Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney decided to close Scotland’s schools in the early days of the Covid pandemic despite being warned it would do little to slow the spread of the virus. 

The then first minister and her education secretary took the decision just days after the Scottish cabinet was briefed the measure could also put older people at greater risk.

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry also heard the decision drew on data from England, rather than Scotland, and was done without an assessment of the impact on pupils’ mental health.

Nor did the Scottish Government consider any alternative to closing schools in March 2020.

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The Scottish Government closed all schools between 20 March and 11 August 2020, then again between 5 January and mid-March 2021.

Giving evidence to the Inquiry, Mr Swinney, who was education secretary and deputy first minister at the time, was asked about both lockdowns by inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson KC.

He was shown a paper presented to the Scottish cabinet on 17 March 2020, in which advisers said the epidemiological evidence did not yet support closure.

“Very active consideration was being given to the possible closure of schools and other educational establishments, but the evidence was not yet clear,” the paper said.

“The epidemiological evidence did not suggest that this measure would slow the transmission of Covid-19 down to a great extent (and might in fact cause some additional infections – for example by increasing children’s exposure to grandparents over 70).”

However the paper also said that keeping schools open could put children with certain medical conditions, such as asthma, at risk.

Schools might also be forced to close regardless if parents decided to keep pupils at home or teachers fell ill from the virus, both of which Mr Swinney said had begun to happen.

Mr Swinney said that the decision to close schools was not taken at cabinet, but as a result of conversations he and Ms Sturgeon had after cabinet later that day and the next day.

The pair then decided he would announce schools would close from 20 March.

Defending the process, Mr Swinney said he had been told on 17 March by his officials, after the cabinet met, that the UK expert ‘Sage’ group was expected to conclude the next day that there was sufficient evidence about the spread of the disease to justify school closures.

Declining staff and student attendances were also a factor.

“We were in danger of operating an unsafe situation,” Mr Swinney said.

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He said events moved “at an absolutely ferocious pace” in the early days of the pandemic.

“The debate on school opening was ongoing, and it seemed likely that the balance of evidence would change - possibly over the coming days.”

Asked if he relied on the Sage advice to come to his decision, Mr Swinney said: “I did, that’s correct, yes”. However he was not able to “interrogate” how it would apply to Scotland.

Asked if it was “appropriate” to base the closure decision on advice he hadn’t scrutinised, Mr Swinney said: “I think it was. Because I think it was pretty clear that what was happening in London was coming our way and it would be coming our way pretty shortly thereafter.”

The Herald:

Mr Swinney also confirmed the Scottish Government had no time to carry out any equality impact assessment on children’s learning and development if schools were closed.

“At that moment we did not have the time or the opportunity to carry out the assessment.”

Mr Dawson asked: “Does that mean none?”

Mr Swinney said: “That’s correct, yes.”

Inquiry chair Lady Hallett asked Mr Swinney if the Scottish Government had ever considered any alternatives to closure.

He said: “Not at that moment, my lady, because we felt that the situation we were facing was at such a magnitude. We did consider all of those questions at later stages for the return of pupils to blended learning.”

Last week, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry heard from Edinburgh University epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse, who said that in April and May 2020 schools contributed little to spread of the virus and argued repeatedly that they could be reopened in May.

Asked why he didn’t take account of that advice, Mr Swinney said: “I did not have advice in front of me saying I could bring schools back earlier.”

Asked about the background to the second schools lockdown in 2021, Mr Swinney admitted the decision was made despite evidence about the harm it could cause to people’s lives.

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With the Alpha variant of the virus surging, Mr Swinney said there had been a “terrifying couple of days” after a cabinet meeting on 4 January 2021 and that the evidence about what was “coming our way” over the course of January was “absolutely terrifying”.

He said: “The circumstances were very similar if not identical to March 2020, where whichever way you looked at the evidence, it was just impossible to see any way through it other than having to take significant intervention to arrest the pace of the pandemic because it would then to create even more significant harm than we’d experienced before.”

Asked if the second schools lockdown decision was based solely on trying to “suppress the virus and took no consideration of harms that would be done by a further lockdown”, Mr Swinney answered: “That is a way of looking at it.”

Asked by Lady Hallett to clarify his answer, Mr Swinney said: “I suppose the answer is yes to that question. We took a decision based on direct health harm because of the extremity of the position we faced on January 4.”