‘The cover-up is what hurts you,’ Richard Nixon can be heard growling on a scratchy White House tape, ‘not the issue’.
The 37th president was speaking to his aides three days after the Watergate burglars were indicted. Two years later, he would become the only US president to resign from office.
Nixon learned his own lesson the hard way and, instead of paying heed, so many politicians who have followed him have also opted for painful instruction.
The late-February coronavirus outbreak at a Nike conference in Edinburgh’s Hilton Carlton hotel was not the Scottish Government’s fault and no one could have blamed them for it. They could have gone public, implemented an earlier lockdown and contained the spread of a virus that has killed more than 2,000 Scots.
Instead, they chose to withhold information the public and health practitioners had a right to know. In other words, they orchestrated a cover-up. Only when BBC Scotland’s Disclosure exposé aired last week did we learn about what immunology professor Denis Kinane posits ‘could have been one of the “ground zeros” in Scotland’.
Since these revelations, the Scottish Government’s taxpayer-funded spin machine has gone into overdrive. With much fanfare, they released a timeline of events covering the outbreak and health bureaucrats’ response.
Releasing timelines is a favourite ploy of special advisers because it gives the appearance of transparency while allowing them to control the story. In fact, what we have been permitted to know was granted to us by the same people who prevented us from knowing in the first place.
The two most important questions of all have still not been answered fully. To adapt another saying from the Nixon era: What did the First Minister know, and when did she know it?
What we do not know is how many needless infections and even preventable deaths the cover-up might have enabled. We are beginning to see glimpses of how rapidly and widely the virus spread from that conference.
The Scottish Mail on Sunday reported on two companies that believe their staff were infected via the Nike event. A marketing firm which shares a building with a Glasgow branch of Nike says four of its staff developed Covid-19 symptoms in the days after the conference. Two weeks later, the sports shop was ‘deep cleaned’ but its neighbouring business was not told why. No one at the marketing firm was contact-traced.
Meanwhile, a kilt shop employee who fitted ten delegates for the conference came down with symptoms, as did a number of others.
These are just the businesses we know about. Many of the conference attendees were from overseas. How many will have squeezed in a spot of sightseeing on the crowded Royal Mile or popped into a cramped whisky shop to pick up a nice malt to take home? That the residents and business owners of Edinburgh were kept in the dark is inexcusable.
As Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray points out, almost 70,000 fans were allowed to cram into Murrayfield for Scotland v France on March 8.
‘This is now a test of the Scottish Government’s honesty with the people of Scotland,’ he says.
Nicola Sturgeon has angrily dismissed talk of a cover-up as ‘highly politicised nonsense’. What euphemism would she rather we used? A delayed disclosure of the facts? A flawed public information campaign? There is nothing politicised about calling a spade a spade.
Perhaps the Scottish Government feared Westminster would step in and throw its weight around if Edinburgh was revealed as a ‘ground zero’ spot. Perhaps they are so used to government-by-secrecy that it never occurred to them to share the information with the public. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse.
The First Minister said she wanted to address us as grown-ups but you can’t talk candidly one day then cover our ears and whisper the next. Once she and her Health Secretary, Jeane Freeman, were made aware of the Edinburgh outbreak, the public should have been told immediately so that we could take our own precautions and demand that the Government act swiftly to trace and contain the virus.
While we’re speaking like grown-ups, some grown-up talk about Freeman’s performance in this crisis is long overdue.
Another Sunday newspaper brought us the news that not a single dedicated contact-tracer had been hired two weeks after the Scottish Government announced 2,000 vacancies as part of its test, trace, isolate (TTI) strategy. Since then, there have been almost 8,500 applicants and zero hires, despite 1,500 having been recruited already in England.
An offer of help from St Andrew’s First Aid went unanswered for eight days and the charity’s chief executive was eventually told to send an email.
TTI is not a coronavirus-specific innovation that ministers might justifiably be struggling to get to grips with. It is standard practice in any viral outbreak and one ministers were urged to adopt early on.
Almost two months ago, Professor Allyson Pollock, a health expert from Newcastle University, wrote to the First Minister and Health Secretary warning about ‘the apparent failure to implement fundamental public health measures to address the Covid-19 outbreak – specifically, community contact tracing and testing’. She received no reply.
Speedy, effective TTI begins with that first T: testing. Yet Scotland continues to lag behind England in using its testing capacity while care home workers are still coming forward to say they have not been tested.
If failing to test those who work with the primary targets of this contagion – the elderly and the vulnerable – seems like an egregious dereliction, it was compounded by new recommendations from Health Protection Scotland that staff be ‘permitted’ to finish their shift after testing positive for the virus. It’s hard to decide which is more offensive: the audacity or the callousness.
I do not doubt Freeman is working hard but the pace of action is grindingly slow. It is long past time for her to get a grip.
This government has enjoyed a far easier ride than the one in Westminster. The opposition is divided and of uneven quality. BBC Scotland is less aggressive than its network counterpart and STV sometimes forgets there is a government other than the one in Westminster that needs held to account.
Even steadfast critics of the First Minister have shown goodwill. We have set aside our grave reservations about her government and hoped it would rise to the moment. We have pulled punches and bitten lips.
If ministers are going to withhold vital information during a pandemic, then they have forfeited their right to the benefit of the doubt. We must be able to trust what the First Minister says, and after the Nike cover-up we can’t.
This is the problem with cover-ups: when the truth outs, the public’s confidence in those who kept it under wraps plummets. If they didn’t tell us about this, what else aren’t they telling us?
The longer this PR agency posing as a government drags on, the more nostalgic I become for the old Labour-Liberal Democrat executives. They were not slick, they lacked a grand vision, they often seemed cringe-makingly parochial but they were made up of men and women driven to improve the lot of ordinary people in Scotland. Sometimes they succeeded, often they failed, but in the endeavour they were faithful.
There are ministers in this government who share that drive and that faithfulness but they are held back by a political apparatus more concerned with party management and constitutional sabre-rattling than good governance.
Nicola Sturgeon has to put that apparatus in check. This is not a time for secrets and spin but for honesty and transparency. The public’s trust is essential to leading us out of this crisis and the First Minister has stretched it to breaking point. It can be stretched no further.