Alison through the looking-glass

Alison Johnstone 10:6:2020

Alison Johnstone knows how to handle herself.

The Greens’ co-leader turned in another assured performance at First Minister’s Questions on the issue of testing in care homes and hospitals.

Burnishing her reputation for sharp interrogation, she pressed the First Minister over scientific advice on testing. This isn’t the most thrilling subject for FMQs but the Lothian MSP had a clear target: the Scottish Government’s ever-shifting attitude to expert advice.

Ministers had ‘initially resisted the principle of testing individuals without symptoms’ but were now expanding testing.

What changed?

And what about the all-singing, all-dancing, all-importantly Scottish expert panel she had made such a fuss over in the early days of the crisis?

Johnstone was stony: ‘Does the First Minister have advice that the science, which supports regular testing in care homes, is not relevant to our hospitals? The testing capacity is already in place to do it. Is the First Minister waiting until the UK Government advises her to do it?’

Nicola Sturgeon mugged for the cameras. ‘I am not sure whether I followed the thread of that question,’ she replied, not terribly convincingly. ‘I was not sure whether Alison Johnstone was criticising us for following advice that comes from SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies].’

The patronising response was a telling deflection. Her government had adopted a stance on testing at odds with the World Health Organisation while boasting of its reliance on science. The truth, which we certainly didn’t get from Sturgeon in the chamber, is likely that ministers knew they lacked the capacity to adopt routine testing early on.

Since then, Sturgeon has got into the routine of adopting Downing Street policy two weeks after it is announced. Boris Johnson should try announcing his opposition to Scottish independence.

Alison Johnstone knows how to needle the SNP leader while appearing eminently reasonable. As she put it, candidly: ‘There seems to be a worrying lack of urgency in testing for this potentially life-threatening disease.’

This bluntness, particularly because it comes from the left and not those wicked Unionists, is politically useful in setting Johnstone apart. It makes clear she’s her own woman and just because they see eye to eye on the constitution, doesn’t mean she will kowtow to big sister. Other Green MSPs could learn from this approach. Those whose names begin with ‘Patrick’ and end with ‘Of Course, Nicola’.

Johnstone’s adversarial style is especially virtuous at the present time. A government intractably secretive and hostile to accountability now has all our lives in its hands, deciding our movements, work patterns, even whether we can attend loved ones’ funerals.

Tory leader Jackson Carlaw gave it his best shot, too. He was also prodding the emoter-in-chief about what her warm words meant in practice for care homes.

‘Ministers need to get a grip of the situation and they need to do it now,’ he sizzled. ‘The time for promising is over – it is long past time to fully deliver.’

Would the First Minister commit to ‘a hard deadline’ for the promised 50,000 tests for care home residents and staff? Sturgeon said she would consider it but defended the current regime as ‘robust and sustainable’.

Carlaw’s comeback was certainly robust: ‘Why is the story that we hear in the daily press conferences in Edinburgh so different to what we are picking up on the ground, where it matters?’

That went down well. Carlaw, his sparring partner swung back, was making ‘unsubstantiated claims about the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak’ and ‘engaging simply in party politicking’. Something you’d never have caught Sturgeon doing in opposition.

The First Minister expects a deference from political parties in Holyrood that her MPs wouldn’t dream of showing in Westminster. She’s all for government being held to account as long as it’s not her own.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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