By Bill Heaney
First Minister Humza Yousaf has apologised again – this time for “any shortcomings on our behalf that have caused any distress to the families of those who have been bereaved by Covid 19″.
He told the Scottish Parliament yesterday: “I apologise unreservedly, as I did last week. I reiterate and re-emphasise that apology this week.
“We have ensured that the Government has released 14,000 [Whatapp] messages to it. When it comes to my witness statement, it includes reams of WhatsApp messages, which are un-redacted [unaltered in any way].
“That is, of course, in very stark contrast to the actions of a Prime Minister [Rishi Sunak] who not only dragged the inquiry through court but has refused to hand over his own WhatsApp messages.”
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross told MSPs: “Last night, the Deputy First Minister was forced to admit to this Parliament that the United Kingdom Covid inquiry sent a request to the Scottish Government for messages related to the pandemic in February of this year, yet last week, the Deputy First Minister claimed that the request was made just over a month ago. Those two statements are clearly contradictory, so how can they both be true?”
Humza Yousaf replied: ” The Deputy First Minister [Shona Robison MSP] was clear in her statement last week when she mentioned that there were initial requests from the inquiry. In my response to Anas Sarwar, I was talking about a very particular issue around specific WhatsApp groups.
“Let me be absolutely clear, I fully accept that the Scottish Government clearly interpreted the request from the inquiry in a way that was too narrow. For any shortcomings on our behalf that have caused any distress to the families of those who have been bereaved by Covid, I apologise unreservedly, as I did last week. I reiterate and re-emphasise that apology this week.”
Douglas Ross was not content with this answer. He pressed on: “This is the third week that I have raised the issue at First Minister’s question time. If Scottish National Party members do not like that, they will not have liked the First Minister’s attempt at an excuse—the First Minister peddled the same false claims as the Deputy First Minister.
“Let us be very clear what he said to the Parliament last week. Humza Yousaf said: ‘The messages were asked for in September, just a matter of weeks ago’ —[Official Report, 2 November; c 17.]
“That is what he said. It is there in black and white in the Official Report. However, back in February, the UK Covid inquiry asked for “internal and external emails, text messages or WhatsApp messages held by the Scottish Government”.
“The evidence is clear. Will he admit that, in last week’s question time, he did not tell the truth?”
The First Minister appeared to be unfazed. He said: “I absolutely refute that. I clearly told the chamber—members can check the Official Report—that I was talking about specific WhatsApp groups.
“What I fully accept from the inquiry is that we have interpreted its requests too narrowly. Subsequently, having done so,” he said, while being loudly interrupted: “We then supplied 14,000 messages to the inquiry. In my witness statement, I handed over to the inquiry the WhatsApp messages that I have, un-redacted.
First Minister Humza Yousaf and his deputy Shona Robison quizzed in parliament over whatsapps by Douglas Ross.
“That is in very stark contrast to a UK Government that took the inquiry to court and lost that court battle, and a Prime Minister who refuses to hand over his WhatsApp messages.
“We do not fear scrutiny.”
Douglas Ross persisted: “That was a very brave answer from the First Minister, when his predecessor and others in Government have been deleting messages and running away from scrutiny.
Let us look very carefully at what was said last week, because the First Minister seems to be struggling with it. The Deputy First Minister told Parliament that
“it has been just over a month since messages were requested. The First Minister claimed, in the chamber, that the messages were asked for in September, just a matter of weeks ago. That is what was said, and it is in the Parliament’s Official Report.
“The two most senior people in the Scottish Government stated that the UK Covid inquiry only requested the messages in September. It was not a slip of the tongue, and it was not an honest mistake; it was deliberate.
“Now the UK Covid inquiry, which is tasked with getting answers for grieving families, has had to demand that the SNP comes to this Parliament to tell the truth about the timeline of when the requests were made. Why did Humza Yousaf and the SNP make those false claims?”
The First Minister said: “I urge Douglas Ross to once again read the statement from the Deputy First Minister.[Shona Robison]. He will have seen, in black and white, that she referenced the initial requests.
“It was entirely understandable and appropriate for the inquiry to ask us to then provide the absolutely full context for the requests, which we did—without any hesitation or arguing back with the inquiry—to ensure that we were transparent and accountable.”