Nicola Sturgeon: 'I will carry weight of COVID care home decisions for the rest of my life'

Political Editor Peter MacMahon sits down with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Credit: ITV News

A dreich, dank day in Dumfries and Nicola Sturgeon is out not pressing the flesh. In a COVID election hands can't be shaken, babies remain unkissed and selfies are socially-distanced. 

Yet the leader of the SNP still manages to interact with some voters in this key south of Scotland constituency, and one encounter on Monday's drenching tour of the town caught the essence of the Holyrood 2021 campaign.

On Bank Street on Monday Ms Sturgeon was stopped by a local man, properly wearing a mask and keeping his distance, who told her he did not agree with her on independence.

The SNP leader made her case for the principle of independence, but then explained she was only asking for the electorate to give Scots the right to choose one way or the other. 

The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon in the Midsteeple Quarter. Credit: PA

It's a formulation her opponents say is disingenuous, and is designed to soften her intent of taking Scotland out of the UK. 

But leaving that to one side, the man told her he had not thought of it like that, and though he was still against independence, he would consider what to do in Thursday's vote. 

His parting words to the First Minister were: "Well done with the pandemic." She had been doing a good job on COVID, and he wanted her to keep that up.

As the SNP leader moved on, and the rain kept teaming down, this brief election encounter encapsulated the election and the attitude many voters have towards Ms Sturgeon.

Sturgeon during a visit to the Station House Cafe Cookery School in Kirkcudbright. Credit: PA

Polls suggest a large proportion of Scots believe she has indeed done a good job on COVID, in stark contrast to voters' opinion of Boris Johnson. 

The country may be divided on independence but generally speaking Ms Sturgeon is seen to have been a competent First Minister, running Scotland well.

Which is why it is important to explore the record of the SNP government, which has been in power for the best part of a decade and a half, with Ms Sturgeon as First Minister for more than six years.

First on COVID. The official National Records of Scotland figures show there have been more than 10,000 deaths where the virus is mentioned on the death certificate.  

Nicola Sturgeon visits T.B Watson Specialist whisky & wine merchant in the Midsteeple Quarter Credit: PA

In April the SNP health secretary Jeane Freeman told the BBC's Nick Robinson: "...we didn't take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake.”

We know older peopIe were moved out of hospital into care homes without COVID tests, and that some had the virus. 

The Public Health Scotland (PHS) organisation has said the size of care homes is the main determinant of whether there was an outbreak of the virus.

But in an up-dated report after criticism of their original findings, PHS accepted they cannot rule out a link between discharge from hospital and outbreaks in care homes.

In my interview for Representing Border, I asked Nicola Sturgeon about the health secretary saying there had been a "mistake". Here is some of what she had to say:

Let's take another example, education. When she became First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said closing the attainment gap between pupils from more deprived and better off backgrounds would be her defining mission.

In August 2015, before the last election, Ms Sturgeon gave a speech in which she said: “My aim – to put it bluntly – is to close the attainment gap completely. It will not be done overnight – I accept that. But it must be done.”

However, a report in March 2021 by the independent and politically neutral public spending watchdog, Audit Scotland, found: “The poverty-related attainment gap remains wide and inequalities have been exacerbated by Covid-19. Progress on closing the gap has been limited and falls short of the Scottish Government’s aims.”  

I put these findings to Ms Sturgeon and you can see some of her reply here:

I could pick many more examples, but let's look at a local issue for one area of the south of Scotland. In 2011 when the ferry terminal moved out of Stranraer up the coase to Carinryan, the then First minister, Alex Salmond, promised a major programme of regeneration for the area.

Stranraer harbour would be redeveloped, there would be investment in the roads infrastructure, in particular the A75 and A77 which carry the freight traffic from the new port.

Local people in the area, who ITV has spoken to, say nothing has been done despite promises of action and investments by Ms Sturgeon and a series of other SNP Scottish government ministers.

I put this to the SNP leader, and here is some of what she told me:

There are many more issues which could have been raised with Ms Sturgeon but there is only limited time in even a longer interview.In a 'normal' election a government which has been in power for more than 14 years would face more scrutiny on its record, but the COVID pandemic has made this campaign anything but normal.

There is also the further factor of independence and the SNP's continued commitment to take Scotland out of the UK, a hugely important issue which deserves proper scrutiny.Which brings me back to that rainswept street in Dumfries and Ms Sturgeon's socially distanced exchange with the 'man in the street'.

If most voters believe the SNP leader has done a good job on COVID, and accept her word on indyref2, then as the polls suggest she will be returned to office.

This is all but certain because in this non-normal election, the two largest opposition parties, Labour and the Tories, have conceded they won't winWhether the SNP has an outright majority or is once again a minority government - or perhaps even enters a coalition with, say, the Greens - could affect the independence debate.

But one way or the other those key domestic issues - from dealing with aftermath of COVID, to education, to regeneration in the south of Scotland - appear certain to be Nicola Sturgeon's responsibility for another five years.

She told me only she has the experience to tackle them. Barring some extraordinary unforeseen result, we're about to find out whether she can live up to that promise.

You can see my Representing Border interview with Nicola Sturgeon in full here: