Bugs and Borders

Cold cures

Wellcome Collection gallery

Coughs and sneezes may spread diseases but we are told bugs do not respect politics or borders. Ironic then that in terms of politics and borders in Scotland, they are doing so much to affect both.

New Zealand came to the conclusion that in managing the impact of COVID 19, you could prioritise business and the economy or health and wellbeing but you could not do both, simultaneously. They have kept their borders shut and are working towards eliminating the bug within the boundaries of their nation. It will cost them dear in tourism income and even more in deficit terms in relation to mitigation for jobs lost. But it is their choice, one a small independent nation can make.

The United Kingdom by comparison seems to be positively schizophrenic in its approach to this. Northern Ireland is quietly pretending to be Ireland because, and I hesitate to use this word in a Northern Irish context, it is logical. Wales seems to be working towards elimination but confused about opening up. Scotland has quite clearly stated that elimination of the disease is a priority but has neither the economic powers nor the border controls capable of delivering it. 

Meanwhile “enraged of Tunbridge Wells” fumes at the audacity of demands by the Republic of Ireland that visitors should first serve a period of isolation. The First Minister of Scotland’s assertion that she has the similar powers are received with eye rolling rage. But it is ok, apparently, to lock up Leicester…naturally. 

The revelation that antibody immunity for those who have had C19 appears to be much shorter than anyone had dared to fear, throws travel issues related to this disease into sharp focus. It also has immense significance for the development and effectiveness of a vaccine. 

I am fond of the saying, “For every complex problem there is a solution that is seductive, simple and wrong.” Brexit is a prime example of this (if you need me to explain why, I need to remind you this is not the Daily Mail) and the fixation on a vaccine for C19 is possibly another example. That is not to say any vaccine is simple, far from it, but our reliance on it is simplistic. 

Researchers have been up front about this. Take for instance Professor Sarah Gilbert of the University of Oxford team, “Until we know what level of immune response is needed for protection, we don’t know whether the immunity we see at one year will be sufficient.”

In other  words, if humanity is a “herd“ then we may need to vaccinate more than 50% annually to achieve “herd immunity.” 

Then there are the issues of mutation and antibody reaction. Covid 19 is not mutating as fast as ‘flu so you would have thought that getting a specific enough vaccine would be easier than with the ‘flu? But then again, the bug has ambitions, summarised as survival and reproduction. Covid 19 has not as yet been challenged by an immunisation response so we do not know how it will respond. Will it comply nicely or will it speed up mutation? You cannot blame a bug for being a trier. 

Equally, you might assume that antibody production through vaccination is a good thing? Generally it probably is but one of the issues with Covid 19 is the severity of the immune response. With some folk, the body can turn in on itself in a rapidly deteriorating way meaning vaccination for them could be problematic. Other vaccines have been abandoned for just that reason. 

So, simple? No. At a time when we seem as a herd to be behaving as if the predator has moved on, in reality that is far from true. We know more than we did about Covid 19 but what we do know is incomplete and far from conclusive.

Summary? It is not all bad news but it is far from all being good news. The political implications of this are increasingly fascinating. The politics of denial seem to be in rapid retreat; Trump, Johnson? Now wearing face masks.

The acceptance rating of those politicians who have taken a different, more cautious course have soared in recent days and weeks. They are receiving more, and less critical airtime which, with a national broadcaster that all too often seems to think uncritically repeating Westminster rhetoric is journalism, makes a refreshing change. 

It is the lack of shift in UK national polling that focusses the mind. People feel that the crisis has not been well handled by Westminster, Starmer gets far better ratings than Johnson yet the Conservatives still have a massive poll lead in England. Meanwhile the SNP ratings in Scotland indicate support as never before. 

Westminster is responding. Gove, speaking on BBC’s Andrew Marr show pointed to the presence of the Department for International Development (DFID) in Kilbride and suggested if the House of Lords were moved to York it would be evidence of government moving closer to the people. A derided institution based on privilege and another that is being demoted. Nope, he does not do irony! But then, what did we expect? 

Meanwhile, for Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon the sheer and believable denial that the management of Covid 19 has been in any sense “political” has created possibly the most political of reactions. The bumbling, self-harming attempts by Jackson Carlaw in Holyrood to turn this political would be amusing if the implications were not so serious. 

If less can be more then the avoidance of the Independence question by the SNP at a time of acute national crisis is a prime example of the genre. Watching Nicola Sturgeon insist that she is just “doing the day job“ and suggesting that Carlaw tries the same has been one of the more amusing volte face moments of this crisis. 

When a percentage point is a significant shift in polling, the movement to 54% in support of Independence in Scotland is more than significant, it is seismic. 

Gove was keen to point out that Scotland has two governments and benefits from both. True, but it is a statement with potential to backfire. 

I have always felt that like other simple comments, James Carville’s oft quoted, “The economy, Stupid” is less than helpful. It is not the economy, it is what you do with it that counts. At some point, possibly not that far away, the Scottish public will realise just how much of its economy is exercised for it rather than by it. 

Comparisons can now be made in a way that was hard to see before. In a way that no political manifesto could do, the differential management of Covid 19 by Westminster and the devolved nations has shown what different approaches, priorities and financial goal setting can achieve. 

However you vote, whether you believe in Union or Independence, possibly for the first time, and with more clarity than ever, the implications of those choices have been illustrated by a self serving bug that respects neither politics nor borders.

Scotland England Border credit Colin Park

Credit: Colin Park

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1 reply »

  1. Bernie, we should also remind ‘the bulls-in-the-China-shop brigade’ that what we often refer to as ‘the common cold’ is of the same virus family as Covid-19 and science have been searching for a vaccine for that wee bugger of a virus since time immemorial as it is forever mutating. So we might never find a vaccine, though a treatment may be more feasible.

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