FMQs: Model exercise in holding government to account

Leaders all did their jobs at First Minister's Questions.

By its very nature, it invites confrontation and on days when judgements are poor and tempers are frayed it can deliver parliamentary aggro by the barrow load.

First Minister’s Questions (FMQs) has in recent times led to a drop of the pen over the notepad as, I think, there is something just plain wrong in the tone of these exchanges at a time of national crisis.

Everyone has been guilty of crossing a line that, in the circumstances, has appeared to make grief a political commodity by getting the tone wrong.

Today, I thought every leader did their job.

The opposition were persistent and direct in their criticism of the government’s handling of the Covid crisis in care homes and the FM managed to keep irritability to a minimum as she took full responsibility for the government’s handling of the pandemic in a measured response to what she acknowledged were legitimate criticisms.

Nicola Sturgeon admitted the government will have got things wrong along the way, telling MSPs that a full public inquiry will look at all aspects of her administration’s handling of the public health crisis.

Today was not the day, she said, to be raking over a remit for that inquiry in an answer that would have found an echo in the line that Boris Johnson has deployed when asked about this in the House of Commons.

The FM can be masterful in the art of holding a line when assailed by uncomfortable statistics and charges that have more than a ring of credibility.

She did so again today in a performance that allowed her to debate her way out of trouble, but still left the clear view that the points Ruth Davidson and Richard Leonard made pointed to huge gaps in the strategy to stop Covid spreading in care homes.

Leonard said that at least 1200 people had been discharged from hospital to care homes without being tested for Covid with, of course, potentially fatal consequences.

Davidson said those who were bereaved wanted to know how Covid got into care homes in the first place. As they coped with grief she said the bereaved deserved answers.

The defence was threefold: ministers had no insight into individual clinical decisions, guidance on discharge has evolved and a full picture over the numbers discharged from hospital and what tests were carried out would be compiled by the end of September.

The FM told MSPs that pictures from abroad had shown hospitals overwhelmed with patients and at the start of the pandemic she simply did not know if they would cope.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears clinicians wanted patients discharged as soon as possible. The point is that if many were untested, that action, no matter how well intentioned, acted as a catalyst for a catastrophe elsewhere.

And, of course, what did ministers know about this and what did they do? Sturgeon made the obvious point that she and her colleagues don’t micromanage clinical decisions.

There is a point on whether the guidance in place at the time was robust or not. The opposition think not and clearly believe minsters were not on top of the problem.

The FM thinks it is bad politics to draw sweeping conclusions when the government is still trying to fully understand why matters developed as they did.

Today, the opposition fulfilled their role. They held the government to account, robustly and appropriately, and the exchanges did not feel off in a manner that would have depressed an elector struggling with grief who watched on trying to make sense of what happened to their loved one.

Before we got to questions we had a full statement on the latest Covid situation. We remain in phase three of lifting lockdown and, in a clear steer that the brakes are well and truly on, were told at the next formal review of matters in three weeks it is unlikely that we will move to phase four.

In a world were greater movement and activity means greater risk of transmission, that means that the default position remains working from home in what could be seen as the quid pro quo for keeping schools open.

The all important ‘R’ number – which measures spread of the virus – could now be above one, local outbreaks are being identified as was always expected and the priority remains to prevent a cluster becoming an infection and an infection becoming an outbreak.

The announcements today according to the FM were “careful and balanced”. The green light was given to reopening gyms and swimming pools, but police will be given new powers to break up house parties and councils will be given the authority to close down local premises breaking existing guidelines.

The strategy of carrot and stick is still very much in evidence. Softly, softly remains the over-riding feeling.

From today, I took it we are still some way off the new normal that moving to phase four would herald.