Tourist business and community leaders on the Isle of Harris are leading the way in openly considering the challenges involved in reopening the tourism sector.
One conclusion from a meeting of the Harris Forum on Thursday June 11, was the need for clear leadership and guidance from the centre on implementing continuing restrictions in the context of the Islands.
The forum consists of North Harris Community Council; Scalpay Community Council; South Harris Community Council; North Harris Trust; West Harris Trust; Leverhulme Community Hub; Harris Development Ltd; Harris Voluntary Services; Harris Youth Council/ Community Learning and Development; and Western Isles Community Care Forum.
Kenny MacLeod, who chairs the Harris Forum, said: "All members present shared their views on the way forward and especially in relation to the easing of restrictions on our ferries and planes.
"Everyone recognises the widespread concerns and fears within the community of Covid-19 taking hold in Harris. We have been extremely fortunate to date but all accept that this could change quickly as travel opens up and more people come to the islands and also more islanders travel to and from mainland UK.
"The Forum also appreciates the serious impact that the current restrictions have had, and are continuing to have, on the fragile economy of Harris. There are also health issues that go alongside the ongoing employment situation and that, too, has to be taken into account.
"The Scottish Government’s statement on the potential opening of tourism in Scotland from 15th July was also part of the discussion. This had caught many by surprise and serious concerns were expressed that there did not appear to be any consultation or consideration for the islands and their particular circumstances before making this announcement.
"There is an acceptance that restrictions will need to be lifted at some point, but the majority view is that this should be slowly and in a more controlled manner.
"One of the major concerns is the level of testing capacity available in the Western isles. This is based on the current population level. If transport was to open further and allow a significant daily influx of visitors, the worry is that there will not be sufficient capacity to deal with this extra load.
"It was agreed that representations be made to the Scottish Government to provide the necessary resources before easing any restrictions on travel to and from the islands.
"The restrictions on ferry capacity due to social distancing are a major hurdle to island businesses that others in mainland Scotland do not face as we move through the phases.
"Potential passenger numbers at 2m spacing will be around 18-20% of the normal traffic. This, along with the significant additional requirements on the hospitality industry for Covid-19 cleaning regulations, may not make it economically viable for a number of businesses to open up.
"It was also agreed that we press the Scottish Government to provide additional support to island businesses who are impacted by the limits that social distancing on public transport places on them.
"There are currently no public toilets or facilities open in Harris and it is highly unlikely that any will be opening for the foreseeable future due to the financial cost to operators of providing Covid-19 compliant cleaning standards.
"All agreed that priority on the ferries as they open up should be for local residents travelling to see families on the mainland and also for mainland-based family to be able to travel to visit elderly relatives here. It is recognised that this could be very difficult for the ferry operators to control but, nonetheless, efforts should be made, including working with the local community, to find working solutions to this.
"One concern of the group was that the bulk of the capacity on the ferries might be taken up by motorhomes. It was agreed that the local authority and Scottish government be approached and asked that, when campervans are to be allowed onto ferries that travel be restricted to those who have confirmed bookings at dedicated camp sites for the duration of their visit.
"The local councillors present will take this to the local authority as well in order to try and get agreement throughout the islands. If this is agreed it will go a long way towards addressing community concerns regarding wild camping and the associated environmental impact. In addition it will make contact tracing easier if that is found to be necessary.
"It is difficult to address every concern and deal with all situations, but we feel that as we look to emerge from this pandemic with as little impact as possible on our fragile community, we need to move forward at a pace that everyone is comfortable with."
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has confirmed that Island Authorities are involved in discussions regarding any proposed amendments to travel restrictions on ferries to and from the Islands.
The Comhairle is seeking clarification on eligibility for travel as restrictions are gradually eased with a preference for island residents and essential travellers being the priority in the initial stages. A spokesperson said:“The Comhairle has repeatedly stated that our preference would be that any easing of restrictions means priority for Island residents and essential travellers such as medical workers and specialist contractors. First and foremost in our considerations will be the safety of our communities. At some point, the Islands will have to open up to recreational and other visitors for the sake of our economy –and we will welcome everyone back with traditional Hebridean hospitality - but that will have to be done gradually and carefully. We will continue to have discussions with Scottish Government and all interested parties”. The Comhairle is also seeking an easing of inter-island ferry travel restrictions for families living in the Islands.
In update to members yesterday (Friday June 12), Outer Hebrides Tourism said: "You will have all seen the announcement by Fergus Ewing this week, that the government is aiming for tourism businesses to re-start from 15th July. This date is subject to satisfactory progress on combating COVID, but getting a date has been the main request from members over recent weeks. It gives us something to work towards, and gives clarity to potential visitors. This came about from a lot of work between ourselves, the Scottish Tourism Alliance and the Scottish Government to understand the economic impact of lockdown.
"However, there is a real risk that restrictions on ferry traffic will prevent us from benefitting from the relaxation in rules. Calmac is strictly implementing the 2m social distancing rules on its services, at the instruction of the Scottish Government. Without any relaxation to this, we can at best expect 20-30% of the normal summer tourist traffic, which I know is leaving many of you questioning whether it is profitable to open, as well as leaving visitors who want to come struggling to get ferry tickets.
"We have a bit of time before 15th July, and are pushing heavily to find ways to ease the transport constraints, and in particular review the socially distancing limit of 2m, which also is making it very challenging for restaurants to operate. We already have a letter in to the Transport Secretary explaining the pain these measures are causing. We are emphasising that if the lockdown is extended on the islands, then that needs to be accompanied by extended financial support to avoid industry collapse.
Take a look at Michael Matheson's article in the Press & Journal today- it is important for us to have someone in Cabinet making our case.
We also raised the ferry issue for discussion with the First Minister yesterday. We are encouraged from her response that there may be a route through this, but the challenge is in the detail. It is also worth reading some of her broader comments on the industry and its challenges.
There is a lot of work to do, to get ready for any re-opening. It is clear this is not a return to normal. Much will have changed and it is important for the long term that when visitors do arrive, they play their part in acting responsibly. Fortunately, the majority do, but we need to manage the minority.
B&B Funding: There was some good news that Fiona Hyslop announced a £3m funding package for B&Bs with no business bank account. This amount is carved out from the Self-Employed Hardship Fund for people who have just started new businesses among other things. Applications to this scheme open on Monday and will be administered by CnES. This will mean a new application if you made an application to the Hospitality Hardship Fund and were rejected. Please get applications in quickly as £3 million is only 1000 B&Bs so the money could go quickly
Extending Funding: Particularly, with the ferries in effect extending lockdown, we continue to push for a longer-term funding package to help see businesses through to next year. Fergus Ewing spoke in the P&J yesterday, expressing support but this is in part dependent on funding from the UK Government, and as we know the situation down South is quite different. We continue to push.
Small Business Grants - In the other direction, the Small Business Grants, which were the first grants that were announced in March will not run until March 2021, but will close in mid-July. It is vital if you wish to claim under this scheme that you register your claim as soon as possible. Any remaining funds in this scheme, will be recycled into later schemes, where demand has gone unmet.
Furlough/SEIS: There has been an extension to the Furlough scheme through to October (albeit with a modest employer contribution), and also a second payment announced to the self-employed scheme that is designed to be an equivalent to furlough. We did succeed in getting the original plans for employer contributions scaled back. Importantly, from 1st July, there is much more flexibility in the furlough scheme, which will allow employees to return part-time.