Coronavirus: 100 days that have transformed Scotland

Nobody imagined the scale of what was coming, but how has society and the government handled the Covid-19 pandemic?

The experience of coronavirus has altered the face of Scotland.

As we rang in the new year and heralded a new decade, with the sense of renewal and optimism that brings for so many, nobody could have imagined what was just around the corner.

Covid-19’s impact on people’s lives, livelihoods, liberties and relationships has already been devastating.

Increasingly, attention is turning to government handling of this crisis in its early days in the UK, with recent polling suggesting a figure of two-thirds and rising do not believe ministers acted quickly enough.

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With more than 3.2m cases of coronavirus confirmed worldwide, and approaching a quarter of a million deaths, any recriminations may keep until the immediate crisis is over.

In Scotland, like in so many countries, politics, society and the economy have been upended – with implications for everything from our businesses, to our mental health, to how government operates.

STV News spoke to half a dozen experts – including a former chief medical officer for Scotland – about what we’ve gone through and where we go next.

On January 24, 100 days ago, two important things happened.

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The World Health Organisation confirmed – as many scientists at this point already believed – that a new, alarming strain of coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, was able to be transmitted on a human-to-human basis.

In Scotland that day, the first tests of the virus Covid-19 came back, with two people who had recently travelled back from Wuhan given the all-clear.

January 24 also saw the first meetings of the UK-level national emergencies committee, COBRA. Scotland’s health secretary Jeane Freeman, in Inverness visiting NHS Highland, had to abruptly curtail the trip to travel south.

But at that stage, Scotland’s then-chief medical officer (CMO) Dr Catherine Calderwood said the risk to the public from Covid-19 was “low”, although the country could see cases “at some stage”.

By the start of May, Scotland would have carried out around 75,000 coronavirus tests, with nearly 12,000 people testing positive for the disease.

CMO: Harry Burns with then-health secretary Nicola Sturgeon during swine flu epidemic. (Getty Images / file pic)

Of all of Dr Calderwood’s CMO predecessors, Professor Sir Harry Burns was the longest-serving, appointed to the role under Labour first minister Jack McConnell in 2005 and staying in post until 2014.

Now professor of public health at Strathclyde University, through his medical connections he became aware “quite early on” of just how serious the virus could be.

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Intensive care colleagues in London, in early February, told him of the “very, very worrying” initial cases they were seeing, and the disturbing questions that arose with them: “Would they have sufficient capacity? Would they have sufficient wherewithal to protect themselves from infection?”

“Any organism that spreads like this did and kills so many people is not an ordinary organism,” he said.

That final week of January, the minds of politicians and commentators were elsewhere: the UK’s departure from the European Union. Brexit was to finally, formally happen on January 31, albeit with an 11-month transition period.

In Remain-voting Scotland, as Brexit day approached, a poll found 51% of Scots backed independence.

Scottish Parliament backs holding indyref2 this year Read now

On January 29, MSPs backed the principle of holding a second independence referendum by the end of the year – upping the stakes in Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson’s constitutional stand-off over the right to hold a vote.

The same day, the First Minister chaired the first meeting of the Scottish Government Resilience Committee (SGoRR) concerning the coronavirus outbreak – Scotland’s equivalent to COBRA – while COBRA met again too.

Also that day, the UK confirmed the first cases of Covid-19: two Chinese nationals in York.

Sturgeon and Johnson, both leaders resurgent after hugely successful general election campaigns, were about to see their political agendas completely derailed by a virus that didn’t care about party or constitutional politics and had no notion of borders.

The question of complacency

Prof Burns’ experience of SGoRR as chief medical officer came during the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009, while Nicola Sturgeon was serving as health secretary. He recalls it well.

“You felt you were all in this together, you were all trying to find the answers,” he said.

“The sense of teamwork was very positive and very encouraging and knowing that same thing would be happening now in the Scottish Government was reassuring to me.”

Swine flu was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) just as Covid-19 has been. But it’s a matter of scale: H1N1 killed 66 people in Scotland, not thousands.

“You come up against something like this which has such international dimensions – it was far less so with swine flu,” explained Prof Burns.

“The international dimensions mean that the UK Government, because they control the borders and so on, is going to make much of the running.

“I’m not sure I would have felt so positive this time, because I got the sense the UK Government were a bit slow.

“I suspect the Scots and maybe the Welsh and Northern Irish as well were on the case a bit earlier than when the UK Government turned its mind to this.”

To his mind, there was complacency in the corridors of power in Westminster, partly informed by past outbreaks of other coronaviruses like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome): foreign diseases of which only a tiny number of cases sprung up in the UK.

“The initial things we saw suggested to me that down south they were thinking, ‘well, this is something in the far east and it will stay in the far east and it’s not going to do all of this stuff to us’,” the former CMO said.

“And there was some history that showed that had happened, or that view would have been correct, if what was happening in the past was happening now.

“But I just don’t think they got to grips with the reality of the situation fast enough.”

That’s not the view of an academic with experience of strategic crisis planning in the UK cabinet office.

“This situation is more than a black swan – this is what a friend of mine would call a black elephant.”

Dr Mils Hills

Dr Mils Hills, associate professor of risk, resilience and corporate security at Northampton University, says the UK Government has long classed pandemic influenza and a new pandemic disease as among the top risks to the country.

He said warnings about Covid-19 would have come in “very early to central government through intelligence and global health organisation monitoring”.

By January 3, UK health secretary Matt Hancock was aware of the issue of Covid-19, and in the coming days he spoke to health department officials and the Prime Minister about it.

The government’s scientific advisory groups began to meet in mid-January, and Hancock instituted daily meetings with officials about the developing outbreak.

“I think it is unfair to criticise plans and planners when the characteristics of this novel coronavirus are unprecedented,” Dr Hills said.

“Not since the polio outbreaks in the mid-20th century has there, for example, been a surge in requirement for a medical technology – and strangely, a kind of similar one.”

He added: “Coronavirus is in a way a bit like a natural disaster at full ferocity affecting an area that has previously not been so struck.

“We prepare for extreme weather in the UK, but we don’t plan for a typhoon that you would get in a tropical zone.

“This situation is more than a black swan – this is what a friend of mine would call a black elephant. Unknowable and unmitigable.”

And while the alarm bells may have been ringing, for the UK at least, February was the calm before the storm.

Cases continued to spring up in Europe, with countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden all reporting coronavirus had reached their shores from early January to mid-February.

On Valentine’s Day, the first death from Covid-19 in Europe took place in Paris: a visiting elderly Chinese tourist.

Meanwhile in Scotland, no cases had yet been reported, although the First Minister, health secretary and CMO repeatedly warned coronavirus patients here were inevitable.

Much of the public’s attention was fixed on the terrible weather brought by Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, which pummelled the country on consecutive weekends during the first half of February, bringing high winds, flooding and transport disruption.

Yet SGoRR meetings on Covid-19 were still taking place through February, the First Minister chairing all but one of them, a single meeting chaired instead by deputy first minister John Swinney.

What advice would Prof Burns have been giving the politicians? “I think I would have been pushing early on for testing… I would have been trying very hard early on to get the classic public health response to an infection, which is find out who’s got it and isolate them before they can spread it.”

Of course, that was indeed government policy for many weeks: the problems would come when suspected cases began to outstrip capacity.

In the early days of the crisis, Strathclyde University helped out by offering chemical reagents for testing to health boards, Prof Burns said – but the issues around why the UK could not or did not rapidly build testing capacity are more deep-seated than that.

“Britain used to have one of the biggest chemical industries,” Prof Burns said.

“ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries, once the largest manufacturer in the UK) was sold off years ago to a Dutch company and suddenly when we need reagents and we need stuff to do testing, we have to rely on China.

“There’s been a hollowing-out of our supply chains.”

