Robin McAlpine: The lack of a Scottish virus strategy is a national crisis

“This is a health crisis. This is an economic crisis. But in Scotland, this is a full-scale national political crisis too.”

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when its over. Today – why Scotland needs a plan for its own system of testing

TODAY, I’d wanted to move on to the question of how and when we can start the rebuilding process post-virus. I want to encourage the belief that we can do good things fast. But to do that, there needs to be a lockdown exit strategy – and its absence points to a very real political crisis for Scotland.

It looks like (finally) there is a growing awareness that the ‘jolly-blitz-spirit-knees-up-Mother-Brown’ attitude taken by much of the UK media might have missed the point (this is funny on the subject). And that means that (finally) people are showing some curiosity about whether there is an actual strategy in place for this virus.

Common Weal has been hammering on about this for weeks now – there are ways out of the lockdown phase of battling this virus, but they need work and planning. We have published a report setting out and costing how this could be done (which has so far been ignored by the Scottish media).

I want to show why there should have been a Scottish option on the table from day one, and why the lack of a Scottish response – and the inability of the media and opposition to notice – represents a real political crisis in Scotland.

It is not too late – but it’s getting later by the minute.

First, failure is not inevitable

Common Weal (and Source) have been relentlessly pushing for Scotland to be put in an international context and not just a UK one for a specific reason – it makes clear that there is such a thing as success when it comes to this virus. To show that, let’s look at New Zealand (although South Korea or Singapore are among other good comparators).

Under the clear-sighted and fast-acting Jacinda Ardern, the WHO advice was taken seriously and quickly translated into a domestic action programme. This is described more fully here.

New Zealand rejected the two options the UK is looking at (rolling lockdowns where another is brought into effect every time infections start to grow again, or the ‘herd immunity’ strategy of simply managing death rates). They focused on ‘transmission interruption’, i.e. catching cases early to prevent further contagion.

They did mass testing to find out where the virus is taking hold, identified new cases (ideally pre-symptomatic), traced everyone they have come into contact with and then tested them. Everyone who is found positive goes into isolation.

This is working, and it is basically the same model Common Weal has been advocating. Don’t shrug indifferently and say ‘what could we really have done in Scotland?’ – we could really have done this. Failure was not inevitable.

The multilateral solution never existed

Liberal internationalism defaults to the view that there is nothing big and important that isn’t too big and important for the nation-state. They fetishise powerful world leaders cooking up plans collectively. Scotland’s administration tends strongly towards this line of thinking.

But there has been no international response. Just as with all the other big issues (climate change, nuclear disarmament, the migrant crisis, Middle East peace, debt relief for developing countries, the policing of international war crimes; the list is very, very long indeed) the belief in multilateralism is not even nearly supported by past experience.

And in this fast-moving crisis the myth was badly exposed. It turns out that multilateralism is good at protectionism for big finance in the good times but not so good at human protectionism at the bad times.

Nor should we assume that ‘international is inherently better’ – the WHO has not exactly covered itself in glory throughout this whole affair.

Nevertheless, while the WHO may not have handled everything as well as it might, it has still produced clear and clearly-articulated guidance on how best to tackle Covid. This is an internationalist solution – a model to be adapted by nation states. That both Scotland and the UK rejected WHO advice will come back to bite them.

(A note here: an international response is needed for developing countries which don’t have strong social and healthcare solutions. But that’s just a sign of how much damage globalisation has done in the first place – and ‘feet dragging’ would be a generous assessment of support action so far.)

This is not what the UK did

To get to grips with just why the UK rejected the WHO guidelines you would do well to read this – it’s fairly in-depth and explains how things went wrong in the heart of government. Then you should take your pick between pieces on why they got the modelling approach wrong, how government scientists managed to make so many errors, or why it is clear there really isn’t a strategy at all.

Here’s the summary; from the beginning the science has been produced by a group of institutionalised scientists who have been operating in their roles for so long they behaved more like civil servants than independent scientists.

At all the crucial stages in the run-up to lockdown they provided the scientific advice that they thought was palatable to politicians and the public. It was only as they thought public opinion was changing that they changed their advice. Far from being led by science, the science has been led by public opinion.

As I’ve warned, the ideology which has taken root in public life across the UK is that officials serve power, they don’t shape it. Here, the power of business and the power of public opinion simply overwhelmed the power of science.

Consciously or not, the test-trace-isolate model was excluded from thinking from the very beginning and became a blind spot. As far as I can tell, as of today the scientists are still bending the science around the mistakes they made earlier rather than using science to repair them.

We’re so far down this path and the UK has been so lumbering throughout that playing catch-up now on the necessary scale may be tricky – even if a decision to try and catch up is made.

The Scottish Government folded on day one

Depressingly, the picture in Scotland makes the UK look good. If the story in Westminster is littered with failure, the story in Scotland is purely one of surrender.

It is worth just being clear that while the economic response to the crisis is mostly reserved to Westminster, the medical and social responses are very clearly devolved. The Scottish Government has the constitutional responsibility for protecting the Scottish population from this virus.

