Some Scottish News & Views Issue # 588

Issue # 588                                              Week ending Saturday 23rd  January  2021

Is Trump Back Online and Can Yon Nancy Pelosi Stop Him Standing for Western Isles Council?
by Iain MacIver Courtesy of the Press & Journal

How on earth do they expect the President of the United States to get ready for a major event like today’s inauguration without him having full access to his online social media apps like Twitter and Facebook so that he can communicate his ideas and philosophies to his supporters and to the whole wide world? It cannot be easy for a man who claims he won the election “by a lot” now that the forces against him have somehow managed to get him banned from these platforms.

Now rumours are circulating that hes found another online platform. The big question is which one because there are a few out there. I’ll let you into a secret. I think I know which one he is using. It’s Airbnb. Yep, you may laugh but the blurb about one particular property seems to give it away. Who else could this be on the popular property rental app?

“We have a lovely little property in Tong, not far from my family home near lovely Stornoway. We are still renovating it and we still have to build a wall to keep those pesky Tongonians out. It’s going to cost a lot - I mean a lot. I have figured out a way that I don’t have to pay for it. The islands’ council will pay for the wall. These people love me. They really, really love me - in fact so much so that I am going to stand for election to Western Isles Council. It’s going to be great.

“So we won’t need to use Macleod Cottage in Tong ourselves. When I win these votes - and there will be a lot - my family and I will stay in Stornoway or nearby on council expenses. My people have checked all the properties around there. I could maybe live in Aignish. I know it’s a bit of a dull place just now - few interesting people there apart from Agnes Munro, who was an Obamacare nurse. Maybe you call it the NHS? Yeah, whatever. Maybe I’ll start a campaign - Make Aignish Great Again. I have some hats. I could maybe alter them.”

Heck, the next council elections are in May next year. Would impeachment in the US affect a candidate in Aignish? He’ll be hoping no - no impeachment and no effect.

Who else could that be? Maybe it’s just part of the current wave of fake news and conspiracy theories sweeping the whole world, and parts of North Shawbost. Take Mrs X. She’s become hard-nosed and edgy. Her conspiracy theory is that BBC Radio 2 is making the questions harder on Ken Bruce’s Popmaster each morning. She thinks it’s so the corporation won’t have to give out so many t-shirts and digital radios.

They may have a point. Many people say it is more difficult now. I don’t know. Perhaps I don’t care. However, this is the missus and it is my job to care on command. I told her if they felt that strongly, she and her frustrated radio quizzer mates fae Aberdeen should protest. Me and my mouth. They’ve now had an online meeting and are thinking of starting a blog called: “We ken, Ken.”

Meanwhile, I am left to wonder what will happen if Mr Trump does come back to Stornoway in the days ahead. He jet flew into Stornoway back in 2008 because we have a long runway. I do hope his arrival is more stress-free than it was then. The Trump Boeing 727 came in as fog swept in off the Minch. Visibility was poor. The Instrument Landing System was playing up so his pilot had to land on his wits alone. “Flaps, check,” he says the pilot, “Landing gear, check. Altitude, check. Right, we're going in. Hold on.”

The huge plane in the distinctive red, grey and white colours touched down, the reverse thrusters came on and roared, and Trump One slewed to a screeching halt, just short of the edge of the runway. Everyone drew a huge sigh of relief. “Holy Cow,” exclaims the passenger in the red tie. “Why did they say Stornoway had a long runway? This must be the shortest runway we've ever landed on ... by a lot.” The pilot looks left and right, and then says: “Yeah, and it must be just about the widest too.”

Finally, some late news from another airport. Following a Covid outbreak in Liverpool, everyone at John Lennon International Airport have been told to self-isolate. Imagine, all the people ...

