Covid: Highlands tourists urged to act ‘with caution’ as case surge exposed

TOURISTS are being urged to “act with caution” when visiting the Highlands, after The Herald revealed a 1000 per cent rise in cases in the past six weeks.

Jamie Stone, Liberal Democrats MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, said the figures show the area “went backwards and are riding in the deep dark”.

He is urging on the Scottish Government to make sure everyone was offered or had both vaccines to allow a safe access to the Highlands.

We revealed earlier how official Public Health Scotland (PHS) figures show the seven-day positive cases figure for the area stands at 338 up to July 22.

This marks an increase of 1,026% on the figure of just 30 new cases on June 10. The test positivity has also taken a leap, moving from 0.6% to 5.3%, sitting above the World Health Organizations standard for having the pandemic under control.

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READ MORE: Tourist hotspot Covid fears as Highland cases surge 1000% in six weeks

With foreign travel all but out of the picture, many Scots have chosen to have a “staycation”, including the North Coast 500 coastal route.

PHS data does not provide a figure when a neighbourhood has less than two cases in a week, but even in the best case scenario most areas have at least doubled.

Inverness, the starting point for many North Coast 500 journeys, has gone from a maximum potential of 36 cases (or a minimum of zero) in the seven days up to June 10, compared to 144 cases on the week of June 22 – an increase of at least 300%.

Skye has seen its figures increase from at most six cases to 17 over the same period.

Wick, not far from the popular tourist spot of John O’Groats, has gone from around four cases to 13 over the last week (up at least 225%), and nearby Thurso has risen from the same number to 10 cases (a rise of at least 150%).

Responding to the figures, Mr Stone said: “Covid is still very much a threat, and these figures truly concern me.

“We are not out of the tunnel yet, in fact it seems like we went backwards and are riding in the deep dark.”

While being “enthusiastic” to see people choosing to spend their holidays in the Highlands, he added: “I do worry about the potential covid transmissions from more densely populated areas to our Highlands.

“I strongly urge everyone who made the brilliant decision of visiting the Highlands to act with caution, such as wearing a mask, washing their hands often and respecting the mandatory distance.

“We have already seen our local hospitals having to trigger a code black due to lack of staff, and with these numbers, we cannot rule out the possibility of this happening again.

“The Government must ensure that everyone received their blue letter and had or will have access to both jags, and that tourists will be able to enjoy the Highlands to its fullest.”

Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, told The Herald that tourism will “of course” have been a factor in rising cases – but pointed towards signs that things were improving in the last week, with cases dropping by around one-third in recent days.

She said: “There is little doubt that Covid cases rose in Highland council area over the past six weeks from a very low base.

“This is likely to be due to a range of factors including restrictions easing and more households mixing locally.

“Incoming visitors particularly from higher prevalence areas will of course have also contributed. However, we should be careful in assuming that tourism is the only factor.”

She added: “There are some signs that the rise is levelling off or declining, as are cases based on positive test results around Scotland at the current time.

“For that to continue people visiting the area should take extra care to follow public health guidelines.

“I’m sure the last thing people living and working in Highland want is imported Covid cases at the current time.”

Dr Tim Allison, Director of Public Health for NHS Highland, said: “Throughout June and the beginning of July we did see a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases across NHS Highland.

“In June alone we had over 1,300 cases which is around a fifth of NHS Highland’s total number of cases since the start of the pandemic.  There have been increased cases right across Scotland in areas of both higher and lower tourist numbers and many of the increases have been greater than for NHS Highland.

“With restrictions being eased we knew we would see a rise but Covid-19 is also spreading much more rapidly in our communities as a result of the Delta variant and we are seeing cases in areas that have previously been unaffected. The increase has slowed slightly but we are still seeing high numbers in the area.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: ”We have consistently advocated a cautious and gradual approach to easing restrictions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in line with expert clinical advice and modelling, as that stands the best chance of minimising further health harm and loss of life. 

“While we hope we are in the process of emerging from the pandemic, and our successful vaccination programme is helping to weaken the link between Covid cases and hospitalisation, case rates at the moment underline the fact that this virus is still with us.

“That’s why we all still have a role to play, in helping to protect ourselves and each other, with basic measures like physical distancing, hand-washing, the cleaning of surfaces, and face coverings all being as important now as ever, in addition to getting vaccinated.

“Scotland’s vaccination programme has been one of the fastest in the world with around 92% of the over 40 population here now fully vaccinated. All adults have now been offered their first dose and we expect all those who are eligible to be offered their second dose by 12 September.

“We remain fully committed to ensuring that everyone has access to a COVID-19 vaccine and continue to urge anyone who has not yet come forward to do so as there is no doubt that vaccination represents our best way out of the pandemic and the best way to protect ourselves, our family and friends and our communities.”

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992