Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted to have ‘a grown-up conversation’ with us. That didn’t sound good. Politicians are never candid if they can help it.
But when the entire country has been turned into a minimum-security prison – one hour of exercise and the occasional day release to Tesco – keeping mum is not an option.
‘A return to normal is not on the cards anytime soon,’ she stated at yesterday’s media briefing. If the current restrictions were lifted too early there was ‘a real risk that Covid-19 runs rampant again’.
Social distancing would be ‘a fact of life for a long time to come’. The rest of this year, at least. Maybe longer.
Matter-of-factly she added: ‘I can’t stand here and promise you it’s going to get a whole lot easier soon.’
Each sentence fell like a blow. If lockdown has you skull-hollow bored but not quite so bored as to tune in to these daily briefings, understand that they are not sunshine and lollipops affairs.
But they generally deal with technical matters: infection figures, hospital admissions, statistical methodology updates. This one was about the horizon and how far away it is.
Sturgeon was blunt. Mass quarantine was ‘doing harm to the economy and living standards’ but it had to be done because of ‘R’.
Here came an impromptu science lesson. ‘R’ is what epidemiologists call the basic reproductive number: the rate at which one person spreads Covid-19 to others. The experts’ estimate was that, prior to lockdown, everyone who caught coronavirus passed it on to three others.
To get a contagion like this under control, Sturgeon explained, you need an R number as far below one as possible. Scotland, in the best case scenario, was currently between R0.6 and R1.
I never liked science at school and this is why. Science’s idea of hope always involves a decimal point and a margin of error.
The First Minister told us to ready ourselves for a ‘new normal’. How gratingly buzzwordish is that phrase, how ominously ubiquitous, and yet how glumly inevitable.
‘New normal’ is where we’re going to spend the next few years and soon enough we will yearn to be as abnormal as can be. Sturgeon’s expression was firm and her cadence sober. She is the one who must tell an entire country it cannot hug its grandparents.
The strain isn’t showing yet but it’s there. In an unguarded moment, and in response to a question from the BBC’s Glenn Campbell, she shared a private doubt: ‘If you’d asked me a month ago or so if I was confident that people would comply as well as they have with the lockdown, I might have said I hoped so but inside I’m not sure I would have been as confident.’
When Henry IV laments that ‘nature’s soft nurse’ soothes his poorest subjects but will not ‘weight my eyelids down/ And steep my senses in forgetfulness’, he isn’t being a self-pity merchant.
The head that wears a crown in times like these must lie very uneasy indeed.
Asked if she would keep families apart over Christmas, Sturgeon’s steady tone tore up a rough road.
‘I’m not cancelling Christmas, okay?’ She felt ‘no irritation or frustration at the media’, she claimed, but she plainly did.
No politician wants to sound like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (‘…and call off Christmas!’) but, she conceded, while ‘Christmas will happen’, it ‘may happen slightly differently’ this year.
The Mail’s Rachel Watson observed that the former chief medical officer had given an overall number of Covid-19 infections a month ago: 65,000, to wit.
What was that number now? Sturgeon refused to give ‘precise numbers’. We had to wait for data, not rely on ‘extrapolations’.
The answer hung there with an unsatisfying grumble. You cannot turn frank conversation on and off when it suits.
Talk to us like grown-ups, First Minister, and we’ll have grown-up questions for you.