Covid in Scotland: 'Patchy Supply' Hampering Vaccine Rollout
Doctors leaders say the "patchy supply" of vaccine to GP surgeries across Scotland is hampering the speed of delivery to patients.  Ministers have pledged a first dose of the vaccine to 1.4 million of the most vulnerable Scots by mid-February.  But the British Medical Association in Scotland said inconsistencies in supply made it difficult to plan patient appointments to receive the vaccine.  They also said some GP surgeries had yet to receive any vaccine at all.  The Scottish government said it was working with health boards to resolve the issues.  Currently, about 16,000 vaccinations a day are being carried out in Scotland. However, that is expected to rise significantly as efforts to deliver the vaccine are scaled up.  On Sunday, 1,341 new cases of Covid-19 were reported - the lowest daily figure since 28 December. However, the numbers being admitted to hospital have continued to rise, reaching 1,918. No new deaths were registered.  Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has pledged that the workforce and infrastructure will be in place to vaccinate 400,000 people each week by the end of February.  The government has already announced plans for large vaccination centres in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  It comes after more than 5,000 front-line health and care staff were vaccinated at the NHS Louisa Jordan in Glasgow. Speaking on the BBC's Politics Scotland programme, Dr Andrew Buist, who chairs the British Medical Association's (BMA) GP committee in Scotland, said there was inconsistencies across the GP network. He said the vaccine deployment plan was "ambitious" and so far "good progress" had been made in giving it to priority groups such as care homes residents and front-line health staff.  However, he told the programme: "The current problem lies with the next priority group, which is the 80-plus group, which GPs in Scotland are set to vaccinate because the supply of the vaccine so far has been quite patchy.  Some practices have a good supply, some have had none so far."  He said his practice had received 100 doses of the vaccine for 600 patients over the age of 80, who all needed to be vaccinated by 5 February. He added: "I then have to do another 1,200 patients in the 70-plus group and the extremely clinically vulnerable by the middle of February, so we need to do 1,700 vaccines in the next four weeks. Now we can do that. We are used to providing large number of flu vaccinations and it is possible, we have our workforce in place, but we need the vaccine, otherwise we can't do it." When asked if his practice was running out of vaccine at the end of each day, Dr Buist said: "Yes - we can't plan, that's the key thing. We can't send out appointments to patients until we're sure we have the vaccine in our fridge. We were given 100 doses on Monday. We used that all up by Friday. We don't want to send out appointments to patients until we know that we can definitively vaccinate them otherwise patients get very upset." Dr Buist said vaccinators were regularly managing to extract higher numbers of doses from vaccine vials despite claims that some doses were being wasted. He said there was widespread experience of six doses being extracted from Pfizer vaccine vials, which were marketed as having five doses, while 11 doses were regularly being taken from AstraZenica vials.  The Scottish government acknowledged that there had been delays in vaccine supplies reaching some GP surgeries.

