UK Covid-19 Inquiry

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 31 January 2024.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-12010, in the name of Douglas Ross, on United Kingdom Covid-19 inquiry revelations. I invite members who wish to take part in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The Covid-19 pandemic affected people across the globe, and every single person in Scotland. The public were forced to spend months effectively restricted in their homes, unable to see family and friends. They were prevented from doing the activities that they loved, in the places they loved to go, with the people they loved to spend time with. Children missed out on crucial education; examinations in schools, colleges and universities were affected. Important milestones were delayed or cancelled altogether and, perhaps most devastatingly of all, so many people were denied the chance to say a final goodbye to loved ones in their last moments.

Those were the hard sacrifices that people in Scotland made to protect one another: sacrifices that they made because their Governments asked them, and because they believed that those actions were being taken forward for the right reasons. They believed that their protection and the protection of their fellow citizens was the number 1 priority—the only priority—for Government in those difficult times. They believed that, even if different decisions were being made across the United Kingdom, those were based on sound public health advice.

Now, nearly four years on from the start of the first lockdown, the work of the UK Covid inquiry has let us see just how blatantly the Scottish National Party Government abused that trust. This morning, Nicola Sturgeon was asked why she had got rid of all her WhatsApp messages despite knowing that a do-not-destroy order was in place. She was asked why she had assured a journalist that all her messages would be handed over to the inquiry despite knowing, when she gave that answer, that she had already deleted them.

Nicola Sturgeon has apologised for giving unclear answers, but she should be apologising to the people of Scotland for much, much more. Nicola Sturgeon should apologise for destroying vital evidence. Nicola Sturgeon should apologise for misleading the press and the public about deleting those messages. Nicola Sturgeon should apologise for breaking a clear promise to be open. Nicola Sturgeon should apologise for her secrecy, her dishonesty and her arrogant disregard for transparency.

The rules of this Parliament prevent me from describing Nicola Sturgeon using the only language that I think truly reflects what she did. While I am not allowed to say that Nicola Sturgeon is a liar and the UK Covid inquiry has exposed her lies, I say this: the evidence proves that the former First Minister deliberately made statements that she knew to be untrue and deleted key evidence that she knew would be requested.

However, in this Covid inquiry, we have learned about more than just the culture of secrecy in the SNP Government. Rather than treating the pandemic with the seriousness and sobriety that it deserved, we had the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, who is now the First Minister, and the national clinical director joking about “winging it”. During a pandemic that had killed 10,000 people in Scotland by that point, they were joking about “winging it”. Maybe that is why Humza Yousaf offered to take £100 million out of the national health service budget when it was on its knees during the pandemic.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

The member talks about people being serious. Does he think that Boris Johnson was serious enough about the pandemic?

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

We had a question in the office about how long it would take the SNP to mention Boris Johnson—I had gone for earlier than four minutes, in fairness.

Let us focus on what we are discussing here: the UK Covid inquiry meeting in Scotland and the actions of the SNP Scottish Government during the pandemic.

We also know that, as well as “winging it”, the First Minister admitted, when he was health secretary, that he would

“get found out sooner rather than later”.

On that, I think that we can agree that Humza Yousaf was correct. He should not just be apologising for his Government’s failure to hand over WhatsApp messages; he should also be apologising for the crass content of those messages and how that has impacted the families of the Covid bereaved.

In recent days, and again earlier today when the former First Minister was questioned at the inquiry, we have found out about minutes that were not taken of key meetings that were even kept secret from cabinet secretaries. Members of the Scottish Government Cabinet, who were tasked by all of us to make responsible decisions during the pandemic, were excluded from those meetings. Worse than that, we had the former First Minister and her chief of staff plotting to start a

“good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK Government for “purely political” reasons. Let me just repeat that. Nicola Sturgeon and her closest spin doctor thought that they should be acting in purely political ways during a global pandemic. Does any SNP member want to intervene to defend that? None of them—

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Mr Mason will defend the SNP Government for using the pandemic for purely political purposes.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I ask again whether the UK Government and Michael Gove did not do exactly the same.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

No, they did not. In this inquiry, we have seen that the top spin doctor to the former First Minister was looking to start a fight with the UK Government. Remember, she wanted to ask for things that she knew would be refused. They admitted to wanting to

“think about something other than sick people”.

That is what Nicola Sturgeon and her chief of staff were discussing.

We now know that, in June 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, the SNP Government was discussing how the public health crisis could be used to boost independence. Children could not go to school, restaurants remained shut and friends and family were just beginning to be able to meet up again. I will give way to any SNP member who wants to defend, months into the pandemic, SNP Government ministers looking to use the pandemic to boost independence. [

Interruption

.] No one is standing up, but some of the SNP members are actually laughing. John Mason is still laughing. He thinks that it is funny.

I will give way to Ruth Maguire in a moment. When I give way to Ms Maguire, John Mason might want to take the smirk off his face during this important debate.

Photo of Ruth Maguire Ruth Maguire Scottish National Party

I will not be the only person in the chamber who lost someone during the pandemic and who will be finding this display quite despicable. We are serious politicians in a serious place. It would be good if we could talk about the actual issues, rather than grandstanding. It is a disgrace to the people who lost their lives.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

This is the actual debate. I respect Ruth Maguire. She stood up and could not defend her own Government wanting to use a pandemic to boost independence. I am not the one grandstanding. That is what Nicola Sturgeon and her Cabinet were agreeing to do, months into the pandemic. Just as it has always done and will continue to do, the SNP was fixated by its political obsession when there were far bigger issues affecting Scotland. The SNP is a national disgrace.

That is from the messages that we know about, because the then First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, her deputy, John Swinney, and countless political advisers and civil servants have all manually deleted their WhatsApp messages. He is not here just now—I know that he is in the Parliament—but no one will ever refer to Mr Swinney as “Honest John” ever again. Sleekit Sturgeon will be remembered for deleting vital evidence on an industrial scale, denying grieving families the truth that they deserve. The current First Minister is winging it so badly that he told the inquiry that he had deleted all his messages but told the public that he had retained them—and all those actions by all those characters despite both the UK and Scottish inquiries making it clear that destroying evidence, including WhatsApp messages, is an offence.

We have seen the national clinical director, Jason Leitch, describe deleting WhatsApp messages as a “pre-bed ritual”. Ken Thomson, who was then a director general at the Scottish Government, bragged about “plausible deniability” being his middle names. The chief medical officer, Gregor Smith, advised his colleagues to delete messages

“at the end of every day”.

John Swinney revealed in his evidence to the inquiry this week that he has been following that practice for 17 years. For 17 years, the Scottish Government has been deleting evidence. If there was nothing to hide, why did those involved feel the need to have daily digital bonfires of evidence that they knew had been specifically requested by two public inquiries? It can only be, as we have seen from the few messages that the UK Covid inquiry has been able to get its hands on, because of the appalling culture of secrecy that has permeated through every level of this rotten SNP Government.

At the question-and-answer session with journalists in 2021 that I referred to earlier, Nicola Sturgeon said that,

“for the avoidance of doubt”,

nothing would be off limits in providing evidence to a public inquiry, including WhatsApps. However, Jamie Dawson KC has said:

“at the time that request was made Nicola Sturgeon, the former first minister of Scotland, had retained no messages whatsoever in connection with her management of the pandemic.”

Nicola Sturgeon made the promise of transparency in the full knowledge that she had already deleted what evidence she could and that, far from nothing being off limits, there was nothing to give.

“What a fraud this woman was”.

If SNP members do not like that, I can say that those are not my words. That is the verdict of one of their former SNP colleagues, Joan McAlpine. I am sure that that is a verdict that more and more of the public are beginning to agree with.

The Scottish Conservative motion today calls for the COVID-19 Recovery Committee to be reconstituted to look into the very serious matters that we have raised, and for Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Humza Yousaf to be referred to the independent adviser on the Scottish ministerial code to look at what has happened.

We know that Governments across the world made mistakes during the pandemic, but we now know that the perception that the Scottish Government was better—that it was whiter than white—was achieved only because it was frantically deleting every shred of evidence that would have shown otherwise. What little evidence we have seen shows an SNP Government that is steeped in secrecy, that was joking about the virus spreading across the country, that was “winging it” instead of making decisions based on hard public health evidence and that was pursuing “purely political” objectives while people died.

For all the sacrifices that the Scottish people made during the pandemic, the very least that they deserve from this SNP Government, even at this late stage, is openness and transparency. It is truly unforgivable that it looks as though they will never get that. I urge members across the chamber today to support the Scottish Conservative motion to get the answers that the public desperately need.

I move,

That the Parliament expresses its concern at the evidence revealed from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry from Scottish Government ministers, special advisers and officials, both past and present, on their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic; calls for the Parliament’s COVID-19 Recovery Committee to be reconstituted for the purpose of providing parliamentary scrutiny of evidence revealed by the Inquiry; recognises that the former First Minister promised to handover WhatsApp messages to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry; believes that the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the former Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, have failed grieving families by deleting evidence that they knew would be required for the Inquiry; further believes that the current First Minister has misled the public on the detail of the retention of his WhatsApp messages, and recommends that all three be referred to the independent adviser on the Scottish Ministerial Code so that COVID-19-bereaved families and the public can get the answers that they deserve.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Shona Robison to speak to and move amendment S6M-12010.5.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

The Covid-19 pandemic touched every life in Scotland. Throughout it, the Scottish Government’s absolute priority was always to keep the people of this country safe.

The threat that was posed by a novel virus, whose long-term effects we are still working on trying to fully understand, wrought a fear around the world. Through constituents’ experiences or, indeed, our personal experiences—I know that many people in the chamber have been personally affected—we know about the pain of the loss of loved ones during the Covid-19 pandemic. I put on record my condolences to all those affected.

Loss was, of course, made harder in the early days of the pandemic by the necessity of distancing to help to reduce the spread of the virus. That sacrifice compounded the pain of grief, and I will never be fully able to express my gratitude to people for that sacrifice. Those simple acts of following the rules, despite the absolutely human desire for connection and solace, were, for me, the unspoken acts of heroism of the pandemic, as were, of course, the efforts of those who worked on the front line day in, day out to look after us and keep us safe.

Those in Government here and in London, Cardiff and Stormont and across the world were faced with a fast-moving threat that they had to respond to quickly. To do so, those tasked with taking decisions were, of course, supported by civil servants, scientific advisers and clinical advisers. I place on record my thanks to those staff across the whole of the UK, who did their very best in the most challenging of times.

The Scottish Government was clear throughout the pandemic that our response would not be perfect, that mistakes would be made, and that we hoped that lessons would be learned for the future. The necessity that lessons are learned in case we face a new disease in the future is why we commissioned a judge-led inquiry in Scotland—indeed, Scotland is the only part of the UK with a dedicated national inquiry. That necessity is also why we are participating fully with the UK Covid inquiry. We must learn from our shared experiences and improve together. That is exactly what we hope that the two independent, judge-led inquiries will enable us to do.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Does the Deputy First Minister accept that, although everyone wants the inquiries to come up with conclusions that can be used in the future, their work is being hampered because Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and senior civil servants deleted key messages, which are now not available to them?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I do not believe that the work of the inquiries is being hampered. I believe that the inquiries are being robust, they will get to the truth of the matter, and they will put on record their analysis of what they believe has taken place. They will hold politicians throughout these islands to account for the decisions that they made, and we await their reports.

