Exclusive:WhatsApp messages claimed to show Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings 'misled Scottish Government' in early stages of Covid pandemic
WhatsApp messages between Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson released by the Covid-19 inquiry appear to show devolved administrations were not being given the truth at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sources within the Scottish Government said the “jaw-dropping admission” raised critical questions around the quality of information shared with devolved administrations in the weeks leading to the first UK-wide lockdown.
The exchanges, released this week and sent on March 12, 2020, show Mr Cummings advising Mr Johnson to hold daily meetings on Covid-19.
He states: “You need to chair daily meetings in the Cabinet room -- not COBRA -- on this from tomorrow. I’m going to tell the system this.”
Referring to devolved administrations (DAs) including Scotland, he adds: “NOT with the DAs on the f****** phone all the time either so people can’t tell you the truth.”
Sources claimed this amounted to evidence that Number 10 was lying to and misleading devolved nations on the nature and severity of the Covid pandemic in the early weeks of the crisis.
Other evidence released by the inquiry show the Scotland Secretary, Alister Jack, advise that it would be wrong to include Nicola Sturgeon in meetings as it “would avoid Scottish FM grandstanding”.
A senior Scottish Government source said: “From the very start it was clear to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that politics and not public health played too big a part in the UK Government's approach to Covid.
"Misleading the Scottish Government is a jaw-dropping admission and the question has to be asked what misleading information was provided and what impact did it have?"
Four days prior to the messages between Cummings and the former Prime Minister, Murrayfield hosted more than 67,000 spectators who watched Scotland beat France 28-17.
On the same day as the messages were sent, the First Minister announced all gatherings of 500 people or more should be cancelled to protect public health.
Eleven days later, the country entered lockdown after Mr Johnson and the leaders of the three devolved administrations were advised at a COBRA meeting to do so, resulting in millions being told to “stay at home”.
Lockdown measures legally came into force three days later, but restrictions did not lift fully until more than two years later.
During a session of First Minister’s Questions in June 2021, Ms Sturgeon said she would have placed Scotland in a full lockdown earlier if she “could turn the clock back”.
In the early stages of the pandemic, politicians representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were unable to directly interrogate advice coming from the advisory group SAGE.
Scientific advisers to the devolved nations also often struggled to get their hands on documents produced by the group, and devolved nations were never directly advised by the group.
Information was instead passed to them via daily meetings with UK Government ministers, meetings sources say had their agenda “pre-agreed” with “scripted” contributions from around the room.
This would take the form of information being presented as part of the justification for decisions made, rather than as raw data to be interrogated.
For example, SAGE issued advice to UK ministers a week prior to lockdown that more severe measures should be introduced as soon as possible, but it is unclear if this was released to Scottish ministers before the lockdown decision was made by Number 10.
Sources say this lack of information blunted the Scottish Government’s ability to respond to the situation earlier, with the key information which was being withheld being deliberately kept tightly to Number 10’s chest to stop devolved administrations making decisions ahead of the UK cabinet.
It also sparked the creation two days into lockdown of its own scientific advisory board which featured experts such as the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Devi Sridhar.
This was done to ensure the government had access to its own advice, rather than relying on what was considered unreliable information from Number 10.
Dame Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson, labelled the messages “astounding” and accused the Conservatives of playing “political games” during the pandemic.
She said: “These astounding messages show how badly warped the Tories’ priorities were during the pandemic – and that’s before the lockdown parties began.
“Hundreds of thousands of lives were on the line, but this chronically dishonest Tory government was still playing political games.
“The culture of conflict and secrecy between our two governments is doing lasting damage. Scotland needs two governments willing to work together and Labour is committed to delivering that.”
A UK Government spokesperson said: "Throughout the pandemic the government acted to save lives and livelihoods, prevent the NHS being overwhelmed and deliver a world-leading vaccine rollout which protected the nation.
"We have always said there are lessons to be learnt from the pandemic and we are committed to learning from the Covid Inquiry’s findings which will play a key role in informing the government’s planning and preparations for the future."
They also pointed at a statement to the inquiry which said there was “significant evidence of data sharing” but conceded there were “communication challenges, especially in the early stages” with devolved administrations and local authorities.
The Scottish Conservatives declined to comment.
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