Alison Rowat: Forget Wally, where is Scotland’s health minister?

SUPPOSE they gave a war and no one came? The old saying from the Vietnam era protests came to mind yesterday on watching the Sunday politics shows.

Suppose, for example, they had an item on BBC1 Scotland’s The Sunday Show about the dreadful week it has been for Scotland’s NHS, and no Scottish Health Secretary was there to respond?

Suppose, further, that Scotland’s National Clinical Director also turned down an invitation to appear?

The answer, from presenter Martin Geissler, was to go ahead with the item. Having told viewers that invitations had been declined by Health Secretary Humza Yousaf and National Clinical Director Jason Leitch, he interviewed Dr Sandesh Gulhane, the Scottish Conservatives’ health spokesperson.

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It was not ideal to be without an official Government view, but what are broadcasters and other media supposed to do if, as increasingly happens, individuals decline to appear, or even send a statement? To pull the item completely would be to grant politicians, and others, a veto over what a show covered.

In the case of The Sunday Show it was left to Geissler to provide balance and challenge Dr Gulhane where necessary, which he would have done anyway.

Yet the fact remained: in a week when the Army was called in to help the crisis-hit ambulance service, Scotland’s Health Secretary, and its National Clinical Director, said no to answering questions on one of the country’s main political programmes.

It had been a week of shocking stories, including The Herald’s report on the death of a father-of-three after a 40-hour wait for an ambulance. The case has been referred to the Procurator Fiscal.

Moreover, pressure on the NHS is set to increase in the next few weeks as booster programmes, and jabs for 12-15 year olds, begin.

If this was not a good moment for the Scottish Government to be out there, being informative and reassuring, when would it be?

You could say that it is impossible for Ministers and other spokespersons to be available, 24/7, to every media outlet that asks for them, and that Sundays in particular should be reserved for family time.

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That is why the UK Government has a rota of Ministers who take turns on the Sunday shift. The nearest thing Scotland has is John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, but even he needs a weekend off now and then.

If all else fails, there should at the very least be a departmental statement.

Mr Yousaf has left himself open to criticism on this score before. In July, amid a surge in coronavirus cases in Scotland, the Minister was found to be on a family day out at the Harry Potter studios tour near London.

The media, modern life, does not work on a Monday-Friday schedule any more. Lots of people have to work Sundays. In any case, a key part of any Minister’s job is showing your face when the occasion demands it. Dominic Raab learned this when he stayed on holiday as Kabul fell to the Taliban. The result: he is now the former Foreign Secretary.

There was another “suppose” moment on the Sunday shows: Suppose they held a global summit in Glasgow on the climate crisis and the President of the world’s biggest polluter did not come? That was the prospect hanging in the air as it emerged that China’s Xi Jinping has yet to RSVP on COP26.

First to hear was Sky News’ Trevor Phillips on Sunday. He had first dibs on interviewing Alok Sharma, the UK Minister in charge of November’s UN Climate Change Conference. Mr Sharma was doing the rounds prior to getting on a plane to New York with the Prime Minister and the new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. On their itinerary: the UN General Assembly in New York and, for the Prime Minister, a visit to the White House.

Mr Johnson can be assured of a warmer welcome than if he had arrived at the height of the Afghanistan evacuation crisis, when MPs’ criticism of the Biden administration’s hasty withdrawal had been ferocious.

Any bad feeling on the US President’s part appears have been forgotten now the UK has entered into a defence pact with Australia and America to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy.

While the members of the awkwardly named “Aukas” pact are congratulating each other on what they consider is a job well done, others are furious. Chief among the critics are France, which had the original deal to build the subs, and China, which sees the move as an an act of aggression straight out of the Cold War playbook.

China’s unhappiness, and possible no show in Glasgow, leaves Mr Sharma with a headache. Interviewed on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, the Minister was unable to say for certain that there would even be a Chinese delegation at the talks.

“On the issue of whether Xi Jinping is going to come, that is not yet confirmed. Normally these things come a bit closer to summits. I am very, very hopeful that we will have a delegation from China that is coming.”

Mr Sharma acknowledged China would have to be a key part of any agreement, telling Phillips: “They are the biggest emitter in the world. They have said to me they want the COP26 to be a success. The ball is in their court.”

Keep watching the post, Minister.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992