Sadly, today’s debate is partisan in nature. It is taking place before the UK Covid inquiry has even finished taking evidence in Scotland and on the very day that the former First Minister is giving her evidence. I do not believe that the public will think that politicians are best placed to be judge and jury on the adequacy or otherwise of the response to the pandemic that was led by other politicians. The attempts to create some kind of hierarchy of blame, in which others are always put at the top, tell us why the establishment of an independent, judge-led inquiry was so important. That inquiry will scrutinise the decisions that were made by all Governments across the UK without fear or favour and without political interference.

Photo of Brian Whittle Brian Whittle Conservative

The cabinet secretary said that there should be no political interference during the Covid inquiry. Why then, as soon as Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak stood up, did the Scottish Government jump up and down and make as much noise as it possibly could? Do you not reap what you sow in this debate?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Speak through the chair.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

There is no comparison. [

Interruption

.]

Let me turn to the matter of informal messages, such as WhatsApps, which Douglas Ross has focused on.

The Scottish Government’s policy on the retention of information in the official record has been set out on a number of occasions, not least by me. The Scottish Government has reflected on informal messaging through the process. That is why the First Minister has not only apologised for any hurt that was caused by the Scottish Government’s prior handling of the requests from the inquiry, but has announced an externally led review of the use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology. We would, of course, be happy to work on that with any other Government on these islands, as it appears that we all face similar issues.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention on that point?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Not just now.

That fact is demonstrated by the following quote, which was given to the UK inquiry in a witness statement from the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who, of course, provided no messages to the inquiry. He said:

“my expectation would be that if the officials on those groups had considered that any information being communicated by WhatsApp message needed to be preserved to form part of the official ... record, then those officials would have taken steps to ensure that happened.”

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Will the Deputy First Minister take an intervention on that point?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

In a minute.

Of course the material that the Scottish Government has provided to the UK inquiry to date includes emails, messages, submissions and advice to ministers, and papers from key decision-making meetings, including meetings of the Scottish Cabinet. In total, more than 19,000 documents and almost 28,000 messages have been provided.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

If the Scottish Government policy of deleting messages is correct and is so important, why did Kate Forbes as finance secretary not know about it, and why did Humza Yousaf, the current First Minister, not follow it?

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I have been clear in setting out the policy, which was about making sure that any salient points were transcribed to the official record and then other information could be deleted thereafter. That has been the policy, and it is the policy that I set out in detail in the statement to the Parliament.

In the past few weeks, the UK inquiry has touched on a range of issues that will inform how we prepare for the future. The UK inquiry is currently on module 2A, but in time it will move on to other specific aspects of the response to the pandemic, including module 5, on procurement. In fact, the preliminary hearing for module 5 will take place in London next week. Module 5 will be important, because it will consider issues such as the prevalence of fraud in personal protective equipment contracts, including the UK Government’s so-called high-priority lane, among other matters. Separately, there are on-going investigations by the National Crime Agency into suspected criminal offences in relation to UK Government PPE contracts.

I believe that all that adds weight to the calls for the creation of a UK Covid corruption commissioner. The Scottish Government will support efforts of any future UK Government to establish such a role to seek to recoup public funds that were lost to waste and fraud.

In conclusion, our thoughts and sympathies go to everyone who was impacted by the pandemic. I believe that the work of the inquiries is vital to give an independent view and consideration of the handling of the pandemic across the UK, free from political interference. It is right and proper that politicians of all parties should allow the inquiries to get on with their work. We will await their conclusions and then respond as appropriate. I look forward to continuing to provide the inquiries with the material that they need to do their job.

I move amendment S6M-12010.5, to leave out from “expresses” to end and insert:

“welcomes the work of the independent judge-led UK Covid-19 Inquiry and Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry to help learn lessons to ensure that the nation can be best prepared for any future emergent pandemic viruses; recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic saw the loss of life across the country, and again offers its condolences to the families and friends of those who died during the pandemic; notes that 28,000 messages and 19,000 documents have been handed to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry from the Scottish Government; agrees that one area of concern, from which lessons must be learned from the handling of the pandemic, is the size and scale of potential fraud in PPE contracts that were overseen by the UK Government; notes that this will be considered by both the UK Covid-19 Inquiry and the relevant prosecutorial authorities; supports the establishment of a UK ‘COVID corruption commissioner’ to seek to recoup public funds lost to waste and fraud, and believes that all governments should engage fully with the UK Covid-19 Inquiry to enable their actions and decisions during the pandemic to be scrutinised, so that COVID-19-bereaved families and the public get answers to the questions that they have.”

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I advise members that there really is no time in hand, so members will have to stick to their speaking time allocations and accommodate interventions within those.

I call Jackie Baillie to speak to and move amendment S6M-12010.3.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

As we debate the culture of secrecy and cover-up that has been laid bare in the UK Covid-19 inquiry, let us remember that at the heart of this scandal are the people who lost their lives and families who lost their loved ones. It is for them that we search for answers and call out that culture of cover-up at the very heart of the Scottish Government.

In recent weeks, it has been revealed that Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Jason Leitch and other officials too numerous to name have deleted all of their pandemic WhatsApp messages. Nicola Sturgeon described Boris Johnson as a “clown”. Many might agree with her, but no one thinks that of Nicola Sturgeon—she is a clever woman, so what she has done is deliberate. Some have described it as cynical and calculating, but, whether or not we agree with that, it is deliberate.

This week, Jeane Freeman admitted that the SNP Government was not prepared for the pandemic; Kate Forbes has challenged the deletion of evidence by her own colleagues; and Nicola Sturgeon today has confirmed that she misled the nation and put the boot into poor Humza Yousaf. The inquiry was able to scrutinise the WhatsApp messages of UK Government ministers and officials. It will have no such ability to scrutinise the totality of the decision-making process of Nicola Sturgeon and her advisers, thanks to the systematic destruction of evidence on a truly industrial scale. That is utterly shameful and a complete betrayal of trust.

The SNP’s arrogance and sense of impunity have robbed the public of any chance of properly understanding what happened during the pandemic. We had the discharge of untested patients to care homes, the closure of businesses and the shutting down of our schools—and, of course, more than 17,000 Scots died from Covid-19. The loss of each of those lives is a tragedy. However, one surviving WhatsApp exchange reveals that the SNP chief of staff was much more concerned with stoking a “good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK Government, so that she could

“think about something other than sick people”.

The outrage of a comment like that surpasses party politics. That attitude at the very centre of Government is utterly indefensible.

Some 17,000 lives were lost, but the SNP’s priority was constitutional bickering. When asked about that, the former First Minister simply failed to tell the truth. We have no answers to why key and often deadly decisions were made. What we do have is proof positive of the SNP’s skewed priorities.

This is not the first time that the SNP has attempted to conceal the truth from voters. Over the past 17 years, it has instilled a culture of secrecy and cover-up that now permeates Scottish politics. I have been in the Parliament for some time—since the beginning—and I have had a ringside seat for the erosion of accountability and the shroud of secrecy, which was at its worst when Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney were in charge.

The SNP has long berated the Tories at Westminster for the party’s sense of closed government, but it seems that those protests were a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Transparency and openness should be practised by everyone else but not the SNP, when it comes down to it, because it is one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us.

The use of private, un-FOI-able SNP email addresses for official conversations, the mass destruction of discussion chains and the on-going misleading of Parliament cannot continue. That goes beyond political scandal; it is a potential breach of the law.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Does Jackie Baillie agree with the Conservatives on these benches that we should reconvene the COVID-19 Recovery Committee so that we can get some transparency on the decision making around the pandemic?

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Although I have no objection to that, I am unclear how a committee would do any better than Lady Hallett is doing, in fairness. Having been on the Salmond committee—[

Interruption.

]—

I understand the frustration, frankly, of trying to get information—[

Interruption

.]—from the Government, and I reckon that Lady Hallett’s chances are better.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Ms Baillie, please resume your seat for a second. There is far too much background noise. Let us show respect and listen to the person who has the floor.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Thank you. I was coming to why I think that those actions are a potential breach of the law. Officials appear to have deliberately attempted to communicate in ways that would avoid Government decision making being covered by freedom of information requests.

I am sure that attention will now turn to whether there was a breach of the Inquiries Act 2005 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and whether there is a need for a formal police investigation. I would also like the permanent secretary to review the civil service code, as I cannot believe that it is acceptable for the custodian of the document retention policy to tell people how to avoid compliance with it. I cannot believe that it is acceptable that the national clinical director who helped to shape the regulations was telling a minister how to get round them.

Ministers have misled this Parliament and the SNP has misled Scotland. The culture of secrecy and cover-up must end, because the people of Scotland deserve so much better.

I believe that change is possible. Scottish Labour would transform Government and clean up the Scottish Parliament. We would conduct a full review of parliamentary procedures to ensure that Parliament is robust and reflects people’s daily experiences.

We would place a limit on the number of ministerial and Government posts and strengthen the effectiveness of the committee system. We would address problems with accountability and transparency, providing protection for whistleblowers, introducing a right of recall for MSPs and establishing consequences for breaking the ministerial code, which this Government seems to do with impunity.

The people of Scotland can no longer trust the SNP. They have been taken for granted by a party that is out of touch and out of ideas. That is not just about the inquiry but about how this Government operates: a culture of secrecy that goes from the First Minister right down. Enough is enough. It is time for change.

I move amendment S6M-12010.3, to insert at end:

“, and regrets that the Scottish National Party has, for almost 17 years, presided over a culture of secrecy in government.”

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the Liberal Democrats in today’s debate.

Last week, outside the Covid-19 inquiry in Edinburgh, a member of the Covid bereaved families held back tears as she said of the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon:

“I am absolutely ashamed and devastated to hear what she’s doing now. I can’t believe it”.

She was there representing just one of millions of Scots families who hung on the former First Minister’s every word during the daily lunchtime briefings. Those families shaped their worlds around the policies that were spelled out from that Bute house podium, and they saw their lives and the lives of their loved ones curtailed and, in some cases, even foreshortened by those same policies.

However, now, at the time of asking, when it matters most, the former First Minister’s words—words that defined the culture and calculation that underpinned the life-and-death decisions—have been rendered almost wholly irretrievable. It is now clear that a full narrative account of Scotland’s pandemic story will be forever denied to the families at the heart of this. What is worse is that it has been denied to them by an act of wilful concealment by Nicola Sturgeon and those around her.

The most difficult moment for Nicola Sturgeon during her testimony to the inquiry this morning came when, in cross-examination, Jamie Dawson KC asked her about assurances that she had given to Ciaran Jenkins of Channel 4 News that she would not only retain the salient points in her WhatsApp messages and other private messages but submit them wholesale, in their entirety, to the inquiry that she knew was sure to follow. She was forced to make it clear to the inquiry today that she never had any intention of fulfilling that assurance, because, at the time of making it, she was personally deleting every one of the messages.

Nicola Sturgeon apologised to the inquiry and then repeated, almost word for word, the same justification for the complete excision of the messages as was offered to the inquiry just yesterday by her deputy, John Swinney. She said that such messages were of little consequence and that, in any case, since 2007, SNP ministers had been strongly advised by the civil service to delete all private messages once key points had been transferred to the official Government record, so that, should a phone or other device be lost or stolen, sensitive correspondence would not be compromised.

It bears stating that that policy was not codified until November 2021, several months after the Scottish Government had issued a “Do not destroy” notice for such material. That is perhaps why neither Kate Forbes nor Jeane Freeman—ministers of some time served—knew nothing about such a policy.

