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No record of Sturgeon’s secretive ‘gold command’ meetings, Covid inquiry told

The Covid inquiry has criticised Nicola Sturgeon’s government for failing to record minutes of her secretive “gold command” meetings during the pandemic.

The official probe into the pandemic heard on Tuesday that there is “no record” of how decisions were made because there were no minutes available from the gold command group or the Scottish Government Resilience Room (SGoRR).

Counsel Jamie Dawson KC said the inquiry had asked the Scottish government for “all of its papers concerning these matters”.

“And although we have cabinet minutes, we don’t have minuted records of either of those groups,” he said.

Former finance minister Kate Forbes, who stood for the SNP leadership when Ms Sturgeon stepped down, said she was “surprised” to learn that meetings of the groups had no minutes.

Mr Dawson said: “It becomes difficult to understand what the ultimate decision-making process was when there is no record of how those decisions were taken.”

To which Ms Forbes replied: “I can understand that frustration.”

Kate Forbes said she was ‘surprised’ to learn that Nicola Sturgeon’s gold command meetings had not been minuted (Getty)
Kate Forbes said she was ‘surprised’ to learn that Nicola Sturgeon’s gold command meetings had not been minuted (Getty)

Ms Sturgeon’s key gold command meetings were attended by just a handful of her advisers and top ministers during the pandemic. Ms Forbes, despite being the country’s finance minister at the time, was excluded from the meeting, the inquiry heard on Tuesday.

She also told the inquiry she did not delete any of her WhatsApp messages with senior Scottish government ministers and officials until January 2022 when all major Covid-19 decisions had been made.

The former finance minister told the probe a “junior member” of her private office told her it was Scottish government policy from January 2022 for all messages within the private office to be deleted going forward, and she “acquiesced” because she believed it was an instruction.

She said she believed it only applied to the junior member of her private office and did not recall the policy applying to anybody else in and around the cabinet or government.

Sturgeon will appear at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday (PA)
Sturgeon will appear at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday (PA)

Ms Forbes, SNP MSP for Skye, Badenoch and Lochaber, said she provided her messages to the inquiry “in the spirit of being completely open”.

Use and retention of WhatsApp messages by senior Scottish government ministers and officials has proved contentious, with first minister Humza Yousaf making an “unreserved” apology for the Scottish government’s “frankly poor” handling of requests from the inquiry for WhatsApp messages to be handed over.

Apologising while giving evidence to the inquiry last week, he said he accepted this would have caused “serious grief and retrauma” for those who lost loved ones during the pandemic.

The inquiry has also seen evidence from two of the country’s top clinicians – national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch and chief medical officer Professor Sir Gregor Smith – referencing deleting messages in exchanges with colleagues.

The SNP leader has apologised for the Scottish government’s poor handling of WhatsApp messages amid the inquiry (PA)
The SNP leader has apologised for the Scottish government’s poor handling of WhatsApp messages amid the inquiry (PA)

Mr Yousaf has announced an external review into his government’s use of mobile messaging.

Ms Forbes also told the inquiry she could not recall being aware of epidemiological evidence about coronavirus available to the Scottish government when she became finance secretary in February 2020.

Asked by Mr Dawson if she was aware of “emerging evidence” available to the Scottish government from epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse about the basic threat of the virus and what it might mean for Scotland.

She said: “Not that I recall being aware of, no, beyond what might have just generally been discussed in the public domain.”

The MSP also said she could not recall anything relating to Covid-19 being in the budget she presented to parliament on 6 February 2020, that had been prepared by her predecessor Derek Mackay.