New UK Shared Prosperity Fund to Bypass Holyrood
Whitehall is to bypass all the devolved administrations and replace European structural funds with a centrally-controlled fund. In Scotland, that means more than £100m is set to be spent by the UK Westminster government on projects normally devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Shared Prosperity Fund replaces European Commission development and social fund grants. The Scottish government has set out its own plans for replacing EU funds. Stephen Barclay, the UK Treasury Secretary, has removed some of the uncertainty about the way the Shared Prosperity Fund will operate.  In the past seven years, £780m has come through the Scottish government by that route.  It has been spent on transport infrastructure, economic development and workplace training. Following Brexit, that is being wound up. In a letter to the Scottish Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, Mr Barclay said the Shared Prosperity Fund would be a UK project, aimed at "levelling up" areas in most need.  It said it would average £1.5bn per year, and details of distribution would become clear in the next spending review. "Levelling up" is a UK project, mainly associated with lower income parts of the north of England. The Scottish government, and the other devolved administrations, have set out their own plans for distributing the replacement for EU structural funds. Along with English local government leaders, there have been repeated calls for more clarity from UK ministers on the Prosperity Fund.  A Whitehall source confirmed that the letter to Ms Forbes is the first time the Treasury has said the fund will use new powers for Whitehall to spend in any part of the UK.  These were recently passed into law under the Internal Market Act, which was criticised for paving the way to bypass devolved administrations.  The Scotland Secretary, Alister Jack, previously hinted that much of the spending in Scotland could be through local authorities. Along with city region growth deals, that gives the UK Westminster government the opportunity to flag up its commitment to projects of political value to it. However, it also creates a new area for friction with Holyrood, going into the spring election campaign. The letter from Mr Barclay was in answer to a request from Ms Forbes for a Scottish share of the Covid contingency fund. Most of the letter, sent on Friday, set out the ways in which the UK Westminster government is supporting Scotland directly, in health and economic funding, from furlough payments to shipbuilding contracts. It said the contingency fund was mainly aimed at testing and vaccination, which are funded from UK central government.  Mr Barclay wrote to the Scottish finance secretary: "While I recognise the devolved Scottish government has an important role to play, the overwhelming majority of Covid support to businesses and people across the UK is and will continue to be delivered through the UK Treasury". It went on: "The UK Shared Prosperity Fund will help to level up and create opportunity across the UK in places most in need. It will operate UK-wide, using the new financial assistance powers in the UK Internal Market Act. We will ramp up funding so that total domestic UK-wide funding will at least match EU receipts on average reaching around £1.5bn a year.  In a statement, Ms Forbes said the change confirmed what the Scottish government had feared following the UK's exit from the EU.  "We need urgent reassurance that there will be a full replacement of all lost EU funds. Scotland must receive at least £1.283bn for a replacement seven-year programme for 2021-2027. It is also vital that control over any new arrangements remains in Scotland. Otherwise this threatens to be a significant power grab over Scotland's powers to target investment and to make decisions based on what's best for the people, businesses and communities of Scotland. I urge the Chancellor to provide clarity ahead of the Scottish Budget on 28 January."

Scottish Labour: Leadership Contenders Set Out Views on Indyref2

The contenders for the Scottish Labour leadership have been explaining their views on any future independence vote.  Anas Sarwar said he would rule out another referendum for the lifetime of the next Scottish parliament as the country rebuilds after Covid.  The Glasgow MSP's rival in the contest, Monica Lennon, said she didn't support independence but warned the party can't "just wish it away".  A leader to replace Richard Leonard will be declared on 27 February.  Speaking on BBC Scotland Drivetime, Mr Sarwar said: "I think the most mature leadership we can have right now is to say to people that we need a period of calm, we need a period of healing.  Rather than going back to the old arguments about Brexit and independence let's instead, for the next five years, the course of the next parliament, focus on making it the Covid recovery parliament rather than a constitutional debate parliament." Ms Lennon, a Central Scotland MSP, said: "I think people want to know what we can do with the resources the Scottish parliament has now but I don't doubt the big debate that people still want to have in their homes is about will there be a referendum in the future.  I don't believe in Scottish independence but I do understand people maybe have frustrations, things are not settled and I'm not in politics to tell people what they can't have. I'll always respect democracy.  We have to find out why this is such a polarising issue in Scotland, we can't just wish it away."

