So should Scottish Government restrict travellers from England? - Lesley Riddoch

There have been no coronavirus deaths in Scotland for three days.

What a precious but fragile sentence.

Figures released yesterday by the Scottish Government show no fatalities registered in the last 24 hours amongst those testing positive for the virus. Figures are low at weekends, but that is 72 hours without another confirmed death.

Yes, things could easily change today. Yes, Scotland’s overall Covid death total has been shamefully high, especially in care homes. Yes, our test and trace system ground to a premature halt in March. Yes, there have been mistakes.

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But the longer lockdown, clearer communication, unique network of coronavirus assessment centres, greater public lockdown compliance and perhaps some learning from early mistakes - seem to be have produced this welcome health dividend.

Whatever the precise reasons, we’re now at a stage where experts like Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health and a member of the Scottish government’s Covid-19 advisory group, believe Scotland might even be Covid free by the end of the summer, if we stick to the rules. She told BBC Politics Scotland yesterday that the biggest challenge is managing the importation of new cases.

‘If Scotland was an island - like New Zealand - I would say going for zero cases would be completely feasible.’

What exactly did that mean? The BBC website went on to say; “An open border with England - where hundreds of cases are still being reported daily - is a concern, as is enforcing the 14-day quarantine of people flying into Scotland.” Whether that’s a paraphrase of Ms Sridhar’s beliefs or the BBC speaking for itself - it is a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Protecting Scotland’s new, hard-won reduction in the Covid transmission rate should be the Scottish Government’s top priority, and if that means having some control over likely sources of new infection, so be it.

It’s against this background that the weekend’s news should be judged.

Firstly, newspapers announced that Boris Johnson plans to end quarantine for visitors from countries involved in ‘air bridges’ later this week. Despite Downing Street assurances that all devolved nations were consulted, it turns out none of them were. So far, so usual.

But suddenly, that lack of input from Edinburgh has become a far bigger political issue.

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Scotland is heading for zero new Covid cases but is also being huckled into accepting air bridges and an end to quarantine rushed through by a Prime Minister desperate to reduce overcrowding on southern beaches, deflect from his own government’s myriad failings and the ever-increasing ratings of Labour rival Keir Starmer. Does that feel right?

Certainly, Boris Johnson’s 14-day quarantine system was introduced far too late in the pandemic. It’s also true that most European countries are now statistically safer in terms of Covid infection rates, than the UK. But maybe not safer than Scotland.

That’s why Nicola Sturgeon needs the political space to come to her own decision about how and whether to re-open Scotland’s borders - because the next six weeks will be absolutely pivotal in determining if schools here can reopen in August and if the inevitable second wave of Covid 19 this autumn will be large or small.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the UK Government’s SAGE Advisory Group told the Andrew Marr programme: “Come the winter, we can anticipate to see rebounds and second waves. The question is do you start from a very low base, like in Scotland, a few dozen cases, or maybe a few hundred cases in England. We’re on a knife edge, it’s very precarious the situation, particularly in England, and I would anticipate we would see an increase in new cases over the coming weeks.”

Read between the lines.

The experts are acknowledging what the figures make clear. Scotland overall has reached a precarious but enviable state of Covid containment. England overall has not.

So, what’s to be done?

Elsewhere, low transmission states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut plan to stop visitors from nine US states with “significant community spread.” Closer to home, Ireland’s set to place a new quarantine on British travellers in July because of the UK’s “significantly poorer” response to the coronavirus pandemic - particularly significant given the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland which has allowed free movement across the Irish Sea for decades.

So, is the Scottish Government about to try and impose similar restrictions on cross-border travel, even without having devolved control over security and borders?

That has become the second big story of the weekend.

Currently, anyone entering Scotland or England from overseas must go into quarantine for two weeks or face a £480 fine. Yesterday some newspapers suggested the Scottish Government will apply the same scheme to visitors from parts of England like Leicester, where the Covid-19 infection rate is high.

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A senior SNP source yesterday clarified that whilst the Scottish Government can’t rule out such a cross-border quarantine, it’s not planning to introduce one. Instead, it will ask people in ‘local lockdowns’ south of the border, not to head to Scotland.

This surely is the right approach - though it will benefit from careful explanation by the First Minister.

Anything more formal right now would prompt question marks over the constitutional competence of the Scottish Government and the legal basis of police powers, might risk accusations of anti-Englishness (however unwarranted) and present logistical problems.

A plea from a popular First Minister to the rest of Britain is a much better and more viable first step. But if it fails, Nicola Sturgeon would be quite right to consider stronger action.

After all, does anyone really believe Boris Johnson’s abandonment of quarantine and expected introduction of air-bridges is ‘guided by the science’ or political expediency? Does anyone think his ‘five tests’ were actually met before lockdown was relaxed in England? If the answer to both questions is no, then Scottish citizens should have the courage of our convictions and be ready to back the First Minister in any moves that help protect Scotland against the risk of importing new Covid cases.

Surely, after the early disaster of following Boris Johnson’s lead, Scots must be ready to learn from bitter experience - even if that courts confrontation with Number Ten.



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