The extent of Nicola Sturgeon’s success as leader will be measured by how many lives she has saved during the course of this crisis – how is Scotland doing compared with equivalent countries, in terms of population and profile? She will be judged on that criteria and no other. (Facebook post, 23rd April 2020)
On Thursday 23rd April 2020, Nicola Sturgeon, during the course of her daily press briefing, outlined a plan designed to lead Scotland out of lockdown. At its centre was a major new commitment towards a strategy of mass testing and mass contact tracing, aimed at the suppression of Covid-19 rather than, as with the previous policy, merely managing its progress through the population without collapsing the Scottish NHS. It is a most welcome development, and one which was being demanded by growing sections of Scottish civic society and by increasingly concerned and critical practitioners within medical and research circles.
Despite this dramatic volte-face, major questions remain as to why, faced with a disproportionately high death rate and an unfolding massacre within the care homes, it took so long for the Scottish Government to change tack. Indeed, following the First Minister’s ambiguous response to some of the questions at last Thursday’s briefing, it is not at all clear that she even accepts that there has been ANY change in Scottish government policy. When, following the press briefing, Nicola Sturgeon was asked about the details of her plan by Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News she referred to it as allowing the Scottish government to ‘continue to suppress it (ie the virus)’, whilst adding that a strategy involving the sacrifice of any section of the Scottish population, let alone the most vulnerable, was totally out of the question.
It is, though, far from clear that the Scottish Government approach has, up to yesterday’s volte-face, been based on ‘suppression’ of the virus. We will lay out the two strategies side by side so as to discern precisely which one the Scottish Government has been following, and whether last Thursday’s announcement does actually represent a departure from previous policy.
A herd immunity strategy aims to confer community-wide immunity to any invasive virus or disease through a policy of containment, mitigation, and, finally, eradication. During the containment phase, measures such as social distancing, community surveillance testing, and contact tracing are deployed, in an effort to snuff out the disease before it can get a grip within the wider community. Once the disease spreads into the wider community, however, the containment phase ends, and mitigation then becomes the order of the day through the shielding of the most vulnerable through lockdowns, which are aimed not so much at saving lives, but more at relieving the pressure on health services so that they don’t collapse in face of the pandemic. The idea behind ‘herd immunity’, as Martin Hibberd, Professor of Emerging Infectious Disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, explains is that;
In a good scenario, the 70 per cent infected, recovered and immune would be people who were expected to have mild disease and the 30 per cent who were vulnerable to severe disease would be protected by this herd immunity.
Two very important points have to be made about the applicability and appropriateness of ‘herd immunity’ as a strategy that can defeat this present pandemic. Firstly, a herd immunity strategy is usually, if not always, accompanied by a wide-ranging vaccination program; but in this instance there is no vaccine. Secondly, Covid-19 is only a few months old as a disease, and we still know very little, even at a basic level, about the way it acts. What we do know, is that it is highly infectious, over three times more so than the common flu virus, and that there seems to be some evidence that re-infection can occur. If this is, indeed, the case, then the ‘herd immunity’ strategy becomes completely unfit for purpose, and, by allowing the virus to circulate, may actually be counter-productive, as this could encourage the mutation of the virus into new strains – although, it is important to note, mutation usually leads to dilution in the toxicity of a virus.
What can be discerned through following the UK timeline of the pandemic is that a major shift in strategy occurred on 12th March. On that day, the UK government officially abandoned any attempt to contain the spread of the virus, by announcing that we had moved to the ‘mitigation’ phase of the herd immunity strategy. That same evening, Pete Wishart MP appeared on Question Time where he stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tory and Labour spokespeople in defending the need for a co-ordinated ‘four nation’ policy, which recognised the need to allow Covid-19 to rinse through the population. They even attempted to silence John Ashton (the former Director of Public Health in England and Wales) when he stated that such a course of action was leading the UK into a disaster of epic proportions. It should be noted that Pete Wishart was not appearing on Question Time in a personal capacity.
