The early days of the pandemic seem long ago. As the cases began to multiply in northern Italy, we joined planeloads of Scottish rugby followers for the jaunt to Rome, the only hint that something was amiss being the temperature checks on arrival at Fiumicino Airport.
By the time this was revealed in a BBC Scotland investigation broadcast mid-May last year, Covid-19 had killed 3,500 people in Scotland and, as readers of this column might recall, one of them was my father.
That investigation included a study by a team of Edinburgh University epidemiological scientists which concluded that had lockdown been introduced in Scotland two weeks earlier than March 23 then 2,000 coronavirus deaths could have been prevented, but the Scottish government insisted it acted on the best advice available.
The 2,000 avoidable Scottish deaths equates to just short of 20,000 fatalities across the UK, so Mr Cummings wasn’t exaggerating, but neither was he saying anything particularly new.
He delivered an extraordinary inside account of internal chaos far sooner than a public inquiry, but thanks to the success of the vaccine programme the public has moved on, as demonstrated in a Survation UK poll this week showing Conservative support up five per cent at the expense of Labour.
According to an Audit Scotland report in February, the Scottish government’s initial response was based on a 2011 UK flu pandemic strategy, having not fully implemented the findings of three subsequent preparedness exercises. “These included measures to ensure access to enough PPE and to quickly address social care capacity, both of which became significant issues during the first wave of Covid-19,” said the report.
But that’s not the impression conveyed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week. “Sometimes I’m afraid, in the interests of health and human life, it is necessary for people in leadership positions like me to take very quick decisions, because as we know from bitter experience over this pandemic, it’s often the failure to take quick and firm decisions that leads to loss of life,” she said. “Anybody who’s in any doubt about that only had to listen to a fraction of what Dominic Cummings outlined about what he described as the chaotic response of the UK government at key moments of this pandemic.”
Memories are indeed short, so perhaps Ms Sturgeon had forgotten about the Edinburgh University study, or the Audit Scotland report, or that having taken full control of the pandemic response she presided over the clear-out of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes.
Over 3,000 people in Scottish care homes died from Covid-19, and it’s probably where my father picked up the virus after he was discharged from Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth hospital, a failure Ms Freeman attributed to “not understanding the social care sector well enough”.
Not understanding the social care system after running it for 14 years was an extraordinary admission. With that background, a dignified response from Ms Sturgeon would have been to acknowledge that all leaders faced difficult decisions in the face of a fast-advancing and unknown deadly threat.
Instead she leapt on Mr Cummings’ testimony as an opportunity to attack the UK government and portray herself as the epitome of calm and effective control when every statistic, expert opinion and even her own ministers demonstrate the outcome was identical.
But like Mr Johnson, polls will probably show public opinion remaining on Ms Sturgeon’s side, which makes her sneery insinuations all the more unnecessary, especially as significant problems persist with the Scottish vaccine system which are resulting in thousands of missed appointments, while the English roll-out motors.
This is the sort of responsibility which Ms Sturgeon cannot dodge and these issues are only going to mount as the NHS struggles to cope with the surge in demand for delayed treatment and the diagnosis of illnesses undetected because of lockdown.
There will be a limit to how much slack the public will cut the Scottish government when relatives are kept waiting for life-saving or enhancing operations and the buck stops at Bute House.
No wonder the SNP keeps the sword of a referendum dangling over Scotland’s head; like Mr Cummings, Ms Sturgeon needs someone to blame.