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Unreserved apology from Yousaf over ‘frankly poor’ handling of message requests

Humza Yousaf offered an “unreserved” apology for the Scottish Government’s “frankly poor” handling of requests from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry for WhatsApp messages to be handed over.

The Scottish First Minister told the inquiry he accepted this would have caused “serious grief and retrauma” for those who lost loved ones during the pandemic.

He also said that the government should have enforced Covid testing on patients without symptoms of the virus who were being moved from hospitals into care homes “sooner than we actually did”.

Mr Yousaf gave his evidence to the inquiry, currently sitting in Edinburgh, shortly after announcing an external review into his Government’s use of mobile messaging.

He began his evidence by “acknowledging the trauma and the grief that so many families and individuals faced” as a result of Covid.

Mr Yousaf said: “I want to offer my condolences once again to every single person who has been bereaved by Covid.

“However let me also acknowledge it is not sympathies that they require from witnesses, but straight answers to straight questions.”

Asked about WhatsApp messages from the time of the pandemic, which the inquiry requested from the Scottish Government, Mr Yousaf said: “Let me unreservedly apologise to this inquiry, but also to those who are mourning the loss of a loved one, who were bereaved by Covid, for the Government’s frankly poor handling of the various Rule 9 requests in relation to informal messages.

“There is no excuse for it, we should have done better and it is why I reiterate that apology today.”

Humza Yousaf came to the inquiry in Edinburgh after telling MSPs an external review would look at how informal messages are retained in future (Jane Barlow/PA)
Humza Yousaf came to the inquiry in Edinburgh after telling MSPs an external review would look at how informal messages are retained in future (Jane Barlow/PA)

With information contained in such informal messages transferred on to the Scottish Government’s official record, Mr Yousaf told counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC that “for a long time, the corporate mindset of the government, the organisational mindset of the government, was because the corporate record had those key decisions and salient points, that was the only thing required to hand over to the inquiry”.

But Mr Yousaf conceded there was “clearly a gap” in the mobile message policy in relation to how material in informal messages should be retained.

“That is why I have instructed an externally led review to look at this issue,” he said.

He later told Claire Mitchell KC, representing Scottish Covid Bereaved ,that he accepted this situation had caused “serious grief and retrauma for those you represent”.

He added: “There’s no excuses from me – that should have been handled better and in the future will be handled better.”

Accepting that there is a “long list of potential lessons” for governments from the pandemic, Mr Yousaf went on to say testing for Covid  on those moving from hospitals into care homes should have been carried out sooner.

He stated: “There will be a number of things we could have done better.

“It is my view as the current First Minister that we should have been testing those who were leaving hospitals, going into care homes who were asymptomatic, sooner than we actually did.”

That came as the First Minister said the possibility of the disease being transmitted from those without symptoms was known about “early on” in the course of the pandemic “through various international journals, through various academic articles”.

He also insisted the Scottish Government’s national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch had not been giving him a “workaround” for Covid mask wearing rules when he advised him he would not need to wear a face covering at an event if he kept a drink in his hands “at all times”.

Messages were exhanged between Humza Yousaf, the then Scottish health secretary, and Scottish Government adviser Professor Jason Leitch (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Messages were exhanged between Humza Yousaf, the then Scottish health secretary, and Scottish Government adviser Professor Jason Leitch (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Mr Dawson asked the First Minister: “Professor Leitch was giving you a loophole or a workaround to try and enable you not to comply with the rules, isn’t that right?”

But Mr Yousaf said the expert was instead “telling me how to comply” with the guidance – saying there were “times when the rules were complex”.

He told the inquiry that in his previous role as health secretary, he “didn’t just double check the rules” but would triple check or even “quadruple check them” if he had to.

The First Minister said: “Because the intensity of the public scrutiny we were under… particularly as the cabinet secretary for health, I knew I would always be under scrutiny to make sure I was absolutely following every regulation and every guidance.

“I always wanted to make sure I was absolutely complying.”

He insisted: “I never asked for a workaround or how not to comply, neither would I suggest he was giving that.”

The Inquiry continues.