'Intense' 2020 gives way to year of optimism
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CHANGE all round has been the name of the game in 2020 for one local MSP on all fronts.
Jamie Halcro Johnston, who is a Conservative MSP for the Highlands and Islands region, began the year as the party's education spokesman at Holyrood and finished it as the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism. He was given the new portfolio after Moray MP Douglas Ross was crowned as the new leader of the Scottish Tories in August.
Coming from a farming background in Orkney, it is a role Mr Halcro Johnston has been relishing.
"I was very pleased to be able to take on this post and it's a very important one indeed for the Highlands and Islands," he said.
"Coming as I do from a farming family I know just how important this is. While I'd never claim to be a hands-on farmer I'm involved in the farm business in Orkney so I understand first hand not only the difficulties of farming in a remote area but also the need for stability and clarity going forward from Brexit.
"Part of this includes getting clarity on the post-Brexit payment plan from the Scottish Government.
"The initial challenge I've had with the role is that there was such a mad rush going on before Christmas with Brexit that I haven't had an chance to get meetings arranged with all sorts of stakeholders. However, I'm really looking forward to doing this now we're in the new year."
Mr Halcro Johnston went on to say that he found his previous education role "very interesting", stating it dovetailed nicely with his experience working in the the jobs and skills portfolio. He said that there were "lots of challenges" facing the education system and parents as schools have once against closed due to Covid.
In particular he identified ensuring every child had proper access to online learning as a major priority for the Scottish Government to address.
Away from his party role at Holyrood, Mr Halcro Johnston still has his usual caseload of work from constituents and he went on to pay tribute to his team who have ploughed on through the pandemic.
"Covid completely changed how we operate as an office. In the early days I said they should all work from home as there was no need to increase the risk by being in the office.
"I continued to attend parliament and in March made the decision that rather going back and forth between Orkney and Edinburgh I'd just stay in Edinburgh, which is where I remained for the whole of lockdown.
"There've been a lot of meetings on Zoom and a lot more phone calls, too. I've actually had more meetings with constituents online than I would probably have ever managed face-to-face, so there have been benefits. Over the summer when the regulations eased a bit we were able to meet up.
"It's been a difficult year but the team have been fantastic in what are very changed times."
Mr Halcro Johnston said that his caseload had not abated with the onset of the pandemic and tended to arrive in his mailbag in concentrated batches, usually just after a change to the Covid rules has been announced. These include queries on how the rules affect individuals, groups and businesses as well as opinions on various matters, most recently the decision to close schools.
"There's been a lot more work, the team do a great job responding to these and helping wherever possible," he added.
"I can truthfully say from my own experience that politicians have not been sitting at home doing nothing."
Politicians, just like everyone else, have a life away from their job and consequently the twists and turns of the pandemic and the sacrifices it has demanded has impacted on them personally, too.
Mr Halcro Johnston: "It's been a very intense year for us all.
"I've been very fortunate in many ways as I've not had to worry about my job while some friends of mine have been made redundant and had to find another job.
"Being able to go to parliament was a real positive as I could see some faces and I lived near a park, which was another boost.
"It's the little things you remember, like when the cafés first reopened and you could get a real coffee. These little steps back to normality meant everything.
"It was difficult for everybody; for me, not getting home for months was one of the hardest things.
"We're in lockdown again at the moment but at least we've something to look forward to with the vaccine. I'm looking forward to having a pints with my friends."
Mr Halcro Johnston, in common with his colleagues at Holyrood, will be fighting for their jobs this May when the Scottish Parliament elections are due to be held. Currently a regional MSP, he is set to try and unseat the SNP's finance secretary Kate Forbes in the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch constituency.
However, it will be an election like no other other in Scottish political history should Covid regulations, as has been widely predicted, still be in force by then.
Mr Halcro Johnston said: "It's clear we won't be having a normal election and it could even be held later than May.
"Whenever it happens, I don't think people would appreciate politicians knocking on their door, although we wouldn't be allowed to do that anyway as things stand at the moment.
"It's been disappointing that I couldn't get up to the constituency and meet people due to Covid.
"That said, at the moment our focus should be on health and the economy and the rest, we'll just have to see what happens."