There is an insidious idea held by too many of those involved in the business of government – both politicians and civil servants – that the public does not really need to know what is going on.
In his memoirs, Tony Blair berated himself over the decision to introduce the Freedom of Information Act, writing: “You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”
This view is born out of the arrogant assumption that the public cannot cope with complicated ideas, that governments know best and need no outside input to ensure they do the right thing, and that anything which goes wrong should be hushed up.
The Scottish Government’s failure to make the public aware of an outbreak of Covid-19 coronavirus in Edinburgh in February is a prime example of this attitude. Nicola Sturgeon has insisted there was no “cover up”, citing patient confidentiality as the reason why the news was not released and stressing that “contact tracing was done rigorously” after cases were discovered among delegates at a Nike company conference.
However, a number of people who interacted with delegates have – after the conference outbreak was revealed in a BBC documentary – come forward to say they were not contacted and had become ill. Publicity about the outbreak should have been part of the contact-tracing process and it would not have had to include the names of any individual.
Furthermore, a serious consideration about the introduction of the lockdown was whether the public would actually abide by it. The knowledge that the disease was already in Scotland and spreading would have helped many conclude that it was necessary.
We now know the virus was in Scotland on 26 or 27 February, but mass gatherings were not banned until 16 March, while the UK-wide lockdown did not begin until 23 March. According to an Edinburgh University study, more than 2,000 Covid deaths could have been prevented if the lockdown had begun two weeks earlier.
Whether or not there was a “cover-up”, as opposition politicians claim, the spotlight of publicity was certainly not used. It is past time for politicians to learn and truly understand the value of openness and transparency – because it can be a matter of life and death.
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