Volcanic Ash Cloud

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:40 pm on 15th April 2010.

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Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None 4:40 pm, 15th April 2010

Under rule 13.2.2 of standing orders, I have agreed that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth may make a statement on the volcanic cloud. The statement will take five minutes; 15 minutes will be available for questions.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Following a volcanic eruption in Iceland, an ash plume entered UK and Scandinavian airspace overnight. As a result, National Air Traffic Services has closed parts of United Kingdom airspace. Similar decisions are now being taken in other European and Scandinavian countries.

At 04:00, NATS took the decision to cancel all Scottish flights because of safety concerns. That decision will remain in force until further notice. At 05:45, the Scottish resilience duty officer was informed by Transport Scotland that all Scottish flights were cancelled, at which point the Scottish Government resilience unit was activated. The SGoR unit, Transport Scotland and the Met Office, as well as people in health and environmental policy areas, are considering the current situation. Two meetings of the Cabinet sub-committee on SGoR have been held today. They were attended by ministers, representatives of the Met Office and Transport Scotland, and Scottish Government officials from a number of business areas.

The current situation is that UK airspace and the airspace of some other European countries has been closed and all flights cancelled. The Civil Aviation Authority has advised that wind direction is unlikely to change and can give no indication of the likely timescale of the restrictions.

The Scottish Ambulance Service will continue to receive requests for emergency and non-emergency evacuations and transfers between health boards and will seek to identify alternative methods of transport to support non-emergency patients. Local board clinicians and paramedics working in the co-ordination centre will undertake appropriate triage to ensure that only emergency missions are carried out.

The Scottish Ambulance Service carried out one planned mission this morning, which involved the evacuation of a patient from Campbeltown to the Royal Alexandria hospital. Two emergency missions have now taken place—one from Banff and one from Langholm. Air ambulances should be used with caution, but there is no such thing as a typical day in the Ambulance Service. Emergency missions account for around 10 to 15 per cent of air ambulance activity, which translates to around one or two missions per day.

The Scottish Ambulance Service has advised that guidance from the Civil Aviation Authority advises that no aircraft should fly above 5,000ft and that all aircraft should fly only under visual flight rules. That guidance applies to civilian and Ministry of Defence aircraft. The Ambulance Service, supported by the MOD and the coastguard, will continue to undertake missions when patients are in a life-threatening condition. Assessments of non-life-threatening missions are being deferred to ensure that resources are utilised most effectively.

Helicopter flights to and from North Sea oil rigs have been suspended, but the North Sea sector has to wrestle with that on a regular basis because of weather conditions.

It is not yet clear how much ash has been emitted or to what height it is being elevated. Global and 12km models give a consistent meteorological picture. Forecasts indicate that ash may be present over the UK today and tomorrow. The analysis that we have of emissions from volcanic eruptions is that the ash is not poisonous and has the potential only to irritate those who may suffer from skin or asthmatic conditions.

The other issue that must be addressed is contingency transport arrangements, as there is significant disruption to the air networks. The Government has been in touch with the transport operating companies to encourage the expansion of rail services. Two additional northbound services from London to Scotland have been provided today, which have been arranged in collaboration with train operating companies. As it is likely that the air disruption will continue for some days, plans will be made to expand that capacity. Bus services are also being expanded to an extent to support that work.

All Caledonian MacBrayne services report that capacity is available on services on the west coast routes. Under the current NorthLink arrangements, a vessel will depart Aberdeen as scheduled this evening at 17:00. No sailings are planned for the weekend, but we are in dialogue with NorthLink to arrange services to meet the needs of the community if the situation continues for a prolonged period.

The Government is working to ensure that on the key issues of making contingency arrangements, of trying to draw to a conclusion the air transport disruption and of giving reassurance on public health we continue to promote those messages to the wider public. I hope to be able to do that in the questions that follow this statement.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

As the cabinet secretary indicated, he will now take questions. We will get through as many as possible in the time available.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

This is clearly a very serious situation, but it is reassuring to hear from the cabinet secretary that the cloud is not considered poisonous, although it will present some dangers to some members of the population, particularly those with chronic conditions such as asthma. For people in business, the disruption is sizeable, but I commend the Government on its response in applying the precautionary principle to ensure that there are no unnecessary dangers to members of the public.

