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Coronavirus / No room for complacency but isles in a good place once lockdown rules ease, says health chief

AFTER THREE weeks without any new confirmed Covid-19 cases in Shetland the chief executive of the isles’ health board has warned that despite the encouraging trend islanders need to continue being vigilant.

Michael Dickson said he strongly disagreed with suggestions that the fight against the deadly virus had been won locally.

Since 20 April the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has stood at 54. Seven people have died since the outbreak began, five in a care home and two in hospital settings.

The number of infectious carriers of the virus is believed to be at a very low level locally, putting Shetland in a good place once lockdown conditions are being relaxed, Dickson said.

The proportion of tests which are positive in Shetland is now also below the Scottish average.

NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson. Photo: Shetland News

“It is the difference that the impact of social distancing and lockdown have had, and it would be a huge shame to squander it now,” the health chief said, warning that there was no room for complacency.

While some of the lockdown measures in England were relaxed this week, best illustrated in the new ‘stay alert’ slogan, the devolved countries have all decided not to follow the prime minister’s lead and continue to advocate the ‘stay at home’ advice.

In Scotland, people are now allowed to leave their home more than once a day to exercise, with further relaxations awaited for the end of the month.

“At the minute it appears that the number of cases have fallen significantly, and it appears that we (in Shetland) are at a good place, certainly a better place as we were projecting,” Dickson said.

With regards to the much-debated topic of whether there is a separate Shetland specific path out of the pandemic, Dickson said the isles health board has always had a certain leeway in local decision making.

Citing the early closing of schools and cancellation of the final two Up Helly Aa festivals of the year at a time when mass gatherings in the rest of the country were still a normal occurrence, Dickson said: “There will always be elements of us making reasonable adjustments of a national policy to make sure it suits the Shetland environment.”

Referring to Germany where responsibility of relaxing lockdown conditions have been transferred to the level of federal states and with elements of the process even devolved to local authority areas, Dickson said that having achieved very low infection numbers in Shetland once lockdown measures are being relaxed the health board has “more capacity to absorb any increases [in infections] that do occur”.

“So, if we do and start relaxing these rules, we have a lot more wriggle room in terms of what we can tolerate of increased number of cases,” he said.

And with more widespread testing now under way as NHS Shetland implements the national ‘test, trace, contain and support’ policy, the health board is preparing for what the ‘new normal’ of non-Covid-19 related hospital and GP surgery appointments may look like.

“[Local testing] does fundamentally change potential patient pathways, and that is going to be increasingly important as we start to return to delivering services that are considered non-urgent,” Dickson said.

While those discussions are taking place on a Scotland-wide level as the country tries to navigate a safe way out of lockdown, Dickson said measures need to be put into place to reduce the risk as “Covid is not going away”.

This could take the form of a more rigid appointment system, which prevents people spending time in a waiting room area, as well as Covid-19 tests becoming part of routine procedure for people undergoing surgery in hospital.