Covid Scotland: Fresh transparency row over refusal to release First Minister's Covid briefing papers

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of presiding over a government where secrecy is “all too commonplace” after officials claimed thousands of emails would have to be searched to retrieve briefing papers handed to the First Minister.

The transparency row comes after officials said 3,000 emails would have to be searched and potentially redacted before any briefings on Covid-19, handed to Ms Sturgeon.

Officials also claimed 40,000 emails would have to be searched to provide less than a month’s worth of briefings handed to senior ministers, including Ms Sturgeon, Covid recovery secretary John Swinney, and health secretary Humza Yousaf.

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Opposition politicians rubbished the responses and said the public deserved answers about the information used by the First Minister to reintroduce restrictions due to the Omicron wave.

The Freedom of Information requests asked for less than one month’s worth of Covid-19 briefings to the three most senior ministers, and a week’s worth of briefings sent to the First Minister by officials and advisers.

In the response, officials said: “’Clinical advice’ is received in a number of formats and is not always signposted, therefore could be included in any of these e-mails.

"In order to provide the information requested, approximately 40,000 e-mails would require to be located, reviewed and potentially redacted.”

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The Scottish Government said it would have to check 3,000 emails for one week's worth of Covid-19 briefings handed to the First Minister. Andrew Milligan/PA

They added both requests for the information would cost more than £600 to answer – the limit over which public bodies can refuse requests.

Murdo Fraser, the Scottish Conservative’s Covid recovery spokesperson, called on ministers to do more to make information available to the public.

He said: “It is clear that secrecy is all too commonplace within the SNP Government. Perfectly reasonable questions continue to be stonewalled and the public are left in the dark as a result.

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“Given the importance of transparency and scrutiny around Covid-related decisions, eyebrows will be raised as to why this information is not being made freely available.

“Ministers need to be upfront, wherever possible, when decisions taken will have a direct impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

“From this response, officials are now clearly thinking of even more ways in which they can stop crucial information from being released.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the Government must be “more transparent” on issues relating to public health and the pandemic, adding the public “deserves answers”.

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He said: “The Scottish Government has always had a loose relationship with the requirements placed on it by Freedom of Information legislation, but this takes the biscuit.

"It obviously only takes a week to pull together a week’s worth of Covid briefings, so it shouldn’t take much longer than that to produce the information surrounding them.”

The fresh concerns around transparency come just a month after the Scottish Government was judged to have acted unlawfully by withholding Covid-19 death and case modelling ahead of the second wave.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We provide information whenever possible and in 2021 we handled more than 4,000 FOI cases – 25 per cent more than in 2020 – and issued 86 per cent on time.

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“Where the cost of locating, retrieving and providing the information requested exceeds the upper cost limit of £600, requesters are asked to narrow their request in line with guidance outlined in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.”

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