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Coronavirus / It’s too early to relax, says NHS boss one year into Covid pandemic

MARKING the anniversary of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the isles this week, NHS Shetland boss Michael Dickson has praised the local community for the phenomenal way it has responded to the pandemic.

But he warned that despite the very gradual easing of restrictions the crisis is far from over and emphasised that it s far too early for people to let their guard down.

And he echoed first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s view that planning a foreign holiday for this year was not a good idea.

As such Dickson said the health board’s Covid-19 team was unlikely to be stood down this year, adding that the virus will have to be managed for years to come with increased surveillance and further rounds of mass vaccinations.

The chief executive said he is reminded every day of the people who had sadly died with Covid and describes the human loss as “stark”.

NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson. Photo: Shetland News

And “without for a second taking away the loss that people experienced in having lost loved ones” he is in no doubt that “it could have been so much worse” had the community not rallied to do the right thing.

After an early rapid rise in the number of confirmed cases in March last year, Shetland suffered two major outbreaks – the first being in April when several elderly patients in the Wastview care home died with Covid and second coming with the significant spread of the virus over Christmas while Shetland was in level one.

In total 212 confirmed cases have been recorded in the isles and ten people have died who had Covid mentioned on their death certificates.

“We would not be where we are were if not for the community and its response to this pandemic,” Dickson said while looking back over a year he could not have foreseen when appointed to the top job at NHS Shetland just months before Covid struck.

“It is absolutely not lost on anyone at NHS Shetland that at the same time the Westminster government was supporting the Cheltenham Races to go ahead with thousands of people, the Up Helly Aa committees in Delting and the South Mainland decided to cancel their events.

“It has been an incredible year for many reasons – the community in Shetland has worked so hard to keep each other safe, to follow the FACTS, and even trying to do the right thing when not everything was clear cut – we had to navigate some really challenging times.”

And he is convinced that the sacrifices made by the community, and in particular by NHS staff, are paying off.

“Yes, it has been really hard for the NHS (…) we have experienced some real challenges: those initial days when we were not able to test on island, not able to transfer people, not having a ventilation space to ventilate someone before transferring,” Dickson said.

“We have adapted, we had some real pressure points. The North Mainland outbreak meant we had to curtail some of our activity within the Gilbert Bain. We might have liked to see more patients face to face but that has not always been possible.”

Like almost everybody else, Dickson is hopeful that Shetland will see some easing of the current level three restrictions over coming weeks.

Having said that, and citing the most recent Covid outbreak in the Western Isles where the more transmissible Kent variant was detected, Dickson warned that it is far too early for people to relax and to “let their guard down”.

Looking ahead to next week when first minister Nicola Sturgeon is set to release more detail of a timetable out of lockdown, Dickson said the continued rollout of vaccination was key to building Covid resilience. So far more than half of Shetland’s adult population has had at least one dose of the Covid-vaccine.

“If we can get all of the adults in Shetland vaccinated, first doses and then second doses, I think we can then start to say that we are comfortable to have a significant degree of protection on our community, to start easing restrictions in terms of meeting with people and travelling within the UK.

But he “absolutely” echoes the first minister’s view that overseas travel this year is not an option, and “that’s because of the new variants”.

“If a new variant is being imported that is particularly resistant to the vaccine then, sadly, we will have to go back to having lockdowns based on the outbreak of cases,” Dickson continued.

“I hope that would not be the case, all the evidence points at that the vaccine offers a significant level of protection, but it remains a threat that needs to be managed.

“This is a global pandemic. Whilst the number of cases is slowing across the globe, places like Brazil and India are of real concern.

“And let’s not forget that the UK still sits with the fourth highest number of cases in the world. We are now at 125,000 deaths in the UK; that is an unimaginable number.

He added: “I am not expecting for NHS Shetland to stand down any of its Covid support, that’s from vaccination to contact tracing.

“People have talked about that this is a virus we have to live with. I don’t think this is quite right; it is a virus that we have to manage because we can’t really live with it.

“We have to keep it [the Covid virus] under control, so we still have to offer tests and have to be able to vaccinate when new vaccines come out.

“There is some really innovative technology being brought forward in terms of how we can update the vaccine currently used, and also – potentially – some new testing methodology.”