While England Gambles on ‘Freedom Day,’ Scotland Opts for Caution


EDINBURGH, Scotland — “Freedom Day” means something different north of the English border, so it was perhaps not surprising that independence-minded Scotland declined to fall in line earlier this week when Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain lifted virtually all remaining coronavirus restrictions in England.

While the Scottish authorities did follow England in relaxing curbs — the British tabloids proclaimed it “Freedom Day” — nightclubs in Edinburgh and other cities remain closed; face masks are compulsory in pubs and shops; and the government has told people to stay one meter apart from one another and keep working from home.

It is the latest example of a divergence that stretches back to the start of the pandemic. Scotland’s nationalist leader, Nicola Sturgeon, a politician whose rallying cry is freedom from the United Kingdom, has frequently taken a more cautious, deliberate approach to the virus than the more freewheeling Mr. Johnson.

This time, though, it may prove to be a decisive fork in the road.

England is embarking on a high-stakes gamble that it has vaccinated enough of its adult population that it can fully open its economy, even if that means withstanding a huge new wave of infections. Scotland, with a comparable level of vaccinations, is not yet ready to throw off its last protections.

“To talk of tomorrow as ‘Freedom Day’ is not sensible,” Ms. Sturgeon, who is first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, said before England’s big easing on Monday. The phrase, she said pointedly, applied to England, not Scotland.

The differences between Scotland’s and England’s pandemic responses, experts note, are often more in tone than substance. On major policies like lockdowns and vaccines, the two have been generally aligned. And judged by metrics like cases and deaths, their performance has not been all that different.

Still, in a relationship in which so much is refracted through the prism of Scottish nationalism, Ms. Sturgeon’s conservative stance could pay off politically, especially if Mr. Johnson’s experiment backfires.

“If it goes pear-shaped and Scotland ends up in a better position, expect those in the independence movement to have something to say about it,” said John Curtice, an expert in polling at the University of Strathclyde.

Pandemic politics, he noted, can be fickle. Last July, when cases and deaths in Scotland dwindled to a trickle while England was being ravaged, support for independence spiked to 55 percent as people concluded that Scotland could fare better on its own.

But over the winter, as Scotland faced a renewed surge in infections and the British government secured vaccines and distributed them aggressively across the United Kingdom, enthusiasm for independence waned.

With Scotland now recovering from yet another outbreak, polls show that support for independence has slipped below 50 percent. That is about where it was in 2014, when Scots voted against leaving the United Kingdom.

Although the Scottish National Party kept control of the country’s Parliament in recent elections, it fell one seat short of a clear majority, taking some of the wind out of the movement. Ms. Sturgeon has signaled that she wants to get past the pandemic before pushing for a second referendum.

The mood in Edinburgh, which is gearing up for its annual arts festival next month, is more subdued than in liberated London. While the festival is going ahead, the number of live shows has been scaled back, or placed online, because of social-distancing requirements.

Tourists, many of them from other parts of Britain, filled tables this week outside pubs and restaurants near Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. But pub owners say the restrictions, particularly on face masks and midnight closings, are hindering them from rebuilding their businesses.

“There’s no justification for us being any different than England,” said Nic Wood, the owner of 22 pubs in Edinburgh and other cities. “England is challenging it head on, while Scotland is still shying away.”

Scotland’s authorities were alarmed by a sudden surge in cases in June, when the highly transmissible Delta variant spread across the country. There are a variety of theories about why it was so prolific — not least that thousands of fans of Scotland’s national soccer team traveled to London for a game against England and brought the variant back with them.

Scotland, experts said, also had an initially slower rollout of vaccines than England and a lower level of antibodies in its population, which could have played a part. While cases have begun dropping again, the outbreak punctured illusions that Scotland was different from its neighbor to the south.

All told, England has reported a rate of 8,597 cases and 202 deaths per 100,000 people. Scotland, with a smaller, more dispersed population, has fared slightly better, with 6,114 cases and 144 deaths per 100,000 people.

“Covid has been a double-edged sword for the…

Read More:While England Gambles on ‘Freedom Day,’ Scotland Opts for Caution

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