SHETLAND and other Scottish islands will move down to Level 1 Covid-19 restrictions and will be able to enjoy additional freedoms along with household visits from next week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
In a televised briefing on Tuesday lunchtime, Sturgeon said the pandemic picture in the islands had been “very much more positive” with case numbers at “consistently low levels, very low levels indeed, for some time now”.
As a result, while mainland Scotland – with the exception of Moray – is moving to Level 2, Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles will be able to enjoy greater freedoms from Monday (17 May).
Level 1 restrictions allow visits to private homes for up to six people from three different households, or eight people from three households in hospitality settings, which will now be permitted to remain open until 11pm and to serve alcohol indoors.
It is the first time in 2021 that people will be freely able to visit each other’s homes after tight restrictions were introduced amid a high prevalence of the virus shortly after Christmas.
Progress in getting Covid-19 under control also means that when meeting up outdoors “you can hug your loved ones once again”, Sturgeon said, though she urged people to “please still be careful and limit the overall number of people you’re choosing to have close physical contact with”.
Following a sizeable outbreak over the festive period Shetland has seen relatively few Covid-19 cases, particularly in recent weeks, and the pace of NHS Shetland’s vaccine rollout is well ahead of schedule.
Shetland Islands Council leader Steven Coutts said it was “positive to have the recognition that geographic variation is possible” and it was “something that we have consistently pushed for”. He said it was important for restrictions to be “proportionate, as they do cause wider harms”.
“This is another step in the right direction,” he said. “I am sure that the easing will be welcomed by many in our community, particularly those who have felt isolated during this period.”
NHS Shetland chief executive Michael Dickson described the move down two levels as “a direct result of our communities sticking to the rules through some very tough times”.
“In Shetland, we twice contained very serious outbreaks by working together,” he said. “In Orkney, our community’s discipline has, thankfully, kept the virus for the most part at bay.
“However, Covid is not gone and, while our vaccination rollouts are doing extremely well, we must still remain vigilant and now more than ever ensure we all stick to FACTS.”
The isles’ newly re-elected Liberal Democrat MSP Beatrice Wishart said the announcement was “welcome news”.
“For many islanders, who have been living with low levels of the virus for months, this easing cannot come quickly enough,” she said.
“I know that it’s been a real source of frustration for many that strict restrictions have lingered on even despite the consistently low prevalence rate and the incredibly rapid vaccine roll-out.
“To finally be able to hug our loved ones will be a huge relief. It’s something that many of us won’t take for granted ever again.
“Looking ahead, the work for the recovery is only just beginning. With so many businesses on the edge and mental health really suffering, there needs to be openness about what support will look like during the recovery.
“While new freedoms will feel good, it will also be important to remember that many will feel anxious about restrictions easing. Islanders have been responsible throughout the pandemic, and it will be important to keep that vigilance mentality in the coming weeks and months.”
Emma Miller of Living Lerwick said it was a “welcome surprise” and “very welcome” for people and businesses alike to learn that Shetland will be “skipping a step” to Level 1.
“That means all town centre businesses can now re-open and we ca look forward to a bit more of a normal life,” she said. “It’s reassuring that Shetland has such a good vaccination level and that our case numbers have remained so low that we are able to move ahead like this.
“With rapid flow testing being freely offered to all those visiting, or returning, to Shetland I think we are well placed to maintain our low levels as long as people behave responsibly.”
Sturgeon also confirmed during the briefing that Scotland would move to a similar “traffic light”-style system for international travel, with a limited number of destinations to be on the “green” list from next week.
But everyone should “think seriously about whether they need to travel abroad this summer” and “when it comes to holidays abroad my advice continues to be to err on the side of caution and to staycation this summer”.
The rest of the country is likely to move into Level 1 restrictions from 7 June and then, all being well, to Level 0 on 28 June. Once all adults are vaccinated there will hopefully be a move to something “much more like normality” later in the summer, which could see the removal of physical distancing measures.
Asked if she was concerned that people would choose to descend en masse to the islands now they are in a lower restriction level, Sturgeon said travel and tourism had already been permitted for several weeks and “we’ve not seen an impact” on virus cases.
Sturgeon added that people “don’t tend to pop to the islands… because there’s a pub with slightly longer opening hours than the mainland”, and that people travelling to the islands were being asked to take lateral flow tests before doing so.
“We are as satisfied as we can be that what we’re doing here is safe and cautious,” she said.
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