Plaudits for Nicola Sturgeon fuel talk of Scottish independence drive

Leading Scottish scientists have backed the nation’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, over her handling of Covid-19 – amid suggestions that contrasting government responses in London and Holyrood may be helping the cause of Scottish independence.

The SNP government’s drive to achieve “total elimination” of the coronavirus differs from England’s bid merely to suppress its spread and, overall, Sturgeon’s approach is seen as more cautious than Boris Johnson’s.

She resisted dropping the “stay at home” message for a period after it was abandoned in England, and decided to make masks compulsory in shops earlier than Johnson’s government did. In addition, Scotland has operated stricter rules about eating in public and easing social distancing compared with England.

Although Scotland’s total number of deaths is above 4,000 and is higher than many countries with similar populations, new cases and deaths are now at very low levels, allowing the SNP to aim for an elimination strategy. For several consecutive days this month there were no deaths from Covid-19.

On the downside, Scotland has the highest death rate for coronavirus in care homes in the UK. Some 47% of all Covid-19 deaths have been in care homes in Scotland, while in England the figure is about 27%.

On Saturday the SNP’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, said that his party was not shaping its Covid-19 strategy in order to open new divides with England or to bolster support for an independent Scotland. But he said he believed the SNP’s management of the crisis had won respect.

“We are not doing this to strengthen the case for independence,” he said. “But I think people are reflecting on the leadership that has been given. There is a reaction to that leadership that is perhaps creating more of a confidence in independence. I think that everything that is going on is probably strengthening the case.”

Blackford expects the SNP to win a stronger mandate in next year’s Holyrood elections, which he says he will reinforce calls for another referendum. “I think there will be another referendum,” he said.

Sturgeon’s “total elimination” policy is being backed by leading scientists. “She is perceived to be a very safe pair of hands,” said Dame Anne Glover, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy. “She seems to have a single imperative, and that is to try to eliminate the Covid-19 virus in Scotland. I have not heard that as an endgame in England.”

Professor Linda Bauld, of Edinburgh University’s Usher Institute, compared Sturgeon’s response to that of German chancellor Angela Merkel: “It is evident she is following the evidence closely herself. She is not just relying on people advising her. She is a bit like Angela Merkel. She is clearly spending a huge amount of time reading and absorbing material. I didn’t really hear that from the prime minister.”

Members of the public wear face masks as they shop on Princes Street

Wearing a face covering is already mandatory in shops across Scotland, where the government has adopted a more cautious approach than England. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Bauld added that she had not spoken to anyone who had been critical of Sturgeon’s ability to communicate clearly with the Scottish public. “She is highly regarded by scientists for that,” she said.

In a move that led her political opponents to criticise her for political posturing, Sturgeon threatened recently to close the England-Scotland border, while Johnson has claimed no such border exists. While flights and trains to Scotland could be halted, few analysts believe the myriad roads between the two nations could be sealed off.

There are tentative signs that Sturgeon’s handling of the crisis may be bolstering support for the nationalist cause. One recent poll showed 55% of Scots now favour independence.

Critics of Sturgeon, however, point to the fact that other small nations – such as New Zealand – have done far better at limiting the spread of Covid-19 within their borders and have much lower death rates.

Labour MP and shadow secretary of state for Scotland, Ian Murray, said: “The first minister being a better communicator than Boris Johnson doesn’t mask the SNP’s catastrophic failures, and if the bar is to do better than Johnson then it is no bar at all.

“As we ease out of lockdown more gently a few days behind England, performance in both Scotland and Wales is now better than some parts of the UK, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that Scotland has one of the worst death rates in the world. It’s no comfort that England is doing worse and the figures in Scotland are certainly not something to celebrate given the tragic loss of life.”

However, Glover – who is based at Strathclyde University – defended Sturgeon. “New Zealand is an independent nation. By contrast, Scotland has no independent fiscal powers. Like Wales and Northern Ireland it could not borrow to raise funds for lockdown and so was entirely dependent on what happens in the UK overall in regard to providing support for furlough. It had to wait for England to act, belatedly as it transpires.”