The Italian experience

Italy: A mural thanking healthcare workers in Bergamo, near Milan. (Getty Images)

If there was any remaining complacency about the virus, perspectives began to alter quickly on February 22: that was the day Italy confirmed 76 cases of coronavirus, predominantly in its north, and the country’s first two deaths.

By the start of March, cases had spread to every region of Italy. By March 4, fatalities had reached triple figures; by March 12, they exceeded 1000.

What Scottish ministers and officials had been warning of throughout February finally came to pass: on March 1, the first case of Covid-19 was announced in Scotland – a man in the Tayside area.

In the final days of February, cases had already been confirmed in Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, while in England, a man in Surrey became the first UK case to catch the disease in the community.

On March 2, Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon attended their first COBRA meetings in relation to the developing public health crisis. In recent weeks, their absence until then, missing five previous sessions from that first on January 24, sparked a political backlash played out in the UK and Scottish Sunday papers.

Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay accused the First Minister of “negligence”, while the Prime Minister was accused of displaying “an almost nonchalant attitude” to Covid-19.

“I don’t think those are fair criticisms,” said Prof Burns.

“This should be about the science. The science predicts what’s likely to happen, and then the politicians can come in and say we think the response to that is x, y or z.

“But to begin with, these groups are there not to worry about the politics of this but just to decide, what’s the problem and what does science tell us about the way to fix that problem?”

On this, Dr Hills agrees. “No one needs signalling from the PM that the issue is being taken seriously by having him in COBRA or any other folk like the Scottish FM there.

“Theatrics really aren’t part of the system – I really do mean it when I say that politics are set to one side.

“It would almost be a failure of the system if the PM was attending all or many of these meetings. Delegation to a lead minister makes way more sense in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.”

Although speaking of nonchalance, the next day Johnson revealed at a Downing Street press conference he had visited a hospital with coronavirus patients where he “shook hands with everybody”.

Boris Johnson coronavirus address March 12 2020.
Coronavirus: Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in Downing Street on March 12. (Getty Images)

A “four-nation” action plan to tackle coronavirus was unveiled by the UK and devolved governments, with the country as one entering the “containment phase” of the UK’s strategy, the first of four.

At a briefing in the Scottish Government headquarters of St Andrew’s House – a backdrop that would become increasingly familiar on the news – Dr Calderwood soberly and shockingly said officials were working on the assumption as many as 80% of the population could end up catching the virus.

From constitutional stand-off to cooperation and coordinated action in a matter of weeks: it was clear things had fundamentally changed.

There remain question marks over just how much input the devolved administrations had on the approach set out on March 2.

As The Guardian reported, the Prime Minister’s key adviser Dominic Cummings had been sitting in on meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) since February, a group crucial to informing the UK’s response.

Yet CMOs and chief scientific advisers from the devolved administrations could only listen in on the meetings as observers and could not ask questions, instead having to submit them in writing beforehand.

Devolved health ministers and officials did attend and give their opinions in COBR sub-committee meetings.

But Prof Burns said: “I don’t think it was a four-nation approach – they (the UK Government) did all the talking.”

“And having the Prime Minister’s special adviser there (at SAGE meetings) is puzzling. If, as they said at the beginning, it’s all about the science, what’s Cummings doing there?”

Dr Hills said it would have been “weird” for the Prime Minister not to have had eyes and ears in the crucial SAGE meetings.

“I have heard only good things about the penetrating questions that Cummings asks and how he is very open to doing things differently even if that does put people’s noses out of joint,” he added.

“There have probably not been many occasions where great ideas from SAGE could so quickly get converted into actions.

“Whether this has involved dictation to the devolved administrations, I am not sure.

“The situation sure seems better than the US federal vs state governor battles which have demonstrably cost lives.”

Aileen McHarg, professor of public law and human rights at Durham University, a specialist in devolution, suggests the issue may have been one common to inter-governmental work within the UK.

“One of the unsatisfactory features of devolution is how informal the systems for inter-governmental working have been, right from the beginning, and how dominated they have been by the UK Government,” she said.

“The UK Government gets to really dictate the extent to which it will share information and share decision-making with the devolved governments, and if it doesn’t want to, they can’t force it to.

“That doesn’t mean it can dictate how the powers are to be exercised.

“But I guess if you’re not in the room when things are being discussed, or you’re not being able to influence those decisions, you might find yourself in the position of not actually having much choice about how you exercise those powers.”

‘Delay phase’ begins

March saw the steady drumbeat of rising cases. By March 5, Scotland had six cases, there were 115 in the UK in total, and the first death was reported: a women in her 70s at a hospital in Reading.

Over the next seven days, Scottish cases increased ten-fold to 60, including the first case of transmission within the community: someone who didn’t catch the virus abroad or from someone who had been abroad.

Already, health officials feared the true number of infections across Britain could be anything from 5000 to 10,000.

CMOs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland raised the risk of Covid-19 to the UK from moderate to high. It was time to escalate the UK strategy to the next phase.

The initial steps of the second “delay phase” saw councils asked to suspend any planned overseas school trips, and over-70s advised not go on cruises.

The new phase also brought what would come to be one of the most controversial aspects of the UK approach: the decision to abandon the policy of ‘test, trace and isolate’ for all suspected cases.

Instead, anyone with symptoms was asked to stay at home for seven days, and only contact the NHS if their condition deteriorated or did not improve after the week of self-isolation.

The Scottish Government “should have continued” a policy of mass “test, trace and isolate” even if it had meant deviating from the four-nation strategy, Prof Burns said.

“It might have been a very practical thing, and that would explain why the Scottish Government did it as well, if you simply don’t have the kits, because it’s a complicated test,” he added.

“You take cells from someone’s mouth or throat or whatever, and you have to extract the RNA of the virus and measure miniscule amounts of this RNA to prove that people have got it.

“The clever lab people tell me that extraction can be quite problematic.

“So, it might have been a practical reason, but other countries were doing it: Germany and so on were doing it. I don’t know why the UK dropped mass testing.”

Linda Bauld, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, says testing is only part of the picture: as well as building up that capacity, we also needed to develop the infrastructure to trace the contacts of all those suspected to have Covid-19.

“When cases get too high, the system can’t handle that, so we couldn’t be contact tracing, you know, 10,000, 20,000 people,” she said.

“I can understand why it was paused but what I don’t understand is we should have continued building up the infrastructure for mass contact tracing for when we come out of some of the lockdown and when cases are lower.

“We needed to be getting a workforce ready, we needed the technology to be there, we needed health boards and others to be drawing up their own plans.

“Some of that has happened but we should have been using the time – the pause around the middle of March and now – to really increase that capacity.

“I know it’s happening now, but I think it’s been too late.”

The successes of mass testing in suppressing the virus have received widespread attention in countries like South Korea and Germany, but Prof Burns also highlighted the examples of Greece and Norway – smaller countries with rigorous ‘test, trace, isolate’ in place – where deaths have been kept down to between 100 and 250.

It all comes back to the reproduction number – known as the R number – which is how many people each infected person is infecting in turn. In mid-March in the UK, that number is believed to have been at least three.

“That meant people were circulating and rubbing shoulders with each other and very quickly, by the time it hits five or six, then literally you’re well over 1000,” explained Prof Burns.

“Three becomes nine becomes 27 and it just explodes.

“If you isolate people who have the virus then the virus can’t spread, so there’s no doubt that the ‘test, trace, isolate’ approach would have kept a lid on things much earlier.”

Yet over the course of the outbreak, mass testing has been described at various points as a “distraction” and “not the panacea everybody thinks it is” by officials like Dr Calderwood and the Scottish Government’s national clinical director Jason Leitch.

They insisted the tests aren’t always reliable and that social distancing is a more effective way of preventing the disease’s spread.

The first steps towards lockdown

Given what we now know about the likely R number in Britain at the time, much has been made of the decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to take place from March 10 to 13, the racing event attended by 250,000 people.

