Are we in the middle of a cover-up?

by | 21 Oct 2021

The Scottish Government appears to be hiding submissions to its Covid Inquiry remit consultation - is the inquiry going to be focussed on accountability or cover-up?

I have already written on why we cannot allow the inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of Covid to be a whitewash – but to what extent are we seeing increasing evidence of a cover-up? There are signs that should concern us.

A couple of weeks ago (when I wrote the last piece) the consultation on the remit of the inquiry ended. At Common Weal we submitted a response expressing some concern about the way the inquiry was being framed and what wasn’t in it. And then we got an email with information on what would happen to our submission (so I can’t link to i). It seemed unusual:

“We only keep your personal information for the minimum amount of time necessary. We will anonymise all responses to the consultation within 6 months of receipt and delete within 1 year of the inquiry set up date.”

But we’ll see what was in them, right? This is not clear, but the implications is that we won’t. It states that the Scottish Government will “develop a report to capture input”. It seems it will edit and summarise all the submissions made and only publish that.

This isn’t normal practice. For example, when the Scottish Government consulted on the Adult Care Review the conditions presented to those submitting evidence were quite different. These state:

“The way Scottish Government handles information is detailed in its Records Management Plan which is published on the Scottish Government website. Responses that have been received are currently stored in a restricted file on the corporate record system and this information is due for destruction in 2035. Although the file is due for destruction in 2035 your data (name and email address) will be deleted on 6 November 2025.”

And on publication of submissions it states clearly “Where permission is given, we will publish responses. We never publish email or postal addresses.” That is a substantially different commitment.

Perhaps there is a reason for these remarkably different approaches but I cannot see what it could be. It is assumed that when people submit evidence to public inquiries that the evidence will be made public other than where the person or group submitting it requests otherwise.

In six months when the responses are all anonymised (that is never going to happen with the care responses) it will be impossible to identify who submitted what opinion on this – permanently and forever. In 12 months the very existence of this whole consultation will effectively be deleted from history, other than the Scottish Government’s own version of that history.

In 12 months the very existence of this whole consultation will effectively be deleted from history, other than the Scottish Government’s own version of that history.

It could be that there is a non-suspicious reason for this – but equally there is reason to be suspicious given how many examples of cover-up there have been already. Last week we learned that the First Minister’s own advisers thought that the first outbreak of Covid in Scotland should have been made public (which it clearly should).

The only reason it wasn’t was because the former Chief Medical Officer seems to have bent over backwards to offer a convoluted reason not to based on data privacy. A cursory examination of the situation makes clear that no data whatsoever needed to be revealed to inform the public that there was a case of Covid in Scotland. It seems a wholly fallacious argument.

I continue to think the most likely reason for this is that there were big commercial interests in covering this up given that the outbreak took place at a venue owned by the powerful Ritz-Calton Hotel Company whose venue would have been hit hard had people known. It looks to me like there was some kind of lobbying and that Calderwood helped by retrofitting a shaky justification.

(There may be other reasons for why this happened, but I do not believe that it could in any way have had anything to do with data protection – the core information could have been anonymised.)

We know that, unlike the UK Government (which followed generally-accepted good practice) the Scottish Government deleted previous versions of the guidance on Covid it sent to care homes when it was decanting patients who tested positive into those care homes. It didn’t only delete the previous guidance, it deleted the whole page on which the guidance was held so it couldn’t be checked against external archives.

This means it was impossible to track the failures in the early guidelines, failures which led to many terrible deaths. That was exacerbated by the effective suspension of Freedom of Information provisions for the first couple of months of Covid in Scotland, a move which to this day I am unable to find any international comparator for. Scotland and Scotland alone did this.

And of course we know that Public Health Scotland more or less admitted explicitly that covering up evidence of damaging information about government performance is part of its remit. Certainly we know it’s ‘Covid in care homes’ report was doctored, partly because it was dismantled comprehensively here but also because Public Health Scotland later withdrew it and admitted it wasn’t fully honest.

These are only four quick examples of where the Scottish Government was found to have concealed or actively covered up information after the fact. It is hard not to suspect there is plenty more.

The Covid Inquiry is not just a threat to the First Minister’s current job, it is a threat to her future career if it produces damning conclusions.

The stakes here couldn’t be higher. We can consider this in tiers of potential trouble for the Scottish Government. It is currently sheltering behind the impact of a PR campaign which led people to believe it had managed the pandemic better than UK counterparts. It is notable that public perception is about the only indicator which is different for Scotland and the UK.

If much more comes out, that reputation will be binned. But that is only the first tier. The second tier is that it could be existential for the First Minister personally. The care home moves alone (worse in Scotland than in England by a stretch – see the first link above) could require a resignation.

It could certainly ‘do a Hancock’ (who had his United Nations role withdrawn after revelations about his performance over Covid) and result in any possibility of a comfortable afterlife in the United Nations for Sturgeon coming to an end. It’s not just a threat to her current job, it is a threat to her future career if this inquiry produces damning conclusions.

But it could all be worse than that. There is a clear case for the question of legality. We’re not looking at a situation like Bolsonaro being accused of ‘crimes against humanity’ but there is a clear case of potential criminal negligence around care homes, a debate which has happened in England where the government is less exposed on this issue. It is not impossible that someone could end up in jail (though don’t hold your breath).

The incentives for the Scottish Government to pull out all the stops to manage this inquiry in a way which minimises negative conclusions is simply enormous. We know exactly how focussed this government is in managing PR. We already have a track record of obfuscations and fiddles over Covid.

So perhaps this Mission-Impossible-style self-destructing consultation is different from all other government consultations for a good reason (though a good reason is hard to fathom). But what you can’t now expect is to actually see what anyone other than the Scottish Government thinks about the remit it has set itself.

If this is how this process of accountability begins, can we have confidence in it?

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