Pipe Major Iain Murdo Morrison An appreciation - Piping Society
Pipe Major Iain Murdo Morrison passed away at the Western Isles Hospital, Stornoway, Lewis on December 17. Although he had been unwell for some time his death came somewhat unexpectedly, and caused ripples of sorrow in the community of Back where he lived, and in the wider piping community, where he was well known and respected. Several tributes have already been paid to him in the piping press and on social media. These included a very nice tribute by Neil Smith, originally from Point, testifying to the kindness and generosity of PM Morrison, when he was a pupil of his more than 30 years ago. That was the experience of all those who were taught by PM Morrison over many years, from the most amateurish youngster struggling with grace notes and doublings, to the most accomplished such as the late PM Alasdair Gillies, whom he coached to achieve the unique record of 11 wins of the Northern Star for Light Music at the Northern Meetings in Inverness, the equivalent of an Olympic Gold Medal for piping.  It is a record unlikely to ever be equalled, let alone bettered.  In his own competing days PM Morrison won all the top prizes. He was considered by his peers to have been the best at playing competition 2/4 Marches, and he had a unique “round” style of playing reels, which was very musical.  His Army career culminated in a period as Pipe Major of the Queen’s Own Highlanders.  On retiring from the Army he returned to his native island and shortly afterwards took up the post of Piping Instructor for schools on the East side of Lewis, succeeding Angus ‘Boxer’ MacLeod. In addition, PM Morrison was happy to share his knowledge, skill and expertise freely in his own time. For many years he held a weekly evening session at Back school for youngsters learning the pipes. He was assisted by the late Angie ‘Scotch’ MacRae, who would tune the pipes for the youngsters before they went in for their ‘one to one’ with the Pipe Major. He also gave lessons privately in his own home, where all visitors were offered generous hospitality by Mrs Morrison. He was a member of the committee of the Lewis and Harris Piping Society for more than 30 years, serving for most of that time as piping secretary. In that capacity he was responsible for arranging recitalists, he was closely involved in the annual Junior Competition, and for many years he was the main driver in organising the annual Donald MacLeod Memorial Competition. His personal knowledge of Donald MacLeod and his music, and his extensive experience of piping at the highest level, were brought to bear in devising the format of the competition. He also advised from year to year on the pipers and the judges to be invited to Stornoway to “commemorate the man and his music”, and the Piping Society would like to express their deep sense of gratitude for his stewardship over the years. He was justifiably proud of what had been achieved with the competition, ably assisted by his daughter Donalda for the last decade, making it one of the best invitational competitions on the professional circuit. Iain Murdo was a devoted family man, and will be most sorely missed by his wife Flora and their children, Catherine, Donalda and young Iain and their respective families, and we extend our deepest sympathy to them, and other close relatives. His funeral, held under Covid-19 restrictions was well attended, and he was laid to rest in the local cemetery at Gress to the strains of James Duncan MacKenzie, his most successful local pupil, playing the piobaireachd Scarce of Fishing.

Covid in Scotland: Barra Outbreak 'Serious' As Cases Rise to 39
Covid-19 cases in an outbreak on Barra in the Western Isles have increased to 39.  NHS Western Isles has described the situation on the island as "serious" and "escalating".  On Sunday, the health board said there had been 12 new positive tests related to the Barra outbreak, which first emerged more than a week ago.  Separately, two new cases were also identified in a smaller outbreak on Benbecula.  The total of four Benbecula cases include a member of the US defence services who had arrived on the island for a naval ballistic missile defence exercise at the Hebrides Range, a military rocket firing facility.  The US Missile Defence Agency said all US and UK Covid protocols were followed.  On Barra, those who have tested positive along with more than 100 close contacts are self-solating. The number in isolation represents about a 10th of the island's total population.  In the Scottish government's Covid briefing on Monday, Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith said he and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had held "preliminary discussions" on how to "limit and contain" the spread of the infection.  He said the matter would be examined further by ministers ahead of the Scottish government's weekly update on restrictions on Tuesday.  Dr Smith suggested people socialising had led to the outbreak, which the government was monitoring "very closely".  He said: "What we are seeing in Barra is a good example of what happens when people let their guard down and come together."  Barra and Vatersay Covid-19 Forum said the majority of islanders were self-isolating, including people who had not been asked to do so.