Considering the information that is available to the cabinet secretary and the matters that are being discussed, how will he keep the Scottish public up to date on what will be an on-going and changing situation? How best will he keep the Scottish public and business community informed of the extent of the delays and disruptions that we may see over the next short period? As flight travel is particularly important for the business of Scotland, when does he expect flights to resume—if he can possibly predict that?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Kerr for his comments. The Government's website already contains information similar to that which I have shared with Parliament today. We will provide on the website links to information about the different arrangements and transport alternatives for members of the public. If members of the public are concerned about access to health care services, particularly patients from island communities who may be travelling to the mainland for elective procedures, the dialogue with the health service is clear.

The transport information signage that we have around the country was updated earlier today to indicate the fact that there were flight delays at the airports. We will use that communication system to disseminate information to a wider audience. Clearly we will continue in regular briefings to advise the public about any emerging issues.

Mr Kerr's question about when air travel may resume with some form of normality is difficult to answer. The judgment about the extent of the plume and the implications for safe air travel is governed by international regulation, and those who advise the Government from NATS, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Met Office look at all of those regulations and the evidence that they have. A flight is being undertaken at 7 o'clock tonight to gather some empirical evidence about the nature of the plume to corroborate the analysis that has been undertaken by modelling, and further decisions will be taken in the light of that. I stress that those decisions are taken by the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I thank the cabinet secretary for the statement and will take the opportunity to take him back to an issue that he raised during it—the implications for the North Sea oil and gas industry. He made it clear that all flights have been suspended and that that is not unusual in the North Sea operation, but is there a point at which disruption to the industry may take place? Our concern is the impact on high-speed gas turbine engines such as are used in many aircraft including helicopters. I am sure that the cabinet secretary is aware that such motors are also used widely at St Fergus and on many offshore installations to pressurise the gas system. Is there any prospect of disruption of energy supplies should the dust find its way into the mechanisms that are used to pump gas from the North Sea?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

The North Sea oil and gas network is accustomed to being regularly unable to access rigs because of weather conditions and has contingency plans in place. If there were a prolonged period of disruption, there are alternatives for rig supply and servicing.

I do not envisage there being any disruption to energy supplies, but if anything in that respect emerges, the Government will keep Parliament and the public advised.

Photo of Jeremy Purvis Jeremy Purvis Liberal Democrat

It is clear that there will be considerable disruption for passengers and businesses, which will cause difficulty and economic loss. It is quite right that the Government has activated its contingency procedures. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that those procedures are conducted jointly at a UK level, given the fact that the regulatory bodies that make decisions on how the events are affecting travel throughout the UK operate at a UK level? Further, will he confirm that those joint decisions will be communicated equally to those who are travelling to Scotland and those who are travelling from Scotland?

A sulphurous odour is already being reported in my colleague Tavish Scott's constituency in Shetland. What preliminary information is to be provided to the public in the northern isles and in the Highlands, in the first instance, by public health officials in national health service boards? What is the source of information and advice that should be consulted by members of the public, who could well have genuine questions about the issues that have been raised in regard to the plume? Will they receive that advice from the Scottish Government's website or from the local health boards?

When does the cabinet secretary believe passengers who are booked on hospital flights for Monday and Tuesday will receive advice about disruption to their flights?

Many passengers and businesses who have already been in contact with insurance companies have received mixed responses with regard to how their claim might be treated. What advice is the Scottish Government providing to businesses and people in Scotland on how the insurance claims will be processed?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

As I said in my statement, the analysis that we have so far—I stress that I am talking only about the initial analysis, as we are still at an early stage—is that volcanic ash is not poisonous but might cause irritation to those with health conditions such as asthma. The advice to which the member refers will ordinarily be available through the health board network and there might well be information on the Government's website to reinforce some of those points.

