The population of the Western Isles was already expected to decline pre-Covid by 20 per cent by 2041 and this tidal wave of people moving from the Island chain to the UK mainland in search of quality jobs and career opportunities is expected to be exacerbated by the current pandemic.
This economic and depopulation cliff-edge was raised by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan at a virtual meeting of the Scottish Parliament last week.
The Islands MSP, asked: “There is an obvious concern that the economic impact of the pandemic will exacerbate the long-standing trend of island depopulation. “Recession tends to result in working-age families moving to the mainland in search of work.
“If that happens, the islands could take a long time to recover demographically.
“Can the cabinet secretary say more about whether the Government will commit to ensuring that an assessment of that issue is made, and that all interventions will be considered?”
Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism (Fergus Ewing) said: “The impacts of Covid-19 on the Western Isles have been substantial; in particular, the impact on tourism on those islands has been devastating.
“The Scottish Government is working hard to address those matters.”
Mr Ewing added: “I hope that Dr Allan’s constituents will feel that the Government is a friend to them.”
Mr Ewing highlighted that this had been demonstrated through the government’s introduction of the road equivalent tariff and policies including delivery under the croft grant scheme of 1,000 homes, many of which have been built in his constituency.
He continued: “Our concern is that impacts on population pre-Covid were expected to lead to a 20 per cent decline in population by 2041.
“There is now an even greater need to consider the issues, so a population task force has been established to do just that.”
The taskforce will be made up of Scottish Government ministers and will initially be in place for one year to establish the government’s approach on population change.
After a year there will be a review of its activity and remit.
The initial remit of the taskforce will be to establish a ‘programme’ of current and new activity to deliver a cohesive approach to population policy.
It will be looking at areas such as the impact of population change on rural, remote and island communities, as well as the population shift from west to east with a view to identifying policy options.
An Advisory Group report on the national economic recovery, commissioned by the Scottish Government, was also published this week.
Among its recommendations is a key point for the Islands: “The economic development landscape in Scotland should pivot to a more regionally focused model in order to address the specific new challenges of economic recovery.
“This model should be tasked to drive delivery of place-based and regional solutions, especially the City-Region Growth Deals.”
Talking about the Advisory Group report, Rachel Mackenzie, area manager for HIE in the Outer Hebrides, said: “The full impact of COVID-19 on businesses and communities in the islands is as yet unknown.
“But clearly many businesses will face new and continuing challenges as we emerge from the pandemic.
“There will also be some opportunities arising.
“Rebuilding our regional economies will require effective co-ordination between public bodies. This was one of the points made in the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery report, which also highlights the significant potential of our islands.
“Sectors such as tourism, food and drink, and creative industries, which are particularly strong in our region, are highlighted as having national significance.
“We will be adopting the group’s recommendations in our own planning and actions, as part of our work in helping the region’s economy recover.”
Forming the action-plan of how to revitalise the economy at a national and local level comes as the next significant step out of lockdown is implemented with non-essential shops getting ready to reopen next Monday, June 29.
And, although this will give some semblance of a return to normality, it is not clear if businesses will benefit greatly from the move given the continuing restrictions on social distancing.
Talking about social distancing, Malcolm Burr, chief executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, said: “It is vital that we continue to maintain physical distancing as restrictions are loosened.
“Western Isles businesses have worked hard to ensure that physical distancing has been adhered to, and as we move into the Recovery Phase, the continued efforts of businesses are both necessary and much appreciated.”