Easing the lockdown: early trials in Islands and Highlands worth cautious consideration

An earlier return to business has been mooted for the islands. Pic: Malcolm MacLeod/HIE

There should be cautious consideration given to easing lockdown measures in the islands – and eventually the Highlands – prior to the rest of the country, it was claimed this week.

The idea was mooted last weekend by Professor Hugh Pennington, the emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University.

In an article in The Herald, Prof Pennington said the Western Isles, which at the start of the week had only six confirmed cases of Covid-19, could exit the restrictions as a “test-bed” before wider lockdowns were lifted.

Politicians said the idea was worth considering, but still carried risk.

Prof Pennington said: “There could soon be a case for a geographical lifting of restrictions – such as in some of the Scottish islands and the Highlands and Grampian.

“The Western Isles and Orkney are the obvious candidates to be the test beds for an exit strategy for the country. Travel is restricted because they are islands and have extremely low levels of confirmed cases. You can control access to them and re-open things like shops and churches etc and get back gradually to normal life again.

“As for people travelling to the islands it is to be remembered that the vast majority of people have not been affected.”

He added that effective testing facilities, which would give a quick result, must first be in place to allow any restrictions to be eased.

Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan said that while the idea had merit, islanders would be alarmed if they felt their health was being compromised as part of an experiment.

He said: “It is unfortunate that the language of ‘testbeds’ has been used by some to describe the Western Isles, which has disturbed a number of people who have contacted me about this subject.

“We have a population that is more elderly and more vulnerable to this virus than most, and so slowing down the spread of the virus has to be our overriding priority.

“Despite the fact we have a low number of confirmed cases, the true number of infected islanders is likely to be significantly higher. There is certainly now a need for more testing locally.

“We need to keep observing the social distancing guidelines and cannot allow any room for complacency.

“Given that we may well be behind the infection curve for the rest of Scotland, there is a good case to be made for a regional approach to lifting lockdown restrictions, when that happens. However, this also has to ensure that the islands are not subject to any influx of travellers from other areas where the virus has already peaked.”

Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Donald Cameron added: “Any proposal to trial a relaxation of the lockdown rules must have the full support of local residents with the protection of the most vulnerable remaining paramount, as well as ensuring the NHS is not put under any unnecessary strain.

“However, the geography of the islands means they are suitable for a possible trial and Professor Pennington’s suggestions certainly deserve serious consideration.

“Given the fragile nature of the islands’ local economy at this time, we need to give our communities every chance of not only getting through this pandemic but also kick-starting a recovery as quickly as possible. This proposal may well help in that endeavour.”