Scotland has had a “good” pandemic. Nicola Sturgeon has excelled. The incompetence of the government south of the border proves once and for all that an independent Scotland would flourish.
Or so the Scottish Nationalists will tell you. And it seems to be working. While Boris Johnson was hospitalised and convalescing after his own brush with Covid-19, Sturgeon stepped up, filling the leadership void and emphasising at every turn that Scotland’s pandemic response would not be derailed by the chaos in England.
It’s a nice narrative — and an effective one. Since March, support for independence has been rising, tipping into majority territory and re-fuelling calls for a second referendum.
We should not be overly surprised by this. Whatever challenges Britain faces (Brexit, a global slowdown, a new highly contagious disease), the SNP’s solution is the same: secession. And with the UK government lurching from crisis to crisis, U-turn to U-turn, the Nats have been spoilt for choice when it comes to ammunition.
But Scottish voters should be wary. Just because the Westminster government’s pandemic handling has left much to be desired (and it has), that does not make Scotland’s performance any less dysfunctional.
Consider some of the greatest areas of failure: the tragic numbers of Covid care home deaths; the fiasco over grades for cancelled exams; confusing, counter-intuitive rules on local lockdowns that lead to panic and anger as people’s lives are repeatedly upturned.
The UK’s record has been disappointing to say the least. Faced with similar challenges, other governments have fared much better. But Scotland’s is not one of them.
To begin with the outbreaks among care residents, a recent study from the University of Stirling reveals that Scottish care homes were hit hardest out of the four nations, with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases in almost two thirds of institutions. Like England and Wales, at the start of the pandemic hospital patients in Scotland were discharged back into care homes without testing, spreading the virus among the most vulnerable. While it will take time for the true numbers to become clear, at present it appears that 47 per cent of Scottish Covid deaths occurred in care homes, compared to 30 per cent in England.
This is not in any way to let Downing Street and in particular health secretary Matt Hancock off the hook for following a “protect the NHS at all costs” strategy — with devastating consequences. But if care homes were a major blindspot for Westminster back in March, Holyrood was no more prescient.
The same can be said of the exam grading quagmire. Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s foresight and grasp of the issues has been abysmal, with the infamous Ofqual algorithm assigning grades to students based on the past performance of their schools. But we should not forget that Scotland faced similar outrage over algorithm-assigned grades weeks beforehand. Like Williamson, Scottish education secretary John Swinney insisted the grading was fair, before U-turning dramatically in the face of public fury. And — again like Williamson — he remains in post. Not exactly reassuring.
And if you thought the messaging over local lockdowns in Leicester, West Yorkshire and Manchester has been confused, those north of the border have hardly been spared. Frustration is bubbling this week after Sturgeon announced restrictions in Glasgow City, West Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire, based on dubious data. People are now banned from meeting inside the home of someone they know and trust, but are free to shop or go to a restaurant where they will come into contact with hundreds of strangers.
Better safe than sorry, you might say, but for all Sturgeon’s talk of a “zero-Covid” Scotland, the infection rate in many places is higher than parts of England. The scolding, school-teacher tone of Scotland’s fear-mongering messaging does not seem to be having the desired effect on cases.
There is one area, of course, where the Westminster government has excelled: Rishi Sunak’s financial support packages, in particular the furlough scheme. In barely a week the Treasury managed to put the tax system into reverse, saving millions of jobs across the UK, Scotland included. The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford may have blustered that Scotland was tackling the Covid economic crisis with “one hand tied behind its back”, but the fact remains that the Scottish furlough scheme — paid for by Westminster — has protected 736,000 jobs, with additional support to 155,000 self-employed Scots.
It has been so effective, in fact, that Sturgeon wants it extended. Earlier this week, the first minister said it was “essential” that the scheme continued — essential, in other words, that Scottish workers and businesses continue to receive central government funding.
How to square that (and the extra £6.5bn of Covid funding earmarked for Scotland from Westminster) with Sturgeon’s announcement just days later that she is drawing up the legislation for a second independence referendum to put to Westminster? Or with the claims from Swinney (who also serves as deputy first minister) that Scotland cannot fully recover from the pandemic without independence?
It has always been a myth that secession would benefit the Scottish economy — and with oil revenues collapsing and Scotland’s deficit six percentage points higher than the rest of the UK, the financial case for independence is weaker than ever. But it is also a myth that Scotland has had a better Covid crisis than England. Holyrood and Westminster have faced the same balancing acts, stumbled over the same hurdles, and sparked the same disappointment. Where there have been successes, they have been UK-wide, while disjointed, contradictory policies across borders have resulted in nothing but confusion.
Covid-19 does not prove the case for an independent Scotland. All it does is reveal that Downing Street does not have a monopoly on incompetence. The 51 per cent of Scots who supposedly back breaking up a 300-year union at such a critical time might want to take a closer look at their government, and reconsider.
Main image credit: Getty