Sturgeon told to reveal Covid updates to MSPs first, not media

Holyrood's new presiding officer Alison Johnston stressed her 'expectation' on this.

Briefings: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images
Briefings: First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Holyrood’s new presiding officer has made clear she expects all “substantial announcements” about coronavirus to be made to MSPs – and not to the media.

Alison Johnston stressed her “expectation” on this as opposition politicians blasted the First Minister for conducting a briefing for journalists last Friday.

She used this to warn that Scotland is at a “critical juncture” in the coronavirus pandemic, with cases having more than tripled in the past month.

But Scottish Conservatives chief whip, Stephen Kerr, insisted: “It is not in order for the First Minister to ignore this parliament and make statements instead in front of TV cameras and journalists.”

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He raised the issue with the presiding officer ahead of Sturgeon making a statement on Covid-19 to MSPs in Holyrood on Tuesday.

Labour’s Neil Bibby also voiced his concerns about the televised briefing, saying: “These are extraordinary times and governments around the world are taking extraordinary measures, that makes accountability and parliamentary scrutiny more important than ever before.”

Johnstone told them: “It is my expectation that all substantial announcements in relation to Covid-19 are made to the parliament.”

Her comments came after Kerr told MSPs: “This is only the latest occasion when the First Minister has chosen to speak to TV cameras rather than come to this chamber to make a statement and take questions from members of this parliament.”

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The Tory insisted: “This parliament should be where these statements are made first, we are elected to hear statements first, and the First Minister should give the parliament the respect it deserves.”

He said the First Minister could either have made a statement to MSPs last Thursday, when Holyrood was sitting, or alternatively that arrangements could have been made for MSPs to sit on Friday, so the statement could be made to the chamber.

That was echoed by Bibby, who noted: “We recently met for four hours on a Friday to elect our deputy presiding officers, we could easily meet on a Friday to consider urgent matters of national importance.”

A spokesman for the First Minister said: “Significant announcements on Covid are made to parliament – and last Friday’s press briefing did not involve a substantive update in terms of restrictions.

“The First Minister is happy to appear in parliament whenever required, but she cannot, in a pandemic, be prevented from giving public health advice when parliament is not sitting – that would not be in the public interest.”


Alcohol sales in Scotland drop to lowest level for 26 years

The report said this is the 'lowest level seen in Scotland' since 1994, but remains higher than in England and Wales.

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Alcohol: Sales drop to lowest level for 26 years.

The amount of alcohol sold per person in Scotland fell to the lowest level for 26 years last year – but was still higher than it was in England and Wales.

New figures show 9.4 litres of pure alcohol were sold per adult in 2020 – the equivalent to each adult in the country drinking 18 units a week.

The report said this is the “lowest level seen in Scotland over the available time series (1994 onwards)”, with the drop from 9.9 litres per person in 2019 the largest on record.

While the amount of pure alcohol sold per person north of the border was 6% higher than in England and Wales, this was the smallest difference recorded since 1994.

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The report, the latest from Public Health Scotland monitoring the impact of alcohol policy, found almost a quarter of all adults reported exceeding the safe weekly drinking guideline of 14 units a week in 2019.

This, however, was down from just over a third in 2003.

There were 1020 people whose deaths were described as being “wholly attributable to alcohol” in 2019 – an average of 20 people per week.

Over the course of 2019-20, 23,685 people were admitted to hospital with an alcohol-related diagnosis. Some of this group required such treatment more than once over the year, meaning there were 35,781 in-patient stays.

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Meanwhile for both alcohol-related hospital stays and deaths, the rates were eight times higher in the most deprived parts of Scotland compared to the least deprived areas.

A total of 42.5 million litres of pure alcohol were sold in Scotland in 2020, the report revealed – with sprits and wine accounting for 31% of sales each, beer accounting for 27% and cider 6%.

With the coronavirus pandemic meant bars and restaurants were either closed or operating under restrictions for much of last year, 90% of alcohol was bought in supermarkets and other stores, up from 73% in 2019.

