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Kate Forbes as finance secretary 'wasn’t invited' to top Covid decision-making group

By Scott Maclennan

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Kate Forbes. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Kate Forbes. Picture: James Mackenzie.

Highland MSP Kate Forbes has painted a picture of the Scottish Government operations during the pandemic where the country’s finance secretary was shut out of high-level meetings and deleting messages only became “policy” in January 2022.

Ms Forbes was being questioned by Jamie Dawson KC at the UK Covid Inquiry in Edinburgh hearing from leading figures on Scotland’s response to the pandemic when she was finance secretary.

She was appointed as cabinet secretary for finance on the eve of the budget in 2020 after Derek Mackay was sacked for messaging a 16 year old – the economy brief was held by Fiona Hyslop until May 2021 when Ms Forbes took it over.

One of the first notable statements she made was that it was not government policy as far as she was aware to delete messages until January 2022.

She said that a "junior member” of her private office told her it was government policy from then for all messages within the private office to be deleted going forward to which she “acquiesced” believing it was an order.

Mr Dawson asked if it was her understanding that there was no policy calling for messages between her and senior members of the government to be deleted.

She told him: "I did not delete any with cabinet members, special advisers, and with private office until January 2022 after all the major Covid decisions were taken at which point I was given the policy and this was first point I knew there was any policy governing messages."

Perhaps the most surprising information provided by her was that she was not involved in ‘gold command’ meetings until 2021, telling the inquiry she did not know they were happening and she did not even know what they were before attending.

Gold–silver–bronze is a command structure hierarchy generally used for major operations by the emergency services in the UK but others can adopt it too as means of response.

Mr Dawson asked: “Neither the SGoRR [Scottish Government Resilience Room] nor the gold group meetings are minuted, is that correct?

“The reason we think that is the case is we have obviously asked the Scottish Government for all of its papers concerning these matters and although we have cabinet minutes, we don’t have minuted records of either of those groups.

“It becomes difficult to understand what the ultimate decision-making process was when there is no record of how those decisions were taken.”

Ms Forbes answered: “That surprises me and this would be the first of me hearing it,” adding: “I can understand that frustration.”

She continued: “I wasn’t invited. I’m not even sure I was aware that they existed because I remember when I was invited to my first one [in 2021] not really knowing what it was until someone explained it.”

That chimes with how information was being distributed at the highest level in messages shown by the inquiry between her and the clinical director Jason Leitch – who had to advise her who was to appear at the daily press conference.

The Highland MSP also recalled how Ms Sturgeon’s response when then health secretary Humza Yousaf made the surprise find of £100 million in his budget and revealed it at cabinet.

Ms Forbes said: "I've never seen the FM this angry in all my cabinets and dor good reason" adding that Mr Yousaf had done this before but never in front of the First Minister.

The issue of evidence from the Scottish Government to the inquiry has already kicked off a firestorm of criticism and allegations of secrecy by leading SNP politicians and even supposedly independent government advisors.

According to the account so far it was government policy not to retain WhatsApp messages until they important or relevant exchanges had been properly recorded – but several figures say they deleted them “daily” or before bed

News of that sparked fury because the Covid claimed the lives of 16,465 people according to the National Records of Scotland and relatives of some of the bereaved are represented formally at the inquiry.

The inquiry continues.

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