Ferry travel is to be blocked to non-essential travellers, preventing visitors from arriving into the islands, First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, has this afternoon (Sunday 22 March) confirmed.
And she has also called for operators of holiday accommodation to stop accepting bookings for holidaymakers, instead staying open for essential workers needed in the islands only.
With this afternoon’s statement it’s effectively been confirmed that the Western Isles is closed for tourism for the foreseeable future.
The FM has endorsed the information released in a tweet from Scotland’s cabinet secretary for transport, Michael Matheson MSP, just before 3pm today. At that time he said: “From now on ferries will be for those who live on our islands, who have an essential need to travel to or from the mainland and for essential supplies or business. Nothing else.”
The decision comes after a weekend of gradually building outrage as the phenomenon of ‘isolation tourism’ began to show around the Highlands and Islands.
Other regions of Britain were similarly affected as holiday-home owners and motorhome drivers flocked to Snowdonia, Anglesey and Cornwall among other areas, encouraged by articles in newspapers like the Daily Mail, whose article is show in images below, openly encouraging people to go to remote areas to self-isolate.
Ms Sturgeon has now said: “I want to turn to reports of people flocking to Scotland’s remote communities. It may well be an understandable human instinct to think we can outrun a virus – but the fact is we can’t.
“What we do is risk taking it to the places we go. And in our remote and rural communities that means extra pressure on essential services and on health services that are already more distant from people.
“So I can confirm that as of now we have advised our ferry companies – who have already suspended bookings – to no longer take non-essential travellers.
“Those who do not normally live on the islands and have travelled there in the last few days will be able to leave to reduce pressure.
“To our hotels, B&Bs and self-catering accommodation – you should not be accepting visitors. Provide accommodation for your staff and make yourselves available to help essential workers and support essential services – that is all.
“Scotland is a warm and welcoming country and I fervently hope it’s not too long before we are opening our arms and our countryside to visitors again – but right now our priority must be to protect people from this virus, protect our NHS and protect Scotland.
Local calls for visitors to stay away from the Western Isles earlier yesterday (Saturday) backed by rural economy and tourism secretary Fergus Ewing MSP, who issued an angry Scottish Government guidance note denouncing those who have travelled to the Highlands and Islands in a bid to avoid the Coronavirus.
Mr Ewing said: “I am furious at the reckless and irresponsible behaviour of some people travelling to the Highland and Islands. This has to stop now. Let me be crystal clear, people should not be travelling to rural and island communities full stop. They are endangering lives. Do not travel.”
CalMac yesterday posted ‘don’t travel’ advice on their website, saying: “CalMac is encouraging all passengers to ensure that the journey they are making is essential in line with Government advice. If you don't need to travel then please don't.”
The Scottish Government’s decisive action has this afternoon been welcomed by residents of islands including Barra, Harris and North Uist, as well as by others among the Scottish islands.
Comhairle Leader Roddie Mackay confirmed that Transport Scotland are now putting in place the measures the Comhairle was looking for regarding travel to and from our islands.
Mr Mackay said: “Our Transportation Chairman, Uisdean Robertson, has been liaising with colleagues at Transport Scotland over the weekend and would like to thank them for their help in reaching this solution. Transport Scotland (TS) will work with ferry operators to support the expected announcement that all non-essential travel to islands and remote locations should stop. Non-island residents will be encouraged to leave the islands and non-residents will be unable to buy tickets for travel. Transport Scotland will agree a consistent mode of implementation such as evidence of principal address being required at point of sale and they are currently working up clear guidelines which will be published on their own website."
Mr Mackay continued: “I am pleased to say that Transport Scotland are moving very quickly on this matter and they will be speaking with ferry operators today as well as engaging with the Unions.
“As Transport Scotland have control of messaging across the country via the Traffic Scotland system and social media, once they have a common message agreed about avoiding any unnecessary travel they will share this with all stakeholders as well as using the existing Covid-19 page at Traveline Scotland, in order to get the message out to those looking to travel by public transport.
“We are delighted that the Scottish Government has reacted so swiftly to our calls for travel restrictions to be put in place and we hope these measures will contribute to the safety and well-being of all of us on these islands.”
The independent CalMac Community Board said it "very much welcomes the announcement by the Scottish Government to restrict ferry travel to those for whom travel is essential. It is important we do not add extra pressure to the delivery of health and other services to already fragile communities at this crucial time. The demographics of our islands demonstrate a significantly higher proportion of our population in the 'at risk' categories. Let us collectively do all we can to protect them.
"The Community Board would also like to put on record its appreciation for the already considerable efforts of CalMac's front line and head office staff. All of us who travel on ferries should recognise the extra pressure they are under and show support and understanding."
The Stay Away illustration is by Edinburgh artist Stewart Bremner, who said: “Now is absolutely not the time to travel to remote areas, where there are already stretched healthcare facilities.”