On the same day, both the UK and Scottish governments announced the abandonment of mass testing and contact tracing, as it was felt that the virus, which was already circulating in many communities, could no longer be contained. (In Nicola Sturgeon’s view, echoing that of her former chief Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, ‘mass testing was not a panacea’.)
Then, on 16th March, Jason Leitch, the Scottish National Clinical Director, and the most over-promoted dentist in the long, and up to now celebrated, history of Scottish medicine, clearly indicated that the Scottish Government policy was being organised on a herd immunity basis. Indeed, Professor Leitch (his Professorship is an honorary title), appeared very relaxed, when, on the same day that Austria went into full lockdown, he informed a rather non-plussed Channel 4 reporter that he didn’t believe social distancing was necessary and that he’d just visited his elderly parents, even adding that he had no misgivings whatsoever about giving them a cuddle. At this stage, there was still no official talk of a lockdown either in Westminster or in Holyrood, and Jason Leitch and other government spokespeople were busy re-assuring the Scottish public that there was no need to ban large-scale social and sporting events. Indeed, it was left to the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), alongside other sporting and civic organisations, to announce the cancellation of all Scottish senior football matches from the 14th March onwards. We can only speculate as to how many fresh Scottish infections would have ensued if the SPFL had not acted in the unilateral manner they did.
In the following week, it seems to have become increasingly clear to the Scottish government that their initial evaluation of the developing pandemic was far too optimistic, which would explain why, on the 20th March, they announced the closure of all Scottish schools, a measure that Westminster quickly echoed, despite there being little indication that this had been previously planned. In the next few days, with stark images of rows of ventilators holding faceless bodies struggling desperately to breath being beamed into UK living rooms from Lombardy, Tehran and Madrid, the full extent of the looming crisis was becoming readily apparent: the UK lockdown began on the 24th March, fully three weeks after Germany and four weeks after Italy.
In the weeks since the lockdown, questions have begun to be asked about the nature of the Scottish Government’s initial response to the Covid-19 crisis. It seems that they chose to adopt a ‘better together’ approach, involving joint action with Westmonster, at precisely the time when they should have been underlining their fundamental differences with the English Tory way of doing things. The crisis offered the SNP, and Nicola Sturgeon, a major opportunity to strike a blow for Scottish independence based on a vision of social solidarity rather than the ‘laissez faire’ individualism and low-wage economics favoured by Johnson and his chums. Sadly, this opportunity was never taken up, as Nicola Sturgeon (no doubt following advice from the likes of Calderwood and Leitch) repeatedly underlined her support for what amounted to a Scottish ‘herd immunity’ strategy.
As a result, Scotland now has one of the largest death tolls of any of the small nations on a worldwide basis. With a population of 5.4 million, Scotland’s deaths now number 1,120 (as at 24/04/20), compared with Greece, 10.8 million, 130 deaths; New Zealand, 4,8 million, 17 deaths; Denmark, 5.8 million, 403 deaths; Norway, 5.4 million, 199 deaths; Ireland, 4.9 million, 1014 deaths. Set against countries with a similar population and similar level of economic development and social organisation, Scotland stands out for all the wrong reasons. When we compare the Scottish and Irish figures, Scotland does seem to fare better, until we remember that the Scottish figures (as with all UK figures) represent an underestimation of the real death toll, as they do not include the deaths of ALL those for which Covid-19 is given as a cause of death, a fact admitted within the Scottish government’s new strategy document. The true UK-wide figure is now well over 40,000 deaths, despite the official total standing at 19,506, and a similar correction should be applied to the Scottish figures, which may well be nearer the 2,000 mark, or even more.