Nicola Sturgeon moved ahead of the UK for the first time on an issue on March 12 (a Thursday) – straight after the COBRA meeting which agreed the move to the “delay phase” – by announcing the banning of mass gatherings from the following week.

Speaking later from Number 10, the Prime Minister suggested this was initially down to a Scottish-only “resilience” issue – before the UK Government promptly issued near-identical guidance the following day.

A quarter of a million people attended Cheltenham across four days in mid-March. (Getty Images)
Rangers fans at Ibrox on March 12 ahead of the Europa League tie against Bayer Leverkusen. (SNS)

Even the First Minister’s pre-emptive announcement could not prevent a Rangers v Bayer Leverkusen Europa League tie taking place at Ibrox the evening of March 12, nor Lewis Capaldi’s sell-out arena concert in Aberdeen on Sunday, March 15.

“I get the sense that Scotland might have locked down earlier,” said Prof Burns, who also sits on Scotland’s council of economic advisers.

“But you could see that there would be a lot of discussion at a political level, and it was pretty clear that England was led to lockdown fairly unwillingly.

“So, yeah we could have done it earlier and probably should have done it earlier, but again, the economic damage that does – not just the damage it does to the economy but the damage it does to people who will lose their jobs and are struggling – that’s got to be taken into account.”

Partly, the move to lockdown came from a bombshell paper from Imperial College London published on March 16 which circulated at the highest levels in Westminster.

Citing fresh data from Italy, the assessment warned the price of inaction in the face of coronavirus could be 250,000 British lives, and further predicted a dire, previously unforeseen level of need for intensive care beds.

The scary-sounding notion of “herd immunity”, and the idea the peak of the virus could be massaged rather than aggressively suppressed, fell by the wayside.

“We were too late, we were underprepared, we weren’t ready and some of the scientific advice was conflicting,” concluded Prof Bauld.

Meanwhile, Scotland saw its first Covid-19 death on March 13. Within nine days the death toll would be 14. By April 2, officially, it was more than 100. By then, known UK deaths had already soared beyond 1000.

The social restrictions we would come to know so well came in stages. In the worlds of sport and entertainment, many organisations took matters into their own hands in the wake of the First Minister’s announcement, with the SPFL suspending all matches on March 13.

Three days later, the Prime Minister announced plans to “shield” vulnerable groups like the over-70s, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women, and told everyone to avoid “non-essential” contact and travel.

And causing consternation in the hospitality and leisure sectors, he urged people to avoid pubs, restaurants, cafes, museums, gyms and entertainment venues without officially ordering these sites to close.

That order would finally come on March 20, and with it, an unprecedented financial stimulus package to keep the economy afloat, with the government pledging for the first time in UK history to pay a proportion of people’s wages, announcing a furlough scheme that would see workers receive an income through the Treasury of up to 80% of their normal pay.

It followed a previous announcement from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, a figure rising to increasing public prominence, backing businesses with £330bn worth of state-backed loans and offering grants and business rates relief to firms in hospitality and leisure – measures adapted mostly intact by new Scottish finance secretary Kate Forbes.

In Scotland, the First Minister jumped the proverbial gun once again on March 18, ordering the closure of schools and nurseries for all pupils bar the most vulnerable and the children of key workers, although she was not alone: the administration in Wales did the same.

At the 5pm Downing Street briefing later that day, UK education secretary Gavin Williamson followed suit for schools in England.

“Perhaps the First Minister was just getting a bit fed up with dilly-dallying,” suggested Prof Burns.

Stay at home

History was made again on March 23. A sombre Boris Johnson gave a televised address to the nation, ordering all residents of the UK to stay at home except for the “limited purposes” of shopping for essentials, getting medical supplies, going for one session of daily exercise or helping a vulnerable person.

Four days later, the Prime Minister would himself be diagnosed with coronavirus.

Announcing the same measures for Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was blunt. “The stringent restrictions on our normal day-to-day lives that I’m about to set out are as difficult and they are unprecedented.

“They amount effectively to what has been described as a lockdown.”

A fortnight before all this, Toni Giugliano flew into Rome for a visit, before any travel restrictions had been put in place and while cases in that region of Italy were no more alarming than in parts of England

A Scottish-Italian citizen and Italian speaker with family there, Italy is Mr Giugliano’s second home.

Coronavirus: My trip to the supermarket in lockdown Rome Read now

Within days, he was living under quarantine, as a sweeping national lockdown was imposed by the Italian government.

He spoke to STV News about his predicament on March 10, in comments that now seem eerily prophetic: describing social distancing, one-in, one-out queueing at supermarkets and the closure of public spaces.

“I would describe it as a very Italian lockdown, in the sense you had to fill out a form and it’s all very official,” he said.

“You just wouldn’t have that in the UK – I just don’t see that happening here, whereby in order to leave the house you’re printing out your certificate, and if you’re stopped by the army or by the police you have to justify it.”

As senior policy manager in Scotland for the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), Mr Giugliano has been busy with work since his return examining the effect of lockdown.

A recent study by MHF Scotland found people experiencing loneliness has doubled since the lockdown began – 24% of adults – while four in ten young people have been feeling it.

“Schools are fundamental for our young people’s wellbeing,” said Mr Giugliano.

“Yes, we need to make sure we are saving lives and we’re guaranteeing safety but schools provide resource for parents, they provide support for parents, particularly those parents in low-income families that rely on school communities.

“Reintroducing young people back into environments where they can thrive, where they can develop emotionally, is absolutely crucial.”

The lockdown has affected people’s mental health in diverse ways, he explained, with not all of them being negative.

“Certainly for some people, this is an opportunity to be able to do the things that perhaps they’ve never had the chance to do,” he said.

“Perhaps time with their family, perhaps a chance to reconnect with people that they haven’t spoken to in a long time, perhaps a chance to rediscover an old hobby.”

But it depends on your circumstances.

“What we know is that people who are in a financial or economic situation where they don’t know if they’re going to be able to make ends meet, if their business is going to reopen after this lockdown, we know there are people out there, perhaps who are self-employed, who don’t have that financial security,” Mr Giugliano said.

“We are very worried about the financial picture here.”

There’s “no getting away” from the fact socio-economic policies will have the biggest impact on people’s mental health, he said, pointing to the long-standing link between job security and suicide.

“We know what happens when there’s mass unemployment,” he said. “Historically, we’ve seen an increase in suicide rates. We need to make sure we do everything we can to prevent that from happening.

“Suicide rates are three times more likely amongst men and ten times more likely in the poorest communities in Scotland.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak speaks from the Downing Street podium on March 20. (Getty Images)

The Chancellor has been on television on several occasions escalating the socio-economic response to this crisis, and yet progress is halting. After days of clamour, the self-employed were backed with the same furlough package as PAYE workers – but the scheme won’t be open until at least June.

The universal credit standard allowance has been raised and the minimum income floor for eligibility removed – but it still takes five weeks after a successful application to receive your first payment, and the system has faced the added pressure of 1.2m new claimants since the pandemic began.

As Scots try to figure out how to cope with a lockdown that subverts so many of our social instincts and brings all kinds of worries, many have turned to drink.

Although it may be partly explained by the closure of pubs, depending on the week, alcohol sales in Scotland are up anywhere from 50% to 58%, according to data Prof Bauld has seen.

Surveys suggest “people who normally don’t drink much anyway are drinking less, and some of them aren’t drinking anything”, she added.

But those who normally drink a lot – those “at most risk of directly alcohol-attributable mortality or poor health outcomes” – are drinking much more.

“There’s a problem here, though we can all understand how that happens in lockdown,” she said.

She added: “Underneath everything I think there’s just this mild anxiety that most of us have – we don’t feel normal – and of course, for some people, there’s very significant anxiety and depression.”

