Covid WhatsApps a ‘real slap’ for hospitality businesses, says industry leader, after Nicola Sturgeon messages revealed

Stephen Montgomery said the revelations from the UK Covid Inquiry had reinforced some of the concerns businesses had at the time

The content of WhatsApp messages released as part of the UK Covid Inquiry's hearings in Scotland has felt like a "real slap" for hospitality businesses, an industry leader has said.

Stephen Montgomery, director of the Scottish Hospitality Group, said the revelations had "absolutely" reinforced some of the concerns businesses had at the time.

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It comes after Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, was forced to deny advising First Minister Humza Yousaf of a “work around” to mask rules during the pandemic.

Humza Yousaf. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesHumza Yousaf. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Humza Yousaf. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Meanwhile, critics said messages between Nicola Sturgeon and Liz Lloyd, her former chief of staff, suggested that hospitality rules were “seemingly made up at random”.

Mr Montgomery, who lobbied on behalf of the hospitality industry during the Covid crisis, said: "I'm ex-army, and our thing was always preparation and planning before execution.

"In many, many instances it shows now, after the evidence, in Scotland that it was execution without any planning and preparation, and just left for the businesses to deal with the fallout."

In a message exchange between Ms Sturgeon and Ms Lloyd in October 2020, which was submitted to the inquiry by the adviser, the former first minister admitted she was having a “crisis of decision-making” over hospitality and added “it’s all so random” when discussing restrictions on restaurants.

Mr Montgomery said: "If she thought it was random, how did the government think that we felt?”

In a separate exchange from November 2021, Mr Yousaf – then serving as health secretary – asked Prof Leitch about mask rules ahead of an event he was attending.

“I know sitting at the table I don’t need my mask,” Mr Yousaf said in the partially redacted message. “If I’m standing talking to folk need my mask on (sic)?”

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Responding, the national clinical director said: “Officially yes. But literally no one does. Have a drink in your hands at ALL times. Then you’re exempt. So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”

Mr Montgomery told The Scotsman: "That was a real slap to us, because we had people ringing us saying 'I'm just going to build a shelf outside our toilets, so people can walk around with a drink in their hand, walk into the toilet, use the toilet and come back out and walk back to their table with a drink in their hand and they’re exempt from wearing masks'.

"We were continually saying 'don't do that, because that's flouting the law'.”

The hospitality boss added: "If the health secretary is querying his own policy on health, how was it supposed to be for the hospitality industry?”

The UK Covid Inquiry sat in Edinburgh for three weeks, during which it heard evidence from senior politicians, civil servants and experts.

Ms Sturgeon, who fought back tears during parts of her evidence, has been strongly criticised by campaigners for deleted her own Covid WhatsApps.

She said she rarely used the app and had deleted her messages in line with official advice.

It was confirmed on Sunday that Scotland’s information commissioner David Hamilton was launching an investigation into the Scottish Government’s use of WhatsApp and informal messages.

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Mr Hamilton said evidence revealed at the inquiry raised “significant practice concerns” around the retention of informal communications from the pandemic.

Retailers have meanwhile urged Scottish ministers to shelve considerations for a “cash grab” tax on grocery stores selling alcohol or tobacco.

The Scottish Government’s 2024/25 Budget documents revealed plans to “explore” a new business rate surtax on retail premises to help plug the gap in public finances.

Retail leaders previously warned the proposals could lead to stores needing to raise an additional £1 billion in sales each year to cover the cost, coupled with continued pressure on the industry following the pandemic.

The tax proposals – similar to the public health supplement introduced in 2012 – would see retailers pay extra if they sold alcohol or tobacco from their premises.

The previous scheme raised £95 million before it ended in 2015. Now, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) union has joined forced with the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) to demand ministers reject the plans.

The union said the move would be a “retrograde step” that would break pledges set out in the Scottish Government’s New Deal for Business framework.

Tracy Gilbert, Usdaw Scotland’s regional secretary, said: “The Scottish Government should be making it as easy as possible for retailers to invest and create good jobs in Scotland, not making it more difficult with the threat of a costly new business rate surtax.

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“This arbitrary move could exacerbate the challenges facing retail. It could well have significant unintended consequences particularly if it impacted on the amount available to retailers to invest in training budgets or colleague bonuses.”

David Lonsdale, director of the SRC, said: “Usdaw’s intervention shows that a growing range of voices from across Scotland’s retail industry are expressing serious doubts about the wisdom of introducing a new tax on food retailers.

“A new surtax would be a retrograde step and firmly as odds with the government’s New Deal for Business. Grocers already face a swathe of upcoming new regulations and have also been lumbered with huge costs as a result of the deposit return scheme farrago.

“Now they face an additional tax which even the Scottish Government admits is little more than a cash grab. We hope ministers take heed and shelve the surtax.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This announcement in the Scottish Budget signalled ministers’ intention to explore the reintroduction of a public health supplement in advance of the next Scottish budget. Representatives from the retail sector and other relevant stakeholders will be consulted as part of that exploratory work.”



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