Why the chief medical officer had to go

Screenshot 2020-04-06 at 12.33.26

Seldom has a public servant’s stock risen so sharply only to collapse so quickly.

For several weeks, Dr Catherine Calderwood was the public face of the Scottish Government’s response to Covid-19. In television ads urging us to ‘stay at home’, her beefy Belfast-by-way-of-Cambridge tones reassured a nervous populace with cool expertise. Scotland’s chief medical officer seemed made for a crisis and was managing this one with dedication and poise. 

Then came those photographs. It’s always baffling when the smartest people do the dumbest things, but we are all human and prone to mistakes. Dr Calderwood’s mistakes, however, made her position untenable. The First Minister told a press conference yesterday that she couldn’t do her job without the current chief medical officer, even though we now know she made two weekend jaunts to her holiday home while telling everyone else to stay indoors. 

Dr Calderwood made a litany of judgement errors and Nicola Sturgeon made a major one in standing by her. The chief medical officer failed to follow her own clinical advice. She twice put herself at risk of contracting the virus and spreading it both at her retreat in Fife and at St Andrew’s House when she next went into work. In doing so, she provoked a row that, without her resignation, would have distracted from the coronavirus fightback for some time.

The clinician’s most fundamental breach was hypocrisy. Scots will tolerate severe restrictions on their liberty when there is a sound public health basis, but not if those articulating the rules are privately flouting them. The snapshots of Dr Calderwood and her family ambling cheerfully along the Fife coast while the rest of the nation is in lockdown poked that throbbing nerve of resentment that there is one rule for the elites and another for the rest of us. You can’t have a chief medical officer who is so committed to staying at home that she can’t decide which one to stay in. 

The impression of a decision-making caste indemnified against their own decisions will only have been hardened by Jason Leitch’s defence of his colleague. The Scottish Government’s national clinical director told the BBC: ’Nobody knows those guidelines better than Catherine and the rest of us’. Catherine and the rest do know the rules; they just don’t seem to think they apply to them.

Dr Calderwood’s reckless ramble not only undermined all her previous good work, it imperilled the broad but shallow consent ministers have built up for the emergency restrictions put in place to slow transmission of Covid-19. These measures are extraordinary in their scope and unparalleled in peacetime. Families are barred from the bedsides of their dying loved ones, the dead denied the respect of a funeral service. If the chief medical officer gets an exemption to pop up to her rural bolthole, why shouldn’t the rest of us get exemptions to visit elderly parents or take cooped-up kids for a day at the beach? 

This is our second reminder in a week of how fragile is the social contract haphazardly thrown together for the age of coronavirus. The Scottish Government’s proposal to suspend the right to trial by jury, wedged into the Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill, had to be hastily yanked back out after lawyers and opposition leaders balked.

The new coronavirus contract between the state and the citizen is this: the government will take far-reaching action to safeguard your health, public services, job or business but in return you must accept equally far-reaching infringements on your personal freedoms. As the backlash against jury suspensions made clear, this compact is not without parameters. Government has its red lines and so does the public. 

I have been thinking a lot in recent days about the political philosophy classes I took at university more years ago than I am prepared to disclose. When we came to study the limits of liberty, professors and students alike were always concerned with freedom of speech or belief or association. These were the personal rights that went to the core of what it meant to be a human being. Even though the Human Rights Act’s guarantee of ‘freedom of peaceful assembly’ was qualified by exceptions for ‘public safety’ and ‘the protection of health’, few of us could imagine a scenario in which our movements would be restricted for long periods. 

Two weeks of lockdown is worth two dozen volumes of political theory. The freedom to move, to gather, to socialise and to interact with others is as intrinsic to the human experience as the right to have your say on religion, protest a law or join a union. Whether you live in a sprawling country pile or an inner-city high rise, there is a yearning that goes beyond mere restlessness to be outdoors, around nature and people, enjoying the fresh air and being in control of where you go and when.

For now most of us are prepared to have these freedoms stymied in the interests of public health. But the longer lockdown continues, the more frayed tempers will get and the thinner people’s patience will wear. 

Hardyal Dhindsa, Derbyshire’s police and crime commissioner, warned a Sunday newspaper of the danger of ‘isolation fatigue’. He said: ‘In this early phase of isolation, people’s awareness is quite high, but the longer it goes on, people’s frustration at not being able to do what they want to will grow. The real test will be in two or three weeks’ time. How long can we keep a lockdown going?’

Isolation fatigue will especially afflict the under-40s, who represent one per cent of fatalities, but are as stringently under lockdown as those 80 and over, who account for 53 per cent of deaths. Some are already beginning to question why their lives must be put on hold, and the pictures from London parks confirm that a number of young people are openly disregarding social distancing. 

Their behaviour is selfish, callous and irresponsible but in the coming weeks and months their attitude could spread to others. In those circumstances, the task of policing the quarantine and therefore halting the progress of coronavirus could prove too much for the authorities to handle. 

If times of emergency remind us of the limits of liberty, they also lay bare the limits of the state’s coercive powers. Chief constables across the UK are getting their names in the papers by issuing tough-sounding statements about zero-tolerance for those breaking the rules, but every one of them knows that even a modest outbreak of non-compliance would quickly overwhelm policing capacity. 

The late French theorist Louis Althusser, a Marxist, fretted that the police formed part of a ‘repressive state apparatus’ upholding the rule of capitalist ideology over the working classes. Louis, you should be alive today. Now it’s the rozzers’ job to keep the shops closed and the workers at home. Yet the plain fact is that, far from repressive, the police simply lack the numbers to quell multiple incidents of mass disobedience. If it gets to that, things could take an ugly turn quite quickly. 

This is why public consent is and must remain the basis for the lockdown and any further restrictions on individual freedom. It is imperative that the people trust those in charge, be willing to follow their instructions, and feel that measures are being taken solely in their interests and for the well-being of the wider community. There must be no opportunism, no power trips and no heavy-handedness. We really are all in this together. 

There must also be no double standards. The rules must apply to everyone, including those who set them. The chief medical officer not only endangered public health, she will have encouraged the UK Government to consider harsher still burdens on our personal liberty. The anger such measures would kindle could ignite in disobedience and disorder that makes coronavirus even deadlier. It is right that Dr Calderwood has resigned but now Nicola Sturgeon will have to explain why she stood by her. 


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

%d bloggers like this: