Over the past couple of weeks, business at the Comhairle has continued across all services. I was involved in meetings with the Cabinet Secretary for Transport and also the Islands Minister, where we covered the Islands Deal, the Islands Act and Transport; and meetings with the UK Government Energy Minister regarding the Interconnector and Energy issues. We pressed the need to move on with energy and digital initiatives and to commit to capital projects as soon as possible.
The challenges we faced pre COVID-19, requiring prudent management of our financial resources, have been brought into sharp focus with the additional costs and lost income arising from the impacts of the pandemic. We have had significant support from both Governments but will still face a shortfall in covering the direct costs of COVID 19, the loss of income from a variety of sources, such as the Sports Centre, and further significant additional costs in, for example, delays to capital projects.
Last week we launched a new Economic Recovery Strategy which aspires to ‘reimagine and reform the economy of the Outer Hebrides’ by helping to create strong and resilient communities where community capacity and wealth is built up and where there is a focus on the green economy and digital inclusion. As the Comhairle has suffered loss, our local economy has also taken a severe blow from this pandemic, particularly in the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors, but there are unquestionably opportunities going forward and we have to be ready to embrace them and we will work alongside our business sector to do just that.
It was also good to see that members were once again unanimous in their support of the work done via the Western Isles Poverty and Social Inclusion Programme in directing funds to the Financial Welfare Support service. The Comhairle plays a key role as a Lead Partner on the Poverty and Social Inclusion Programmes which have three main functions which contribute greatly to responding to the challenge of poverty in our islands; the Financial Inclusion Service, the Fuel Poverty Advice services and the Financial Welfare Support Fund.
One of our long terms partners in the above Poverty programme, and also in the Home Energy Efficiency Programmes, has been Tighean Innse Gall (often referred to as TIG) and we were pleased to reappoint them as the Managing Agent for the programmes. They have been doing this successfully for the last seven years during which time TIG have overseen the installation of over 7,800 energy efficiency measures in houses throughout the Outer Hebrides.
As we heard about the changes in back to school plans for August, I thought we should all acknowledge the excellent provision made available at the school hubs, which were established in response to the COVID-19 school closures, for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. There has been a great ongoing service provided there by teams of education staff including teachers, support for learning assistants, education apprentices, nursery workers, admin, janitorial, catering and cleaning staff. A big well done to all who have been in involved and I know those who needed to use this service greatly appreciated it.
As the islands inevitably open up to families coming and going, key workers moving about and holiday visitors arriving on our shores let’s ensure that we maintain common sense and wise decision making for as long as the potential remains for COVID to spread. It will unquestionably be good for families and friends to reconnect and for all of us to re-establish a degree of social interaction which is an essential part of normal living, and also for people to get back to work wherever possible, but that has to be done in a responsible and sensible manner, keeping to the rules on physical distancing particularly.