Sturgeon ignored scientific advice on ‘impossible’ Covid elimination plan, inquiry told

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon during the pandemic, when she was Scotland's first minister - RUSSELL CHEYNE/AFP

Nicola Sturgeon was repeatedly warned that her coronavirus “elimination” strategy was unachievable, the Covid Inquiry has heard.

Sir Gregor Smith, Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, said he had made it clear to Ms Sturgeon that he did not believe achieving “zero Covid” was scientifically possible.

Ms Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister during the pandemic, repeatedly claimed she was committed to achieving virus “elimination” during the first year, driving case numbers as close to zero as possible. However, Sir Gregor said he had told her that elimination was impossible, even if the UK Government had backed the approach.

“Certainly from a scientific perspective, looking at epidemiology, I didn’t think that elimination of the virus was a feasible option,” Sir Gregor said. “If we touch upon the environmental circumstances that would have been necessary to achieve zero Covid I really do think that it would have been almost impossible for Scotland to be able to achieve that as a country by itself.

“Even on a UK level, I think that that would have been a very difficult thing to try to achieve,” he added.

As late as March 2021, a year after the first Covid lockdown, Ms Sturgeon claimed elimination was the “only sensible strategy”. She urged British ministers to adopt her goal and warned that their plan to suppress the virus to manageable levels, which she would later adopt, was a risk to public health.

Sir Gregor Smith
Sir Gregor Smith, Scotland's Chief Medical Officer, said Covid elimination strategy was never likely to work - POOL/GETTY IMAGES EUROPE

Asked whether he had made his view on the subject clear to Ms Sturgeon and other ministers at the time, Sir Gregor said his position was expressed “regularly” and was well known within the Scottish Government.

He claimed that elimination had not actually been a formal goal and that the policy had been to keep cases as low as possible.

At one point, Ms Sturgeon claimed Covid had been “almost eliminated” in Scotland in the summer of 2020. She said it had returned because the virus was “reseeded” in Scotland from other parts of the UK.

She maintained her elimination strategy until May 2021, when she claimed the success of the vaccination programme meant it was no longer necessary.

In March 2021, she said that elimination was the “only sensible strategy” as the virus “won’t play ball” with attempts to keep case numbers at a “medium level”.

At the time, sources within the UK Government believed Ms Sturgeon was focusing on elimination in a bid to stoke divisions. Her claim that the virus had been “reseeded” from other parts of Britain, therefore ruining her plan, caused particular anger.

Experts later said that Scotland had not been close to eliminating Covid in the summer of 2020.

Devi Sridhar, a University of Edinburgh academic and one of the most vocal supporters of Ms Sturgeon’s elimination plan, is due to give evidence on Tuesday. Ms Sturgeon is due to give evidence next week.

Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, has said evidence sessions in Edinburgh will be used to examine “the extent to which [the Scottish Government] did or could have achieved an elimination goal”.

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