Nicola Sturgeon has been urged to "come clean" over Scotland’s first major Covid outbreak after documents suggested she overruled senior health figures in her government to keep it secret.
Holyrood’s opposition parties claimed Scottish government emails, released under Freedom of Information laws, showed the First Minister had orchestrated a "cover-up" of the outbreak at a Nike conference in Edinburgh last February.
An email by Liz Lloyd, then Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff, said the First Minister, Jeane Freeman, her then health secretary, and Dr Gregor Smith, then the deputy chief medical officer, considered the outbreak to be "a legitimate public interest matter".
In the email, written on March 5 last year, Ms Lloyd said full disclosure "could be reassuring information for the public around the increase in numbers, demonstrate we’re still at containment [and] that contact tracing works".
But the following day Dr Catherine Calderwood, then the chief medical officer, wrote in an email that telling the public could breach patient confidentiality and impede efforts to trace people who had been in contact with those who were infected.
Ms Sturgeon appears to have sided with Dr Calderwood as the information was not made public until a BBC documentary disclosed the outbreak three months later.
A foreign delegate had the virus and infected many colleagues who returned to their home countries. Nike closed many stores around the UK and worldwide for deep cleans, but the Scottish public were not informed.
Spread and severity of virus ‘were already quite apparent’
Health Protection Scotland confirmed last week that a single case among 71 delegates had led to 38 infections. It was originally thought, when it was announced on March 1 last year, that Scotland’s first Covid case had occurred in Tayside.
No deaths were linked to the Nike conference outbreak, but a senior academic told the Sunday Times that the spread and severity of the virus were "already quite apparent".
Prof Rowland Kao, the chairman of epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, said: "There will always be trade-offs, but an awareness of a large outbreak in Scotland independence of the first reported case would have made it clear that other outbreaks could be occurring or would be soon with risks of substantial transmission.
"While I’m not in a position to comment on potential confidentiality issues, there would also be some benefit in making the public more aware of the outbreak even if it was contained, and giving the level of information that became available later in the epidemic."
The month after she had sent her email advising against disclosure, Dr Calderwood resigned as chief medical officer after breaking lockdown rules when she visited her second home. Dr Smith replaced her.
‘Information was deliberately kept from the public’
Dr Sandesh Gulhane, a GP and the Scottish Tories’ shadow health secretary, said: "Nicola Sturgeon must urgently come clean on the scale of this cover-up. These are further damning revelations about the earliest known outbreak of the virus in Scotland.
"There should have been full transparency from the First Minister and the SNP government at the earliest opportunity. As someone working in the health service as Covid struck, I know we would have been able to respond better if we knew exactly what we were dealing with and when."
Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said Ms Sturgeon’s denials of a cover-up were "a lie", adding: "Information was deliberately kept from the public that would have offered early warning and likely saved lives."
A Scottish government spokesman said: "All appropriate steps were taken to ensure public health was protected following the Nike conference, with more than 60 contacts traced in Scotland, and around 50 others traced in England.
"All of the cases linked to this event were assessed by their close contact, or contact with conference delegates who tested positive after the event so public health authorities were satisfied that there was minimal infection risk."