Covid inquiry: Nicola Sturgeon rebuked for Brexit comment but raising key questions the inquiry should pursue

Nicola Sturgeon asks: Could we have done more to suppress Covid?
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Nicola Sturgeon was back on familiar territory as she gave evidence to the UK Covid inquiry in London.

Instead of her more recent public appearances, speaking with emotion of her shock at the events surrounding the police investigation into SNP finances and expressing her frustration at not being able to say all she wants to about it, the former First Minister addressed the inquiry with the confidence, authority and empathy she showed in her daily Covid briefings at the height of the pandemic.

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And her skill in communication was on display again, stating clearly points which seem manifestly sensible but which others had not taken the trouble to articulate or reflect on. No plan, she told the inquiry, would ever completely replicate what happens in reality. Any pandemic plan had to be "adaptable and flexible" to the circumstances. And it should never be a case of trying to "make the pandemic fit the plan". She agreed pandemic planning had mistakenly focused on a flu-like virus, but insisted that did not mean the plan had nothing useful in it. And she said her concern was not so much about the lack of a plan as about having the capability to carry out contact tracing and testing.

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives to give evidence at the Covid-19 inquiry in London. Picture: Carl Court/Getty ImagesFormer First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives to give evidence at the Covid-19 inquiry in London. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images
Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon arrives to give evidence at the Covid-19 inquiry in London. Picture: Carl Court/Getty Images

The first public hearings held by the inquiry, chaired by Lady Hallett, are looking at "resilience and preparedness". Ms Sturgeon made the point, already highlighted by others, that resources had been diverted to plan for the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Further comments about Brexit brought her a rebuke from the inquiry QC: "That is a witness box, not a soap box", he told her. But politics inevitably comes into the discussion of what went wrong both in terms of planning for a pandemic and the way it was handled.

Former prime minister David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne both rejected the idea their austerity policies had left the country in a poorer state to respond to Covid. Indeed, Mr Osborne claimed spending cuts had put Britain in a better position to tackle the pandemic, despite evidence from Dame Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, that austerity had left public health services "denuded".

And although the response to Covid will be considered in a later chapter of the inquiry, the divergence of approach between the different nations of the UK is already being raised. Former UK health secretary Matt Hancock told the inquiry he believed the central flaw in pandemic planning had been the assumption it would not be possible to stop a pandemic, and planning therefore focusing on dealing with the consequences, such as securing enough body bags.

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But Ms Sturgeon made clear that was not the approach adopted in Scotland. She said: “It was never the case when Covid struck we just accepted as a given that a reasonable worst-case scenario was going to unfold. It was our determination from the outset to do everything we could to suppress it to the maximum. The questions that I think it’s important for us all to consider very frankly is could or should we have done more to suppress to the maximum Covid.”

That indeed seems a key question the inquiry should be asking. The Scottish Government wanted to follow that path, but UK ministers didn’t seem very interested.