There is no easy way out of lockdown


Lockdown is a contract. Not one we entered into voluntarily but we understood the terms.

If we played by the rules and did as ministers and medics asked, we would eventually reap the rewards. After two months of patience and forbearance on our part, government is upholding its end of the bargain. 

This week will be very different in Scotland. A thrilling breeze of freedom will run through the scorching days and muggy evenings of this uncommonly hot Spring. Families will be able to come closer than they have in weeks. No kisses or hugs yet, but just that glimpse of a loved one, in person and not through a garble of pixels, will be joyous. FaceTime is no substitute for a real face. 

Barbecues are back on, though numbers must be limited and social distancing observed. Garden centres have thrown open the doors to their emporia of sweet magnolias and exquisitely tacky outdoor ornaments. For followers of the Marie Kondo philosophy, the best news of all is that council tips are once again accepting all those possessions that don’t spark joy. (That six tonnes of panic-bought wholewheat pasta doesn’t count.)

Our lives are not back to normal. Any situation where Scottish pubs are closed while government encourages us to enjoy ‘archery… croquet… horse-riding’ is distressingly far from normal. Most businesses stay shuttered, with staff told to work from home where possible. Football is suspended and schools are a long way from full classrooms.

We are loitering in the interregnum between full lockdown and a resumption of normal life that we fear may never come. As such, the elation of the next few days might pass quickly into frustration and even resentment at the thickets of rules and restrictions that still ensnarl our daily lives. This period is going to be much more delicate than the first two months of lockdown.

When the Prime Minister and First Minister imposed this national quarantine they did so amid frightening news of mass fatalities from Italy and Spain, and epidemiological modelling that showed us next in the firing line. Most of us were too afraid for our lives and those of our loved ones to put up much resistance. 

In acknowledging the progress made against the virus, ministers know they are opening themselves to more dissent from the measures they have implemented. As people become less afraid, they will grow intolerant of the very lockdown which has made it possible for them to feel less afraid. Covid-19 still stumps the finest researchers in the world but it is nowhere near as impenetrable as the thought processes of the human mind. 

Nicola Sturgeon admitted she was ‘nervous’ about easing the restrictions. 

As she put it: ‘If too many of us change our behaviour a bit more than these changes are designed to allow, we could see the virus spread quickly again and we will be back to square one. And the consequences of that will be measured, not just in more time spent in lockdown – it will be measured in lost lives too…

‘I want everyone to enjoy these changes – you have more than earned it. But I am asking you to please do so responsibly. I am appealing to your judgment and your sense of solidarity to each other.’

Whatever you might think of her leadership or her politics, knowing that every decision you make comes with a wide margin of error in lives saved or lost would keep the best of us awake at night. Her fear that, given a little we will take a lot, is well-founded in human psychology. It’s the biscuit tin dilemma: tell your children they can have a biscuit and you know there’s a decent chance they’ll take more than one. 

It is imperative that we resist that temptation. Covid-19 has not gone away. It is lying in wait for us to make a mistake, like the masked madman of a horror movie. The moment we think he’s dead and turn our backs, he will sit bolt upright behind us. 

Throwing away all our hard work at this critical juncture would be a reckless act of selfishness. We all want this to be over. We all want to get back on with our lives. Coronavirus isn’t a conspiracy to thwart the happiness of any one of us. It is a collective threat that calls upon us to stick together in a collective response. 

Some wish away the lockdown by pointing to the fatality figures. This is a disease that mostly kills over-80s and people with pre-existing conditions. The cost to the economy and to the well-being of the healthy majority is too great to save lives that are approaching the end or of lower quality anyway. This is a grim way to think but rest assured it is exactly how some are thinking. 

Human life cannot be reduced to a cost/benefit analysis. The love of children for their parents or a sister for her sickly brother does not yield to the cool analysis of a spreadsheet. We are not purely rational beings; our emotions, impulses and values must be factored into the equation.

However irksome this may be for those who think in terms of financial outlays and opportunity costs, it is a good thing that we do not surrender our ethical judgements to a rigid calculation. In the give and take between numbers and empathy lies the realm of human compassion. 

Our response to coronavirus has been an exercise in compassion, though you could hardly tell from the political rows it has descended into. One of the world’s most advanced economies chose to undermine its financial fundamentals to save the lives of the elderly and vulnerable.

The ‘rational’ course of action would have been to shield the economy by continuing as normal, knowing that very few healthy people of working age would have experienced anything more than a bad flu. 

The sacrifices made by most people have been made not for themselves but for others. The virus poses only minimal risk to them but to the people they could pass it on to, it would be a matter of life or death.

These people, or the vast majority of them, have shown what it means to be selfless, to put your life on hold for the good of strangers. This, not hackneyed slogans and fists thrust performatively in the air, is what solidarity looks like. Never again let anyone tell you this is a cold and heartless country. 

The gradual restoration of our liberties is the fulfilment of our new social contract. If we follow the rules and protect the most vulnerable, we will contain Covid-19 long enough to formulate a vaccine or devise a way of living with it that allows us to resume life outside the home.

In all this we must be bolstered by the hope that we can can triumph over these trials and the knowledge that we have come too far to give up out of impetuousness or ill-discipline. 

We are doing not only the work of the present but laying down a lesson for generations to come about the duty of the strong to the weak, the young to the old, the healthy to the afflicted.

There is plenty to criticise us for, from our mistreatment of the planet to the poverty and injustice we tolerate, but this virus has brought out the best in most of us. Every generation puts the one that went before in the dock and, when our turn comes, our response to Covid-19 will form a substantial part of the case for the defence. 

In tasting freedom we should not allow ourselves to forget our responsibilities. Coronavirus is still out there and there are still people who must be protected from it. The harder we strive to keep them safe, the sooner we can re-emerge from this pandemic and rebuild a better, safer world. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

Does Sturgeon deserve her Holyrood halo?

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There is a peculiar phenomenon taking place in Scottish public opinion.

Scots hold drastically different assessments of the performance of two governments which have handled coronavirus in broadly similar ways with broadly similar results.

An Ipsos-MORI poll for the BBC shows that more than four in five Scots approve of Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, while less than a third say the same of Boris Johnson. The survey was carried out before the Dominic Cummings row broke and therefore has not been coloured by that.

An outsider would conclude that, while Johnson’s government has handled this crisis poorly, Sturgeon’s has been a paragon of success. Yet the facts are entirely at odds with that. The Scottish Government has fallen down on the job at least as often, and as badly, as its UK counterpart. The First Minister is no longer encouraging us to compare her performance with that in England and Wales.

