Both Sturgeon and Johnson are on shoogly pegs of their own making

Both Sturgeon and Johnson are on shoogly pegs of their own making

by Linda Holt
article from Tuesday 22, September, 2020

AS I WRITE, on the morning of Tuesday 22 September, we are poised to enter a second lockdown. The four nations seem to be unified, with what looks like an agreed set of carefully choreographed statements in Edinburgh and London. 

In a marked change of tone yesterday, the First Minister emphasised that “the virus does not respect borders”; her message to the Prime Minister was “that we need decisive, urgent, and – as far as possible given our individual responsibilities – coordinated action across the UK”. This is the first time since the start of the pandemic in March that Nicola has been with Boris. Johnson is also reportedly pleading for a united front. Following phone calls yesterday with the First Ministers of the devolved nations, a No 10 spokesman told the press: “They all agreed to act with a united approach, in the days and weeks ahead”.

What’s changed? Sturgeon has obviously decided she has more to gain, or less to lose, by working with Johnson. The reason for this, I think, is a panicked realisation that she may be losing the Covid war. She is no longer able to crow that Scotland’s Covid rate was five times lower than England’s as she was able to in July; Scotland now has an R number and hotspots to rival England’s, with positive tests on the First Minister’s home turf in the Greater Glasgow & Clyde area continuing to rise despite local lockdown measures. It’s telling that even though Sturgeon’s claim about England’s higher rate months ago was proved false, she didn’t have to apologise or formally retract her statement. Compared to Johnson, she was walking on water when it came to the pandemic. For all Sturgeon’s much-vaunted caution and management in Scotland, the pandemic here seems to be just as out of control, and on the verge of rampaging, as in England. No wonder she now wants to ally herself with Johnson.

To be sure, I am not talking about losing an actual war against Covid – the metaphor is misguided, as I have argued previously. A war against a virus is unwinnable; there are only better and worse strategies for living with it. 

Instead, Sturgeon is fighting a political war, in which the tables are turning, in part because the virus is not playing ball. We are manifestly not in the same boat as we were in March. Cases may be rising, but hospital admissions and deaths have not significantly increased. The NHS is not quaking in its boots at a projected deluge. Schools and universities have gone back. Workplaces have opened up again. We all ate out to help out. Although people don masks, and still engage in some social distancing, it’s now driven more by social ritual than a palpable fear of infection as it was in the early days of the pandemic. When did you last see someone wear rubber gloves while shopping? People are getting on with their lives despite Covid’s continued presence. 

Compliance with new measures, such as the Rule of Six and localised bans on visiting other households, is much lower than it was during full lockdown. I see this within my own circle as well as in my work as a councillor; before August I was getting daily complaints about people not abiding by social distancing.

Politicians are well aware that people are also not playing ball as they were earlier this year, although they are loath to admit it. Nevertheless, it has been implicit in attempts to blame certain groups (Matt Hancock’s gaffe that students shouldn’t kill their granny by spreading coronavirus), and in bolstering the Rule of Six with £10k penalties and Covid marshals. The problem is that the implementation of lockdown measures cannot come down to the brute force of law and the police. We lack not only the manpower for it, but also the culture (in a way that some other European countries don’t). The Rule of Six was widely denounced as “draconian”, and MPs as well as leading lawyers including Lady Hale have attacked government restrictions as an affront to civil liberties. The government knows that popular consent is crucial if its measures to tackle the virus are to be meaningful. Worse than that, lack of popular consent leaves political leaders looking weak, impotent and out-of-touch.

Cue, then, the appearance of Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Governments’ Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor, in front of the nation yesterday. They presented a lurid red graph showing an exponential rise in new Covid cases in the next weeks, a performance that will surely come to acquire notoriety as one of the most brazen acts of political manipulation and scare-mongering by scientists who, by their own admission, know better. Chris Whitty even said it was “not a prediction”, but was happy for it to be understood and responded to as precisely that – because that, of course, was the reason for its inclusion. Before the briefing had even ended, social media was awash with lay people and scientists attacking their doomsday scenario. 

It was Whitty and Vallance’s job to ramp up the fear so that the public would buy into new lockdown measures. If the situation with increasing Covid cases has been as critical and urgent as Nicola Sturgeon has been insisting since the middle of last week, why didn’t she impose new restrictions then? Yesterday a screen grab of a document outlining an array of options for “short-circuiting” Covid was leaked, and it’s difficult not to feel this also wasn’t designed to soften up the public to accept the less severe options.

The real problem facing Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon isn’t just that they are losing popular support for their handling of the pandemic, it’s that this loss in public faith has growing scientific backing. There is well-founded doubt about the data the government is depending on: false positives and definitional uncertainty inflating case numbers; the very high levels of asymptomatic and mild cases of Covid; and the lack of clarity that Covid-19 is the cause, rather than a correlate, of people hospitalised or dying “with Covid-19”. In the last few days the Scottish Sun, Scottish Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have all run editorials attacking the official position on Covid.

