self-employed income support), and those with business rateable premises (most business grants so far).

HMRC is not available to the Scottish government to link payments for those that don’t pay business rates. So officialdom seems to be struggling to find a fraud-resistant mechanism with which to get money to mobile hairdressers, taxi drivers, coach operators, travelling showpeople, outdoor tourism, wedding organisers and suppliers, those who became self-employed in the past two years, and so on.

The survival of such businesses is not essential to the formula of getting the R infection rate down. But as they burn through cash, without government support, they are at increasing risk of becoming collateral damage. And the survival of such firms will be important to economic recovery.

Covid in Scotland: Oil and gas sector in economic turmoil, says report

The UK oil and gas sector is in “economic turmoil” amid the coronavirus pandemic with about a fifth of firms expecting more redundancies in 2021, according to a new report.

Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce (AGCC) said reduced activity levels and project cancellations had seen business optimism “slashed”.

Confidence is now said to be as low as during the industry downturn in 2015.

The findings came in the 32nd AGCC Oil and Gas Survey.

It covers the six months to October.

The survey was carried out in partnership with the Fraser of Allander Institute and KPMG UK.

It asked firms about the initial Covid impact, how they expected activity to recover, and further issues such as energy transition and Brexit.

The survey found that only 13% of contractors were working at, or above, optimum levels in the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) compared with 47% a year ago – with 82% predicting a decrease in revenue in 2020.

A total of 23% of contractors reported cancelling projects as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, with a further 34% putting activities on hold.

More than three quarters of businesses – 78% – were less confident about activities going forward, while only 1% were more confident.

Oil installation

AGCC said that while businesses typically reported higher levels of optimism about their international activities, the latest results marked the lowest recorded levels of confidence in global markets in the history of the survey.

About half of contractors surveyed reported a decline in their workforce – 22% of which said reductions equated to more than 10% of their workforce – and about a fifth of surveyed firms said they expected to make further reductions in 2021.

‘Unpredictable disruption’

A total of 83% of contractors furloughed employees.

AGCC research and policy manager Shane Taylor said: “Over the course of this year we have seen drastic and unpredictable disruption to business globally due to Covid-19, combined with the collapse in oil and gas prices.

“Although government support has had clear value in supporting firms and jobs through this challenging period of suppressed demand, the only sustainable way to give businesses and workers clarity is a clear route to heightened levels of activity in the future.”

Martin Findlay, senior partner at KPMG in Aberdeen, added: “From the significant oil price decline, which started earlier in the year, to a global pandemic, and localised lockdown in Aberdeen, the oil and gas industry has, once again, endured profound challenge and uncertainty.

“However, there is room for some optimism. The industry, unlike so many others, is incredibly resilient and frequently deals with instability and challenge.”

The survey involved 100 firms employing more than 22,000 people across the UK and 400,000 globally.