The Cummings affair may have undermined public trust in the Johnson government but the Nike affair is arguably more damning of Sturgeon’s administration. Her government was aware of a Covid-19 outbreak at a Nike conference in Edinburgh in late February but withheld the information from the public. Professor Denis Kinane now says the event ‘could have been one of the “ground zeros” in Scotland’, and a number of firms suspect their staff became ill with coronavirus as a result of contact with conference attendees.

Had a similar cover-up been conducted by the UK Government, it is not hard to imagine Cabinet resignations, calls for a Civil Service inquiry and demands that the Prime Minister consider his position. Certainly, public opinion would have reflected dimly on this sort of behaviour but that has not happened in Scotland.

Another pitfall has been the substandard provision of personal protective equipment. Several weeks into the pandemic, 100 medical professionals penned an open letter to Scottish ministers raising ‘grave concerns about the adequacy’ of their PPE.

In April, a newspaper report identified half a dozen firms which had offered to provide PPE but were ‘ignored’ by the Scottish Government. The underuse of testing capacity has further alarmed health professionals. In the first week of this month, figures showed only one-third of capacity was being used, a proportion dwarfed by the more active testing regime in England.

Allyson Pollock, clinical professor in public health at Newcastle University, wrote to the Scottish Government in March urging it to adopt ‘community contact tracing and testing’, but received no reply. The First Minister originally promised 2,000 contract tracers but questioned on the BBC this week, admitted only 660 had been hired while a further 750 were ‘in process’.

Among the most harrowing problems is the situation in care homes. The Scottish Government moved elderly patients from hospital to care homes to increase ward capacity but did so in many cases without testing, prompting fears that this is how Covid-19 entered some facilities.

Care home staff and bosses repeatedly asked for sufficient testing but their pleas fell on deaf ears. Workers at Highgate care home in Uddingston, Lanarkshire, were still not tested after an outbreak linked to the deaths of 22 residents.

A report from pro-independence think-tank Common Weal described the situation in Scotland’s nursing homes as ‘an unmitigated disaster’ and concluded that Covid-19’s rampage ‘possibly represents the single greatest failure of devolved government… since the creation of the Scottish parliament’.

These decisions have put pressure on Health Secretary Jeane Freeman. She told parliament the number of elderly patients discharged from hospitals into care homes was one-third of the true figure. Sturgeon said her minister made ‘a mistake in articulating numbers’ because she was ‘a bit tired’. Earlier this month, Freeman was left red-faced in a TV interview after being asked about ‘new’ care home guidelines, which she had not seen. A draft of the updated rules had been published on the Scottish Government website by mistake.

Protection of those Scots most vulnerable to coronavirus has also left a lot to be desired. The groceries delivery scheme for those ‘shielding’ – that is, people at highest risk from Covid-19 – took longer to set up in Scotland than in England because supermarkets had to wait for Scottish ministers to provide lists of vulnerable shoppers.

Sturgeon’s own leadership has been called into question. Boris Johnson was fiercely criticised for missing Cobra meetings about the virus but it has since emerged (with much less media attention and political criticism) that Sturgeon did the same.

When Dr Catherine Calderwood defied lockdown twice to retreat to her second home, the First Minister said her chief medical officer had ‘made a mistake’ but insisted that she remain in post. Eventually, she accepted Dr Calderwood’s resignation but the difference in her stance and that of the Prime Minister was a matter of political calculation, not ministerial judgment.

Why, after a performance like this, do Scots give so much credit to the Scottish Government while scorning the efforts of the UK Government?

Sir John Curtice, the Strathclyde University politics professor, chalks it up to the Scottish Government being more in line with public opinion north of the Border on the easing of lockdown. Sturgeon has maintained the restrictions for longer than the UK Government and that chimes with the more than three-quarters of Scots who fear the perils of letting our guard down too soon.

Professor Curtice also advances the Holyrood ‘halo effect’, an angelic glow that means ‘credit for what is done well in Scotland is attributed to Holyrood and blame for poor performance is laid at the door of Westminster’.

Professor Curtice makes a solid point, but fairness requires us to acknowledge that a portion of Sturgeon’s high ratings are earned. Some Unionists’ choleric hatred of her makes them incapable of registering her very considerable abilities in communications and presentation.

The First Minister knows how to talk and, even if she doesn’t say very much, the way she says it calms and reassures many. She is good in a crisis – not necessarily good at managing the crisis, but good at projecting confidence and leadership. Nicola Sturgeon’s tone – emotional, sympathetic, apparently sincere – more closely reflects how the average Scot feels about what is happening at the minute than the cool detachment with which most UK ministers conduct themselves.

Beyond the image and the inflection, however, lie several more pedestrian explanations. The first is tribalism. Positive tribalism may lead those who identify strongly with the SNP as a political prospect to identify strongly with Sturgeon and her handling of the crisis. Equally, negative tribalism – identifying yourself against a tribe rather than with one – could be at work. If you are one of the sizeable majority of Scots who disfavour Boris Johnson and his government, the temptation to side with whoever is his most powerful and articulate rival will be great indeed.

Another consideration is localism, in the sense that electors tend to feel more favourable towards the level of government that is closest and most responsive to them. Scottish exceptionalism plays its part too. The myth of Scottish moral superiority, especially to England, is nigh on impossible to shift. It feeds a hunger in the national soul for recognition that what Scotland lacks in size it makes up for in virtue. The halo hangs above our heads as much as the First Minister’s.

And institutional factors pertain. If ministers have gone largely unopposed, it is because of the quality of the opposition. Jackson Carlaw showed this week with his flip-flopping on the Cummings affair that his leadership has a long way to go to match Ruth Davidson’s for potency.

However, even before this week’s row came along, Carlaw’s performance on Covid-19 had been patchy, with the Scottish Conservative leader seemingly unable to decide between a consensual and confrontational style in questioning the First Minister.

The Scottish Government also benefits from a media culture that is less adversarial than that in place in London. There is no Piers Morgan on TV here monstering ministers day after day, reinforcing the perception of the government as feckless, reckless and making an almighty hash of things.

Where ITV News has challenged the UK Government on PPE, care homes and testing, STV News’s coverage will be remembered for the extraordinary video it posted of children thanking Sturgeon for keeping them safe. Ministers still have to worry about the newspapers but, even there, they enjoy at least one title that is dedicated to presenting everything they do in the most glowing light.

While many will find all this profoundly frustrating, few want to confront the structural underpinnings. Tribalism, exceptionalism and poor oppositions are nothing new but what yokes them together into a shambling Frankenstein’s creature of bad politics and worse policy is legislative devolution.

The Scottish parliament and the political infrastructure that has been erected around it provide a focal point closer in geography and culture to most Scots than the House of Commons.

