Stephen Daisley

Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus failings

Nicola Sturgeon’s coronavirus failings
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wears a Tartan face mask, Picture credit: Getty
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The numbers have seldom been better for Nicola Sturgeon. Ten months from the next Holyrood election, the SNP is polling 55 per cent on the constituency ballot and 50 per cent on the regional vote. Support for Scexit has swung into the majority. Almost three-quarters of Scots say she has handled the Covid-19 pandemic well, compared to just 21 per cent for Boris Johnson. Yet in terms of the record, Sturgeon’s response to coronavirus has been at least as impaired as that of Boris Johnson.

The UK Government has been criticised for its lack of pandemic preparedness despite the findings of a 2017 simulation called Exercise Cygnus. However, the Scottish Government had its own review, conducted the previous year and codenamed Silver Swan, which heard warnings of PPE and staff shortages. ‘There are significant business-as-usual staff shortages, making stepping up in an emergency even more challenging’, the review found.

While the speed and efficacy of Whitehall’s strategy has been faulted, St Andrew’s House has nothing to boast about. Sturgeon initiated her Covid-19 scientific advisory group two days after lockdown began. Reserved shopping slots for those ‘shielding’ were delayed because the Scottish Government failed to provide their details to Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco. On the other extreme, more than 9,000 Scots were erroneously told not to leave their homes, one third of them because their cancer was misidentified. When it was revealed Boris Johnson had skipped five Cobra meetings, the SNP said such ‘complacency and negligence’ was ‘jaw-dropping’. Nationalists were more reticent when it emerged Sturgeon had skipped six.

Testing and PPE have been particular sore points for the Tory government, but the SNP has made its own missteps on these matters. It wasn’t until mid-May, and after more than 1,600 care home deaths, that the Scottish Government finally promised routine testing for all residential care staff. Last week, almost one-third of care home workers were not tested. Testing more broadly has not been the Nationalists’ forte either. At one point, in May, just one-third of testing capacity was being used. Indeed, almost 40 per cent of Covid-19 tests carried out so far in Scotland have been done through UK Government laboratories. Scotland’s PPE reserves were so low that NHS hospitals were issued expired respirators and staff told to check the masks still sealed properly. Others were supplied face masks four years out of date. Unite the Union called it ‘a national scandal’ that Scottish hospital employees were reportedly ‘having to reuse personal protective equipment’, and demanded the SNP government buy new equipment for frontline medics. Emails released under freedom of information requests revealed that senior NHS managers were alarmed at low PPE stocks in January and indicated that the Scottish Government was aware of the problem.

The UK Government has been accused of a lack of transparency in this crisis. However, as far as we know, it didn’t keep quiet about an early outbreak of Covid-19 in the centre of London. That is what Nicola Sturgeon’s government did after learning that attendees at an international Nike conference in central Edinburgh had contracted the virus. SNP ministers were told on March 3 but the public only learned the truth 69 days later thanks to a BBC expose. Businesses have since complained that their staff developed coronavirus symptoms after contact with conference delegates.

Failure to be straight with the public has been a hallmark of the Scottish Government’s response. In May, SNP health minister Jeane Freeman told the Scottish Parliament that only 300 elderly patients had been transferred from hospital to care homes before testing, despite the actual number being three times higher. In June, justice minister Humza Yousaf told MSPs quarantine checks had been carried out on 20 per cent of international visitors to Scotland and said police confirmed compliance was ‘very high’. In fact, there had been no checks and Police Scotland wasn’t even being informed of breaches.

Earlier this month, the Office for Statistics Regulation rebuked the Scottish Government for making unverifiable claims about antibody tests based on unpublished data. Sturgeon continues to claim that Scotland’s Covid-19 prevalence rate, at 0.028 per cent, is ‘five times lower’ than the rate in England, even though the two different methodologies make meaningful comparison impossible and the rate in England is 0.025 per cent.

The Tories aren’t the only ones who have had enough of experts. In March, Professor Allyson Pollock, director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Excellence in Regulatory Science, wrote to Sturgeon and Freeman urging them to adopt contact tracing and testing. Two months later, she had still received no reply. In a comparable vein, when Professor Hugh Pennington warned the Scottish Parliament in April that the R-number in care homes could be as high as 10, Sturgeon retorted: ‘I don’t know where he got that figure.’

Sturgeon (LLB Hons) may not have recognised the figure but since Professor Pennington (MBBS, PhD, DSc, FRCPath, FRCP Edin, FMedSci, FRSE) is the former dean of medicine at Aberdeen University and has chaired two outbreak inquiries, it might have been wise to pay him some heed. Similarly, Professor Richard Ennos wrote to the Scottish Government in March urging ministers to focus on shielding the elderly and make efficient use of testing capacity. He received a pro forma reply one month later, by which time more than 900 elderly hospital patients had been transferred to care homes before the implementation of mandatory testing. The 1,947 deaths in care homes so far represent 47 per cent of all Scottish fatalities involving Covid-19.

Then there’s good old-fashioned cynicism. Sturgeon called Johnson’s ‘Stay Alert’ messaging ‘vague and imprecise’, then unveiled her own slogan: ‘Stay Safe’. She was against air bridges, then she introduced them in Scotland. On March 13, her clinical director could 'absolutely guarantee there is no plan right now, and no substantive rumours, that we're going to close schools next week’; on March 18, Sturgeon announced schools were closing. Her education minister said it would be ‘playing with the public health of individuals’ to risk reopening schools full-time from August 11, then announced schools would reopen full-time from August 11.

The Prime Minister’s errors have properly been the subject of thorough scrutiny but Sturgeon has mostly coasted through untouched. Otherwise, the pair are not all that different on Covid-19. They made the mistakes, others paid the price.