CONCERNS over whether Scotland is safe enough for an influx of tourists from south of the border have emerged as worries grow about whether the nation has a fit-for-purpose coronavirus testing regime as new hotspots loom.
The Herald can reveal that NHS Forth Valley, which covers Stirling, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire has become a new hotspot for coronavirus cases – with half of the 12 new reported Covid cases for the whole of Scotland on Friday alone found in the area.
The Scottish Government has already had to take action to deal with a cluster of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the Annan and Gretna areas of Dumfries and Galloway, bringing in restrictions to the distance people can travel for leisure purposes.
In the past week, according to official figures there has been a spike of seven more Covid-19 cases registered in NHS Dumfries and Galloway, which provides health care for 148,000 people.
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On Friday, Scotland’s national clinical director, Jason Leitch, said 23 people were traced through the contact-tracing system.
Coronavirus travel restrictions are not being lifted in the affected area, unlike the rest of Scotland where people can now travel more than five miles.
Council chief Elaine Murray slammed the “social gatherings which shouldn’t have taken place” for potentially spreading the virus.
Joan McAlpine, the SNP MSP for South Scotland warned: “If people are coming to these areas of Dumfries and Galloway for a self catering holiday this weekend they can go ahead. But they are not allowed to travel more than five miles for leisure.
“This outbreak underlines the importance of following the rules.”
As as of Friday NHS Forth Valley, which serves a population of 306,000 saw a spike of ten in a week – with six reported on Friday alone. The rise over the week is identical to that in Scotland’s biggest NHS board, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which provides health care for more than four times the number of people.
The Scottish Government says that the situation in Forth Valley was being monitored and contact tracing carried out.
The latest analysis of Scotland’s track and trace performance shows that despite an expansion in testing facilities – the carrying out of checks against capacity continues to flatline.
Latest official figures show that while the Scottish Government has ramped laboratory facilities to meet its target to have the ability to do 15,500 daily tests across Scotland to deliver Test and Protect – it has been running in the past week at little over a quarter of capacity, with an average of 4296 checks a day in hospitals, care homes or the community. The numbers do not include postal tests.
Scotland was testing at little over a third of its capacity on the three days after the First Minister said the ability to screen had been ramped up in preparation for the national Test and Protect scheme going live on May 28.
Despite a pledge by Scotland’s health secretary, Jeane Freeman at the end of May to offer weekly tests to all 50,000 care home workers, it is still failing to deliver with new official figures showing 23,350 staff were tested in the last full week. But that is a rise of over 8000 on the previous week.
The Scottish Government say the numbers are an undercount because they are still having problems gathering robust data from NHS boards.
Some 135 of Scotland’s care homes still have at least one suspected Covid case.
With the Scottish tourism industry beginning to reopen from July 3 and the nation preparing to ease travel restrictions and self-catering holiday accommodation is allowed to reopen, islanders have raised worries about an influx of visitors from south of the border who could spread the virus.
The Scottish Islands Federation said it had “much sympathy” with a petition launched by a woman from the Inner Hebrides who was accused of racism after fighting for Scotland-only visitors.
With an indication that a full reopening could happen on July 15 one petition launched on Colonsay by resident Jen MacNeill has received over 2500 signatures and sparked what she described as an islands “civil war”.
It calls on the Scottish and UK governments to provide ‘a designated route map’ out of lockdown and provide financial assistance to encourage the tourism industry to open in a controlled way. It also calls on each individual island to decide the best route out of lockdown.
Camille Dressler, chairman of the federation said there were worries about the “pent-up demand from people down south” will put communities at risk through a spread of Covid-19.
She said: “This transition from lockdown is a very difficult time as people are having to balance conflicting demands. The fact is that the islands are having to respond to the very detailed instructions for re-opening safely facilities such as public toilets, restaurants and cafes, hotels and museum and that for many businesses these instructions are so demanding that they prefer not to open at all.
“Not every business will have the cash to invest in the new equipment or the extra staff that may be required.
“So the danger for many of the smaller island communities is that their safety – and particularly the safety of those who are more at risk – might be compromised if there is a sudden influx of visitors that may be carrying the virus without knowing it.
“For this reason, many islands are reluctant to welcome day trippers or campers yet, whereas visitors staying in self catering accommodation are considered to pose a lesser risk, especially when there is limited health service available.
“This may appear as discriminatory to some, but hopefully this is something that most people understand.
“As a federation we hope that the public at large will help keep the islands special and safe, and understands that not all islands are ready to open up as fully as some would expect them too.”
She welcomed a plan on Orkney where tourists are to be given warning letters amid fears that the islands could open up to Covid-19 with the easing of lockdown.
The letter has been produced by Orkney Islands Council and NHS Orkney ahead of the expected relaxation of travel restrictions in mid-July.
It will be handed to passengers using NorthLink Ferries, Pentland Ferries and airline Loganair.
