Craig Dalzell: The Scottish Government cannot hide behind Boris Johnson’s strategy

“If the plan is to do what is best for Scotland, perhaps it’s time to recognise that following failing plans from the UK has resulted in Scotland failing almost as badly.”

Common Weal Head of Policy & Research Dr Craig Dalzell comments on the latest change of tack in Scotland’s Covid strategy and the retreat once again to converging behind the UK.

AT WHAT POINT do we admit that Scotland’s Covid strategy amounts to “do what Boris Johnson does, but tweak it slightly and say it nicer”?

A month ago, Common Weal published “Warning Lights”, our tiered framework of responses to the Covid pandemic that would allow for an effective elimination strategy and the near-return of normal life in Scotland for the maximum number of people for the maximum amount of time.

The government’s initial response to our paper was fairly dismissive – they claimed that they were already doing much of what we recommended – but it was soon followed up by some signs of impact as they then launched a “neighbourhood map” of local instances of the virus. This map goes well below “Local Authority” level and could form the basis of the kind of decentralised framework that we advocated for in Warning Lights. Shortly after this launch, the first minister also announced that Scotland would look at extending systematic testing outwith key workers and will be creating its own tiered response system to be brought to the Scottish Parliament for scrutiny after the October recess.

At today’s Covid Briefing, Nicola Sturgeon announced that this strategic review has been effectively thrown out the window before it has even begun. This afternoon, Boris Johnson will announce a new “three tiered” system of responses for England and Sturgeon announced this morning that Scotland’s plan will strategically follow that plan and be as harmonised with it as possible albeit with some nuances at an operational level. We don’t yet know what those nuances will be, but I highly doubt they’ll involve changes to the triggers for the levels (Otherwise, why would 100 cases per 100,000 mean Level III in Liverpool but only Level II in Glasgow?), and making too many changes to the restrictions within a tier could be confusing (“So I can open my pub at Level II in England but have to keep it closed till Level I in Scotland?”).

The upshot is that after Scotland generates a few nice headlines for saying they’ll do things differently from the UK Government, they’ll instead do almost exactly the same.

This follows a pattern throughout this pandemic response. In April, Source reported on the consistent “four nations approach” that the Scottish Government was holding to – even while proudly exclaiming the list of things they were doing “slightly differently” from England. In March and just a few days before the first national lockdown, Robin McAlpine warned of a culture of “political herd immunity” – the practice of not diverging from UK messaging or strategy because if something goes wrong, Johnson can be blamed 0 whereas if Scotland tried to do something differently and it went wrong, Sturgeon would be blamed.

We’ve seen the result of this in practice. Scotland is in the top 20 countries in terms of deaths per capita – by the official daily government count (which underestimates the number of deaths), we’re running roughly level with France – but because we’re doing slightly better than England and because we have a slightly more accessible PR setup, it doesn’t feel anything like as grim as that.

If the plan is simply to shield behind Boris Johnson’s lead (I’m sure there’s no serious suggestion that he’s forming UK strategy based on the advice of Nicola Sturgeon, Arlene Foster or Mark Drakeford), then it’s time to be honest and upfront about that. To just cede strategic control to the UK Government and let them create the frameworks and tell us that they’re doing it.

But if the plan is to do what is best for Scotland, perhaps it’s time to recognise that following failing plans from the UK has resulted in Scotland failing almost as badly. This new strategy from the UK is welcome but will almost certainly remain controlled from a central position, not be deployed anywhere nearly locally enough and may well follow previous Conservative philosophy of prioritising the economy over people. It’s time to review strategies based on their actual merits, to tailor them to the needs of Scotland and to listen to the experts in the field who are calling for elimination strategies based on the lessons learned by the countries that have weathered the pandemic better than others.

This isn’t about doing things differently for the sake of difference but nor should it be about converging just because it’s politically easier to take the credit and avoid the blame when doing so.

We do need a proper elimination strategy in Scotland if we are going to see anything like a normal life again this side of a vaccine, and that strategy will involve a national framework of local restrictions, mass testing and quarantines (especially when travelling between high-risk areas).

Instead of copying one of the worst countries in the world we should be learning from the best.