Editorial: Message of constant caution will need revised before the Highlands welcomes visitors

The path to the popular Fairy Pools in Skye

WHFP Editorial 19.06.20

Reaching a firm conclusion based on social media posts is fraught, though the hostile response to a tourism-related story we published earlier this week was hard to ignore.

When it was suggested restrictions for businesses should be eased, the reaction proved strikingly  similar to a story two months ago when the eminent bacteriologist Hugh Pennington floated the idea of the islands becoming ‘test-beds’ for the country’s exit strategy from lockdown.

The difference now is that in mid-April daily confirmed Covid cases in Scotland were around the 400 mark, whereas on days this week they fell to below 20.

Like Prof Pennington, the original promoters of the North Coast 500 provoked a storm when they hinted it was time the Scottish Government re-thought its approach.

The group warned that while ministers had provisionally given tourism businesses the green light to resume operations on 15th July, many small firms would be unviable unless the two-metre rule on social distancing was scrapped in favour of a one-metre limit.

Likewise, tourism chiefs in the Western Isles have suggested that easing lockdown measures will bring little benefit to the Hebrides until ferries are able to run at full capacity.

These comments, viewed as putting ‘wealth before health’, sparked anger among a population still shaken and fearful of a virus which has claimed so many lives – including 10 at a Skye nursing home.

Ultra caution

Most people, at least in what they say, will continue to take their lead from the Scottish Government’s ultra-cautious approach.

Even this week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has insisted contact between two close families should still largely be confined to outdoor settings.

Few could dispute that the lockdown has saved lives.

In Skye, the deadly impact of Covid-19 was felt at Home Farm, but the spread would have been wider, and more would have died, had the virus not manifested itself at a time when the island was closed for business and most people confined to their houses.

The effective introduction of border controls on the Western Isles helped keep coronavirus cases there to a handful, and there have been no deaths.

But political leaders, and by extension the public at large, are soon going to face an unenviable dilemma.

Figures released last week showed that per head of population the Highlands and Islands has the highest number of furloughed workers in Scotland.

The statistics – representing almost 35,000 people and nearly 30 per cent of the workforce – confirm the importance of the leisure, hospitality and food and drink sectors to the region’s economy.

Hotels, guest houses, pubs, restaurants and visitor attractions are businesses which can’t open, and they support jobs which people can’t currently do.

Some hotel firms have recently collapsed – so lockdown is leaving an already fragile region even more vulnerable.

Businesses now need greater clarity on if, and when, they can open again.

Facing a difficult choice

A tough choice will need to be made on what is and isn’t safe, balancing public health against economic damage which in time could threaten livelihoods and lives.

As Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at Edinburgh University and an adviser to the Scottish Government, said this week in a plea to get schools open fully in August: “There will never be no risk.

“It’s about how we reduce that risk, as we do with other kinds of daily dangers.”

If they continue to be told it is unsafe to re-open firms will want full financial support to get them through the winter and beyond – with the alternative a further rise in a Scottish unemployment rate now creeping worryingly close to five per cent.

More realistically, with no-one expecting the furlough scheme to last forever, the re-opening rules will need to afford enough leeway to allow business owners to make a living and to pay their staff.

The coronavirus pandemic – albeit in a way so severe no-one could ever have imagined – has highlighted the volatility of an industry that many in the Highlands had come to view as a sure-fire bet.

Highland economy

In time it might spark fresh thinking on whether the region should look beyond tourism and harness greater opportunities from the likes of agriculture, aquaculture, information technology and energy production.

Yet visitors will always be important.

Their numbers will be more modest than in recent boom years, but tourists are certain to head north and west again this summer.

By July the elimination of Covid-19 in Scotland is unlikely to have been declared.

But many of those planning to visit will have been cooped up in city homes for months, longing for the open spaces that the remarkable spell of lockdown weather has allowed us to savour for ourselves.

When the guests arrive the welcome they receive should be hearty not hostile.

But first the people who live, work and run businesses will need to know the virus is supressed to a level safe enough to inspire some confidence rather than a continued state of caution.

To negotiate that conundrum will take courage and a clearer, bolder message from the very top.