EDINBURGH, Scotland – ‘Freedom Day’ means something different north of the English border, so it was perhaps not surprising that independence-conscious Scotland refused to line up sooner this week when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lifted virtually all remaining restrictions on coronaviruses In England.
While Scottish authorities have followed England to relaxing sidewalks – UK tabloids have proclaimed it ‘Freedom Day’ – nightclubs in Edinburgh and other towns remain closed; face masks are mandatory in pubs and stores; and the government told people to stay a meter away from each other and continue to work from home.
This is the latest example of a divergence dating back to the start of the pandemic. Scottish nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon, a politician whose rallying cry is the liberation of the UK, has often taken a more cautious and deliberate approach to the virus than the freer Mr Johnson.
This time, however, it can prove to be a decisive fork in the road.
England engages in a high stakes bete that it has vaccinated its adult population enough to be able to fully open its economy, even if that means resisting a huge new wave of infections. Scotland, at a comparable level of vaccinations, is not yet ready to shake off its last protections.
“To speak of tomorrow as ‘Freedom Day’ does not make sense,” Ms Sturgeon, First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, said ahead of England’s big easing on Monday. The phrase, she pointedly said, applied to England, not Scotland.
The differences between Scotland and England’s responses to the pandemic, experts note, are often more in tone than substance. When it comes to major policies like blockages and vaccines, the two have generally been aligned. And judged by metrics like cases and deaths, their performance hasn’t been that different.
Yet in a relationship in which so much is refracted through the prism of Scottish nationalism, Ms Sturgeon’s conservative stance could pay off politically, especially if Mr Johnson’s experience backfires.
“If this takes the shape of a pear and Scotland finds itself in a better position, expect members of the independence movement to have something to say about it,” said John Curtice, an expert on the issue. surveys at the University of Strathclyde.
Pandemic politics, he noted, can be fickle. Last July, when cases and deaths in Scotland reduced to a trickle as England was ravaged, support for independence soared to 55% as people concluded Scotland could be better off s ‘come out on her own.
But during the winter, as Scotland faced a new wave of infections and the UK government obtained vaccines and aggressively distributed them across the UK, enthusiasm for independence weakened.
As Scotland now recovers from a new outbreak, polls show support for independence has fallen below 50%. This is roughly where it was in 2014, when the Scots voted against leaving the UK.
Although the Scottish National Party retained control of the country’s Parliament in recent elections, he lost one seat less than the clear majority, cutting off the movement a little. Ms Sturgeon has indicated that she wants to overcome the pandemic before pushing for a second referendum.
The mood in Edinburgh, which is gearing up for its annual arts festival next month, is more subdued than in liberated London. While the festival is going on, the number of live shows has been reduced or brought online, due to social distancing requirements.
Tourists, including many from other parts of Britain, filled tables this week outside pubs and restaurants near Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. But pub owners say restrictions, especially on face masks and midnight closures, prevent them from rebuilding their businesses.
“There is no justification for us being any different from England,” said Nic Wood, owner of 22 pubs in Edinburgh and other cities. “England are challenging him head on, while Scotland are still slipping away.”
Scottish authorities were alarmed by a sudden increase in cases in June, when the highly transmissible Delta variant spread across the country. There are a variety of theories as to why he was so prolific – including that thousands of fans of Scotland’s national football team traveled to London for a game against England and brought the variant back. with them.
Scotland, experts say, also had an initially slower vaccine rollout than England and a lower level of antibodies in its population, which could have played a role. As cases started to drop again, the outbreak shattered the illusion that Scotland was different from its neighbor to the south.
In total, England has reported a rate of 8,597 cases and 202 deaths per 100,000 people. Scotland, with a smaller and more dispersed population, is doing slightly better, with 6,114 cases and 144 deaths per 100,000 people.
“Covid has been a double-edged sword for the government,” said Ian Murray, who is the only Labor member in the British Parliament of Scotland and opposes independence. “Most Scots are indy-curious, hate the Conservative government and think Scotland has no power.”
“Now,” said Mr Murray, “they see Scotland has real power and the UK works pretty well in a crisis.”
This latter point is open to debate, given the volatile nature of Mr Johnson’s response to the pandemic. But it is true that Scotland’s handling of the crisis has exposed its strengths and weaknesses in a way that was less clear before.
In the UK, Scottish authorities are responsible for issues such as health and education, while the UK Parliament deals with immigration, foreign policy and most importantly, at a time like this, tax policy.
This arrangement has led to tensions over issues large and small. Scottish officials protested when the London North Eastern Railway removed social distancing requirements from its trains, even after they entered Scotland.
Scotland’s chief medical officer wrote this week to UK authorities urging them to rethink restricting vaccination of young people aged 12 to 18 to those with underlying health problems. The British claimed that because adolescents are resilient to Covid, there was little benefit to vaccinating them.
But the school year in Scotland starts earlier than in England, and public health experts have said they fear returning unvaccinated children to classrooms could be a recipe for further infections.
“I worry the most about schools,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “What do we do with the children? Do we let them all get it? “
Professor Sridhar, who advises the Scottish government, acknowledges his handling of the pandemic has not been without setbacks. Last summer, when cases and deaths fell to a handful, Scotland aspired to a zero Covid strategy like New Zealand’s. It didn’t work, she said, in part because England failed to take similar action.
Now, however, epidemiologists say Scotland may not be far from the herd immunity threshold, given the percentage of people vaccinated and those with natural antibodies.
“I have never been comfortable with the emphasis on Freedom Day,” said Mark Woolhouse, professor of epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. “If moderate mask wear and other mitigation measures allow us to exceed the collective immunity threshold, then why not do it?