However, here is where I get stuck. Members will recall that, along with Jackie Baillie, I served on the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints—the Salmond inquiry. If, as we have heard, Nicola Sturgeon only ever used her personal phone, and if we are to believe that, since 2007, she routinely followed advice from civil servants by deleting all her private messages to avoid their being compromised in any way, how is it that she was able to furnish our inquiry with literally pages and pages of WhatsApp messages between her and Alex Salmond, sent in 2017, that were retrieved from her phone? Those messages were of a highly personal and sensitive nature. If her pandemic WhatsApp messages were of such little consequence, why did she delete that set and not the other?

All that the grieving families at the heart of this have to go on now are the remnants of a few pieced-together conversations. That is not what they were promised. Those messages matter because, in what little we have seen, we have caught a glimpse of the culture behind the decisions that we all had to live and, in some cases, die with and under.

Today, and at several other times during the inquiry, we have heard about an exchange between Humza Yousaf and Jason Leitch on 20 May 2021. Jason Leitch said:

“There was some first minister ‘keep it small shenanigans’ as always. She actually wants none of us.”

The former First Minister deftly tried to spin that as her just not wanting a cast of thousands at every meeting, but I think that it speaks to something more—in many ways, a government within a Government. The pandemic response was governed in large part by a shadowy central committee that we now know as “Gold Command”. I say “shadowy” because it was a central committee with no meeting diet and no minutes—a committee about which the then finance secretary, Kate Forbes, knew absolutely nothing for much of her first months in office. However, that committee formed, in large part, the wheelhouse of our pandemic response. It provided options and decisions for ratification by the Cabinet. Over the summer recess months, it was the only group to which the First Minister referred to sense check decisions. Ministers must, at times, have felt like window dressing.

It seems that decisions were taken by a very limited number of individuals, some of whom were not even elected. At that time, the Parliament had transferred an unprecedented level of power to Scottish ministers. I do not remember any section of the coronavirus acts ceding such control to such a committee but, sometimes, even that route was circumvented.

On 18 March 2020, like many other parents, I packed my 11-year-old boy off for what would be his last day in primary 7. From testimony that we received yesterday, it turns out that only John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon took that decision and that they did so without reference to Cabinet discussion. There was no analysis of the impact on the poverty-related attainment gap.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

Will Alex Cole-Hamilton take an intervention on that point?

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

I am closing, unfortunately, but I would have taken the intervention.

There was also no analysis of children’s mental health.

All of us had to live with those decisions. The families of the bereaved had to live with them. They are now looking for answers that they will forever be denied.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate.

Photo of Craig Hoy Craig Hoy Conservative

The SNP Government tells lies. It does so wilfully, willingly and to cover up the truth.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Hoy, I advise you, please, to respect the rules in relation to what language is acceptable in the chamber.

Photo of Craig Hoy Craig Hoy Conservative

The SNP Government has told untruths. It has done so wilfully, willingly and to cover up the truth. To save its own skin, it spends the public’s money going to court to prevent the public from knowing the truth. It is secretive and manipulative. It puts Scottish nationalism ahead of the Scottish people. It stops the public knowing how decisions were taken. It puts a smokescreen around who took those decisions and why they did so. Worse still, in a pandemic, at a time of life and death, deceit and delete became the default options.

The secrets that expose the rotten underbelly of the Scottish National Party are now plain to see because, in the inquiry, it has made a mistake. You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Now we know something that we have long suspected: the SNP Government tried to play the public for fools and used the pandemic for political purposes. It was there for all to see in a WhatsApp message from Liz Lloyd that suggested a constitutional “rammy” to further Nicola Sturgeon’s independence obsession.

However, even with a public inquiry, we still only know the half of it. The words of Donald Rumsfeld are helpful. He said:

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

That is the core of the problem. We simply do not know what we do not know, because Nicola Sturgeon conducted a digital bonfire to get rid of the evidence that would be relevant to a public inquiry that she knew was coming.

However, it was not just Nicola Sturgeon; John Swinney, Jason Leitch and others deleted their Covid WhatsApp messages. They called it plausible deniability. Decisions were deleted and vital information was lost. The answers for grieving families will now remain unknown unknowns for ever.

We found out yesterday that a shady cabal was taking key Covid decisions. Discussing the clandestine and formally unminuted gold command meetings, Kate Forbes told the inquiry:

“I wasn’t invited. I’m not even sure I was aware that they existed”.

The SNP does not just mislead the public; it misleads its own people, too. Take the following words from Nicola Sturgeon, which are contained in a leaked video. She said:

“There are no reasons for people to be concerned about the party’s finances and all of us need to be careful about not suggesting that there is.”

There were “no reasons” to be “concerned” but, weeks later, her husband Peter Murrell made a secret loan to prop up the SNP’s finances. A luxury camper van appeared on the party’s books. A police investigation led to three arrests, including that of Nicola Sturgeon herself. Just this weekend, media reports alleged that signatures on the SNP’s accounts might have been falsified.

The investigation continues.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Hoy, I expect you to stick to the detail of the motion that Douglas Ross has put to the Parliament.

Photo of Craig Hoy Craig Hoy Conservative

I am doing so. It is about transparency.

The investigation continues. The nation’s money is being spent to investigate its very own Government.

That is just the tip of the transparency iceberg. Take the two ferries that are rusting on the banks of the Clyde, in relation to which procurement rules were ignored and key meetings were not minuted. There is more than a whiff of secrecy in the air. Take the on-going secrecy surrounding the Alex Salmond trial. Only last month, the SNP Government was told by the Court of Session that it had no legal basis on which to withhold evidence gathered during the investigation into whether Nicola Sturgeon breached the ministerial code. What a cynical shower of charlatans.

However, their mask has slipped. Nicola Sturgeon stood at the podium each and every day, but, at the selfsame time, she and her cynical cabal secretly sought to use the pandemic to promote independence. Humza Yousaf has questions to answer, too. He admitted something that we have all known: that he is out of his depth and

“will get found out sooner rather than later.”

Well, thanks to the public inquiry, we have finally found them out, but not before real damage was done. An SNP Government that was meant to be of the people and for the people was actually sneering at the people. Such is the intoxicated arrogance of 17 years of SNP misrule. They have run out of excuses, they have run out of credibility and they should be run out of Government.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

During the course of the debate, I have received a message from a friend of mine who lost a family member to Covid. They said:

“I simply wish, as a relative, that all sides would stop trying to play politics”—

[

Interruption

.]

—“and leave the inquiry to get on with its job.”

We are hearing laughter from members on the Tory benches.

My heart goes out to all those who lost loved ones to Covid-19; to those individuals, families and communities who suffered during the pandemic; and to those who are still feeling the impact of what was, in my opinion, the most traumatic event of our lifetimes.

My thanks go to all the public servants, the experts, the community groups and the many others who helped the Scottish Government and their fellow Scots to navigate the difficult path that Covid-19 laid in front of us. Many people went beyond the call of duty to do their best. My hope had been that their work, efforts and help would have featured more in the analysis of what went on during the course of the pandemic.

I am grateful to Lorraine McGrath, who is the chief executive of the Simon Community Scotland and Streetwork, for the work that she, her team and other third sector partners and civil servants carried out to ensure that all rough sleepers were brought off the streets and safely accommodated. I am obliged to folk such as Alan Wilson of SELECT and other construction industry leaders for their co-operation, input and patience during tough times. I am humbled by the commitment of the members of the care home relatives Scotland group, who scrutinised, cajoled and advocated for families who had loved ones in our care homes, even when they themselves were often feeling anguish, loss and despair.

Those heroes need answers from the inquiries. They need to know about the decision making that took place, where we got it right, where we got it wrong and what changes need to be put in place to do better—our best—in the future. The Government has reiterated again and again that it is committed to openness and transparency in decision making. That is why the Scottish Government established the first public inquiry in the UK to examine the response to Covid-19. That was announced in December 2021, ahead of the UK Government commencing the UK-wide public inquiry.

Photo of Jamie Halcro Johnston Jamie Halcro Johnston Conservative

Kevin Stewart was a minister during the Covid pandemic. In the interests of transparency, did he delete his emails and WhatsApp messages? Was he asked to supply them to the inquiry? Would he consider the deletion of emails wrong?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I have deleted no emails. [

Interruption

.]

The inquiries were established to help to identify what could have been done better and to improve Government decision making in a pandemic to save lives and prevent suffering in the future. The Scottish Government has committed to examining and considering closely the recommendations of the Scottish and UK public inquiries.

In my opinion, it is entirely inappropriate to comment on the detail of the evidence that is being considered by the Covid inquiries while the hearings are on-going. It has been the norm in the Parliament in the past that detailed matters pertaining to an inquiry were not debated while the inquiry was sitting. What is happening here does a disservice to those who lost loved ones and are seeking answers. The most important way to recognise the loss and suffering of the people of Scotland and the wider UK population during the pandemic is to let the inquiries do their job, learn from the evidence and implement the recommendations.

I return to what I said at the start of my speech. As we debate the matter today, it is having an impact on people at home. It is time to stop the politicking. It is time to let the inquiries do their job. It is time to ensure that people get the answers that they deserve.

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

While we have this debate today, we must never forget the suffering that many families went through as a result of the pandemic. The Scottish Covid bereaved families’ bravery in sharing their experiences of the pandemic throughout the inquiry are a stark reminder of the many ways in which people in Scotland suffered immense pain, loss and hurt at a time of unprecedented fear and confusion around the globe. I think that most people in Scotland want to understand how and on what basis decisions were made at UK and Scotland levels.

It is disappointing, therefore, that the issue of deleted information and missing messages has become so prominent. It has added to the grief that many families are suffering. I was therefore pleased that the First Minister recognised at least one of those failures as he apologised unreservedly to the inquiry and to those who are mourning the loss of a loved one for what he described as the Scottish Government’s “frankly poor” handling of inquiry requests.

I believe that it is fair to conclude from the revelations of the inquiry so far that there are issues in the Scottish Government when it comes to transparency and scrutiny. Bearing in mind the fact that the UK inquiry is expected to take evidence into the summer of 2026, a legitimate question for the Parliament is whether any action should be taken to examine any of the issues around the decisions that were taken and recorded across Government. It is fair to ask whether we need to review data retention policies and our approach to freedom of information, and to insist—as the people of this country insist—on full transparency from our political representatives and Governments.

I turn to the motion from the Tories and the idea of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee being reconstituted. I agree with Jackie Baillie that we are not going to run some kind of an inquiry here, but there is merit in that idea, so I hope that I will have the time to go on and explain my thinking on that.

There are issues coming up, and this is not about looking back and making judgments. It is about looking forward and asking, if there was bad practice, what we, as a Parliament, will do to look at it. I believe that there is merit in what is being suggested. I hope that, away from the chamber, parties get together to discuss some of the issues and look at how we can address them.

The amendment that will be passed today, because the Government parties have the numbers,

“notes that 28,000 messages and 19,000 documents have been handed to the UK Covid inquiry.”

However—I say this sincerely—failing to note that texts or whatever are missing will cause more grief for the people out there.

I do not know whether Shona Robison has watched any of the television interviews with bereaved families that have been broadcast over the past few weeks. Many of those families are heartbroken and feel let down. Until the inquiry reports, we will not know the detail of how it has dealt with the issue of the missing WhatsApp messages and so on, but any motion or amendment that members agree to in this Parliament should at least acknowledge that that was an issue. The First Minister has apologised. I sincerely believe that the inclusion of such an acknowledgement would have made the Government’s amendment a better one.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Does Alex Rowley really think that there is vital information in the WhatsApp messages, or just chitchat and gossip?

