Humza Yousaf was allegedly advised on how to avoid wearing a face mask in public by one of Scotland’s most senior health officials at the height of the Covid crisis, a public inquiry has been told.
Private text messages show Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, told Yousaf he had only to hold a glass in his hand to avoid having to use a mask while he was standing and talking to people at a dinner.
Leitch told Yousaf, then Scotland’s health secretary, that “officially” everyone had to wear a mask when they were standing and talking. “But literally no one does,” Leitch added.
“Have a drink in your hands at all times. Then you’re exempt. So if someone comes over to you and you stand, lift your drink.”
Jamie Dawson KC, the counsel to the UK Covid inquiry, challenged Leitch on that exchange and asked him whether he was offering Yousaf a “workaround” so he didn’t have to wear a mask.
Dawson added that this was what Yousaf “was trying to achieve”. It was “a workaround to try and enable [Yousaf] to attend the function, not wear a mask and get out of complying with the rules”, hesaid.
Leitch denied the allegation and downplayed its significance. “If this were a broader and very important piece of guidance I would not be comfortable with that at all. This was a tiny nuance inside broad guidance about dinners and drinking,” he told Dawson.
It was a “tricky area” that even he had found difficult to understand, Leitch said. The rules said diners were not required to wear a mask while they were eating and drinking but were not specific about what they should do if they stood up to talk to someone not at their table.
“I told him to have a drink in his hands. He wouldn’t be drinking it the whole time but having a drink in your hands meant you didn’t have to wear a mask,” he added.
Leitch said he himself had been caught out at a different dinner when he was photographed standing without his mask on.
“Strictly speaking, that was breaking the rules, but it was during a dinner and during a social occasion and therefore, I thought it was legitimate, and [Yousaf] is asking [about] precisely that scenario,” Leitch added.
Dawson said these messages were exchanged just as Covid cases had begun to surge in November 2021 as a result of the Delta variant, and shortly before Omicron caused infection rates to soar, to nearly eight times greater than during the first wave of the pandemic.
“If the cabinet secretary for health and social care didn’t understand the rules, what chance did anybody else have?” Dawson asked.
Leitch was also challenged by Dawson and Heather Hallett, the chair of the inquiry, over whether he had connived with recommendations by another senior civil servant that deleting WhatsApp messages meant they could avoid freedom of information laws.
Leitch was shown messages he had read and replied to from Ken Thomson, then Scottish government’s director general for strategy and external affairs, where Thomson said “just to remind you (seriously), this is discoverable under FoI. Know where the ‘clear chat’ button is …”. Leitch replied: “DG level input there” and then “done”.
Hallett said those messages “suggest a rather enthusiastic adoption” of the policy of deleting messages.
Leitch said his response was flippant, but “it certainly wasn’t my position. My position was that I was following the guidance and wasn’t particularly enthusiastic or otherwise about deletion”.