New Legislation Protects Scottish Shop Staff From Customer Abuse
The Protection of Workers Bill will make it a new specific offence to assault, abuse or threaten staff.  Incidents involving an age-restricted product, such as alcohol or cigarettes, could be treated more seriously.  The MSP behind the bill, Labour's Daniel Johnson, said attacks on retail workers had increased during the Covid pandemic.  He told Holyrood: "Shop staff have been spat at for asking customers to socially distance, and stock has been smashed in retaliation for item limits being imposed.  Violence, threats and abuse should not be just part of anyone's job."  Mr Johnson said that staff requesting age ID could be a "trigger factor" in many incidents of abuse.  The new legislation will also cover people working in bars, restaurants and hotels, and those delivering items bought online who may have to ask for proof of age.  Paul Gerrard, public affairs director for the Co-Op, told BBC Radio Scotland's Drivetime that the retailer had seen a 450% rise in violent incidents in the last few years. "It is a huge problem," he said. "We've seen an explosion in violence and abuse toward my colleagues. Now across 350 stores in Scotland we have someone attacked every day. And 10 colleagues are threatened or abused every day. Increasingly we have seen knives, syringes and axes all used against shopworkers."  The new legislation was passed by 118 votes to 0 in the Scottish Parliament.  The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) is now urging the UK Westminster government to introduce similar legislation to protect retail staff in England.Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said: "It is a great result for our members in Scotland, who will now have the protection of the law that they deserve. So we are looking for MPs to support key workers across the retail sector and help turn around the UK Westminster government's opposition."

Covid in Scotland: Lockdown Extended to Mid-February

Scotland's Covid-19 lockdown has been extended until at least the middle of February, with most school pupils to continue learning from home.  First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs that transmission of the virus appeared to be declining but was still too high to ease restrictions. But she hopes schools will be able to at least begin a phased return to the classroom in the middle of next month.  The level four restrictions have been in place since Boxing Day.

More Than £50,000 Worth of Bikes Stolen in A Night

Twenty bikes worth a total of more than £50,000 have been stolen from premises at a Cairngorms mountain bike trail. Eight hire bikes were stolen from a community enterprise at Laggan Wolftrax Visitor Centre and 12 from The Wee Bike Hub bike shop, also at the centre. Thieves cut power to the centre in the incident which happened overnight on 15 and 16 January.  Laggan Forest Trust said lockdown demand for bikes would make it hard for it to replace the stolen hire bikes.  Eight of its Polygon Siskiu T8 bikes, estimated to be worth £12,800, were stolen between 23:00 on 15 January and 03:00 on 16 January.  At the same time, 12 bikes of various makes and models and estimated to be worth a total of £39,500, were stolen from The Wee Bike Hub along with £3,100-worth of clothing.  Police said a large vehicle would have been needed to take away all the items.  Laggan Forest Trust chairman Colin Morgan said: "Our view is that the thieves knew of the existence of the bikes and had probably done some reconnaissance. The thieves disconnected the power source to the centre."  Last year, fear of catching coronavirus on public transport led to a boom in cycle-to-work schemes. The schemes saw a 200% increase in bicycle orders from people working for emergency services. There was high demand for bikes for leisure. Mr Morgan said: "The unlikelihood of being able to replace the hire bikes for the new season in time because of their scarcity means we have got to think long and hard about how we reopen things going forward."

Fishing Firms Hold London Protest Over Disruption
Boris Johnson has pledged £23m to help businesses affected by Brexit delays amid protests by fishing firms.  Demonstrations took place outside government departments in central London by exporters who are warning their livelihoods are under threat.  Exports of fresh fish and seafood have been severely disrupted by new border controls since the UK's transition period ended earlier this month.  The PM said firms would be compensated for delays that were not their fault.  Industry associations have complained that extra paperwork has made it difficult to deliver fresh produce to mainland Europe before it goes off.  They have warned that if the situation continues, jobs could soon be at risk.  Pressed on what he would do in response, Mr Johnson said the government would step in to support firms which "through no fault of their own have experienced bureaucratic delays, difficulties getting their goods through, where there is a genuine willing buyer on the other side of the channel". After a day of protests in central London, which saw over 20 lorries drive up Whitehall, the Metropolitan Police said 14 people had been reported for Covid-related offences, but no arrests were made.  There are 24 lorries in total, overwhelmingly from seafood exporters in Scotland. Businesses taking part say the Brexit trade deal has left their industry high and dry. And although one haulier from Aberdeenshire I spoke to was keen to stress that their coordinated protest was peaceful, it is clear that they all feel that direct action is now necessary to make the government sit up and take notice.  At stake, they believe, is an industry, but also thousands of livelihoods. Exporters say they are backed by fishermen who are struggling to land their catches.  And although the rural Scottish communities which are sustained by fishing might seem like a long way from the streets of SW1, the hauliers certainly made their presence felt this morning.  Last week, Boris Johnson told a committee of MPs that fishing firms impacted by disruption would be compensated for "temporary frustrations". But the BBC was told that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) did not know about the promise of compensation before it was made by Mr Johnson.  Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused ministers of trying to "blame fishing communities" for problems "rather than accepting it's their failure to prepare. The government has known there would be a problem with fishing and particularly the sale of fish into the EU for years,"

