Robin Mcalpine: If this crisis needs a grown-up conversation, are we the children?

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common […]

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when its over. Today – the seriousness of government failures.

I’ve been trying hard to keep a positive, forward-facing outlook in these virus columns and was going to look at Green New Deals today – but I am growing so concerned about the Scottish Government’s current performance (and the glacial pace at which it is being scrutinised) I’m going to break off and write this instead.

The First Minister has been given credit by many for promising a ‘grown-up conversation’ about the way Scotland responds to the virus. I look forward to it, because that’s not what’s happening.

This matters very much; this virus is killing people and devastating our economy now but still in Scotland it feels like all we can expect is what the Scottish Government decides to give us and nothing more. Having doubts is not treason.

But as long as the Scottish Government is treated as above-criticism, the less likely it is to get its act together. This is not a moment where we can ‘hug it out and let bygones be bygones’. There must be accountability for failure – and change as a result.

Why does this matter?

I have not hidden my view that from the beginning the Scottish Government treated the virus as a public relations matter. Everything seems to be filtered through the lens of ‘how will it look?’.

From the constant ubiquity of the First Minister reading out statistics, to the repeated rush to try and announce UK policies before the UK does, to the constantly-increasing use of emotion to deflect difficult questions, to the lack of acceptance that mistakes have been made; this seems largely to be about look.

This matters. I’ll come on to Nikegate in a minute, but the consequences of not telling Scotland the virus was here (and spreading fast) are large. On a minor front I have been beating myself up a bit because for the first week or two (pre-lockdown) I underestimated this virus (in part because I had been very busy and hadn’t been following the international picture closely enough at the time).

I now discover that the information which would have let me understand the sheer gravity of this in Scotland was available in early March. Had I been told that one pre-symptomatic person had infected at least 26 people in a day I would have been calling for lockdown on the spot.

But this information was hidden. It is not just me; families held parties, people went to concerts, shopping centres were packed – and people died. We had a no-caveats right to know the virus was here and make our decisions based on that information.

And all I can say about the Scottish Government response at the time is that it seemed to prioritise not having to deal with the public at all. Again, if this is something other than us being managed by them for their benefit and not ours, I cannot understand what it is.

Let me be clear; for all the many hours of performative statistics-reading, I now have sufficient clear examples of what I shall here call ‘lack of candour’. Put simply, it means I don’t have full trust in the information I am being given. 

Do YOU understand Nikegate?

I’ve been around politics for long enough to be able to make a decent guess at why something is or isn’t happening, but I am truly stumped by Nikegate. It doesn’t even nearly make sense to me.

Let’s start from the beginning; two dozen people were infected in one day and this was kept from the public until a piece of really good Scottish journalism revealed it. That’s from 2 March to mid-May before we even know anything.

I can’t get my head round this, because I can’t begin to give any credence whatsoever to the utterly unbelievable official response. I mean unbelievable as in ‘how could anyone believe this?’.

What exactly was the difference in patient confidentiality between this case and the Dundee case which we were (knowingly and falsely) told was the first case? Is patient confidentiality a variable thing? Was there a change in policy? Who on god’s green earth thought that this obscure and nonsensical argument should take precedence over public health?

And the idea that ‘we fixed it so there was no need to tell’ has already been disproved. They claim to have tested everyone who was in contact, but we already know this isn’t true. And what about the airport, the taxi, the restaurant or wherever else this person went. Those people weren’t tested. Did they and their families not matter?

And since this was not made public even after the Scottish Government knew about it and since this may be the single thing in the six years of this administration which was MOST in the public interest to know, and if words still mean anything, how is this not a cover up?

The gravity of this is something which does not seem to be sinking in to public consciousness as fast as it should. I’m trying hard to think of examples of dereliction of public duty which seem more serious than this and I’m coming up kind of blank.

Which leaves a single question; why? What could possibly have caused this to happen? Ask a thousand people what is the appropriate response to knowing Covid-19 was in Scotland and the proportion saying ‘keep it under your hat’ would be zero. So how? Why?

I’m afraid that when I can’t work something out with this administration it is never a bad idea to ‘look for the lobbyist’ (it usually explains things). Had the infection in a Hilton hotel been known it would have been likely to affect its business substantially (would you have booked?). Hilton Worldwide Holdings is an American multinational with a £1.4 billion turnover.

So this is a question I hope is pursued by the media; did the Scottish Government receive any communication from Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. (or someone acting on their behalf) and did that communication include a request for confidentiality on this case? Anything other than clear evidence to the contrary would be a monumental scandal.

The seriousness of testing failure isn’t sinking in

We at Common Weal had a slightly nervy night on 8 April. We’d been watching with mounting concern as the Scottish Government seemed not to understand the importance of testing. This is outside our main areas of expertise, but we decided it was far too important to stay quiet.

Because that’s all there was. Inside Scotland, a few respected academics had been warning about the lack of testing and so had we – but that was it. There wasn’t another organisation in the country raising the issue. So we produced a model of a testing, tracing and isolation programme so we could cost it.

We sent it to the media, worried we were missing something (outside our comfort zone). By lunchtime the next day we were very glad we did – at First Ministers Questions it became clear that the Scottish Government didn’t seem to understand the difference between testing as a protection method for NHS staff and testing, tracing and isolating as a virus control strategy.

In fact, in another PR-heavy exercise it took a further two weeks to produce a discussion document which appeared to be modelled heavily on our paper. And yet, another month on and still this is a discussion document, not the overwhelming priority.

