Nobody goes into politics with the ambition to confront a pandemic likely to kill thousands of one’s fellow citizens. By the same token, it is unlikely any politician who finds himself or herself in that position will be qualified for the role.
To that extent, lay people who end up making decisions deserve sympathy more than opprobrium, conditional on due humility. The working assumption should be that they did their best and relied on advice from those who are supposed to be experts. The focus should be on learning lessons rather than apportioning blame.
Unfortunately, one lesson is that relying on experts is not a much better bet than relying on politicians. The report by two House of Commons Select Committees about how the UK Government handled the early stages of the pandemic claims that ministers and advisers converged into groupthink which closed out other options and lessons from elsewhere.
Not that there was any shortage of advice available. I doubt if anyone realised before last March how many professors with a specialist interest in epidemics were available for interview around the country, never mind the world. Some of them would undoubtedly have given better official advice if in a position to do so. But which ones?
Westminster has at least started to look at what happened in order to learn lessons. In Scotland, that process has been kicked well down the road. And anyway, who would trust a committee of Holyrood MSPs to come up with a report that carried either intellectual weight or political independence?
One of the striking features of the MPs’ report is that it was agreed unanimously by two cross-party committees each with a Tory chairman. The select committee system works pretty well when it comes to rising above party politics. There is no equivalent at Holyrood so we look to judges rather than elected politicians, which is a pretty poor reflection.
The general approach, of not setting out to attach blame, must be matched by a willingness on the part of those who benefit from it to own up to their failings. If there is no honesty or transparency on the part of those who made mistakes, there will be no lessons learned nor consolation offered to many who suffered loss as a result.
That takes me to the very significant question of the Nike outbreak in Edinburgh and the startling new revelations that have emerged 19 months after the event. For the first time, we know there were senior voices within the Scottish Government – politicians and advisers – who wanted to make the information public but were over-ruled by the First Minister.
Set within the context of the select committees’ report, that was a grievous error and it needs to be acknowledged and apologised for without further prevarication. The idea that “patient confidentiality” trumped the right of the public to be aware of the first major outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK is, frankly, ludicrous.
At this range, it is difficult to keep track of the chronology but I have good reason to remember the timeline in late February and early March of 2020 and can thus empathise with the select committees’ findings about the slowness of response and the implications which flowed from it, throughout the UK.
My wife and I had been on holiday in Thailand where there was keen awareness of the pandemic threat. The wearing of masks, commonplace at any time, was mandatory and wherever we went, shopping malls, hotels and so on, temperatures were taken. Nothing intrusive or over-the-top, just sensible precautions. The Thais had learned well from previous failures.
Returning to Scotland, there was no sign of any of this. Grim images were emerging from Italy but there seemed to be a complete suspension of disbelief about anything exceptional happening here. That state of complacency – not just in Edinburgh but also in Whitehall – would have been transformed if it had been known that 25 people had contracted Covid-19 at a single event, before the first case had been publicly acknowledged in Scotland.
Suddenly, we would have known it was among us, that it was highly transmissible and there was a need for exceptional measures – including suspension of gatherings which brought large numbers of people together. For the avoidance of doubt, if the Nike outbreak was notified to the UK Government – a question which will need answering – they would then have had the same responsibility to make the public aware.
Instead, life went on as normal. More than a week later, I attended two mass sporting events. In an Edinburgh pub, a few hundred yards from where the Nike outbreak had been identified but not announced, I jostled for a pint with French rugby supporters. Knowing what we know now, it was madness. But we didn’t know because we hadn’t been told!
The MPs report states: “There was a desire to avoid a lockdown because of the immense harm it would entail to the economy, normal health services and society. In the absence of other strategies such as rigorous case isolation, a meaningful test and trace operation, and robust border controls, a full lockdown was inevitable and should have come sooner”.
All of that makes perfect sense and it would be unworldly not to recognise the difficult choices which politicians in London, Edinburgh or anywhere else had to make. The fact that wrong decisions were made is forgivable. Refusal to acknowledge them until the information is dragged out is not.
There is a report on the Nike outbreak, promised in June last year following the BBC Scotland documentary, and due to be published in “early October”. Let’s hope it covers the decision-making processes within the Scottish Government, in the spirit of learning lessons as MPs called for this week.
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