Repeated and embarrassing U-turns show Sturgeon is more Heath than Thatcher

Repeated and embarrassing U-turns show Sturgeon is more Heath than Thatcher

by Linda Holt
article from Thursday 1, October, 2020

NIGHTMARES follow a mad inexorable logic, like a runaway train heading for collision. Increasingly, that’s what I feel when I watch the First Minister during her daily briefings. She has set a course through the Covid-19 pandemic, and follow that course she must, come what may.

Although broadly similar to that charted by the UK government, the Scottish course has been an essentially personal one. It is the First Minister’s hand on the tiller, as demonstrated by her daily presence on our screens every day for nearly six months now. 

English and Scottish responses have differed in their degree of caution. Sturgeon likes this language of caution because it implies personal virtue, though Scotland and England are perhaps better compared by the degree of authoritarianism, state intrusion into private life and economic damage that each is prepared to countenance. Remarkably, the First Minister has managed to spin these aspects of her response as supporting arguments for Scottish independence.

For all Sturgeon’s success in projecting herself as a strong leader who is in control of the virus, she remains at the mercy of public opinion. Public pressure, or rather the risk of losing support from SNP-voting Middle Scotland, has forced her into three major U-turns.

The first was the decision to send schools back full-time in August. Previously “blended learning” (i.e. part-time schooling) was planned, until mounting protest from grassroots parent campaigns like ThemForUsScotland, the media and belatedly, opposition politicians, forced John Swinney to announce, reluctantly, a full return at the eleventh hour.

The second U-turn occurred when, despite digging his heels in hard at the start, John Swinney (again) had to retract the SQA’s algorithmic results for exam students and allow teachers’ estimates to stand instead. Again, popular pressure, including school children physically protesting in Glasgow, ongoing media coverage and commentary – and this time, calls for resignation by the opposition parties, made the U-turn inevitable.

Both these reversals came down to poor planning by the Scottish Government. In both cases it failed to think through and anticipate the impact of its decisions. Continuing school closure would damage children’s education and life chances, and prevent parents from working, with poorer families disproportionately affected. Similarly, unjust exam results disregarded every pupil’s individual efforts, and (again) discriminated particularly against those in poorer areas.

Now a lack of foresight also characterised the return of students to universities. It was entirely predictable that there would be outbreaks of the virus. Students travelling from across the globe, raring to party and with youth’s sense of invulnerability, were destined to be super-spreaders, and halls of residence perfect environments for the virus to run amok as it had done on cruise ships and in care homes.

The government had two options. Either it treated universities as places of work, advising work from home if possible – so all students would be told to stay home and pursue their studies online as they did from March to June. Or, it treated universities like schools, reopening them with suitable mitigation in place. 

I think the government was fearful the first option would be unpopular, provoking a similar outcry as the proposal to keep schools partially closed. The first option would have hammered universities’ income, not just through lost rent and living costs, but also lost fees; foreign students in particular might cancel their places if all that was on offer was an online experience at home. Finances were already grim at many universities in Scotland; lockdown further reduced income during the spring/summer semester and decimated the summer conference business, pushing a number to the brink of bankruptcy. The Scottish Government was reluctant to offer help on the necessary scale. 

So universities and government went with the second option, and hoped they had done enough to mitigate infections by introducing enhanced hygiene and social distancing on their premises, and, as it turns out, a hefty component of online teaching. All lectures and many seminars went online. Nevertheless, social distancing remained near-impossible in cramped halls of residence.

The government, for its part, was supposed to have testing and tracking in place for universities – but it turned out to be painfully slow in setting up essential walk-in test centres for students, and universities also suffered from the national lack of availability of timely testing, and the vagaries of the tracking programme. Repeated calls by Willie Rennie that all foreign students be tested on arrival were dismissed as unnecessary, perhaps for the very reason that it would have highlighted the lack of organisational capacity.

The events of the last week show that neither universities nor government were prepared for the practical implications of rising case numbers – which would require hundreds of students to self-quarantine, and thousands to lock down away from home because of national restrictions.

