Clash of the titans – Sturgeon and Carlaw go head to head on how outbreak was concealed.
By Bill Heaney
The confirmation of the number of those who have lost their lives to Covid-19 reminds us once again of the enormity of this tragedy.
In light of that, does the First Minister now accept that keeping the Nike conference outbreak a public secret was not the right course to take?
This was the first question Tory leader Jackson Carlaw asked First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the Holyrood parliament today (Wednesday).
And it led to an immediate protest from the FM: “I really do challenge the terminology that Jackson Carlaw has just used. I say that with deep regret, because I do not believe that any aspect of our handling of this crisis should be political, but I do believe that using such terminology seeks to make it so.
“All the cases from the Nike conference were reported in the normal way, through our daily figures. The reason that we did not say where those people got the virus was down to patient confidentiality.
“At that time, the number of cases was very low, as was the total number of people from Scotland who attended the conference; therefore, to have publicised that would have risked identifying them—almost certainly, it would have identified those individuals.
“However, that does not detract at all from the public health management of the incident. As is normal in such incidents, an incident management team of experts in such situations was established. They took all appropriate steps to trace contacts and to do everything else that they thought was required to protect public health.
“More than 60 contacts were traced in Scotland, and I believe that more than 50 were traced south of the border, by Public Health England. At any time, if that incident management team had thought that anything further was required, including public notification, it had the powers to do that.”
She added: “That is the situation. Although it is perfectly legitimate for people to question whether patient confidentiality should have been such a big factor and whether, as we go through such epidemics, it should continue to carry so much weight, it was a legitimate factor at the time. I add that the scientists working with Public Health Scotland are doing further work to examine the particular strain that came from the conference.
“My final point is on the terminology of secrecy—or, to use the term that others have used, “cover-up”. Apart from asking why anyone would have wanted to have covered up that incident, I would say this.
“If that is the accusation, it impugns not only my integrity—which Opposition politicians are entitled to do—but that of the experts who managed the outbreak, including Public Health England, which was part of the incident management team.
“Let us talk about these matters seriously and consider where there might be legitimate issues and questions, but let us not engage in ridiculous language about secrecy or cover-ups.”
But Mr Carlaw insisted: “The public were not told. As has been confirmed at Westminster, it was also explicitly agreed, in the four nations agreement, that the nation in which an outbreak occurred should take responsibility for the public dissemination of that information.
“Clearly, it was the wrong call: the public should have been told. If, as the First Minister still seems to be saying, not to do so was not a mistake, why is her Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport now giving active consideration to making a different call should this kind of thing happen again?
“People need to know what the Scottish Government will do should the virus be found in such a public location in the future. Therefore if, in the coming weeks, contact tracers confirm a positive case and we discover that the person involved has been in a public place where close contact might have occurred—as happened at the Nike conference—will the public be told?”
The FM replied: “There are standard protocols and procedures for dealing with outbreaks such as this. However, let me stress an important point that I think it is sometimes convenient for some people to forget. If the incident management team had thought that, as part of the public health management of the situation, a public notice was required, it would have had the power to issue one. The experts on the team took the steps that were appropriate, in their view, to manage the situation from a public health point of view, and that is the normal way of dealing with virus outbreaks such as this one. I have confidence in the way that Health Protection Scotland and the incident management teams operate.”
But the top Tory would not desist: “We now know that this was a conference in a hotel full of other guests and staff who engaged with those delegates. The First Minister has said that there is a balance between patient confidentiality and public health, but, for me and, I think, for most people, in the case of the coronavirus, that balance must be tipped in favour of protecting the public’s health. I think that the public and most people who have had the virus will take the view that the public have a right to know, so that we can all work together to beat the virus.”
When Ms Sturgeon challenged this from her seat, Mr Carlaw said: “The First Minister is intervening from a sedentary position, but it is perfectly clear from the litany of organisations that were at that conference that it absolutely did not happen, whatever the First Minister asserts.
“That comes to the heart of the matter, with the First Minister accepting in the abstract that mistakes can be made but never accepting that in the specific. This was a mistake. Surely, over the coming weeks, the job will be made much easier if the Government is completely transparent about when and where outbreaks occur. In fact, it is essential that it is. Will the First Minister now give that commitment?”
“Last week, when I asked the First Minister where responsibility lay, she said explicitly that responsibility rests with her. Now, it seems that, when it is convenient, responsibility rests with public health officials.
“Part of the reason why we need to hold this Government to account is to try to avoid further mistakes. On that, it is clear that the Government does not yet have the plans that Scotland needs to tackle the crisis effectively.
“We have a testing system that is delivering at only one third of its capacity—that is a failure. We have a crisis in Scotland’s care homes and still not enough tests for staff and residents—that is a failure. We have no clarity on how or even if the public will be told about future outbreaks—again, that is a failure.
“Does the First Minister not see that she must deliver on those things if we are to beat the virus and that she must do so without further delay or obfuscation?”
But the FM stuck to her guns: “The Government is delivering on all those things. We are adapting our response as we learn more about the virus, which is the right and responsible thing to do. I am accountable for the Government’s handling of the situation, as I am for anything that the Government does.”