The Coronavirus pandemic has cast a light on how decisions are taken for and about Scotland.  Across the world Government interventions have affected all aspects of our lives and highlighted the importance of clear public guidance, the need for honesty in politics, trust in politicians and cooperation between governments. The Assembly was already discussing these issues prior to the lockdown and this paper draws out some key relevant points that members will wish to consider as they move to prepare the final outputs of the Assembly.

This paper provides links to the key sources of evidence, however please refer to Resources paper for the full range of sources reviewed for this work.  

Lockdown measures and public compliance: a changing relationship between the citizen and state?

Across the world, governments have asked a lot of their citizens to follow hygiene, social distancing and lockdown measures. The scale of these interventionist approaches is unprecedented. Early analysis in April found that 151 countries were implementing 684 social protection measures in response to the pandemic. 

The evidence for these measures and the legitimate role for governments in imposing lockdown has been challenged by some people and has played out differently in different political cultures, but in the main the public in most countries have been supportive of and complied with restrictions. Scottish data shows a fairly consistent trend of compliance across April to July, with around 8 in 10 people agreeing that they should follow the government’s advice. 

But lockdowns have now begun to ease in some countries, and at the same time we have resurgences of infection in some places and local restrictions being re-imposed or quarantine measures introduced for travel from some countries. This highlights uncertainty about the future and the likelihood of different arrangements to control the virus in different places due to local circumstances.  The media has extensively also reported behaviour seen as inconsistent with or expressly breaking the rules.  There are obvious risks that over time consensus around restrictions may begin to wear thin, perhaps because people see the rules as being unfair to them or they believe others are not complying, perhaps because the rules become more complicated and harder to follow, or because the support provided by governments does not meet their needs.   

How effectively have governments responded?

There has been extensive discussion about the differences between and the effectiveness of the response by different governments around the world and this has given rise to speculation about what if anything this tells us about different political cultures and systems.   International comparisons are challenging for many reasons, including stark differences in wealth and quality of healthcare systems, but we have seen huge variation in government responses and country death rates in more developed countries - with the UK among some of the highest in the world.  Earliest hit countries, such as China, implemented a range of very restrictive and stringent measures to suppress the virus.  Other Asian countries with more transparent and democratic systems, such as Taiwan and South Korea, have also been praised for their effective responses through early travel restrictions, strict quarantine rules, effective test and trace programmes and management structures for the public health response.  Other more developed countries have implemented similar interventions, such as Australia and New Zealand's early lockdowns and border control measures, and Germany’s effective test and trace programme.   While interventionist approaches impacting strongly on individual freedoms have been the norm, we have also seen a more relaxed approach in more traditionally social democratic countries such as Sweden which chose to focus on individual responsibility to adhere to social distancing, rather than closure of schools and businesses.   While the USA implemented restrictive interventions, there has been strong resistance to government control of individual freedoms and political drive for early easing of measures in some states. There is much discussion about the extent to which these might have made the impact of COVID so much worse in the USA than it so far seems to have been in many other developed countries.  

In terms of public trust in their government’s handling of the pandemic, there were initial surges in support across countries, followed by varying levels of support dependent on how the pandemic has played out.   For example, New Zealand’s effective handling has been met with extremely high level of support, with a poll showing 88% of New Zealanders trusting their government to make the right decisions about COVID-19 (well above the G7 average of 59%).   Scottish public opinion data currently shows a markedly different view of the effectiveness of the different governments; with a recent survey showing that 51% felt that the UK Government has handled the coronavirus outbreak so far either very or fairly badly, while 78% felt that the Scottish Government had handled the coronavirus outbreak either very or fairly well. Perceptions of individual politicians and governments are also hugely important, not just to tackling COVID, but more generally in decision-making.

How Politics is conducted

More broadly, the quality of political debate, honesty and trust in politicians - how politics is conducted - has been hugely important in the response to COVID. At least in the early stages, politicians from across all parties and governments in the UK spoke of putting aside political differences and committed to work together in the national interest. As time has gone on agreement has fallen away and we now see many differences in view and vigorous and intense debate about the conduct of individual politicians and the action to be taken to respond to the virus.

Cooperation of governments

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of co-operation between governments at international, UK and national level.   Across the world countries have undertaken huge efforts to secure the equipment essential to tackling, like PPE and testing kits and significant investments are being made to develop a vaccine.  Some commentators suggest action should be better coordinated and that key agencies like the World Health Organisation, UN Security Council, and the World Bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility have been slow to respond.   Tensions between China and America are making global co-operation and leadership more difficult. Progress remains slow on securing a trade deal between the UK and the EU, making very real again the prospect of a no deal Brexit at the end of the transition period at the turn of the year.   Scotland’s recovery will be hugely dependent on this wider context of international co-operation and trade environment.

