Every lunchtime, Nicola Sturgeon gives a Covid-19 briefing, customarily flanked by her health secretary and the chief medical officer. Occasionally it will feature alternative personnel such as the national clinical director, or the chief constable, but Scotland’s first minister is there, front and centre, every day.
She begins with that day’s Scottish coronavirus statistics and goes on, in detail, to indicate what advice her government is getting and how that is likely to impact on its recommendations to a locked-down public.
The media questions which follow have lately concentrated on the constitutional implications of any perceived deviation from the “four nation” strategy for dealing with the virus (in which England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have the same policy). On Thursday, however, the day the English tabloids ran headlines describing Monday as “Lockdown Freedom” day, some palpable irritation burst through.
It would have been good, Sturgeon suggested, to have learned of any proposed changes from the prime minister himself rather than from reading the front pages at midnight. It might have been useful to have been included in a Cobra meeting that day but there wasn’t one. Instead, the first minister gathered that Johnson would phone round the devolved administrations later that afternoon. Her unstated message was pretty clear – a tablet of stone from Downing Street, with the message already chiselled thereon, was no way to run a cooperative railroad.
Criticism of Sturgeon reached fairly farcical levels the day she was taken to task for recommending face masks in places where it’s difficult to observe social distancing. Much mockery ensued. Until, of course, the prime minister came up with the same advice two days later. Then the complaint changed to why she’d again pre-empted “the boss”.
It would be wrong to pretend the Scottish government has not made its own mistakes in response to this virus. Scotland too has had its share of tragedy in care homes, not least in a privately-run home on the island of Skye, in the constituency of SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford. But the government has set up a specific email hotline to deal with gaps in PPE provision. And it recently took delivery of a massive supply bought and airlifted from China.
Yet there has been a very discernible difference in tone, manner and transparency in the daily briefings. The Scottish government, having insisted it wanted a grownup conversation with the public, has published a series of papers over the weeks outlining what it has been told, and how that will inform future judgments. There has also been no apparent rift in Sturgeon’s cabinet over the economic impact of a lengthy shutdown. They insist that saving lives is the first priority.
But herein lies an uncomfortable dilemma for the devolved administrations within the UK. On issues such as job retention subsidies, they are joined at the fiscal hip to Westminster. As Scottish finance secretary, Kate Forbes, and Scottish business secretary, Fiona Hyslop, noted in a joint letter to Rishi Sunak this week, they do not themselves have the levers to operate any similar stand-alone scheme in Scotland. The stark fact is that Scotland could not keep its workforce locked up if Sunak were to scrap the Treasury’s support across the UK.
Forbes, Carlaw and Blackford.
Meanwhile there is incomprehension as to why – given the capacity for mixed messaging – we have to wait until Sunday evening before Johnson unveils his roadmap for easing the lockdown. However hard Dominic Raab tried to row back from Thursday’s headlines, nobody seriously believes the papers weren’t briefed from Downing Street.
And there’s genuine anger, too, at the suggestion that the “stay home” segment of the government’s advice slogan may be dropped. That could, argued Sturgeon, be a catastrophic error of judgment, leading to both confusion and non-compliance with other restrictions.
In addition, Scots have responded well to a daily forum that encourages debate and discussion – and where politicians are prepared to admit a lack of knowledge – rather than the repetitive recitation of mantras that is the hallmark of No 10’s daily press conferences.
A vox pop in Scotland on Thursday night underscored the credibility that Sturgeon has built up during the crisis. Almost everyone questioned suggested that they would go with whatever Sturgeon thought would keep them safe.
On this particular issue, the first minister seems to have attracted widespread trust in Scotland, and the public seem prepared to take their cue from her rather than accept the latest dictum from Downing Street. Yet that trust will be tested to the full if Johnson veers too sharply off the current messaging on Sunday night.
• Ruth Wishart is a Scottish freelance columnist and broadcaster