Me by Jason Leitch
Jason Leitch (BDS 1991, DDS 2004) burst onto the public scene in Scotland in 2020 when, as National Clinical Director for the Scottish Government, he played a key role in communicating public health messages to the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. He has become one of the most familiar faces on Scottish television screens over the past two years, thanks to his ability to convert complicated scientific information into a clear and understandable form for the general public.
What was a typical working week like for you, back in mid- to late 2020?
That feels like a lifetime ago. I wonder if COVID years are like dog years and we all age seven for each one? We were doing daily press conferences, seven days a week. We would meet with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (LLB 1992) at 10am with the most recent data and distil it into a format that the politicians could use to make decisions. Then we’d go and tell the media at 12pm, and we would answer questions until they stopped. We never turned any down.
You were praised for being clear and straightforward in the advice you gave in the TV briefing broadcasts. How difficult was it to simplify the science for the public?
People are very kind. I’m not sure I’ve been the best at that, but I tried to take relatively complex information, because I needed to understand it as well, and try and tell the truth as I knew it at the time. The real public health professionals know I’m pretending to be a public health guy. I’m a surgeon! But we needed a front man; somebody who could communicate.
The last two years have been tough for everyone – what was the lowest point you experienced, and what kind of things gave you glimmers of hope?
I think the lowest point was the loss from COVID generally. Too many people have died. The principal hope is science; so, the therapeutics and the vaccines. The other slightly softer hope is the kindness of the population. The gurdwara near where I live delivered 3,000 curries a day to elderly people who couldn’t go out in lockdown.
The only thing worse than being involved in this pandemic for me would have been NOT being involved. I can't imagine having sat on the sidelines and watched."
What do you think about those in the public eye who broke the rules?
There’s a responsibility on us to try and set an example, but I’m also conscious that we’re human beings, and I think most people are trying to do their best. One thing that I think we get a little bit wrong is not to forgive anybody for parties or masks or whatever it is. You and I may get annoyed, but I don’t think I need an example to know when I should and shouldn’t do something. I think we’re adults and we know what to do.
What do you hope will be written about you when the history of the last couple of years is told in the future?
In 20 years, I hope I’m obscure and forgotten! I hope they’ll look back and say Scotland did most of the big things right. They were hard choices, but I think we got the big calls correct and tried to do it as openly and as transparently as we could. On a more personal level, I hope people think I told the truth, with a sense of humour, to try and get that information across.
Scotland feels more normal now. If you'd told me two years ago that we would be here, I wouldn't have believed you."
You’ve become a well-known face in Scotland over the past two years. Do you get stopped in the street, and what kind of things do people ask you?
The most common thing that happens is that people come up to me and say, “are you the guy off the telly? My mum/granny thinks you’re great.” Every one of them. The weirdest thing is when people don’t say anything. They kind of look at you as if … “Who’s that … is he in EastEnders?” But people are, in the main, absolutely lovely.
How did you move from dentistry into public health, and do you ever have the chance to keep your hand in at it?
You wouldn’t want me to! I did high-street dentistry for a year and realised that 40 years of this was probably not going to do it for me, so I trained as an oral surgeon. I went to Harvard and did a masters in public health, then came back and became Scotland’s National Clinical Director in 2015, and that’s when I gave up clinical work. I do miss it. I miss the ability to fix people quickly; if you break your jaw or have a dental abscess you need help that day, and I could do that. What I’m doing now feels more distant … but of course, the rationalisation is that you’re trying to help a lot more people now than you were when you were just fixing the fracture.
You have been doing charity work in India for more than 25 years. How did your connection with the country start and what does volunteering there bring to your life?
A friend of mine had been to this children’s home in south-east India, run by a family who had taken in three orphans 50 years ago, and now have 2,500 young people in their institution. I went the first time as the dentist and took a lot of teeth out; now I lead a team of healthcare professionals who go and do “MOTs” on a couple of thousand kids in two or three weeks. I’ve really missed that over the last couple of years because we haven’t been able to go, for obvious reasons.
Where was the first trip you took outside Scotland since restrictions eased, and how did that feel?
The Canary Islands, over Easter, and it was absolutely lovely. Normally I’m a bit of an active holiday person and Mrs Leitch gets a little bit irritated that I want to go and climb a volcano. About four days in this time she said, are we not going to do anything? I said, you know what, I think maybe not, and we didn’t. We just relaxed for a week, ate and drank a bit too much, but it was terrific. The first days off I’d had in two years.
Memories of Glasgow
As a dentistry student, you spend very little time on campus. We were at the dental school on Sauchiehall St, right in the city centre. I lived at home in Airdrie and my dad worked in Glasgow, so he would bring me in most days. I felt a bit distant from the main campus, though I did come to Gilmorehill to date.
I was a GUU-er, but I married a QM-er. What does that tell you? That tells me I wasn’t cool, but my wife was, maybe! She was an English student, so I’d meet her on campus sometimes for coffee, and we got engaged when I was in fourth year, quite young these days.
I spent far too much time at the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT). I still do, if I get the chance. I really missed it in lockdown. I could spend most days there, even sunny days. I don’t care. I would happily be at the GFT.
My graduation day was chaotic. There were 80 of us and they only had 40 hoods. The order was wrong. So us dental students typically just decided to solve it ourselves. We started throwing hoods to one another. As someone came off stage, we took their hood off them, ran to the back of the queue and gave it to the next person, to make sure everybody graduated with a hood on. That’s the thing I remember most about the day.
My fondest memory of my time at UofG remains the people I met. That’s a bit of a cliché, but there’s been a group of us who have gone out for dinner pretty much every week since we qualified, for 30 years. We know every curry shop in Scotland. The architecture of the University is beautiful, of course, but it’s the connections I made that will last for a long, long time.
Jason hopes to carry on contributing in some way to the health of the population, both in Scotland and globally. He’d also quite like some time off.
Watch below as Jason talks from our brand-new ARC building about his experiences of the last two years.
This article was first published June 2022.