Robin McAlpine: As lockdown sputters out, what actually happened and what can we learn?

“One awful affliction suffered by poor Scotland is proving stubbornly difficult to dislodge. That affliction is our perpetual inability to see ourselves as truly a nation, part of the world in our own right. We can’t get past seeing ourselves as a region.”

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the past few months, Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine has been writing a series of columns arguing that Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and rebuild when its over. Today – so where have we got to?

AS LOCKDOWN sputters to an end and I head into a couple of weeks off to recover from the intensity of the last few months, it’s time to wrap up this series of virus columns. I will do a short one on Friday but that is only so I can leave on a more positive note than this.

Because first I want to summarise the lockdown period – and it’s not pretty. I’ll look at it in phases.

1. Coffee with Calderwood

This first phase should have started as the information came out from China. If not it certainly should have started when it started to come out of Italy. A functioning government with a functioning civil service ought to be able to provide a paper trail of the emergency advice briefings being provided to the first minister at the time.

Instead, there is the strong impression that both the first minister and the head of the Scottish civil service were primarily focused on the Alex Salmond trial in which both are heavily entangled. I find it remarkable that, for the biggest crisis of our age, the Scottish Government can’t provide a paper trail until mid-March.

Say what you like about the UK civil service – this is what it is really good at. I mean, there’s a full paper trail for the Boer War. Donald Trump may not read his briefings, but the US civil service still provides them. It’s a fundamental part of government; it’s why the civil service is independent.

Come the inquiry, we will be analysing the first two months of this crisis purely on the basis of hearsay. As far as I can tell, this is unprecedented in government in the UK; if Leslie Evans is still in her job by the end of this, it is entirely inexplicable. That the first minister was not given a summary of best practice and best available knowledge in writing prior to lockdown is hard to believe.

The argument is that there was ‘other sorts of advice’. Well, since we know no-one was going to either Sage or Cobra on a regular basis, and since we know there wasn’t then a Scottish advisory committee, that can only possibly refer to ‘coffee with Calderwood’ – some kind of informal and unminuted chat with then-Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood (and possibly Jason Leitch).

But neither of them have any professional background in infectious disease. Calling this ‘scientific advice’ is pushing the boundaries of language a long way.

This phase does not involve any government preparatory action that I can identify, and that leads directly to the PPE debacle. But it does encompass what I consider to be one of the biggest controversies of the devolution era – the Nikegate cover up.

Let me be clear: that this was a cover up is not in question. There was a major infection outbreak in Scotland in late February. It was known about right at the start of March, but no public communication on the subject was provided. You can’t argue it isn’t in the public interest, so yes, this is a cover up. The only question is whether it was legitimate or not.

I don’t buy this patient confidentiality line for a second – it wasn’t even a UK citizen, so identifying him would be next to impossible. Much has been made of a report the Scottish Government has spun as ‘absolving’ them. It does no such thing. Read it – the strain of Covid introduced by this affair did not die out until late March. That it didn’t cause mass infection was sheer luck.

But still, knowing this, the Scottish Government kept Scotland in the dark. They had first-hand evidence of pre-symptomatic transmission (the man left Scotland without symptoms) and knew at least 24 people caught it in Edinburgh in one day – but they let a rugby international take place at the weekend. Again, tragedy was avoided only through luck.

Perhaps the Scottish Government couldn’t have introduced lockdown earlier (though it pretty well could have), but it could easily have banned mass gatherings and it certainly had the knowledge to suggest that was an urgent priority. Nevertheless, it neither banned them nor gave the public enough information to make their own informed decision.

The only explanation for any of this I can find is commercial lobbying on the part of the powerful hotel chain which was the location of the outbreak. If that is true, it is very serious indeed.

In my opinion, where it gets really weird is that they subsequently claimed to have eradicated this outbreak through testing (they didn’t – it was lockdown). That makes the decision to entirely abandon all testing just over a week later entirely inexplicable. It can’t be incredibly ineffective and a distraction.

Then again, you’ll never get an honest explanation because nothing was written down, leaving us with only the spin and the retrospective justifications they’ll be working on just now.

In the bunker with Boris

This phase ends when, finally, previously blind to what was happening, the UK realises lockdown is inevitable. I believe that, at this point, the Scottish Government shifted its focus in two directions. First, it saw this as a technocratic issue facing the health service. Second, it seems to have become particularly interested in what I’ll call presentational issues.

