NEVER in the field of human conflict, with our oldest enemy of disease, have so many had so little confidence in the man whose hand is on the tiller.

Boris Johnson is fond of wartime analogies to explain our battle with coronavirus. If so his latest pronouncements would be akin to Churchill offering jam tomorrow instead of blood, toil, tears and sweat today.

The truth is that we are not at the end of the danger and not even at the end of the beginning of the crisis. The confused and rambling account of the exit from lockdown was a pastiche of that ancient television show Sunday Night At The London Palladium.

Thus the First Minister of Scotland is right to reject Boris’s change of slogan, as are her counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland.

We don’t know if the United Kingdom is going to end up having the highest death toll per head in the world from Covid-19. What we can say without any doubt is that, insofar as “developed” countries are concerned, we will be among the worst along with Spain, Italy, Belgium and the United States. No doubt the inevitable and looming inquiries will determine the cause and responsibility for that badge of shame. Of the four nations of this state, Northern Ireland comes out slightly better. In the toll of death Scotland, Wales and England are broadly and appallingly similar.

The political decisions that have resulted in this disgraceful position are ones taken jointly under the “four nations” strategy. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, about the public-health approach to the virus which should lead any first minister anywhere in these islands to have any confidence whatsoever in Whitehall pronouncements. This is why.

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Firstly, we were too late into lockdown. This week’s BBC expose of the position in Scotland of the spread of the outbreak at the Edinburgh Nike conference in late February may be unfair in that hindsight is a wonderful thing. It was particularly unfair to suggest with such certainty that 2000 additional Scottish deaths are the direct result of Scottish Government inaction.

However, any competent system of public health would have signalled the extent of the danger which that conference outbreak presented and forced the pace of decisions required to meet it.

The questions of cover-up and patient confidentiality pursued avidly by the press pack yesterday are actually secondary. The issue is why the clear and present danger that the conference cluster demonstrated did not force an early change in policy towards a lockdown. If the answer is that Scotland was economically required to be in lockstep with Westminster then it was a deadly embrace. However, not all decisions were directed by Whitehall. Over a week after the conference outbreak was discovered, 20,000 French fans visited Edinburgh for a rugby match. Why?

Secondly the “four nations” approach has resulted in successful protection of the National Health Service. That is a considerable achievement in all four countries and a truly amazing performance by the brave and dedicated staff. Unfortunately in all four countries, all four governments were blindsided on the position in care homes. The care sector became the new front line and as a result many of the most vulnerable people in our society were unwittingly and unnecessarily subjected to greater danger and many more deaths. The disgraceful shortage of PPE added to that danger of the infection which until recently was being effectively discharged from the NHS into the care sector.

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Thirdly and finally, there is the question of test, trace and isolate. The “four nation” decision of March 12 to abandon it and effectively junk more than a century of tried-and-tested systems of infectious disease controls defies rational explanation. It may be that “herd immunity” madness had infected decision-making. More likely it was shortages – lack of testing equipment, lack of people, lack of active agents. In other words a fatal decision forced by incompetence was being dressed up as some sort of grand and crazy strategy.

Now at long last there is a shared and new-found understanding of the importance of testing, tracing and isolating. Armies of contact-tracers are now being recruited and intelligent apps are being experimented with.

However this prompts two questions – one for all four nations and for the Prime Minister alone.

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The first question is for Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland: why was this citizen’s army of tracers not recruited in March?

And then to the Prime Minister: if a working system of testing, tracing and isolating is a way to control the disease as an alternative to continuing lockdown, then how can he safely ease the lockdown before that new system is place?

What is the UK Government actually doing right now apart from issuing useless slogans? Using your “common sense” or “staying alert” doesn’t really cut it against a virus as insidious, invisible or of this magnitude as this. Because common sense and alertness don’t pay the bills – as we saw in those photos of people crowded on the tube in London this week. They are going to work because they have no choice. And without top-notch public health protection, nothing can save the population from a second-wave infection that will build with every passing day and new human interaction if lockdown is eased in a chaotic manner.

That is why, beyond the ramble and the confusion, Sunday Night At The Downing Street Palladium was so deeply irresponsible. The three first ministers should not be criticised for refusing to go along with this latest “four nations” nonsense.

They should be asked to explain why they tolerated being dictated to for so long.