Inter-island ferry services within Orkney will operate similar to the current COVID-19 restrictions currently in place, despite Orkney moving into Level Three of Scottish Government restrictions from Boxing Day.
Under Level Three, travel on public transport is only permissible for essential reasons.
That led to fears from some residents that they would be unable to travel within Orkney.
However, those fears have been eased after Orkney Islands Council (OIC) advised North and South Isles residents that they can continue to use the ferry services and book trips as they have done under the current guidelines.
“The first important benefit of this will be to enable folk in the isles to travel to Orkney Mainland for Christmas and return home after Boxing Day,” said OIC leader Councillor James Stockan.
“The announcement by the Scottish Government over the weekend of the switch from Level One to Level Three early on Boxing Day morning was interpreted quite correctly by Orkney Ferries as meaning that from December 26, travel on public transport could be for essential reasons only.
“Understandably, many folk in the isles were dismayed that this would prevent them visiting family and friends on the Orkney Mainland for Christmas — because they’d be unable to get home before the new Level Three guidelines were introduced.
“We firmly believe that the ability to travel between the isles and Orkney Mainland is essential for the health and wellbeing of our community, particularly over the festive period.
“We have discussed this with the Scottish Government and advised them of our intentions not to further restrict travel by ferry within our community when Orkney moves from Level One to Level Three.”
Residents can pre-book travel between the North and South Isles and the Orkney Mainland up to December 24 and after December 27 by contacting Orkney Ferries. No inter-island ferries are operating on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
OIC chief executive John Mundell said: “With no recent cases of COVID-19 in Orkney — and with strict restrictions on travel in and out of the county due to come into force — we believe this is a proportionate and safe move to make in the interests of equality for all people in our community.
“However, we would ask folk travelling on the ferries to keep themselves and our crews safe by following current health and hygiene advice — in just the same way as they have been over many weeks and months. It is also important that folk continue to watch for any further announcements by the Scottish Government.”
The news was welcomed by Orkney’s MSP, Liam McArthur.
Constituents had contacted Mr McArthur, concerned at the plans to restrict travel, leading to discussions with Orkney Ferries, OIC and Scottish Ministers.
A pleased Mr McArthur said the additional flexibility would come as a great relief to many isles residents and their families.
“While additional care certainly needs to be taken, and travel and gatherings should be avoided wherever possible, it’s right that people in Orkney are able to travel within their local authority area in the same way as people in every other part of the country,” said Mr McArthur.
“I have been contacted by many constituents over the past 24 hours, surprised and concerned at the prospect of more robust restrictions being put in place for those living in the isles. I’m pleased, therefore, that the council has taken this decision.
“From my discussions earlier today with Scottish Ministers, I understand this is in line with government advice”.