Analysis: New restrictions must reflect a genuine elimination strategy

“The lesson of the last spike was that when infections are growing exponentially, and you are following the same trend as a country that is a few weeks ahead of you, then the horrific sights of full ICUs and entire cities locked to standstill will happen to you too.”

Common Weal’s Head of Policy Dr Craig Dalzell reacts to the announcement of new restrictions to combat coronavirus amidst a rapid rise in cases.

THE NEW RESTRICTIONS aimed to curb the exponentially growing spread of Coronavirus over the next two weeks have been announced and look fairly similar to the leaked reports from the past couple of days. It won’t be a full ‘Stay at Home’ lockdown as it was in March, but in many practical senses it will come close – especially for those of us in the Central Belt where infections are at their highest.

However, for those affected by them the restrictions are still going to have an impact. The hospitality industry and the leisure sector are going to have a particularly hard time. These are two areas particularly vulnerable to the virus which also employ a significant number of people on insecure, part time and zero-hour contracts. I have already been contacted by people in these sectors who are predicting further job losses over the coming weeks.

The measures announced today have been backed up by an evidence report showing the rise in cases in Scotland over the past several weeks. It makes the case well, but it also begs the question: if the trends in these cases have been so clear – we’ve been seeing an exponential rise in cases since the start of August – why weren’t these measures taken sooner? If we’re four weeks behind France and we have been for several months, why didn’t we act when they were where we are now?

The lesson of the last spike was that when infections are growing exponentially, and you are following the same trend as a country that is a few weeks ahead of you, then the horrific sights of full ICUs and entire cities locked to standstill will happen to you too.

The measures announced today are not, in themselves, bad or heading in the wrong direction. The recognition that it is more difficult to comply with physical distancing and other protective measures when alcohol is involved seems to be a lesson at the heart of this plan. But I still worry that the measures are too piecemeal and have been implemented via the same centralised Command and Control method that leads to people questioning why they’ve found themselves on one side of a restriction and not the other.

In the questions session after the announcement, Willie Rennie said that the Scottish Government’s responses felt less like a strategy and more like a series of knee-jerk responses and that may or may not be too strong an accusation but it is certainly the case that route map implemented just months ago has been thrown out of the window.

At the start of September, Common Weal called for a strategic national framework that would enable people to easily understand the measures that would come into play if and only if their locality saw infection rates above a certain threshold. Such a scheme needs local empowerment and the trust and understanding that it is for this reason that this region is seeing these restrictions but understanding the causality of the process should mean that people feel less resentment at suddenly being told that they can no longer go to the pub.

There are encouraging signs that – despite a relatively dismissive initial response – the Scottish Government has listened to our proposals. Today, the first minister announced that the Scottish Government was investigating just such a framework and that it will be presented to parliament in the first week back after the October recess. The launch of the new local neighbourhood map of Covid cases – another policy Common Weal called for – will certainly help with this. I have already used it to advise members of my local community about cases in our area and what that means.

Similarly, we’ve been calling since April for more in the way of systematic testing of the population either on a random basis or on a mass population basis and again, the review of the strategic plan that will come back after recess will include a plan to expand systematic testing outwith groups that are already regularly tested like healthcare and care home workers.

Earlier today, I called for the Scottish Government to use the time bought by these new restrictions to prepare for what comes after they are relaxed. The announcement today gives me some encouragement that they are planning to do so, but the risk is that any new strategy appears again to be too little, too late and that all we end up doing is pushing the peak of this second spike two weeks closer to Christmas.

We all want to get back to our lives and to start building the post-Covid world but to do so we need to make sure that the elimination strategy that the Scottish Government claims to pursue actually results in the elimination of the virus from Scotland. I hope that the time we gain is wisely spent and that, finally, the Scottish Government can start acting against the pandemic instead of reacting and finding that we’re still falling behind.