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EDWARD MOUNTAIN: Crisis point reached over A9 closures


By Ed Mountain

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Holyrood Notebook by Edward Mountain

Efforts to clear the A9 near Helmsdale earlier on Thursday. Picture: Bear Scotland
Efforts to clear the A9 near Helmsdale earlier on Thursday. Picture: Bear Scotland

Waters around the north coast of Scotland are patrolled by an emergency vessel which is placed there to help anyone who finds themselves in difficulty, especially in severe weather.

The Emergency Towing Vessel is much loved and much needed, and has come to the assistance of many in life-threatening situations over the years.

Unfortunately, for anyone who finds themselves stricken on land anywhere north of Inverness, no such service is available.

Few communities know this better than those in and around Caithness.

As we endure another harsh winter, it’s time the Scottish Government stepped in to help people in one of the country’s most remote and rural areas.

In the same vein, we need an equivalent to the Ievoli Black – the emergency towing vessel – on the roads.

We’re well used to seeing the A9 north of Inverness closed due to the weather, and everyone understands that there will be occasions when that is unavoidable.

But it’s the only way down to Inverness, especially for those requiring care at Raigmore Hospital, and resources must be shared out more fairly.

We need at least one heavy-duty plough that local people and businesses can count on 24 hours a day.

It wouldn’t prevent every closure, but at least it would give those tasked with clearing the roads a fighting chance of doing so, and lead to a simple reduction in the number of times each year this vital corridor is closed.

This would also be very much in the Scottish Government’s interests to do.

For every time the A9 is closed, it exposes the downgrading of services in Caithness right across the board.

Had cottage hospitals not been stripped of services more people could access care locally, and road closures wouldn’t come across their radar.

And for women in labour, the well-documented issue is at crisis point.

Just a handful of mothers from Caithness were able to give birth in the local maternity unit in 2022, with the vast majority making the challenging journey to Inverness at the worst possible time.

That has also led to an increased rate of caesarean sections in that time. C-sections of course have a place, but that decision should be either the mother’s or the doctor’s – not one made by dint of geography.

A9 closures leave only one other mode of transport south in an emergency situation – air.

But a lack of resources at Wick Airport mean that option is also one that can’t be counted on.

Together with Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, I met with Fiona Hyslop, the transport minister, on this matter recently.

She listened, but our conclusion was that she wasn’t particularly supportive of our call for a stronger arrangement to be put in place to guarantee a better service for people who urgently need to travel to Raigmore.

Winter weather rarely comes as a surprise to those living in this part of the world.

When it closes in, the cavalry should be ready in the form of equipment and vehicles to get the road clear.

They manage it in other countries and we must do so here too.

If it’s good enough for seafarers in the Minch it should be good enough for a sizeable population which has been forgotten about too often by this Scottish Government.

If ministers aren’t going to have adequate health and public service resources locally, the least they could do is ensure a smooth journey to that places that do.

MSP Edward Mountain at Raigmore Hospital. Picture: James Mackenzie
MSP Edward Mountain at Raigmore Hospital. Picture: James Mackenzie
  • Edward Mountain is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands.

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