Nicola Sturgeon described a hospitality curfew as "so random" in a WhatsApp exchange with an adviser as she admitted to having a "bit of a crisis" around the decision.

The former First Minister, giving evidence to the UK Covid inquiry, was shown a transcript of a conversation with her chief of staff Liz Lloyd shortly after 7am on October 27 2020.

At the time, the Scottish Government was weighing up new Covid restrictions for pubs and restaurants in the Central Belt which would force them to close at a certain time and ban them from serving alcohol.

Ms Sturgeon wrote: "I am having a bit of a crisis in decision making in hospitality, not helped by the fact I haven't slept.

"The public health argument says stick with 6pm/no alcohol for level 3. But I suspect the industry will go mad - and I worry we could derail debate."


Ms Lloyd responds that her "instinct is 6pm", adding: "The only alternative would be 8pm but no alcohol. Restaurants would like you for that."

Ms Sturgeon noted that this was the situation already outwith the Central Belt region, adding: "8pm would be better I guess but not sure we can make much of a public health argument for 8pm/alcohol at Level 2 and 8pm/no alcohol at Level 3."

Ms Lloyd said: "That's why I would stick with 6pm. But if you want to compromise it would be about giving people regulated places to be in the winter rather than unregulated home - but no alcohol because it changes behaviour."

Ms Sturgeon said: "Okay, we should probably stick with six. It's all so random."

She also added that there was "nothing to show" that they had listened to industry on the matter.

Giving evidence earlier in the day, the former First Minister insisted that she used WhatsApp rarely and only for "routine exchanges, logistics, passing on information", and that she "did not do government business through informal messaging".

Ms Sturgeon confirmed that she had not retained messages because it was her policy to transfer information onto the corporate record and erase the rest in line with Scottish Government guidance, because phones could be "lost or stolen".

Asked by Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, whether this exchange with Ms Lloyd Dawson would be "relevant" to a member of the public who wants to know how decisions were made, Ms Sturgeon said: "I look at this and I don't consider that there is anything in that, wouldn't be reflected through the decision making and the evidence of the decision making of the government and undoubtedly hospitality and the impact on hospitality."

The Herald: Nicola Sturgeon arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid inquiry in Edinburgh Nicola Sturgeon arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid inquiry in Edinburgh (Image: PA)

Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry this "indecision" was something she would have "preferred not to be" on the public record, but insisted that Scottish Government decisions made during the pandemic could not be kept secret, even if they had wanted to.

She said: "I would like to give an assurance to the inquiry that contrary to any desire on the part of me or my government to keep things secret, I would suggest the opposite was the case during the pandemic.

"We went to great lengths to communicate, not just the decisions - I took a view very early on in the pandemic, it's for others to judge whether it was right or wrong, that if we were to achieve a level of compliance with the restrictions that we were to achieve a level of compliance with the restrictions we were asking them to do but why we were doing it."

Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry she was first briefed about the potential threat from Covid on January 17 2020 and from then on described a "growing understanding and apprehension that this was going to be extremely serious".

She denied that her experience of handling the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 while the Scottish Government's Cabinet Secretary for Health - an outbreak which resulted in 457 deaths across the UK between 2009 and 2010 - had led her to underestimate the risk. 

Ms Sturgeon said: "This is a question I have asked myself often - did the experience of swine flu, even subliminally influence my attitude, in the early days to Covid?...I don't think I had any sense that because swine flu had turned out to be a 'false alarm' that the same was likely to happen with Covid."

She added: "I think there were assumptions made around the public's willingness to comply with restrictions and how long that would last that were made by decision-makers, myself included, that turned out to be wrong.

"I think that, perhaps, influenced some of those early decisions more than a memory of swine flu did."

Ms Sturgeon denied that the failure to roll out testing more quickly reflected a "lack of urgency" in the face of the crisis. 

On Monday, the inquiry heard that Scotland had the ability to process 350 Covid tests a day by mid-February, rising to 780 by mid-March and 4,350 by the end of April. 

This was said by former Health Secretary Jeane Freeman to have been a major factor in the decision not to test hospital patients who were being moved out of hospitals and into care homes. 

Ms Sturgeon said "practical restraints" involving supply chain problems and the need to recruit additional laboratory staff hindered the expansion of testing infrastructure in the early days of the pandemic.

She said: "I don't think it reflected a lack of urgency - it reflected the capacity we had in place and that determined the speed at which we could scale from the very limited capacity to the very greater capacity we had."

Ms Sturgeon added that in future she would like to see "greater baseline capacity" retained outwith pandemic times, but conceded this was "costly".