Covid Scotland: When FACTS go out the window

The Scottish Government has decided to move away from its FACTS public health messaging slogan as restrictions ease.

Even those of us who struggled to remember what each letter stood for understood the acronym: Facts matter. Information matters.

These have been consistent messages from the Scottish Government from the beginning of the pandemic – so much so that a clunky acronym was contrived to hammer home the point, which the First Minister repeated at the end of almost every briefing.

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And yet facts only seem to matter so far, as it became clear on Monday when several leading figures, including Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey, shared a serious public health message in the form of a meme they found somewhere on the internet.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Wednesday June 23, 2021.
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The graphic, which showed various scenarios of mask-wearing and social distancing, was intended to hammer home the point that masks are still important even in level zero.

But the effect seemed almost too good to be true, and there was no detail about the type of mask or environment, and no source.

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Could there really be just a 1.5 per cent risk of transmission between two people wearing masks at a one metre distance? Even if they’re wearing cloth face coverings, indoors in an unventilated space?

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I asked for the source of this information and the fact neither Mr Swinney or Mr McVey had it is astounding.

The Deputy First Minister, one of the most senior politicians in the country, shared a public health message without bothering to check where it came from or if it was correct.

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The response to my queries was even more worrying. Mr McVey said while the precise figures were “interesting”, they don’t change the conclusion that wearing a mask reduces transmission.

The Scottish Government said people should not undermine public health messaging by suggesting masks don’t reduce transmission.

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This pandemic has exposed an ugly war of disinformation about Covid-19, with misleading figures popping up on every corner of the internet.

There are adverts from the Scottish Government about not sharing fake news – and the first step is to check the source of the information before sharing it.

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Public messaging around masks is vital. Senior figures should at least do the most basic fact-checking before they share it.

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