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The smoking gun email that ‘PROVES Nicola Sturgeon was using Covid to break up the UK’: Inquiry is shown message between SNP deputy and ex-First Minister opposing travel ban on Spain in 2020 – ‘because they might never let Scotland join the EU’


Nicola Sturgeon’s tearful denials of ‘politicising’ Covid took a major hit today as an email showed her deputy opposed a Covid travel ban on Spain for fear it would wreck Scotland’s chances of joining the EU.

The message from John Swinney in July 2020 was highlighted as Ms Sturgeon gave evidence at the official inquiry this afternoon.

Mr Swinney was intervening as senior figures in the Scottish government considered whether rising cases in Spain meant it should be removed from the list of safe countries.

He wrote: ‘It won’t matter how much ministers might justify it on health grounds, the Spanish government will conclude it is entirely political; they won’t forget; there is a real possibility they will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland as a result.’ 

The bombshell email came after Ms Sturgeon repeatedly choked up as she insisted she had not sought to weaponise the pandemic for her independence cause. 

She argued this afternoon that the decision to keep Spain on the safe list a day later was made on ‘public health grounds’, rather than with EU membership in mind.

However, quarantine requirements for travellers Spain were reinstated six days later on July 26 as cases rose sharply. 

In other key moments from the Covid inquiry session today:

  • Ms Sturgeon told the hearing that she used a personal phone to conduct government business, saying she had not been advised it was inappropriate;
  • She said she had ‘never seen messages before’ in which an official reminded civil servants in a WhatsApp group where the ‘clear chat’ function was and that ‘plausible deniability is my middle name’;
  • Messages exchanged between Ms Sturgeon and her former chief of staff Liz Lloyd showed the SNP leader having a detailed conversation about how to change hospitality rules;
  • Ms Sturgeon fended off questions about whether she repeatedly ‘gazumped’ Westminster by announcing action before Boris Johnson, saying the Scottish public was ‘desperate’ to know what was going on;
  • Ms Sturgeon conceded it was ‘instinct’ for her to campaign for independence, but said her only aim in the early stages of the pandemic was to ‘do the best we could to keep people safe’.  
A bombshell email shown at the inquiry showed Nicola Sturgeon's deputy raised concerns about putting Spain under travel restrictions because 'there's a possibility they will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland as a result'

A bombshell email shown at the inquiry showed Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy raised concerns about putting Spain under travel restrictions because ‘there’s a possibility they will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland as a result’ 

John Swinney

Nicola Sturgeon

The message from John Swinney in July 2020 was highlighted as Ms Sturgeon gave evidence at the official inquiry this afternoon

Ms Sturgeon repeatedly choked up as she insisted she had not sought to weaponise the pandemic for her independence cause

Ms Sturgeon repeatedly choked up as she insisted she had not sought to weaponise the pandemic for her independence cause

The ex-first minister, pictured leaving the inquiry hearing, argued the decision to keep Spain on the safe list was made on 'public health grounds', rather than with EU membership in mind

The ex-first minister, pictured leaving the inquiry hearing, argued the decision to keep Spain on the safe list was made on ‘public health grounds’, rather than with EU membership in mind

Scottish Conservative chairman Craig Hoy said: ‘This bombshell email proves that the SNP Government were debating the impact of public health decisions on their independence campaign at the height of the pandemic.

‘It is the latest piece of compelling evidence to totally undermine Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that her obsession with breaking up the UK was put on hold amid Covid.

‘The shameful reality is that her government were constantly gaming their independence push when they should have been focused solely on public health.’

Ms Sturgeon repeatedly seemed on the verge of tears during a bruising session at the official inquiry, admitting that a ‘large part’ of her wished she had not been in charge during the pandemic.

The emotional moment came after Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that messages about the pandemic response had not been kept.

Despite being shown examples of discussions that have survived relating to key policies on restrictions, she insisted all important matters were dealt with ‘formally’.

But she admitted that ‘perhaps shouldn’t have’ given Professor Devi Sridhar a separate SNP email address to contact her on.

She was also forced to dismiss criticism for buying what have been described as ‘burner’ phones on Parliamentary expenses, insisting they merely were for staff who working from home.

Ms Sturgeon argued that that the mood in the Scottish government had been ‘serious, purposeful and collegiate’ – rejecting suggestions she saw the crisis as a way of furthering her ‘mission’ of breaking up the UK.

Asked by inquiry counsel Jamie Dawson about her experience of the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon choked up saying in many ways she wished she had not been in Bute House at the time.

She said her aim had been to be the ‘best First Minister I could be’, flatly denying that she saw the situation as a ‘political opportunity’.

