Covid-19: Nike conference outbreak should never have been kept quiet – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Everyone wants the Scottish Government to succeed in the fight against coronavirus, but they need to give us all the facts, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman with Nicola Sturgeon during First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA Wire)
Health Secretary Jeane Freeman with Nicola Sturgeon during First Minister's Questions at the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA Wire)

My sister Fi lives in Vancouver and got coronavirus in the first week of lockdown. She’s fine now but thinks it very likely that she caught it from her dentist. What makes her so sure? Well, the week she fell ill, news of an outbreak at a dental conference (held at the beginning of March), hit the Canadian headlines. Fi’s dentist was at that conference and went on sick leave shortly after treating her.

That basic exercise in reverse contact-tracing, conducted by my sister from her couch, was made possible by the openness and transparency of the Canadian authorities.

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They got wind of an outbreak when dentists started getting sick, traced its origins to a conference and then filled the airwaves with that news. It meant that anyone who’d recently been to the dentist and had started feeling ropey could take it all the more seriously and reach out to those with whom they’d had contact.

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News that the Scottish Government learned about a similar conference outbreak in Edinburgh (in, very probably, the same week), significantly dents the reputation for transparency that they have sought to build in this emergency.

They claim that to have gone public with the news of the outbreak in the Hilton Carlton would have been to breach patient confidentiality. Yet although everyone in the Pacific North West heard about the outbreak at the dental conference, not one individual dentist’s identity or their Covid-19 status was ever made public.

Public confidence may fall

Had we known about the Nike Conference, we’d have known about the kilt hire store. In fact, we’d have known about all the other businesses who’d had anything to do with the conference because Scottish journalists are incredible contact tracers.

We’ll never know how much community transmission took place as a result of that decision not to go public about the Nike conference, but you can bet that it was more than none.

Trust and confidence in governments at times of national crisis stem from transparency and clarity. To be fair to Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers, I believe they’ve tried to be both clear and transparent throughout, but recent missteps, beyond the Nike revelation, could see public confidence dip in the coming weeks.

Last week, Jeane Freeman admitted she hadn’t seen guidance issued in her name stating it was OK for care home residents to return from hospital without a Covid test result. That guidance was replaced this week with the astonishing suggestion that care homes which have no identified cases, should not move ‘hastily’ towards testing.

The document reminds the reader of the upheaval that a positive result would lead to. In other words – don’t go looking for it because of the workload you’ll generate it if you find it.

Not ‘stay alert’ but ‘remain vigilant’?

The First Minister was also quick to harangue the UK Government over its drift away from clarity of message when it adopted ‘stay alert’ last week, but her own Government is struggling with clarity on that score as well. When Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie asked Nicola Sturgeon, in Parliament, what our slogan would be when we ease lockdown and people no longer have to stay at home, she had no new slogan to offer.

However, her Government’s own framework document for coming out of lockdown seems to suggest that we’ll soon be asking the Scottish public to “remain vigilant”. Glad that clears things up.

Some three weeks after Nicola Sturgeon announced our shift to contact tracing and we are behind in recruitment of those tracers. Added to which, our testing capacity is well south of where it needs to be to cope with what’s coming – but I want them to succeed.

We’re all depending on them to get this right, so I say to the Government – from now on take us with you. Learn from the Nike conference, the duff care home guidance and the slogan stramash. Show us the scientific evidence behind the decisions you make and we’ll back you up. But above all, give us all the facts and don’t hold anything back.

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

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