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by Kirsteen Paterson
29 June 2023
Nicola Sturgeon tells Covid inquiry Brexit planning harmed Scottish pandemic response

Nicola Sturgeon tells Covid inquiry Brexit planning harmed Scottish pandemic response

Nicola Sturgeon has told the UK Covid-19 inquiry she "deeply regrets" having diverted Scottish Government resources away from emergency planning over Brexit.

Appearing before a probe into the handling of the pandemic by the UK and devolved governments, Sturgeon said her administration "did not get everything right".

Under questioning, she said work to ready Scotland for the prospect of a No-Deal Brexit had taken resources away from "emergency planning in other areas".

Asked if that had been a "false economy", given the extent of the Covid pandemic in Scotland, she said: "I think every aspect of Brexit has been a false economy, if I can put it mildly. But that is another story altogether."

Lead counsel Hugo Keith KC told the ex-SNP leader: "That is a witness box, not a soapbox. Indeed, we cannot allow political debates to be ventilated here."

Sturgeon replied: "With respect, I think you're asking me questions here that are very germane to the whole issue. 

"So yes, I think it was deeply regrettable that resources had to be diverted from any other area of work and in particular pandemic preparedness."

She said it was "not the case that all preparation around the potential for a pandemic stopped", with "deeply serious" steps undertaken. 

However, she said the Scottish Government had "little alternative" but to ready the country against the hardest potential exit from the EU in light of the projections of serious shortages of essential goods, as outlined in the Treasury's Operation Yellowhammer report on worst-case planning assumptions.

She told the inquiry: "The consequences of a No-Deal Brexit, compared to what we faced with Covid, of course pale into insignificance but at the time, looking at the [Operation] Yellowhammer assumptions, had they come to pass they would have been severe. We're talking about availability of food in shops and medicines for the National Health Service, so we had no choice but to do that planning. 

The learning from the pandemic is of critical importance

"I deeply regret any implications that had for our emergency planning in other areas."

Sturgeon said that the Scottish Government had a "determination from the outset" of the pandemic to "suppress it to the maximum".

She offered her "sympathies and condolences to all those who have suffered as a result of Covid-19" and thanked all those involved in the response to the crisis, saying: "The pandemic may be over, but for very many people that suffering continues to this day and there is not a day that passes that I don't think about that."

Sturgeon said: "The government I led did our best to take the best possible decisions. But equally I know that we did not get everything right.

"The learning from the pandemic is of critical importance. This public enquiry has a central role to play in ensuring that those lessons are learned."

When asked about crisis preparedness operations including Exercise Silver Swan, Exercise Cygnus and Exercise Iris, Sturgeon said not all recommendations had been completed at the outset of the pandemic.

The KC raised the recommendations of a 2021 report by Audit Scotland, which called on the Scottish Government to "update and publish national pandemic guidance for health and social care" that was outstanding. Sturgeon confirmed that this has not been done, but said authorities must first learn the lessons of Covid-19 before doing so. 

She said: "It's really important that there is a proper fulsome exercise to incorporate properly the granular as well as some of the strategic level from the Covid pandemic."

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