Deaths climb and crisis hits No 10

The pandemic was next to reach right into the heart of both the Scottish and UK governments, albeit in very different ways.

On April 5, as Covid-19 deaths in Scotland topped 350 and neared 5000 in the UK, Dr Calderwood stepped down as Scotland’s chief medical officer.

Photographed visiting a second home with her family in Fife – contrary to the lockdown restrictions she herself was explaining in public information films on television – her position became untenable throughout the day, despite the FM’s strong initial resistance to losing such an important official.

“I did feel for her. A very hard-working lady,” said Prof Burns.

“Presentationally I could see the problem,” the former CMO added. “But in fact, you get your family in a car and drive to some place that you owned and unload them, you’re not exposing them to anyone else.”

Later that day, news broke that would rock British politics: Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been admitted to hospital after a week of dealing with his own bout of coronavirus.

The next night, he was moved to an intensive care unit – as so many thousands of others have been – where he would later reflect that his life had hung in the balance.

By April 12, patient deaths in the UK had reached 10,000. On April 19, new National Records of Scotland statistics showed more than 1600 fatalities in Scotland linked to Covid-19.

The new figures also broadened the public’s understanding of the devastating toll coronavirus was taking in the country’s care homes.

The proportion of virus-linked deaths occurring in Scottish care homes has risen in a matter of weeks from 25% to 39%, with nearly 900 to date and half of all homes registering at least one confirmed or suspected Covid-19 case. Issues around personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff in these homes have rarely left the headlines.

Deaths by setting (Chart: STV News – Source: National Records of Scotland)

Data coming out of south-east Asia and Italy early on made it “very clear that a lot of older people were dying and a lot of them were dying in care settings,” said Prof Bauld.

“The whole issue of PPE for our social care staff, the testing that is needed for older residents, we should have realised that was going to be the problem that it has been and I think we’ve been playing catch-up in that sector.

“Sadly, it reflects the fact that social care is undervalued and hugely under-resourced in the UK and that’s a historic problem.”

It takes us back to planning: the thorny question of Scotland and the UK’s preparedness for a serious pandemic, one that is shrouded in secrecy.

Much hay has been made of a 2016 UK simulation drill called Exercise Cygnus, which examined how the NHS would handle a pandemic. The findings are classified but reported to be “terrifying” and to have revealed major gaps in the country’s preparedness.

And as the Daily Record reported on Saturday, the Scottish Government carried out its own planning exercise four years ago, dubbed Silver Swan, which identified issues around PPE, with it unclear the extent to which its recommendations were turned into action.

Yet despite the problems of unprecedented global demand for PPE, comparatively high death tolls and a peak of Covid-19 hospital cases in Scotland of nearly 2000 on some days in April, politicians on both sides of the border are right to say at no point has the NHS been overwhelmed in the way many feared it might be.

“Given the challenge,” said Dr Hills, the UK’s response has been “pretty good”. He added: “No country has ‘done well’ as I am not sure that doing well is something that can be measured in conventional terms.

“Even those countries that appear to have done well in terms of very strong (or no) lockdown may suffer with second or third spikes of infection.”

However, Prof Burns is emphatic. “The UK’s preparedness was not good.”

“I think in the post-Covid review of how we did, it would be very interesting to look at the discussions that took place after swine flu and various other epidemics that occurred, because there would have been discussions,” he said.

“It would also be interesting to know if the results were shared with the devolved nations, as I would be pretty confident that the First Minister, given her experience as health minister during the swine flu epidemic, would take this very seriously, and would make sure we were prepared.”

Prof Bauld added: “We’re beginning to understand where the errors were made – and let’s face it, they were made in the UK.”

But she feels, from a Scottish standpoint at least, one strength of the response has been clear, consistent messaging. Polling would seem to bear that out, a YouGov poll conducted in late April finding 71% have a lot or a fair amount of confidence in the First Minister, while Scots are split almost 50-50 on the UK Government’s handling of the crisis.

“I’ve been when I can, watching both (Scottish and UK government) briefings every day, and the tone, the clarity, the unity is different, particularly the tone and authority with which the First Minister has communicated,” the Edinburgh professor said.

“In Westminster, we’ve seen various colleagues contributing to that. Clearly, (England’s) chief medical officer (Chris Whitty) is hugely credible – as is the chief scientific adviser – but he’s not always been there because he was also unwell.

“But the politicians in Westminster, I think, have been much more defensive, and then, of course, sadly we did not have a Prime Minister as he was seriously ill.

“So, I think the communication in Scotland has been better. Some of the earlier decisions that were made by the Scottish Government I think have been preferable.”

Prof McHarg said that while there have been variations in the two governments’ approaches, differences of substance have been fewer, and in some cases – like Sturgeon’s advice to close down “non-essential” construction, contrary to guidance in England – haven’t always worked out.

“I imagine they will probably want to continue operating on a coordinated basis,” she said.

“They run the risk when they’re acting just through guidance and not through legislation that their guidance will be ignored.”

She said the advice to the construction sector was “basically ignored” because “there was no legislation to back it”.

Key aspects of government messaging, particularly early on, revolved around food and groceries shopping, amid initial panic buying of long-life shelf items such as pasta, anti-bacterial products and – at times, to a rather ridiculous extent – toilet roll.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC), said: “Overall we have been impressed and heartened by the support and assistance on offer from the UK and Scottish governments to retailers during this crisis, including the flexibilities we asked for – like on shop opening hours, on delivery timings to stores and to warehouses, and the financial support.

“We have said to government that when it comes to the phased ending of the lockdown they need very clear and simply messages for firms, for workers and for shoppers.”

The ‘new normal’?

A man walks across Glasgow’s West Regent street during the lockdown on April 21. (Getty Images)

Lockdown has already changed society in far-reaching ways.

“Very early on in this we started talking about a ‘new normal’,” said Prof Burns. “It’s a phrase that’s come into common use now.

“I hope we don’t go back to normal. I hope that, as a society, we have discovered more social cohesion. When you go out for exercise, you pass people at a distance but there’s always a smile, a wave, a few words. That people are helping each other out in a way they’ve not done routinely, they haven’t had to do routinely, I suppose, but the spirit of helping each other has been very heartening.

“And the economic implications of this, I think, should be that we are much more local in our investment, that instead of having big corporations come along and employ a few folk in a factory and then go off when profitability doesn’t look right, we have inclusive growth that builds on the kind of businesses folk have turned to during this time.”

Prof Bauld and Dr Hills both specialise in behavioural science. As we prepare for the seventh week of lockdown, are they surprised at the extent to which people have abided by the rules?

“It’s been unusual the extent to which people have followed the advice,” Prof Bauld said.

 “In terms of behaviour, there have been really significant changes.

“The first one, obviously, is the switch to trying to communicate with others in our social networks, families, in a different way, not being able to see them, having to suddenly get access to digital tools and, of course, not everybody is able to access those.

“The second thing is we’re all being encouraged to follow public health guidance – things like hand hygiene, which most of us should have been doing anyway, but there’s been a shift.”

Dr Hills said: “It’s quite extraordinary and does show that people are essentially and inherently sensible, trustworthy, caring and minded to do the right thing.

“There have been relatively few breaches of the rules – a kind of quarantine by consent. I think restrictions on life will be accepted for a considerable time to come if necessary.

“A key enabler here has been the continuity of food chains – just amazing – and the adaptability of retailers.”

The SRC estimates that retailers still operating in Scotland have spent £9m on PPE and on implementing social distancing measures, such as through plexiglass screens, signage and floor markings. “This will rise as more so-called ‘non-essential’ shops re-open,” said Mr Lonsdale.

Prof Bauld added: “The vast majority of us – from the data, over 90% of us – are following the advice almost at all times, and the divisions that we had experienced before around Brexit, independence, et cetera – they’re all still there but there’s a much bigger threat at the moment.”

