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Junior counsel to the inquiry Usman Tariq read out a text conversation between Nicola Sturgeon and Liz Lloyd about Boris Johnson
Nicola Sturgeon called Boris Johnson a “clown” in an expletive-laden text conversation with her chief of staff, the UK Covid Inquiry has heard.
The inquiry was shown messages in which the former first minister described as “excruciating” a Downing Street announcement about a second Covid lockdown in England.
Ms Sturgeon said she was offended by Mr Johnson’s “utter incompetence”.
Her former aide said the language showed Ms Sturgeon’s “frustration”.
Mr Johnson, who was prime minister during the pandemic, has said he had a “friendly” relationship with Ms Sturgeon
Liz Lloyd, who served as chief of staff and a strategic adviser to Ms Sturgeon between 2015 and 2023, said engagement with Mr Johnson became “pointless” in the early months of the pandemic.
Speaking at the inquiry – which is currently sitting in Edinburgh – she was shown messages from 31 October 2020 between her and Ms Sturgeon on the same evening as Mr Johnson announced a fresh lockdown for England.
Ms Sturgeon said his address to the nation was “(expletive) excruciating” and that the UK government’s communications were “awful”.
She told Ms Lloyd: “His utter incompetence in every sense is now offending me on behalf of politicians everywhere.”
Ms Lloyd then said she was “offended” on behalf of all special advisers to which Ms Sturgeon replied: “He is a (expletive) clown.”
Ms Lloyd told the inquiry the conversation was the result of “chaos” in the UK government.
She said the Scottish government had to “mitigate” that because although the restrictions did not apply in Scotland, they had an effect on how people north of the border viewed the pandemic.
“We were clearly not very complimentary about their communications handling that day,” she told the inquiry.
Asked if the relationship between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Johnson had broken down, Ms Lloyd replied: “I think broken down to a degree overstates what was there to break.”
She said there was a “politeness” when the the two leaders had previously met but the relationship became “much harder” during the pandemic.
Ms Lloyd claimed it was evident during talks with devolved leaders that Mr Johnson “didn’t want to be on those calls, he wasn’t necessarily well briefed on those calls and he wasn’t listening to the points we were making on those calls”.
“I think engagement with him came to be seen as slightly pointless during this period,” she added.
The inquiry heard that as early as March 2020 Ms Lloyd had described Cobra, the UK government’s emergency response committee, as a “shambles”.
She said in broader terms there was better communication between the two governments, particularly on health, but that discussions with the prime minister “didn’t get us anywhere”.
Mr Johnson was quizzed about his relationship with Ms Sturgeon when he appeared in front of the Covid inquiry in December.
“When I have talked to her, we have got on very well and had a friendly relationship,” he said.
The inquiry also heard that Ms Lloyd told Ms Sturgeon in WhatsApp messages that she wanted a “good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK government so she could “think about something other than sick people”.
Ms Lloyd told Ms Sturgeon she had “set a timetable” for the UK government to answer the Scottish government on furlough as a “purely political” move in the messages between herself and the former first minister on 1 November 2020.
Ms Sturgeon said: “Yeah, I get it. And it might be worth doing. I’ve sent a rough formulation of what I might say tomorrow.”
Ms Sturgeon is expected to give evidence to the inquiry next week.
Ms Lloyd was the first Scottish government figure to submit WhatsApp messages to the inquiry in July 2023.
It came as First Minister Humza Yousaf announced an externally-led review into the Scottish government’s use of mobile messaging apps, conceding that there are “challenges” in relation to how the app is used in government.
He conceded the handling of requests for WhatsApp messages had not been the government’s “finest hour” and had not given bereaved families confidence.
Ms Lloyd said she was not aware to the best of her recollection of a government mobile messaging policy introduced in 2021 which suggested some messages should be wiped every month.
The former special adviser added she did not think she would have deleted information that could be subject to a freedom of information request even if she had knowledge of the policy.
Last week, counsel to the inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC, said Ms Sturgeon appeared to “have retained no messages whatsoever”.
On Sunday, Ms Sturgeon said copies of some of her messages had been retrieved and were handed to the inquiry last year.
This week, the inquiry was told Ms Sturgeon provided a public health expert with an SNP email address where she said she could be contacted “privately” alongside her official email during a discussion around a briefing paper.
It has also been revealed Chief Medical Officer Gregor Smith and National Clinical Director Jason Leitch regularly deleted WhatsApps during the pandemic, and encouraged others to do so.
They both said they were following Scottish government policy and that records about decision making were properly archived.
The Scottish government’s records management policy, published in February 2021, said records should be kept as long as necessary to fulfil the Scottish government’s business and legal obligations.
Mobile messaging guidance for officials and ministers published in November 2021 stated they were allowed to use WhatsApp and other messaging services to conduct business, but that “salient” points should be transcribed and saved centrally.
It said “business conversations” in mobile messaging apps should not be retained for more than a month assuming “salient” points have been archived.
‘Politicisation of the pandemic’
The inquiry was also shown a document from the cabinet showing priorities for preparations going forward in July 2020, stating that each portfolio should prepare for the combined effects of Covid-19 and the transition period, and agree that consideration should be given to “restarting work on independence”.
Inquiry chair Lady Hallett said: “It does look a bit like the politicisation of the coronavirus pandemic, doesn’t it?”
Ms Lloyd replied it was not her “understanding” that the government was not seeking to politicise the situation “at that time”.
Lady Hallett suggested it looked like some members of cabinet agreed to “capitalise on the pandemic to advance cause of independence”.
Ms Lloyd said: “It says consideration was given to this but was not done at this time.”
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