Coronavirus: Nicola Sturgeon’s judgement found wanting over handling of Catherine Calderwood – Brian Monteith

Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood’s position was clearly untenable and Nicola Sturgeon showed bad judgement in not sacking her, writes Brian Monteith.
Scotland's Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood  (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire)Scotland's Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood  (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire)
Scotland's Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/PA Wire)

The Scottish Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is now in utter disarray. It was a grave misjudgement that the Chief Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, went with her family for an overnight stay at her second home in Fife when members of the public have been told by her to stay at home. As if that was not bad enough she has then admitted she has actually made two such trips since the lockdown began.

One is left to wonder if Dr Calderwood would have spent the coming Easter weekend there too if the Sun had not published the photographic evidence that called out her obdurate hypocrisy.

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Yet the problem of Calderwood’s behaviour is itself outdone by the refusal of Scotland’s First Minister to dismiss her. Calderwood was in post as a medical advisor; while communication skills and an understanding of how people might view public health are required, it was her understanding of medical science that mattered. The same cannot be said of the First Minister; knowing how the public will think and behave to her leadership should be a core skill – yet she failed to recognise how damaging the episode was and summarily dismiss her advisor.

This is not the first time the First Minister has shown weakness and misjudgement when presented with evidence of wrong doing. The First Minister allowed her Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, to resign rather than be fired in disgrace after he was shown to have repeatedly texted a 16-year-old in a manner that would have been considered grooming if the boy had been a year younger. Such misjudgements are now making her a liability to her own Government, her own party and by extension the cause of independence.

I care for none of these causes but maintaining public respect and confidence for the rules required to manage and defeat the Covid-19 pandemic I do care about – but first Calderwood and then Sturgeon have made Scottish public health a laughing stock.

The reasons why Calderwood should have been fired are plain and simple.

The message being broadcast by Calderwood and Sturgeon was that members of the public should not be making any unnecessary journeys outside of their homes – with carefully defined exceptions for purchasing food, working where it is not possible to do so from home, taking up to an hour’s daily exercise and administering healthcare – and was intended to prevent the spread of the virus, saving the NHS from facing impossible burdens that would lead to greater loss of life.

By her actions Calderwood put the NHS at risk and therefore threatened the Scottish public’s health. That was an untenable position for Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer.

By contradicting the message Calderwood also sent a signal there is one rule for the public and another more relaxed rule, or indeed no rule at all, for our rulers. By her hypocrisy Calderwood made the life-saving messaging a joke in the eye of the people. That is an untenable position for the public face and advocate of the Scottish Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the message is that by making unnecessary travel the virus can be spread and people’s lives will be put at risk then it must be adhered to by those that give out that message. If the message to stay at home is to stick and have the impact required of it then it must be seen to apply equally to everyone, whatever strata of society they come from or inhabit.

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If the public is told breaking the social distancing rules can lead to heavy fines then those promoting that message must be liable to the same degrees of condemnation and punishment. The First Minister had an opportunity to make an example of her Chief Medical Officer and demonstrate that in these frightening and difficult times the rules must be obeyed – but she flunked it.

If police officers are to have the trust and confidence of the public in enforcing social distancing they cannot have those that make up the rules providing excuses for disobedience. “I’m only visiting my second home officer, I thought that was allowed?” cannot become an answer. For the application of public order the First Minister therefore had a duty to make an example of Catherine Calderwood so that everyone would know the rules will be applied without exception for anyone.

The First Minister would then have been seen to be firm but fair – putting public health before any personal friendship that may have built up over recent weeks.

The Chief Medical Officer, a gynaecologist by profession, is not indispensable. It matters not she advises the Scottish Government as there are others that can provide that advice. The Scottish First Minister can take her advice from Professor Chris Whitty, the CMO for England and the medical advisor for the UK Government. An epidemiologist who heads up the National Institute for Health Research, Whitty is a top specialist in the particular science that matters. The virus does not behave differently in Scotland from how it is transferred and kills people in the rest of Britain – there is no reason that Scotland’s First Minister needs a CMO when Whitty’s advice is available.

Instead of parroting decisions already taken at a UK level as if they need some Scottish spin put on them to be understood the First Minister could do us all a favour by accepting the lead of the British government, just as she is accepting the work of the British Army in delivering a Nightingale Hospital in Glasgow. Instead she has sought to Scottify the handling of the crisis, leading to a delay in establishing the volunteering set up across the rest of the UK and requiring a different name for the temporary hospital. The perception that even a deadly pandemic has to submit to Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalist window dressing is as shameful as it is disturbing.

Catherine Calderwood did the right thing in submitting her resignation for a second time so the First Minister had no alternative but to accept it. Simply working on – even in the background as Sturgeon proposed – was not an option. If Calderwood still has advice to offer she can give it to the First Minister in private.

For Nicola Sturgeon there is, however, no escape. She should have acted to protect the public by applying her own message – but has been found wanting yet again.

Brian Monteith is editor of