Woman wearing a surgical mask inspecting fruit in supermarket

The empty shelf of freedom

Head of Policy & Research Craig Dalzell discusses the continued relaxation of Covid restrictions amid rising case numbers and the strain being placed on vital parts of the economy.

I remember a few months ago when the line from the Scottish Government was that there was “This virus is too dangerous to let spread through a population unchecked” and that – just as we pushed for in our paper calling for a proper testing regime in April 2020 and which was rejected as policy in Scotland – the best strategy was to eliminate the virus, drive down transmission rates and prevent it from re-seeding in our communities like it eventually did in Summer 2020. In September 2020 we published a policy paper ‘Warning Lights’ detailing how we could go about doing that. This paper was dismissed by the Government at the time but has since been largely – although almost completely imperfectly – adopted. It called for several strategies that were not then being implemented in Scotland such as: a regionally and locally tiered system of restrictions (which we got), managed hotel quarantine for all arrivals to Scotland (which we mostly got, though without any controls at the overland border), random sample testing (which we now have in the form of a UK-wide ONS survey and testing of Scottish wastewater by SEPA)

Unfortunately, the “Elimination” strategy was abandoned again in May this year and both the Scottish and UK Government have seemingly adopted a “live with the virus” strategy instead. Hanging on to claims that the vaccine rollout has “broken” the link between transmission levels and mortality, both Governments are in the process of reopening their respective countries despite the fact that case numbers are as high or higher than they have ever been (and in England at least, are still rising in an uncontrolled and exponential fashion). England has gone as far as removing almost all restrictions and declaring “Freedom Day!”.

The vaccine rollout has undoubtedly saved many, many lives. When infection case numbers in the UK were last as high as they currently are, around Christmas and New Year, the country was seeing around 1,000 deaths per day. Just now the UK is experiencing more like 40 deaths per day. But cases are still rising and exponential increases always rise faster than you think they will. That picture could be very different within just a few weeks and every death is a tragedy made doubly so if it has come as a result of a Government writing vulnerable people off as “acceptable losses”.

The fall in mortality does not mean that Covid is over though. People are still getting sick – sometimes for months if they develop so-called Long Covid – and the rampant transmission and mixing of the virus through a partially vaccinated population greatly increases the chances of a vaccine resistant variant developing. The world has reacted with horror at the UK embarking on this mass public health experiment.

People still have to isolate if they are infected or if they are traced as a close contact of someone who is infected so a large reservoir of infected people in the population means that the chances of you coming into contact with someone who later finds out they were infected is much higher – especially if you’re all grouped together. Tens of thousands of people are now being “pinged” every day by the various Covid tracking apps We’re starting to see the impact of that unrestricted transmission through the population in the form of disruptions to supply chains.

Truck drivers were already feeling the pressure due to Brexit. Many of them are EU citizens used to cross-border Freedom of Movement, poorly paid for the vital role they play and without tolerance for the rising anti-immigrant discrimination in the UK. Many have simply left the UK for Single Market routes that don’t involve being snarled up at a border while they are paid by the km driven rather than the hour. Some have left to be closer to family during the pandemic.

This loss of labour may have been manageable on its own but those who remain are now having to deal with disruptions right across the supply chain as staff are “pinged” and have to lockdown and then so are their emergency replacements. Entire factories and distribution centres are being hit in a similar manner. Reduced volumes of stock or even outright gaps are starting to become noticeable in supermarkets in a way that I haven’t seen since the panic buying of the first lockdown.

This is the critical difference between now and the previous waves. A formal programme of restrictions – even up to a full lockdown – can be managed in such a way as to keep critical infrastructure flowing even in a reduced manner. When links in the supply chain break unexpectedly and in different places it can become difficult or impossible to get goods through at all.

I fear that the response will be to continue to “let it rip” and either accept that people will start ignoring instructions to protect themselves and others or the instructions themselves will be watered down to uselessness. I see the phrase “pingdemic” as a symptom of this – an attempt to discredit the tracing programme rather than deal with the virus.

The Scottish Government must correct course. It must return to its Zero Covid strategy and try much harder to isolate and prevent transmission of the virus. The pandemic won’t go away just because we decide to stop looking at it.

1 thought on “The empty shelf of freedom”

  1. Ian Davidson

    Agreed, but despite the spin and rhetoric, Sturgeon won’t (her supporters will say can’t due to constraints of devolution etc) depart significantly from rUK “strategy” of ” letting it rip”? Public won’t accept further restrictions; NHS staff exhausted; low paid “Covid heroes” in shops & distribution disillusioned etc? We will muddle along (disjointed incrementalism for the academically minded) as per?

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