Covid Inquiry: WhatsApp confusion, pandemic politicking and sidelining the secretary of state

Nicola Sturgeon insists decision-making records have not been lost as ministers accuse former SNP leader of trying to score points against Westminster
Nicola Sturgeon appears before the Covid Inquiry on 31 January Photo: Covid Inquiry

By Jim Dunton

02 Feb 2024

Nicola Sturgeon’s much-anticipated appearance before the Covid Inquiry this week did not disappoint, with the spectacle of Scotland’s former first minister being questioned over missing WhatsApp messages and allegations of politicking amid the pandemic response.

Sturgeon’s successor, Humza Yousaf, last week apologised to the inquiry, which is currently sitting in Edinburgh, for the Scottish Government’s “frankly poor handling” of evidence requests for informal messages from the highest levels.

Confusion over the existence of rules related to the deletion of messages quickly re-emerged as a theme this week. Former ministers Kate Forbes and Jeane Freeman said they had no knowledge of any official Scottish Government policy for WhatsApps to be deleted, placing them at odds with a central plank of Sturgeon’s story.

Ex-finance minister Forbes presented a selection of WhatsApps to the inquiry. They included a 2021 exchange detailing Sturgeon’s fury with then-health minister Yousaf, who had surprised the first minister by unexpectedly saying his team had identified an additional £100m for business support.

“I’ve never seen the FM this angry in all my cabinets,” Forbes wrote to Scottish Exchequer director general Alyson Stafford after the meeting.

Questioned over what she described as a “very awkward discussion”, Forbes said on Tuesday that it was often the case that “surprises were never welcome at cabinet” and Yousaf’s comment had not been drafted in the papers. Forbes said the meeting had been held against the backdrop of “very limited funding” being available for business support at the time.

On Wednesday, Sturgeon faced a predicted wave of questioning about her missing WhatsApp messages. She told the inquiry that from 2007, “based on advice”, she had operated “the policy that messages, business relating to government should not be kept on a phone that could be lost or stolen – insecure in that way – but properly recorded through the system”.

Sturgeon, who stood down as first minister last year and was replaced by Yousaf, said she had not seen a "do not destroy" instruction from a senior civil servant on pandemic messaging, but that it also had not been her “style” to use WhatsApp. She added that WhatsApp chats had become “too common” in government and resulted in messages that could be “misinterpreted”.

Last week’s hearings featured evidence from Sturgeon’s former chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, that included WhatsApp exchanges from October 2020 that are hard to misinterpret. In one of them the then-first minister described Boris Johnson as a “fucking clown” in relation to the announcement of the second national Covid lockdown.

In her seven hours of evidence, Sturgeon said she wanted to give the inquiry a “personal assurance” that the deletion of her WhatsApp messages had not resulted in the loss of key records of decisions taken during the pandemic.

“I am certain that the inquiry has at its disposal anything and everything germane to my decision making during the process and the period of the pandemic, and the factors underpinning those decisions,” she said.

There was an apology, though, over comments Sturgeon made to a press conference when she told Channel 4 News that all pandemic communications would be disclosed with “nothing” off limits – including “emails, WhatsApps [and] private emails”.

She said she had been “trying to answer the substance” of the question. “I apologise if that answer was not as clear,” she added.

Sturgeon was tearful when inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson KC asked if she had been the “right first minister” to lead Scotland through the pandemic.

"That's not how I would have thought of it at all,” she replied. “I was the first minister when the pandemic struck – there’s a large part of me that wishes I hadn’t been, but I was – and I wanted to be the best first minister I could be during that period. It’s for others to judge the extent to which I succeeded.”

Sturgeon was also asked whether she shared the view expressed by others – including former No.10 director of communications Lee Cain – that Boris Johnson was the wrong prime minister for the Covid crisis.

“I don’t think I’m betraying any secrets here when I thought Boris Johnson to be the wrong person to be prime minister, full stop,” she said.

