Covid-19: UK Government's incompetence shows Scotland is right to go its own way – Professor Sir Harry Burns
Back in the 1980s, I was a surgeon in the Western Infirmary in Glasgow. The staff in Sir Andrew Kays unit were friendly, hard-working and pretty smart. After work on Friday evenings we would usually retire to the Aragon in Byres Road and debate the issues of the day. David Hamilton, our transplant surgeon, was a supporter of Scottish independence.
Often, his solution to political silliness from Westminster was: “It’s time to shut the border.” Sam Galbraith, on the other hand, was fervently against the SNP and independence. Being politically disinterested, I found their arguments entertaining but pretty pointless.
My experience of Covid-19 is, however, getting me rather agitated about politics. We are in the middle the most significant public health crisis in living memory and the UK is being led by incompetents.
Early on, it was clear that this virus was highly infectious and had a significant mortality in older people and those with underlying illness. The countries that adopted a public health approach to controlling it have managed to suppress spread far more effectively than the UK.
From the beginning of this outbreak, the World Health Organisation was telling countries to “test, trace and isolate”. Separating infected people from the uninfected is a critical part of suppressing any outbreak.
Mass events permitted
In mid-March, the UK Government formally abandoned attempts to suppress transmission in favour of a “delay” phase. This was described as an effort to “flatten the curve” by encouraging herd immunity – let lots of people get infected in the hope that the survivors would be immune. In adopting this approach, Boris Johnson admitted that “many more families are going to lose loved ones”.
That weekend, thousands of people attended Cheltenham Festival. A football match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, involving many supporters travelling from Spain was allowed to go ahead. Was that wise, he was asked? “It is very important that we’re guided by the science,” Boris claimed. “There is very little epidemiological or medical reason at the moment to ban such events.”
His Chief Scientist, Patrick Vallance, unsurprisingly supported him by claiming that canceling large events was “not a major way to tackle this epidemic”. A week later, lockdown had to be implemented when the modelling carried out at Imperial College showed that hundreds of thousands of people would die without lockdown.
Shut the border?
By then, it was too late. The virus was spreading and the Government had not implemented the steps necessary to identify and isolate those infected and liable to spread the virus.
The promise of testing 100,000 people a day has not, despite Matt Hancock’s claim, been delivered. The tracing system, we are told by Hancock, is ready to go with 25,000 contact tracers having been recruited across England. “They have rigorous training with detailed procedures designed by our experts at Public Health England.” Some of these people are claiming their training involved three days being paid but very little information or training. For some of their training they were referred to YouTube videos.
I now find myself wanting to throw things at the television when I watch UK Government ministers trying to defend the indefensible. I suspect the same frustration is felt by those trying to protect Scotland from Covid.
The Scottish Government is absolutely correct to break ranks from England on lockdown policy. It is difficult for a devolved administration to move too distantly from Westminster but the First Minister is right to outline a distinct path for Scotland.
I’m coming to the conclusion that my friend David Hamilton was correct. If we had shut the border years ago, we would have been able to protect ourselves from UK Government incompetence.
Professor Sir Harry Burns is director of global public health at Strathclyde University
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.
Subscribe to scotsman.com and enjoy unlimited access to Scottish news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit www.scotsman.com/subscriptions now to sign up.
Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.