The legacy of Covid and the future of lockdowns
With the legacy of the pandemic still lingering, and with Covid still continuing to infect people across the globe, attention has now shifted to defining ‘the new normal’ – and how we will live in a post-pandemic world.
Most pandemic powers were due to expire in March, two years after Scotland's first virus case was confirmed, but with the passing of the Coronavirus Recovery and Reform Bill in June, some previously temporary measures were made permanent, effectively enshrining the start of the post-pandemic era in law.
The bill, which included changes to 35 specific legislative areas, also included reforms to permanent public health protection powers, increased protection for private rented tenants facing evictions, and a temporary extension of some changes in the justice system to help manage the backlog of court cases arising from the pandemic.
Speaking at the time, Deputy First Minister and Covid Recovery Secretary John Swinney said: “While the vast majority of temporary pandemic measures have already been removed or will expire by the end of September, the passing of this bill maintains those that will ensure we are better prepared for future public health threats, pragmatic reforms that have enabled more efficient or convenient public services, and some temporary changes to mitigate the impact Covid has had on our justice system.”
One of the major changes is the now-permanent ability of the Scottish government to bring in public health measures at whim, ranging from requiring masks in shops to implementing full lockdowns, which raises the possibility of a future where the implementation and subsequent revocation of such measures becomes commonplace, particularly during winter.
MSPs took five hours to debate more than 90 amendments to the Coronavirus (Recovery and Reform) Bill before passing it by 66 votes to 52, but the passing of the bill was a hard-fought win by the Scottish government.
Opposition politicians said the bill amounted to a "power grab", with Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Conservative’s Covid recovery spokesperson, saying there were aspects of the bill that his party would have been "happy to support had they been brought forward in another form".
"But too much in this bill to us was simply not necessary at this stage, and it does represent a power-grab on the part of Scottish ministers," said Fraser.
Scottish Labour's deputy leader Jackie Baillie complained that the legislation - which she branded a "Frankenstein-like bill" - will see powers "handed over to government ministers".
Baillie said: "The executive will still have far-reaching powers which will potentially lead to ministers making rushed, ad hoc decisions, without the benefit of the appropriate level of scrutiny.
"This bill will not in and of itself lead to a better response to a future pandemic, and would diminish scrutiny and accountability.”
The passing of the bill drew a line under another year of uncertainty and changing restrictions.
At the beginning of the parliamentary year in September, the Scottish government approved vaccine certification plans, which meant from October 1st 2021, vaccination certificates were required to enter events such as nightclubs, music festivals and some football grounds. However, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was forced to delay the legal enforcement of the policy by 17 days, after a backlash from nightclub and venue owners led to legal action against the rules. In November, the Scottish government announced that negative lateral flow tests could be used as an alternative to vaccine certification to enter venues.
November also saw the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant in Scotland, followed swiftly by the confirmation of community transmission of the variant in December. As in the previous year, the winter months saw a dramatic increase in Covid infections, and the subsequent implementation of various lockdown measures. On December 14th 2021, the Scottish government published updated guidance on reducing social interaction at home or in indoor public places to a maximum of three households at any time, and the following week the Scottish Government announced one-metre physical distancing was to return in indoor hospitality and leisure settings.
Then, just before New Year’s Eve, the Scottish government announced nightclubs would be shut completely for at least three weeks. The Scottish Conservatives said closing them again was "a further setback to a sector already on its knees", but the Scottish government said the announcement was backed by £375m in business support.
In January of this year, a grim milestone was achieved as the number of people in Scotland who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid passed 10,000 on the 14th.
However, green shoots began to appear in February, as the number of new weekly infections decreased and various restrictions were repealed; which have – for now – lasted until the present day.
In February, the Scottish government rolled back two important restrictions. Firstly, the government announced high school pupils and staff would no longer be required to wear face coverings in classrooms for February 28th.
Secondly, Sturgeon announced vaccine certification would no longer be legally required from 28th February and that legal requirements on the use of face coverings and the collection of customer details for contact tracing purposes were to be lifted on 21 March.