During the 1997 referendum, devosceptics were called alarmist for suggesting that Holyrood would create a rival seat of legitimacy but they were in fact understating the danger. Within two decades of devolution, Holyrood has become the expression of the Scottish political will and the UK Parliament an alien afterthought.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that most Scots rate the Scottish Government’s performance over that of its UK counterpart. It is their government and they hold a stake in its success or failure, unlike that cold and distant palace 400 miles away.

Holyrood is Scotland’s team and, however dismal its performance on the pitch, we still cheer it on. The ‘halo effect’ is driven by identity, not ignorance. Devolutionists built an institution around Scotland’s distinct political identity and have been astonished to watch as it made that identity all the more distinct.

There is a similar dynamic over coronavirus playing out in New York at the moment. State governor Andrew Cuomo has seen his approval ratings soar to dizzying heights while New Yorkers take an ever-dimmer view of Donald Trump. Yet Cuomo’s sluggish response to the virus, in particular the time it took him to institute a lockdown, echoes the failings of the Trump administration.

Across the pond, however, there is no angst about a larger significance for the US political system. Federalism works there because New Yorkers share a strong state and national identity and there is no political movement of any significance agitating for a divergence between the two. Devolution does not work because there are competing political identities in Scotland that channel loyalty to one level of government or another. US federalism promotes unity, devolution institutionalises division.

Until Scottish Unionists are prepared to confront the devolution problem, there is little sense in them stamping their feet and gurning at the public for giving pollsters the wrong answers. Almost by its very nature, devolution invites Scots to make a binary choice between two governments and two political establishments. That most pick the one closest to home is very human and so is the tendency to be more forgiving of an institution which they see as theirs. If the UK were still a member of the European Union, we would almost certainly see the same dynamic play out in public opinion south of the Border.

But just as inquiries will be established to scrutinise the governmental response to Covid-19, there will have to be some candid talk about how devolution drove yet another wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and did so in circumstances that ought to have brought us together. Labour established devolution in the belief it would run the show forever. The Tories say they could make devolution work for rather than against the Union. No one dares ask whether legislative devolution and national unity are simply irreconcilable.

That is the politics but the facts remain. The Scottish Government’s handling of coronavirus has been at least as flawed as that of the UK Government. There ought to be accountability but instead ministers preen under an unearned reputation for competence. Their gold halo is no match for their brass neck.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

Sturgeon outlines slow path out of lockdown

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‘We indicate the phases in which service industries might reopen,’ Nicola Sturgeon said, outlining her blueprint for taking Scotland out of lockdown.

Waste dumps and garden centres would be reopening from next Thursday and golf, tennis, fishing and bowls got the green light.

But what about the things that really matter: grub, booze and doing something about the involuntary mullet situation that has half the country looking like a Bay City Rollers tribute act?

The First Minister continued: ‘That includes businesses such as restaurants, bars and hairdressers, the latter, I know, being a priority for almost every woman in the country.’

‘And the men,’ someone crowed from the back. ‘And the men,’ she echoed, before adding, sensibly: ‘I think I’ll not go any further there, Presiding Officer.’

This was Nicola Sturgeon’s arrival at the point Boris Johnson has already had to tackle: the slow, methodical lifting of lockdown.

She was careful not to oversell her offering when she appeared before the Scottish parliament yesterday.

‘Gradual and incremental,’ she called her planned changes. The end wasn’t in sight but if you squinted hard enough, the beginning of the end could be glimpsed. And it didn’t look all that dissimilar to what the UK Government is doing south of the Border. Wee bit slower here, wee bit different there.

Downing Street, spying an opportunity for some mischief-making, told journalists: ‘We welcome today’s announcement as it shows the UK-wide approach is working. We set out the road map a few weeks ago and now the devolved administrations are following that path at the right speed for them.’

The scamps.

The First Minister’s tone was steady and cautious, not least as she informed Holyrood that a total of 2,221 Scots had so far been lost to the Wuhan virus.

There was, she admitted, ‘no completely risk-free way of lifting lockdown’ and even when the easing period started, everyone would have to remember to maintain physical distancing and not slip back into old habits. ‘The danger of a second wave later in the year is very real indeed,’ she told MSPs.

The all-important ‘R’ number was stuck stubbornly between 0.7 and one, but it had been as high as four in March.

The next steps came in a strategy she called Test and Protect. We were nowhere near ‘defeating’ the virus, she said, and encouraged us to think in terms of ‘containing’ it. Test and Protect would involve ‘four phases’ across ‘nine key aspects of life’, which made it sound like a horoscope in which Venus’s seventh moon was bringing a tall, dark stranger into your life. Most likely a policeman with a fine for getting your phases mixed up.

Phase One, pencilled in for May 28, would allow us to take more outdoor activity, sunbathe (ambitious), and meet a small number of people from another household as long as everyone stays outdoors and the requisite distance apart. Oh, and could we walk or bicycle instead of taking public transport.

Cycling four miles with three kids to see granny at two metres’ distance? On yer bike. Skype will do for now.

While these changes are very small, they will allow us all to relax and enjoy ourselves a bit more, except for those who get their enjoyment from reporting the neighbours to the local constabulary for making two trips to Sainsbury’s in the one day. Parents will, depending on their level of honesty, be either relieved or saddened to hear that schools will begin to return in August.

The First Minister came under interrogation from Jackson Carlaw and Richard Leonard about the details of Test and Protect. This drew out two gems, one of hyperspun Sturgeonspeak, the other of human insight. ‘These plans are not lagging behind,’ Sturgeon parried a criticism of her timing, ‘they are moving at pace.’

Exactly what pace, she didn’t say. The First Minister loves talking about ‘the direction of travel’ but she’s always vague on the speed and sometimes never finishes the journey.

Then there was this: ‘The responsibility of dealing with this will bear heavily on me for probably the rest of my life.’

We in the cheap seats like to chuck bottles, and so we should, but we shouldn’t forget how lonely it is at the top.

It’ll be lonelier still when the time comes to divvy up the blame.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

A big English boy did it and ran away

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Jackson Carlaw was ‘seeking to make it political’ – the ‘it’ being that trifling matter of the First Minister covering up an outbreak of Covid-19 in Edinburgh almost a month before lockdown was put in place.

Imagine thinking there’s a place for politics in a subject like that.

First Minister’s Questions, which is held every Thursday except when it’s held on Tuesday or Wednesday, ran to 75 minutes yesterday. If it gets any longer they’ll have to start handing out half-time oranges.

This week’s instalment was the most ill-tempered since the pandemic began.

The Tory leader had a go at the failure to contact-trace attendees of the now notorious Nike conference.

‘On behalf of public health experts who carried out the management of this situation,’ Sturgeon protested, ‘I really do need to point out contact-tracing did happen and they would have traced the contacts they thought were appropriate to trace.’

