The National:

“OPPORTUNISTIC and irresponsible”. These are words which might be used to describe attempts by some politicians to undermine confidence in public health advice during a pandemic purely because doing so allows them to take shots at their political opponents.

Instead, these words were used by Scottish Labour interim leader Jackie Baillie MSP today to describe First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to send a letter alongside an NHS information leaflet to every household in Scotland. May I refer you back to paragraph one?

According to Baillie, along with Scottish Tory and Lib Dem MSPs quoted in The Herald, the letter thanking people for “sticking with it” during lockdown is inherently “political” because it’s signed by the first minister, and because a Holyrood election is just months away.

Considering that both Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon wrote to every household in Scotland during the first lockdown last March and nobody seemed to find this problematic at the time, it appears as though it’s the opposition parties who are desperate to score political points ahead of an election.

There was a brief period in those early days of confusion and uncertainty, which have since come to be known simply as “life in a pandemic”, when elected representatives across the political spectrum were at least trying to act more concerned about working together to find solutions than with devising ways to tear each other down.

Sadly, the pandemic has long outlived the capacity of Scotland’s – and the UK’s – political parties to keep their tribalistic instincts in check. Such is the nature of our confrontational political system, but all of this game-playing has serious consequences for people’s lives, and it shouldn’t have to be the norm.

The MSPs speaking out against the First Minister’s letter have argued that falling trust levels in governments mean that health messages should be kept separate from politics. But how would they propose rebuilding that trust?

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There are no shortage of ways in which both the Scottish and UK Governments can and should be legitimately scrutinised and criticised, both Covid-related and otherwise.

But when politicians are scraping the barrel for affronted soundbites about anything and everything, simply because they feel they have to say something, and because the dial for political disagreement is constantly set at fever pitch, it demeans the seriousness of the work they are supposed to be doing.

It demeans the very system of which they are a part — and that, surely, is an important factor in the diminishing trust in politicians and governments.

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In the context of Covid-19, the importance of collaborative working should be abundantly clear. People are already hearing so many conflicting and inaccurate messages about the virus and the vaccine online, the last thing they need is to see petty sniping from politicians which could make some people even less likely to take official health advice seriously.

But there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic about how politicians – and the media – talk about policy issues across the board. Not everything in life needs to be a bust-up, and it’s not the way most of us communicate our views or get things done at work, at home, or in our communities. But you’d easily forget that if you viewed things only through the polarised lens of party politics and how it’s covered.

The worrying thing is that people are spending more and more of their time viewing things through exactly that lens, intensified by the algorithms of social media. Our elected representatives, who should know better, should consider it one of their most urgent responsibilities to try to counteract that, not lean into it.