Before this past weekend, I could never have imagined circumstances when folk in Orkney would welcome Nicola Sturgeon declaring their islands a no-go area for visitors.
But that is what happened after growing concerns from across the Highlands and Islands that people were driving north in camper vans and with caravans to escape the coronavirus crisis. Nicola Sturgeon was clear in her message to those flocking to Scotland’s rural communities – that they were putting extra pressure on essential services and on health services that are already more distant from people.
As stories filtered through of rural shops being cleared of stock as these folk passed through, action obviously needed to be taken. Islanders told me that they were relieved at the announcement on Sunday by Michael Matheson that, with immediate effect, ferry companies would no longer take non-essential travellers. Since then ferries have been for those who live on our islands, who have an essential need to travel to or from the mainland and for essential supplies or business. Nothing else.
He did add, however, that those who do not normally live on the islands and had travelled there in the last few days would be able to leave to reduce pressure.
I know that the cancelling of events such as the Orkney Folk Festival and Orkney’s Rugby Sevens – such fixtures in the island calendar – are a blow to the community. However, the announcements of Monday evening have now put all these moves into perspective.
It is now clear that distancing from each other is not an option. It is a necessity for saving lives.
People should only leave home:
- To shop for basic necessities
- For one form of exercise a day
- For medical/care needs, or to help a vulnerable person
- To travel to and from essential work but only if you can’t work from home.
There is no getting away from the severity of these measures and they have clearly not been taken lightly. But I hope folk across Orkney can take at least some comfort from the fact that their islands are by no means the worst of places to go through this period of restricted movement and socialising.
Nevertheless, the key consideration in the coming days and weeks has to be the focus on ensuring that these measures have the desired effect – that is saving lives and avoiding overwhelming our hard working health service.
Ahead of Monday evening’s new restrictions on movement, and following concerns from constituents, I was pleased to receive assurances from Orkney Islands Council leader James Stockan that the council was urgently reviewing the need for staff to go into the council offices to work.
Now that the stay at home message has been re-emphasised, I trust that this urgency has been re-doubled. While understanding the need for a certain level of service to be maintained, employers should not be risking the health of employees. I would be keen to hear of any situations where it is felt this is happening.
Stay safe folks.
This is a regular column by local SNP MSP, Maree Todd. All Highlands and Islands MSPs have been offered space in The Orkney News to share their views.