Dominic Cummings may have provided a distraction, but the Scottish Government is now under pressure to make Test and Protect work
“If I were Mr Cummings, I would be considering my position,” said Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw, when he finally broke his silence over the controversy that had raged for days over the Prime Minister’s special adviser’s trip from London to Durham during lockdown.
But despite the furore, Carlaw still failed to actually condemn Cummings’ actions or call for Boris Johnson to sack his top aide, noting instead that it was a “distraction” from tackling coronavirus and was “diluting the message”.
The delay in Carlaw’s response after several days of social media silence, not only by him but all the Scottish Conservatives, and refusal by anyone in the party in Scotland to appear on TV or radio, left him looking weak and compromised.
This was compounded by the equivocal initial statement that what to do about it was a decision for Johnson to make.
His moderate response was in stark contrast to his outspoken views on the former chief medical officer’s breach of lockdown.
Meanwhile Conservative MPs across England had already been expressing concern about Cummings behaviour and his account of the trip for days.
When Carlaw eventually came down on one side of the fence it was only after Moray MP Douglas Ross had taken the significant step of resigning from the government over the issue.
Various members of Carlaw’s own shadow cabinet expressed support for Ross and when Carlaw’s shadow cabinet secretary for strategy, Adam Tomkins, openly called for Cummings to be sacked, Carlaw was left open to the accusation by the SNP that he had been “shamed into doing the right thing”.
A year out from the Holyrood election Cummings’ behaviour may not directly affect the outcome – there will undoubtedly be plenty more headline-grabbing failures from both governments in the next 12 months – but if it exposes Carlaw as someone lacking leadership or authority, who has no answers to challenging situations for his own party and is unable to come out from Johnson’s shadow and speak for himself and the Conservatives north of the border, that will be a more serious weakness, especially after everyone has watched his rival, Nicola Sturgeon, lead the country through a pandemic.
Dominic Cummings could not have given Nicola Sturgeon a greater gift if he had added another 120 miles to his journey and dropped a box of Milk Tray on the doorstep of Bute House.
The Scottish Government now has a ready-made riposte for almost any coronavirus-related failing from now on, as long as it falls short of pretending a 260-mile journey when you should have been in isolation wasn’t in breach of the rules.
And this couldn’t have come at a better time for the Scottish Government.
While widely considered to be handling the coronavirus outbreak better than the UK Government, a large part of that has been better presentation and communications, and there have been a number of failings for which the Scottish Government has been facing criticism.
One story that they will be glad the Cummings case has overshadowed is the Scottish Government’s handling of a COVID-19 outbreak at a Nike conference in an Edinburgh hotel on 26 and 27 February.
Initial criticism centred on the idea that the public should have been informed of an outbreak like that, which happened before the first case of coronavirus had been announced in Scotland, and in which at least 25 people became infected. The First Minister has repeatedly denied this was mishandled, although a later inquiry into the case has not been ruled out.
However, further questions have been raised after it emerged that the Edinburgh conference was case zero for the coronavirus reaching the north east of England after a delegate returned there from the conference unaware that they had been infected.
It has also emerged that although the Nike shop in Livingston was deep cleaned following the event, the shopping centre where the Nike shop is located was not informed of a potential outbreak.
But perhaps the greatest concern has been that although contact tracing was in place, a number of people who had been in close contact with the Nike group were not contacted by tracers.
These include a group from Lloyds Bank who were also staying in the hotel, tour guides who took the group on walking tours and kiltmakers who fitted the group for kilts. These people first learned of the outbreak from the media.
One kilt-fitter, Gillian Rainford, who was infected with the virus after spending 75 minutes in close contact with members of the Nike group, has since spoken out. She said: “Why did nobody contact me, or my colleagues, as part of tracking and tracing?
“Why was I never informed that I had been put at risk and potentially had the virus? This all happening whilst I was living my life as normal, mixing with family and friends, attending events and going on holiday abroad.”
Criticisms have also been levelled at the Scottish Government over the release of patients from hospitals into care homes in order to free up beds prior to mandatory testing for coronavirus coming in, with a likelihood that some of those released from hospital will have infected staff or other residents.
Initially health secretary Jeane Freeman said that only 300 patients had been transferred without testing, but later the figures were corrected to 921. An inquiry will be held into the handling of coronavirus in care homes, which have seen a high proportion of deaths.
Questions are being asked too about the number of tests being carried out and the number of contact tracers recruited.
While the Scottish Government had committed to having 2,000 contact tracers in place by 1 June, only 600 or 700 had been recruited by late May, although last week Freeman said that nearly 2,000 had been “identified” and would be in place on time.
Testing too has been under fire. While the Scottish Government has been meeting targets for capacity, the actual number of tests carried out has fallen well short.
It has also faced challenges over other aspects of its handling of COVID-19, suffering defeat after opposition parties united to overturn its extension of response times for FOI requests, something they had been unhappy with in the first coronavirus bill, and for uniting with the Tories to defeat Green and Labour amendments to the second coronavirus bill that would give more help to tenants in the private rented sector.
However, none of this seems have dented the Scottish Government’s popularity.
An Ipsos MORI poll for the BBC last week found that 82 per cent think Nicola Sturgeon is doing a good job of handling the outbreak, while 78 per cent think the same of the Scottish Government, compared to only 30 per cent for Boris Johnson and 34 per cent for the UK Government.
But the even bigger challenge starts now that lockdown has begun to be lifted in Scotland. This week the first of four phases in the Scottish Government’s road map for easing lockdown was set into action.
This means recycling facilities and garden centres can now re-open, some outdoor jobs have re-started, people can meet up with others from different households as long as they stay outside and maintain a distance and outdoor activities such as sunbathing, golf and fishing are back on in time for summer, with people now allowed to travel up to five miles for leisure activities.
But with the end of one simple ‘Stay at home’ message and multiple phases of changes coming up, there is more potential for confusion about what is allowed or people simply getting fed up of restrictions.
This made more complicated by different announcements in different parts of the UK. Last week Boris Johnson gave a whole press conference in which he announced the reopening of outdoor markets and shops in June without mentioning once that what he was talking about applied only to England.
And it could be a very long time before we get back to anything like normal if MSPs’ expectations are anything to go by.
Holyrood carried out a poll of MSPs, which found that nearly half of those who responded (46 per cent) expect we won’t be back to normal for more than a year, while another 23 per cent think it will be between six months and a year, although 31 per cent believed it would take under six months.
Much of how quick we get back to normal will depend on the success of the Test and Protect scheme, launched on Thursday, in preventing a second wave of infections requiring restrictions to be restored.
But the question is whether the procedure has improved since the Nike conference, given that not even those who had been in prolonged contact with potentially infected people were contacted then, never mind those that could have been infected by briefer passing contact.
Compare this with South Korea, which has found and tested 46,000 people in relation to one recent outbreak linked to Seoul nightclubs.
This indicates the scale of what may be required. If we are to beat the virus while restrictions are being lifted, these will be testing times in more ways than one.