Analysis: Nicola Sturgeon walks the lockdown fine line with aplomb

At 12.30pm when she rose to address Holyrood, things could have gone one of two ways for Nicola Sturgeon: she could have produced a roadmap out of lockdown which would have seen people take to the streets to party like it was Hogmanay, or she could have crushed the hopes of a nation and kickstarted a backlash to the way her government has handled the coronavirus pandemic.
Nicola Sturgeon has outlined how she plans to take Scotland out of lockdown.Nicola Sturgeon has outlined how she plans to take Scotland out of lockdown.
Nicola Sturgeon has outlined how she plans to take Scotland out of lockdown.

A rock and a hard place then; knowing that the next steps could potentially increase the numbers of Scots who die from coronavirus; but also knowing that lockdown is already unravelling.

She couldn’t fail to have missed that. The pictures of sunbathers on Portobello beach yesterday, made her “want to cry” when she saw them she said – but they pointed sharply to the fact that the “new normal” of staying at home is no longer working for many people, and disaffection, or complacency has risen.

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The Scottish Government's four-phase lockdown easing route map explained
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And while there has been considerable trust placed in how her government has handled the crisis, that too has begun to fray.

The Nike conference outbreak “cover-up” has been damaging. The rushing of elderly patients out of hospitals and into care homes, taking the virus with then, compounded by an initial lack of PPE for social care staff, and the resultant rising death toll of care home residents, has been even more so. The lack of testing, questions about when other health services would resume as fears rise about cancers going unscreened… all these things were gnawing away at the apparent political truce that had been called between the parties in Holyrood.

This was made particularly clear when the Scottish Parliament flexed its democratic scrutiny muscle and demanded that the route map be told to MSPs first, rather than at the daily briefing to the public, so politicians could ask the questions rather than journalists.

Today then, was a vital moment for Nicola Sturgeon, possibly the most critical in her career, as lives are literally on the line. She has put herself front and centre of the government’s coronavirus response – taking to the podium daily to reel off the figures of positive cases, deaths, intensive care numbers much to the chagrin of her detractors – and has not shied away from taking responsibility for it all.

It’s been a direct contrast to the response in Downing Street, where the load has been shared across the Cabinet, a result of Boris Johnson’s illness and new fatherhood or his apparent boredom with the ritual, depending on your political view.

But today was dangerous. Get the tone wrong, the messages mixed, say anything which could see her compared unfavourably to Johnson and the way he revealed England’s roadmap – hints and tips, winks and nudges to journalists, before not quite announcing what had been planned, followed by a run of clarifications of what was said – and it could well have damaged her reputation irrevocably.

Instead, she managed, with some certainty of footing, to walk the very fine line of protecting public health and easing up on the lockdown measures which are undoubtedly harming the economy and people’s mental health.

Caution has been her watchword on coronavirus – it’s why she did not want to follow Johnson’s timetable – and caution remains so. Lockdown will be phased, and if numbers of people dying rise again, it could well be stopped. Physical distancing of two metres, washing of hands, wearing face coverings in shops and buses, these all remain.

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Things will happen at different times, and always when the expert advice says it is safe. So after May 28 golfers can take to the greens and fairways again, and even croquet players can dust off their mallets. There was detail too so there will be no confusion about maybe being able to see one parent but not the other (should you be lucky to have both) as there was in England.

She was clear too that all of the relaxations have to be in lockstep with the increase in testing, which will undoubtedly bring further scrutiny around how many contact tracers have been employed and trained. Not enough yet appears to be the answer. And there are other things yet to be thrashed out. Schools will return on August 11, but only partially, and there will be “blended” schooling at home. How this will work is anybody’s guess, as childcare tends not to be as flexible as it’s suggested and neither is every employer.

And there was a public appeal – not to common sense as such, though it amounted to the same thing, for people to act appropriately. “Increasingly,” she said, “this will be about equipping people to make decisions about the balance of risk. My worry is that people will slip back into old ways because the perception is the virus is gone. The government can't do it alone, we will all have a role to play in that." With that, the buck was, if not passed from government to governed, resolutely split.

It’s hard to believe that a political animal like Nicola Sturgeon does not think in terms of the politics of this crisis. She's gone out of her way to say questions about her actions are legitimate and not politicised, and that perhaps in future she herself will not read the worst of motives in the actions of her political opponents.

However when she left the chamber today, she will know that the has survived one of the biggest challenges of her career. She appealed not to people’s common sense, but to their self-interest in making lockdown-easing work. The task ahead now is to stick to the route map and keep Scotland’s economy and it’s people on the same page.

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Joy Yates

Editorial Director