Photo of Alex Rowley Alex Rowley Labour

That is the problem: I do not know, nor do others. That is why we need at least to acknowledge that that has been an issue.

I want to refer to another part of the amendment that will be agreed to today. At the Labour Party conference, Rachel Reeves announced that the next Labour Government would create a powerful Covid corruption commissioner. She said that, initially, the commissioner would aim to recover at least £2.6 billion of lost public funds. It is estimated that, through fraud, £7.2 billion was lost from Covid support schemes, including from business loans, grants, furlough and the “Eat out to help out” scheme. Labour is—quite rightly—absolutely committed to that happening at UK level.

I will touch briefly on other issues. Were we prepared for Covid? It is clear that we were not—it is clear that the whole UK was not prepared. Experts continually told the COVID-19 Recovery Committee that the countries that had well-funded, well-resourced and well-functioning health services were the best prepared for any pandemic. The other day, I read that the Covid pandemic was a one-in-100-year event, but many of the experts also warned that, given climate change and other changes that are taking place around the world, the risk is growing.

It has been proposed that we should consider having a committee that could look at whether we are prepared for a similar event, so that we can learn the lessons from the pandemic, rather than simply waiting for the inquiry report to come out.

I am out of time, so I will finish there.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Can you hear me now, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Yes,

I can hear you. You have up to six minutes, Mr Doris.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

Thank you.

From 2020 through to 2021, Scotland, along with other nations across the world, sought to grapple with an unprecedented—certainly, in modern times—global pandemic. My parents passed away a few years earlier, in 2015 and 2016. I cannot comprehend how I would have felt if I had had, when visiting my mum, to look at her through a window, or if I had not been able to see my dad again because of Covid-19 infection control or, indeed, if I had lost either of them in a care home as a consequence of Covid-19.

I lost one of my best friends during Covid-19, although not through Covid, and I attended a graveyard service. At that time, 20 people were allowed to attend such services. I was not sure whether I made the number of people attending 21, so I stood back, apart from the graveside service. However, once the service had ended, I approached David’s mum and dad to offer my condolences. I did not hug them, but I wanted to.

Families who were separated from loved ones due to Covid-19, many of whom were never to see those loved ones again, and who were often unable to attend funerals and pay their last respects, want to ensure that there is scrutiny of all the Governments that made Covid-related decisions, and that lessons are learned. That is surely what the Scottish and UK public inquiries are seeking to do.

My wife worked as a nurse in an NHS critical care ward right through Covid-19. I am still not sure what impact that had on my wife, beyond the awful marks that the fitted masks made on her face, which were visible when she returned home from work every night. More generally, Covid-19 will have taken its toll. I am not sure that I will ever know how big a toll it has taken.

I want to make sure that both public inquiries fully interrogate the preparedness of Scotland’s and the rest of the UK’s NHS systems in relation to our care homes and other key areas, as well as how our front-line staff were supported.

I was lucky during Covid-19. My salary was secure, I did not lose a loved one directly to Covid, and I had living space and a garden for my kids to run about in. People who were staying in overcrowded properties without access to living space or gardens, asylum seekers who were pushed by the Home Office out of tenancies and into hotels, and people who lost businesses or suffered financial hardship will all wish to see the inquiries analyse the decisions that were taken by all Governments.

As an MSP at that time—I know that colleagues across all parties will recognise this—my job was to do my best to seek and secure robust and reliable information and guidance for constituents, community groups and local businesses. My office team were outstanding in their efforts—I put that on the record—but the situation was challenging. People needed clarity and certainty, and they wanted it in real time in their interests and in the interests of their loved ones, their livelihoods and their mental wellbeing, often as much as their physical wellbeing.

The clarity, advice and certainty had to be provided by ministers, cabinet secretaries, civil servants, special advisers, clinical advisers and a whirl of other people who were at the heart of decision making, often at breakneck speed. Did they get everything right? Of course not. Did they, by and large, work diligently, compassionately, professionally and strenuously over many months, acting in what they believed were the best interests of all of us? I believe so.

Some people might say that I would say that, because I am a back-bench MSP of the Scottish Government party. I suspect there are Conservative MPs in England saying that the inquiry there should be allowed to do its work, and, indeed, that there are Labour members of the Senedd in Wales saying something similar about the actions and behaviours of the Welsh Government. I get it.

That kind of gets to the nub of the Conservative motion. Many people will see the motion for what it is—dripping with opportunism and hypocrisy. The public inquiries will scrutinise without fear or favour and without politicisation. They will draw conclusions based on all the evidence that they hear, and not on the politicised, partial and opportunistic comments of Douglas Ross or even Jackie Baillie. The inquiries will not cherry pick, take parts of evidence out of context or rush to judge, and they will not reach findings based on trying to grab media headlines for political expediency. In other words, they will not act like the Conservative Party.

Douglas Ross mentioned a WhatsApp message regarding the SNP causing a “political rammy” during Covid-19. My interpretation of that exchange is that it revolved around the need for Scotland to secure furlough payments that otherwise would have been denied to our businesses and our workforce—financial support that the UK Government could deny and that the Scottish Government did not have the power to deliver. That is my opinion, and the Conservatives and Labour are likely to disagree with that. The difference is that I wish to let the Covid-19 inquiries always look at the evidence and not rush to judge for raw political advantage.

I have not focused on the many shortcomings and failings of Boris Johnson and the Tories during Covid-19. The judge-led inquiries will no doubt have something to say about that. Instead, I have focused on the work of the inquiries and the hope that we can get beyond the raw politics and let the inquiries do their work.

Photo of Pam Gosal Pam Gosal Conservative

Summarising 17 years of deceit and cover-up in no more than five minutes is near impossible but, thanks to the motion that was lodged by the Scottish Conservatives, we can begin dissecting the shocking revelations from the UK Covid inquiry in Scotland so far.

The pandemic was a test of leadership. Political leaders were faced with tough choices, and I am that sure we can all sympathise with that. Decisions were made that affected lives, livelihoods, education and resilience. We can only trust that, when the storm passes, political leaders can give an account of why decisions were made. However, an SNP Government that is addicted to secrecy has made that a near-impossible task.

Now, brave families have questions to which they may never get the answers. Just today, we found out that Nicola Sturgeon was economical with the truth when she told the media in 2021 that no evidence would be off limits. We now know that she had already destroyed it, although, amazingly, she still had her WhatsApp exchanges with her one-time best buddy, Alex Salmond.

John Swinney deleted his messages with Nicola Sturgeon, and former chief of staff Liz Lloyd did the same. There was a clear and concerted effort by key decision makers to hide crucial messages.

We now know that vital gold command meetings were kept secret from some of the most senior ministers at that time, including Kate Forbes. Much to no one’s surprise, ministers claim that they have no minutes for those meetings. It is inconceivable that civil servants did not take notes at those meetings—where are those notes?

Instead, the bereaved will have to put their faith in Nicola Sturgeon’s selective memory and politically driven decision making. Sadly, the evidence that remains shows that decisions made by Nicola Sturgeon and her closest colleagues were most likely drawn up on the back of a fag packet. It was not just poor decision making—it was their motivation.

The public will ask, “Surely the Scottish Government would not have allowed grievance to drive decision making while lives and livelihoods were on the line?” However, that is indeed what happened. Nicola Sturgeon’s chief adviser wanted to create a

“good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK Government and to call for things that it could not do. At this point, it is reasonable to conclude that the Scottish Government’s obsession with independence borders on dangerous and clouds its judgment.

It came as no surprise to hear that Humza Yousaf had been “winging it” in his time as health secretary—that much was obvious. Much more surprising was that, despite the continued assertion of moral superiority, Humza Yousaf was all too happy to take advice from Jason Leitch, the chief clinical adviser, on how to bend the rules that they were imposing on everybody else.

It was enlightening to see what a laugh SNP ministers had at the expense of the public, joking about how they would delete messages and subvert freedom of information requests. It does not surprise me that the SNP derives so much pleasure from avoiding public scrutiny. After all, it has treated the public and the Parliament with utter contempt. All this from the self-proclaimed most transparent party in Scotland—aye, right. If that were the case, it would commit to reconvening the COVID-19 Recovery Committee so that the Parliament could scrutinise the revelations, and it would refer itself to an independent investigation.

The UK Covid inquiry has laid bare the culture of secrecy within the SNP Scottish Government—it has rotted from the top down. That culture runs through ministers past and present. It has also confirmed what everyone could already see—that, even during the global pandemic, the SNP Scottish Government still tried to manufacture as much conflict and political grievance as possible. It aimed for independence at any cost, even when lives were on the line.

The SNP played a blinder. It had many people fooled, but grieving families want justice, and they want answers—they are nobody’s fool.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I get the feeling that we have been here before. We are again concentrating on WhatsApp messages, chit-chat and gossip and who would use such sweary words about whom. I thought that the focus of the public inquiry would be on the big decisions that were made or not made.

Photo of Michael Marra Michael Marra Labour

I recognise from the evidence that has been heard by the Covid inquiry that there are a substantial number of messages between the former First Minister and an adviser in which key decisions are discussed. That is not chit-chat or gossip—it is the business of Government making decisions.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Very little has come out of the public inquiries so far from the WhatsApp messages that were sent either in London or in Scotland. There is very little new, actual, solid information.

The kind of questions that I thought that the inquiries would consider were whether lockdown started at the right time, whether we needed more test capacity, even if it diverted resources away from day-to-day medical care, whether schools were closed at the right times and whether school exams were handled properly. Perhaps those are the questions that the inquiry is considering, but to listen to some of the media reports and to see the focus of the Opposition, it seems to be all about playing politics and scoring points.

It makes you wonder about the purpose of public inquiries. Some people genuinely want to know the truth, but the reality is that most of the decisions that are made and the reasons for them have been in the public domain all along. Perhaps we should also remember that most of the decisions that were made had broad agreement across the parties represented in the chamber and on the various Covid committees, of which I was a member much of the time.

It seems to me that most of us used WhatsApp—and many still do—as a way of chatting with friends and colleagues when we are not in the same room. We use it for throwing ideas around, brainstorming or whatever. Most of us did not expect and do not expect to see our WhatsApp messages published. The Conservative motion talks about ministers

“deleting evidence that they knew would be required for the Inquiry”, but I would suggest, first, that there has been very little new evidence from WhatsApp or from anywhere else—and we all knew that Boris Johnson was an effing clown without Nicola Sturgeon telling us.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Secondly, I remain unconvinced that the inquiry needs the WhatsApp messages or that they add very much. Thirdly, I am not sure that many of us think that our WhatsApp messages are likely to be required for any inquiry.

I just wonder how far we want to take this. I note that, in their amendment, the Lib Dems want more minutes of meetings, but why stop at minutes? Why not make a recording and publish every single conversation?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

I am sorry, but I have already given way.

Where would that take us, to publish every conversation that could potentially and eventually lead to a decision? Where do we draw the line? Labour says that there is a culture of secrecy, but how much transparency do Labour members want? Do they want Anas Sarwar’s and Humza Yousaf’s every conversation to be taped and published?

