Sunday 26 April 2020

The virus, and independence

Nicola Sturgeon, giving a briefing on coronavirus
At least 750 - other people online have estimated more - folk in Scotland have died from COVID19 who would not have died if they had lived in any of our northern European neighbours of the same size.

In Denmark, there have been, as of 20th April, 61 deaths per million people. In Estonia, 30. The Faroe Islands, none at all. Finland, 16. Iceland, 26. Ireland, 123. Latvia, only 2. Lithuania, 13. And Norway, 28.

But Scotland has done worse, far worse. We've lost 166 people for every million.

That's the open and shut case for independence right there, isn't it?

If we had been independent, we could have saved 750 people who are now dead - and remember, we're less than half-way through this crisis. There are at least another 750 people living in Scotland today who will die unnecessarily unless we change course.

This is true.

But the key word in that sentence is 'could': because if we had been independent under this SNP government, we would not have lost any fewer. Every aspect of health policy and transport policy is devolved. The UK government's policy on coronavirus has obviously been slapdash, chaotic, incompetent and irresponsible, and that was already obvious as far back as January. But nothing in law required the Scottish government to follow that policy.

It's possible, as some SNP defenders have suggested, that the UK government have put severe pressure on the Scottish government to follow its lead; but if so the Scottish government needs to say so and to document it. It seems to me far more likely, given what we know of Nicola Sturgeon, that the choice has not been a consequence of pressure but of calculation. Sturgeon is risk averse, and inclined to delay big decisions. She will (rightly) have felt that if Scotland had fared even slightly worse through the crisis, it would be seen as an argument against independence. If this is what she thought, she was right, of course. By closely following UK policy, by making slight tweaks at the margin of it, she ensured that Scotland's outcome was at worst very similar to the UK's. But also, at best very similar.

There's a very strong smell here of "when you go out stay close to nurse, for fear of meeting something worse" - and that isn't a good argument for independence at all.

So what could Scotland have done differently?

We could have implemented track, trace and isolate from day one, and maintained it. Across the world, countries which have implemented track, trace and isolate have done far better than those that haven't. The scandal here is that the UK did track and trace the first few cases, and then abandoned the policy; and Scotland hasn't done it at all.

We could have required face covering in public places. Of course masks don't stop infection, but they do greatly reduce the spread of virus particles. It doesn't have to be a surgical mask. A scarf would do almost as well. And again, countries which have required face coverings have done far better.

We could have quarantined all arrivals for fourteen days. The Public Health etc. (Scotland) Act 2008, section 40, gives us this power. It would be clumsy: if an arriving passenger refused to be quarantined, it would require for a sheriff to make an individual order for that person. There's no provision for a class or general order. Thousands of people arrive in Scotland every day, and if they all refused to be quarantined we would not have enough sheriffs to issue the orders. But, again, we have passed emergency legislation for COVID19; it would have been easy to add a clause temporarily adding a general quarantine order.

We could have quarantined arrivals. There are plenty of hotels standing empty which could have been taken over as temporary quarantine centres. We chose not to.

Much of Scotland's imports, including of crucial things like food, arrive on trucks coming up from England, mainly by the M74. But we could have instituted a system of routing off arriving vehicles at Gretna into the parking area at the 'Outlet Village'. Articulated truck tractor units could be swapped over there, so that some tractor units (and their drivers) remained in Scotland, shuttling trailers to their destinations and back to Gretna, while those drivers arriving from the south remained in accommodation in Gretna until their trailer was returned, or went back to fetch another load from England to swap trailers at the border again.

All this would be complicated, it would be a nuisance, folk would complain; but it could be done.

This is made more complicated by the fact that there isn't, yet, a rapid, reliable test for coronavirus. In fact it's worse than that: the UK test, as OpenDemocracy revealed on Tuesday, is very unreliable indeed: it misses 25% of all cases. Of course, Scotland didn't have to use the UK test. There are commercially available tests from pharmaceutical firms such as Hoffmann-La Roche and Abbott Laboratories which are more reliable. We could - if we had acted early - have bought these. We didn't, and they're now in critically short supply.

Because we don't have effective tests, We would have to quarantine every single arriving person. We would have had to swap tractor units, or at least change drivers, of every single arriving load (and, frankly, since the virus remains viable on surfaces like, for example, steering wheels, for some time, just changing drivers without a pretty effective clean of the cab at the border doesn't seem to me adequate). Folk who commute across the border - there are quite a few - would just have to pick a side for the duration. It would be complicated. It would annoy folk. It would be expensive.

Well, yes it would. But what we're doing is expensive. Emergency medicine is expensive. The Louisa Jordan hospital is expensive. If we had far fewer cases, we wouldn't need the Louisa Jordan. We wouldn't be overburdening our hospitals. Spending money at the border and at airports, on quarantine, on changeover of tractor units; spending money on track, trace and isolate; spending money on better testing facilities - all these things would save money in hospitals. More importantly, it would save lives.

What's your old dad's life worth? Is it worth a thousand pounds? If it is, a politician could say, oh, well, we're only going to lose a few thousand people, that's a few million pounds, let it rip. That's what Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings wanted to say. If you see people's lives as fungible, as of essentially monetary value, then even if you priced lives at a million pounds each, there would be an economic case for letting the disease rip. But is that how we want our governments to value our lives? Is that something we want to see the government of Scotland do?

I'd argue that it is not.

Folk are saying that we don't have our own currency, we can't print money, we can't even borrow. All that is true. But what the UK is doing is also enormously expensive. Under the Barnett Formula, we're entitled to a pro-rata share of everything they spend. Taking a different tack on coronavirus would not make Kate Forbes already demanding job any easier, but it's the job of politicians to make tough decisions, to rise to the occasion in a crisis.

The Scottish government just isn't doing this. It has all the powers, and has choesn not to use them. It is true that the UK strategy has been complacent and irresponsible, and that the UK's delivery of that policy has been chaotic and incompetent. But what we have in Scotland is a competent, orderly implementation of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings complacent, irresponsible policy, and there is no-one outside Scotland who can be blamed for that.

Growing up as a nation is about owning up when you get it wrong. Growing up as a nation is about not blaming others for your failings. Growing up as a nation is about learning to take your own risks, your own hard choices, your own responsibility for your own actions; and right at this moment, Scotland is failing to do any of this.

Over the course of this crisis, at least 1500 Scots will die in Scotland who would not have died if we had followed the policies of any of our similar-sized northern European neighbours. Is that an argument for independence? You bet it is. But they will have died not because of the UK government's failings, not because of its complacency and irresponsibility, but because of our own.

We need to own this. And, we need to lay the blame squarely on the government and on the ministers who made these choices. Is that an argument for voting for the SNP in its current form next year? Not without a dramatic change of direction.

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