What will end first, the Covid lockdowns or Sturgeon’s leadership?

What will end first, the Covid lockdowns or Sturgeon’s leadership?

by Linda Holt
article from Wednesday 14, October, 2020

NICOLA STURGEON is on the ropes as never before. If Scotland’s media and opposition were dogged and savage enough, her interview on Sunday morning with Sky’s Sophy Ridge would have gone down as her Prince Andrew moment. The blinkometer was off the scale, particularly when the First Minister had to defend herself over the Salmond affair.

She persistently chose to misunderstand what Ridge was referring to, trying to shift the territory to Salmond’s “misconduct towards women” and locating herself as a victim in an “age-old” situation “as a woman who ends up sitting answering for” such miscreant men. Extraordinarily, in the midst of a parliamentary inquiry, Scotland’s First Minister chose a weekend TV interview to disclose evidence she had withheld from that inquiry and to allege that her predecessor as First Minister, her old boss and mentor, was “angry” with her because she had refused to “collude” with him to cover up harassment allegations from two women in 2018. What next? Just as well the Jeremy Kyle Show is no more. 

The statement is very possibly defamatory, and it immediately raises another raft of questions about the First Minister’s conduct at the time and since: if she felt she was being invited to collude in a cover-up, why didn’t she report it? Or, was it more politically expedient to cover up such collusion – whether potential or actual – and seize the opportunity for a formal investigation, in the hope that it would discredit and neutralise her rival once and for all?  Neither is a good look, both suggest the First Minister has been making calculations on what is best for herself and her party rather than upholding the law or putting the country first.

The complicated details of who knew what when – or when and why they suddenly remembered and admitted what they knew - are murky with inconsistencies and omissions. The more Sturgeon protests that she wishes to be nothing but entirely open, the more she reinforces the opposite impression. Increasingly, she comes across as someone desperately squirming to avoid a situation in which politically disastrous conclusions will inevitably be drawn. The nationalist movement is in meltdown over the Salmond/Sturgeon split, which reflects contrasting positions on a strategy for a second independence referendum. An entertaining porthole into the stramash is afforded by the articles and comments on the Wings over Scotland website, whose author wasted no time in posting the Ridge interview. Salmond himself has refrained from public comment, biding his time like a chess grandmaster gearing up for checkmate. 

The interview had two other themes which also played entirely negatively for the First Minister. The first was the Ferrier affair; Sturgeon can insist until she is blue in the face that Ferrier’s behaviour is unacceptable and that she should resign. But the fact that she remains an MP, now defiantly so, speaks not just a lack of individual integrity but a lack of integrity across the party. The bottom line is she has not been expelled, only suspended. The party apparently has a long, opaque and closed “process” for expulsion, which looks as if it is specifically designed to keep people in post, silent and salaried, thus avoiding a potentially embarrassing by-election, and allowing enough time to pass for them to be brought back into the fold. Neil Hanvey and Derek Mackay are two recent examples who have benefited from this mechanism. According to Ferrier, this was the plan for her until the public outcry was so great that her SNP bosses appeared to throw her to the wolves by calling for her resignation. As long as Ferrier hangs on, Sturgeon’s call that she resign is nothing but a shoddy, politically expedient gesture. Unlike Salmondgate, Ferrier won’t bring Sturgeon down, but she adds to the bad smell of troughing, cynicism and corruption that is accruing around a government that has been in power for too long.

The final blow delivered by the Ridge interview was over Sturgeon’s handling of Covid. The days when the Corona Queen was universally feted by the London media are but a distant memory. In her own terms, Sturgeon has “lost control” of the pandemic even as she refuses to admit it unequivocally (anyone see a pattern here?). Her previously triumphant strategy of locking down faster, harder and longer than the rest of the UK to eliminate the virus lies in tatters as the virus – or at least positive test results – has come back with a vengeance. The R-rate is higher in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. Her harsher treatment of Aberdeen compared to Glasgow where the virus infections have been higher exposed her hypocrisy and political favouritism. Even these local lockdowns aren’t working, as the numbers in the Central Belt show. Sturgeon isn't just losing the war against Covid; she's losing support across the board.

In a Daily Record survey of 8,300 readers just before the current two-week “reset”, the First Minister’s preferred term for her circuit-breaker mini-lockdown, more than half felt the curbs on daily life had gone far enough already, and nearly three quarters said Sturgeon had not done well. In another survey, 61 per cent of Scottish Mirror readers thought the same. Of course, these surveys are self-selecting; in contrast, today’s Survation poll reported 67 per cent of respondents finding the Scottish government’s handling of the pandemic competent. While the nationalists bigged-up the favourable contrast with the UK government, however, attention was diverted from the 33 per cent who do not have faith in the First Minister’s handling. 

