SCOTLAND’S island communities could be given special treatment from the mainland to allow isolated communities return to some form of normality – with locals pointing to testing on arrival as a potential solution.

Nicola Sturgeon has suggested she is open to investigating whether a “different balance might be struck” for the islands – but has warned this would likely mean that islands are locked down with travel bans.

Currently, Scotland’s islands are under the same hospitality restrictions as the rest of Scotland outside of the central belt, although Arran is included in the curfew being experienced by Glasgow and Edinburgh. Households in the far reaches of Scotland’s islands are not allowed to meet with others in their homes.

But the leader of Orkney Islands Council has called for alternatives to be drawn up – pointing to other islands across the globe testing people on arrival to stop the virus spreading and protecting the crucial tourism economy.

On Jersey, people are tested for coronavirus on arrival and again after five days – while those who have visited certain high-risk countries are asked to quarantine. More than 134,000 tests have taken place on Jersey and only 490 cases have been confirmed, despite the routine testing.

But the Western Isles had been handed a warning in recent weeks following an outbreak on South Uist where dozens were infected including residents of a care home where one person died.

HeraldScotland: There has been a Covid-19 outbreak on South UistThere has been a Covid-19 outbreak on South Uist

Orkney has had a total of 26 cases and only three since the start of October, the fewest of any other area including Shetland and the Western Isles.

Liberal Democrat MSP for Orkney, Liam McArthur, has warned the First Minister that a ban on household gatherings in other people’s homes are “clearly taking a toll on people’s health as well as on jobs and businesses” on the islands.

He added: “The national clinical director has repeatedly stated that a different approach could be taken in the islands. 

“Meanwhile, the First Minister says she recognises that Orkney and Glasgow have very different caseloads and very different needs.

“To date, though, there has been no clarity on how a more localised approach in the islands might work in practice.”

“If alternative arrangements are to be considered these will need to be developed alongside island communities.”

Sturgeon has suggested a different strategy could be taken, but other measures such as travel restrictions would be needed.

She said: “If we were to say that, if Orkney does not have cases, it can be exempted from national restrictions, the quid pro quo would probably be that there must be travel restrictions from the mainland to Orkney.

“It is not for me alone to say what the islanders would prefer, but it is for me to be frank about the choices and trade-offs that have to be made.”

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The leader of Orkney Islands Council, James Stockan, has been pressing officials to draw up alternative plans to ease the pressure on the islands and be guided by scientific evidence.

He said: “I have been pushing the Government to take a different approach from the very beginning and us potentially having our own internal system.

“I think island communities can be more responsive to the local situation. We have had no transmission from person to person on Orkney since April.”

But Stockan has warned that banning tourists from Orkney is not an option – with up to 500 people a week still visiting the islands during the full lockdown.

He said: “We are not looking to restrict travel numbers – we have had large numbers of visitors still coming to Orkney.

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“We would like to have a conversation about what more could be put in place to safeguard the islands.

“There are other island groups that test everybody coming in. But we would have to remember that if we test people coming in, that’s not going to stop people who are asymptomatic – although you can test people again on day five and so on like they do in Jersey.”

He added that a local solution “could work both ways”, insisting “we could have a local lockdown on an island at the drop of a hat”.

HeraldScotland: People could be tested on arrival at the islandsPeople could be tested on arrival at the islands

Stockan has warned that Orkney is “going to be more disadvantaged than any other areas in Scotland because of Covid”.

He added: “Tourism has been particularly impacted – more and more of our island economy is dependent on tourism. Even though people have been travelling across the rest of Scotland, when you have restrictions on the numbers on boats, that’s going to impact our numbers.

“People also don’t want to be the spreader of the virus to the islands so they are probably less confident about coming here.

“It’s become totally unviable for cafes to stay open during the day in some places so there’s nowhere for people to meet up and the tourism sector speaks of three winters back to back for the island economy.”

Kelly McGuigan from Helgi’s pub in Kirkwall believes “the restrictions put upon the hospitality trade in general are unfair”, adding “we are being used as scapegoats”.

McGuigan believes Scotland’s city pubs have “relaxed their way of working too much”, while her business and many others have followed tight rules.

She added: “The latest time restrictions and ban on alcoholic sales are utterly ridiculous, make no sense and are a further kick to the trade.

“With Orkney having low cases of Covid, a supportive and well-behaved local public and businesses following the rules and beyond, it seems silly to restrict us further.”

Scotland’s national clinical director, Professor Jason Leitch, told a Q&A session with the Scottish Tourism Alliance that the Scottish Government “is going to look into” testing on arrival, adding “we may use the islands as a trial”.

HeraldScotland: National clinical director Professor Jason LeitchNational clinical director Professor Jason Leitch

He added: “It depends on how much risk you are willing to take.”

The Western Isles have been stunned by a large outbreak on the island of South Uist. On Thursday, it was confirmed that one person had died after more than 50 were infected on the islands.

Rob McKinnon, the chief executive of Outer Hebrides Tourism, has warned that “our restaurants and bars have still been hit hard like everywhere with limited capacity and increased costs”.

He has cautioned against restricting travel to the islands – pointing to the importance of the tourism industry on the local economy.

McKinnon added: “Preventing travel between the mainland and the islands would have a much broader effect on island life – students coming back from college, hospital visits to Inverness and Glasgow as well as a stream of specialist workers who make regular trips to keep everything going.

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"We have seen a lot of filming activity this year on the islands, given people can’t go to overseas destinations, which would be lost.

“This is carefully controlled and has made a real difference to the island economies at times when rooms would be empty and help everyone recover from the lockdown earlier in the year, as well as lifting spirits at a difficult time.”

Joanna Lumley was spotted filming in Stornoway earlier this month while Jeremy Clarkson filmed part of a Grand Tour episode on North Uist.

Western Isles SNP MSP Alasdair Allan has warned that the outbreak on South Uist has been a wake-up call to island communities amid the pandemic.

He said: “The recent outbreak of Covid in Uist has been hard for the community as a whole, and demonstrates that islands are not in any sense immune to a virus which has clearly been among us here for some time now.

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“People are very conscious of the finite health services available on an island, and the need to ensure that community transmission is kept in check.”

“There continues to be a need for policies on the pandemic to be appropriately island proofed, but as the example of the Uist outbreak shows, that does not and should not mean complacency.

"The Government has made clear that any relaxation in any restrictions in the islands would have to be accompanied by a virtually total clampdown on people using planes and ferries, of the kind we saw here in the spring. For the moment, difficult as they are, I think the restrictions in place at present are the best way to keep on top of Covid in the islands.”

The Isle of Arran has had the draconian central belt restrictions enforced on it as the island shares a health board boundary with Ayrshire.

But economic experts from the Fraser of Allander Institute have warned that due to its booming tourism industry, “Arran has been disproportionately impacted by the lockdown restrictions”.

The institute has added that national policy “must recognise that the Arran economy is very different to the North Ayrshire and Scottish economy”.

Robert Morrison, operations director of CalMac ferries, has stressed that testing of passengers is not a decision for the company.

He added: “Since introducing reduced capacity on board due to physical distancing we have managed to accommodate demand during the end of the summer period which was not as busy as in previous years. We have rarely been at full capacity on any service.

“Now that we are moving into winter, as is normal, demand drops significantly and the current restrictions in place are having no material impact on our services”. We continue to put in place rigorous Covid 19 procedures such as face coverings in enclosed areas, reduced food and drink offering and hygiene and cleaning measures on board our vessels and in the ports.”