Nicola Sturgeon is considering a Highland travel ban for those living in areas of high Covid-19 prevalence in the central belt, it has emerged.
At her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon said her “very strong” advice at the moment was for people from places like Glasgow not to make the journey north.
But when asked about future travel restrictions, she also raised the prospect of compulsory bans to prevent people moving from coronavirus hotspots in the central belt to northern areas.
Representatives of the hospitality trade expressed dismay at the possibility of travel to the Highlands being outlawed, warning that such a move would spell the end for many businesses.
My advice now to people in Greater Glasgow and Clyde is that if you don’t need to travel outside Greater Glasgow and Clyde, don’t do it. That is advice and guidance, but it is there and it is very strong for the reasons everybody understands.”
Ms Sturgeon said she was considering a legally enforceable cross-border travel ban and wrote to Boris Johnson requesting an urgent meeting of officials to ensure “coherence” across the UK.
The Welsh Government has threatened people from high-risk parts of Scotland and England with fines of £50 if they travel there, an approach Ms Sturgeon said she backed.
During her briefing, Ms Sturgeon revealed Mr Johnson had replied to her letter to agree to four-nations discussions on the issue.
However, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government would look at what steps it wanted to take in parallel with the cross-UK approach.
Joining the First Minister today is Scotland’s Interim Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith. https://t.co/Gmh1uYc6TU
— Scottish Government (@scotgov) October 16, 2020
Travel ‘advice and guidance’ from first minister
The first minister said she was “weighing up” whether that would involve putting in place regulations, “coupled with enforcement”, to prevent travel from high to low-prevalence areas.
When asked if she was looking at potentially banning people from areas “such as” Greater Glasgow and Clyde from visiting the Highlands, the first minister suggested such an approach was under consideration.
Ms Sturgeon replied: “Any travel restrictions, should you decide that they have to be mandatory, is not just about cross border, which is why I keep saying this is not some constitutional or political point.
“It is about high to low prevalence and if that is within Scotland or within England or within Wales then you have to consider that there. But equally you have to consider it if it is between any of these countries.
“Right now my advice to people in Greater Glasgow and Clyde is not to go to the Highlands unless you really need to. We didn’t go as far as saying to people over the October holidays – if you’ve got a break planned, cancel it because we are trying to strike as much balance here as we can.
“But my advice now to people in Greater Glasgow and Clyde is that if you don’t need to travel outside Greater Glasgow and Clyde, don’t do it. That is advice and guidance, but it is there and it is very strong for the reasons everybody understands.”
The restrictions on businesses are onerous enough and to exacerbate the problem by imposing a travel ban – for many businesses that are trying to trade at this end-of-season point – the resultant reduction in business that would undoubtedly happen would be too much for them.”
Willie Macleod of UK Hospitality
The most recent data for this week show there were 67 positive cases reported in the NHS Highland area in the last seven days.
That compares favourably with the 2,349 reported in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, the 1,743 in NHS Lanarkshire and the 960 in NHS Lothian over the same period.
Those three health boards, plus NHS Ayrshire and Arran and NHS Forth Valley, have had extra restrictions imposed in a bid to beat back the virus.
But Willie Macleod, executive director, Scotland, of UK Hospitality, warned the anti-Covid measures were already harming businesses.
“The restrictions on businesses are onerous enough and to exacerbate the problem by imposing a travel ban – for many businesses that are trying to trade at this end-of-season point – the resultant reduction in business that would undoubtedly happen would be too much for them,” Mr Macleod said.
“I also wonder how a travel ban might equitably be enforced. Hotels that are open outwith the five protected areas are saying they have been suffering significant cancellations – not just for rooms but their food and drinks businesses too.”
‘How do you police it?’
Conservative Highland Councillor Isabelle Mackenzie said: “There are so many mixed messages out there. One minute we are saying we want to support local businesses and then you are then having a travel ban.
“Businesses in the Highlands are being affected, because people are being told not to travel.
“But if a particular area is high risk with the virus the logic would be that you don’t move about.
“If the virus moves because people are behaving in a certain way you want to mitigate against that. But how do you police it?”
‘We need to see the evidence’
David Whiteford, chairman of the North Highland Initiative established to help northern businesses, said: “Whilst we’d all agree that the current stats show us the infection hotspots are Glasgow and Lanarkshire and that the higher/more densely populated central belt has always seen higher numbers of cases compared to more rural/remote parts of the country, we need to see the evidence of it transferring via visitors, who, after all, have been enjoying well-earned holidays here since July 15.
“Hospitality settings in the Highlands have gone above and beyond to make sure they comply with government guidelines and in most cases have set the benchmark and demonstrated great leadership to other businesses and the public about how to act responsibly in terms Covid compliance and how to live with it in the longer term.”
Mr Whiteford added: “The question remains how and when the Scottish Government funding (£40 million) and Westminster funding (£700 million) will be allocated and who to.
“If Highland hospitality businesses are now to be denied the custom they thought they were going to have at this 11th hour, they need to be fully compensated using the funds from Westminster that have been earmarked for critical situations such as this.”