Ken Macintosh

We are exactly one month into lockdown and this has been a testing time for many of us.

Public sentiment has fluctuated widely with anxiety and fear matched by displays of strength and resilience.  Stockpiling by some has contrasted with outpourings of kindness and generosity.

Neighbourhoods looking out for each other and neighbours telling tales on each other; selflessness and selfishness side by side.

No one has escaped the need to adapt to the new circumstances, to adjust to working from home or to cope with the new restrictions and the Scottish Parliament is no exception.

The immediate response to the Covid outbreak saw traditional hostilities wane and tribalism set aside. There was a willingness across all political parties to show solidarity with the Scottish and UK Governments and there was a palpable spirit of camaraderie around Holyrood.

That support remains and is sincere, but MSPs are also frustrated. Emails deluge their inboxes relaying tales of carers suffering, businesses going under, and families unable to grieve.

MSPs, quite rightly, want to respond by scrutinising policy choices. Colleagues want to observe their own health message on not gathering.

They want to protect the staff, witnesses and others who work in parliament yet they are concerned about vast new powers granted to the executive, powers of enforcement to the police, the suspension of hard won rights for some of our most vulnerable citizens, the elderly, disabled people, or those in poverty.

The answer from a parliamentary perspective to this dilemma has been to adapt at a remarkable speed. We have always been a modern parliament, proud of our innovation, but this health emergency has provided a new sense of urgency to parliamentary reform.

In a very short space of time we have reinvented how we conduct parliamentary business. We have moved to a hybrid approach of Chamber sittings at Holyrood and virtual online question times to the Cabinet and First Minster. 

Last week saw the first virtual meeting of a specially convened Covid-19 committee, chaired by an opposition Member, tasked with examining Coronavirus legislation and reviewing new executive powers.

In our chamber, fifty seats have been removed so that MSPs remain socially distanced and two metres apart.  When votes are required, only a maximum of 79 Members can be present in the chamber at any one time, with entry staggered like the queues at the supermarket we have all become accustomed to.

Committees are up and running. Some remain socially distanced meetings at Holyrood, but more commonly, they take the form of virtual online gatherings.  The world is becoming adept at Microsoft Teams. So too are MSPs. 

We have all been taken aback by the impact of the Coronavirus but Parliament has responded with matching alacrity and is now practising the new normal: virtual working alongside socially distanced face-to-face sittings.

It is difficult to know what lessons will be learned as we look back on this period in our lives, but, as far as the Scottish Parliament is concerned, the Covid 19 outbreak has already left its mark.

Ken Macintosh has been Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament since 2016