“The whole thing is a pyramid”

The front pages of the Scottish broadsheets yesterday featured the on-going murkiness relating to the release of WhatsApp messages to the UK Covid Inquiry by Scottish ministers and officials.

From the Herald:

From the Scotsman:

As I write, there has been no direct response from Scotland’s National Clinical Director. This is in  contrast to the high profile he was asked to take as a communicator for the Scottish Government when efforts were being made to make public health information reach as wide an audience as possible. This included regular contributions to Off The Ball [“the most petty and ill-informed sports programme on radio!“]. In retrospect these contributions provide an insight into the scale of the behind-the-scenes communications that culminated in the key messages put across to the Scottish public:

Off The Ball, Radio Scotland, Saturday 17 December 2022:

Tam Cowan: “Jason, in the 2 years of the pandemic: who for you was top-of-the-tree? Who really really deserves a lot of the praise in that time: an individual, perhaps an unsung hero – is there somebody who you thought, that guy, that woman that you thought they are really brilliant?”

Jason Leitch: “None of the country will know who he is. So, I was the frontman, in inverted commas, for those [times] for what you are now deriding as ‘15 minutes’ [of fame], of course it was a 3 year period. But, but behind all of us who did the front bit, was a guy called Jim McMenamin. Jim McMenamin may well be listening to Off The Ball, I have absolutely no idea. He is the clinical director of Public Health Scotland. He is a proper boffin. Like an actual boffin. He is the guy who gave us the advice to then give the advice to the First Minister and others. So I had ‘1800-call-Jim’ on my phone pretty much every day. I mean I would phone him before I did the Media, before I did a Press Conference. Cause he was the actual public health expert. I am not a public health expert. I can just talk out-loud in a straight line occasionally. So he was the brains behind Scotland’s response. A guy called Jim McMenamin, who lived and breathed it every single day, worked harder than all of us. The other one, if you will give me two . . .”

Tam Cowan: “Wait, we will give you the second one in a minute, for any trolls listening in who are ready to pounce . . . when you say ‘I’m not a public health expert’ . . . there will be folk saying well why were you anywhere near the pandemic? Why were you up on that lectern? So can you explain what you mean by that?”

Jason Leitch: “Yes, so I mean I am not an actual public health doctor with the full 30 years of public health experience. I was a dentist, a surgeon, then I did a public health degree and then I ended up in government being the Advisor. But remember, the whole thing is a pyramid: you are at the peak off the Off The Ball pyramid. But there is an army of people feeding you with pages of information that I have seen coming in throughout the day. Just like that. The people who speak out loud to the First Minister has to be a small room: Thousands of people did the work behind us who were on the variants, on the advice about schools, on the advice about Care Homes. You have to have an army of people who are the real experts in those little bits. Then we: Gregor, me, Alec the Chief Nurse, we are the ones who then translated that into the advice to the First Minister and the advice to the public.”

Tam Cowan: “Brilliant, ok”.

If it is indeed the case that many background communications have been deleted, the Covid inquiries will not have the opportunity to consider all the factors involved in complex decision making. This is unfortunate as the potential to learn from how we responded to the Covid pandemic will be limited.

Title image:  Humza Yousaf  – the then Scottish Health Secretary – and Professor Jason Leitch during a hospital visit in Airdrie in May 2021 [Page 4, The Scotsman, 28 October 2023]

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