Who can blame Downing Street for cutting out Nicola Sturgeon? - Brian Monteith

How do you find clarity when you are surrounded by the fog of war? That has been a central part of the problem in the UK’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
Nicola Sturgeon has said the 'stay alert' message will not be adopted in ScotlandNicola Sturgeon has said the 'stay alert' message will not be adopted in Scotland
Nicola Sturgeon has said the 'stay alert' message will not be adopted in Scotland

There might be a pea-souper in London but sadly in Scotland it is even murkier as a real dank haar has descended upon us, sowing doubt and confusion. The origins of this fog can be traced chiefly from politicians of all parties and their well intentioned but often ill-advised utterances – thus, when you add more layers of politicians you just compound the lack of vision.

The latest confusion stems from the decision by the Prime Minister to sign-off a change in the slogan “Stay Home, Save the NHS, Save Lives” to “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives”.

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When questioned about the new slogan – designed to reflect the gradual lifting of lockdown being announced in England, Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said she had no idea what “Stay alert” meant. Considering she admitted on the BBC that she had not seen her latest guidance regarding care home admissions, one could be forgiven for thinking that being alert is not her strong point.

When there’s a singular common enemy it’s easy to take a slogan such as “Careless talk costs lives” and make its meaning clear and understandable by consistently repeating it. When the common enemy is not only a virus but also other targets (such as one’s professional competitors), sowing confusion through needless public scepticism, poorly disguised ignorance – or baring one’s grievances – is second nature for some politicians.

There is no need for confusion – the slogan means people are being told that staying home under certain circumstances is no longer vital – but that when they do go out they should stay alert to the danger and stay alert to the precautions that should continue to be taken (such as social distancing). Be under no illusion, if politicians want to roll a smoke grenade in the public’s direction and sow confusion, they will do so, all the while calling for greater clarity.

The First Minister bemoans she had not been consulted on the new slogan – and on this point I for once am prepared to believe her – but I find it unsurprising. Who in politics would trust Sturgeon with a secret? Is that the same Nicola Sturgeon who has repeatedly strained relations with Downing Street by revealing ahead of the Prime Minister decisions taken at Cobra meetings?

In truth we had reached the point where, if we wanted to know what Boris Johnson was about to say next, we need only listen to what Sturgeon was saying now. Who then can blame Downing Street for cutting her out?

The evidence has been mounting week after week that in taking a “Scottish” approach, even if at times only slightly nuanced, the First Minister has caused avoidable delay. One such example has been the delay in introducing testing for those people being moved out of NHS hospitals and into care homes.

The initial decision across the UK to move patients had been taken to create greater capacity for dealing with new admissions of people showing symptoms of coronavirus.

This relocation was initially done without first testing those patients for Covid-19 – putting at risk the highly vulnerable residents and staff of care homes. Recognising the mistake, a decision was taken on 15 April by English Health Secretary Matthew Hancock to commence tests for all care home admissions in England – Nicola Sturgeon chose to differ until the same decision was announced by Freeman for Scotland a week later on 21 April.

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Labour MSP Neil Findlay questioned the First Minister about the lack of testing for these hospital discharges, only to receive a sanctimonious putdown rather than a straight answer. Brian Wilson wrote about it in these pages and correctly pointed out that Findlay has not yet had a proper answer.

Again in The Scotsman, John McLellan revealed the different treatment between inpatients and outpatients could lead to that person not receiving a test before going back to a care home. The example he reported happened to be his father, who sadly died from Covid-19.

Different approaches – such as rules on exercising in Scotland being relaxed while the “Stay at home” slogan is kept (two mutually exclusive actions) – provide confused messages. It makes the enforcement of guidance or rules more difficult for police and for those delivering to the public. We went into the lockdown together, we should come out of it in lockstep together.

The First Minister claims Scotland should come out of lockdown at a different pace from England because the first death related to coronavirus came later in Scotland than England and we are therefore at a different stage. Yet Scotland went into lockdown at the same time as the rest of the UK. If, as many have argued, lockdown should have happened earlier, then surely it would mean that Scotland should have benefited from its earlier start in relation to where it was in the pandemic?

Maybe that was why in the last week of April Sturgeon floated ways of coming out of the lockdown sooner than the rest of the UK? Whatever the reason, what has happened since? Surely the Scottish Government is not being different just for the sake of difference?

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org



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