Iain Macwhirter Iain Macwhirter

The SNP’s Covid reckoning

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We now know from evidence to the Covid Inquiry that Scottish government ministers were as prone to offensive language as Dominic Cummings. Nicola Sturgeon called Boris Johnson a ‘f***ing clown’, and Humza Yousaf called a Labour MSP a ‘twat’. If the government’s mass deletion of WhatsApp messages was designed to insulate it from embarrassment, it clearly hasn’t worked. 

The SNP-supporting legions on social media are of course outraged that anyone should be upset at the language politicians use in private. Everyone thought Boris was a clown, so what’s the issue here? It’s not as if they were having parties in Bute House, is it? And these revelations might seem trivial compared to the other fatal mistakes made by the Scottish government in handling the pandemic – like decanting the untested elderly into care homes for example. But they do matter, if only because of the way the Scottish government revelled in the embarrassment of UK ministers last autumn when sleek Hugo Keith KC was relishing the opportunity to refer to ‘f***pigs’ and suchlike on live TV. 

The SNP affected shock and horror at the nastiness, arrogance and misogyny revealled in the UK government’s WhatsApps. The SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, when asked about Scottish ministerial WhatsApp rashly said: ‘I’d be quite confident, that the content of those messages will be starkly different than what we’ve seen from Westminster politicians.’ Talk about hostages to fortune.

And sweary language aside, we don’t know what breaches of Covid rules might have been revealed in the tens of thousands of deleted WhatsApps. We do now know that Humza Yousaf was given guidance on how to get round mandatory mask-wearing at gatherings by holding a drink in his hand. How many other work-arounds were being provided by the National Clinical Director, Jason Leitch? We’ll never know because they were erased by his ‘pre-bed ritual’ as he described his daily deletion habit. 

Humza Yousaf has been like a rabbit in headlights

Nicola Sturgeon was famously caught breaching her own Covid rules by not wearing a mask in a pub after a funeral.The First Minister was not fined, even though mask-wearing was an offence in Scotland at the time under the SNP’s more-draconian-than-thou approach to social distancing. 

Well, anyone could have made the same mistake. ‘She’s only human’, chorused the SNP leader’s cheerleaders. Of course she was. But at the same time, Police Scotland were arresting and fining 82-year old grannnies for attending birthday parties even after they’d been double vaccinated. No work around for them. 

As the testimony from the epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse pointed ou, the damage done by absurdist lockdown rules is incalculable. The closure of schools, the outlawing of beaches, exercising for an hour only. Draconian social distancing rules applied south of the border too of course. But there was a performative aspect in Scotland as Professor Woolhouse observed. The Scottish government’s regime always had ‘to be more cautious than the one in England’.

This culminated in the ‘elimination strategy’ inspired by the First Minister’s telegenic adviser Professor Devi Sridhar. The idea that Scotland could have achieved ‘zero Covid’ was absurd, as anyone in possession of a UK map would see. But it promoted the subliminal message that in some way Scotland’s connection to the rest of the UK was toxic.

We know from cabinet minutes in August 2020 that the SNP government actively considered how best to politicise the pandemic. What we don’t know is how they planned to do it, because of course that has all been carefully deleted. All credit however to the UK Covid Inquiry and Jamie Dawson KC, for making the best of the limited material they were given. 

Humza Yousaf has been like a rabbit in headlights all week, unable to rebut oppositon claims of blatant cover up and illegal destruction of official records. He is no longer even trying to defend Sturgeon’s and other SNP ministers’ deletion policy. Instead he’s promised the inevitable inquiry into what happened. But we don’t need an inquiry to tell us that that the integrity of the SNP government has been deleted. 

Written by
Iain Macwhirter

Iain Macwhirter is a former BBC TV presenter and was political commentator for The Herald between 1999 and 2022. He is an author of Road to Referendum and Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland.

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