THE OUTER Hebrides could face a £50 million hit this year – amid a warning the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic “will reverberate through the local economy for many years”.

Claimants for Universal Credit have doubled on the Western Isles as the crisis has taken hold – a dramatic illustration of the economic fallout that has followed the loss of life across Scotland.

The Outer Hebrides has tallied up seven confirmed Covid-19 cases during the outbreak and not a single death on the islands has been contributed to the virus. But the eradication of the tourist industry from the islands has hit its fragile economy hard.

Evidence submitted to Holyrood’s rural economy and connectivity committee by the local council responsible for the Outer Hebrides, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar, has warned that despite Scotland’s tourism industry set to re-open from July 15, the Western Isles could lose up to £50 million in 2020 from the lack of tourists setting sail.

The submission from Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar warns that “in parts of the Outer Hebrides such as Harris and Barra, tourism accounts for as much as 40 per cent of economic activity”.

READ MORE: Scotland gets set to welcome tourists again

The local authority has cautioned that the Outer Hebrides will not be able to instantly bounce back, warning that the “impact of the resulting lockdowns and social distancing measures will reverberate through the local economy for many years”.

It adds: “Despite the announcement that businesses should start to plan for a resumption of activity from July 15, it is important to bear in mind that the visitor season usually starts in March and is unlikely to resume at full capacity even once travel restrictions are lifted.

“Outer Hebrides Tourism have estimated that the lost income to the islands for this year could be as much as £40-50m.”

The biggest barrier to reviving the Outer Hebrides’ tourism economy is social distancing restrictions on CalMac ferries.

In phase three of the lockdown, when the tourism sector will re-open, public transport including ferries will be able to cut the social distancing rules from two metres to one metre.

Last month, CalMac warned MSPs that if the company was required to put on a full summer timetable, the company will need up to 10 weeks’ notice “to recruit seasonal staff” while stressing that it could double the number of passengers it can carry if the two-metre social distancing rule is reduced to just one metre.

A CalMac spokesperson said that services to the Western Isles will be open the same as its other routes from July 15 and indicated that if the two-metre social distancing rule is cut in half, it will “more than double capacity on most major vessels”.

READ MORE: Scotland's tourism industry, pubs and restaurants set to re-open for business on July 15

Rob McKinnon, chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, has warned that seasonal tourism businesses who have seen no revenue since October 2019 “are on a knife’s edge” and would welcome “a boost or a bounce, as opposed to a surge or an invasion, in autumn”.

He added: “Businesses want to open after a long lockdown and visitors want to come but there is no space for them on the ferry.

“The existing capacity limits reduce visitor numbers so severely as to make it pointless for business to open, making a short season even shorter.

“The announcement by the First Minister last Thursday about social distancing suggested a way forward but we are desperately waiting for CalMac to confirm when and how any changes will be implemented. In the meantime people who want to come to the Outer Hebrides are cancelling and going elsewhere.”

Out of the estimated 1,245 businesses in the Outer Hebrides, as of June 16, the council had awarded 728 grants to the value of £7.6 million from the Scottish Government’s coronavirus business support fund.

As of last month, around 2,600 Western Isles residents, or 17 per cent of the work age population had been furloughed – along with 900 islanders submitting claims to the self-employment income support scheme with an estimated value of £2.6 million.

But many islanders have fallen through the cracks. The number of Universal Credit claimants on the Outer Hebrides has doubled during the pandemic, rising from 737 in February to 1,465 in May.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Warning rural Scotland could suffer 'devastating' higher death rate

Crisis grants paid out to struggling Scots has also doubled since last year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

New data has revealed that nearly £4 million has been paid out in Scotland over the first two full months of the Covid-19 lockdown - double the £2 million forked out over the same period last year.

Figures covering April and May shows that 57,730 crisis grants were paid out from the Scottish Welfare Fund - a rise of 62 per cent in the year.

MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Alasdair Allan, has warned that although the economic impact on the Outer Hebrides “has been very harsh” during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is important to remember “there is clearly a human cost to all this”.

READ MORE: CalMac Ferries warns it won't be able to cope with 'staycation surge' amid social distancing

He added: “Many businesses in catering and tourism rely on the summer months’ visitors to make a profit, and so are facing the equivalent of three winters in a row. Many are hoping to have at least some kind of a shortened season this year.

“These challenges have real knock on effects on other businesses. This shows in the numbers claiming benefits, but also points to the risks opposed by further outward migration. There is a difficult balance to be struck now between continuing to drive infection rates towards zero and averting the collapse of the economy in many parts of Scotland.

“On July 15, tourism will get up and running here, but in a measured way with restrictions on the numbers who can use the ferries. The rebuilding of this and other parts of our economy will have to be done carefully.”