What about politics as usual?

So far, despite the all-consuming crisis of Covid-19, the Prime Minister has vowed to stay the course on Brexit, with no extension to the transition period. The UK and EU’s chief Brexit negotiators have resumed talks to strike a trade deal, after both had to self-isolate in March with coronavirus symptoms.

But on March 18, the Scottish Government formally dropped its plan for indyref2 in 2020.

“I’m not surprised that the independence referendum proposal was ditched,” said Prof McHarg.

“That faced huge problems in terms of getting the UK Government to agree and the possibility of legal challenges and so on.

“I imagine for the Scottish Government this is a little bit of a useful get-out, which is not to say they weren’t right to do so.”

Next year, if it still goes ahead, is supposed to see a Holyrood election, with the SNP looking for a fourth term in government. If it takes place, Prof McHarg “would expect the constitutional question to come back and to be a big issue in that”.

“We have seen that constitutional politics or viewing this whole crisis through a constitutional lens has not gone away,” she said.

“There are some people who want to interpret things in those terms, so I don’t think this is the end of the independence debate.”

Meanwhile, Prof Burns hopes leaders will turn their attention to making the country more “self-sufficient” in areas like manufacturing, and “look to our own people”.

“If that means we’re slightly less profitable than offshoring to the far-east or whatever, so be it. We create a better society, a more equal society, a healthier society,” he said.

“I would like to think we’ll get there… so I’m optimistic in the medium term.

“In the short term I think it’s going to be very difficult to get out of lockdown. I think very, very gentle moves in that direction, keep a very close eye on the number of cases we’re seeing, and test, test, test.”

On Friday, the UK Government claimed a capacity for 100,000 coronavirus tests per day – a target set by health secretary Matt Hancock at the start of April – although the figures included a bit of jiggery-pokery around home testing kits that have been delivered but not yet returned.

Total testing capacity in Scotland has risen from 350 a day at the start of the outbreak to more than 8000, according to the First Minister.

Yet Germany, by the start of April, was already averaging 116,000 tests a day. With a population around a fifth higher than the UK’s, Germany has had a quarter the number of deaths.

And Norway, a country of comparable population to Scotland, which dramatically ramped up testing from the early stages of the crisis, has tested more than 170,000 citizens – between two to three times more than Scotland. Despite nearly 8000 infections, Norway’s death toll is 210.

In Scotland, combining confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases, deaths number more than 2500.

Norway was also one of the first European countries to develop an innovative contact tracing app, which informs Norwegians by mobile if they have been close to an infected person, using anonymous health data.

But looking to the future, technology is only part of the equation if Scotland is to have robust contact tracing along with testing – measures all UK governments agree will be essential to ease the lockdown.

Contacts traced will then need to be quarantined, explains Prof Bauld. “Most people will be able to self-isolate at home but there will be some who cannot for very good reasons.

“Either they don’t have good accommodation, or they are in a situation where they can’t stay in the home for whatever reason.

“Governments needs to think about using hotels or setting up other places where people can be isolated for the time that is required.”

How will this change us?

The Scottish Government told STV News dealing with Covid-19 “is the biggest challenge we have faced in our lifetimes”.

A spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government is engaged in a significant expansion of testing capacity to support a test, trace and isolate approach, which will be a crucial part of any moves to lift the lockdown measures in the future.

“At all times, the Scottish Government’s actions have been guided by the best and most up to date expert scientific advice, working closely with governments across the UK.

“Decisions will always be made in the best interests of people in Scotland. The virus doesn’t respect borders or boundaries and it makes sense to align our activity as much as possible.

“This is the biggest challenge we have faced in our lifetimes. It is right and proper that decisions taken during this process face scrutiny but all our efforts are going towards protecting life and the people of Scotland during this unprecedented crisis.”

A UK Government spokeswoman said: “This is an unprecedented global pandemic and we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it, guided by the best scientific advice and working closely with all four nations of the UK.

“At all times throughout the four nations the NHS has had the spare capacity which it needs to respond to the pandemic, with intensive care unit beds and ventilators available to anybody requiring such specialist care.

“The government has been working day and night to battle coronavirus, delivering a strategy designed to protect our NHS and save lives, and take unprecedented steps to support businesses and workers and protect the UK’s economy.”

At the inter-government level, one change Prof McHarg hopes the pandemic will bring about is “a more federal spirit”.

“If the UK is to survive, then the various levels need to learn to cooperate with each other,” she said.

“The UK Government needs to not pull rank. The devolved governments need to recognise the value of common approaches.”

She added: “I actually think they do. There’s been a lot more cooperation than conflict in our system of devolution in the UK.

“Sometimes that cooperation is overlooked because it’s not the thing that makes headlines, but having more formal structures for that cooperation and a more cooperative attitude would be a benefit.”

And what about the country’s mental health in these times? “Make sure you are checking reputable sources because there’s a lot of news out there that isn’t and there’s a lot of fake information doing the rounds on social media.” That’s the advice from Mr Giugliano.

“No one has a crystal ball. No one knows what’s going to happen in seven months’ time, so let’s take it a day at a time,” he added.

Scottish economy ‘could shrink by 33% due to lockdown’ Read now

Economically, the prospects are stark, with global financial disruption already rampant, and expected by many to reach levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Scottish Government’s chief economist has warned GDP could collapse by a third in the coming months, bringing with it a tide of joblessness and business closures.

“We’ve already seen several retailers going into administration during this crisis,” said Mr Lonsdale.

“I have no doubt we will see more, unfortunately, particularly if they are unable to trade and generate an income.

“Government financial assistance will only support the industry for so long – ultimately it is about getting retail back up and running and doing what it does best.”

On April 30, speaking at his first Number 10 press conference since he was himself hospitalised, Boris Johnson declared the UK is now “past the peak” of the disease.

The question is, and will continue to be: at what cost?

Three dead and six hurt in commuter train derailment

Driver believed to be one of the victims after train came off the tracks in Aberdeenshire.

Rescue workers at the scene of the incident.

Three people have died after a commuter train derailed in Aberdeenshire.

One of the victims is thought to be the driver of the ScotRail service.

Six other people are being treated in hospital with minor injuries.

Police believe everyone onboard the train is accounted for, but said a full search of the area would take some time.

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The Wednesday morning crash sent plumes of smoke into the sky that could be seen for miles and prompting a massive emergency response.

Stonehaven train derailed.
Plumes of smoke could be seen billowing from the stricken train.

The derailed five-carriage train, which left Aberdeen at 6.38am on its way to Glasgow, left the tracks near 10am close to Stonehaven.

Heavy rain overnight caused flooding throughout the area, which may have been a contributing factor. Network Rail had earlier warned of landslips causing disruption.

Chief Superintendent Eddie Wylie, from British Transport Police, said: “This is a tragic incident and first and foremost our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have very sadly died this morning.

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“We remain on scene alongside our emergency service colleagues, and a major incident operation has been under way.

“I would like to reassure the public that this was not a busy service, and from CCTV enquiries and witness statements we believe all passengers have been accounted for.

“However, once the area has been made safe then a full and thorough search will be conducted, which is likely to take some time.”

Normally a train with five carriages could carry upwards of 1300 people, but social distancing measures brought on by the pandemic has cut that number significantly.

A centre was set up in Aberdeen for friends and families to get more information on anyone who was on the train, but hasn’t been heard from since the derailment.

NHS Grampian set itself up at Midstocket Church in Aberdeen, saying it would “provide help and support and a direct link with the emergency department at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.” 

It discouraged anyone from heading straight to the hospital looking for anyone.

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“My deepest condolences are with the loved ones of those who lost their lives in this tragic incident,” the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.

Local MP Andrew Bowie said the River Carron burst its banks and caused flooding in Stonehaven, but added the water receded quickly as the stormed slowed.


