How long can Nicola Sturgeon keep politics out of her pandemic response?

As Scotland lifts some lockdown measures, differences in strategy and opinion will inevitably be politicised.

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For the first time in two months, Nicola Sturgeon allowed herself the briefest of jokes and even a quick smile. Setting out a plan in the Scottish Parliament for the gradual lifting of lockdown, she announced phase three of the strategy would allow hairdressers to reopen: “a priority, I know, for almost every woman in the country… and some men.”

Then the smile was gone, replaced by the worried frown that has been the First Minister’s constant accompaniment throughout the pandemic. Some of the decisions she had been forced to take “will stay with me for the rest of my life”, she said.

Scotland has waited anxiously for today’s announcement. Sturgeon, like her fellow devolved leaders in Wales and Northern Ireland, had held back from embracing Boris Johnson’s lifting of some restrictive measures last week, due to Scotland’s apparent higher "R" rate.

At last, however, there was some relatively good news to deliver after weeks of grim statistics and stern cross-examinations over failings in relation to care homes, PPE and testing. Such was the public appetite, the Scottish government’s website crashed within seconds of the phased plan being placed online.

It proposes that from 28 May people will be allowed to use outdoor spaces for recreation, rather than simple exercise; one household will be able to meet up with another household outdoors, including in gardens, but with physical distancing. People will be allowed to travel short distances for outdoor leisure and exercise. Garden centres will reopen, and outdoor jobs such as forestry will restart. Outdoor sports such as golf and fishing will be permitted.

Phase two will allow meetings of larger groups, including indoors; there will be increased public transport services; small shops, playgrounds and places of worship will reopen; professional sport will restart. By phase three and four things would feel closer to normal, the document states, with schools reopening on 11 August.

All of this came with the caveat that the coronavirus reproduction rate – the R number that describes the spread of the virus — would dictate the timing of these freedoms, and that a rise in infection rates might lead to their being delayed or rescinded.

Sturgeon continues to insist she will not play politics during the crisis, although Downing Street quickly responded that the announcement “shows the UK-wide approach is working. We set out the road map a few weeks ago and now the devolved administrations are following that path at the right speed for them.” This is, we can assume, not exactly how the First Minister would have phrased it.

While both sides will be keen to avoid being seen to use the crisis for political gain, the next months will nonetheless see competition between the administrations over whose guidance is proving the more appropriate, and whose decisions in relation to kickstarting the economy are the most effective.

The opposition parties are already circling the SNP over what they claim have been severe mistakes in judgement in recent weeks. It remains to be seen how long Sturgeon will be able to contain her instinct for hitting back, both at the Scottish opposition and at Westminster — especially with an election due in a year’s time. For now, at least, she is certainly trying.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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