We need a shot in the arm… and not just the Covid jab

VACCINE: AstraZeneca rollout continues across the UK.

Yaaaiow! The smiling nurse plunged the hypodermic into my deltoid as though hooking my arm with a spear gun. One minute she was sweetly assuring me I’d only feel a ‘wee sharp scratch’, the next she was firing in like a trigger-happy whaler with a harpooning quota to meet. The shark in Jaws got off lighter. 

My first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which I received on Friday, was not entirely painless but it was well worth it. Granted, I spent the next 48 hours feeling like I’d volunteered my head as Tyson Fury’s punching bag but, at time of writing, the side effects are wearing off. 

A headache and fatigue seem a minor trade off to get protection from a deadly virus and I encourage everyone to get the jab when their letter comes in. The only way out of this pandemic is together.

While nursing my assaulted limb, my thoughts turned to the other shots in the arm the country needs to get back to normal. The biggest one by far is economic and Rishi Sunak’s Budget kept the fiscal antibodies pumping through the economy’s veins.

The Chancellor extended the furlough scheme and help for the self-employed while balancing a 6 per cent increase in corporation tax over two years against tax relief for business investment, ‘restart’ grants and extra cash for taking on apprentices.

Sunak handed the Scottish Government an extra £1.2billion, prompting SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes to reply that she had already spent it in her own January budget.

She has also decided not to match Sunak’s extension of stamp duty relief and now Scottish homebuyers will be forced to pay the full rate of Land and Buildings Transaction Tax. Homes for Scotland, the leading industry association, called her decision ‘hugely disappointing’ and said it ‘sends the wrong message to the home buying public’.

Forbes is maintaining 100 per cent rates relief for business and underwriting a council tax freeze, though that may in time have knock-on effects for local services.

She could be Nicola Sturgeon’s secret weapon for getting Scotland back to growth but she will have to be prepared to take bold decisions and even make herself unpopular along the way. Forbes can expect to be severely tested in the coming parliament.

The next booster we need is to education. While it has been necessary to keep pupils away from school to deny the virus another vector, it has nonetheless cost children precious learning time. With schools beginning to return, it is imperative that Scottish education shakes off its stultifying conservatism and considers innovative ways to get pupils caught up.

UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has hinted that Whitehall is considering extending the school day and shortening holiday time. Any attempt to do this here would prompt howls of indignation but the least ministers and teaching unions can do is consider the evidence.

If there is any chance having children in the classroom longer than usual could make up for lost time, their educational interests are what should come first. Of course, it will all come down to whether education secretary John Swinney is brave enough to get on the wrong side of the EIS weeks before an election.

Another ailing policy brief in want of strong medicine is health. Even before Covid-19 hit, it was clear ‘Calamity Jeane’ Freeman had failed in her role as NHS troubleshooter. Indeed, the pandemic has shown how, after more than a decade of the SNP in power, Scotland’s health service was dangerously unprepared for what was to come.

As a result of prioritising the virus, key services have fallen by the wayside, including urgent referrals and vital diagnostics. When the pandemic is over, underlying conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular conditions will need renewed efforts to reduce their instance. An all-out war on mental illness, including that caused or worsened by lockdown, will be essential.

Before we can do any of this, however, we need a massive injection of political will. For Scotland to recover from Covid, the government must make the recovery its prime objective.

This current administration is listless, lurching from one bout of bad legislating to another, from stalled attempts to enact fringe gender theory into law to an authoritarian justice secretary itching to imprison people for expressing views he considers ‘hateful’.

The Sturgeon government is the subject of multiple investigations into the Alex Salmond affair. The SNP more broadly is riven by factional divisions far removed from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary Scots.

This is sheer decadence, the self-indulgent vanity-policymaking of a remote, untouchable elite. The government has powers coming out of every pore but on the rare occasions it can be convinced to use them, it is never to make Scotland smarter, healthier or wealthier.

Their obsessive need to divide naturally extends to constitutional matters. Of course the SNP is always going to support independence but to continue talking up another referendum in the middle of a pandemic is utterly irresponsible.

If the First Minister wants to lead a Covid recovery, she should put the economy, health and education before yet another attempt to tear the country apart. She will also need a refreshed frontbench team.

Whenever her failings are pointed out, the First Minister likes to gloat about the coming election, which polling forecasts she will win handily, as though democracy was just about etchings on a ballot every five years.

With victory on polling day comes an immense responsibility every day thereafter — to serve the people so that, in another five years, they will go to vote in a country that is a measurably better place to live, work and raise a family.

Not for the first time, the First Minister has to get her priorities in order.

*****

Anas Sarwar’s first week as Scottish Labour leader took place in the shadow of the Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama, yet the Glasgow MSP gave a good accounting of himself. 

Particularly impactful was his debut turn at FMQs, where he followed a lacerating exchange between Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson with the reflection: ‘The exchanges that we have just heard represent the worst of our politics.’ 

He went on to remind the First Minister of the words inscribed on the Holyrood mace: ‘Wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity’.

Those values have certainly been absent for some time and Sarwar’s measured tone and positive demeanour were a reminder of an earlier, more worthy approach to politics.

That said, there is a fine line between wise moderation and airy introspection. Labour leaders were put on this Earth to fight for things.

Sarwar still has to show what he’s made of but the past seven days represent a solid start.

*****

Lucky voters in Glasgow Kelvin will have three Nationalist candidates to choose from on May 6. 

Alongside the SNP and Greens is Labour’s Hollie Cameron. She says Indyref 2 is ‘just a matter of whether you think we should have that in the next parliamentary term or not. I say why not?’

I say, why are you in the Labour Party?

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature image: VGC-Group from Pixabay, cropped.

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