Dr Elizabeth Richardson, public health intelligence adviser at Public Health Scotland, said it is “likely” the pandemic had contributed to a fall in alcohol consumption in 2020.

She said the report shows “population-level alcohol consumption in Scotland has fallen for the third consecutive year, with the reduction from 9.9 litres per adult in 2019 to 9.4 litres per adult in 2020 representing the largest year-on-year decrease in Scotland in the time series available”.

Dr Richardson said: “In 2020 Covid-19 restrictions included the closure of licensed alcohol premises such as pubs, clubs and restaurants.

“We have previously shown that per-adult sales were lower overall between March and July last year, during the first national lockdown, and it’s likely that the pandemic and associated restrictions have contributed to the lower alcohol consumption we see across the Scottish population in 2020.

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“Despite these trends, the most recent survey data show that nearly a quarter of people still drink more than the recommended low-risk weekly guideline. Among people exceeding the guideline, it is those in the lowest income group who are likely to consume the most.

“An average of 20 people per week die as a result of their alcohol consumption, and whilst this latest figure represents the lowest rate since 2012, again it is those in the most deprived areas that are more likely to be hospitalised or die because of an alcohol-related harm. Like all harm caused by alcohol, this is preventable.”

Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland, said “We’re really pleased to see that as a nation we are drinking less for the third year running and that alcohol consumption is at a 25-year low.”

She continued: “But given nearly a quarter of Scots are still regularly drinking over the chief medical officers’ low-risk drinking guidelines, we can’t afford to take our eye off the ball where preventing alcohol harm is concerned.”

She called on the Scottish Government to raise the minimum price for alcohol from the current level of 50p a unit to 65p, saying this will “increase the positive benefits of the policy by reducing consumption, saving more lives and preventing a new generation from developing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol”.


London calling: Tartan Army head to Wembley for crunch tie

Thousands of Scotland fans are expected to make the journey south.

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We'll be coming: Tartan Army arriving in London.

The Tartan Army have started making their way south for Friday’s crunch Euro 2020 clash with England.

Scotland take on the group favourites at Wembley in their second game after Monday’s 2-0 defeat to Czech Republic.

Thousands of Scottish fans are expected to make the journey despite pleas from politicians including London Mayor Sadiq Kahn to stay away if they don’t have match tickets or a safe place to watch the game.

Steve Clarke’s men go into the game knowing they need to take at least a point to keep any realistic hopes of reaching the last 16 alive.

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England, on the other hand, know a win against the Scots would guarantee them a place in the knock-out stages after their opening game victory over Croatia.

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London calling: Scotland fans arrive at Euston Station ahead of Friday’s Euro 2020 match against England. (Photo by Craig Williamson / SNS Group)

Several train services between Scotland and London have been sold out with fans eager to attend.

Wembley will only be at 25% capacity for the game, meaning many loyal supporters will have been left unable to get a ticket.

Pubs and bars will also be limited in the number of people they can let in, with most completely booked out weeks ago.

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Scotland, who are competing in their first major men’s tournament since 1998, have never qualified for the knockout stages in ten previous attempts.

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Taxpayer foots bill after council’s tourism PR company fined

Marketing Edinburgh has failed to file its accounts two years in a row.

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In October, the council agreed to transfer all assets and current staff to the council.

Taxpayers are being made to foot the bill after Marketing Edinburgh – Edinburgh City Council’s wholly-owned tourism marketing company – has been fined for failing to file its accounts two years in a row.

Last year, Marketing Edinburgh was fined £1500 of Edinburgh taxpayers’ money for failing to submit its annual accounts to Companies House – and has now cost taxpayers another £1500 by failing to do so this year.

In October, the council agreed to transfer all assets and current staff to the council, effectively taking complete control and responsibility for the previously arms-length company and the marketing of the capital.

Conservative councillor Andrew Johnston said: “Two years in a row, taxpayers have been left to pay fines because this organisation can’t or is unable to get its affairs in order.

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“This is despite the UK Government allowing all limited companies an extra three months to file accounts, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“With each passing month, the SNP-Labour administration’s decision to slash funding to Marketing Edinburgh looks more and more flawed.

