Ian Murray accuses Nicola Sturgeon of 'cover-up' over Edinburgh Nike conference outbreak
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Ian Murray, Labour's shadow Scottish secretary, has written to the First Minister asking when she knew of the outbreak, and if introducing lockdown when coronavirus was first discovered in Scotland could have saved more lives.
When asked about the Covid-19 outbreak linked to the Nike conference at the Hilton Carlton Hotel in Edinburgh on February 26-27, Ms Sturgeon rejected suggestions of a cover-up as "complete and utter nonsense".
A BBC Disclosure documentary suggested that one visiting attendee passed on the virus, with investigations finding at least 25 people linked to the event contracted Covid-19, including eight in Scotland.
Speaking at the Scottish Government's press briefing on Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon said the details were not made public because of concerns about patient confidentiality, which the Edinburgh South MP describes as "hard to comprehend" given the size of Edinburgh's population.
In his letter, Mr Murray said: "It appears to me, and to the people of Edinburgh, that your government kept this outbreak from the public when it would clearly have been in the public interest to inform them.
"You said a few weeks ago that you wanted a 'grown-up conversation' with the public on Covid-19. I am therefore compelled to ask why you believe the people of Edinburgh are not grown up enough to be told of a major outbreak of the virus in their own city centre?"
It is understood the corporate event, which took place in a hotel in Edinburgh in February this year, led to at least 25 people becoming infected with the virus.
Scottish Government response
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As the First Minister has said, all appropriate steps were taken to ensure public health was protected.
“The group at increased risk of COVID-19 were all identified and all contacts were traced, so public health authorities were satisfied that there was no further infection risk. NHS Lothian and Edinburgh City Council also worked closely with the conference venue to provide advice for close contacts of delegates and infection prevention and control considerations.
“All of the cases linked to this event were traced by their close contact with this case, or contact with conference delegates who tested positive after the event. Therefore it is not an example of community transmission, which would require a confirmed case, with no known history of international travel to a risk area, or link to close contact of such a case.
“As the Health Secretary made clear yesterday, the Scottish Government has been entirely consistent in its handling and publication of information relating to positive cases of COVID-19 in Scotland.
“All contact related cases were reported in a manner that would ensure the index case could not be identified, and this is the approach the Scottish Government has consistently adopted.”
Ian Murray’s letter in full:
“Dear First Minister,
“I am writing to you regarding the revelations contained in the BBC Disclosure documentary broadcast this week and your responses to this at your daily press conference on 12th May.
“As you are aware, the documentary revealed there was a serious coronavirus outbreak at a Nike conference in Edinburgh, held on February 26 and 27. At least 25 people linked to the event are thought to have contracted the virus, according to the BBC. However, the public was not informed – despite your government knowing about the outbreak within days and your demand for a ‘grown up conversation’ with the public on COVID-19.
“The hotel used by the conference does not fall directly within my constituency, but as a major city centre hotel it is used by many people in Edinburgh and it is likely that hotel and Nike workers live within the Edinburgh South boundary.
“It is also likely that the attendees were using other local services and mixing with the wider public. I have been contacted by a number of concerned constituents with questions about the Scottish Government’s handling of the outbreak.
“It appears to me, and to the people of Edinburgh, that your government kept this outbreak from the public when it would clearly have been in the public interest to inform them.
“You said a few weeks ago that you wanted a ‘grown up conversation’ with the public on COVID-19.
“I am therefore compelled to ask why you believe the people of Edinburgh are not grown up enough to be told of a major outbreak of the virus in their own city centre?
“I am writing to you to seek a full and detailed explanation about why this decision to cover-up the outbreak was taken.
“When and how were you personally informed of the outbreak; which other ministers knew and when; who was involved in the decision not to inform the public; was the UK Government informed and what was its response; and why was the decision taken?
“You said that you are satisfied that all necessary steps were taken. I don’t doubt this to be the case, but how many of the conference attendees were in touch with the wider public? How many used local transport, shops, restaurants, bars, taxis, the airport, trains, and other local services?
“Unfortunately, I believe your initial response to some of these questions at your daily press conference failed to provide the clear answers that people deserve.
“Firstly, you dismissed concerns about these revelations as being ‘politicised’. It is more important than ever that government decisions during a health pandemic are scrutinised and that ministers are held to account.
“That is not ‘politicising’ an issue – it is a vital aspect of our democracy. Labour and SNP politicians rightly hold the UK Government to account regarding its handling of this crisis.
“So, to therefore suggest holding your own government to account in a similar vein is not acceptable is deeply troubling.
“I am confident you will reflect fully on your statement in the cold light of day and agree with me that if you hold the responsibility in Scotland for the response to this outbreak, then you surely have to be scrutinised in the same way any other government should be?
“I, and everyone in the country, are rooting for both our governments and political leaders to succeed in this fight against the virus. Government is a vital instrument of the common good and we are all firmly on the same side against this virus.
“We have made clear that we support the Government in all the efforts being made to support people and prevent deaths, but that will not prevent us from properly scrutinising and challenging decisions.
“That is our job.
“Secondly, you claimed the government could not disclose information about this outbreak due to ‘patient confidentiality’.
“I find this justification hard to comprehend.
“Nobody is suggesting the government should have identified the individuals who contracted coronavirus. But your own government reported to the public about the ‘first’ Scottish case in Tayside (we now know it was not the first case) and revealed the individual had returned from Italy (despite your Health Secretary wrongly suggesting this had been kept private).
“Tayside’s population is smaller than Edinburgh’s.
“There is no obvious reason why you were unable to inform the public that individuals in Edinburgh had contracted coronavirus, while still protecting patient confidentiality. The recent publication of tragic care home deaths in places like Guthrie House Care Home in my own constituency carries more risk of breaching patient confidentiality than this more general outbreak.
“Can you explain why you think patient confidentiality would have been compromised in this instance please?
“There are many reasons why there is public concern about this cover-up. At the time of this outbreak in February, we were still several weeks away from lockdown. It is now apparent that your government was too slow to enter lockdown, but had this information been made public at the time then we may have been able to enter lockdown earlier and save more lives.
“Not only would this have made any restrictions more justifiable to the public, it would have allowed independent expert scientists and researchers to make their own recommendations.
“The BBC documentary stated that entering lockdown in Scotland two weeks earlier, shortly after the Nike outbreak, could have saved 2,000 lives. Do you agree with this proposition?
“Open data and open science should be at the heart of our approach to this crisis (which is why it is so disappointing that your government has restricted the public’s right to know under the Freedom of Information Act). If this outbreak in February was made public at the time, it is likely there would be a greater emphasis on the need for coronavirus testing. Instead, we now find ourselves not only behind the international standard on testing, but lagging far behind the rest of the UK.
“My Labour colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have rightly asked why Scotland has fallen so far behind in testing, and I would also appreciate your response to this. How do you plan to meet your ambition of 15,000 tests a day when the testing numbers in Scotland have been pitiful to date, and way short of the need to test the majority of the population and, at the very least, the 300,000 Scots in our health and care settings.
“The people I represent in Edinburgh deserve answers from the Scottish Government and I look forward to your full response. In the interests of transparency, I am making this letter public.