This week it has all been about the message, as we witnessed the first real divergence in approach between governments across the UK in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
As the Prime Minister tried to persuade the public of the case for beginning to move towards easing restrictions through ‘staying alert’ and ‘controlling the virus, the First Minister made clear her determination to stick with the mantra of ‘stay home; stop the virus; and ‘save lives’.
Boris Johnston has not been helped by some of his own MPs and even Ministers, when tackled during a succession of media interviews, struggling to explain or agree what the new advice means in practice. There is also a growing sense that Mr Johnson’s Cabinet is split over the approach to take and how quickly restrictions can safely be lifted.
By contrast, Nicola Sturgeon’s message enjoys the benefits of simplicity, consistency and familiarity. The same benefits, of course, that the Prime Minister’s message enjoyed prior to Sunday. That is because the approach of the UK and Scottish Governments has been in lockstep throughout. The First Minister may have conveyed greater empathy or even authority over recent months but, for better or for worse, the policy approach has been the same north and south of the border. Indeed, both governments have continued to stress this week their ongoing efforts to achieve ‘convergence’ moving forward.
In many respect, though, divergence was always a possibility, if not a probability, particularly as the UK started to emerge from lockdown. There are perhaps good reasons why this could and should happen at different speeds, or in different ways, depending on circumstances. Nevertheless, for this to have credibility, governments need to be transparent about the evidence on which such decisions are made. Without that transparency, maintaining public confidence and compliance will be difficult if not impossible to achieve.
Helpfully, the Scottish Government has now published more detail on the pathway towards easing the current restrictions. This is founded on a strategy of test, trace, isolate and support (TTIS) that is not new, but has been pulled together in a readable document, certainly by the standards of government publications, that covers the main issues in an accessible and common-sensical way. Unfortunately for Nicola Sturgeon, it also exposes how far short the government currently is of being able to implement such a strategy. In terms of testing and tracing, the capacity simply is not there at present.
Former Chief Medical Officer, Dr Harry Burns was characteristically ‘to the point’ when he told the Scottish Parliament’s Covid Committee last week, “the lockdown we have right now is essentially test, trace and isolate without the testing and the tracing”. He went on to warn, “there’s been a huge emphasis on testing [but] there’s no point testing unless you’re going to trace the contacts”.
So this is now the challenge and also where we need to see greater transparency. As well as seeing an expansion of the testing that is undertaken, the public needs to know the extent to which it is taking place. To date, the Scottish Government has been strangely reluctant to allow a breakdown of the testing being carried out in each health board area. That is not a sustainable position and must change.
We need more transparency too in relation to tracing and when this can be started in earnest. While much of the media spotlight has been on mobile apps, including trials taking place in the Isle of Wight, effective tracing relies on human endeavour. That, in turn, requires sufficient numbers to be recruited and trained to carry out what is labour intensive, and sometimes specialised, work. Without it, as Dr Burns made clear, more testing is of limited value.
With the public increasingly torn between wanting a return to some sort of normality while also understandably desperate to avoid a second or third wave of infections, these are exceptionally difficult times for Ministers and their advisers. That is why it is crucial that governments across the UK are clear and consistent in their messaging; open and transparent about the evidence upon which decisions are based: and willing to respond quickly as circumstances change.