It’s there in black and white on the Scottish Government website: ‘People should avoid travelling unless it is essential…This guidance is for people planning to visit second homes…”. That the Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood broke that rule not once but twice is very bad. But the government mishandling thereafter raises more questions than the original sin.
Why did the Scottish Government respond to Calderwood breaking the rules by apparently seeking initially to justify it, falsely suggesting it was a one-off event? Why did the National Clinical Director, Jason Leitch, appear on TV Sunday morning defending it, saying that Calderwood “went to check” on the house and was “confident” that “they observed social distancing throughout” and was “very safe”, only later that same day to retract and admit that he had not actually spoken to Calderwood before making that assessment?
Leitch sent out the message to the Scottish public on Sunday morning that in fact non-essential travel to second homes is okay as long as you’re careful. That’s a message if acted on that could get mere mortals fined by the Police. Calderwood – the one fronting Scottish Government TV adverts telling people they must stay at home – only got away with a ticking off. ‘Do as I say, not as I do’, ‘one rule for them, another for us’ – take whatever phrase you want about entitled hypocrisy and apply it forthwith. If there’s anything people hate, it’s that. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Sunday afternoon that “no one is justifying what she did”, but only after her spokesperson and the National Clinical Director had already done exactly that.
The tragedy is that the impact of this huge leadership blunder will be felt most by the people with least power to correct it. Tens of thousands of people across Scotland have been trying as hard as they can to convince family members, friends, work-mates and patients to take the virus seriously for their own sake and for others. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it requires strong and consistent messages from the top and universal application. Now those efforts have been substantially undermined. Public confidence is crucial to a lockdown like this. If it’s lost, it can be hard to get back.
Calderwood’s resignation at the end of a tortuous Sunday where the First Minister defended her staying in the job but out of the spotlight because “I need to have her continued advice and experience” opens up yet more questions. Why did Sturgeon deem her “too big to fail”, in the words of the BBC’s Philip Sim? Surely there’s a bigger team of people that Sturgeon has been listening to than Calderwood? Are the decision-makers at the top of the Scottish Government letting diverse voices in, or is it an upper-middle class public sector management clique?
These questions are not semantics – technocratic group-think can be lethal in a situation that requires the ability to learn and adapt quickly. The major strategic issues – the cack-handed embrace of herd immunity at the early stages of this crisis; the refusal to act on WHO guidance on testing (a “distraction”, according to Calderwood); the slow speed at which PPE has got to front-line NHS staff – all must be re-considered in light of this howler and what it says about how those at the helm are operating. To put it simply, if they can misjudge this so badly, what else are they messing up?