Transparency in a crisis

Governments must be clear, consistent and transparent with information, says Alison Johnstone.

In what has become an unfortunate pattern, the UK Government gave private, off-the-record briefings to journalists before the weekend that ministers were “actively considering” lifting restrictions in May.

Apart from the fact such a move could irresponsibly put economic growth before lives unless the UK has the capacity to test, trace and isolate every case, the last thing people need at the moment is a rumour mill from government. Even while we crave lockdown being lifted, we understand that it must only be done when it is safe and we are ready to do so.

Understandably, many people are getting in touch with me at the moment to seek clarity on all sorts of advice, such as what exactly essential work is, or whether masks are useful or not. Some questions are easier to answer than others.

Those of us who are not clinicians cannot offer clinical advice to the Scottish Government, but we can continue to question its strategy, where necessary, and ensure that transparency is paramount.

But it is not always easy to pass on advice either.

NHS Scotland clinical director Jason Leitch has said that masks in the general population don’t work. Indeed, the World Health Organisation advised that only two types of people should wear masks: those who are sick and show symptoms, and those who are caring for people who are suspected to have the coronavirus.

But when countries including Austria and the Czech Republic have made it compulsory for everyone to wear some sort of covering over their mouths and noses when entering certain public spaces it is not surprising that questions are asked, as people seek reassurance in these uncertain times.

Of course, the first priority is to ensure that masks and other protective equipment are provided for those on the front line of this crisis – the health workers, people in care homes and our food retailers. It is unacceptable that some workers are reporting that they still do not have access to the right equipment and we have been clear that the Scottish Government must account for this situation and seek to rectify it immediately.

I raised the lockdown exit strategy with the First Minister in virtual questions last week. I was pleased that she agreed that a test-trace-isolate strategy is the only way we will be able come out of lockdown in the future and prevent further virus peaks. That means the ability to test everyone with symptoms and trace all the people they have been in contact with.

What wasn’t clear though, is whether Scotland is ready to do that. We must build the capacity to do it now.

In this, like elsewhere, governments need to be clear about the advice they are getting and passing on to citizens.

This is true at the best of times, but when we are constantly bombarded by hearsay, rumours and theories on social media, parliamentary and media scrutiny is needed more than ever, and it is incumbent on governments to be as clear and transparent as possible.