Orkney Islands Council has advised the Scottish Government of concerns about the impact of Level 3 Covid-19 restrictions on local ferry services and communities – and how it is addressing these.
With no Coronavirus cases reported in Orkney for many weeks, the Council is advising residents in the North and South Isles that they can continue to use the inter-island ferry service – and book trips - as they have done under the Level 1 guidelines currently in place.
“The first important benefit of this will be to enable folk in the isles to travel to Orkney Mainland for Christmas and return home after Boxing Day,” said OIC Leader James Stockan.
“The announcement by the Scottish Government over the weekend of the switch from Level 1 to Level 3 early on Boxing Day morning was interpreted quite correctly by Orkney Ferries as meaning that from December 26, travel on public transport could be for essential reasons only.
“Understandably, many folk in the isles were dismayed that this would prevent them visiting family and friends on the Orkney Mainland for Christmas – because they’d be unable to get home before the new Level 3 guidelines were introduced.
“We firmly believe that the ability to travel between the isles and Orkney Mainland is essential for the health and wellbeing of our community, particularly over the festive period. We have discussed this with the Scottish Government and advised them of our intentions not to further restrict travel by ferry within our community when Orkney moves from Level 1 to Level 3.”
Residents can pre-book travel between the North and South Isles and the Orkney Mainland up to December 24 and after December 27 by contacting Orkney Ferries. No inter-island ferries are operating on Dec 25 and 26.
OIC Chief Executive John Mundell: “With no recent cases of Covid-19 in Orkney – and with strict restrictions on travel in and out of the county due to come into force – we believe this is a proportionate and safe move to make in the interests of equality for all people in our community.
“However, we would ask folk travelling on the ferries to keep themselves and our crews safe by following current health and hygiene advice – in just the same way as they have been over many weeks and months. It is also important that folk continue to watch for any further announcements by the Scottish Government.”
Letter to all Orkney residents - local ferry services and return to schools
Orkney Islands Council understands and shares the Scottish Government’s concerns relating to the latest developments with the COVID 19 Virus and the continual need to review the prevailing circumstances across the Country and for each Council area. However, there currently remains no recorded COVID cases in Orkney. Accordingly, the Council believes that a bespoke Orkney response can be accommodated for the lead up to Christmas and for the New Year based on the prevailing data and science for the operation of our internal ferries and the return to school arrangements.
Orkney Ferries – inter-island travel
The Council is aware of the substantial concern that has been expressed over the last 24 hours regarding changes to Orkney Ferries booking arrangements for the forthcoming Christmas and New Year period as a result of the Scottish Government’s decision to change COVID Pandemic designation for Orkney from Level 1 to Level 3.
I firstly want to make clear that in reverting to an ‘essential travel only’ position, Orkney Ferries staff have been operating in response to the announcements from the Scottish Government this weekend as it was intimated that Orkney would be elevated to Level 3 status from Boxing Day. Orkney Ferries has been complying with guidance throughout the COVID pandemic as the Team has sought to retain as far as possible the critical lifeline services to the Isles whilst respecting COVID restrictions in order to ensure the safety of our passengers and crews. Orkney Ferries provide for our Islands what is equivalent to an internal ‘public bus service’ on the Scottish Mainland.
However, given the particular impact that the Scottish Government move to Level 3 status is having on people wishing to move around Orkney over the Christmas period, and in consideration of the fact that there are currently no recorded cases within Orkney, the Council has been engaging with the Scottish Government and NHS Orkney over the last 24 hours in order to implement a more proportionate arrangement for travel between the North and South Isles.
Given the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of our community, especially when there are currently no recorded cases within Orkney, the Council has decided that it is appropriate to review the current levels of restrictions on travel within the County between the North and South Isles and the Orkney mainland today. To be clear, only essential travel to and from the Scottish mainland will be permitted as per the Scottish Government’s requirements. However, the travel arrangements for internal journeys within the County on Orkney Ferries will now revert to the procedures that have been in place whilst Orkney has been classified as a Level 1 area. This means that people will be able to pre-book travel between the North and South Isles and the Orkney Mainland in the same way that they were previously able to do. This does not remove the need for folk to carefully follow all other Scottish Government guidance in relation to living within the Level 3 area and it is essential that any travel arrangements are planned and undertaken in this context.
In making this change, the Council is mindful of the fact that the risk of COVID remains and it is therefore vital that where possible travel is limited. It is also vital to the health and safety of our crews, and our Island communities that when travelling people strictly follow the arrangements for social distancing and the on-board cleaning arrangements. In this regard, people must follow the Scottish Government Guidance for Travelling Safely which can be found here.
We hope that this local concession to apply a level of control of travel, which we believe is proportionate to the current risks within Orkney, will allow the important family contacts which are so critical to the health and wellbeing in these difficult times. However, we must stress that these arrangements could be subject to sudden change should the local public health advice change, or the Scottish Government apply more specific controls to Orkney. We would therefore encourage people to keep a close watch on the news and social media contacts where the Council will post any updates as these emerge.
I apologise for the inconvenience and upset which has been experienced by folk over the last few days but hope that this change which we will now implement is helpful and reflective of the fact that where possible the Council is seeking to support our community in responding to the global pandemic with locally appropriate provisions where we can.
New Year - return to schools
With respect to Education and the scheduled return to schools in the New Year, the Council is still in dialogue with the Scottish Government and further communications will be issued once we are clear on the finalised way to proceed.
In light of the fact that, as outlined above, there are no current COVID-19 cases in Orkney, nor has there been a case for some considerable amount of time, Orkney Islands Council believe that it would be entirely appropriate to fully open schools and nurseries on Wednesday 6 January 2021 or as soon as practicable thereafter.
We do not consider that the opening of all nursery, primary, and secondary educational and childcare establishments would place Orkney Islands Council at odds with the broader intention of Scottish Government. We have carefully digested the Guidance published on 21December and it is our expectation that, should we follow this Guidance, many of our vulnerable children and young people would be disadvantaged again as a result of poor or no connectivity on our outer isles and therefore be unable to access the remote learning proposed by the Scottish Government up to the 15 January. As a remote, rural community the majority of children and young people in Orkney have, during this pandemic, suffered from these disadvantages and we recognise that for as long as the inequity and unfairness in connectivity endures, it will continue to have a negative impact upon attainment. Therefore, a further period of remote learning will widen the attainment gap and should only be considered where absolutely necessary and where underpinned by material facts regarding local transmission of COVID-19.
We also believe implementing access to schooling and child care only for key workers, when there are no recorded cases on our islands, is an extra burden and challenge for other parents who would otherwise be scheduled to return to work in the first full week of the new year. It should also be recognised that Orkney is regarded as being one of the most vulnerable economies in Scotland.
The local economy cannot afford to bear any unnecessary limitations in operation, and we consider there to be a real and present risk that any further damage to this fragile economic environment would have a significant negative impact on Orkney.
Given that we fully expected to have the majority of children and young people attending our school establishments from 6 January, we believe that it would be counter-intuitive to enforce upon these children a model of childcare and remote learning that fails to recognise the local circumstances detailed above. For these reasons we are in discussions with the Scottish Government to open schools and nurseries as originally planned. Should circumstances change in the interim then we would continue to engage fully with the national measures in place, including Test and Protect, to limit the spread of the virus.
We will keep our communities informed as soon as practicable of the final agreed way forward for the return to schools.