Poverty and Equality? Scotland starkly illuminated

CSPP Co-convenor Richard Kerley writes about how the pandemic illustrates the reality of social divide in Scotland. 

The impact of Covid19, and the measures various government and other agencies have taken to try and tackle that impact has revealed a lot about our different societies.

Philip Collins wrote in the Times [ £ 15th] that ‘…we can see now that Covid-19 is exposing the flaws in British society.’ He could of course have added ‘...not just British society…’. In the US, excess death rates are higher among black American communities [ and increasingly amongst Hispanic communities than they are within predominantly white neighbourhoods. In Scandinavian countries, despite their generally far greater  success in tackling Covid than we have demonstrated in the UK, it is the Somali diaspora that has been far more affected than long indigenous family groups . Of course in some countries data is not even available , either because it is suppressed [Bangladesh -Rohingar refugees] or simply not recorded as data on ethnic origin is not recorded in France .


One suggestion was that Covid acts like a ‘barium meal’ that works its way through the body, exposing different aspect of the composition and internal organs and making them starkly obvious to any thinking observer.


On fascinating aspect of this infection is that the class/inequality aspect has flipped quite dramatically over the past 10-12 weeks in a dramatic way. The virus appeared to take off in Europe with infections amongst – roughly defined – global travellers who were probably relatively prosperous.


Remember that the first widely publicly recorded instance of Covid -19 here in the UK was a person who came in from Singapore via a short break in Italy to home to Brighton. The first [ acknowledged] case in Scotland was a Tayside resident returning from Italy; shortly after in Shetland a returner from a skiing holiday; in Lothian – as we recently discovered - an international group of Nike employees. Elsewhere the same socially skewed characteristics of infection were apparent.  In Germany young people returning from ski holidays were pinpointed; elsewhere in the UK Chinese visitors who had stayed in York and been in Italy; in various countries cruise ship visitors. The data comes at us every day in the papers, but through March and into April, the incidence of recorded cases [ and sadly deaths] appeared greater in more prosperous parts of Scotland than in less prosperous areas.


It took some time for public recognition of the impact on poorer communities and people to grow, as the early stages of viral transmission were discussed in terms of ‘…all in this together…spirit of the Blitz etc …’


Toward the end of March, the tone changed across all the serious media in light of the emerging picture in various countries. The Economist of late March directly challenged the Prime  Minister to recognise that ‘Covid – 19 exacerbates inequality ‘, and also discussed the highly socially [ and racially ] differentiated impact of the virus  in the USA. 


Emily Maitlis opened Newsnight on April 8th with a very clear rebuttal of the government 

‘ … we are all in this together…’ line .


The  night of the 9th  Darren McGarvey on Question Time was criticised by Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis  for arguing that the impact of the virus would be far harder in poorer communities , as Darren had already written in The Record two weeks before .  Whether the minister responded with extreme partisanship [ inappropriately in the circumstances] or ignorance [inexcusable]; either is equally worrying.


The shifting perspective  of argument was reinforced by the editor of FT Wealth [!, yes , seriously],   when Stefan Wagstyl argued  on May 12th that ‘ The wealthy should welcome an opportunity to reduce inequality ‘  ; even more improbably,  the Sunday before that, Niall Ferguson had written much the same in his  Sunday Times column .


We now know from data released by the various governments and verification agencies such as the National Registers of Scotland that the greatest incidence of deaths arising from Covid 19 is to be found in some of the poorest part of some of the poorer local authority areas in Scotland . In terms of deaths per 100,000 population, the figures for Inverclyde are more than twice those from the four constituent parts of the Lothians. Although we do not have the public detail at fine geographic level yet, reports suggest – unsurprisingly to anybody who knows the area – that the figures will be greater for Port Glasgow and Greenock than they will be for, say, Gourock.


In Edinburgh , where the death rates are much lower than many other councils areas , we can be sure that they will be higher for the more deprived parts of the city than the more prosperous – just as they are for COPD ; cancer; and other causes of death where we know that social background and family circumstances typically lead to a death at a younger age than for those of us who are  more privileged .


We still have to see how such a differential impact really plays out but the pattern is clear.


For the future?


I would certainly argue for a public enquiry [ and there must be at least one, possibly more, as we have 4 different government jurisdictions + a UK wide exercise] into how our various governments handled and responded to Covid -19.


Such an enquiry should go further, and not only to examined   how / why less privileged communities have been more likely to die than those of us who are more privileged.


We should also examine what practical means we employ in the future to redress this long-standing social gradient of health [ and death] inequality. Windy, warm rhetoric is not enough.


Richard Kerley



Centre for Scottish Public Policy
c/o Digby Brown LLP
160 Causewayside
Causewayside House
Edinburgh EH9 1PR
Follow us