“Now is the time that Edinburgh desperately needs to market itself to a global audience yet we have been left with a husk of an organisation that is costing money rather than generating income for our beleaguered tourist industry.

“The councillors involved need to explain what has gone so badly wrong.”

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The day after being contacted by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, Marketing Edinburgh updated the address and names of the directors of the company, but still has not filed its annual accounts.

The new directors are Edinburgh councillors Mandy Watt, Labour; Claire Miller, Green Party; and Kate Campbell, SNP.

A Marketing Edinburgh spokesperson said: “Marketing Edinburgh is in the final stages of finalising its accounts and will be filing shortly.

“This year has been challenging for all businesses and going forward we anticipate a return to less trying circumstances.”

An Edinburgh City Council spokesperson said: “An automatic fine will be applied and this will be paid by Marketing Edinburgh.”

Story by local democracy reporter Joseph Anderson

PPE stocks ‘very low’ early in pandemic, report finds

A report has recommended taking a longer-term approach to procuring PPE, including planning for future pandemics.

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PPE: Report finds stocks ran 'very low' early in the pandemic.

Scotland’s central stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) ran “very low” in the early stages of the pandemic, a report has found.

It also found that the surge in prices cost the NHS £37.4m more than normal for the safety kit.

Audit Scotland has released its long-awaited report into how the Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) managed PPE arrangements.

A similar study carried out at a UK level by the National Audit Office found the UK spent £10bn extra in inflated prices for PPE due to an “inadequate” stockpile and the surge in global demand early in the pandemic.

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The Audit Scotland report, released on Thursday, reiterated its earlier finding that the Scottish Government did not fully implement recommendations from pandemic preparedness exercises.

It also said the Government could have done more to ensure access to PPE and training in its use.

As global demand surged and overseas factories closed, PPE prices doubled in early 2020.

The report said: “Had NHS NSS been able to buy PPE at the same prices as 2019, it would have spent £37.4m less on PPE stock in the first five months of the pandemic.”

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Centrally held stocks of certain key items were “very low” in April 2020, with just 0.3 days’ worth of long-sleeved gowns stored by NSS.

However, individual health boards may have had additional supplies of PPE items, the report noted.

The report went on to say that 78 contracts worth £340m were awarded to companies providing PPE between March 2020 and June 2021.

A total of 29 of these contracts, worth £98m, were awarded to new suppliers with no competition.

NHS NSS distributed 1.1 billion items of PPE between March 2020 and April 2021.

The report recommended taking a longer-term approach to procuring PPE, including planning for future pandemics.

It noted NSS is already developing a new stock management system and renting warehouses for PPE.

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Stephen Boyle, auditor general for Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland worked well together under extremely challenging circumstances to set up new arrangements for the supply and distribution of PPE to health and social care settings.

“The challenge now will be in developing a longer-term approach to PPE supply and distribution that includes both business as usual needs as well as preparing for future pandemics.”

In March this year, MSPs on a Holyrood committee urged the auditor general to publish the PPE spending report more quickly, saying the UK National Audit Office had produced its findings in November 2020.

Scottish Conservative health spokeswoman Annie Wells said: “This Audit Scotland report once again exposes the reality of PPE shortages in Scotland at the height of the pandemic.

“Despite the SNP’s spin that PPE supplies never ran out, this report makes clear that at critical moments, less than a day of some key supplies were available.

“As frontline staff have made clear, the reality is that our NHS was just hours away from disaster because of PPE shortages.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We welcome this report and the issues it highlights.

“Audit Scotland acknowledges that following a dramatic global increase in demand for PPE, the Scottish Government and NHS National Services Scotland (NSS) acted quickly to secure new PPE supplies.

“Covid-19 brought an unprecedented global demand for PPE.

“In the first phase of the pandemic, there were collapses in the international PPE supply chain, combined with greatly increased levels of demand for PPE in Scotland and around the world.

