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Scotland Can’t Afford SNP Branding on COVID-19 Policies

U.K.-wide cooperation is vital to bringing the pandemic under control.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
A teenager receives a COVID-19 vaccine.
Teenager Katie Moore receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Barrhead, Scotland, on Aug. 9. Jeff Mitchell/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Scotland briefly emerged as the worst COVID-19 hotspot in Europe last month, with Dundee in Tayside as Europe’s most hard-hit area for infections per capita. Five other National Health Service divisions in Scotland made the European top 10: Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Fife, Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire and Arran. The numbers have since come down, 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 from its relatively superior performance to England’s COVID-19 response from the start of the pandemic. This narrative is surely discredited now—not least because the Scottish National Party (SNP) has made its own critical mistakes. These mistakes happened primarily because instead of recognizing the pandemic as one that requires a coordinated British response, the party sought to emphasize and promote its differences from London.

Health has been a devolved policy area since 1999, meaning it’s run locally in each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. This gave the pro-independence SNP an opportunity to differentiate itself from London and to show that Scotland can stand on its own feet—and perhaps even do better than if ruled from Westminster.

Scotland briefly emerged as the worst COVID-19 hotspot in Europe last month, with Dundee in Tayside as Europe’s most hard-hit area for infections per capita. Five other National Health Service divisions in Scotland made the European top 10: Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Fife, Lanarkshire, and Ayrshire and Arran. The numbers have since come down, 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 from its relatively superior performance to England’s COVID-19 response from the start of the pandemic. This narrative is surely discredited now—not least because the Scottish National Party (SNP) has made its own critical mistakes. These mistakes happened primarily because instead of recognizing the pandemic as one that requires a coordinated British response, the party sought to emphasize and promote its differences from London.

Health has been a devolved policy area since 1999, meaning it’s run locally in each of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. This gave the pro-independence SNP an opportunity to differentiate itself from London and to show that Scotland can stand on its own feet—and perhaps even do better than if ruled from Westminster.

To be fair, no country in Europe will emerge from this crisis with their reputations intact. Every government committed too many errors in the pandemic response’s early days, such as repeated delays in necessary lockdowns and lifting restrictions too early before vaccines were fully rolled out, resulting in unnecessarily high rates of infection and deaths per capita during that period.

But some of Scotland’s mistakes have been unique—and entirely driven by the political machinations of the SNP. Early in the pandemic, Holyrood created a parallel scientific advisory body to the U.K.’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which it then unfortunately politicized by appointing SNP political loyalists. The activities and recommendations of this body largely duplicated the work of its London equivalent, and where it diverged, it was almost always for political reasons—and produced worse results. For example, Scotland insisted on developing its own, separate contact tracing app, with the catastrophic consequence that people traveling to other parts of the United Kingdom from Scotland could not be traced and vice versa.

Political messaging around the pandemic also had to be different from what was coming out of Westminster and clearly imprinted with the SNP brand. Such relatively simple, clear, and effective public awareness messaging campaigns designed in London had to be replaced with confusing and therefore ineffectual efforts that undermined the public’s pandemic response in Scotland and created consequences in the rest of the United Kingdom.

So how did this political theater result in Scotland’s spike in infections? Some people in the SNP have advanced the theory that Scotland’s past success in containing the virus’s spread means there is a higher percentage of people in Scotland still susceptible to the virus. That means infection rates are expected to be higher than they currently are in England even if the public’s behavior is exactly the same.

There is some truth to this claim, but the differences in susceptibility rates is not very large: Some 90 percent of people in England are believed to have some kind of resistance to the virus either from prior infections or from vaccinations while the percentage of people with some resistance in Scotland is 85 percent.

And if the Scottish government believes Scotland’s population is more susceptible to infection, it has the power and therefore the responsibility to implement policies to reflect that increased risk. If the SNP wants to own the past year’s successes, it must also own the acute failures of the last month.

Lower infection rates in Scotland last year also have plenty of other explanations. They can be attributed to politically neutral factors like the fact that Scotland is demographically far sparser compared with other areas in the United Kingdom, and its large cities are quite a lot less exposed to international traffic compared to London.

This year, Scotland also had a nursing home disaster while Scotland’s particular areas of acute concern at the moment, such as Dundee, are also clusters of high vaccine hesitancy combined with higher-than-average population densities. Then, the particularly higher incidences of infection among men have also been associated with this month’s soccer events, especially when soccer social gatherings have occurred in areas with substantially lower vaccination rates than the average.

Counter to their claims, however, it should be obvious that the SNP did not, in fact, bring any “special sauce” to the pandemic response compared to England. It had a largely similar public health response, with the few areas of policy divergence being entirely politically motivated and with worse public health results when they did diverge.

When England has had similarly bad-looking statistics during times when the Westminster government failed to prepare for predictable events, the SNP and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon were quick and indeed correct to criticize London’s inadequate response. But then they managed to find a way to repeat some of the very mistakes they correctly identified in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.

Westminster’s handling of the pandemic has, at times, been inept—as was the case in most European countries. But how much more remarkable is it that the SNP, having correctly analyzed the problems with England’s response, then managed to perform just as badly later on?

Last summer, the Scottish government proudly—in fact, hubristically—pronounced their aim was “zero COVID.” If that piece of political rhetoric was ever intended to bear some relation to reality, then that can no longer be the goal. We know the virus still transmits even in the best vaccinated populations and it will continue to evolve into different variants and is therefore likely to reemerge in acute spikes. The consensus among global health experts is the virus will become endemic, much like the seasonal flu.

Scotland would do well to expend less effort trying to be different from London for the sake of the SNP’s separatist ambitions and spend more time trying to effectively manage an ongoing crisis.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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