Sturgeon’s juggernaut of fear lumbers on in Scotland

Sturgeon’s juggernaut of fear lumbers on in Scotland

by Linda Holt
article from Saturday 29, August, 2020

THE FIRST MINISTER may be waving behind the wheel, but she is no longer in control of the vehicle. Tuesday’s announcement that face coverings will become mandatory in schools from August 31 was nothing but political posturing.

It has no solid or uncontested scientific basis, and it even flies in the face of the WHO advice Nicola Sturgeon cited, confident perhaps that the average member of the public won’t bother trawling through the WHO document (available here).

The latest WHO guidance sets two criteria for the use of masks in schools “where there is known or suspected community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and in settings where physical distancing cannot be achieved”. The first criterion is admittedly ambiguous. If it refers to known or suspected community transmission within schools, then there are very few schools where cases have been identified; where they have, the assumption is that community transmission within school is not the case. This accords with the scientific consensus that the evidence to date shows that children are not significant drivers of Covid-19 transmission. If the first criterion refers to geographical areas where there is known or suspected community transmission, such as Aberdeen recently, then it suggests the measure should only be brought in in schools in those areas together with other local lockdown measures.

In the First Minister’s briefing on Monday she stated that the WHO “said that [for] young people over the age of 12 in schools where physical distancing is not possible, and in areas with high transmission, face coverings should be recommended”. Scotland manifestly is not an area with high transmission of Covid-19; without discounting false positives, the prevalence of Covid-19 in Scotland is in a range of 0.003% to 0.007%, based on the last Scottish Government figures (13 August). While there may be clusters or local outbreaks which are reported on daily, this rate will be much lower in most places.

Guidance issued by Scottish Ministers on Tuesday says “Local incident management teams may recommend a further strengthening of the use of face coverings in other areas of the school (eg. classrooms) when dealing with local outbreaks”. This suggests that previous talk of “areas with high transmission” refers to areas within schools.

On Wednesday there were reports that Boris Johnson is preparing to make masks mandatory for all English secondary school pupils in areas with high levels of Coronavirus which are subject to additional lockdown measures. Unlike Nicola Sturgeon, Boris Johnson seems to have had no trouble understanding the WHO advice.

The Scottish garbling of the WHO guidance betrays not merely confusion but an impulse to exaggerate transmission and risk to justify measures, which in normal times would seem preposterous and draconian. 

Another instance of the Scottish Government cobbling together guidance on the hoof is the slippage from face masks to face coverings. The WHO only talks about face masks because what little research that has been done on other kinds of face coverings (a scarf, a snood or the top of your jumper) suggests these are considerably less effective. 

Even then, as the WHO document acknowledges, there are differences between types of masks. The ones primarily used in Scotland, and presumably by school children, next week are cloth or disposable paper masks. Both are problematic; the paper ones are single-use and require specialist disposal, and the cloth ones become damp and soiled with repeated use and need special storage. It’s hard to see how school children can be made to behave more responsibly than adults as they re-use disposable or soiled masks, taking them on and off multiple times a day and stuffing them in pockets and bags. My daughter tells me gleefully of sharing masks with her friends when they go to the shops at lunchtime; they won’t be the only ones. Unless it is policed to an impossible degree, encouraging mask-wearing among teenagers may well be more likely to increase Covid transmission than decrease it. It will certainly increase the transmission of common colds and other infections.

The WHO’s recommendations for masks in schools contain a further two caveats which will challenge those charged with implementing Scottish Government policy. First, the WHO warns against discriminating against pupils from low income families who may struggle to afford masks, and suggests they be made freely available. Second, it advises that children who may not be able to wear masks because of medical conditions should not be made to do so. Many such children, particularly those with psychological or autism-spectrum disorders who until nowhave not shared their diagnoses with peers, will become open to victimisation and bullying.

Ministers’ guidance published on Tuesday says that “No one should be excluded from education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering”. Yet when asked about how face coverings in schools would be policed, the First Minister glossed that it would not be mandatory or enshrined in law, but “obligatory”, guidance “that is best dealt with through the normal processes that schools have in place”. The only thing clear in these mixed messages is that ministers have dodged responsibility for enforcing face coverings and left it to schools and local authorities, who will be issuing their own advice on the back of the Scottish Government guidance.

The key thing, however, is that the jury is still out on the efficacy of masks. In the words of Dr Gregor Smith, the interim Chief Medical Officer, it is “divided”. At a briefing just over a week ago, he explicitly rejected the use of face coverings in schools, citing the Scientific Advisory Group on Education and Children’s review of a whole series of evidence on face coverings. Where the prevalence of infection is fairly low, as it is in most of Scotland, face coverings add “very, very little in terms of protection” and “would not be a proportionate response in terms of the harm they would cause in terms of the individual and their schooling”. As ever, he stressed this would be “kept under review”. Although these words were uttered at the First Minister’s televised briefing in the presence of scores of journalists, they were barely reported – a sign of the media’s lack of interest in anything that does not feed the dominant narrative of fear. 

