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Coronavirus / Mixed reaction to latest easing of Covid restrictions

NHS Shetland urges people to follow Covid rules after two new cases were confirmed for the islands

TUESDAY’s announcement by first minister Nicola Sturgeon that Shetland together with the other Scottish islands will have Covid-19 restrictions eased in line with the rest of Scotland has received a mixed response from local people.

The news of restriction easing comes on the same day two new Covid-19 cases have been confirmed for Shetland within the last 24 hours. NHS Shetland said both new cases are linked to a case reported at the weekend. All three individuals have contracted the virus outside of Shetland and are now isolating.

Consultant for public health Dr Susan Laidlaw said that as more people began moving in and out of Shetland it was crucial to remember to wear face masks and keep washing hands. “Don’t get too close to other people and avoid crowded places,” she said. 

Meanwhile, the long overdue clarity on the extent and timeline for restriction easing was generally welcomed by islanders, not everyone has been happy with the tourism and hospitality sector getting priority over indoor household visits for friends and family.

Tourism will be opened up on 26 April, but Sturgeon also announced that domestic travel across Scotland for outdoor socialising with family and friends will be allowed as of this Friday.

However, it remains unclear how many islanders will be able to benefit from this as holiday accommodation is not open on the Scottish mainland at the moment, unlike the islands. Household visits, meanwhile, are likely to be allowed again as of 17 May.

STA chairperson Emma Miller.

Welcoming the news, Shetland Tourism Association chairperson Emma Miller said that after months of waiting the tourism sector was hopeful of being able to go forward again.

“In terms of the tourism industry as a whole opening up travel again is the best thing for the sector because people can now honour accommodation bookings,” she said.

“I can understand that there is some apprehensions from some people but I would address that by saying that it is absolutely in the best interest of everything that we do not take a step back again.

“I am fairly certain that all businesses are going to be making sure that they will be re-opening in a safe and responsible way, and that it is possible to do so. We are certainly not going back to normal and things will be done in a very cautious way and that is only appropriate.

“Shetland folk now also go and see family and friends on the UK mainland again they have not been able to see for far too long, and we need to be aware that when we are travelling south we need to take care and responsibility when we are away too.”

But leader of Shetland Islands Council expressed his frustration that Shetland was forced into the same levels as the Scottish mainland, whereas infection levels and the number of Covid-19 cases suggest that the isles should be in a much lower level of restrictions.

“There appears to be no capacity for regional variation despite the data showing that the pandemic is being experienced differently across Scotland, and there is a difference in the effectiveness of track, trace and isolate in island communities,” he said.

“The council’s position remains that Shetland should be in the level that our Covid data supports.

“The Scottish Government need to consider the proportional impact of these restrictions across the four harms, not solely focused on the numbers of new cases of the virus and there should be no additional barriers to travel placed on our islands compared to other areas of Scotland.”

Meanwhile, most people responding to the news on Shetland News’ Facebook page expressed disbelief that visiting friends and family indoors has been pushed back to 17 May in favour of opening up the isles to travel.

Isles MP Alistair Carmichael said government’s announcement comes after almost a month of doubt over the status of the Scottish islands and after a confusing and poorly implemented survey.

“It is good that we now have some clarity on isles restrictions but people will be frustrated that we had to wait so long only to get the same answer as everybody else. If it is all the same as the rest of Scotland then why did they sit on their hands so long?

“In the meantime, our businesses have suffered from the relative uncertainty compared to the mainland, losing bookings and trade.

“After a long period of severe restrictions we can all welcome progress towards reopening, however slow. We have to do all we can to make this the last lockdown.

“Questions remain about their consultation process for islanders, which was clear as mud and left people feeling ignored. If this is how the Scottish Government views the importance of the isles then it shows we have a long way to go before the promise of the Islands Act is fulfilled.”

Lib Dem candidate for the Scottish Parliament Beatrice Wishart added: “Shetland has been left in the dark for too many weeks over what the future holds in terms of the easing of restrictions.

“I hope that today’s announcement is the start of more clarity from the Scottish Government and, for the sake of transparency, will be accompanied with the publication of the consultation responses.”

SNP candidate Tom Wills said: “These decisions are incredibly difficult and there are no easy answers, but I’m sure local businesses (particularly tourism operators) and folk with relatives down south will be pleased to know that from the 26 April, restrictions on travel to and from Shetland will be lifted.

“It is also welcome news that from this Friday 16 April, outdoor meetings of six adults from up to six households within Shetland will be permitted – and the prospect of inside home visits in four weeks’ time is really encouraging.

“The reality is that our economy and our health service are far more closely connected to the rest of Scotland than, say, Faroe’s are with Denmark. Particularly considering how many folk travel up and down for work and how many Shetlanders work in oil and gas or the merchant navy, the balance that has been struck seems like a reasonable one to me.”

Meanwhile Loganair said that tickets to all the airline’s island destinations were now on sale.

Chief executive Jonathan Hinkles said: “We are heartened to see the Scottish Government has set out a path to the safe re-opening of travel and tourism to and from Scotland’s islands – a move which has been made possible by the tremendous progress on the Covid vaccination programme. I

“It is great news and can’t come a moment too soon for the parts of our islands’ economies which are hugely dependent on tourism.”