When a country’s leader stands up in parliament and announces that the death toll from a sinister new virus has doubled the mood is bound to be sombre.
So it was when Nicola Sturgeon informed MSPs at First Minister’s Questions that number of Scottish coronavirus fatalities had risen from three to six overnight.
The public galleries were deserted, empty spaces abounded on the back benches as the first minister delivered yet more unwelcome news confirming the spread of the deadly virus.
A respectful silence replaced the tribal jeering and desk banging that normally accompanies the weekly joust at Holyrood. With the building closed to the public and more MSPs and staff working from home, there was a strange and subdued atmosphere.
“Politics as normal is not operating,” was how Ms Sturgeon put it as she underlined that all resources were focused on tackling the pandemic.
Opposition leaders asked questions aimed to inform rather than wound. Tory leader Jackson Carlaw asked about coronavirus testing for NHS workers, childcare now that the schools were closing and support for business.
Labour leader Richard Leonard expressed concerns that ambulance staff were not getting the correct protective equipment and Patrick Harvie of the Greens secured a commitment from the first minister that no-one would be evicted if put into rent arrears by the coronavirus. And the first minister signalled her support of a citizens’ income.
Nicola Sturgeon says nobody should face eviction from their homes as result of rent arrears caused by coronavirus.
— Tom Peterkin (@TomPeterkin) March 19, 2020
I don’t want people to be scared. But I do want people to understand and realise this is not a drill”
But perhaps it was the case raised by Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie of a constituent who was “scared to death” by the unfolding crisis that drew the most memorable response from Ms Sturgeon.
The individual was worried that the cancellation of non-urgent operations might mean his life-saving surgery would be denied. Ms Sturgeon asked for constituent’s details to be passed on to her before reminding MSPs that vital life-saving treatment would go-ahead.
“I don’t want people to be scared,” the first minister said. “But I do want people to understand and realise that this is not a drill. This is real. This is going to be happening and we all have to take seriously our responsibility to follow the advice.”
Those with symptoms or in a household with someone with symptoms should stay at home, she said. People should cut down on social interaction, particularly over 70s, pregnant women and those with a condition that means they get the flu vaccine. Those with compromised immune systems would get tailored NHS advice.
“This is advice that should not be seen as optional. This is about saving lives,” the first minster warned.
“I have never had to stand up in the chamber of this parliament and say something so bluntly before. My job right now – and it is not me that’s doing it, I am leading an effort that is enabling everybody else to do it – but it is just about saving lives.”
That just about summed it up.
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