Has being a part of the UK damaged Scotland’s COVID-19 response?

The UK Prime Minister came to Scotland this week in an attempt to protect the rapidly shrinking support for the Union. One of his key points was that being a part of the larger UK will have aided Scotland in dealing with the crisis. 

Since March, we have witnessed the rapid development of one of the worst global health crises in decades. The UK has suffered one of the highest death tolls worldwide, with 45,300 COVID deaths being registered as of 20th July 2020. This has caused widespread outrage and concern, and on several occasions, polls have shown that the UK Government has damaged the trust of the general public.

Johnson, however, is bound to claim that the UK’s response to COVID-19 helped Scotland and that as an independent nation we would not have had access to that support. The best way we can examine that claim is to evaluate the performances of our smaller, independent Northern European neighbours. 

COVID-19 death toll per head in other benchmark countries

According to Our World in Data, many of the independent Nordic countries, with a population of approximately 5.5 million, such as Norway, Finland and Denmark, have experienced far lower COVID deaths per capita throughout the coronavirus pandemic than Scotland has as part of the UK.

For example:

  • Norway (population of 5,421,242) has experienced a total of 255 deaths as of 20th July 2020. This is the equivalent of 4.70 deaths per 100,000 people.
  • Finland (population of 5,540,718) has experienced a total of 328 deaths as of 20th July 2020. This is the equivalent of 5.92 per 100,000 people.
  • Denmark (population of 5,792,203) has experienced a total of 611 deaths as of 20th July. This is the equivalent of 10.55 per 100,000 people.

If we compare this to Scotland, we are presented with a dramatically different picture. During the daily briefings, the Scottish Government has been offering two different figures representing the COVID-19 death toll in Scotland. The first figure of 2,491 (recorded 20th July 2020) represents those who have died of coronavirus after testing positive. The higher figure of 4,187 (recorded 20th July 2020) represents those who have died with coronavirus being mentioned on their death certificate.

We can use the first figure of 2,491, which corresponds with the UK-wide figure of 45,300, to offer a comparison of the death toll per capita between Scotland and the UK as a whole. In Scotland, this is the equivalent of 45.67 deaths per 100,000 people. Whereas, the UK figure is 66.7 deaths per 100,000 people. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Scotland's death rate has been lower than the UK's. For example, at the beginning of June, whilst Scotland's excess deaths were still high, the figures were significantly lower than the excess deaths in England and the UK, overall.

The results for Scotland, as part of the UK, are higher than the figures recorded in the smaller independent Nordic countries. These results suggest that independent countries, with a population similarly sized to Scotland’s, have outperformed the UK and coped better under the current circumstances. What do they have that Scotland does not? They do not have an open land border with England, whose response has been mismanaged by the UK Government. They also have the powers to act completely with the best interests of their citizens, rather than largely having to follow the UK’s lead, where wellbeing is of lower importance.

There is no reason to suggest that an independent Scotland would not have been able to perform better during this pandemic than it has as part of the UK.

A comparison of responses to COVID-19

  • It is important to note that Norway, Denmark and Finland kept their borders closed to their neighbouring country, Sweden. Sweden has experienced a notably higher death toll per capita, 55.64 per 100,000 people (recorded 20thJuly 2020), compared to the other Nordic countries and therefore faced a degree of isolation from the other Nordic nations during this time. In the UK, there has been a number of debates surrounding travel between the four nations. However, while the R level continues to vary in different areas across the UK, it is important to minimise travel and impose restrictions if necessary. Such measures have helped to protect the citizens of Norway, Finland and Denmark.
  • A study by Steffen Juranek and Floris T. Zoutman offers a comparison of the response Norway and Denmark adopted and the approach that was implemented in Sweden. Sweden adopted a more lenient approach, choosing not to close schools or workplaces. The study found that if Norway and Denmark had followed a similar approach to Sweden at the peak of the virus, both countries would have had more than three times as many COVID-19 patients in hospitals. This comparison again demonstrates two small independent countries, with approximately 5.5 million people, outperforming those with a greater population.
  • Even our neighbouring country Ireland, with a population of nearly 5 million, has outperformed Scotland as part of the UK. Such smaller, independent countries were able to implement strict measures that fulfilled the health requirements of their population more efficiently and with greater ease.

Does the UK help pay for Scotland response?

The PM will claim that the strength of the UK Treasury saved Scottish businesses with the furlough scheme. This is true. However, this scheme also bailed out English businesses. The UK is now in £1.95 trillion of debt, a number that actually exceeds the size of the UK economy. Since the UK is now in such huge debt, any money coming to Scotland from the Treasury is not a gift, it is a loan. Scotland will have to pay back a population percentage share of the UK’s borrowing. A population percentage share regardless of where the borrowing is spent. This means that Scotland will actually be subsidising the UK if it does not receive an equal population share of the furlough money.

Last week, Kate Forbes, the Scottish Finance Minister, was proved right when she claimed that Scotland was being short changed by the furlough scheme


As many countries begin to ease restrictions and move out of lockdown, the effectiveness of the different approaches used to suppress COVID-19 becomes clearer. The low death tolls per capita amongst the small Nordic countries, such as Norway and Denmark, suggests the effectiveness of their efficient and strict measures.

These Nordic nations, Norway, Denmark and Finland, all chose to keep their borders closed to Sweden, an option that has been met with derision when it has been suggested in Scotland, regarding borders with the rest of the UK.

It is clear that being a part of the larger UK has not helped Scotland respond to COVID-19. Scotland, a similarly sized country to Norway, Denmark and Ireland, would have had the option to adopt more efficient measures than those utilised by the UK and, ultimately, may have experienced a comparably lower death toll per capita. That being the case, if Scotland had needed to borrow to pay for the furlough scheme, just as the UK did, it would have borrowed what it needed. However, all of that borrowing would have been spent in Scotland and we may have required less if the pandemic had been better handled and the economy was able to re-open sooner.

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