Tetchy exchanges at FMQs as lockdown fatigue sets in

It is the issue of schools and how they will reopen that is exercising pupils, parents - and politicians.

Tetchy exchanges at FMQs as lockdown fatigue sets in

It was inevitable the longer lockdown goes on that fatigue would set in, an impatience with the status quo and a yearning to get back to normal.

The issue that is now exercising pupils, parents and today the Holyrood tribunes is when full time education will return.

The unbridgeable gulf between a First Minister who is studiously risk-averse on the public health front and opposition politicians venting the frustration of constituents was laid bare today.

You always detect an undercurrent of niggle whenever Jackson Carlaw and Nicola Sturgeon eye one another at these weekly jousts. At lunchtime that current was almost electrically charged.

Carlaw wasn’t quite in full bruiser mode – given the subject matter that wouldn’t be wise – but he was pretty full-on in his denunciation of the First Minister.

Where’s the plan for schools to reopen full time? He demanded to know. As soon as it was safe, came what proved to be a stock reply.

Nicola Sturgeon, who is not normally slow in mixing it, preferred a combination of patient if long-winded answers punctured by the wearing of an impatient face which occasionally was even suggestive of exasperation.

Carlaw was undeterred. He called for testing capacity to be increased so that opening schools in full in August was achievable. Sturgeon hit back that she would “move heaven and earth” to get schools back to normal.

The Scottish Tory leader retorted that other countries had already moved heaven and earth, this government had not. Back came the riposte that the countries he mentioned were not back to normal at all.

It then got ever so slightly personal. “The country is looking at you impatiently,” claimed Carlaw as he became more voluble, quoting a parent who said that careers can be furloughed but children could not.

The implication that the FM was playing fast and loose with the prospects of children was too much for Sturgeon. She said her opponent’s approach revealed more “about his character and ability” than hers, which she said was not an appealing picture.

The Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard continued the theme, demanding councils be given the resources to do their job. He accused ministers of giving out mixed messages on schools, saying Nicola Sturgeon had no clarity on the issue, no route map to the start of full-time education. She had contradicted her deputy John Swinney, her advisers and herself.

The First Minister always chimes a less strident tone with Mr Leonard, perhaps recognition that his party pose little threat to the SNP on current showing.

She told him that she had previously committed to spending what it takes in an obvious suggestion he has not been paying attention. The First Minister ignored one of Mr Leonard’s more telling points. The Scottish Government promised 25,000 laptops for home learning, but he claimed not a single device had been issued.

The most significant contribution I thought came from Willie Rennie, in part because it was asked matter-of-factly and secondly, because it could not be answered.

He pointed out many people would be going back to work but children might be spending four days a week at home when they would normally be in school.

People can’t choose between their jobs and their kids, he told MSPs, saying the First Minister had an obligation to “work out who is to care for their children”.

Nicola Sturgeon said a global pandemic had put parents in the horns of this dilemma, not the government. In that, she is most certainly correct. Uncomfortably for her, so too is Mr Rennie.

Tomorrow will likely see the formal announcement of the moving to phase two out of lockdown. It will represent a little more cheer even if it will only gently massage the fatigue.

The government’s focus is still on public health whereas businesses, and I daresay parents, are now looking beyond the issue of health and to what the coming months hold.

The next six weeks will be yet another test of the nerve of the Scottish Government, especially if it involves relaying messages likely to frustrate. That sell will be all the more difficult if businesses in England are opened up and the Prime Minister moves on the issue of the two-metre distance rule.

The First Minister, almost in a throwaway remark today, referred to “the politics of these issues”. Lockdown fatigue is now political and it will get even more intense with every passing week.

It is only correct to state that although the death rate from Covid-19 has fallen in Scotland for the seventh week in a row and deaths are running at one-ninth of what they were at peak, our fellow citizens are still dying.

That’s the sobering thought that should shake us out of any fatigue.