Trust in Holyrood is in freefall over SNP's pathological secrecy
Trust in Holyrood is in freefall over SNP’s pathological secrecy. Now it’s time for the truth, writes GRAHAM GRANT
Back in the bad old days of the pandemic, our lives were micro-managed by politicians and senior medics who became temporary celebrities.
From her podium of doom, Nicola Sturgeon sermonised on a near-daily basis on television about the importance of washing your hands and staying at home.
And Professor Sir Gregor Smith, the Chief Medical Officer, backed her up – in conjunction with the ubiquitous former dentist, Professor Jason Leitch, the National Clinical Director.
For the most part, we took our medicine, as bitter as it often was, and abided by the rules – as each day brought more unimaginable upheaval, pain and turmoil.
Nicola Sturgeon gave numerous Scottish Government Covid-19 press conferences
Now these figures from our recent past, who wielded such awesome power, are caught up in a scandal over the alleged mass deletion of WhatsApp messages.
The encrypted app was a lifeline during the worst of the Covid pandemic – but for government officials and ministers it was invaluable for different reasons.
It was seen as an easy and, importantly, private means of communication, enabling the rapid transfer of information and providing a safe space for decision-making.
But there are risks. Messages can be leaked, and often are – causing embarrassment or political damage.
As we reported yesterday, Sir Gregor, who once urged the elderly against taking overseas holidays even if they were double-vaccinated, is said to have auto-deleted his WhatsApps – a claim that his spokesman failed to confirm or deny.
Professor Leitch, who also lectured us throughout the pandemic and increased his public profile further by appearing on the football radio show Off the Ball, is accused of automatically deleting WhatsApp exchanges with other officials and ministers.
But they may have been far from alone – as we revealed on Saturday, more than 100 people at the heart of government are feared to have deleted thousands of WhatsApps.
The UK Covid Inquiry’s legal team believes the ‘majority’ of WhatsApp messages shared among SNP Government officials ‘have not been retained’.
Its chairman, Baroness Hallett, has warned that she ‘will not hesitate’ to use ‘statutory powers’ at her disposal to obtain the relevant information.
Lawyers for relatives of Covid victims are now planning to lobby Meta, which owns WhatsApp, in a bid to retrieve any data that might have been deleted – but it is shameful that such a mechanism should have to be contemplated.
What we’re talking about is the possible eradication of a treasure trove of vital data which might have helped us to understand how decisions were taken during a public health emergency which affected all of our lives.
Schools were shut down, with profound consequences for the life chances of a generation of young people.
Mr Yousaf has denied deleting messages relating to the pandemic
Severe restrictions included a ban on visiting sick or dying relatives, while Covid-positive or untested patients were discharged into care homes – where the virus ran riot, killing thousands.
The elderly were isolated and anxious, and families lived in fear of contracting a deadly disease.
Meanwhile, hundreds of criminals were freed from prison by Humza Yousaf, who was then Justice Secretary, to try to limit the spread of Covid – and many of them were later returned to custody for a host of suspected offences including attempted murder, serious assault, robbery and sex offences.
It’s worth reflecting on those difficult memories, not least because human nature is to move on from trauma and try to forget.
In a post-vaccine world, many of the curbs placed on our lives now appear to have been excessive – and some of them were.
But we put up with them – largely because we didn’t have a choice – on the basis that the people making these decisions would be held to account for their actions, either at an inquiry or ultimately at the ballot box, or both.
Mr Yousaf let out those prisoners and in April 2020 proposed an abortive plan for judge-only trials to relieve pressure on the crisis-stricken justice system, as courts were forced to close – creating a backlog of cases which continues to cause chaos more than three years later.
Were these controversial proposals discussed in Whats-App chats and, if so, what was said? The answer is that we may never know.
The allegation that decisions were made in private online forums – with the virtual paper trail wiped out of existence – makes a mockery of our collective sacrifice as a lethal new virus struck down friends and relatives, whose funerals we couldn’t even attend.
Among the many unanswered questions is whether or not the key decision-makers including Ms Sturgeon and Mr Yousaf, who succeeded her as First Minister, knew about these deletions, or made any themselves – and if it was a policy, who imposed it, when, and why?
Yesterday, Mr Yousaf denied deleting pandemic-related messages, after official spokesmen spent the weekend trotting out vague lines about the SNP Government’s commitment to transparency.
That’s hard to take from politicians who have governed by redaction and outright censorship for the past 16 years – creating a corrosive culture of secrecy in every aspect of public life.
But now two Covid inquiries, one on either side of the Border, are in operation – and there are disturbing new disclosures or allegations every day about the extent of what may have been a sustained exercise in track-covering by ministers and their servants.
The attraction of such a modus operandi for politicians is easy to see – and it’s no surprise that similar tactics are being uncovered in Whitehall.
Disappearing messages, or their manual deletion, offers a tantalising possibility – the exercise of power without full accountability.
But a vast cache of crucial information may have been lost – perhaps irretrievably – and voters, including the bereaved, the long Covid sufferers and the taxpayers whose cash bought the devices in question, are being kept in the dark.
While this latest drama unfolds amid calls for urgent statements to parliament, Ms Sturgeon is busy working on a tell-all memoir – as she banks an advance of £300,000 from her publisher.
Her memory is famously unreliable, as we saw during the Salmondgate inquiry at Holyrood – but is she relying purely on her recollection of events, or does she have contemporaneous notes to guide her?
Professor Jason Leitch became an ubiquitous figure on the airwaves during the pandemic
We don’t know, and yet it would be wrong if the only people afforded access to this material in the short term were her editors.
The work of the inquiries should take precedence and her book should be put on the backburner, allowing Ms Sturgeon to focus on her constituents – which is, after all, the primary role of a backbench MSP.
Trust in the government she once led is in freefall after years of pathological secrecy which were an affront to our democracy.
Now we deserve to know the truth about our political masters during a time of national calamity – and they must be held fully to account for their actions.
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