The reaction when Nicola Sturgeon unilaterally banned New Year on live television on Monday was strangely muted.
Apart from a small flutter of fury on Twitter, the follow-up questions were focused elsewhere, a sign that even the nation’s trained observers have become desensitised to government by first ministerial diktat. So accustomed are we all now to the daily broadcasts telling us what we can and can’t do that nothing has the power to shock.
Sturgeon had just given us back Christmas in dribs and drabs, announcing there would be a slight easing of restrictions on household mixing.
She was keeping in tune with Westminster and the other devolved governments, which is unlike our nationalist leader, who has forged her own contrary route through Covid. If she could have locked us up over the entire festive season, she no doubt would have tried but I expect her arm was twisted less by London than by the likely levels of non-compliance among Scots.
Hogmanay, however, was forfeited without a fight. There would be no “particular relaxations over the New Year period”, she said. Her reasoning was that “the Christmas thing is hard enough” and, besides, she couldn’t do everything.
Almost half the country may feel she hasn’t done anything, except take away their livelihoods, with 11 local authorities now under the harshest Tier 4 shutdown until at least the middle of December.
For them, a few days’ respite at Christmas will come too late to repair the damage inflicted by months of stop-start measures that have destroyed their businesses and stolen their jobs. The repeated mantra that their sacrifices are saving lives is wearing thin, with the virus in retreat over much of Scotland and scant evidence of hospitals being overwhelmed.
Depression and anxiety
As one of Scotland’s leading public health experts, Linda Bauld from Edinburgh University, said, there are not only harms from the virus. There are other harms, with levels of depression and anxiety significantly higher than expected for the time of year due to the pandemic. She suggested that there should be a partnership between government guidance and what people decide to do for themselves and for their families.
One of Sturgeon’s closest advisers, Devi Sridhar, also from Edinburgh University, seemed to agree, saying that families would have to make decisions based on their “risk appetite”.
Are both professors not recommending an element of self-determination as the coronavirus recedes?
There was much talk from Sturgeon in the early days of the pandemic about having a grown-up conversation with Scotland and being upfront about the seriousness of the situation. That went well for a while but it is not in her political nature to be upfront (see the battle by the Salmond inquiry to extract information from her).
Default is to dictate
Nor for that matter is she especially comfortable conversing with the people, however much she tries, sharing snippets of her own family get-togethers to bring levity to her briefings. No, her default is to dictate and Covid has offered her an opportunity to rule by decree. So around mid-October she introduced her version of prohibition in Scotland. Last week she went one better and closed the border between Scotland and England, with a travel ban (which SNP MP Ian Blackford has taken to heart, shopping an English photographer who tweeted a Highland night sky image). This week she cancelled the country’s most traditional holiday.
The removal of liberties at a stroke has gone unopposed by her own party and is largely uncontested by the opposition. Dumfriesshire MSP Oliver Mundell resigned from the Tory frontbench over its support of the travel regulations but he was a lone voice.
Demanding greater transparency
Other MSPs have demanded greater transparency from the first minister, asking her to reveal the minutes of meetings with her Covid advisory group, as the UK Government does with its advice from Sage. The parliament should be able to see the science and scrutinise the government, they say. Well, of course, but Sturgeon has shown no inclination to concede to this request. She does not have a cohort of angry members in her own ranks, as Boris Johnson does on the Tory backbenches in the Commons. She can do pretty much as she pleases, which is why the other day she threatened all of Scotland with a lockdown if some people were found flouting the rules, as if disobedience was now the chief criteria for Covid curbs.
Will no one hold her to account? Our only hope lies in the disaffected voters growing impatient over her leadership style.