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HMA v Margaret Ferrier
Sep 13, 2022
On sentencing, Sheriff Principal Turnbull said:
"At a diet of trial on 18 August 2022, you pled guilty to a charge of culpable and reckless conduct. It is a crime to endanger others by reckless conduct. This crime can be committed in many different ways. It involves exposing an individual, or particular individuals, or the public generally, to a significant risk to life or health. A high degree of recklessness is needed, more than carelessness or negligence.
By your plea of guilty you accept having acted with an utter disregard of the consequences of your conduct on the public, and with total indifference to their safety. The risks you chose to take would have been obvious to a reasonable person.
The circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic are well understood. The pandemic had, and continues to have, a significant effect on the people of this country and elsewhere. The first positive case in Scotland was confirmed on 1 March 2020. Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on 12 March 2020.
The pandemic led to a dramatic loss of human life worldwide and presented and continues to present an unprecedented challenge to public health. As of last month, the figures provided to the court indicate that around 185,000 people in the United Kingdom and more than 12,000 people in Scotland have died as a result of Covid-19.
In response to the pandemic, public guidance was issued. The importance of following such guidance cannot be overstated. The applicable guidance made it clear that if a person developed symptoms compatible with Covid-19 infection they were required to self-isolate immediately and take a test. Failing to self-isolate while symptomatic presented a significant risk of transmission of the infection to others.
On the afternoon of Saturday 26 September 2020, a Covid-19 test was booked online for you. The online application indicated you were symptomatic. Shortly before 5 pm, you attended at Glasgow Caledonian University and were tested for Covid-19. After that test, and contrary to public guidance, in the circumstances described to the court, you failed to isolate pending the outcome of that test and acted in a manner which it is accepted amounted to a reckless disregard of public safety.
On Sunday 27 September 2020 you attended mass and gave a reading. That afternoon, you visited a bar / restaurant in Prestwick. You were there for around 2½ hours.
On the morning of Monday 28 September 2020, you travelled to Glasgow Central Station by taxi. On arrival at Glasgow Central Station you entered the premises of Marks and Spencer's situated within the main concourse before boarding the Glasgow to London Euston train. Shortly after 1.15 pm, you arrived at London Euston station. You then proceeded to a hotel and checked in.
Around 7.15 pm that evening you attended the Houses of Parliament. You spoke in the chamber of the House of Commons. You then had dinner in the member's canteen, eating and engaging in conversation with another Member of Parliament.
At 8.03 pm the positive Covid-19 test result from the test you had taken on Saturday 26 September 2020 was delivered to you by text and email. At 8.30 pm, you attended at the Scottish National Party whips’ office in Parliament and spoke to the then Chief Whip, informed him that you would return to Scotland in the morning and requested authorisation to attend virtually at the House of Commons for the remainder of the week and for the arrangement of a proxy vote. Remarkably, you did not tell him about the positive test result. You returned to your hotel, checked out the following day and returned to Scotland by train.
The positive Covid-19 test result triggered intimation to you and to NHS Scotland Test and Protect, commencing the process of contacting you to obtain vital information in respect of your movements and contacts. Contact tracing and self-isolation of infected persons and their close contacts was key to national and global strategies to control Covid-19.
On the morning of Tuesday 29 September 2020, whilst you were on the train to Glasgow, contract tracers for the NHS Test and Protect team attempted to contact you on four separate occasions, with a view to carrying out the test and protect interview. Their calls were not answered. Two voicemail messages were left requesting that you contact them. Your train arrived in Glasgow shortly after 1pm.
Shortly before 2pm you contacted the NHS Test and Protect team; and by arrangement the pro forma test and protect interview was carried out at 3.30 pm. You disclosed that you began to experience symptoms of Covid-19 on Saturday 26 September 2020 in the form of a slight infrequent cough.
At about 3 pm on Wednesday 30 September 2020, more than a day and a half after you had learned you had tested positive for Covid-19, you contacted the Chief Whip for the Scottish National Party and informed him you had tested positive.
On Thursday 1 October 2020 you issued a press release on social media stating that you had breached Covid-19 guidelines and apologising for your behaviour.
