National leaders should quit “playing politics” and work for the greater good of the country at a time of national crisis.
That was the call from Shetland Islands Council convener Malcolm Bell after Prime Minister Boris Johnson adopted a differing stance on exiting lockdown than his devolved counterparts, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
But Mr Bell believes there is little distance between the prime minister and first minister on how best to progress, at least once the political posturing between the two is taken out of the equation.
National media reports highlighted differences of opinion in the two leaders after Mr Johnson set out plans to modify the lockdown south of the border with a broadcast on Sunday evening.
He fleshed out the details in the House of Commons on Monday, amid criticism that there was a lack of clarity about the message emanating from Westminster.
Officials and elected representatives are eager to keep the “R” infection rate below one, which means each existing infection causes less than one new infection, meaning the disease will decline and eventually die out.
Mr Bell told The Shetland Times: “There’s maybe not as much distance between the prime minister and the first minister as the language suggests. The difference appears to be largely in emphasis and timing.
“But this isn’t the time for our national leaders to be playing politics. It’s critical that we have a clear message that people continue to follow the advice and guidelines.”
The convener said he was not too concerned that different parts of the UK were thinking about the lockdown exit differently.
“In one sense everybody talks about ‘the science’. There’s no such thing as ‘the science’. There’s ‘science’, and as long as they’re taking their evidence from the same science it could be perfectly reasonable for different parts of the UK to go at a slightly different pace.
“You can find a scientist to back up whatever you want. I’m concerned they are now going to start using this to emphasise political differences. I think I would expect more from our leaders at a time of national emergency.”
Mr Bell stressed people had to get back to work at some time, especially if they wanted to preserve things like the “world-class health service” which they benefit from.
He added that, when that time comes, “we do have to show the same sort of courage and commitment that our key workers at the moment – our health workers, bus drivers, ferry crews, care workers and shop assistants – are doing.”
Following the prime minister’s address, residents in England will be able to carry out more outdoor exercise as of Wednesday.
Mr Johnson also said primary schools south of the border may begin to re-open in June, as well as non-essential shops, while the hospitality industry could see operations begin again from July.
He added people in England should be “actively encouraged” to go to work if they were unable to work from home.
Mr Johnson said it would “soon be the time” to consider imposing a 14-day quarantine on people coming into the country by air.
But the prime minister’s comments came as official data showed infections had risen in Germany, just days after the country eased its lockdown restrictions.
Mr Johnson was criticised for his new “stay alert” message which he was advising in favour of keeping the “stay at home” dictum that has been the key message in tackling the virus head-on.
Ms Sturgeon said the “core principles” of the lockdown measures remained in place, although she was willing to loosen restrictions enough to allow people to exercise outdoors more than once a day.
She told journalists: “The objectives now for all of us must be to consolidate and solidify that progress. We mustn’t squander our progress by easing up too soon or by sending mixed messages that make people think it’s okay to ease up.”
She added: “Let me be very blunt about the consequences if we were to do that. People will die unnecessarily, and instead of being able to loosen restrictions, hopefully in the near future, we will be faced instead with having to tighten them.
“We must not take that risk.”