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‘Highly politicised nonsense’: Nicola Sturgeon denies ‘cover-up’ after decision not to announce February coronavirus outbreak

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon has dismissed claims of a “cover-up” after it emerged a coronavirus outbreak in Scotland at the end of February was not disclosed to the public.

The first minister said it was “complete and utter nonsense” to suggest information had been hidden following revelations at least 25 people linked to a conference in Edinburgh for the sportswear brand Nike had contracted Covid-19.

A BBC Scotland Disclosure investigation found more than 70 employees from around the world attended the conference at the Hilton Carlton Hotel on February 26 and 27, with eight Scots later falling ill from the virus alone.

The first laboratory confirmed case in Scotland was announced in March and involved an individual who had recently returned to Tayside after travelling.

Ms Sturgeon faced a grilling on the issue during her daily briefing in Edinburgh but insisted all appropriate steps were taken to protect public health and information was held back partly because of patient confidentiality.

The first minister said she only became aware of the outbreak when cases were confirmed around March 2, although she did not know the venue.

“Why would we have been trying to cover anything up?” she said.

“We were reporting figures on this. I stood up here every single day to be as open and transparent with you, the public, as possible.

“There is no interest in covering these things up, so that is nonsense.

“And actually, I don’t know where that accusation comes from, but it sounds like highly politicised nonsense as well.”

Ms Sturgeon said Health Protection Scotland set up an incident management team when the virus transmission became clear and contact tracing had been carried out.

She said she was satisfied all appropriate steps were taken following the outbreak and confirmed cases associated with the conference were fully reported through the normal daily figures.

However, questions have been raised about why mass gatherings were not banned until more than two weeks later, on March 16, and lockdown only introduced on March 23.

A report by a team of experts at Edinburgh University found 2,000 coronavirus deaths could have been prevented if Scotland had locked down two weeks earlier.

A research assistant holds coronavirus test samples.

Labour MP Ian Murray claimed there had been a cover-up following the February outbreak and called for clear answers from the first minister.

“Nicola Sturgeon has failed to come clean on this cover-up,” he said.

“It is not acceptable to hide behind patient confidentiality. You don’t need to identify people to take action on a pandemic outbreak, so the first minister has failed to explain why the public was not informed.

“It’s not politicising anything to scrutinise the government on decisions being made on behalf of the public.

“I’m not prepared to reply to Edinburgh constituents who have contacted me about this to say they are ‘politicising’ the issue – I want to provide them with the answers they deserve about this cover-up, as well as answers about the pitiful level of testing.”

Ian Murray.

The first minister insisted she did not put patient confidentiality above public health but said delegate lists may have been publicly available.

“To say that cases were associated with a particular event, you do run the risk of identifying people,” she said.

“That is not something that is simply disregarded. But it is not the case that public health was not given the priority it should have had.”

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman later denied there was a “culture of secrecy” in the Scottish Government, after MSPs demanded to know why they had not been told about the outbreak.

“I don’t think anyone can accuse me, the first minister, or this government of not publishing the maximum amount of information we can,” she said.

“If we don’t publish it is because we are not confident about that information.”

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman.

Ms Sturgeon also used her daily briefing to announce a £50 million fund to help the social care sector, which she said is “under immense pressure” as a result of Covid-19.

She said 1,912 patients have now died in Scotland after testing positive for coronavirus, up 50 from 1,862 on Monday.

Some 13,763 people have tested positive, Ms Sturgeon confirmed, a rise of 136 from 13,627 on Monday.

As of Monday night, 1,618 patients were in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, up 165 from 1,453 the previous day. Of these, 81 are in intensive care, a rise of one.

The first minister stressed the rise in cases is through patients suspected to have the virus, with confirmed cases actually down 14 overnight to 1,131.

Ms Sturgeon cautioned against “undue concern” about the rise in hospitals, adding that the issue is being looked into.