Finally, in April, one of the more totemic examples of the pandemic was done away with, as the Scottish Government announced the legal requirement to wear a face covering on public transport and in most indoor public settings would end.
The passing of the Coronavirus Recovery and Reform Bill, a recent surge in Covid cases and the uncertainty of how the virus will mutate ahead of the winter months, leaves open the possibility that we haven’t seen the last of public health measures such as face masks and social distancing.
This article appears in Holyrood’s Annual Review 2021/22
Q&A with John Swinney, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery:
Now that vaccines have reduced mortality and hospitalisation rates, are we finally entering the ‘post-Covid’ era?
We will continue to lead the country safely out of the pandemic and to address inequalities made worse by COVID. However, the virus has not gone away, and Covid recovery remains a key priority for both myself and the Scottish Government.
Covid recovery and economic recovery go hand in hand, and in my new role I will focus on delivering clear priorities, including tackling child poverty, growing the economy and meeting our climate change targets.
While we are doing all we can with the finite financial resources and limited powers currently available to us to tackle the rising cost of living, I will continue to push the UK government to do more to help those most in need.
Will the Scottish Government rule out any further lockdowns this winter?
Actions have been guided at all times by the best and most up-to-date expert scientific advice. We will continue to take any decisions, no matter how difficult, that are necessary to keep us safe. Covid is unfortunately still with us and we must remain vigilant and prepared for the threats it poses. But hopefully we have now moved away from needing legal restrictions, and can rely instead on sensible behaviours, adaptations and mitigations. We have all craved normality, and no one wants to see a return to lockdowns. But we must continue to look after each other. Those who are able to may want to consider wearing face coverings indoors and on public transport and of course the most important thing we can do is come forward for vaccinations – which have been the key tool in allowing us to move forward.”
How difficult has it been maintaining relations with the UK Government throughout the pandemic and has that been a relationship of equals?
The Scottish Government has at all times tried to work constructively with the UK government in handling the pandemic. On many occasions that has been possible and as a consequence we have been able to make all of the progress we wanted to protect the public. It is no secret however, that there have been issues and approaches on which the Scottish and UK governments have taken different perspectives. This has been frustrating for us at times as the UK government’s actions have prevented us from focusing as much as we wanted to on protecting the public.
In recovering from the pandemic, which areas of government are you most focussed on?
“My focus in Covid recovery is on tackling inequality through our measures to eradicate child poverty and on boosting economic opportunity. This approach will help us to address the fundamental inequalities that existed in Scotland prior to Covid and which were exacerbated by the pandemic. The legacy of the virus must be to tackle inequality.
Young people have struggled during the pandemic and as a dad you will have felt that personally, are you confident that we can help our young people recover from this time and what would your advice be to other parents who might be worried that this will leave a mark on their children?
The impact of the pandemic on children and young people has been significant, from the disruption to learning, the loss of the opportunity to celebrate landmarks in life and the many other parts of growing up that have been hit by Covid. I think children and young people have demonstrated formidable resilience. It is a joy to see children and young people getting back into a more normal way of life with the resumption of so many activities and events. It is important that we continue to focus on the health and wellbeing of young people, including their mental health, as we continue move forward.
What is your most enduring memory from the pandemic?
The loss of so many of our fellow people during the pandemic is my most enduring memory and I am so sorry for the loss suffered by those who have lost loved ones. In my area of responsibility, deciding that schools had to close and exams had to be cancelled was a defining moment of the severity of what we faced.
What have you most enjoyed as life has returned to normality?
My Mum died just at the start of lockdown and other than seeing my Dad at her funeral, I did not see him face to face for months. So being able to sit down with my Dad, face to face, and blether has been incredibly precious.
You are returning to your old finance brief while Kate Forbes is on maternity leave and we have a cost-of-living crisis, have you thanked her for her impeccable timing?
This is a really exciting time for Kate and everyone is incredibly happy about her news. I wish her so much happiness in this exciting chapter of life. The First Minister has asked me to cover the Finance and Economy portfolio until Kate is back given that this is familiar territory for me. The circumstances are very challenging, and I will be doing all I can with colleagues to support people through these difficulties.