So what did this keeping under review consist of which led to the U-turn less than a week later? The WHO document was published, of course, and was (mis-)used to lend a rhetorical aura of scientific respectability to the new policy. But even before children returned to school, unions and others were voicing fears about exposure to Covid in schools, and calling for mandatory face coverings. Shortly before the start of term, a survey found 85% of secondary school parents were concerned about the risk of infection at school. On the day before the announcement, Nicola Sturgeon said John Swinney was “in the final stages of consulting with teachers and local authorities” about the policy. No doubt the COVID-19 Educational Recovery Group, which (unbelievably) does not include a single medically or epidemiologically qualified individual, was influential in the review.

The popular push for face coverings in schools became inevitable once they became mandatory on public transport, in shops, and in other enclosed places where people congregate. For weeks, people had been wearing and seeing face coverings as normal. What could be better training in fear? What could more effectively reinforce the message that mixing with people without face coverings risked Covid infection? If retail workers and shoppers needed to be protected, why not teachers and their pupils?

Throughout the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon has projected a seductive and remarkably successful image: chief mammy valiantly fighting the virus, keeping everyone safe, and outdoing her rival in Westminster in her dedication, caution and readiness to act.

The problem for Sturgeon is that the virus – once the deadliest thing we’ve ever faced – is no longer playing ball. Deaths from Covid-19 have all but ceased; hospital admissions, let alone ITU admissions, continue to flatline; and, for reasons not fully understood, fatalities and severe illness from the virus are in retreat across Europe, even as reported cases of infections are rising.

At the same time, much public opinion remains in emotional lockdown. Fear, or paranoia, suspends critical faculties. After all, it is always best to err on the side of caution. Unsurprisingly, this stance lends itself to exploitation by those who for whatever reason do not want a return to the status quo ante. 

So it is little wonder that the First Minister took the line of least resistance and introduced face coverings in secondary school corridors and buses. However, as the campaign group Us For Them Scotland has warned, this may well become a slippery slope that leads to face coverings being introduced throughout all schools.

All this is entirely consistent with Sturgeon’s style of government. For years now the SNP’s approach has been to smell the wind and ride the wave of popular opinion, trying its best not to offend, as it stokes Nicola’s personality cult. It might talk of radical action, but when push comes to shove, it backs away from controversy, diluting its proposals to the point of ineffectiveness or quietly dropping them altogether.  

It almost seems to be a quaint concept these days to suggest that leadership is sometimes about having the courage to eschew the easy and obviously popular, and to stand up for reason in the face of hysterical group-think. School pupils have a far greater chance of being run over on the way to school than they have of being made seriously ill by Covid. It is unreasonable to suppose we can eliminate all risk from our lives – and that includes the risk of Covid and the risks from all the other health conditions, which, following the partial closure of the NHS during lockdown, have grown significantly. Science does not exist to provide a totem for politicians or a shield for them to evade responsibility. The job of politicians, surely, is to weigh up the risks and the inevitable trade-offs, and to be honest with the public – or at least a lot more honest than they have been in pretending that the costs of anti-Covid measures to the country’s economy and the health of its citizens can be sustained or justified. 

In her briefing yesterday, the First Minister performed some nifty footwork to discourage panicking parents from overwhelming the testing service at the slightest sign of a cold in their children. She pointed out that of the 17,500 young people tested last week, only 0.3% tested positive. Despite the clusters of cases in some communities involving young people, and “despite an increase of over 300% in the number of young people tested … the number of positive cases recorded increased by just 2. Not 2 per cent. Just 2 cases in total”. She concluded: “I think that is encouraging and I hope is reassuring to parents and teachers across the country. I hope it will encourage you to absolutely continue to be vigilant, we all have to be vigilant right now but not to be unduly concerned about young people in schools”. 

This story did not loom large in Friday’s papers (I only found it in The Times), although they did report widely the latest BMJ study that no healthy child has died from Covid-19 in the UK, and that researchers were confident children were safe in schools. 

As long as Nicola Sturgeon will not halt the juggernaut of fear, it begs the question: where is Scotland’s opposition? Opposition parties have been cowed for too long by nationalist hegemony. Combatting Covid unreason and the mania for control it has unleashed is not just a golden opportunity. It’s now the most urgent of political imperatives.

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in next year's Holyrood elections. lindaholt.org.uk

Photo by davit85 from Adobe Stock

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