Nicola Sturgeon will be quizzed by the Covid Inquiry on how her focus on Scottish independence affected pandemic decision-making, lawyers have suggested.
On the opening day of the inquiry’s Scottish phase in Edinburgh yesterday, the hearing was told that it would examine how the SNP Government’s handling of the pandemic was influenced by the aim of breaking away from the UK.
Ms Sturgeon, who was first minister throughout the pandemic, is set to be the star witness during three weeks of hearings focusing on decision-making in Scotland.
In his opening statement, Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, said lawyers would not shy away from asking if ministers were distracted by independence.
He told the hearing: “The extent to which the approach to the management of the pandemic was influenced by the Scottish government’s key objective of achieving independence for Scotland is also an issue which we will seek to address in the module.”
At the height of the pandemic, Unionists regularly accused Ms Sturgeon of using the crisis to attempt to drive a wedge between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
She repeatedly sought to restrict travel between Scotland and England and regularly used her near-daily televised press briefings to attack the UK Government.
Matt Hancock, then the UK Health Secretary, later claimed she would have “loved” to build “a Trump-style wall between her fiefdom and the rest of Great Britain.”
Same policies implemented, but slightly later
Ms Sturgeon also had a major row with Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, after trying to ban travel between Scotland and parts of North West England.
Whilst Ms Sturgeon insisted she was taking a more cautious approach than UK ministers, critics pointed out that she often adopted the same policies on lockdown easing, but implemented them slightly later.
UK ministers have also accused her of leaking details of confidential meetings.
Mr Hancock told an earlier hearing of the inquiry that Ms Sturgeon would “put some kind of spin” on “what was essentially substantively the same decision”.
The SNP tried to use Ms Sturgeon’s performance during the pandemic to help it win the 2021 Holyrood election.
Ms Sturgeon later claimed the result, which saw the SNP fall one seat short of a Holyrood majority and then form a coalition with the Scottish Greens, had delivered a mandate for a second independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon claimed in April 2021 that Scots had “looked to their own” leaders during the pandemic and that this had “made people think about the benefit of self-government”.
Continuing his statement, Mr Dawson said the inquiry would look at whether a separate approach was needed and if there was evidence unique to Scotland to justify this.
Refusal to reveal if WhatsApps were deleted
“We will examine the extent to which divergence by the Scottish Government from the UK Government approach and systems was based on proper advice and a reasonable balancing of the competing considerations.
“Whether there was truly separate Scottish evidence which could and should be used to justify a separate different Scottish approach, whether points of difference were substantive or merely cosmetic, whether they led to different outcomes they were to any extent motivated by factors other than the very best response to the virus for the safety of the people of Scotland.”
Opposition parties have accused Humza Yousaf and his deputy, Shona Robison, of misleading parliament over WhatsApp messages requested by the inquiry.
Mr Dawson said 28,000 messages from 85 WhatsApp groups had been handed over to Baroness Hallett and her team.
Ms Sturgeon has refused to reveal if she deleted messages and although the former first minister was not mentioned by name, Mr Dawson said the messages provided related to “prominent ministerial decision-makers and others in key advisory roles within the Scottish Government”.
Mr Dawson also revealed that “no minutes were kept” of the “gold command” group discussing pandemic decisions which would include the then first minister and or deputy first minister, senior policy advisers and other cabinet ministers.
The hearing also heard from Claire Mitchell KC, representing Scottish Covid Bereaved Families, who criticised Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak over evidence they gave to the inquiry.
However she said the inquiry would need to examine whether Unionist politicians were right to accuse Ms Sturgeon of “playing politics” or if she was right to take different decisions.
‘Guided by desire to contain and suppress the virus’
“Of course it has been suggested that then first minister Nicola Sturgeon and other Scottish politicians were playing politics rather than properly engaging in the decision-making to save lives. Was this projection by the UK politicians as to their own behaviour?
“Or Is there truth in this? Were cancellations of mass gatherings totemic, were decisions taken to lift lockdown at different time from England just for the sake of doing things differently or a reflection of a different stage of the progress of the virus.”
Geoffrey Mitchell KC, representing the Scottish Government, said it acknowledged that “certain decisions could have been taken differently”.
He said cooperation with the UK Government was “on the whole reasonably effective” but added: “Meaningful discussion with the Scottish government was sometimes absent in respect of UK Government discussions that affected Scotland.”
“There was no Scottish government response to the pandemic which was guided by anything other than a desire to contain and suppress the virus in order to minimise the overall harm it could do.”
The inquiry continues on Wednesday.