Is Scotland taking a different approach to ‘living with Covid’?

by | 22 Feb 2022

The tone of the Covid announcements on either side of the border are markedly different - but on closer inspection there is not much that is different other than a three-week delay in implementation

The First Minister today announced an updated strategic framework for Covid, following the rule changes in England that begin today. Is there a substantive difference?

At face value the answer appears to be yes, the tone of the announcements is much more cautious and much effort has gone into making it look like the Scottish Government remains on high alert. But the picture looks a bit different once you dig down into the detail.

First, the UK Government has been criticised (including by the SNP) for rushing to ‘freedom day’ without any scientific underpinning for doing so. Yet today’s announcement will move Scotland very largely in the same direction in a bit more than three weeks’ time.

So is there evidence presented in the materials provided that the science currently states that Boris Johnson is wrong – but only by three weeks? No, not really. There are bands set for ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ risk but these have no measures to explain what shifts a situation from one band to another.

The justification for following England with a few weeks of delay is as follows: “We judge that our current situation – with a highly transmissible variant, resulting in a high level of infection, but with a lower severity of impact than previous variants – represents a medium threat. However, we consider that this will reduce in the coming weeks to a low threat, enabling us to lift the remaining legal measures in place.”

There appears to be little if any more ‘science’ involved in this judgement than there is in Boris Johnston’s judgement that England has achieved ‘low threat’ already. There is some hedging (“Should the threat level remain medium/low in the weeks ahead, it is therefore our intention to do so on the following timescale…”), but since past patterns in the progress of the virus don’t suggest predictable sudden drops in rates of infection over three weeks it looks like a very similar judgement call.

There also appears to be a specific difference in that the Scottish Government are expecting people to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid. Then again, so is the UK Government. What it has done is remove the legal requirement, and Scotland never had a legal requirement to self-isolate. So effectively these are the same positions.

No ‘scientific evidence’ is presented for what will happen in the weeks between now and then to suggest that the UK Government is wrong now but the Scottish Government will be right then

This is also true with public mask-wearing. The UK Government is saying it is for people to make their own judgement and in Scotland (as of March 21st) the Scottish Government is encouraging them to do so. There is no legal difference, purely one of tone.

The position with testing sounds, on the face of it, to create more of a variation – and yet even that isn’t straightforward. There is to be a transition period but most of the transition period appear to take place over the three-and-a-bit weeks. Later in March it will be announced whether ‘transition’ will be phased beyond 21 March.

The commitment to free testing is only during the transition and the proposed testing regime afterwards appears more about national-level statistics than effective virus control. But free testing remains in place at the UK level until 1 April so there is – currently – no difference in policy approach here at all.

One important difference that should be applauded is that the £500 grant for self-isolating will continue (for now) in Scotland but not in England. But this is only promised so long as “population wide intervention” on self-isolation is required. What this means is very unclear.

The Scottish Government’s framework document is unnecessarily long and is filled with the language of caution, sprinkled liberally with words such ‘careful’, ‘transition’ and ‘phased’. There is quite a lot of text expended on justifying the Christmas restrictions.

But the ‘transition’ and ‘phasing’ appear to be largely complete by 21 March. At that point, on both sides of the border vaccine passports will be gone, testing will not be free and mask-wearing and self-isolation will be a personal choice. No ‘scientific evidence’ is presented for what will happen in the weeks between now and then to suggest that the UK Government is wrong now but the Scottish Government will be right then.

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