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Nicola Sturgeon to give evidence: What to expect from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry this week

Nicola Sturgeon at the NHS 24 contact centre in Glasgow | Alamy

Nicola Sturgeon to give evidence: What to expect from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry this week

Nicola Sturgeon will give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry this week as a host of senior figures appear in Edinburgh.

The probe into governmental handling of the pandemic aims to learn lessons about the decisions that were taken and the way in which they were reached.

Its 'module 2A' programme of hearings opened on January 16, when video impact statements featuring families of the bereaved where shown.

Last week First Minister Humza Yousaf and Liz Lloyd, the former chief-of-staff to Nicola Sturgeon, gave evidence in individual sessions.

This week Sturgeon herself will appear in the second and final week of the programme at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.

What should we expect?

Scheduled to answer questions on Wednesday, Sturgeon will appear in both the morning and afternoon sessions, becoming the only witness in the Scottish hearings to do so.

Counsel for the inquiry are expected to ask about record-keeping and the use of WhatsApp and other informal channels for official Scottish Government business related to the crisis.

The former FM, who announced plans for a separate Scottish Covid inquiry before leaving office, is scheduled to appear after several former Cabinet colleagues.

Jeane Freeman, who was health secretary at the outset of the pandemic, will give evidence this afternoon, following UK Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove MP.

On Tuesday, former Scottish finance and economy secretary Kate Forbes will go before the inquiry, after which ex-deputy first minister John Swinney will give his evidence.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack will speak on Thursday morning, with closing statements from core participants to follow.

What have we learned so far?

Learning from the Scottish sessions will not be complete until all evidence has been heard, and it will feed into wider evidence from the UK and Northern Ireland.

The inquiry will move to Cardiff next month, where Welsh ministers are expected to appear, and on to Belfast in April.

In Scotland, Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scottish Government's Covid-19 Advisory Group, was critical of lockdown advice which saw members of the public warned against outdoor activity and told to stay at home.

He said guidance over the use of the NHS may have contributed to deaths and former chief medical Dr Catherine Calderwood had not been "listening" to his concerns in early 2020.

Calderwood's successor Professor Gregor Smith denied a lack of urgency in the Scottish Government response but said some information on an international Nike conference in Edinburgh from which cases emerged "should have been released".

And Professor Devi Sridhar said she had received death threats and racist and misogynistic abuse in response to her role in fighting the pandemic.

Devi Sridhar arrives at the inquiry | Alamy

But much of the focus has been on the content, or availability, of informal WhatsApp and other messaging. Leitch said deleting these was his "pre-bed ritual", but told the inquiry that had been a "flippant exaggeration".

Messages passed over by Lloyd showed how Sturgeon called Boris Johnson a "f***ing clown" over his handling of the crisis, while Lloyd herself told her boss she wanted a "good old-fashioned rammy" to stop her "thinking about sick people".

National clinical director Jason Leitch said Sturgeon "wants none of us" in relation to working with a team of advisors and decision-makers, and he and Yousaf traded insulting messages about Scottish Labour figures including then-MSP Neil Findlay, who Yousaf called "an arsehole".

In another message to Leitch, Yousaf, who became health secretary during the pandemic, said: "I am winging it! And will get found out sooner rather than later."

He apologised to the inquiry and the bereaved over Scottish Government's failure to hand over all such material after it emerged that Sturgeon had deleted all of her messages. 

In a statement, she said she had been following Scottish Government policy and substantive decisions had been communicated to officials for inclusion in the corporate record.

However, Yousaf has announced an externally-led review of the use of informal messaging in government decision-making.

He told the inquiry: "There is no excuse for it. We should have done better."

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