Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of ignoring “warning after warning” and showing a lack of leadership that left Scotland unprepared for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
The first minister was grilled by opposition parties over a report published by Audit Scotland that concluded problems highlighted in three previous pandemic planning exercises “became areas of significant challenge” during the Covid-19 outbreak.
The report, released on Wednesday, reveals that a lack of action by the Scottish Government on key areas meant that, in the first wave of the virus, social care guidance had not been updated and frontline staff struggled to access adequate PPE.
While it praises ministers’ fast response to the coronavirus outbreak, the report states that the Scottish Government “could have been better prepared to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic” and lessons must be learned.
It found guidance for social care was supposed to be issued for consultation by March 2018 but this was not closed until September the following year, and the guidance “was not updated following consultation and has not been published”.
The report sets out how numerous warning were also made about the proper supply and use of PPE, something that later became an issue during the Covid-19 outbreak after it was reported some staff were forced to reuse single-use equipment.
Speaking at first minister’s questions, Scottish Labour interim leader Jackie Baillie asked Ms Sturgeon whether the apparent failure to act on warnings was down to “negligence or incompetence”.
Ms Baillie told MSPs that pandemic planning carried out to deal with possible flu outbreaks “repeatedly highlighted vulnerabilities” and said if Ms Sturgeon had listened to those warnings “lives could have been saved”.
Simply not good enough
The Labour leader said the Audit Scotland report “makes clear a pandemic should have been anticipated” and insisted the Scottish Government knew it could threaten the lives of people across Scotland but the country was “simply not prepared”.
“They were told the social care system would struggle to cope,” Ms Baillie said. “And they were warned that access to protective equipment for our nurses and doctors just simply wasn’t good enough.”
Ms Sturgeon said her government will continue to take decisions based on the “best advice” and learn the lessons of the pandemic in real time.
She claimed Ms Baillie’s question was “demeaning” to those in government and around the country who had worked to deal with the crisis.
Ms Sturgeon added: “I simply don’t think it’s true or borne out by the facts that we weren’t prepared on PPE, although we did have, as I have acknowledged, issues in terms of the distribution of PPE early on.”
‘Decade of delay’
Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson claimed a “decade of delay” had “cost the health of frontline workers and cost the lives of care home residents”, and said families want answers over the failure to act.
“Despite the first minister’s protestations, the Audit Scotland report sets out in black and white that her government was less prepared than it should have been,” Ms Davidson said. “The SNP government was warned again and again and again.”
Ms Davidson said the report highlights “a catalogue of ignored warnings on PPE over the years” and claimed the first minister was in denial, “trying to alter the fact that frontline staff were forced to work without adequate protection, reusing masks, and having to beg for donations because PPE wasn’t in place”.
But Ms Sturgeon accused her opponents of mischaracterising the findings and stressed one of the “paramount points” of Audit Scotland’s report was that ministers and the NHS made changes following the planning exercises.
She insisted there had always been “robust supplies of the right PPE” and Scotland at no point ran out of equipment during the pandemic.
The first minister said she had “admitted mistakes all along” and said she will for as long as she lives “regret the toll this virus has taken”.
But she stressed that “because of some of the decisions we have taken and the efforts of health and social care workers across the country” there has been a “lower number of cases than other parts of the UK”.
A more valid criticism
Ms Sturgeon also said countries across the western world had relied too heavily on influenza pandemic planning in the early part of the outbreak and “no amount” of planning for flu could have prepared Scotland fully for Covid-19.
“However well prepared we’d been for flu, it became clear quite quickly that we were dealing with something of a completely different nature,” she said.
“I actually think the more valid criticism of the Scottish Government, and indeed governments across the western world, is that we relied, in the early stages of the pandemic, too much on flu preparations and perhaps hadn’t done enough to prepare for the experiences of Sars-type outbreaks.
“That’s one of the key lessons, I think, that governments across the western world will have to learn and, of course, we’ll add that to the lessons that the Audit Scotland report has for us.”