Clinical director did not retain any informal pandemic messages, Covid inquiry hears

Scotland’s national clinical director did not retain any informal, one-to-one messages relating to management of the pandemic but denies deleting WhatsApps daily in a “pre-bed ritual”, an inquiry has heard.

Professor Jason Leitch (pictured) told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish Government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.

He also told the inquiry that the idea that deleting WhatsApp messages was a “pre-bed ritual” was a “flippant exaggeration” and that he did not do so every day.

He is appearing at the inquiry amid a storm over WhatsApp messages after it emerged that the messages of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy, John Swinney, were among those whose messages were not retained.

Giving evidence on Tuesday, Mr Leitch told the inquiry: “As you’ve heard, the record retention policy was that you could use informal messaging systems for Scottish Government business.

“If you did, you should ensure that any advice or any decisions or anything that should be in the corporate record was then placed in that corporate record by email, briefing, etc, and then you should delete the informal messaging, and that’s the guidance I followed.”

Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel to the current module of the inquiry, then read out a statement from Mr Leitch in which he said: “Except for direct messages from my Twitter account, I have not retained any one-to-one informal communications in relation to the management of the pandemic in Scotland, this is because I followed the policy described in more detail above.”

Mr Dawson asked: “So, you used text messages, WhatsApp messages, is that right? But you did not retain them above and beyond the interpretation of the policy that you’ve just set out for us?”

Mr Leitch replied: “Correct.”

He was also asked about a message exchange shown to the inquiry last week in which he appeared to suggest deleting WhatsApp messages was a “pre-bed ritual”.

Mr Leitch said: “I didn’t daily delete my WhatsApp. My position is – as I have just described to you – that I tried to do today’s work today and if I could assure myself that work had been managed and dealt with, then I would delete the informal messaging that had led to that moment.

“But this was a flippant exaggeration in an informal messaging group and it wasn’t done every day before I went to bed.”

It has emerged that the messages of Ms Sturgeon and former first minister John Swinney have not been retained, although Ms Sturgeon said in a statement at the weekend that correspondence had been given to the inquiry after being saved by recipients.

On Monday, the issue was raised with Scotland’s chief medical officer, Professor Sir Gregor Smith, with a message showing him instructing colleagues to “delete at the end of every day”.

Sir Gregor told the inquiry that Scottish Government advice was “not to retain information for longer than it was necessary”, adding that information he deemed to be pertinent would not be recorded “verbatim” on Government systems, but the “essence” would.

Opposition politicians have accused officials of secrecy over the issue, with the Scottish Tories calling for Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney to make a statement in Parliament.

Prof Leitch shot to prominence during the pandemic, appearing at Scottish Government briefings alongside the then first minister on a near-daily basis as well as fronting public information campaigns on TV, radio and online.

The UK inquiry has moved to Edinburgh as it probes the devolved administration’s response to the pandemic.

Leitch denies giving Yousaf a ‘work around’ to avoid Covid mask rules

Scotland’s national clinical director has denied advising the current First Minister of a “work around” to mask rules during the pandemic.

Professor Jason Leitch appeared before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday as it takes evidence in Edinburgh over the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic.

In a shown WhatsApp exchange from November 2021 between Prof Leitch and Humza Yousaf – then serving as health secretary – at the inquiry, the minister asked about masking rules ahead of an event he was attending.

At the time, Covid rules in Scotland meant someone would not have to wear a mask while they were sitting down to eat or drink, but would if they were moving around a bar or restaurant while not drinking.

“I know sitting at the table I don’t need my mask,” Mr Yousaf said in the partially redacted message.

“If I’m standing talking to folk need me mask on (sic)?”

Responding, the national clinical director said: “Officially yes.

“But literally no one does. Have a drink in your hands at ALL times. Then you’re exempt.

“So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”

Questioning Prof Leitch, the counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC said he gave Mr Yousaf a “work around to enable him to attend the function, not wear a mask and get out of complying with the rules”.

Responding, the national clinical director said: “No, that follows the rules.

“If he has a drink and it’s a drinks reception-type environment, then that follows the rules.

“I gave him advice to show him how to comply.”

When Mr Dawson pointed to the professor telling Mr Yousaf to “have a drink in your hands at ALL times”, he replied: “Having a drink in your hands means you don’t have to wear a mask.”

He added: “The nuance here is somebody approaches you because you’re the Cabinet Secretary for Health, or the national clinical director, talks to you at the table and you stand to speak to them.”

A spokesperson for Mr Yousaf later said: “This exchange simply shows the then health secretary seeking specific, up-to-date guidance from a senior adviser to ensure he was complying with the Covid rules, which was perfectly reasonable for him to do.”

In July of 2021, the then first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced most coronavirus restrictions would be lifted, with masking indoors continuing, including in nightclubs – which would be reopening following a period of closure.

But after outcry from the hospitality industry, the final guidance was amended, removing the need to wear a mask in clubs and people were allowed to drink in pubs while standing.

Prof Leitch went on to say there was “nuance” in the rules as lockdown was easing during that period, with this being one such situation.

Asked, if Mr Yousaf could not understand the rules – how was the public supposed to?; the adviser admitted regulations around the specific situation the then health secretary was asking about were “tricky” during that period.

Bereaved families: How is Leitch still in a job after Covid admissions?

A woman who lost her brother to Covid-19 has questioned why the national clinical director Jason Leitch is “still in a job” after it emerged he deleted WhatsApp messages and gave Humza Yousaf advice on how to remain exempt from mask-wearing rules.

Professor Jason Leitch, on Tuesday, told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish Government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.

The inquiry also heard that, in November 2021, Mr Leitch gave current First Minister Mr Yousaf, who at the time was health secretary, advice on how to remain exempt from wearing a mask at a function, by holding a drink.

Speaking at a press conference outside the inquiry venue at Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Caroleanne Stewart, of Scottish Covid Bereaved, questioned why Mr Leitch was “still in a job”.

Ms Stewart, whose brother died from Covid-19 in 2020, told journalists: “I would just like to say he (Prof Leitch) was a very confident man, but when he left, he wasn’t so confident because he was caught out, not only by King’s Counsel and the judge, and we are very grateful for that.

“I would like him to be answering: why are people still dying from Covid in hospitals (and) in care settings?

“If he’s still in that job, let him answer that question: what is he doing now to stop the death from Covid-19?”

Ms Stewart said it was “heart-breaking” to hear the revelations in Tuesday’s evidence.

She added: “I was once one of the ones sat at home, listening to the podium every morning and saying: ‘Oh my god, thank god we’re not in England’.

“I trusted them, I felt him and Nicola Sturgeon were honest and trying to be open with us and to find out that was all just a facade, I don’t understand how they can hold their head up high.

“I don’t understand how they are still in a job. That’s our money. We voted (for) these people and they shouldn’t be there, none of them should be there.”

The Scottish Covid Bereaved group is represented by solicitor Aamer Anwar, who also gave a statement.

He said: “We appreciate in recent days there are those who have developed selective amnesia on the promises made by the Scottish Government, but there is no conspiracy, no smear, it is by her own words that the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon is being judged.

“Let me make it clear, we act without fear or favour, the bereaved fight to give the many thousands who lost their lives to covid a voice, and to ensure that there is a legacy, that can only happen if they have the truth.”

The Scottish Government has been asked for comment.

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