‘It is for others to judge whether I succeeded,’ she added.

Ms Sturgeon initially said her WhatsApp messages ‘weren’t retained’.

But the KC persisted: ‘Did you delete them?’

Ms Sturgeon said: ‘Yes, in the manner I have set out.’

The evidence sessions began after Ms Sturgeon was heckled on arrival at the venue in Edinburgh, where the probe is sitting as it considers Scottish issues.

The SNP MSP was greeted with shouts of ‘where are your WhatsApps’ and ‘excess deaths’.

The former First Minister stressed that discussions about the response to the pandemic took place 'formally' as she kicked off a full day of questioning

The former First Minister stressed that discussions about the response to the pandemic took place ‘formally’ as she kicked off a full day of questioning

Sturgeon’s key quotes from Covid inquiry 

On ‘weaponising’ Covid for independence campaign: 

‘I didn’t see an opportunity of any description in Covid. I saw a threat, a risk, a catastrophe. My memories of the early part of 2020… was first fear at what might be about to unfold and confront the country.

‘At times in these early days I felt overwhelmed by the scale of what we were dealing with.

‘Perhaps more than anything I felt an overwhelming responsibility to do the best I could.’

On deleting WhatsApps: 

‘I operated from 2007, based on advice, the policy that messages, business relating to government should not be kept on a phone that could be lost or stolen and insecure in that way, but properly recorded through the system.

‘I would want to again underline that communication was extremely limited and would not relate it to matters of substantive government decision-making.’

On giving Professor Devi Sridhar her SNP email address for ‘private’ communications: 

‘On reflection perhaps I shouldn’t have done that…

‘But if I had been in any way trying to direct her to a private email address, I doubt if I would have put my government email address in there as well.’

On regretting being First Minister during Covid:

‘I was the first minister when the pandemic struck.

‘There’s a large part of me wishes that I hadn’t been but I was and I wanted to be the best first minister.’

‘It is for others to judge whether I succeeded.’ 

On her main regret of the pandemic:

‘Of the many regrets I have, probably chief of those is that we didn’t lock down a week, two weeks, earlier than we did.’ 

Ms Sturgeon again welled up as she rejected the idea she had seen a ‘political opportunity’.

‘I didn’t see an opportunity of any description in Covid. I saw a threat, a risk, a catastrophe. My memories of the early part of 2020… was first fear at what might be about to unfold and confront the country,’ she said.

‘At times in these early days I felt overwhelmed by the scale of what we were dealing with.

‘Perhaps more than anything I felt an overwhelming responsibility to do the best I could.’

She insisted that in those ‘days and week’ it ‘wasn’t true’ that she perceived a political opportunity.

In further tetchy exchanges with Mr Dawson, the former SNP leader said: ‘I have not said and I’m not saying today that I never used informal means of communication.’ 

‘What I am saying is that I did so very rarely and not to discuss issues of substance or anything that could be described as decision making.

‘There was a high degree of formality around the decision making of the Scottish Government.’

Several figures in Ms Sturgeon’s government have already faced questions at the inquiry about their deletion of messages during the pandemic. 

Ms Sturgeon has conceded messages had not been retained on her own devices but said she had managed to retrieve copies to submit to the inquiry.

She has said informal messages were handed over to the inquiry last year.

Scottish Government ministers and officials have said decisions were routinely recorded on the official system even if messages were deleted in line with policy.

Last week, Ms Sturgeon’s former chief of staff Liz Lloyd gave evidence to the inquiry.

After message exchanges between the pair were shown in evidence, Ms Lloyd denied a decision about guest limits on weddings during the pandemic was made ‘on the hoof’.

In one message seen by the inquiry, Ms Sturgeon referred to then prime minister Boris Johnson as a ‘f****** clown.’

Current First Minister Humza Yousaf, in his evidence to the inquiry last Thursday, offered an ‘unreserved’ apology for the Scottish Government’s ‘frankly poor’ handling of requests for WhatsApp messages.

He has announced an external review into the Government’s use of mobile messaging.

Ms Sturgeon said today that WhatsApp had become ‘too common’ a means of communication within the Scottish Government.