It is here that we move into the ‘four nations’ model, and it is impossible not to believe that for the Scottish Government this was largely about ‘herd immunity’ – clinging to London so the criticism will be absorbed by them and not us, the one element of the strategy that seems to have worked.

That the only things Scotland did differently were worse is alarming: failing to back tenants over landlords, proposing the suspension of jury trials and the cancellation of distant elections, and effectively suspending Freedom of Information.

Crucial things happen at this moment. First, the entirety of the crisis facing schools is simply dumped on local authorities. There was no national guidance at all – the Scottish Government locked the door and took no responsibility for schools. Precisely the same thing happened in the care homes.

A technocratic focus on the NHS is also why I believe the care home crisis got so bad. If you are managing the NHS as a complex spreadsheet and you need beds, empty beds in care homes aren’t a risk but an opportunity – and so a mass-decanting is arranged.

Of course we know for certain that the Scottish Government was aware of pre-symptomatic infection from the Nike affair and Sage advice, so it is inexcusable that this was done without any apparent thought. The care of old people was left mainly to private corporations. Health care for infected residents was not provided by the NHS. We will almost certainly learn people were left to die in pain.

What is certain is that old people were locked in rooms entirely alone, left for weeks to die with only basic care from someone behind a mask. For anyone that is inhumane; for someone with dementia that is unspeakable.

I edited Nick Kempe’s paper for Common Weal on this subject. It impacted me emotionally more than anything I’ve ever worked on; I haven’t come properly to terms with my own feelings over what happened, so I will leave it there for now. But there must be consequences. There must.

This is when the trend of ‘powerful leading figure arrogantly believes the rules don’t apply to them, politician tries to save their career anyway’ trend kicks off. But of course Sturgeon is quicker to throw allies under the bus when the pressure comes on than is Boris, so somehow that’s OK.

Calderwood should have gone anyway. By this point, we at Common Weal were reaching high levels of alarm about the government view that ‘testing is a distraction’. This ran absolutely counter not only to the World Health Organisation advice but to all available experience. We published a paper, then realised the Scottish Government didn’t seem seem to understand the paper.

There was clear confusion over the difference between testing to keep a specific workforce safe and Testing, Tracing and Isolating (TTI) as a control mechanism for the virus. It seems to have sent the government off on a scramble to come up with something to make it look like they’d given serious thought to an exit strategy.

When a couple of weeks later it announced a plan for TTI, I thought they’d learnt their lesson. When they announced it again a couple of weeks later, I started to have doubts. When we modelled the rate of increase of testing, it started just to look like more PR.

(I feel great alarm that, on the day of writing in late June, the Education Secretary is still saying that testing is something you do when people show symptoms which very strongly suggests that they still do not seem to understand the principle of using TTI as a control mechanism. Testing is supposed to prevent and outbreak, not confirm one.)

But mostly this period is dominated by presentational issues, by first ministerial screen time. Many people were comforted by this. I would have preferred some more effective decision-making.

3. Shuffles away slowly

At this stage, I’m afraid I’d become convinced that the management of this crisis is being viewed through a PR lens. It’s not that those involved didn’t want to be doing the right things. It’s that they defined the ‘right thing’ in terms of how it would look.

Things were clearly going wrong. Common Weal started to raise questions about whether sticking with a clearly incompetent four nations strategy was a good idea. Gradually these questions gained prominence.

It is the first time (other than the Calderwood affair) where the first minister faces anything that you could mistake for a hostile question. I was deeply uncomfortable with some of the responses given, which seemed to me to be straying into emotional manipulation. Not every question that isn’t sycophantic is ‘playing politics’ – some were entirely legitimate and should have been answered as such.

But as the wheels start to come off at the UK level and the pressure grows on the Scottish Government, it starts to face criticisms for the first time. It is this that seems to me to have driven the slow, embarrassed shuffle away from lockstep with London.

I say that because the shift was very small, barely perceptible. For the first part of the crisis the first minister appeared keen to rush to make announcements slightly before the UK Government (a PR-drive behaviour with no beneficial function). Now this reverses; each decision is announced slightly after London, presumably to see how it goes down first.

But calling this a break from four nations is tricky, because the actual decision was more-or-less identical. It was purely a difference of presentation.

One thing that has now changed, though. Finally – mainly because of the UK media and the performance of other governments round the world, but also because the public has got passed the initial shock and is a little more quizzical – we start to be able to look more clearly at how Scotland actually compares to the world.

