The Student
Opinion
After austerity and Brexit, will COVID be the final nail in the coffin of the United Kingdom?
by Adrià Balibrea, 4/10/20

Fact: coronavirus is on the rise again in our country. Fact: the number of daily new cases is now at levels not seen since the start of the pandemic. Fact: the virus has not mutated. Fact: with a new wave of cases will come a new wave of hospital admissions and deaths, as we are seeing in Spain. Fact: if the virus continues at its current exponential rate of growth, we could see up to 50,000 daily new cases in October. Fact: any scenario resembling this would see us, once again, facing the potential collapse of our National Health Service.

Am I talking about Scotland? No, I’m talking about the United Kingdom. Are things worse in Scotland than they are in England? Actually, they’re better. And yet, it’s clear Holyrood and Downing Street aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet: why?

To put it bluntly, the relationship between the UK and Scottish governments has severely deteriorated since the inauguration of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. If this wasn’t apparent before, it has become increasingly obvious over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein we have seen a farcical lack of communication from Whitehall to its devolved administrations. This has inevitably led administrations like Nicola Sturgeon’s to take the bull by the horns and forge their own COVID trajectory. 

Indeed, the new coronavirus restrictions announced last week are the latest examples of this, with a nationwide 10pm curfew decreed on hospitality as well as a ban on indoor sports and other limits and guidance on social gatherings. But Scotland has gone one step further by prohibiting people from visiting any other households. Of course, a few questions come to mind here. Is it a more informed decision than London’s, and, therefore, is it necessary?

Be in no doubt that the scientific information both governments receive on the nature of the virus is exactly the same, so we can immediately rule out any of those discrepancies. What could differ could be the data on where the virus is most spreading, and thanks to Scotland’s new NHS track and trace app (embarrassingly for Mr Hancock released far before England’s one), that appears to be within households.

However, there is nothing to suggest that the same isn’t going on in England. The ‘necessity’ question, as unpopular as this may be, is really rather simple: we must do everything possible to avoid 1) a second wave of the virus and subsequent potential collapse of our NHS and 2) a second national lockdown and all the economic implications that would have. If to avoid these calamities we have to go one step further than our British government headed by Captain U-turn, then so be it. 

Yet, there is a bigger picture to be seen here. Although COVID-19 has done much public health damage, it has also been a catalyst for other things. One of these is the growing tension and discord between Scotland and the UK. With support for independence growing in the UK’s second most populated nation, Nicola Sturgeon has heeded the call. With diverging policies, different messages and a contrasting style of leadership, one cannot deny that she has come through this crisis looking strong, decisive and trustworthy, as opposed to a weak-as-ever Johnson, whose vast political capital achieved last December is rapidly diminishing. The fact is that once the COVID crisis is over and the SNP go back to fighting for their promised land of independence, they are going to find things easier than before. 

Ultimately, of course, one could play down the effects of the virus and argue that this was already happening. After a decade of devastating austerity and an upcoming (potentially no-deal) Brexit that will probably break international law, the Scottish people aren’t happy bunnies (to say the least!) and their electoral map is unrecognisable to what it looked like in 1997 when Tony Blair won his landslide. Fast forward to next May and the Scottish parliamentary elections, not even the Queen’s quarter-of-an-inch-raise-of-the-eyebrow will save the union this time.

Image: Scottish Government, via Flickr