The myth of Scotland’s Covid superiority
Scottish Government advisers are using misleading data to promote Scottish exceptionalism
In a speech delivered on 3rd July, Nicola Sturgeon claimed that the prevalence of COVID-19 in Scotland was five times lower than in England.
This earned the First Minister a rebuke from the UK Statistics Authority, which said (referring to the sources used to justify her claim):
“We do not think that these sources allow for a quantified and uncaveated comparison of the kind being made here.”
This was an uncharacteristic slip from Sturgeon, who has seized the opportunity of daily COVID-19 press conferences to push the idea that Scotland does things differently, and does things better.
The SNP would like people to believe that in an independent Scotland, a nimbler and more competent Scottish Government would have tackled the COVID-19 crisis more quickly and decisively than the dithering response of the UK Government.
One might expect to find some evidence for this in the work of the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Advisory Group, which was established to “consider the scientific and technical concepts and processes that are key to understanding the evolving COVID-19 situation and potential impacts in Scotland”.
But facts get in the way: the Scottish Advisory Group did not meet for the first time until 26th March – four days into the UK-wide lockdown.
And it soon became clear that its members were not expected to publicly criticise the Scottish Government.
In June, Devi Sridhar, Professor and Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, tweeted her views on the reopening of schools in Scotland: “If COVID-19 numbers can be brought low enough in Scotland by 11 August (under 20 confirmed cases) & with appropriate ‘test and protect’ policies, my personal view is that schools should re-open as normally as possible (kids back full-time & able to play/interact together).”
Nothing very controversial about that, you might think. But it deviated from Scottish Government policy at the time, and Sridhar quickly fell back into line, by tweeting a clarification: “Nicola Sturgeon & I are completely aligned & I support her cautious approach to easing lockdown & re-opening schools. She has kids (& teachers, parents) best interest in mind so better to go slowly, track virus closely & make decisions in a reasoned & data-driven way.”
Sridhar subsequently caused a furore with another tweet, in which she described Unionists as “anti-Scottish” (she deleted the tweet and apologised, explaining that she meant to write “anti-Scottish independence”).
Sridhar is not the only member of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Group whose tweets have raised eyebrows. Stephen Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews, sent these tweets, on 27th and 28th July:
“Since 16th July there have been 0 (yes, zero) COVID deaths in Scotland, 700 in England. There have been 170 recorded new infections in Scotland, 7559 in England. One reason for the difference is good clear consistent messaging. Stick with it! There’s still a pandemic going on.”
“Many people responding to the Scotland/England figures on COVID as an assertion of Scottish nationalism. Why? For me it is about learning from the differences to save lives. Scots are not currently dying. I want that success for everyone, irrespective of country and flag.”
“Scots are not currently dying” and “Zero COVID deaths in Scotland” are eye catching statements.
But are they true?
The daily deaths number in Scotland has actually been zero since 18th July, not 16th July. But critically, in Scotland the number announced every day includes only deaths of people who had tested positive for COVID-19 within the previous 28 days.
Once a week, the NRS (National Records of Scotland) publishes more complete figures, which capture all deaths registered where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, regardless of whether it was confirmed with a positive test, or if more than 28 days had passed since a positive test.
The NRS report shows that in week 31 (the week to 2nd August, and the most recent data available at the time of writing), there were 7 deaths in Scotland where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, despite zero daily deaths being reported at each day’s daily press conference.
This chart from the NRS shows that there have been no weeks of zero deaths in Scotland since the start of the pandemic:
Reicher’s statements – “Scots are not currently dying” and “Zero COVID deaths in Scotland” – were simply not true.
Furthermore, Reicher’s comparison with England is misleading: the data is not like-for-like.
The daily deaths number reported in Scotland requires a positive COVID-19 test within the previous 28 days, but in England anyone who dies having ever tested positive for COVID-19 (even if they have subsequently recovered) is counted in the daily death number, whatever the actual cause of death. So, for example, someone would be counted as a daily death from COVID-19 in England if they tested positive for COVID-19 in April, made a full recovery, and then died in a road traffic accident in August.
The Scottish daily death numbers certainly miss some people who have died from COVID-19. The English daily death numbers certainly count some people who haven’t died from COVID-19.
In email correspondence with this author, Professor Reicher denied that the statements “Scots are not currently dying” and “Zero COVID deaths in Scotland” were false. For a member of the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Advisory Group to deny that people in Scotland are currently dying of COVID-19 is truly alarming.
Professor Sridhar has also chipped in with similarly misleading remarks: “0 deaths for 12 days” she tweeted on 28th July.
With the zero deaths number reported at each day’s press conference, and amplified by these Scottish Government advisers, it’s little wonder that headlines appear daily in the Scottish press lauding the number of days Scotland has gone without a death from COVID-19. The NRS report is not ignored by Sturgeon – she covers it once a week at her press conference, and she does so accurately and fairly. But it receives far less attention in the press than the “zero deaths” story.
In an email to this author, Professor Reicher defended his pushing of the “zero deaths” narrative and said: “… all this is a distraction from the larger point that Scotland is doing better than England, that we need to ask why and learn from it in order to save lives in England.”
Is this really the “larger point” that Scottish Government advisers should be focusing on? Is it even true?
The chart below shows (for England, Scotland, and Wales) deaths registered per million population, where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate (so the data is genuinely comparable).
There is clearly very little to choose between England, Scotland, and Wales. And of course this chart does not take into account demographic variations.
The region of England which Scotland most closely resembles demographically is the South West. Scotland and South West England have very similar population sizes, and their largest cities – Bristol and Glasgow – are of roughly the same size.
The charts below (sourced directly from NRS and ONS respectively) show directly comparable data on deaths by week of registration, where COVID-19 was mentioned in the death certificate, for Scotland and South West England.
To the naked eye they look very similar, but South West England has actually had considerably fewer COVID-19 deaths than Scotland: 2,878 vs 4,201 (through 24th July in England and 26th July in Scotland).
In the most recent 4 weeks of comparable data (through 24th July in England and 26th July in Scotland), there were 40 COVID-19 deaths in South West England vs 45 in Scotland.
So, overall Scotland has done rather worse than South West England, and on the most recent data there is nothing to choose between them.
It is clearly too soon to judge the effectiveness of different nations’ responses to COVID-19, but headlines based on a metric which understates the true extent of COVID-19 deaths in Scotland are fuelling an unwarranted narrative of Scottish exceptionalism. It is troubling that Scottish Government advisers are using their platforms to promote misleading and partial data.
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