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Foreign Policy

Scotland can’t afford SNP branding in relation to COVID-19 tips

Scotland briefly emerged as the worst COVID-19 hotspot in Europe last month, with Dundee in Tayside ranking as Europe’s most severely infected area per capita. Five other departments of the National Health Service in Scotland made it into the European Top 10: Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Fife, Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire and Arran. The numbers have declined since then, also surprisingly sharply, but health policymakers in Scotland and elsewhere can and should learn from the politics that surrounded this episode.

The Scottish government has previously made a lot of political hay out of its relatively superior performance against England’s COVID-19 response since the pandemic began. That narrative is now certainly discredited – not least because the Scottish National Party (SNP) made its own critical mistakes. These mistakes came primarily because, rather than recognizing the pandemic as one that would require a coordinated British response, the party sought to emphasize and promote its differences with London.

Scotland briefly emerged as the worst COVID-19 hotspot in Europe last month, with Dundee in Tayside ranking as Europe’s most severely infected area per capita. Five other departments of the National Health Service in Scotland made it into the European Top 10: Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Fife, Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire and Arran. The numbers have declined since then, also surprisingly sharply, but health policymakers in Scotland and elsewhere can and should learn from the politics that surrounded this episode.

The Scottish government has previously made a lot of political hay out of its relatively superior performance against England’s COVID-19 response since the pandemic began. That narrative is now certainly discredited – not least because the Scottish National Party (SNP) made its own critical mistakes. These mistakes came primarily because, rather than recognizing the pandemic as one that would require a coordinated British response, the party sought to emphasize and promote its differences with London.

Health has been a decentralized policy since 1999, meaning it is administered locally in all parts of the UK. This gave the SNP for Independence an opportunity to stand out from London and show that Scotland can stand on its own two feet – and maybe even do better than if it were ruled from Westminster.

To be fair, no country in Europe will emerge from this crisis with an intact reputation. Every government made too many mistakes in the early days of the pandemic, such as repeated delays in necessary lockdowns and premature lifting of restrictions before vaccines were fully implemented, resulting in unnecessarily high infection and death rates per capita during that period.

But some of Scotland’s mistakes were unique – and were entirely driven by the political machinations of the SNP. At the beginning of the pandemic, Holyrood created a parallel scientific advisory body to the British Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which it then unfortunately politicized by appointing political loyalists to the SNP. The activities and recommendations of this body largely duplicated the work of its London equivalent, and where there were discrepancies it was almost always political – and poorer results. Scotland, for example, insisted on developing its own separate contact tracing app, with the disastrous consequence that people traveling from Scotland to other parts of the UK could not be traced and vice versa.

Political messages related to the pandemic also had to be different from those coming from Westminster and clearly marked with the SNP brand. Such relatively simple, clear and effective public awareness campaigns designed in London have had to be replaced by confusing and therefore ineffective efforts that undermined the public’s pandemic response in Scotland and had ramifications in the rest of the UK.

How did this political theater lead to Scotland’s rise in infections? Some people at the SNP have theorized that Scotland’s success to date in containing the spread of the virus means that a higher percentage of people in Scotland are still susceptible to the virus. That means infection rates are expected to be higher than they are now in England, even if public behavior is exactly the same.

There is some truth to this claim, but the differences in susceptibility rates aren’t that great: around 90 percent of people in England are thought to have some sort of resistance to the virus, either through previous infections or vaccinations, while the percentage of people with some resistance in Scotland is 85 percent.

And if the Scottish Government believes that Scotland’s people are more susceptible to infection, it has the power, and therefore the responsibility, to implement measures to address this increased risk. If the SNP wants to have the successes of the past year, it must also have the acute failures of the last month.

Lower infection rates in Scotland last year have many other explanations as well. They are due to politically neutral factors, such as the fact that Scotland is far more sparse in demographics compared to other areas of the UK and its major cities are significantly less exposed to international traffic compared to London.

There was also a nursing home disaster in Scotland this year, while Scotland’s particular areas of particular concern right now, such as Dundee, are also an accumulation of high vaccination hesitation combined with an above-average population density. Then the particularly higher infection rates among men were also linked to the football events that month, especially when football gatherings were held in areas with significantly lower than average vaccination rates.

Contrary to their claims, however, it should be clear that the SNP did not actually make a “special sauce” for the pandemic response compared to England. It had a broadly similar public health response, with the few areas of political divergence being entirely politically motivated and with poorer public health outcomes when they diverged.

While England had similarly bad looking statistics at a time when the Westminster government was not preparing for foreseeable events, the SNP and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon are quick and correct to criticize London’s inadequate response. But then they managed to repeat some of the mistakes they had rightly recognized in the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Westminster’s handling of the pandemic has been clumsy at times – as has been the case in most European countries. But how much more remarkable is it that, having properly analyzed the problems with England’s reaction, the SNP later did just as badly?

Last summer, the Scottish Government proudly declared – self-hybrid indeed – their goal was “zero COVID”. If this political rhetoric should ever be related to reality, then that can no longer be the goal. We know that even in the best vaccinated populations, the virus is still transmitted and will continue to evolve into different varieties and is therefore likely to reappear in acute spikes. The consensus among global health experts is that the virus will become endemic, much like seasonal flu.

Scotland would do well to distinguish itself less from London in the interests of the SNP’s separatist ambitions and spend more time effectively managing an ongoing crisis.

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