Greens Want A Rail Revolution

A new £22bn rail modernisation programme for Scotland would bring huge benefits for Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Greens have said.  The Rail for All programme should be a central part of the region’s green recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the party’s South of Scotland list candidate Laura Moodie. This she believes will create thousands of jobs whilst delivering infrastructure that is essential to tackling the climate emergency and supporting long-term economic prosperity. Among the proposals that will benefit Dumfries and Galloway are: Upgrades to the Glasgow and South Western (GSW) secondary main line from Glasgow to Carlisle via Kilmarnock and Dumfries will allow 100mph running speeds, as well as opening a long-campaigned-for new station at Thornhill which will boost capacity. Plans to improve the West Coast Mainline near Carstairs will increase capacity and speed for trains from Lockerbie.  Upgrades to the antiquated Girvan to Stranraer line, which still uses traditional physical tokens for signalling, suffers from low speeds, and is unable to carry heavier freight trains.  Locally, the Scottish Green Party also continues to support plans for the re-opening of the Dumfries-Stranraer line. Ms Moodie said: “The Scottish Greens are proposing the biggest rail investment programme Scotland has ever seen. Our fully-costed £22bn plan would transform Scotland’s railway, building a modern, zero-carbon network that is affordable and accessible to all.  Rail for All is about making rail the natural choice for every journey - be it commuting, travelling for business or leisure. The report is clear that this will also boost Scotland’s economy; creating 14,000 good, unionised jobs and delivering £1.6bn of benefits for every £1bn spent. The plans will herald a new golden age for rail across Dumfries and Galloway and beyond.”

No More 'Easy Wins' for Hospital Staff
The emergency department at Glasgow's Queen Elizabeth University Hospital is the biggest and busiest in Scotland.  Ambulances keep arriving, bringing more patients. In a curtained cubicle, one man is explaining to the doctor that he's been in pain for days, but he put off coming in "because of everything that's going on".  Dr Alan Whitelaw, who runs the department, says that while there might be fewer patients coming through his door, there are no longer any "easy wins".  Those that are coming are the sick people," he says. "We are undoubtedly seeing the effects of people not seeking healthcare for six to ten months. We are seeing disease that we wouldn't always see and we are seeing it further down the road. We are making more diagnoses that potentially would be made in primary care or outpatient clinics. On top of that we've got lots of Covid patients coming through the door. So it's those two things together that currently put the NHS under that significant pressure." All over Scotland, hospitals are under severe pressure, with some treating significantly more coronavirus patients than they did during the first wave of the pandemic.  Public visitors are not allowed at the QEUH, but BBC Scotland was given special permission to film to highlight the impact of Covid and the importance of following lockdown rules.  On the day of the BBC's visit, there are 244 Covid patients. Critical care is running at capacity, and across the whole hospital it's a constant challenge to find space for new patients.

Could Indyref2 Be Held Without the UK's Consent?

