The pandemic responses of the two governments: compared
Writing: Adam Losekoot
The current crisis has given us all a great deal of time to think and reflect upon current events and how our various leaders have been handling these challenges, and after such reflection I have come to what I believe is a fairly concrete conclusion: Never before have the contrasts between the Scottish and UK governments been greater, particularly with regards to communication.
Where the scottish government has remained consistent in it’s simple messaging and focus on having a ‘grown up conversation’ with everyone listening, answering each and every question at the daily briefings and working constructively with other groups, parties and countries (we need only look at the plane which arrived from China on Sunday 19th April carrying over 10 million pieces of PPE for Scottish healthcare workers to see proof of this - a further plane has since landed carrying additional equipment) to help deal with the challenges we currently find ourselves facing. A few hundred miles to the south meanwhile, our illustrious PM seems to have committed himself to the opposite. His government has opted out of EU initiatives to collectively source PPE and develop strategies to counter this virus, citing Brexit as a good enough excuse to isolate Britain more and more from the rest of the world. We could be mistaken for assuming that Johnson’s disregard for the EU and commitment to Brexit comes before any other policy - even in times such as these.
To build on this, our understanding of the events regarding the EU Joint Procurements scheme and the UK’s (lack of) involvement seems to be changing on an almost daily basis. At first, we were told they didn’t know anything about it. Then the government said they didn’t get the email. Then they claimed they had gotten the email but hadn’t seen it until it was too late. Next the story was that they had seen the email in time but had decided not to get involved. And now it turns out that the UK government participated in the first 4 meetings before changing their minds. This story is changing faster than the rules to a child’s game of tig. As it stands at time of writing, we know that the government was involved in these meetings for a period of time and the European Commission has clearly stated that the UK was fully aware of the coronavirus Joint Procurement initiative back at the end of January and our leaders then decided not to participate. Why they decided not to participate isn’t clear yet and Downing Street is yet to abandon the narrative that it was ‘an accident’ despite strong evidence to the contrary.
Furthermore, the damning article from The Times which exposes the Prime Minister for failing to attend no less than 5 COBRA meetings in February, preferring to spend his time in Chequers instead has just been released. This amongst numerous other counts of Johnson’s dereliction of his duties to the public which he claims to represent, suggests an utter lack of anything resembling care or empathy for the people of the UK. Luckily, they sent out the most competent, calm, consistent person to reassure us that this was completely normal, the PM had still been up to date on everything that was going on and could still lead the country effectively no matter where he was – is what I wish I could say. Instead they gave us Michael Gove. He appeared on Andrew Marr where he assured us that everything was actually okay because the article made some points that were “a little bit off-beam”. Thank goodness for that. Here I was, concerned that the Prime Minister couldn’t bring himself to attend 5 COBRA meetings as the looming prospect of a global health crisis became increasingly urgent instead whittling away precious time to get ahead of the virus at his holiday home and not, you know, making preparations for that global health crisis thing.
The Prime Minister has been even more absent over the last few weeks and months than during the General Election. This includes the period of time before he was reported to have contracted Covid-19, in which he was hardly a fixture at his own briefings, instead we have been treated to a who’s-who of Tory ministers in some bizarre decision which we can only assume was decided by pulling straws. Scotland’s First Minister on the other hand has held almost all of her own briefings (the only exceptions to this are the Sunday briefings which are held by the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, Jeane Freeman), even online versions of First Ministers Questions and questions to the Health Secretary from the other Scottish party leaders and equivalents since this began. The Scottish government established a helpline very early on in the outbreak for healthcare workers to voice concerns and place orders for the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which they so vitally need and thankfully managed to prevent some of the shortages of such equipment which have been seen in England recently.
Following the PMs discharge from hospital, I for one was intrigued to see what he would say in his first briefing. To hear how he would reassure our 4 countries and assure the public that his government would be working day and night to see off this pandemic. To hear him apologise for the disgusting way his party has treated the NHS and promise to put it right following all they had done for him – instead he fucked off to Chequers. Other public servants who have been seen to be flaunting government advice and travelling to holiday homes have been spoken to by the police and made to apologise publicly. The same public outrage that Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer (quite rightly) faced for the same action should now be directed at the Prime Minister.
