This week I have been considering the many ways in which COVID-19 has impacted each and every one of our lives. It is affecting many of our jobs, it is cancelling our pastimes and generally having a detrimental impact on our social lives. Some of these effects might linger for longer than others, of course. Thankfully, as yet, we have only had 6 confirmed cases of the virus – all of whom are getting on well at home - but we cannot become complacent.
We are all aware that there are many elderly people throughout the islands who may not read articles online because they simply don’t have internet access. We have utilised all sorts of communication methods to engage with people, from social media to radio and phone calls and I would once again take the opportunity to highlight the importance of verbal messaging in getting messages to people throughout – what we all recognise to be – a resilient community. It really is good to talk, so my challenge to each and every one of you this week is to pick up the phone and say hello to someone you have not spoken to for a while. I guarantee it makes a difference. Make someone laugh, make someone smile and share some of the key health messages with them if they have not already come across them.
On another note, an article on travelling to beauty spots appeared in The Guardian newspaper on Monday, alongside a photo of Loch Ròg. The Guardian subsequently – and quite rightly – apologised for that error, but the episode got me thinking – people love and want to come to the Western Isles all year round, for so many different reasons. At the moment, we – alongside our partner agencies, Scottish Government, CalMac and Loganair – have firm restrictions in place to ensure there is no unnecessary travel. I am very clear that these restrictions must remain in place as long as it takes to ensure the safety and health of our population. However, as we contemplate all the ways that Covid-19 could change our islands, big and small, I have also considered that the pandemic’s combined effect on public health, the economy and social behaviour may cause fundamental shifts in human geography. For example, why would people from the islands living on the mainland and in the big cities not want to return here when the restrictions are lifted? Over recent weeks, we have all seen the vast number of benefits of living in the Western Isles, ranging from the stunning coastline for some daily exercise, to the fantastic community spirit and volunteer response. The Western Isles is truly an amazing place to live, to visit and to work, so it is little wonder that so many people want to come here.
As the Comhairle Leader, it is vitally important that I do not allow looking back on what has taken place over recent weeks and months, to deflect my attention and focus away from what lies ahead of us all. At some point (hopefully soon), the lockdown will ease. Travel restrictions will eventually end, and planes and ferries will start operating full services one again. We must be prepared for that next phase. There will be many many challenges, but one of the key ones for us will be to reboot the economy and be creative and innovative in our strategies to both provide employment for people and to step up support for local businesses and communities. Hopefully we can start that reboot soon with in-island activities gradually resuming but with travel restrictions, which have been so effective, remaining in place for longer.
For the moment, please keep up the effort; support each other where you can, remain vigilant and maintain the now established good practice of social distancing.
Our message is quite clear; the islands are not currently open for business. We continue to prioritise taking care of ourselves and each other. But when it is safe to do so, and the restrictions are eventually lifted, we will once again warmly welcome everyone to the Western Isles, whether that be to visit, to work or….to stay.