edinburgh scotland

This article appears in the April 2020 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Locals, normally cranky over the cacophony of wheelie bags on the cobbled Royal Mile, are aghast at the silence. Rush hour has disappeared. And, like in many cities, grocery shelves are eerily bare, especially when it comes to staples such as pasta, rice and beans.

This is Edinburgh city of travellers, of education, of cultural events and parliamentary government, of glowing sandstone, of neighbourhood pubs and fine restaurants suddenly stilled. By mid-March, the city’s airport had seen an estimated 70% decline in traffic since the turn of the year, resulting in hundreds of job losses at this normally busy European hub. Tens of thousands of sports fans watch games only on TV if the games are played at all. All of this will represent billions in pounds sterling lost, across almost every commercial sector (except, perhaps, pharmacies).

As the coronavirus continues its inexorable spread through the U.K. and the world Scotland is finally waking up uneasily to the realization that it has lagged badly with its preparations. Worse, the trouble could be partly Scotland’s own fault: there are many who believe that the pro-independence Scottish government, fronted by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (who seems to lack deep talent in her party), has been too willing to follow Westminster’s foot-dragging approach.

Even as late as mid-March, when Covid-19 was raging through northern Italy, Switzerland, France and Spain, the U.K. government officials in London took a “don’t panic, we’ll be fine” approach, while non-government medical experts were yelling from the sidelines that the number of infected people was already in the tens of thousands. Many called for urgent action immediately: shut schools, close businesses, acknowledge that the National Health Service (NHS) can’t cope, ramp up testing and tell people to stay put.

Yet the Tory government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson continued the “politics and money first” approach it has displayed since the general election in December. Even now, with the above measures belatedly in place, the U.K. looks flat-footed (Johnson himself now has the virus). On March 24, less than a week after pubs, tourist spots and non-essential businesses were finally shut down, and with the virus spreading rapidly, the Johnson government sent a curt, five-line notice to British residents. The message? Stay home, or you’re busted. For millions looking for guidance and at least some reassurance, it was a cold slap.

The Tories continue to insist that their approach to what is now a global emergency has been justified. As late as mid-March, that approach included advising people to stop calling the NHS and check its website instead. Don’t buy so much toilet paper. Stay home for seven days, even with severe symptoms, without notifying the NHS. Allow sports fans from around the country and Europe to swarm into cities for the 48 hours before a match, eating, drinking and spending in pubs and restaurants before the game gets called off.

To many people, Westminster seemed to want the world to know that the U.K. was still open for business. But any short-term economic gains that resulted from that strategy appear to have been more than swallowed up in the horrendous costs of delay, with the virus spreading much more quickly than might otherwise have been the case. From 460 confirmed cases on March 11, numbers shot to 11,658 by March 27 probably only a fraction of the true number of cases. Indeed, the U.K. may be on the brink of joining its overwhelmed neighbours Italy and Spain which also were slow to face the reality of how quickly this contagion can spread.

Did Sturgeon really have little choice but to follow London’s lead? It’s hard to know. Lacking the deep resources of Westminster, she may have felt compelled to follow the advice of the Tory-sanctioned scientists. On March 25, Sturgeon announced a new, Scotland-only expert group to monitor the progress of Covid-19 and make recommendations for the best ways to deal with it.

Sturgeon has been a vigorous and articulate proponent of Scotland’s independence throughout her career; now, with a slight majority of Scots saying they support leaving the U.K., she seems to be closer to success than ever. However, this crisis has shown that Sturgeon, who lacks the crucial expertise that comes with a strong cabinet and an informed bureaucracy, may suffer setbacks in her quest for Scotland’s independence.