Sturgeon did not breach ministerial code, Blackford says

Former first minister Alex Salmond said in evidence his successor broke ministerial rules, but stopped short of calling for her to resign.

The First Minister will give evidence to the inquiry next week. Fraser Bremner/Scottish Daily Mail/PA via PA Wire
The First Minister will give evidence to the inquiry next week.

Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code, Ian Blackford has claimed, as he refused to say if the First Minister should step down if he is proven wrong.

The SNP leader has been accused of misleading parliament over when she knew about allegations of harassment made against her predecessor, Alex Salmond.

Sturgeon told MSPs she first learned of the claims at a meeting in her home with Salmond on April 2, 2018, but it later emerged she had been told four days earlier by his former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein at a meeting in her office, which she claimed to have forgotten.

During a six-hour evidence session before the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints looking into the botched handling of claims made against him on Friday, Salmond repeatedly said, under oath, that Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, but stopped short of saying she should stand down.

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The First Minister referred herself for investigation to James Hamilton QC, an independent adviser on the ministerial code.

Despite calls for the First Minister to stand down if she is found to have breached the code, SNP Westminster leader Blackford has thrown his support behind his party leader.

“She’s made it clear on a number of occasions that she does not believe she has broken the ministerial code,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday.

“I believe that to be the case as well, this will be put to bed, and we will be able to move on from it to make sure we are dealing with the Covid crisis in the right way, and we’re having that discussion about what Scotland’s future is.

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“I and my party have full confidence in the First Minister leading us to that destination of Scotland becoming an independent country.”

He added: “Yesterday was supposed to be a seminal day in this inquiry where the former first minister was going to bring forward evidence of a conspiracy – by his own admission, there is no evidence of a conspiracy by the First Minister against him.

“I think we’ve had a number of false dawns in this whole spectacle and I do not believe under any circumstances, under any determination, that the First Minister has broken the ministerial code.”

Blackford also refused to say whether Sturgeon should resign if she is found to have broken the rules, describing the question as “hypothetical”.

“Mud has been thrown around by political opponents over the course of the last few months,” he said.

“There is no evidence that has been brought forward that the First Minister has broken the ministerial code or indeed has engaged in any kind of conspiracy.”

When asked specifically about the accusation she misled parliament over when she knew about the allegations, Blackford said there was “no recollection” of the meeting with Geoff Aberdein and she corrected the record when she remembered.

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Blackford added: “I think the public will look upon this and wonder what on earth is going on – we’re talking about a minor difference in dates for that first meeting.

“I think anybody that is in senior office… is holding multiple meetings on a daily basis, and to be able to remember in minute detail the exact date of a meeting…

“The fact is there has been no conspiracy, the First Minister has not sought to mislead anybody over this whole saga, and that will be demonstrated next week when the First Minister appears before the committee.”

Coronavirus: Majority of high school pupils return full-time

Secondary schools across Scotland start back on Monday morning following the Easter holidays.

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Coronavirus: The majority of schools return on April 19.

The majority of secondary school pupils in Scotland are returning to the classroom full-time on Monday.

Most primary and high schools across the country start back on April 19 following the Easter holidays.

High school pupils will no longer have to adhere to two-metre social distancing rules but other mitigations have been strengthened to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Face masks must be worn in all areas – classrooms, corridors and communal areas. This applies to S1-S3 pupils – not just those in the senior phase of their school education (S4-S6) – unless medically exempt.

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Furthermore, twice-weekly lateral flow tests are available for all secondary school pupils.

Pupils in Aberdeen, Fife, Dumfries and Galloway, Moray, Shetland and the Western Isles returned to the classroom last week on April 12.

Those in Edinburgh and Midlothian council areas are set to go back on Tuesday, April 20.

Only pupils who are shielding will have to wait longer until they can resume face-to-face lessons.

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Earlier this month, Nicola Sturgeon said the decision to return to in-person, full-time learning would be “a huge relief” to many children and parents.

The First Minister acknowledged that there would be some “concern and anxiety” about the move, but said safety would be “paramount”.

Scotland’s primary pupils returned to class full-time in stages during February and March, while most high school students were seeing teachers in-person on a part-time basis.

This year’s National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher exams have been cancelled, with results being awarded instead through coursework and assessments.

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Parties warned against raising ‘unrealistic expectations’ for NHS

Leading doctors said they had a 'real concern' about some of the promises political parties are making.

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Party promises: Doctors said they had a 'real concern'.

Politicians may be “raising unrealistic public expectations” about the amount of work the NHS in Scotland can do after the coronavirus pandemic, leading doctors have warned.

While the future of the health service is a key battleground in the run up to next month’s Holyrood election, doctors said they had a “real concern” about some of the promises parties are making.

Dr Lewis Morrison, the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) Scotland spoke out along with Dr Miles Mack, the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and Faculties in Scotland, also known as the Scottish Academy.

Noting that many health workers were “suffering the physical and mental impact” of working throughout the pandemic, they also called for an increased in staffing.

