Columnist Brian Wilson; a nurse on  the frontline and reporter Samantha Poling.

There was an excellent BBC Scotland programme this week with Samantha Poling reporting from the ‘Pandemic Frontline’.

It gave a rare voice to people working on that frontline and the picture painted was worlds removed from the podium-based version with which we have become familiar.

The Scottish Government fielded the ubiquitous Professor Jason Leitch and it would be fair to say it was not his finest hour. Faced with first-hand accounts from the frontline, his preferred response was denial.

The Director of Care at Erskine Home for ex-servicemen, Derek Barron, related his experiences of having to resort to eBay for PPE.  Professor Leitch retorted: “They didn’t have to do that. There is no reason for a care home to buy PPE from eBay”.

Caring at Erskine.

That left the question hanging of why Erskine’s Director of Care would go onto eBay if the alternative existed of phoning a number in Scotland with a supply delivered to his door. It did not seem probable.

Then Ms Polling, on the basis of interviews, put it to Professor Leitch that staff were “terrified” of going into work, for fear of taking the virus with them.  “I walk the floors of the Health Service,” he responded. “I don’t hear that”.

I appreciate the pressures but it did not augur well for the much-vaunted “grown-up conversation”.  Evidence versus denial with little follow-through since channels of accountability are so constrained leaves a dichotomy. Most of us rely on the official line while the frontline knows different.

At First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon stated: “The overall number of deaths from the virus in care homes in Scotland is broadly in line with some of the international evidence”.  Whether true or not, it is hardly the point. The question is whether things could have been, and now can be, done better?

The rationale on testing remains, to me, a mystery. In the face of international evidence, its significance was consistently downplayed at both UK and Scottish levels. Barely a fifth of Scottish care workers have been tested. If it is a good idea to “ramp-up” now, why was it “a diversion” before?

The same questions can be asked of Matt Hancock and Jeane Freeman, but it is the latter who has responsibility in Scotland – and that responsibility is non-transferable.

When all this is eventually inquired into, one crucial question is how effectively, or otherwise, the powers of devolution have been utilised – i.e. the potential to do things differently while remaining in harmony.

The Scottish Government was entitled to take its own approach to this crisis. Covid19 arrived later than in England. We do not have a mega-city like London. Vast areas are sparsely populated which is part of why we get so much more to spend on the NHS.

Yet we seem to have an uncomfortable mix from Ministers of taking refuge where things have not gone well, notably on testing and PPE, in saying they acted on a “four nations basis” while creating difference through the odd bit of gesture politics like the stuff on masks (or is it scarves?).

It is often forgotten that devolution, nowhere more than in the NHS, existed long before Holyrood was heard of. One spectacular example was in 1997 when Sam Galbraith, as pre-devolution Health Minister, set about abolishing the internal NHS market without regard to what was happening south of the border.

I am pretty sure Sam, if he was still with us, would have said at the outset of this crisis – just like his old mate, Harry Burns –  that testing and tracing were the keys and they could do what they liked down south but that was what he would be prioritising in Scotland.

That confidence no longer exists, largely because every point of difference or sameness is overlaid with polarised calculations around the constitutional issue which distorts basic questions of what is best and right.

In this crisis, the answers might well have been different in Scotland but the political paradox is that there is nobody who carries the authority to say so.


A press clip reminded me that, 25 years ago this week, I was speaking along with Charles Kennedy at an anti-rail privatisation meeting in Kyle of Lochalsh.

At that time, as Labour’s spokesman, I was addressing huge meetings  from Penzance to Wick, often in places which certainly did not vote Labour but did value their rail services. Happy days!

In the short-term, the campaign failed and the railways were flogged off to the likes of Souter and Branson. I took solace from the reputational damage inflicted on John Major’s government which contributed significantly to the 1997 election result.

My abiding lesson from these days on the tracks was that while privatisation was ideological, rail fragmentation was much worse – dangerous and extraordinarily expensive as lawyers and accountants gorged themselves on contracts and disputes.

The point about danger quickly led to privatised Railtrack returning to public ownership as Network Rail. The fantasy of a competitive railway crumbled as one franchisee after another went bust, after pocketing the swag.  Most franchises are now held in whole or part by state railways – of other European countries!

It has been a long journey but the last stop is approaching. Since Covid19, all revenue and cost risk has been transferred to government.  Even before then, a model was being designed in which operators will become concessionaires – i.e. running trains for a fee on the public sector’s behalf – rather than the swashbuckling entrepreneurs of privatisation mythology.

So maybe we can start again on with the destination of a state-owned railway on a par with its continental counterparts; an objective with which even that defrocked high priest of privatisation, Michael Portillo, might now concur.

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