As I See It: Terry Murden
As if dealing with life and death was not a big enough daily agenda for our policymakers, the coronavirus is throwing up increasingly testing demands on managing the economy.
Billions of pounds of taxpayer-backed loans and grants are propping up businesses large and small, but may prove to be a finger in the dyke as a deluge of company collapses and job losses awaits any mistakes in timing the return to work.
The warnings from SMEs and from airlines and the pubs, hotels and restaurants that they face collapse unless the economy is rebooted are now becoming a reality. Closures and job losses are mounting and getting worse.
The tragedy of lost livelihoods and trades is an unfolding story spreading across all industries. Except it is now stepping up a gear with big international brands such as Rolls-Royce about to unleash massive job cuts. All the more reason why the First Minister’s phased easing of the lockdown takes on an extra urgency and why she must get it right.
It is also incumbent on the opposition and the media to do likewise. Scottish Labour issued a statement “responding to the news of job losses at Rolls-Royce, including at Inchinnan in Renfrewshire”, and The National newspaper carried an article stating the company had “plans to cut at least 1,300 jobs in Scotland as part of UK-wide cuts.”
This looks unlikely as the company’s website states that it directly employs 820 at its Inchinnan plant adjacent to Glasgow Airport. Moreover, the CEO Warren East, made it clear in his statement to the Stock Exchange that: “Due to the need to consult with the appropriate employee and trade union representatives, we are not providing further details of the impact of the proposed reorganisation on specific sites, or countries, at this stage.”
The news awaiting Inchinnan may prove to be bad, but let’s not jump the gun, and let’s get it right. What we do know is that “at least 9,000 roles” will be lost across the group and that most will be from a UK payroll of 24,000.
The outcome, whether Inchinnan is badly hit or escapes relatively lightly, will not be pretty and the announcement will not be the last unless the return to work coincides with a sharp reduction in cases of coronavirus allowing for an easing of social distancing rules which are a major obstruction in the “route map” to normality.
What is more important here is that the First Minister goes beyond a statement of a phased return to work and sets out what happens next: a strategy for rebuilding the new economy, no less. By stating last week that “we can’t go on like this”, she shows a willingness to test her own first instinct towards caution by sharing everyone’s growing realisation that at some point we have to take a risk on the virus being “manageable”.
Ms Sturgeon can be excused standing her ground because Scotland suffered later than some other countries which are now already easing their lockdowns.
But she also carries the burden of responsibility over public health. Australia”s PM Scott Morrison whose reputation was shredded over his poor handling of the bushfires, has won back public confidence for a robust and successful handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
Ms Sturgeon says that protecting the public is more important than politics. Quite right. But she will be mindful that her standing rests on how she similarly manages the easing of the lockdown.
She is not being helped by what appear to be self-inflicted wounds over the handling of a notifiable incident at a Nike conference in February at which eight Scots among the delegates caught the virus.
Nothing was said at the time, fuelling media claims of a cover-up which the First Minister has dismissed as ridiculous.
At the very least mistakes appear to have been made and her claim that the government was protecting patient confidentiality doesn’t hold water. Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson points out that the Public Health Scotland Act (2008), GMC guidance and Sycusa Principles all state that public health trumps individual confidentiality.
This may look to some like a media witch-hunt fuelled by opportunistic political opponents, while critics of the government say that it reveals a weakness in dealing with a major incident. To that extent it shows how easily public confidence and personal reputations can be won and lost.