What’s the point of the Scottish government’s ‘non-optional guidance’ on Covid?

Scotland is sleepwalking into a fresh crisis under the SNP-Green coalition, writes Johnnie Hunter
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If you had told anyone in Scotland this time last year that we would be facing the very real prospect of an imminent lockdown, they would have lamented.

They would have told you that was surely impossible, valuable lessons would be learned and applied in the year that followed. But this is exactly the position we find ourselves in.

The SNP, just like the Tories, will tell you the situation is essentially not one of their making and is due to the freak occurrence of a new variant. However, the reality is that this eventuality, in a pandemic scenario, knowing what we know about this virus already, was entirely predictable.

While its clear that there are factors at play genuinely out with the control of the SNP, such as the global levels and rate of vaccination, its not the case that Scotland or Britain were helpless in the face of omicron. 

We’ve seen that a number of other countries have been effective at containing and suppressing the spread of the new variant. They’ve done this by taking effective precautionary measures, before infections numbers have started to mushroom – not once the horse has already bolted.

This was the clearest lesson from the first waves the country endured and yet it hasn’t been learned either in Westminster or Holyrood. 

Who pays for this failure of the political class? As ever its working people. Working people getting infected, dying, losing livelihoods, having our education, lives and plans endlessly disrupted.

These same politicians have the gall to shift the burden of responsibility and the blame on to working people. The underlying message from the First Minister consistently seems to be that if the plebs would listen up and be more diligent in following her instructions then we wouldn’t be in this mess.

We are in the ludicrous position where Nicola Sturgeon can say with a straight face “although it is guidance, please do not think of it as optional”. This is in reference to the stricter rules which are supposed to be one of the country’s main defences against the variant. 

This isn’t ‘trusting people to make sensible choices’. Its an abject dereliction of responsibility from the Scottish government and purported leader of the nation.

Yesterday’s announcement by the SNP of further restrictions post-Christmas seems more about political posturing than effective action. In a reversion to type, the flagship anti-pandemic policy is apparently to be blanket curbs for football fans – with no clear scientific backing and the worry of fans gathering to watch games indoors instead. 

The SNP and the Greens have strategically tried to claim, in fairly vague terms, that they have been pressing the Tories for tougher restrictions. They have rightly called for tougher restrictions on travellers coming into the UK – but that has essentially been it.

They haven’t been implementing or demanding the necessary measures to stop the spread of the variant in Scotland. They haven’t been putting in place or demanding funding to protect jobs, small businesses and livelihoods.

The SNP-Green coalition would sincerely love the optics of and the political capital to be made from a confrontation with Boris Johnson’s Tory government over calls for more robust COVID restrictions. But the truth is, as we have seen throughout the pandemic, going all the way back to March 2020, they are quite happy to follow the Tories lead and, especially lately with revelations of Downing Street parties, let them absorb the lion’s share of the flak.

Why? Because they’re working to serve the same big business interests. Because they have same neoliberal ‘tighten the purse strings’ ideology as the Tories.

Scotland shouldn’t and wouldn’t need a lockdown if the Scottish government had heeded the lessons of the pandemic so far and taken the correct steps. A lockdown can still be avoided. 

They didn’t take or demand necessary measures early as they were determined to keep all parts of the economy open for as long as possible to protect private profits and their own poll ratings. Now we face the completely calculated and cynical situation where we have a partial lockdown by any reckoning but the Scottish government refuse to admit it.

Why are Sturgeon and the SNP insisting on ‘non-optional guidance’ rather than clear and compulsory public health measures? Because they don’t want to have to put in place real funding and real support for the workers and small businesses being hurt just now and because they can’t countenance any to risk their own popularity.

Hospitality workers and small businesses are in a deplorable situation. Even pre-pandemic, the festive period was a crucial window for the sector and this year it was set to be a lifeline after close to two years of pandemic, but the new ‘non-optional guidance’ has meant bookings and footfall have nosedived.

What has the Scottish government done in response? Nothing. No furlough pay or support payments for workers. No grants or loans to small businesses. The sector has been left to its fate. Workers, disproportionately young workers, will face real hardship and uncertainty over the festive period. Many small businesses won’t survive it.

Yesterday also saw the announcement of paltry support for the hospitality industry from Rishi Sunak. The silence from the SNP-Greens has been deafening. No demands for financial support for the workers affected. No calls for grants that will actually help to keep small businesses afloat.

After failing to put in place the proper infrastructure for pandemic resistant education after the previous waves, the Scottish government is now ignoring calls by education unions to consider delays to schools reopening or a return to remote learning. Again, the lessons have not been learnt. Hundreds of thousands of pupils and students are having their health and their futures gambled with. 

For all their warm words and claps throughout this year and last for NHS and frontline workers, its clear that, in their arrogance, the Scottish government isn’t prepared to listen to the workers at the coal face who have led the fight against this pandemic. The real value they attach to frontline workers is clear for all to see in the derisory below inflation pay offers – a pay cut – being made in the public sector and throughout the local authorities just now.

The duty once again falls to the trade union and labour movement to lead the fight for the necessary measures to save lives and beat the pandemic. But we also have the opportunity to broaden the battle lines, to unite working people across Scotland and win a post-pandemic recovery that works for working people. 2022 will be a crucial year and we can’t squander this chance.

Johnnie Hunter, General Secretary
Young Communist League

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