Nicola Sturgeon ‘at times felt overwhelmed’ by pandemic and thought Boris Johnson ‘the wrong prime minister’ – UK Covid inquiry live

Sturgeon admits deleting WhatsApp messages

Sturgeon once again says she wants to be “very clear” that it was not her practice to have lengthy or detailed discussions through “these means” – a reference to WhatsApp.

“It’s not my style,” she insists.

What follows is an exchange between Sturgeon and Dawson over the manner in which messages were not retained on her phone. Dawson asks if she is making a distinction between deletion and not retaining messages, to which she tells him she was “very thorough” to keep to the advice she had been given about the retention of records.

“But did you delete them?” asks Dawson

“Yes,” comes the answer.

Updated at 07.10 EST

Key events

Sturgeon rejects the suggestion that there was any “culture of secrecy” on the part of the Scottish government when it came to things like whether Scottish ministers covered up the first recorded Covid outbreak in Scotland, from a Nike conference in Edinburgh in February 2020.

In the case of Nike, the decision taken was informed by considerations of patient confidentiality, but she accepted that others may have taken a different view.

“On Nike, I saw the potential – I don’t think this risk materialised – I saw the potential for the Nike conference to emerge later through a media disclosure to undermine confidence. In hindsight I would have gone the other way,” she added.

The inquiry is now breaking and will return at 1.45pm.

Updated at 08.00 EST

Sturgeon was asked about another aspect of planning – the need for public messaging – and she was asked if there had been a recommendation that keeping the public informed at an earlier stage was as important as the later process of daily briefings.

She says she recalls in advance of the briefings more regularly being asked about it in interviews, so the public messaging was something that her government was aware of.

Jamie Dawson KC (for the inquiry) says there was evidence of some things not being communicated to the public, such as the identity of the first person to die from Covid in Scotland and concerns about a rugby fixture. None of them were communicated at the time with any detail. Was this on the advice of Dr Catherine Calderwood, who was the chief medical officer in Scotland for a period before she later resigned?

Sturgeon says there were difference considerations in relation to those different examples.

She had discussed them with Dr Calderwood, though looking back now she might take a different decision. That said, she did not believe her advice was unreasonable.

A different physician might have had a different “risk appetite” and given different advice, while a “different politician” might have taken a different decision, she added.

She accepted the decisions made in that regard had the potential to undermine public messaging.

Updated at 08.01 EST

Sturgeon is asked about previous evidence that the health system had lacked the kit and resources when it came to getting testing in place.

It didn’t reflect a lack of urgency in terms of planning, she insists, and there was an intense supply chain pressure.

It took time for larger testing labs to be got up and running, although it would always have been the case that things didn’t move as quickly as she would have liked.

Updated at 08.02 EST

Sturgeon: ‘At times I felt overwhelmed with what we were dealing with’

Sturgeon wipes away a tear, adding that in the early days of the pandemic her experience and view was that everyone was trying their best.

She insists that she did not see an opportunity of any sort in Covid, in answer to a question about whether she saw the pandemic as a political opportunity.

“You have seen snippets of the human side of being a leader in those circumstances. At times I felt overwhelmed with what we were dealing with and perhaps more than anything I felt an overwhelming responsibility to do the best that I could.”

“The idea that in those horrendous days, weeks I was thinking of a political opportunity … I find … well, it just wasn’t true,” she adds, appearing to be trying to hold off tears again.

Updated at 07.35 EST

Sturgeon says Johnson was ‘wrong prime minister’ for Covid crisis

Sturgeon replies “yes” when asked if Boris Johnson was “the wrong prime minister” for the Covid-19 crisis.

Did she consider herself to be the right first minister for the job?

No, that is not how she would see things, says Sturgeon, as her voice cracks when she goes on to say that there is a large part of her which would have wished that she was not in that role.

Updated at 07.30 EST

Sturgeon was asked about a WhatsApp exchange in which Jason Leitch, a clinical director who advised on the response to the pandemic by the Scottish government, referred to the then first minister’s “‘keep it small’ shenanigans”.

