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17 December 2020

The northern islanders weighing the risks of Covid-19 at Christmas

Why Scotland’s Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles residents are alert to the hazards of an already uncertain journey.  

By Ellen Halliday

In the days before Christmas, Orcadians living on the Scottish mainland typically make their way north to where the land meets the sea. At Gills Bay, a few miles west of John O’Groats, they watch the weather and rough waters of the Pentland Firth as a ferryman considers whether it is safe to sail them home. When the boats are cancelled or delayed, travellers hole up in a hotel and make do with impromptu mainland festivities until the waters are calm enough to cross. Uncertainty is expected.

This year, however, travellers have to contend with more than the weather. The almost universal dilemma faced across the locked down UK – whether or not to meet family and risk extending the spread of Covid-19 – is amplified for island communities.

After the five-day travel window was scrapped on Saturday, laws in Scotland largely banning people from crossing local authority boundaries will be relaxed only on Christmas day, leaving little wiggle room in case of bad weather or long journeys.

Anyone unwittingly carrying the virus who chooses to travel risks the guilt of infecting people they know, and becoming the subject of fast-moving gossip. Above all, there are no intensive care beds in Orkney, Shetland or the Western Isles.

Since the pandemic began, 114,366 people in Scotland have tested positive for Covid-19. On 22 December, 1,316 new cases were reported across the country and the numbers in hospital with recently confirmed diagnoses were rising. Yet after early outbreaks were contained, the islands have seen very few positive cases. In the week to 19 December, there were no new cases in Orkney or Shetland, and just six across the Western Isles.

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Everyone wants to keep it that way.

Moya Nelson, who has lived in Orkney for 38 years, won’t get a Christmas visit from her son on the mainland this year. “Our health services are small. They just couldn’t cope with a huge influx of Covid along with the normal winter pressures,” she said.

Karl Johnson, who was raised in Shetland but is now living in Midlothian, south east of Edinburgh, won’t travel home either. It is too far to travel for five days – let alone the one day now permitted – and while he would normally visit his family twice a year, his relatives’ underlying health conditions mean his last visit was in the summer of 2019. “My family are very understanding but also frustrated,” he said. “I have never had the option to just even go and stand in my mum’s garden throughout this whole year.”

Donald Macsween, a crofter from Lewis in the Western Isles, believes rural communities have been particularly cautious about Covid. “When everybody knows everybody, you are answerable to everybody,” he said.

As a result, he has seen high rates of mask wearing, social distancing and even isolation upon returning to the islands – more caution than the rules demand. When he left Lewis in the summer, he stood out on deck to maximise ventilation. “People want to see family but they are aware of the impact that they could have. The steps that everybody has taken means we are safe and can lead relatively normal lives.”

Before the latest rule change, hundreds of people had been planning to travel to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles on boats and planes where travellers could mingle.

Ryan Thomson, an independent Shetland Islands councillor for environment and transport, had hoped to get everyone, including students who had spent their first term on the mainland, back legally and responsibly. “They are a vital part of the community, and this is first and foremost their home,” he said.

He had encouraged people to travel early to allow an isolation period and make space for everyone on sailings and flights. Pentland Ferries, a family-run company that sails to Kirkwall, Orkney’s main town, had officially discouraged travel from anywhere into Orkney unless travellers were in the same tier or had a government-approved exception, but also planned to sail three times – back to normal pre-pandemic rates – to give those on board space in the expected pre-Christmas rush.

The new rules mean many will now not travel.

For those staying on the mainland, exile can feel tough. “Home is always the island, the people and the community,” said Johnson. “I have only seen the sea twice this year and the sounds, smells and sense of space are things I innately miss.”

Lockdown, and the prospect of Christmas via video call, has left him daydreaming of island life again. “It is just not the same. I have questioned why I need to be on the mainland when I could equally well see my mum every Sunday and still do my job,” he said. “Home can feel very far away.”

Yet for some islanders, being forever at the mercy of the weather when making their journeys home has helped them come to terms with the pandemic’s changing rules.

Normally, Moya Nelson factors in buffer days to make sure she catches flights abroad. Her son has missed weddings, and one family Christmas was done for due to a rail strike and dangerous Highland roads.

“We tend to make the best of what happens, because often things don’t go to plan,” she said. “You just have to make do and mend.”

Ellen Halliday is a journalist based in London.

[See also: How the Covid-19 crisis may accelerate the break-up of the UK]