OIC leader James Stockan said they hoped to have introduced an “extra level” of testing for the Orkney but said it has not happened.
“If we were doing that and we had a proper test and trace system in place on the islands, we could have opened up our economy much sooner,” he said.
“We have tried right through the pandemic to engage with the government. We wanted to try testing people coming in to Orkney before they even embarked on their journey and then a week again a week after they arrived. That was turned down. We were left dangling.”
The chairman of the Arran Economic Group, Tom Tracey said Arran had been Covid-19 free for seven weeks and that the primary concern was to protect the health of islands.
He welcomed moves by the local health and social care partnership to create and Arran-based Test and Track operation that will support the local population and the “greatly reduced” number of visitors.
Last year Arran had 440,000 visitors contributing £69m to the local economy and employing 1500 people. With Covid-19, he believes that economic boost will be cut by more than half to £32m with a potential knock on effect on island jobs.
“Opening up to the outside world is inevitable and this undoubtedly carries risk and folks are naturally concerned. However, the best we can do is significantly limit the visitors numbers, social distancing on ferries will do that, keep the community informed and prepare as best we can with information, best practice and Scottish Government and local health guidelines.
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“Given all of the economics and employment issues, our primary concern remains the health of our community and by implication, our visitors. We based our Arran Recovery Plan on health first and then balancing, community, environments and economy.
“On a practical matter, it does not make any sense to restrict or welcome people to the island based on postcode. Again, the Government is best placed to do that through local lockdowns, or guidance.”
Highland councillor John Finlayson, who lives on Skye said he hoped everyone from tourists to tourism operators will “take seriously” the responsibilities they have to “prevent us having to return to lockdown at a later date, which would be catastrophic for everyone”.
“The economy of Skye is hugely dependent on tourism and we need to be acutely aware of the importance of safety and risk assessments as we move forward,” he said.
“Clearly advice from the Scottish Government is key to what can and will happen but there is also a need for individual and collective responsibility in terms of how operators apply the guidance whilst also taking cognisance of what community feelings are.
“The majority of feedback I have received from across Skye recognises both the need for safety but also the need for life to return to some sort of normality within a context of following the health and safety, social distancing and hygiene rules that are in place. “Skye welcomes tourists and the suggestion that initially we only have staycation tourism is one that needs discussed but as with all kinds of restrictions around free movement, implementation of checks and who carries them out will be the challenge.”
Ferry passengers have been urged to wear face coverings aboard CalMac vessels, as the transport giant begins to increase services as Scotland gradually emerges from the Covid-19 coronavirus lockdown.
Face coverings are mandatory when travelling on enclosed areas inside a ferry, and on other forms of public transport.
The Shetland Tourism Association in a welcome message to would-be travellers said that while they may be looking for assurance about their safety, equally the community had some concerns that the virus “may accelerate when we re-open tourism”.
“For everyone’s protection, tourism related businesses have undertaken new risk assessments, applied higher standards of cleaning and changed their procedures to comply with the new Government advice,” it said.
“Our members have been working hard to ensure safety for reopening; this means investing in PPE, equipment, adapting buildings, training staff, or developing entirely new ways of working. All added expense, stress, and pressure at an already difficult time.”
It added: “Nobody wants Shetland to have an outbreak of Covid cases.”
But it said that many tourism related businesses were not eligible for any funding at all, or financie received had barely covered costs or has been used for refunding customers.
Several have decided it is simply not viable to re-open this year.
A Scottish Government spokesman said that rise in cases in NHS Forth Valley was not being classed as a cluster and that the situation was being monitored.
“Although there have been a number of confirmed cases in the past few days contact tracing has not identified a link between these cases. The situation continues to be monitored,” the spokesman said.
“Our highest priority is continuing to reduce transmission of Covid-19 and we will consider any measures that might contribute to reducing its spread. Test and Protect has been fully initiated in all 14 Health Boards, including NHS Forth Valley, and there is sufficient testing capacity within the health board to carry out all the appropriate testing that is required.
“We have established procedures for identifying localised outbreaks, and the implementation of Test and Protect is an important enhancement to this. Where local outbreaks occur, our actions will be guided by scientific evidence and the most up to date public health advice.
“We have seen the level of testing among care home residents and staff across Scotland significantly increase over the last two weeks and are working closely with health boards and care homes to support further increased testing.”
The Scottish Government said on Orkney there was currently sufficient “capacity” available for testing citizens through the NHS, with additional capacity available through satellite centres if required.
“At all times, the Scottish Government’s actions have been guided by the best scientific evidence and the most up to date public health advice. However we must be clear about the limitations of testing alone. Tests are only a snapshot of a particular point in time. They are effective at identifying people who have COVID-19, but only when they are symptomatic. They cannot reliably detect infection prior to the onset of symptoms,” the spokesman added.
“That is why other health measures are so important, including regularly washing your hands, maintaining a two metre distance, avoiding crowded places and wearing face coverings to protect others where social distancing is difficult.”