As case numbers continued to rise and students defied restrictions, panic ensued. Perhaps universities were afraid they might be shut down completely, so following the voluntary weekend lockdown issued by the principal of St Andrews, Universities Scotland issued a draconian edict to all students on Thursday. “From this weekend”, it banned students from “all socialising outside of their households and outside of their accommodation”, and specifically from visiting pubs, cafes and restaurants. Downloading the Scottish government’s tracing app was also mandatory. It insisted the rules would be proactively enforced using a red/yellow card system – culminating in expulsion.

An hour and a half after the Universities Scotland announcement came the first climbdown by the First Minister. She tweeted “clarification” that “from this weekend” meant the ban on visiting hospitality venues only applied to that single weekend. This was not just grammatically counter-intuitive. If you believe in the efficacy of such restrictions, it makes no sense at all to limit such socialising to a single weekend when rising student infections are expected to continue for weeks. 

At her briefing the next day, Sturgeon attempted to double down. With characteristic lashings of apology, empathy and gratitude, she insisted students were not to blame or being picked on, despite all evidence to the contrary. She appealed to them to do as they were “asked”, adding that she had made it clear to university principals that it was their responsibility to make sure practical and mental health services were in place. She also hinted at change to come, saying she was looking at issuing further guidance for self-isolating students who wanted to go home. 

She made this statement flanked by the Chief Constable of Scotland, who conveyed the message that the strong arm of the law was there for anyone who flouted the rules, and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who stressed students were “at serious risk” of dying from Covid if they didn’t stick to the rules. This was disgraceful tosh for a scientist to spout, given that no one under the age of 30 has died of the virus in Scotland and the estimated Scottish rate of 15 student suicides per annum is liable to rise significantly this year.

Then on Sunday evening came the major climbdown. The Scottish Government issued new “guidance” for students – the word is significant. What had been presented as iron-fisted law, albeit, in the words of a law professor, as “outsourcing coercion to a press release” by a third party, morphed into advice that “that if you are able to you should remain in your student accommodation and not visit family at home”. Three exceptions were laid out which could in practice be argued to apply by any student wanting to go home. Permanently relocating home is expressly allowed. Self-isolating students can return home temporarily if “you need to return home because you require the support and care of a friend, family member or other supportive person to allow you to comply with the requirement to self-isolate”. Similarly, a student can break the ban on household mixing if they can “show that there was a reasonable excuse in the circumstances. A reasonable excuse might include a visit home for a family emergency, such as a bereavement, or for wellbeing reasons.” 

This was not a case of shutting the door after the horse had bolted, so much as pretending you left it open on purpose. What changed between Thursday and Sunday? Basically, the situation was slipping away from the First Minister’s control – or rather, her lack of control was becoming increasingly visible – an out and out disaster for her political credibility. 

Stories abounded in the press of desperate students imprisoned in their halls of residence. There were calls for a rent strike in Glasgow, quickly leading to concessions by the university. But, most damagingly, parents turned up in their droves to whisk their offspring home, or students themselves fled on late-night trains. If I had a homesick, frightened 17-year-old fresher abandoned under virtual house arrest in a cramped room in a hall of residence with Covid-positive flatmates, wild horses would not have stopped me collecting my child to bring them home for some TLC.

To cap it all, more and more prominent voices were heard in the media – from the dean of the Faculty of Advocates to Scotland’s Children's Commissioner – denouncing the action by universities as unlawful and a breach of human rights. Today a report to the Scottish Police Authority by its Covid-19 advisory group criticised the authorities for “a blurring of the distinction between guidance, criminal law and university rules”, and a lack of clarity over what constituted a household. It concludes: “The situation of students demands support and understanding, not enforcement and threat”.

Clearly, the Scottish police are deeply unhappy at being called upon to implement hastily cobbled together laws and rules of dubious legality that are impossible to enforce in practice, particularly given the depletion in frontline numbers of recent years. 

More than that, Scottish policing at its core takes place by public consent. Police officers will be far more aware than the First Minister of how far the sheer scale of mundane non-compliance threatens that consent. 