Nicola Sturgeon was asked about comments on Whatsapp by an advisor to her govt that she favoured ‘keep it small shenanigans” when it came ot meetings
“You have to know Jason Leitch as well as I do to appreciate his sometimes turn of phrase,” she responds

— Ben Quinn (@BenQuinn75) January 31, 2024

Leitch was “crucial in a very positive way to our handling of the pandemic”, says Sturgeon.

She goes on to say that she suspects it was a reference to things that were sometimes said about her in government, which is that she “didn’t like a cast of unnecessary thousands” in meetings.

Updated at 07.44 EST

Libby Brooks

Libby Brooks

From the start of her evidence this morning, Nicola Sturgeon has appeared on edge, defensive, occasionally adopting that head girl-ish “I know best” tone that will be familiar to those who watched her briefings during the pandemic.

But there was a flare of genuine emotion at the end of the first morning session, when Dawson asked her about a story which appeared in the Express this morning which suggested that she and the former health secretary Jeane Freeman had purchased “burner phones” at the start of the pandemic.

Whilst there are questions to ask about use of phones by ministers – earlier Sturgeon admitted she had only used a personal phone during her time as first minister – the insinuation of this particular report were dubious at best, and it was a surprise that Dawson raised it.

Sturgeon immediately explained that the purchases were made by her constituency staff as office landlines were diverted to mobiles once lockdown was imposed – many other MSPs would have done likewise she said.

But the trembling and twitching of her lips and the wetting of her eyes suggested she was struggling to keep her emotions in check. Was she frustrated that Dawson was raising such a trivial bit of mischief-making amidst otherwise serious questioning? Or simply responding to highly pressurised questioning?

Nicola Sturgeon arrives at the UK Covid inquiry in Edinburgh. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Updated at 07.22 EST

The inquiry is being shown notes taken by Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s former chief of staff, from a meeting in 2020 about steps taken to mitigate the financial impact of a so-called ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown.

In a previous hearing, Lloyd had been asked about her suggestion of “political tactics calling for things we can’t do to force the UK”.

Sturgeon says this was a period of 2020 which culminated in the second lockdown in England and enhanced measure in Scotland. It was the point when there was a “disjoint” between the ability of the Scottish government to take public health decisions and inability to borrow money to compensate businesses was coming to the fore.

“This was a frustration that was expressed regularly by us,” she says, adding that the same frustration was felt by officials in Northern Ireland and Wales.

“This was, to be blunt, the Scottish government seeking to ensure, if we had to apply tougher restrictions, Scottish workers would get their wages paid and Scottish businesses would be able to cover their costs in the same way as those in England would.”

Sturgeon says she rejects any suggestion that Kate Forbes, as finance secretary, was excluded from those meetings

She did not operate in on any issue in a way that sought to exclude people from decision making, she insists.

“I tried to lead from the front. I tried to shoulder my fair share sometimes more than my fair share of the decision making given the severity,”

But she goes on to say: “I am sitting here thinking I don’t know why she wasn’t there that day, maybe she should have been in it and it was not a deliberate attempt to exclude her in any way.”

Updated at 07.32 EST

Sturgeon has been asked by comments from Kate Forbes who said she “wasn’t invited” to any of the high-level Scottish government pandemic response meetings in 2020 despite being finance secretary at the time. Forbes also told the inquiry she was not even aware of the so-called “gold command” meetings which Sturgeon had convened.

Sturgeon says there would have been nothing to stop her from attending those meetings if she had wanted to and her office was copied in to the notice of the meetings and papers.

Updated at 07.15 EST

Sturgeon ‘strongly refutes’ allegation she did not like light to be shone on how Scottish government made decisions

Jamie Dawson KC, for the inquiry, puts it to her that there has been a theme developing that the Scottish government which she led “did not like light to be shone” on the manner in which decisions were taken during the pandemic.

“I would very strongly refute that,” Sturgeon replies, going on to tell Dawson that she had looked at all the cabinet papers from the whole period, which ran to thousands of pages.

That paperwork does not just simply recall the decisions that were reached, and the options, but also gives a “comprehensive record”, which included the “thought processes and rationales”.

