News, Culture & Society

Sturgeon’s foot-dragging on air bridges is a cynical ploy, says STEPHEN DAISLEY 

Every night at tea time, Scots switch on the TV news to a familiar sight: Nicola Sturgeon peering at them from behind her podium, giving the latest coronavirus figures and sharing her sympathy with those affected.

She is a deft communicator and peerless emoter who has convinced herself that Scotland could not get through the remainder of this crisis without her televised beneficence.

So we gather each evening to learn which of her vast array of powers the First Minister will call upon next. How far can we travel? When can our churches reopen? Where must we wear surgical masks now?

The SNP leader makes all these decisions without reference to Boris Johnson because, in Scotland, devolution takes vast swathes of the Prime Minister’s powers and hands them to the occupant of Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister.

And Sturgeon revels in flexing her authority, as her refusal this week to sign up to an agreement over air bridges showed us once again.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wears a Tartan face mask as she visits New Look at Ford Kinaird Retail Park in Edinburgh

Downing Street was expected to publish a list on Monday of countries which will no longer be subject to the 14-day self-isolation rules but, thanks to Ms Sturgeon’s grand-standing, the decision has repeatedly been pushed back, causing holiday chaos and stoking growing anger among businesses, such as travel companies and airlines, that have been so hard hit by Covid.

Scotland’s First Minister insists she just wants to ‘take a bit of time to consider the public health impact’ of what is being proposed.

What planet is she on? As agreements on air bridges with other countries have to be made on a UK-wide basis, by refusing to step into line with Downing Street she is throwing the holiday plans of millions of families into chaos

It is an outrageous display of playing politics with the pandemic: holding the UK to ransom to drum up support for her dream of independence.

In response to such accusations, Ms Sturgeon primly says that the very suggestion that political considerations might be a factor in her decision-making are ‘frankly disgraceful’. From the high priestess of politicisation, this is spectacular audacity.

She is even considering quarantining visitors to Scotland from south of the border. Boris Johnson’s assertion in response that ‘there is no such thing as a border between England and Scotland’ was a silly, unforced error. 

There is a legal boundary, with separate systems of law and law-making, but the nationalist leader’s thundering indignation was theatre — and bad theatre, at that.

‘If the Prime Minister is questioning that now,’ she snipped in rejoinder, ‘I’m not sure what he’d say if I pitched up in Newcastle and tried to implement Scottish Government policies there.’

Passengers arrive to Palma de Mallorca airport, Spain amid the coronavirus crisis today

Passengers arrive to Palma de Mallorca airport, Spain amid the coronavirus crisis today

Holiday makers sunbathe on Portals Nous beach today as lockdown restriction ease in Europe

Holiday makers sunbathe on Portals Nous beach today as lockdown restriction ease in Europe

The truth is that the idea of Sturgeon crossing the Tweed into England and finding herself locked in quarantine on her return would find favour with half of Scotland.

But frivolities aside, the mere suggestion that the Scottish Government even contemplates the idea of a quarantine is quite extraordinary. A Scottish quarantine would effectively suspend free movement between the two largest nations of the United Kingdom.

Scotland would be erecting a hard border in the middle of a national emergency and in the run-up to a Scottish Parliament election in which SNP demands for another referendum are certain to take centre stage.

The political symbolism of the act would overshadow any pretext of protecting public health.

Nicola Sturgeon is not naive. She knows all this. Yet she refuses to reject the idea, even though it would sharply divide Scots, trigger a territorial row between Bute House and Downing Street, and do lasting damage to Scotland’s vital tourism industry.

Indeed, the Scottish Tourism Alliance warns that holidaymakers from elsewhere in the UK have already begun asking about refunds on bookings.

Meanwhile, it is not clear how such quarantine measures would work in practice. This week Police Scotland said it does not even monitor who is entering the country.

The coronavirus outbreak called for leadership and, at first, Sturgeon appeared to grasp the gravity of the moment.

She acted with caution and spoke sombrely, holding to a four-nations strategy even as the very notion that Scotland should co-ordinate its response with the rest of the UK antagonised some in the grassroots of her party.

But, soon enough, political considerations got the better of her — as they so often do with this First Minister. When she was taken into the fold via Cobra meetings, she angered No 10 by pre-empting the Prime Minister’s announcement of a policy shift from containment to delay of the virus.

Passengers wave as they walk along a gangway as an airplane boards from Germany to Greece

Passengers wave as they walk along a gangway as an airplane boards from Germany to Greece

When Downing Street unveiled its ‘Stay Alert’ slogan, she refused to use it because it was ‘vague and imprecise’. The following month, she announced a motto of her own: ‘Stay Safe’.

There is an eye-poking quality to SNP’s approach to Middle England, a compulsive need to emphasise small divergences and cast Scotland and England as naturally separate countries.

Yet, when it comes to efforts to control the virus, the SNP’s record is as at least as patchy as that of the Tories in England.

Both governments were sluggish in providing PPE, and both took too long to appreciate the importance of testing and tracing. On testing in particular, the Scottish Government’s record has been risible. At one point, only one-third of daily capacity was put to use.

Sturgeon’s Health Minister, Jeane Freeman, has also come under fire over the decision to transfer elderly patients from hospitals to care homes, some of them being moved without first being tested for coronavirus.

Back in May, Freeman told the Scottish Parliament only 300 older people had been discharged before compulsory testing was introduced. The actual figure was three times as high.

Sturgeon defended her staunch political ally, saying she might have been ‘tired’ when she gave the misleading number.

But no dereliction of duty has been quite as appalling as the Scottish Government’s handling of the Nike conference outbreak.

The sports giant held an international gathering in an Edinburgh hotel at the end of February.

By March 3, ministers knew at least two people connected to the event had tested positive for Covid-19, but the outbreak was kept secret from the public for another 69 days — when a BBC investigation revealed all. Sturgeon’s Government had slipped back into old habits of secrecy and subterfuge.

So far none of this is registering any political impact. With a Holyrood election scheduled for next May, Sturgeon is polling far ahead of the Scottish Conservatives, who have still not recovered from the loss of their former leader Ruth Davidson.

By rights, she could focus on her day job of running the country and coast to another term in Bute House, but that is not Sturgeon’s way. She is a fierce ideological animal, wily and lethal, and she lives for the hunt.

This makes her a deadly enemy to her opponents, but it renders her fundamentally ill-suited to governing. The temptation to politicise everything is ever-present because, for Sturgeon, politics is all there is.

Viruses come and go but the nationalist cause endures and, as long as it does, it will always be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

She is leader of the SNP first, and First Minister of Scotland a distant second.