How Sturgeon defended then dumped her chief medical officer

Screenshot 2020-04-06 at 12.38.58

Her resignation came eventually, late last night, but until then Dr Catherine Calderwood had intended to continue in post.

On Sunday, as she arrived for the daily briefing on coronavirus, there was one question on everyone’s lips: Is there a doctor in the house, and which house is she in? 

This was no routine check-up. The chief medical officer was facing the cameras for the first time since photographs emerged of her enjoying a jolly weekend at her holiday home in the middle of the Covid outbreak. No wonder you can never get a doctor’s appointment these days. 

Before her arrival, Dr Calderwood had already been defended, then forced to apologise, had the wagons circled around her, and the Old Bill at the door. On social media, members of the public were giving her their second opinion — and third and fourth and many more. They were stuck at home watching Escape to the Country, she was out doing it. The doctor’s patients had some bad news for her: they wanted her gone.

Then, at 2.30 pm, she filed into the briefing room at the recommended distance behind the Health Secretary and the First Minister. Each took her place at an assigned podium. Jeane Freeman looked relaxed and was silent throughout. When the brickbats are flying in someone else’s direction, keep your head down and thank your good luck.

Along a little the First Minister peered grimly at the sheet of journalists’ names. There were a dozen or so down to grill the woman standing to her right.

Dr Calderwood also stared at a piece of paper, giving one last read to whatever apology had been drafted for her by the spin doctors. The medic appeared calm given the circumstances. That kind of composure can make you look in charge; it can also make you look aloof. Aloof, when ICU admissions and death tolls were about to be read out. There was no chance of this going well. 

The First Minister announced those totals but for once the figures — almost 200 in intensive care, 220 dead overall — did not send the reporters into a frenetic burst of keyboard-jabbing. All waited for the story for which they were beaming in via video link-up.

The time came for Sturgeon to address the elephant two metres away from her. The chief medical officer had ‘made a mistake’ — ‘she was wrong and she knows that’. Sturgeon trained her eye on the invisible audience before her. Her features were drawn, as though her facial fury muscles had experienced a thorough workout in the past 12 hours. 

Whatever rage she felt at Dr Calderwood’s weekend walkabout, Sturgeon stood by her. ‘Her advice and expertise have been invaluable to me and continue to be so,’ she averred. ‘I need her to be able to focus on the job that she is doing,’ the First Minister continued, a job she said Dr Calderwood was doing ‘extremely well’. A bold performance evaluation given the circumstances but Sturgeon must have figured that losing her top health adviser in the middle of a pandemic would have hurt her more than putting up with some disobliging headlines for a few days. That calculation now looks naive, ill-conceived and frankly political. 

When we got to hear from Dr Calderwood herself, her countenance was serious and a hint of a tremor entered her voice once but emotion was minimal. She began by stating that she had done this before — twice in ten days. All her weeks of effort against coronavirus seemed to evaporate in an instant. Florence Nightingale had turned into Typhoid Mary.

Dr Calderwood spoke the language of remorse in the flat, steady tone of a printer. She regurgitated some of the comments directed at her on Twitter: ‘People are calling me a hypocrite, people have told me that I’m irresponsible and that I have behaved as if my advice does not apply to me.’ 

‘I am sorry and it will not happen again,’ she whirred. It was ‘a fundamental mistake’; ‘I cannot justify it,’ she buzzed. 

Sturgeon attempted to spin the incident as a teachable moment about how the rules applied to everyone, including the chief medical officer. This was red meat to ITV News’s Peter Smith, who tore into Dr Calderwood in a terrier-like interrogation: ’You may have the confidence of the First Minister but I would put it to you that the majority of this country has lost confidence in you. We need a leader, an expert that we can believe in. So why on Earth do you think you can be the public face of a message to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives?’

For the first time, Calderwood looked a little shaken, but the printer just fed out the same lines. Sturgeon was visibly irate. But a chief medical officer who jaunts off to the seaside more often than Judith Chalmers while keeping the rest of us under quarantine had forfeited the public’s confidence. She had to go and finally she did.

But this row isn’t over. Sturgeon said she couldn’t do her job without Calderwood’s counsel. What conclusions are the public to draw from that? 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

%d bloggers like this: