First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Labour Party leader Anas Sarwar clash at Holyrood.
By Bill Heaney
Did or didn’t the astonishing revelations of Dominic Cummings to a Westminster Select Committee reveal that Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had been every bit as incompetent in her handling of the Covid 19 pandemic as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnston?
The new Scottish Labour Party leader Anas Sarwar put the usually cool Ms Sturgeon on the back foot with this question, which is one that everyone keeps asking as this grim reaper of a virus keeps harvesting the lives of Scots who contracted the killer virus. Another four people were reported to have died today.
A Yes or No answer is almost impossible to obtain in Parliament, as Mr Sarwar had confirmed for him today in the Holyrood chamber.
He asked: “Last week, we heard damning evidence from Dominic Cummings about the United Kingdom Government’s response to Covid-19.
“He painted a picture of chaos and confusion, poor preparation and almost criminal levels of negligence that led to avoidable deaths.
“He outlined a series of failures—a lack of personal protective equipment, insufficient testing, Covid-positive patients being sent into care homes, and inconsistent and delayed decision making.
“At First Minister’s questions last week, the First Minister was rightly critical of the chaos that Dominic Cummings described, but does she accept that many of the same decisions were made in Scotland by the First Minister and the Scottish Government?”
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “I have always accepted that we made mistakes in the handling of the pandemic. I have never tried to shy away from that. I made my point last week not to point the finger at any politician but to make the general point that one of the lessons that all of us in decision-making positions should have learned over the past period—more than a year, now—is that taking quick decisions is really important.
“That applies to me just as much as it does to anyone else. We have sought to learn lessons as we go and as our understanding and knowledge about the virus have developed, and we have candidly said that we perhaps made mistakes in how we did things in the early part of the pandemic. I have been candid about that.
“There will be, as is right and proper, a process of full and robust scrutiny of that, both in the interest of accountability, which is important, and in the interest of learning lessons for the future, because we need to make sure that the lessons of the pandemic are there for future generations—hopefully, none of us will have to deal with another pandemic—to use.
“All of these things are important and I have not and will not shy away from the responsibility that I bear for every aspect of the handling of the pandemic.”
Anas Sarwar said though: “I recognise what she says about the importance of making good decisions quickly. Today, we are publishing a timeline comparison that shows that, at key moments and on the big decisions, the UK and Scottish Governments were in lockstep.
“It is important to stress that none of that was the fault of our hard-working national health service and care staff. What we are questioning is the Scottish Government’s decision making.
“In early March 2020, both Governments were talking about a herd immunity strategy. On 12 March, 47,000 fans attended a European football match in Glasgow; that same day, the Scottish Government said that stopping mass gatherings was not the best way to contain the virus—11 days later, they were made illegal by both Governments
“Untested and Covid-positive patients were being sent into care homes. The UK Government announced routine testing on 15 April; the Scottish Government waited until 21 April. The result was one in 10 of our care home residents in Scotland losing their life to Covid—that was not a “protective ring”. That was 3,774 deaths—a third of the total. Does the First Minister agree that those decisions were made in Scotland by the First Minister and the Scottish Government?”
The First Minister replied facetiously: “I am glad for Anas Sarwar that he has the time to do timelines. There is nothing that he has just told me that I do not know, and there is nothing that I have sought to shy away from.
“I lived through that period as the lead decision maker in the Scottish Government. I take responsibility for all the decisions and I have never tried to shy away from that. I will live with the consequences of those decisions for as long as I live, and those decisions will be subject to serious scrutiny. That is right and proper.
“We sought, all along, to do the right thing, based on the knowledge and the understanding that we had. In the light of developing knowledge, if we could turn the clock back, we would do some of these things differently. In addition, as I have said all along, we will have made straightforward mistakes, and I will forever regret any mistakes that we made.
“I do not know what point Anas Sarwar is seeking to prove. I have taken responsibility and will continue to take responsibility. Every single day of the pandemic, I have done my level best to get the decisions right.
