Peter MacMahon: Farewell to a year we cannot forget

Political Editor Peter MacMahon. Credit: ITV News

If this year taught us anything it is that we live in an interconnected world. In the blink of an eye a virus that started in an obscure province of China soon had a direct and devastating impact on all our lives.

A disease few of us had even heard of began in Wuhan but within months had a direct impact on Wigtown and Wanlockhead - and every town and village across the south of Scotland. It was not supposed to be like this. 

For Boris Johnson 2020 was to be the year when he got Brexit done, when he began 'levelling up' Britain, when he would build a country in which all that lay ahead were sunlit sovereign uplands.

For Nicola Sturgeon there was a Holyrood election on the horizon, with 13 years in government to defend.

The trial and acquittal of her predecessor Alex Salmond cast a dark shadow over the SNP. But COVID-19 changed everything, for everybody.

Not just for our politics and politicians, but for everyone everywhere. And it is the effect the coronavirus had on people, real people, that has left the most profound impression on those of us who have reported the crisis.

Nicola Sturgeon giving an update on Covid restrictions in the Scottish Parliament. Credit: PA

First, the number of deaths. We were told early on people would die - though some of the first predictions now seem grotesquely over-optimistic. 

As the days wore on the trap for journalists was that we became inured to rise upon rise in the death toll. Yet behind the statistics, there were real people - fathers, mothers, sons and daughters lost, their relatives consumed by grief. And often anger.

Why had so many of our older citizens died in care homes? How could that possibly have been allowed to happen?

Why were our hospitals and social care services initially under such strain because of a lack of PPE?

Why, as became clear, had there been more fatalities - excess deaths as the statisticians call them - than there would normally be?

These questions are still being posed and we do not yet have anything close to definitive answers. That may only come out with subsequent, and probably long drawn out, public inquiries. But it was not just lives that were lost.

Livelihoods disappeared too as business were forced to close through lack of trade, or told to close. 

Students return to school in Kelso. Credit: PA

The efforts of the UK and Scottish governments mitigated the worst effect of the different stages of lockdown, but they could not help everyone, and sensible politicians admitted as much.

And there was more. Schools were closed, with pupils' education inevitably suffering, putting an additional strain on parents and carers also coping with working from home, if they still had a job.

Shops, pubs, restaurants shut or had their activities severely curtailed, with a terrible effect on the workers, and precipitating an unprecedented change to our way of life.

And although it seems like a long time ago now, remember when we were all in full lockdown and allowed out only once a day for exercise?

In order to achieve all of this, as they felt they had to, politicians put in place draconian curbs on the freedoms and rights people had taken for granted, and had not even considered might be taken away from them.

Although some have kicked back, and some refused to follow the rules and regulations, it is extraordinary that, by and large, these constraints on our rights have been accepted by the people.

From early on in the crisis, there were always doubts over whether governments had done enough when first confronted with this invisible killer in our midst?

In the summer the decline in the disease as a result of the lockdown measures suggested political leaders, and their advisers, had done what it took.

Now, confronted with this more potent strain of COVID-19, which transmits with a new ferocity, it seems that governments have been found wanting.

Could more have been done? Should our rights and freedoms have been curtailed further, and sooner, with the inevitable additional blow to a battered economy?

Put yourself in the position of Nicola Sturgeon or Boris Johnson and ask what you would have done? Most reasonable people would accept these decisions are very, very difficult, that there was no absolute right or wrong answer.

Credit: PA

Yet in Scotland polls suggest that the First Minister's handling of the crisis has met with the approval of a large part of the electorate, while for the Prime Minister it is the exact opposite.

There may have been mistakes along the way, mistakes Ms Sturgeon has acknowledged she may have made but, up to now at least, voters appear to have accepted that.

For Mr Johnson, who has also said that he has not got everything right, it appears that the voters have not been so forgiving.

And the verdict of the electorate may be down to the performance of the two leaders in televised media conferences, of which the First Minister has done many more than the Prime Minister.

The implications for Scottish politics of this are potentially profound. The polls suggest the SNP will win an outright majority at Holyrood in May, if the elections are held.

If the opposition cannot claw back the SNP's lead - and of course they say they can - a resounding win for Ms Sturgeon with a pledge to have a second independence referendum gives Mr Johnson a severe political headache.

Yet if the parties begin campaigning properly in the new year then even the defining issue of modern Scottish politics, the debate over independence, will surely take second place to the continued battle against COVID.

Many people, indeed most people, will have been hoping that 2021 will be the year when the virus was conquered, and with the prospect of mass vaccination in sight it may yet be. We have to hope that is the case.

As for 2020, it is the year most of us will want to forget. Coronavirus has ensured it will be impossible to do so. We bid farewell to 2020, but we can't forget.


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