Nicola Sturgeon: the fear-mongerer's fear-mongerer?

Nicola Sturgeon: the fear-mongerer's fear-mongerer?

by Linda Holt
article from Monday 17, August, 2020

A FORTNIGHT AGO, I returned from a week’s visit to Amsterdam. I am not given to conspiracy theories, but when Nicola Sturgeon advised people not to book a holiday abroad this year, I couldn't help but think it was a good tactic for keeping people fearful and compliant. It removes a powerful impetus to question her Covid-19 measures.

Aside from the odd tourist, there is barely a mask to be seen in the streets, shops, bars and cafes in Amsterdam. Masks are only mandatory on public transport. There are occasional markers indicating 1.5m social distancing. Some shops had hand sanitisers at their entrances, and a few chains insisted you take a basket and had perspex screens at the tills –  but many had nothing. There are no track and trace forms to fill in anywhere. Even the local hospital's Accident & Emergency, where I had the misfortune to be admitted, had no Coronavirus protocols in place beyond a form asking about symptoms. Of the dizzying array of nurses, doctors and radiologists who attended to me, not one wore a mask or visor. No one mentioned Covid.

On the streets there was a palpable lack of fear. Life and business carried on much as normal. The most obvious difference was the lack of tourists, although Dutch friends told me there was now routinely much less physical contact on greeting acquaintances. 

Refreshing and relaxing as my visit was, it also highlighted the comparative atmosphere of anxiety, fear and opprobrium in Scotland for those not adhering to the increasingly draconian anti-Covid measures. By contrast with Amsterdam, Scottish requirements to wear masks and to sit socially distanced in bars and restaurants, sometimes even separated by makeshift screens, seems arbitrary and excessive.

Since my return, the First Minister has instituted a mini-lockdown in Aberdeen, restricting travel and closing bars, restaurants and cafes. Across Scotland, she has required face-coverings in addition to a visor for hospitality staff, and brought in face-coverings in libraries, museums, places of worship, cinemas and banks. It’s also becoming law that all hospitality settings must record customers’ details for the Track & Trace programme. With what seems like Puritan or Taliban glee, dancing and music in pubs have been banned, and TVs must be muted. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, despite a rise in cases, the government has reiterated its position that face coverings are not necessary in public.

In Scotland, there has been a fetishisation of statistics: deaths, hospital admissions, positive tests and daily tests carried out. The latter were dropped because they looked too bad. The media have uncritically relished this numbers game with the kind of enthusiasm normally reserved for football scores. Yet the data is presented free of context and qualification – information which, if supplied, would render impossible the simplistic proclamations made by Sturgeon and much of the media. 

In the last few days, experts have been popping up on BBC Radio 4 to point out the obvious. Hospital admissions have barely increased, let alone ITU admissions, and deaths have not risen significantly as you might expect with rising infections. As an absolute figure, the number of positive tests says little; what counts is the proportion of positive tests out of total tests administered. That figure is barely moving. Test results themselves need to be treated with caution because of the rate of false positives. For this reason, routine testing of all school pupils would cause chaos, as every high school would produce enough positives to merit closure. What the actual data currently suggests is that Covid infection is present in low numbers, but those infected are either asymptomatic or displaying non-serious symptoms. Evidence is also emerging of resistance to the virus among millions of people.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the danger of coronavirus has been and continues to be massively overstated. It is very difficult to say so publicly – I have hesitated for weeks over this piece – for fear of inviting the instant rejoinder that one doesn’t care about people dying, and is actively undermining lifesaving public health measures. After all, better safe than sorry. Why not wear a mask just in case? In the UK, scepticism about the risk of Covid has been largely exiled to the outer reaches of nuttiness inhabited by conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. 

