Let’s start with the good news. One in every 200 tests are now coming back positive for Covid-19 in Scotland. From 32,021 tests in Scotland last week, 155 were positive, just 0.5 per cent. The WHO says tests should be delivering sub-5 per cent results for two weeks before lockdown easing measures are considered, so the Scottish Government is firmly in that territory right now. Scotland is about to move into Phase 2 of lockdown easing, and the First Minister is set to announce when Phase 3 measures are to be introduced.
But we should not expect progress to be linear. That is not the trend we have seen in other countries. Germany has just re-entered full lockdown in an area twice the size of Glasgow after an outbreak in a meat factory. South Korea and China have had to take measures to battle localised outbreaks. And these are countries that had contained the virus far better than Scotland and the UK. So expecting that the whole of Scotland, say in six weeks time, will be in Phase 4 of lockdown easing as things begin to go back to a new normal would be highly presumptuous.
Yet that is the expectation that has now been created by John Swinney’s announcement yesterday, as the Education Secretary now plans to fully re-open schools on 11 August. It is a gamble, not because it is a U-turn – no one will remember that by August. It is a gamble because although Swinney has qualified his position with lots of caveats about how if the virus is not sufficiently contained they will have to move again to a position of ‘blended learning’ with limited days in the classroom, the expectation now (most importantly among parents) is that won’t happen, and lives are being planned accordingly.
The reality of the politics of this is that it is harder to go backwards from expecting full classes to blended learning than it is to go forwards from expecting blending learning to full classes. The logistics is another question, but let’s be clear – it is politics which drove yesterday’s decision. But if the politics are tricky now, imagine how tricky they will be at the start of August if progress in eliminating the virus has stalled and the ‘R’ rate hovers precariously. At that point Swinney will be damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. If he moves to blended learning at short notice there will be uproar. If he doesn’t, and schools become key pathogen spreaders (and think about it, lots of kids indoors in close proximity, in hot, sticky classrooms for hours, is almost tailor made for virus-spreading) which leads to a second outbreak in the autumn, then fingers will quite rightly be pointed at the decision to fully re-open schools.
Devi Sridhar, Edinburgh University Professor of Global Public Health, has written about how the summer can be used in the UK to kill Covid-19 stone dead, and then be on guard for the importation of cases from other countries. The UK as New Zealand. But the flip-side is that if that doesn’t happen, when the bad weather begins to come back in autumn the UK could be on for a second outbreak. Health leaders have written an open letter to the British Medical Journal warning about just that possibility. Let’s remember that in the case of the Spanish Flu a century ago, it was the second wave that did the big damage.
“By allowing the virus to spread during the summer months the government is creating a ticking time bomb that will go off as autumn arrives,” Sridhar argues. “As an island, Great Britain is in a strong position to eliminate the virus and fully reopen schools, bars and theatres as well as bringing back sports matches and weddings, without pointless debates about one or two metre distancing measures.”
But we are not yet close to elimination of the virus in the UK. Chief Executive of the UK Statistics Authority Professor Ian Diamond thinks there’s still 3,000-4,000 new infections everyday. Thus, the two metre rule debate remains very much a live issue, with those against it clearly winning. Boris Johnson has bowed to pressure over the two metre rule, and is re-opening pubs and restaurants from 4 July, agreeing with a Tory MP that it was Britons’ “patriotic duty” to head to the boozer. Sturgeon looks all set to relax the rule after her review reports back next Thursday, with tourism getting geared up to re-start from mid-July and National Clinical Director Jason Leitch already suggesting the two metre rule is likely to be relaxed. It’s difficult for the First Minister to do otherwise now, as if kids can be less than two metres apart in schools by August, why not families in pubs and restaurants by mid-July?
Elimination over the summer sounds good in theory, but the societal and political momentum is moving increasingly towards laxity. Swinney’s gamble is banking on the former, while being an outcome of the pressure from the latter. The worry is that by the time we have found out it hasn’t paid off, it will already be too late.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
- A letters section
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.