SENIOR health officials have expressed resistance to the idea of easing coronavirus restrictions in island communities – warning that doing so would risk exposing the population to a rapid spread of infections.
In conjunction with his Orkney and Western Isles counterparts, Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts has called for talks with the Scottish Government about adopting a more localised approach to coronavirus restrictions.
Scotland’s clinical director Jason Leitch told listeners during a phone-in on BBC Radio Shetland on Thursday evening that government ministers would continue dialogue with isles councillors but he questioned whether, for example, a ban on travel in and out of Shetland would be a price worth paying for greater freedom within the community.
Since March a total of 60 cases have been recorded in Shetland, including three last weekend, but infections have generally been low for several weeks. However 63 people are currently self-isolating having been contacted through the test-and-trace system in recent days.
NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson also told listeners that he understood any eagerness to enable people to enjoy greater social contact and keep businesses operating.
He warned, at what appears to be the early onset of a second wave of Covid-19 across the UK, that a more relaxed approach would risk the virus spreading rapidly. Yesterday saw 6,634 cases nationally, while hospital admissions and deaths have also begun increasing.
“I understand the desire to keep the economy going, but it doesn’t realistically reflect the situation that we aren’t a closed island community,” Dickson said.
“We have patients that travel across to Aberdeen for treatment, we have a lot of traffic in and out – even just people coming up to support our business and industry, and that requires travel.
“Fundamentally the virus hasn’t gone away. Social distancing [becomes] far more difficult if we’re saying there is a different pattern, a different set of rules that exist in Shetland, Orkney or wherever.”
With some exemptions, people in Scotland are no longer be permitted to visit other households – though they will still be able to meet in small numbers outdoors and in hospitality venues.
Coutts argued that, given the harsher winter weather to come and the relative lack of communal cafes and bars for folk in more remote areas, ministers should look at what could be done to enable “appropriate and safe social interaction”.
Dickson said that while the community’s response and strong compliance with Covid-19 regulations had been “unbelievable”, the risks were apparent in how a single case “rapidly expanded to 10 in Orkney over a matter of days” last month.
“If we’re all relaxed in terms of forming social bubbles, we have a picture where the virus can spread rapidly and it can spread person to person.”
He acknowledged the long, dark nights to come and the absence of feel-good community events such as Up Helly Aa would make winter very difficult for lots of people.
“It’s important that we stick together, look after each other and acknowledge it’s going to be difficult, but the longer we stick to the rules, the more rigid we are, the quicker we can get rid of them and get back to a more relaxed attitude,” Dickson said.
“We are very much at the edge of a second wave, but I’d urge people not to relax. I would hate to see an influx of the virus now, because we’ve had enough of this difficult situation.”
Referring to calls for a more localised approach to restrictions, national clinical director Leitch said there were costs to moving away from a “one size fits all” system: “It’s not a ridiculous idea, but you’d have to be very careful about importation of cases, and exportation of people who are healthy to catch the virus and bring it back.”
National officials have “thought about it hard” and “ministers are very happy to continue that dialogue, but let’s not pretend it’s a simple decision”.
“You’ve got 60 people isolating and I can’t guarantee some of them don’t have the virus, or that some of the people arriving tonight don’t have the virus,” Leitch said.
“It’s a very, very hard balance, and I’m glad I’m not an elected official having to make the final choices. But let’s keep it in perspective, 30 million people have caught the virus [worldwide] and one million are dead. We don’t close schools during war, and we’ve closed schools for this.”
He said measures announced earlier this week by first minister Nicola Sturgeon could be relaxed this winter if the prevalence of Covid-19 can be brought under control.
Regarding a travel ban, Leitch asked: “Is that a price worth paying to get some normality back, or should we as a country try to get the prevalence down and gradually open up over time?”
He said he was sure Dickson and his team would be doing what they could to maximise the amount of treatment that can be carried out while “keeping some capacity back for Covid cases if we need it”.
Asked for his take on the timescale for a potential vaccine, Leitch said Oxford scientists were hopeful of “something before Christmas” but not on a mass scale. A nationwide vaccine by spring 2021 is something “most of the scientists think is possible, but not probable”.
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