Coronavirus: Why Nicola Sturgeon should appoint a 'Covid response minister' – Richard Leonard

Dispiriting statements emanating from high-ranking officials about how we should all prepare for a digital Christmas, that are later partially retracted and contradicted, sums up the confusion that is at the heart of the Scottish government’s Covid messaging.

Nicola Sturgeon should appoint a minister dedicated solely to the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus, says Richard  Leonard
Nicola Sturgeon should appoint a minister dedicated solely to the fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus, says Richard Leonard

Clinical director Jason Leitch’s rather belated admission that he could have been “slightly gentler in my use of the phrase ‘digital Christmas’” after his ill-fated intervention did little to reassure those people looking for some hope in place of fear after the toughest of years.

The First Minister’s half-hearted attempt to put a qualified distance between her own position and that of her health supremo led to a plea to “just get away from fixing everything on the terminology of a ‘digital Christmas’”.

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At the same time, the Deputy First Minister insisted that “we want to get students home for Christmas” while failing to offer any clear plan, and then later speculated that it was “a realistic possibility” that students may not be able to return home for Christmas.

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Set against the backdrop of the somewhat confusing five-tier system of multi-layered restrictions, which we are just entering, an ebbing away of public confidence in governmental directives would hardly be surprising.

Too many voices

Day in, day out people tell me that when it comes to Scotland’s Covid response, there are simply too many voices, sometimes contradicting each other which results in confusing public utterings over rules and regulations.

That’s why I have become increasingly persuaded by the argument that there is a compelling need for a single ministerial coordinator with the authority not just to see through Covid policy implementation and messaging, but also to ensure that all government policy and everything the government does is thought out and enacted with Covid in mind.

In short, I have reached the view that the First Minister must now appoint a ‘Covid response minister’ to fulfil a similar role to the Secretary of State for War position that existed in UK government structures until the 1960s.

A dedicated minister of cabinet rank could make sure that all government departments, agencies, ministers and their officials are working effectively together to fight Covid.

The minister would see that all Covid decisions are implemented, including ensuring that all departments as a matter of routine conduct Covid impact assessments

A great office of state

Until the position of Secretary of State for War was eventually phased out in peacetime Britain, the post was one of the great offices of state, occupied by senior figures from across the political spectrum.

Not least, the legendary Manny Shinwell who, whilst more famous as the Red Clydesider, rose to become the minister in the 1945 government which nationalised the coal industry and went on to become the Secretary of State for War in the late 1940s.

Former Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden served as Secretary of State for War after the First World War and during the Second World War respectively.

John Profumo, of the eponymous and infamous scandal, also served as War minister in Harold Macmillan’s government from 1960 to 1963, before the post was merged into the Ministry of Defence a year later.

During the war years and then in post-war Britain, the position was seen as pivotal to upholding and promoting public confidence and trust, a currency the Scottish government desperately needs to restore during the Covid winter we face in the weeks and months ahead.

No clear direction on Covid

Nicola Sturgeon insisted only last month that the “buck stops with me’ over Covid policy decisions.

Yet, weeks pass by without the publication of reliable and persuasive evidence or explanations to back up key policy decisions like the shutdown of much of Scotland’s hospitality sector.

The absence of a functioning test-and-trace system, the failure to plan for the arrival of students at university and now to allow them to return home for Christmas, tardiness in agreeing to crucial support packages like free school meals for poverty-stricken children, all show a government with no clear Covid policy direction.

Having a ‘Covid response minister’ in place, overseeing all these critical areas across government departments including education, health and social care, would provide a clear line of accountability to parliament and make it much harder to avoid scrutiny.

A ‘Covid response minister’, created at the onset of the pandemic, may even have been a vital check on disastrous and fatal policy decisions, most notably the decisions which led to the tragic loss of life in Scotland’s residential care homes.

Rebuilding post-pandemic Scotland

The minister could sit in on all cabinet decision-making forums and have their own department and officials, with a Civil Service machinery robust enough to impose its will on errant areas of government.

When the Covid pandemic eventually eases, whether that’s through the development of a vaccine or improved public health responses, the position should be retained in the First Minister’s cabinet, just as the position of Secretary of State for War was for nearly 20 years after the end of the Second World War.

To do so would help retain and restore public confidence and make us ready to combat any resurgence of the virus. And help with preparedness for any future pandemic.

The minister could also oversee the policy response for a post-pandemic Scotland, reconstructing badly damaged sectors of the economy in the public and private realms, just as Manny Shinwell did over 70 years ago.

With Scotland crying out for leadership and a coherent plan to get us through these pandemic winter months, Nicola Sturgeon should appoint a ‘Covid response minister’ without delay.

If she does, Labour will back the move and support the retention of the position during and beyond next year’s Scottish parliament elections.

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