The First Minister was frightfully worried that such talk ‘starts to impugn the integrity of the experts who managed this outbreak, including Public Health England’.

I’m not a clype, Sir, but a big English boy did it and ran away.

The deftness with which Sturgeon hailed experts as heroes while holding them up as human shields was something to marvel.

There was no fault to be found, of course, but on the off chance that some turned up, she was making clear where the blame lay. Sturgeon practised social distancing before it became fashionable: she never goes within two metres of accountability for her government’s actions.

Growing testy, Carlaw replied: ‘Last week, when I asked the First Minister where responsibility lay, she said explicitly – responsibility rests with her. Now it seems when it’s convenient responsibility rests with public health officials.’

‘This is a team approach,’ the First Minister explained, and in her own way she was telling the truth. She takes the questions and civil servants take the fall.

Carlaw flourished: ‘A testing system that’s only delivering at one-third of its capacity. That’s a failure. Crisis in Scotland’s care homes and still not enough tests for staff and residents. That is a failure. No clarity on how, or even if, the public will be told about future outbreaks. That is a failure.’

He looked like a weight had been lifted. He’s been anxious to get that off his chest.

I wouldn’t want to get in Liz Smith’s bad books. The Tory MSP is not a shouter or a finger-thruster; she quizzes ministers with the stony disappointment of a bank manager considering an overdraft extension.

The source of her dismay was ministers’ failure to answer parliamentary questions promptly. ‘One ministerial department delayed answers on 30 occasions,’ she cross-examined. ‘One MSP intimated that they had received 12 holding answers in one day and another MSP intimated she had received five holding answers in one day. Does the First Minister accept this is a completely unacceptable situation?’

She may as well have been reading Sturgeon’s credit card bill and tutting: ‘Did you really need that new Blu-ray player?’

Sturgeon said ministers and civil servants were trying their hardest to respond quickly to queries. Going by the sternness of Smith’s expression, they’d better pick up the pace.

Lockdown has inflicted its indignities on the best of us, and MSPs are no different. In brief glimpses Anas Sarwar could be seen squatting on the backbenches and appeared to have borrowed Donny Osmond’s hair circa 1974 for the occasion.

Alex Cole-Hamilton had let his do go entirely. Either that or his local Sainsbury’s doesn’t deliver Just for Men. Now sporting salt ’n’ pepper locks (with noticeably high sodium content), the Edinburgh Western George Clooney even got a question in.

Another familiar face made an appearance, even if her voice sounded muted. Ken Macintosh recommended she adjust the microphone. ‘I’ve never been accused of being too quiet before, Presiding Officer,’ Ruth Davidson said with a twinkle.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

Scots deserve the truth about coronavirus cover-up

‘The cover-up is what hurts you,’ Richard Nixon can be heard growling on a scratchy White House tape, ‘not the issue’.

The 37th president was speaking to his aides three days after the Watergate burglars were indicted. Two years later, he would become the only US president to resign from office.

Nixon learned his own lesson the hard way and, instead of paying heed, so many politicians who have followed him have also opted for painful instruction.

The late-February coronavirus outbreak at a Nike conference in Edinburgh’s Hilton Carlton hotel was not the Scottish Government’s fault and no one could have blamed them for it. They could have gone public, implemented an earlier lockdown and contained the spread of a virus that has killed more than 2,000 Scots.

Instead, they chose to withhold information the public and health practitioners had a right to know. In other words, they orchestrated a cover-up. Only when BBC Scotland’s Disclosure exposé aired last week did we learn about what immunology professor Denis Kinane posits ‘could have been one of the “ground zeros” in Scotland’.

Since these revelations, the Scottish Government’s taxpayer-funded spin machine has gone into overdrive. With much fanfare, they released a timeline of events covering the outbreak and health bureaucrats’ response.

Releasing timelines is a favourite ploy of special advisers because it gives the appearance of transparency while allowing them to control the story. In fact, what we have been permitted to know was granted to us by the same people who prevented us from knowing in the first place.

The two most important questions of all have still not been answered fully. To adapt another saying from the Nixon era: What did the First Minister know, and when did she know it?

What we do not know is how many needless infections and even preventable deaths the cover-up might have enabled. We are beginning to see glimpses of how rapidly and widely the virus spread from that conference.

The Scottish Mail on Sunday reported on two companies that believe their staff were infected via the Nike event. A marketing firm which shares a building with a Glasgow branch of Nike says four of its staff developed Covid-19 symptoms in the days after the conference. Two weeks later, the sports shop was ‘deep cleaned’ but its neighbouring business was not told why. No one at the marketing firm was contact-traced.

Meanwhile, a kilt shop employee who fitted ten delegates for the conference came down with symptoms, as did a number of others.

These are just the businesses we know about. Many of the conference attendees were from overseas. How many will have squeezed in a spot of sightseeing on the crowded Royal Mile or popped into a cramped whisky shop to pick up a nice malt to take home? That the residents and business owners of Edinburgh were kept in the dark is inexcusable.

As Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray points out, almost 70,000 fans were allowed to cram into Murrayfield for Scotland v France on March 8.

‘This is now a test of the Scottish Government’s honesty with the people of Scotland,’ he says.

Nicola Sturgeon has angrily dismissed talk of a cover-up as ‘highly politicised nonsense’. What euphemism would she rather we used? A delayed disclosure of the facts? A flawed public information campaign? There is nothing politicised about calling a spade a spade.

Perhaps the Scottish Government feared Westminster would step in and throw its weight around if Edinburgh was revealed as a ‘ground zero’ spot. Perhaps they are so used to government-by-secrecy that it never occurred to them to share the information with the public. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse.

The First Minister said she wanted to address us as grown-ups but you can’t talk candidly one day then cover our ears and whisper the next. Once she and her Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman, were made aware of the Edinburgh outbreak, the public should have been told immediately so that we could take our own precautions and demand that the Government act swiftly to trace and contain the virus.

While we’re speaking like grown-ups, some grown-up talk about Freeman’s performance in this crisis is long overdue.

Another Sunday newspaper brought us the news that not a single dedicated contact-tracer had been hired two weeks after the Scottish Government announced 2,000 vacancies as part of its test, trace, isolate (TTI) strategy. Since then, there have been almost 8,500 applicants and zero hires, despite 1,500 having been recruited already in England.

An offer of help from St Andrew’s First Aid went unanswered for eight days and the charity’s chief executive was eventually told to send an email.

TTI is not a coronavirus-specific innovation that ministers might justifiably be struggling to get to grips with. It is standard practice in any viral outbreak and one ministers were urged to adopt early on.

Almost two months ago, Professor Allyson Pollock, a health expert from Newcastle University, wrote to the First Minister and Health Secretary warning about ‘the apparent failure to implement fundamental public health measures to address the Covid-19 outbreak – specifically, community contact tracing and testing’. She received no reply.

