Follow the money

Last week, Neil Hanvey “urged” Nicola Sturgeon not to follow Boris Johnson’s Covid “surrender strategy”. I agree. Specifically, he endorses her insistence that “masks need to stay”, but also not to use the Chinese lateral flow tests, purchased by the UK government. An article appeared in the BMJ as long ago as last January advising against their use, and more recently doubts have been raised about their accuracy, which can be shown to be as low as 2 (two) percent. If we don’t use those provided by Westminster, however, the Scottish Government would have to pay themselves.

At the same time, this raises issues about the encouragement by the Scottish Government that we should be testing ourselves twice a week, using these tests which too often return false positives. We are told that kind of regime will help to keep us safe, but the evidence is that it is more likely to require some to isolate when it’s not necessary.

This in turn raises the question of how far the First Minister can stray from Westminster? Last year, had the furlough scheme come to an end as planned, how could the Scottish Government have had to act differently? A widespread (e.g., Level 4) lockdown would have been all but impossible. Can a government – any government – tell people not to go to work without offering financial compensation? Yes, there is Universal Credit, but, leaving its adequacy to one side, that could hardly cope when the first lockdown started with furlough in place. What funding would there have been for businesses required to close?

As we all know, the Scottish Government is not sovereign and thus has no control of a sovereign currency. That lies in London. This point, no doubt would have Unionist letter writers (Martin Redfern, Peter Russell for instance) reaching for their pen/ keyboard, that this is a conclusive argument for Scotland remaining within the Union. It is though a particularly potent argument for why we must leave it.

How can poor wee Denmark – similar population, though a more successful football team – manage? They did the same as Rishi Sunak – they sold government debt to their central bank who provided the readies. Anyone who imagines Sunak is “active” in the international currency market to borrow to the requirements of the Westminster Government in the past 18 months, probably thinks he makes up any shortfall playing the spoons in Whitehall.

In passing, we might also learn a good deal from how the Danes managed their lockdown. They provided much better funding as well as practical support for those required to isolate, and thus people were much more likely to isolate. Likewise, life was more pleasant (or less challenging) for those recommended to shield. Note too their furlough arrangements, as hourly paid workers were paid 90% of their usual earnings, while salary earners got 80%!

Now Nicola has announced that we will be making our way back to ‘normality’, or ‘Freedom Day’ in England, albeit that we are doing it a bit more slowly. But, while there may be minimum agreement between Westminster and our devolved government doing so is by no means the consensus of the scientific community. Indeed Mike Ryan, an executive director of WHO has described it as an experiment in “epidemiological stupidity”.

By the time we get to the middle of next month all restrictions will be removed, while financial support for individuals and businesses will be coming to an end. But what could the Scottish Government do about this, but follow, however reluctantly and with however much delay? They simply could not maintain many of the restrictions for at least two reasons

  1. The comparison effect with England – “they’re getting on with their lives, why can’t we?”. Yet, the UK recorded 36660 new cases yesterday and 50 deaths. Given the lag between catching Covide and dying from it, we can expect deaths to increase in three or four weeks simply because there are more cases. How many more deaths we cannot be sure – more of these cases are among young people who the statistics say are less likely to die, and being vaccinated reduces the likelihood of death among older people. However, that 36660 is in a situation under restriction. It is almost certain that without restrictions that number will increase. Much is made of fewer being hospitalised because of the vaccines, BUT more cases create the potential for a further mutation which it is possible could compromise those vaccines we already have, EVEN IF there are fewer hospitalisations. Let’s not forget the recent letter in the Lancet by 120 of the world’s leading scientists calling on the British government to “turn back on its decision to lift all restrictions” and “refrain from its dangerous and reckless strategy of immunity via mass infection”. Remember the short debate about herd immunity back in March last year – well it’s what we are going to get now, but “you’ll have had your jag”. Is this really what we want to do – more deaths, risking a new variant simply because of the number of infections? The comparison with England is about rather more than how many folk you can have round your house, or go on a foreign holiday.
  2. Yet to do more/ be different in many case would cost money. Where does it come from? Westminster will send up the money to pay for their furlough scheme as long as it lasts – likewise the business support loans and grants – but only for as long as they decide to keep it going. Without serious financial powers this is way beyond the capacity of the Scottish Government. Tony Blair was quoted as saying that Holyrood was a sort of “parish council”. He might have been exaggerating to keep English voters quiescent, but this makes clear just how much Holyrood is the creature of the Westminster Parliament.

Hanvey is right that following Boris Johnson’s “surrender strategy” is the wrong thing to do, but how much discretion do the Scottish Government have in order not to follow? As Deep Throat advised in “All the President’s Men”, “follow the money”.

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