The messages highlighted at the inquiry today showed Ms Sturgeon and Ms Lloyd engaged in a detailed discussion in October 2020 about what times to allow restaurants to stay open until

The messages highlighted at the inquiry today showed Ms Sturgeon and Ms Lloyd engaged in a detailed discussion in October 2020 about what times to allow restaurants to stay open until

Nicola Sturgeon was heckled over her deleted WhatsApps today as she arrived to face a grilling at the Covid inquiry

Nicola Sturgeon was heckled over her deleted WhatsApps today as she arrived to face a grilling at the Covid inquiry

Nicola Sturgeon insisted she did not make 'extensive' use of WhatsApp during Covid today as she faced a grilling at the Covid inquiry

Nicola Sturgeon insisted she did not make ‘extensive’ use of WhatsApp during Covid today as she faced a grilling at the Covid inquiry

She said: ‘When people are sending messages on WhatsApp, they don’t think, including me and therefore messages, when they are looked back at later on, can be open to different interpretations because people haven’t really thought about the words they’re using.

‘And I think that certainly would be true of some of the exchanges that the inquiry has been looking at.’

Asked by Mr Dawson if she recalled receiving an email about the importance of retaining messages on August 3 2021, Ms Sturgeon replied: ‘I do not as far as I am aware, I did not receive that.’

Mr Dawson asked: ‘You recall, I would imagine, in a general sense that such a notification was sent out?’

Ms Sturgeon said: ‘I would say this: that I don’t think I would have required to see that to know that matters that were relevant to know the matters that were relevant.’

The former first minister said she had ‘always assumed there would be a public inquiry’.

Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry: ‘I operated from 2007, based on advice, the policy that messages, business relating to government should not be kept on a phone that could be lost or stolen and insecure in that way, but properly recorded through the system.

‘I would want to again underline that communication was extremely limited and would not relate it to matters of substantive government decision-making.’

The messages highlighted at the inquiry today showed Ms Sturgeon and Ms Lloyd engaged in a detailed discussion in October 2020 about what times to allow restaurants to stay open until.

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.’

But the MSP said today: ‘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.’ 

Pressed that there was nothing in the public record stating ‘we should prob stick with 6 it’s all so random’, Ms Sturgeon said: ‘This is why I don’t think WhatsApp should be used to have substantial discussions – four years on we can put on a different interpretation.

‘But there were moments that whatever we would do, would cause difficulty and harm for somebody.’

Mr Dawson said: ‘This was a discussion that related to an important decision made in the course of the pandemic.’

Ms Sturgeon replied: ‘That would have been discussed and recorded at Cabinet.’

The MSP was interrogated about a report she used Parliamentary expenses to purchase an £18 Nokia phone and SIM cards in March 2020.

She insisted that the so-called ‘burner’ was bought to divert calls from her constituency office to staff forced to work from home during lockdown.

Ms Sturgeon was adamant she had ‘never to the best of my knowledge seen, held and certainly not used any of these phones’.

Ms Sturgeon also faced questions about her decision to provide public health expert Professor Devi Sridhar with her SNP email address to ‘privately’ be contacted.

‘On reflection perhaps I shouldn’t have done that,’ she said.

‘But if I had been in any way trying to direct her to a private email address, I doubt if I would have put my government email address in there as well.’

In an exchange about so-called ‘gold command’ meetings chaired by Ms Sturgeon during her time in Bute House where not minutes were taken, Mr Dawson asked if there was a ‘theme’ developing where her government sought to hide discussions at the meetings.

‘No – I would very, very strongly refute that,’ the former first minister said.

‘I have look at all of the cabinet papers and minutes over that whole period – it runs to thousands of pages.’

She said the records went further than just decisions made and covered the rationale behind them.

Ms Sturgeon was pressed on not attending the ‘Operation Nimbus’ planning exercise in early 2020. 

That included senior politicians from the wider UK and devolved administrations, drawing up a ‘battleplan’ for Covid in a scenario where the death toll hit 840,000 by the middle of April

The former SNP chief defended missing the exercise, saying it was not ‘abnormal’ to delegate ministers and ‘not everyone can be at everything at once’.

The issue of Ms Sturgeon ‘gazumping’ wider UK decisions was discussed at the hearing.

Regarding one episode where she announced the conclusions of a Cobra meeting before then-PM Boris Johnson, the ex-SNP leader said she had a ‘duty to the people of Scotland’.

‘I was surprised to speak before him, not because I went too quickly but because by the time I did it he hadn’t.’ 

Ms Sturgeon said she had a ‘strong commitment’ to working with the other UK nations on Covid. But she added: ‘I had a duty as First Minister of Scotland to the people of Scotland.’ 

Mr Dawson put it to Ms Sturgeon she wanted to be ‘the person who had driven Covid out of Scotland’, which she rejected.

The former first minister said: ‘I hoped that the decisions my government would take would keep Covid at the lowest possible level, so that it took the lives of fewer people, minimised the disruption to people’s livelihoods and the education of children.

