Nicola Sturgeon's closest aide during the pandemic has denied suggestions of a "cover up" after the Scottish Government chose not to disclose details of some of Scotland's earliest Covid cases.

Liz Lloyd, the former First Minister's chief of staff, insisted that concerns relating to "patient confidentiality" prevented ministers from publicising an outbreak linked to a Nike conference in Edinburgh or the fact that Scotland's first Covid death had been a French national who attended a Six Nations rugby match in the capital.

Giving evidence at the UK Covid inquiry in Edinburgh, Ms Lloyd said the purpose of the Government's communications strategy during the pandemic was "to be honest, to be clear, to trust people, and to try to build cohesion amongst the public about the actions we were asking them to take".


Usman Tariq, junior counsel to the inquiry, questioned whether this was in line with the government's decision not to publicise details of Scotland's first known outbreak of Covid involving a Nike conference held at the Hilton Carlton hotel between February 25 and 27, where a single infected delegate passed the virus onto 38 other people.

In an email sent on March 5 2020, when around three or four cases linked to the event had been confirmed, Ms Lloyd was seen to argue that publicising the link between the conference and the cases could "demonstrate that we're still at containment" because they had been contract traced and isolated.

This was backed by Ms Sturgeon and then-deputy chief medical officer, Dr Gregor Smith, but advised against by the then-CMO Dr Catherine Calderwood.

In an email shown to the inquiry, Dr Calderwood said her "strong advice" would be not to mention the conference because that "risks breaking patient confidentiality as a delegate list will be available".

Around 78 people had attended the conference.

The Herald: Liz Lloyd was appointed as Nicola Sturgeon's chief of staff in 2015Liz Lloyd was appointed as Nicola Sturgeon's chief of staff in 2015 (Image: PA)

Ms Lloyd said the FM had accepted this advice, adding that the first known Covid patient in Scotland - confirmed days earlier - "had media on their doorstep" despite not being named publicly.

Details of the Nike conference outbreak were eventually disclosed by the BBC in May 2020, but a subsequent report by Public Health Scotland said it had not resulted in community transmission of the virus.

Mr Tariq asked whether the decision around communicating the Nike cluster "gives the impression of a cover up?".

Ms Lloyd denied this, adding that the infections themselves were "publicly identified" through daily Covid statistics as an "increase in Covid cases", albeit with no mention of the conference.

She said the government had wanted to avoid "putting undue pressure on them [the patients] at a time when they were unwell".

Baroness Hallett, the inquiry chair, said she did not understand Dr Calderwood's advice, stating: "I can't make the link between a delegate list being available and the patients being identified."

The Herald: Liz Lloyd leaves the inquiry at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre after giving evidenceLiz Lloyd leaves the inquiry at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre after giving evidence (Image: PA)

Mr Tariq went on to detail how Scotland's first Covid death had been a French national who had travelled from France to Edinburgh to attend the rugby at Murrayfield on March 8.

He noted that the man was described by Dr Calderwood as being an elderly man with an underlying condition who had been treated by NHS Lothian.

He said this "may have given the impression that this was a local man", and questioned whether revealing the true circumstances "would lead to some uncomfortable questions for the Scottish Government for letting the match proceed on March 8?".

Ms Lloyd said: "It may have, but that was not the reason for not disclosing the fact they were French, as far as I can recall.

"There was no discussion about did this or did that not relate to whether the rugby should have gone ahead."

She added that the patient's nationality and travel history were kept quiet as part of "procedure" with the French consul, as the man's body needed to be repatriated.

Pressed whether this represented a "cover up of uncomfortable information", Ms Lloyd said that would be "an inaccurate way of looking at it".

Earlier in the day, Ms Lloyd was asked whether she was "particularly close" to Ms Sturgeon and "one of her closest confidantes?"

Ms Lloyd answered: "Yes, I would say so."

The inquiry was shown a submission in which she described her role as a "sounding board/thought partner" for Ms Sturgeon during the pandemic, whose role was to seek information and clarification from clinicians to help the FM devise policies. 

In a statement to the inquiry she said she did not advise on whether or not to adopt specific measures, but that she "would have given views at certain points on the interpretation of the data, of public mood and compliance, of communications, and where there was politics involved". 

Humza Yousaf is due to give evidence to the inquiry later today, with Nicola scheduled to appear for a full day on January 31. 

It comes amid an ongoing row over deleted WhatsApps, with several witnesses having claimed that it was government policy to regularly "clear chats" and only transfer the "salient and relevant" points into the corporate record. 

Ms Lloyd said she had "no recollection" of reading the Scottish Government's policy of deleting informal messages after decisions had been made.

The former adviser said: "A lot of government things would pass through my inbox but I have no recollection of specifically reading that policy at any point in time.

"Private secretaries would occasionally remind you to manage your inboxes, manage your email, mine frequently breached government limits so there would be a need to make sure you were keeping the right stuff, to get rid of extraneous material, not relevant material."

Baroness Hallett said: "Even if you had seen it, would you have deleted matters that might have been subject to a freedom of information request?"

Ms Lloyd said: "No, I don't think I would have. Certainly not intentionally anyway."