Mr Purvis asked about flights for health care services at the start of the week. Judgment will be applied to when information can be reliably given to the public about the resumption of normal flight services. Nobody wants the services to be disrupted for any longer than is absolutely required; we will monitor the situation extremely closely. However, I reiterate what I said to Mr Kerr: the judgment on these questions involves the assessment that is made in relation to the safety of air travel, which is driven by the Civil Aviation Authority. I am sure that we all accept that that is the appropriate way for the matter to be handled.

Myriad questions can be asked about insurance claims and there are myriad details in insurance policies, but the Government would want the insurance industry to act responsibly and understand that this is a set of circumstances that no policy holder of travel insurance could conceivably have envisaged when they planned their travel arrangements.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

We come to open questions. At least five members want to ask a question and we have five minutes in which to accommodate them.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Can the cabinet secretary provide any more information on what measures might be taken in the islands of Scotland to mitigate disruption to island life? He mentioned the situation with regard to medical emergencies, but can he say more about the economic importance of lifeline flights to island communities?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Clearly we want the difficulties to be minimised and to last for as short a period as possible. A resumption of safe flying will be in everyone's interests. I have commented on the health network and I can comment on the capacity of ferry connections. We are advised by Caledonian MacBrayne that, with the exception of one sailing from Islay, all routes on its network on the west coast have capacity, which we aim to utilise during the next few days.

Photo of Charlie Gordon Charlie Gordon Labour

This unusual situation could be mitigated by increased use of the rail network. In the central belt, for example, it is possible to serve users of Prestwick, Glasgow international and Edinburgh airports by rail, to a substantial degree. That will be substantially more the case in future if Glasgow crossrail is completed. Is the Scottish Government considering the use of the rail network and the lessons for the future?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

As the First Minister said today, ordinarily—although not in all circumstances—about 20,000 places are available for cross-border rail travel. That is the existing capacity. As I said, two additional services from London to Scotland will operate this afternoon, to meet additional requirements. Some services that would normally terminate in Newcastle will be extended to Edinburgh and other services are starting in Edinburgh, so that passengers can be moved south.

Earlier today, Mr Tavish Scott asked about Network Rail's engineering works. There is nothing in Network Rail's engineering works programme that will cause disruption to cross-border travel over the weekend.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

As the cabinet secretary is aware, millions of tonnes of volcanic dust have been introduced into the atmosphere by the eruption. The dust will eventually be brought to earth by gravity or, more quickly—and more likely—by precipitation. The jet stream is currently carrying much of the ash further east, but I am concerned about the health issues in relation to irritation to humans and livestock and in relation to food production.

If sulphuric ash lands in Scotland, what is likely to be the effect—beyond irritation—on livestock that consume contaminated grass? What would be the effect of an uptake by crops of contamination? Would such uptake be likely to affect Scottish, UK and European food production?

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

I have just come from an emergency discussion on the phone—it took place a few moments ago. We had an update from the livestock sector; there are no anticipated concerns at this stage. The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment is in touch with the livestock and agriculture sectors to ensure that the issues are kept under active review. Further reassurance will be given as the information becomes clearer.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

No one wants to make a drama out of a crisis, but the event has huge implications for the economic wellbeing of the UK. This has happened at an unfortunate time in the political cycle. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to form a small group with his equivalents in the Treasury, in Wales and in Northern Ireland, to keep an overview on what is happening to the economy?

Jeremy Purvis mentioned insurance. It might be wise of the Governments of this country to make an approach to the insurance companies.

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Mr Purvis made a point that I did not answer: we have had discussions with the Department for Transport on relevant issues in relation to the UK Government, and that co-operation will continue.

Margo MacDonald is absolutely correct to say that there is the potential for significant economic disruption—there has been such disruption already today. We will actively co-operate to resolve the issues as quickly as possible. It would be a tad difficult to form a committee at this stage in the political cycle. Nevertheless, I assure Margo MacDonald that the dialogue that goes on between the Administrations of the United Kingdom on such issues is productive and constructive.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson None

I am afraid that I must close the session. I apologise to the three members whom I was unable to call.