SCOTLAND’S island communities should become “test beds” for the country’s exit strategy in lifting lockdown restrictions, a respected microbiologist has suggested.

Professor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, believes that because the outer Hebrides and Orkney has the fewest confirmed coronavirus cases in the country, they could become trial areas for exiting the pandemic.

He also suggested that the Highlands and Grampian could follow suit if the islands' trial proved successful.

Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was “still at a reasonably early stage” of assessing the exit strategy but is “starting to think about the different options”.

The move to trail an exit strategy has been backed by Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil, who described it as “an excellent suggestion”.

He added: "We need to get testing up in the islands, but Hugh Pennington has a well-informed hunch that we just need to prove. However it would need to be well managed."

The Outer Hebrides has just six confirmed cases of Covid-19 - and isthe only health board without a death from the virus - while Orkney had five cases and recorded its first death on Friday of a 59-year-old grandmother with underlying health problems.

Professor Pennington said: "There could soon be a case for a geographical lifting of restrictions - such as in some of the Scottish islands and the Highlands and Grampian.

"The Western Isles and Orkney are the obvious candidates to be the test beds for an exit strategy for the country. Travel is restricted because they are islands and have extremely low levels of confirmed cases. You can control access to them and re-open things like shops and churches etc and get back gradually to normal life again.

"As for people travelling to the islands it is to be remembered that the vast majority of people have not been affected (by the virus).”

He added: "The key is to get testing up in those islands because if anybody showed signs of having the virus they could be quickly tested and aggressive contact tracing implemented. That is the eventual way out of this.

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"The islands have good medical facilities, but you would need to have good and effective testing facilities in place with a quick result. It would not cost a lot of money. “It would be an example for the rest of the country as long as there was an early warning system in place. It could then be possible for the Highlands and Grampian to follow.

"Hotspots will not last because people will either recover or sadly die. So we have to think of how we are going to get out of this.

"Overall cases need to come down substantially - by about ten times - for the lockdown to be lifted throughout the country. That is why we need test beds where levels are already low.

"The virus has been spreading under the radar into places like care homes, presumably by workers who were unaware they were infected. The testing needs ramping up. The best you can say overall is that it is not now out of control, but we do not yet have control over it."

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Prof Pennington, who has been appointed by the Scottish Police Federation as a coronavirus advisor, said that government health planners needed to take into account that a vaccine will not eradicate the virus.

He said: "We have had flu vaccines for 60 years and flu is still a pandemic threat and kills large numbers each year. 

"It is still the worst of all vaccines because it only works for some and not everybody. I would not be surprised if a corornavirus vaccine did the same. It will reduce the number of deaths, but not give complete protection or eradicate the virus.

"My hope is that Covid-19 behaves like its relative SARS and disappear if the right measures are taken. Then you will not need a vaccine but have it in reserve. "But people should not be seeing a vaccine as a panacea. It reduces the risk and planners need to take that into account in their planning. They have not tested the vaccine enough to know how effective it will be.

"A second wave of this virus is possible, but I think unlikely in the foreseeable future. It didn't happen with SARS, its relative. There were three waves of the 1918 flu pandemic, but this is not flu."

The scientist worked at St Thomas' Hospital, London, with the renowned virologist who discovered the first human coronavirus - Glasgow born June Almeida.

Proffesor Pennington headed the investigation into the Ecoli outbreak in Wishaw in Scotland which claimed the lives of 20 elderly people in 1996.

He chaired a 2005 enquiry into a Welsh E. coli outbreak.

Former Labour Minister, Brian Wilson, who chairs one of the islands's biggest employers, Harris Tweed Hebrides, said: "This is a really interesting, constructive suggestion and I just wish Professor Pennington was closer to decision-making in Scotland.

"We have a micro-economy here with very little coming and going at present. With careful monitoring and testing, it makes a great deal of sense to gradually re-open the economy and then roll out the lessons learned elsewhere. At some point, there has to be a movement and where better to start than with islands?"