The Scottish Government spent more than £10,000 to “support” witnesses for the UK Covid Inquiry.

More than £4,000 was paid to help prepare national clinical director Professor Jason Leitch and former civil servant Ken Thomson, who admitted deleting their pandemic WhatsApps.

The bill for Professor Leitch, three other Scottish Government officials and former health Secretary Jeane Freeman came to £10,532 with the bill for Professor Leitch's the most expensive. Professor Leitch announced in March he was leaving the government at the end of April.

Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said “This is an eye-watering sum of money and the SNP must explain why this was necessary.

READ MORE: Covid Inquiry: Scottish Government hired legal firm for officials

“Too often in the Covid Inquiry the SNP government has sought to obscure the truth and cover up its own failures, and it has serious questions to answer about whether that’s what this expensive legal advice was for."

The Scottish part of the inquiry, held in Edinburgh in January, was overshadowed by controversies surrounding senior Government figures, including former minister Nicola Sturgeon, deletion of their WhatsApp messages during Covid.

Ms Sturgeon, her then deputy John Swinney and Professor Leitch all wiped their messages.
One pandemic message that was recovered showed Professor Leitch writing: “WhatsApp deletion is a pre-bed ritual.”

READ MORE: The controversies surrounding Jason Leitch's government exit

The inquiry showed Mr Thomson, who used to be director-general for strategy and external affairs, boasting to colleagues that “plausible deniability are my middle names”.

He also wrote during the pandemic: “Just to remind you (seriously), this is discoverable under FOI. Know where the ‘clear chat’ button is…”.

A freedom of information request has now revealed Professor Leitch and Mr Thomson were among those who received support from the legal firm Morton Fraser MacRoberts.

Mr Thomson benefited from £1180 worth of preparatory work while the figure spent on Professor Leitch and Ms Freeman was £3234 and £2500.

Chief medical officer Dr Gregor Smith, who also deleted his WhatsApps, benefited from £2700 of support.

The bills were paid by the SNP Government.

During his evidence to the inquiry, Professor Leitch insisted the “pre-bed” comment was “slightly flippant”.

He added: “It’s an exaggeration. I didn’t daily delete my WhatsApp.”

The FOI response said the Government and the legal firm provided “appropriate levels of support” to assist figures prepare for giving evidence to the inquiry:

“This support included the provision of logistical support, providing reassurances about what to expect whilst giving evidence, explaining what a Public Inquiry is and how it will be run and discussing matters raised on behalf of the Inquiry to guide the witnesses' own preparations for giving evidence without influencing the content of their evidence.”

Separately, money was also spent on fees to another law firm TLT LLP, which provided "independent legal representation" to three academic witnesses.

These were former Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Sheila Rowan and Andrew Morris, chair of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Advisory Group.

One of the group’s members, Professor Stephen Reicher, also received support.

Tory MSP Craig Hoy said: “Leaving aside the justification for the public being billed £10,000 for legal advice when the Scottish Government has its own in-house legal department, this raises serious questions over the SNP’s culture of cover-up.

“Coupled with the shameful, orchestrated mass deletion of WhatsApp messages – which some of those officials joked about – this revelation begs the question about what they were trying to hide?

“Those who lost loved ones during the pandemic deserve openness and transparency, rather than the evasion and secrecy that characterised the SNP Government’s decision-making.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “In common with other public inquiries, the UK Government and other devolved administrations, the Scottish Government has a responsibility to offer appropriate support to those asked to present evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in relation to their role in the Scottish Government’s response to the pandemic.”