UK Covid Inquiry: The questions yet to be answered after evidence from Nicola Sturgeon and senior ministers in Scottish and UK governments
With a roll call of senior politicians from across the Scottish and UK governments giving evidence as the UK Covid-19 Inquiry convened in Edinburgh, there were several well-publicised insights and surprises that emerged.
But crucially, the forensic sessions still leave several issues unresolved. Here are some of the key questions that remain unanswered.
Why did Nicola Sturgeon retain some WhatsApp messages, but not others?
By dint of its terms of reference, the scope of the statutory UK public inquiry is tightly focused on events that transpired during the pandemic, but given what we know about Sturgeon’s use of informal messaging apps, both before and during those torrid few years, it seems scrutiny of her actions within a wider context would provide a fuller understanding of what went on.
During her evidence, Sturgeon went to considerable lengths to give the impression that she abided by the government’s policy around information retention, and did not retain communications on informal messaging apps. While the coherence and robustness of that policy invited its own questions, Sturgeon’s claims invite other ones.
Back in 2020, during a Holyrood committee’s hearings into the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment complaints against her predecessor, Alex Salmond, Sturgeon handed over a screenshot of messages between herself and Salmond dating back three years previously. Why did she keep records of those exchanges, but not others that were sent during one of the gravest political crises in living memory? Was it politically expedient to retain some messages, yet delete others?
What other decisions were made via WhatsApp?
One incisive piece of evidence during Sturgeon’s testimony on Wednesday focused on a WhatsApp exchange provided to the inquiry by Liz Lloyd, her former chief of staff. The messages, exchanged in October 2020, appeared to contradict Sturgeon’s insistence that she only used the end-to-end encrypted messaging app for “routine exchanges”, “logistics,” and “passing on information”.
The discussion focused on altering the restrictions of hospitality opening hours, with the two women debating the merits of a closing time of either 6pm or 8pm. At one point, Sturgeon, having taken on board Lloyd’s points, wrote: “OK we should prob stick with 6.”
Asked about this exchange, Sturgeon said she was simply talking about things that would be discussed in Cabinet, but it is hard not to conclude from the evidence that her mind was already made up. If Sturgeon seemed to make a decision on Covid restrictions after a chat on WhatsApp, what other decisions did she arrive at via the app?
Why were Gold Command meetings not minuted?
In her evidence, Sturgeon strived to downplay the influence of the Gold Command group, a rotating forum primarily attended by her, her former deputy John Swinney, and other senior ministers. Frustratingly, we might never know if that was the case, not least because the gatherings of the group were not minuted. According to Sturgeon, that is because it was not a decision-making body. She characterised it instead as a device in which she and other senior figures could “start to in our own minds firm up the direction we thought we were going in”.
This is deliberately and unhelpfully vague, but even if the Gold Command attendees did not ratify decisions, it suggests they went some way to discussing the important issues that would lead to them. Indeed, the most telling thing we know about the Gold meetings is that some key ministers were not party to many of its discussions. Gormer finance secretary Kate Forbes said she was unaware of the group’s existence until 2021.
It is unrealistic to expect every junior minister and civil servant to contribute to big decisions, especially at a time as frenetic as the pandemic. But could the Scottish Cabinet have made more informed decisions if the formative work was not siloed off to the members of Gold Command, and given the seniority of those involved in it, surely minutes should have been kept?
Why was the government’s important retention policy interpreted so differently?
One of the most startling sections of evidence during the inquiry’s Scottish hearings came when Swinney – another senior minister who had diligently eradicated his digital footprints – apologised if he had misunderstood the government’s records management policy. The potential for such misinterpretations is a huge failing. And time and again the inquiry heard how different members of the Cabinet had their own takes on it.
Unlike Sturgeon and Swinney, First Minister Humza Yousaf handed over some of his WhatsApp exchanges, although he had deleted others. Kate Forbes, the-then finance secretary, took the opposite approach, and did not get rid of any of her messages. Some said they were following guidance that dated back to 2007. Others said they were not aware of any guidance at all.
