Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that Scotland would not have been able to fight the virus as effectively without the support of England and the rest of the UK. With the increasing politicisation of the pandemic, we feel it is only right to point out the facts. As the UK recently passed a grim milestone, with over 100,000 people having died from COVID-19, it is important to consider the grave mistakes that have been made by the UK Government and question whether an independent Scotland, with fully devolved powers, would have taken a different and more successful route in tackling the pandemic.
To understand how an independent Scotland would have been likely to respond during this crisis, let’s examine some of the independent countries across Europe, with similar population sizes to Scotland, including Ireland, Finland, Norway and Denmark. The measures enforced and the consequent results in tackling COVID-19 across these countries will be compared to those of the UK. Looking at these case studies in comparison to the political one liners, allows us to recognise why an independent Scotland would have coped better with the pandemic than it has been able to as part of the UK.
1. Higher case numbers
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the UK has faced disproportionately high case numbers. Throughout the winter months, cases of COVID-19 have run out of control once again. As of the 3rd February 2021 (rolling 7-day average), there were 22,2476.4 daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases. The Nordic countries, Norway (268.3), Denmark (463.1) and Finland (347.6), have kept their number of daily cases under greater control.
Norway and Finland, in particular, implemented strict measures quickly after the summer months and despite a slight rise in cases over the winter, have avoided case numbers escalating out of control.
2. Rising hospital admissions
In relation to the rising number of cases, the UK has faced a serious rise in hospital admissions, putting severe and continuous strain on the NHS. On the 22nd January, the UK had 38,167 COVID-19 patients in hospital. In comparison, Ireland had 1,969, Norway had 131, Finland had 136 and Denmark had 745.
These figures demonstrate that the UK has a higher number of COVID-19 patients in hospital per head of population than the smaller independent nations that we have benchmarked against. Again, this is due to their ability to implement strict measures quickly and effectively.
3. Greater number of deaths
With rising cases and hospital admissions, it is unsurprising that the UK has also faced a severe number of COVID-19 deaths. In fact, the UK’s mortality outcome is among the worst in the world. When considering the COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 of the population, the UK has the third biggest cumulative death total, with only Slovenia and Belgium having higher mortality rates.
Meanwhile the latest data shows a drastically different picture among some of Europe’s small independent countries. On the 4th February 2021, Norway had registered 574 deaths (cumulative total per 1 million population, 105.88) , Finland 685 (123.63), Denmark 2,170 (374.64), Ireland 3,512 (711.25) and the UK 109,335 (1,610.57).
4. Delays in locking down the UK
Government advisers have recognised that the UK’s delay in locking down in March 2020 was a crucial mistake. The UK Government did not announce national lockdown until 23rd March 2020. In comparison, Norway announced a national lockdown almost two weeks before, on 12th March 2020. Denmark followed suit, implementing lockdown on 13th March and Finland on 16th March. Closer to home, Ireland started to take action, such as closing schools and colleges, as early as 12th March 2020.
The UK were slow in locking down, especially when compared to smaller independent countries across Europe, and this has had critical and grave effects. The different approach adopted by many small independent nations suggests that an independent Scotland would have been likely to implement measures sooner, particularly without the pressures of following a four nations approach as part of the UK.
5. Failure to close borders
Unlike the UK, Finland, Norway and Denmark all closed their borders by 19th March 2020. This allowed these countries to be less strict in other respects, such as the number of times people could leave their house in a day to exercise. The UK Government holds control over borders and has only recently closed all travel corridors and made a negative test mandatory before entering the country. However, great pressure remains on Boris Johnson to close the borders completely.
The significance of this failure of the UK Government to close the borders in March 2020 and only recently implementing more lenient measures, has even been recognised from within the Cabinet itself. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, stated that it was a mistake not closing the borders last year in March.
6. Vaccine capitalism
As of the 2nd February 2021, the UK had vaccinated 10.52 million individuals. Boris Johnson claimed that there would not have been any COVID-19 vaccines in Scotland if it had not been for the Union. This insensitive and irrational comment can be understood as an attempt by the PM and the Conservative party to politicise the pandemic and the vaccination programme.
Evidence shows that an independent Scotland would be more than capable of vaccinating its population, as other small independent nations have done so. Although the Nordic countries and Ireland have not yet vaccinated as many individuals as the UK, they are certainly capable, as by mid-January, Denmark had administered their vaccines so efficiently that they had run out. This shortage in vaccinations is largely a result of the UK capitalising the vaccine. It has been reported that the UK has paid between £24 and £28 per dose on the Moderna vaccine, meanwhile the EU is paying approximately £13. Moreover, the AstraZeneca vaccine has cost the UK £3 per dose and the EU £1.61. The UK paying significantly more for the vaccinations than the EU has resulted in the UK being prioritised for distribution by the struggling drug companies, thus breaking their contracts with several EU nations. This is being recognised as a success for the UK Government, despite that it will almost certainly result in worsening trade relations with the EU and greater austerity within the UK due to the accumulated COVID response overspend.
