Did Nicola Sturgeon miss a trick? It is not a question one asks often. Nevertheless, I think that, while Scottish Review was on its summer break, an occasion arose when she failed to seize an opportunity to do something that would have been both good policy and good politics. She missed it, or she was badly advised against it, or she bottled it. At least, so it seems to me.
Cast your mind back to Friday 16 July. The UK Government, in a heavily-trailed decision, announces that people arriving in England from the so-called amber-list countries will, from 2 August, be spared the need to quarantine for 10 days and take Covid tests, provided they can show that they are fully vaccinated. But then comes the unheralded PS: this will not apply to arrivals from France, because of fears over the spread here of the Beta variant of Covid.
The relaxation has been sufficiently signposted to create a surge in travel bookings to and from continental Europe. But the French exception drops entirely out of the blue, causing fury among travel operators and dismayed inconvenience to ex-pats and their families: including, interest declared, my own. France, apparently, is now something called 'amber-plus'.
It falls to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, go-to patsy for these tasks, to break the rotten news to us Francophiles. Public health is the priority, he says. A week later, it emerges that Shapps had not even been present at the Chequers gathering which decided the policy, reportedly at the behest of new (and, we learn a day later, Covid-bearing) Health Secretary Sajid Javid. Shapps is 'p****d off' about being excluded, according to the Mail on Sunday
which generally knows about such things.
Meanwhile in Scotland, where direct air services with France have only just begun to gear up again, there is an interlude of governmental reticence. Ministers are evidently 'considering the best approach for Scotland'. Then, on the Monday, comes confirmation that the English quarantine for travellers from France will also be enforced in Scotland. 'It is important we act quickly to limit the risk of importation of variants of concern which would undermine the roll-out of our vaccine programme,' says Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson.
As a sentence of vague aspiration, that's perfectly reasonable. As a rationale for this decision, it simply does not hold water, any more than do Shapps's pieties about public health. The sorry truth is that the very last thing this decision was about was a sober assessment of the science in respect of any risk to public health. The idea of an eruption in the Beta variant in France that could pose a greater threat than the still rampant – and more infectious – Delta variant in countries like Italy, Spain and, for that matter, the UK, is arrant tosh.
On the weekend the decision was made, France was indeed contending with what Prime Minister Jean Castex has not hesitated to call the 'fourth wave' of Covid, and a not insignificant 9% of new infections were indeed of the Beta variant.
But, but, BUT: France includes its overseas territories in its national statistics. It is possibly too much to expect Boris Johnson to know this (he was only Foreign Secretary, after all) but it would be comforting to think that someone in Whitehall or Edinburgh had thought to check. The fact of the matter was that the incidence of Beta infection in France has been declining, not increasing: and, crucially, that the vast majority of cases have been, and remain, in the overseas territories of Réunion and Mayotte… which are – follow me closely here, Boris – in the Indian Ocean.
On the day France became 'amber-plus', Beta-variant cases in mainland France stood at just 2.8% of the total. Beta has been circulating at low levels in the UK too, which has logged nearly 1,100 cases in the past year. What was filling ICU units in France was an upsurge, not in the Beta variant, but in the Delta variant, which was then running at about 12,500 new cases a day: and, incidentally, at around 40-50,000 a day in the UK.
Small wonder that the ruling provoked weary mystification in France, and several offers to lend Johnson an atlas. 'We don't think the UK's decisions are totally based on scientific foundations,' remarked European Affairs Minister Clément Beaune. 'We find them excessive.' Olivier Cadic, a senator representing French citizens overseas, said: 'It is as if the British Government is doing everything it can to make life impossible for those who live between the UK and the continent'. British lawyers, meanwhile, noted that the official order mentioned only 'metropolitan France', meaning people could fly from Réunion to the UK via an amber-list country without quarantine.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron's new, coercive approach to vaccination – banning the non-vaccinated from bars, restaurants and venues – has changed the game in needle-suspicious France. In spite of noisy protests led by the extremes of left and right, public support is running at 65%. More than three million people booked jags in the immediate wake of Macron's statement, and 800,000 were vaccinated in a single day. Around half the population are now double-vaxxers, and new hospital admissions consist almost entirely of the non-vaccinated. Research coinciding with the Chequers meeting showed little difference in vaccine effectiveness between Beta and Delta, with a single AstraZeneca dose 83% effective against Beta and 88% against Delta.
So, if it wasn't about science, what was it about? In the absence of any cogent explanation, it is irresistible to infer that it was political cover for the reckless hype-fest of 'Freedom Day', proclaimed for the following Monday. You can imagine the script: 'Never mind that we're telling folk to get hugger-mugger with infection rates sky-high and the "pingdemic" a national farce. Let's show how responsible we are by sticking it to the Frenchies and the knavish Brits who defect there'. Well, it does sometimes feel as if Johnson and his set simply don't like people who like foreigners.
Which brings us back to Edinburgh's docile acquiescence. Nicola Sturgeon has been loath to exploit devolved powers to score political points off Covid, which is laudable; and has rarely taken a substantively different line from London, especially on international linkages. The trouble is that Johnson's decision-making processes, being geared to appease competing opinions in his own party, are St Vitus dance on a pogo-stick. It is surely reasonable to question the statesmanship of dutifully apeing his every lurch and judder.
Had Sturgeon said no to the French quarantine, it would not just have paid due deference to rational policy-making. It would also have left Johnson with an acute dilemma. He would have been forced to decide between backing down on a silly decision, or else enforcing it by erecting controls along the Scottish-English border: the very scenario with which his party is forever raising gothic scares about Scottish independence. Handy politics for the SNP on any measure, you'd have thought.
So, what happened? Did Scottish ministers swallow the specious science whole? Did they judge matters too touchy for twisting London's tail? Or are they simply stuck in a rut of compliance? One way or another, it seems to me that they missed a trick. And maybe an open goal.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster