About 1,000 islanders on Barra in the Outer Hebrides are taking a “robust and responsible” approach to being placed in full lockdown from midnight on Tuesday, as a coronavirus outbreak spreads to affect about 16% of the population.
Having kept the virus off the 11-mile-long island since the pandemic began, there are now 45 positive tests with a further 140 individuals self-isolating.
Although islanders were already observing a voluntary lockdown as the outbreak spread rapidly since taking hold in the second week of January, Nicola Sturgeon announced on Tuesday that the islands of Barra and Vatersay, which are connected by a causeway, would go into tier 4, the highest level of Scotland’s five levels of Covid controls. The rest of the Western Isles will remain in level 3, indicating the Scottish government is willing to target specific areas within local authorities.
Barra councillor Donald Manford said that locals were “shocked but not surprised” by the outbreak: “We’d held it at bay for 10 months, and you hope you are doing the right things, but when the second wave came and was spreading so quickly, it was foolish to believe we could avoid it forever.”
Asked whether he was aware of the source of the outbreak, the NHS Western Isles chief executive, Gordon Jamieson, told BBC Radio Scotland: “There has been some mainland travel, which had only to be essential, and we know there have been some gatherings on Barra that were outside level 3 restrictions.”
Although two residents have been taken off the island for treatment, local health officials said they were confident in levels of assessment for patients remaining on Barra. Those who have tested positive are receiving daily calls and have been given small pulse oximeters to monitor their oxygen levels.
Barra’s health infrastructure is limited to a care home with 10 beds – where all residents and staff have already been vaccinated – and a hospital with five beds, both in the same building. There are currently no plans to introduce patients needing Covid care here because of the proximity to elderly residents.
Those who do require more intensive treatment can be transferred to Stornoway on Lewis or to the mainland, with weather for landing being monitored carefully in coordination with the Scottish ambulance service.
Meanwhile, islanders have been urged to self-isolate immediately if they experience symptoms, and to be vigilant in particular for loss of or changes to taste or smell, which have been common factors in this outbreak.
Residents have also been advised to take extra care when using communal contact facilities such as cash machines, and to reduce visits to those essential shops that remain open. The local coordinating group is scaling up a home delivery service, which has already been supporting those who are shielding and the island’s significant number of elderly residents.
The owners of Castlebay post office posted a heartfelt notice on their Facebook page, informing residents that they would be reducing opening hours. “We are both medically vulnerable, one of us extremely so, together with many others on the island, who like us are scared and very wary of how to proceed,” it read.
Setting out a series of precautionary measures, such as having only one customer inside the premises at a time, it concludes: “May God keep us all safe. Better days will come.”
For Donald Manford, the community spirit born out of geographical isolation can only assist residents through this current health challenge. “Everyone, even if they don’t know each other, knows who each other are. Where you can, you look out for each other, that’s a natural way to live and exist.”