The police may have broken up at least 300 house parties this last weekend, but these are the tip of the iceberg – they will be the biggest, noisiest ones in residential areas which have attracted complaints. How many other people have broken the ban on household gatherings? The number of people breaking the requirement to self-quarantine is growing, a problem implicitly acknowledged by Nicola Sturgeon when she stressed that support – practical and financial – would be put in place in case people were being left with no choice. Yet for all the good intentions, there is an evident lack of manpower in being able to contact, let alone chase up, those who are supposed to be self-isolating. Of the people required to quarantine for 14 days after foreign travel, only 5% are tracked. By Sturgeon’s own admission, the target is only 20%.

How many people are religiously following the FACTs, intoned every day by the First Minister like the Hail Mary? Out and about, I see much less disinfecting and hand sanitising going on, next to no social distancing and much, much less fear than in March and April. People wear masks by and large because they fear social opprobrium, not because they fear a killer virus. 

It is striking that the First Minister never admits or directly discusses there is a serious lack of compliance. I am sure this is a deliberate strategy, and that her social psychology advisors have told her to emphasize the positive. She sometimes recommends that the “small minority”, those few recalcitrant individuals who “flagrantly breach the rules”,“take a long, hard look at themselves”. The rest of us are implored to “do the right thing”, to protect ourselves and each other “out of love and solidarity”.

Yes, solidarity!

There is no space in Scottish discourse for the significant number of people who go through the motions but can’t be bothered to stay on high alert, let alone for those who think the official response to Covid-19 is now overblown. Politicians and media in England seem readier to admit this publicly; opposition politicians in Scotland have been spectacularly lame in challenging the government’s approach to Covid, confining their criticism to operational shortcomings. In the end, you can’t keep people in a state of heightened fear and compliance forever, especially if hospital admissions and deaths with Covid-19 are being dwarfed by all the conventional killers – many of which, like cancer or drug-related deaths or even poverty, will have been made worse by lockdown and curtailed health services.

So what next? Sturgeon is explicitly keeping her options open; she has not rowed back on the scare-mongering, and may yet come down harder. “Accelerating global pandemic” is the new phrase du jour. On Monday the National Clinical Director treated viewers to the hammiest of performances as he bewailed the global Covid mortality rate surpassing one million, using sheer scale to promote fear as if the public were small children. As ever, the figures were presented without context.

The First Minister has repeatedly intimated that she’d like more restrictions, but is constrained financially because she is dependent on Westminster for the cash to mitigate the economic impacts. It’s difficult not to feel this is a bit of handy nationalist grandstanding; she had no compunction in ordering the closure of hospitality businesses in a local lockdown in Aberdeen some weeks ago, or a 10.00pm curfew on hospitality nationally last week, despite the lack of scientific evidence for its efficacy. 

Nevertheless, the current situation is unsustainable. Numbers of positive cases remain high (640 today), with hospital (up 58 in the previous week) and death (7 today, the highest number since June 17) stats creeping up. Having banned household visits, Nicola Sturgeon remains ahead of the curve compared to England, but her hand is clearly twitching at the helm. 

Universities look set to remain open, although many students will return home temporarily or permanently, as very little or no face-to-face learning is now taking place on many courses. It’s doubtless a financial imperative for the institutions, and a face-saving imperative for the Scottish Government. Herd immunity is the implied policy for students, and is quite compatible with testing and limited control measures.

The autumn school holiday provides a readymade opportunity for “circuit-breaking” lockdowns, either locally or nationally. Teachers I’ve spoken to are braced for part-time schooling thereafter. They’ve all been told to have blended learning plans ready, and talks with unions are proceeding apace about how staff teaching full-time in schools will also find the time to prepare online learning. In the meantime, children and teachers are freezing in classrooms with open windows and doors required to aid ventilation. A primary school near me is closed for a fortnight until the October holiday, with all pupils and staff required to self-isolate, because nine staff and pupils tested positive. Meanwhile older siblings attend the neighbouring high school, where there is little physical distancing, and no one knows whether normal schooling will resume after the October holiday. More U-turns cannot be ruled out.

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

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