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Community spirit copes with Covid-19

by Alastair Hamilton -

Like communities across the UK and in many other parts of the world, our islands have had to embrace lockdown, social distancing and all the other concepts that have become part of daily life since the novel coronavirus arrived earlier this year. How have the public services, the private sector and the people of Shetland coped?

The numbers…

Shetland’s first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed on Sunday 8 March. A local couple who had returned from southern Italy the previous Tuesday, had begun to experience symptoms on the Thursday. When the test results came back, they recalled that both NHS Shetland and Public Health Scotland had been ‘gobsmacked’, because official advice was that the part of Italy that they’d been visiting was safe at that time. At that point, there were only 18 confirmed cases in Scotland, so there’s no question that they were extraordinarily unlucky.

both NHS Shetland and Public Health Scotland had been ‘gobsmacked’

NHS Shetland immediately began to trace the couple’s contacts and, as a result, the Shetland total of confirmed cases rose quickly, reaching 24 by 19 March and 36 by 3 April. The basis of calculation had changed in mid March as the government moved from ‘containment’ to ‘delay’, and only those admitted to hospital with symptoms were being tested.

The number of cases rose much more slowly from then on and, at the time of writing, has been stable at 54 for several days. That’s the cumulative number since the outbreak began, since most of those people will by now have recovered. It's assumed, as it is elsewhere, that there will have been a greater number of infections in the community than those reflected in the hospital figures.

That said, it has obviously been a difficult and very worrying time for those who have been affected by the virus, or indeed those whose ability to meet other family members has been removed. Grandparents and their grandchldren, in particular, have had to put hugs on hold. Most of all, we think of those people who have had to cope with the loss of family members and friends in sad and distressing circumstances.

Looking after patients

The Gilbert Bain Hospital created around 30 beds dedicated to Covid-19 patients. This has turned out to be more than sufficient, with no more than six occupied at one time. Although it’s a well-equipped acute general hospital, it doesn’t have the intensive care facilities that are available in Aberdeen, so on a couple of occasions, patients have been transferred by air to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

Both times, these transfers involved two planes, an RAF transport aircraft, which flew to Sumburgh from Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, and a Scottish Air Ambulance which brought a specialist team to Shetland to prepare the patients for the move. Scottish airline, Loganair, has now converted two of its Glasgow-based aircraft to carry intensive care patients, although the RAF may still be involved when necessary.

There’s been sustained praise for the work of NHS Shetland’s staff and Shetland folk have joined in the Thursday evening applause for NHS and other emergency workers across the UK. The organisation's Shetland Chief Executive has given live weekly briefings, with a question and answer session, on Facebook, and that has been appreciated by many.

However, there has been a huge outpouring of practical support, too. Towards the end of March, a Shetland Scrubs page went live on Facebook, encouraging volunteers to sew the ‘scrubs’ that medical staff wear on the wards. The response astonished the organisers and the doctors at the hospital, who said they were “blown away” by the show of community support.

Hundreds of people got going on their sewing machines, huge amounts of material were donated, downloadable patterns were put online and a local graphics business donated dozens of full-size patterns. News of the operation spread well beyond Shetland and there’s a short video about this on the BBC News website.

The Council steps up…

The local authority, Shetland Islands Council, has also been very much involved in dealing with Covid-19. It has worked closely with NHS Shetland. For example, by 30 March, the 80 rooms at the halls of residence at Lerwick’s Anderson High School had been made available for doctors and nurses needing safe accommodation.

In fact, all but the smallest Shetland schools closed for normal education from 16 March, a week earlier than those elsewhere in Scotland. Other facilities, such as childcare services, rapidly adapted to ensure that services could be provided for essential workers.

The Council also made rapid changes to its ferry services, limiting travel to those journeys defined as essential and requiring bookings to be made via online accounts, rather than allowing drivers or passengers to simply turn up. Non-essential travel was also discouraged on bus services, which are run by private operators under contract to the Council.

