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24 April 2020

Will Scotland lead the UK out of lockdown?

The Scottish goverment has put forward ideas for the next stages of dealing with the coronavirus: will they work? 

By Stephen Bush

The Scottish government has become the first of the United Kingdom’s four governments to publish its thinking on the path out of lockdown, and there are growing calls within the Conservative party for Westminster to do the same. There are, understandably, a lot of known unknowns, but the section of the Scottish report that matters and probably gives those of us in England or Wales an idea of where we’re headed, too  lays out the likely spine of the SNP administration’s lockdown strategy.

The measures listed are:

Innovative approaches to maintain and enhance physical distancing
Continued focus on strong hygiene practices
High public awareness of symptoms and prompt action in response
Active surveillance
Case finding, contact tracing and quarantining
Shielding of clinically at risk groups

What does that mean in plain English? It means continued measures of physical distancing  if restaurants and cafes re-open they will have far fewer people in them. It means our movements and contacts being traced so that new outbreaks can be isolated and quarantined. It means prolonged and continuing self-isolation for vulnerable groups. It means measures like those in Taiwan and South Korea. 

What does that mean? It means that leisure and tourism industries will need financial support even if restrictions are eased. Many businesses may need grants and loans, not to weather an interruption to their services but to transition to a new way of living.

It also means that while the Scottish government has hit its target on testing, it will need a far more ambitious target and far greater testing infrastructure to deliver a strategy based around the working assumptions in their paper. 

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How influential will Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to publish her exit strategy be? I think it has two consequences: the first is that it empowers those in the devolved governments in Wales and Northern Ireland calling for them to do the same thing; and empowers Conservative backbenchers and ministers who want the British government to bring the public in on its thinking and internal debates. 

In practice, though, the biggest hurdle to the British government matching the Scottish government on this issue is that the Prime Minister is still convalescing, and this is fundamentally a job in which the head of government has to act as referee and final arbiter of any trade-offs. The biggest immediate influence is that fundamentally, I don’t believe for a moment that the Welsh or Westminster governments will be able to command political consent with an approach to this virus that is less cautious than that of their immediate neighbour. 

And while Sturgeon is right to say that there are different socio-economic and logistical challenges across all four constituent countries, I think if either Downing Street or Tŷ Hywel’s exit strategy are more cautious than hers, she will find that she ends up in that position as well. And that’s likely the biggest influence these papers will have: whichever one of Boris Johnson, Mark Drakeford or Sturgeon has the most cautious approach to virus-fighting will inevitably set the pace for the whole of the UK.