Politicking in the pandemic

On Monday, levelling up secretary Michael Gove told the inquiry he believed the Scottish Government had a “desire for differentiation” from the UK during the pandemic and that he believed it was “for the sake of advancing a political agenda”.

Gove, whose UK government brief includes serving as minister for intergovernmental relations, acknowledged that officials' overwhelming motivation was to protect the people of Scotland from the virus. But he said other forces were also at play.

“There are and were occasions when the Scottish Government was thinking politically, as we can see, and, of course, it is the case the SNP has a political mission to achieve Scotland’s independence,” he said.

“It would be naive not to be aware that highly skilled politicians, including those at the top of the Scottish Government, might well see what they perceive to be political advantage at certain points.”

Gove added: “But I think it’s important to note that while that did happen at certain points, the day-to-day management of the pandemic preoccupied them as it did other ministers.”

He cited Sturgeon’s March 2020 announcement that mass gatherings would be banned in Scotland as an example of the Scottish Government acting out of turn during the pandemic. The announcement followed a Cobra meeting at which minutes indicated those present had agreed not to make any such announcement ahead of further talks.

Gove told the inquiry Sturgeon's announcement had been “unwise” and “an error” on her part that had caused "irritation in No.10”.

He said there had been a sense in government that “care and caution” should be applied to the way they worked with the first minister as a result.

Asked about the incident on Wednesday, Sturgeon said she had been “clear” in the Cobra meeting that she intended to make the announcement on mass gatherings in Scotland and that it was her duty to communicate decisions “to stem the spread of the virus”.

Sturgeon dismissed the suggestion she had used the pandemic to further the argument for Scottish independence.

“I have been in politics for 30 years; I've been a life-long campaigner for independence,” she said. “I don't think in my entire life have I ever thought less about politics generally and independence in particular than I did in the course of the pandemic.”

Whitehall wars

On Thursday, Scotland secretary Alister Jack admitted to the inquiry that he had deleted all WhatsApp messages from his phone in November 2021 to free up storage capacity on the device.

He told the hearing the act was a matter of “regret” and wished he could “turn the clock back”.

But the mea culpa was far from an act of solidarity with Sturgeon.

Jack said he doubted the former first minister’s claims that she put aside her political convictions to prioritise the health and safety of the people of Scotland.

“I saw that passage [of Sturgeon’s evidence session] and I didn't believe it for a minute,” he said.

“I thought back to my experiences, and I looked at her performance, and I thought she could cry from one eye if she wanted to.”

Jack said there had been no love lost between the Scotland Office, Sturgeon and her then-deputy first minister John Swinney.

“Let's put some context on this – the former first minister and the former deputy first minister, I'm not, you know, on their Christmas-card list,” he said.

Jack said Sturgeon and Swinney had routinely tried to bypass the Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland in their dealings with the UK government – but had consistently failed.

“They've always gone direct to Whitehall departments because they don't like the Scotland Office and they don't like my partners, and they make that very clear,” he said.

“Their strategy doesn’t work because the Whitehall departments immediately refer to us for guidance and advice, and so we go on.”

Jack acknowledged that a situation had arisen during the pandemic where Scottish ministers were only informed of the UK government’s plans on restrictions “at the very last minute”.

But he said it was the result of mistrust being “baked-in to the system” due to the Scottish Government’s actions.

“Devolution works very well, but it works very well when governments want to work together. When one government wants to destroy the United Kingdom and destroy devolution, then there are tensions,” he said.

“Those tensions existed before the pandemic and during the pandemic, and [they] exist today.”

Despite his evidence, Jack rejected the suggestion that the relationship between the London and Edinburgh administrations had been like “tit-for-tat or children squabbling with each other” during the height of the pandemic.

Earlier in the week, Gove denied that relations were “completely dysfunctional”.

The inquiry continues.

Compiled from reports by CSW’s sister title Holyrood

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