West Highland Free Press Editorial 1.5.2020
On Wednesday afternoon the UK Government minister Michael Gove told a House of Commons committee that there is “scientific justification” for trialling some lockdown relaxation in “island communities”.
Mr Gove is an Aberdonian and a former reporter for the Press & Journal. We do not need to guess where he picked up the idea.
Two weeks ago, as we reported, the emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, Professor Hugh Pennington, proposed that “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.”
His proposals were welcomed by the SNP MP for the Western Isles, Angus MacNeil, as “an excellent suggestion.”
In fact, any such lifting of lockdown and other restrictions from Scottish islands would be beyond the power of Michael Gove, Hugh Pennington, Angus MacNeil or any part of the UK Government.
It would be a devolved matter, taken by the Scottish Government in Edinburgh.
That government has not commented directly on Professor Pennington’s proposal.
It does not, however, seem to be hostile to his concept.
The Scottish Government’s paper on Covid-19 recommends in the near future “consideration of tailoring measures, for example to specific geographies and sectors.”
It was, as the Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan has said, unfortunate that Professor Pennington used the term “test beds”. We naturally resent the notion of being guinea pigs in an experiment designed to benefit the rest of Scotland.
There have been just six confirmed coronavirus cases in the Western Isles. They are all in Lewis and – uniquely within the United Kingdom – they have resulted in no fatalities.
NHS Highland is less specific about Skye and the north-western mainland.
It could be, as we all pray, that this region will escape the worst of the coronavirus.
It could also be the case that it is simply late to arrive here. Such fears are amply illustrated this week by the disturbing developments in Skye.
In this instance, any premature easing of protective measures, such as opening traffic to all comers, and allowing the virus to spread further, would be criminally negligent.
We will nonetheless at some point have to emerge from lockdown. When that occurs, it makes sense to prioritise regions with fewer infections.
There are strong and obvious reasons why Glasgow City Free Church should for the moment deny itself a Sabbath congregation. There are no similarly good reasons why the same restrictions should indefinitely apply to its brother place of worship at Cross in Lewis.
It is understandable that a full Ibrox or Parkhead should not yet be permitted to watch Celtic play Rangers. It is less easy to understand why, if the current circumstances continue to apply, a comparatively modest crowd cannot watch Lochs play Back.
Before any such easing is permitted, as both Professor Pennington and our local politicians have emphasised, a comprehensive testing operation must be established.
Only then could such internal practices as church-going and sport, and such purely insular, domestic operations as schools, shops, council employment, tweed and distilleries be able to recommence, with the understanding that the barriers could be lowered again as quickly as they were lifted.
Those measures alone would not kick start our economy.
Import, export and especially tourism demand physical contact with the outside world, and at present that is inconceivable.
But re-opening our internal affairs could offer us a way of slowly, and hopefully harmlessly, reacquainting ourselves with normality and releasing ourselves from the psychological burden of suppressed social interaction.
The bottom line must be: whatever action is taken should be firstly for the benefit of the Highlands and Islands, and only secondly for the benefit of the rest of Scotland or of the UK.
We are not the nation’s petri dish.
We have experienced too much of that in the past.
We will not go there again.