In Focus

Coronavirus: how Scotland split from England in its Covid-19 response

Stricter lockdown measures north of the border have not produced lower death rates

Scotland is moving to tighten up its coronavirus restrictions after passing 7,000 deaths from confirmed or suspected Covid-19 since the pandemic began.

The ramped-up restrictions will see click-and-collect services limited to essential shopping, new rules on collecting takeaways from inside restaurants and will see Scots only allowed to leave home for essential purposes.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chose to increase restrictions following a meeting with her cabinet this morning, taking the opposite approach to Boris Johnson who is focusing on compliance with existing Covid restrictions after gathering his cabinet on Sunday.

Deaths north of the border

Scotland is currently battling an increase in deaths, with official data showing that 384 deaths were registered which mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate between 4 and 10 January, up 197 on the previous week.

The country went into lockdown on 5 January with people only allowed to leave their homes for essential purposes and all schools moved to remote learning for the whole of January.

Addressing the Scottish parliament, Sturgeon today said that Scots should not “think in terms of the maximum interactions you can have without breaking the rules”.

The warning echoes Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s comments on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday last weekend in which he said England’s rules were “not there as boundaries to be pushed”, and come after a bumpy series of months in Scotland’s pandemic response.

In November, the Financial Times (FT) reported that “weeks of official statistics suggest that proportionately more people have actually been dying of coronavirus in Scotland than in England”. 

While Hancock and Sturgeon are this week singing from the same hymn sheet, Scotland has diverged from England in its approach to containing the pandemic. And the death rate in Scotland “challenges a popular image of Sturgeon and her government as being more effective in the fight against coronavirus”, the paper adds.

Disunited kingdom

The UK’s response to the pandemic has given the Scottish National Party (SNP) a new argument for independence, according to some of its most prominent MPs, including Joanna Cherry, a front runner to succeed Sturgeon as SNP leader.

In May, she told The Times that the “incompetent handling of Brexit and the Covid crisis by Westminster builds the case for independence”, adding that “many more people” would now question the UK as a “stable and competent entity” after the pandemic.

As the BBC has noted, many of Sturgeon’s decisions have “matched those by the UK government for England and the devolved administrations for Wales and Northern Ireland”. However, advisor to the Scottish government Professor Devi Sridhar told The Telegraph in October that unlike England, Scotland was pursuing a “zero Covid” strategy like the one implemented in New Zealand.

After lockdown restrictions were eased last summer, Scotland consistently maintained tougher lockdown restrictions than England, according to Oxford University researchers tracking the government responses to coronavirus. Scotland’s lockdown stringency score - a measure derived by the researchers from the entirety of a country’s restrictions - was higher than England’s throughout May to October. 

Death rates began slowing in November, according to monthly data published by the National Records of Scotland. But that month, after weeks of stronger restrictions than those seen in England, deaths “recently outpaced” those seen south of the border.

Perception split

A marked difference between the two nations can be found in public perception of the pandemic handling. 

An Ipsos Mori poll of voters in Scotland published in November, when Scots were dying at a higher rate than England, found that 72% thought the Scottish government was handling the coronavirus well. This compared with just 25% who said the same of the UK government.

Meanwhile, across the entire UK, just 31% of voters believe that the government is currently handling coronavirus “well” or “somewhat well”, according to polling by YouGov.

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