The Court of Session is hearing arguments about whether Holyrood can legislate to hold a new Scottish independence referendum even if the UK Westminster government continues to oppose one. What could it mean for indyref2?  The court case seeks to settle the legal question of whether the Scottish Parliament has the power to pass the necessary laws for a new referendum on independence.  The previous vote in 2014 was underpinned by a "section 30 order", an agreement between the UK and Scottish governments, before legislation was passed by MSPs.  First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants a similar deal to be struck for a new referendum, but has been rebuffed by successive prime ministers - with Theresa May saying "now is not the time" for a vote and Boris Johnson insisting that 2014 was a "once in a generation" event.  Ms Sturgeon insists this UK Westminster government position is unsustainable, and will crumble if the SNP win May's Holyrood elections - but others in the independence movement want to see more action to force the issue.  Hence a case at the Court of Session which has not been brought by Scottish ministers, but by activists - led by Martin Keatings, who raised huge sums in online crowdfunders to bring a full legal team on board.  The pursuers - represented in court by Aidan O'Neill QC - argue that Holyrood has the competence to legislate for a referendum, if not to directly break up the union.  They say Holyrood gets its legitimacy from the people of Scotland, not from Westminster, and is directly accountable to them rather than to UK ministers.  The constitution and indeed "the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England" are clearly reserved matters, as listed in the Scotland Act.  But the pursuers argue that the bare fact of holding a referendum about the union would not automatically lead to constitutional change, regardless of the result.  They point to Brexit as an example of how "complex and lengthy negotiations" would follow a Yes vote, arguing that "a referendum - nor indeed the outcome of a referendum - is not the act of secession".  And they say this is a prime moment to answer the question of Holyrood's powers, given indyref2 seems set to be a key issue in May's election.  What do the UK Westminster government say? Given Boris Johnson and his ministers have repeatedly insisted that 2014 was a "once in a generation" vote, it is no surprise that they are opposed to letting MSPs legislate for one at the time of their choosing.  Lawyers for the UK Westminster government raised a number of procedural complaints about the case, saying the proceedings are academic, premature and irrelevant. If any of these were upheld, it would essentially see the case thrown out without the question being answered either way. However they have also offered a straightforward riposte to the core argument - that the constitution is clearly a reserved matter, and that a vote on a constitutional matter should require an agreement with Westminster.  Scottish ministers are obviously in favour of indyref2, but have kept their cards rather closer to their chest when it comes to this case.  The government was initially represented in the case, and opposed it on procedural grounds - arguing it was hypothetical and premature - without making any submission about Holyrood's competence.  They then formally withdrew in August 2020, but somewhat confusingly the Lord Advocate - a Scottish minister - is still represented in court as a defender.  The chief worry for the Scottish ministers here is a political one - should the case go against Mr Keatings, would it set a precedent in law that they must win agreement from Westminster for indyref2?  Ms Sturgeon has essentially been keeping court action in her back pocket as a contingency plan, should another electoral mandate fail to move Mr Johnson.  Her government views this case as a complicating factor - if they wanted to go to court, they would far rather have a straight legal battle between themselves and the UK Westminster government on grounds of their choosing.  Should the court rule one way or the other on Holyrood's competence, it could have far-reaching implications in terms of legal precedent. But would it change the facts on the ground in the referendum row? First, let's imagine a world where the pursuers are successful, and the court rules that MSPs can call a referendum without a section 30 order. That might undermine Boris Johnson's position somewhat, but there would still be nothing to stop him arguing against a referendum for one political reason or another - or indeed of the unionist side boycotting any poll which is set up in the absence of an explicit agreement. And this would still be a major consideration for Ms Sturgeon. It is not for purely legal reasons that she wants a "gold standard" agreement in the vein of 2014.  She wants any new vote to be unimpeachable in its legitimacy, to have international recognition - particularly from the EU, which she would like to see Scotland rejoin some day. The first minister does not just want a referendum, she wants it to deliver independence.  Such a ruling would pile further pressure on Ms Sturgeon to push ahead with a vote - but ultimately she would still want both sides to accept the terms, and to fight things out in a campaign rather than a courtroom. That will equally remain the SNP leader's position should the ruling go against Mr Keatings. She might be effectively bound into it, but her preferred approach would still be a political one rather than a legal one.  And such a result might not even rule out further court action, beyond the matter of appeals by the pursuers. One of the Scottish government's arguments against the Keatings case is that it is premature, because they have not even published their draft bill yet.  The court rebuffed an attempt by the pursuers to have the government hand over their legislation, so it will not be picked over line by line. So once it has been drawn up, Scottish ministers could potentially still launch a far more focused legal battle over its competence - by simply passing it, and forcing UK law officers to challenge it at the Supreme Court.  The draft legislation is due for publication in the run-up to the Holyrood election, so the issue of indyref2 is set to come to the boil in the coming months regardless. This court case may be the opening salvo in year of constitutional collisions - which could decide the future of the union.

