Will the Catherine Calderwood saga damage Nicola Sturgeon?

Only time will tell how great the damage is in the wake of the chief medical adviser’s departure.

“In a different context, in a party political context perhaps the decision might have been more straightforward,” Nicola Sturgeon admitted during a bruising encounter with journalists over her handling of Dr Catherine Calderwood’s departure.

The usual considerations of “spin and news management” were not at the forefront of her mind in deciding the future of the country’s chief medical officer in the middle of a pandemic.

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Coronavirus: Nicola Sturgeon’s judgement found wanting over handling of Catherin...
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood deliver an update on coronavirus last month. Dr Calderwood officially resigned on Sunday

The First Minister eventually made it clear to Dr Calderwood that her two weekend trips to a “second home” in the East Neuk of Fife, in direct contravention of official public guidance fronted by the chief medic herself, meant that she could no longer continue in the role.

This was Sunday evening and the medic agreed to quit.

But this came a full 24 hours after the revelations first emerged which clearly left Dr Calderwood’s position completely untenable as the face of the public awareness campaign to “stay at home.”

Some might respect the fact that the First Minister didn’t react by immediately throwing Dr Calderwood to the wolves. Indeed, it seems Ms Sturgeon was not told, at first, by Dr Calderwood of a previous visit to the Fife bolt-hole the weekend before last.

Former chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood alongside health secretary Jeane Freeman

The blame surely lies with the medic, not the SNP leader? Well up to a point. But this is a time of national crisis when families are finding themselves without incomes as jobs disappear as a result of this lockdown, while others have been banished from seeing sick loved ones or unable to attend funerals of a departed family member.

Every aspect of the First Minister’s response is under scrutiny. And so she was forced to defend her decision-making processes in the most uncomfortable daily coronavirus news briefing she has yet faced at St Andrews House yesterday.

What changed in the 24 hours between the first phone call with Dr Calderwood on Saturday and the realisation that she would have to go? Well no new information came to light, Ms Sturgeon said.

The immediate government reaction was a forlorn attempt to keep the chief medic in post, by pulling a high-profile television advertising campaign which she had fronted up and relegating her to a more behind the scenes role. But as the story started to pick up global interest, this was never going to be enough.

The wave of public anger and unfavourable coverage posed a real risk of undermining the Scottish Government’s public information campaign instructing people to stay at home.

This strategy lies at the heart of efforts to halt the spread of the virus, but if the chief medical officer is flouting such rules, then why not all of us?

Dr Calderwood’s advice and hard work may well have been invaluable in Scotland’s response up to now, as Ms Sturgeon insists.

But the balance faced by the SNP leader was the need to keep her chief medical officer on board, against the danger that she was undermining “ public trust and confidence” in the Government’s message. In the end, the latter consideration prevailed.

That the timing coincides with the tragic deaths of 16 residents at a care home in Glasgow from the virus and the death of a member of staff at a separate care home in Lanarkshire just compounds the Government’s difficulties. So far compliance levels with the lockdown have been well observed in Scotland.

If this deteriorates in the aftermath of the weekend’s events ministers will face a major headache trying to regain trust. Infection and deaths rates have mercifully remained proportionately lower so far in Scotland than the rest of the UK and other parts of Europe.

If it stays that way as speculation builds of a peak in the coming weeks, perhaps ministers can point to this as a broader indication of the success of the strategy.

The problem for Ms Sturgeon will be whether her Government’s response to the pandemic will be remembered over time by this fiasco.


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