Storm Arwen response: Deputy First Minister statement - 30 November 2021

Statement given by the Deputy First Minister John Swinney to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Tuesday 30 November 2021.

Presiding Officer, I am grateful for the opportunity to update Parliament on the response to and continued recovery from the major impacts of Storm Arwen.

On Friday the Met Office took the serious step of issuing a ‘Red’ weather warning of danger to life. Classification of a weather incident at this level happens rarely and is an indication of the magnitude of the challenge that has been faced. Storm Arwen has caused widespread and extensive damage, with impacts that have been greater than initially anticipated.

This has created significant challenges and hardship for communities and households across Scotland. I want to extend my sympathy to everyone who has been, and continues to be affected, and assure everyone involved that every effort is being made with our partners to address the impacts as swiftly as possible. 

Although Scotland regularly experiences severe winter storms, the high winds generally associated with them are from a southerly to north-westerly direction.  However, on this occasion the storm tracked down the North Sea, bringing very strong, north to north-easterly winds across eastern coastal areas. Naturally our infrastructure is designed to handle incidents from the prevailing wind direction.

That Storm Arwen gave rise to very strong winds from an unusual direction exacerbated the severity of the incident. Met Office records identify a few occasions in the 1970s and 1980s when widespread strong, north to north-easterly winds have been recorded across eastern Scotland, but these only gave gusts to around 60-70mph, compared with the damaging gusts of around 80-90mph experienced during Storm Arwen.

To give a sense of the scale of this event, Storm Arwen has been a more significant event than the ‘Beast from the East’ in 2018, requiring a complexity of response that we have not seen for a number of years.  

It has affected almost all of Scotland, with the most widespread impacts being felt in the North East, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders. In the North East, this has been compounded by heavy snow and a sharp drop in temperatures.

Amber warnings were issued in the days leading up to Friday’s storm but the Met Office escalated this to a Red Warning on Friday at 10.30 am. The Scottish Government Resilience Committee met on Friday to be assured of preparations, with information from local resilience partnerships, power and utility companies.

Throughout the duration of the storm and its aftermath the Scottish Government has been working closely with resilience partners and responders on the ground, and with Scottish and Southern Energy Networks and Scottish Power to ensure that all is being done to respond to the impacts of this storm. Throughout this, the safety and welfare of people affected has been and remains at the forefront of these discussions. I am very aware that the impacts of this are still being felt across areas of Scotland and the recovery will take time.

Our priority right now is to get power restored to homes and to provide support to those affected.

The peak of the disruption saw 79,500 Scottish Power customers and 126,000 Scottish and Southern Energy Networks customers affected.  Both Scottish Power and Scottish and Southern Energy Networks have worked tirelessly on network repairs and have restored supplies to 184,500 people as of 8.00pm yesterday.  However I am acutely aware that this will be of little comfort to the customers who continue to be off supply.

As at 11.45 this morning, I am informed that 16,763 customers continue to be without power.  These individuals are located in: Borders, Dumfries, Edinburgh, Fife, Aberdeenshire, Moray, Angus and Perthshire.

I do not underestimate the impact this is having on people and their wellbeing and how serious this situation is. I would encourage anyone still affected by the impacts of Storm Arwen to get in touch with their local authority to get help, advice and welfare support if they have not already been able to access that.

SSEN has deployed over 500 engineers and support staff to repair widespread and extensive damage to its network and support customers. Scottish Power similarly are deploying significant resource and both companies are drawing additional mutual aid and resources from across the UK. Given the severity of the storm across the United Kingdom the additional resources in mutual aid that can normally be called upon by the power companies has been available later in the incident than would normally be the case.

In many areas damage caused by fallen trees and other debris has been severe. This is hampering access, with specialist equipment being required.

The power companies are also encountering much more significant damage to the network which is therefore involving much more complex and resource intensive solutions to be able to reconnect supply to particular areas.

