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Coronavirus / Council keen for government to explore testing of people travelling to isles

The issue has been part of ongoing discussions since last spring

SHETLAND Islands Council has made “frequent requests” for the government to explore testing people travelling to the isles for coronavirus, according to the chairman of the local authority’s transport committee.

Councillor Ryan Thomson, who also chairs the isles’ external transport forum, said this request “so far has been rebuffed”.

The Scottish Government has the power to introduce entry point testing, but its message is that the best way to stop the spread of the virus is to remain at home as much as possible.

Under level three restrictions the only travel allowed into Shetland at the moment is for essential purposes, such as work.

The idea of testing people on arrival has gained popularity, Shetland’s MP and MSP both encouraging the government to explore the issue.

Councillor Ryan Thomson.

The local branch of the National Farmers Union of Scotland (NFUS) has also launched an online petition on the matter, with more than 480 people adding their signatures.

Thomson said he supported the NFUS campaign and is “very happy to assist”.

“The SIC have made frequent requests, both through ourselves, and working with our MSP, to enquire about introducing testing at ferry and air terminals,” he said.

“This request has so far been rebuffed.

“While of course testing at the terminals isn’t fool proof, it would both help catch Covid-19 spread before it enters our communities, and offer reassurance to those living in our communities right across Shetland.

“This has been used successfully at other island groups, who have far stricter travel restrictions than we do.”

Council leader Steven Coutts suggested there could be value in a pilot requiring testing at the point of departure from the Scottish mainland.

He said the idea of testing has been part of ongoing conversations with the Scottish Government and public health officials since March.

“We’ve always taken the view that testing has a role, but it’s also clear that it’s not the whole solution,” Coutts said.

“As a council we would be keen that testing is explored to its full, and that’s all we’re asking for at this moment.”

The council leader reiterated that it is only the government which has the power to introduce such measures, while he also stressed the need for people to follow FACTS guidance on basic rules like social distancing and face coverings.

NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson previously said that testing of travellers would run the risk of someone returning a negative result even though they may later turn out to be positive, and mixing in the community.

Serco NorthLink passenger vessel MV Hrossey at Holmsgarth. Photo: Lerwick Port Authority.
Serco NorthLink passenger vessel MV Hrossey at Holmsgarth. Photo: Lerwick Port Authority.

He also warned that people could also become complacent with guidance if they were to test negative.

Dickson said sticking to the FACTS guidance is the key way to limit the spread of the virus.

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “To suppress the spread of Covid-19 it is essential that, with limited exception, there is no travel except for essential purposes – this applies to both Shetland and Orkney.

“Clearly the best way to stop the spread of the virus and for people to stay safe, is to stay at home and work from home as much as possible.”

A spokesperson for government agency Transport Scotland, meanwhile, said that following discussions “ferry operators are increasing their activity to actively challenging people at the point of booking and in ports before boarding as to whether or not their journey falls within the permitted category”.

“Their messaging is being updated to confirm this and staff procedures are being revised,” they said.

“Given the wider scope of economic and essential reasons for travel, it is not possible for ferry operators to require evidence given the range of circumstances where this would be impossible to verify – such as caring responsibilities or being part of a support bubble – but this additional level of challenge should act as a further deterrent for those making unnecessary journeys.”

Travel operators can also report any suspected breaches or abuse of staff to Police Scotland, the spokesperson added.