The Covid-19 crisis has been a crash course in science for politicians, but scientists have learned a few lessons about the brutal nature of politics too.
Devi Sridhar, Edinburgh University’s professor of global health, is the latest. Sridhar, a member of Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid advisory group, tweeted 16 June that Scotland’s schools should reopen “as normally as possible (kids back full-time & able to play/interact together)” by August, if the numbers of new coronavirus cases were low and an appropriate test-and-protect system was in place.
This looked like an “unhelpful” difference of opinion with the First Minister, who is being criticised for her cautious approach, and landed Sridhar in politically treacherous waters. By the morning of 17 June, Sridhar had tweeted that “Nicola Sturgeon & I are completely aligned… She has kids (& teachers, parents) best interest in mind so better to go slowly, track virus closely & make decisions in a reasoned & data-driven way.”
Ruth Davidson’s suggestion that the professor had had “the hairdryer treatment” infuriated Sturgeon, who called Davidson “disgraceful” and questioned her integrity. Poor professor Sidhar must have been bewildered.
Ministers are tired, cranky, and feeling the relentless pressure of battling the Covid hydra. After months of wrestling with a health crisis, they face the economic consequences of ending lockdown, the task of reopening schools, and a thousand other forbidding challenges. The legacy of leaders will be defined by how they match up to the moment and the decisions they take to restore society to something like normality. It is a hellish burden.
In Scotland, normal political combat has long since resumed. The Conservatives and Labour have excoriated Sturgeon’s performance for weeks now. Care homes, PPE, track-and-trace, and now the economy and schools are all areas where the First Minister is deemed to have fallen short.
Politics is as politics does – the real problem for Sturgeon is not the predictable bromides from the Tories’ Jackson Carlaw or Labour’s Richard Leonard but a wider discontent outside the usual circles. As I reported last week, senior business figures, including independence supporters, have little confidence the Scottish government will do what’s required to restart the economy effectively. On 22 June, Benny Higgins, the chair of Sturgeon’s economic recovery panel, will publish the group’s recommendations for action. Businesses are waiting anxiously and with a degree of pessimism, if not so much for the report then for the subsequent steps ministers will (or won’t) take.
Education is another area where it’s not the usual suspects with a gripe. A number of new pressure groups have emerged to represent parents across Scotland who are dismayed at the slow progress towards reopening schools. A conference call held by John Swinney, Education Secretary, with 4,000 parents earlier this week only seemed to add to the confusion (the fact it was held at 7.30pm, when many people were between their kids’ mealtimes and bedtimes, was a minor, if telling, complaint).
In short, parents are worried about school closures stretching beyond the summer holidays – the government’s plan for “blended” learning, with schools and parents sharing the educational workload across the week, is angering many. Issues of childcare, the juggling of work and home life (especially by women), the threat of unemployment, and an apparent lack of preparedness and innovation by Education Scotland, are highlighted. Keir Bloomer, chair of the Commission on School Reform run by my think tank Reform Scotland, describes blended learning as little more than “part-time schooling”. Fears about the long-term impact on children’s prospects are genuine.
There is of course an inevitability to all this – Sturgeon’s poll ratings have remained sky-high during the crisis, and there was always likely to be a backlash. Her public performances continue to be both heartfelt and persuasive, and though it may be unfashionable to say so amid the social media permawar, a degree of understanding and fellow feeling about the scale of the challenge is justified. The idea that the opposition parties would be doing significantly better if they were in government seems far-fetched, as a glance at Westminster tells us.
The mood in government is both defensive and realistic. “Of course there’s concern – this is tough stuff with no easy answers, for any country,” says a source close to the First Minister. “This phase was always going to come. Frustration rising, fear of the virus receding, people understandably grasping for ‘magic’ solutions... all of which makes it a very dangerous period too.
“The risks of resurgence of this thing are very real, and the very worst thing the First Minister could do just now is treat it as a popularity contest. She has got to work through it – and try to do the right and best things in all circumstances.”
I find myself on the side of those who have viewed Sturgeon’s performance in recent months as largely apolitical. I think she has put country before party, and there has in truth been little of the game-playing of which her critics accuse her. If there have been failings of competence – and of course there have – they are at least understandable and common.
But we are now at the stage where consequential choices must be made, and must be made according to political ideology. What kind of economy do we want? How much do we value entrepreneurialism and wealth creation in the private sector, compared to the support structures provided by the public sector? How much health risk should individuals be allowed to bear? At what level are decisions best taken – is this the moment to empower local government? Should the innovation shown in the health sector be maintained – and if so, how? – and extended to the education sphere? Can trade unions become partners in reform rather than obstacles to it? And, of course, jobs jobs jobs.
None of these questions has an easy solution, and the climate has never been less conducive to considered and collaborative policy-making. Sturgeon’s is and will continue to be a thankless and attritional task. But for as long as she wants to be First Minister, her task it is.