First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pivoted. She would not admit to that, but the evidence is clear, and it’s important that it is documented, because it may well mark a before and after moment in the Scottish Government’s response to this crisis.
First, the ‘before’. On 2 March, following an emergency Cobra meeting, the First Minister announced the “sign-off of a four nations action plan”. On 8 March, Sturgeon said that there was “no substantive difference” between the UK Government and Scottish Government’s approach to tackling The Coronavirus: “The whole UK is still in the ‘contain’ phase, but with an increasing focus on a phased shift to the ‘delay’ phase which is when we consider measures to slow down spread of the virus and reduce numbers of people infected at any one time.”
On 15 March, Sturgeon repeated that she was seeking to take decisions on a “consistent UK four nations basis”. The National Clinical Director Jason Leitch was explicit one day later that “community testing and contact-tracing was halted for the containment phase” in accord with the UK Government.
Last Monday, 13 April, there was sign of some movement. The First Minister said if the “evidence” suggested she should do something differently from the rest of UK or at a different time, she would “not hesitate to do so”. The implication was still that she believed the evidence pointed to the UK Government making the correct decisions at the right time so far, thus there had been no need to do something differently, yet.
Then Sturgeon’s language changed. On Tuesday she started to talk for the first time of “suppressing” the virus. The word “delay” was gone. Two days later, she explicitly laid out the case in a speech at St Andrew’s House for “testing and surveillance, contact tracing and isolation of people with symptoms”. On Friday, she went even further, opening a route to breaking rank with the UK Government.
Whereas five weeks previously she spoke of “no substantive difference”, now Sturgeon was outlining a comprehensive list of ways the Scottish Government had done things “slightly” differently so far.
“We banned mass gatherings slightly earlier, we announced the closer of schools slightly earlier, the lockdown came at the same time for the UK but Scotland was slightly earlier in the infection curve at that point, and we’ve taken a slightly tougher line on business closure, construction being an example,” she said.
The language of a “consistent UK four nations basis” has been watered down to “carefully and collaboratively and closely to align our thinking and decision with the Welsh, UK and Northern Irish governments”.
But each government was “at different stages of the infection curve”, she said, and therefore “where the evidence, with judgment applied to it, drives us in [a] slightly different direction” it would be “logical and sensible” to take a different approach.
On Saturday evening, The Sunday Times bombshell story broke. To re-cap: Prime Minister Boris Johnson had missed five Cobra meetings across the whole month of February. The UK was warned on 24 January by LSE professor Neil Ferguson that there would likely need to be a lockdown to cut transmission. Britain was not ready for the pandemic because years of austerity had undermined it’s world-leading pandemic response system to the extent that PPE stock was insufficient and out-of-date. Then government didn’t react in February to enact its response plan, while Singapore – a country that based its pandemic response on copying the UK – did, and successfully suppressed the virus early on. The UK got off to a quick start in contact tracing and testing Covid-19 in early February but gave up that advantage because they were planning for a flu pandemic based on “herd immunity”, and therefore believed it did not require mass testing. Even after a further report in late February stating nearly 400,000 would die if no strict social distancing was imposed, it was not until nearly one month after – 23 March – that Britain went into lockdown. It was more than a week after that, 1 April, that Health Secretary Matt Hancock approached the organisation which represents the majority of British testing suppliers about mass testing.
The First Minister has not responded to this story yet, but on the same evening she did challenge a front-cover story in the same paper about schools re-opening in three weeks’ time: “Decisions need to be solidly based and not premature. We don’t yet know what will be possible and when. The Scottish Government will set out as soon as possible the factors that will guide decisions, but as/when we lift restrictions, we must be able to suppress virus in different ways, for example: test, trace, isolate.”
One can interpret Sturgeon’s pivot in different ways, but the reasoning is less important than the fact that it is an observable shift, which appears to be laying the groundwork for a possible strategic rupture with Johnson, a Prime Minister who appears to have had an almost criminally negligent attitude to Covid-19 at the start of the outbreak.
This shift is surely good news, but let’s be clear: a terrible toll has already been paid. As Helen Ward, professor of Public Health at Imperial College London, has written, there were eleven fateful days from 12 March (the day contact tracing and testing was abandoned) to 23 March (the day of a full lockdown) in which “tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people will have been infected…The current best estimate is around one per cent of those infected will die.”
The question which may haunt the First Minister when this crisis is over is: ‘Why did I not doubt Boris Johnson sooner?’
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
- A letters section
- Upcoming events for activists
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.