Action to respond to COVID cuts across devolved and reserved areas and there has been much discussion about the effectiveness of co-operation between the UK and Scottish Governments. Powers to raise significant new borrowing and action on employment, for example, the job retention scheme to furlough employees, are reserved, but the Scottish Government has also brought forward a wide range of measures to support the economy and businesses using devolved powers. There has been a degree of agreement about some of the UK-wide response though there are differences of view on the scale and duration of some measures. Calls for further devolution of relevant powers, for example, further fiscal powers, to enable the Scottish Government to take more responsibility for the response in Scotland have so far been rejected by the UK Government. 

Whilst public health is largely devolved there has been significant co-operation between the Governments, for example, on scientific analysis and COVID-testing. Approaches have not been uniform, with each country in the UK taking its own approach to lockdown, public health messaging and to the easing of restrictions.  Notwithstanding the co-operation there have been evident tensions between the UK government and devolved nations, who were at times were critical of the UK Government’s handling of the crisis and of communication with devolved nations. 

Within Scotland, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of the relationship between the Scottish Government, local authorities and local health boards to deliver the front line response.  The speed of response to the opening of the Louisa Jordan hospital demonstrates what can be achieved.  However, others suggest that the pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses in our system, notably in the care system, and the need for further reform of local governance.

Community and citizen participation

Co-operation and collective endeavour between government, private sector, third sector organisations and citizens have been central to the response to COVID in many countries. In Scotland, for example, government and third sector organisations worked together at speed to remove rough sleepers from the streets into hotel rooms and temporary accommodation to protect against virus transmission. Businesses have responded by changing what they produce to provide sanitiser and PPE products, for example, replacing gin production with sanitizer production.  Local restaurants with little income have provided food deliveries to their community’s health care workers. 

There has been an incredible response from communities to support those in need:  over 76,000 people in Scotland signed up to volunteer to deliver food parcels and essential medicines.  Many of our Assembly members have been part of this response and indeed, our convener Kate has been busy providing help in some of the most deprived parts of Edinburgh . Citizens also responded positively to the First Minister's call for an 'adult conversation' about how Scotland should develop from the Coronavirus crisis, where an online forum was launched for 7 days. While not all have felt included in this conversation - with the Commissioner for Children and Young People in Scotland concerned that children’s voices were lost in the pandemic’s decision making – the online forum did receive almost 18,000 comments. 

 The impact upon children and young people has also been significantly felt with the closures of higher and further education, schools and nurseries. The impact on learning has been significant and, as the controversy over the handling of exam results also demonstrates, may well have a lasting legacy. We have also experienced a significant protest movement with citizens across the world protesting against racism and rising inequality and in support of ‘Black Lives Matter’ following the death of George Floyd in the USA.

What does this mean for how citizens are involved in decision-making?

There has been much discussion about how the response to COVID demonstrates that a new approach to politics, including community and citizen participation is needed.

Katherine Trebeck, who spoke at weekend 3 of the Assembly, and others have promoted the importance of citizens’ assemblies and other forms of public participation for shaping how we ‘build back better’.  With surveys showing that nearly half of the UK population say they have no influence over local decision making, the innovation organisation, Nesta, argues that citizen participation in all different forms must become the norm so that individuals can exercise power in a range of ways to impact their lives. The Carnegie UK Trust, promote the idea of an ‘enabling state’ where government focuses supporting people and communities to achieve positive change for themselves, ensuring the most vulnerable are not left behind.   The youth organisation, Young Scot, has been working with young people on ideas like building on the increased use of technology for health care and the need to consider employment opportunities for young people. 


Prior to the lockdown the Assembly had already been considering issues around how decisions are taken for and about the country, including how politics is conducted and citizens involved in decision-making. COVID has demonstrated some of the opportunities and challenges around government intervention, the critical importance of trust and good communications with citizens, and the impact that can be made through community and citizen-led action.  

Whilst the path of the virus and its long term impacts will be uncertain for a long time, vigorous party political debate has resumed and will intensify in the run up to the Scottish elections next year. This debate will be broad-ranging, covering how to respond to the virus and wider political issues and ideas, including different views about our constitutional future.

The Assembly will discuss recent events and this outlook. Building on your previous work, members will have the opportunity to add the Assembly’s unique voice to discussion on how citizens should be involved in decision-making and how politics is conducted.