Politicians, notably Nicola Sturgeon, have created a kind of discursive arms race in terms of who can be the most cautious and therefore the most caring. Disgracefully, she has framed the issue in nationalist terms. If and when the First Minister is charged with imposing unnecessary and harmful Covid measures, she will insist that her motives were entirely pure, that she followed the science and believed in entirely good faith that they were absolutely necessary “to keep people safe”. Mistakes were inevitable, as we have already heard ad nauseum, because we were in uncharted waters, learning all the time. She continually ignores not only the fact that scientific knowledge about Covid is incomplete and provisional, but that it is contested, particularly when it involves modelling, and that choosing which scientific advice to follow and what policies it might require are political decisions. As she might very well say, if pushed, “my only crime has been to be over-cautious in keeping people safe”. 

I don’t know anyone in the Scottish media who has yet dared question this manipulative discourse.

After all, the penalties of lockdown are huge. They will only increase over time, and politicians will have an equally significant vested interest in pretending that they were inevitable. Many costs are already clear: nosocomial deaths in hospitals and care homes; deaths from other causes, as people were deterred from seeking medical care; mental health impacts; loss of educational attainment, particularly among the most disadvantaged; and, most recently, the fiasco over exam results. We now have the news that patients were moved from hospital to care homes after testing positive for Covid-19. The longer-term costs are economic; as businesses go to the wall and jobs are lost, the living standards and well-being of millions will deteriorate.

The very scale of these impacts might make it seem absurd to suggest that politicians could possibly have less than the noblest of intentions when it comes to the propaganda of fear. For what it's worth, I think panic about Coronavirus in March prompted politicians of all parties to support lockdown. The panic was born of ignorance, guilt and fear of being seen as Johnny-come-latelies. For years, they had neglected public health preparations for a Coronavirus pandemic (unlike say South Korea). The thought that scenes of overwhelmed hospitals in Italy would soon be repeated for the NHS filled them with horror. Recall how the initial message to “save the NHS” segued into “save lives” once it was clear that the NHS was sufficiently prepared.

Initial hesitation that the population wouldn’t comply with lockdown measures soon gave way to surprise and relief as people meekly obeyed. The rhetoric of fear took on a life of its own. Indeed, psychologists advising the government had suggested ramping up fear in order to increase compliance. With daily broadcasts ensuring that the virus’s progress dominated the airwaves, politicians discovered that fear was a potent brew. Existential fear is the most powerful political tool, as the experience of war shows. People suspend their critical judgement, investing instead in the fantasy that a strong leader will save them. Since the end of the Second World War, only the intermittent threat of terrorism has made this tool fleetingly available to UK and US politicians. Who then can blame politicians for their reluctance to relinquish such power? 

In Scotland, Coronavirus allowed Nicola Sturgeon to beam daily into the nation's living rooms. It neutralised the threat from the Alex Salmond trial and ensured other scandals such as Derek Mackay’s forced resignation in February would be forgotten about. Her approval ratings soared even among non-nationalists, as did support for independence. This was not because her handling of the pandemic was significantly better, but because her communications were superior. Commentators have lauded the First Minister's PR skills during the pandemic as high-cali­bre political leadership, when in reality it was clever spin of a most dubious ilk. She stoked the rhetoric of fear with more alacrity and dexterity than Boris Johnson; by citing extra caution as the reason for delays in following the English measures, she implied that Boris was somehow reckless.

It is much harder to put the fear genie back in the bottle, as the brouhaha over returning to full-time schooling in Scotland demonstrated. In schools and in local authorities, it is proving difficult to get people to go back to work. Even though shielding has been officially stopped, plenty still feel they should be shielding just to be safe, or because they live with someone whose health is compromised. Rishi Sunak’s campaign – Eat Out to Help Out – was a carrot to tempt people out of lockdown, and although shops and restaurants are busier, they have not returned to pre-Covid levels of custom.  

Nicola Sturgeon is much more loath to give up on the power of fear than Boris Johnson. No doubt part of the reason is that she knows not only that Westminster will pick up the bill, but she can argue it's all their fault regardless of how things turn out. But there’s also the question of political credibility. The First Minister can hardly turn round and say that she panicked, the risk of harm through anti-Covid measures is now greater than lifting these measures, and that she doesn’t actually have the power over life and death that she has been projecting.

No wonder the First Minister doesn’t want us going abroad and experiencing a less fearful life. 


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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