Scots, or at least those I encounter at a two-metre distance, are growing scunnered with lockdown.
The impositions grand and petty on everyday life. The endless changes to increasingly unintelligible rules. The glum dawning that it’s going to be like this until a vaccine is manufactured.
We are fortunate, of course, those of us who haven’t been struck down by this contagion. Many have lost their lives, friends or loved ones. The restrictions are there to stop more people succumbing to Covid-19. Pandemics must be controlled before they can be eradicated.
Even so, lockdown is not an ideal solution, bringing with it deadly tolls on physical and mental health. For some of us, breaking point seems perilously near. No less important is the health of our liberties, which are placed in a coma and revived again as public health authorities deem appropriate.
Indoor and outdoor gatherings have been cut to six, while the rules are even more draconian on the 1.7 million people living in Glasgow, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire and West Dunbartonshire.
It is imperative that we contain coronavirus, but it is imperative too that our containment strategy works — not only against the virus but in its wider impact. That the easing of contact rules has had to be reversed for the whole nation and one-third of Scots placed under even more stringent lockdown suggests the systems currently in place failed or were overwhelmed. We need to understand why, and how to avoid another failure when the regulations are loosened up a second time.
Given these faults, the knock-on effects on health, and the damage visited upon the economy and personal freedoms, it is no longer tenable to keep doing things the way we have been.
The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations lack the necessary checks and balances on the First Minister, who has been vested with extraordinary, almost monarchical, powers. (The regulations don’t grant this authority solely to the First Minister but under the reign of Nicola Sturgeon the phrase ‘the Scottish Ministers’ is decidedly singular.)
If we are to keep up this hokey-cokey lockdown in which we are in, out and our lives shaken all about, then it can’t be on the whim of a solitary politician.
The regulations should be amended to require that the Scottish parliament vote on each new schedule of restrictions (or lifting of restrictions). Practically, the outcome will be the same because, instead of a properly functioning legislature, Scotland has Holyrood.
SNP backbenchers will fulfil their constitutional role as the nodding Churchill dog that yelps ‘Oh, yes!’ to instructions from the executive, and if it’s lapdogs you’re after, Patrick Harvie, a one-man argument against proportional representation, will dutifully fetch the necessary votes from the Green benches.
The conclusion may be foregone but at least there would be a debate. Ideas and approaches would be placed in contest. The First Minister could be interrogated on the rationale for her latest round of restrictions and the advisers on whose counsel she makes her decisions called before the Covid-19 committee to lay out the evidence. The case for presenting the evidence in public has been made by the First Minister and her government and their opaque, if not downright cynical, use of statistics.
Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that the prevalence of Covid-19 was ‘five times lower’ in Scotland than in England brought a blunt rebuke from the Office for Statistics Regulation.
Director general Ed Humpherson wrote to Sturgeon’s chief statistician, reproaching the Scottish Government for making claims using unverifiable sources, commenting: ‘When unpublished figures are quoted in the public domain, we expect that this information is shared with the media and the public in a way that promotes transparency and clarity.’
He went further, concluding that the five-times-lower assertion was not backed up by the data sets cited. ‘We do not think that the sources above allow for a quantified and uncaveated comparison of the kind that was made,’ he stated. ‘In future if such comparisons are made, we would expect to see sources made publicly available and a clear explanation of the limitations and associated uncertainty.’
This came weeks after Humpherson rapped Scottish Government spin doctors for making a claim about the number of antibody tests carried out. ‘This figure cannot be verified,’ he wrote on that occasion. ‘This is unacceptable for a figure of such importance used in a government news release.’
The First Minister’s faux-folksy ‘I don’t want to make this about politics, but…’ shtick belies the partisan mode in which she has conducted herself, not least during her daily briefings, which are so important for public health that the BBC must carry them live but not so important that she will forgo turning them into a political soapbox at every opportunity.
No leader so ferociously tribal, no single leader of any temperament, should hold the fate of 5.5 million in their hands, especially not one who surrounds herself with solicitous courtiers and commands a deference from backbench MSPs at odds with good parliamentary government. Bute House has been home to a baronet, a marquess and even a French king but it took the SNP to turn it into a royal household.
Decisions about who we can have in our homes must no longer be made by the House of Sturgeon-Murrell alone. Regular debate in the Scottish parliament is essential to test the First Minister’s claims, decide whether her proposed actions are proportionate and rein in her tendency towards overreach, as we saw early on with her aborted attempt to suspend the right to trial by jury.
For now, the public is behind the First Minister’s approach but their consent should not be taken for granted. We don’t know how much longer the Chancellor will be able to maintain his job retention scheme. We don’t know what winter will bring, but it could involve a fresh spike, a ban on funeral ceremonies and even the effective cancelling of Christmas.
If coronavirus is with us for years rather than months, our endurance will be severely tested. Giving MSPs a vote on lockdown measures would be one way of heading off public discontent. Instead of just restrictions, the country would be given reasons. Ineffective policies could be remedied faster and those that might provoke a backlash taken off the table.
If the Scottish parliament cannot exert itself over something as pivotal as this, what exactly is the point of it?
Scottish Labour couldn’t find its spine with an X-ray machine and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy. On Saturday, it had a chance to send Richard Leonard back to his picket line and choose a new leader who could actually lead.
Instead, the bold challengers bottled it and condemned their party to an almighty skelping in May’s elections. Still, I’m sure their decision was motivated by principle – securing the principal spot on their regional list.
Leonard called for ‘unity not division’ in Scottish Labour, which is like calling for free will and independent thought in the SNP. The political equivalent of the mute button, Leonard has been shop steward of the branch office for three years but his sole achievement is splendid anonymity. There are people in the witness protection programme with higher public profiles.
Not that there’s much to see. You’d struggle to pick him out of a crowd but, if you did, you’d put him back. That’s what Scots will do next May.
With a string of opinion polls showing a majority of Scots in favour of Scexit, the SNP’s dream seems closer than ever. Alas, cruel fate has brandished its dagger. Shetland and Orkney say they will pursue independence from Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, a self-proclaimed democrat, will doubtless support their right to do so.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.