There is also the suggestion that a Covid committee should be reconstituted, and I just wonder what the purpose of that would be. Most decisions that were made in Scotland around Covid were announced by the Scottish Government; they were then examined in detail by the Covid committee, which used expert advisers and a variety of witnesses, and the proposals were then approved by the Parliament. The Parliament even rejected some ideas, such as juryless trials—and that is not to mention media scrutiny at the time.

We are now having not one but two public inquiries, going over those same decisions again, and it seems to me that relatively little real new information has been coming to light in recent days. Yes, we knew that Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon and Jeane Freeman were politicians and included political angles in their decision making. That is hardly a huge revelation. Apparently, Michael Gove urged colleagues to protect and strengthen the union as a key aim during the pandemic. That is part of his job description, after all—he was doing what it says on the tin. Let us not have fake shock and surprise that politicians are politicians.

Now the Tories want a resurrected Covid committee to go over the same decisions another time: first, those of the Government and the experts; secondly, those of the Covid committees at the time; thirdly, those of the media; fourthly, those of the UK inquiry; and fifthly, those of the Scottish inquiry. Why do we want to look at the same decisions again and again? What is the Tory motive? Perhaps it is to dig out some more juicy gossip, or to see whether anyone else used bad language?

Going back to the purpose of public inquiries, what are we hoping for? As I have said, I think that some people are genuinely looking for more information and explanations. Some families sadly lost loved ones during Covid, and they want to know whether that could have been avoided. I myself lost my mother during the pandemic. She was living in a care home, and visiting was severely restricted. Only 20 people were allowed at her funeral. It was far from ideal, but I believe that it was handled correctly. On the whole, I think that we know why such restrictions were in place. Reasons were given at the time, and I think that most of us accepted the logic and the thinking at that time.

Now, the inquiries are again examining decisions that were made. It is all very easy to look back now and say that different decisions could and should have been made. Some would say that we all took the pandemic too seriously, that we should have been more relaxed about it, and that we should have had fewer restrictions. Let us remember what we were seeing at the time, however: television pictures of Italian hospitals overflowing and of the Chinese building new hospitals in a few weeks. The general feeling at the time was that all Governments, including the Scottish Government, had a duty to lead, a duty to act and a duty to act quickly. People wanted action from the Scottish Government, and they got action from the Scottish Government.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Conservative

Benjamin Franklin once said:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

That is exactly what we did in March 2020. The events that ensued led to the loss of more than 18,000 of our fellow Scots and have left physical and mental scars on anyone who survived them. It is against that backdrop that I make my comments.

Back then, in this very chamber, I uttered the following words:

“I believe that ministers are working earnestly to tackle this awful virus ... However, people rightly expect transparency about the rationale ... behind those decisions, because of the impact that they have on their lives.”—[

Official Report

, 27 October 2020; c 97.]

That makes the revelations of the UK Covid inquiry all the more galling—not to me, but to the families of the bereaved. Any early consensus that existed between political parties or Governments did not last long, because it did not take long for political opportunism to creep in.

Let us not forget that, when any suggestion of game playing was made during the pandemic, it was met with incredulous denial—“How dare you suggest that? Of course I am keeping all my notes; of course I will hand them all over.” The current furore about WhatsApp messages, which are the source of so much anger out there, is therefore well justified.

Let us start with the basics. Why would people delete messages in the first place? Is it because their content might be embarrassing or because they might incriminate people in the future? If it truly was official Scottish Government policy for messages to be habitually deleted—a defence that we have heard ad nauseam all week from ministers—why did some ministers follow it to the letter and others not at all? Why was it Government policy for messages to be deleted in the first place?

Why would the Government not want to keep a record of the pandemic? That is not just about messages; minutes of meetings were also not taken. The so-called gold command meetings that we have heard so much about were so gold that the finance secretary did not even know that they existed, and she was signing the cheques.

The Cabinet was a talking shop, not a decision-making body. It is clear from the evidence that we have heard that challenging Nicola Sturgeon was met with a proverbial bullet. Let us think about that. If gold command did not decide anything and the Cabinet did not vote on anything, how can anyone trust the entire decision-making process?

Every one of us who passed the laws involved was told that robust scientific evidence was driving the decisions. “Trust us,” advisers said, and we did. However, it turns out that the clinical advisers were “winging it” too. It is all there in black and white—this “good old-fashioned rammy” was conjured up by advisers. We heard the endless UK-versus-us rhetoric and the holier-than-thou charade on our TV sets every single day, but what about the resulting damage to the economy, mental health, hospitality, education and our young people?

That is why all of this is so important. It is not about who called whom a clown—to be frank, I could not care less. I sat in this Parliament day in and day out during the darkest days of Covid, including July 2020, when, as emails from John Swinney that the inquiry has just released show, John Swinney’s office was more worried about Scotland’s place in the European Union than about the 4,000 people who had already died of Covid. It is shameful that the trust that I and every MSP, and the public, gave the Government has been shredded.

Why is that? Every Government minister and adviser knew fine well that there would be a full inquiry into their actions, so what on earth were they thinking? They knew that they would be asked for records of conversations, no matter how trivial they seemed at the time. However, those conversations were deleted—it is hard to tell whether that was done wilfully or stupidly, or perhaps both apply. Key evidence was destroyed; that was not unfortunate or accidental but purposeful.

In his forensic questioning this week, Jamie Dawson KC has exposed something that we in the bubble all knew about—that the stench of cover-up was rife in the civil service and in the Government. It was not just idle chit-chat and gossip—if that were the case, why were Government WhatsApp groups advising people to clear their chat because everything was “FOI able”? That will be a gut punch to anybody who lost a loved one.

We cannot separate the menial from the meaningful if the messages do not exist. Nicola Sturgeon has reinvented the definition of “delete” by saying that she did not retain the messages. The dictionary definition of “delete” is to remove or obliterate. The only thing that has been obliterated this week is her reputation.

We all knew that this day would come. Reckoning is never comfortable and it is never easy, but the public sacrificed so much for their liberty and safety. Given what we now know about the Government, how many people would do that again?

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

I have to say that, when I read the Tory motion and then listened to Douglas Ross’s opening remarks, it saddened and sickened me to see how the tone of our politics in Scotland has been lowered.

The on-going UK Covid inquiry and the Scottish inquiry that is to come will give not just the grieving families but the whole country knowledge of what was done correctly and what we need to learn for a future pandemic, which will inevitably happen. That knowledge will enable us to have the means to be better prepared and to ensure that we are suitably funded, and will give us a better understanding of what worked well and how things could be improved. It means that, in the future, we can have better science, data and modelling, we can use that data appropriately and we can have a workforce and a system that are fit to cope.

To do that, we must let the inquiries look at the substance of the decisions that were made, with the information that was available to ministers at that point. In other words, we should avoid the snapshot headlines that are designed to misinform, and we should allow the inquiries to do their job and give us the substantive information that we need to be better prepared for the next time.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

No—I will not.

During my time on the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, I was pleased to hear that a new procurement system had been, or was being, implemented so that PPE supplies and contracts would be manufactured and fulfilled on a rolling just-in-time model, in order to ensure availability and long-term resilience. In addition, Scottish domestic contractors were being promoted to fulfil those needs and ensure that there was resilience in the system. That is a welcome adaptation, and it takes learning from what was clearly a mistake during the pandemic.

We found out that, while Scotland is a world leader in data collection, it is not as good at using that data to best effect, so we need to do that better. Through our committee’s inquiry, we learned about the harms that people have suffered as a result of long Covid, which are real and difficult for sufferers and families alike. I would very much like to see where the Government is on the recommendations that we made in our report, so that long Covid patients and their families can see some light at the end of what has, for them, been a very long, dark tunnel.

That leads me to my next point, which concerns societal reactions to any future pandemic or even to a more dangerous variant of what is circulating—we should not forget that the virus is very much still with us. Ultimately, it was societal co-operation that ensured that we got through the pandemic as well as we could have hoped, and that co-operation will be vital again to deal with a pandemic in the future, whether it is 10, 50 or 100 years down the line. Those lessons have to be our guiding star.

I add my name to those of everyone else who has expressed condolences, and the sadness that I have no doubt that we all feel, for the bereaved families who lost loved ones to the virus and for those who suffered other losses and had the usual grieving process curtailed by the risk of the virus spreading. My mum died in May 2020, and her funeral was nothing more than putting her coffin in the ground, with the priest saying a few words that could barely be heard because of social distancing, and then going home.

Human interactions such as hugs, tears and reminiscing—all the things that we, as humans, do to help us to grieve—were forbidden, and I have no doubt that there will be long-lasting issues for many people who still suffer as a result of the inability to grieve properly. My heart goes out to each and every one of them.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

No—I will not.

Over the weekend, I saw Murdo Fraser talking about the loss of his parents; I extend my thoughts to him, as well as to everyone else who has suffered. I am sure that every member in the chamber will agree—after all, we are all human, regardless of the job that we do, and we have all suffered from the effects and after-effects of one of nature’s most deadly weapons.

For all those reasons, the Tory party motion saddened me. It has been brought to the chamber to try to pre-empt the findings of a set of formal inquiries that are costing millions of pounds and are being undertaken diligently and with purpose to ensure that we will be better prepared for the next time. We must let those inquiries run their full course and do their work, so that we all get the benefit of the lessons that come from them.

Yesterday, we heard Opposition member after Opposition member decrying a Scottish Government motion on the opportunities to improve the lot of all our people through our relationship with the EU. Those members said that that was a waste of money and of parliamentary time, and yet they have all piled into today’s debate to try to make capital out of a horrendous situation that we had, collectively, to deal with.

By and large, those who were in Parliament at the time of the pandemic agreed with the action that was taken, and yet Conservative members in particular, who talk constantly about both of Scotland’s Governments, have refused to challenge the partying, PPE-fraud-ridden and scandal-ridden Government of their Westminster party. In the context of this debate, that hypocrisy saddens, rather than angers, me.

Some of the debates that we had at the time of the pandemic really required responses. There were conversations in the chamber on bed capacity in hospitals; everyone agreed that beds needed to be released to deal with the pandemic. I ask all members who were in the chamber at that time what they would have done differently with the information that they had. They supported the Government in trying to clear the beds in fear of the coming pandemic. Those points are crucial.

We need to consider what we did, whether we had the right information and how we used the data that we are so good at collecting. We can do all that now with 20:20 hindsight, but we certainly could not do that at the height of the pandemic. If we allow the inquiries to do their jobs, perhaps we will get the answers to ensure that the societal trust that I have spoken about, which our then First Minister gained through her monumental efforts and those of her Cabinet, can be justified and repeated if we ever need to face another pandemic in our lifetime.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

In early 2020, I wrote an article about a constituent who had done everything right—she had isolated with her husband and followed all the other rules religiously—but whose husband had contracted Covid, was struggling to breathe and was sent by ambulance to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital. He was there for 20 days. Each afternoon, she had to wait by the phone for a call to learn of his progress. She was not allowed to visit, she was not offered a Zoom call or any other way of seeing her husband, and she could not phone in—understandably, such were the pressures on the nursing staff. One day, while she was sitting alone in her home, she received a call to say that her husband had died from Covid.

Imagine the trauma of losing your husband of 20 years when you had no idea that he was dying until you got the call. There was no one present due to the restrictions, no follow up and no formal bereavement counselling until I got involved as her MSP. I vowed then, as I do now, to seek answers for people such as her. She will not get a specific answer, but she is entitled to bigger answers about the approach that was taken. I am aware that other hospitals, including some in England—although I am not clear why it was the case—allowed some families who were wearing PPE to visit their family members.