And it’s really ugly. Before this point, there had already been a lot of well-organised personal promotion pushes for the first minister, but these accelerate. When we should have been looking at poor testing rates, horrendous news from the care homes and wondering what the hell was going on in education (still with no national guidance), suddenly there are ‘thank you Nicola’ hashtags.

Scrutiny goes into battle with a kind of heavily-promoted leadership ideology. The Nikegate affair comes to light, the care home question can’t be batted away through a tear in the eye any more, testing becomes an issue. But so far nothing has really changed in terms of policy.

My discomfort with some of this grows; there are a few moments when the First Minister’s answer to difficult questions comes perilously close to “don’t judge me – I’m the real victim here”.

4. A moment of calm… and then…

However, credit where it is due. By now the UK performance is so widely derided that going off on our own is no longer a political risk. And for a brief moment, it looked to me like things were finally starting to resemble what it would look like if Scotland was taking a grip.

The first minister’s caution was wise, at least compared to UK events. Her key economic adviser (Andrew Wilson) was openly going all US Republican and saying that getting pubs open was suddenly the priority – but she rejected this.

For the first time there was something like a plan being produced for schools and while progress on testing was still two parts PR to one part reality, that one part reality was real (there is no system but at least there is capacity).

And then, and then… First we get a blended learning for schools plan that more or less condemned Scotland to a kind of indefinite semi-lockdown (since half the population couldn’t go back to work). It was the only option given there was no functioning control mechanism, but that just highlights the failure to produce a control mechanism. It doesn’t make it a good idea.

Again, only a technocrat could have come up with that and fail to accept that it means no return to even a pretence of normality. The entire teaching profession implemented this quickly and diligently. Much effort went into adapting schools for this new normal. Entire learning plans and resources were produced through enormous effort on the part of teachers.

Then the parents get briefed, the reality sinks in, they point out the sheer impracticality of what they’re being asked, anger bursts out and so…

And so we move into what I can only call freefall. Suddenly the first minister takes an interest in education because (as per the pattern) it has suddenly become a reputational issue. She blatantly throws her Education Secretary under a bus, contradicts him, and then within a week it’s as if Covid is over.

I can’t begin to tell you how shoddy this is. Teachers unions, local authorities and schools themselves first heard about this screeching U-turn as it was being announced on TV. There was to be no opportunity to point out any problems; this is policy fiat.

So schools have to go through the enormous work of converting their buildings back again – even though some have already closed for the summer and most will have done so by Friday. They go into the summer with no information about how their health is going to be protected. It is hard not to assume they’ll be asking themselves who will be the first of their colleagues to die.

Suddenly what we seem to be seeing is not greater caution than Boris Johnson, but rather an effort to get Scotland to catch up. There appears to be a sudden rush to get everything open and all the warnings and indicators we were told would guide decision don’t seem to matter any more.

I know at least two friends’ families who picked up the phone and booked a foreign holiday on the spot. Psychologically, the Scottish Government just flipped the switch; people really, really think it’s over. It is very likely people will pay a price for this.

The scientists are trying to be constructive and saying this could all be OK, but listen carefully and you’ll notice that there are conditions. That’s what I fear will now dominate – conditions chasing imperatives round and round in a circle. ‘We must open the schools’. ‘OK, but we’ll need a control system of TTI.’ ‘Right so we need a control system.’ ‘But there isn’t one.’ ‘But we must open the schools’.

You can gain remarkable degrees of confidence running round that particular circle, but if you exit it without completing it, your confidence will melt away in seconds.

The staff at my kid’s school are exemplary. They did so much to accommodate blended learning and to help us parents understand and get ready. Of course, that was the day before yesterday. It isn’t for me to speak for others, but I think I can say that confidence is down and anger and disbelief are up. They have refused to tell the kids about this. They refuse to let them down again – all for what looks like spin.

So where now?

People are talking about places being hit with a second wave. From what I can see it isn’t a second wave, it’s still the first. This is not about the virus going away, mutating a bit and coming back stronger. This is the same infection resurging.

The idea that the numbers are so low it doesn’t matter any more doesn’t sit straight with the fact that it took very few infections to kick this off in the first place. Plus the science has moved on – there is growing evidence that in enclosed spaces the virus is airborne and cumulative.

Which is to say that people in a confined space that isn’t rigorously ventilated will cause a gradual buildup of aerosol particles of the virus in the air – and this is not affected by any form of physical distancing. Contagion indoors is 19 times more likely than outdoors. This can be mitigated with care and good ventilation, but think about a classroom with five solid hours of kids breathing.

