Scotland isn't out of woods yet as we look to rebuild from the COVID crisis
The deputy first minister tweeting unsubstantiated statistics was not the best start for his new role as COVID recovery secretary. The tweet in question included a graphic which claimed facemasks and physical distancing could eliminate the risk of transmitting the virus. It took two days, and being reported to the UK Statistics Authority, for John Swinney to delete the tweet and apologise.
It was a rare misstep for a government that has, on the whole, been praised for its communication throughout the pandemic. Swinney will be keen to not make any further mistakes as he takes on the brand new portfolio.
He is now tasked with “cross-government co-ordination of COVID recovery policies” and “co-ordination on COVID-19 recovery and COVID-19 strategic reviews” – which will require clear messaging as Scotland hopes to exit the pandemic.
Until relatively recently, the message has been to supress virus rates as far as possible. Indeed in summer 2020, Scotland had done remarkably well on that front. But by the time the programme for government was delivered in September, the tone had changed as cases started to rise.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Today’s programme is clear that suppressing COVID is our most immediate priority and will remain so for some time. That is essential for the protection of health and life, and for economic and social recovery. Put simply, if COVID runs rampant again, our economy will sustain even deeper, longer lasting damage.”
That approach meant that, while public health restrictions remained in place, recovery efforts had to focus on keeping heads above water. The furlough scheme, grants for low-income households, support for businesses and the third sector – all of this was designed to ensure the country was in the best possible place to rebuild post-pandemic.
Sturgeon’s warnings turned out to be well founded. Later that month, Glasgow entered what ended up being the longest and strictest lockdown across the UK. The possible circuit breaker over the autumn school break never materialised. England went into its second lockdown in November and UK Government plans for the Job Support Scheme were shelved when it became clear the furlough scheme would be needed for longer. It also led to questions about the availability of furlough for workers north of the border should Scotland need to lockdown at a later date. Ultimately, the entire of the UK was forced to go back into lockdown from Boxing Day, entering 2021 under a dark cloud.
Among all the grim headlines, there was one positive: the vaccine. Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer jab on 8 December 2020. While it would be some time before much of the population would receive their invite, the news served as a reminder that there was a way out.
Several months on, the success of the vaccination programme has meant the discussion has now turned more fully to long-term recovery. Swinney was installed as the cabinet secretary following the election in May and, in late June, Sturgeon confirmed a change in strategy.
She said: “Up until now, the Scottish Government’s strategic intention has been to ‘suppress the virus to the lowest possible level and keep it there’. From now, our aim will be to ‘suppress the virus to a level consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future’.”
The subtle change in wording belies what that really means. It explains why, even though COVID-19 case numbers have risen dramatically since the spring and are now at their highest ever, Scotland moved to “beyond level zero” at the start of August. Vaccines have reduced the number of people falling seriously ill and, at last, society can move towards reopening.
Despite this, the Scottish Government judged some restrictions still to be necessary. It pushed through the Coronavirus (Extension and Expiry) Bill over three days just before summer recess, which extends some (though not all) measures from the previous coronavirus legislation until the end of March 2022. Meanwhile, other measures like physical distancing and homeworking will be encouraged for some time.
The Scottish Conservatives voted against the latest legislation, saying it exposed “confusion and [a] lack of consistency” in the government’s approach.
Speaking in the final debate, Murdo Fraser said: “At the heart of the bill process lies an essential contradiction. On the one hand, on Tuesday, the First Minister told members in the chamber that things were getting better, that restrictions were on track to be eased and that by mid-August we should, all being well, be back to some degree of normality. In contrast, the deputy first minister has said that the extraordinary and unprecedented powers for ministers must be extended”.
It’s an example of the fine balance that will be required going forward.
Despite the disagreement about how and when to lift restrictions, however, there is some consensus on the focus of the recovery. The Cross Party COVID Recovery Steering Group was set up in May, convened by Swinney and attended by representatives from all of Holyrood’s parties.
At its first meeting, it agreed: “The broad thematic areas which the group would initially focus on were economic recovery, the NHS and education, with tackling inequalities a cross-cutting theme across all aspects of COVID recovery.”
That speaks to the biggest areas of concern post-pandemic, as well as reflecting the ambition to turn the ‘build back better’ rhetoric into reality.
While the broad focus for the government and parliament in the coming months is clear, there are undoubtedly big hurdles to overcome.
The end of the furlough scheme in September – a deadline which both the Prime Minister and chancellor are keen to stick to – will pose challenges for businesses as they return to full capacity against a backdrop of economic uncertainty.
Questions about vaccination passports, international travel, NHS backlogs and ensuring the attainment gap hasn’t widened as a result of school closures remain.
The pandemic has also exacerbated many pre-existing inequalities, particularly poverty levels, which will need to be faced sooner rather than later.
And that all assumes the light at the end of the tunnel won’t be eclipsed by the recent jump in case numbers across the UK.
Swinney’s warning at the end of the Coronavirus Bill debate serves as a stark reminder of how far there is still to go: “We hope that we are moving into more optimistic times in relation to the management of the virus due to the success of the vaccination programme.
“However, the data that we are receiving this week demonstrates that the problem has not deserted us in any shape or form.”