'Everyone's frightened': Life on the remote UK islands with just 70 COVID cases

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·5-min read

Watch: Life on Scottish islands with just 70 COVID cases has been 'extremely challenging'

On the face of it, Scotland’s Orkney Islands have been a safe haven from the horrors of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the 13 months since the UK’s first two COVID-19 infections were identified, Orkney has had just 70 cases. Its infection rate – 314.3 per 100,000 people – is by far the lowest in the UK.

For a place where so few have caught the virus and people still have a degree of freedom, however, islanders say life has been much less “normal” than you would perhaps expect.

Orkney is one of four island areas which have not been under Scotland’s national lockdown, which will remain in place until 26 April.

It’s in “Level 3” which, for example, allows limited household mixing outdoors as well as in cafes, pubs and restaurants – though alcohol is not allowed. You can even get your haircut.

The Orkney Islands (pictured below, St Margaret's Hope and Burray) have a total population of 22,000 (Reuters).
Orkney (pictured below, St Margaret's Hope and Burray) has a total population of 22,000. (Reuters)

Even with these limited freedoms, though, many people in Orkney – population 22,000 – are choosing not to take advantage of them.

“We’re all being very cautious and not doing very much,” Sandra Moar tells Yahoo News UK.

Moar runs the Orcadia Cuts hair salon in Stromness, Orkney’s second biggest town, and spells out just how wary some people have been of mixing with others.

“We’ve hardly got any customers because everyone is frightened to go out.

Hair stylist Sandra Moar says Orcadians have been 'frightened to go out' during the pandemic, despite Orkney's extremely low rate of COVID cases. (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)
Hair stylist Sandra Moar says people have been 'frightened to go out' during the pandemic, despite Orkney's extremely low rate of COVID cases. (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)
Sandra Moar, owner of Orcadia Cuts in Stromness, told Yahoo UK: 'We've had some folk in who havn't had their hair cut for a whole year.' (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)
Sandra Moar, owner of Orcadia Cuts in Stromness, told Yahoo News UK: 'We've had some folk in who haven't had their hair cut for a whole year.' (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)

“Some folk have come in and they haven’t had a haircut for a year. Then you have regular folk who would usually come in very week, and they have been coming in every three months – for a really good haircut.

“I think folk are maybe more cautious up here.” 

In fairness, that caution extends to Moar, who doesn’t let anyone in who has been away from Orkney in the previous two weeks.

The obvious factor behind Orkney’s low infection rate is its remote location.

An archipelago 10 miles from the northern tip of Scotland, Orkney is made of 70 islands – 20 of which are inhabited – with tourists coming in either by plane or ferry.

James Stockan, leader of Orkney Islands Council, says islanders’ caution in following pandemic rules and limiting travel has been just as important as its location, and should be celebrated.

After all, if anyone became seriously ill with COVID, they would have to be flown to Aberdeen, 125 miles away, as Orkney's healthcare system doesn't have the capacity to deal with this.

“This is a very compliant community and our keeping to the rules has been second to none,” Stockan says.

Kirkwall, Orkney's largest town, has a population of approximately 9,000. (Getty Creative)
Kirkwall, Orkney's largest town, has a population of approximately 9,000. (Getty Creative)
Ring Of Brodgar, Orkney, Scotland. A neolithic stone circle and henge which is part of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.
The Ring Of Brodgar, a neolithic stone circle and World Heritage Site which helps attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to Orkney. (Getty Creative)

“It’s the biggest conversation: everyone is concerned at how each other is, the possibility of an outbreak, everyone lives in a degree of fear.”

While the pandemic has been kind to Orkney when viewed through the prism of health, Stockan points to the damage to its economy. “We lost so much on the tourism side.”

Cruise ships bring an estimated 7,000 additional visitors to Orkney every day during peak season - a figure which plummeted during the pandemic as lockdown travelling rules came into force.

But that's not to say all businesses have suffered. In fact, chef Robert Gatt actually opened a new restaurant – The Pier Bistro and Takeaway in Stromness – in the middle of the pandemic in October.

READ MORE: A postcard from Orkney, the Scottish island bereft of cruise ships but full of welcoming locals

“We saw there was a massive gap in the market during lockdown,” he says. “An opportunity arose so we took it.

“Lots of other places are shut. They will have grant funding or other reasons why they don’t want to open but for me it’s been an eye-opener, an opportunity to chase my dream after being a chef for 21 years.”

With a 6pm curfew for indoor service, he converts the restaurant into a chippy takeaway in the evening. Business has been “exceptional”, Gatt says. “Way beyond anything I could have hoped."

Chef Robert Gatt launched his business in Stromness, Orkney's second biggest town, during the pandemic. (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)
Chef Robert Gatt launched his business in Stromness, Orkney's second biggest town, during the pandemic. (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)
Councillor James Stockan said Orkney's extreme weather conditions made meeting outdoors in the pandemic during winter even harder. (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)
Councillor James Stockan said Orkney's extreme weather conditions made meeting outdoors in the pandemic during winter even harder. (Ken Amer/Orkney Photographic for Yahoo UK)

However, while mixing in restaurants has been allowed in Scottish Level 3 areas, mixing in people's houses is not.

Orkney is also prone to extreme weather conditions, which have made outdoor meetings during the winter a challenge.

As a result, council leader Stockan says this has potentially allowed “all the other harms to come in” – mental health problems, loneliness – just like everywhere else in Britain.

Existing issues have also been amplified by the pandemic. With schools having been closed except for children of key workers or vulnerable pupils, home-schooling parents have faced impossible challenges due to Orkney’s poor broadband coverage.

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The council, in its attempts to lobby the Scottish government, even took the unusual step of interviewing parents for an article on its website in January to highlight the “digital divide”. 

Anna Rendall, a mother of two primary school-age children, labelled it “rural broadband deprivation”.

All these different factors are why Stockan says: “Some people might think that because we are in a lower infection level than the rest of Scotland, it has been easier.

"I can assure you it has been extremely challenging.”

Watch: How England will leave lockdown