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23/June/2021 | View in browser
Has Sturgeon's pivot come too late?

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pivoted. She would not admit to that, but the evidence is clear, and it's important that it is documented, because it may well mark a before and after moment in the Scottish Government's response to this crisis.

First, the 'before'. On 2 March, following an emergency Cobra meeting, the First Minister announced the "sign-off of a four nations action plan". On 8 March, Sturgeon said that there was "no substantive difference" between the UK Government and Scottish Government's approach to tackling The Coronavirus: "The whole UK is still in the ‘contain’ phase, but with an increasing focus on a phased shift to the ‘delayphase which is when we consider measures to slow down spread of the virus and reduce numbers of people infected at any one time."

On 15 March, Sturgeon repeated that she was seeking to take decisions on a "consistent UK four nations basis". The National Clinical Director Jason Leitch was explicit one day later that "community testing and contact-tracing was halted for the containment phase" in accord with the UK Government.

Last Monday, 13 April, there was sign of some movement. The First Minister said if the "evidence" suggested she should do something differently from the rest of UK or at a different time, she would "not hesitate to do so". The implication was still that she believed the evidence pointed to the UK Government making the correct decisions at the right time so far, thus there had been no need to do something differently, yet.

Then Sturgeon's language changed. On Tuesday she started to talk for the first time of "suppressing" the virus. The word "delay" was gone. Two days later, she explicitly laid out the case in a speech at St Andrew's House for "testing and surveillance, contact tracing and isolation of people with symptoms". On Friday, she went even further, opening a route to breaking rank with the UK Government.

Whereas five weeks previously she spoke of "no substantive difference", now Sturgeon was outlining a comprehensive list of ways the Scottish Government had done things "slightly" differently so far.

"We banned mass gatherings slightly earlier, we announced the closer of schools slightly earlier, the lockdown came at the same time for the UK but Scotland was slightly earlier in the infection curve at that point, and we’ve taken a slightly tougher line on business closure, construction being an example," she said.

The language of a "consistent UK four nations basis" has been watered down to "carefully and collaboratively and closely to align our thinking and decision with the Welsh, UK and Northern Irish governments".

But each government was "at different stages of the infection curve", she said, and therefore "where the evidence, with judgment applied to it, drives us in [a] slightly different direction" it would be "logical and sensible" to take a different approach.

On Saturday evening, The Sunday Times bombshell story broke. To re-cap: Prime Minister Boris Johnson had missed five Cobra meetings across the whole month of February. The UK was warned on 24 January by LSE professor Neil Ferguson that there would likely need to be a lockdown to cut transmission. Britain was not ready for the pandemic because years of austerity had undermined it's world-leading pandemic response system to the extent that PPE stock was insufficient and out-of-date. Then government didn't react in February to enact its response plan, while Singapore - a country that based its pandemic response on copying the UK - did, and successfully suppressed the virus early on. The UK got off to a quick start in contact tracing and testing Covid-19 in early February but gave up that advantage because they were planning for a flu pandemic based on "herd immunity", and therefore believed it did not require mass testing. Even after a further report in late February stating nearly 400,000 would die if no strict social distancing was imposed, it was not until nearly one month after - 23 March - that Britain went into lockdown. It was more than a week after that, 1 April, that Health Secretary Matt Hancock approached the organisation which represents the majority of British testing suppliers about mass testing.

The First Minister has not responded to this story yet, but on the same evening she did challenge a front-cover story in the same paper about schools re-opening in three weeks' time: "Decisions need to be solidly based and not premature. We don’t yet know what will be possible and when. The Scottish Government
will set out as soon as possible the factors that will guide decisions, but as/when we lift restrictions, we must be able to suppress virus in different ways, for example: test, trace, isolate."

One can interpret Sturgeon's pivot in different ways, but the reasoning is less important than the fact that it is an observable shift, which appears to be laying the groundwork for a possible strategic rupture with Johnson, a Prime Minister who appears to have had an almost criminally negligent attitude to Covid-19 at the start of the outbreak.

This shift is surely good news, but let's be clear: a terrible toll has already been paid. As Helen Ward, professor of Public Health at Imperial College London,
has written, there were eleven fateful days from 12 March (the day contact tracing and testing was abandoned) to 23 March (the day of a full lockdown) in which  "tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of people will have been infected...The current best estimate is around one per cent of those infected will die."

