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Prof Leitch gave then Health Secretary Humza Yousaf mask rule advice for a social event in late 2021

Scotland’s national clinical director advised Humza Yousaf to keep a drink in his hands at all times to remain “exempt” from mask rules at a dinner, the UK Covid Inquiry has heard.

The UK Covid Inquiry was shown a WhatsApp exchange between Prof Jason Leitch and the then health secretary.

Prof Leitch told the now first minister “literally no-one” followed official guidance about wearing a mask when not seated at dinner.

He denied giving him a “workaround”.

The national clinical adviser said it was “tricky” to comply with guidance at such occasions, and admitted breaking the same rule.

He told the inquiry he had believed it was “legitimate” to stand without a mask after being approached for a photograph at a dinner.

Prof Leitch confirmed he used an auto-delete function on a Covid WhatsApp chat during the pandemic but insisted he followed Scottish government records management policy.

But he said a WhatsApp comment he made, previously shown at the inquiry, about deleting messages as a “pre-bed ritual” was a “flippant exaggeration”.

Messages read out at the inquiry showed then health secretary Mr Yousaf, who served in the role between 2021 and 2023, asked the national clinical director for guidance before attending a dinner where he was due to give a speech.

Mr Yousaf wrote: “I know sitting at the table, I don’t need my mask. If I’m standing talking to folk, need my mask on? [sic]”

Prof Leitch responded: “Officially yes. But literally no-one does. Have a drink in your hands at ALL times. Then you’re exempt. So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”

The inquiry heard that at the time, in late 2021, the Delta and Omicron variants were driving a surge in infections, leading to a peak in cases eight times higher than during the initial Covid wave in 2020.

Counsel to the inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC, asked: “If health secretary didn’t understand the rules, what chance did anyone else have?”

Prof Leitch told the inquiry there was “difficulty” and “nuance” with the rules about wearing a mask at hospitality functions and that he got the impression no-one followed the official guidance at the “few” such occasions he attended.

He said it was a “tricky area that I found tricky as well”.

The national clinical director described an incident that was posted on social media when he was approached at a dinner and asked for a photo but did not have mask on.

First Minister Humza Yousaf previously served as health secretary

“Strictly speaking that was breaking the rules but it was during a dinner and during a social occasion and therefore I thought it was legitimate,” he told the inquiry.

Prof Leitch rejected a suggestion Mr Dawson that he had offered the then health secretary a “workaround” to the rules.

“I gave him advice to show him how to comply with the rules,” the national clinical director said.

WhatsApp concerns

Earlier, he had been asked about why he said in a WhatsApp group chat from May 2021: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”

He told the inquiry he did not delete messages every day.

“This was a flippant exaggeration in an informal messaging group and it wasn’t done every day before I went to bed,” the national clinical director told the inquiry.

In another WhatsApp chat, Prof Leitch advised colleagues in September 2020: “Just my usual reminder to delete your chat … particularly after we reach a conclusion.”

The national clinical director told the inquiry that he was following Scottish government guidance that once a decision had been reached, and that had been submitted to the records management system, the chat should then be deleted.

Prof Leitch said he also applied an auto-delete function to a group with chief medical officer Gregor Smith and Jim McMenamin, the chairman of the National Incident Management Team.

Asked whose messages he thought that would remove, the national clinical director answered: “That’s good question I think it deletes everybody’s.”

He said he was “comfortable” doing so despite the risk it could delete messages before a submission had been made to the corporate record because “the decisions we were coming to were being dealt with very, very quickly”.

Next to give evidence to the inquiry was Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, who gave advice to former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during the pandemic.

Prof Devi Sridhar denied she was “too friendly” with Nicola Sturgeon

She spoke about what she described as her “close working relationship” with the ex-SNP leader, who she said offered to become her first client after qualifying as a personal trainer.

Ms Sridhar admitted she was “worried about getting involved with messy politics” during the pandemic.

She added: “I think people emphasised a lot that they felt I was under pressure or I was too friendly with her and I thought that came out because we got on quite well.”

But Ms Sridhar said she had “similar relationships” with many politicians, including chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth and Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran.

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