There is no explanation as to how this derisory and erratic system came to be in place, but it is one of the primary reasons for the paucity of information made available to the inquiry. We do not know whether the existing crop of ministers under Yousaf have been given clear, unambiguous briefings about the policy, but if not, it should be a priority.
What will the review into the Scottish Government’s use of mobile messaging achieve?
Ahead of his own appearance at the inquiry, Yousaf perhaps anticipated some of the above tensions, telling Holyrood there would be an externally-led review into “the use of mobile messaging apps”, and “non-corporate technology” in the Scottish Government. His desire to address this long-standing issue is welcome, especially if it signals a genuine desire to bring about a cultural shift. It is of paramount importance the principles of openness and transparency are paid more than lip service.
But it is hard to see what impact it will have, short of a proposal for ban on WhatsApp and similar encrypted apps. Given the way the modern world goes about its business, that is an unrealistic prospect. It is also, frankly, an undesirable one – for all the failings identified in recent days, it is important that senior politicians, advisors and civil servants have a space in which to hold discussions and formulate ideas.
An alternative may take the form of a more robust policy, one enshrined in the ministerial code, that ensures the complete retention of messages deemed relevant by individual government departments and private offices, and not simply the “salient” points of those messages. The question of what is and what is not relevant obviously needs to be made abundantly clear, but a starting point might be discussions around policy, government decisions and projects, and issues involving public money.
Will Humza Yousaf accept the need for a wider review of the government’s information retention policy?
Anyone who has been led on the merry dance of challenging a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish Government will know that a lack of transparency did not begin, nor end, with the pandemic. The problem predated Sturgeon’s tenure as first minister, and given so many key figures of that administration are now serving under Yousaf, it is justifiable to suppose that traces of an institutional culture of secrecy persist.
It is in Yousaf’s gift to change that, and ensure that he clears up not just the ambiguity around the government’s use of messaging apps, but its approach to information management more generally. There will likely come a time in the not-too-distant future for the pressure for him to do so could become intense.
One interested observer of the UK inquiry’s Scottish hearings was David Hamilton, the Scottish Information Commissioner. After the inquiry was shown WhatsApp group exchanges between senior civil servants – in which Ken Thomson, the-then director general for constitution and external affairs and manager of the government’s pandemic co-ordination directorate, joshed about deleting chats – I asked Mr Hamilton for his views. He told me that some of the material in that session was “deeply concerning”, and would be considered further by his office. Yousaf may wish to allay such concerns pre-emptively.
Can the bad blood between the UK and Scottish governments highlighted by the pandemic be repaired?
Predictably, senior figures in the UK and Scottish administrations accused their counterparts of playing politics. UK levelling-up secretary Michael Gove struggled to fully explain a paper he presented to his UK Cabinet colleagues in summer 2020, entitled ‘State of the Union’, which emphasised how being part of the UK helped people enduring the “hardship” of the pandemic. When the tables were turned, he seized on a WhatsApp remark by Lloyd about starting a “good old fashioned rammy” as evidence of a desire to “pursue differentiation for the sake of advancing a political agenda”. Neither side came out well.
It may be the inquiry chair, Baroness Heather Hallett, provides recommendations that will be agreed upon and enacted by the different administrations. After all, the inquiry is tasked with examining decision-making between the governments of the UK, and to scrutinise the collaboration between central government and devolved administrations. In her evidence, Forbes offered illuminating insights into the Scottish Government’s frustration with the Barnett formula’s inflexibility at a time of emergency.
But it should not require a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic to bring about change. That torrid time merely exposed how the nuts and bolts of devolution can seize up. It may be a matter of months before the corridors of Whitehall take on the red hue of Labour, but that in itself is no guarantee the reset button can be hit. Both administrations must exhibit a willingness to forge a closer, constructive relationship.
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