Covid vaccine approval is a victory for the UK. Would an independent Scotland do as well? – Scotsman comment

When historians look back on 2020, a key political question they will ask is how support for Scottish independence rose quite so much at a time when the UK government was amassing vast debts to pay most of the salaries of hundreds of thousands of its citizens unable to work because of the Covid lockdown.

The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccines is being produced for Britain at a factory in Puurs, Belgium (Picture: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)
The Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccines is being produced for Britain at a factory in Puurs, Belgium (Picture: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

There are many reasons for this including the manner in which Brexit has been pursued with an apparent indifference to the damage that would be caused by a no-deal or a paper-thin trade deal in name only.

The public perception of the way the pandemic has been handled north and south of the border – with a resultant rise in popularity ratings for Nicola Sturgeon and a fall for Boris Johnson – is another.

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However, should a referendum be staged during the pandemic or in its aftermath, then economic issues will raise their head once again.

Undecided voters, a vital group who could sway the result, will ask whether a newly independent Scotland would have been able to finance the furlough scheme and similar support measures without the bulwark of the Bank of England. The nationalist answer to this question is still not wholly convincing.

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But, following the approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid vaccine, there is a new question that must also now be added to the ledger of pros and cons of leaving the UK.

The vaccine has gone from development to distribution in record time in an extraordinary scientific feat, involving researchers all over the world.

One of the reasons the UK was able to become the first country in the world to approve its use was because of the expertise of the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Would Scotland, as an independent nation, be able to afford a similar agency with capacity to move so quickly? This is in no way to denigrate the work of Scottish scientists and officials, but simply a matter of scale.

Rejoining the EU – which would not be as simple a process as some like to believe – would give access to the European Medicines Agency but, in an interim period that could stretch into years, Scotland might need to rely on regulatory approvals issued by bodies like the EMA and MHRA for at least some new drugs.

In order to work well, such an arrangement would require a degree of friendly co-operation. If Scotland was to break away from the UK in the same fashion as Britain is leaving the EU – with the negotiations with Brussels at times descending to childish insults and posturing – the level of co-operation with the MHRA might not be particularly high. The UK’s attitude could be that Scotland has decided to leave – and “leave means leave” to borrow a phrase from the Brexiteers.

There are concerns that vaccines could be delayed at the UK/EU border after the end of the Brexit transition period – particularly in the event of a no-deal – although the UK government has insisted this will not be a problem with suggestions supplies could be flown in to avoid any long queues of lorries at the Channel ports. Ensuring a sustainable supply is now the big challenge for the UK government and Boris Johnson may pay a political price if vaccine supplies start to dry up after January 1.

A hard border between an independent Scotland and the UK could lead to similar problems.

Such practical concerns – along with others like the currency and pensions – are extremely important and should be considered by anyone voting in a second independence referendum, if it does indeed take place.

No one is suggesting that they are the be-all and end-all of the debate: the independence question is a mix of emotions and different senses of identity as well as political and economic issues.

But everyone should try to make sure that their choice is an informed one and not simply a matter of “my country” – whether that be Scotland, the UK or a mix of both – “right or wrong”.

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