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New Solutions, New Problems

A wee bit under 6 miles walking for yesterday's exercise. Had to fit it in between a couple on online conferences. As people are getting the hang of this, the diary is filling up with work for and with constituents.

But the highlight was the walk. Despite the phone ringing several times. Have I said I hate phones? A highlight because it was a warm wind and a "big sky" day.

We started with absolutely clear blue above us, and around us. As the day wore on, a beautiful set of alto-cirrus clouds painted beautiful patterns on the sky. It just somehow makes one want to swivel one's head around to take in the scale of the patchwork of textures above.
And at a pragmatic level, those high altitude clouds were a blanket to keep the day's heat from escaping. Creating the conditions for a warm start today.

My deadline for this diary this morning has to be 0900 not my usual 1000. That's because I shall be playing my part in a discussion led by some of my fellow Fellows of the RSA who are based in Australia. My 0900 will be their 1800. 

The subject is very relevant to our present circumstances, "Fighting the social recession: inclusion and social distancing". All being well, my feedback to my antipodean colleagues, and by exchange, their description of the challenges and responses they are experiencing will help us both.

Like many of us, I have close family members who are significantly affected by this virus. Two have non-trivially impaired immune systems which mean they cannot leave home for 12 weeks. In both cases, good neighbours are already helping with important matters like shopping.

A younger family member returned from work a couple of weeks ago with symptoms uncomfortably like COVID-19. Because they work in a front-line public service, they were tested, fortunately showing that they were not infected. They are now back, fit and well, and bug-free, doing a job that no one would dispute is vital.

Despite my antipathy to the phone I made the call to my siblings and had feedback from Scotland, England, Denmark and Sweden, where their offspring and their families live. Each country has taken a different path through this worldwide infection.

It's quite clear that it will be years before scientists will have looked at all the experience gained from the different approaches taken in different places and drawn serious conclusions. Debate continues about the SARS epidemic which occurred over a decade ago.

Meantime our Parliament will have another leaders' questions today which will mirror most of our normal First Minister's Questions. And tomorrow at 1430 we shall have four Cabinet Secretaries answering questions from backbenchers - including me. That's subject to my passing the technology test that will verify that my home computer works appropriately for the system Holyrood's boffins will be operating to make it all happen.

It's been all very well having teleconferences in private spaces, and I have participated in quite a few now, and have three more later this week. But when it's going to be broadcast to a substantially wider audience, and perhaps be carried on TV news bulletins, it has to work perfectly. With the experience of one public sector online session I tried to join this week having to be abandoned due to problems with the organiser's technical setup, I can see the need for checking, checking again.

We are almost certainly in the early days of a new democracy. And technology will be an important part of it. For those of us with long journies from home to Parliament, for me 5 or 6 hours on public transport, virtual meetings are potentially attractive.

For colleagues at Westminster, the challenge is very much greater. There we have an institution which cannot even provide a seat for every member in its debating chamber. Which takes twenty minutes for a member's vote, while we take as little as 30 seconds. From an O&M (operations and methods) standpoint, probably the least efficient Parliament in the world.

So, somewhat perversely, Westminster has the greatest opportunity for reform in the world. And there are encouraging signs that more and more of its members want it.

But the real challenge is that which faces business. How much of their new, hastily put together, business models will be fit for purpose in the post COVID-19 world?

I know from contacts that my staff and I are having with north-east businesses, that the temporary support being provided from Government is very welcome. But, if I can, I may use my opportunity for a question tomorrow to ask about how we are helping business prepare for the "day after tomorrow".

In Denmark, my schoolmaster nephew is busy preparing for the return of pupils to the junior part of his large school. And thinking about teaching methods that are more resilient against future health shocks.

In engineering, it is said that every new solution brings new problems. For my part I am much fitter from the daily walk. And probably mentally fitter from having the time to think, which working physically close to colleagues can make difficult, the many "Have you got a moment?" interruptions - answer, "Yes", (Thinks; "No. You've got it now").

But the new work pattern also means longer periods sitting without interruptions. And I sense the return, just nibbling at the edges of perception, a twinge or two in my back.

Every new solution brings new problems.


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