THE old year now has passed away, as the hymn has it, and most of us will be glad to see the back of it. Seldom can danger and distress have seemed so near, but at least we enter 2021 with something – in the form of the vaccines – for which to be grateful and about which to be optimistic.

There are other things that, on a personal level, many of us will have come to value and understand during the tribulations of the past 10 months or so. The value of spending time with, and giving support to families, friends and neighbours has hit home for many, as has a renewed recognition of the wider degree to which we are all dependent on many others.

That is a reminder, too, of our continuing responsibility to protect others by following the rules. It is likely to be months yet before a degree of normality returns. Adjustments to how and where we work and the ways in which we interact with others will be required.

In the wider public sphere, the past year has been a salutary lesson in the importance of transparency, clarity and consistency from those to whom we lend our trust to exercise authority. That has too often been a deficiency over the course of this disease, and it has unnecessarily compounded the difficulties of dealing effectively with it.

It is not merely that, with hindsight, it is possible to identify catastrophic decisions, such as the release of patients into care homes without testing. We accept that the governments in Holyrood and at Westminster were dealing with an unprecedented situation and that mistakes were inevitable while much was unknown. It is also clear that – whatever criticisms there are to be made about the handling of the crisis – politicians demonstrated unanimity in declaring that their policies would be made on pragmatic grounds, in line with expert advice.

But that sincerity of intent, alas, was not always translated into effective messaging. It is precisely when a number of approaches are possible, and when there is conflicting advice, that it is inadequate merely to assure the public that policy is “following the science”. The rationale, the projections and, wherever possible, the data behind decisions needs also to be transmitted in a clear fashion.

For all the slide presentations and daily press conferences, there was far too much confusion. The pretence that tiers in different nations, “circuit-breaking” lockdowns, and other measures were substantially different from earlier restrictions may have been designed to reassure, or to suit the rules to local conditions.

But in the end, it proved at best a recipe for confusion at a time when people were already inclined to chafe at continued privations. At worst, it gave some an excuse for deliberately misunderstanding the rules, as did occasions when politicians and officials north and south of the Border failed to observe rules that they themselves had imposed.

Even with the realistic prospect that vaccination will halt or significantly reduce the lethal damage that Covid has wrought, these issues will remain major challenges for government in the months, and probably for years, to come. Other areas, such as the enormous economic cost, will need to be addressed, in the words of the hymn’s later verse, “free from error and hypocrisy”.

The decision of the SNP at Westminster to vote against a Brexit deal, having endlessly argued that any deal was better than none, is an example of the sort of petty partisan point-scoring that undermines efforts to rebuild. That is a shame, when the national interest – for nationalists and unionists alike – is at stake. The huge task of supporting the recovery of business, education and other fields must not be marked by the dither, delay and opacity that marked too many decisions last year, nor manipulated for party advantage. A New Year, a new start.