“If I could turn the clock back, would we go into lockdown earlier than we did? Yes, I think that we would. We moved on mass gatherings and we announced the position on schools slightly before the UK Government did. When we look at the different pandemic curves, we see that, although we went into lockdown on the same day as the rest of the UK, it was slightly ahead of the pandemic curve for Scotland.
“If I could turn the clock back, there are many things that I would love to have the opportunity to do differently. Of course, the irony is that many of the same people who criticised me—perfectly legitimately—for not acting quickly enough or for not being cautious enough at an earlier stage often criticise me now for being too cautious and going too slowly in lifting lockdown restrictions. That is what comes with the responsibilities of this job. I am not complaining about that, but this is not an easy situation for anybody to be in. I will continue, as I have done from day one, to take the best decisions that I can, and I will never shy away from the responsibility for that.”
Anas Sarwar responded initially to the Sturgeon jibe about timelines – “I am not sure why the First Minister is critical of our development of a timeline. I would hope, given the scale of the civil service, that there would be a Scottish Government timeline of decision making, so that we can learn from and not repeat mistakes.”
Large events matter. On the day that we had 47,000 fans in Glasgow, Ireland was announcing an end to large gatherings. Herd immunity matters, because New Zealand took a very different approach and had very different outcomes. A University of Edinburgh study has shown that, if Scotland had acted earlier, we could have prevented 2,000 Covid deaths. Those are important points that we should be bringing to the chamber and asking Scotland’s Government to respond to.
I gave three examples of decisions that were made in Scotland, on strategy, mass gatherings and care homes. I could have given more, such as a failure to have adequate PPE supplies, a failure to adequately ramp up testing, a failure to introduce strict testing and quarantine at our airports, and ineffective contact tracing.
NHS and social care staff, and the Scottish people, deserve more than just rhetoric—they deserve answers. They deserve more than being told that the Government cares—they deserve answers. We cannot allow Scottish exceptionalism to stop us from learning critical lessons. It is always easier to focus on failures elsewhere. We must learn from mistakes here, at home. We do not need to wait for the UK Government. Work can begin right now to establish a judge-led, Scotland-specific public inquiry into the decisions that were made in Scotland. Surely, after everything that she has just said in her answers, the First Minister agrees with that.
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “People can make up their own minds whether what they hear from me is an inability to face up to mistakes or Scottish exceptionalism. What people hear from me is a candid admission that, like many other Governments across the world, we have not got everything right, and they hear a willingness and a desire to face up to that and to learn from it.
“I could paper the walls with timelines, but my focus now as First Minister is on delivering the vaccination programme to keep people safe in future and on ensuring that we take the right decisions, although we are criticised by many for being too cautious and too slow, to keep people safe because we could be at the start of a third wave of the virus. That is my responsibility as First Minister. Of course we have lessons to learn—I have never said otherwise. Perhaps Anas Sarwar is saying that, if he had been standing here back then, he would have got everything right. Who knows? Perhaps he would have done, but I suspect that, like everyone else, he would have grappled with those difficult decisions.
“I have given a commitment to a judge-led public inquiry. That commitment stands. I want to see the inquiry up and running before the end of this year. The UK Government has announced plans for a public inquiry and has asked for four-nations discussion about its remit and about where there might be overlaps. I usually get encouraged by Labour members to take part in constructive four-nations discussions. We have agreed to do that. The commitment to a public inquiry is there and is firm and strong. I think that I was the first of the UK First Ministers to make that commitment.
“I have led the country to the best of my ability—far from perfectly—through the pandemic. I, as much as anyone, want to ensure that we learn the right lessons. It is very easy when you are not the one taking the decisions and when you have the benefit of hindsight—if I was in opposition, I would no doubt do the same—to tell us what we should have done. When you are taking decisions in the moment, you have to act on the basis of the best information and advice that you have. That is what we have done. We will learn lessons. We will be judged. We have just been judged on our leadership of this so far in the election. We will be judged with full scrutiny, but my focus now is on continuing to lead the country as best I can through an on-going pandemic.”