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Watch: Key moments as Nicola Sturgeon gives evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry

By Angus Cochrane
BBC Scotland News

Nicola Sturgeon has denied that some her decisions during the Covid pandemic were motivated by furthering the cause of Scottish independence.

The former first minister also rejected claims she presided over a culture of secrecy despite admitting she deleted all her WhatsApps during the pandemic.

But she said all “relevant” information had been handed to the UK Covid Inquiry.

Ms Sturgeon was speaking as she gave evidence to the inquiry in Edinburgh.

Ms Sturgeon was asked by Channel 4 News in August 2021 whether she could “guarantee to the bereaved families that you will disclose emails, WhatsApps, private emails if you’ve been using them. Whatever. That nothing will be off limits in this inquiry?’

The question related to the Scottish Covid Inquiry, which is being held separately to the UK-wide one.

She had replied at the time: “If you understand statutory public inquiries you would know that even if I wasn’t prepared to give that assurance, which for the avoidance of doubt I am, then I wouldn’t have the ability. This will be a judge-led statutory inquiry.”

But the UK inquiry has been told by Jamie Dawson KC that Ms Sturgeon appeared to have retained no informal messages in connection with her management of the pandemic.

It has also been shown exchanges of messages between between senior Scottish government officials in which they were reminded that the conversations would be subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and were urged to delete the messages.

Opposition parties and survivors groups have accused the government of an “industrial-scale” deletion policy in an attempt to avoid scrutiny.

However, some Scottish government figures – including Ms Sturgeon’s former chief of staff Liz Lloyd and current First Minister Humza Yousaf – have submitted text conversations with Ms Sturgeon to the inquiry.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday morning, Ms Sturgeon – who stepped down as first minister and SNP leader in March of last year – said she exchanged WhatsApps with no more than a “handful” of people, and was not a member of any groups.

She said her use of the app was “extremely limited” and did not relate to “substantive” government business.

Ms Sturgeon, who became tearful at points during her evidence, said she deleted these informal messages in line with official advice, and “salient” points were all recorded on the corporate record.

She denied that deleting informal messages meant the Scottish or UK inquiries would be deprived of relevant material about about how decisions were made during the pandemic.

The ex-SNP leader added: “There would be nothing in those communications that was not available to either the inquiry or the public, through the record of the Scottish government or indeed in the very detailed public statements that were being made every day.”

The former first minister said she had been trying to answer the “substance” of the Channel 4 question but said the “literal terms” of her answer may not have matched the question, which referred to the then first minister handing over “emails, WhatsApps, private emails … whatever”.

“I accept that and I apologise if that answer was not as clear,” Ms Sturgeon said.

The ex-SNP leader went on to reject claims from UK government minister Michael Gove that the Scottish government sought “political conflict” during the pandemic.

Becoming emotional, she insisted “the idea that in those horrendous days, weeks, I was thinking of political opportunity” was “not the case”.

Ms Sturgeon insisted “difficult” decisions during the pandemic were made based on “public health reasons” and she was motivated solely by minimising the harm of the virus.

It came after the inquiry was shown an email which voiced concerns that the Spanish government would block an independent Scotland from joining the EU if it did not lift travel restrictions.

Michael Gove served as Cabinet Office minister during the pandemic

The email – copied to the first minister and senior government figures – was sent on 19 July 2020 from Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s email, but signed off by a person named Scott. He said he was “extremely concerned” about travel restrictions remaining on the country when there was a low Covid prevalence rate.

“It won’t matter how much ministers might justify it on health grounds, the Spanish government will conclude it is entirely political; they won’t forget; there is a real possibility they will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland as a result.”

Ms Sturgeon was also emotional when she said a “large part” of her wished she had not been Scotland’s first minister during the pandemic.

She said her chief regret of the pandemic was that the Scottish government did not introduce a lockdown one or two weeks earlier than it did in March 2020. She also expressed regret over deaths and young people missing out on education.

However, the former first minister said none of her decisions during the pandemic were “influenced in any way by political considerations or by trying to gain an advantage for the cause of independence”.

She added: “I was motivated solely by trying to do the best we could to keep people as safe as possible.”

