Scottish Government silent on pandemic handling criticism amid calls for Holyrood inquiry

Holyrood should hold its own parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of Covid-19, Scottish Labour has said, in the wake of the damning report into the UK’s pandemic response.
Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls to establish a Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government's handling of Covid-19.Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls to establish a Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government's handling of Covid-19.
Nicola Sturgeon is facing calls to establish a Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government's handling of Covid-19.

A report by Westminster MPs yesterday labelled the early response to the pandemic “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.The Scottish Government has refused to say whether it accepts the criticism contained within it also applies to its early approach to coronavirus.

And Scottish Labour deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, has pushed for a similar Holyrood investigation in Scotland alongside the planned full public inquiry.Meanwhile, lawyer Aamer Anwar representing bereaved families said policy makers should be facing corporate homicide charges.

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The report from the cross-party joint committee of the health and social care and science and technology committees, concluded that there was an element of “groupthink” around the UK Government’s approach to herd immunity.It also criticised the “gradual and incremental approach” to public health measures such as social distancing, self-isolation, and lockdowns, labelling it a “deliberate policy” that was “wrong” and led to more deaths.

Many of the early policies to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic were replicated by the Scottish Government, with Scotland entering full lockdown on the same day as the rest of the UK on March 23, 2020.

Labour’s call for an inquiry comes alongside a demand for an apology from the Scottish Government for its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and what the party labelled “catastrophic errors”.

Ms Baillie, the party’s health and Covid-19 recovery spokesperson, said Nicola Sturgeon “ignored” the same warnings as Boris Johnson, leading to the “same tragic outcome”.

She said: “At crucial points in the pandemic the UK and Scottish Governments were in lockstep – acting too slowly in response to the danger and failing to warn the public of the risk.

“But while England will benefit from the findings of this robust and detailed report, Scotland has been denied early findings of its own.

“Nicola Sturgeon’s own MPs helped deliver this analysis at Westminster while in Scotland they dither and delay on making sure her decisions are put under the microscope. Scotland deserves better.”

Other opposition parties said the public inquiry was the crucial way for lessons to be learned in Scotland, rather than Holyrood and MSPs leading a separate one concurrently.

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Dr Sandesh Gulhane, the Scottish Conservative health spokesperson said the planned public inquiry should start “immediately after the October recess” which ends on October 24.

Plans for a full public inquiry held in Scotland are underway with a consultation on the suggested approach to a Covid-19 inquiry launching in late August and closing at the end of September.

The inquiry is set to be established fully by the end of the calendar year.

Dr Gulhane said: “The SNP are still dragging their heels over beginning a Scottish Covid public inquiry. Nicola Sturgeon must now commit to starting this inquiry immediately after the October recess.

“Over 11,000 grieving families across Scotland need and deserve answers now. Nicola Sturgeon only announced plans for a Covid inquiry at the last minute, despite saying it was a priority for her during the election campaign.

“This is far too important for the usual nationalist dither and delay. They must take responsibility for their own critical errors during the pandemic, instead of hiding behind UK-wide reports.

“The Scottish Conservatives first secured cross-party support for an urgent Covid inquiry in November last year. The time for excuses is now over. This must be the first item on the agenda for MSPs as soon as the Scottish Parliament returns.”

This was echoed by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, with leader Alex Cole-Hamilton arguing a Holyrood inquiry would not lead to meaningful scrutiny.

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He said: “The joint Westminster committee report identifies failing after failing at a time when both the UK and Scottish Governments were working in tandem.

"People whose parents died in care homes, those struggling with long Covid and those whose businesses went under need answers about the decisions that were taken which turned their lives upside down.

"However, let’s not pretend that meaningful scrutiny of the biggest decisions taken by SNP ministers will come from passive SNP backbenchers and green MSPs bound by a ‘no surprises’ contract.

"What we need is a proper independent inquiry led by a judge with legal powers to get to the bottom of this. This should be set up by Christmas and given a strict timeline for making an initial report of its findings."

The report by MPs covered the UK Government’s response to the pandemic, meaning aspects of the Scottish response which diverged more clearly after lockdown, were not investigated in depth.

Speaking to The Scotsman, Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the decisions made prior to lockdown were crucial to how the UK and Scotland fared with Covid-19.

He added that an earlier lockdown would have saved lives, but other measures implemented earlier could have avoided such a “drastic” response from both the UK and Scottish Governments.

He said: “On timing, no-one could disagree that decisions taken/not taken during March were important and merit close scrutiny.

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"However, we knew about COVID-19 from early January. My personal view is that actions taken/not taken in January and February will have had at least as big an impact on the course of the epidemic in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.”

Reacting to the report from MPs, Prof Woolhouse added: “The report concludes that an earlier lockdown would have saved lives. This is likely to be correct but is too simplistic, not least because there is disagreement as to how many lives would have been saved.

"Recently published analyses have concluded that the additional lives saved due to implementing full lockdown restrictions may have been far fewer than was being suggested at the time.

“A reasonable conclusion for the case of the UK COVID-19 epidemic in March 2020 is that the government should have intervened earlier but that intervention did not have to be as drastic as a full lockdown. More sustainable measures implemented in early March could have both saved lives and avoided the worst effects of lockdown.”

Mr Anwar, one of Scotland's leading lawyers who is representing families who suffered bereavement during the pandemic, told the Press and Journal the response to Covid-19 by policy makes should face corporate homicide charges.

He said: “The families that instruct me, the legal approach we’re adopting is for a robust and independent public inquiry to take place. But secondly, those who took these decisions should be put on trial for corporate homicide.

“In any other circumstances, if an individual was admitted to hospital and released to a care home and subsequently the authorities became aware that the duty of care was not fulfilled, and as a result that individual died, that would be regarded in legal terms as corporate homicide.

“That’s exactly what’s happened to thousands of people across this country, thousands of people lost their lives because of inadequate decisions, because of deliberate decisions, because of cynical decisions.

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“Some of the families, of course, would refer to it as state-sanctioned murder.”

However, the lawyer argued that more lives would have been saved if “Scotland had gone more its own way”, adding that Nicola Sturgeon has acknowledged mistakes made by her government.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “While this report is primarily concerned with the actions of the UK Government, we will consider its findings carefully as we continue to respond to the impact of the pandemic in Scotland.

“Since the early stages of our pandemic response we have been committed to a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in Scotland, to ensure that lessons are learned for the future. Public feedback has been gathered which will inform the terms of reference to be agreed between Ministers and the chair, once they have been appointed, ahead of the inquiry’s establishment later this year.”

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