RURAL parts of Scotland could experience “devastating” higher death rates from

Covid-19 than the country’s major cities and central belt, university experts have warned.

A new study, published by St Andrews University, has highlighted that the coronavirus death rates in more isolated communities and remote small towns in Scotland could be between 50 per cent and 80% higher than more populated areas.

The research shows that there are significant geographical differences in projected fatality rates from Covid-19 across the UK.

The analysis has been compiled by Professor Hill Kulu and Peter Dorey from

St Andrews University’s centre for population change and school of geography and sustainable development.

Professor Kulu said: “If the pandemic is to last long and the virus is to spread to all areas of the UK, remote small towns and rural communities are projected to have 50% to 80% higher death rates than the main cities because of their old population composition.

“Remote location may offer a protection from Covid-19 to some areas, but if the virus is to spread to these communities the effects will be devastating.”

The findings also revealed that Gaelic-speaking communities with relatively old populations are likely to experience heavy death rates if Covid-19 spreads widely across Scotland and the UK.

Geographically, people at high risk and vulnerable communities are concentrated in large areas of southern Scotland and the Highlands.

Mr Dorey said: “Within urban regions there are also pockets of high projected death rates.

“Overall, the areas with high and low fatality rates tend to cluster because of the high residential separation of different population age groups in the UK.”

Professor Kulu added: “The Covid-19 pandemics may also have long-term socio-cultural effects.

“The Welsh, Gaelic- and Cornish-speaking communities with relatively old populations are likely to experience heavy population losses if the virus spreads widely across the UK.”

Despite the warnings, the Highlands has only recorded 214 positive lab cases of Covid-19 – with 56 people currently in hospital, none of whom are in intensive care.

The Borders has recorded 248 positive lab cases, while Dumfries and Galloway has tallied up 235 cases.

These areas account for just a fraction of the 9,409 positive lab cases across Scotland, as of yesterday.

According to the National Records of Scotland, 1,616 deaths have been registered with Covid-19 given as a cause or presumed cause of death.

Currently the death rates in most rural areas are some of the lowest in Scotland, with the Highlands at 1.6 per 10,000 people and Dumfries and Galloway at 2.1 while Greater and Glasgow and Clyde is at 4.4 deaths per 10,000 people.

But the Borders currently has registered 2.1 deaths per 10,000 people – higher than Fife and the Forth Valley.

Politicians in rural communities have backed local campaigns for people not to travel to rural parts of Scotland in a bid not to put additional pressure on health services, which have less capacity to cope with Covid-19 patients.

Lib Dem Far North MP Jamie Stone said: “These projections are devastating and re-emphasise how important it is we protect vulnerable people wherever they are.

“One of the key ways to do that is to clamp down on people heading to rural areas for respite or escape. Communities across the Highlands have watched in horror as people flooded out of Scotland’s cities to second homes or holiday sites.

“We must ensure that when we do start to ease restrictions and come out of lockdown this exodus is not repeated. Each and every one of us has a duty not to spread this disease.”

Profesor Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, has suggested that Scotland’s island communities could be used as “test beds” for the country’s exit strategy.

He added that that the Highlands and Grampian could follow suit if the islands’ trial proved successful.

But Nicola Sturgeon warned this could muddy the social distancing messages that health experts have issued since the start of the outbreak.

She said: “What I would say about geographic variations - if the evidence says it helps us deal with the virus, then of course we have to consider that.

“The other factor in trying to get as high compliance as possible is simplicity of understanding the message.

“It stands to reason if I’m standing here as First Minister on a daily basis saying if you live in X part of the country you can do this, if you live in Y part of the country, do this – I reduce and undermine the simplicity of that message.”

In the First Minister’s roadmap to an exit strategy, the document suggests that workplaces that operate outside could reopen if social distancing measures could still be respected.

The document adds: “We will also assess the merits of tailoring options to, for example, specific geographies and sectors, or parts of the rural economy, or those able to work outdoors – but only if that is consistent with the aim of minimising overall harm and can be implemented effectively.”

Scotland’s own advisory group has concluded that “with appropriate physical distancing the risk of transmission is likely to be low” for outdoor workers.

The move would be a welcome boost to rural economies who rely on adventure and marine tourism.

The industry has welcomed a £100 million funding pot for the self-employed, micro-operators and SMEs being announced by the Scottish Government.

Wild Scotland and Sail Scotland have been fielding calls from concerned businesses, right across the industry.

Adventure and marine tourism businesses also play a key role in Scotland’s remote and fragile communities. Often, they are the main source of employment and the main revenue generator in interconnected rural economies.

Gavin McDonagh, chairman of Sail Scotland, said: “Marine and outdoor activities are key tourism drivers in Scotland.

“Many businesses are in desperate straits and need direct support or – to put it simply – they will not make it through the year.”

Doug McAdam, Chair of Wild Scotland, added: “The announcement of new support measures follows our sustained pressure and dialogue with government officials, ministers, and sector colleagues on behalf of our members’ businesses.

“We are pleased that this gap in support for adventure and marine tourism operators has been acknowledged, and that they are now included under these new funds.

“We will do everything we can to support member businesses and the wider industry with the application process.”