Just when it seemed 2020 had done its worst, our annus miserabilis delivers one more wretched surprise. Christmas is cancelled. Nicola Sturgeon has cut our five-day festive grace period down to one and barely will we have our sprouts digested than all of mainland Scotland will be placed on level-four lockdown.
No indoor gatherings, pubs and restaurants closed, shops restricted to essential goods, church services and weddings limited to 20 people. These measures will remain in place for three weeks, or so we are told.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has put London and south-east England on the toughest measures yet and limited any relaxation to December 25. It’s beginning to look absolutely nothing like Christmas.
Sturgeon also got her border closure in the form of a travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Whatever the merits of this measure in the fight against coronavirus, it will come back to haunt the UK Government in a future debate on independence. When Whitehall ministers ask if the Scottish Government is capable of running a border and regulating the flow of travellers across it, it will be able to point to this as on-the-job experience.
That is not to say the restrictions, punishing though they are, are without justification. The First Minister and Prime Minister cite as their rationale the new variant of Sars-CoV-2, a strain first detected in September and believed to be up to 70 per cent more transmittable.
Experts are hopeful that this mutation won’t prove resistant to the vaccines already green-lit but we can’t be certain yet. We can imagine, too, the kind of scenarios that will have been put in front of political leaders to model the potential spike in case numbers and deaths if they failed to act.
Had we access to the same information, even those of us bitterly disappointed at having Christmas snatched away may have come to the same conclusion: better safe than sorry. If you compiled a list of Nicola Sturgeon’s most dogged critics, I imagine I would be on it, but I wouldn’t want her job right now and am not without admiration for her ability to weather its strains.
Even so, I could do without her interior monologues. When she introduced the latest restrictions with the words, ‘Standing here saying this actually makes me want to cry’, it didn’t make my heart bleed, it made my eyes roll. She’s the First Minister addressing the country in the middle of a pandemic. This is not the time to be testing lines her advisers think will play well with the electorate come next May. Boris Johnson is sometimes criticised for being aloof but a stiff upper lip would recommend itself to everyone required to address the public in these times.
People are scared and frustrated; they have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses. They need to hear that things are going to get better soon. With a vaccine in our possession, ready to be rolled out across the country, the worst message to send is one of despair. There will be more than enough of that to come once we have the pandemic under control.
That is when we will have to rebuild a shattered economy, pay the price for the job retention scheme and confront the physical and mental health repercussions of keeping people indoors for months on end. One year of misery cannot pass into another; there has to be joy at finding a vaccine for Covid and hope for a cure to the economic side effects.
Unfortunately, those side effects will be accentuated by the decision to cancel Christmas and lock down thereafter. For one, it means no Boxing Day trips to the high street and no January sales. This would be difficult for shops at the best of times but after a year of sustained losses, it will be nothing short of devastating. Retailers, like the rest of us, have done their best to follow the rules in the hope their efforts would pay off. Instead, a lot of shutters that will now go down will not come back up again.
Businesses have been one of the forgotten victims of this pandemic. They are not particularly sympathetic to those who have never run one, but small firms represent decades of hard work and sacrifice and their closure is felt far beyond the owner’s pocket.
The family-owned shop put out of business puts staff out of work, leaves customers with longer treks for their messages, and deprives the local community of one of its pillars. Small business owners are model soldiers in the ‘little platoons’ that Edmund Burke called ‘the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’. We don’t typically think about them in such romantic terms because in this country we romanticise almost everything except enterprise.
While ministers may have had little choice but to take the country into the most stringent restrictions, it is another lockdown in which businesses were kept in the dark until the last possible moment. For a restaurant or cafe to learn with one week’s notice that it will be shutting up for at least three weeks is akin to the rest of us being told we are entering level four within the hour.
Produce orders will have to be cancelled, food already in the kitchen will go to waste, and the bad news broken to casual workers hired for Christmas shifts. These people are already up against it. They are not asking for special treatment or to remain open, the risk to public health be damned. They just want clarity so they know where they stand. If ministers have to take us into any further lockdowns, businesses must not be left in the lurch like this again.
Right now, it is hard to be optimistic about the future. It seems like the only thing worse than this pandemic will be coming out of it. But while difficult days lie ahead, we should not let our hearts be troubled, least of all at this time of year. Whatever you believe or even if you don’t believe, Christmas can be a time of great hope and renewal.
We have already had a miracle in the arrival of a vaccine many said would not come so soon and within a few weeks we will begin to benefit from it. We will be back in control of our lives, all the stronger for what we have gone through, and ready to pull together and get our country back on its feet.
What comes next will not be easy. It will take time, effort and patience, but there can be no doubt we are equal to the task. If we can survive 2020, we can do anything.
You don’t have to agree with Andy Wightman’s politics to admire his principles. The Scottish Green MSP quit the party on Friday, citing its ‘intolerance’ towards anyone questioning the impact of trans rights on the rights of women.
Over the years, the Greens haven’t done much practical for the environment, but they have been a very effective receptacle for the votes of the guilty middle classes, self-loathing and self-righteous in equal measure.
Under Patrick Harvie’s reign, the party has narrowed its focus to the constitution and identity politics, becoming little more than a faction of the SNP and prioritising divisive culture wars over economic and ecological justice. The Scottish Greens are for every ‘ism’ but environmentalism.
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, it’s obvious there is a place for a principled party of the Left in Scotland. A party that brings people together to create a fairer and greener country rather than strutting and posing but changing nothing. That party may have just found its leader.
Teaching union NASUWT sensibly urges that pupils be tested for Covid-19 when schools return. Less sensibly, it wants to see that return delayed for staff and pupils in favour of distance learning in certain areas. ‘Teachers call for mass testing in schools,’ ran the BBC headline. I’d settle for mass teaching in schools.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: email@example.com.