Tone matters as leaders debate under shadow of Covid

Coronavirus frustration dominates First Minister's Questions.

Tone matters as leaders debate under shadow of Covid /Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Nicola Sturgeon is well used to telling MSPs that every decision taken as part of the government’s Covid strategy is based on advice from experts. It has been a stock in trade answer for months now.

It was used again today as opposition politicians relayed the frustrations of many as people start to question the range of rules in place. Or indeed, in some cases, the gap between what a rule encourages or prohibits with the reality of what is happening.

Yesterday saw a demonstration outside parliament as those who have loved ones in care homes complained about not being given adequate access to their nearest and dearest.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, raised the case of Cathie Russell, who has “not hugged or held hands with her mother for five months”.

Rennie told the First Minister she can’t wait any longer. Her mother comes into contact with multiple carers but not her own daughter.

The FM cautioned Rennie about his tone. He shouldn’t personalise the issue as if this was a case of the FM personally going around making life as difficult as possible for people.

She said the guidance on care home visits is under constant review. It was not what Rennie wanted to hear even if she reassured MSPs that 40% of care homes were allowing indoor visits.

This issue, emotive and as sensitive as it is, goes to the heart of the problem with governing: making tough and difficult calls which will upset, frustrate and even hurt many at a time when all they crave is respite.

As with everything it is caution first, second, last with the FM. Change the guidance and open up the care homes more freely and you release that frustration. If in the future it is seen to be the wrong call, then you have to explain why you did it in the first place.

Richard Leonard raised the concerns of workers in residential childcare units in Glasgow who have been told to self-isolate after coming into contact with a youngster who has tested positive. But he claimed they have also been told by their employer, the health board, to go to work.

“This is not safe,” said Leonard. Nicola Sturgeon agreed to look into the issue – one of many that this pandemic throws up and which creates the sense that common sense is not always the hallmark of every situation.

He then raised the concerns of home care workers, half of whom according to their trade union have never been tested. Sturgeon responded that 30,000 are routinely tested every week.

And right there is another issue with governing: the gulf between what statistics say and the experience and first-hand knowledge of people on the ground. If you are a care home worker and have never been tested or have struggled to get adequate PPE, then ministerial assurances amount to very little, since as far as you are concerned the answer is utterly abstract.

For the Scottish Greens, Alison Johnstone wanted the FM to bring to the chamber a new testing strategy since “the UK programme is collapsing”. Since capacity issues are linked to a UK-wide laboratory system, Nicola Sturgeon had to be seen to be constructive, since ultimately all of the nations of the UK have to work on this issue. Another problem of governing: defending a system where you share responsibility.

Ruth Davidson, who leads for the Scottish Tories at FMQs, wisely decided to steer clear of the issue of testing. Given Boris Johnson’s frank admissions yesterday, she correctly judged that any questions that were Covid-related would not see her on the strongest ground and invite ridicule.

Instead she raised the concerns of the victims of crime within the criminal justice system. Specifically, she relayed the frustration of the family of Michelle Stewart, a 17-year-old who was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend.

Davidson claimed that two years on from government promises the gulf between rhetoric and hard action was palpable. Victims, she claimed, are not heard, are not given sufficient information about the release of criminals and are not supported.

Nicola Sturgeon argued that victims are heard and that the government will continue to listen to what they have to say. It was not easy, she said, to balance the rights of victims with those of an accused person.

The exchanges between both women were measured and felt, albeit momentarily, like a return to a time when a policy issue was the subject of proper parliamentary scrutiny. But it is difficult to debate this kind of issue with the passion it warrants when Covid continues to cast its shadow.

Now more than ever, leaders have to watch their tone as well as their p’s and q’s.