To watch Nicola Sturgeon’s daily press conferences, you would be forgiven for thinking that Scotland had chosen a dramatically different route through the coronavirus crisis. The Scottish First Minister is a better communicator from her podium than the array of inept ministers who appear in Downing Street at 5pm each day.
Effective communication matters. And Boris Johnson’s failings – not least the way he mishandled the Dominic Cummings saga – ensures that an accomplished communicator like Nicola Sturgeon can give the impression of competency north of the border.
But the Scottish government also enjoys what the country’s foremost elections expert Professor Sir John Curtice has called a ‘halo effect’ – receiving credit for what goes right, and avoiding the blame when things go wrong. The SNP behaves as if it’s in opposition when it has been in power in Scotland for 13 years. The unvarnished truth is that Nicola Sturgeon’s government has an abysmal record in office, including how it has handled the coronavirus crisis.
First things first: the Scottish government did not choose a different route through this pandemic. Therein lies the contradiction. The First Minister can’t claim to be in total charge of the response to this pandemic while at the same time taking no responsibility for it.
The Scottish government followed the rest of the UK in delaying lockdown and ignored the World Health Organisation to ‘test, test, test’. It struggled to get protective equipment to the frontline (some of it was even stranded at an airport because of failure in documentation), and it failed to anticipate the impact on the elderly in our care homes.
The failings go right back to a ‘Silver Swan’ dossier on health pandemics produced for the Scottish government four years ago which flagged up gaps in social care, PPE and storage for ‘mass fatalities’. The warnings were largely ignored.
The next mistake came when Scotland’s first coronavirus outbreak occurred in Edinburgh city centre in late February this year. One delegate to a Nike international conference brought the virus to our capital, and 25 people became infected. If you don’t remember hearing about the outbreak on the news, that’s because it was covered up by the SNP government. The public only found out in May when it was uncovered by BBC Scotland with expert academic analysis that said 2,000 lives could have saved if we had locked down earlier.
What we have learned since is that workers who fitted kilts for delegates fell ill with flu-like symptoms, Glasgow workers who shared an office with Nike also fell ill, and the delegates had personal walking tours of Edinburgh. None of those who came into close contact with delegates were contact-traced. They had no idea about the outbreak, which it has since transpired even led to the first case in north-east England.
Those attending the Scotland v France Six Nations match at Murrayfield, football games in Glasgow or events all over Scotland, were kept in the dark – even though we now know that going ahead with sporting events in England at the same time led to a higher number of deaths. That meant the public could not be used to help trace those in contact with Nike delegates, nor were they able to make their own choices to attend large gatherings. Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t like being asked questions about this and has still failed to apologise. It is a national scandal.
As coronavirus spread through Scotland, the Scottish government started to take elderly people out of hospital and moved them into care homes – without testing them for Covid-19. Since that decision was taken, around one-in-every-six care home residents in Scotland has contracted coronavirus, and more people have died in care homes than in the country’s hospitals. The death rate is considerably higher than the rest of the UK, according to official figures.
The Scottish government initially denied the discharge of hospital patients, then had to admit it was considerably higher than first claimed. In my own Edinburgh constituency, at least 13 residents at the Guthrie House Care Home died following a suspected Covid-19 outbreak.
So many tragic family stories are emailed to me every day. So many tragic care homes deaths were not inevitable. Our excess mortality rate did not have to be one of the highest in the world, and it offers no comfort to those in mourning that England is also at the top of the league table. If Boris Johnson’s England is our only yardstick, then it’s a very low bar indeed.
While vulnerable Scots were being moved into care homes, untested, the WHO advice to ‘test, test, test’ was being ignored. As a result, Scotland now has one of the worst testing rates in Europe. While SNP ministers use the Tory spin of ‘testing capacity’, the actual number of people being tested remains pitifully low.
I could spend hours posing questions for the Scottish government about its mishandling of the crisis. Why won’t it publish files detailing meetings between Chief Medical Officers at the start of the coronavirus pandemic? Did it initially accept the discredited ‘herd immunity’ strategy? Why are Scotland’s councils not getting the money they were promised? Why is it taking so long for adequate data been published on the impact of coronavirus on Scotland’s ethnic minority communities?
Throughout this crisis, the Labour Party – north and south of the border – has made constructive suggestions. And we will continue to do so. The job of opposition politicians is to hold government to account, so I make no apology for shining the spotlight on the Scottish government.
We have said since the start that we are rooting for both governments to get us through this crisis as quickly as possible. However, that doesn’t absolve them of scrutiny. The Scottish government is responsible for the decisions that affect the people I represent. And this government’s woeful record needs to be exposed because it impacts on what happens next. Arrogant governments that refuse to accept they got things wrong will continue to make mistakes.
As we emerge from lockdown, Labour is demanding a fully functioning and effective test, track and trace system. We are standing up for care workers and our key workers so they get the recognition they deserve both during and beyond this crisis. And we have the desire and the ideas to rebuild our economy so that it works for everyone.
Time is up for the Tory politics of austerity and the SNP politics of division. It’s time for a fairer future that works for everyone in Scotland and across the UK.