Tears, anger and an apology: Nicola Sturgeon at the Covid inquiry
At the height of the pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon was a daily fixture on our television screens as she took questions from journalists about her government’s Covid response. Today she was back, but this time it was lawyers asking the questions and the former first minister had to swear on the Bible that she would tell the truth.
Sturgeon, now a greatly diminished figure in the eyes of many, not least the Covid bereaved, told the inquiry that she had always sought to be “open, transparent and accountable”. But she was forced to apologise after admitting she had already deleted WhatsApp messages when in August 2021 she tetchily told a daily media briefing that she would hand over everything she had to the inquiry.
Anticipation had been high ahead of the former SNP leader’s appearance at the inquiry. Arguably not since the then first minister was called to parliament to answer questions about the handling of complaints against her predecessor, Alex Salmond, had the world of Scottish politics waited with such bated breath. As then, Sturgeon was calm and assured, choosing her words carefully throughout. She told the inquiry that informal messaging had not been an “extensive or meaningful part” of how she reached decisions, but admitted deleting those messages all the same.
When asked by Jamie Dawson KC, counsel to the inquiry, whether she had deleted messages to Humza Yousaf and former chief of staff Liz Lloyd from her own phone, Sturgeon agreed she hadn’t “retained” the messages.
“Deletion, forgive me, sounds as if it was not bothering to check any information was being retained,” Sturgeon said. “I was very thorough not just in the pandemic but in all my work in government to ensure that things were appropriately recorded.”
“But did you delete them?” asked Dawson.
“Yes,” the former first minister responded.
Sturgeon said she had only ever communicated with a “handful of people” on WhatsApp and had never been a member of any WhatsApp group.
“I did not do government business through informal messaging,” she told the inquiry.
Dawson then brought up the August 2021 media briefing in which Sturgeon told a journalist from Channel 4 that she would hand over everything to the inquiry from private emails to WhatsApp messages – nothing would be off limits.
“You knew by that stage that your WhatsApps had been destroyed,” Dawson asked.
“But I also knew that anything of any relevance or substance from any of that material would be properly record in the Scottish Government system and would have been communicated, in all likelihood, by me through the daily media briefings that I gave. The importance, in my view, is that the inquiry has at its disposal all of the evidence underpinning the decisions – as well as the decisions we were arriving at.”
The inquiry heard that at the start of that month a Do Not Destroy message had been circulated around the Scottish Government, telling officials it was important to retain anything which could be important to the inquiry. Sturgeon said she had always assumed there would be a public inquiry and said she wouldn’t have needed a reminder to retain information on “matters of substance, salience and relevance”.
Sturgeon said she did not hold text messages or WhatsApp messages but after “racking my brain” looked in Twitter (now known as X) and found direct messages from both public health academic Devi Sridhar and Jason Leitch, the national clinical director.
Dawson said: “We subsequently learned from your second statement [to the inquiry] that you had used various informal means of communication for some messaging with Mr Yousaf, Ms Lloyd, Mr Swinney, Ms Freeman, Dr Calderwood, Dr Smith, Professor Leitch, Ken Thomson, Lesley Evans, Professor Sridhar, the First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford and the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill. Is that correct?”
“You produced no messages with any of these individuals with your first statement. Is that correct?”
“Yes, but as I also say in the statement – those messages would have been extremely limited.” Sturgeon added that she didn’t think she had ever sent a WhatsApp to John Swinney, her former deputy, for example.
Sturgeon said Boris Johnson had been the “wrong” prime minister for the pandemic but became emotional when asked whether she was “precisely the right first minister” given her background as a health secretary who had experience of dealing with the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
“No, that’s not how I would have thought of it at all,” Sturgeon said. Fighting back tears, she went on: “I was the first minister when the pandemic struck – there’s a large part of me that wishes I hadn’t been but I was and I wanted to be the best first minister I could be during that period. It’s for others to judge the extent which I succeeded.”
The former first minister denied attempting to politicise the pandemic to advance the cause of Scottish independence. She denied making decisions based on instinct informed only by a small band of advisers. And she denied there was a culture of “plausible deniability” at the heart of the government she led. When it was put to her that her government had been “asleep at the wheel” at the outset of the pandemic, she answered simply: “No”.
“It was your instinct to seek to portray yourself as open and honest with the public but at the same time, to keep from them important elements of the management…” Dawson said. Sturgeon responded that the facts didn’t bear that out.
Her voice breaking once more, she said: “For as long as I live, I will carry the impact of these decisions. I will carry regret for the decisions I got wrong, but I will always know in my heart and in my soul that my instincts and my motivation was nothing other than trying to do the best in the face of this pandemic.”
Outside the inquiry, which is currently being held at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, there was little in the former first minister’s evidence to placate those who lost loved ones during the pandemic. Speaking at the start of the day, solicitor Aamer Anwar had warned there would be “no hiding place, no toleration of spin, no acceptance of sorrow-filled apologies”.
“Nicola Sturgeon projected a daily image of sincerity in wanting to do right by the people of Scotland during the pandemic,” he said. “But that carefully crafted image has been left shattered by the hands of Ms Sturgeon herself.”
At times raw and emotional, this was nevertheless Sturgeon at her polished best. But there was little here to shake the perception that her government’s pandemic response was shrouded in secrecy. More importantly, there was little to assuage the growing anger of those left bereaved and for whom the inquiry now seeks answers.