Sometimes it’s not what you ask, it’s how you ask it.
First Minister’s Questions was all about tone. Jackson Carlaw’s line of inquiry – Covid-19 testing in care homes – was not new but his timbre was. Sharper, drier. The bonhomie was gone from his voice, and the twinkle from his eye.
This was no bad thing. The Tory leader’s impersonation of the maître d’ of a fading provincial restaurant is uncanny but not entirely appropriate for times such as these.
At turns forbidding and florid but always slightly pompous, Carlaw’s performance had grown grating of late but yesterday was another matter. It was a forensic, almost lawyerly picking apart of the Scottish Government’s record. Someone’s been watching Keir Starmer for tips.
Two weeks ago, ministers had promised all care home staff would be tested regularly. There were 50,000 care workers in Scotland. How many had been tested?
Sturgeon’s reply was ultimately a non-answer: ‘Eh… the programme of regularly and routine… eh… care home staff… eh… testing is under way and… eh… when we have the robust and reliable figures to report from that we will report that regularly.’
Carlaw retorted it was ‘difficult to believe’ widespread testing was under way. He pared at the First Minister’s answer: ‘If they were being routinely tested every week, there would be a minimum of 7,000 tests a day. Yesterday, the total number of tests done for all of Scotland was fewer than 5,000.’
She pivoted to talk about the decline in care home deaths. Again, not an answer and the dodge made her look shifty. As Carlaw put it, while the World Health Organisation called for a ‘test, test, test’ approach, Sturgeon opted for ‘dither, delay, distract’.
Labour’s Richard Leonard twisted the screw. How many elderly hospital patients dumped in care homes were tested first?
‘As I’ve said before,’ the First Minister came back, ‘we don’t yet have the data that will tell us how many older people who were discharged were tested.’
Leonard raised the case of a care worker rejected for testing despite the assurances of the Scottish Government. ‘There is a consistent disconnect,’ he added, ‘between parliamentary pronouncements and the reality facing workers in Scotland’s care homes.’
Willie Rennie put his shoulder to the wheel, too. Officials estimate that 19,000 Scots are infected with coronavirus. The Test and Protect scheme had been up and running for almost a week now. How many of those 19,000 had been tested and how many of their contacts had been traced?
Rennie lucked out, too. ‘We don’t yet have initial data from Test and Protect,’ Sturgeon replied, assuring the Lib Dem leader that the numbers would be available next week.
There was a theme emerging here. Without publication of the data, it is impossible to test the statements of the First Minister and Health Secretary against the facts and thus impossible to hold their government to account. ‘Trust us’ is a big ask for most politicians, let alone the pair blamed for the Nike conference cover-up.
Tory Peter Chapman is ordinarily a gentleman but he had lost patience with Jeane Freeman. He claimed she had ignored emails about a blind constituent trying to get an optometrist appointment. ‘Will she tell her Health Secretary to reply to her emails?’ he growled.
Sturgeon said the ‘tone of his question’ would ‘jar with the majority of people across the country’, before charging the Tories with ‘attempts to party-politicise this issue’.
Secretive, shifty, and now rattled.
MSPs welcomed Ken Macintosh back to the chair yesterday. I’m not saying First Minister’s Questions is excruciating but last week he arranged to have an appendectomy just to avoid it.
The Presiding Officer took ill last Monday and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with appendicitis and underwent keyhole surgery. Still, more pleasant than a Corporate Body meeting.