Harry Warren

The SNP’s nonsensical Covid book ban

The SNP’s nonsensical Covid book ban
University of Edinburgh (Photo: iStock)
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Why is the SNP banning books? On 5 January the Scottish government introduced a strict new lockdown in response to the spread of a more infectious strain of Covid-19. As a student at the University of Edinburgh, one particular restriction has baffled me ever since. Unlike in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, the Scottish government decided to ban students from reading, borrowing or even touching books in their university libraries.

Even as fears rose over the rapidly spreading ‘Kent’ variant, it seemed that this policy lacked any scientific foundation. The Scottish government’s explanation for its book ban is baffling, and seems to be just copied and pasted advice from public websites and bluster over the importance of fighting Covid. Fighting Covid-19 is important of course, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to abandon logic either. A quick look at the Scottish government’s own Covid data, studies on how the disease spreads and the ramifications for Scotland’s already shameful educational inequality makes you wonder why this policy was ever introduced in the first place.

Firstly, let’s address the idea that Covid-19 is spreading via library books. A paper by Rutgers New Jersey Medical School is particularly enlightening on this subject. In the paper, published in August 2020, it was noted that:

‘A clinically significant risk of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission by fomites (inanimate surfaces or objects) has been assumed on the basis of studies that have little resemblance to real-life scenarios.

In a study in which the authors tried to mimic actual conditions in which a surface might be contaminated by a patient, no viable SARS-CoV was detected on surfaces.

In my opinion, the chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small, and only in instances where an infected person coughs or sneezes on the surface, and someone else touches that surface soon after the cough or sneeze.’

In other words, the transmission of Covid-19 via university books is only feasible if an infected individual coughs or sneezes directly onto a page which is then touched within one or two hours. Before the Scottish government mandated the book ban, Edinburgh University already isolated used books for a period of 72 hours, mitigating this already negligible risk.

The Lancet Respiratory Medicine Journal suggests surface transmission is unlikely as well, instead saying that smaller particles of Covid-19 are more likely to result in the ‘aerosol’ spread of Covid-19. Unlike droplets, aerosols are small particles of Covid which effectively float in the air. Their small size and ability to build-up in unventilated areas can render social distancing and mask wearing less effective.

Under the somewhat bizarre Scottish government rules, students are still permitted to study in the library if they wear masks, maintain social distancing and pre-book to allow staggered arrivals and exits. Clearly, the Scottish Government believes mitigating policies, rather than bans, are enough to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Why then, will it not allow the same logic to apply to books when they are clearly low risk?

If this policy were just a well-meaning but ineffectual public health measure the government could be forgiven. Yet, the damage being done by the policy is tangible and worsening each day that dissertation and exam deadlines approach. All students are currently barred from accessing physical copies of library books and texts. Students who can afford it have simply navigated this problem by purchasing the required texts themselves. Those who have lost jobs because of Covid or who have had to pay for accommodation themselves do not have the resources to purchase hundreds of pounds worth of texts. As a result, richer students have effectively been gifted a substantial advantage over their poorer counterparts. How can someone compete academically when they cannot physically access the resources they need?

The University of Edinburgh has tried to mitigate the government book ban through the implementation of a ‘click and collect’ service. However, the sheer number of requests and administrative difficulties inherent in the system mean that it barely functions. Orders are frequently rejected and if you are lucky enough to get a book it is often days before you can collect it. Despite the university’s best efforts, students cannot properly access the physical books they need.

The effect of the book ban is only aggravating the already shameful levels of educational inequality in Scotland. A study in 2016 found that poor Scots were four times less likely to even make it to university than their richer counterparts. By comparison, poorer English students were twice as unlikely to attend university than richer pupils. Those who have beaten the odds and matriculated in Scotland are now facing yet another barrier to educational equality. The consequences of Covid-19 exasperating these already deep inequalities have been well documented. Despite this, the Scottish government insists on maintaining an unscientific, illogical and hugely damaging policy of a blanket book ban across Scotland’s mainland universities.

If educational minister and deputy SNP leader John Swinney put half as much effort into Scotland’s education as he does into obstructing evidence to parliamentary committees, this damaging policy would never have been enacted, much less maintained.