It is only by examining the circumstances of the Covid period, the decisions that we took, the principles that we applied, who took those decisions and how they were recorded that we will have any chance of understanding the lessons that we need to learn from that horrible period. The question of why the chief scientist said in evidence that the Government ignored its own advice, particularly in relation to schools, has to be answered. Furthermore, doctors made it clear to me that there was a policy during Covid of not referring those who were over the age of 65 to hospitals, but we still need to get answers on that from ministers. I felt that, when questioned, they were evasive, and they were also unable to answer a critical question that goes to the very heart of how human rights were applied during the Covid period: who took the decision on the “do not resuscitate” policy? We all desperately need answers to those questions. That is why we require to examine how decisions were made and how they were recorded.

I ask this question of Bob Doris, if he is still listening: who would be in the shoes of the former First Minister or Jason Leitch, the clinical director? I felt for them all during that period, because they had weighty decisions to make. However, they were the people who were in charge, making life-and-death decisions, and we must be able to examine every decision that they made, such as those about the size of weddings and funerals, health service arrangements and other issues that I have touched on, which resulted in serious consequences. They must be accountable, which means that they must be prepared to provide all the relevant evidence. Thousands of families across Scotland grieved the loss of a loved one, and people dealt with mental health issues but were denied treatment. It is really important to look back.

It seems that the people who were at the top—the First Minister, Government ministers and officials—deliberately and purposely deleted vital information, which it looks as though we will never see. What concerns me is that the way that that was done would seem not to have been just random, but to have been quite organised. For me, a central question for Government is, where did the policy on deleting messages come from? Why did some officials delete all their messages while some kept all their messages and others deleted some of their messages? Why is this such a mess? Why was there no policy?

I have always understood that a role of the civil service is to listen in to Government ministerial meetings in order to protect Government ministers and the Administration. All notion of that seems to have completely gone. How can we judge the handling of all decisions if we are not to be provided with that information? The WhatsApp deletion policy and the relaying of advice to ministers by the back door and by private accounts are not in the spirit of the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011, the spirit of freedom of information or the spirit of what we were told back in 2020. There must be proper record keeping. I would have thought that there would have been at least one Cabinet discussion about the policy.

I am sorry, but who deletes their messages at bedtime? If someone is doing that, they are doing it for a reason. People are not stupid. It does not sound credible. The national clinical director and ministers—

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I am sorry, but I do not have time. I would have loved to bring in the member on this issue.

I am not out to specifically criticise anyone. I know that people had a heavy burden, but come on—really? Give us some evidence that we can believe and give us some answers that sound credible, because the accusation that the deletion of information was done on an industrial scale is a worry for this Parliament and for the law. What we have heard about gatekeeping in relation to freedom of information clearly exposes that that policy is not worth the paper that it is written on. Work must be done on that at a future date.

The culture of cover-up was present long before Covid-19—we saw it in relation to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital scandal, the ferries fiasco and the steel scandal—and it led the way to a lack of transparency during the most important period of Scotland’s modern times. We must do better than that. I call on everyone to co-operate with the inquiry and give the public the answers that they deserve.

Photo of Stephanie Callaghan Stephanie Callaghan Scottish National Party

I speak in support of the Scottish Government’s amendment as we consider the decision-making process and outcomes of the pandemic response in our nation.

As we know, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the most serious public health crisis of our time, affecting millions of lives and livelihoods across the world. In Scotland, we have faced many challenges and difficulties, but we have also shown resilience, solidarity and compassion in the face of adversity. Individuals in communities across Scotland stepped up to look after each other, including our children. Although our young people missed some school lessons, they learned some really big life lessons about the things that really matter—looking after family, friends, neighbours and strangers, too. I trust that the comfort of human touch and the value of hugging each other tight will never be lost to them.

The Scottish Government was guided by the best available scientific evidence and advice at that time, without the benefit of hindsight, and it acted swiftly and decisively to protect the health and wellbeing of Scotland’s people.

Scotland pursued a zero Covid strategy in 2020, aiming to eliminate the virus entirely, and lifted lockdown rules more gradually than the rest of the UK, following a cautious and careful approach. Testing capacity was expanded to ensure that everyone with symptoms of a respiratory infection, including those of Covid-19, could access a test. A successful vaccination programme was rolled out, through which the vaccine was offered to every eligible person and boosters were provided to all who needed them.

The inquiry will rightly examine the early challenges on guidance, personal protective equipment and care home admissions, but, as Jeane Freeman told the inquiry,

“you cannot magic out of thin air appropriate buildings, appropriate kit and skilled individuals.”

The learning that flows from the current inquiry will support future Governments to improve planning and offer better protection to us all.

Throughout the pandemic, our First Minister kept the public well informed, communicating clearly and transparently about the rules and restrictions, the risks and benefits and the rationale and evidence behind decision making. Various channels and platforms were used, such as daily briefings, social media, websites, leaflets and posters, to reach out to different audiences and communities. It took its toll—the public could see that in the First Minister’s face—but it was absolutely necessary. The Scottish Government is rightly taking the time to listen to the views and feedback of the public through a range of consultations and surveys.

Recognising that the pandemic is a global challenge that requires a co-ordinated and co-operative response has also been key. Hence, there is a need to work closely and collaboratively with other UK nations, as well as international partners, to share information, resources and best practices. However, the different circumstances and needs of each nation must also be respected. It is right for Scotland’s Government to exercise devolved powers and responsibilities and to tailor responses to specific situations in Scotland. Sadly, those on the Tory benches disagree, but that is to be expected.

We cannot be complacent or self-congratulatory. The Scottish Government acknowledges that there were mistakes and shortcomings, and it is committed to learning from them and improving. It welcomes the UK Covid inquiry to Scotland, because conducting a thorough and independent investigation into the pandemic response across our nations is really important. The Scottish Government must continue to co-operate fully and openly with the inquiry, providing evidence and documents and answering questions from the inquiry panel.

Today’s debate feels really premature. As we have heard, the independence of the inquiry is central, and politicians attempting to pre-empt the conclusions is really unhelpful.

Photo of Stephanie Callaghan Stephanie Callaghan Scottish National Party

No, I will not.

We should let the inquiry get on with its work, as we have heard. We should act accordingly when the recommendations are released and be prepared to accept any criticisms and suggestions for improvement. I trust that the inquiry will also recognise the efforts and achievements of the Scottish Government and the people of Scotland in tackling the pandemic and that it will identify strengths as well as weaknesses and draw together future lessons and implications.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not over yet. We are still living with the virus, and we still face uncertainties and challenges ahead. We need to remain vigilant and adaptable and must continue to follow the public health guidance and advice. We need to support each other and look after ourselves, showing kindness and compassion to those who have been affected by the pandemic, because grieving families are at the absolute heart of this and it has affected all of us.

The Scottish Government must continue to do everything in its power to protect the health and lives of people in Scotland and to support the recovery and renewal of our society and economy, and it must remain transparent and accountable to the public and strive to engage and involve people in the decision-making process. Co-operation and collaboration with other UK nations and the international community will also remain key as we continue to contribute to the global fight against the pandemic. Let us focus where we should be focusing.

Photo of Roz McCall Roz McCall Conservative

Everyone I have spoken to recently is dismayed about the Covid-19 inquiry revelations. I have been told many stories of how decisions made in this place have had a detrimental effect on the health of someone—either themselves or someone they love.

One lady, a former nurse who worked through the pandemic, is now living with long Covid. She has difficulty breathing, which makes her tired. That means that she has limited time and that her energy is only sufficient to do what most people would consider basic tasks. Even walking to the local shop can be a challenge. Not only has her health been negatively impacted but she has been dismissed from the nursing job that she loves. She freely admits that there was nothing else that could be done as she could simply no longer do the job. She now spends most of her time in her house, for fear that she will run out of energy at the wrong time. She has lost her health, her livelihood and her freedom. She has been failed.

Another person has shared with me the downward trajectory of her grandmother, an elderly lady living in a care home who could not understand why her loving family, who regularly visited her, simply stopped coming. The effects of the lack of that simple, familiar human contact were disturbing. An otherwise healthy but elderly lady became fragile and withdrawn, as her feelings of rejection manifested themselves in depression. No number of visits after lockdown eased repaired the damage to that lady’s mental health. What should have been a resting and peaceful last few years became a disturbing descent into frailty and distress. She was failed.

I have previously spoken in the chamber about my experiences. Due to the changes to healthcare provision that came about as a direct consequence of the Covid-19 decisions, cancer treatment provisions for some simply stopped overnight. I knew that, as a global pandemic had hit our nation, everyone would have to make certain sacrifices and, as a family, we knew that that meant that a change in healthcare priorities was essential. Considering the type of cancer and how slim the chances were of extending any quality of life, rather than duration of life, we accepted the changes as graciously as anyone could, knowing that death was certain and imminent. We were failed.

We were all failed. To find out that decisions that imposed sacrifices on the people of Scotland were made, even in part, for political gain—even though it was presumed that that was the case—belittles the trust and faith that this country put in the SNP Government. For Liz Lloyd, the former First Minister’s chief of staff, to state:

“My reason for setting a timeline for them to answer us on furlough is purely political—especially as we expect the answer to be no, it looks awful for them”, and then to follow that up with:

“Think I just want a good old-fashioned rammy so can think about something other than sick people”, is absolutely disgusting.

For former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to suggest that professor of public health Devi Sridhar should message privately about proposals on managing the next steps of the pandemic, and then say:

“Don’t worry about protocol ... You can send it to me privately”, before divulging a private SNP email address, is, frankly, dishonourable.

For Nicola Sturgeon to advise that nothing would be off-limits for the public Covid inquiry when she said:

“I think 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 would not have the ability”, and then to have Ken Thomson, the then director general for strategy and external affairs, write that

“plausible deniability are my middle names”, and to continually refer to messages as being “FOI-able”, highlights just how concerning the contents of the messages were to decision makers.

It was known that deleting messages would hide information that would be available under FOI, and people were blatantly advised to do so. That can only lead us to ask the following questions: what was in the deleted messages; why were the former First Minister’s assurances not met in full, as they should have been; and how on earth can the general public ever believe this Government again?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The last speaker in the open debate will be Stuart McMillan, who is joining us remotely.

Photo of Stuart McMillan Stuart McMillan Scottish National Party

I have listened to the full debate so far, and there have been some excellent contributions, including from Alex Rowley and Bob Doris.

The line in the Tory motion that calls for

“the Parliament’s COVID-19 Recovery Committee to be reconstituted for the purpose of providing parliamentary scrutiny of evidence revealed by the Inquiry” says more about partisan politics than about the substance of the debate. The reality—for anyone who cares about reality—is that this debate is just an attempt by the Conservatives to distract from the complete chaos that is engulfing their party in Westminster.

Every constituent and every member of this Parliament has a story to tell with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. The public are engaging with the UK Covid-19 inquiry, and they will make up their own minds as more information comes to light and when the final report is published. As we know, there is also the Scottish inquiry. I welcome the fact that, in December 2021, the Scottish Government established the first public inquiry in the UK to examine the response to Covid-19, ahead of the UK Government commencing the UK-wide public inquiry.

The inquiries will help to identify what could have been done better and to improve Government decision making in a pandemic in order to save lives and prevent suffering in the future. As we have also heard today, the Scottish Government will examine and consider closely the recommendations that the Scottish and UK public inquiries make. However, I am sure that we can all unite in our hope that we never have to face such a pandemic again in our lifetimes.

