So Scotland, like England, is to be divided up on the basis of rates and risk of Covid infection. Presumably the decision to call these ‘levels’ was an attempt by the First Minister to avoid accusations her strategy had ended in ‘tiers’, though this did not stop the headline writers having their fun.
Rather unhelpfully, certainly in terms of clear communications, we start at level zero, even though logic suggests this is where you are when no restrictions apply at all. As a result, the highest you can get on Nicola Sturgeon’s five level chart is four!
But no matter. Having argued for some time that the Scottish Government should be adopting a more targeted and proportionate approach to applying restrictions, I welcome this latest move. As indeed I do the First Minister’s acceptance last week that “parts of the country with low rates of infection shouldn’t have to live with the same levels of restrictions as those areas with high rates”.
At the time of writing, leaked reports suggest Orkney, in line with the other island authorities, Highland and Moray are to be placed in level one, although discussions are ongoing with local health authorities and councils, which again is welcome.
According to the framework announced last week by Nicola Sturgeon, being in level one would at least allow for a modest relaxation of current restrictions on indoor social gatherings and business activity, responding to growing concerns about the health as well as the economic impacts of lockdown. In the words of one constituent, which were shared with me earlier this week, “This is not protecting me. If we cannot see our friends or family then I don’t have a life worth living.”
The same leaked reports, however, suggest the Scottish Government may still look to ban small indoor gatherings in level one areas, making a mockery of the First Minister’s five level framework and leaving Orkney languishing in level 1.5. That is a concern I certainly plan to raise.
All of which is not to downplay the continued risk from Covid. The recent spike in confirmed cases locally is a sobering reminder and I echo the joint plea from NHS Orkney’s Chief Executive and OIC’s Leader for people in Orkney to continue following the guidance and acting with care.
The question of travel also remains a little unclear, though certainly restrictions will apply in and out of areas at the highest levels of the new ‘tiered’ system. To date, a travel ‘ban’ has been the quid pro quo for any localised approach in the islands, which would be too high a price to pay. This condition seems to have been diluted.
Clearly, though, restrictions elsewhere in the country impact life in Orkney, whether through restricting access to family and friends living south, or for businesses reliant on customers being able to travel to the islands. The latter serves also to underscore the need for ongoing support, both to safeguard jobs and livelihoods but also to ensure continued compliance.
Meanwhile, for those at college and university, it continues to be extremely difficult. Isles students in particular seem to have been an afterthought for Ministers when framing guidance, which has repeatedly failed to take account of the practicalities of travel to and from Scotland’s islands. To make matters worse, there are now threats from the Education Secretary that students may not be allowed home at Christmas.
This potentially has serious implications in relation to the ongoing mental health crisis we face. Recent evidence revealed that one in ten adults across the UK admitted contemplating taking their own life during the early stages of the pandemic. The figure for those aged 18-29 was 50% higher. Against that backdrop, Professor Rory O’Connor of Glasgow University, a leading authority on suicide prevention, warned this week of a “huge drop” in people accessing mental health services and called for this to be prioritised, irrespective of any further restrictions imposed.
All of which reinforces the complexity of the balances being weighed up by Ministers and their advisers, but also the need for more nuance and targeting. Hopefully the new tiered system can begin to allow that to happen in ways that are transparent and help build public confidence.