Coronavirus in Scotland: Islanders urge tourists to stay away…for now

The row of nine camp beds, each with a thin red blanket and one blue pillow in Castlebay village hall on Barra lie empty for now.

But they serve as a stark warning of the next stage of the Covid-19 pandemic every part of Scotland can expect to confront.

With its gleaming empty beaches, azure waters and famed warm welcome, Barra has been regularly voted one of the most beautiful islands in the world.

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And the fact that the Western Isles is one of the last remaining corners of the country still to record any infection of the Covid-19 has only given an added impetus to the charge northwards.

But the influx of visitors still stepping off the plane from Glasgow or the five-hour ferry from Oban seeking solace in Castlebay from the gathering storm threatens to bring devastation with it too.

And with just five beds at St Brendan’s, the cottage hospital in Castlebay, islanders know it would not take much to tip the balance.

While they realise they cannot remain immune to the sweep of the global pandemic, community leaders across the Highlands and Islands are asking tourists to stay away – for now.

Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, who lives on Barra, said: “The message to people is – this is not a holiday season at the moment – this is a pandemic season. The doctors in Barra realised just what the numbers meant. We’ve got one doctor, Dr Mark Willcox, who worked with Ebola in West Africa and he knows what these sort of infections can do and how they can multiply.

Castlebay and Kisimul Castle on Barra. Picture: Allan Wright/ShutterstockCastlebay and Kisimul Castle on Barra. Picture: Allan Wright/Shutterstock
Castlebay and Kisimul Castle on Barra. Picture: Allan Wright/Shutterstock

“He knows we’ve no ventilators, he knows we’ve little or no oxygen and he knows that if it’s really bad and there’s not some kind of delay [with the outbreak] then he could be swamped. So, he’s got the hall set-up to deal with what could be some of the infected numbers of people. In the worst projections the hall won’t be enough but that’s basically all there is.

“There are no ventilators, no oxygen apart from for one person for a day and there’s no testing here – so many locals think we don’t have many cases.

“If you look at the Faroe Islands – the best tested community on earth – they’ve got 80 cases.

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“So we will have cases in the Hebrides. But this is also prompted by the fact that some people think travelling to an island is a good idea.”

Rural Economy and Tourism Secretary Fergus Ewing has also urged people to stop travelling to the Highlands and Islands.

“I am furious at the reckless and irresponsible behaviour of some people travelling to the Highland and Islands. This has to stop now.

“Let me be crystal clear, people should not be travelling to rural and island communities full stop. They are endangering lives. Do not travel,” he said.

“We have been in touch with CalMac and industry leaders to discuss what further measures may be required to deal with this issue,” he added.

Meanwhile, Helen McClymont, manager of Padula’s Stores in Castlebay is leading calls for Loganair and ferry firm CalMac to limit carriage to vital workers only, a move which would kill off a large part of the shop’s summer trade.

She said: “The tourists are still arriving every day. We are going to put up a sign that says: ‘If you have not been on the island for more than 14 days you are not welcome in the shop.’ We need to stay open for food and vitals.”

And she recounts a near miss. “There was a woman from London emailed the campsite here more than week ago, before it really all kicked off, and she was talking about taking her daughter out of school and buying a camper van and staying here for six months.

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“When I first heard it I thought she was crackers, but then things progressed and she was emailed back and told that unfortunately she was no longer welcome. She replied to say that she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch again but that she had been diagnosed with Covid-19 herself and had been unwell.

“We may not be able to stay virus free, but it won’t be for want of trying.” 

Responding to Mr MacNeil’s tweet a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This tweet is regrettably incomplete in the information it offers.

“If a Coronavirus patient on Barra needed a ventilator or any other emergency care they would of be transferred by coastguard or Royal Navy helicopter to Western Isles hospital in Stornoway or the mainland.

“Entirely as a precaution, Western Isles Health Board have established a temporary community facility in Barra – and this is what the picture tweeted by Mr MacNeil shows.

“This facility will only be used if there is a need to accommodate any non-emergency patients who might be awaiting transfer home from the local hospital in Barra, where Coronavirus test sampling is carried out.

“The community facility is absolutely not an emergency care centre – and it is totally wrong to criticise it for not being one.

“Western Isles Health Board are in regular contact with Mr MacNeil about Coronavirus preparedness for all communities in the islands to ensure he is fully briefed on all planning and developments.”



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