Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has rejected Nicola Sturgeon’s claim she did not seek to politicise the pandemic – claiming he “didn’t believe it for a minute”.
The former first minister repeatedly fought back tears as she appeared before the UK COVID-19 Inquiry on Wednesday, claiming she took accusations that she sought a different approach to the virus from the government in Westminster to advance the cause of Scottish independence “very, very seriously”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “People will make their own judgments about me, about my government, about my decisions, but for as long as I live, I will carry the impact of these decisions.
“I will carry regret at the decisions and judgments I got wrong, but I will always know in my heart and in my soul that my instincts and my motivation was nothing other than trying to do the best in the face of this pandemic.”
However, Mr Jack rubbished Ms Sturgeon’s testimony as he appeared before the inquiry on Thursday as it sat for its final day in Edinburgh.
“I watched that evidence from yesterday and I didn’t believe it for a minute,” he said.
“I think Nicola Sturgeon could cry from one eye if she wanted to.”
The cabinet minister went on to say it was “inevitable there would be tensions” between the Scottish and UK governments given their different political positions on the union.
“The then first minister saw her job as leader of a nationalist government to break up the UK,” he said.
“Devolution works very well but works very well when both governments want to work together. But when one government wants to destroy the UK and destroy devolution, then there are tensions.
“Those tensions existed before the pandemic, during the pandemic and they exist now today.”
Ms Sturgeon was questioned about her government’s decision not to disclose an outbreak of COVID linked to a Nike conference in February 2020 to the public – a decision she said she would reverse in hindsight.
On Thursday, Mr Jack said the UK government was also not informed of the outbreak, despite both he and then UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock having spoken to then Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman.
Mr Jack said: “Another thing that had happened at that meeting, that had come to light in May, that despite being with the health secretary for two hours, at no point did she mention that they had discovered an outbreak at the Nike conference in Edinburgh.”
He said Mr Hancock only discovered the outbreak when newspapers had contacted him about the issue.
‘Bit of a Luddite’
When asked about his WhatsApp messages, Mr Jack said: “I deleted all of them.”
However, the cabinet member insisted no messages related to government business were removed – because he did not conduct such matters via the app in the first place.
He told the inquiry he deleted messages from his phone because the device was running out of memory.
‘Testimony smacks of hypocrisy’
“I didn’t delete some of the messages… I deleted all of them… I didn’t think anything of it.”
Alister Jack’s tone was brazen and almost boastful as he sat in the chair for his moment to be interrogated at the COVID Inquiry.
The admission he wiped all his messages is embarrassing for his Conservative colleagues who have been banging the drum of heavy criticism against former first minister Nicola Sturgeon who also cleared her COVID chats.
The Scottish secretary sang from the same sheet as Ms Sturgeon in alleging government business was not conducted by WhatsApp and defended the move by suggesting it was to “free up storage”.
Ms Sturgeon was accused of a cover-up and a culture of secrecy for manually deleting all of her exchanges by the very same political rivals who now, it appears, had done the very same thing.
It smacks of hypocrisy and fuels the anger felt by those who were bereaved during the pandemic that there was a reckless attitude to the retention of key discussions about the decisions governing our lives during the crisis.
Although Mr Jack was not in the Scottish cabinet making day-to-day decisions about the pandemic, he was Boris Johnson’s powerful right-hand man north of the border and therefore must be held to the same standards.
John Swinney, the former deputy first minster and close ally of Ms Sturgeon, previously branded Mr Jack’s involvement as of “no value” during COVID conversations between the two governments.
Mr Jack took his opportunity today to lob a string of retaliatory grenades as the bereaved sat metres away in disbelief at the politics playing out in an inquiry hoping to learn lessons for the future.
Mr Jack said: “If I could turn the clock back, knowing what I know now, I would have sought a different solution for my lack of storage capacity.
“I’m a bit of a Luddite, I’m the only member of the cabinet not to have any social media accounts but that’s no excuse. I regret that I deleted my entire account, I regret it for a number of reasons.
“I regret it because of the inquiry, I regret it because I hadn’t saved some family pictures and bits and pieces.”
He added: “I think these matters, all matters relating to an event like this, should be recorded within the offices of relevant ministers.”
The inquiry continues.