Cyber Criminals Publish More Than 4,000 Stolen Sepa Files
Cyber criminals who stole thousands of digital files belonging to environmental regulator Sepa have published them on the internet.  The public body had about 1.2GB of data stolen from its digital systems on Christmas Eve.  Sepa rejected a ransom demand for the attack, which has been claimed by the international Conti ransomware group.  Contracts, strategy documents and databases are among the 4,000 files released.  The data has been put on the dark web - a part of the internet associated with criminality and only accessible through specialised software.  Sepa chief executive Terry A'Hearn said: "We've been clear that we won't use public finance to pay serious and organised criminals intent on disrupting public services and extorting public funds.  We have made our legal obligations and duty of care on the sensitive handling of data a high priority and, following Police Scotland advice, are confirming that data stolen has been illegally published online.  We're working quickly with multi-agency partners to recover and analyse data then, as identifications are confirmed, contact and support affected organisations and individuals." The attack locked Sepa's emails and contacts centre but critical services, such as flood forecasting and warnings, have not been affected. Sepa said the theft was the equivalent to a fraction of the contents of an average laptop hard drive.  The authorities will be pleased. It looks like Sepa decided not to play ball with the cyber criminals. Ransomware is a scourge that is costing organisations billions of pounds and every time a victim pays, it fuels further attacks. Sadly for Sepa this is far from over.

Australian Open 2021: Andy Murray's Hopes of Playing in Tournament Over
Five-time finalist Andy Murray will miss the Australian Open after a solution to find a "workable quarantine" following his positive test for coronavirus could not be found. The 33-year-old Scot was set to fly out to Melbourne last week, but was not allowed to travel on a charter flight after being found to have Covid-19. The former world number one had hoped to travel safely and compete as planned on the back of a negative test.  Murray said he was "gutted" not to go. He was asymptomatic and is now out of self-isolation, but finding a way for him to travel to Australia and then going into quarantine before the tournament starts on 8 February proved too difficult. "We've been in constant dialogue with Tennis Australia to try and find a solution which would allow some form of workable quarantine, but we couldn't make it work," said Murray. "I want to thank everyone there for their efforts. I'm devastated not to be playing out in Australia. It's a country and tournament that I love." Murray was able to play only seven official matches in 2020 because of a lingering pelvic injury, and the five-month suspension of the tours because of the pandemic. At 123rd in the world, he was ranked too low to gain direct entry into Australian Open so the three-time Grand Slam champion was given a wildcard. The Australian Open at Melbourne Park is starting three weeks later than usual because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hawick Common Riding Set to Be Sidelined for Second Year
Organisers of the event which traditionally kicks off common riding season in the Borders have recommended it should not be held again this year. Hawick usually stages its celebrations in early June ahead of numerous other towns and villages.  The town's common riding committee contacted Scottish Borders Council for advice on its prospects this year. In light of the response, organisers said the "responsible decision" would be to cancel it once again. The town is one of many across the Borders which sees hundreds of people take to horseback to ride to its historic boundaries.  Hawick is usually the first one held but was cancelled last year due to the Covid pandemic.  Its common riding committee met online on Friday to discuss this year's event. It was told that advice from the council was that staging any celebration in May or June this year would be "extremely challenging and unlikely".