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Comment — What will the “new normal” be for Orkney?

What’s on the horizon for Orkney?

By Sarah Sutherland

We spend a great deal of our lives looking to the future, and wondering what joy and challenges it may bring. Now, more than ever, the question ‘what next?’ is at the forefront of the national conversation.

Though discussions have begun over how current restrictions can be relaxed, the future seems just as uncertain as it did when the lockdown began. What is clear, however, is that we will be living in what is being described as “the new normal.”

It will not be the future we pictured when the bells rang midnight on January 1, 2020. Then, the   excitement of moving into a new decade brought giggles and whispers of a return to the roaring 20s of the previous century — with all the glitz and glam of The Great Gatsby. Most of us had heard that there was a new virus in China but, amidst the revelry of New Year, little thought was given to the harsh reality of what the next four months might bring. Little did we know that the world would be confronted with scenes more familiar in a Margaret Atwood novel or an episode of Black Mirror, rather than the euphoric decadence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic.

With an international crisis comes strange new terminology. Since the new decade began, we have had to get to grips not only with the idea of a viral pandemic, but with the language that comes with it.

In the 2010s, phrases like “self-isolation”, “lockdown” and “social distancing” would have sat comfortably in the science fiction section of our internal dictionaries — but the 2020s have brought these terms into the lexicon of our everyday lives.

As April came to a close, we were asked to move yet another dystopian-sounding concept from the fiction compartment of our brains to the forefront of our reality.

“The new normal.” It’s a short phrase which says an awful lot. It tells us that there must be an “old normal” and that it has been usurped. It tells us that our lives have changed, and they won’t be returning to the way they were for the foreseeable future.

But what exactly is “the new normal” and what will it mean longterm for us as individuals and as a community?

That is a question which, as yet, has no definitive answer. As the UK’s political leaders begin to set out possible plans for how we can make a gradual exit from the lockdown, and return to some sort of normality while living alongside the virus, all our thoughts are now focussed on how the basic infrastructure of human life can continue. What about work? What about school? What about my teeth?

As many of us become more acquainted with our natural hair colour, while we watch our recycling pile up and our pets look at us as if to say we’ve overstayed our welcome, Orkney’s leaders are in discussion over what the future might bring.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked us all to engage with the conversation around exiting lockdown.

Nationally, it all hinges on that crucial “R number” — another novel phrase — the average rate at which the infection is spreading. Though First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveiled plans to test, trace and isolate the population this week, alongside options for how some elements of education, work and healthcare may be able to resume in time, this strategy is still set in the vague future rather than in the present. Currently, it is estimated that 26,000 Scots are carrying the virus, and to make any of these moves too soon could risk overwhelming the NHS with an upward surge in critical cases.

Still, in recent days there have been national headlines suggesting that the bairns might be heading back to school as early as June, and that office workers may soon have to remove their dressing gowns and dig out that wrinkled shirt and tie.

I asked NHS Orkney and Orkney Islands Council, this week, what we should be looking out for on the horizon.

But the answer, for now, is a resounding “we don’t know”.

NHS Orkney explained that there had been some initial discussions among board members as to what the “new normal” for healthcare might be, but that nothing conclusive had been decided as yet.

An NHSO spokeswoman said “As I’m sure you are aware the NHS across Scotland is experiencing unprecedented pressures as it continues to respond to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

“As a small health board with several inter-dependencies this needs to be carefully planned in partnership with our health and social care partners, this work will commence next week.

“Therefore, at this stage we are unable to confirm our recovery plans. Please be assured once plans have been developed and following consultation with our partners this will be shared across all our local media channels.”

Similarly, Orkney Islands Council said that discussions were ongoing — but emphasised that no concrete plan would be formed until certain decisions were taken at a national level.

An OIC spokesman said: “At this stage of the pandemic, it is essential that the council’s focus is on doing everything possible to minimise the spread of infection by COVID-19 in Orkney and on keeping running those essential services our community depends upon at this difficult time.

“As the Prime Minister and First Minister have emphasised this week, it is vital that we stick with lockdown restrictions at this time, to save lives and lessen the pressure on the NHS.

“Both have stressed that it is too early to begin the process of easing the coronavirus measures that have been in place since the lockdown began.

“Until it is decided at a national level when — and how — any lifting of restrictions can begin, we can only consider in general terms the recovery plans that will be needed when the time is right. 

“In line with our council resilience plans, we are currently developing our overall strategy and framework for recovery and renewal, which will help us with our planning once the national decisions are made. 

“More detailed planning on how individual council services are delivered in future — and on further measures needed to support our local economy — will take place when we have a clearer picture of how the renewal phase of the pandemic will unfold across the country.

What shape will Orkney’s “new normal” take?

“This work will be undertaken in close consultation with NHS Orkney and other key partners — and in line with the latest government advice.”

And so, questions still remain unanswered, as leaders promise that a localised approach will be considered and suggestions that we may become a test-bed for a lockdown exit persist.

But let us not forget that what the future holds is also up to us.

This crisis has highlighted how much can be achieved through community spirit, and the effect that a little collective optimism can have on the lives of those who are bearing the brunt of adversity. This is both a local and a national conversation that we are all part of, and we have been encouraged to share our thoughts with those who represent us. What lies ahead is uncertain, but we can still help define the “new normal.”

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