NICOLA Sturgeon should be replaced by a medical or science expert in the Scottish Covid daily briefings, Alister Jack has insisted, claiming that if she continued to front them, the SNP would gain an unfair electoral advantage in the run-up to the Holyrood election.
The Scottish Secretary urged BBC Scotland to review the First Minister’s daily appearances as the Scottish parliamentary poll on May 6 neared, describing them as the “Nicola Sturgeon Show”.
In an exclusive interview with The , Mr Jack also:
called for a 24/7 vaccination programme in Scotland, which could be undertaken with the help of the British Army;
suggested the UK economy as a whole could begin to be opened up from the middle of March thanks to the “phenomenal success” of the UK vaccination programme in targeting the four most vulnerable groups and
expressed hope that the new Biden administration in Washington would lift its tariffs on whisky, saying Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, had now restarted negotiations on the issue, had received “positive feedback,” and was giving the talks “all her energies” to get a deal over the line.
Scottish Conservatives have for some time been irked by Ms Sturgeon’s daily appearances on the BBC, which they feel at times have been used for political purposes.
Last autumn, the broadcaster signalled less frequent live appearances by the FM, saying they would be based on “editorial merit”. But following criticism, it made clear the daily live broadcasts would continue, stressing there had never been any intention to stop the coverage.
Should Nicola Sturgeon be replaced in the daily briefings?
Now, however, in the coming weeks ahead of the May poll when Mr Jack and his colleagues’ emphasis will be on stopping the SNP getting a majority in the Scottish Parliament, Conservative concerns are growing.
The Secretary of State said: “The pandemic has given the First Minister a platform. I point my finger directly at BBC Scotland for that.
“I don’t think all of the broadcasts they have given her have been around Covid issues. When the UK Government have done those, they have involved scientists and chief medical officers and, in terms of the vaccination, Army officers. That’s the right way [to do it], to allow the experts to speak. But this has been the Nicola Sturgeon Show and given her a platform.”
Asked if BBC Scotland bosses should now review the FM’s broadcasts, Mr Jack said: “I do. I have said this to the BBC and questioned, as we get closer to an election, if it is the right thing to do. I don’t dispute the public need to be informed but there are medical officers who could do that quite adequately.”
Asked if he was claiming the live broadcasts were now giving the SNP leader an unfair political advantage in the run-up to the Holyrood poll, he replied: “Yes, that’s right. The BBC and others need to be impartial and there are other ways of getting that information across using the Chief Medical Officer or the scientific advisers; it doesn’t have to be done by politicians.”
The Secretary of State expressed frustration at how Ms Sturgeon and her colleagues, when challenged on domestic issues beyond Covid, “throw the dead cat on the table” ie the issue of independence.
“People are only thinking of Covid but when the media turns its spotlight onto the Sturgeon/Salmond inquiry or their failings as a government, their incompetence over education or a number of other things – last week it was the vaccine rollout, which was desperately slow compared to other parts of the UK – they deflect every time to an independence referendum and finding another survey to release.”
Mr Jack contended that the SNP was a “campaigning organisation for separation that masquerades as a party of government”.
He explained: “Whenever we challenge them on their competence as a party of government, they throw the dead cat onto the table, which is constitutional upheaval, to deflect from the focus that should be on them on education, hospitals, building ferries, not engaging in the Union connectivity review on transport and not engaging on the importance of the UK internal market, which is worth £50bn of trade to Scotland, over 60% of Scotland’s trade.
“In all of those things they behave in a manner which is irresponsible and not in the best interests of the Scottish economy or Scottish jobs.”
On the vaccine programme, Mr Jack emphasised the role of the armed forces in Scotland and the 11 teams of eight British Army soldiers building vaccine centres.
“That programme is rolling out across Scotland. They’re doing the recce, they’re doing the planning of it, the fit-out, and hand-over to the NHS. We have offered Army medics to give vaccines. We should move to a 24/7 operation, vastly increase the roll-out and get everyone in Scotland vaccinated in good time.”
The Secretary of State said he hoped the success of the UKwide vaccine rollout should enable the country to reopen its economy by the middle of March.
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“The top four tiers we want to vaccinate by February 15…it will take three weeks for them to have protection against the virus…If you roll that forward, by the middle of March those top four cohorts who constitute 85% of the mortality rate, should be protected and that should allow us to open up the economy again.”
Mr Jack went on: “We should try to bring the whole of the UK out together on the basis that all parts of the UK have managed to vaccinate the top four cohorts by February 15. That will allow us then to produce a roadmap to opening up the economy. Obviously, the vaccine programme will roll on to younger age groups but those most at risk will be protected.”
Asked if the passing of the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid deaths across the UK was a clear sign the Government had failed when other countries had managed to have much lower mortality rates, the Scottish Secretary replied: “We are not necessarily comparing apples with apples. Different countries report their numbers in different days.
“This is something for the review into the pandemic. This is not something for now. Demographics will be part and parcel of it. Health will be too. There will be things we got right and things we got wrong but that will be for another day.”
Mr Jack, a Brexiteer, was keen to point out how polls were beginning to show an easing of the opposition to Britain’s departure from the EU.
“What pleases me about the surveys is that, pre-Brexit – when people were concerned about the potential of a no-deal outcome – having reached 57%, it has narrowed back to 52% and I hope we’ll bring that down as we show the electorate a global outward-looking Britain, interested on matters like climate change and the environment, we have COP26 coming to Glasgow, we are doing the trade deals.
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“Hopefully, those Remainers, who were angry about Brexit…will come back and realise the strength of being part of one UK and remaining as one UK.”
On a separate topic, the Scottish Secretary expressed hope that the arrival of the Biden presidency in Washington will lead to the lifting of the US tariffs on imports of whisky imposed by the previous Trump administration. They have resulted in a 30% fall in sales of scotch in America, costing $250m in lost business.
He explained Ms Truss had already “re-engaged with the new administration and has had very positive feedback.”
Asked if he could see a successful outcome soon, Mr Jack replied: “I am very hopeful that this matter can be resolved, yes…I can tell you this Liz Truss is giving it all her energies. She is very keen to get it over the finishing line.”