Speedy, effective TTI begins with that first T: testing. Yet Scotland continues to lag behind England in using its testing capacity while care home workers are still coming forward to say they have not been tested.

If failing to test those who work with the primary targets of this contagion – the elderly and the vulnerable – seems like an egregious dereliction, it was compounded by new recommendations from Health Protection Scotland that staff be ‘permitted’ to finish their shift after testing positive for the virus. It’s hard to decide which is more offensive: the audacity or the callousness.

I do not doubt Freeman is working hard but the pace of action is grindingly slow. It is long past time for her to get a grip.

This government has enjoyed a far easier ride than the one in Westminster. The opposition is divided and of uneven quality. BBC Scotland is less aggressive than its network counterpart and STV sometimes forgets there is a government other than the one in Westminster that needs held to account.

Even steadfast critics of the First Minister have shown goodwill. We have set aside our grave reservations about her government and hoped it would rise to the moment. We have pulled punches and bitten lips.

No more.

If ministers are going to withhold vital information during a pandemic, then they have forfeited their right to the benefit of the doubt. We must be able to trust what the First Minister says, and after the Nike cover-up we can’t.

This is the problem with cover-ups: when the truth outs, the public’s confidence in those who kept it under wraps plummets. If they didn’t tell us about this, what else aren’t they telling us?

The longer this PR agency posing as a government drags on, the more nostalgic I become for the old Labour-Liberal Democrat executives. They were not slick, they lacked a grand vision, they often seemed cringe-makingly parochial but they were made up of men and women driven to improve the lot of ordinary people in Scotland. Sometimes they succeeded, often they failed, but in the endeavour they were faithful.

There are ministers in this government who share that drive and that faithfulness but they are held back by a political apparatus more concerned with party management and constitutional sabre-rattling than good governance.

Nicola Sturgeon has to put that apparatus in check. This is not a time for secrets and spin but for honesty and transparency. The public’s trust is essential to leading us out of this crisis and the First Minister has stretched it to breaking point. It can be stretched no further.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

Nicola Sturgeon goes her own way on coronavirus

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The ‘four nations’ strategy on Covid-19 was only going to last so long.

Tensions have been showing for some time but a point of departure is now evident. With its new ‘stay alert’ slogan the UK Government is edging towards an exit strategy while the First Minister believes it is too soon. She says her government’s motto remains ‘stay home, save lives’.

Scotland is beginning to go its own way on coronavirus. This need not be a bad thing. The all-important ‘R’ number, the rate at which the virus is being reproduced from human to human, appears to be a little higher north of the Border. Scotland also has its own demographic trends and distinct health needs.

A bespoke national strategy might be able to cater for those in ways a UK-wide approach would not. A national strategy, not a nationalist one. The First Minister has assured the public her primary focus is tackling the virus. The priority is saving lives and, if Scotland coming out of lockdown a little slower does that, then it is a tack worth pursuing.

A divergent strategy and ongoing lockdown cannot be about politics. Over the weekend, national clinical director Jason Leitch told a radio programme: ‘Recreations like tennis, golf and angling will be some of the first things that come back. We are not there yet and the optics are part of it. We have single-parent families locked inside, so we need to be careful.’

The impact of lockdown on physical and mental health as well as the economy is not a matter of ‘optics’. What is a matter of optics is any suspicion that the First Minister is delaying a return to normal life until she can tick all the right-on boxes. If golf or any other sport becomes safe again, it should be allowed.

Another concern to address is that constitutional politics has nothing to do with rhetoric about the ‘border’ between England and Scotland. Even a whiff of opportunism to advance the separatist agenda off the back of a deadly pandemic would render sulphurous in the nostrils of the voters. Now is not the time for Sturgeon the tactician. Sturgeon the leader is what the country needs.

In leading Scotland down a different – even marginally different – path to the rest of the UK, Sturgeon must be careful to take the population with her. Something the First Minister has not done well enough is explain the differences in rules between Scotland and the rest of the country. Whether she likes it or not, some Scots still look to the UK Government for leadership and cannot understand why the Prime Minister and First Minister are not saying the same thing.

Take the Great British garden centre, for instance. Wales is reopening them from today and England from Wednesday, throwing a lifeline to harassed parents desperate for anything to keep the children occupied.

In Scotland, however, these unlikely parental oases will remain shuttered. As with the construction industry, the First Minister has taken a more cautious stance – but she has not explained to anyone’s satisfaction why activities deemed safe in Durham are potential virus-spreaders in Dumfries.

The other factor which has, predictably, been sidelined in Scotland is the economic avalanche heading our way.

Lockdown has saved lives but there is going to be a cost. Artificial mass unemployment has been fashioned by the advice to businesses to close and by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s job retention salary scheme. Both necessary measures, both with a hefty price tag all the same.

Economists forecast a worse recession than the slump that caused the Great Depression. The Chancellor is funding his job support projects with £2trillion of borrowed money. Eventually, the piper will come calling for payment. Part of treating the public like grown-ups is having a grown-up conversation about what this borrowing and suppression of economic activity will mean for the fiscal long-term.

For one thing, we had better brace ourselves for tax rises because they are going to be top of the political agenda. Further austerity is not an option given how much was already cut by George Osborne and a heightened untouchability that will attach to the NHS and social care budgets.

If anything, spending is only going to rise as we emerge from the crisis. Expenditure on virus control, laboratory capacity and mental health services can be expected to climb. Councils will likely have to forgo business rates, or at least make do with much-reduced revenue, to allow small and medium-sized firms to get back on their feet. The First Minister has indicated her sympathy for a universal basic income in light of Covid-19, a policy with an annual bill of £20billion.

Where is the money coming from? There will no doubt be calls for a hypothecated NHS tax, or a wealth tax, but the pressure will be on, too, for increases in income tax across the brackets.

A slog lies ahead and some who have lost jobs or businesses will not get them back. The spectre of middle-class unemployment looms.

How we address these challenges will fall at least in part upon Nicola Sturgeon’s shoulders. In making her own way on virus suppression, she will also have to make her choices about rebuilding Scotland’s economy.

She is calling the shots now and she will have to account for them to a frightened and frustrated public. She has been given extraordinary leeway in handling these matters. The message from the Scottish Conservatives is that politics-as-usual is suspended, which is reasonable.

While BBC Panorama got stuck into the UK Government over PPE provision, BBC Scotland offered up an intimate portrait of the coronavirus ward at Monklands Hospital. No other head of government in the UK is benefiting from the kind of goodwill Nicola Sturgeon is receiving.

Going it alone on suppression of coronavirus is a major gamble for the First Minister. She is drawing on deep, but not unlimited, reserves of public trust. She must not let us down.


