Edinburgh's Nike conference Covid outbreak: Nicola Sturgeon denied it, but now we know there was a cover-up – Ian Murray MP

For a government that specialises in cover-up, it was jaw-dropping even by the SNP’s standards.

Thursday, 14th October 2021, 4:55 am
Nicola Sturgeon claimed talk of a cover-up over the Nike conference Covid outbreak was 'complete and utter nonsense' (Picture: Neil Hanna/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

At the end of February 2020, a delegate with Covid-19 attended a Nike conference in Edinburgh, leading to 38 further infections. But Scotland did not go into lockdown until three weeks later.

Worse, the public did not even find out about the outbreak until May, and only when it was uncovered by a BBC investigation.

The fact this was covered-up by the SNP is shocking in itself, but now we know that, behind-the-scenes, Nicola Sturgeon was being pressed to be honest with the public by the deputy chief medical officer at the time, Gregor Smith.

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And even then Health Secretary Jeane Freeman wanted full disclosure, according to emails released under freedom of information and published last weekend.

Yet the First Minister held firm and kept the people of Edinburgh in the dark. What a dereliction of duty.

Just imagine if a Westminster government minister had covered up an outbreak like this in England. They would not still be in their job.

But I fear we have become so used to the SNP government hiding the truth from people. Just look at the scandalous cover-up over the water contamination at Glasgow’s new ‘super hospital’.

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There is a dangerous culture of secrecy in Scottish government that stems from the very top.

Last year, when the Nike outbreak became known, I repeatedly tried to get answers for the people of Edinburgh from the First Minister.

She claimed that talk of a cover-up was "complete and utter nonsense”. She also denied it in parliament.

Well, now that it has been exposed, I look forward to receiving her fulsome apology. But, more importantly, she should be apologising to the residents of our city for her decision.

It should also be remembered that misleading parliament is a breach of the ministerial code.

Why does this scandal matter? Firstly, openness and honesty with the public should be the hallmark of good governance.

But there are also specific reasons why this cover-up was so ill-judged. At the time, people did not realise how quickly Covid could spread and were sceptical of the likelihood of any lockdown.

But as Professor Rowland Kao, chair of epidemiology and data science at Edinburgh University, said last week: “An awareness of a large outbreak in Scotland independent of the first reported case would have made it clear that other outbreaks could be occurring or would be soon with risks of substantial transmission.”

The public should have been given the information to make their own informed choices. And we know that around 2,000 Covid deaths could have been prevented if Scotland had locked down just a fortnight earlier.

So while both FM and PM were delaying lockdown, Nicola Sturgeon privately knew about a major outbreak in Edinburgh, but kept it quiet.

This week, a damning report from a Westminster committee exposed the deadly consequences of the UK government’s failings at the start of the pandemic.

The mistakes made here were identical. Neutered Holyrood committees rarely show the teeth of Westminster’s, but there should now be both a parliamentary probe and a rapid public inquiry into Scotland’s handling of Covid.

No more secrecy or cover-up. The people of Edinburgh deserve nothing less.

Ian Murray is Labour MP for Edinburgh South

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