Scotland’s national clinical director has denied advising the current First Minister of a “work around” to mask rules during the pandemic.

Professor Jason Leitch appeared before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Tuesday as it takes evidence in Edinburgh over the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic.

In a shown WhatsApp exchange from November 2021 between Prof Leitch and Humza Yousaf – then serving as health secretary – at the inquiry, the minister asked about masking rules ahead of an event he was attending.

At the time, Covid rules in Scotland meant someone would not have to wear a mask while they were sitting down to eat or drink, but would if they were moving around a bar or restaurant while not drinking.

“I know sitting at the table I don’t need my mask,” Mr Yousaf said in the partially redacted message.

“If I’m standing talking to folk need me mask on (sic)?”

WhatsApp chat between Humza Yousaf and Jason Leitch
The exchange was made public at the inquiry on Tuesday (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Responding, the national clinical director said: “Officially yes.

“But literally no one does. Have a drink in your hands at ALL times. Then you’re exempt.

“So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”

Questioning Prof Leitch, the counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC said he gave Mr Yousaf a “work around to enable him to attend the function, not wear a mask and get out of complying with the rules”.

Responding, the national clinical director said: “No, that follows the rules.

“If he has a drink and it’s a drinks reception-type environment, then that follows the rules.

“I gave him advice to show him how to comply.”

When Mr Dawson pointed to the professor telling Mr Yousaf to “have a drink in your hands at ALL times”, he replied: “Having a drink in your hands means you don’t have to wear a mask.”

He added: “The nuance here is somebody approaches you because you’re the Cabinet Secretary for Health, or the national clinical director, talks to you at the table and you stand to speak to them.”

A spokesperson for Mr Yousaf later said: “This exchange simply shows the then health secretary seeking specific, up-to-date guidance from a senior adviser to ensure he was complying with the Covid rules, which was perfectly reasonable for him to do.”

In July of 2021, the then first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced most coronavirus restrictions would be lifted, with masking indoors continuing, including in nightclubs – which would be reopening following a period of closure.

But after outcry from the hospitality industry, the final guidance was amended, removing the need to wear a mask in clubs and people were allowed to drink in pubs while standing.

Prof Leitch went on to say there was “nuance” in the rules as lockdown was easing during that period, with this being one such situation.

Asked, if Mr Yousaf could not understand the rules – how was the public supposed to?; the adviser admitted regulations around the specific situation the then health secretary was asking about were “tricky” during that period.

Earlier, Prof Leitch said he regularly deleted messages during the pandemic.

The national clinical director went on to claim a message he sent claiming deletion to be a “pre-bed ritual” was a “flippant exaggeration”.

He said: “As you’ve heard, the record retention policy was that you could use informal messaging systems for Scottish Government business.

“If you did, you should ensure that any advice or any decisions or anything that should be in the corporate record was then placed in that corporate record by email, briefing, etc, and then you should delete the informal messaging, and that’s the guidance I followed.”

Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel to the current module of the inquiry, then read out a statement from Mr Leitch in which he said: “Except for direct messages from my Twitter account, I have not retained any one-to-one informal communications in relation to the management of the pandemic in Scotland, this is because I followed the policy described in more detail above.”

Mr Dawson asked: “So, you used text messages, WhatsApp messages, is that right? But you did not retain them above and beyond the interpretation of the policy that you’ve just set out for us?”

Mr Leitch replied: “Correct.”

He was also asked about a message exchange shown to the inquiry last week in which he appeared to suggest deleting WhatsApp messages was a “pre-bed ritual”.

Mr Leitch said: “I didn’t daily delete my WhatsApp. My position is – as I have just described to you – that I tried to do today’s work today and if I could assure myself that work had been managed and dealt with, then I would delete the informal messaging that had led to that moment.

“But this was a flippant exaggeration in an informal messaging group and it wasn’t done every day before I went to bed.”

The comments come amid a growing political storm over the retention of informal messages during the pandemic.

The inquiry has heard both former first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her deputy, John Swinney, both did not retain messages, while a message from Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Gregor Smith – who testified on Monday – showed him instructing colleagues to “delete at the end of every day”.

The national clinical director also said he set up a group chat between himself, Sir Gregor and Dr Jim McMenamin – who was then the incident director for Covid-19 at Public Health Scotland – named “star chamber”, where he enabled the auto-delete function on WhatsApp.

The inquiry continues.