As I See It: Terry Murden
As if the debate over the constitution was not divisive enough, now we have a viral pandemic in danger of turning into a new border war.
Boris Johnson will update on the lockdown restrictions when he addresses the nation (a.k.a as the UK) on Sunday. He won’t go as far as some in the London media have suggested, but it does look like he’ll set himself on a collision course with Nicola Sturgeon who says we must persevere with the lockdown a little longer.
It should not have come to this. Our starting point is that no virus recognises borders, and nor should the response to it.
Ms Sturgeon was questioned in Holyrood about why she is not accepting the need for consistency and pursuit of a UK-wide strategy, not least to give clarity in the message conveyed to the public. She is justified in saying that the question assumes she is wrong and Westminster is correct.
However, hers is just one view (speaking on behalf of the Scottish Government) and while she bases that position on medical opinion, I have yet to see evidence that explains why this medical opinion differs north and south of the border. Why does Ms Sturgeon believe the people of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee are somehow exposed differently to the virus than citizens in Newcastle, Blackpool and Grimsby?
As we mark a key anniversary of VE Day, the UK is fighting a new war, this time against an invisible enemy. The defence of the realm is a reserved matter and the battle against coronavirus should also have been declared a reserved matter. There is no reason to offer small firms in Stirling and Shetland different grants and loans to those on offer to small firms in Salisbury and Scarborough. This is just creating more bureaucracy for the sake of chest-beating national pride, disguised as addressing specific local conditions. No, it doesn’t. It just makes business people more exasperated.
Not only have the differing schemes added unnecessary confusion, the Scottish Government has been forced to play catch-up in a number of cases, including the need for revisions in areas such as small business grants. A new scheme to help those in shared offices was announced by Westminster at the weekend and, once again, businesses in Scotland must wait until Holyrood decides if it will follow suit.
To that extent, it is legitimate to question why the devolved nations are formulating separate policies at all. The great powerhouses and populations of England have no opportunities to create their own armoury to fight the virus. Andy Burnham, mayor of Manchester, and his counterpart Andy Street in Birmingham, must defend the people of northwest England and the Midlands in precisely the same way as every other part of England.
And while the paperwork piles up at St Andrews House and the Treasury, new research from the University of East Anglia is casting fresh claims over the effectiveness of the lockdown.
It claims that closing schools and banning all mass gatherings did work in halting outbreaks across the continent, but the stay-at-home orders and shutting all non-essential businesses had little effect on fighting the virus. They now say that relaxing the stay-at-home policy and letting some businesses reopen could be the UK’s first step to easing lockdown. Will Ms Sturgeon take this research on board? Or will she continue to dig in her heels “in the interests of Scotland”?
This week has seen the public across the UK breaking ranks with queues outside KFC and Costa Coffee outlets from Braehead to Basingstoke, sunbathers relaxing in Glasgow parks, 20% more motorists on the roads since the lockdown was imposed on 23 March.
This defiance of the restrictions is being fuelled by mixed messages that, on the one hand tell us we can exercise by going for a walk through a park, but we can’t sit down to catch the sunshine. We’re told we can only leave the house once a day. Try telling your dog he can’t do what nature dictates.
Restaurants and pubs can open as takeaways, but customers are criticised – not least by the First Minister – if they join the queue for a coffee (even though they are isolated in their own vehicles). Construction workers can work safely in Carlisle but not in Dumfries. Despite the ban in Scotland, they can also work safely building a hospital (regarded as ‘essential’), but not a Scottish house (non-essential).
There is a risk of this confusion growing as the cross-border message becomes ever more muddled. Ms Sturgeon says she is not driven by politics only by saving lives. Mmm…. she cannot deny there is a subtle dose of political powerplay in the daily briefings. The public have been patient and are trying to make sense of it all. They are also revolting and it may be difficult to stop them.