First Minister hits back at council leader's claim government 'refused' routine COVID testing

Politics is about the clash of ideas, and almost inevitably that leads to verbal clashes between political opponents. Those exchanges can often be sharp, frequently bitter, and sometimes personal.

However, it is rare for there to be feisty public exchanges between the leader of a Scottish council and the First Minister.

It is rarer still in the current context as this significant difference of opinion is over the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, about which there has been at least some cross-party consensus.

Yet fierce exchanges there have been between Shona Haslam, the Conservative leader of Scottish Borders Council, and Nicola Sturgeon, who leads the SNP Scottish government.

The spark was the terrible recent news that seven residents at the Saltgreens care home in Eyemouth died with coronavirus, and sixteen had had the disease.

I interviewed Councillor Haslam about this for Representing Border, and asked her a number of questions about the outbreak at the council-run home.

Why was the public not informed earlier? Did the staff there have adequate personal protection equipment (PPE), and did they use it properly? How did the disease get into the home which houses fewer than 40 residents?

You can see my interview, and her answers to these questions, in full here.

But in a part of that interview Ms Haslam also launched a stinging attack on the First Minister, and her cabinet secretary for health, Jeane Freeman, who I had interviewed on the previous night's Representing Border.

Ms Haslam told me: "The Scottish Government has refused point blank to allow routine, regular testing and care homes have been asking for that for some time.

"As leader of the council I will always take responsibility for these things. What I would like is for Jeane Freeman to take some responsibility as well and that's what has been lacking so far.

"Of course, as leader of a council, that's what leadership is, you take responsibility for things that happen under your watch. Where's Nicola Sturgeon, where's Jeane Freeman taking that same responsibility?"

Today I put those questions to the First Minister and Health Secretary at their daily media briefing at the government's St Andrew's House headquarters. Ms Sturgeon's riposte was pithy.

She said: "I don't want to get party political about this but perhaps my answer to Shona might be, if she doesn't know where I am and Jeane is, and we've been here every day, maybe that is a question for her and not for Jeanne and I.

"On the more substantive question, it's just not the case."

The First Minister added: "The testing of care home workers in care homes, even where there are no cases of COVID, is under way." It was required to happen on a regular, routine basis.

She continued: "We are focused on these things day in and day out, and doing it in partnerships with local authorities, with health boards, with public health directors and with care home providers."

Mrs Freeman told me she had today written to the chief executives of all Scotland's health boards, reminding them the health service is on "an emergency footing and I require that policy to be implemented consistently across all our health boards".

They would be required to provide weekly data so the Scottish government can report the number of tests being carried out, on residents and care workers, across all care homes.

Responding to Ms Haslam, Ms Freeman added: "I am not sure why the leader of that local authority thought we had refused testing.

"That is certainly not the case but if we can correspond then I can look in particular at whether there has been some miscommunication there.

"But the Scottish government's policy is very clear, and we have never refused to make sure that testing is provided."

Now critics of Ms Sturgeon and her government might argue that her response was more about her being available to take media questions, than the "responsibility" the Borders council leader mentioned.

They might also point to the careful use of words on testing of care home workers, saying it is "under way", not that it has happened yet in all care homes.

Supporters of the First Minister would, of course, argue that she has been more accountable than any other politician - particularly Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson - appearing in front of the media, and MSPs almost daily.

They would also argue that the Scottish government has had a mammoth task in tackling COVID-19, and that the decline in the numbers of deaths, including in care homes, shows they are getting to grips with the pandemic.

Those arguments will continue and ultimately the electorate will be the judge of Ms Sturgeon's record as First Minister and indeed Ms Haslam's as council leader.

What the row has not done is take us much further in terms of answers on what caused those tragic deaths at Saltgreens - felt all the more keenly in a small close-knit community. And how something similar can be avoided in the future.

It's reasonable to assume that if you live in Eyemouth and the surrounding community you would hope the politicians - in the council chamber and the Holyrood chamber - will cooperate to find some answers to those troubling questions.