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Highland lockdown restrictions trigger calls for region to be sealed off to stop the spread of mutant strain to protect the fragile north economy

By Scott Maclennan

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Shoppers in Inverness last weekend, ahead of new restrictions coming on Boxing Day.
Shoppers in Inverness last weekend, ahead of new restrictions coming on Boxing Day.

News the Highlands will enter near lockdown from Boxing Day has led to calls for the region to be sealed off for non-essential transport to be spared what politicians, business leaders and councillors all say would be a “devastating” blow for the economy.

The move to level 4 for three weeks until January 16 will see retail, hospitality, pubs, bars, restaurants, and leisure services close for the prime trading weeks of the year sparking real fears many will not survive.

The Scottish Government is attempting to prevent a new strain of Covid – said to be 70 per cent more contagious than previous variants – from getting a toehold in the country.

But because of the severity of measures announced by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the price paid by the local economy has been described as comprehensively terrible for all sectors.

Retail outlets already fighting to stay afloat were hoping to do a roaring trade in the winter sales will instead be shut, including big names like Eastgate Shopping Centre anchor store Debenhams.

Eden Court, already bleeding revenue with the cancellation of the panto season, is closing until January 21.

The north’s biggest leisure provider High Life Highland is responsible for sport centres, libraries and many galleries managed to break even under its own steam but its facilities too will be closed for the duration of Tier 4 restrictions.

Hogmanay will be one of the grimmest ever as pubs, bars restaurants and hotels will all be closed.

In light of that, deputy council leader Alasdair Christie issued an urgent call for more information and for the Scottish Government to consider measures like preventing all but truly essential travel into or out of the Highlands to avoid a new lockdown.

“Personally, I would have liked to have seen more rationale and reasoning behind why we don’t close the A9, the A82, and the A96and more severe traffic restrictions in place so the Highland did not have to be placed at Level 4,” he said.

“Perhaps we could have been placed at a lower level, we have got the cameras and that technology could have been utilised to see what people are travelling for. I call on the government to share that information.

“I think the danger is we are not being shared all the information, as councillors, as members of the public and as residents,” he said. “I am sure that the government has got far more detail in their projections that they are not sharing deliberately.

“And if we could share that then we could have a better understanding of why they are taking the actions they have.

“I note from the poll that is being run locally that many people simply do not understand why the Highlands is jumping from Level 1 to Level 4.”

Chief executive of the Inverness Chamber of Commerce, Stewart Nicol, underlined just how widespread the damage to the economy will be, saying: “It is affecting all business in every sector.

“The timing for business could not be worse particularly hospitality as it is the busiest time of year and they have had to make immediate cancellations.

“And not just the hospitality venues themselves but also the supply chain will be affected because they will have placed orders that will now be cancelled or be in receipt of perishable goods that will now be wasted.

“Retail obviously is in the last few days before Christmas so there will be an immediate impact on that – Level 4 doesn’t kick in until Boxing Day and that is the major retail event of the year.

“I think as well that it is retail, hospitality, leisure, it is tourism, which is our largest sector in terms of jobs and value to the economy, it is also impacting on our food and drink.”

Expecting level 4 to continue beyond mid-January, he said urgent government financial support is needed: “I would like to see a more generous offering from both the Scottish and UK governments to recognise the extreme circumstances that all businesses in all sectors are facing.”

Inverness and Nairn MSP Fergus Ewing was under no illusions about the impact of changes but said they were still essential.

"This will have a severe impact on many Highland businesses, including in particular all those that deal in perishable produce – salmon and shell fish especially.

"The Scottish Government is working intensely with industry representatives to seek practical solutions.

"Plainly the new strain of the virus is of enormous concern it is therefore not surprising that most European countries have issued a ban on movement to constrain the spread of the new strainof virus.

"The history of tackling the virus shows that early preventative measures are essential. Surely the transition period mustnow be extended because we cannot cope with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit on top of Covid."

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