The only defence the Scottish Government has is ‘following the advice’. This is, yet again, PR. The preeminent advice on this globally is the World Health Organisation, NOT Catherine Calderwood and Jason Leitch.

In what form was this advice and from who was it sourced? Was this a cup of tea in the office, a standing body of advisers, an emergency group? Who was involved and what exactly did the advice say about control? 

The Scottish Government says there was never a policy of herd immunity – but since there was never a policy of TTI either, was there a policy? Every version of this at the moment looks like the Scottish Government locked-down but no-one involved stopped to ask how we would ever open up again. Again, that seems a startling dereliction of duty. It speaks not of leadership but managerialism.

(It is worth pointing out that Scotland has a pretty dispersed population and that would have made containment much easier – if we’d started early.)

And to this day the First Minister resolutely refuses to accept that this was a big mistake – even Matt Hancock has demonstrated more reflection and humility.

I don’t believe what I’m being told. I think the Scottish Government simply fitted its policy around the available resources and then pretended this is what the science told them.

The Don’t Care Homes

I’ll keep this brief for now because Common Weal will next week be publishing an expert report which explains the causes of the tragedy which has taken place in care homes. I’ve read the first draft and it makes painful reading.

There seem to be two main themes. First, corporate lobbying means that over the last decade care homes have been allowed to deliver a declining service, and in particular that the medical element of care (treating rather than managing) was allowed to decline to improve profit margins.

This left care homes woefully exposed. And then when the crisis hit they seem just to have gone to the bottom of ministerial in-trays. Whether it was simply a blank spot or whether there was an unspoken assumption that deaths here were inevitable, things were done which defy belief.

Everyone else in the country is being kept away from possible infection through a lockdown enforced by law. In care homes direct lines of infection were directly imposed by the Scottish Government who started sending untested people into self-enclosed communities with high population density of very vulnerable people – but kept doing it even after the death toll rose.

This too is defended on the basis of ‘medical advice’. This time I flat out refuse to believe that there is a scientist, expert or medic in the world who said ‘put possible infected people into close proximity to the most vulnerable people in society’. But still the government brazens it out.

Now we are led to believe that Scotland only has double England’s care home death rate because we’re so damned honest and efficient with statistics. Whatever way you spin it, it’s up their among the world’s worst performances.

Lockstep lockdown

Another aspect of the PR handling of this is the lockstep question. Let me start with full disclosure; at the outset of this crisis I had no objection to a ‘four nations’ policy. There is no reason the UK couldn’t have got this right.

It’s just that it fairly quickly started becoming abundantly clear that they weren’t getting it right. There is this idea that a Scottish approach would be a ‘unilateral opt-out’. This is yet another convenient distortion of reality. The legal responsibility for public health in Scotland rest with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Government alone.

If joint working was ensuring that public health was being protected, that responsibility would have been discharged. But if public health is not being protected then it is no-one’s fault but the Scottish Government. It was not ‘an option’ to pull out of a failing system, it was a duty.

But (here comes the PR again…) when the pressure for a different Scottish approach started to grow inside the SNP what the Scottish Government did next was really quite cynical. It started to make different noises, publish different discussion documents and be more openly critical. What it didn’t do was anything different.

For the umpteenth time in the history of this administration the speeches were meant to make you think one thing but the actions meant something quite different. 

And if you can’t see the attraction then I suggest you look closer. Boris Johnson started out as the Scottish Government’s safety blanket but has now become its human shield. The only way Scotland looks ‘not the worst in the developed world’ is if you compare it only to the US and the UK. Except for deaths in care homes which is different – because we look worse.

So where is the debate?

Summing this up, the Scottish Government’s response has been dominated by PR, late to the table for almost everything, derelict in its duty, less than candid with Scotland – and there is little sign this is changing. 

While I hardly think the media has been good here I do give substantial leeway on the basis that the Scottish Government has structured media briefings to make sure the First Minister has maximum ‘performance time’ but faces minimum scrutiny time. She is able to provide what seem to me implausible answers which cannot then be interrogated.

The Disclosure programme was only the start; everything I’ve suggested above that is currently hidden will come to light in time. There is a high risk this is going to turn into a domino topple. 

When you see the world through the lens of PR then mistakes aren’t things you correct but disguise, and you come just to hope you can push the reckoning far enough into the future that memories fade, that you can appoint a sympathetic judge to oversee the inevitable inquiry and whitewash it for you (otherwise know as the Hutton Report Methodology).

This is a first-person-singular administration which does not even make the pretence of being based on collective cabinet government. We are told in no uncertain terms who makes the decision. ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are the founding principles.

The First Minister defiantly won’t admit she has done anything wrong. She stands by the abandonment of testing, she stands by the failure to communicate the first case and she stands by the care home debacle.

Much of my career was in PR and political strategy. I always took a different view. Real honesty causes you more problems in the short term but many fewer in the long term. But I would always provide the same advice anyway; if you’re covering up the last mistake you’re not avoiding the next one.

You must do your duty first and explain yourself after. I can put it no more clearly than this; if you’ve watched the Scottish Government’s performance, you’ve reflected on it and you still can’t think of anything that should have been done differently, you’re failing in your duty.

There is now no question that a reckoning is going to come and I’m almost sure it is going to be brutal. The real tragedy is the people who will die between now and then. Please, can we have that grown-up conversation now – it can’t start with the claim that you never told us about the first case because, heck, at the time you thought you alone in all the world had beat the virus on the spot.

Next up: the post-Covid battle for a Green New Deal