Thunderstorms bring flash flooding and travel chaos

Amber warning overnight as severe weather causes damage and disruption on Scotland's east coast.

Flash flooding has created disruption in parts of Scotland as thunderstorms caused torrential downpours overnight.

An amber warning was declared for the country’s east coast on Tuesday night until 9am on Wednesday, as adverse weather wreaked havoc in towns and cities.

A major incident was declared in Fife, where a number of schools closed, and people were evacuated from their homes.

A landslide meant hundreds of people had to be rescued at Pettycur Bay Holiday Park.

Pile-up: Victoria Hospital car park in Kirkcaldy. STV
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Adverse weather caused a pile-up at one of Victoria Hospital’s car parks, scenes which were described as “upsetting” by Monica Lennon MSP.

Heavy rain was felt across Fife, East Lothian, Midlothian, Falkirk, Edinburgh and West Lothian during Tuesday night and early hours of Wednesday.

Flooding: Victoria Hospital car park in Kirkcaldy. STV

Locals said the storms in the capital were “like nothing they had ever seen”, as thunder and lightning rumbled across the city.

Meanwhile, the weather has caused severe damage on the A68 at Fala, Midlothian, which Amey maintenance crews are working to repair.

Lightning in Redding, Falkirk. Thomas Lamont, The Kilted Photographer
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Amey added: “A diversion has been established and an investigation is taking place into the full extent of the damage.”

Further north Perth experienced the adverse weather, with the local authority closing off a number of roads on Wednesday morning.

Perth and Kinross Council described several roads as “impassable”, including Feus Road, Marshall Place, Wallace Crescent, Crammond Place, Crieff Road, Glasgow Road and the A912 at Bogle Bridge.

The council said surface water has been causing problems at a number of other locations, while Perth High School has closed due to flooding.

Flooding has also caused difficult conditions in Aberdeen, with pictures showing deep surface water on the roads. A number of schools have also been closed.

Flooding: Adverse conditions in Aberdeen. Fubar News

STV meteorologist Sean Batty said: “The east of the country has experienced some horrendous conditions overnight with frequent lightning, hailstones and torrential downpours.

“It looks like Scotland has experienced over 1500 flashes of lightning through these storms with around 300-400 across the Lothians, Edinburgh, Fife, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire.

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“I’ve not seen rainfall totals this high for a long time, with some of the heaviest downpours around Edinburgh, West Lothian, Falkirk, Perth, west and central Fife.

‘It looks like Scotland has experienced over 1500 flashes of lightning through these storms with around 300-400 across the Lothians, Edinburgh, Fife, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire.’

Sean Batty, STV meteorologist

“From what I can see, it looks like 110mm of rain has fallen on the eastern side of Loch Leven in Scotlandwell and Kinnesswood. This is over a month’s worth of rainfall for this part of Fife.

“Heavy falls occurred in Perth city centre which has had around 80mm of rain from the storms, roughly what we’d expect in five weeks at this time of year. In one hour alone over 40mm of rain fell in the city, which is an astonishing amount of rain in that duration. That’s two thirds of a month’s rain in an hour.

“Falkirk was also badly affected by the storms with a month’s worth of rain falling here overnight.

“Edinburgh city centre had around 50mm, while further west in Ingliston there’s been 60mm. Around the capital is a good example of how rainfall can vary wildly in thunderstorms with Hermiston just two miles away from Ingliston getting 25mm.

“It’s an even bigger contrast to the east where Gullane only had 3mm and Haddington 2mm.”

The storms are expected to continue to track north and east through Wednesday morning to clear most of the mainland.

Shetland and Orkney will see these storms throughout the morning and into the early afternoon before easing.

More thunderstorms may develop later in southern areas and across the Highlands, Moray, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.

Travel disruption was seen throughout eastern parts of the country, with ScotRail services delayed and in some instances cancelled.

In Perth trains were unable to run towards Inverness or depart south because of flooding in the station.


‘Moronavirus’ is a threat to the health of the national game

The First Minister told clubs this week they were on a yellow card and 'next time it will be red because you will leave us with absolutely no choice'.

Bolingoli: Celtic player broke quarantine rules.

Boli Bolingoli’s shorts may have been eye-catching, his £2000 suitcase remarkable and his Balenciaga hoodie designed to draw comment, but his facemask was the piece making a statement.

As the Celtic defender was pictured on a flight to Spain he was dressed like he was following the rules like the rest of us. The reality is that he was gambling with the immediate future of Scottish football.

One newspaper headline called Bolingoli “Celtic’s Covidiot”. His decision to fly abroad on his two days off, fail to quarantine or tell his employer about his trip, and then play against Kilmarnock on Sunday, was proof positive that moronavirus is a clear and present threat to the health of the national game.

The First Minister had made her unhappiness and annoyance clear when the ‘Aberdeen Eight’ were caught out in breach of the rules last week.

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The revelations about Bolingoli’s trip took things a step further. Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross may be a qualified referee but Nicola Sturgeon was every bit the official in charge when she told clubs they were on a yellow card and “next time it will be red because you will leave us with absolutely no choice”.

Within hours Celtic and Aberdeen’s next two matches were called off, with Scottish football’s Joint Response Group saying the decision was made when “a request was received” from the Scottish Government. This wasn’t a request so much as an offer they couldn’t refuse.

So was it a public health decision or a punishment? It was a bit of both.

A local lockdown in Aberdeen city meant that the Dons’ game was never certain to go ahead, especially after their players had caused the postponement of last Saturday’s match against St Johnstone.

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Celtic’s match against St Mirren being shelved is probably best filed under “something had to be done” in the wake of Bolingoli’s transgressions. The fact that Celtic and Aberdeen were then scheduled to meet on Saturday made a second postponement an obvious choice.

The action won’t end there, and the response to these incidents will signal a significant change in the footing of the SPFL and the SFA as they look to protect the game from itself and from the doomsday scenario where the government stops all football again.

Until now, the effects of the pandemic have been dealt with by the Joint Response Group, set up by the league and governing body to pool their efforts to help clubs through a health crisis and its potentially devastating financial impact. It’s been Hampden in rescue mode: benevolent, supportive and protective.

The Scottish Government’s warning will change the emphasis. The JRG’s work will continue but the job of policing the game will now become an equal priority.

Players endangering the careful planning won’t go unchecked now and the SFA and SPFL will now have to reach for the rule books to show everyone that they are doing what they can.

Bolingoli has been fined by the police and will be heavily disciplined by his club for actions Celtic boss Neil Lennon described as “rogue”, “selfish” and “stupid”. Aberdeen have been adamant that they will take action on their players.

That won’t be enough. Reports on Wednesday have the SPFL looking to ratify new rules and powers to allow it to deal with these sorts of issues and the sanctions it could impose might be limitless.

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That would be too late for the existing cases but it would be no surprise if the SFA’s compliance officer brought charges against Bolingoli and the eight from Pittodrie. In addition to the famous rule about bringing the game into disrepute, the governing body has one that compels players to “act in the best interests of Association Football”. It’s hard to imagine the Celtic player finding a lawyer willing to tackle that one.

It’s how the SPFL deal with clubs that will make for interesting reading. Missed and late tests will no longer be tolerable and major rule breaches will be considered disastrous but the league will have to decide if it has an appetite for calling clubs to account and how that might be achieved.

Celtic and Aberdeen have been appalled, angry and apologetic about the embarrassing behaviour of their players. There’s no suggestion they have been lax in their approach to the problem, nor that there’s any fault in the safety protocols at either club.

The SPFL is, of course, entitled to assign responsibility and impose sanctions as a deterrent. With so much at stake and after such high-profile breaches of trust it’s almost expected that it does. But to hold the clubs responsible even if they have taken all precautions isn’t popular among the clubs. We know this from failed moves to bring in such “strict liability” where offensive behaviour and racist or sectarian songs are sung.

