Concerns raised over ‘non-essential’ trips to and from the mainland

Concerns that some islanders may be breaking coronavirus travel restrictions and booking ferries for non-essential mainland shopping trips, have been raised by Cal Mac.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 12th May 2020, 4:55 pm

Speaking in response to a query about travellers attempting to reach the islands for non-essential purposes, a Cal Mac spokesperson said that the ferry operator was also having to deal with cases where staff suspected that some islanders - no specific routes were identifed - were taking non-essential trips to the mainland, and said that there was “not a lot” that ferry staff could do to stop the trips, if passengers insisted that their journey was of an ‘essential’ nature.

A Calmac spokesperson said: “People need to take personal responsibility, and it should not be left up to staff.”

The issue of restrictions on travel to the islands had also surfaced earlier in the week following publication by The Guardian national newspaper of a picture of Loch Roag, on the Isle of Lewis, as part of an article on the impact of the pandemic on tourism following the easing of lock-down rules in England.

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A photo caption for the piece suggested that people would be able to travel to the Outer Hebrides ‘from Wednesday’, but today (Tuesday) the paper acknowledged the error and said in its corrections and clarifications column that unlike England, Scotland has not lifted restrictions on ‘such non-essential travel’.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar had meantime issued a statement on social media urging people to obey Scottish lock-down laws and not to try and travel “to beauty spots in the islands”.

In its statement, a Comhairle spokesperson said: “We would remind everyone that in Scotland it is not permissible to drive to beauty spots.

“There are also restrictions on travelling to the Islands and we must see these maintained for the continued health of our population.”

Cal Mac’s Group Director of Communications, Stuart Wilson, also responded to the national newspaper’s article, tweeting: “For the avoidance of doubt, anybody trying to get to the Outer Hebrides from Wednesday onwards who is not an islander or undertaking essential work will need to have an amphibious car!”

Last week, during a meeting of the full council of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, Cllr Roddy MacKay (Beinn na Faoghla Agus Uibhist A Tuath) had raised local concerns over the issue of sub-contractors travelling to Uist, saying that there was “consternation” in the local community about the workers coming to the island “not isolating”, and who could, Cllr MacKay stated, “be bringing the virus to the island, and putting pressure on care and hospital staff, should that be the case”.

Cllr MacKay queried if local police could be asked to conduct checks on passengers coming to the islands through the local emergency planning committee.

The Comhairle’s Chief Executive, Malcolm Burr, responded: “Nothing has changed, the regulations are still in force, the travel restrictions are still in force and Cal Mac have been doing an admirable job in managing that situation.

“It would be perfectly reasonable for Cal Mac, if they wished, to request the assistance of other ‘category one responders’ with the police being the obvious one.”

He continued: “I have issued a few letters of authorisation for workers working on critical infrastructure, which those turning up [at ferry terminals] who have to travel here can present to Cal Mac and they can satisfy themselves that that is necessary, and really it is essential travel only.

“I think Cal Mac have done a good job of regulating this. But they can ask for help if they need it, and certainly if that request comes through us I am sure that we will be happy to support it.”

Last week, Harris woman, Catriona Morrison, started a petition on the Change.org website calling for tougher controls on those planning to visit the islands with Cal Mac being given extra powers to ‘stop, check and ask all passengers and deny travel to ANY who cannot prove necessity of journey’.

The petition also called for a restriction on the ‘acceptable forms’ of ID for travellers planning to make a journey to the islands, to require a driving licence with an island address for car drivers and a similar utility bill dated in past six months for all foot passengers, with proof of registration with a local GP also being accepted.

“We cannot lift restrictions, we need to tighten them” Catriona Morrison stated in the petition, “Cal Mac should be able to deny anyone they have any doubts over.”

By Tuesday of this week the petition had passed its initial 2,500 signature goal and was heading toward 3,000 supporters for its ultimate 5,000 target.

Cal Mac’s spokesperson said: “CalMac is implementing strict controls as implemented by the Scottish Government. We are actively turning people away who are not able to produce the evidence required of island residency or key worker status, and we have posters around our entire network making it clear under what circumstances you can travel.

“However, it is important to note that we do not have police or civic powers.

“If even stricter measures are required then this is a matter of Government policy and would require a political solution. We all have a part to play in this because the existing guidelines are clear.”