Yesterday 32 scientists, medics and academics sent a letter to the Prime Minister against blanket restrictions in favour of targeted measures to protect the most vulnerable. They argued that the “existing policy path is inconsistent with the known risk-profile of Covid-19 and should be reconsidered”. The letter was, unfortunately, not sent to Nicola Sturgeon.

Now, in the evening of Tuesday, having watched the Prime Minister and First Minister’s speeches to their respective parliaments and broadcasts, I see that for all the talk of a united front, Sturgeon could not let go of her Covid arms race with Johnson. In terms of that, she has pulled a blinder.

Johnson’s lockdown announcement proved a damp squib because, as he says, “it’s not a lockdown”. The stand-out measure, a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants, had been heavily trailed, and of the rest, most policies are already in place in Scotland such as working from home when possible and mask-wearing in taxis and hospitality establishments. More measures are being made mandatory, fines are increasing, and there will be greater enforcement by the police with back-filling by the army. New, as well, is the warning that these restrictions may last six months, with stricter ones in the pipeline if these are not complied with. But it doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans. 

It looks as if Johnson has bottled it – certainly when his measures are set against the mood music of recent days and yesterday’s fear-mongering by his advisors. It’s as if he has to be seen to be doing something, so he’s trying to sound tough while merely tinkering at the edges. That accords with his characteristic modus operandi, and it might also be politically astute: a proportionate and balanced response which allows him to save face in terms of not reversing his previous Covid policy while avoiding escalating conflict with a less compliant populace and dissenting scientists. It has also pushed coverage of the failing Test and Trace programme off the front pages, so that Boris can look like the man in charge.

Perhaps that will fly from an English or UK perspective, but from a Scottish perspective, Nicola Sturgeon wiped the floor with him. It isn’t just that she made him look like a johnnie-come-lately, desperately playing catch-up as he adopted measures Scotland has had in place for some time, or as with the working from home, had very pointedly refused to follow England in lifting. She came across as altogether more prescient, cautious and hard-headed – in a word, leaderly – in “combatting” Covid. She supercharged Boris’ measures, promising resources to step up inspection and enforcement at hospitality premises and threatening a legal requirement for businesses to allow home working where possible. Then she added a coup de grâce: she banned people from visiting other households in order to “break this key driver of transmission”. This ban, which has already been in place for three weeks in the west of Scotland, now applies nationwide.

It hardly mattered that so many people will be excluded from the ban – “those living alone, or alone with children, who form extended households; for couples in non-cohabiting relationships; for the provision of informal childcare by, for example, grandparents; and for tradespeople” – that its effectiveness will be severely compromised, and compliance, let alone enforcement, undermined (unless the First Minister assumes Scots will turn into curtain-twitching Nazis). She softened the blow by lifting some of the restrictions on children and teenagers meeting – restrictions which had produced grotesque inconsistencies, given they could already mix freely on school grounds. The message was one of tough love: Chief Mammy to the rescue in these terrifying times.

Her other original measure was banning people from different households travelling together by car, although she did not clarify how this differs from travelling in taxis or on public transport.

Sturgeon paid lip service to the motif of unity among the four nations, studiously refusing to lord it over Johnson; she could afford to, since everyone made the obvious comparisons. One nationalist dig she was unable to resist: she would, she said, have considered shutting hospitality down completely if only she had the borrowing powers to compensate the affected businesses, but these, of course – more in sorrow than in anger – were reserved to Westminster. An independent Scotland could fight Covid so much more effectively.

Ultimately, both Johnson and Sturgeon are on shoogly pegs. If the Scottish measures Johnson introduced were effective, if indeed Sturgeon’s extra-cautious strategy was such a success, we wouldn’t have cases rising just as fast in Scotland as in hotspots in England. Similarly, if banning household visits was a magic bullet, Greater Glasgow and Clyde would not still be in lockdown. Sturgeon did say that “our early data suggests this restriction is starting to slow the increase in cases in the west of Scotland”, but none of the data is available for scrutiny. It is difficult to understand why when the Glasgow flare-ups occurred , Sturgeon didn’t shut down hospitality as she did in Aberdeen, where it indubitably reduced cases and enabled the local lockdown to be lifted. It has been suggested that the First Minister was too feart to impose an Aberdeen-style lockdown on her nationalist home turf.

Both Sturgeon and Johnson might have saved political face today, but the facts remain. Whether they admit it or not, people are learning to live with Covid-19, and a second wave is not going to kill vast numbers. Both will doubtless claim the credit, but for all their political skill, as Richard Leonard pointed out today, “containing the virus and saving lives and livelihoods … depends not just on the renewed effort of the people but on the consent, trust and confidence of the people”.

Linda Holt is an independent councillor for East Neuk & Landward and a prospective candidate for alliance4unity in next year's Holyrood elections.

Photo of two clothes pegs on a rope bsort_kartoshka from Adobe Stock


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