There’s no guarantee the league will decide to go down that road but their next steps will be decisive in whether or not there’s a smooth return to competition or a shambles that leads to shutdown.

In normal circumstances Bolingoli would have a key role to play on Celtic’s left flank, using his abilities to help the team transition from defence to attack. Instead, his decision to disregard the rules has prompted a shift in attitude from all concerned with the Premiership and that change in tack could yet prove devastating.

SQA chief ‘regrets’ but defends downgraded exams

Fiona Robertson appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee on Wednesday.

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Exams: Fiona Robertson appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee.

The chief executive of the SQA has said she “regrets” how young people were left feeling over their downgraded exam results, but insisted the controversial moderation system used was “fair”.

Fiona Robertson appeared before the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee on Wednesday following the government’s U-turn that will see all downgraded results withdrawn and replaced by teachers’ estimates.

Ms Robertson said everyone at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was “keenly aware of the concerns from young people” expressed over the past week.

In her opening remarks to the committee, she said: “On the basis of the commission that we received from the Scottish Government, there was a clear and unequivocal case for some moderation.”

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The appeals process would have dealt with any “anomalies” in the moderated results, she said, while the SQA’s equalities impact assessments showed the results were “fair”.

Glasgow: Students held a protest at George Square.

Last Tuesday, around 138,000 school pupils received the results of their National, Higher and Advanced Higher courses after an exam-free year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although pass rates were up, the moderation system saw 26.2% of grades changed.

The SQA downgraded 124,564 results – 93.1% of all the moderated grades – based on criteria including schools’ historic performances.

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Pupils from the most deprived areas of Scotland had their grades reduced by 15.2% compared with 6.9% in the most affluent parts of the country.

In response, opposition politicians branded the moderation process a “train wreck” as well as “disturbing and grossly unequal”.

Pupils held a protest at Glasgow’s George Square, whilst Scottish Labour tabled a motion of no confidence in education secretary John Swinney – which is set to be debated on Thursday.

Jamie Greene, the Scottish Conservatives’ education spokesperson, said to Ms Robertson: “I listened with intent to your opening statement but there’s one word I didn’t hear, and that’s the word ‘sorry’”.

Ms Robertson responded: “It was difficult to see the reaction to last week’s results.

“But we were asked to fulfil a role and part of that role was to maintain standards across Scotland.

“I fully appreciate that, as I highlighted in my opening statement, young people felt that their achievements had been taken outwith their control.

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“I absolutely get that and of course I regret how young people have felt about this process.”

Scottish Government: John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon initially defended the system.

Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer asked if one of the SQA’s statisticians had resigned as the moderating system was being developed and if this was because they had concerns about the system.

She confirmed one person had resigned, but said: “I’m not privy to the full details of that particular individual.

“It probably wouldn’t be fair for me to go into that in fairness to them.”

Scottish Labour’s Iain Gray asked if the SQA signed off on a moderation system “in the sure and certain knowledge that pupils in those schools with a poorer past performance would be more heavily impacted”.

Ms Robertson said the moderation process was based on data but “the extraordinary circumstances of the year meant that we were awarding on a basis that I think we would all agree were not ideal because of the cancellation of exams”.

The SNP’s Alex Neil raised what he called the “human cost” of the system, saying he had heard from the family of a young woman who had been left “distraught” by a downgraded result and refused to eat or leave her room for three days.

Referring to previous committee meetings which raised concerns about the methodology, he said: “The SQA absolutely refused to listen to the committee’s point about the need to consult on the methodology before it was approved.

“I think everybody and their granny knew that if you used the record of local schools you’d end up with the situation we ended up with – where the moderation process led to two and a half times the downgrades in the poorest areas than happened in the more affluent areas.”

Ms Robertson said: “Where there are lessons to be learned we will learn them.”


Buildings catch fire after being struck by lightning

Emergency services called to fires in early hours of Wednesday, after storms raged overnight.

Thomas Lamont
A picture captured in Redding, Falkirk, by the Kilted Photographer.

A house and butcher shop went up in flames as thunder and lightning caused destruction in Falkirk.

Emergency services were called to the separate fires in the early hours of Wednesday, after storms raged overnight.

Firefighters tackled a blaze at a house in Reddingrig Place, Redding, around 4am, before a fire broke out at Thomas Johnston’s butcher shop in Brightons’ Main Street shortly before 5am.

Police confirmed there were no injuries during either incident, however, significant damage has been caused to the roof of the butchers.

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Meanwhile, cars at the Cadgers Brae Brewers Fayre in Polmont have been submerged in water because of flooding.

Flooding: The scene at Cadgers Brae Brewers Fayre in Polmont.

The area has been badly affected by the storms, with a month’s worth of rain falling overnight.

It caused a significant breach on the Union Canal, east of the A801, between Polmont and Muiravonside.

Scottish Canals confirmed it is on site, adding the breach has impacted the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway line.

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STV meteorologist Sean Batty said the east of the country experienced “some horrendous conditions overnight with frequent lightning, hailstones and torrential downpours.”

He added: “It looks like Scotland has experienced over 1500 flashes of lightning through these storms with around 300-400 across the Lothians, Edinburgh, Fife, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire.

“I’ve not seen rainfall totals this high for a long time, with some of the heaviest downpours around Edinburgh, West Lothian, Falkirk, Perth, west and central Fife.”


Swinney’s exams failure was as serious as it gets on his watch

Despite calls for John Swinney to resign, a crisis, bigger than the one he helped create, may paradoxically be his saving grace.

Swinney: Yesterday’s climb-down was 'embarrassing'.

It is a simple question and it is one that John Swinney is no doubt pondering in private. For this has been no one-week crisis but a narrative played out over many months with probing questions being met with repeated ministerial assurances that the exams award system for 2020 would be fair and robust.

Yesterday’s climb-down was complete and as embarrassing as it gets for a politician in the mea culpa stakes. 

Last week his defence of what he buried yesterday was, to use a favourite word of this crisis, ‘robust’.  Even more robust was the First Minister’s defence in a BBC interview in which she seemed impatient and annoyed with the very suggestion the SQA had presided over a shambles rooted in injustice.

The apologies have been fulsome and the U-turn dizzying if only because the overall appearance is that saving face politically has been as much a factor as addressing injustice. 

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Having placed tens of thousands of young people in a state of abject fear, the impression that is given is that with a change of heart and a gorging on humble pie then we can now all move on.

Now the constant calls for Minister’s to quit can be a wearying business in the political world. Any aggrieved voter will inevitably call for a ministerial head and a public inquiry thrown in for good measure when they are the subject of perceived wrong doing.

Backbench parliamentarian’s no-one has ever heard of make the resignation call hoping they will see their name in print. Front-benchers inevitably overuse it, most frequently when a story is running on empty.

But for once the calls are understandable. In a system of parliamentary accountability it is ministers who are answerable even for the incompetence of others that they have the ability to influence if not control.

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In any system of scrutiny, where a minister signs off on a system which he or she subsequently admits is not fit for purpose, there has to be a sanction commensurate with the shambles of their creation. 

In this context, if the exams crisis of 2020 is not a resignation issue for the cabinet secretary then what is? If there is no end-game beyond criticism in parliament then we may as well admit that the principles of scrutiny and accountability are but mere pawns in a game.

Minsters can get themselves into trouble for various reasons. Sometimes they are run by their civil servants particularly if they are lazy and are never on top of a problem. If they are naive or have no foresight as to how a developing issue might play out then that issue can come back and bite them where is hurts.

None of these shortcomings apply to John Swinney, a politician of huge experience with an instinctive feel for what could go wrong. And yet by his own admission, he failed. That failure was as serious as it gets on his watch and the consequence is that his authority is gone, completely and possibly forever.

