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The Sturgeon paradox: Why is the Scottish minister facing the same criticisms as the PM?

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - JUNE 3: Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon attends First Ministers Questions at Holyrood on June 3, 2020 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Fraser Bremner-Pool/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

The Scottish first minister is considered to have had a ‘good crisis’ yet is facing many of the same criticisms as Boris Johnson. Maurice Smith reports.

The polls are looking good for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP. Three months into the Covid-19 crisis and despite louder concerns over the length and depth of the lockdown, the first minister looks like a shoo-in for a record-breaking term in charge at Holyrood.

Monthly surveys on voting intentions consistently predict a majority of seats for the SNP in next year’s Scottish election. Fresh from winning a large majority of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats last December there has even been a minor boost in support for independence, reaching 52% in an early June survey by Survation.

Perception is everything in politics. Sturgeon is perceived to have had ‘a good crisis’. Her handling of Covid-19 since March is compared positively to that of Boris Johnson. Where the latter has floundered and changed course, a stern Sturgeon has been consistent in her apparent sticking to scientific guidance and allowing only a cautious relaxation of the rules.

So far, so positive. The question arising is not whether the SNP will win a majority next May, but how big that majority might be. The Conservatives remain a distant second, and may slip back behind Labour.

Last month YouGov found that 71% of Scots had ‘a lot or fair amount’ of confidence in Sturgeon’s ability to
’make the right decisions’ on coronavirus, compared to just 40% for Johnson.

Her daily updates to press and public are televised live, where audiences witness a deadly serious woman in clear command of her cabinet, and the situation; indeed, in command of her country.

And yet there are questions about that record. The Scottish government – which, to all intents and purposes means Sturgeon, such is her control – has failed so far to explain adequately why the details of a February Covid-19 outbreak in a central Edinburgh hotel were not disclosed until later.

Twenty five people attending an international conference by Nike were infected as a result of the event, which took place on February 26 and 27. Eight of them lived in Scotland. Apart from Nike delegates, there were others who came in contact, including hotel staff and fellow guests at the Hilton Edinburgh Carlton.

The first infection was confirmed to health authorities on March 2, but the information was not made public. On March 4 the administration confirmed that there were two cases in Scotland, without reference to the Nike event. On March 8, thousands of rugby fans converged on Edinburgh for a Scotland v France international. Three days later the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic.

Scotland’s first confirmed death came on March 13, and the UK-wide lockdown commenced 10 days later. The Nike conference outbreak was only revealed by a BBC investigative report on May 11 – more than 10 weeks after the event.

Labour has alleged a cover-up, something the SNP has denied angrily, citing ‘patient confidentiality’ for the failure to disclose. The insidious nature of the virus is illustrated well by this single incident: two Nike employees allegedly took the infection back to the Netherlands. Another returned home to England and passed on the virus at a children’s party in Newcastle.

Newspapers have alleged that the Nike group was split into groups for a walking tour of Edinburgh’s Old Town. They performed a ‘Nike Haka’ in the hotel foyer. Staff at a kilt hire shop visited by some say they were not tracked or tested as a result of the outbreak. Neither were 20 Bank of Scotland staff who stayed at the same hotel.

The other serious charge to be laid at the door of the Sturgeon government concerns the spread of Covid-19 within Scottish care homes. In essence, the accusation is that in its single-minded pursuit of protection for the NHS in Scotland, the government neglected the care sector. Elderly patients sent back from hospitals spread infections to care home residents and staff. There was little protective clothing (PPE) for staff and testing came too late.

Tony Banks, chairman of the Balhousie Care Group, which runs 26 homes in Scotland, said his sector had experienced ‘three months of mixed messages, mismanagement and missed opportunities by the Scottish government’. He claimed that in Scotland ‘the rate of Covid-19-related care home deaths is one of the highest in Europe’.

If these issues – starting late to lockdown, shortage of PPE, haphazard testing and the dreadful experience of care homes – seem familiar to readers in England, they should.

For the criticism emerging in Scotland has been heard loudly south of the border, and aimed rightly at the Johnson government whose management of Covid-19 has been so open to question. For all the peripheral differences in approach, the Scottish and Westminster governments have taken essentially similar steps to this crisis.

The difference has been in perception. Sturgeon’s control of the pandemic narrative has been firm, her judgment rarely questioned.

She enjoys a dominant position in parliament, where her opposition remains fragmented, and benefits from a weakening of the press in Scotland, where newspapers particularly are losing out to competitive pressure on all fronts.

That word ‘enjoy’ has a recent frisson in Scottish circles. BBC’s Scotland editor Sarah Smith – during a live ‘two-way’ from Glasgow – said that Sturgeon ‘has enjoyed the opportunity to set her own lockdown rules and not have to follow what’s happening in England or other parts of the UK’.

Those words ‘enjoyed the opportunity’ can be taken in two ways. It is a turn of phrase and to many viewers would have been innocuous. But the SNP reaction was swift and over-played. An SNP media apparatchik, Erik Geddes, tweeted that Smith’s comment had been ‘shameful’. Cabinet member Fiona Hyslop joined in, saying ‘not only is that disgraceful editorialising and plain wrong, it is also disrespectful of all those suffering because of Covid’. An angry response from Sturgeon herself followed quickly: ‘Never in my entire political career have I ‘enjoyed’ anything less than this… My heart breaks every day for all those who have lost loved ones to this virus.’

This tweet triggered an inevitable ‘pile-on’ of criticism of the BBC generally and Smith in particular. For some SNP supporters the fact that Smith is the daughter of the late Labour leader John Smith and therefore part of the party’s former ‘ruling class’ in Scotland, does not help. The BBC confirmed later that it had received more than 4,500 complaints.

Sturgeon can rely on that kind of knee-jerk support from SNP loyalists, primed as they are to defend leader and party at all costs and on any issue. Some complain if a journalist refers to the first minister as ‘Sturgeon’ rather than by her first name or title, without recognising that this is a standard style of media presentation.

But the polls rarely lie. Whatever the truth of the Nike conference affair, or the tragic consequences of the care homes disaster, which affected lives throughout the UK, the SNP rides high and may continue to do so until next May.

Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon are poles apart in terms of leadership style. But they are both populists in their own way. Johnson is weak on detail and particularly on the economy, a subject he is happy to leave to his advisers and the Treasury. Strictly speaking, the prime minister has never had to worry about balance sheets or to work out exactly how businesses drive jobs and profits.

Sturgeon’s short-comings are a little similar. A lawyer by training, she has spent much of her adult life in politics. She took to running the Scottish response to Covid-19 comfortably, given her previous role as health minister for more than seven years. Her hold on economic matters is reputedly less sure. Business, and particular the food and drink, tourism and hospitality sectors, is lobbying hard for her to relax the lockdown quickly.

The construction sector has reacted in despair to the fact that building work has recommenced in England, but remains on hold north of the border. Other industries are restless too.

Tony Banks, the care homes boss, is no angry Tory having a go at the SNP. In fact, he was a prominent Yes campaigner in the 2014 independence referendum who recently urged Sturgeon to push for a second independence poll.

The referendum issue is serious for Sturgeon and the SNP. Do they go into next year’s election with a manifesto that demands a second poll? If they win does that mean their voters actually want independence? Just as this article began with the cliché about perception being everything, it finishes with another: only time will tell.

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