Zoom without zoomers: the first virtual FMQs

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Do you Zoom?

You simply must. Everyone is Zooming these days. It’s the latest in video-conferencing techno-wizardry, allowing businesses to hold meetings with quarantined staff via webcams. At least now you can mute Dave from marketing when he starts on about onboarding diversification of core verticals. 

Now Holyrood is Zooming too. Yesterday, Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh hosted the first ever Virtual First Minister’s Questions. They told us the future would be jet packs and flying cars but it turns out to be Willie Rennie beamed into your front room in a highly unnerving close-up. 

VFMQs was an improvement on the old way of doing things, mostly because technological limits meant only the party leaders could take part. Instead, we got a 40-minute long FMQs without any questions from James Dornan or John Mason. Zoom without the zoomers. 

Macintosh, chairing from his office in Thornliebank, appeared alongside the party leaders in a six-way split screen that cut back and forth as each one spoke. If you’d ever wanted to see a remake of 24 set in Richard Leonard’s front room, here was your chance. Rennie and Patrick Harvie appeared from home, too, though Jackson Carlaw was being zapped in from his parliamentary office. (His butler wouldn’t let our sort through the door anyway.)

After wishing the Prime Minister a speedy recovery, Carlaw got down to brass tacks — or, rather, the lack of them. Had there been ‘effective distribution’ of Personal Protective Equipment? ‘So many people are still contacting directly to say they don’t have it,’ he pressed. 

‘I think we do now have an effective distribution in place,’ she told him, but couldn’t promise there wouldn’t be issues here and there. ‘I have got family on the frontline of the NHS and we all want to see these workers protected properly,’ she added. 

Next the Conservative leader asked why Sainsbury’s was still waiting on the full list of vulnerable people to be prioritised for online delivery slots. The First Minister replied that there were 136,000 in the so-called shielded group and all had received letters and texts about signing up. Just under 6,000 free food packages had been ordered and 4,200 had been delivered so far. 

Aware how tough times are for businesses, Carlaw asked why Scottish firms were promised UK funding would be passed on only for grants to be limited to one per business, rather than one per outlet as in England. Sturgeon maintain that her government was ‘thinking carefully about the support we’re giving to businesses’ but didn’t account for the broken promise.

With clear, methodical questioning, Carlaw had exposed three failings in the Scottish Government’s coronavirus response. He did so without political point-scoring, which made the points all the more powerful. 

He also got this stark but inevitable statement out of Sturgeon: ’There is no likelihood of these measures being lifted after the Easter weekend.’

Leonard ventured that immediate relatives of those in hospices could be tested to allow them to visit their loved ones. Sturgeon wasn’t unsympathetic but she pointed out, tactfully, that our limited testing capacity had to be deployed ‘strategically’ and that these tests only worked if a patient was already symptomatic. 

Willie Rennie, God love him, was his usual optimistic self, averring that everyone was taking the chance to exercise more. Sturgeon eyed him sceptically: ‘I’m willing to bet you are embracing your physical exercise responsibility more enthusiastically than the rest of us.’

The Lib Dem leader asked what provision had been made for NHS staff and carers given the toll of Covid-19 on their mental health. That’s another fallout we’ll be dealing with for years to come. 

The inaugural Virtual First Minister’s Questions gave us some insight into how politicians are handling the lockdown. It also gave us a chance for a nosey around their front rooms.

It turns out Patrick Harvie and I own the same bottle-green gourd vase. One of us will have to return it now. 


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

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