‘Bond of trust’

She denied that there was a culture of seeking to make light of FOI rules in her government.

It came after the inquiry was again shown messages from a group chat involving senior civil servants and medical advisers. Participants were warned by a then senior civil servant that the message were “FOI discoverable” and urged to use the “clear chat” button.

Ms Sturgeon described the messages as a warning that was “reminding people of the need to be professional” amid a “light-hearted” discussion.

She said maintaining a “bond of trust” with the public was of “paramount” importance during the pandemic and something she felt to her “core”.

Ms Sturgeon gave evidence for more than five hours at the inquiry in Edinburgh

She also said that “openness and transparency” were a priority for her throughout the pandemic but that there would inevitably be cases where the government could have been more transparent.

Ms Sturgeon added: “I would like to give an assurance to the inquiry that contrary to any desire on the part of me or my government to keep things secret, I would suggest the opposite was the case during the pandemic.”

In her written evidence she said decisions were “informed, shaped and taken mainly” through “deep dive” sessions, “gold command” meetings – attended by Ms Sturgeon, a small group of advisers and a revolving group of ministers – and cabinet meetings.

On Tuesday, Mr Swinney told the inquiry that the decision to close schools in March 2020 was made during a conversation between him and Ms Sturgeon, rather than in a discussion involving the full cabinet.

He said this was because “events were moving at an absolutely ferocious pace”.

Ms Sturgeon denied that the power of the cabinet had been “usurped” and relegated to a “ratifying” body under her leadership.

She told the inquiry: “I was not given carte blanche to take any decision I wanted to take.

“Cabinet would say to me we want to do this assuming the data supports it, and I would look at that and make that final decision.”

Emotional Nicola Sturgeon on being first minister during the pandemic

The inquiry had also heard that minutes were not kept for the Scottish government’s equivalent of Cobra meetings – the Scottish Government Resilience Room (SGoRR) – or gold command meetings.

Former Finance Secretary Kate Forbes said she was not invited to the meetings in 2020 and had not even known they existed.

It has also emerged that on Mr Yousaf’s first day in the job after being appointed as Scotland’s health secretary in May 2021, National Clinical Director Jason Leitch sent him a WhatsApp message which read: “She actually wants none of us.”

Scotland’s Information Commissioner David Hamilton later said the absence of minutes at some government meetings was “absolutely unacceptable” and “can’t happen again”, and that it was almost certain his office would take action.

Ms Sturgeon said there should have been a “clearer record” of what she called “discursive, non-decision making” meetings.

She denied Ms Forbes, who she described as an “extremely highly valued” member of the government, was excluded from meetings she should have been a part of.

The inquiry was shown messages between Ms Sturgeon and Ms Lloyd from 27 October 2020 in which the former SNP leader said she was “having a crisis of decision-making” over Covid rules for hospitality venues, adding “it’s all so random” when discussing restrictions on restaurants.

Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry she did not think there was anything in the exchange which would not be recorded in cabinet minutes or in the public record.

She described the decisions facing the government as “almost impossible”.

The ex-first minister added: “Perhaps this is the kind of thing I would prefer not to be on the public record – me having a crisis of decision making is perhaps not what I wanted people to know. And I hadn’t slept.”

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack is due to give evidence to the inquiry on Thursday.

This was Nicola Sturgeon as we have rarely see her before.

Recalling her role running the Scottish government during the pandemic appeared to be a raw, emotional and even traumatic experience for the former first minister.

Several times her voice faltered and she wiped away tears as she spoke of Covid in apocalyptic terms as a threat, a risk and a catastrophe.

At one point a courtroom aide walked forward to place a tissue on the desk in front of her.

The armies of lawyers with their laptops; relatives of some of those who were bereaved by Covid; and the only two journalists in the room at the time, one of whom was me, strained to catch her words as she said quietly and simply that any claim she had seen a political opportunity in the emergency was simply not true.

Neither the chair of the inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallett, nor the counsel asking the questions, Jamie Dawson KC, made any comment about her demeanour.

Instead, the questions from Mr Dawson simply kept coming.

And there are still many questions for the former Scottish National Party leader to answer.

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