Wednesday’s “reset” announcement was accompanied by the publication of a Coronavirus (COVID-19): evidence paper - October 2020, whose purpose was to supply scientific backing for the new measures. If journalists had not been so preoccupied with the actual measures, they might have picked up that this was the ultimate ‘dodgy dossier’. It provides a Scottish version of the notorious and discredited projection of new cases presented by the UK Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Advisor on September 30, who pushed a scaremongering fantasy of exponential doubling, ignoring the proven Gompertz Curve for the progress of Coronavirus infections. Needless to say, the Scottish Chief Medical Officer Gregor Smith and National Clinical Director Jason Leitch beat their English rivals hands down at being even more alarmist. 

Their graph suggests that without new measures, by mid-November the infection rate in Scotland could hit nine times the level of the highest rate recorded anywhere in the world. In fact, it predicts almost as many absolute cases in Scotland as in England, even though Scotland has one-tenth the population of England. However, a graph plotting actual cases in September and projecting a future exponential increase based on the actual increase up to 10 October indicates it would take until December 21 to reach the 32,000 cases a day Smith and Leitch’s graph reaches by mid-November.

Observers have wondered if they added a zero to the numbers on the y axis in error, but the Scottish Government defended their graph when challenged on the discrepancy with the UK numbers. They said: “The measures compared are not equivalent. The estimate in Scot Gov's publication is higher in part because we have included all infected people not simply positive tests because many people experience mild, or even no symptoms, and hence don't present for testing." In other words, they just made up the number of people they assumed could be infected! 

This statistical voodoo throws into sharp relief a key question about the so-called second wave. We have an explosion of cases, but by comparison relatively low ICU admissions and deaths (bear in mind that not every one of these counted as Covid cases will actually be in hospital or dying because of Covid; all the stats require is that they have tested positive for Covid in the past 28 days). Very, very many people receiving positive test results are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms. If that’s the case, why are we panicking and subjecting everyone to extreme restrictions, the by-product of which is extensive harm to health, well-being and livelihoods?

The SNP is not known as a pro-business party, showing little interest and even less sympathy. They have made some spectacularly unsuccessful and expensive interventions in specific enterprises, such as CalMac ferries, Prestwick Airport and BiFab. I'm not sure a lot of business in Scotland privately supported the nationalists, even if it was prudent to do so publicly. After last week, only fully-paid up cult members among the business-orientated, let alone business-invested, will still be on board. More than one newspaper used the term “fag packet government” to describe the botched and confusing melee of restrictions on the hospitality industry announced on Wednesday. When questioned about the enduring confusion between a café and a restaurant at Friday’s briefing, Sturgeon threatened to shut down all licensed cafes if owners couldn’t work out what she meant.

There had been two days’ warning, not enough time for businesses that deal in beer and perishable food to mitigate their losses. Many thought the concession of being able to open until 6pm and without alcohol sales was not worth the candle, and shut up shop for the full two weeks. Worse, two weeks is too short a time span in order to tell if the new restrictions are working. No indication was given that after two weeks they would be lifted – and the signs are growing now that they will be retained or even tightened – so who knows how many businesses will open again? The £40million compensation package sounded generous, but in practice, it will be far too little and too late to stop many businesses from going to the wall, and their many former employees from joining the dole queue.

The standard moves which served the First Minister so well in the early months of the pandemic are beginning to wear thin. "I know how hard it is for you", "I'm suffering too", "they are horrendous decisions no one ever imagined having to make", "I've made mistakes and I'll make more": all the emotive tropes are still wheeled out each day in her broadcasts to the nation, but now they are beginning to look like what they are: fig leaves, excuses for policy failings and devices for extracting sympathy and assent.

As far as real levers go, the Scottish government is locked into ever harder lockdowns. So at Tuesday’s briefing came a warning that England’s tier 3 was less strict than what Scotland was already doing in some areas, so when Sturgeon presents her version to Holyrood after the recess, she may need extra measures or a tier 4. Compliance remains a major problem, as does the Test and Protect programme, which is neither testing many people fast enough nor tracking enough contacts. When people are told to self-isolate, many don’t – why should they, after all, if they, or those who they have been in contact with, aren’t ill? The evidence paper has a section on “claimed compliance” and acknowledges self-isolating is an issue. The £500 payment, a carrot rather than stick solution, will not fix the problem, and applying for it is a palaver requiring documentation which many on zero hour contracts or in casual work won’t have. Many more will earn too much to be eligible, but not enough that they feel they can afford to forgo their earnings to self-isolate. 

For the foreseeable future, then, we can look forward to Nicola Sturgeon becoming ever more like a third-rate dominatrix on our screens, dishing out the no pain, no gain treatment. No music, no alcohol, no socialising, and please, no holidays (especially not Blackpool!) – unless we do them outside or in private, and even then there are conditions and limits. Covid-19 won’t deliver the ICU admissions and deaths being predicted, but she will doubtless claim that this proved the nation’s Presbyterian self-denial worked.

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

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