Our external ferry link, to Aberdeen and Orkney is subject to the same rules as other transport services. It isn’t possible to travel unless the journey is essential, and NorthLink Ferries have had to turn away some customers. The Hjaltland and Hrossey, which carry both passengers and freight, normally operate seven nights a week, but for the time being there are just three weekly sailings in each direction.

Air services, too, have been cut back; again, it’s essential travel only, on a skeleton timetable, with the focus on the Sumburgh-Aberdeen route and no services to Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness.

The business response…

By the third week in March, when the original couple who contracted Covid-19 emerged from quarantine, fully recovered, Shetland shops and restaurants were closing down, like The Dowry café-restaurant in Lerwick, which did so “with a heavy heart but in the full knowledge we’re doing the right thing.”

Others took up a new role as providers of takeaway meals; they included at least two hotels, Busta House and St Magnus Bay in the North Mainland. The bakery in the West Mainland village of Walls (Waas) reduced many of its bread prices by 10% for the duration of the crisis with the aim of helping families cope better financially.

Although the town’s two supermarkets remained busy, Lerwick was by then more or less deserted during the working day, as people obeyed the instruction to stay at home. Many staff were ‘furloughed’ and many worked from home.

Local businesses have gone out of their way to help. Smaller shops across the islands quickly began to offer both home delivery and click-and-collect services, and – as is often the case – they often managed to provide items that seemed to be in short supply in supermarkets. As happens in difficult times, people were reminded of the hugely valuable service they provide.

However, both the Coop and Tesco also adapted impressively to the new normal. Both marshalled customers effectively at busy times, in order to maintain social distancing. Where home delivery or click and collect services were available, they were heavily used.

As in the rest of the country, it will be some time before many businesses are able to re-open, but there are signs that in certain trades, for example the sale of building materials, arrangements are emerging for click and collect. Some important Shetland sectors, particularly fishing and aquaculture, are continuing to operate, albeit with some reductions in the level of activity.

Another strand of community support was put in place with the opening of a Facebook page established to support all those who were self-isolating or in quarantine. It attracted thousands of members within a few days and the total currently stands at around 5,300, which is more than a quarter of the adult population.

It's extraordinarily well organised. Anyone offering help, or in need of it, can find all manner of opportunities, including resources for parents, students, learning, exercise, business or cooking. There’s information on transport, too, and it’s possible also to search by district.

Shetland's third sector has been active too. Shetland Arts has offered various online learning and performance opportunities, and is organising a post-lockdown festival. Shetland Amenity Trust has been highlighting aspects, online, of Shetland's rich archaeology and history, not to mention offering quizzes.

One thing for which many people have felt grateful is the ease of taking daily exercise in Shetland, as I’ve illustrated in recent blogs about cycle runs or walks in Burra and Lerwick. Wherever in the islands we live, we’re never more than ten or fifteen minutes from beautiful landscapes or seascapes. In rural areas, open countryside often begins at the garden gate and there’s seldom much chance of coming within 200 metres, let alone 2 metres, of anyone.

Shetland folk do have a reputation for pulling together in all kinds of circumstances. It’s a community spirit that, in normal times, makes possible such events as the various fire festivals, the traditional Sunday teas, large charitable events such as the Race for Life, the Shetland Folk Festival and much more. So, it was no real surprise that people would rise to the occasion. But the depth and range of the support that has been created is outstanding.

it was no real surprise that people would rise to the occasion

Nobody knows exactly how or when life may begin to return to normal, and indeed some of the changes we’ve seen may be lasting, for example increased home-working. No doubt the community will continue to adapt, just as it has until now.

One suggestion, which has been supported by local politicians, is that Shetland and other island groups could be chosen for intensive community testing, potentially allowing internal lockdown to be brought to an end earlier than elsewhere.

We must hope that, at some point, it will once more be possible for visitors to find a warm welcome in Shetland, but it looks unlikely that leisure travel to the islands will be permitted for some time.

Most of all, we must aim, by keeping to the rules, to slow and eventually stop the spread of the virus, and spare our community the worry and grief that it would otherwise endure.

Posted in: Community

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