Scotland's Covid restrictions: SNP has become addicted to keeping the public under their control – Murdo Fraser MSP

Stockholm syndrome is when captives fall in love with their captors. Scovid syndrome is when Scottish ministers fall in love with keeping the people of Scotland captive, it would seem.

It's time for Nicola Sturgeon to set Scotland free from Covid restrictions (Picture: Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)
It's time for Nicola Sturgeon to set Scotland free from Covid restrictions (Picture: Fraser Bremner/pool/Getty Images)

When Boris Johnson announced last week that the Covid restrictions in England would be relaxed a month early, the reaction from the Scottish government was as swift as it was predictable.

The Health Secretary Humza Yousaf took to Twitter to denounce the Prime Minister’s call as “an attempt to distract and deflect scrutiny over PM’s behaviour”.

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It was a crude political point which, unfortunately, was retweeted by Scotland’s chief medical officer, Professor Sir Gregor Smith, although he later had the good grace to apologise for doing so. (He said he was merely retweeting the public health message – there was none.)

Perhaps we should expect no better from a minister in a government that so enjoys ‘emergency’ powers it wants to make them permanent.

Whatever the Prime Minister’s motivations for making the announcement, it is clear that the impact from Omicron has thankfully been nowhere near as serious as we were being led to believe back before Christmas. I still remember the dire predictions being made of thousands of deaths likely to be caused by this new variant.

It now looks like these warnings were unjustified, and indeed did not take sufficient account of the experience from South Africa, where the experts were telling us that whilst Omicron is more transmissible, its health impacts were much less serious than Delta. This experience should put into perspective the views of those who consistently call for “the science to be followed”.

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Grateful though we are for them, the truth is scientists haven’t always got it right when it comes to the impact of Covid, and indeed predictions made have turned out to be wildly pessimistic.

An analysis of the modelling done by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) demonstrates that even their most optimistic projections of hospitalisations and deaths were far higher than the eventual outcomes.

It's understandable that those doing the modelling will err on the side of caution, in case deaths and serious harm from an infectious virus turn out to be worse than they suggested. However, it does mean that we have to weigh carefully what the scientists are telling us when considering what restrictions we need to continue.

Ultimately, decisions fall on government ministers, not on scientists. There are wider policy considerations that need to come into play here.

The longer restrictions remain in place, the more the risk of wider harms to health and society – the economic cost to business and employment; the negative impact on health conditions where people are not able to access screening or treatment, leading to a rise in deaths; and the huge effect on the nation’s mental health from isolation caused by lockdown and restrictions.

At this stage, we can only guess at the long-term consequences of these wider impacts. Christine Tait-Burkard, a virologist at Edinburgh University, told BBC Radio Scotland at the weekend that children will be paying the financial and social costs of lockdown for the rest of their lives, despite being relatively safe from Covid.

She highlighted the continued requirement for children to wear facemasks in schools as an issue which affects emotional development, educational development and personal development.

Now at last the First Minister has announced that the requirement to wear facemasks in schools will be removed at the end of February. Not before time.

However, the mood music from the Scottish government so far suggests that they are not minded to match the wider and swifter removal of restrictions that we see in England.

Throughout the pandemic, Scotland has seemed not to have its own Covid policies – merely England’s ratcheted up a couple of notches to suggest the First Minister cares more.

It is not just in England that we are seeing progress in the relaxation of restrictions. The Welsh government announced last week that its vaccine passports will be axed from February 18, whilst the rules on wearing facemasks indoors in cinemas and museums will be eased from the 28th. Northern Ireland followed suit on Monday, with the health minister there saying that all restrictions will be lifted. Scotland is now the outlier in keeping restrictions while the rest of the United Kingdom opens up.

The frustration about the Scottish government’s stance is turning to fury amongst some in the business community and elsewhere. If the SNP want to have restrictions here much longer than England or Wales, then we need to hear why they believe that is the case.

We also need to know why we cannot increasingly rely on personal responsibility by the people we are told by our leaders are the ‘heroes’ of the pandemic – ourselves.

Last week the Scottish Conservatives published a paper – “Back to Normality: A Blueprint for Living with Covid” – arguing for a greater reliance on people’s sense instead of legal controls.

We know from experience that the public react well to public health messages, as we saw in December when advice on Christmas parties led to the cancellation of a large number of events, before any legal restrictions were put in place.

The removal of legal restrictions, and their replacement with an advisory approach, would allow individuals to assess their own vulnerability to the virus, and act accordingly.

Trusting the people to act responsibly, as we have demonstrated we already do, helps us to successfully live with Covid and avoid in future the financial and health harms that we saw as a result of lockdowns. Laws, after all, only work when they are followed.

We will find out next week exactly what Nicola Sturgeon and her colleagues have planned for us in terms of future restrictions. For once, it would be nice to hear a Nationalist cry “Freedom!”

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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