“Scotland never ran out of PPE. Work undertaken by the Scottish Government and its partner organisations at that time included setting up a whole new Scottish supply chain from scratch, with the creation of hundreds of jobs.”


Roughie visits care home residents ahead of England clash

The former Scotland goalkeeper praised care home staff for helping get the residents geared up for the match.

PA Media via PA Media
Visit: Alan Rough meets with care home residents ahead of Euro 2020 clash with England.

Scottish football legend Alan Rough has met with care home residents in Glasgow ahead of the country’s Euro 2020 clash against England.

The former Scotland goalkeeper, who played in two World Cups and has 53 caps, joined football fans at Renaissance Care’s Croftbank House Care Home to discuss the Czech defeat and their hopes for the crunch match on Friday.

He praised the care home staff for helping get the residents geared up for the match, which he said he hopes will be “one for the history books”.

The meeting with Alan Rough was a dream come true for resident Jim Kennedy.

Rough said: “The result on Monday wasn’t what we’d hoped, but the beauty of the game is that it gives people of all ages, from across the country, something to bond and connect over.

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“It was great speaking to residents about some of the old games I played in, and there’s nothing better than a post-game debrief with fans who know their stuff.

“The home did an amazing job putting all this together and getting the pre-game buzz just right.

“All the best to the Scotland team tomorrow. Hopefully this is one for the history books.”

The visit from the 69-year-old, known as Roughie to football fans across the nation, was a dream come true for resident Jim Kennedy.

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The 85-year-old has followed the former goalkeeper’s career from his Partick Thistle days to his last match with England more than 40 years ago.

Scotland are set to play England at Wembley on Friday.

Kennedy, who had a short career as a striker for the club in the 1960s, enjoyed Rough’s stories from the 1977 Scotland v England game which saw Scotland fans storm the pitch after winning 2-1.

The game went down in Scottish football folklore, and Mr Kennedy still counts it as one of his most memorable moments of all time.

Kennedy said: “When I think of Scottish football, that game is still what comes to mind.

“Roughie was in goals and fended off the English side helping us win our first game in 10 years at Wembley.

“It’s been a difficult year and I know the team will be feeling the pressure on Friday, but we’re behind them all the way.

“I can’t wait for another pie and a pint on the night – it feels like being back in the stands when I was younger.”

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Residents at the care home will be treated to a pie and a pint while watching the national team, the first time they have been able to do so since before lockdown.


Huge map of Scotland mown into field to celebrate Euros

The map was mown into a field next to the Born in Scotland retail chain headquarters near Jedburgh.

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Map: Mega map of Scotland mown into field.

The largest ever map of Scotland has been mown into a field ahead of Scotland’s Euro 2020 clash with England on Friday. 

The outline has been mown into a grass field next to the Born in Scotland retail chain’s headquarters near Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders. 

The map stretches for over one and a half kilometers and took designers Landmaps two months to sketch out.

Requiring several hours of mowing a week, the attraction allows visitors to ‘walk around the whole of Scotland’ in just under an hour. 

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John Henderson, founder of Born in Scotland, said: “Given what the country has been through over the last year or so, I wanted to create something fun to celebrate not just our great nation, but also our national team’s return to the Euros. 

“Outside is where it’s going to be at this summer, and how else could you get around the whole of our great country in less than 60 minutes, at the same time as grabbing a bit of healthy exercise and fresh air?”

Marc Crothall, chief executive of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, said; “John has again come up with a truly innovative, compelling idea in his uniquely quirky way which continues to connect with hearts and minds and put smiles on faces after what has been such an intensely difficult period for all.  

“Scotland’s tourism industry has faced an unimaginable crisis and it is so heartening to see businesses like Born in Scotland continuing to innovate and pivot so successfully to attract visitors and showcase all of Scotland’s wonderful assets.”

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Visitors can walk Scotland in miniature from Friday and entry is free.


Distillery shines a light on the important women in its past

Cardhu Distillery, near Aberlour, is preparing to open its doors again this week.

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Into the past: Cardhu Distillery is preparing to open its doors again this week.

