For SNP, sorry seems to be hardest word over Covid – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

I recently had to apologise for a mistake, but some ministers seem reluctant to do the same about their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, says Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.
Alex apologised after a tip-off about Home Farm nursing home on Skye turned out to be ‘mince’Alex apologised after a tip-off about Home Farm nursing home on Skye turned out to be ‘mince’
Alex apologised after a tip-off about Home Farm nursing home on Skye turned out to be ‘mince’

In politics, you’ve got to own your mistakes as much as you do your victories. On Saturday, I had to publicly apologise for something I’d said in Parliament last week. I’d asked the Health Secretary about information I’d received to suggest that a resident had been transferred from the Home Farm nursing home on Skye (where there had been a devastating outbreak of coronavirus) to another facility in the North, before then dying of Covid there a week later.

If true, this would have been a troubling revelation about the movement of virus within the care sector and the potential such a transfer would have to seed outbreaks in homes as yet unaffected. I didn’t name the home in my remarks, but the paper that covered my speech did. The tip-off, which came from a usually reliable source, turned out to be mince. It never happened.

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The home readily offered evidence that there was no truth to my assertion, so the paper printed a retraction and I issued my apology on Twitter. Twitter didn’t hold back, as you can see from the comments.

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The Scottish Government stated at the start of the emergency that they would make mistakes, they’ve reiterated that throughout. It was a wise thing to say as it suggests both humility and fallibility. That applies to us all, but when Government missteps are pointed out to ministers, far from owning and atoning for them, the spin machine cranks up and starts laying down smoke and misdirection.

Last week, I asked the Health Secretary about the transfer of over 1,300 patients to Scottish care homes to make space for the expected wave of coronavirus patients in March and April. I challenged Jeane Freeman about why, when the Government couldn’t understand how the virus was moving around in hospitals, it still proceeded with the mass transfer of patients to care homes without a Covid test.

With the international health community screaming about pre-symptomatic virus transmission as early as January, I asked why the Government’s working assumption was that you couldn’t test for Covid before the onset of symptoms. We learned on Wednesday that this is not the case as 45 care workers recently tested positive for Covid-19 despite having no symptoms.

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The Cabinet Secretary replied: “In terms of the PCR test for asymptomatic individuals, I don’t believe I have ever said it was of no value.”

Yet in a press conference later that day, a journalist pointed out that on 26 May she had told MSPs that: “During the early part of the pandemic, the advice was that there was no value to testing individuals who do not have symptoms.”

These statements couldn’t both be true, he pointed out, so which was it? “There is a difference between testing and the test,” she replied. Well, glad we sorted that out – nothing to see here.

There are a rash of examples like this, where both Scottish and UK governments have tried to massage the figures or to revise history just that little bit to cover their tracks and I just don’t get it. I know these weren’t political decisions – they were made with the best of intentions at a really scary and frantic time. They were underpinned by the advice of scientists using the best evidence available to them in the moment. Not having had access to all of that, I can’t say I would have acted differently so I’d readily accept a recognition of where things went wrong. Believe it or not, I don’t see mistakes made in this time of crisis as fair game for political attack.

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The UK recorded more coronavirus deaths on Thursday than the whole of the 27 EU countries put together. We are still in the jaws of this emergency. The road out will be long and it will be hard. We need to be able to trust our leaders, but that starts with them being straight with us, owning their mistakes and apologising for them.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western

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