There are moments when a politician becomes so wounded that their ability to do the job is disabled because they are ultimately defined, consumed and buried by the crisis they have sponsored.

This is never an edifying sight when applied to conscientious and hard working public servant like Mr Swinney, but he is long enough in the tooth to know that by limping on he does so as a much diminished figure. If your authority goes as a minister your opponents scoff not merely in opposition but in jest. You cease to be taken seriously.

Now it looks likely that the education secretary will survive tomorrow’s vote of no confidence. The Scottish Green MSP Ross Greer says his party will vote with the Government to ensure John Swinney escapes parliamentary censure.

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Mr Greer is an impressive younger politician in a party who very quickly said to the Government, if you sort the crisis on our terms you have our support. Mr Swinney it appears duly agreed. 

The problem with the position of the Scottish Greens is that they see this as an injustice to be put right without ever embracing the concept that the sponsor of the injustice should be the subject of any meaningful sanction.  

Their intervention is rooted in a fix not in the sound principle that ministers whose failure is absolute should pay an absolute price. In that regard they have failed to discharge the most basic function of an opposition party.

I first met Mr Swinney over thirty years ago and he is a politician I have always regarded highly. In the political jungle where it is easy to locate one’s baser instincts he has always tried to play fair. Ruthlessness and cynicism are frequently virtues in this world and for the most part his reputation as a good guy is well deserved.

Forget Swinney the politician for a moment. Swinney the man will be wrestling with that most draining of contests, the struggle with his conscience. 

I cannot believe that his instincts are anything other than to resign. The brake on any decision will be that this is not an opportune time given the unprecedented times in which we live.

A crisis, bigger than the one that he helped create, may paradoxically be his saving grace.


Recession hits hard as economy takes record dive

Britain has been officially declared in recession for the first time since the financial crisis.

Recession: Scotland lagging behind England.

Britain has officially fallen into recession after the pandemic sent the economy plunging by a record 21% between April and June.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) confirmed the mammoth second quarter contraction, the worst in western Europe, and the UK’s nosedive into recession after a 2.2% fall in the first three months of 2020.

The last time Britain was in recession was during the financial crisis in 2009.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the figures “confirm that hard times are here”.

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“Hundreds of thousands of people have already lost their jobs, and sadly in the coming months many more will.

“But while there are difficult choices to be made ahead, we will get through this, and I can assure people that nobody will be left without hope or opportunity.”

A recession is defined as two successive quarters of decline in gross domestic product (GDP).

But monthly figures showed the economy bounced back by 8.7% in June, following upwardly revised growth of 2.4% in May, as lockdown restrictions eased.

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The ONS said the economy was still a long way off from recovering the record falls seen in March and April after tumbling into “the largest recession on record”.

Jonathan Athow, deputy national statistician at the ONS, said: “The recession brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has led to the biggest fall in quarterly GDP on record.

“The economy began to bounce back in June, with shops reopening, factories beginning to ramp up production and house-building continuing to recover.

“Despite this, GDP in June still remains a sixth below its level in February, before the virus struck.

“Overall, productivity saw its largest-ever fall in the second quarter. Hospitality was worst hit, with productivity in that industry falling by three-quarters in recent months.”


Twin-verclyde: Nine sets of twins start primary school

Teachers were left seeing double as nine sets of twins prepared to start their first day of school in the council area.

SWNS
Seeing double: Nine sets of twins on their first day of school in the area.

Teachers were left seeing double as nine sets of twins prepared to start their first day of school in Inverclyde. 

The children, all aged four and five, will all start at primary schools across the council area – with one school set to welcome three sets of the twins.

Inverclyde has a history of having the highest number of twins in the classroom after a record breaking 19 pairs started school in the area in 2015.

Last year 16 sets of twins started primary school at the same time in the council area.

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This year 16 pairs were eligible to start school, but the parents of seven sets decided to defer their children’s start until next year.

Double trouble: Sixteen pairs were to start this year but parents of seven deferred. SWNS.

Provost Martin Brennan said: “I am constantly surprised at the high number of twins we have heading for primary school every year.

“It often runs into double-figures.

“This year would have followed that trend apart from a number of parents deciding to defer their children’s school start until 2021.

‘I am constantly surprised at the high number of twins we have heading for primary school every year.’

Provost Martin Brennan
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“As a former teacher, I am particularly pleased to be able to welcome them as they prepare to join their new classmates in their new schools.”

The rate of multiple births in 2015 – when all of this year’s twins were born – was 2.25% compared to the Sottish average of 1.15%.

Sixteen sets started primary school in Inverclyde in 2019. STV

The children will start primary school at St Patricks, St Francis’, Whinhill, Lady Alice and Craigmarloch.

Three sets of twins will all start Newark Primary school.

Councillor Jim Clocherty, convener of Inverclyde Council’s Education and Communities Committee, said: “The twins photo has become very much a traditional part of the first day at school for many local parents.

“Clearly, though the twins who start school on Wednesday will be facing a very different school environment than last year.

“We have done our utmost to make sure our schools are safe and welcoming for our new pupils.

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“Hand sanitiser stations have been installed throughout our schools along with one-way systems and social distancing where required.

“It will be a different first day and a different school experience but I’m certain it will still be a rewarding one which leads to a successful and enjoyable school career.”


Survey finds majority support Scottish independence

The YouGov survey revealed that 53% – excluding 'don’t knows' – would vote in favour of breaking up the Union.

Yes: A new poll has found that the majority of people support Scottish independence.

A new poll has found the majority of the country now support Scottish independence.

The YouGov survey revealed that 53% – excluding “don’t knows” – would vote in favour of breaking up the Union.

This is the fourth survey in a row to put the independence vote ahead of remain, and the highest level of support for Scottish independence ever recorded by YouGov.

The newest poll, for The Times Scotland, also marks a two-point increase in support for Scotland leaving the union, compared to YouGov’s last poll in January.

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Professor Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said that although the UK Government and the Conservatives north and south of the border have been “stirred into action” by the warning signs about the future of Britain, they will be hampered by the struggles of their main opposition in the House of Commons.

He added: “UK ministers are making frequent forays north while the party’s Scottish leader, Jackson Carlaw, has made way for a successor who, it is hoped, will be better able to reverse the nationalist tide.

“Yet this frenetic activity hides a strategic dilemma for the Conservatives – they are unlikely to be able to save the Union on their own.

“They will need the help from Labour – but Sir Keir Starmer’s party currently looks like the weak link in the unionist chain.”

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YouGov surveyed 1142 Scottish adults, aged 16 or older, and found that 52% of voters believe that Scotland is heading in the “right direction”, a 20-point increase on the last time the question was asked roughly a year ago.

By contrast, just 26% thought the country is going in the wrong way, compared to 41% last August.

Both Sir Keir and Boris Johnson have said they do not believe there should be another referendum in the near future, and Downing Street has briefed that the Prime Minister will not countenance another vote even if the SNP wins a majority in next May’s Holyrood elections.

Keith Brown, the SNP’s depute leader, said: “This poll shows that voters across Scotland continue to place their trust in the SNP to deliver for them after more than a decade in government at Holyrood.

“People in Scotland want an accessible government which listens to and engages with the public and that’s what they will always get with the SNP.

“The Scottish Government remains fully focused on tackling the coronavirus pandemic – but it’s now clearer than ever that people in Scotland have confidence in the SNP, and in Scotland’s ability to govern itself.

“It is now the established majority view in Scotland that we should be an independent country. Prolonging any attempt to stop people from having their say over their future is undemocratic, unsustainable and runs the risk of public opinion in Scotland turning even more sharply against the Prime Minister.

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“There is now unstoppable momentum behind an independence referendum – and that will be a decision for the people of Scotland, not Boris Johnson or any other Westminster politician.”


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