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by Margaret Taylor
01 February 2024
Alister Jack: We did not have childish squabbles with Scottish Government during pandemic

Scottish secretary Alister Jack was giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry | Alamy

Alister Jack: We did not have childish squabbles with Scottish Government during pandemic

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has denied that the UK and Scottish governments were involved in tit-for-tat childish squabbles as part of their management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, Jack told lead counsel Jamie Dawson KC that he saw his role as the defender of devolution and the United Kingdon but that that put him at odds with the SNP-led administration.

Jack, who said he was unconvinced by Nicola Sturgeon’s emotional testimony yesterday – accusing the former first minister of being able to “cry from one eye if she wanted to” – said there were natural tensions because his job at the Scotland Office was to “strengthen and sustain” the UK while he claimed Sturgeon believed hers was to break it up.

“That's what the Scottish National Party exists to do, and so it was inevitable that there would be tensions,” he said.

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

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

Jack said that, while public health is devolved, he wanted the two governments to be “aligned as much as we possibly could be” on the pandemic response but that he felt the Scottish Government came up with different rules “for the sake of it”.

“I felt very strongly that […] we would meet with [the Scottish Government] and tell them what our plans were […] as we moved the rules and regulations and I felt that they would absorb the information and then work out how they could do it, but just slightly differently,” he said. “I felt that was a political manoeuvre on their behalf.”

Jack conceded that it was “fair” for Scottish ministers to have told the inquiry they were only informed of the UK Government’s plans on restrictions “at the very last minute”, but claimed that that was a result of mistrust being “baked in to the system” due to the Scottish Government’s actions.

Asked by Dawson why the UK Government had changed its messaging to ‘Stay Alert’ after telling Scottish ministers it would stick with ‘Stay at Home’, Jack said UK ministers had been incensed by Sturgeon making an announcement about banning mass gatherings before that had been agreed at a Cobra meeting scheduled for later the same day.

Earlier in the week UK intergovernmental relations minister Michael Gove, who was UK cabinet minister during the pandemic, told the inquiry Sturgeon's actions caused “discomfort” and “disquiet” in Whitehall, and led then prime minister Boris Johnson to question whether the then first minister could be trusted.

Jack said the feeling was that Sturgeon had broken the terms of the memorandum of understanding between the UK and devolved governments “which states that we have this sort of duty of confidentiality amongst us”.

Asked by Dawson whether it would be fair to characterise the way the two governments interacted with each other “during this unprecedented medical emergency” as “tit-for-tat or children squabbling with each other”, Jack said no.

He went on to say he did not believe Sturgeon’s evidence that she put aside her political convictions in order to prioritise the health and safety of the people of Scotland.

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

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

Asked about former deputy first minister John Swinney’s testimony, in which he said he had made no effort to engage with Jack during the pandemic because he saw no value in it, Jack said the Scottish Government bypassed the Scotland Office to go direct to Whitehall because it did not like his department.

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

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

“All that happens is the Whitehall departments come straight back to us so […] it's back to the tensions I talked about earlier.

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

Jack refuted the assertion made by Swinney earlier in the week that it was only him the Scottish Government had a problem with and not the Scotland Office as a whole.  

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