The revelations about the Nike conference in Edinburgh on 26-27 February, and its Covid-19 aftermath, cannot be allowed to be wished away with a glib put-down, writes Brian Wilson.
Imagine Nike had held their conference in Carlisle and 70 guests took a trip across the Border. Then imagine one was found to have transmitted Covid-19 to another 25, providing by far the strongest intimation of the virus’s UK presence.
Let us further imagine UK Ministers failed to inform the public of this outbreak of a disease, the deadliness of which was far from understood by the population at large.
When, ten weeks later, that revelation emerged through BBC television, howls of outrage would have been heard from Land’s End to John o’Groats – nowhere more feverishly than from the St Andrew’s House podium.
Rightly so. Whatever motivated the decision to maintain secrecy around the UK’s first mass outbreak of Covid-19, the need for it to be challenged and deeply, deeply regretted in the light of what transpired would be overwhelming.
But the outbreak occurred In Edinburgh and this is Scotland. So when it is finally brought into the public domain, the First Minister’s response is to deny there is anything remotely amiss, far less need for a “grown-up conversation”.
On the contrary. It is “highly politicised nonsense” to suggest otherwise. The thinnest veneer of an argument about “patient confidentiality” is sufficient. We are referred to a press release of March 4, presumably assuming nobody will bother to look.
In fact, it contains not the slightest indication of what occurred in Edinburgh. The impression continued to be given that three cases had been identified in Scotland, two attributed to returns from Italy. In other words, that press release was highly misleading. Why?
If Ms Sturgeon believes that the right to answers amounts to “highly politicised nonsense” then she is living in a bubble of impunity which is in urgent need of pricking.
Let me personalise this a little. On March 8, I attended the rugby at Murrayfield. As I wrote previously: “There was no public mood at this time that these events should be cancelled. So can we really blame politicians for not acting?”
In other words, I do not deal in wisdom after an event. The difference now is that nobody outside a magic circle knew such a dramatic event had occurred – and if they had, that knowledge would have been transformational.
If I had known on March 8 there had been a mass outbreak of Covid-19 a few hundred yards up the road, I would not have been jostling with a pub-full of French rugby fans. I would not have been within a hundred miles and, anyway, the game would probably not have taken place.
I am not attracted to the argument that if this or that had been done, x thousand lives would have been saved. There are many imponderables and that is too heavy a burden to lay at any politician’s door.
What can be said with certainty, however, is that if the public had known of evidence on our doorstep that one individual had infected so many, the official response would have been vastly different – because public understanding would have been heightened so dramatically.
If there is some legitimate reason for having withheld that information, then let’s hear it. In the fullness of time, the judicial inquiry into how Scotland has handled this pandemic will pursue the same question and many others. Jibes about “politicised nonsense” will not suffice.
And what now of Jason Leitch’s assertion on March 11 that he would cheerfully have gone to a concert with 12,000 people? It seemed odd at the time and is now incomprehensible in the light of what had happened among 70 in Edinburgh.
In Scotland at present, we have an appalling care homes tragedy, an abysmal level of testing with previous “targets” forgotten and now this revelation that the virus was among us before the public was allowed to know.
These are circumstances that demand questions and answers which transcend politics but for which politicians must expect to be accountable – even in Scotland.
RISHI SUNAK SHOULD STICK WITH KEYNES
By common consent, the UK Government’s crisis response has been pretty good in terms of support for the economy.
They have followed classic Keynsianism which, in other times, would be anathema to their back-benches. The question is what happens next?
While the Chancellor is hailed for playing a blinder, in some dark Treasury burrow, a paper was being drawn up (and inevitably leaked) extolling tax rises and spending cuts to pay the bills.
To be fair, Ministers sought to distance themselves – as well they might. Anyone who, for the foreseeable future, suggests cutting front-line services would end up in the political stocks.
Fear of borrowing to fund public expenditure is a quite recent phenomenon. For historical precedent, we should go back to the end of the Second World War and the last time the UK faced this scale of crisis.
At that time, there was only one borrowing source – the United States. Lord Keynes himself was dispatched by Prime Minister Attlee to lead negotiations. The American drove a hard bargain but Attlee had no choice but to accept.
It was only in the early years of the Blair government that this debt was finally paid off. In the meantime, the economy had continued to expand and the debt had long since become a marginal issue.
It was this borrowing which fuelled the post-war recovery – investment in great industries like rail and coal which had been run into the ground, the great slum clearance schemes, the hydro projects that transformed the Highlands.
A similar scale of positive thinking is now required. The last thing we need is more austerity. Let us hope that Rishi Sunak continues to read Keynes.