Clockwise: Dumbarton Health Centre; Jackie Baillie MSP; Nicola Sturgeon; Scottish Parliament and Jackson Carlaw.
I am writing this Notebook from solitary confinement, which has also become known as self-isolation.
Streaming eyes, a runny nose, fatigue and a bark like a Hound of the Baskerville have been with me since we returned from a week-long visit to Ireland for a family funeral.
The journeys back and forth on the ferry were thankfully at merciful times when the wind had dropped and the sea was remarkably calm.
I had expected the weather to be a bit more Yeatsian given that the tail end of Storm Ciara was still with us as we set out for Belfast and Waterford.
A bit more like this:
Bolt and bar the shutter for the foul winds blow
Our minds are at their best this night and I seem to know
That everything outside us is mad as the mist and snow
That everything outside us is mad as the mist and snow.
It is not just the weather, of course, that has been a cause for hand wringing. And a great deal of hand washing too.
Corona Virus, or Covid 19, which is what the medical experts and politicians have named it, is upon us and taking up much of our time – and nearly all of our man-size paper tissues.
Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw was right on to this in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.
“Partisan rough and tumble may be the stuff that excites some of the parliamentary sketch writers,” he told First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, “but I believe that there is a huge and understandable public appetite for detailed information on coronavirus and the measures that are being taken to deal with it.
“In the past week, public concern about coronavirus has inevitably increased, with statements from and actions initiated by, among others, the United States, Italy and the Republic of Ireland.
“In consequence, there is much speculation about how our Governments will respond, when it is right to move from the containment phase to the delay phase, and whether and when it is right to move to more radical measures of social distancing, such as shutting schools or cancelling events. The public are worried and need reassurance.”
He asked Nicola Sturgeon: “Can the First Minister give us some sense of when the Scottish Government expects to move to the next phase of its response? If she cannot tell us exactly when we might expect more comprehensive measures, can she at least give us some sense of how the decision will be made and how the Government will judge when it is the right moment to take wider action?”
Ms Sturgeon, looking remarkably alert and fresh given all that is happening on the political scene right now spoke as if she was well on top of things.
The news she had wasn’t encouraging, however: “I can tell Parliament that we will see a sharp rise in cases reported today, and we might also see further evidence of community transmission of coronavirus.
“That underlines the seriousness of the situation that we all face. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport [Jeane Freeman] and I, along with our chief medical officer, will participate in the COBRA meeting that the Prime Minister will chair early this afternoon.
“Among the issues for discussion will be the move from the contain phase to the delay phase. My view is that the time is now right to do that, and I expect that the four United Kingdom nations will reach an agreement on that this afternoon. If that decision is taken this afternoon, that will necessitate new guidance to the public that sets out clearly what we expect them to do, most likely from the start of next week.
“In addition, the health secretary and I have been considering what further actions we are required to take, particularly to protect the resilience of our front-line emergency workers. That involves our position on mass gatherings [football matches and other sporting events, such as Sunday’s Rangers v Celtic match at Ibrox].
“This is a serious situation. There is no doubt that we will be asking people to change the way that they normally live their lives for a period, but people must understand that the purpose of that is not to take away the challenge because, unfortunately, we cannot do that.
“The purpose is to seek to manage the challenge in a way that delays the spread and reduces the peak impact—which is important for our national health service—and, crucially, to take action that will protect as best we can those whom we know are most susceptible to developing serious illness.
“Those are the steps that we will take. I am sure that Jackson Carlaw will want me to go into further detail on a number of those issues.
The First Minister added: “Let me be clear on one thing. I have said all along that it is important that we are informed by the scientific advice, and that continues to be the case. The scientific advice tells us that cancelling mass gatherings will not in itself have a significant impact on reducing the spread of the virus. That does not mean, of course, that that would have no impact, but the health secretary and I have come to the view that there are wider issues to take account of. Mass gatherings require to be policed and to have emergency ambulance cover, and they require the services of our voluntary health services. At a time in which we need to reduce the pressures on those front-line workers in order to free them up to focus on the significant challenge that lies ahead, it is inappropriate that we continue as normal.”
She didn’t mention it, but the Ibrox Disaster of 1971 when so many people were tragically killed in an accident on Stairway 13 must have been at the back of her mind.
Accidents happen and we are given no warning of the time or the place where they will happen.
Ms Sturgeon said she would advise the cancellation of mass gatherings of 500 people or more from the start of next week – “We will continue to take other decisions on issues such as schools in collaboration with the other nations of the UK in the future, and they will be very much driven by the scientific advice.”
By the afternoon, it was reported that schools in West Dunbartonshire were given notice that they might be called on to close come Monday.
Mr Carlaw said: “The [UK] chancellor announced measures yesterday concerning the resilience of our front-line national health service. I am sure that the First Minister will confirm that any consequentials that come from them and any moneys besides that that are required will go directly to our NHS.”
This was a reminder to the Government that he did not wish to see any of the money allocated to deal with the virus in Scotland siphoned off by the SNP government to other projects that had nothing to do with it.
Ms Sturgeon said: “We are basing the decision on resilience issues and not simply on the action that we require to take to reduce the spread of the virus. It is important that we recognise that those decisions have to be informed by the science but that there are wider implications that we all have to be mindful of.
“Our emergency services, like all parts of our workforce, are likely to suffer from higher than normal sickness absence rates in the weeks and months ahead and our NHS in particular will be under significant pressure. Therefore, it is important that we protect that resilience as much as possible and reduce any unnecessary burden on those front-line workers at this stage.
“The current advice is that closing schools and universities would not be the right thing to do at this stage, so we are not recommending that.
“On the issue of yesterday’s budget, we welcome the announcements that were made specifically on coronavirus. I do not say this as a criticism—it is simply a statement of fact—but we do not yet have clarity on the allocation of resources to the Scottish Government.
“However, I give an undertaking that any money that is available for the NHS will go to the NHS. That also applies to money that is available to support businesses. Once we know what the consequentials are, they will go to those purposes. We will do everything that we can to mitigate the impact of the situation that we face.
“Lastly, on the very important issue of protective equipment [such as surgical masks], Health Protection Scotland yesterday issued revised guidance on the equipment that is required for staff, which is based on clinical and scientific evidence. We will continue to work to ensure that all services have the resources that they require.
“The safety and well-being of our NHS staff are vital at all times but, given what they now face, they are now particularly important. If any front-line health professionals out there feel that they do not have what they need, they should contact their health board. The Scottish Government will be working closely with health boards to make sure that they have what they need.”
Before the meeting closed, Dumbarton MSP, Jackie Baillie issued a plea to Ms Sturgeon to get on with or face being blamed for the consequences of not doing so.”
- A report of that item in the Q and A session is the next item in The Dumbarton Democrat.