SCOTLAND’S NEWS TODAY is dominated by further lockdown restrictions. The measures may appear marginal: limitations on click and collect deliveries; firmer rules for takeaways; curbs around alcohol. But they are designed to stamp home the message that there is no imminent return to normality.
Governments are being advised of an imminent risk of the virus getting out of control. “Given the current pattern of case numbers we expect to see rising levels of infection impacting on hospital and ICU, which could lead to the potential of the NHS being overwhelmed in some areas, even under a ‘stay at home’ scenario,” notes a Scottish Government evidence paper. Many have emphasised the virtues of early, strict lockdowns to combat surges of the virus. The alternative, they argue, is bleaker, not just for public health but for the economy. They can point to Trump’s libertarian approach in America, which has been an all-round disaster, not least for his own career.
Nonetheless, you can’t demobilise an entire economy without costs. The stress on private businesses is one matter, but just as crucial is how that impacts on workers, with imminent layoffs and pay cuts hanging over their heads. The Fraser of Allander Institute highlights the economic burden lockdown imposes. They observe the “serious toll on individuals” with “unemployment likely to rise significantly”. While optimism surrounds the vaccine programme, there is likely to be further economic breakdown before then, especially when UK business support schemes draw to a close, as planned, in late April.
For the Scottish Government itself, the political news is good. Despite new revelations from Salmond, and lingering doubts about devolved services, the polls show the SNP heading for a bumper win in scheduled elections. Support for independence likewise remains the “settled will” of the electorate. The unionist opposition are in disarray: Labour looks set to lose more seats. Firm messages around lockdown contributed to that success. Thus, in purely political terms, phase one of the pandemic appears to have worked out well, even if there are many doubters.
However, the next phase starts when the national spirit of goodwill evaporates. That will come when the economic damage fully reveals itself, and we realise all the old economic methods no longer work. Then will emerge a hard debate about how to pay (or rather who will pay) for an unprecedented economic crisis. In this respect, return to “normality” could prove just as tough (and yet more brutal) as a year of lockdowns.
It’s unclear that the Scottish Government or any other government has answers for phase two. Optimists predicted a “V-shaped” recession, that we would speed out of lockdowns with a massive recovery. Little remains of that upbeat spirit. The Scottish Chamber of Commerce is warning the damage “will likely takes years to recover from”. And even without the virus, the economy was heading south: let’s not forget, workers in much of the economy have already seen their incomes fall over the last decade of austerity.
For now, few will argue with the new restrictions. Lockdowns are damaging and chaotic but the only tactic we have. However, they are backing up all the problems of the next iteration of this crisis, when we confront a failing economic system head on.