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by Colin Smyth
25 May 2020
Comment: Colin Smyth MSP on lockdown with a young family

Colin Smyth MSP, with his daughters Evie, 4 and Hannah, 6

Comment: Colin Smyth MSP on lockdown with a young family

“Daddy, when the crony-virus is gone, can we go to...?” is the top question these days from my inquisitive four-year-old daughter, Evie. Her six-year-old sister, Hannah, is helping her write down all the places she wants to go on little notes and popping them in a jar for safekeeping. The list has taken on an ice cream and chocolate making theme, so I’ll happily say yes to them all – but with the caveat I don’t know when.

The list includes the nearby stunning Solway coast beaches, even the modest little swing park around the corner. Simple things you take for granted on your doorstep, but for now they may as well be a million miles away.  

We’re lucky to have a decent sized garden big enough for the kids to play in during the welcome warm weather and plant the huge array of vegetables Hannah tells me will “come in handy for the lockdown”. The ITV Border news crew have even helped me ‘stay at home’, regularly using the garden for my interviews – with the requisite two metres of social distancing. That really is putting the local into local news. But I know many of my constituents don’t have that luxury of space. How precious that daily exercise must be.  

You try your best to keep as much of the grim news away from the kids as you can, but they deserve to know why they can’t see their friends at school and nursery or visit granny and grandad. They feel aggrieved that as my mum’s principle carer, I get to visit nanny a couple of miles away but they can’t. They don’t realise how nervous I am about the risk to her because I couldn’t give her that care, her medicines and check the house properly if I just shouted through the window.

When we go for the daily walk or cycle with the kids, they throw back phrases that weren’t even part of our vocabulary just weeks ago. “Look, Daddy, we’re socially distancing,” they say, as they pull into the side on their bikes to let neighbours past. They’ve gone from jumping in to clap during my weekly Thursday night Twitter video thanking NHS staff and carers to wanting to record their own ‘thank you, key workers’ message. But how many parents clapping with their kids are thinking, ‘When they grow up, do I want them to become carers, knowing just how little we pay and value social care?’

I think about what must be going through Evie and Hannah’s turbulent little minds just now. I’ve noticed Evie’s bubbly, laughing, cheeky personality is just a little bit more subdued. She is still young, so may have few memories of this national tragedy other than just be feeling aggrieved that even although Daddy’s at home, he’s working even more than when he’s “at that office the Queen comes to”. I’m lucky that I can work home a little bit more than normal, and that includes more time with my daughters. A movie night on a Wednesday, not just at the weekend. Bedtime stories and a good night hug rather than the good night WhatsApp call from Edinburgh on a Tuesday that Evie has only ever known.

But once I’ve taken the first day at school photo on the doorstep on an as yet unknown date, I wonder what Evie will make of her first experience of P1 at primary school, if it will be sitting at a desk two metres from friends, when just a few weeks ago when she was running around hugging those same friends during her now abruptly ended nursery days.

Like many parents, we’ve grabbed ‘home teaching’ with both hands -– fumbling and dropping it many times along the way. With the stresses kids face in these confusing times, if my six-year-old doesn’t get through all her reading books, I won’t question my fitness for parenthood – although I do like a good Biff, Chip and Kipper book.

My home teaching report card will say “could do better”. But what do you do on a Monday morning when on a laptop in one room ploughing through the growing avalanche of constituents’ casework on subjects that didn’t exist two months ago and my wife, Victoria, who is a teacher, is stuck on a laptop in another room making the life-changing decisions ‘projecting exam results’. The kids have become pretty self-sufficient doing, well, whatever it is they do, on a Monday morning, ironically after we’ve told them no, they can’t have their electronic tablets.

I won’t dare ask my wife how she can be sure the students she is setting work for are doing that work, in the hope she doesn’t ask me what I’m going to do to get the government to close an already-growing attainment gap when it turns into a chasm in a few months.

She has asked when parliament sends her back to school full-time but social distancing means our kids will be there just part of the day, what will happen about childcare when I’m in parliament most of the week. “I don’t see you on any list of key workers,” she points out. It is a conversation many families will be having.

The truth is it will not be a decision for parliament. It has been a bystander in this crisis. As the pandemic took hold, it went into recess for two weeks. Calls for its recall, even virtually, were brushed aside. MSPs, desperate for answers to questions from constituents, happy to ask them ‘virtually’, were told by government to just use “the usual recess channels” of written questions and letters. I patiently wait, and wait, for replies to letters on behalf of those constituents whose lives have been turned upside down, desperate for answers.

I took to Twitter to vent my frustration, asking if I should just rely on Call Kaye on Radio Scotland to put a question to the First Minister. In a fit of FM rage, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted back, why don’t you just “email me directly”. Her reply was deleted in minutes. She knew I’d never get replies to those emails. But a simple virtual question and answer session with a minister would have sufficed.

While MSPs have now slowly joined the world of Zoom, MS Teams and BlueJeans, it’s mid-May and parliament hasn’t braved a full virtual debate. We’ve had government by press conference. Journalists have done their best in the limited time they have, after government has used the live TV slot to get their careful message across. I can’t recall a single one of the monumental announcements made in recent weeks coming in reply to a parliamentary question and not a press release.

This is a national crisis. There is a unity of determination from MSPs across political parties to set aside differences and work in the national interest. That means giving the support the government needs in the tough decisions they have to make. But it also means holding them to account. That includes bringing to parliament what is happening in the real world from the experiences of our constituents. Experiences that in many cases will get a lot tougher before they get better. Maybe that parliamentary ship has sailed and the real debate will be how the lessons of this crisis shape the better Scotland we want to see for Kirsty and all our children.

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