Lockdown: Why Nicola Sturgeon isn’t really following ‘science’ – John McLellan

Nicola Sturgeon is making political choices about her priorities in the lockdown and about which science to follow, writes John McLellan.

Nicola Sturgeon cannot deny she is making political choices about the lockdown's restrictions, says John McLellan (Picture: Fraser Bremner/pool/Scottish Daily Mail)
Nicola Sturgeon cannot deny she is making political choices about the lockdown's restrictions, says John McLellan (Picture: Fraser Bremner/pool/Scottish Daily Mail)

Nipping over to the corner shop on Thursday lunchtime, three women walked towards me, one of them holding a mobile phone with the speaker on. At first it looked like they were having a conversation with a friend, but as I got closer the voice became recognisable; it wasn’t an acquaintance but the First Minister giving details of the next phase of the Covid-19 recovery.

While millions have tuned into official announcements during this emergency, I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone listening to a live political announcement while going down the street and it’s as good an illustration as any of the desperation for some sort of normality being felt by so many.

I have no idea how those ladies reacted to Ms Sturgeon’s plans, but what emerged was far below expectations for either business or education and the ultra-cautious approach demonstrates that of the triple crises in health, education and economy, the latter two are still way behind number one in the First Minister’s priorities, as she spelt out in an article for the Times yesterday.

Three months of unremittingly bad and often tragic news has created a sense of fatigue, which Thursday’s announcements did little to alleviate in the short term; non-essential (unless you work there) shops can open but not for over a week, pub beer gardens can’t open while people gather in greater numbers with carry-outs aplenty, dentists can open but not to check your teeth. The list of contradictions goes on.

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The remaining restrictions are virtually unpoliceable because the phased phasing is so complex; is it one household, two households, or three? One person living alone, inside or outside? Never mind bubbles, it’s all babble. Out of caution has come confusion and we’d be advised to sellotape the new guidelines about who can meet on the wall next to the front door.

Like a jilted possessive partner, the First Minister has had control of our lives and seems to be finding it hard to let go. Yes, the virus is still out there, as even the small number of new infections shows, but all the mass-gatherings of sun-bathers and demonstrators and the steady erosion of discipline have not resulted in even the tiniest nudge against the downward trends. The grim daily toll of infections and deaths is being replaced by depressing economic statistics which are every bit as serious for long-term well-being as an uncontrolled pandemic.

But more chilling than the 18.6 per cent plunge in Scotland’s GDP in April was this week’s letter from over 1,500 UK paediatricians to the Prime Minister pointing out that the failure to adequately re-open schools “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people”. Education planning in England is undoubtedly unsatisfactory, but a copy should have been sent to Bute House too.

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Councils have been left to sort out schooling, and in Edinburgh the result was the roundly pilloried 33 per cent schooling plan, with the First Minster and her Education Secretary John Swinney amongst the critics. Somewhat belatedly Edinburgh Council will ask for another £30m to reach 50 per cent if the two-metre distancing rule remains in place, but the Government has already repeated its belief that councils have been given enough support. Readers with long memories may recall education was once the SNP’s top priority, but this sounds like an abrogation of responsibility. As leading educationalist Keir Bloomer put it in a blog this week, “Until strategic issues are addressed seriously, we may as well give ‘blended learning’ its proper title – part-time schooling.”

It is hard to understand the Scottish Government’s unwillingness to tackle the education crisis head on, or why the two-metre rule wasn’t reviewed before now, especially as Edinburgh University public health expert and government adviser Professor Devi Sridhar believes little social distancing would be needed to get schools back to near normality in August. Few people in Scotland will have had cause to cheer Arlene Foster and the Democratic Unionists over the years, but her announcement that distancing for Northern Irish children and young people in school would be reduced to one metre should put pressure on the Scottish Government to do the same.

The move to Phase 2 here is official recognition that, in the Government’s words, “the virus is controlled” but a measure introduced when there was “high transmission” remains in place despite it being recognised as the single-most damaging factor for the development of young people. And with an increasing obesity problem, where is the logic in allowing professional team sport but not children’s games where safe-distancing the spectators is hardly an issue?

We’re following the science, we keep being told, even though another Edinburgh University public health academic, Professor Linda Bauld, told the Scottish Affairs committee that the advice was not always clear. It’s certainly true that of all the sanitising tactics introduced during the pandemic, this has probably been the most effective for politicians north and south of the Border wishing to socially distance themselves from unpopular decisions.

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We hear it from Ms Sturgeon virtually every day: “Trust me, I really don’t want to do this, I must follow scientific advice. Of course I want to re-open schools, of course I care about the economy, but this is what I must do to save lives and protect our NHS.” She uses “must” repeatedly, but does anyone seriously think Ms Sturgeon doesn’t have options?

Ok, I made up that quote, but here’s what she said in yesterday’s Times: “I understand as well as anyone the huge damage the pandemic is doing to our economy, and no one wants to see economic activity resume again as much as I do. But I absolutely will not compromise public health.” Nowhere in the 570-word article did she mention schools.

It has always been a myth that the decisions have been anything other than political because there is more than one science and not all scientists within each think the same. It is a political choice to put the advice of selected epidemiologists ahead of paediatricians, and if the science of paediatrics was prioritised in Scotland, the two-metre distancing rule would be cut to one as it has been in Northern Ireland. The First Minister is not following the science, she is choosing the science to follow.

When even SNP’s Mr Optimistic says outlook is ‘bleak’, there’s no doubt

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Not so much a ray of sunshine but radioactive-spewing solar flare of unquenchable positivity, ex-SNP MSP, Royal Bank economist and communications executive Andrew Wilson is the kind of person whose heart is gladdened by a downpour because the flowers are getting a drink.

So when the man selected by the First Minister to head her Growth Commission told BBC Scotland that “the outlook for people, for families is bleak” you know things are bad. “What’s clear to me is the UK is set to be the worst performing economy in the developed world and Scotland’s probably going to be a bit worse because of the nature of our sectors,” he said.

Scotland a bit worse? Senior figures like Kate Forbes MSP were rattled enough to take to social media to claim that Scotland’s economy was “broadly in line” with the UK, but it was hardly a forthright denial of what he was saying.

It’s unlikely Mr Wilson will have had what ex-Conservative leader Ruth Davidson this week described as the hairdryer treatment from the First Minister; a quiet call from a special adviser is more their style.

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John McLellan is the Scottish Conservative Party councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston in Edinburgh

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