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Coronavirus / Sturgeon says government is open to more talks on regional restrictions

First minister suggests any changes for the islands would have to come with ‘trade-offs’, such as travel restrictions

FIRST minister Nicola Sturgeon says the Scottish Government is “willing to continue to have a discussion to see whether a different balance might be struck for islands” when it comes to coronavirus restrictions.

The matter was raised at first minister’s questions this afternoon (Thursday) as Orkney MSP Liam McArthur quizzed Sturgeon.

He asked, due to the low prevalence of coronavirus infections in Orkney, “why more account is not being taken of local circumstances and relative risks”.

It follows a recent letter from the leaders of the three Scottish island councils on the possibility of the government adopting localised restrictions for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles.

Sturgeon replied: “I assure Liam McArthur and his constituents that we take great account of those issues.

“The minister for energy, connectivity and the islands had discussions in recent days with island authorities, and we are willing to continue to have a discussion to see whether a different balance might be struck for islands in particular.”

Sturgeon said this week she had a call with party leaders on the “balance that we are trying to strike between nationwide restrictions, which allow us to avoid travel restrictions, and more localised restrictions, which would probably necessitate travel restrictions”.

“I am happy to have a discussion with the local authority in Orkney, but if we were to say that, if Orkney does not have cases, it can be exempted from national restrictions, the quid pro quo would probably be that there must be travel restrictions from the mainland to Orkney,” she continued.

“It is not for me alone to say what the islanders would prefer, but it is for me to be frank about the choices and trade-offs that have to be made. I say, in all sincerity, that we are happy to have those discussions with the islands on an on-going basis.

“We have had a significant outbreak in the Western Isles in recent days, and there have been cases in Orkney, although I absolutely take Liam McArthur’s point about the circumstances. One of the early outbreaks of Covid was in Shetland.

“These are not easy issues, but, if there are different ways of protecting our island communities, we are open to them. However, I will not stand here and pretend that it will be easy or straightforward. There will always be trade-offs in how we deal with the situation.

“I would be happy to have the islands minister follow up with Liam McArthur and the other islands MSPs to see whether there is a different way that they would be interested to pursue.”

In response, Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said she understood there is frustration from some about the “rules for the Northern Isles being bundled in with the mainland”.

“Shetland has been diligent and careful in response to the pandemic so far, and as a result levels of the virus have remained comparatively low,” she said.

“That diligence obviously has to continue while a vaccine is still in the works, and I would appeal to people across Shetland to keep being careful.

“However, if Covid-19 is going to be kept in check the Scottish Government need to bring the public with them on their decision-making journey. That means the rules being developed in Edinburgh have to fully account for the situation on the ground in Shetland.”