Scotland: Lockdown exit exposing Tory and Scottish National Party failures

Lack of testing is creating major problems for a lockdown exit. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Like many ruling administrations internationally, the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led Scottish government has seen an increase in approval ratings and support during the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent YouGov poll found 74% of Scots held the view that the Scottish government is responding well to the pandemic. Approval of first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the outbreak was 71%.

As in most countries, since the crisis began, the polling shows a mood of national unity behind incumbent governments. 70% of Labour and Conservative voters in Scotland approve of the Scottish government’s handling of the crisis.

However, the view in Scotland of the UK Tory government’s handling of Covid-19 is much more polarised. Only 47% of Scots approve of Westminster’s response in comparison to 59% in England. Even Boris Johnson’s illness hasn’t saved him from a lower Scottish approval of 40%.

Currently, YouGov polling puts the SNP on 54% for the 2021 Holyrood elections in constituencies and 45% for the regional list – an increase of 8% since the pandemic began. Scottish Labour is polling even lower than their disastrous December 2019 general election results, down at 12%, third behind the Tories. Significantly, support for Scottish independence which increased after Johnson’s victory last December has also held up.

Little difference in approach between the UK and Scottish governments

Urban Scotland is in line with the rest of the UK in terms of the scale of the pandemic that has led to the highest death rate in Europe. In fact, Sturgeon even stated at the daily press conference on May 5 that the “R number” may be even higher in Scotland than England.

Faced with legitimate criticism, including from Scotland’s largest selling newspaper, The Daily Record, that they have been “in lockstep” with the Tories, Sturgeon has attempted an “up front and honest with the public treating them like adults” campaign.

This contrasted with a succession of Tory cabinet ministers chaotically dealing with failures over PPE provision, testing and the deepening splits in the British ruling class over exiting lockdown.

A public “Coronavirus Framework for Decision Making” document was released by the Scottish government on April 23rd before Westminster had made public anything similar.

It was quickly followed up with a more detailed discussion document on May 5th around the measures for a gradually phased end to the lockdown.

This has created a certain perception that the SNP government is more transparent than the Tories and has a more competent and clearer plan. Sturgeon and the pro-capitalist SNP leadership, conscious of the wide public support for the lockdown measures, and the fears about the virus, have been able to present themselves as more humane.

The Tories are increasingly seen to be dancing to the tune of big business and dogged by public divisions. The right wing Tory 1922 committee have been voicing the will of big business to end the shutdown of the economy in the interests of profit.

This was summed up by the comments of Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, this week, that the “public have been a little too willing” to abide by the lockdown.

Sturgeon is also waging a constant moralistic campaign, attempting to divert anger. This week she railed against the “non-essential journeys” to a reopened Costa Coffee drive thru, which saw queues of hundreds of cars at Braehead shopping centre.

No thought was given that some may have been NHS workers looking for relief after brutal long shifts at Scotland’s largest hospital a mile away. Or of the anti-union Costa’s drive for profit.

In practice, the content of the Scottish government documents are very similar in substance to the plans of the Tories. There have been few divergences. One was when the Scottish Government announced advice that from April 28th face coverings should be worn in shops or on buses, for example, where the two-metre rule was difficult to maintain.

Yet the Scottish National Clinical Director, a main advisor informing the government strategy, Jason Leitch stated recently: “Masks are useful if you have the disease and useful for health care workers who are working with people who have the disease but global evidence shows that masks in the general population don’t work.” If that is the case with face masks, how more so is it the case with a scarf or other cloth-based coverings?

Nicola Sturgeon currently says they will lift lockdown very gradually, with step-by-step small measures. Much emphasis will be placed on the population to cooperate with under-resourced contact tracing and social distancing. Large numbers of people may have to repeatedly self-isolate, even possibly in government-provided facilities, if they come into contact with infected people.

Further differences may well open up between the Scottish and UK governments over the next couple of weeks. Driven by the interests of capitalism, Boris Johnson made a statement on Sunday 10 May over lifting of some lockdown restrictions from Monday 11 May. These are unlikely to be copied immediately in Scotland which is behind England, especially London, in the spread of the virus.