Ultimately, the Covid inquiries are performing an important job, so for the Tories to attempt to do the inquiry’s job does a disservice to those who lost loved ones and those who want answers. It appears to me and, I know, to others that the Tories’ attempts almost to be judge, jury and executioner on one Government when they consistently remind us that Scotland has two Governments, says it all about their naked politicking on such an important issue.

I am firmly of the belief that the current and future inquiries need to undertake their roles independent of political interference. I also welcome the First Minister’s comments last week that he has commissioned an externally led review of the Scottish Government’s use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology.

As one of the members who served on the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints in the previous parliamentary session—it has been touched upon already in the debate—I recognise the political game that has been played today. The Tories want this parliamentary session to end in the same way as the previous one. Quite frankly, that was not the Parliament’s finest hour, given the leaks and other activities in relation to that committee. If the Tories are suggesting for one minute that the current independent inquiry is not up to the job, that says more about them than the inquiry itself.

A point that has been raised with me before and during the inquiry concerns the billions of pounds of public money that has been given to businesses with links to the Conservative Party. I am sure that there will be public support for a public inquiry into that matter alone, but the level of alleged fraudulent activity puts the ferries situation here into perspective. As the Tories have been leading on committee inquiry after committee inquiry into the ferries, I am sure that they would be happy to support a public inquiry into the billions of pounds that have been given to companies with Tory donor links.

The information that we have had before and during the inquiry seems to highlight fraud on an industrial scale, with £10 billion of personal protective equipment costs written off and the use of the VIP lane for procurement being ruled unlawful by the courts. That is not to forget the deals made with businesses owned by Tory donors. There is a high-profile case under investigation now. I agree with the Deputy First Minister’s earlier comments about the call for the establishment of a UK Covid corruption commissioner. In addition, there was the partying that went on in Downing Street. It was Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak who went to court to try to conceal their messages from the inquiry.

Public anger and frustration with regard to those examples alone is clear. I could also include the fact that it was the UK Government that spent its time plotting against independence in the middle of a global pandemic. Some will agree with that action; others will certainly disagree with it. Dealing with the pandemic should have been the sole purpose of Government, irrespective of Parliament and who was in power. The public deserved absolutely no less.

It is important that the public are fully aware of the following with regard to the current inquiry. The Scottish Government’s messages that are handed over to the UK Covid-19 inquiry will be starkly different from those of Westminster politicians. The Scottish Government ensured that it released 28,000 messages to the inquiry and the First Minister’s witness statement includes reams of WhatsApp messages that are unredacted. That is in stark contrast to the actions of a Prime Minister who not only dragged the inquiry through the court but refused to hand over his own WhatsApp messages.

I will be voting against the Tory motion tonight as it delivers nothing—absolutely nothing—to help the families of those who sadly lost a loved one during the pandemic. Let the two inquiries do their work. The living and the deceased deserve that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to closing speeches. I call Michael Marra to close the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour.

Photo of Michael Marra Michael Marra Labour

The vital precursor to this debate, which I think has been mentioned only once, is the First Minister’s concession to the Covid inquiry that the SNP Government’s handling of vital evidence has been “frankly poor”. He offered an unreserved apology.

At the heart of the debate is the question whether that poor practice is reflective of an endemic culture. Labour contends that it is—that this is just the most egregious example of 17 years of secrecy and cover-up. As a country, we are right to worry about the degradation of our governing institutions. Ensuring that those institutions are maintained is a critical function of the Parliament.

The evidence that has been gleaned in recent days from past SNP ministers has been something else entirely. It has provoked real and visceral anger on behalf of Covid bereaved families. These are their words:

Nicola Sturgeon projected a daily image of sincerity in wanting to do right by the people of Scotland during the pandemic ... that carefully crafted image has been left shattered by the hands of Ms Sturgeon herself.”

Those families, speaking this morning before Nicola Sturgeon’s evidence, predicted the sorrow and the tears that they knew would follow. They were not moved by or convinced by that. It merely compounded the betrayal that they feel.

Colleagues have been right to highlight the lasting effects of the pandemic: long Covid, a further derailed NHS—which the Scottish Government has singularly failed to recover—the impact on school attainment and school attendance, and profound cultural shifts in our behaviour and our economy. Alex Rowley rightly set out that a parliamentary committee could focus on the genuine future changes that could arise as a result of the public inquiries, but he also rightly shared Jackie Baillie’s view that the Parliament’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints—otherwise known as the Salmond committee—found it impossible to extract evidence from the Government. The committee was deliberately obstructed, it was misled and nobody could seem to recall anything. This is a culture. It is endemic, it is pervasive, and it is insidious.

Photo of Michael Marra Michael Marra Labour

There has been the Salmond scandal, the Lochaber smelter, Ferguson Marine and the ferries debacle—[

Interruption

.] An SNP member is calling these lies. There have been no minutes, forgotten conversations and missing documents. We have heard it time and again.

In relation to the Queen Elizabeth university hospital scandal, the Government has backed the cover-up rather than the families. A growing queue of information commissioners, past and present, are lining up to denounce the Scottish Government’s handling of freedom of information requests.

All of that matters, and the deletion of WhatsApp messages matters, too. That did not happen by accident. It was a calculated, deliberate attempt to destroy vital evidence to a public inquiry. Everybody knew—everybody knows—that Boris Johnson is a “clown”. Nobody thinks that of the former First Minister. This was deliberate, and it was considered.

SNP back benchers have said that the messages were just chitchat and gossip, but the evidence is clear that they were not. Nicola Sturgeon and Liz Lloyd developed policy on WhatsApp. The former First Minister deleted the exchanges, but, thankfully, others did not get the memo. Instead, we got to see the evidence.

It was up to the inquiry to decide what was relevant—hence the issuing of “Do not destroy” notices. Nicola Sturgeon was asked again and again this morning whether she had deleted messages. She obfuscated and prevaricated, but, eventually, Jamie Dawson KC winnowed away the chaff, and she said, “Yes”. That matters more than the tears. It matters because, as Pauline McNeill put it, we must be able to examine every decision that was made and people must be accountable.

In the few messages that we have seen from the ministers who did not get the memo or who obeyed the “Do not destroy” instruction—whether by mistake or through honest commitment—we get to see the culture of the relationship between ministers and the civil service, which has become entirely inappropriate. Former ministers and former senior civil servants are aghast at the blurred lines between the Government and the civil service.

That matters, too, and I will tell members why. A senior medical officer is involved in the situation relating to the Eljamel scandal in NHS Tayside. The lack of separation between the Government and civil servants is quite apparent, and it fundamentally betrays the trust of the people affected by the scandal, who require true answers.

Photo of Michael Marra Michael Marra Labour

No, I am in my final few moments. Otherwise, I would be happy to do so.

That is the legacy of an endemic culture of secrecy and cover-up.

We must have a Covid corruption commissioner in the UK to get to the heart of the toxic consequences of the Tory Government, but we require a change in Scotland, too, and we will get it with a new Government.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I have one online, but I will take Ms Baillie’s point of order first.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

Forgive me, Presiding Officer. Keith Brown accused Michael Marra of lying, and he repeated it when challenged. Do you consider it appropriate for him to apologise?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thank Ms Baillie for her point of order. I did not hear that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

All that I can say is that I did not hear it. I am not saying that it was not said; I am just saying that I did not hear it. All members know that they are required—[

Interruption

.] Could we not have further sedentary cross-bench discussion while I am speaking?

I remind all members of the requirement to treat each other with courtesy and respect at all times. Members are well aware of the rules around language in the chamber.

I call Bob Doris for a point of order. He is joining us online.

Photo of Bob Doris Bob Doris Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Earlier in the debate, Pauline McNeill MSP inadvertently—I do mean inadvertently—suggested that I was not following the debate when she namechecked me during her speech in relation to ministerial accountability.

I am not sure what mechanism exists other than trying to intervene on said member, but when one intervenes remotely, that is not registered in the

Official Report

. Any person watching the contributions this afternoon would inadvertently think that, as a member of the Scottish Parliament, I had made a speech during a serious debate and then not followed the rest of the debate. That would be wholly disrespectful to the victims of Covid and their families and everyone with a key interest in the debate.

I know that it is now on the record that I followed the debate, but are there any other procedures whereby that can be rectified in the future, so that I do not take up your time and that of the chamber to put such matters on the record in such a way?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Perhaps I could deal with Mr Doris’s point of order first, and then I will come to Ms McNeill.

I say to Mr Doris that that is not a matter for the chair. The member has made his point, and the matter is on the record.

I call Pauline McNeill for a point of order.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I want to put on the record that I did not intend, in any possible way, to imply in my speech that Bob Doris was not listening to the debate. The remark that I made is something that is said in a debate if the person is still listening. That is the only remark that I made about him.

I am honestly astounded that a member would come on and make that point. If, to safeguard his point, Bob Doris wishes it to be known that he watched the debate throughout, that is entirely different. I hope that the Presiding Officer accepts my response that I was in no way being disrespectful to him and never would be.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you, Ms McNeill.

That is not a matter for the chair, but Ms McNeill has helpfully clarified the matter, which is also on the record.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I echo and reiterate the important points that the Deputy First Minister made in her opening speech—notably, the need to never lose sight of the impact of the pandemic on people, and particularly those who lost loved ones.

During the debate, much was said about how we went about the Government’s business but, as the Deputy First Minister also said during her opening speech, that is why the First Minister has not only apologised for any hurt that the Scottish Government’s prior handling of requests for the inquiry has caused but announced an externally led review on the use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology.

Most members have spoken about the impact on families and communities across Scotland. In particular, Ruth Maguire, in a timely and interesting intervention, said that she felt that everything was just a wee bit too much and that it was probably not what the families listening to the debate wanted to hear. I think that she is right about that.

As we all know, everybody has a Covid story. Jim Fairlie talked about his mum’s funeral and what that meant to him. Other members mentioned what affected them. Stuart McMillan talked about all our constituents having stories, which is true. I was not going to mention it, because I mentioned it in a previous debate, but my mother-in-law, Rosemary, had Covid and died in the Royal Alexandra hospital in Paisley. Everything has been so personal in this debate, and I want people to understand that, when we are making decisions and moving forward, we all have something that happened to us during that time.

Rosemary died in 2021 when she had Covid. I remember seeing her when she was going to the ambulance. We could not go down to the house, but we knew that she was going to the ambulance, and I had a feeling at that stage that we would never see her again. Things became difficult for us. Other members, such as Pauline McNeill, have spoken about not being able to see their loved ones because of Covid restrictions. It was doubly difficult for us, because Stacey—as you all know—has multiple sclerosis, which is an autoimmune disease, so her immunity is compromised. At that time, things had got a wee bit looser and you were able to go and see individuals. I had to make the decision between losing one of the most important women in my life, or two of them. I want people to know that none of us in the Scottish Government takes this lightly. We all have these stories and know how families feel and feel for the families and everything that has happened to them.

Some of the contributions that we heard from members highlighted that. John Mason took us back to the dark days of when we went into lockdown and everything was so difficult. The Parliament did not even have a process to continue business—but that quickly happened and was very important for us. Kevin Stewart spoke about the families and how they are always the most important ones in this.

The pandemic presented exceptional pressures for every single one of us. I am particularly grateful for the work of our civil servants, scientific advisers and clinicians, who supported the Government to make decisions that were informed by the best available advice during the most challenging of circumstances.

