If anyone expected Nicola Sturgeon to appear diminished or defensive in front of the Covid-19 Inquiry in London on Thursday morning, they were soon put right. The former first minister may face significant personal and political troubles, but she remains a punchy public performer and took the chance to land a few blows on the Tories.
This was the Sturgeon Scotland grew so used to over the years – confident, eloquent and sharply political. The latter quality emerged often enough that Hugo Keith KC, senior counsel to the inquiry, had on more than one occasion to remind her what she was there for. “That is a witness box, not a soap box,” he said.
This stage of the inquiry concerns how prepared or otherwise different parts of the UK were for Covid at the time it struck. The prospect of a pandemic had been given Tier One status on the UK’s risk register, and various exercises had been carried out after the 2009 swine flu outbreak to ensure the country could react effectively.
Sturgeon said that her devolved administration “did its best”, but that the exercises and planning had focused on tackling a flu pandemic of one sort or another, rather than coronavirus. The UK might have been better served considering a wider range of possible pandemics and the need for stronger infrastructure around such necessities as contact tracing and testing infrastructure, she added.
The shadow of leaving the EU hung over many of her comments. When Boris Johnson threatened a hard Brexit, Sturgeon threw huge amounts of resources into getting Scotland ready for that, at the expense of other emergency preparations, including pandemic planning.
“The prospect of a no-deal Brexit meant a significant amount of time and energy was diverted from other priorities,” she told the inquiry. “We were not at all happy at what we were having to do but, bluntly, we had no choice, because had no-deal Brexit happened the consequences would have been very severe.” Her ministers focused on what such a dramatic scenario would mean for food and energy provision, on what an end to free movement would do to NHS staffing, and on the possible impact on universities, among other issues. “It was a matter of deep and extreme regret and frustration for us that the time. There were probably not many, if any, areas of Scottish government work that were not impacted by planning for Brexit generally and no-deal Brexit.”
[See also: Does Labour have a future in Scotland?]
Sturgeon also provided interesting detail about the tensions between Tory ministers in London and SNP ministers in Edinburgh as they sought to work together. Relations had varied over the years, she said, “often depending on the personality and the whims of the individuals concerned. Processes will not work if they don’t have good faith and the right attitudes behind them.”
Jeremy Hunt, now Chancellor, had told the inquiry that when he was Westminster health secretary he found party politics got in way of collaborating with his devolved counterparts. “That can happen and has happened,” Sturgeon admitted, adding that when she had been Scottish health minister she had worked well with Alan Johnson and Andy Burnham, Labour health secretaries. “Political differences shouldn’t get in the way if attitudes are right. Inevitably that will be influenced by the wider political context at the time, and perhaps Brexit had an impact in setting the overall tone for some of these intergovernmental relationships.”
There have been efforts since the pandemic to replace “ad hoc” relations between the governments with more formal and embedded arrangements. These bodies are still in their infancy, but it was pointed out that Oliver Dowden, now the Deputy Prime Minister, had set up a UK resilience joint committee and that while the Scottish government attended its first meeting, it had been “wholly absent” from the second in May 2022 and the third in February 2023. Sturgeon said she thought there may have been a Scottish presence at the 2022 gathering, but that she couldn’t be sure.
If that was a difficult moment, another one came as Keith explored the SNP administration’s implementation of pandemic preparations. It emerged that while many of the recommendations that followed the exercises of the 2010s had been introduced, there was still no official guidance around health and adult social care when Covid arrived. This matters because the devolved government initially pursued a disastrous policy of moving elderly hospital patients into care homes – more than a third of the 12,600 deaths with Covid recorded on the certificate in Scotland in 2020 and 2021 related to care homes. In February 2021 Scotland’s auditor-general found that Sturgeon’s government could have been better prepared to respond to the pandemic in relation to adult social care and the provision of personal protective equipment.
After an hour or so of questioning Sturgeon left the inquiry and headed back north, where a police investigation continues into potential financial fraud in the SNP. Both she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the former party chief executive, have been arrested in relation to the matter before being released without charge, pending further inquiries.
Sturgeon must look forward to a time when she no longer has to answer difficult questions of one sort or another, but that seems some way off. She is scheduled to appear before the Covid inquiry for a second time, when it gets round to looking at how Britain’s different branches of government responded during the crisis itself. Expect more punches to be thrown.
[See also: Scotland won’t change until its government does]