Covid-19 lockdown exit-strategy trials: UK Government cannot treat Scotland's islanders as guinea pigs

There is a case to be made for utilising the unique geography of Scotland’s islands to ease the coronavirus lockdown measures, but a government that has shown a disdain for expertise has to get it right.
Covid-19 trials must be accompanied with robust medical provision in communities such as Stornoway. Picture: TSPLCovid-19 trials must be accompanied with robust medical provision in communities such as Stornoway. Picture: TSPL
Covid-19 trials must be accompanied with robust medical provision in communities such as Stornoway. Picture: TSPL

If Scotland’s outlying communities sometimes nurse a grievance over the will and ability of those in government to improve their lot, the history books can be relied upon as an instructive guide with which to better understand their resentment.

The picture of progress painted of the country is one daubed in broad strokes, focusing almost exclusively on how its major cities and towns rose in industrial might, fell amid the post-war gloom, and then, to varying degrees of success, carved out a new future.

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But the specks around the border of the canvas tell another story, one written over the course of centuries, and imbued with a sense of peril that remains a clear and present threat.

Their breathtaking natural beauty may mask some of the scars, but the reality is that life on many of Scotland’s 93 inhabited islands in the first decades of the 21st century is fraught with an uncertainty that would be familiar to those who dwelt on them hundreds of years ago.

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A gradual and ignominious decline, amplified by the scourge of depopulation, which has seen generation after generation take flight, has resulted in fragile local economies and with it, a brittle sense of confidence in the tide ever being turned.

In part, the grievances are rooted in geography. It is no coincidence that if your constituency lies further north than Moscow, and must look to Bergen to find its nearest train station, there will be a disconnect from Edinburgh and London.

Leading the way to recovery

But the primary contributors to such grievances with authority stem from design, not accident. A lack of autonomy and a raft of policies designed explicitly to benefit Scotland’s urban sprawls have entrenched attitudes.

The Scottish Government’s dedicated islands legislation, dismissed by some as a tick box exercise, is measured and promising, particularly in its initial focus on affordable housing and fuel poverty.

In light of the turmoil of recent months - and the pain still to come - it is difficult to envisage any of it being classed as a priority. And yet, the advent of the coronavirus pandemic has seen a spotlight fall on the islands, with the prospect of places long neglected suddenly being tasked with leading the country towards a tentative recovery.

The roll-out of the NHS contact tracing app trial in the Isle of Wight to better understand how - and where - the virus is spreading has been the subject of significant debate in recent days, but the effectiveness - and the wisdom - of utilising remote and widely dispersed island populations as part of the pandemic exit strategy will come up against sterner tests.

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In his latest appearance before the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, offered a rare glimmer of insight into the UK Government’s strategy.

He told MPs that there were “specific opportunities in island communities to conduct trials”. This, he made clear, would not begin and end with contact-tracing pilots.

“There is a specific scientific justification for saying that island communities can be areas where you could pilot some measures, contact tracing in particular, and combine that with relaxing measures at a progressively greater rate, and that can help you judge what is right for the country overall,” Mr Gove explained.

Disdain for expertise

Quite what those other measures entail precisely is unclear, but they almost certainly relate to the ongoing lockdown restrictions, and the prospect that islands may be among the first places in the UK to see them eased.

Many islanders would welcome such a step to help kickstart economies that were hardly buoyant in the first place. And Mr Gove is not the only person to advocate this idea. No less an authority than Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, has said that tightened access controls on islands, added to their relatively low levels of confirmed Covid-19 cases, mean that they are ideal locations in which to run trials.

The difficulty, however, is that while Professor Pennington is an internationally renowned authority who is guided by epistemological evidence, he is not the one tasked with overseeing how to mitigate the impact coronavirus. That task falls to Mr Gove and his Cabinet colleagues, who have demonstrated a disdain for expertise that has cost us dearly so far.

The UK Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies can find room for the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, and Ben Warner, a data scientist veteran of the Vote Leave campaign, but nowhere in its ranks will you find immunologists, molecular virologists, or intensive care experts.

The exclusion of the latter is especially bewildering. Yes, islands may be remote, and for the most part they command vast open spaces, but they are also home to unique demographic pressures which become integral at a time like this.

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One in four people (25 per cent) living in the NHS Western Isles area is aged 65 or over, with Orkney close behind on 24 per cent. By contrast, the figures for Lothian and the Greater Glasgow and Clyde region stand at just 16 per cent.

If lockdown measures are to be eased in communities with the highest proportion of those most at risk of Covid-19, it is fundamental that any trials are conducted with drastically scaled up medical provision.

The brutal spread of the virus throughout a care home on Skye - a community where the nearest ventilator is more than 100 miles away - is a sharp reminder that not only is nowhere immune from the virus, but remote, rural communities can bear a disproportionate burden.

The coming weeks will determine how administrations at Westminster and Edinburgh move forward with their Covid-19 action plan. In some shape or form, islands will form part of their thinking. It is essential that they are part of the conversation, and are provided with sufficient resources and expertise. They have waited a long time for support, and their need has never been quite so urgent as it is now.

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