|“We’re taking one step forward, five steps back,” Devi Sridhar, professor of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and on the Scottish Government’s covid-19 advisory group, wrote yesterday, in summing up her exasperation about the covid-19 situation in the UK. She’s not wrong. |
Lockdown was a big social sacrifice, one where the vulnerable suffered the most. All it really achieved was to buy time for governments to get their act together, to lead the fundamental adaptations to social and economic life that are necessary and put in place the public health systems that can stop community transmission from rearing its head again. It’s not rocket science, and neither is it impossible to achieve. Sridhar cites China, Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea as five countries that have definitively achieved it. With all four chief medical officers now agreeing that the country is back at alert level 4, the UK has definitively failed to stop a second rapid spread of covid-19. Be in no doubt, whoever politicians try to blame, that is a profound governance failure.
So what now? First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will attend an emergency meeting of Cobra before addressing the Scottish Parliament this afternoon. Quite rightly, she has said that Scotland will not be locked into a UK timetable for responding. She has also made the very simple but correct point that the longer the Scottish Government waits to act the longer painful suppression measures will endure. So we can expect new measures today, but which ones?
It is unlikely that we will see a lot of one size fits all measures this time round, with responses becoming increasingly localised. That’s broadly correct, but you need the local systems in place to manage that. The Scottish Government has been busy building a centralised Test and Protect system. One general measure we are likely to see is surely large parts of hospitality closing. Focusing restrictions on solely non-commodified spaces (homes) has failed. There has to be some recognition of the fact that there are some commercial spaces that are far too conducive for the virus to spread, and thus we need to adapt. There is now evidence that Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s scheme of subsidising people to go back to restaurants in August actually contributed to the spreading of the virus.
The back-firing of the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme is a good example of a failure to really take seriously the need for adaptation: rather than think ‘how can we support the people in the hospitality industry to survive financially in the context of a pandemic that will do lasting damage to that sector?’, Sunak thought: ‘How can we get people back into restaurants and pubs again?’ That is nonsensical from the perspective of both tackling the pandemic and helping those who work in hospitality. Office work is another example: the UK Government became worried about people adapting too much to the pandemic, and started a ‘back to the office’ Ad campaign. Now they may have to take adverts out to tell people to work from home. Everything about the government’s response has been geared towards the fastest route back to normality, when there is no route back to normality – they are working with an old map, and so it’s not surprising they’ve driven the country into a dead end.
One final thought: a covid-19 resurgence does not mean surrendering democracy. As the now retired Supreme Court judge Lady Hale has pointed out, that is what happened in the House of Commons at the start of this crisis, with some echoes in the Scottish Parliament. In fact, the need for real scrutiny, accountability and transparency of government is more important now than ever.
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