A Speyside distillery is preparing to open its doors again this week as it shares the important role women have played in its history as part of a new visitor experience.

Cardhu, near Aberlour, survived and thrived through periods when whisky distilling was heavily taxed, thanks to the ingenuity of owner Helen Cumming who spied on excisemen and used a red flag to warn the area’s other illicit distillers.

The distillery, which is part of the Johnnie Walker stable of brands, is steeped in more than two centuries of tradition, beginning life as an illicit still in 1811, when whisky was sold for a shilling a bottle from the kitchen window of what was then a farmhouse.

But its origins have not been widely known until now.

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Cardhu Distillery: The company was sold to blender John Walker & Sons in 1893.
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The story of Cardhu’s spirited founder Helen Cumming is being placed front and centre of the brand with the unveiling of a new illustrated film that tells the story of how she and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth helped run the distillery and ensure it went from being an illegal venture to the established and admired enterprise of today.

Helen and her husband John bought the farm in 1811 at a time when making whisky was heavily taxed and the area was rife with people making the ‘water of life’ in illicit stills.

The taxmen were often billeted at her farm when carrying out investigations in the area and Elizabeth would cook them a meal and then slip out of the door and raise a red flag to warn other whisky-makers nearby.

The 1823 Excise Act made legal distilling a much more appealing option and a licence was bought for Cardhu.

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Helen and her husband passed the mantle to their son, Lewis, who continued to build the brand with his wife.

But when he died around 20 years later, Elizabeth was left with running the farm and the distillery.

She had two young sons to care for, a five-year-old daughter who died suddenly three days after her father, and she was pregnant at the time with a third son. 

Nonetheless she was determined to continue the Cardhu traditions, and worked tirelessly to build a new distillery at the site of the old farmhouse.

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Business: Diageo has invested in a number of its distilleries.

She fought off attempts by bigger whisky names to buy Cardhu until 1893, when she agreed to sell to blender John Walker & Sons for £20,500 (excluding stocks), plus 100 shares in the company (worth £5000) and a seat on the board for her son.

In an industry that’s perceived to be led by men, it is women that continue to be the leaders at this Speyside landmark, with the main roles filled by females more than 100 years on.

Cardhu brand home manager Laura Sharp said: “The two women created an amazing brand and we are continuing to tell that story.

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“It grips you and is quite emotional when you learn what they went through in their lives.

“As well as myself, the distillery manager is female and the brand home team is currently all female as well.”

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Now: The distillery has undergone a revamp.

The revamping of Cardhu ties in with a major investment by Diageo in a number of its distilleries, including a new attraction planned for Princes Street in Edinburgh. 

Despite the challenges of Covid, Brexit and American imports, the company says it’s forging ahead.

Diageo Scotland’s Barbara Smith said: “The investment is unprecedented in terms of the £185m that Diageo has put into Scotch whisky tourism and we are thrilled to be at the forefront of leading the resurgence of Scottish tourism.

“We are opening up domestically in the first instance but we are really looking forward to welcoming international visitors when we can.”

The red flag that was used to warn illicit distillers of excisemen now flies high outside Cardhu as part of a new statue installation which depicts Helen alongside Johnnie Walker, the brand putting down a marker of a hard won past – and, it hopes, a symbol for a bright future.


Action plan agreed to tackle Highlands tourism issues

An explosion in visitor numbers has created challenges for communities unable to keep pace with demand.

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Action plan: Highland communities struggling with tourism boom.

A revised action plan has been agreed to tackle a raft of problems that have tarnished the Highlands’ reputation as a tourist haven.

An explosion in visitor numbers before and since the coronavirus outbreak has created immense challenges for fragile communities unable to keep pace with demand.

The tide of tourists has meant unprecedented demands on country roads and other basic infrastructure including parking and toilet facilities.

Despite enormous budget challenges in the wake of the pandemic, Highland Council has approved a major investment package to aid the region’s lifeline businesses.

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It is confident that its evolving “visitor management plan” can be adapted when necessary to provide the best from limited resources.

