Here is what the Scottish Government could learn from New York – Susan Dalgety

Every day, around lunchtime, the fast-talking, suffers-no-fools Democrat governor of New York state speaks to the 19 million people he represents.

New York Governor Andrew Cuom. Picture: Getty

“This is not a government exercise that we’re doing here,” he said earlier this week about his coronavirus briefings. “This is a social exercise. The people of New York State are doing this. And the best I can do is give them the information.”

Cuomo has led his state, and the world’s most vibrant city, through a dystopian nightmare, one that could have been scripted by Stephen King.

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More than 22,000 people have died and at one point, only a few weeks ago, it looked as if the city that survived the great Wall Street crash of 1929 and the horror of 9/11, was going to be destroyed by an invisible virus.

As the body bags mounted and the streets of Manhattan fell silent, Cuomo did not try to hide the extent of the disaster. Instead he told the terrifying truth, shorn of spin.

“The number I watch every day, which is the worst, is the number of deaths,” he said last month. “That number has remained obnoxiously and terrifyingly high, and it’s still not dropping at the rate we would like to see it drop.”

But this weekend, as the number of deaths and rate of infection start to fall, Cuomo can offer his people a glimmer of hope. “So, we have, hopefully, come through the worst. We paid a heck of a price for it, but we’ve come through the worst,” he said on Tuesday.

And, two days ago, he published “NY Forward”, his plan to reopen New York. He has divided the state into ten regions, and set out seven benchmarks, such as a 14-day decline in deaths, which each region must reach before emerging from lockdown.

“It’s complicated, right,” said Rachel Maddow, of the liberal cable news channel MSNBC, as she displayed the governor’s acid yellow PowerPoint on her prime-time show.

“But it makes sense that the re-opening of a state is complicated.

“This is a new virus that we don’t know anything about, except that it spreads like wildfire and kills humans in huge numbers by mysterious means. It ought to be complicated. If anyone tells you this is simple, they are either not doing the work, or they are lying.”

British politicians may not have been lying this week, as they urged us to “stay alert”, or “remain vigilant”, depending on which side of the River Tweed they did their press conference, but the messages emerging from both Westminster and Holyrood have been confusing, some might even say misleading. And the stench of party politics has started to infect some of the rhetoric.

When Boris Johnson – Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom – announced his plans for lifting the lockdown last Sunday, it quickly became obvious that they were for England only.

The initial confusion over whether Scots could, or should, go to work or play a round of golf, allowed nationalists, such as Kenny MacAskill MP, to later argue that the Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic had “ignited” the cause of independence.

And the First Minister who has, until now, largely avoided making comparisons between England and Scotland, tried to deflect attention from the mounting crisis in Scotland’s care homes by suggesting England’s statistics, which show a much lower rate of death, were not accurate.

“Now, this is not some kind of competition,” she told parliament with a straight face, before pointing out that she was confident Scotland’s figures were correct. “I am not sure that is the case for elsewhere in the UK,” she added sharply.

Politicians will do politics, even, it seems, during a pandemic. But, a few diehards apart, what the people really want at a time of unprecedented crisis is the simple, unvarnished truth.

“All the politicians seem to care about now are the optics,” a former public health PR expert told me earlier this week. “I am very lucky that I never had to work on something of this magnitude, but I do know that public health communications are very different to everything else.

“It is about life and death. People need clear messages. Once government communications start becoming more politically influenced, trust starts diving.”

And trust in our politicians is all we have just now. Love them or hate them, Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson are all that stand between us and Armageddon. The decisions they take, and crucially how they communicate them to us, could mean the difference between life and death for thousands.

“Chaotic and confused messaging could lead to the suppression of the virus around the UK being affected,” argued former First Minister Jack McConnell earlier this week on BBC’s Newsnight, when he called for better co-ordination across governments.

Equally, suppression of the facts destroys trust, as Nicola Sturgeon is finding out this week after news emerged that the first major outbreak of coronavirus occurred in February at a Nike conference in Edinburgh.

For reasons known only to a handful of people, including the First Minister, it was decided not to go public about the incident, and it took an investigation by BBC Scotland to reveal the truth.

“I am therefore compelled to ask why you believe the people of Edinburgh are not grown up enough to be told of a major outbreak of the virus in their own city,” Edinburgh MP Ian Murray asked the First Minister in a letter. And in a stinging rebuke, he suggested that had the information been made public at the time it happened, so heralding an earlier lockdown, more lives could have been saved. We will never know whether hiding the Nike outbreak led to even one life lost, but the suspicion of a cover-up that now hangs round the First Minister threatens to destroy any trust we have in her.

And we need to trust her – our lives depend on believing her. But she needs to have faith in us too. As Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday, “I believe in the people. And I believe when they have the right information and they trust the information and they know the information is actually factual, as opposed to some type of political jargon, they will do the right thing.”

First Minister, all we ask is that you do the right thing too. Trust us with the truth.