NICOLA Sturgeon is facing calls for a truly transparent public inquiry into the coronavirus crisis after her government blocked the release of records to protect ministers’ private discussions.

In response to a freedom of information request about key early pandemic meetings, officials said the secret decision-making process trumped public interest disclosure.

Campaigners called the attitude an “ill-omen” for the inquiry to come.

Opposition parties fear the Government will erect obstacles when it finally delivers a public inquiry into the national response to Covid-19.

They cite the Holyrood inquiry into harassment complaints and the Alex Salmond affair, which Ms Sturgeon said would get full cooperation, only for ministers to later block witnesses and withhold evidence on legal pretexts.

The Covid inquiry is likely to look at potentially fatal choices on testing and the mass transfer of vulnerable hospital patients into care homes.

Ms Sturgeon yesterday repeatedly refused to tell MSPs when she first learned Covid-positive patients had been transferred into care homes when pressed at First Minister’s Questions.

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The new concern follows the refusal of an FoI request by the Scottish Tenants Organisation (STO) for the minutes of the Scottish Government’s top level Resilience Room meetings - which include ministers, doctors, scientists, police, councils, and logistics experts - for February and March.

There were nine such meetings led by officials and eight of ministers.

The Government first refused to release the minutes in June, and then reaffirmed its refusal last week, citing four different grounds for doing so under Scotland’s FoI law.

It acknowledged there was a public interest in disclosing information as part of open, accountable government, and to inform public debate.

However it said the greater public interest lay in “high quality policy and decision-making”, and that ministers and officials both needed a “private space” to consider all options.

It said “premature disclosure is likely to undermine the full and frank discussion of issues between Ministers, which in turn will undermine the quality of the decision making process”.

The Government also said disclosing the minutes could prejudice the convention of collective responsibility of ministers “for the Scottish Government’s decision on the response to the Coronavirus pandemic”, by revealing disagreements.

It said: “Collective responsibility requires collective discretion, and ensures that Ministers can express their views frankly in internal discussion of an issue while maintaining a united front once decisions have been reached.

“Disclosing communications between individual Ministers and/or SGoRR papers which record their views would prejudice substantially the maintenance of the convention.

“Disclosure of these internal discussions between Ministers would be likely to have the effect of undermining the Government’s position and thus the effectiveness of the decision, which would not be in the public interest.”

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Finally, it said officials also needed a “private space in which to advise Ministers and other officials and for candid discussions” before the Government reached a settled view.

“Disclosing the content of free and frank advice and discussions on the Scottish Governments consideration of a response to the Coronavirus pandemic would substantially inhibit the provision of such advice in the future, particularly because it is given at pace, for the purpose of enabling Ministers to take immediate decisions.”

The STO has appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner’s office.

A cross-party Holyrood committee is currently examining how the Government botched an in-house probe into sexual misconduct claims against Mr Salmond in 2018.

The former First Minister overturned it in a judicial review by showing it had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, leaving taxpayers with a £500,000 bill for his costs.

Immediately after the collapse of the Government’s case in January 2019, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs any inquiries into the matter would get whatever material they wanted.

She told Holyrood: “The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request.

“That is the definition of full, thorough and open inquiries. It will not be for me to decide what material the parliamentary inquiry, when it gets under way, wants to request.”

However the Government has since refused to hand over swathes of evidence related to the judicial review by asserting “legal privilege” and tried to stop some witnesses testifying.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, who sits on the Holyrood Salmond inquiry, said: “Public inquiries are simply pointless if we don’t have access to the facts. The SNP’s promises on transparency for the Salmond harassment enquiry currently aren’t worth the paper they are written on.

“If the SNP government continues with these tactics, the Covid inquiry will provide none of the answers Scots deserve.”

Labour MSP Monica Lennon added: “SNP Ministers have a shocking record when it comes to transparency and it would be unforgivable if vital information about the pandemic response was withheld from the public.

“The public inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the crisis must have full access to any documents it needs.

“The circus around the Salmond inquiry and the care home scandal cannot be repeated. Secrecy during a pandemic serves no one’s interests.”

STO campaign coordinator Sean Clerkin said the lack of transparency in response to the FoI was an “ill omen” for the inquiry, given the Government’s starting position was that ministerial discussions should remain secret

He said: “I think this FoI request is absolutely vital to establish the facts and the decision-making that took place during the pandemic, including the mistakes that were made, and to learn from those mistakes.

“It does seem as though the Scottish Government do not want to have an investigation into what the did wrong. We are not going to learn any lessons as long as mistakes are covered up. The truth has to come out.”

The Scottish Government said: “We have been clear that it is right and proper that the facts, and the decisions taken during this pandemic face scrutiny in the fullness of time. That is why we have committed to a full public inquiry into all aspects of it – which we will cooperate fully with in order to reflect and learn lessons from the response.

“However the pandemic and its challenges are not over and our priority and focus must be on continuing to maintain our vigilance against the virus so we are ready to react to what lies ahead.”