Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

Why is Nicola Sturgeon talking about Brexit at the Covid inquiry?

(Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Nicola Sturgeon handled the Covid pandemic rather well. You might not expect me to say that after all that’s happened this year, but it’s true. The former first minister was – or is – a highly effective communicator who managed to persuade Scottish voters that she knew what she was doing, even as she made all the same mistakes as Boris Johnson. 

In her daily pandemic press conferences, she always sounded well briefed and coherent — unlike the prime minister, who often bumbled his way through his script falling back on bad jokes. Sturgeon focussed relentlessly on a single message: that social democratic Scotland was dealing with the pandemic in a more humane way than the Brexit Tories. It was largely rubbish, but she sounded good. 

The former first minister was back on message at the Covid inquiry today, insisting that she never agreed with the idea of an acceptable level of harm during the pandemic. The very idea.

‘It became one of the points of difference between the Scottish and UK governments,’ Sturgeon went on, ‘the extent to which we were still trying to suppress, as opposed to live with, the virus.’

The subtext appeared to be that Boris Johnson did think there was an acceptable level of harm and that he gave up trying to suppress Covid under pressure from backbench right-wingers. 

And, of course, Brexit made it all so much worse. Sturgeon said it was ‘deeply regrettable that resources had to be diverted from any other areas of work and in particular pandemic preparedness’ because of the threat of a no-deal Brexit.

The inquiry’s lead council, Hugo Keith KC, had to intervene to remind Sturgeon that she was ‘in a witness box not a soap box’. The ex-first minister wasn’t having that and replied, ‘with respect’, that he’d raised Brexit himself in his questioning. 

It is still part of the mythology of the pandemic, eagerly amplified by sections of the UK media including the New Scientist, that Scotland could have all but eliminated Covid had it not been for the UK government’s indolence.

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Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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