If you are suffering the travails of home-schooling, spare a thought for those trying to parent in a pro-independence direction. One mother in Dumfries and Galloway was incensed after her daughters’ school suggested an ‘inappropriate’ activity.

The woman, who wished to remain anonymous for reasons that are about to become apparent, complained that the headteacher had encouraged pupils to put up Union Jacks in the garden to mark VE Day.

The distraught matriarch decided to share her concerns with a newspaper but, perhaps being unable to reach one, spoke to the National instead. ‘I would never buy a Union flag as I support Scottish independence,’ she explained. ‘I don’t think the words “Union Jack” should be used as schools are supposed to be politically neutral.’

The activity, which wasn’t compulsory, was part of a twice-weekly ‘headteacher’s challenge’, the council said. Not good enough for the patriotic parent, who agued that it was ‘like telling children to celebrate something not in their religion’.

There are some people you’re relieved to be socially distanced from. 


Enraged social media users are posting cameraphone videos of families ambling through parks and youngsters gathered in town centres. As more such evidence of insubordination emerges, please remember only to leave the house for the five essential reasons: food-shopping, travelling to work, medical care, exercise, and filming strangers on suspicion of unauthorised strolling. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at

Nicola Sturgeon’s very human moment at FMQs

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Nicola Sturgeon is not a crying/hugging/thanking Jesus kind of politician.

She would get nowhere in American politics. Maybe she is naturally reserved; maybe she feels that, as a woman in leadership, she can’t show too much emotion.

Whatever the reason, she has fronted her government’s response to Covid-19 with stony stoicism at a time when even the stiffest upper-lipped have felt teary more than once.

Yesterday, that public facade cracked. Just a hairline fracture but one that made for a very human moment. Sturgeon was two-thirds through an epic 90-minute First Minister’s Questions when it happened. Labour’s Neil Findlay prefaced his question by noting that his mum was in a care home, and that’s probably what did it.

‘Why on Earth are we continuing to discharge patients from hospital to care homes without establishing whether or not they are positive for Covid-19?’ he demanded.

Then, in a low, deliberate tone: ‘I am not one that ever pleads with the First Minister but I will now: please stop this practice now to save the lives of residents and the great people who look after them.’

Fair enough, surely, but Sturgeon looked wounded. A few words into her reply, a tremor began to rattle her voice, each syllable arriving with a judder.

‘I don’t think there is a single one of us who does not find this a deeply and profoundly upsetting situation,’ she protested. ‘So please do not ask these questions in a way that suggests we are not all trying to do everything we possibly can to do the right thing.’

There was anger in there, and self-pity, and a flicker of melancholy. As she tried to launch into the substance of her answer, her voice broke and she paused and flipped through her binder, before apologising to the President Officer. An uncomfortable moment to watch and one that nudged a little empathy into you.

Day after day filled with death and unemployment statistics while everyone vies for five minutes of your time to lobby for this constituent or that concern. It must drain the spirit right out of you at the best of times and, coming on the heels of recent events at the other end of the Royal Mile, these have not been the best of times for the First Minister.

The other party leaders continue to hone their ‘new normal’ questioning style. The object is to be robust without sounding like you’re enjoying it. Jackson Carlaw is getting round this problem by posing his queries as though in the drawing room at Downton Abbey. Richard Leonard, who seems to be fashioning his bouncy lockdown barnet after Michael Heseltine, is taking a more direct approach.

‘We welcomed the government’s plans to introduce a test-trace-isolate strategy,’ he noted, ‘although we now have to build up capacity after this approach was abandoned by the government in March.’ Might this be why it was so difficult to know the all-important ‘R number’ for care homes?

Sturgeon dismissed the suggestion, but she must know that people other than Leonard are wondering the same thing. Her government has come under little of the scrutiny applied to its UK counterpart but she cannot rely on a clubbable opposition and a cowed BBC Scotland forever. These questions will have to be answered eventually by an independent public inquiry.

Carlaw gently prodded on the future of the ‘four nations’ strategy, which is fundamentally about constitutional politics even though no one will admit it. Nationalists have wanted Scotland to go its own way from the start while Unionists mither about a lockdown exit (or any future measures) that depart from the approach decided in Whitehall.

What a country. We’ve even managed to make pandemic suppression a Yes vs No issue.

‘Some people seem to have a lot more angst about this UK-wide approach than I do,’ Sturgeon retorted. Which is as close to a guarantee as you’ll get that we’re going to abandon the UK-wide approach.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at 

In this time of darkness, everyone can be a beacon of hope


Human beings have the capacity for great cruelty, and we know all about that. A skim through the paper or a glance at the nightly news is all you need to remind you of man’s inhumanity to man.

What, though, of man’s benevolence to man? We hear much less about that. Coronavirus has brought out instincts far more potent than our worst traits: the impulse to do right by others and the need to play our part. Crisis has, in most of us, hushed selfishness and envy and rekindled old-fashioned sounding but truly timeless values like community, neighbourliness and social duty.

To understand what I’m talking about, just look at Mail Force, a charity set up by this newspaper to secure essential personal protective equipment for NHS staff. I doubt the Daily Mail ever expected to turn itself into an NGO but it is a paper that enjoys a special connection to its readers. It knew without asking that they were worried about their doctors and nurses and knew they wanted desperately to help them. Mail Force was a ship already at full capacity before a single sheet of steel had been welded to the hull.

Mail Force has already seen £1 million worth of PPE handed over to the NHS and total donations exceed £5 million. More than 12,000 Daily Mail readers have donated £500,000 between them, and that’s just through the website. In excess of a thousand cheques have arrived at the registered charity. When need presents, thousands of Mail readers have risen to meet it.

They have not risen alone. Sir Brian Souter, founder of Stagecoach, has stepped in to match their contributions up to £500,000. Sir Brian is just one of the leading UK philanthropists to use his wealth to assist good causes right now. Over the weekend, Harry Potter author JK Rowling donated £1 million to charities Crisis, which helps the homeless, and Refuge, which supports victims of domestic violence. The most vulnerable won’t be forgotten thanks to her generosity.

Businesses large and small are pitching in, too. Mobile giant EE is giving NHS staff free unlimited data until October while Tesco has donated £1 million in cash and £15 million in groceries to food banks.

Edinburgh-based gin distillery Leith Spirits has switched to producing hand sanitiser which it is providing free to frontline health workers and care staff. Asiyah and Jawad Javed, owners of the Day-Today Express corner shop in Stenhousemuir, have been handing out free face masks and antibacterial products to their elderly customers and even delivering to those who can’t leave their homes.

People on modest incomes and those with a fair few pennies, companies with international reach and tiny shops just down the road — all are to be found in this collective effort.

