Covid Scotland: Government rebuked for timing of Manchester announcement

The Scottish Government has been rebuked by Holyrood’s new presiding officer for making its announcement of a travel ban to Manchester on television rather than in Parliament.

Ahead of Conservative MSP Graham Simpson asking a question of the government for the basis of its ban to the city and surrounding area, Alison Johnstone said the government needed to “reflect” on its decision not to make the announcement when Parliament was sitting on Thursday last week.

Instead First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed the ban during a televised Covid briefing on Friday.

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Alison Johnstone says she's committed to ensuring greater scrutiny of the Scottish Government.

Ms Johnstone said: “Concerns have been raised regarding the use of a Government Initiated Question (GIQ) to announce the addition of Manchester and Salford to the list of areas where common travel restrictions apply.

“I understand this mechanism has been used on earlier occasions to make such announcements.

"Notably, in this case the announcement was made by GIQ on Thursday, June 17, a sitting day when there may have been an opportunity for members to scrutinise the decision in the Chamber.

“I would therefore ask the Minister for Parliamentary Business to reflect on whether GIQs are an appropriate method to use for these announcements on days when Parliament is sitting.”

Conservative MSP Stephen Kerr said he was “heartened” by Ms Johnstone’s statement, but added: “Last Thursday at 11.39, 20 minutes before First Minister’s Questions, SNP ministers used special powers to ban Scots from going to Manchester and Salford.

"At 12 noon last Thursday the First Minister said nothing to Parliament about these new restrictions … and the next day at 12.15 the First Minister appeared on TV in a stage event and announced the travel ban.

"Would you underline that these acts of discourtesy, bordering on contempt, must stop and actions of ministers must be properly held up to scrutiny by this Scottish Parliament?”

Ms Johnstone repeated her request for reflection and added: “All significant and substantive announcements must be made to this Parliament where that is possible.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the government would take on board the Presiding Officer’s statement.

“We do respect Parliament,” he said. “We notified Parliament on Thursday afternoon. If members of the Conservative party couldn’t be bothered looking at their emails on Thursday … well you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

He said using a GIQ to set out other travel restrictions in May had not been questioned. However, the restrictions to Bedford and Bolton were announced through a GIQ when the Parliament had not been sitting.

Answering Mr Simpson’s question on the reason for the ban, Mr Swinney said it was based on hospitalisations, case rates, deaths and presence of variants of concern.

"Restrictions were placed on Manchester and Salford because we judged the risk has increased,” he said.

“These additions were all linked to several elevated case rates associated with the Delta variant. All the recent changes were notified to parliament through a GIQ and announced to the public in the First Minister’s media briefing.”

Mr Simpson, who said the restrictions were “incoherent” and "unenforceable”, responded: “If the Cabinet secretary thinks an email is showing respect to this Parliament, he is looking at this the wrong way because it does not.”

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