Coronavirus cases in the Highlands have surged more than 1,000 per cent in the past six weeks, sparking fears that the easing of restrictions is linked to the surge in infections as tourists flock to the area.

Official Public Health Scotland (PHS) figures, analysed by The Herald, show the seven-day positive cases figure for the area stands at 338 up to July 22.

This marks an increase of 1,026% on the figure of just 30 new cases on June 10. The test positivity has also taken a leap, moving from 0.6% to 5.3%, sitting above the World Health Organizations standard for having the pandemic under control.

The Highlands has generally had lower cases throughout the pandemic but has suffered greatly in recent weeks – with many blaming the easing of lockdown restrictions and the start of the school holidays.

HeraldScotland: Public Health Scotland maps show the stark increasePublic Health Scotland maps show the stark increase

READ MORE: Highlands tourists urged to act 'with caution' as case surge exposed

Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, told The Herald that tourism will “of course” have been a factor in rising cases – but pointed towards signs that things were improving in the last week, with cases dropping by around one-third in recent days.

With foreign travel all but out of the picture, many Scots have chosen to have a “staycation”, including the North Coast 500 coastal route.

At the start of July, cases were so high in the area that the biggest hospital in the Highlands, Raigmore, was placed into a rare “Code Black” status.

The hospital reached capacity and warned that emergency patients would face long waits with all non-urgent elective surgery and most outpatient appointments cancelled.

The health board said it had experienced “unprecedented demand” across all health and social care services. The impact of rising Covid cases has been more severe because the hospital is carrying out more surgery than in previous waves of the virus and it is a peak time for annual leave.

Cases across the area have spiked higher in traditional tourist hotspots.

 

READ MORE: Highland hospital in rare 'code black' crisis due to rising Covid admissions

PHS data does not provide a figure when a neighbourhood has less than two cases in a week, but even in the best case scenario most areas have at least doubled.

Inverness, the starting point for many North Coast 500 journeys, has gone from a maximum potential of 36 cases (or a minimum of zero) in the seven days up to June 10, compared to 144 cases on the week of June 22 – an increase of at least 300%.

Skye has seen its figures increase from at most six cases to 17 over the same period.

Wick, not far from the popular tourist spot of John O’Groats, has gone from around four cases to 13 over the last week (up at least 225%), and nearby Thurso has risen from the same number to 10 cases (a rise of at least 150%).

Prof Bauld said: “There is little doubt that Covid cases rose in Highland council area over the past six weeks from a very low base.

“This is likely to be due to a range of factors including restrictions easing and more households mixing locally.

“Incoming visitors particularly from higher prevalence areas will of course have also contributed. However, we should be careful in assuming that tourism is the only factor.”

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She added: “There are some signs that the rise is levelling off or declining, as are cases based on positive test results around Scotland at the current time.

“For that to continue people visiting the area should take extra care to follow public health guidelines.

“I’m sure the last thing people living and working in Highland want is imported Covid cases at the current time.”

The issue was first raised on Twitter by user Martin MacDonald, who shared a comparison of PHS data between May and July. He said: “I’ve spent the last 16 months, not travelling, mainly working from home and avoiding even family to help in the efforts to stop Covid and now they’ve just let it rip. No lockdown, full of tourists.”

He later added: “If they’d held the lockdown for another 3 months then we’d have had the bulk of the adult population double vaccinated before opening.

“Since Westminster controls the furlough money it controls the lockdown but Scotland should have kept things tighter even with that proviso.”

Responding to someone who claimed visitors in Glencoe were “ignoring requests for masks” and “antagonising locals”, Mr MacDonald added: “There’s more Covid around in my local area now than there ever was.

“Hotels, bars and facilities shutting down.”

 

Dr Tim Allison, Director of Public Health for NHS Highland, said: “Throughout June and the beginning of July we did see a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across NHS Highland.

"In June alone we had over 1,300 cases which is around a fifth of NHS Highland’s total number of cases since the start of the pandemic.  There have been increased cases right across Scotland in areas of both higher and lower tourist numbers and many of the increases have been greater than for NHS Highland.

"With restrictions being eased we knew we would see a rise but Covid-19 is also spreading much more rapidly in our communities as a result of the Delta variant and we are seeing cases in areas that have previously been unaffected. The increase has slowed slightly but we are still seeing high numbers in the area.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: ”We have consistently advocated a cautious and gradual approach to easing restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in line with expert clinical advice and modelling, as that stands the best chance of minimising further health harm and loss of life. 

“While we hope we are in the process of emerging from the pandemic, and our successful vaccination programme is helping to weaken the link between Covid cases and hospitalisation, case rates at the moment underline the fact that this virus is still with us.

“That’s why we all still have a role to play, in helping to protect ourselves and each other, with basic measures like physical distancing, hand-washing, the cleaning of surfaces, and face coverings all being as important now as ever, in addition to getting vaccinated.

“Scotland’s vaccination programme has been one of the fastest in the world with around 92% of the over 40 population here now fully vaccinated. All adults have now been offered their first dose and we expect all those who are eligible to be offered their second dose by 12 September.

“We remain fully committed to ensuring that everyone has access to a COVID-19 vaccine and continue to urge anyone who has not yet come forward to do so as there is no doubt that vaccination represents our best way out of the pandemic and the best way to protect ourselves, our family and friends and our communities.”