Sturgeon fights back tears as she gave evidence at the UK Covid inquiry. She denied claims that she politicised the pandemic in pursuit of Scottish independence.
She told the inquiry that she did not make extensive use of informal messaging and that messages were deleted only on advice to retain information “on matters of substance, salience and relevance”. She also defended her decision to promise journalists she would hand over her WhatsApp messages despite knowing they were being deleted.
Defending her leadership style and record
Nicola Sturgeon was once one of Britain’s most charismatic political figures, a multi-election winner with a soaring popularity that reached across party lines. But the former first minister, who was forced to resign amid a series of PR disasters, has now been put on trial at the Covid inquiry with her once-proud reputation in tatters.
The SNP leader became tearful at times during her evidence on Wednesday as she struggled to defend her leadership style and record in the wake of Britain’s pandemic crisis. She told the UK’s public health watchdog that failing to lock down Scotland “a week, two weeks” earlier at the start of the outbreak was one of her biggest regrets. She also admitted that she had not wanted to reveal details of the outbreak at a Nike conference in Edinburgh and that she felt “overwhelmed” by the scale of what she was dealing with at the time.
But she denied that she politicised the pandemic to advance her cause of Scottish independence. She told the inquiry that she had always sought to be transparent and she was adamant that no decisions were made on instinct alone or that they were influenced by considerations for the constitutional argument.
Ms Sturgeon has been asked to hand over her deleted messages from the WhatsApp group used by her officials in their discussions about the coronavirus pandemic. She swore under oath that she would give them all over, and denied that the discussion of deleting messages was merely light-hearted banter.
Ms Sturgeon was also grilled over her decision to give public health expert Professor Devi Sridhar access to her personal email account and her failure to inform the inquiry that she had deleted some of her own WhatsApp messages. The first minister was also questioned about her refusal to give her government’s key Covid advice from the World Economic Forum in London, and the way in which she pushed back against calls for Scotland to impose a lockdown on tourists. The inquiry is expected to continue for months as it examines the impact of the pandemic on the country and the actions and mistakes that were made along the way.
Denying claims of political opportunism
Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon has denied claims of political opportunism during the Covid crisis during a high-profile appearance at a public inquiry. Sturgeon argued she did not make decisions “for political gain” during the pandemic, and claimed she felt an “overwhelming responsibility to do the best I could”. She also continued her long-running criticisms of Boris Johnson, telling the inquiry that he was “not just the wrong person to be prime minister in this crisis, but the wrong person to be prime minister, full stop”.
The SNP leader was a near-constant presence on our TV screens during the pandemic. She fought back tears as she gave evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday, and repeatedly defended her government’s response to the crisis. But it was not enough to satisfy the bereaved families who lost loved ones, or those who feel her leadership style was opaque and her inclination to hoard power was opportunistic.
Senior counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson QC repeatedly challenged Sturgeon on her use of informal messaging, particularly WhatsApp, to communicate with her small team of advisers. He asked whether she was able to separate her instinctive decision-making from the broader management of Scotland’s Covid response. Sturgeon said she “really struggled with the idea” that she was making decisions based on politics, adding that her decision not to lock down Scotland’s schools a week or two earlier was one of her chief regrets.
She said she did not think less about Scottish independence and politics in her personal life than she did during the pandemic, but denied she made decisions for political reasons or jumped at opportunities to advance her cause. She was visibly emotional as she told the inquiry it was “a large part of my wish” that she had never been first minister during the pandemic.
She also insisted that her refusal to allow people to attend a concert at the SSE Arena in Edinburgh in August 2020 was because she was worried it would spread infection and she wanted to protect Scotland’s tourism industry. But she defended her decision not to extend mass gathering restrictions more widely in April 2020, saying it was too soon to do so because the virus was still evolving.
Rejecting accusations of “secrecy”
Nicola Sturgeon’s reputation has been tarnished by accusations of secrecy over her management of Scotland’s Covid response. She has been accused of hiding evidence and ignoring public concerns to ensure her leadership would not be undermined.
But she denied a culture of “secrecy” and dismissed claims of political opportunism as she appeared at the UK government inquiry into the pandemic. The former first minister, who quit as leader of Scotland’s devolved administration last year, said she felt an “overwhelming responsibility” to do her best to protect the public.
As Sturgeon defended her decision-making process during the crisis, she was grilled over the use of informal messaging apps for discussions between senior officials. She was asked why key meetings between the so-called “gold command” group were not minuted and whether they acted as an exclusive club to make decisions on her behalf.
The SNP leader refused to discuss the details of these private conversations, saying they were about the implementation of policy and not “individual decisions”. She also denied that she breached confidence by announcing restrictions on restaurants ahead of the UK government in March 2020, insisting it was her responsibility to protect the public.
Mr Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, asked Sturgeon whether she considered that she had a “firm grip” on decision-making and prevented others from sharing her views. She said that she did not operate in any way to exclude people from discussion, but admitted it could be difficult for her to share ideas with everyone involved.
Ms Sturgeon was also pressed on why the Scottish government did not publish an up-to-the-minute progress report during the crisis, which could have been viewed as transparent and accountable. She claimed that the publication of such information would have posed a risk to the health and wellbeing of the public, which she did not want to do.
Ms Sturgeon also apologised for misleading a journalist in 2021 when she told them that she would be “fully transparent” about handing over her WhatsApp messages to the inquiry. She said that she had initially been “inadequately clear” and that she now understood that she should have been more “clear”. She told the inquiry she deleted these informal messages because they were private and did not contain any business relating to the Scottish government and that it was in line with official advice that they be deleted.
Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of political opportunism and hoarding power in her approach to the Covid pandemic. But she refused to blame Boris Johnson for the crisis as she appeared in the UK inquiry into the pandemic on Monday.
The former first minister was asked why she didn’t introduce a national lockdown sooner in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. She told the inquiry she wished she had locked down “a week, two weeks” earlier. She said the decision was one of “many regrets I have”.
Ms Sturgeon also defended her approach to public health, saying she did not take decisions for political reasons. She said her decision to let Scottish councils decide whether to close restaurants, pubs and other public places was based on research evidence, and had been endorsed by experts. She also said she consulted widely and was “always seeking to be as transparent as possible”.
She said her Government “was focused entirely on the pandemic” and had given careful consideration to policy issues including limiting contact between people, closing schools and shutting off large gatherings. She also denied that she wanted to “jump the gun” on announcing her plans for a national lockdown, telling the inquiry that she had been consulted by the U.K. government before she announced her plans in a televised address.
Ms Sturgeon defended her policy Eat Out to Help Out, which encouraged people to eat out at restaurants and cafes during the pandemic. She said the idea was to reduce stress on families and communities by allowing them to spend less time cooking and cleaning. She said the policy was endorsed by the health charity Diabetes UK.
Former Cabinet Office minister Rishi Sunak was grilled by the inquiry on his role as Mr Johnson’s number two, but resisted taking potshots at his former boss. He told the inquiry he had been provided with summaries of Covid meetings but in hindsight might have found it useful to hear the full discussions.
But he admitted that it would have been “optically wrong” for him to meet with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland regularly in the face of the pandemic, because it would be like a mini EU of four nations. He said he wanted to prioritise effective working with the devolved administrations.