25 January 2024

Pandemic decisions were not made for political reasons, insists Yousaf

25 January 2024

Humza Yousaf has rejected accusations the Scottish Government made pandemic decisions for political reasons, as he clashed with Douglas Ross and Anas Sarwar over evidence emerging at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

The First Minister also said he has commissioned an external review into his Government’s use of mobile messaging.

First Minister’s Questions took place at Holyrood on Thursday as Nicola Sturgeon’s former chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, gave evidence to the inquiry in Edinburgh and hours before Mr Yousaf was due before the panel himself.

Scottish Conservative leader Mr Ross referred to Scottish ministers and Government officials deleting their WhatsApp messages, saying: “From politicians to civil servants, they sought to destroy evidence.

“Doesn’t this show a culture of secrecy running through this entire SNP Government?”

My Yousaf denied the Government had been “hiding from scrutiny”, saying 28,000 messages had been handed over to the inquiry and highlighting Ms Sturgeon led more than 250 media briefings during the pandemic.

He sought to contrast the Scottish Government’s approach to the inquiry with that of the Prime Minister, who he said “hasn’t handed over a single WhatsApp message”.

Mr Ross went on to refer to Ms Lloyd’s evidence session at the inquiry, where her message exchanges with Ms Sturgeon were revealed.

I know our motivation, every step of the way, was to ensure we kept the people of this country safe

He claimed it is clear a decision on how many guests would be allowed at weddings during Covid “was taken over WhatsApp”.

Mr Yousaf said decisions were routinely recorded on the Government’s official system.

However he conceded the handling of requests for WhatsApp messages had not been his Government’s “finest hour”.

Mr Ross pressed on, referring to a message from Ms Lloyd about starting “a good old fashioned rammy” with the UK Government.

He said such messages confirm “the SNP made some crucial Covid decisions for purely political reasons”.

But Mr Yousaf responded: “I reject the charge in its entirety.

“I know our motivation, every step of the way, was to ensure we kept the people of this country safe.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour leader Mr Sarwar used FMQs to accuse Ms Sturgeon and her former deputy first minister John Swinney of deleting WhatsApp messages on an “industrial scale”.

He said: “This isn’t just about the inquiry, this is about how this Government operates.

“This is a party that over the last 17 years in Government has created a culture of secrecy and cover-up.

“A culture that goes from the First Minister down, because the SNP believe that it’s one standard for them and another standard for everyone else.

“They have abused the trust that the people of Scotland have put on them.

“First Minister, how can you ever expect the people of Scotland to trust you or your party ever again?”

Mr Yousaf said he had handed over all of his own WhatsApps and highlighted his own appearance before the inquiry.

He said: “To suggest that somehow there was a cover-up – I frankly do not believe the public agree with Anas Sarwar or Douglas Ross.”

Following FMQs the lead solicitor for the Scottish Covid Bereaved group, Aamer Anwar, said: “The First Minister Humza Yousaf needs to stop acting like a cheerleader for his former boss Nicola Sturgeon.

“He needs to take control, stop drip-feeding evidence to the public inquiry and hand over all the private emails that ministers used to bypass scrutiny during the pandemic.”

He continued: “We know now from the evidence today despite claims to the contrary, Liz Lloyd, chief of staff to Nicola Sturgeon, can provide no WhatsApps between her and Nicola Sturgeon prior to September 1 2020 – meaning that during the critical period of the pandemic for the first 10 months of 2020, the WhatsApps no longer exist.

“How very convenient for Ms Sturgeon and Ms Lloyd.”

Mr Anwar said the external review is “too little too late” and there had been a “culture of impunity, of arrogance, of contempt”.

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