Testing

The lack of regular testing for care home workers and residents, particularly during the March/early April period, will almost certainly prove to have been a key factor – alongside shortages of PPE – contributing to the death toll in care homes. As is the moving of patients from hospital wards to care homes, without rigorous testing in the early stages of the pandemic. This was done as part of the measures to ramp up NHS bed capacity in preparation for covid patients

As England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said: “things would have been done differently” if the capacity for covid-19 testing had been ramped up earlier.” Linda Bauld, a public health expert at Edinburgh University, said: “We went into this with no infrastructure or a very modest infrastructure to test and we started to ramp that up far too slowly”.

Dr Poppy Lamberton, an expert in global public health, says “limited testing” in the UK is behind the high death toll.” The testing failures were admitted, inadvertently, by Jeanne Freeman, the SNP’s health secretary, in parliament this week: “I am not ruling out the regular testing of health and social care staff, if the advice we receive indicates that that is exactly the right thing we should do more than we are doing at the moment.”

Testing in care homes was only introduced on April 15th – far too late, given that the virus was already in hundreds of care homes by then – and has yet to be fully rolled out.

It is not surprising then that Jeanne Freeman has refused to publish, in response to a parliamentary question, the scientific advice the SNP received for its testing strategy up until March 20.

In the last week of April, the number of daily tests in Scotland was actually dropping and the Scottish government was 53% under its original target. It is incredible that, given the evidence, on March 24 in a parliamentary debate Nicola Sturgeon stated; “we have the greatest testing capacity of any country in the world”.

Socialist measures needed

To emerge from lockdown using test, track and isolate would require an estimated 2% of the population to be tested at a rate of 15,500 per day. This is significantly more than can currently be done and is a key reason as to why the Scottish government is delaying an emergence from lockdown until further expanding of capacity is achieved.

The plan is for or up to 2,000 additional specialist workers to be taken on to assist with tracing, but at least four times that number would be needed, in reality.

A democratic socialist government would utilise planned testing and contact tracing managed by key workers without the repressive measures used in China. This would be linked with an economic plan to take the major levers of the economy under democratic workers’ control and public ownership, with compensation only paid for proven need.

Currently, the SNP and the Tories face no real political opposition. Keir Starmer, UK Labour Party leader, has been acting as a useful, uncritical prop to Johnson, while Labour in Scotland is ineffective and losing support.

Despite promising to build a “fairer more sustainable renewed” society after the pandemic, the SNP even with the powers of independence, would not countenance the socialist transformation that is needed. As is seen with their latest recovery advisory board which is packed full of reps from big business.

Workers need a political voice as the lockdown lifts, as well as trade union and workers’ control of how and when the workplaces restart. Urgent steps need to be taken in the labour movement to build a new mass party of the working class with fighting socialist policies.   

Devastating report exposes impact of austerity on pandemic response

Matt Dobson

A devastating policy report by Newcastle University academics Allyson Pollock and Louisa Harding-Edgar, entitled, Coronavirus Crisis: Underfunding, Restructuring, Privatisation and Fragmentation at the Heart of the Crisis in Holyrood and Westminster, shows the SNP will come up against the reality of their own policies as they attempt to lift the lockdown.

The report outlines the result of their pro-big business approach. Implementation of Tory cuts has meant they were just as late and ineffective as the Tories in responding to the pandemic.

Critically, the result of their austerity driven approach means that their framework for returning to the “new normal”, which is entirely dependent on testing, contact tracing and isolation, a strategy they themselves abandoned in mid-March, could be fatally undermined by a lack of resources and capacity.

Pollock and Edgar pose damning questions to the Scottish government. Scotland’s first official case was in Tayside on March 1, (England’s first case was on January 30) with a holiday returnee from Italy, with the first death coming on 13 March.

They ask: “why did the Scottish Government not demand UK action to seal borders and stop travel, and why did the Scottish Government not build up capacity for contact tracing, take steps to protect those most at risk, and protect some areas so that life could continue, or at the very least that children could continue with their education in unaffected areas? Why did Scotland, where cases were far less numerous than in England, agree to the COBRA decision on 12 March to abandon contact tracing? At that point, there were few confirmed cases in Scotland.”

The gap from that fateful decision on 12 March until the Westminster directed lockdown on 23 March effectively allowed the virus to spread through the country with no monitoring or resistance.