There remain only three options on the table: let it rip and accept the deaths, control it through a package of measures centred round TTI or go for elimination. The latter is preferable, but is incompatible with foreign travel; Andrew Wilson will be back on the phone to Nicola…

So I still think our best option that is possible under the political direction taken by the Scottish Government is comprehensive TTI. And yet still the policy is stated as testing only when there are symptoms. That is asking for rapid recurrence.

So we may be wise to prepare for rolling lockdowns. It may require rather a lot of remembering but that’s where this all started with the Imperial study. It may not even be localised if we don’t have enough localised testing. And the chances of the schools remaining open for a whole school year seem slim to me.

I’m told the First Minister won’t hear any talk of any adaptation of the exam system, fearful of the reaction of the Daily Mail. This will leave pupils ill-prepared for Highers, but with no alternative in place if their education becomes severely disrupted.

And as for economic recovery, after the publication this week of the Advisory Group report I think we all know there is no coherent plan of anything scratching the surface of the scale we need. It doesn’t look good to me.


For many years I have trained people in public affairs and political strategy. My first piece of advice is always the same and stems from working as a press officer for a senior politician: put your fingers in your ears.

Don’t listen to what politicians say; even the hapless ones can sound plausible with a good PR team. Their words tell you much, much less than verifiable information does. It’s what’s done and what isn’t done that matters. Everything is about detail. Look for the detail, ignore the noise.

Lots of you will have heard that a Universal Basic Income trial is on the cards for Scotland. It isn’t; for about the fourth time, the Scottish Government made a press statement that implies it is, but if you read the actual content it says it’s not happening because it’s impossible. That was confirmed last year. Twice. And once again this year.

This is why when I read column after column after column about ‘the quality of leadership in Scotland’ I have literally no idea what you mean. I don’t watch government briefings, I dig through statistics and monitor policy as it is put in place. I think you’re mistaking leadership for self-confidence and elloquence.

When I played rugby at a decent level, leadership was a much-discussed, closely-examined issue. What I’ve seen from the first Mimister would, in a game of rugby, be considered showboating.

She draws unnecessary attention to her skillset (impressive as her communication skills are). She hogs the ball and every pass is a hospital pass (seriously, you only see her colleagues when they have to front up disasters). Her decision-making is patently problematic, and I can see little evidence that she’s had a good view of either the over all field position or the close game (she should have asked what was going on in Wuhan, in schools, in care homes).

Being able to say dubious things with utter confidence, to sniff the public mood and harmonise with it are undoubtedly skills and I don’t underrate them as such. But they are a long, long way from reflecting leadership. Like her predecessor, she would make a very good chat show host.

The thing I hope to be the final victim of Covid

Our developed western delusions of invulnerability and superiority are gone (Africa handled this better than Europe). The free marketeers and their ideological zeal have been exposed (no V-shaped recovery after all guys). The myth of a competent United Kingdom is in tatters. Complacency about the awful system of care homes we have is at an end.

The idea we can shop our way out of every problem is hard to defend. The expectation of no end ever to globalisation is in doubt. Modern Monetary Theory jumped from ‘impossible’ to ‘universal’ in the blink of an eye. Common Weal started this crisis saying everything must change. It did.

Nearly, anyway. One awful affliction suffered by poor Scotland is proving stubbornly difficult to dislodge. That affliction is our perpetual inability to see ourselves as truly a nation, part of the world in our own right. We can’t get past seeing ourselves as a region. Weirdly, independence supporters are now among the worst for this, glued as they are to any sign that we’re slightly better than England.

We’re not. You can juggle this any way you want but unless soundbites are deeply important to you, when it comes to Covid the difference between Scotland and England comes down to Scotland not having London, Birmingham, Manchester and Heathrow airport. It’s pure luck.

And yet as a nation, we’re glued once more to some useless Tory leader in some anachronistic parliament telling ourselves ‘phew, thank god’. I’m afraid it’s pathetic. Third worst in the world has no meaningful upside.

Once again, we’re getting beat three-nil by New Zealand, but because England is getting beat five-nil by Belarus we think we’ve salvaged something from the night. It’s the loser’s delusion and it is the one infection it seems we can’t control in Scotland.

Please let it join the sorrowfully long list of victims of this tragedy. Stop trying to tell yourself there is some kind of consolation in all of this and then mumbling something about ‘Boris…’. That only makes you part of the problem. The dead don’t clap for speeches.

Please Scotland, to become the nation we have to become, please accept this was a disaster. Because, well, this was a disaster.