NICOLA Sturgeon has rejected claims she covered up one of Scotland's earliest outbreaks of coronavirus as "complete and utter nonsense".

The First Minister said the outbreak at a conference for the sports brand Nike in late February was kept from the public partly because of patient confidentiality.

But she insisted all appropriate steps were taken to protect public health, and cases resulting from the incident were reported and included in official statistics.

Opposition figures accused her of covering up the outbreak, in one of the biggest political rows to emerge so far over how Scottish ministers have handled the pandemic.

Scotland's first confirmed coronavirus case was in Tayside on March 1. Mass gatherings were banned on March 16 and lockdown measures introduced on March 23.

However the BBC reported an earlier outbreak hit a Nike conference at Edinburgh's Hilton Carlton Hotel on February 26 and 27.

It is understood one visiting attendee passed on the virus, with investigations finding at least 25 people linked to the event contracted Covid-19, including eight in Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon said she became aware of the incident when cases were confirmed around March 2, although she did not know the venue.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman told MSPs that ministers "had no knowledge of the outbreak at the conference at the time that it was taking place".

A Scottish Government spokesman later said Health Protection Scotland were told by international public health authorities on March 2 that a conference attendee from overseas had tested positive for Covid-19.

An incident management team was then set up "to ensure all attendees were contacted and given appropriate public health advice".

On March 3, ministers were informed someone in Scotland connected to the event had tested positive.

This case was publicised, although the outbreak at the conference was not mentioned.

The spokesman said: “All of the eight cases in Scotland associated with the event have been included in the daily updates of positive case numbers and their contacts were traced. Only one case was identified in Lothian.

“NHS Lothian and Edinburgh City Council worked closely with the conference venue to ensure that all public health issues were addressed including advice for close contacts of delegates and infection prevention and control considerations.”

The First Minister strongly rejected claims the Scottish Government had covered up the Edinburgh outbreak, which was not public knowledge until a BBC Disclosure documentary reported it on Monday night.

Speaking during her daily coronavirus briefing, Ms Sturgeon said: "On the accusation of a cover-up, that is complete and utter nonsense.

"Why would we have been trying to cover anything up?

"We were reporting figures on this. I stood up here every single day to be as open and transparent with you, the public, as possible.

"There is no interest in covering these things up, so that is nonsense.

"And actually, I don't know where that accusation comes from, but it sounds like highly politicised nonsense as well."

But Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South, said Ms Sturgeon had "failed to come clean on this cover-up".

He added: “It is not acceptable to hide behind patient confidentiality.

"You don’t need to identify people to take action on a pandemic outbreak, so the First Minister has failed to explain why the public was not informed.

“It’s not politicising anything to scrutinise the government on decisions being made on behalf of the public.

“I’m not prepared to reply to Edinburgh constituents who have contacted me about this to say they are ‘politicising’ the issue – I want to provide them with the answers they deserve about this cover-up, as well as answers about the pitiful level of testing."

Scottish Conservative health spokesman Miles Briggs said: “It is deeply shocking that the First Minister made the decision to cover up these Covid cases in Scotland despite promises to be open and honest at the start of the outbreak.

“There was no need to publish any patient details of this outbreak so the First Minister’s defence simply isn’t good enough."

He said there had been a "a basic failure" in the policy of test, trace and isolate.

In Holyrood, Labour MSP Neil Findlay quoted NHS Lothian figures stating only 30 families were contacted as part of test, trace and isolate measures between February 6 and March 13.

Ms Freeman said the contact tracing process that followed the conference "involved international efforts" as delegates had travelled from across the globe.

Earlier, Ms Sturgeon said she was satisfied all appropriate steps were taken following the outbreak.

She said all cases associated with the event were reported through the normal daily coronavirus figures.

She added: "Health Protection Scotland established an incident management team, all appropriate contact tracing was done."

The First Minister said putting more information into the public domain "would not have changed the steps that were taken to protect public health".

She said she had queried at the time whether more information about the outbreak should be made public.

She added: "The advice, which was advice I accepted, was that was not appropriate.

"One of the reasons for that was patient confidentiality.

"At a time when the number of cases remained as low as it was, to identify where any case contracted the virus could potentially have identified the patient concerned."

However Ms Sturgeon stressed she did not put patient confidentiality ahead of public health and all necessary steps were taken, including contact tracing.

She added: "Incidentally, I didn't know the venue of that conference at the time.

"But there would have been no risk to anybody staying at that hotel a week later, because all of the steps were taken."

She said delegate lists for the conference may have been publicly available, meaning there was a risk of identifying people.

Elsewhere, the First Minister said 1,912 patients have now died in Scotland after testing positive for coronavirus, up 50 from 1,862 on Monday.

The most recent figures for deaths in Scotland’s care homes, published by the National Records of Scotland on Wednesday, show 43 per cent of all registered deaths linked to Covid-19 are in these settings.

As of Sunday, 65% of Scotland's care homes have alerted the Care Inspectorate to at least one suspected coronavirus case since the start of the outbreak.

On that date, 44% of care homes in Scotland had a current suspected case.

Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government is "working hard to support the sector in every way we can", with increased testing in care homes and supplies of personal protective equipment.

She said 13,763 people in Scotland have now tested positive for the virus.

As of Monday night, 1,618 patients were in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, up 165 from 1,453 the previous day.

Of these, 81 are in intensive care, a rise of one.

Ms Sturgeon stressed the rise in cases is through patients suspected to have the virus, with confirmed cases down 14 in 24 hours to 1,131.

The rise in suspected cases in hospitals is being looked into, she added, as she cautioned against any "undue concern".