Kate Forbes told the UK Covid Inquiry that she did not know of the existence of the Scottish government's high-level Gold Command meetings until a year into the pandemic.

Despite key decisions being made on the economy, the then finance secretary was only invited to attend the forum in mid-2021.

The Gold Command meetings saw Nicola Sturgeon, her deputy, John Swinney, other cabinet secretaries and senior policy advisers typically discussing the pandemic response a day or two before the weekly Scottish Cabinet on a Tuesday.

Although the Cabinet was formally minuted by officials, the Gold Command meetings which shaped its decisions were kept secret.

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Ms Forbes said she was “surprised” to learn that no minutes of the meetings had been retained.

“That surprises me and this would be the first of me hearing it,” she told the inquiry.

Senior counsel to the inquiry, Jamie Dawson KC told Ms Forbes that the probe had tried to get minutes from both Gold Command from the Scottish Government Resilience Room (Sgorr) meetings, but nothing had been handed over.

He said: "We've asked the Scottish Government for all of its papers concerning these matters and though we have cabinet minutes we don't have minutes of either of those groups."

Ms Forbes said: "I think that every meeting of that nature in the Scottish Government should be minuted and I'm surprised to hear that they weren't."

Mr Dawson said: “The reason we think that is the case is we have obviously asked the Scottish Government for all of its papers concerning these matters and although we have Cabinet minutes, we don’t have minuted records of either of those groups.

“It becomes difficult to understand what the ultimate decision-making process was when there is no record of how those decisions were taken.”

Ms Forbes responded: “I can understand that frustration.”

The Herald:

Mr Dawson said the inquiry did not know how many Gold Command meetings took place in 2020 but had managed to learn of six between September 2020 and January 2021.

Ms Forbes attended 11 of the meetings in 2021 and early 2022. She told the committee she did not know Gold Command existed until “later on in the pandemic.”

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Over the weekend, the Herald on Sunday revealed that the Scottish Liberal Democrats were calling on Humza Yousaf to ask his independent ethics adviser to investigate the lack of minutes, describing it as a breach of the ministerial code.

Giving evidence to the Inquiry on Thursday, the First Minister confirmed he had attended some Gold Command meetings in his previous roles as justice and health secretary.

He said: “My understanding was that Gold Command meetings should have been minuted.”

He added: “If that was not the case, then that would not have been the usual protocol for government meetings.

“They should be minuted, and of course be available should there be the appropriate request.”

It also emerged that, while no formal minutes were kept, some informal records were made by Ms Sturgeon’s former chief of staff Liz Lloyd.

The Herald:

An extract from her personal notebook published by the inquiry showed notes from a Gold Command meeting in September 2020 that discussed a “circuit breaker” lockdown.

Inquiry chair Lady Hallett asked Ms Forbes: “Given your seniority in the Scottish Government, why weren’t you at the command meetings in 2020?”

Ms Forbes said: “I wasn’t aware. I am not even sure I was aware they existed.”

Lady Hallett said: “You would have expected to be invited, wouldn’t you?”

Ms Forbes said: “I would have expected to be invited to any meeting where there were significant financial implications.”

Craig Hoy, the Scottish Conservative chairman, described the Gold Command as "Nicola Sturgeon’s shady inner circle."

The MSP continued: “It was absolutely extraordinary – and damning evidence of the secretive way in which the former First Minister operated – to hear Ms Forbes testify that she was not even aware of the group’s existence until much later.

“She also offered a scathing assessment of the SNP’s failure to keep and provide minutes of the so-called ‘Gold command’ meetings.

"This secretive culture undoubtedly made it more difficult to ensure lessons were being learned and applied during the pandemic.

"Kate Forbes’s evidence amounts to a devastating criticism from one of the SNP’s own senior figures.”

Later, Ms Forbes was shown an exchange of WhatsApp messages between her and Alyson Stafford, the director general of the Scottish Exchequer on December 14, 2021, that showed the then minister discussing an “awkward” and “embarrassing” Cabinet meeting where now First Minister and then health secretary Humza Yousaf had identified an additional £100 million for business support from the health budget.

The Herald:

Ms Forbes wrote in the messages that it was “news” to her and to former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, and that she had never seen Ms Sturgeon “this angry in all my Cabinets”.

Ms Forbes told Mr Dawson she had been tasked with finding additional funding from any part of the budget for business support.

She said “surprises were never welcome” at Cabinet and that Mr Yousaf was “trying to be helpful.”

Ms Forbes said she was "not aware" of any Scottish Government rule requiring WhatsApp messages.

She told the inquiry: "I did not delete any of the WhatsApp messages with cabinet secretaries, with special advisers and with private office until January 2022, after all of the major Covid decisions were taken."

She went on: "The message deletion policy was given to me and that was the first point at which I knew there was any policy covering messages."

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Ms Forbes said: "A junior member of my private office stated that it was now required government policy for messages with private office to be deleted going forward, to which I acquiesced because I believed it was an instruction."

She continued: "That only applied to that individual, a junior member of private office, and I don't recall it applying to anybody else in and around cabinet or government."