The Scottish Government ignored its own scientific advice not to close schools during the second Covid wave of 2021, the UK inquiry into the pandemic has heard.  

Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said that the decision to shut classrooms across Scotland was “not necessary” and did not contribute to halting the spread of the virus.  

Prof Woolhouse, a former member of the Scottish Covid Advisory Group, said that he and his colleagues had argued to keep schools open, and that he was “baffled” by the decision to close them. 

School in Scotland were closed for from the beginning of January to February 2021, on the pretext it would stop Covid from spreading.  

Prof Woolhouse said this went against the evidence his group was presenting, and that there was no “detectable public health benefit” in the closures.  

The infectious diseases expert also said that the Scottish Government “froze” in the face of early evidence about the scale of the coming pandemic, and was unable to comprehend what was likely to happen.  

The Herald: Prof Mark Woolhouse at the Inquiry Prof Mark Woolhouse at the Inquiry (Image: PA)

Prof Woolhouse criticised Nicola Sturgeon’s phrase “no death from Covid was acceptable” as “naive”, and said that focusing on this goal had led to unnecessary deaths from non-Covid related illnesses.  

Answering questions from Jamie Dawson KC, Prof Woolhouse said that the closure of schools during the first wave had been “justified” as there was panic and a lack of understanding about how the virus could spread.  

But by the time the second lockdown occurred, authorities were armed with better information and having school children mix would not have been a “tipping point” to increasing the spread of the virus. But this advice was ignored.  

He said: “One of the positive elements of the way the pandemic was managed in Scotland was that we were the first nation to re-open schools. I think we did that partly on the basis of the advice which was coming out from the Covid Advisory group, of which I was a part. 

“I think that advice was too slow to pivot to ‘it’s safe to reopen schools’, but it did get there. We re-opened them in August (2020) and I thought that was a real success story – and evidence-based decision by Scotland to do something that was safe and that was important to do.  

“I was feeling that being an advisor was actually quite a good thing. We could get things done that really helped.”  

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He added: “And then when we had the January (2021) lockdown, schools were closed again, arguably because this was now the Alpha variant and there was more uncertainty. 

“But it very quickly became apparent in that second wave that Schools did not need to remain closed, and we could still control the virus.  

“And yet they weren’t fully reopened here until May 2021. This was unnecessary.” 

The Herald: Pupils at school after Covid restrictions eased Pupils at school after Covid restrictions eased (Image: PA)

Prof Woolhouse grew emotional, saying:  “Forgive me. This is one of the aspects of the pandemic I feel strongly about – what we did to the children.  

“It would be bad enough if there was a measurable and detectable public health benefit. But there wasn’t. It wasn’t necessary. And we did it anyway.  

“I don’t understand how we went from a position of being quite evidence-based about school closures to suddenly forgetting all that in the early part of 2021. That baffles me.” 

Earlier, the Edinburgh academic spoke of his frustration with the Scottish Government’s ‘no death from Covid is acceptable’ policy.  

He said: “It’s empty rhetoric. It misleads everybody. I misleads the public. It gives an entirely false impression of what the future holds and how this pandemic is going to look. 

“The idea implied by ‘no Covid death is acceptable’ is a world where no-one dies of Covid. That had gone. That had gone from December 2019."

The Herald: Nicola Sturgeon's phrase 'No Covid death is acceptable' was criticisedNicola Sturgeon's phrase 'No Covid death is acceptable' was criticised (Image: PA) 

The Covid expert said that Scottish Government advice “not to bother” the NHS had led to a huge fall in the numbers attending hospital and led to “hundreds of deaths”. 

Prof Woolhouse said: “These people died because the focus of the Government was on preparing NHS Scotland for Covid and concentrating on that.  

“Because no Covid death was acceptable. Other kinds of deaths apparently are.” 

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Speaking about the early days of January 2020, when the world was awakening to the emergence of Covid, Prof Woolhouse said he contacted the Scottish Government with modelling he had carried out and his concerns about what was being called 'the Wuhan pneumonia'.

But he struggled to get then-Chief Medical Officer Catherine Calderwood to acknowledge the data, which accurately predicted the scale of the coming pandemic. 

He said that his concerns had been dismissed as “textbook”, adding that the phrase was ironically accurate as his undergraduate students could have worked out the size of the growing threat.

However, this seemed to elude Scottish Government Ministers and civil servants.  

He said: “The final explanation for why this (information) wasn't landing in Scotland is that you put all this together, an unfolding catastrophe, and I think a lot of people simply couldn’t get their heads round that. 

“Even though this is very simple. You add this number and this number and this number ... and you get a catastrophe. I think they couldn’t take that final step."