Scotland’s former first minister has said she will carry regrets over decisions taken during the Covid-19 pandemic “for as long as I live” in emotional inquiry testimony.
Nicola Sturgeon appeared before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry for hours on Wednesday, facing questions about the pandemic response, including the approach to care homes and accusations of politicisation of the pandemic.
The former first minister repeatedly struggled to hold back tears as she defended her record and that of her Government under intense questioning from lead counsel to the inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC.
At one point, Mr Dawson said Ms Sturgeon wanted to be “the person who had driven Covid out of Scotland”, which she rejected.
“I hoped that the decisions my Government would take would keep Covid at the lowest possible level, so that it took the lives of fewer people, minimised the disruption to people’s livelihoods and the education of children,” she said.
She added: “The toll it took, in Scotland, as in other parts of the UK, was far too high, so I didn’t do that as successfully as I wish I was able to but, perhaps in some ways, the measures we took had some impact.”
Ms Sturgeon also accepted that, had she politicised the pandemic, that would have constituted a “considerable betrayal of the Scottish people”.
She added that she had never thought about the idea of Scottish independence less than during the pandemic.
Mr Dawson repeatedly put it to Ms Sturgeon that the response was based on her “instincts”, questioning if “the story of Covid in Scotland is the story of the hubris of Nicola Sturgeon”?
She responded: “No. I do not believe that to be the case.
“I am in the fortunate position of not having lost anyone to Covid.”
Choking back tears, the former first minister added: “I wish with every fibre of my being that the decisions my Government had been able to take could have reduced the number of people in Scotland who did lose someone to Covid.
“I am deeply sorry to each and every bereaved person, and each and every person who suffered in other ways.”
She told the inquiry about a moment in February of 2020 when she was reviewing “worst-case scenario figures” in Bute House.
“In that moment, my only instinct and the instinct I brought to the management of the pandemic was: how do I lead a Government that makes the best possible decisions in horrific circumstances to try to minimise the harm that this virus is going to do?
“People will make their own judgments about me, about my Government, about my decisions, but for as long as I live, I will carry the impact of these decisions, I will carry regret at the decisions and judgments I got wrong, but I will always know in my heart, and in my soul, that my instincts and my motivation was nothing other than trying to do the best in the face of this pandemic.”
Speaking about her regrets, the former first minister said she should have sought to go into lockdown earlier.
“Of the many regrets I have, probably chief of those is that we didn’t lock down a week, two weeks, earlier than we did,” she said.
“I was motivated solely by trying to do the best we could to keep people as safe as possible,” she added.
Earlier, she choked back tears as she said: “I was the first minister when the pandemic struck.
“There’s a large part of me wishes that I hadn’t been, but I was, and I wanted to be the best first minister.”
Ms Sturgeon added it is “for others to judge” if she succeeded in her aim.
Since the inquiry has been sitting in Scotland, the issue of informal messaging within the Scottish Government has been at the fore, with guidance published in 2021 telling staff to delete messages and save salient points and decisions into the corporate record.
This resulted in swathes of messages being deleted, including Ms Sturgeon’s, although she stressed that she never used messaging apps like WhatsApp to conduct Government business, adding that she has been advised to delete messages since she became a minister.
She said: “I operated from 2007, based on advice, the policy that messages, business relating to government, should not be kept on a phone that could be lost or stolen and insecure in that way, but properly recorded through the system.”
In a message exchange with her then chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, which was submitted to the inquiry by the adviser, Ms Sturgeon admitted she was having a “crisis of decision-making” over hospitality and adding “it’s all so random” when discussing restrictions on restaurants.
The former first minister said she had “always assumed there would be a public inquiry” and apologised for any lack of clarity at a public briefing where she said her WhatsApps would be handed over, despite knowing they had been deleted.
Later in the session, under questioning from Kevin McCaffrey, representing the Scottish Covid Bereaved group, the former first minister when asked what she would have done differently in her approach to care homes, said she would have “desperately” sought a better way to manage the situation of elderly people in hospital who had no medical need to be there.
“I would do everything in my power and I wish I could turn the clock back and do different things that would have reduced the loss of life in care homes,” she said.
The former first minister admitted there were “flaws and deficiencies” in the initial guidance for care homes.
In the early months of the pandemic, more than 100 people were discharged from hospital to care homes after having previously tested positive for the virus and before returning a negative test.