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by Kirsteen Paterson
30 January 2024
Kate Forbes reveals Nicola Sturgeon anger over Humza Yousaf £100m 'help'

Kate Forbes | Alamy

Kate Forbes reveals Nicola Sturgeon anger over Humza Yousaf £100m 'help'

Nicola Sturgeon was "angry" after Humza Yousaf 'surprised' a Covid cabinet meeting with a surprise £100m funding offer, an inquiry has heard.

Messages sent by then-finance secretary Kate Forbes to a key civil servant show how Yousaf left her "embarrassed" by a surprise offer during crunch deliberations about business support at a Scottish Government cabinet meeting.

But Forbes said Yousaf was trying to be "helpful" and the FM was "absolutely focused on the health impacts" during the pandemic.

Sitting in Edinburgh, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry was shown WhatsApp messages sent by Forbes to Scottish Exchequer director general Alyson Stafford as cases rocketed in December 2021.

Forbes, then in charge of finance, had been seeking funding from around government to cover support for businesses in absence of furlough.

She told Stafford there had been a "very awkward discussion at cabinet where Mr Yousaf said that health had identified a further £100m for business support which was news to me and obviously news to the first minister, who was somewhat displeased".

She said Yousaf had "done it before but this time he did it in front of" Sturgeon, adding: "I've never seen the FM this angry in all my cabinets... for good reason".

Stafford said "no one needs that stress... least of all the FM".

Under questioning, Forbes said she had "gone to that cabinet making the point that we had very limited funding available" and Yousaf, then the health secretary, "was trying to be helpful in saying that perhaps health could look at providing £100m, knowing that this would have a significant positive impact on the pandemic and therefore on the health portfolio more generally".

She went on: "It was often the case that surprises were never welcome at cabinet.

"What I'm alluding to there in terms of the embarrassment and so on was the fact that it had been a comment that had not been drafted in the papers, that it had perhaps come from left field."

Forbes said Sturgeon was "absolutely focused" on "reducing the impact of the Covid health harms" and was "often braver in doing what needed to be done, irrespective of some of the other challenging situations facing business".

She said she personally "did a lot of worrying about the finances throughout the pandemic" and that colleagues from Wales and Northern Ireland had also approached the UK Government about new funding measures to respond to the crisis, which were not successful.

Expressing her "immense sorrow at the devastation that was wreaked amongst so many families" and the "personal cost and loss" for those shielding, isolating or kept from families, she said investment on technology to connect people in care homes with loved ones seems "small in comparison to the billions spent on financial support for businesses".

And she said while "every single penny" allocated to tackle Covid was spent that way, "even with £14bn it could not in any way compensate for losses that have been experienced by any part of society".

Forbes said: "There was no harm-free option ever before us. I saw my job as trying to ensure there was sufficient funding for whatever was deemed to be the best for the health reasons."

On the request to Westminster for additional furlough funding in October 2020 in the event of a second lockdown, Forbes said there was "no inch given".

She said: "We were making the arguments throughout that period of the need for financial or economic support to match the health response and so it seemed somewhat remarkable that our prophetic comments actually resulted in our fears happening where furlough was only extended on the eve of an announcement of lockdown in England."

Barnett funding arrangements "couldn't bear the weight of an emergency and we suggested a number of flexibilities", she said of devolved administrations, and spending decisions were complicated because "additional funding was often announced unexpectedly, very rarely was it announced expectedly, so we were repeating the Budget process various times".

Forbes said she had little input into the Budget she delivered after the shock resignation of her predecessor Derek Mackay.

When asked if specific consideration was given to Covid in that statement, she said: "I don't remember anything in the budget that I presented.

"There may have been some passing reference as the Budget developed, but not in the initial statement."

The inquiry continues.

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