The focus ranges from roads, parking and public transport to the countryside, waste and public conveniences.

Council officials have had regular discussions on the issues with a host of organisations and public sector partners.

The authority has agreed roads maintenance and improvements spending of £280,000 and new parking management costing £250,000.

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The plan has increased the number of seasonal countryside rangers with an investment of £300,000.

Councillors have sanctioned £60,000 of spending on public toilets, £180,000 on waste management and £125,000 on a Cairngorms initiative.

Many projects are already underway, with others due to be delivered during the summer.

In order to keep councillors and the public informed, a “traffic light” reporting system has been established to allow each council department to give updates on progress.

The local authority’s tourism chairman Gordon Adam said: “The council and community partnerships have worked diligently throughout the pandemic to make significant improvements as set out in the visitor management plan.

“Increased staffing levels, frequency of waste collections, seasonal access rangers, motorhome guidance for landowners, public toilets and comfort schemes and improved signage and parking facilities will all contribute to allowing the Highlands to be enjoyed in a responsible and sustainable way.”

He added: “People must remember to play their part in keeping the area beautiful and safe for all to enjoy.

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“This year will be particularly busy, and the public must keep in mind the upturn in visitor numbers will have an impact on services.”

Councillors are also considering a fresh policy governing overnight parking of motorhomes.

The tourism committee will consult community councils as part of the process.

Councillor Adam said: “To help alleviate roadside motorhome overnight parking, it’s proposed that we identify key sites of existing off-street parking infrastructure and, where suitable, allow short stays – a maximum of 24 hours – by motorhomes and campervans for a low-cost charge of £5 to £10.”

The authority also aims to improve the availability of fresh water, grey waste and black waste disposal facilities across the region.

Identified key “hub” sites would be advertised through the industry-recognised Campervan and Motorhome Professional Association and other outlets such as Visit Scotland and local destination marketing organisations.


Fastest London to Glasgow train journey attempted

The existing record for the quickest train journey between the two cities is three hours, 52 minutes and 40 seconds.

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The quickest modern regular services on the route take around four-and-a-half hours.

An attempt to break the 36-year-old record for the fastest train journey between London and Glasgow will be made on Thursday.

Avanti West Coast said it will run a non-stop service from London Euston to Glasgow Central to highlight “the ease of travelling between the home nations”.

The private operator is collaborating with UK Government-owned Network Rail, which manages rail infrastructure, to plot the train’s path around passenger and freight services on the West Coast Main Line.

The existing record for the quickest train journey between the two cities is three hours, 52 minutes and 40 seconds.

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That was set by British Rail in December 1984 using a prototype Advanced Passenger Train.

The quickest modern regular services on the route take around four-and-a-half hours.

The attempt at setting a new record will be made by a nine-carriage Pendolino train named Royal Scot.

It will run at 125mph – the maximum permitted speed on Britain’s mainline railway – for as much of the 401-mile route as possible.

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UK transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “After almost 40 years it’s time for this record to be broken, and I wish everyone the best of luck as they attempt this impressive feat.

“Our rail network binds our Union together, and today’s attempt underlines why our clean, green railways is a great way to see the UK.”

Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy said the event will be a “brilliant collaboration across the railway industry”.

He added: “It shows how the clean, green railway of today can cement economic growth, jobs, housing and social cohesion through better connectivity across the United Kingdom.”

Sir Peter has been asked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to examine how UK transport links can be improved, and will publish his final report this summer.

Steve Montgomery, managing director of Avanti West Coast’s parent company First Rail, claimed the record attempt “shows how effectively rail can deliver cross-border connectivity”.

He added that trains have an “essential role” in connecting major cities, driving economic growth and combating climate change.

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The Railway Performance Society will be the official timekeeper for the record attempt.

Regular train tickets will not be valid for the service, which departs at 10.36am on Thursday.

The train will carry rail industry VIPs and subscribers to The Railway Magazine who have made a charitable donation.

The money raised will go towards Avanti West Coast’s charity partner Action for Children and the Railway Benefit Fund, which support people involved in the railway and their families.


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