The BBC Disclosure documentary into the Scottish Government’s response to Covid-19 raises difficult questions, which require better answers than what we have had so far by way of explanation of the early decisions which were made.
A University of Edinburgh epidemiological simulation has found that if Scotland had lockdown two weeks earlier, from 9 March, 2,000 lives could have so far been saved in Scotland, an 80 per cent lower death rate.
“While…there’s quite a bit of uncertainty in what the final outcome will be, all those [projections] are now substantially below what actually happened,” Professor Rowland Kao, head of the team behind the study, said.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney has responded by saying this finding is not “particularly surprising” and that they were acting on “the scientific advice that was available at the time”. But this is a bit of a Matt Hancock-answer, I’m afraid to say. The scientific community is not and never was homogenous – there was plenty of experts at the time who were clearly offering different “scientific advice”. Senior scientists who have stated on the record that the Scottish Government made serious mistakes in the early stages now include Harry Burns, former Scottish Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Anne Glover, former Scottish chief scientific advisor, and Professor Devi Sridhar, on the Scottish Government’s scientific advisory group for Covid-19.
It is important to understand that response to emergencies is largely a devolved matter. The Scottish Government Resilience Room (SGoRR) “sets the strategic direction of Scotland’s response”, according to the Scottish Government’s official guidance on emergencies. The UK Government’s guidance on emergencies states that: “At the political level, Scottish Ministers are responsible for managing the consequences of any emergency that impacts on Scotland, irrespective of its cause.” Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf confirmed last month that SGoRR is “where the Scottish planning for civil contingencies and emergencies takes place NOT UK Government Cobra meetings”. The means for the Scottish Government to make its own decisions at all stages of this crisis has always been there, something First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has herself been clear about. It was an active choice to align Scottish and UK Covid-19 strategies together in the early phase. According to public health physicians Allyson Pollock and Louisa Harding-Edgar, the decision to allow the Scottish Government to have “its strategy and the operations to be directed by Westminster” is “perhaps the most surprising aspect of the British Covid-19 crisis”.
We know the First Minister chaired a SGoRR meeting on 29 January about Covid-19, and when the “four nations action plan” was signed-off on 2 March after Sturgeon attended a Cobra meeting, a SGoRR meeting was also held that day. What was the evidence from SGoRR which underpinned this decision to align with the UK Government strategy, which at the time was to “achieve herd immunity in the UK”, according to Sir Patrick Vallance, UK chief scientific advisor? We don’t know, because nothing from SGoRR has ever been published, not even who is present at these meetings, as apparently attendance records are not kept. Indeed, it was exactly one month after lockdown, on 23 April, that the Scottish Government published its “Framework for Decision-Making” on Covid-19. We still don’t know what the framework was up until that point.
It is essential we know, for instance, how and why the decision was taken not to inform the public about the Nike conference Covid-10 outbreak on 26 and 27 February in Edinburgh, only uncovered now by the Disclosure documentary, which Scottish health authorities became aware of on 2 March, the day the UK strategy was agreed to and one day after the first confirmed case in Tayside was announced. How could this have not been important information for the Scottish public to know?
The First Minister has said she wants to act with upmost transparency, so she should publish all information from SGoRR. We need answers as to the basis Scottish Government strategy was decided, and why the siren calls from many experts at the time were ignored. The Scottish Government is breaking away from the UK Government’s strategy now, the correct decision and one they deserve credit for, but we cannot forget what has already happened, and we need to know exactly why it happened. That’s the least the loved ones of those Scotland has lost too soon deserve.
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