Then there are stories that just floor you. Hassan Akkad was a teacher in Syria until he was arrested and tortured repeatedly for attending pro-democracy marches. In 2015, he made it to Britain and has since become an award-winning documentary film-maker. Only you won’t find Hassan in an editing booth these days: he is a volunteer cleaner at London’s Whipps Cross Hospital, where he scrubs down the Covid-19 wards to make them safe for patients and medics.

‘I feel as though I’m doing my bit and looking after my community in the place I call home since I left Syria,’ he explained. What courage it takes to volunteer for the frontline against a deadly pandemic, what modestly to describe it as merely ‘doing my bit’.

Doing-my-bit-ism is the closest thing Britain has to a national ideology. Until recently, it was fashionable to sneer at our enduring attachment to ‘Blitz spirit’ as self-aggrandising exceptionalism or sinister nostalgia. Commentators linked an inflated perception of our global influence and even the decision to vote for Brexit to a false memory of ‘Britain standing alone’ in 1940. But that is not what most of us have in mind when we talk about Blitz spirit. We are not talking about standing alone but about standing together. Blitz spirit is as much about 1945 and the compassionate society we came together to create in the aftermath of war as it is pride in the stoicism of our parents and grandparents who endured the wrath of the Luftwaffe.

Doing-my-bit-ism is Blitz spirit in action and you see it in the final-year nursing students who have flooded hospital wards, eager to support the health service to which they have dedicated themselves, and in Greenock semiconductor producer Diodes, which has donated 17,000 face masks to medics and carers. You see it too in Zane Powles, assistant headmaster at Western Primary School in Grimsby, who is walking five miles every day to deliver lunches to pupils who rely on free school meals.

Everyone can do their bit, however big or small that is, and we must not lose sight of how much good each of us can do.

Covid-19 brings grave illness and death to the weakest and among its petty malices is turning a hug into a risk and separating families from loved ones in their final hours. Less remarked upon but almost as deadly is the impact on our collective psyche. By trapping us indoors, by shutting our places of work and worship, by evading scientists seeking a vaccine, coronavirus has driven a sense of futility deep into our souls. It has made us feel helpless at a time when we feel the need to help most keenly.

We must resist the spread of despondency as fiercely as we do the virus itself. ‘No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of it for any one else,’ remarks John Harmon, hero of Dickens’ final novel, Our Mutual Friend. ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’ as it says in an even older book.

There are things we can’t control right now but we should focus on the things we can. We don’t have to see our elderly neighbours struggling alone. A phone call or a yammer over the fence means more than you can imagine to someone in solitary lockdown. Next time you go to pick up your shopping, make up an extra bag for that older lady who lives across the street.

Get out the phonebook (younger readers, ask your parents what one of these is) and call round the churches in your community to see which ones are giving out food to the needy, as my local Catholic parish is. A few tins of cheap baked beans and a bag of pasta will set you back a pound in the supermarket but they will make sure one of your neighbours doesn’t go to bed hungry.

If you can afford it, there are countless charities desperate for donations as coronavirus has driven up demand for their services while keeping their volunteers at home. We forget how much we rely on voluntary organisations to take care of the most vulnerable in society but Covid-19 has delivered a sharp reminder — and a smarting rebuke.

Now local and national government must scramble to fill the gap where charities ordinarily operate, overlooked and under-appreciated. We must never again lose sight of the good they do and their importance to keeping this a caring and decent country.

The late President Bush called the United States ‘a nation of community’ made up of ‘a thousand points of light’ — churches, charities, community groups and civic-minded individuals. The coronavirus crisis has taught us that the world consists of millions, even billions, of points of light, a constellation of compassion twinkling away in the darkest times. No one is helpless who is helping to keep those stars burning.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

Law is a blunt tool for fighting hatred


Good intentions often make bad laws and the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill is chockfull of good intentions.

Introduced by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf on Thursday, the Bill seeks to drive out hatreds in our midst, whether long-understood prejudices such as racism or more modern and contested concepts like ‘transphobia’.

Yousaf says his legislation is ‘an important milestone’ and argues that its passage ‘will send a strong message to victims, perpetrators, communities and to wider society that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated seriously and will not be tolerated’. He is trying, in essence, to make Scotland a hostile environment for hatred.

Many will have sympathy for this ambition. Hatred is atavistic and innate to the human character but so too are empathy and the yearning for justice. Even the flintiest sceptic of state power feels a righteous urge to unleash the thumping might of the law onto a bully or a bigot.

The Hate Crime Bill is born of decent instincts but it is a flawed instrument for their translation into law. For one, it is a kitchen sink law: everything has been thrown into it.

There are provisions for prosecuting those who possess ‘inflammatory material’, and even for hauling actors and directors before a judge if a play they put on is deemed to contain a hate crime.

If passed as is, this would be the most sweeping and authoritarian law of the devolution era. It’s the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, only the entire country has been designated a football match.

The dangers of the Bill lie in Part 2, which proposes a new offence of ‘stirring up hatred’. There are two ways to commit this offence. The first is behaving in ‘a threatening, abusive or insulting manner’ either with the intent to stir up racial hatred or where that is the likely outcome. The second route to prosecution drops the term ‘insulting’ but adds age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and ‘variations in sex characteristics’ as characteristics.

If all this legalese leaves you feeling daunted, you are not alone. My legal education extends no further than repeats of Petrocelli on ITV2 and I am indebted to a learned scholar in helping talk me through this legislation. In simple terms, the Hate Crime Bill builds on the Public Order Act which makes it an offence to ‘stir up racial hatred’ but goes radically beyond the 1986 law’s provisions.

The most immediate problem is the Bill’s use of the phrase ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’. We already have an idea of what constitutes threatening or abusive behaviour thanks to Section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 — but what does ‘insulting’ mean in law? Is it what Americans call ‘fighting words’ – language that is more than just offensive and threatens to ‘incite an immediate breach of the peace’ – or would it cover plain offensiveness?

Imagine, by way of example, that someone pens a disobliging tract about the Welsh. This could be a no-holds-barred polemic or simply a ribald satire that casts the sons of the valleys as workshy, ignorant, inbred and overly fond of certain livestock. Would that fall foul of the Bill as ‘insulting’ to an entire nationality? It certainly reads that way.

Now, you might say insulting the Welsh isn’t nice, and it certainly isn’t, but, absent a probable threat to public order, is it a matter for the police and courts?

There may be a case for adding ‘insulting’ to proscribed behaviour but it would have to be defined with the utmost precision and made clear how it differs from existing prohibitions on threatening and abusive conduct. Alternatively, MSPs could adopt a narrower understanding of race than is currently reflected in law.

