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Caution urged over question of easing lockdown in Highlands

By Scott Maclennan

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned that progress towards easing lockdown restrictions will be 'careful, gradual and incremental'.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned that progress towards easing lockdown restrictions will be 'careful, gradual and incremental'.

Highland politicians have cautioned against anyone becoming too attached to the idea that the north could become one of the first places to be eased out of lockdown measures.

The warning came after after the Scottish Government left the door open to letting some areas of the country out of restrictions before others.

One academic, who agreed that it was a possibility that the Highlands and Islands could be considered in this way, said there would first have to be “substantial” testing and contact tracing and “no tourists”.

Last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon detailed a new strategy that sketched out how the strict lockdown measures could be eased but underlined that any moves in that direction posed significant risks.

She said progress towards releasing the isolation of millions of people in the country would be “careful, gradual, incremental, and probably quite small to start with”.

Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said it was a possibility that could help some communities but that was dependent on a number of factors.

He said: “A geographically staged reduction in lockdown would primarily benefit the residents, for example by allowing schools to reopen.

“Islands are the easiest because travel controls would very significantly reduce the risk of virus importation.

“Testing and contact tracing on a substantial scale would be a prerequisite to reassure the residents that the virus would not be allowed to spread.

“It would be very helpful to know where virus cases were located. Some areas might only have had very few cases, which would be the best places to start the reduction. No tourists, though.”

Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Jamie Stone, however, maintained that he would still need to be totally convinced it was a good idea and said he worried about easing restrictions in the north before anywhere else.

“First and foremost the safety and wellbeing of my constituents is paramount so I’d need a great deal of convincing that the Highlands should be treated differently from anywhere else," Mr Stone said.

“I will certainly listen to what is brought forward, but until we have considerable testing and contact tracing I would be reluctant to ease the lockdown at all.”

Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP Ian Blackford, the SNP's Westminster leader, said: “I welcome the fact that Professor Pennington says the early onset of tourists in the Highlands could have a disastrous effect on the progression of this virus.

“At the end of the day, we must all be guided by the science in making our decisions on this. Given that I would be more likely to err on the side of caution, I would not like to see the Highlands used as some kind of test bed for the evidence on what the easing of the lockdown looks like.”

The policy document issued by the Scottish Government echoed many of those concerns, it stated: “There are a number of approaches that can be taken and we will consider them in accordance with the principles set out in this document. These include variations by geography, by sector, or by specific groups of the population – such as is already the case with our shielding measures.

“Easing restrictions in particular settings is likely to see the continuation of physical distancing and other hygiene measures.”

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