Nicola Sturgeon devising different lockdown rules 'for the sake of it', says Scottish Secretary

Alister Jack said Ms Sturgeon has published separate guidelines despite them sowing public confusion and failing to produce better results.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon Credit:  Getty Images Europe

Nicola Sturgeon should stop devising different lockdown rules from Boris Johnson "for the sake of it" as they have not led to lower Covid rates north of the Border, the Scottish Secretary has said.

Alister Jack told a Commons select committee that "we should have clear, simple messaging UK-wide" but Ms Sturgeon has persisted with a separate set of guidelines despite them sowing public confusion and failing to produce any better results.

Accusing her of undermining UK-wide efforts to tackle the virus, he said the First Minister's repeated claim that the virus was five times as prevalent in England than Scotland was "totally untrue, totally unhelpful."

He also castigated her refusal to rule out quarantining English visitors, arguing the country should pull together as "one United Kingdom" during the pandemic.

But Mr Jack said the relationship between the UK and Scottish governments was a "one-way street", with Tory ministers sharing their next steps before they are announced publicly but their SNP counterparts refusing to reciprocate.

For example, he said Ms Sturgeon was briefed on the Prime Minister's decision to restrict gatherings in England to six people but she did not share the details of her plan for a modified version of the same scheme.

 Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack leaves Downing Street Credit: Barcroft Media

The row broke out as Ms Sturgeon announced 290 new Covid cases had been recorded in the previous 24 hours - the highest daily total since May 1 - with the proportion of people testing positive rising to a new high of four per cent.

The World Health Organisation has said a positivity rate of five per cent suggests the epidemic is no longer under control. The R number - the average number of people each carrier infects - is more than one and could be as high as 1.4.

While gatherings are restricted to six people north and south of the Border, children under 12 do not count towards the Scottish limit. In addition, Ms Sturgeon has said gatherings in Scotland must also be limited to two households.

But Mr Jack told the committee: “We need to stop the confusion. All the administrations in these weekly meetings we have should actually just be grown up, and not be different for the sake of it for whatever agenda they have.

"It hasn’t brought anyone to a different outcome - the prevalence of the virus is as high in any part of the UK as any other. On average all four nations are experiencing similar problems.”

The Scottish Secretary highlighted how the UK Government's 'Hands. Face. Space' public information campaign and questioned why Ms Sturgeon had to instead use her FACTS acronym to communicate the same message.

The Dumfries and Galloway MP said all the differences "muddle the message", particularly for those living close to the Border.

Jeane Freeman, the Scottish Health Secretary Credit: PA

He said the Scottish Government had claimed they were doing a "far better job" despite Scotland suffering a higher care home death rate and noted the UK statistics watchdog had rebuked Ms Sturgeon over her claim the virus was five times as prevalent in England.

The Scottish Secretary said this falsehood had let to "bad feeling" between the two governments as "at the time lockdown was in Leicester the prevalence of the virus was as high in Dundee."

"We should be in this together supporting each other. That sort of pointing the finger and saying you’re doing a bad job and I’m doing a good job, which actually turned up the figures to be, as I say, completely incorrect," he said.

Highlighting the SNP's lack of teamwork, he said Joe FitzPatrick, the Scottish Public Health Minister, attended a meeting in late April to discuss the UK Government's plan for a contact tracing proximity app.

However, Mr Jack said he failed to mention the SNP administration's plan - announced publicly two days later - to develop their own app.

Mr Jack also cited a meeting last week on the Prime Minister's Rule of Six at which Ms Sturgeon said she would "do something" the following day.

He said she did not mention she intended to exclude children under 12 from the limit and the two governments could have reached an agreement if she had.

Mr Jack said the UK Government had been trying at the meeting to get the devolved administrations "on the same page" to prevent more public confusion on different rules north and south of the Border.

Young members of the public walk down Princess Street in Edinburgh as a new law comes into force limiting social gatherings to a maximum of six people from two households Credit:  Getty Images Europe

But Ms Sturgeon's spokesman said: "The First Minister has always been at pains to suggest that where things can be done in a coordinated, four nations approach she’s more than happy to do that.

"That doesn’t mean that we in Scotland won’t take our own decisions based on our own circumstances."

The First Minister said later that the Scottish Secretary had been "talking nonsense". She told ITV Border: "I cooperate with the UK Government all the time, but my job is to make sure we keep Scotland as safe as possible in this virus."

The SNP demanded Mr Jack and Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, apologise for claiming the SNP's Health Secretary had misled the committee in June.

The Scottish Secretary alleged that Jeane Freeman had said she "could recall no communication with him" but the Nationalists said she had testified they had held a meeting.

His intervention came as the exchange of letters was published between Mr Johnson and Lord Keen of Elie following the latter's resignation as Advocate General for Scotland.

The Prime Minister thanked Lord Keen for his "tremendous service" as the UK Government's senior adviser on Scots law after he quit over the Internal Market Bill contravening international law.

Mr Jack told the Scottish affairs committee he had no intention of following Lord Keen "out of the door" and disclosed there were "some very fine people in the frame to replace him."