Watching Holyrood these days requires Olympian stamina and a boundless supply of optimism. The longer the First Minister’s statements get, the more depressing they become. Nicola Sturgeon’s message to MSPs yesterday can be summed up in four words: Nothing’s changed. Any questions?
Actually, that’s not quite true. The reopening of schools and nurseries is changing — it’s being pushed back to mid-February. The Scottish government had hoped to get children back in classrooms at the start of next month but, Sturgeon explained, ‘community transmission of the virus is too high — and is likely to remain so for the next period — to allow a safe return to school on February 1’.
Schools won’t necessarily be going back in the middle of February. Sturgeon would (‘if it is at all possible’) begin ‘a phased return to in-school learning’ by then, but she gave no guarantees. ‘I also have to be straight with families and say that it is simply too early to be sure whether and to what extent that will be possible,’ she added.
The bad news just kept coming, like one of those nightly bulletins that you switch off halfway through because all the stories are too grim.
We had best get used to staring at the same four walls for the foreseeable. Sturgeon told Holyrood she was keeping the mainland in lockdown and placing Barra and Vatersay in level four. Not content with keeping Scotland indoors, now she was quarantining parts of Middle Earth.
As if this wasn’t glum enough, she brought up a potential shortcoming of the vaccine. Namely that ‘experts cannot yet tell us whether, or to what extent, the vaccines stop transmission of the virus’. The jabs may ‘alleviate the burden of serious illness’, she went on, ‘but we do not yet know whether they stop us getting and passing on the virus’.
And finally, all this uncertainty meant ‘physical distancing, hygiene measures, face coverings and possibly travel limitations are likely to be necessary for some time yet’.
Even News at Ten knows to end on a positive note. Wasn’t there a heartwarming story about a bichon frise in a face mask trying to volunteer as a vaccinator?
Proceedings were dark but respectable enough until Ruth Davidson asked some fairly mild questions about the Scottish government’s lacklustre vaccine rollout. Her enquiries evidently struck a nerve because Sturgeon’s tone turned abrasive. She tried to feign good-natured incredulity but her words came out in venomous gobs.
The Nationalist leader griped about a vaccine supply estimate her government had put online then had to take back down. ‘I hope I’m not about to use unparliamentary language, Presiding Officer, but the UK Government had something of what I can only describe as a hissy fit about us doing that.’
This boo-boo, in which the Scottish government inadvertently published sensitive information, got a smattering of headlines last week but had been fixed and, it seemed, all parties had moved on. Clearly not.
‘We agreed in consultation with them to take away the publication of those supply figures,’ Sturgeon forged ahead on her bizarre tangent. ‘They don’t want us to be open about supply for reasons of commercial confidentiality and while I don’t necessarily entirely agree with the reasoning behind that, we have agreed with their request.’
Murmurings bubbled up from the Tory benches. Was she really trying to settle scores in the middle of a Covid statement?
She was. ‘What we have is the UK Government briefing and spinning misleading figures on supply,’ the First Minister snipped, ‘so they have to be clear about which approach they want us to take.’
If Sturgeon passed on vaccine doses as quickly as she passes on the buck, we’d hit herd immunity by Friday.
It was a telling outburst. Maybe it’s the logistics of the vaccine programme. Maybe it’s other difficulties facing her government. But it’s rare to see her lose her composure like that. Something — or someone — is getting to the First Minister.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.