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Islands Officer hired to help kick start Arran economy
By Hugh Boag
Arran is ‘uniquely out of step’ with all other island communities, it was said this week as it heads into level four lockdown with the rest of North Ayrshire at midnight on Friday, after Christmas was effectively cancelled.
Islanders hoping to see family and friends from the mainland today were left bitterly disappointed along with the hospitality trade which had hoped for some much-needed Christmas cheer, only to have them dashed by the announcement that the lifting of Covid restrictions was for one day only.
After being inundated with emails, attempts were made this week by Arran MSP Kenneth Gibson, and others, to try and get the Scottish government to relax rules for travel to be allowed on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day to the islands, as no ferries are running Christmas Day.
However, the was ruled out by the Scottish government with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon telling Mr Gibson: ‘I know that it is unfair; the virus is unfair to everybody. That is the point; it is not fair. We are having to take decisions that are extremely difficult for people. We cannot make exemptions to the rules, because any small exemptions that we made, other than really necessary ones for people who need to care for people, would all add up to greater risk of the virus spreading.’
That was before the breakdown of the MV Caledonian Isles on Wednesday, further disrupting visitors trying to leave the island ahead of the deadline.
Other islands, including Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, are in a lower level of restrictions, but this does not apply to Arran, for while cases remain minimal on the island, they remain among the highest in Scotland in mainland North Ayrshire.
The Arran Recovery group says this leaves Arran and Cumbrae uniquely out of step with all other island communities.
A spokesman said: ‘If this is justified by the numbers and the support resources, that is good. If not, we should move to the level that fits our risk. This would not necessarily help business but give some relief to the community.
‘Vaccine roll-out suggests restrictions will be in place until May 2021, at least. If Arran businesses cannot open in February, existing support packages will not support the continuation of large parts of our tourist infrastructure.’
The First Minister announced last weekend that the early five-day window of relaxations was being abandoned as ‘firm preventative action’ was needed after the emergence of a faster-spreading strain of coronavirus.
All leisure guests booked into any accommodation were told they had to check out and return to their homes at latest on Christmas Eve. Guests are not permitted to stay over in hotel or rented accommodation and depart on Boxing Day. A ban on travel to the rest of the UK also applies over the festive period.
It has emerged that North Ayrshire Council twice asked the Scottish government if it could shut down schools in the area ahead of the Christmas break and switch to online learning over its concern of the virus spread but the government refused, saying local authorities were obliged, by law, to follow advice relating to coronavirus outlined by the chief medical officer.
Schools on Arran, and elsewhere, will return later than originally planned after the festive holidays. Parents at both the island primaries and high school have been told that classes will not resume on January 7 as planned.
Instead home learning will resume on January 11 until at least January 18, when schools, at the moment, are expected to return.
The level four restrictions mean the closure of non-essential shops, pubs, restaurants and gyms and are expected to last for three weeks, ending on January 15, 2021.
Meanwhile, Arran is to get a new islands officer to support the recovery and renewal of the island’s economy. The role, with a salary around £50,000, is a three-year post and has been pressed for hard by the Arran Recovery Group which sees the position as vital for the island to secure funds needed to support business recovery.
It comes as North Ayrshire Council, the Scottish Government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise are embarking on a new way of working to support Arran and Cumbrae and the delivery of the National Islands Plan.
The new post is currently being advertised by North Ayrshire Council with interviews being held in January. The islands officer will work closely in partnership with island communities, businesses and wider stakeholders to develop and facilitate the delivery of 10-year island plans to maximise the potential of North Ayrshire’s islands.
Councillor Alex Gallagher, cabinet member for post-Covid renewal and the islands, said: ‘The council has ambitious plans for our island communities of Arran and Cumbrae and I am delighted, as the islands portfolio holder, to be supported by the first dedicated islands officer to be appointed to help our islands.’
The £250,000 pilot will be co-funded by the Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and North Ayrshire Council, which will contribute £130,000 towards the pilot.