The Scottish Government did not accept Covid-19 was “here to stay”, an inquiry has heard.

Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday, Professor Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said politicians were “mistaken or misinformed” in their understanding of the virus, and said the public was “misled”.

Responding to questions from Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, Prof Woolhouse said: “I have to say, I didn’t understand the Scottish Government’s strategy over the summer of 2020.

“The emphasis was on a very, very cautious relaxation from the lockdown.

“It seemed to be important to the politicians that it was more cautious than the one in England, so they were emphasising that they didn’t articulate in any way that I understood, what they thought the public health benefit of this caution actually would be given what we said about a second wave.

“Then this segued into this idea that actually the falling cases in Scotland would somehow continue, we could end up in zero Covid.

“This was not consistent with the evidence that had been available since February 2020.”

He said the virus “transmits very poorly” outdoors, and lamented many people were arrested for taking part in outdoor activities such as mountain climbing.

Prof Woolhouse said: “There was pretty much zero public health benefit keeping us indoors. That wasn’t required at all – we never needed to do that.

“There are caveats like if people are outdoors and being intimate, that’s something.

“There was never any need for that.”

Baroness Heather Hallett, the inquiry chairwoman, then interjected, asking the witness to name outdoor activities that were deemed acceptable during lockdown.

Prof Woolhouse said: “You’d need to do a fairly detailed public health appraisal of where you drew the line.

“We, in the UK, arrested people for going on solo walks in the mountains. That is utterly absurd.

“That devalues the whole idea of social distancing, that anyone can see, this is nonsense.

“Another good example that was an absolute outcry in the summer of 2020 was that people were going to beaches.

Children in class
Professor Mark Woolhouse suggested schools could have safely reopened far sooner than they did (PA)

“There was never an outbreak of Covid anywhere in the world linked to a beach. It was fine. People could go to the beach, but nonetheless, were very resistant to that.”

He said schools contributed “a little” to the spread of the virus, but this was “so little, that there was essentially no danger” that schools would take the UK past the “tipping point”.

Prof Woolhouse said while he accepts this was done as a precaution during the first lockdown, the UK Government “should have realised much, much more quickly based on the evidence from around the world”, arguing the UK could have taken a similar approach to Denmark, which reopened schools in May 2020.

The inquiry also heard from the professor that there was “very, very little consideration” for the mental health of the population by enforcing a stay-at-home order.

He said: “To be fair, they were, I think, fairly quickly recognised by the Scottish Government.

“But when we took that decision, I don’t think that was at the forefront of people’s minds.

“There was a lot of concern about how well people would tolerate lockdown, but that was an unknown.

“I feel that discussion was more in the vein of, well, how long and severe a lockdown could we get away with that the public would tolerate, rather than actually looking at evidence of components of it and saying we didn’t need them.”

The inquiry was later shown an email Prof Woolhouse had sent in January 2020, warning the Scottish healthcare system would become overwhelmed if action was not taken within a year.

He said he had been in contact with Dame Sally Davies, England’s former chief medical officer, pleading for her to get Dr Catherine Calderwood, who at the time was Scotland’s chief medical officer, “to listen to me, because she’s not listening”.

He went on to say governmental medical advisers “froze” when shown Covid data.

The inquiry continues.