The fallout from yesterday's revelations at the Covid Inquiry continue.
Nicola Sturgeon has big questions to answer.
The commentary in the media today around Sturgeon’s conduct is furious. Paul Hutcheon in The Record summarises the story:
“She gave an assurance to bereaved families live on TV that WhatsApps and private emails would be disclosed. She had a duty to fulfil this promise and the mass deletion of her messages is an unconscionable betrayal.”
The leading article in The Times notes that no minutes were taken in the official meetings that Nicola Sturgeon chaired and goes on:
“When, in addition, the first-hand evidence which might cast light on life-and-death decisions has been destroyed, then we are in the realms of autocracy. The public has a right to know whether those decisions were made wisely or not. When Sturgeon herself comes to give evidence to the inquiry, she has a lot of explaining to do.”
One of the additional things she may have to explain is the suggestion to the inquiry that she does not keep a diary.
Compare that to this, at the Wigton Book Festival a few months before the outbreak of Covid19.
The Scotsman’s leading article suggests that the decision by Nicola Sturgeon, and let’s not forget John Swinney, to destroy evidence was calculated:
“it is clear they made a deeply cynical political judgment that the damage to their reputations caused by releasing the messages would be worse than that caused by covering them up. It was a pervasive attitude throughout the Scottish Government, which appears to have been captured by a culture of secrecy.”
It is up to all of us to make sure that their calculation was incorrect and that they do pay a higher political price for concealing the truth from us.
So far Sturgeon’s only defence of her mass deletion of evidence is that other people didn’t delete their side of the conversation and so the inquiry has some messages:
“the Inquiry does have messages between me and those I most regularly communicated with through informal means. Although these had not been retained on my own device, I was able to obtain copies which I submitted to the Inquiry last year.”
Sorry, but other people’s honesty doesn’t lessen your own dishonesty. You promised the bereaved you would keep everything. You broke that promise.
The Civil Service destroyed evidence and laughed about it.
As angering as Sturgeon’s blatant destruction of evidence is, for me, the more important story here is about a deficit of professionalism and an excess of politicisation among Scotland’s senior public servants.
The zipped mouth emojis and banter about deleting messages tell the story, but it is worth watching this short clip of Ken Thomson. Here the Scottish Government's former director-general for strategy and external affairs, trying to explain away the conversation between himself Jason Leitch and deputy chief medical officer Nicola Steedman about deleting records that could be discovered by Freedom of Information:
Mr Thomson’s difficulty in explaining what should and should not be retained here is less convincing after a discovery today. Sam Taylor noticed that it was Thomson who was responsible for ensuring that civil servants did not destroy material that the Inquiry might ask for. His advice is clear:
“all of you are aware of the need to keep a full and clear record of our part in responding to Covid-19 and our other work in eRDM. This includes the decisions we take, the process by which those decisions were reached, the reasons for those decisions and the evidence and data used to support them, and applies whatever the format in which that information is held and on whatever device or system.”
Ignorance of what should have been retained, it would seem, cannot be used as a defence here.
The SNP Government Comms Office lied to the media.
Now that we have confirmation that Jason Leitch destroyed his records, journalists are recalling that when this story first emerged the SNP Government issued this statement:
"It is not correct to suggest that the National Clinical Director deleted every WhatsApp message every day."
Compare that to Jason Leitch’s message to the senior team handling Covid within the SNP Government:
“WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”
The Scottish Government Communications Office were asked to account for their earlier inaccurate statement by journalists yesterday. Their response was that it would be inappropriate to comment on their earlier lie about evidence to the public inquiry because the public inquiry was ongoing.
Again, remember these are civil servants who are now refusing to explain why and how a clear lie was issued to the media.
Yesterday felt like a rubicon for Scotland’s democracy. If civil servants can destroy evidence, knowing that it should have been preserved to maintain public records, for responding to Freedom of Information requests and most importantly for scrutiny by a judge-led inquiry. If they can do this while joking about it with each other. If civil servant press officers can then lie to journalists to cover up this. If they can do these things without facing consequences, then transparency and accountability in Scotland is completely shattered.
Will Humza Yousaf restore confidence that Scotland’s government is responsible to the Scottish people? Will he take action against the individuals and the system that so casually destroyed evidence and denied bereaved families the truth? I doubt it, because to criticise their actions would mean he would also have to condemn the actions of his political colleagues who also destroyed their records.
Only a new broom at Holyrood will sweep away this culture of cover-up, concealment and contempt for democracy.