‘I accept that there will be genuine and serious scrutiny of the content of decisions that were taken, and some of those decisions I wish I had taken, my government, had taken differently, some – I think – were right.

‘My motives in this were only ever about trying to do the right thing to minimise the overall harm that the virus was doing.

‘The toll it took, in Scotland, as in other parts of the UK, was far too high, so I didn’t do that as successfully as I wish I was able to, but perhaps in some ways the measures we took had some impact.’

Former Scottish Government ministers Kate Forbes and John Swinney gave evidence to the inquiry yesterday.

Mr Swinney said he ‘manually’ deleted messages between himself, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Yousaf in a practice which could date back to 2007.

The inquiry was earlier told that meetings of senior ministers outside the cabinet – known as the ‘gold command’ – were not minuted.

Ms Forbes said she was ‘surprised’ these and Scottish Government Resilience Room meetings went unminuted.

Discussing the external review into messaging, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: ‘As the First Minister outlined, he has commissioned an externally led review into the use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate technology in the Scottish Government.

‘This will take particular account of Government interaction with statutory public inquiries.

‘During this period, we will continue to keep our records management policy under review in line with legislation.

‘The external review will inform a wider internal records management policy review.

‘More detail on the external and internal reviews will be given in due course.’

Appearing before the official inquiry on Monday, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove said the SNP had a clear ‘mission’ to ‘destroy the UK’.

He pointed to ‘direct evidence’ that had been presented about the Scottish Cabinet discussing how the pandemic could enhance the push for independence.

And Mr Gove, who was responsible for coordinating with the devolved administrations, claimed Ms Sturgeon’s remarks in private sometimes had a ‘political complexion’.  

The minister denied that the Westminster government had also been playing politics, saying: ‘I think the most important thing that we felt was to ensure that lives were saved across the UK.’   

Despite repeatedly attempting to ‘gazump’ Westminster with announcements during the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon was always adamant she had no intention of politicising it. 

Ms Sturgeon was exchanging messages with chief adviser Liz Lloyd on October 31, 2020 as Mr Johnson was announcing another national lockdown

Ms Sturgeon was exchanging messages with chief adviser Liz Lloyd on October 31, 2020 as Mr Johnson was announcing another national lockdown

On June 30, 2020 Ms Sturgeon told a briefing on the raging crisis that anyone ‘trotting out political or constitutional arguments is in the wrong place completely’.  

But records of a Scottish Cabinet meeting from the same day, highlighted at the Covid Inquiry, showed it covered ‘restarting work on independence and a referendum’ and suggested that arguments should ‘reflect the experience of the coronavirus crisis’. 

WhatsApp messages between Ms Sturgeon and her then chief of staff Liz Lloyd also revealed they wanted to start a ‘good old-fashioned rammy’ with the UK government

How Nicola Sturgeon ‘gazumped’ her way to a Covid support surge   

Nicola Sturgeon spent much of the initial phase of the pandemic elbowing in at the top table of UK politics.

Taking full advantage of the devolved institutions having broad power over health policies, the then-First Minister quickly launched her own TV briefings for Scotland.

Because those were at lunchtime, it meant she was often able to pre-empt what the UK government was going to announce in the evening.

She also frequently took a harder line on policies, pitting her approach against that of Westminster, which was often agonising about civil liberties.

As far back as April 2020 she used an appearance to declare that the lockdown would stay in place for ‘at least’ another three weeks – hours before a crunch meeting of Cobra, where the official decision was to be taken. 

Nicola Sturgeon spent much of the initial phase of the pandemic elbowing in at the top table of UK politics

Nicola Sturgeon spent much of the initial phase of the pandemic elbowing in at the top table of UK politics 

The ‘gazumping’ also included announcements on allowing multiple households to meet indoors. 

Ms Sturgeon was said to have forced the government into tougher border restrictions in the middle of 2020. 

Former health secretary Matt Hancock has accused her of ‘bouncing’ the UK government into face mask rules.

He said ministers were ‘blindsided’ by her announcement in August 2020 and decided to U-turn in order to avoid ‘a big spat with the Scots’. 

Ms Sturgeon also made great play of maintaining stronger messaging when the Stay at Home branding was dropped by Boris Johnson.

And weeks after the UK Government dropped its daily news briefings, Ms Sturgeon was still benefiting from daily exposure on television. 

Whether intentional or not, the antics certainly saw a surge in support for independence. Backing for ‘yes’ reached 55 per cent in polls in the summer of 2020.

But later in the pandemic much of the lustre came off Ms Sturgeon’s performance, with the UK taking credit for the vaccine drive and a more timely easing of lockdown



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