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Health

Scotland's chief medical officer quits over second home row


Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, has quit after facing intense criticism for breaking her own rules to twice visit her second home during the coronavirus outbreak.

In a statement issued on Sunday night, more than seven hours after insisting she would carry on, Calderwood said she had again discussed the controversy with Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and concluded her position was untenable.

She said she realised it was impossible for the public to have confidence in official advice to avoid all essential travel if she remained in post: “People across Scotland know what they need to do to reduce the spread of this virus and that means they must have complete trust in those who give them advice. It is with a heavy heart that I resign as chief medical officer.”

Calderwood’s resignation follows mounting criticism from opposition leaders, members of the public and villagers in Earlsferry, Fife, where she and her husband have a second home.

The Scottish Sun revealed on Saturday that the Calderwoods and their three children had spent Friday night at their holiday home, taking walks with their dog to a local beach. Initially, the Scottish government had claimed she had visited the seaside home to “check on it”.

She also revealed that despite being the voice of the Scottish government’s public information campaign urging people to avoid all non-essential travel, she and her husband had visited Earlsferry the previous weekend – something she and the government did not disclose until Sunday afternoon.


Hours after insisting at her daily coronavirus briefing that she needed Calderwood at her side to give her expert advice on the crisis, Sturgeon said she now agreed the controversy was damaging the government’s message.

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“It is clear that the mistake she made – even though she has apologised sincerely and honourably for it – risks distracting from and undermining confidence in the government’s public health message at this crucial time. That is not a risk either of us is willing to take.”

Four hours before announcing her resignation, Sturgeon had announced that Calderwood was stepping back from all public campaigning on the outbreak, including the Scottish government public information film urging people to stay at home which was still being broadcast on Sunday.

That failed to satisfy opposition parties. Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, said the Scottish government had not been candid about the Calderwoods’ behaviour or her culpability.

“It is clear that the chief medical officer’s disregard of the government’s own guidelines which she is the principal adviser on, was not a one-off, a simple mistake, or human error as was suggested overnight,” Leonard said.

“The CMO needs to step down, not step back. The Scottish government’s handling of this has been less than straight. Unless the government is honest and open, it is running the serious risk of causing public confidence to collapse. This is in no-one’s interest at a time of national crisis.”


With opposition parties and members of the public calling on Calderwood to quit, Police Scotland’s chief constable, Iain Livingstone, said his officers had given Calderwood a formal warning about her conduct after visiting her home on Sunday.

In an intervention designed to shore up public confidence in the lockdown, Livingstone used his force’s Twitter feed to chastise Calderwood.

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“The legal instructions on not leaving your home without a reasonable excuse apply to everyone,” he said. “Individuals must not make personal exemptions bespoke to their own circumstances.”

Earlier on Sunday, Sturgeon was asked several times whether Calderwood had tendered her resignation after her visits came to light, but refused to answer those questions directly. Instead, she hinted Calderwood had offered to quit but she had refused to allow it.

“Whatever her reasons for doing so, she was wrong, and she knows that,” Sturgeon said, adding that Calderwood had given her an unreserved apology.

“If I’m to do what I need to do, to steer this country through the crisis to the very best of my ability I need her to be able to focus on the job she is doing,” Sturgeon said. “A job that – notwithstanding her mistake on this – she is doing extremely well.”

In a clear signal Sturgeon planned to defend her, Calderwood stood alongside the first minister during the briefing, being broadcast live online. Calderwood said she was “truly sorry” for breaching her own advice not to travel, and acknowledged NHS staff had attacked her conduct.

As the controversy intensified during the day on Sunday, a Scottish government advert featuring Calderwood’s warnings against all unjustified travel was still being broadcast, in which she said: “This is a vital update about coronavirus. To help save lives, stay at home. Anyone can spread coronavirus.”

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and MSP, said residents in the picturesque village were furious about an influx of second-home owners arriving there over the weekend. Backed by Scottish Labour, he said Calderwood’s actions would weaken public confidence in the lockdown.

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Sturgeon deflected questions about the candour of her government’s first statements defending the chief medical officer’s actions, and fielded questions that reporters had put to Calderwood.

On Saturday, the Scottish government said Calderwood had been working “seven days a week” and “she took the opportunity this weekend to check on a family home in Fife as she knows she will not be back again until the crisis is over”.

That statement failed to explain why the whole family needed to go or stay overnight. During the briefing on Sunday, Calderwood admitted she and her husband had also gone to Earlsferry the previous weekend – a fact not disclosed by the government on Saturday.





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