Covid crisis: Nicola Sturgeon needs to realise the buck stops with her in Scotland – John McLellan

The early days of the pandemic seem long ago. As the cases began to multiply in northern Italy, we joined planeloads of Scottish rugby followers for the jaunt to Rome, the only hint that something was amiss being the temperature checks on arrival at Fiumicino Airport.

Nicola Sturgeon leapt on Dominic Cummings’ testimony as an opportunity to attack the UK government when the evidence shows the outcomes north and south of the Border were the same, says John McLellan (Picture: Scottish Parliament)

Four days later, delegates gathered at Edinburgh’s Hilton Carlton Hotel for a Nike sports conference, but one of them was carrying the virus and we now know at least 25 people linked to the conference were infected, probably more. The public wasn’t informed because the Scottish government chose not to, using the cover of patient confidentiality to keep the outbreak quiet.

By the time this was revealed in a BBC Scotland investigation broadcast mid-May last year, Covid-19 had killed 3,500 people in Scotland and, as readers of this column might recall, one of them was my father.

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That investigation included a study by a team of Edinburgh University epidemiological scientists which concluded that had lockdown been introduced in Scotland two weeks earlier than March 23 then 2,000 coronavirus deaths could have been prevented, but the Scottish government insisted it acted on the best advice available.

The scientists drew the same conclusion about the UK as a whole, something which ex-Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings went into in brutal detail this week, blaming the NHS’s lack or preparedness and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s indecision for causing “tens of thousands” of unnecessary deaths.

The 2,000 avoidable Scottish deaths equates to just short of 20,000 fatalities across the UK, so Mr Cummings wasn’t exaggerating, but neither was he saying anything particularly new.

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He delivered an extraordinary inside account of internal chaos far sooner than a public inquiry, but thanks to the success of the vaccine programme the public has moved on, as demonstrated in a Survation UK poll this week showing Conservative support up five per cent at the expense of Labour.

We have no similar account of what happened in Scotland because no senior Scottish civil servant has had such a spectacular falling-out with the boss as Mr Cummings, but it’s fair to assume there was a similar sense of desperation as realisation dawned that they faced an unimaginable health crisis with no plan to cope.

According to an Audit Scotland report in February, the Scottish government’s initial response was based on a 2011 UK flu pandemic strategy, having not fully implemented the findings of three subsequent preparedness exercises. “These included measures to ensure access to enough PPE and to quickly address social care capacity, both of which became significant issues during the first wave of Covid-19,” said the report.

But that’s not the impression conveyed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week. “Sometimes I’m afraid, in the interests of health and human life, it is necessary for people in leadership positions like me to take very quick decisions, because as we know from bitter experience over this pandemic, it’s often the failure to take quick and firm decisions that leads to loss of life,” she said. “Anybody who’s in any doubt about that only had to listen to a fraction of what Dominic Cummings outlined about what he described as the chaotic response of the UK government at key moments of this pandemic.”

Memories are indeed short, so perhaps Ms Sturgeon had forgotten about the Edinburgh University study, or the Audit Scotland report, or that having taken full control of the pandemic response she presided over the clear-out of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes.

Perhaps she had forgotten that now retired Health Secretary Jeane Freeman had admitted they “didn’t take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be".

Over 3,000 people in Scottish care homes died from Covid-19, and it’s probably where my father picked up the virus after he was discharged from Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth hospital, a failure Ms Freeman attributed to “not understanding the social care sector well enough".

Not understanding the social care system after running it for 14 years was an extraordinary admission. With that background, a dignified response from Ms Sturgeon would have been to acknowledge that all leaders faced difficult decisions in the face of a fast-advancing and unknown deadly threat.

Instead she leapt on Mr Cummings’ testimony as an opportunity to attack the UK government and portray herself as the epitome of calm and effective control when every statistic, expert opinion and even her own ministers demonstrate the outcome was identical.

“The point I was making,” she emphasised, “was about the importance of careful, cautious, responsible decision-making in the face of a deadly virus.” Tragically, the expert view is that 2,000 people might have lived had she been careful, cautious and responsible a fortnight earlier.

But like Mr Johnson, polls will probably show public opinion remaining on Ms Sturgeon’s side, which makes her sneery insinuations all the more unnecessary, especially as significant problems persist with the Scottish vaccine system which are resulting in thousands of missed appointments, while the English roll-out motors.

This is the sort of responsibility which Ms Sturgeon cannot dodge and these issues are only going to mount as the NHS struggles to cope with the surge in demand for delayed treatment and the diagnosis of illnesses undetected because of lockdown.

There will be a limit to how much slack the public will cut the Scottish government when relatives are kept waiting for life-saving or enhancing operations and the buck stops at Bute House.

It must also face up to the challenge of dealing with the damaged education of thousands of children in a system which was failing before the pandemic, and for which the response has been to avoid, fudge or delay the tools for measuring progress.

No wonder the SNP keeps the sword of a referendum dangling over Scotland’s head; like Mr Cummings, Ms Sturgeon needs someone to blame.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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