Nicola Sturgeon never much liked the whole idea of ‘Freedom Day’.
Twenty-four hours before Boris Johnson scrapped most of England’s Covid rules last July, the Scottish First Minister tweeted: ‘To talk of tomorrow as “freedom day” (England only remember) is not sensible IMO [in my opinion] given current situation.’
That snide reference to ‘England only’ speaks volumes about Sturgeon’s approach to the pandemic.
Almost as important as her own lockdown measures has been her relentless efforts to define Scottish policy against Westminster’s, and her own decisions against those taken by Boris Johnson.
Nothing suits her better than when she’s crowing on about how superior her own judgment has been.
Nicola Sturgeon never much liked the whole idea of ‘Freedom Day’. Almost as important as her own lockdown measures has been her relentless efforts to define Scottish policy against Westminster’s, and her own decisions against those taken by Boris Johnson
But now we know it wasn’t. New research by the Financial Times and YouGov revealed this week that all the extra pain inflicted on Scots by Sturgeon — extended mask mandates, tougher social distancing measures, longer lockdowns — made almost no discernible difference to the death toll during the crucial Delta and Omicron waves.
In fact, Scottish mortality rates have actually been higher than England’s for the past six months, while the new data also shows that south of the border, as behaviour over the past year has relaxed in line with policy, the result has been fewer deaths.
Needless to say, that isn’t how things were supposed to pan out for Sturgeon. She used her pandemic response to carve out a contrasting stance to that of Johnson.
While he was the reckless clown who played fast and loose with his citizens’ lives and safety, she was the thoughtful, courageous matriarch who put her people before her own political reputation, unafraid to duck the difficult decisions to keep her country safe.
And, thanks to the Scottish National Party’s perpetual propaganda — and England’s Left-wing news media, who seem all too happy to trumpet Sturgeon’s policy as gospel — that impression was certainly showing signs of success.
Just before Christmas, The Guardian claimed Sturgeon ‘avoids scoring political points’ (which will come as a surprise to anyone who has paid even remote attention to the way the SNP operates), drawing ‘an inescapable contrast with the PM who is not only suffering from the fallout over revelations about last year’s Christmas parties, but also continues to insist they should go ahead this year’.
Well, it’s now clear that Boris’s ‘insistence’ on public freedom over the last year did no harm whatsoever. But perhaps that never mattered to Sturgeon.
After all, the main design of her heavy-handed response —as always with the SNP — was to foment division between Scotland and England.
The nationalist narrative is as dishonest as it is simple: Scotland is doing far better than England, so why are we still in a political and economic union with them?
That argument was parroted by one of Sturgeon’s closest Covid advisers, and independence supporter, Dr Devi Sridhar, who in an interview last year claimed that an independent Scotland would have suffered fewer deaths because its government would have been able to take better decisions.
This despite the fact that health policy is entirely devolved to Scotland and completely under the SNP’s control. The reality is that the new data is devastating to nationalist hopes of emerging from the crisis of the past two years with a reputation for good governance.
Instead of prioritising her nation’s ailing businesses, the only ‘Freedom’ over which Sturgeon obsessed during the pandemic was the one that would leave her and her party free to run Scotland as their eternal fiefdom.
But now her strategy has been shown to be dishonest — albeit clever — and damaging in equal measure. Dishonest because, as the FT says, the real policy differences between the various UK nations have been of tone rather than substance.
It has been clever because many Scots have fallen for this narrative. A poll in August 2020 in the wake of the first Covid wave found Scots gave Sturgeon an approval rating of more than 50 per cent, a figure that fell only after she started appearing less frequently on TV screens to provide live updates on the pandemic.
And it has been damaging because, when Sturgeon was given the chance to follow Johnson’s example of saying ‘enough is enough’ last summer, she chose to force Scots to continue to socially distance, to wear masks and to limit their numbers in social situations, particularly in pubs and restaurants.
The economic cost has been devastating, and for Scottish hospitality bosses in particular, the pandemic had been far worse than it was for their southern colleagues.
Across the wider economy, while unemployment continues to drop off in the UK as a whole — with jobs vacancies at a record high and wages growing — Scottish employment levels fell by 0.8 per cent in the last quarter of 2021, according to the ONS.
Twenty-four hours before Boris Johnson scrapped most of England’s Covid rules last July, the Scottish First Minister tweeted: ‘To talk of tomorrow as “freedom day” (England only remember) is not sensible IMO [in my opinion] given current situation’
It’s not just the economy. The Scottish healthcare system prior to the virus was in crisis. Now non-Covid healthcare has all but collapsed. Scottish deaths from strokes, for instance, are at their highest since 2016, while fatal heart attacks are at their highest since 2013 for men.
And in Scottish schools —again much criticised even before Covid for failing pupils — the long-term impact on children will be felt for years to come.
A study by the LSE last July estimated Scottish children had fallen further behind than their English counterparts, losing up to 119 days of learning out of the usual 190 in their academic year.
And all this, it would seem, as a result of Sturgeon’s politicking. It’s now clear the best Covid policy decision Johnson’s Government made was pursuing an approval process for vaccines outside of the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
There were many siren voices who warned leaving the EMA would spell disaster. Today, it’s hard to find one who maintains that view (though they’re reluctant to credit Johnson with making the right call).
Thanks to that decision, though, Scots were among the first citizens on the planet to get protection from the worst effects of Covid. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a Scottish minister who has ever acknowledged this.
In fact, the SNP opposed Britain’s departure from the EMA — until they saw that Boris Johnson had been right, at which point they tried to take credit for the vaccine roll-out themselves.
Sturgeon was also among the most enthusiastic supporters of the apocalyptic predictions of ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London and other doom-mongering Government experts.
In analysing the potential impact of lockdowns in March 2020, Ferguson wrote: ‘We do not consider the wider social and economic costs of suppression, which will be high.’
Sturgeon was also among the most enthusiastic supporters of the apocalyptic predictions of ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson (pictured) of Imperial College London and other doom-mongering Government experts
In other words, as well as exaggerated predictions of fatalities that never happened, the economic, social and health consequences of lockdown — the now crippling waiting lists for cancer patients to be diagnosed and treated, for example — never entered into it. And still the bodies piled up.
So now there must be a reckoning. We know drastic statist solutions don’t work, we need to know what the SNP’s priorities actually were: making Scotland safer and protecting the economy?
Or exploiting an unprecedented and deadly pandemic to further the case for independence? If it were the latter, then what a betrayal. The Scottish people deserve better than Sturgeon and her ilk.
Tom Harris is a former Labour MP for Glasgow South.