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5 things we learned from Covid inquiry including John Swinney on school closures and deleted WhatsApps with Nicola Sturgeon

The Perthshire North MSP, who was deputy first minister through the pandemic, appeared at the UK Covid inquiry on Tuesday – one day before Nicola Sturgeon is due to answer questions.

John Swinney was a close ally of Nicola Sturgeon as her deputy. Image: PA.
John Swinney was a close ally of Nicola Sturgeon as her deputy. Image: PA.

Two of Nicola Sturgeon’s most senior government colleagues during the pandemic told the UK Covid inquiry how crucial decisions were made on lockdowns and school closures – and lifted the lid on furious rows and missing records.

John Swinney and Kate Forbes were both questioned on Tuesday, raising more questions for Ms Sturgeon to answer when she makes a long-anticipated appearance in front of Lady Hallett on Wednesday.

Mr Swinney, MSP for Perthshire North, is the former deputy first minister and education secretary, and a close ally of Ms Sturgeon.

Ms Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, was finance secretary.

As the focus shifts to Ms Sturgeon, here are five ways the inquiry lifted the lid on crucial decisions affecting all our lives.

1. The decision to shut schools was taken quickly by Swinney and Sturgeon

A theme running through the inquiry is the way the SNP Government was commanded by Ms Sturgeon from a tight circle of allies.

On Tuesday, the Covid inquiry heard from her former deputy that the two of them effectively decided to shut schools in 2020.

The decision did not involve the rest of cabinet because “events were moving at an absolutely ferocious pace”, Mr Swinney said.

Advice had been given from the UK Government’s scientific body, Sage, prompting concerns problems in London were heading north fast.

Previous messages suggested Ms Sturgeon actively wanted small circles of people for decisions.

Covid adviser Jason Leitch said in one message Ms Sturgeon “actually wants none of us”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will appears at the inquiry on Wednesday. Image: PA

2. Yet more messages deleted

The lack of records has shocked bereaved families who hoped to get a clear sense of how discussions were made that affected their lives.

Mr Swinney said he manually deleted messages sent to Ms Sturgeon. He believed this was in line with government policy.

“They would be deleted by periodic deletion once I was satisfied I had told my private office any info that was relevant so that I was not facing a large number of messages that I would potentially have to delete on one occasion,” he said.

Ms Forbes added her own frustration to the lack of minutes available from meetings of the Scottish Government Resilience Room (Sgorr), equivalent to the UK’s Cobra meetings.

The inquiry counsel, Jamie Dawson, said the lack of meetings made it difficult to understand decision-making in the pandemic.

Mr Forbes said: “I think every meeting of that nature in Scottish government should be minuted. I’m surprised to hear that they weren’t.”

3. Kate Forbes was not invited to meetings

Top level “gold command” meetings were attended by Ms Sturgeon and a small group of advisers and some ministers.

Ms Forbes, who was in charge of Scotland’s finances, was not invited in 2020.

She says she didn’t even know they existed until eventually going to one.

“I would have expected to be invited to any meeting where there were significant financial implications,” she said.

4. Nicola Sturgeon was furious over budget demands from Humza Yousaf

WhatsApp messages showed Humza Yousaf, who was health secretary, said £100 million of his budget could be directed to business support.

Mr Yousaf then laments he took a “hell of a bullet” in cabinet for his approach, something Ms Sturgeon was “not remotely happy” about.

Highland SNP MSP Kate Forbes. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson.

It also opened another window on the role of national clinical adviser Jason Leitch, a man already facing serious criticism in the inquiry.

He responded to Mr Yousaf saying Ms Sturgeon was “absolutely ridiculous”.

Ms Forbes, in messages from the same meeting, said she’d never seen Ms Sturgeon “this angry in all my cabinets for good reason”.

5. Shot across bow as Scottish Secretary Alister Jack prepares for inquiry

Nicola Sturgeon is appearing on Wednesday, but Mr Swinney made sure he parted with criticism of the UK Government’s Scottish Secretary, Alister Jack.

Mr Swinney told the inquiry there was no tangible presence from Mr Jack, who joins the inquiry on Thursday.

“In my experience, the secretary of state for Scotland would have contributed nothing of any useful value in assisting us in that process,” he said.

The UK Covid inquiry hears from Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday and Alister Jack on Thursday.