The mask has slipped — and trust may have gone with it
JASON Leitch has been ubiquitous during the pandemic — exhorting us all to wash our hands and wear a mask.
You might dimly recall that in the early days of Covid, he said face-coverings weren’t needed for the general population, as it wasn’t an airborne virus.
Well, everyone makes mistakes — including his boss, Nicola Sturgeon, who was pictured maskless while indoors the other day.
But Professor Leitch, the ‘national clinical director’, has a dual role — from time to time, he’s also a useful human shield for the First Minister.
Yesterday he was sent over the top to defend her momentary and entirely inadvertent mask lapse, otherwise known as an apparent breach of Covid law.
Police were called in and later announced that officers had spoken to Miss Sturgeon about the importance of wearing a face-covering ‘where there is a legal requirement to do so’, but no further action was necessary.
Yet hours before the police disclosed that they’d had a word with the SNP leader, Professor Leitch had stepped in to speak up for her on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme — becoming her de facto spokesman, albeit on a temporary basis.
Professor Leitch’s enthusiastic backing for Miss Sturgeon will not come as much of a surprise for anyone who’s been paying attention to the behaviour of the SNP Government and its Covid gurus since March 2020.
When the former Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, was caught flouting lockdown back in April 2020, Professor Leitch performed a similar role trying to save her skin.
The First Minister also tried to minimise the infraction but within hours the ramshackle defence, such as it was, had crumbled, and Dr Calderwood quit.
But this latest episode of non-compliance with Covid law raises an important question: is the top tier of the government’s pandemic response team made up of medics, or merely spin doctors?
The politicisation of its senior ranks is now impossible to ignore as one supposedly independent expert after another risks sacrificing their credibility in the name of protecting Miss Sturgeon from incoming fire.
Professor Devi Sridhar, an academic and government adviser, is about to publish a book about how to deal with another pandemic, in which she writes that ‘it would have been easier if Scotland had been an island in the North Sea that could manage its own affairs lightly’.
It’s not the first time that she’s made similar politically charged statements.
If only we had been able to free ourselves from the shackles of the UK state, and the tyranny of its, er, life-saving vaccines and furlough scheme…
In an interview, Professor Sridhar disclosed that she’s training to be a personal fitness instructor — and Miss Sturgeon will be her first client.
An influential figure, Professor Sridhar helped to shape the short-lived ‘zero Covid’ strategy, briefly championed by Miss Sturgeon before case numbers took off again (Professor Srdihar said ‘maximum suppression’ didn’t work because Scotland lacked complete control over pandemic policy).
Can an adviser with such an apparently cosy relationship with the country’s most powerful politician simultaneously occupy the role of fearless interrogator of government policy?
You might well wonder whether any senior adviser would get anywhere close to Miss Sturgeon’s inner sanctum, maskless or otherwise, unless they were prepared to provide political backing for her in times of crisis.
Naturally, no one would deny that these are highly trained experts who have devoted their time and energy to keeping people safe during a major public health emergency.
But it is undeniable that boundaries have become dangerously blurred after more than two years of politicians working at close quarters with top medics.
In another example of the phenomenon, back in February Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer apologised after sharing an SNP political attack on Boris Johnson.
Professor Sir Gregor Smith retweeted a post from Humza Yousaf that claimed the Prime Minister was using the Covid pandemic to ‘deflect scrutiny’ over his ‘behaviour’.
The Health Secretary’s tweet was in response to Mr Johnson’s announcement that he planned to axe all coronavirus restrictions in England by the end of February.
Sir Gregor deleted his retweet and apologised. Writing on Twitter, he said it had been ‘an attempt to contribute to the debate on the isolation period’.
But he added: ‘On reflection it is clear this contained political messaging alongside the public health info. I have therefore withdrawn the RT [retweet] and apologise for passing it on.’
The Scottish Tories complained to Permanent Secretary John Paul Marks about the tweet, while MSP Sue Webber urged him to investigate whether Sir Gregor had breached the Civil Servant Code of Conduct on impartiality.
Perhaps it was just another momentary lapse, like the one which afflicted the Green MSPs who were pictured enjoying a drink in an Edinburgh pub in breach of lockdown limits on the number of people who could gather in a public place, back in May 2021.
The Greens are now in government with the SNP, so it did them no harm — a reward for years of slavish, unquestioning loyalty to the First Minister.
In the revisionist Nationalist imagination, these transgressions were honest mistakes — if a Tory was guilty of similar behaviour, Miss Sturgeon would be among the first to demand their resignation.
Inevitably, her self-righteous indignation at the Prime Minister’s Partygate conduct carries less weight now that she has been caught out.
But then maybe she has always believed that the rules for which she was responsible didn’t always apply to her.
Defending his boss yesterday, before the police tweeted that officers had spoken to her, Professor Leitch claimed that she had done the right thing by wearing a mask when she ‘realised’ that the hairdresser she was in was relatively busy.
Perhaps a different set of guidelines are in place for government ministers, as the rest of us hadn’t realised that (prior to yesterday, when the rules changed) wearing a face-covering was optional, based on an individual’s subjective judgment of risk.
The First Minister has form for ignoring her own advice, of course, evidenced by her failure to wear a mask at a funeral back in December 2020.
And she was pictured at Prince Philip’s memorial service in London last month (MARCH) without a face-covering — not breaking the law, certainly, but it demonstrated that even she felt the measure was unnecessary in a crowded indoor space, while insisting at the time that everyone else wore one.
This matters because these restrictions have dominated every day of our lives for more than two years, with profound repercussions for businesses and families.
Preaching from their podiums, doom-laden Miss Sturgeon and her lieutenants sermonised about the importance of keeping the virus at bay, but in the case of the First Minister, and Dr Calderwood, it was clearly a case of ‘do as I say’.
Once again, the mask has slipped — and the real danger is that next time around, if there’s a new variant, or another pandemic, it will be much harder, if not impossible, to take Miss Sturgeon or any of her top advisers seriously.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on April 19, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant