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Coronavirus / Council to push for clarity on Covid restrictions following meeting with minister

SHETLAND Islands Council (SIC) is continuing to seek further clarity on precisely what restrictions might be lifted if the community indicates a preference for diverging from mainland Scotland when Covid-19 measures are relaxed in late April.

The Scottish Government is currently canvassing views across the community, with a short consultation form circulating that offers islanders the choice of moving in lockstep with the rest of Scotland when it moves to level three measures from 26 April or enjoying lower restrictions but with essential travel only to and from the mainland.

But there is frustration within the SIC and elsewhere that – seven days after first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement – the specifics of the trade-off have not been spelled out more clearly.

Shetland Tourism Association chairwoman Emma Miller said it was “extremely unfair” on isles businesses to be left with yet more uncertainty.

“The government announced a week ago that we might or might not go to level two, but the conversation doesn’t even appear to have been had,” she said. “I’m very frustrated on behalf of businesses sitting there with no clue as to whether they can start to reopen or not.

“The certainty is what folk need. For hospitality-type businesses, they can’t be taking in stock and doing deep cleans, taking staff back off furlough, until they know for certain they can be open, allowed to trade, and to stay open and not be shut down again in a month.”

Miller said it was difficult, without clarity on precisely what the two options would look like, for folk to make a judgement on whether to accept continued travel restrictions that “would clearly impact on domestic tourism which otherwise might resume from late April”.

Government documents suggest that the post-26 April system of restrictions will include substantive changes to what is currently permitted within the various levels.

Perhaps the most significant is that under level three, it appears household visits will not be permitted, but under level two – which mainland Scotland is scheduled to adopt from 17 May – up to four people from two households can socialise indoors in a private home.

Other than for prescribed reasons such as essential care and childcare, visits to other households have not been permitted since Christmas in Shetland.

Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts. Photo: Shetland News

The updated level three restrictions would also see changes to rules that have applied over the past three months, including cafes, pubs and restaurants being permitted to open until 8pm indoors without alcohol, or until 10pm outdoors with alcohol permitted.

Further easing, including permission to serve alcohol indoors, would apply under level two, while outdoor adult contact sport could also resume.

SIC leader Steven Coutts said following a meeting with Scottish communities minister Aileen Campbell on Tuesday that discussions would continue and “the community needs a degree of clarity”.

“We’re clearly speaking about changes that would only come into effect in the latter part of April, but we need a significant lead-in time – particularly for businesses, for example, understanding what’s happening – so we’ll continue to push for that clarity,” he told Shetland News.

Coutts said there was a “balance to be struck” and countenancing continued travel restrictions once people on the Scottish mainland are allowed to move between local authority areas would not be straightforward.

“It’s rare for families not to have a connection to somebody living on the mainland, and we just need to understand the necessity for that social family connections,” he said.

“Obviously through the whole period Shetland residents have had to travel to the mainland and beyond for very legitimate reasons. We do not have the ability to be self-sufficient or cut ourselves off, and neither should we.”

Shetland’s latest seven-day average for Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents stands at 69.8 – almost identical to the Scotland-wide average of 70.2 cases – following last week’s outbreak which involved Mossbank Primary School being closed for one day.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We will be monitoring the effect of current easing on cases closely as we discuss with island communities what arrangements they consider will work best for their circumstances, rather than imposing any decision on them now.”