Were we right to put so much faith in our Covid leaders here in Scotland during the pandemic?

Early in the outbreak, famously, Nicola Sturgeon became suddenly, wildly popular. Her sober daily briefings showcased her command of detail at a time when chaotic Boris Johnson appeared only sporadically and looking as if he had just found his notes down the back of the sofa.

God-like approval ratings propelled Ms Sturgeon onto a sparsely populated higher plane – one where, if it had been a club, she would have been sharing the rarefied air with David Attenborough, Judi Dench and the Queen.

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What got her there? It was more than just her cautious temperament. Sturgeon had the trust of the people. We trusted her to put controlling the virus and keeping the NHS going before all other considerations. We trusted her to be open and honest.

On a basic level, we trusted her – and by extension the team around her – to live up to their own rhetoric, in contrast to that shower down south.

But were they open and honest? Were they walking the talk when the cameras were off? That gratitude so many of us felt for living in Scotland rather than England during this collective trauma: was that justified?

Perhaps not. People with nothing to hide don’t behave secretively, as a rule, but getting a chicken bone off a fox would have been easier than getting the Scottish Government to release its pandemic-era communications.

First there were the delays, then it emerged Nicola Sturgeon did not retain any WhatsApp messages whatsoever. Her WhatsApps were deleted in routine “tidying up” or changes of phones, according to the Scottish Government’s submission to the UK Covid Inquiry.

Ms Sturgeon said that messages between her and those she “most regularly communicated with through informal means” had been handed to the inquiry as she’d been able to get hold of copies. She hadn’t been a member of any WhatsApp groups, she added. But it’s still not very clear what the inquiry has and hasn’t got.

Opposition MSPs are now demanding that the Scottish Government confirm if they have handed over emails sent and received by ministers using their private SNP addresses, which are not automatically covered by Freedom of Information (FoI) laws, after it emerged that Ms Sturgeon told public health expert Devi Sridhar she could email her privately. Just how much business was conducted this way and with what possible justification?

The Herald: Boris Johnson's handling of the virus was widely criticisedBoris Johnson's handling of the virus was widely criticised (Image: free)

This is much less than we would have expected of pandemic Nicola. Ms Sturgeon promised in 2021 that she would hand over all messages, including WhatsApps, emails and private emails, to any inquiry. There were no caveats then about phone upgrades or “acting in line with Scottish Government policy”. We weren’t told that there would be a role for discretion about what was kept under that policy. If this were the Tories, no one would be giving them the benefit of the doubt. We would see secrecy at work.

Meanwhile we’ve had the revelations about chats between senior officials relating to information that could be made public under FoI legislation.

Last week, we learned that the National Clinical Director Prof Jason Leitch said he deleted WhatsApp messages as “a pre-bed ritual” – this in response to civil servant Ken Thomson’s reminder that the group chat was “FoI recoverable” with an emoji featuring a zipped mouth. (Elsewhere, Mr Thomson commented: "Plausible deniability is my middle name.") Prof Leitch has said that his comments on deleting messages were a “flippant exaggeration”, but the damage has been done.

Then he told the then health secretary Humza Yousaf that “officially” the guidance was to wear a mask if he was at a dinner and standing talking to people, but that “literally no one does”. “Have a drink in your hand at ALL times, then you’re exempt,” he advised. Mr Leitch says he was advising how to comply with the rules. Others have taken it as giving the minister a way around them – it certainly sounds that way.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday, Margaret Waterton, who lost her mother and her husband to Covid, expressed disillusionment and anger. Her late mother had watched every single daily briefing Nicola Sturgeon held during the pandemic. “I can tell you today,” she concluded, “that my mum would be pretty disappointed in the former First Minister and the National Clinical Director today.”

This is a long way from Partygate. There’s no suggestion that there was sickening rule-breaking on an industrial scale at St Andrews House, as there was in Downing Street. To that extent we were certainly better served by our leaders in Scotland.

And it’s true that any organisation would look bad if its inner workings were laid bare like this. People say unguarded things in closed groups which do not reflect their overall attitudes and performance.

But being better than Boris Johnson is a low bar; the question is whether the Scottish Government lived up to its own high rhetoric. The evidence before the inquiry challenges that view. It points up a certain contrast between the public and private pronouncements of ministers and officials – the promise of full transparency from Nicola Sturgeon contrasting with delays and gaps over provision of messages; and the sober, high-minded exhortations on all of us to stick to the rules, contrasting with an irreverent, casual tone about the rules behind the scenes.

This of course is not just any organisation; it’s the government. Do we have the right to expect politicians and senior officials to embody the spirit and letter of the rules when it is they who are making them? Yes we do.

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And do we have a right to expect them to keep full, frank and complete records and respect the public’s right to see them? Yes, we do. The Covid inquiry is showing senior figures falling short on both counts.

It’s up to the inquiry to decide how well served we were by our pandemic leaders in Scotland. But those strange days when Nicola Sturgeon seemed able to do no wrong now seem very distant indeed.