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Scotland, the last in line to relax lockdown

Published: 22 May 2020
Author: Richard Parry

As the Scottish Government finally publishes a strategy for emerging from lockdown, it has been able to hold on to the maximum time and benefit from full restrictions. Richard Parry discusses how the tide has turned throughout the UK in favour of relaxations as governments try to control future events while being forced to justify their earlier decisions.

Monday has become the normal day for changes elsewhere in Europe on COVID 19 restrictions. A matrix of dates, numbers and distances displays the variant responses of systems as they try to control and anticipate the future course of events. Innumerable policy experiments are available for evaluation. Drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable activity becomes harder at the margin as a general unfreezing of life becomes inevitable.

Scotland, and to a lesser extent Wales and Northern Ireland, have become bold in their differentiation from England. Northern Ireland issued one of the most precise plans but put no dates on the five stages. It was notably detailed, with concepts such as that of outdoor meetings of fewer than 10 people for fewer than 10 minutes. Some relaxations followed on 18 May, the first day of significant change in the rest of Ireland.

Scotland's plan for four phases issued on 21 May was cautious, projecting Thursday 28 May or a few days afterwards to broadly catch up with English regulations. An important difference between Scottish and English regulations is that distanced outdoor meetings of two whole households 'in small numbers' would be possible, but the plans could not offer any improvement in the reproduction rate, still set at 0.7-1.0 and thought to be slightly higher than in England.

Nicola Sturgeon has brought an extra three weeks of unchanged lockdown compared with England, with Scotland's only easement between 23 March and 28 May being the once-a-day exercise limit. Sturgeon has wisely not taken on the teachers' unions on school re-opening to pupils and seems to able resist it until the new school year on 11 August. That is the one date mentioned for phase 3, which also includes the re-opening of dentists, hairdressers and cinemas. Apart from that, the document keeps all its options open.

Wales's notably permeable border with England has been particularly challenging and here there has been only some small easing, such as the reopening of garden centres and recycling sites on 18 May. Boris Johnson has resisted calls from some of his English and Welsh backbenchers to assert that, whatever Scotland did, Welsh uniformity with England was necessary.

Welsh devolution continues its catch-up with Scotland, as on 6 May the National Assembly changed its name legally to Senedd Cymru or the Welsh Parliament, with members now titled MS.

Comparing the UK with its nearest neighbours of France and Ireland, there was an attempt to do things differently, expressing the mentality of an island nation that had just 'taken back control of its borders' by leaving the EU. Given that a test for COVID 19 existed, it took boldness to disturb the medical model used elsewhere that those experiencing symptoms should go to their GP to be tested. The UK was not able to maintain this line on testing, nor its more permissive attitude to sporting events and border controls. It has been better so far on avoiding written permissions to be outdoors, and on resisting compulsory face masks.

The tide has probably now turned irresistibly in favour of a new opened-up normal in all sectors. Once UK daily death figures get down consistently to 100-200 they merge into the worst periods of winter flu, which are constructed politically as a worrying issue but not as a reason for economic dislocation. The present virus is harder to treat because of its lethality and fast spread, but business is resourceful and an equilibrium may be found between the restricted supply caused by distancing and restricted demand caused by consumer caution. It is not clear that the UK has the ability to define and enforce localised re-lockdowns.

Many of the industries most affected by the pandemic are seasonal and build in normal breaks - tourism, education, restaurants, sport, performing arts and education. They have mostly adjusted to getting through 2019-20 with the help of government support, but 2020-21, roughly starting in August/September, cannot be lost without a collapse of business models. Some of these sectors are prominent in Scotland, but so far the devolved government continues to express in its cautious policies the fact that its responsibilities focus on the public health aspects of the crisis.


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