The question which may haunt the First Minister when this crisis is over is: 'Why did I not doubt Boris Johnson sooner?'
Ben Wray, Source Direct
Top Story
Construction of Scotland's temporary Coronavirus hospital, NHS Louisa Jordan, has been completed in just 18 days. The facility at the SEC in Glasgow will be ready to receive Covid-19 patients from today. It will provide an additional 1,036 ICU beds, but will be operating on a 'phased' basis, depending on service demand.

Meanwhile, a plane carrying 10 million face masks, infusion pumps and laboratory kit landed in Prestwick Airport from China on Saturday.

Jim Miller, director of procurement, commissioning and facilities at NHS National Services Scotland (NSS), said the delivery was "a result of a painstaking collective effort involving multiple partners working together to provide our NHS and social care colleagues with the PPE they need to keep them safe."

Deaths from Covid-19 in Scotland have risen to 903, with 1,797 people in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19. 174 of those are in intensive care.


On the ground

We are keen to hear from subscribers about their experiences on the ground during this crisis. You can get in touch at ben@common.scot.

A Source Direct subscriber e-mailed in to highlight positive work that is being done in responding to the crisis:

"A dear friend in West Dunbartonshire is ‘shielded’ and received her letter a few weeks ago and is receiving food deliveries as required. She has also had a phone call offering support and prescription delivery from the Council. She feels well supported so it’s not all bad out there.

"Another older friend is in a Glasgow City Council care home and they closed their doors to all visitors from the beginning to shield residents as best they could, sad for us but best for residents and staff safety.

"I work in homeless accommodation in South Lanarkshire and we have been supplied with PPE from the start and our service users receive regular food deliveries from the Council.

"I think it’s helpful for people to know that there are many parts of the system that are working well to protect people. It’s not all doom and gloom. Hope this is helpful."




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Other news

  • The Planetary Science Group at the University of Aberdeen has built a ventilator to help treat the most severe cases of Covid-19. The team has used skills needed to develop life support systems for planned space missions to create the prototype, which they are looking to get certified so it can be deployed. They hope it will be quick and cheap enough to build in countries with underdeveloped health systems. (BBC)
  • The UK has made "significant stocks" of PPE available to British-administered tax havens. Buried in a Health department report published by the UK Government last week, it states "Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories" are getting support. It comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock has admitted providing sufficient PPE provisions is "challenging". (The National)
  • Pupils from Scotland's richest areas are more likely to leave school with five Highers than those from the poorest areas are to leave with one, new figures show. An FoI has revealed that in 2018-19 almost half (48.4 per cent) of pupils from the most affluent 20 per cent of areas left school with five Highers, while just 43.5 per cent in the most deprived 20 per cent of areas left school with one Higher. (The Times)
  • An emergency appeal has been launched to support unpaid carers in the UK, of which estimates suggest there are between 700,000 to 800,000 in Scotland alone. The Carers Trust is looking to provide grants of any amount up to £300 for those who are struggling, and are looking for donations. Carers Trust say they have seen inquiries from unpaid carers double since the crisis began, many of whom say they are struggling to juggle financial and caring demands in lockdown. (STV)
  • Ten senior doctors have said it would be "dangerous" to go ahead with plans to open part of the Edinburgh Sick Kids hospital. The intensive care consultants said they wanted the 11 May re-location delayed, saying they were "very concerned" about the plan. The controversial new hospital, built through a private finance consortium, was delayed last year after ventilation concerns were identified shortly before the opening was due to take place. (Daily Record)
  • Friends of the Earth Scotland and the Scottish Greens have said a debate should take place about how improvements in air quality seen during lockdown in Scotland can be sustained afterwards, including the potential for some workers to work from home more often. The comments came after data from Scottish Air Quality found that readings of nitrogen dioxide at hotspots in Scottish cities had fallen sharply since the lockdown began. (The Herald)
 
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Around and about the Scottish media
- Economist Alfredo Saad-Filho argues neoliberalism has left the world exposed to a predictable, and predicted, threat (Conter)

- George Kerevan says Nicola Sturgeon needs to surround herself with radical thinkers at this time (The National)
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