Lucy Dunn Lucy Dunn

The political motives behind the SNP’s Covid strategy

(Photo by Fraser Bremner - Pool/Getty Images)

What motivated the Scottish government to take a more cautious approach to lockdown? Deviations from the UK government’s approach meant that those living north of the border often had to live with harsher restrictions compared to those in England, decisions that were widely assumed to be made on the basis of scientific advice. But now the Covid Inquiry has disclosed conversations that took place at the heart of government — and revealed how top academics were left confused by the SNP’s strategy.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University, told the inquiry on Wednesday that he ‘did not understand’ the Scottish government’s ‘very, very cautious’ pandemic strategy during the summer months of 2020. Hinting that the Scottish government may have been more interested in politics than public health, Woolhouse remarked that the government didn’t quite manage to convey the health benefits of their tentative approach to easing restrictions, adding: ‘It seemed to be important to the politicians that it was more cautious than the one in England, so they were emphasising that.’ 

More specifically, there have been questions raised about whether the Scottish government was pursuing a ‘zero Covid’ strategy during the summer of 2020 and certainly that was Woolhouse’s impression. The Edinburgh professor could hardly contain his disdain when he spoke on Wednesday. He described how Scottish government figures appeared to believe that despite warnings of a second wave of the virus, Covid cases in Scotland would continue to fall to a ‘zero Covid’ level. ‘That to me was,’ he concluded, ‘not consistent with the evidence that had been available since February 2020.’

Ultimately it appears that Scotland’s more cautious approach did not better contain the spread of the virus. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite. Scotland’s Covid deaths peaked at higher levels than those in England during both the Delta and Omicron waves of the disease — although the government’s wariness led to changes in public behaviour by, for example, encouraging mask-wearing.

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