No exit!

The challenge we face is to find a balance that allows us to suppress and control the virus and and minimise absolutely the damage it can do, while also allowing life to go on, if not completely as normal, then at least in as normal a way as is possible.

Nicola Sturgeon

We’ve got to try to seek a new normal, because how we are living our lives right now has consequences and can’t go on forever,

Nicola Sturgeon

As regular readers will be aware, I have a propensity or predilection for picking on particular words and phrases when politicians speak. If the politician in question is worth listening to at all then they are worth listening to carefully. Remember always that prepared speeches are just that – prepared! They are carefully crafted. They are cautiously constructed. What is said can, therefore, tell you a great deal about what the politician is thinking. Or about what they want you to suppose they are thinking. Which also tells you something. What they don’t say can tell you even more.

When politicians speak extemporaneously, they may let something slip. That’s why they tend to keep repeating the soundbites supplied to them by their media advisers. And why they are well-schooled in the arts of diversion and deflection. Again, what they don’t say; the questions they assiduously avoid answering; the topics they are unwilling to address, can be more informative than the vacuous drivel that comes out of their mouths.

It pays to listen. It pays to scrutinise transcripts. It pays to read what politicians write always actively looking for the subtext. It pays not to take their utterances at face value.

Nicola Sturgeon is a politician worth attending to. Few even among her most strident political opponents would deny this. I shall use the word ‘statesmanlike’ because it conveys what I intend and because the more ‘right-on’ alternatives are just ugly. She is worth listening to not least because sometimes she says the ‘wrong thing’. By which I mean she says something that is considerably more forthright than is usual for politicians. For me, this indicates honesty. Or alt least a respect for truth over spin. The person who never said anything controversial never said very much at all.

It is moderately perplexing that Nicola Sturgeon can be so apparently incautious with what she says when she is so famously (or notoriously?) cautious when it comes to political action. As I remarked in a recent article,

It’s as if the Nicola Sturgeon who is First Minister and the Nicola Sturgeon who is the de facto figurehead of the independence campaign are two very different people. Or maybe just one person better able to cope with one role than the other.

Us or them!

Nonetheless, regardless and whatever, the First Minister has conducted herself superbly throughout the current public health crisis. To a degree which has surprised even some of us who have long appreciated the openness, grace and skill with which she has discharged the responsibilities of her office. The people of Scotland chose well.

It says a great deal about Nicola Sturgeon’s political stature that her daily briefings are heard furth of Scotland and far beyond the UK’s borders. Her voice carries. She is respected and trusted pretty much everywhere. And we may be confident that she knows what she’s talking about. I know of no occasion when she has not been fully on top of her brief. So, it pays to listen to her.

The two quotes at the top of the page are from recent briefings in which the First Minister has attempted to deal with the matter of a strategy to ease lockdown restrictions and exit the Covid-19 crisis. Her message was clear and consistent with previous statements. Her straight talking manner was, as always, greatly and widely appreciated. I listened carefully. These two remarks caught my attention. They stood out not because of the words spoken but on account of the possible implications. Is there a subtext here? What is that subtext saying? Are these superficially phatic remarks preparing the ground for something more substantial?

To my ear, these words could be interpreted as hinting at us having to learn to live with the virus. They sound to me as if Nicola Sturgeon is edging towards the idea that there may be no exit from the Covid-19 crisis. Like she is trying to introduce the notion in small increments. The strong impression is that she is subtly not ruling out the possibility of the current restrictions, or some version of them, continuing indefinitely.

As always, context matters. The context in which I heard these words as I did includes the still live possibility that having been infected does not confer immunity. It just may be that there is a threat of re-infection – in at least some cases. At present, we just don’t know. But there is enough ‘evidence’ to make this an issue even if none of that ‘evidence’ could be described as scientific. The implications of secondary infection – which I am content to leave to your imagination – are so serious that even a remote possibility has to be taken into consideration.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) got itself into a bit of a Twitter tangle (Twangle?) at the weekend with a subsequently deleted post addressing the question of ‘immunity passports’ for people who test positive for COVID-19 antibodies. Those well acquainted with the ways of social media will be not the slightest bit surprised to learn that the furore grew around a post which was technically accurate, but insufficiently guarded against the Twitterati’s tendency to find ‘End of Days’ prophecies in the most innocent of statements. The WHO Tweet left them all the scope they needed.

There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from #COVID19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.

Which is correct. There is no evidence because there has not been time for that evidence to be found or developed. There is a default assumption, born of experience, that those who have been infected will have acquired at least some immunity. But there is, as yet, no scientific evidence that this is the case. What the WHO now say it that they “expect that most people who are infected with #COVID19 will develop an antibody response that will provide some level of protection.” Which has slightly less potential to induce paranoia and provoke panic.

Politicians do not like to be the bearer of ill tidings. A few – Nicola Sturgeon being one – have the ability to deliver bad news in a way that actually enhances their reputation ind increases their popularity. They are the exception. For the most part, politicians hate the job of telling the electorate anything other than what they suppose the voters want to hear. They deliver bad news, they get blamed for the bad thing that happens. As we’ve seen with the UK’s political elite throughout the current crisis and before, this preference for emphasising the positive and shunning the negative leads to a great deal of over-promising and under-delivering.

Nicola Sturgeon ‘gets away with it’ largely due to the skills and personal qualities referred to earlier. But she also makes sure to prepare her audience in advance. Generally speaking, bad news isn’t quite so bad if you’re expecting it. My suspicion is that with the remarks quoted above Nicola Sturgeon was taking just such a precaution.

This does not mean that we should anticipate the First Minister taking to the podium for her daily media briefing session to declare that lockdown is now a permanent feature of our lives. Not imminently, anyway. But if and when she does, she can refer to her previous statements on the matter to demonstrate that at least she is not being caught unawares.

In similar manner, having written this, I’ll be able to say “Ah telt ye!”.

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3 thoughts on “No exit!

  1. The First Minister may well be right. If you look at the graphs for various countries on the Johns Hopkins dashboard, (click on the name in the left most panel) then it’s clear that the decline of the virus is slow indeed. It is going to be another couple of months before the number of new cases drops to 3 figures PER DAY in many countries. That’s why the torrent of news stories about relaxing restrictions appears to have run dry. Coming out of this is not going to be soon or simple.

    Liked by 2 people

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