Many Scottish care homes have witnessed veritable massacres of their elderly clients, whilst increasingly desperate staff members have often struggled to source ANY PPE. In one of Channel 4’s most poignant TV reports from Scotland, a clearly distraught day care worker in Dundee explained that she had to spend hours every day sourcing her own hand sanitizer and other items of basic PPE before she was able to visit her elderly clients in their own homes. Susan was scared for their safety, the safety of her fellow workers, and her own safety, but she was still determined to carry on working, whatever the cost. Susan’s story is far from unique, and will, along with many other similar cases, need to be thoroughly investigated when we finally emerge from the other side of this developing catastrophe. We owe this, at the very least, to the huge numbers of Scots who have already died and who will continue to die completely needless deaths.
Whilst the Scottish Government, following the publication of their plans for exiting lockdown, have signalled a major departure from the former ‘four nation’ approach, they have not yet accepted responsibility for the high death toll that resulted from their previous herd immunity strategy. It is not even clear that Nicola Sturgeon accepts that the new policy represents a major departure; however, it is absolutely vital that she and the Scottish Government are held accountable for their disastrous approach to this crisis in its early weeks – and this needs to be seen to be done, if the SNP’s claims to be a different kind of government are to be treated as anything more than shameless political rhetoric.
It almost appears as though Nicola Sturgeon is attempting to re-write history in order to give the impression that Holyrood and Westmonster have been following very different policies, whilst hoping that nobody actually notices her less than subtle sleight of hand. In so doing, Nicola Sturgeon is making herself a hostage to fortune, along with her SNP government and the wider Scottish independence movement. It will only be a matter of time before more searching and persistent questions are asked of the First Minister. She certainly seemed far from comfortable as she was grilled, ever so gently, by Krishan Guru-Murthy on last Thursday’s Channel 4 News, and we should expect the Unionist press interrogations to start in earnest, and to become more searching and persistent, in the wake of this crisis. They will smell blood, and Nicola Sturgeon will experience a massive fall from grace, but the real risk is that she will take the hopes of the Indy movement with her. That is why this issue is so important to the Scottish Independence movement. It should be we, as active Scottish citizens, who hold our government accountable, rather than serried ranks of Fleet Street hacks.
The Scottish people and the Scottish Independence movement need to hear Nicola Sturgeon giving a full and sincere apology for inflicting policies of herd immunity on the Scottish population, and we need a full guarantee that mass testing and contact tracing WILL, indeed, form the centre-piece of the Scottish government approach going forward. We also need Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government to move away from the heavily centralised and top-down form of organisation that has marked the official response to the pandemic up to this point. The much publicised controversy regarding the breakdown in supply of PPE from English sources only served to underline the absolute necessity for this country to produce its own supplies. Indeed, as the SUWN has repeatedly pointed out, there was nothing to prevent the Scottish government from mobilising all available resources through a national appeal and requisitioning of companies, small firms and institutions (as well as drawing in individual households with the requisite skills) to produce masks and scrubs, as has happened in other countries, notably the Czech Republic. It is also the case that Scottish local authorities seem not to have been given much of an independent role whatsoever during the course of this crisis, which has only exacerbated problems with the supply, and production, of PPE, and the lack of mass testing and contact tracing.
In the final analysis, failure to respond adequately to this crisis was not limited to the SNP leadership, but was, without exception, equally shared by ALL British mainstream political parties. It has sometimes appeared as though we are saddled by governments that cannot give a lead, opposition parties that cannot oppose, and a national media that refuses to hold power to account. The veritable silence from the Labour Party underlines just how determined their new leadership is to be seen as ‘Her Majesty’s loyal opposition’, whilst their Scottish branch office is currently in the process of upbraiding the Scottish Government for daring to move away from full co-operation with Westminster.
When we look beyond the next few weeks and the end of this crisis, whenever that might be, it become obvious that the present political vacuum created by the major failure of the British political classes poses a major challenge for the Scottish Indy movement, which should now be looking to establish a socialist or left Indy political voice that can properly hold the SNP to account. We cannot allow the shortcomings of the SNP leadership to compromise the future of our movement and our chances of winning the different Scotland that we all know is not only possible, but absolutely essential.