JOHN Donne reminded us that we are anything but insular. And so, in this island of nations, Nicola Sturgeon is inevitably conflicted over her next steps in combating Covid, this hideous plague.

On the one hand, coronavirus has ineluctably established the status of devolved governance. With the consent of her cabinet and Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon takes the health decisions affecting Scotland.

At the outset of this pandemic, it was not unknown for Boris Johnson to sidestep this somewhat. He would make NHS pronouncements as if they affected the whole of the UK, only reluctantly acknowledging the limits of his power.

But this has changed. Repeated reminders from the devolved administrations have combined with habit and custom to persuade the PM to confine his health prescriptions to England.

At the same time, UK ministers argue that it is only the broad shoulders of the Union which have been able to bear the financial burden of programmes such as vaccination and furlough. 

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Naturally, SNP ministers dissent. Welcome, in embryo, to a future indyref2 contest. For now, it is sufficient to note that Covid has inadvertently entrenched the standing and practice of devolved governance. Nicola Sturgeon is demonstrably in charge.

Which brings us to the other half of her current dilemma. Her instinct is to be cautious, to resist an over-eager drive towards the relaxation of constraints upon the citizenry.

This intuitive response is under-pinned by grim statistics from the World Health Organisation suggesting that areas of Scotland have recently endured Europe’s biggest increases in pandemic cases.

I long to see a particular Dundonian team at the top of the league but not when that team is NHS Tayside and the table records the rapid spread of this malevolent disease.

Still, we are assured that the increase may have reached a plateau, that vaccination means far fewer people are falling seriously ill or requiring a stay in hospital, and that, therefore, a limited release from constraint looks feasible, given the damage to the economy and society caused by lockdown or its proximate equivalents.

There is, however, a further factor affecting Ms Sturgeon’s judgement. That is the magnetic tug of decisions taken by the Prime Minister for England. She is in charge of the NHS in Scotland but is not wholly free to act, because the Scottish public, whose democratic consent she needs, are fully alert to changes happening south of the Border.

Folk in Scotland understand the need for caution. They may even applaud it. But, in their core, many will also look at the developing situation in England and ask: why only there? We would quite like some of that.

We would like a “Freedom Day”, as the easing of restrictions is unwisely labelled by some. We too would like holidays in the sun. We would like to be free to shed these irksome masks.

Insiders tell me that Nicola Sturgeon is “acutely aware” of this dilemma and fully comprehends that it is a real factor in the decisions she has to weigh, before she sets out her conclusions at Holyrood next Tuesday.

Indeed, we can take her own word for it. She noted this week that there was clear pressure upon Scotland simply to follow decisions taken elsewhere. However, she said people should not expect her meekly to comply. She was not intent on pursuing an easy “quest for popularity”.

Still, the pressure is real. At the very minimum, Nicola Sturgeon requires to have very good reasons on hand as to why her approach departs from that of England.

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Not least because a UK media structure brings those UK Government decisions affecting England into the homes of Scottish people, albeit with frequent caveats as to their limited reach.

What, though, is the motivation driving Boris Johnson to move more rapidly towards the lifting of restraints? In two separate conversations this week, it has been suggested to me that he is a libertarian in political and philosophical outlook. Not quite sure I buy that.

I get the libertarian concept; an individual who resents and resists government and administrative intervention, who favours individual discretion over collective action.

This tag was commonly attached to certain Thatcherite Ministers, such as the late Nicholas Ridley. It was said his ideal local authority would meet once a year to dole out the private sector contracts for such services as were deemed to be essential.

Gordon Brown deftly satirised this approach when he said of Mr Ridley, a heavy smoker, that his desk featured “no In Tray, no Out Tray. Just an ash tray.”

There are definitely ministers in Mr Johnson’s team who would support the removal of restraints from something approaching ideological principle. Frankly, I doubt whether Boris Johnson actively shares that approach.

For one thing, he is acutely aware of the harm which attends Covid. The virus, never forget, landed him in intensive care, with journalists around the UK preparing his obituary.

For another, his general demeanour strikes me as emollient and crowd-pleasing, rather than libertarian. Each time he speaks about Covid, he includes the necessary notes of caution. His promises are hedged with conditional comments.

However, he tends to play those down, somewhat, while Nicola Sturgeon puts them front and centre. With the FM, you hear the caveats. With the PM, you hear the upbeat tones. He accentuates the positive.

On the big decisions, though, the approach has been broadly comparable, including on the need for a pan-UK inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, when we are past the worst. That is entirely understandable, given that the two leaders are facing the same crisis and are guided by the same science.

Privately, some Tories would concede that the First Minister has handled communications far better than Downing Street, even before the involuntary departure of Matt Hancock.

She has been more consistently cautious, when needed, and therefore more coherently reassuring, when justified.

I would expect, therefore, that she will attach caveats to her statement next week, perhaps on such issues as face coverings and distancing. However, I think the latest figures would indicate that Scotland, like England, is set to move into a new phase in this stubborn, wilful pandemic.

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