Nicola Sturgeon’s government, meanwhile, has set up a taskforce to look into how best to reopen the country and the economy once this is all over and is resisting the ‘advice’ from certain individuals (cough, cough, Toby Young, cough, cough) within the media who think we should all go back to work and school tomorrow. In Sturgeon and the Scottish government we have something which is under threat in western democracies; something which the far right often (wrongly) claim a moratorium on; something which the UK government and their role models in the United States are either sorely lacking or perhaps just ashamedly slow to embrace: common sense. It shouldn’t be radical to want to keep people alive. It shouldn’t be radical to listen to the scientists and experts Gove stupidly claimed we were all sick of in 2016, least of all when we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Furthermore, from the Scottish Government we are receiving that most basic of rights which all governments owe their citizens: Transparency. At the Scottish government briefings there is no dodging of questions, there is no false hope, no blustering, no waffle. If, and when, the First Minister and the advisers she shares the podium with don’t know the answer to a question, they say that. They explain why they have made their decisions and respond to questions in detail and at length. Rather than the soundbites and talking points we are bombarded with at 5pm each day. The National Records of Scotland figures for deaths in Scotland are reported to the public on a weekly basis and these include deaths where Covid-19 is suspected, not just confirmed cases and not just deaths in hospitals. This is the kind of breakdown we need to be seeing at a UK level.
Rather than shouting about ‘British Bulldog Spirit’ and telling us to ‘take it on the chin’ the Scottish government are doing their jobs and paying heed to what the scientists are saying. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) are a small group of scientists who are advising the UK government on how to handle the pandemic – yet Johnson’s cabinet ministers are refusing to divulge what their discussions are, refusing to release the minutes of their meetings and for far too long refused even to release who is on the group. The few members we were aware of had come out publicly of their own accord – with the exception of England’s chief medical officer and the government’s chief scientific officer (who we’d assume would have been involved anyway so it doesn’t really count for much).Since the full list has come out however, we have made the rather stark discovery that, naturally, Dominic Cummings is a part of this ‘independent’ group. To put it simply, there is no place for a spin doctor in a room full of experts discussing the best strategy to counter a global pandemic, a virus cannot be beaten with slogans, soundbites and smear campaigns - he should not be there. Now it has to be considered if he has enough influence to be changing the focus of these discussions and ensuring that he is not altering any policies or ruling out certain strategies to counter the virus which may turn public opinion against the PM. Previously, SAGE have published information and papers on the outbreak, releasing evidence for the importance of a lockdown as recently as 26 March, but there has been nothing since. Why are we not allowed to know what they have been discussing? The government claims it is an issue of national security and they are right, but for once we are all on the same side: there isn’t anyone who is actually backing the virus. Releasing even a loose breakdown of some of the information and conclusions SAGE have reached won’t tip Covid-19 off about how they plan to suppress it. The government has been asked to release this information repeatedly, yet when Matt Hancock was asked this very question the day parliament reopened by Labour’s shadow health secretary, he sidestepped it entirely. Surely it would help people better understand the guidance and restrictions that the government has to impose in order to protect people? Surely it would mean people were less resistant to these necessary measures, making the jobs of all frontline workers easier and safer?
Until they do release this information, we can only guess at what the reasons are. Let us never forget that this is the government who, for an ashamedly long time, refused to deviate from their focus on a herd immunity strategy which has been reported to be contrary to much of the scientific advice the government as receiving, committing instead to let the virus rip through the population – exposing the ill, the frail and the immunocompromised. This is the government who knew that this meant condemning an unspeakable number of people; mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children rather than let the economy or their stocks take a hit. This is the government which has been found to be operating at least 128 fake twitter accounts posing as real NHS staff (using pictures of genuine current and former NHS staff) which were pushing support for this same herd immunity policy.
This is a global crisis, the decisions our political leaders make now, and how they interact with the public, the information they share and how honest they are has never been so important. Politics and tribalism cannot continue as normal during this period and I recognise that may sound hypocritical coming at the end of everything I have said up to this point, but we must remain critical of our governments and hold them to account. The Scottish government has not been perfect either; it took time to build up provisions of PPE and to set up the systems which are, so far, working to prevent shortages. The return of parliament and Prime Minister’s Questions is certainly welcome but the Prime Minister’s absence should be utterly condemned. The fact that Johnson has taken so long to emerge from Chequers, avoiding his fellow parliamentarians, the public or the media is unacceptable. We need our politicians and leaders to be present and working harder than they ever have been before. More than anything, we need transparency.