Highland Council votes to back placing the region in Tier 1 of Covid system
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Highland Council has recommended to the Scottish Government that the region should be placed in Tier 1 of coronavirus restrictions with no additional measures imposed.
It came as the SNP group's bid to ban people meeting in each other’s homes fell on deaf ears with a number of councillors insisting that any mixed messaging would lead to significant and damaging confusion.
There was also concern about the dangers to mental health faced by locals, particularly the elderly, if they were unable to meet outdoors in the cold winter months and grew more isolated.
While some councillors also raised the possibility of licensed premises reopening and being run effectively within the rules amid lower restrictions – though fears persist that visitors from high-risk areas could flock to the Highlands.
The government contacted the council for its views on the new five-tier system triggering an emergency meeting this morning where councillors were asked to vote on four issues.
- To consider whether they support Tier 1 with or without permitting in-home socialising – approved to allow home visits
- Consider whether there should be sub-Highland local area variations to restrictions because of the size of the region, different settlement patterns and different risks to exposure of the virus – rejected
- Whether or not councillors wish to seek travel restrictions imposed from areas placed at Tier 3 or above – split vote 30 for and 28 against so the Scottish Government would be informed accordingly
- And finally, consider how the messages should be communicated to the public and to staff – unanimous support for a single message from all agencies
The major point of the debate was whether to accept the government’s Tier 1 restrictions being imposed or whether to introduce a variation by banning in-home visits.
SNP group leader Raymond Bremner said the group had come to the conclusion that it was better to err on the side of caution while the virus was still a danger, arguing home visits ought to be prohibited as an additional measure.
“It is noted that our Highland area has witnessed increasing levels of positive tests from Covid in all geographical areas in the past weeks, in a number of these areas the test levels have been constant and only reducing in the past few days.
“Controlling the virus is therefore still a challenge and there is considerable concern in our group that Tier 1 seeks to remove the restrictions of groups meeting in homes and alcohol consumption in hospitality venues, especially at a time when we will be seeking to gather in groups near to the festive season.
“Considering that, we would remove all restrictions in the Highlands at the same time when it cannot be evidenced absolutely that this has resulted in any improvement in the last few days.”
But that was countered by a number of other councillors who said the Highlands should either be at Tier 1 or Tier 2 but not an alternative version.
Liberal Democrat councillor Gordon Adam refuted the claim that in-house visits have been harmful in the Highlands.
“Just to address some of the concerns set out by Councillor Bremner, I think the recommendation from this council will have to be evidence-led and I fully understand the fears and concerns of many of our constituents," he said.
“But some of those fears and concerns are not well-founded in fact. That there really is not evidence of household transmission and [NHS Highland’s director of public health] Dr Tim Allison has made that absolutely clear.
“But I think we have to point out that a lot of the measures taken in terms of social distancing and cleanliness regimes have been highly effective and I am sure that has contributed to what is the fact that there has been no tourism transmission.”
Thurso and Northwest councillor Matthew Reiss said one of his main concerns was mental health among the region’s elderly population.
“For me, for my area I think some form of limited indoor interaction would be of more benefit in terms of mental health risk than prohibiting it in such remote and rural areas,” he said.
“And I would go a little further in saying that the loneliest folk and the oldest folk now have to be a top priority and come further up the list than licensed premises operating, but I still maintain that licensed premises can be maintained within the rules safely.
“Some common sense has to be applied and the crucial things will be the attitude of the licensees and stewards in being effective.”
Inverness Central councillor Emma Roddick hit back at what she saw as inconsistency, saying: “It is beyond understanding that councillors voted to reduce the Highlands to Tier 1 and then nearly half voted for people from high-risk areas to be allowed to visit.
“We have to stop trying to encourage public health decisions based on how we’d like things to be, and instead look at the reality of the situation.
“If we are ready to reduce restrictions locally but then allow unrestricted access from areas where the virus is less under control, then our being on a lower tier won’t last for long. The health of Highland residents has to come first.”