It is more important than ever that HIE continues to be ambitious for every part of the Highlands and Islands and that we work with our partners and clients in businesses, social enterprises and communities to strengthen resilience and accelerate recovery.
Since the COVID-19 lockdown, efforts across the region have focused on reducing the spread of the virus and meeting demand for specialist equipment, facilities and expertise.
Companies able to continue operating very quickly stepped forward to adapt and contribute to the national effort.
Distilleries started producing sanitiser. Technology and manufacturing firms began making PPE and components for equipment such as ventilators. And life sciences companies collaborated with research bodies to provide lab facilities, diagnostic expertise and PPE.
Innovation has been abundant in this region’s growth over many years. It has been at the heart of all efforts to adapt to the COVID-19 situation. And it will be essential in our recovery.
All of these organisations adapted to COVID-19 at the same time as devising and implementing strict new measures for social distancing and protecting their employees.
Unfortunately for a great many other businesses the only option was to close or significantly scale back their operations.
It is important to recognise that the contribution those businesses have made, and are making, is as vital as the work of firms still operating. Reducing the ‘R’ number, the rate at which the virus spreads, is a crucial part of the national effort, and they are helping to achieve that. This will be essential in getting the economy moving again.
Equally, swift action by community and third sector organisations has been a key factor in ensuring that many vulnerable people are being looked after, including those in our most remote and rural areas.
As regional development agency, HIE has also had to adapt. Over the past few months our staff have switched to home working and reshaped our priorities to help meet the changing needs of our region’s businesses and communities.
They are also committed to ensuring the swift distribution of Scottish Government support such as the Creative, Tourism and Hospitality Enterprises Hardship Fund, the Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund and the Supporting Communities Fund, bringing millions of pounds to the Highlands and Islands.
I am acutely aware of the scale of the challenges we face, not only in relation to COVID-19, but in ensuring that our businesses are equipped to deal with the changes that Brexit will bring.
I am also conscious of the strengths and opportunities that will be central to the region’s recovery to a stronger economy.
Addressing climate change, for example, will be a major theme. Scotland’s rural regions, particularly the Highlands and Islands, offer huge potential to help the country meet its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2045.
We must understand and make the most of these new opportunities. Innovation, entrepreneurship, the high proportion of SMEs and a strong skills base are just some of the tremendous underlying strengths that will enable us to do so.
For HIE, our collaboration with local authorities, other agencies and local businesses and communities will continue to be vital to our region’s recovery and to future success.