FM’s ‘look beyond’ could not disguise bleak future of restrictions

Nicola Sturgeon's upbeat words could not disguise the fact that the current lockdown restrictions are set to remain in Scotland.

FM’s ‘look beyond’ could not disguise bleak future of restrictions Getty Images

At an update today to MSPs Nicola Sturgeon did something unusual. She contemplated life beyond the virus. She said she looked forward to talking about Covid in the past tense.

To bolster her more upbeat point she argued that individuals – and indeed the country more generally – is not alone in fighting it, further arguing that people are not powerless in the face of a greatly restricted lifestyle. Sticking to rules would defeat the silent enemy. And as she has done before she made a plea for love, kindness and solidarity.

This ‘look beyond’ could not disguise the fact that the current lockdown restrictions are set to remain. Indeed Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat Leader told the First Minister that the current package of restrictions was unlikely to materially affect the ‘R’ number. In that case, the FM said she would not hesitate to introduce additional restrictions.

Her answer to Mr Rennie, taken with the general tone of the statement on what may lie on the horizon tells me that the coming months could be hard. Pubs and restaurants in the most populous parts of Scotland are looking forward to reopening their doors on October 26. My distinct impression from this update is that this will prove an unrealised ambition.

It will take several weeks to assess whether the current restrictions lead to a material impact on the number of infections. If in a fortnight, it is too early to be definitive, it does not take much working out that the current measures will be extended.

Worse still, if Mr Rennie is right and the R number remains well above 1, then the Scottish Government will be forced to look at even more restrictive measures. Retailers in particular will look anxiously at these briefings in the coming fortnight for they are bound to be on the radar of any further tightening of movement by the general public.

Still refinements to the strategy come. Face coverings no longer need to be worn by those getting married or entering civil partnerships but workers will need to wear masks when moving around corridors or around the staff canteen.

As part of the £40m package of help for businesses affected by the restrictions, local authorities will distribute half of that fund in grants from next week. That will involve a tussle with bureaucracy for owners already reeling from closure which regrettably does not look as if it will end anytime soon.

Business craves certainty. The reality is that it is the last thing the Government can give them. So they try and plan as best they can, worry about the short to medium term and have to live all the time with the stress of never ending shifting sands which threaten to engulf them with the next change.

Unless you run a business and live with the fear of going under no-one can possibly understand what owners are going through. I certainly cannot bring myself to imagine the emotional trauma that comes from feeling an obligation to staff, customers and one’s own livelihood, as a way of life is threatened by something which is not your fault.

Back at today’s ‘virtual’ question time, wonky technics and all, the FM continued to explain as Ruth Davidson deplored the fact that people were contracting the virus in hospital leading to the closure of wards. Richard Leonard quoted the advice from SAGE that multiple circuit breakers might be needed in the months ahead and he deplored that the Government introduced measures without consultation.

Sturgeon rejected the idea that the Government had moved too slowly, defended test and protect against the charge of ‘dangerous delays’ and sought to reassure that hospitals were doing all they can to limit the spread of the virus within wards.

Today’s exchanges revealed yet again the difficulty for all leaders in the accountability stakes. They have to explain and defend what happens on the ground in wards, care homes, testing centres, whilst all the time hoping that others charged with delivery are up to the task.

In politics ministers set policy parameters but as Covid demonstrates they are liable for the shortcomings for those charged with implementing or in some cases not implementing policy.

One final thought. The four nations approach appears to have waned, destroyed it would seem by a combination of discrete circumstances and wider disagreement.

Northern Ireland is now in the acutest lockdown anywhere in the UK. The Welsh First Minister is at the end of his patience with the alleged non engagement of the Prime Minister on restricting cross border movements between England and Wales. And the Scottish Government routinely criticise the stimulus measures on the economy as inadequate.

It seems this divergent path will continue if only because circumstances are not uniform. Words on a common approach appear to be just that. And of course at Westminster the gap between Government and Opposition on restrictive measures is now unbridgeable.

The last thing the public expect is politicians squabbling during a pandemic. Alas, that appears to be where we are now at.