Islanders on Barra – where positive Covid cases rose starkly by a further 12 to 39 – were accused of “letting their guard down” by Scotland’s chief medical officer.
But Western Isles politicians hit back saying residents were now voluntarily following the toughest Covid restrictions in place in a bid to beat the rapid outbreak.
Western Isles Council insisted “people should only be travelling if essential”, adding: “The Comhairle will continue to make the case to Scottish Government and CalMac that a policy of self-declaration, similar to the one adopted by Loganair, should be implemented for ferry services to and from the islands. We will be raising this issue again with the Scottish Government.”
During the latest live TV briefing on the pandemic, chief medical officer Dr Gregor Smith said: “What we are seeing in Barra is a good example of what happens when perhaps people let their guard down and come together.
“This virus takes every opportunity it can to spread between people. We have been monitoring this very closely since the end of last week when the rise in case numbers became apparent. Discussions will continue on how to limit any spread in the community.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said an announcement on the position of the current lockdown restrictions across the country, including Barra, would be made on Tuesday.
A spokeswoman for NHS Western Isles said: “We can confirm there are now 145 close contacts relating to 39 positive cases on Barra.”
There were two new cases on Benbecula linked to previous cases – but not the Barra outbreak.
Shadow health secretary and Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron said: “I don’t think it’s either fair or helpful to blame island residents here – what matters is looking after those in need of medical care, and getting the outbreak under control.
“The situation on Barra graphically demonstrates that no community, however distant from the areas with high transmission rates, can consider itself safe from Covid.
“We hope and pray that the restrictions being observed in Barra will bring the outbreak under control, but it is incumbent on everyone to work together to get through this time of danger.
“The vaccine is on its way, but we must not relax our vigilance in the meantime.”
Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan said: “The situation in Barra continues to be concerning, but the island has responded well to slow the spread among the population and the community has voluntarily decided to operate effectively as if it were under level 4 restrictions.”
There have been claims the outbreak is linked with festive travel to and from the mainland, while social media has highlighted possible ‘family events’.
There has also been calls for tougher restrictions on travel by ferry.
Mr Allan responded: “While the level of traffic on the ferries is down to around a tenth of what it would be on a normal day in January, I understand why travel is still a source of anxiety for island communities.
“I know from conversations with the police that they are making periodic checks on ferry queues to ask people if their journey is necessary, and I have also stressed to CalMac the importance of messages going out about this issue.”
Local MP Angus MacNeil commended the strong community spirit of his island home, which has a population of just over 1,000, in the face of the escalating outbreak.
He said: “The island community is pulling together very well at this time. People are very helpful of one another – doing shopping, sending a lot of messages and staying in touch with those who are positive.
“Those that are positive are our friends, neighbours and cousins and it could be us in the next few days or weeks, we just don’t know.
“We know there is a global pandemic on the go and at some point it was probably inevitable that that the pandemic was going to come.
“We now have to make sure, as other islands have done, that we banish the virus from our shores, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Regarding travel to Barra, Loganair states: “As travel on all routes, and to and from the Scottish Islands in particular, is subject to restrictions for essential travel only, we request and require that you carry proof of the essential nature of your journey – such as a key worker confirmation letter or identity – with you.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Transport Scotland has been engaging with CalMac on the level of messaging and checks surrounding essential travel on their services.
“Cal Mac is increasing its activity to actively challenge people at the point of booking and in ports before boarding, as to whether their journey falls within the permitted category. Messaging is being updated to and staff procedures are being revised.”
Robert Morrison, operations director for CalMac, said: “Working closely with Transport Scotland, CalMac is asking customers wishing to travel with us if their journey is essential. While it is not in our remit to enforce the law, we will refuse travel to those who do not confirm that they are travelling in compliance with these rules.
“We will continue to advise our customers to follow and adhere to Scottish Government restrictions when arranging travel, in the mutual understanding that customers must take responsibility and check the rules.
“The wearing of face coverings, and adhering to social distancing guidelines when on board, is also required in order to protect staff and passengers.”