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Travel to and from the Western Isles is likely to be ‘significantly constrained’ as Scotland begins to ease out of lockdown, according to the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Michael Matheson MSP.

But Comhairle nan Eilean Siar has emphasised that there have, as yet, been no specific discussions on restrictions to ferry travel in the immediate future.

Mr Matheson was speaking during a meeting of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood yesterday (Tuesday 26 May) described as a ‘hybrid meeting’ and attended in person by some MSPs and remotely by others.

During his presentation to Parliament, the cabinet secretary provided an update on the development of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 transport transition plan and revealed that discussions had taken place yesterday morning between Scottish island authorities and Transport Scotland on the subject of planning how transport restrictions will be managed into the future.

He said: “The virus is still with us, and if we move too quickly or without appropriate diligence, it could rapidly run out of control again. In that context, our transport transition plan must be dynamic and capable of evolving as lockdown measures are gradually eased. ….. Our transport transition plan will present a careful and measured approach to a fluid situation in which we must continue to adopt the behaviours that have brought us to this point.”

Mr Matheson was questioned by Na h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan, attending the session remotely from his home in Lewis. Dr Allan specifically raised the issue of travel restrictions to and from the Western Isles.

He asked: “The travel restrictions on ferries to and from the Western Isles have played an important part in containing the spread of the virus in the islands. With the publication last week of the route map for moving out of lockdown, how will the travel restrictions to the islands fit into that route map? Can the cabinet secretary give an assurance that any discussions between Transport Scotland and ferry operators about timetables for this summer will reflect the need for any changes to be gradual and done with great care?”

The Cabinet Secretary responded: “The transport transition plan sits alongside the route map, which the First Minister set out last Thursday. As we move through the phases in the route map, the transition plan will adapt to make sure that we address transport needs that might be required to meet any increase in demand. That will include ferry services to our island communities.

“We are acutely aware of some of the concerns and issues that our island communities have about any changes to the timetable arrangements. Only this morning, a discussion took place between Transport Scotland and our island authorities to explore that issue. I assure the member that, before any changes are made to the timetabling arrangements for ferry services, there will be engagement with the island authorities to look at the issues and to ensure that any changes are introduced appropriately.

“Ferry capacity is likely to be significantly constrained through physical distancing. CalMac estimates that its network will be constrained to something like 17 to 18 per cent capacity because of physical distancing. That will have a significant impact on who can use our ferry services. It is part of our thinking and planning for making sure that any increase in demand for ferry services reflects the needs of our island communities. I give the member that assurance and will continue with that engagement as we move through the phases of the route map.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar this morning (Wednesday 27 May) issued a statement saying: “There was no meeting yesterday to discuss specific restrictions on ferry travel. However, the Comhairle meets Transport Scotland and ministers on a regular basis to discuss issues related to ferry and air travel. 

“Currently there remain no plans to ease travel restrictions on journeys to or from the Western Isles. The Comhairle will communicate any update on this as it has done throughout the pandemic.”

Dr Allan said earlier today: “I was pleased to receive an assurance that, before any changes are made, there will be engagement with the island authorities to look at these issues and to ensure that any changes are introduced appropriately.

“The need for physical distancing on ferries will reduce capacity on the network to around 18% of normal levels. This will have a serious impact on who is able to travel and means that access to the islands will have to be carefully managed for some time.” 

Ferry operator CalMac has been operating a reduced essential lifeline timetable since 27 March which is set to continue until 14 June. Travel to the islands has been restricted to essential journeys only since 22 March with only residents or key workers able to travel.