Sturgeon has no credibility on Covid

OPINION: As Scotland is named coronavirus capital of Europe, First Minister must take responsibility for her failings.

Between rhetoric and delivery lies the credibility gap.

The faster and more convincingly action follows talk, the narrower that gap. The public is not necessarily interested in the details of how a policy was designed or achieved; they just want to be confident that the country is being run competently.

The interval between what Nicola Sturgeon says and what she does grows wider by the day. The First Minister has repeatedly claimed the virus is being managed better in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK. However, the World Health Organisation says six of the ten Covid-19 hotspots in Europe are located north of the border.

NHS Scotland's Test and Protect app was hailed as a great success, in contrast to the troubled Test and Trace version down south. Thanks to the Indian variant, Scotland's app is, by the Scottish government's own admission, 'straining' and standards are being lowered to help the system cope.

For months, the health service has been said to be reopening for the treatment of non-Covid conditions. Except the number of Scots waiting longer than a year for hospital treatment has doubled and some women are waiting up to six months for cervical smears.

Since the pandemic hit and the First Minister became a daily fixture in our homes, she has basked in praise from all quarters for her leadership. But as leadership has come to require something more than confident media performances, as it has become something measured in much harder and faster metrics, the Sturgeon shine has begun to fade.

A pandemic has three main stages: mitigation, vaccination and recovery. While communication is important in the latter two, it is intrinsic to the first stage. Mitigation is as much about embedding a pandemic consciousness as it is about encouraging specific measures like face-masking, social distancing or staying at home.

People need to know what is happening, what it means, how it will affect them, what is being done on their behalf and what they can do for themselves. Good communication can disrupt the spread of a virus by encouraging us to factor the threat into our everyday decision-making. It coaches us to think like survivors.

Nicola Sturgeon was a powerhouse communicator in the early months of the pandemic and it remains her strength today. She understands better than almost any other politician how Scottish people think and talk, and inflects her rhetoric with subtle tones and tics so that her words sound less like those of a government minister and more like a familiar, if well-informed, acquaintance.

Her plea at one briefing last week for Scots to ‘keep the heid’ was no spontaneous slip into slang. The First Minister knows that the patter of the street can carry a message much farther than public health jargonese.

She doesn’t always get the messaging right. Recall how the First Minister branded ‘Stay Alert’, the UK Government’s slogan, ‘vague and imprecise’ before introducing her own version, ‘Stay Safe’. Last March, the Scottish government’s position on closing schools went from national clinical director Jason Leitch’s ‘absolute guarantee’ of ‘no plan right now’ on March 13 to the announcement of school closures on March 18.

Ditto with reopening classrooms, which changed from ‘playing with the public health of individuals’, in the words of then education secretary John Swinney, to Scottish government policy in the space of 11 days.

Note, however, that these snafus mostly remained at the level of political backroom chat. On the broad themes, which is how most punters encounter the words of a First Minister, she was generally smooth, assured and fluent.

Where she hit trouble was the point at which communication was not enough. This was in evidence even during the mitigation stage, with medics handed expired PPE (because the Scottish Government had ignored repeated warnings about shortages), supermarkets having to wait for lists of shielding shoppers and thousands wrongly advised to shield.

The transfer of elderly patients, some untested and some Covid-positive, into care homes full of equally vulnerable people was as clueless as it was callous. The Scottish government was late to embrace care home testing, schools testing, mass testing — and support from the British Army proved vital. Sturgeon could convince Scots to adapt their behaviour to the virus but getting her government to adapt to it proved a more demanding task. The moment a TV camera switches on, she can work a bewitching magic but off-camera she struggles to conjure the more mundane trick of pushing Button A and securing Outcome A in response.

This problem became more pronounced when Scotland entered the vaccine stage. Last November, when most were bounding with optimism at the news the UK Government was snapping up tens of millions of doses of the new AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, I made the unwelcome point that ‘securing a vaccine is one thing, successfully administering it is another’. It didn’t matter how often court commentators hailed the First Minister's management of the pandemic, the arrival of the vaccine would be the real test.

The First Minister used her pulpit to preach the virtues of vaccination but, once again, the delivery fell short of her rhetoric. Former health secretary Jeane Freeman pledged one million vaccinations by the end of January, yet the 31st came and went without the target being met.

Central to vaccination is the trade-off between sacrifices made and liberties restored and on this Sturgeon’s powers of public relations have only carried her so far. The current spike in infections in Scotland can be traced at least in part to the decision by tens of thousands of football fans to travel to London for a Euro 2020 match against England, a fixture for which many did not have a ticket.

Last week, Public Health Scotland said it had traced almost 2,000 new cases to Scotland fans who gathered to watch the nil-nil draw, two-thirds of them supporters on the ground in the capital. The current spike — what we might call the Tartan Army variant — is the result of allowing this to happen.

Now, ministers say they discouraged supporters from travelling to Wembley but none of us is so wet behind the ears that we don’t understand how politics works. Compare ministerial reproach for Rangers supporters who assembled in Glasgow in May to celebrate their team’s 55th title with the admonitions used to address the Tartan Army and it is not difficult to discern the difference in tone.

Some Rangers fans see personal animus in this but it really comes down to politics. It cost ministers nothing politically to condemn rule-breaking Old Firm supporters, but levelling equally forceful language against followers of the national squad would have been more problematic.

The First Minister was fit to be tied last July when Boris Johnson said there was no border between Scotland and England. Public health was her responsibility, Sturgeon said, and she would take any measure necessary to protect Scots from further infections. If this had meant anything more than political bluster, travel to Wembley would either have been wholly proscribed, or limited to ticket-holders required to self-quarantine upon their return.

The border that Sturgeon pledged to defend would have been policed to prevent the mass migration to London that we eventually saw, and with it the scenes of thousands of Scots crammed into Leicester Square, nary a mask in sight, and hardly two inches let alone two metres between one reveller and another.

Everyone understands the passion of those fans and why they wanted to follow the national side, but it was the responsibility of the First Minister to explain why they couldn’t and then to enforce that. She didn’t because that would have involved a hard decision. Nicola Sturgeon likes talking about hard decisions much more than she does taking them.

After all, these were football fans travelling in close quarters, getting drunk and singing and chanting themselves hoarse before journeying back home and into the general population. It’s not as if they were a serious threat like kindergarteners holding a graduation ceremony.

In a pandemic, decisions have very definite consequences. A WHO European hotspot list made up mostly of Scottish regions (namely Tayside, Lothian, Greater Glasgow, Ayrshire and Arran, Lanarkshire and Fife) is one of them. This list did not spring from nowhere. It is the bitter fruit of poor management, governmental failure and a First Minister more interested in picking fights with the mayor of Greater Manchester than in keeping her eye on the ball in her own back yard. Nicola Sturgeon is learning that there are some things you can’t talk your way out of.

The gap between the First Minister’s rhetoric and her record of delivery is only going to grow when we enter the recovery phase. This will be when results matter the most and communications the least, when the public expects to see things going back to normal rather than hear more soundbite excuses for why they are not. This is the essence of Sturgeon’s credibility gap: when rhetoric is required, she delivers; when delivery is required, she has only rhetoric.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on July 5, 2021.

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