Meanwhile, EU nations and the other Nordic countries have largely administered the Pfizer/BioNTech (95% effective after two doses) and Moderna (80.2% effective after one dose and 95.6% effective after two) vaccines, which offer greater effectiveness than the AstraZeneca vaccination (76% effective after one dose and 82% after two).
7. PPE shortages
Another crucial error made by the UK Government refers to the major PPE shortages experienced by the UK. Despite the UK government emphasising that sufficient stockpiles of PPE existed and were available, this was most certainly not the case. In fact, Professor Ewan Macdonald, one of the UK’s leading occupation health specialists, recognised the way in which the government had tailored its advice and guidance on the use of PPE to the availability they had. Ultimately, the UK Government failed to recognise the urgency and volume of PPE that would be required and instead, had to play catch up with other nations in trying to secure its share of scarce resources.
On the other hand, Finland demonstrated a very different approach to the pandemic from the beginning. As the UK scrambled to find resources, Finland held a grand stockpile of PPE and surgical masks. The stockpile had been built up over many years and includes medical supplies, oil, grains, tools and raw materials. This level of preparedness is something that the UK Government has lacked hugely throughout the pandemic.
8. Testing failures
Norway and Finland were some of the first countries to begin testing for COVID-19, with tests being carried out towards the end of February 2020. In April 2020, when the virus was peaking in the UK and across Europe, the UK trailed behind some of the smaller, independent countries with regards to testing. On 25th April 2020, the UK was carrying out 0.39 tests per 1000 people. Denmark was carrying out more than 4 times the number of tests per 1000 people than the UK was at this point (carrying out 1.72 tests per 1000 people). Norway, Finland and Ireland also proved to have more effective testing systems.
Despite, the UK’s testing system gradually improving since the beginning of the pandemic, Denmark continues to carry out approximately double the number of tests per 1000 people than the UK. This, again, shows the capabilities of smaller independent nations.
9. Eat out to help out
The UK Government introduced the ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme in the UK during August 2020. The scheme involved the government funding discounts on food and non-alcoholic drinks on Monday-Wednesday throughout August. The idea aimed to boost the economy and help businesses get back on their feet. However, the irrationality of this programme was evidenced in the consequent increase in COVID-19 cases. Research has suggested that the scheme contributed directly to the rise in cases over the summer. This demonstrates an example in which the UK Government prioritised the economy over the health of the population.
10. Poor economic recovery
As of December 2020, the Scottish Government had been allocated £8.2 billion and was not aware of any further funding from the UK Government in respect of COVID-19. However, not all of the £8.2 billion had been transferred as cash to the Scottish Government bank account yet. £3.063 billion has been formally allocated at the UK Main Estimate, the remaining is expected to be allocated at Supplementary Estimate later this financial year.
Despite, the UK Government asserting that Scotland is financially better off during this crisis as part of the Union, earlier last year, we discovered that had Scotland been both independent and a member of the EU, it would have received roughly £5.4bn worth of funding to help tackle the COVID-19 crisis.
Throughout this global health crisis, it has become clear that small independent countries have been able to offer very supportive economic recovery packages. For example, Norway and Denmark, two of our closest neighbours which have similar population sizes to Scotland, have been able to source large sums of funding to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and restarting their economies.
This article has recognised only a handful of the numerous significant mistakes that the UK Government has made throughout this pandemic. As Boris Johnson’s Government leads the UK past a grim milestone of over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, and with rising cases and hospital admissions, the winter peak appears to be far from over.
Throughout this article, we have outlined some of the UK’s COVID-19 measures and policies and their consequent results and have offered a comparison to those of the smaller independent countries across Europe. These case studies have allowed us to understand how an independent Scotland would have been likely to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is clear their approach would have been undoubtedly more successful.
With delays in locking down, PPE shortages, open borders, billions spent on track and trace apps that do not work and poor testing systems, it is clear that the UK Government has made grave mistakes from the beginning of this crisis, and these failures would have been avoidable with competent governance and greater preparation, as displayed within a number of the independent Nordic countries.
Therefore, without the numerous U-turns and policy disasters, the ability of an independent Scotland to handle the pandemic more effectively appears very probable. The evidence has demonstrated that Scotland, with a similar population size to the case study countries, would have been likely to have coped in a similar manner and tackled the pandemic more successfully as an independent nation.