3 June 2020

The idea the SNP is having a ‘good pandemic’ is preposterous

By Robyn Staveley

Nicola Sturgeon has been widely praised for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Scotland. It has even been suggested that she has put the pro-independence agenda to one side to focus on responding to Covid-19. But to buy into this thinking is to forget everything we have learned of the SNP over the past decade or more: nothing is more important than separating Scotland from the rest of the UK. Not even a global pandemic. They are not going to waste this crisis by rising above playing politics.

A recent poll by Ipsos MORI on behalf of BBC Scotland found that 82% of Scots think Sturgeon has handled the crisis “fairly well” or “very well”. Despite the £3.7 billion in extra funding from the UK Government to help Scotland weather the pandemic, only 49% of Scots think the UK Government has handled the crisis well.

Yet claims that Sturgeon is having a “good pandemic” are as inaccurate as they are inappropriate. According to the former Head of Analysis for the ONS, Scotland’s coronavirus death rate is one of the worst in the world. The country is drastically behind the rest of the UK on testing: as of 26th May, only 4% of the 117,013 tests carried out across the UK were in Scotland. (On May 25, for example, only 5,178 were carried out North of the Border despite a capacity of roughly 15,000.)

It’s a similar story on contact tracing. Sturgeon promised to recruit 2,000 tracers by the end of May, but so far hasn’t hired a single additional person, instead reallocating around 660 existing NHS staff. It is now emerging that the First Minister is U-turning on this commitment completely. Meanwhile in England, there are undoubtedly some teething issues, but the Government has managed to sign up 25,000 contact tracers.

Scotland also has a huge problem with care homes. Last week, over half of all Covid-19 deaths in the country took place in care facilities. The number of hospital patients discharged before being tested was three times higher than the Scottish Government previously claimed, raising serious questions over their handling of this crisis.

Without appropriate testing in place, the problems will only escalate: carers in Scotland are forced to go into residential facilities and the community not knowing whether they’re taking the disease with them. That’s heartbreaking for them, and the vulnerable people they treat and assist.

Meanwhile, the Leader of the SNP in Westminster refuses to acknowledge the failings of his party, preferring instead to question the Prime Minister about the English NHS.

Shamefully, it has now emerged that the Scottish Government knew in February that cases of coronavirus were present in Edinburgh. Not only did they not inform the public, but they failed to contact or test those potentially exposed to this deadly virus.

As well as mishandling the pandemic, the SNP are also jeopardising the recovery. Small and medium sized businesses are having to take the Scottish Government to court over the lack of support being offered to help them through this period. The UK Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, meanwhile, has saved 374,000 Scottish jobs. But don’t be surprised when the First Minister turns round in six months and blames Scotland’s rising unemployment and slower growth on London.

The SNP’s version of reality, of course, is very different. Joanna Cherry, MP for Edinburgh South West, claimed: “The incompetent handling of Brexit and the Covid crisis by Westminster builds the case for independence because. . . it puts a question mark over the UK as a stable and competent entity.”

Kenny MacAskill, MP for East Lothian, declared that “the road to independence is open” because while Sturgeon’s handling of the crisis has been “virtually flawless”, the prime minister has been “utterly hapless”. Angus Brendan MacNeil, MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar, even claimed that Scotland would be faring better through the pandemic if the country was not “involved in the web around COBRA and the United Kingdom”.

Even at this time of national and international crisis, in other words, the SNP aren’t missing a beat. At worst they are trying to suggest that the pandemic would have spared independent Scotland; at best they say that Westminster is to blame for its severity – despite those “evil Tories in London” throwing everything but the kitchen sink to get the country through this crisis in one piece.

As for Sturgeon not trying to score points during this crisis, she doesn’t need to: her loyal followers do it for her.

So to think the SNP’s attention isn’t firmly on the next independence referendum, even in the middle of the pandemic, would be a gross miscalculation. Their gaze has never shifted.

Whether it’s criticising the UK Government’s approach to ending lockdown, or making small but symbolic changes to the guidance (is meeting eight people really any safer than meeting six?), or just brazenly gazumping the Prime Minister by briefing out ahead of him, there is little doubt Nicola Sturgeon is trying to drive a wedge between England and Scotland, and using this crisis as a launchpad for IndyRef2. Supporters of the Union need to pay attention. 

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Robyn Staveley is Head of Communications at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.