Covid-19: Why did SNP follow Tory Government into worst outbreak in Europe? – Joyce McMillan

Scotland went along with the UK Government’s mishandling of Covid crisis but must not do the same over the economy, writes Joyce McMillan.
Nicola Sturgeon’s fear that coming out of lockdown will be harder than going in has a ring of truth, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA Wire)Nicola Sturgeon’s fear that coming out of lockdown will be harder than going in has a ring of truth, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA Wire)
Nicola Sturgeon’s fear that coming out of lockdown will be harder than going in has a ring of truth, says Joyce McMillan (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA Wire)

As she unveiled Scotland’s first tentative plans for emerging from lockdown, in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, the First Minister observed that while going into lockdown was hard, she had always believed that coming out of it would be much harder; and of all the public pronouncements made by Nicola Sturgeon during this long and infinitely complex crisis, none has a clearer ring of truth.

From stage one (bowling greens and garden centres) to stage four (almost back to ‘new normal’), the landscape of the exit from lockdown is strewn with political traps; a veritable obstacle-course of sectoral interests none of which will be entirely satisfied, and of almost inevitable human disasters, caused either by resurgences of the virus, or by the collapse of companies and employers for whom the easing of restrictions comes too late, with devastating impacts in terms of redundancy and poverty.

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And for the Scottish Government, the immediate outlook seems particularly fraught with difficulty, not least because it is a government that likes to be all things to all people, and to be seen – in an age of “bad boy” politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson – to try to do the right thing, and to set itself higher standards.

For in the first place, as the coronavirus crisis recedes – and we must hope it continues to do so – the Scottish Government is going to face ever tougher questions about its management of the epidemic itself, and about why we followed the rest of the UK into one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Europe.

Scotland has benefited a little, of course, from locking down at earlier stage in its pandemic curve, and from having a lower population density; our current Covid death rate per million of population is 408, compared with 531 across the UK as a whole.

UK set basic conditions for disaster

Yet as a point of comparison, Denmark, with a similar population to Scotland, is currently reporting only 97 deaths per million of population, and Norway 42 per million; and every one of the more than 2,000 families bereaved in Scotland, as a consequence of that difference in mortality rate, will have reason to ask why, with our health system fully devolved, Scotland followed what now seems to have been flawed advice to lock down late, to stop community testing and tracing in mid-March, and to discharge many hundreds of elderly people, in the most vulnerable age-group, from hospital into care homes which were often, here as in England, inadequately equipped for Covid-19 care.

Across the UK, this has been a tragedy of poor decision-making, compounded by at least a decade of severe under-funding in a care sector whose residents and workers have been consistently undervalued; and people in Scotland have a right not only to be angry with the UK Government which set the basic conditions for this disaster, but also to be disappointed that our own government, for all its good intentions, was fundamentally unable to protect us from it.

And then beyond the crisis itself, the Scottish Government now faces the toughest challenge of all; and that is to negotiate the tension between the desperate drive back to “normal” that is now motivating large sections of the business community and many ordinary workers, and the real need to “build back better” that has been exposed by this crisis.

From lower levels of pollution and traffic noise, to the sudden surge of appreciation for essential workers previously ignored, bullied or exploited in our “deregulated” labour market, the Covid-19 crisis has brought a shift in values, at least for some in our society.

Misjudging the mood of the centre and left

Yet how is that shift in values to be expressed, and that recognition made flesh in our society, without the kind of bold plan for a very different future that the Scottish Government seems unable to produce?

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On Wednesday in the Scottish Parliament, for example, the Scottish Government allied itself with the Conservatives in rejecting, without negotiation, every single one of a set of amendments designed to protect tenants put forward by Green Party MSP Andy Wightman; at Westminster on Monday, some Labour MPs even voted in favour of the UK Government’s appalling current immigration bill.

And it seems to me that decisions like these crucially misjudge the current mood of voters of the centre and left, as we emerge from this crisis; they simply miss a critical opportunity to use this crisis to reset the parameters of a society that has been heading in the wrong direction – towards greater injustice, greater inequality, increased stress, and ever-increasing environmental destruction – for at least the last generation, and arguably longer.

When the Second World War ended in 1945, those who wanted to “build back better” were on the front foot, with plans already well developed for a fundamental shift towards a welfare state, and an end to exploitation in basic industries like energy and agriculture.

Now, though, governments like Nicola Sturgeon’s – and their social democratic counterparts elsewhere – seem caught in the headlights of events, desperately trying to deal with the day-to-day of the Covid-19 crisis, and talking whenever possible about rebuilding a fairer and greener economy, while practically acquiescing in a return to work that steers firmly back towards “business as usual”.

Nor would anyone with half a heart fail to acknowledge the difficulty of the situation. As a society, we are addicted to the business-as-usual economy, however daft, destructive and sometimes demeaning, that provides most of us with employment; and although the tools for transition exist – not least in the form of Universal Basic Income, which we are currently test-running on a massive scale – no politician wants to be the one to start turning off the old economy, and trusting the new one to flicker into life.

Sooner or later, though, that switch will have to be thrown. And if Nicola Sturgeon believes in adult conversations with the people, the discussion about how we begin that transition is one we should be having right now; before our government once more hands the initiative back to those who were doing best out of the system as it was – and who want, for preference, to see no change at all.

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