Earlier Scottish lockdown ‘could have prevented 2000 deaths’ – BBC headline, May 11, 2020


The devolved Scottish Government lacked the legal power to impose a general lockdown until March 25. Also, the Scottish Government lacks the full economic powers to deal with a lockdown – say, to protect incomes during a furlough. Only independence would give Holyrood sufficient control over its borrowing and spending to initiate a future lockdown as required.


The first confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK were on January 29, when two Chinese nationals fell ill in York. On February 6, a British businessman in Brighton was diagnosed with the virus after catching it in Singapore. The first publicly confirmed case of Covid-19 in Scotland (in Tayside) was announced on March 1, 2020.

It is now known that health authorities were aware of an outbreak in Edinburgh at a conference for the sportswear giant Nike on February 26-27 – a delegate from abroad brought the virus into Scotland.

The UK was one of the last European countries to impose a lockdown. Italy began its lockdown on March 8 (in the northern region). Norway locked down on March 12, Austria on March 15 and Latvia on March 17.

However, the Scottish Government did not order a general lockdown until March – the same day as similar restrictions were announced by the UK Government. One study, by Edinburgh University epidemiological scientists, suggests that circa 2000 deaths could have been prevented in Scotland had the lockdown been instituted a fortnight earlier than it was.

Health matters are devolved in Scotland. Could the Scottish Government have ordered a lockdown earlier than it did, regardless of the UK Government position? If so, what would have been the likely economic consequences? And how might this have impacted on subsequent UK Government responses?


The Coronavirus Act 2020, given royal assent on March 25, does not confer new powers on UK and Welsh ministers to impose a lockdown – these re-existed in the 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act. However, such general lockdown powers were not available to the Scottish Government under the original devolution legislation and had to be provided for Scottish ministers in Schedule 19 of the new Coronavirus Act.

So, arguably, there was no legal possibility of a unilateral national lockdown in Scotland, unless the Scottish Government had asked for emergency permission from Westminster. The latter is a feasible scenario but clearly would have taken time.

Incidentally, the new Schedule 19 powers grant the Scottish Government the right to act independently of English authorities, so there is a theoretical right to close the border with England. However, the Scottish authorities have to act “proportionately” so any border closure could be subject to legal challenge.


At a UK level, the bill for extra spending to support industry during the lockdown, and to fund the job retention scheme, will amount to at least £400 billion – and possibly go as high as £500bn. On top of that, the UK Government will have to borrow to fill the gap left by falling income tax and other revenue sources as the economy goes into recession. That will add at least £100bn to borrowing this financial year and more in 2020-21. By population share, Scotland will need approximately 8% of this sum to deal with the results of the coronavirus crisis, lockdown and resulting economic recession.

Assuming the Scottish Government had been willing to impose a lockdown earlier or independent of the UK Government, it would have had to face the economic consequences alone. Of course, a life-or-death medical emergency is a valid reason for action, making the economic consequences a secondary matter. But the strict limitations imposed by the devolution settlement on the borrowing and spending powers of the Scottish Government make it highly problematic it could have afforded to impose a unilateral lockdown.

The limits on the fiscal powers available to the Scottish Government were amply explained by the London-based Institute for Fiscal Studies, in a briefing paper published on March 25 (available on the IFS website). This argued that ministers in the devolved administrations in both Edinburgh and Cardiff had their ability to respond to the pandemic “delayed or compromised” by current UK funding rules.

IFS associate director David Phillips reported: “The funding arrangements for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not look well designed to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Devolved governments have limited reserves, constrained borrowing powers and the funding flowing to them as a result of the Barnett formula won’t reflect the challenges that they face. As a result, the devolved governments’ ability to respond effectively may be delayed or compromised and vital funding misallocated across the UK.”

Under current rules the Scottish Government is able to hold reserves of up to £700 million in total and draw down up to £250m a year for unforeseen revenue spending, plus up to £100m for capital spending. In the current financial year it was already planning to draw down £234m for day-to-day spending meaning it only has £16m of leeway. That’s just £3 per person – hardly enough to deal with a pandemic!

In the next financial year (2020-21), pre-coronavirus forecasts suggest there could be around £100m of unallocated reserves available to the Scottish Government. Note: this is less than 0.3% of the Scottish Government’s total budget and less than 1% of the Scottish NHS’s budget. Again, insufficient to deal with most emergencies, never mind a global one.


The IFS briefing concluded: “There is therefore a case for giving the devolved governments greater access to borrowing via the National Loans Fund, at least for coronavirus related measures. This would allow them to develop, cost and announce plans more quickly than if they have to wait until UK Government plans for England have been announced.”


The National: Fewer coronavirus deaths could have resulted from an earlier lockdown but the fault lies squarely with Westminster.