Two-speed exit from lockdown is setting fire to the tightrope
WELL, I hope that’s all crystal clear after Sunday’s television address by Boris Johnson – you all know what you’re doing?
Not quite: after all, it only applied south of the Border; viewers in Scotland were briefed on our arrangements earlier that day.
For those expected to heed the Prime Minister’s advice, it was hardly plain sailing – conflicting messages and big omissions abounded.
The waters were already opaque when Dominic Raab muddied them further yesterday, by wrongly suggesting pubs could re-open as early as June (he meant July).
As for how many relatives you can meet and where, it’s anyone’s guess: Mr Raab suggested you could meet two relatives in the park (in England), but the government later clarified you couldn’t.
In Scotland, our national incarceration continues – no day trips, golf, tennis or social interaction beyond the household, though there is the tantalising prospect of council tips and garden centres being allowed to function again – maybe.
Who would have thought an expedition to buy compost, or to the dump, might have caused quite so much excitement – in lockdown they count as treats.
Busy Tube trains in London and increased traffic further afield in England yesterday morning signalled that for many it was back to business: not quite business as usual, but fairly close to it.
Indeed, in Scotland the parks and roads are also getting busier, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s divergence from the UK Government line – and some businesses are encouraging employees to come back to work.
It’s messy, but Miss Sturgeon is within her rights to take a different tack, even if her claim to have ‘zero interest’ in making political capital out of the situation might seem a little dubious.
Witness the delight she took in mauling the new ‘stay alert’ slogan devised by public health chiefs in England – ‘vague and imprecise’, she called it.
Could it be that Miss Sturgeon is straining every sinew not to be ‘political’, while at the same time fanning the flames of a political row?
That said, her cautious instincts are understandable – in Germany, relaxation of lockdown restrictions appears to have led to a virus flare-up.
My fear is that in Scotland too many have flouted social distancing during lockdown, and that doesn’t bode well for encouraging it when ‘easements’ are made.
True, it doesn’t come naturally and in cities keeping 6ft away from other pedestrians, or joggers, is very difficult, maybe impossible, on some narrow paths and pavements.
But a lot of people have given up making the effort – or perhaps never tried.
The problem is that it’s all very well grousing about Mr Johnson’s strategy, or lack of it (why did he hold back some key information on Sunday night?), but lockdown purgatory can’t go on for ever.
The Scottish economy was already in less than peak condition – battered by tax hikes and sky-high business rates – before this paralysis.
At least the PM has a plan, as flawed as it might be – and we’ll find out soon enough whether it’s working.
But none of this should let Miss Sturgeon off the hook on the deficiencies in her own government’s performance.
What about the disaster in our care homes, where infection rates are running at up to 73 per cent?
Coronavirus has run rampant, killing more than 1,000 residents, with some staff deprived of the right kit to work safely.
The care home death toll accounts for more than a third of all coronavirus fatalities in Scotland – and yet the government’s response has been chaotic.
(Boris Johnson: easing lockdown)
Updated guidance published on Friday evening said hospital patients could still be moved into care homes even if they had not received results of Covid-19 tests.
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman initially claimed she had not seen the new guidance, issued to care home operators, NHS boards and councils and published on the Scottish Government website – then later said it had been published in error, and was being withdrawn.
Is this really any more sure-footed than Mr Raab’s blundering intervention yesterday?
And on testing, there are no grounds for complacency or boastful cross-Border comparisons.
Scotland’s former chief medical officer, Sir Harry Burns, has recommended every person in Scotland should be tested for coronavirus as lockdown measures are gradually lifted.
He also raised serious concerns about the ‘quality’ of checks taking place, claiming that families, including teenagers, were being asked to carry out their own swabs after travelling to official testing centres.
Sir Harry said: ‘This might sound ridiculous but we should be testing the whole population. We need to know how widespread the virus is.
‘The lockdown we have right now is essentially test, trace and isolate without the testing and the tracing.
‘If we are going to move in a way that lifts lockdown, then we need to know who is infected and who is at risk of spreading the virus.’
Scotland now has the capacity to carry out more than 10,000 tests a day, and ministers hope this will hit 15,500 a day by the end of this month.
Yet on Saturday, just 2,437 tests were carried out in hospitals, care homes or the community, and another 1,355 took place in drive-through and mobile testing centres.
It’s nowhere near enough if we’re to get the economy back to some semblance of normality.
That brings us to the enduring mystery of the elusive ‘R’ number, measuring transmission rates.
On April 23, the First Minister estimated it was between 0.6 and 1 (anything over 1 is bad news), but on Sunday she said it was 0.7 to 1.
Without more testing, it’s hard to be entirely accurate, but it remains the case that some of the biggest decisions of our lifetimes are being taken on the basis of imprecise data – and ministers haven’t always been entirely open about their methodology.
Now the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) says its members could become ‘state super spreaders’ of the virus due to ministers’ refusal to screen hundreds of officers who are exposed to Covid-19.
Their concern is that asymptomatic officers, who are in some cases being spat at and coughed on, could be spreading the virus between colleagues and the public.
And the risks they face could increase, now that Scots are forbidden from sunbathing and the other perks now afforded to English friends and relatives.
As SPF chairman David Hamilton argues, police have ‘sympathy for those sunbathing socially distant in our parks’, but it ‘still breaches the regulations’.
He said ‘it’s the police who will need to navigate this, with half the population angry that we’re not doing enough, the other half angry at us for being too strict.’
Miss Sturgeon is walking a tricky tightrope, and differential unlockdown has made it tougher to negotiate.
A distinct Scottish approach to curbing what Mr Johnson called this ‘devilish illness’ is entirely viable, and Miss Sturgeon may be proved right.
But it’s too early for self-congratulation, and while her dedication is laudable, her government isn’t beyond reproach on the way it’s handled the coronavirus crisis.
Soon enough, we’ll know whose path out of lockdown is working – and whether Scotland has been left behind.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on May 12.