As I’ve detailed before, Nicola Sturgeon’s administration is very much a ‘command and control’ one centred around her – all decisions are top-down. And it’s impossible not to conclude that she looked at the scale of this crisis and threw in the towel on day one.

I can find no evidence at all that the Scottish Government treated a core strategy for protecting Scotland’s population as its problem. Practice, yes – Scotland’s government is nothing if not administrative. But as a shorthand, the Scottish Government focused on how to set up more hospital beds but not at all on how to keep people out of them.

So if the UK strategy falls well short of elimination and has no containment plan post-lockdown and no credible exit strategy, it at least has a strategy. Scotland is working on ‘fingers crossed’.

It is to the shame of Scotland’s media that the only place the failure of strategy in Scotland has been examined is here on Source. It means we don’t know enough to know where exactly that failure came from.

Did the Scottish Government get scientific advice that proposed ignoring the WHO guidelines? Who provided that science? Or did the advice say to follow WHO guidelines and politicians overruled it? On what basis? Or was no serious scientific advice taken in Scotland at all? In fact, did we decide to relinquish all strategy-setting before any of this had time to take place?

I suspect it’s the latter. I also suspect that decision-making has been heavily influenced by PR. It looks to me like the first minister didn’t want the risk of having to make policy she had to answer for, and so simply abdicated responsibility.

It’s certainly the case that the Scottish Government has been very focused on PR from early on. Sturgeon’s statements and actions have clearly followed opinion rather than seeking to lead it. From Easter Bunnies to whether it is her responsibility to decide on strategy in Scotland, only when put under pressure from someone else do her actions evolve – and then mostly rhetorically.

I defer on how well the NHS has administered this crisis – it has been handled by officials and we won’t have enough data to know for sure until a post-crisis review. Anecdote is mixed and certainly not a reliable picture. But I can tell you about the total absence of any response on the ground.

I feel like I live in the Independent Free State of Biggar just now. The NHS staff, the refuse collectors and the care workers are doing their very best, but there is no sign of any ground-level response from government round here. Had an amazing group of good local people and local businesses not simply taken over, no-one would be looking after anyone.

This approach of relying on bluster and bluff to fill a gap where there should be a plan came to a climax during First Minster’s Questions last week. When asked about testing, you had to wade your way through a lot of utterly superfluous chatter about antigens and antibodies (yes First Minister, we have Wikipedia) to find out there was nothing to actually say on this front.

But that’s not what caused me the most concern. It’s that in her answer, the first minister simply did not seem to understand the difference between testing (to control the exposure of key workers to the virus) and a system of testing, tracing and isolating (to control society-level exposure to the virus and enable an end to lockdown).

Of course we need to protect NHS staff – but the fact we’re still talking about this six weeks in is hardly reassuring. And the fact that we’ve not had any discussion of testing-tracing-isolating in Scotland other than what Common Weal and some individual academics have been writing is seriously worrying.

Do not underestimate what happened here; faced with the first really big public crisis Scotland has faced since devolution, the response of the First Minister was effectively to hand all responsibility back to a Boris Johnson government – and despite loads of concrete evidence that they were failing, heads remain buried deep in sand.

Scotland has a political crisis to go along with the economic and medical crises

This is all deeply worrying. It constitutes a full political crisis in Scotland. There has been much questioning about whether we are ready for independence. I’m afraid right at the moment we look sorely unready for devolution.

I’m not one of those people who wants conflict between Holyrood and Westminster for its own sake. Of course UK-wide coordination makes sense. But had I been First Minister I would have viewed the wellbeing of my citizens as my responsibility, not someone else’s.

While I observed the steps being taken at a UK level I would have instructed the widest available talent pool to give me all the options, most certainly including implementing WHO advice in Scotland.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have been necessary – except it turns out it really was necessary. Scotland can save itself in the face of UK failure. Scotland should save itself in the face of UK failure. We should have a contingency plan. But it isn’t and we don’t.

I think this is, fundamentally, because Scotland still doesn’t have confidence in itself. For all her presentational certainty and repeated ‘world leading’ mantras, Sturgeon has run exactly the same kind of ‘know your place’ devolution-as-administration strategy that Jack McConnell devised.

It has conditioned Scotland’s leaders and its media to believe that Scotland really is just a super-sized local authority and that London is where real crises are fought.

Five years after Scotland nearly became an independent country and all I can see right now is almost total surrender. We are a small and diminished nation, a supplicant and a subordinate, irrelevant and paralysed. It is a sorry, sorry picture.

This is a health crisis. This is an economic crisis. But in Scotland, this is a full-scale national political crisis too.

Anti-independence voices of are relishing this; this commentator almost explicitly says that surrender is just Scotland ‘growing up’ and finally coming to a realistic understanding of its lowly place in the pecking order. He proposes a ‘national round of applause’ for Sturgeon as a reward for her surrender.

It is not too late for Scotland to learn from New Zealand and get its shit together. But I fear it’s far too late to expect or even hope for a politics up to the task.

Next up: how do we get started once lockdown ends?