The expert opinion obtained by the Crown is that there was a significant risk of harm arising from your behaviour because the clear public health advice in place at the time, which was to self-isolate when a test was requested and you were symptomatic, was not followed.
The expert opinion is that your actions significantly increased the risk of harm to both individuals and the public health. The restaurant settings and the prolonged train journeys represented the settings with the highest potential risk of transmission.
Covid-19 is a highly transmissible infection and, therefore, it was essential for individuals, such as you, diagnosed with this infection to take all necessary precautions to not only protect themselves but also to limit the spread of infection to close contacts.
The expert opinion is that travelling on trains between London and Glasgow when positive for Covid-19 around the onset of symptoms (the period of maximal infectivity) would put other individuals in the carriages at significant unnecessary increased risk of Covid-19 infection.
The events with which this indictment are concerned took place almost two years ago. Much has changed in that time in relation to Covid-19, however, it cannot be overlooked that your behaviour took place at a time of significant restrictions in the United Kingdom and before the vaccination programme had begun.
You have struggled to fully explain why you acted in the manner you did. Such justification as you offered to the criminal justice social worker for your actions is unconvincing. For whatever reason, you chose to ignore the guidance – guidance that many in the United Kingdom followed.
The public, rightly, expect that those elected to represent them set an example. In this case you wilfully disregarded guidance and did not self-isolate after your test. You chose to visit a church and a bar / restaurant; you travelled to London by public transport. Having tested positive you again wilfully disregarded guidance and travelled back to Scotland by train – at the likely time of maximal infectivity.
The court is required to have regard to the principles and purposes of sentencing guideline. In terms of that, the purposes of sentencing include expressing disapproval of offending behaviour. Sentencing may act as an expression of society’s concern about and disapproval of the offending behaviour under consideration. In this case, that concern and disapproval is all the more marked by the fact that you were at the time of the offence a sitting Member of Parliament.
The first matter for the court to consider is whether the custody threshold has been passed. In this case it clearly has. Your behaviour was deliberate. It extended over a number of days.
You were reckless as to whether harm was caused. You knew, or should have known, of the risks that might arise from your actions. The gravity of the harm that could have resulted from your actions is significant, albeit there is no evidence of actual harm before the court.
You appear before this court as a first offender. You have the benefit of two presumptions which Parliament has enacted and which the court is bound to follow. Those are, first, the presumption against passing a sentence of imprisonment on a person aged 21 or over who has not previously been sentenced to imprisonment or detention; and, second, the presumption against imposing a custodial sentence of under 12 months.
You cannot be sent to prison unless the court considers that no other method of dealing with you is appropriate.
I have read carefully the many references that have been given in support of you and the terms of the criminal justice social work report. I have listened carefully to, and take full regard of, all that has been said on your behalf by senior counsel this morning. It is clear that you have made a significant contribution to society in your work as a Member of Parliament and otherwise. I recognise that you are remorseful and have shown insight in relation to your offending. I recognise also the consequences for you, as a result of your behaviour – behaviour which it appears was entirely out of character.
Ultimately, I am persuaded that there is an appropriate way of dealing with you other than by way of a custodial sentence. That there are such alternatives should not in any way be seen as detracting from the gravity of your behaviour.
I am proposing to impose a Community Payback Order upon you today. That will comprise an Unpaid Work or other activity requirement of 270 hours - this period has been discounted in view of your plea of guilty from 300 hours. This work must be completed within a period of 9 months from today’s date.
A Community Payback Order is a punishment that requires you to pay back to the community for the offence that you have committed.
This work will be carried out under the instruction of your responsible officer who will be a member of the Criminal Justice Social Work Department - that is a social worker with whom you must stay in touch.
They are responsible for allocating you to the work that you are required to undertake. It must be completed under their supervision and in a satisfactory manner. You must report to this social worker as required.
If you fail to comply with the requirement that is being imposed in this Order, you will be reported back to this court and be dealt with for that failure. If it is proved that you failed to comply without reasonable excuse with the terms of that requirement, the court can revoke the order and deal with you as if the order had not been imposed."