It is important that we learn lessons from our collective experience of the pandemic. That process of reflection and learning will help us to better prepare for any future emergencies.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

Can I just make these points at the moment?

Our approach to government understands and embraces the need to make information available about policies and decisions, to be accountable to the Parliament and the public, and to listen to all voices. We have worked, and will continue to work, to ensure that the lessons from the pandemic are learned.

That is why, during the pandemic, the previous First Minister, members of the Cabinet and public health officials stood in St Andrew’s house, day after day, providing information and responses to the pandemic, and answering questions about the approach. Indeed, the former First Minister led more than 250 media briefings between March 2020 and the end of 2021, in which she answered questions about the Scottish Government’s management of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, we understood the critical importance of ensuring that people were clear about the decisions that were being made, the reasons for the sacrifices that they were being asked to be made and the risk to public health that was posed by the virus.

We all know that it was an exceptional time, particularly for Scottish Government ministers and officials, who worked round the clock to respond to the global pandemic. We will all remember how scared we all were then—how we did not know what the virus was and how it would impact on us and all our families, and on our jobs and the economy. People will remember how even the symptoms that we were first told about changed as more evidence was gathered about this new disease. The Government’s aim was to suppress transmission of the Covid virus, to save lives and jobs, and to keep people safe.

Exceptional times required exceptional measures, and the Parliament had to consider legislation that was totally unprecedented. That included the UK Coronavirus bill, which this Parliament supported unanimously, and the subsequent Scottish emergency bills and the many sets of regulations that changed the way we all lived our lives.

The Scottish Government did not make decisions on measures in isolation from the impacts that they would have. While in lockdown in April 2020, the Scottish Government set out its approach to making decisions on its future pandemic response. That was to marshal the harms of the pandemic, including the effects of any restrictions that were imposed, in the four harm categories: direct harm to health from the virus; wider health harms; societal harms; and economic harms. Decisions involved an assessment of the effect of the proposed measures on each of those harms, therefore ensuring that they were proportionate and necessary to control the spread of the virus.

As the Deputy First Minister set out, the Scottish Government is co-operating fully with the Scottish and UK Covid inquiries. I remind members that more than 19,000 documents have been handed over to the UK inquiry, and the Scottish Government has already provided almost 28,000 messages.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

I am just closing. This is an important debate and I want to ensure that we get our point across. A lot has already been said during the debate.

As was explained during the inquiry last week, if political pressures were used, it was not for constitutional reasons. [

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Members, we will listen to the member who has the floor, which is the minister.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

It was based on mitigating the four harms, including ensuring that furlough was available to save jobs during lockdown in Scotland and making sure that our people were paid, for example. Politics was not at the forefront of ministers’ minds during the pandemic. It was the suppression of a new—[

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Minister, please resume your seat. I have already said to the Conservative members that they should have the courtesy to listen to the member who has the floor, which is the Minister for Parliamentary Business.

Photo of George Adam George Adam Scottish National Party

During the pandemic, ministers’ minds were on the suppression of a new and deadly virus. Should different decisions have been taken? Yes, possibly, but we can say that about many decisions with the benefit of hindsight. At the time of the pandemic, elected members of the Government took the best decisions that they could, with the evidence that they had and with the best intentions for the people of Scotland to the forefront at all times. How many who were in the chamber at that time were glad that it was not them having to make those decisions day in and day out?

There has been a lot of talk today that is not grounded in reality. Some Opposition members have chosen not just to use hindsight but to rewrite the history of a time when people in Scotland, in the UK and across the world were scared of a deadly virus. For Scotland at least, those who were in charge made the best decisions that they could at all times, and they made the right decisions.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

The words “not grounded in reality” sum up the contribution that we have just heard from the minister.

A wide range of issues has been covered in the debate this afternoon, so let me try to bring together some of the threads and the various contributions that we have heard, and to sum up the key points that have been made in our motion and in the debate.

John Mason made better fist than anybody on his front bench did of defending the Scottish Government’s approach, but the key point that I think he neither understood nor addressed is that our concern is about transparency. In line with much else that has been done by the SNP Government, information about the decisions that were made in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic had to be dragged out of it, and what has been dragged out has made for dismal reading. There is a culture of cover-up and secrecy in this Government, and we should all be grateful to the UK Covid inquiry and Jamie Dawson KC and his team for the excellent work that they have done to shine a light on the darker workings of this Government.

What has been revealed is that the public and Parliament were misled by the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and by other members of the Government, about the information that would be provided to the inquiry. The Deputy First Minister and Mr Adam have made great play of the fact that 28,000 messages were handed over to the inquiry. Matt Hancock, the former UK health secretary, handed over more than 100,000 messages, which puts the figure of 28,000 into context.

Let us remind ourselves of what Nicola Sturgeon said when she was asked, back in August 2021, whether anything would be off limits to the inquiry. She said:

“I think 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 that ability.”

We can take that as a clear promise that all relevant information would be provided. The then Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, said something very similar.

When the current First Minister was asked about the same issue, he said:

“any material that is asked for—WhatsApp messages, emails, Signal messages, Telegram messages or whatever—will absolutely be handed over to the Covid inquiries and handed over to them in full.”

So there we have it: the former First Minister, the former Deputy First Minister and the current First Minister gave clear and unequivocal undertakings that all information would be handed over—yet we now know that that was not done. That promise was not kept.

We now know that Nicola Sturgeon deleted all her WhatsApp messages during the pandemic period. That was confirmed in a note to the UK inquiry. We have also learned that John Swinney did not retain his messages and that he had an auto-delete function turned on.

Yesterday, Mr Swinney claimed that he had been adhering to the mobile messaging policy that the Scottish Government introduced in November 2021, which urged the deletion of WhatsApp messages after 30 days. Crucially, however, that was after undertakings had been given by Nicola Sturgeon that all relevant messages would be preserved and provided.

SNP members who have spoken in the debate have told us that relevant information in the messages in question was recorded elsewhere—it was transferred on to other systems of recording—but, without the original WhatsApp messages, we simply cannot know whether that was the case, nor can the UK Covid inquiry. We, the UK inquiry and the Scottish public have been left trying to piece together the information that was properly recorded.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

Does Murdo Fraser share my concern about the incongruity in what we heard from Nicola Sturgeon today? She said that she had routinely deleted all her private messages, on the advice of civil servants, since 2007, when, in fact, the committee that Mr Fraser and I served on in the Salmond inquiry received WhatsApp messages from Nicola Sturgeon herself?

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Mr Cole-Hamilton has made a very fair point. Indeed, today, I heard former First Minister Alex Salmond saying that there was no policy in the Scottish Government to delete WhatsApp messages, despite the assertions that Mr Swinney made to the inquiry yesterday.

Not every minister has gone down the route of deleting their WhatsApp messages. Yesterday, former finance secretary Kate Forbes said that she had retained all of hers, and that she was not even aware of the deletion policy until it was drawn to her attention in January 2022. We also learned that she was surprised that crucial gold command meetings were not minuted during the pandemic, despite the importance of the matters that were being discussed.

Even more concerning is the position of the current First Minister, Humza Yousaf. In October 2023, he told the Covid inquiry that he had deleted all his messages for security reasons. When he was asked by the media about the same issue on 30 October, he denied press reports that he had been deleting his WhatsApp messages and said that he had retained them all and would hand them over to the inquiry. On 2 November, he made a second submission to the inquiry and handed over his WhatsApp messages, which were on a phone handset that he no longer used but had been able to recover.

On 16 November, the First Minister made a third submission to the inquiry, in which he claimed that his WhatsApp messages covering the critical four-month period at the start of the pandemic had been “completely wiped”. On 25 January, he told Parliament that he had handed over his messages to the inquiry, despite—and contrary to—what he had previously said.

Presiding Officer, if you are finding all that as difficult to follow as I am, that only points to the chaos and confusion that lay at the heart of the Scottish Government, and the weaknesses that existed in its record keeping.

That is just what we have heard from Government ministers. It is clear that senior civil servants and senior advisers joked with one another about the need to delete their messages, to ensure, in particular, that they could not be recovered through freedom of information requests. That was a deliberate attempt at cover-up—they sought to deprive the public of a view of the Government’s decision-making processes, which must be unforgivable, and might even be criminal.

It is no wonder that the Scottish Government wanted to cover up what was being discussed, given all that we have heard. Despite Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that decisions were not made on WhatsApp, we now know that that was not true. According to what we heard from Liz Lloyd last week, it appears that key choices about the number of individuals who were allowed at weddings were settled in a WhatsApp exchange between the former First Minister and her chief of staff. That decision was not taken by Cabinet, nor, it seems, was it based on any sound scientific or medical advice.

We also saw that Nicola Sturgeon suggested that the professor of public health, Devi Sridhar, should message her privately with advice to her private SNP email address, which would not be subject to freedom of information requests.

Worst of all, we now know that the Scottish Government was pursuing a political agenda and was advancing the cause of independence throughout the pandemic period. As both Roz McCall and Pam Gosal reminded us, we learned last week from Liz Lloyd that she wanted to start a “good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK Government because she was tired of thinking about sick people. That just sums up what was behind the Scottish Government’s approach. It was more interested in independence and in picking fights with Westminster than it was in being concerned about those who were suffering and dying here in Scotland.

We know that, in June 2020, the Cabinet agreed to consider restarting its push for Scottish independence. On that very same day in a press conference, the First Minister denied suggestions that she could be using the pandemic for politics, saying that it would be a betrayal of the people of Scotland to campaign for independence during Covid. However, on the very same day, that is exactly what was being discussed at the Cabinet. If that is not a deceitful position, I do not know what is.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party

I wonder whether Murdo Fraser listened to Michael Gove’s evidence on Monday. Michael Gove talked about a Cabinet paper that he had taken to the UK Government Cabinet about the benefits of the union and using the pandemic to promote that. If Murdo Fraser is going to be even-handed here—I am sure that he will be—surely he cannot, on the one hand, criticise only one Government but not, on the other, recognise what that looks like to the public. Surely it would be fair to recognise that the attack line that he is taking is about exactly what Michael Gove admitted on Monday to doing.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

No. What Mr Gove was doing was responding to the politicisation of the pandemic by the SNP Government.

The worst example of politicisation came out this afternoon. Mr Adam should listen to this; Jamie Greene referred to it in his contribution. This afternoon, we learned from the inquiry that an email was sent from the Deputy First Minister’s account on 20 July 2020 expressing extreme concern about putting Spain on the quarantine list because—this is a direct quote from the Deputy First Minister's email account—

“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.”

There we have it, in black and white. The prospects of an independent Scotland joining the EU were more important than public health considerations when it came to this Government’s decision making on Covid.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Fraser, could you please bring your remarks to a close? Your time is up.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

What all that tells us is that we need a proper further investigation into all the concerns that we have heard today. Yes—the inquiries will do their work, as SNP members have called for, but it could be years before we see a report from the UK Covid inquiry, and the Scottish one is at an even earlier stage. In the meantime, let us see the COVID-19 Recovery Committee of this Parliament being re-established. Let the current First Minister, the former First Minister and the former Deputy First Minister refer themselves to the independent adviser on the ministerial code. That is how Covid-bereaved families and the public can get the answers that they deserve, and that is how we will all get a better understanding of what was going on in the Government at the time, which the SNP is so desperate to cover up.

That is the point that is made in our motion today. I urge Parliament to agree to it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That concludes the debate on UK Covid-19 inquiry revelations.