After that holiday, I need a holiday – a farewell to Stromness.

Report in the Times – on the threat to Orkney from foreign incursions

I am technically starting day four of a 10 day isolation after a member of our tour party tested positive in  Orkney. I have actually returned from Scotland but am resting up after 48 hours we would like to forget.

For the first time since March 2020, I have broken guidance laid down by a public health authority and in this blog I explain the complex issues we faced. Our railway touring company have had to face the same issues. We understand that the Health Authorities have their own issues, but if there is one lesson we need to learn, it is that guidance needs to be consistent. In this case, our guidance was not just inconsistent with what we get in England, it was inconsistent with what the Scottish Government had issued days before.

I have taken two PCR tests and four lateral flow tests in the past week, all tests have been negative. Twice jabbed and having had the virus this year, I was not surprised to have my second PCR (like the one on Thursday) come back negative

I was surprised by what followed my inputting this test into my phone,


Confusing as this might be, I will try to make some sense of what has happened to me and my fellow passengers over the past few days.

The story so far

On Wednesday night, a member of our party felt unwell and took a lateral flow test which turned out positive. All the remaining party and our driver took flow tests and six others tested positive. The Orkney health authority was informed but they gave the tour no guidance and a decision was taken that those in immediate contact with those with positive LFTs should remain in contact and the rest should continue on the tour to our next destination- Inverness

The average age of the party was well over 60, I and my partner being among the four youngest of the 41 passengers

At 11.30pm on Thursday , Orkney Health told our tour operators that all those in Inverness should isolate and take a PCR test. This instruction proved impossible as we could not get a PCR test in our Inverness hotel rooms. So at 3.30 pm on Thursday, we were allowed to walk down to the PCR testing site and test. The bombshell hit us later that evening.

Special measures

Later that evening, the guidance changed and we found ourselves part of special measures applied not just to those positive in Orkney but to those who had tested negative – now in Inverness.

For whatever reason, we  were instructed by Scotland’s NHS Health Protection Team that we were part of an “outbreak” and that information from Scottish Government states that

‘Specialist Health Protection teams with Health Boards may, in the handling of an outbreak, also implement measures which differ from  national guidance, if it is decided at a local level that such measures will assist with outbreak management and control’.

The local level decision was taken either in Orkney or Inverness. Rather than travel back to England after a negative PCR, we were told that

Regardless of your vaccination status and whether your are in receipt of a negative  PCR test, you should isolate for ten days from the date of our last exposure.

For us, this meant that despite being doubly vaccinated and in my case having had Covid this year, despite having taken three lateral flows in the previous week, despite having no symptoms  and despite having a negative PCR (we got the results very speedily), we were expected to find a new hotel and extend our staycation for 7 days, in a hotel room.

Many of our party were unfamiliar with phone technology and will have struggled to register a PCR. We can only imagine their stress of managing the consequences of this change of circumstances from a hotel room.

I have self-isolated on several occasions over the past 18 months. Now – 2 days after my and my partner’s negative PCR tests and with 5 consecutive days of negative lateral flows, I have at last been pinged by my NHS Covid-19 app.  I am wondering just what threat I am to those around me.

Those who would like to explore the issues around Test and Trace in more detail, , may wish to listen to Dr John Lee. My experience over the past five days has driven me towards his thinking. Do these “special measures” protect me and others or are they being used for other purposes?

What would you do?

We asked our tour operator whether this was a legal requirement or guidance. We were told that it was up to each person whether to comply and it was not the responsibility of the tour operators to enforce compliance.

We had no access to lawyers but it seemed to us that we were being given guidance and were not under a legal requirement to stay in our rooms. Indeed we could not stay in our rooms as the hotel told us we could not stay with them over the weekend or next week.

We had to take our own risk assessment and these are the conclusions we came to.

Despite being asked for the guidance in print, the railway tour company have only had a verbal instruction of the special measures in place. Passengers on the tour have received no detail of the guidance and why a person with a negative test should be isolating. Our conclusion was that this was guidance that was being made up on the spot and that it did not make common sense.


The logistical impact of compliance would  be that we would need to find a new hotel, break isolation to get there and incur considerable personal expense with no likelihood of reimbursement from a travel insurance policy. We would also need to pay for alternative transport home, discarding pre-paid tickets to London available yesterday. We concluded that the logistics and financials made no sense – we were as much a risk staying in Scotland as we were going home (frankly no risk either way)


The impact on our well-being of this extra period of isolation would be serious, let’s not forget we were on holiday and trying to relax. Sitting in a hotel room for 8 days after being cleared by both LFT and PCR would have a negative impact on our well-being for no benefit to ourselves, the community or our fellow passengers. Most of the passengers we spoke to were on medication which would run out over the period of isolation (this included me – I am on blood thinners). We considered complying with Scottish Public Health guidance would put our health at risk


Whatever damage had been done by the outbreak had  been done in Orkney, we were in Inverness and the best place for us, was away from  guidance that seemed to have no evidence base.


