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Nicola Sturgeon denies using COVID to push her own political agenda

Sturgeon rebuffed claims made by Michael Gove earlier this week that the SNP had aimed to benefit politically from the pandemic

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - JANUARY 31: Former First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon arrives for the UK Covid inquiry at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC) on January 31, 2024 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Witness appearing today is former Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The inquiry, separate from the Scottish Covid Inquiry, examines the UK's response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with Module 2a focusing on the Scottish Government's decision-making regarding the nature and spread of Covid-19. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Former first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon arrives for the COVID Inquiry at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. (Getty Images)

Scotland's former first minister Nicola Sturgeon fought back tears as she denied using coronavirus in order to further the cause of Scottish independence.

Speaking at the COVID Inquiry on Wednesday, Sturgeon rebuffed claims made by levelling up secretary Michael Gove earlier this week that the SNP had aimed to benefit politically from the pandemic, and said this was "not the case".

Asked about such accusations, the former first minister, fighting back tears, said: “The idea that in those horrendous days, weeks, I was thinking of political opportunity” was “not the case”.

Sturgeon also spoke of the impact of the early parts of the pandemic on her personally, saying: “At times in those early days, I felt overwhelmed by the scale of what we were dealing with and perhaps more than anything, I felt an overwhelming responsibility to do the best I could.”

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Speaking to the inquiry earlier this week, Gove denied that Westminster had played politics with Scotland during the pandemic – but suggested the same could not be said of Holyrood.

Gove said he believed Scotland has sought "differentiation for the sake of advancing a political agenda" over issues such as furlough. He said he believed Sturgeon had worked hard during the pandemic, but added of the SNP: "Its members and leadership have seldom missed an opportunity in other times to seek differentiation to advance their cause."

Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, arrives at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC). The hearing is examining core UK decision-making and political governance in Scotland. Picture date: Monday January 29, 2024. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)
UK cabinet minister Michael Gove suggested during his appearance at the COVID Inquiry that the SNP had attempted to weaponise the pandemic. (PA Images via Getty Images)

“There are and were occasions when the Scottish government, as we can see, was thinking politically," he said.

“And of course it is the case that the SNP, as political mission, which is to achieve Scotland’s independence, i.e. to destroy the United Kingdom, and it would be naive to not be aware that highly-skilled politicians, including those at the top of the Scottish government, might well seek what they perceive to be political advantage at certain points."

Clashes between Holyrood and Westminster

Politicians in Holyrood and Westminster clashed during the pandemic on several key issues, including lockdown rules and furloughs, and this came up during Sturgeon's session on Wednesday.

Sturgeon told the COVID Inquiry that the Scottish government would sometimes have to “air issues in public” to push the UK government to shift positions.

A note taken during a so-called “gold command” meeting by Sturgeon’s former chief of staff Liz Lloyd suggested the then first minister had said they may need to “force” certain issues.

The extension of furlough and support for businesses if Scotland was to return to lockdown were cited as one such example.

Sturgeon said: “This was at the point where this issue… was starting to come to the fore of a disjoint between the ability of the Scottish government and the responsibility of the Scottish government to take public health decisions and our inability to borrow the money or raise the money to compensate businesses or individuals for the impact of those decisions.”

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She added: “This was the start at which we would experience a situation where we were not managing to persuade UK government privately and therefore we were having to contemplate airing some of these issues publicly.”

Messages sent between Sturgeon and Lloyd, revealed during Lloyd's evidence to the inquiry, also highlighted tensions between Sturgeon and then-prime minister Boris Johnson.

“His utter incompetence in every sense is now offending me on behalf of politicians everywhere,” Sturgeon wrote in a text sent in October 2020 as Johnson delivered a press conference, adding: “He is a f***ing clown.”

According to Lloyd, Johnson “did not want to be on the calls” with devolved governments during the pandemic.

And, according to texts sent in May 2020 between Gove and then-health secretary Matt Hancock, politicians in Westminster were reluctant to see devolved governments setting their own COVID rules.

"I recall thinking that it was madness that the devolved governments would be taking their own lead on domestic public health policy; that kind of devolution is all very well for running the NHS and fighting obesity, but not for responding to a pandemic," Hancock said during the COVID Inquiry.

"I respect the fact that health services are devolved, but a pandemic does not respect boundaries no matter how historic."

Scotland's former first minister Nicola Sturgeon leaves the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing, after giving evidence, at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC). The hearing is examining core UK decision-making and political governance in Scotland. Picture date: Wednesday January 31, 2024. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)
Nicola Sturgeon leaves the UK COVID-19 Inquiry hearing. (Getty)

Three more key moments from today

Sturgeon became tearful when saying a “large part” of her wishes she had not been Scotland’s first minister during the pandemic. She said: “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.”

Sturgeon also told the COVID Inquiry she regretted not locking down sooner. She added: “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.”

Meanwhile, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross told MSPs that the inquiry had shown shown Sturgeon to be a “liar” and a “fraud” as he accused the former first minister of “destroying vital evidence” by deleting WhatsApp messages.

Ross spoke out in a debate at Holyrood in which the Tories called for Sturgeon and former deputy first minister John Swinney, as well as current first minister Huzma Yousaf, to be referred to the independent adviser to consider if they have breached the ministerial code.