Closing down schools in lockdown may have been a mistake, admits clinical director

Jason Leitch, Scottish government’s national clinical director - Jane Barlow/PA
Jason Leitch, Scottish government’s national clinical director - Jane Barlow/PA

Closing down schools during the Covid pandemic may have been a mistake, a clinician who was once one of Scotland’s most high-profile advocates of lockdown has admitted.

Prof Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s national clinical director, admitted to making “missteps” during the crisis and said some decisions, including the closure of classrooms, “will stay with me forever”.

The dentist turned public health expert often fielded questions alongside Nicola Sturgeon during her near-daily televised briefings, regularly urging Scots to stick to stricter rules than had been put in place elsewhere in the UK.

He quickly became one of the faces of the pandemic north of the border, appearing in public health campaigns and regularly being interviewed on TV and radio. Opponents of the SNP accused him of becoming a mouthpiece for Ms Sturgeon as he sought to justify SNP ministers’ decisions and appeared to enjoy the limelight.

Giving a talk at church in Edinburgh earlier this month, Prof Leitch claimed he had been given such a prominent role as half of the country didn’t like Nicola Sturgeon and a “clinical leader” could win their trust.

"I made some missteps", he said. "We did what we did because of the knowledge we had at the time. I don't know if we'd do it the same way again because we have different knowledge now. I wonder if closing the schools is something we'd reconsider.

"Lockdown is an old fashioned approach to managing a disease that is going around the world in an aeroplane."

Schools across Scotland were shut in March 2020 and did not open until the following August. They then failed to reopen after the Christmas holidays and did not fully reopen again until Easter 2021. Older pupils were forced to wear face masks, even in lessons, until February last year.

Prof Leitch recalled an incident in October 2020 when he warned Scots that they faced a “digital Christmas” and that family gatherings would be a “fiction”.  At the time, his comments caused widespread alarm and anger.

“That was the truth but I'm not sure if that was the right moment to tell the children and the country they were not going to have a normal Christmas," he said.

Prof Leitch, a devout Christian, said that during the pandemic "it felt unchristian not being able to hug and make human connections".

He added: "In answer to the question, ‘what did we do to faith?’ It is more important to ask what we did to humans and that will live with me forever.

“I had family I did not see and that were not being educated. There were old people in my church who were dying alone. That was horrible. And what was happening in care homes and in schools will stay with me forever."

Closing places of worship

The Scottish government also closed places of worship in early 2021, while they were allowed to remain open in England, a decision that was overturned after religious leaders went to court and successfully argued the ban had been unlawful.

Ms Sturgeon saw her popularity among Scots soar during the pandemic, when she was seen as communicating with the public more effectively than the UK Government.

However, her opponents accuse her of making many of the same blunders, such as emptying hospital patients into care homes, and using the crisis to stoke political rows with UK ministers.

A Scottish government spokesman said: "Our priority throughout the pandemic was to save lives and reduce the harms of the disease.

“As Jason Leitch stated in this talk, we sought to take the best decisions, based on the best scientific and clinical evidence we had at any given time. It stands to reason we'd adapt our response to any future pandemic based on the things we learned during the Covid crisis.

"Since the early stages of our pandemic response, we have been committed to a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in Scotland."