Article Published April 21st, 2020

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As the Covid-19 crisis continues, the UK may be heading for one of the worst outcomes in terms of deaths across Europe. Criticism is rightly mounting of the UK government’s handling of the crisis, not least of the fatally lost weeks before lockdown on 23 March, and the inadequacy of testing capacity and of PPE supplies for the NHS, care workers and other front-line workers.

Yet the UK politics of this mis-managed crisis are curious. With health devolved, and considerable coordination taking place between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there has until now been rather little suggestion that any of the UK’s four nations could have taken a substantially different approach – albeit Nicola Sturgeon said last week Scotland might not take an identical approach on exiting from the lockdown.

But, so far, the growing criticism of the UK’s approach has been mostly targeted at the UK government, rather than asking whether the devolved administrations could and should have done something differently – and earlier – in the crucial early days of March (and also in February too).

Many Smaller European States Did Better

Impact so far has varied across the UK with its total of 16,060 deaths as of 19-20 April (a figure that mostly excludes care home deaths). England has been the worst hit by corona deaths, with 257 deaths per million of population, then Wales – 184 deaths per million, Scotland – 166 deaths per million, and Northern Ireland – 103 deaths per million. Many factors lie behind these differences (and much analysis will be done in the months ahead of that). London is and was, of course, a hotspot. And Scotland was a few days behind England in the spread of the virus. But overall the four nations of the UK were following the same, inadequate strategy.

In comparison, across Europe, countries are at different stages of dealing with the crisis – and have adopted different approaches not least different timings of lockdown, and different amounts of testing of their populations. But Scotland’s total of deaths so far does not compare well to many similarly-sized European states (with all the provisos about comparability of data and different stages of the spread of the corona virus).

Scotland, up to now, has fared worse than Ireland which has 124 deaths per million of population. More striking still are the Nordics: Norway has 31 and Finland 17 deaths per million, while Denmark has 61 per million (all as of 19-20 April). In fact, Scotland’s current position is similar to Sweden, with its less stringent approach to lockdown (and double Scotland’s population size), which has 156 deaths per million.

Clearly, other larger European states have been hit hard apart from the UK – Italy, Spain and France most notably while Germany with its different, high-testing strategy has a much lower 56 deaths per million. And some other smaller states have had high deaths too, notably Belgium with over 500 deaths per million – though this would come down by around half if only hospital deaths were included. But Greece – with twice Scotland’s population – has had just over a tenth of its deaths.

Shifting Politics

So different countries have had strikingly different experiences, so far, though all now face the very tricky, and vital, challenge of how to go about easing and exiting from lockdown to whatever the new normal will be. One of the striking aspects of the UK’s hesitation in the first half of March was the extent to which a range of organisations started to cancel events or initiate working from home policies – including events that were much smaller than the 500 person limit announced by Nicola Sturgeon on 12 March shortly before the UK government did the same. Civil society moved ahead of the politicians.

It is surely important to learn and understand some of the lessons from March now to inform Covid-19 strategy in the coming weeks. There may be several reasons why the Scottish government and other devolved administrations did not diverge noticeably from UK government strategy – despite health and education being devolved. Certainly, at first sight, it looks sensible to have a coherent, cohesive strategy across a state faced with such a public health crisis.

And the unprecedented economic damage of lockdown is one that the Scottish government may well not have wanted to trigger ahead of the UK, not least given that major economic bail-out policies do not, in the main, sit in devolved governments competence. Control of borders is not a devolved power either. But there could have been – but wasn’t – a public demand from the Scottish government for a two week earlier lockdown in early March; nor were any significantly faster actions taken at the time.

As criticism grows of the UK government’s decisions in March, it puts the Scottish government in a tricky position: they went along with those decisions, and did not criticise them at the time. Overarching responsibility may lie in London but the devolved administrations did not act as a pressure point for faster, earlier, more decisive actions. The Scottish government has been spared from much criticism in this context. This is, in part, as most focus has been on London but also as the Scottish Tories – while questioning some aspects of policy on care homes – won’t criticise a policy in line with the UK government, while SNP politicians will be loath to critique their own government.

Whether the UK government will manage an easing of the lockdown and management of the rolling corona crisis any better in the coming weeks and months is an open question. There appear to be splits in the cabinet over a more or less rapid route out of lockdown, with Boris Johnson, while still not back at work, apparently favouring a more cautious approach.

Nicola Sturgeon has said she will consider a differentiated approach to exiting the lockdown if that looks in Scotland’s best interests. Meanwhile, Scottish secretary Alister Jack has said the UK’s four nations must continue in lockstep. The lesson of the shifting politics of the crisis, so far, is that some differentiation could potentially be a plus (and would have been in March too). The tough challenges of managing testing and tracing, supplies of PPE, capacity of the NHS, and managing the extraordinary economic downturn need a clear and focused strategic approach. A pan-UK approach should not be a given for all elements of this – and indeed should not have been in March.