Updated at 07.16 EST

Sturgeon is now being asked about something the UK Covid inquiry is struggling to understand in relation to how she took key decisions during the pandemic because her “gold command” meetings were not minuted.

Jamie Dawson KC, the inquiry’s Scottish counsel, has said previously it appeared that the Scottish government failed to record discussions during any of Sturgeon’s crucial “gold” meetings with a small handful of her advisers and senior ministers during 2020 and 2021.

Asked about it today, Sturgeon essentially denies gold meeting were examples of her dictating policy without being minuted. Ultimately, cabinet made the decisions and set the policy, she insists.

There’s more here on the issue, as reported by my colleague Severin Carrell yesterday.

Updated at 07.17 EST

Sturgeon is shown a WhatsApp exchange in which Humza Yousaf, then health minister, was discussing the possibility of further lockdown related measures, but where there were questions about funding for business.

The inquiry has heard that Yousaf told cabinet that he had found money from his budget. In the WhatsApp messages, Yousaf said that “he had taken a bullet” at the meeting and that the then first minister “was not remotely happy its at this last stage.”

Dawson puts it to her that there was a culture where Sturgeon didn’t want to countenance things which she had not had advance sight of

“There was no such culture in the government I led,” she says. Cabinet discussions were robust and earnest and she expected ministers to be able to come and argue for the decisions they wanted to take.

Updated at 06.46 EST

The inquiry is back now again and has moved on to the decision-making process.

Before then, however, it’s worth reporting on this exchange we didn’t get to earlier in which Sturgeon said she “perhaps shouldn’t have” given an SNP address to Prof Devi Sridhar, who advised the Scottish government during the coronavirus outbreak

The inquiry saw messages between the pair where the then first minister gave Sridhar an SNP email address as well as a Scottish government email address.

She said: “On reflection perhaps I shouldn’t have done that.

“But if I had been in any way trying to direct her to a private email address, I doubt if I would have put my government email address in there as well.”

Updated at 06.47 EST

Sturgeon is being asked about her use of a personal phone – as other members of her government did – and whether she felt it was appropriate.

It was never suggested to me at any time during my period as first minister that it was not appropriate, she replies. She used a personal phone because she didn’t want to have multiple devices.

Jamie Dawson KC, for the inquiry, asks her about a report yesterday in the Scottish Daily Express that Sturgeon and Jeane Freeman, the Scottish government’s health secretary at the time, purchased cheap mobile phones and prepaid top-up cards during the early months of the Covid pandemic.

Sturgeon says that they were the phones her constituency office landline were diverted to in the homes of her constituency workers.

She had never “to the best of my knowledge seen heard or used any of the phones.”

The inquiry is now taking a break until 11.30 before it moves on to other areas of questioning by Dawson.

Updated at 06.49 EST

Sturgeon has been shown exchanges from another WhatsApp group – which she was not a part of – in which a civil servant appeared to be encouraging others to delete records that could be recoverable under the freedom of information act

She says she “can’t answer” for Ken Thomson, the civil servant who made the remark, but she insists that her experience of him was that he was “assiduous” and took his duties and responsibilities seriously

“I can only speak about my experience of him and I can give an answer based on my interpretation of it, which was that it was meant to be a light-hearted discussion,” she added.

Sturgeon wasn’t in this Whatsapp group but she’s being asked about a Scottish government civil servant who appeared to have been encouraging others to delete messages that could be recovered under FOI
Can’t answer for him but she suggests it was “light hearted”

— Ben Quinn (@BenQuinn75) January 31, 2024

Updated at 06.49 EST

Sturgeon is being pressed at length on the rationale for not storing WhatsApp messages. The position she keeps on returning to is that any decisions taken would have been discussed at cabinet level and recorded there.

At the Covid inquiry, Nicola Sturgeon is being asked about her deletion of whatsapps
Would an exchange like this not have been one that would have informed a public understanding later?
There was nothing in this exchange that would not have been recored in public record she says

— Ben Quinn (@BenQuinn75) January 31, 2024

In many cases, she insists, she would have been standing at a podium later in the day being questioned about the issues at hand.

Updated at 06.06 EST