Covid: Nicola Sturgeon is playing politics with the pandemic over £500 gift to health and care workers – John McLellan

Most people understand that calling someone a wee monkey implies a cheeky, perhaps tricksy little scamp. Those of a certain age who followed the adventures of Cockney rogue Arthur “a little dodgy maybe” Daley on Thames TV’s Minder series might also recall a monkey is slang for £500.
Nicola Sturgeon's attempt to get the UK government to make the £500 gift to health and care workers tax-free was playing politics, says John McLellan (PIcture: Andrew MIlligan/WPA pool/Getty Images)Nicola Sturgeon's attempt to get the UK government to make the £500 gift to health and care workers tax-free was playing politics, says John McLellan (PIcture: Andrew MIlligan/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon's attempt to get the UK government to make the £500 gift to health and care workers tax-free was playing politics, says John McLellan (PIcture: Andrew MIlligan/WPA pool/Getty Images)

There is nothing dodgy about the Scottish government’s announcement of a monkey for every health and social care worker as a thank you for their service during the pandemic, but there is plenty tricksy in the manufactured row the SNP has stoked up over the income tax and national insurance the payment incurs.

Not just tricksy or cheeky, it sets a low bar for cynicism as a precursor to what could be the most bitter election campaign in recent memory.

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All Scottish NHS and care staff to get £500 'thank-you' payment
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Politics is a dirty game; the meaning of words stretched to breaking point to justify an argument or disguise a failure, numbers double or triple-counted in multiple announcements to inflate generosity.

But knowing the £500 bonus would incur tax, knowing the easiest way to ensure the workers received the full payment was to pay a higher gross amount, and knowing the UK government would not make an exception but picking the fight anyway sets new standards for political exploitation.

Maybe the intention is to demonise Chancellor Rishi Sunak in case too many people think he is doing a good job in supporting the economy across the whole UK, but whether it has the desired effect remains to be seen; plenty of hard-working people have received well-earned bonuses and paid the tax, and plenty of equally hard-working people have been sacked and their compensation taxed as they faced an uncertain future.

The Scottish government’s demand means consultants on six-figure salaries, topped up with lucrative private consultancies, actually benefit most because they would save more tax, as would NHS bureaucrats in the higher tax band who have not been near a Covid-infected patient.

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Meanwhile, there is no reward for other essential service staff like police officers called upon to break up house parties flouting lockdown rules.

In giving its health workers a bonus, the Welsh government didn’t turn it into an opportunity for division by insisting Westminster topped it up, but the ruling Labour group isn’t trying to persuade voters to abandon the UK.

As the Fraser of Allander Institute pointed out this week, once the principle of tax-exempt bonuses for exceptional service is established, everyone will want a lower basic and the rest paid in tax-free extras. Who, after all, doesn’t regard their service as exceptional?

This isn’t just about rewarding staff; if it was the Scottish government would pay the gross out of at least £1bn of unspent emergency funding on which it is sitting from the extra £8.2bn it has received from the UK government. Even without doing so, the SNP could still compare its benevolence with the UK government and bask in the glory. That wasn’t enough.

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“The inevitable rejection of the call by the UK government served up exactly what the Scottish government had really wanted: another example of the devolved fiscal framework apparently not working,” said Fraser of Allander.

This is a First Minister who has repeatedly said the pandemic is no time for party politics. The birds and the monkeys in the trees knew it was rubbish.

John McLellan is a Scottish Conservative councillor for Craigentinny and Duddingston

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