It’s time Nicola Sturgeon made a frank admission on care home failures, writes Brian Monteith

It was Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post at the time of the Watergate scandal that is credited with coining the phrase “a non-denial denial” in regard to the Nixon administration’s repudiation of allegations in a manner that did not deny they might indeed be accurate.

Spanish hairdresser Virginia attends her first client after reopening her salon in Burgos, on May 4, 2020, for the first time since the beginning of a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease. - Masks became mandatory on public transport today as Spain took its first tentative steps towards a commercial reopening with small businesses accepting customers by appointment and restaurants prepping food for takeaway. Spain's population of nearly 47 million people have been confined to their homes for more than 50 days as the country sought to curb the spread of the deadly virus which has so far claimed 25,428 lives. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP) (Photo by CESAR MANSO/AFP via Getty Images)
Spanish hairdresser Virginia attends her first client after reopening her salon in Burgos, on May 4, 2020, for the first time since the beginning of a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease. - Masks became mandatory on public transport today as Spain took its first tentative steps towards a commercial reopening with small businesses accepting customers by appointment and restaurants prepping food for takeaway. Spain's population of nearly 47 million people have been confined to their homes for more than 50 days as the country sought to curb the spread of the deadly virus which has so far claimed 25,428 lives. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP) (Photo by CESAR MANSO/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly fifty years later our First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is using what I can only describe as a “non-admission admission” in regard to allegations she made a fatal misjudgement about transferring patients from hospitals into care homes without first testing them for having Coronavirus.

The First Minister has a reputation for being Teflon-coated or bullet-proof, of being able to swat away difficult questions with reasoned if somewhat verbose explanations that shift any blame for errors on to Westminster – or some other suitable grievance-creating target like private care home owners. From my observation of Nicola Sturgeon’s style two things are liable to trip her up; the first is when an interviewer is well enough briefed to look her straight in the eyes and ask her detailed questions and follow-ups that expose her evasiveness or sheer ignorance of the detail. This phenomenon exists in such examples as the interviews by Andrew Neil for the BBC (25 Nov 2019) and Channel 4’s Ciaran Jenkins (8 Jun 2018) – but there are others of similar type that show these were not outriders. The other failing is an elephant trap where the First Minister is allowed to ramble on so much that she rather loses the point from which she started and says something that on later investigation shows she was at best forgetful, or worse, denying the truth. Neither can be called a good look.

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The First Minister has said previously she has made mistakes in her management of the Coronavirus pandemic, yet when pressed on what they are will not admit to any. This is a non-admission admission.

Yesterday the First Minister was interviewed by Sophie Ridge on Sky and when questioned on the tragic and shocking number of Covid-19 related deaths in Scottish care homes – at 45% against 21%, more than twice the percentage of such deaths in English care homes – she claimed the English statistics must be incorrect.

Then, when questioned if it was a mistake to transfer patients from hospitals into care homes without testing them first she admitted that given the chance again she would have done things differently – but that her judgement had not been mistaken because it was based on the information available to her at the time. This again was a non-admission admission.

A non-denial denial is classically understood to sound like a denial is being made but does not actually deny an accusation is true; a non-admission admission is exactly the same, it sounds like an admission is being made but does not actually admit an accusation is true.

Thus the First minister might sound contrite and caring but there is in fact no acceptance of regret, culpability, blame or responsibility – because there is no admission of error. If only I had known what I know now…

Well the first minister is being disingenuous for it is self-evident that she must have known that it was a fatal error of judgement – because there were appeals for her to act differently at the time and indeed there were examples of government’s acting differently that she could have followed.

Care home owners are on record of appealing to the First Minister about the need for testing in early April, before they were receiving patients from Scottish hospitals without the benefit of screening for Covid-19. Some of these appeals received news coverage, many were circulated to politicians of all parties. It is beyond the bounds of rational expectations that the Scottish Government did not have press cuttings or receive notice of such appeals for greater testing to be put in place.

Is the First Minister really saying her government was not aware of the care homes’ concern about receiving patients from hospitals without being proof they were not infected? That was the clearly what Sophie Ridge was being told.

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Nevertheless, let us give the First Minister the benefit of the doubt, maybe she did not understand the seriousness of the care home owners’ concerns. Unfortunately for the First Minister that does not leave her blameless – for the UK Government, in the shape of Health Secretary Matt Hancock, took the decision to insist on testing for patients being moved out of hospitals on 15 April. Is Nicola Sturgeon saying she was unaware England was introducing such tests, even though this would be communicated at the Cobra meetings and be reported in official guidance? `why did she wait until 21 April to take the same action?

It is as simple as this: if Hancock knew he had to introduce testing why did Sturgeon not know? Let us be under no illusions, the delayed decision was a failure of the First Minister that cost lives, certainly hundreds of lives, possibly over a thousand lives.

Was the science in Scotland somehow different for dealing with the same virus? Or was it another example of delaying interventions in Scotland purely for creating a sense that we must be different or does our Scottish Government believe it knows better? The evidence suggests lives have been lost by taking longer to follow the UK Government’s advice

The First Minister is telling us we must be cautious in unlocking the lockdown and will bring severe restrictions back if we do not adhere to the regulations – and yet in Scotland groups of eight people will be able to meet when in England it is only six. Allowing 33% more human contact is the antithesis of being cautious – but it is certainly being different. What science justified that?

There is no obvious logic to what the Scottish Government decides, being more or less restrictive than the rest of the UK without obvious reason – when faced with the same virus.

The First Minister repeatedly seeks to justify her actions and deny any culpability by blaming others. The same approach of shifting blame has been used in response to allegations she covered up the Nike conference Covid-19 outbreak. It is time she ended her non-admission admissions and took personal responsibility. People have died because of bad decisions she must have realised could be wrong, it is time the First Minister simply admitted that.

l Brian Monteith is Editor of ThinkScotland.org

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