Yousaf rejects accusations of misleading Holyrood over Covid WhatsApp messages

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has rejected claims he and his deputy misled Holyrood as opposition leaders slated his Government’s dealings with the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Pressed by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Humza Yousaf did however admit the Scottish Government had interpreted requests for messages from the inquiry “too narrowly”.

Deputy First Minister Shona Robison was forced to release a timeline of events on Wednesday, stating requests for WhatsApp messages had been made by the inquiry in February as opposed to September, as previously stated.

The timeline was laid out after the inquiry “asked us to set out in more detail the full timetable of requests for information of the Scottish Government”, Ms Robison said.

Asked to admit he “didn’t tell the truth” by Mr Ross on Thursday, the First Minister said: “I absolutely refute that.

“Clearly, I was talking about specific WhatsApp groups.

“Where I do accept fully from the inquiry is that we have interpreted their requests too narrowly and subsequently having done so we have then supplied 14,000 messages to the inquiry.”

The Scottish Government announced last week it would send the messages to the inquiry on Monday, a deadline that was met, with the First Minister’s own correspondence being handed over unredacted.

The First Minister then sought to draw comparisons between his Government and the UK Government, which he said “took the inquiry to court” over its messages being divulged, adding his administration does not “fear scrutiny”.

Referencing the Scottish Government’s policy of deleting informal messages after 30 days, Mr Ross told Mr Yousaf “his predecessor and others in Government have been deleting messages, running away from scrutiny”.

Referencing the previous statements from both Ms Robison and the First Minister, Mr Ross said: “The two most senior people in the Scottish Government stated that the UK Covid Inquiry only requested messages in September.

“It wasn’t a slip of the tongue, it wasn’t an honest mistake, it was deliberate.”

According to the timeline released by the Scottish Government, the inquiry sent a draft request for messages in November of last year, asking “about the extent to which there was informal or private communication about significant decision-making, including for example whether there were WhatsApp groups (or other forms of group chats) which key decision-makers used to communicate about such decisions or to make such decisions”.

In February of this year, a final version of the request was sent, with a wider ask to “provide any communications relating to key decisions, including internal and external emails, text messages or WhatsApp messages (on Scottish Government and private or personal devices), held by the Scottish Government”.

Mr Ross accused the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of “being caught red-handed in a cover up”.

He added: “They knowingly told this chamber statements that were false.

“Isn’t it beyond doubt that Humza Yousaf and Shona Robison misled Parliament?”

Responding, the First Minister said: “Not the case.”

Mr Yousaf also repeatedly sought to turn the exchange on to the revelations this week at the inquiry, particularly referring to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s likening of working in the government of Boris Johnson to “taming wild animals”.

Meanwhile, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar hit out at the First Minister over redacted legal advice handed to the inquiry.

In a note to the inquiry last month, lead counsel Jamie Dawson KC said a request had been made to the Scottish Government to waive legal privilege over advice given by law officers during the pandemic in August, with the request “discussed on a number of subsequent occasions”, but “no formal answer has been forthcoming to date”.

Mr Dawson added that – with hearings due to start early in the new year on the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic – “we are fast approaching a point by which any advantage from such a waiver will be redundant”.

Challenging the First Minister, Mr Sarwar said: “It couldn’t be clearer – the First Minister has lost control of his Government and he appears to have misled Parliament on more than one occasion.

“We were promised full transparency and co-operation from this Government, but they have failed.

“The legal advice that the Government has provided has not been complete, and in some cases almost entirely redacted. The inquiry’s lawyer has said this means the inquiry is constrained from fully carrying out its function.

“There were major decisions during the pandemic which presumably had legal advice, such as lockdowns, discharge to care homes and do not resuscitate notices. That’s why this is so important.

“Hiding this crucial evidence is an affront to every victim of Covid, their families and everyone who lived under lockdowns and closures.”

The First Minister confirmed the redactions had been made due to issues around legal privilege, adding: “Therefore, of course, a discussion would have to take place with our law officers in relation to what can be unredacted.

“Where we can absolutely send information unredacted, it is my full expectation as the individual who leads the Government that the information is provided in full, in unredacted form.”

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