Covid Inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon's politicking and Boris Johnson's weakness may have damaged UK's response to pandemic – Paul Wilson

Boris Johnson’s government appears to have given in to Nicola Sturgeon’s approach to Covid simply to avoid having an argument on at least one occasion

As the Covid pandemic fades into the rear-view mirror, we are left with impressions formed by enduring memories of those dark and surreal times. Of awkward, socially distanced queues snaking around supermarket car parks. Of being locked down for weeks on end within our own “bubble”, which for some consisted of one person. Worst of all, of being unable to share a loved one’s last moments, before a funeral only a handful of mourners could attend.

The UK Covid Inquiry, which has now started hearing three weeks of evidence in Wales, is also forming impressions, specifically of how politicians responded to the crisis and came to the decisions that governed all our lives. If the evidence that has already been heard in London and Edinburgh is anything to go by, Welsh leaders can expect a fair amount of flak to come their way.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In London, the shambolic leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson was laid bare as a picture emerged of hard partying in Downing Street while ministers lacked a coherent strategy and were often at odds with each other. Johnson’s former advisor Dominic Cummings described the government as “dysfunctional” and referred to the Prime Minister as a “shopping trolley”, prone to veering off in random directions and “smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”. Chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance revealed significant tensions between their advice to government and ministers’ political priorities.

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves the UK Covid Inquiry hearing after her evidence session (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves the UK Covid Inquiry hearing after her evidence session (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves the UK Covid Inquiry hearing after her evidence session (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

‘Zero Covid’ strategy

In Edinburgh, a recurring theme of questioning from Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel for the inquiry, was the scientific basis for the rules and restrictions championed and imposed by the Scottish Government. In the opening exchanges with chief medical officer Professor Sir Gregor Smith, Dawson contrasted the qualifications of Whitty and Vallance with those of former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s closest advisers.

Smith’s background is in general practice. His predecessor, Catherine Calderwood, who resigned in April 2020 after it emerged she had broken lockdown rules, is a consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology. National clinical director Jason Leitch is a qualified dentist. Another favoured adviser who had the ear of the first minister was Devi Sridhar, professor in global public health at Edinburgh University, who advocated pursuing “zero Covid” through tough lockdown measures such as quarantining people when crossing the border into Scotland.

But were these the best-qualified people Sturgeon could surround herself with during this time of national crisis? What of Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University and a member of the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage)? Woolhouse was an adviser to the Scottish Government during the pandemic, but his evidence to the inquiry revealed his frustration that his advice was not followed.

Woolhouse dismissed what was effectively a “zero Covid” strategy – based on there being “no such thing as a level of acceptable loss” – as being “never, in my view, a rational basis for making health policy, not least because it was bound to fail”. He was deeply critical of orders to stay at home, bans on outdoor activities, and a lack of assessment of the harms that would be caused by lockdown. Woolhouse told the inquiry it was “obvious that lockdown was likely to cause severe harms to the economy, education, mental health, healthcare access and societal well-being, and that those harms were likely to affect some sectors of society more than others, exacerbating inequalities”.

Johnson’s misplaced boosterism

And what of Hugh Pennington, the world-renowned emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University? He has said he wrote to Sturgeon to offer his services but did not receive a reply, and that he watched the Scottish Government’s daily televised briefings with “growing dismay”. Pennington believes he was shunned because he is opposed to Scottish independence. He said: “I can only come to the conclusion that Ms Sturgeon and her Government didn’t want my advice because of my pro-UK views. What other reason could there be?”

The politicisation of Scotland’s response to Covid was another theme of the evidence heard in Edinburgh. Sturgeon’s poll ratings soared during the pandemic, with her assured and measured style in stark contrast with Johnson’s misplaced boosterism. A minute of the Scottish Cabinet of June 30, 2020, led by Sturgeon said ministers “agreed that consideration should be given to restarting work on independence and a referendum, with the arguments reflecting the experience of the coronavirus crisis and developments on EU exit”.

The inquiry was also shown a WhatsApp message from Liz Lloyd, chief of staff and a strategic adviser to the First Minister, in which she told Sturgeon she wanted a “good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK government about the ending of furlough. Leaked WhatsApp messages suggest Downing Street was weary of these “rammies”. Johnson introduced face masks in English schools after he was advised it was “not worth an argument” with Sturgeon over the issue.

A clique of like-minded people

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sturgeon denied her response to the pandemic was influenced by her desire to create differences with the UK Government and further the cause of independence, but evidence suggests otherwise. Perhaps her WhatsApp messages would tell a different story, but we will never know because she deleted them all – contrary to what she told one of her televised briefings.

The impression that could be gleaned from the Scottish evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry is that a clique of like-minded people – not necessarily the most scientifically suited – set rules that were, to at least some extent, motivated by politics. Johnson’s rudderless Downing Street operation allowed itself to be swayed by this clique. How many other restrictions were imposed south of the Border on the grounds it was “not worth an argument”?

Poor decisions were made in both London and Edinburgh that ultimately may have done more harm than good across the UK. The role played by the Welsh government will become clearer over the next few weeks, but, on the evidence so far, none of our political leaders is likely to emerge from this inquiry with much distinction.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.