This might allow the prosecution of ‘insulting’ speech against racial and ethnic minorities, which can be shown to lead more immediately to violence, without capturing obnoxious but not necessarily harmful rhetoric about nationality.

The next problem with the Bill is its expansion of protected characteristics, including ‘transgender identity’. Safeguarding transgender people against offences motivated by hatred is reasonable but this Bill comes in the middle of a debate about the law on gender identity.

That debate is characterised by robust, often belligerent, rhetoric, especially on social media. In this context, we have to question how ‘abusive’ speech about transgender identity would be treated.

Many radical feminists believe sex is a biological fact of life and cannot be changed either by self-identification or surgical intervention. They contend that men who believe themselves to be women are not in fact women, even if they live their lives as such. Some contend, moreover, that transgender ideology is harmful and rooted in misogyny.

The expression of these views, not least on the instant aggression generator that is Twitter, may well strike some trans people as abusive, and a police officer or procurator fiscal surveying the evidence might agree. There is a reasonable likelihood this legislation, unless more clearly defined, could criminalise one side in an ongoing public discussion about the law.

The Bill throws up more hostages to fortune the more you read it. It contains a section on culpability when an offence is ‘committed during a public performance of a play’ (the director and performer would both be prosecuted), implying a reversion to the bad old days of censorship, with the Crown Office taking on the role of Lord Chamberlain.

There would also be a new offence of ‘possessing inflammatory material’, with or without intent to communicate it. There might be sound reasons for police to intervene where, for example, white nationalists within an area with a large ethnic minority community produced racist leaflets likely to breach the peace.

But what about the atheist artist who sketches an iconoclastic cartoon of a revered religious figure? The Bill purports to shield ‘criticism of religion’ but the most effective criticism is typically profane and insulting in the extreme. Is there a line and, if so, where is it?

The proposed law also refers to culpability when organisations ‘stir up hatred’, defining organisations in the widest possible terms. Could the law be used to prosecute a political party or movement? Could it be used to bring a newspaper editor or proprietor to court? If you think that latter example is far-fetched, the possibility has already been raised by Dr Andrew Tickell, a respected law lecturer and intergenerational Scottish nationalist.

It should be clear by now that this is not a defence of bigotry or a partisan broadside against an SNP piece of legislation. Part I of the Bill, covering offences aggravated by prejudice, is eminently reasonable. Aggravators are not a novel concept and do not create a new offence. Libertarians sometimes argue that they punish what is in an offender’s head but when what is in his head has already escaped via his fists, it is not his viewpoints that are being censured but his actions.

Furthermore, it might be argued that the Bill does not go far enough in places. If we are to head down the path of proscribing the stirring-up of hatred against certain groups, why not include political opinion or cultural identity?

For some Scots, their unionism or nationalism is as intrinsic to their identity as religion is to others. Like faith, political opinion is a choice, but for those who construct their identity around their stance on the constitution, abusing or insulting their national or cultural ideology may be experienced as no less assaultive than speech that demeans evangelical Christians or Roman Catholics.

I am a passionate partisan of free expression and I make no attempt to conceal that. But while I might envision a wider sphere of expressive liberty than many, you need not be a free-speech absolutist to be troubled by the Hate Crime Bill. There may well be a good and reasonable law here but it is currently buried under thickets of unintended consequences and threats to personal freedom.

The Justice Secretary should reconsider his proposals – or MSPs should make him.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at Image: Scottish Government via CC BY-NC 2.0.

Uneasy lies the head that sets a lockdown

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Nicola Sturgeon said she wanted to have ‘a grown-up conversation’ with us. That didn’t sound good. Politicians are never candid if they can help it.

But when the entire country has been turned into a minimum-security prison – one hour of exercise and the occasional day release to Tesco – keeping mum is not an option.

‘A return to normal is not on the cards anytime soon,’ she stated at yesterday’s media briefing. If the current restrictions were lifted too early there was ‘a real risk that Covid-19 runs rampant again’.

Social distancing would be ‘a fact of life for a long time to come’. The rest of this year, at least. Maybe longer.

Matter-of-factly she added: ‘I can’t stand here and promise you it’s going to get a whole lot easier soon.’

Each sentence fell like a blow. If lockdown has you skull-hollow bored but not quite so bored as to tune in to these daily briefings, understand that they are not sunshine and lollipops affairs.

But they generally deal with technical matters: infection figures, hospital admissions, statistical methodology updates. This one was about the horizon and how far away it is.

Sturgeon was blunt. Mass quarantine was ‘doing harm to the economy and living standards’ but it had to be done because of ‘R’.

Here came an impromptu science lesson. ‘R’ is what epidemiologists call the basic reproductive number: the rate at which one person spreads Covid-19 to others. The experts’ estimate was that, prior to lockdown, everyone who caught coronavirus passed it on to three others.

To get a contagion like this under control, Sturgeon explained, you need an R number as far below one as possible. Scotland, in the best case scenario, was currently between R0.6 and R1.

I never liked science at school and this is why. Science’s idea of hope always involves a decimal point and a margin of error.

The First Minister told us to ready ourselves for a ‘new normal’. How gratingly buzzwordish is that phrase, how ominously ubiquitous, and yet how glumly inevitable.

‘New normal’ is where we’re going to spend the next few years and soon enough we will yearn to be as abnormal as can be. Sturgeon’s expression was firm and her cadence sober. She is the one who must tell an entire country it cannot hug its grandparents.

The strain isn’t showing yet but it’s there. In an unguarded moment, and in response to a question from the BBC’s Glenn Campbell, she shared a private doubt: ‘If you’d asked me a month ago or so if I was confident that people would comply as well as they have with the lockdown, I might have said I hoped so but inside I’m not sure I would have been as confident.’

When Henry IV laments that ‘nature’s soft nurse’ soothes his poorest subjects but will not ‘weight my eyelids down/ And steep my senses in forgetfulness’, he isn’t being a self-pity merchant.

The head that wears a crown in times like these must lie very uneasy indeed.

Asked if she would keep families apart over Christmas, Sturgeon’s steady tone tore up a rough road.

‘I’m not cancelling Christmas, okay?’ She felt ‘no irritation or frustration at the media’, she claimed, but she plainly did.

No politician wants to sound like the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (‘…and call off Christmas!’) but, she conceded, while ‘Christmas will happen’, it ‘may happen slightly differently’ this year.

The Mail’s Rachel Watson observed that the former chief medical officer had given an overall number of Covid-19 infections a month ago: 65,000, to wit.

What was that number now? Sturgeon refused to give ‘precise numbers’. We had to wait for data, not rely on ‘extrapolations’.

The answer hung there with an unsatisfying grumble. You cannot turn frank conversation on and off when it suits.

Talk to us like grown-ups, First Minister, and we’ll have grown-up questions for you.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: Contact Stephen at