Finally and conclusively for us, moving to another hotel would have caused us to meet with other passengers, our driver and pass through public areas which would have created the same risks as sitting in an empty railway carriage and walking home from Kings Cross. Staying in Scotland presented no advantages, other than to hoteliers with vacancies and train/plane operators.

What we did

We packed our cases, walked half a mile to the station  and went home. The Orkney authorities remained in Orkney , our hotel in Inverness welcomed our departure and several other passengers (independently) took the same action. The remainder of those who have negative tests are following us.

We cannot see ourselves as any threat to anyone. We have complied with all testing requirements and clearly are Covid free. We are now at home in London and able to resume our working lives. We feel stressed by 48 hours of uncertainty, where we were made to feel pariahs by the Orkney and by the Public Health and Health Policy team in Inverness.

Subsequent to returning to London, we have now been pinged by the NHS app. We are now under UK rules and – having taken yet another lateral flow test (negative) and with a 2 day old PCR test (negative) registered are wondering whether the UK rules now apply

As of Monday (16th August) , double-jabbed individuals and under 18s who are identified as close contacts by NHS Test and Trace will be advised to take a PCR test as soon as possible to check if they have the virus and for variants of concern. People can order a PCR home test online or by calling 119, or going to a test site.

As double-jabbed people identified as close contacts are still at risk of being infected, people are advised to consider other precautions such as wearing a face covering in enclosed spaces, and limit contact with other people, especially with anyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable. They will not be required to self-isolate while they wait for the results of the PCR test.

Double-vaccinated adults will no longer be required to self-isolate from Monday, as long as they received their final dose of an MHRA-approved vaccine in the UK vaccination programme at least 14 days prior to contact with a positive case.


Problems with testing data on Orkney

Ironically, the positive cases in this “outbreak” are unlikely to be recorded against Orkney’s Covid figures. This is because of the practice on the islands of only recording Orkney cases for Orkney residents – even those with second homes are not regarded as Orkney residents.

Hence the number of cases in Orkney, recorded this week do not include those that occurred with our party. Our cases are being recorded as being “contact traced”

Holiday group tests positive for COVID-19

However  it seems they will not appear in the official figures for the Islands. The two articles in the Orcadian (above and below)  appeared on the same day but refer to two separate groups; those Orcadians with a positive test (below) and foreigners -like us and other migrants – who are triggering “contact-tracing”.

Twelve new COVID-19 cases for Orkney this week

It is clear that Orkney’s 12 cases , represent a spike – as the average number of Covid Cases in the previous 75 weeks is barely above 2.

Our Orkney cluster has exposed a blind spot in official figures which could obscure the location of new outbreaks in workplaces or hospitality providers that draw immigrants from several health board areas.

Orkney has the third highest proportion of second homes in Scotland, behind Argyll and Bute and the Western Isles. A positive test would be registered to the patient’s primary address.

Problems with getting tested on Orkney







The Times this week ran an article on the situation in Orkney, which points out

The Scottish government said that it had no plans to publish the number of people who tested positive in each testing centre.

This may be why, despite there being only 12 reported positive cases, there is alarm in Orkney.

Michael Dickson, chief executive of NHS Orkney, said: “NHS Orkney is responding to a significant Covid public health issue and we are profoundly concerned that the virus is spreading rapidly across our community. We believe there is a real risk to the people of Orkney and urge them to take care.”

In the week we were on the island , two large cruise-ships were docked in Kirkwall , each had around 1,000 passengers being bussed around the island. (just as we were).

It seems  that the impact of tourism on the islands is vital to their economic well-being and that it is in the interests of all parties to work together.

We feel, individually and collectively (we have spoken to fellow passengers by phone) that Orkney Health is not working with our holiday company or with us as passengers, but is pursuing a brand of contact tracing into Scotland and beyond which is at odds with general practice and at odds with common sense.

This suggests to me that Orkney is inexperienced at dealing with the impact of migrants – especially tourists. This may account for the inconsistencies in their approach to us, but it is worrying for the organizers of large groups coming off the cruise ships.

In applying special measures , Orkney Health may believe it is going above and beyond. But it is also creating confusion and there is little evidence on how much testing is going on.

When one passenger reported symptoms, we had no immediate help from the local hospital ( pretty well adjacent to our hotel).

Nor did our tour party get any immediate guidance as to how to proceed, nor help with LTFs. We had to scramble around to ensure we had sufficient LTF kits because the local hospital could not supply us with any.

Having collated our own tests, those who had negative LTFs – were allowed to proceed to Inverness the next day without hindrance , our tour leader took a pragmatic approach consistent with English guidelines. The majority of our party will never show on Orkney’s test figures as we tested elsewhere.

I suspect that the vast majority of tourists who contract Covid are double jabbed and that their symptoms are mild to asymptomatic. I doubt that many who are positive are recognized as such, partly for this reason and partly because testing facilities in Kirkwall and elsewhere are so inaccessible.

What is more, by not publishing the total numbers being tested on the island, Orkney is risking creating a false sense of security.  Orcadians may be in for a lot worse than a few cases from a fishing boat or a coach party.

