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Coronavirus / MSPs hold talks with health secretary on localised restrictions for islands

The Scottish Government is happy to discuss the issue further but remains ‘cautious’ on easing guidelines

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THE SCOTTISH Government is to “develop protocols” on which a localised approach to Covid-19 guidelines might operate following a meeting with islands MSPs on Friday.

The talks, following on from a recent letter from the Shetland, Orkney and Western Isles councils sent the to government encouraging officials to consider localised restrictions, were described as “helpful” by Liberal Democrat MSPs Beatrice Wishart and Liam McArthur and “constructive” by the government side.

Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman, islands minister Paul Wheelhouse and deputy national clinical director Dr John Harden participated in the talks with Wishart, McArthur and Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan.

Freeman confirmed discussions would take place with island councils and health boards to ascertain what would be necessary to apply a localised approach to restrictions.

With a very low infection rate in recent weeks and months, islanders have questioned the necessity of measures such as prohibiting household visits in Shetland.

In a statement issued jointly with Wishart, McArthur said the MSPs “certainly appreciate that there are complex and sensitive balances that need to be struck in decisions around how restrictions apply”.

Health secretary Jeane Freeman MSP. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland NewsHealth secretary Jeane Freeman MSP. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Wishart said: “It is important that clear procedures are in place and ready should localised measures be adopted. I was pleased that there was a recognition that there won’t be a one-size-fits all approach across Scotland’s island communities.

“Government and public health authorities have to make difficult decisions about the balance of coronavirus restrictions to control the spread of the virus and the impact of restrictions on wider society.

“Greater involvement of local government and local health boards in that decision making is key for public confidence, understanding and compliance.”

There has been friction between Shetland Islands Council and NHS Shetland over the matter in recent days.

Health board chief executive Michael Dickson was unhappy at not being given input prior to the letter being sent to ministers, while the local authority’s leader Steven Coutts is frustrated that specific measures have been discussed in public when all he is seeking at this stage is to establish a principle allowing for local variations.

Coutts said on Friday that he welcomed the joint discussions, adding: “We look forward to playing our full part in them, and want to see them move forward in quick order.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said Freeman had listened to concerns relating to restrictions imposed nationwide on 23 September – which are due to be reviewed before the middle of October.

“We are also aware that many island communities are understandably nervous about the recent increase in cases of the virus,” the spokesperson said.

“We will be happy to discuss all these issues with island authorities and listen to their views and concerns but, given the developing status of the pandemic, we will continue to take a cautious approach to any further opening up of economic or social activity.”

Highlands and Islands SNP MSP Maree Todd. Photo: Shetland NewsMaree Todd MSP. Photo: Shetland News

Highlands and Islands list MSP Maree Todd, a government minister, said: “I think the recent outbreak in the Western Isles illustrates just how quickly the virus can spread and these outbreaks are surely more likely if we let our guard down.

“There are naturally limited opportunities for the virus to be introduced to our island communities but the borders are not closed. Once introduced the virus can spread rapidly.”

Todd said she had “noted concern raised” by Dickson about the way island councils had called for easing of restrictions “without consulting the local health authorities”.

She added: “I’m pleased to see the government listening to the unique needs of our island communities. With a rapidly evolving threat like Covid-19, it’s vital we all work together to ensure our health and wellbeing.” 

Meanwhile, Wishart said the MSPs remained concerned that current government guidance on travel for further education students leaves isles students without “the same ability to go home to isolate as their peers do”.

She added: “We need to avoid situations where island students don’t have the same opportunities as the rest of the student body.”