I want to pay tribute to the staff from Scottish Power and Scottish and Southern Energy Networks who have worked in very difficult and often precarious conditions to make as much progress as possible in the restoration of power supplies.

Three multi-agency resilience partnerships are co-ordinating the response activity in the North, East and West, working closely with the power companies.  Support is being prioritised for care homes and the most vulnerable in the community including those with medical needs, with a range of actions being taken in the most affected areas.

Scottish Borders Council opened drop-in centres in key locations to provide free meals and hot drinks to residents in surrounding areas who remain without power.  In Forth Valley a Resilience Partnership Care for People Group has been established specifically to deal with the communities and vulnerable persons within them.

Aberdeenshire Council confirmed all 170 schools would be closed on Monday and today and all schools are being checked for storm damage, access routes, and to confirm if power, heating and water supplies are operational. The priority is to ensure buildings are safe before pupils and staff are welcomed back. 

The severe impacts in that area also meant that vaccination clinics in Aberdeenshire were cancelled on Monday with planned re-opening today.

The council has also set up rest centres and in other areas, hotels, pubs and halls are being opened to provide food and warmth. Local partnerships and community groups have been going door to door and providing hot food and assistance packages. While many people are making arrangements to stay with friends and families who have power, those without power are being offered accommodation in hotels. 

The British Red Cross are utilising community volunteers across the North area, supporting energy and council partners providing door to door welfare checks on vulnerable people and care homes; and distributing blankets, food and essential supplies and information to vulnerable and prioritised individuals.

In Dumfries and Galloway, the care for people arrangements through the council’s Care at Home Teams, Social Work Teams and its Carecall Service have continued to make care visits throughout this period. This has helped to identify those who may be in need of additional support and will continue to be closely monitored. There were a small number of primary school closures yesterday in the area, however all except one are expected to re-open today.

Our transport network was also seriously affected by the storm.  On Friday, Police Scotland issued do not travel warnings and by Saturday, many trunk roads and railway lines were closed.  However I am pleased to report that all trunks roads were cleared by Saturday evening and there are no remaining storm related rail issues.

There have been many wider impacts from the storm, with 10,000 properties having experienced water supply issues and Scottish Water is working at pace to restore water supplies and is providing all those affected with alternative supplies of drinking water.  Around 1500 properties are still without a water supply, mainly across the Deeside area, with work being hampered by the loss of power and difficulty in accessing some sites due to ongoing weather conditions or blocked access routes.

Telecoms providers have experienced significant infrastructure damage and my officials have met with them through the National Emergency Alert for Telecoms protocol to seek assurances on power resilience provisions they have in place to restore mobile telecoms in affected areas. Actions being taken include mobile generation deployment to affected cell locations. While the position is improving, we continue to focus on this as a key issue.

I would want to assure Parliament and members of the public that the focus of the Scottish Government, Local Resilience Partnerships and the power and utility companies, is on restoring services to those affected as quickly as possible and to taking the practical steps to help anyone who has been adversely affected.  My expectation is that most of the remaining customers who are off supply will be restored today but I regret, for some of the more complex cases, supply is unlikely to be restored until later in the week.

In the aftermath of this incident, we will review the preparations for, and response to, Storm Arwen to ensure we take all the learning from this exceptional storm. We have strong and robust arrangements in place to manage and address weather-related resilience issues at a national, regional and local level but I will want to ensure that our arrangements continue to evolve and strengthen for the future.

In conclusion I would like to express my sincere thanks to all those who have been working in very difficult conditions and for prolonged periods to restore utility supplies and support affected communities and households. This includes voluntary organisations, local businesses and community groups of volunteers who are contributing significantly to neighbourhood wellbeing and resilience. 

We have been monitoring progress to address Storm Arwen’s impacts closely, engaging with a range of organisations to ensure that the public are regularly updated in what has been a rapidly changing situation. We will continue to do so, with our resilience partnerships remaining active to ensure every possible resource is deployed and the worst effects of this significant storm are addressed.

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