Our experience of local Orkney bars and restaurants suggest they are taking an English view on face-masks.  The response we saw from the Orkney Health Authorities and those in hospitality suggests that Michael Dickson has a right to be concerned.  Orkney is a very wealthy place, having benefited from the oil boom and having substantial public reserves.

As one of my correspondents on this matter put it

They should perhaps spend some of that money on better health systems and practices

As one commenter on the Times article put it

Par for the course with Scotland’s testing numbers which are clouded in secrecy it seems. Test and trace figures which were supposed to have been published before schools returned, now won’t be until the end of August. What is there to hide? Well for one our testing figures barely reach 35% of our capacity on a daily basis. Even to find these figures you have to go to three different websites.

Our farewell to Stromness

In conclusion, we look back on our time in Orkney with a mixture of pleasure and pain. Our pain is for passengers who are left behind with Covid and for their well-being.  Our pleasure is the memory of the beauty of the land, the kindness of  people like John the Trike and for the astonishing sense of history that surrounds Orkney’s heritage

John’s trike outside the Italian Chapel on Orkney Mainland

As for our time since leaving the islands, we are in recovery. Though we have done nothing wrong, we feel we have broken guidelines we never new of and we would not have taken this tour if we realized this could happen.

Frankly we feel we are being punished for creating a problem for the Orkney Health Authority which we had no control of.  The special measures placed on us seem arbitrary as we have seen no justification for them.

We worry that though we have absolutely no chance of having spread the infection, people who met us may be considered for isolation. There seem to be no controls in place and QR scanning seems to be pretty well non-existent.

There has to be a way for Orkney to differentiate between those who are at risk and those who aren’t and that means getting PCR test information from Kirkwall and Inverness. We are not confident that Orkney Health have access to our data as there were no controls in our PCF testing. We are happy to share our negative results but what controls do they have in place for those who may have tested positive,

We are conscious that we have breached isolation to get to London but we would have done so to move hotels (which we would have had to do). We are comforted that we hear the rest of our party is following our lead and hope that as I write, most of those with negative PCRs will have exercised their normal privilege to do what they choose.

The impact of our, and our fellow Covid-free passengers actions in returning south seems to be entirely positive, both personally and it terms of the communities we are leaving. But we remain mystified at the treatment we have received and concerned that tourists about to embark on travel to Orkney , have no idea what to expect, should they find themselves in our position.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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6 Responses to After that holiday, I need a holiday – a farewell to Stromness.

  1. Derek Scott says:

    As you and Stella recover from your recent “flight”, I can recommend this BBC Soul Music item on the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ most famous piece of Orcadian music. Written over forty years ago as a form of protest against a proposed uranium mine, the piece was also performed at Charles and Camilla’s wedding.

  2. henry tapper says:

    I have so enjoyed listening to this Derek, thanks for the link. I ran through and above Stromness and thanked goodness that the mining project didn’t go ahead. The place is a world heritage site IMO – like Torshavn and Lerwick.

  3. Hello Henry,

    I was sorry to read of your disappointing experience in the Orkneys. Looking on the bright side, you will be able to dine out on that for years yet!

    A question regarding your previous issue regarding the Government getting it right: what have they got right over the entire pandemic? They are taking the vaccination success as being theirs when, in fact, it is the NHS’s. I’ll agree the vaccine purchasing was overseen by a Goverment appointee but look at the Track and Trace fiasco [which was the Government’s creation] when only the NHS’s own existing T&T arrangements worked successfully because, presumably they have been operating that for years.
    Why do I read that the WHO have condemned the Government’s ‘Freedom Day’ as being the antithisis of all necessary caution and safety. Yes, the Government does have to get everybody out and about and back to school and work because of the problems evolving; nobody questions that but to organise it under the guise of ‘Freedom’ is, as you’ve experienced, certainly not the case. Hopefully you don’t suffer another bout of CoVid..

    My elderly cousin [West Lancs] stayed isolated when the Delta first broke out up there and double-jabbed soonest, as did all his son’s family. The son went to a business meeting in Tyneside recently and brought back Delta and my cousin is still suffering after 5 weeks. In his case the double-jab means he hasn’t died of it.

    As I recall, last year I think the Orcadians refused all visitors, perhaps they should have kept that policy this year. Perhaps in London we have been spoilt because there are more NHS staff to cope etc although my own GP was closed for over one year.

    Hopefully your Hotel suggested a botttle of whatever the locals imbibe to keep all such virus’ at bay.

    Kind regards,
    Tim Simpson

  4. henry tapper says:

    Thanks Tim – you might like to listen to this doctor

  5. What a terrible way to have to end your holiday and to be treated so irrationally by the health authorities. You definitely did the right thing to go home. How long will it be before the busybodies in the authorities stop treating us like prisoners or children in school.

  6. henry tapper says:

    thanks Chris

    The strange part of this is that you never get to talk to the people who make these decisions. Your immediate future is suggested by a text message!

    I wonder what happens when people lose their phones.


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