Nicola Sturgeon has won respect for her skills as a communicator – and not just in Scotland. When she took part in UK general election debates with other party leaders, many on the political left in England found themselves wishing they could vote for someone like her.
One reason for this is that when asked a question, she usually does not respond with oft-repeated slogans or empty political soundbites but instead attempts to give a reasoned, thoughtful answer. And she deserves credit for that, it is an example that all politicians should follow.
But the question she faces over the Covid-19 death toll in Scotland’s care homes is a most serious one and it is the substance of her reply, rather than its style, that really matters.
More than half of all coronavirus deaths in Scotland took place in care homes, a grim fact that prompted the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, among others, to say that the human rights of thousands of residents had been “disregarded”. He claimed the Government’s advice on discharging elderly patients from hospital to care homes and on access to medical treatment had “led to thousands of deaths”.
Protecting the lives of a country’s citizens, regardless of their age, is the first and most important duty of its leader.
Asked about a BBC documentary which featured emotional testimonies from family members of those who died, the First Minister was typically forthright.
“I’ve said openly that we took decisions around care homes in good faith based on the best evidence and advice a the time. We will have made mistakes on all aspects of the handling and I refuse to be defensive about that though I absolutely accept I am accountable for that,” she said.
Sturgeon’s explanation for mistakes appears to be that these only became clear with the benefit of hindsight and that those now passing judgement are “being informed by things we didn’t know then or didn’t know as clearly then”.
In politics, as in any other field, it is easy to criticise decisions and much harder to be the leader tasked with taking them, particularly when there are no good choices and the right thing to do is to pick the least-worse option.
That said, the power of leadership necessarily comes with the heavy burden of responsibility. And, however well-intentioned, however honest her answers, in Scotland, the buck stops with Nicola Sturgeon.
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