This period included Jason Leitch publicly defending the “herd immunity” approach on Channel 4 on March 16th. It was also recently revealed after SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, had rightly berated Boris Johnson for being complacent in missing Cobra meetings, that SNP leader, Sturgeon, had also missed six.

The report outlines the real reason for abandoning contact tracing was not science, but resources and capacity.

Tory minister Lansley’s brutal 2012 Health and Social Care Act gutted and centralised disease control, labs and healthcare resources in England leaving only around 300 staff. The Tories have not even utilised the thousands of environmental health officers local authorities posses with useful skills to contact trace and test.

The process of cuts and centralisation went significantly deeper and further in England but the general direction was followed in Scotland with the creation of Health Protection Scotland.

The Scottish government, the report explains, have yet to provide any figures on the following; the numbers of contacts traced up until March 12th; the numbers told to self-isolate and any data on the staffing and numbers of field epidemiologists, at the time or since, involved in tracing and testing. Without these figures how can we assess Scotland’s testing capacity?

The lack of transparency also extends to the “Silver Swan” exercise the SNP carried out in 2015 to gauge the level of preparedness for a national flu pandemic. Its report and findings, however, is not publicly available.

Pollock and Edgar also pull no punches in highlighting why the Tories and the SNP retreated from “herd immunity”. “Around the 23 March, the modellers confronted the government with the terrifying spectre of hundreds of thousands of people dying in hospitals that were overwhelmed and could not cope, and of refrigerator trucks piled up in car parks to take away the bodies of the dead who had not received the care they needed”.

Both Sturgeon and the Tories may now be conceding ground saying testing may have been late and capacity should have been built earlier but then why did they not follow the WHO China mission report on the 24 February?

It explicitly said that in order to minimise or interrupt transmission chains of the virus measures including “proactive surveillance to immediately detect cases, very rapid diagnosis and immediate case isolation, rigorous tracking and quarantine of close contacts, and an exceptionally high degree of population understanding and acceptance was needed”.

Cuts and privatisations undermine health services

The report starkly outlines how cuts, privatisation and underfunding of health and social care in Scotland have exacerbated this crisis.

The most vulnerable have been unable to be shielded. The data on the care sector in Scotland, with 58% of homes in private hands, is damning. Around 59,900 workers in Scotland are employed by private care homes, a quarter of who are on zero hour contracts. There are high absence levels and a constant staff shortage.

Pollock and Edgar reveal one case: “Four Seasons is a large multinational with 15 care homes in Scotland and yet the Financial Times has reported that ‘tracing the finances at Four Seasons is all but impossible; the company’s sprawling structure consists of 200 companies arranged in 12 layers in at least five jurisdictions, including several offshore territories’ and that £71 per bed goes towards debt repayment. Despite this, its highest paid director received £1.58 million in 2016. Four Seasons health care went into administration in 2019.”

The run down state of the NHS and integrated health and social care boards in Scotland is also highlighted. While there has been an increase in the need for services by 18-29%, Integrated Joint Boards have a budget gap of £208 million.

Since the pandemic began, councils have been pressured by the SNP to utilise reserves to survive, while Holyrood holds back £155 million in increased Barnett Formula consequential funding.

The report points out clearly that the lockdown is also having a devastating deadly social impact. “There are rising numbers of excess deaths from non-corona causes as people die at home instead of calling an ambulance and all routine and elective care is cancelled. Community services have been cancelled so there is no hands on chiropody, physiotherapy, mental health services, and occupational and speech therapy”.

This is while NHS hospitals and beds are unused with the focus on Covid-19. While care homes have become graveyards, the Louisa Jordan temporary corona hospital in Glasgow has had no patients.

Socialist Party Scotland supports many of the policies promoted by Pollock and Edgar in their “radical plan for the NHS and Social care”, including cancellation of the NHS paying PFI/PPP contracts, full renationalisation and requisitioning of the care sector, scrapping the integrated boards and bringing services under democratic control. Also public ownership of labs, and all needed resources for testing, tracing and isolation.

The Scottish government should set an emergency needs budget, utilising income tax, borrowing powers and underspends to deal with the pandemic and, crucially, demand a return of the billions stolen from Scotland by Tory austerity to be able to fully fund the NHS and public services, including a mass testing and tracing capacity.

 

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