Will Scotland's Coronavirus cure prove worse than the disease?

Given the economic crisis, problems in our schools, and 1,200 excess deaths unrelated to Covid-19, is the Scottish Government failing to ‘balance the harms’ effectively, writes Murdo Fraser MSP.

Last week’s announcement from the First Minister of a relaxation of restrictions for the coronavirus lockdown was welcome insofar as it went. Nevertheless, there were serious concerns raised by many in the business community at the slow pace of reopening compared to other parts of the United Kingdom.

In the hospitality sector in particular, many were left worrying whether they could survive a further lockdown period, with the Scottish Tourism Alliance stating that many traders with an outdoor area who had planned to open earlier would now be “bitterly disappointed” that that would not be possible until the beginning of next month at the earliest.

Business aside, it is in relation to our schools that we saw the greatest concerns. The proposals for “blended learning” model attracted overwhelming criticism from education experts, from business, and across the political spectrum.

We know that the model of home learning that has been in place since March is simply not working for too many pupils. According to a survey published on Monday, two-thirds of parents say that their school has not been providing online lessons during the lockdown period. Despite the best efforts of teachers, it is simply providing too difficult to manage.

There has been no indication that blended learning would show any improvement on this situation. As leading education advisers such as Kier Bloomer and Professor Lindsay Paterson have pointed out, those who would suffer the most under the new arrangements are children from less well-off backgrounds. According to Professor Paterson, this could mean that the attainment gap – which the SNP Government has pledged to close – could be five times worse by December.

Parents simply cannot understand how the new model could work with pupils at school for sometimes as little as one day per week, and having to be taught at home for the remainder. There is also a huge economic cost to this, as parents of school-aged children would not be able to return to work full time, potentially for up to a year. Little wonder that even voices within the SNP such as Alex Neil MSP, and former adviser Alex Bell, had slammed Education Secretary John Swinney’s handling of the situation.

Yesterday’s announcement from Swinney that the aim now was for a return to full-time schooling for all pupils from August, subject to a continued reduction in infection rates, was therefore very welcome, although it represents a screeching U-turn from a Government whose supporters have been quick to criticise the Prime Minister for moving England out of lockdown too fast.

Clearly, pressure from the Scottish Conservatives and parents across the country has paid off, and the SNP Government was left with no option but to reconsider its ruinous plans.

A full return to schools for all is still contingent on the numbers going in right direction. In this context, we have to bear in mind the real risk of a faster spread of Covid-19 infection, and the dangers of a second spike in numbers.

Evidence suggests that the risk of Covid-19 to school-aged children is extremely low, but we also need to recognise that there are adults working in the school environment whose interests have to be protected. It is a question of balancing harms.

I have a real concern that in the whole debate about relaxing lockdown restrictions we have an understandable focus on the need to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection, but insufficient attention is being paid to the longer-term health risks of an extended lockdown.

We already know that in excess of 1,200 people have died in Scotland as a result of lockdown, over and above normal death rates at this time of year, from non-Covid related illnesses – heart disease, stroke and cancer.

We also know that, because of the cancellation of routine cancer screening and other treatments, people will die in one, two or three years’ time, who might otherwise have survived, as a direct result of the diversion of NHS resources towards tackling coronavirus.

Over and above that, there is the significant mental health impact from the isolation that lockdown has caused, particularly to many single people, the consequences of which are unlikely to be apparent for months, if not years, to come.

And, finally, the long-term negative health impacts from a damaged economy, with failing businesses, and soaring unemployment, will be substantial.

We could be in a situation where the coronavirus cure will prove more deadly than the disease. Any choices being made about the pace of relaxing lockdown restrictions have therefore to include an assessment of the balance of harms, in the short, medium and longer term. Every risk that exists from taking action to relax a restriction has to be weighed against the risks from not acting.

It is simply not clear at present that this balance of harms is being properly considered by the Scottish Government.

Giving evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee in Westminster last week, Linda Bauld, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, said that she had “no idea” where the evidence for some of the Scottish Government’s lockdown decisions was coming from.

This is a leading public health expert, one who has been supportive of the First Minister’s general approach to the coronavirus pandemic, but if even Professor Bauld is not clear of the basis for decisions being made, what confidence can the public have in them?

When she launched her roadmap out of lockdown some weeks ago, Nicola Sturgeon said that she wanted to treat the Scottish people like adults. It is time that she started.