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Their comments come as the Scottish Conservatives promised a one-off £600m boost to to help the NHS tackle the “treatment log-jam” that has built up during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, if the SNP is re-elected its leader Nicola Sturgeon has promised work to raise NHS in-patient, day-case and out-patient activity to 10% above pre-pandemic levels within one year.

But in a joint statement Dr Morrison and Dr Mack said: “There is real concern that political parties are raising unrealistic public expectations of the potential activity of NHS in Scotland in the run up to the Holyrood election, without establishing how to create the capacity to deliver on these promises, especially in the timescales being talked about.”

The medical experts said they both fully supported “the need to urgently address the healthcare needs of patients whose assessment, investigation or treatment may have been paused or delayed as a result of the pandemic”, insisting the health service would be “continuing to do our very best to do this”.

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But they added: “This needs to be supported by an increase in capacity and workforce.

“And we cannot ignore the health and wellbeing of NHS staff who are already under severe pressure due to Covid-19 and suffering the physical and mental impact that this has had.

“In the final weeks of campaigning and when the new Scottish Government is formed, communication with the public must be realistic, and the delivery of services must be balanced with our current capacity and developed in association with NHS Scotland, the BMA, the Scottish Academy and Royal Colleges and other organisations in a position to advise on what is achievable.”


Hunt for man in balaclava who grabbed teenage girl in park

The girl was grabbed by a man wearing black clothing in Springburn Park on Saturday evening.

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Hunt: Police search for man who grabbed teenage girl.

Police are hunting a man in a balaclava who grabbed a teenage girl in a Glasgow park.

On Saturday evening around 9pm, a man dressed in black clothing grabbed the 16-year-old as she walked through Springburn Park near to the boating pond. 

The girl managed to run away from the man before contacting police. 

“Detective Sergeant Larry Dempsey at Maryhill CID said: “This was a very frightening experience for the young teenage girl and luckily she managed to run away from the suspect.

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“It is vital that we trace the man responsible and we are currently reviewing any available CCTV in area. 

“Anyone who was in Springburn Park around 9pm on Saturday, 9 April and remembers seeing a man hanging around there who was dressed in dark clothing is urged to contact police immediately.”

Anyone with information should contact police at Maryhill via telephone number 101 quoting incident number 4445 of April 17. 

Alternatively calls can be made to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 where anonymity can be maintained.


Union starts whisky firm strike ballot over pay freeze

GMB Scotland has accused Chivas Brothers of 'corporate greed' attempts to impose a pay freeze.

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Pay row: A union has started balloting whisky workers at Chivas Brothers over strike action.

A union has started balloting whisky workers at Chivas Brothers over strike action in response to “corporate greed” attempts to impose a pay freeze.

GMB Scotland said the Chivas parent company Pernod Ricard had awarded pay rises to its workers in France earlier this year.

Discussions between the union and the employer took place earlier this month through Acas – however GMB said these talks collapsed when management suggested they were unwilling to lift the pay freeze.

The ballot runs until Monday May 10, with industrial action potentially impacting the company’s Scottish operations as early as the end of that month.

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GMB Scotland represents workers across its Scottish sites, including at Kilmalid bottling hall, Strathclyde Grain Distillery, The Glenlivet Distillery, and maturation sites in Speyside, Clydebank and Ayrshire.

Union organiser Keir Greenaway said: “Despite the many challenges that have faced the whisky industry over the past year, from Brexit to the US tariffs and through a global pandemic, the efforts of Chivas workers in Scotland have kept the profits rolling in for Pernod Ricard.

“These pay negotiations were an opportunity for the company to reward the workers for their substantial efforts with a pay offer that reflects the value of their contribution to the success of the business.

“It’s not right that Chivas workers in Scotland should be treated like second-class citizens, taking real-terms cuts to their pay while their Pernod Ricard colleagues in France have rightly been awarded a pay rise.

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“This is about standing up to corporate greed in the fight for proper value, and that’s why we are now balloting our members for industrial action.”

As well as its namesake products, the company produces brands including Ballantine’s, Glenlivet, Royal Salute and Aberlour.

In a statement to the PA news agency, Chivas Brothers chairman and chief executive Jean-Christophe Coutures said: “We deeply value the hard work and commitment of our teams during this crisis, and we are proud that we have been able to navigate these unprecedented times while maintaining 100% of jobs and salaries.

“Like many others, the Covid-19 crisis has negatively impacted our business – and the wider Scotch whisky industry.

“We are the most affected business in Pernod Ricard and the export value of the Scotch whisky sector fell £1.1bn last year, its lowest level since 2010.

“In order to protect our long-term resilience while the crisis is ongoing, we took the difficult decision to implement a salary freeze across the entire business for the past financial year.

“However we have been in constructive discussions with our unions for many months to find alternative ways to reward our teams, and we believe our proposals recognise their continued hard work and dedication.

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“We are extremely disappointed that our latest offers – which have included guaranteed pay increases in 2021 and 2022 – have been rejected.”


Tories pledge £600m to clear NHS backlog in manifesto launch

Douglas Ross is promising a one-off boost to deal with the backlog exacerbated by the pandemic.

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Tories: £600m fund would help clear NHS backlog.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross will pledge a £600m fund to help clear the NHS treatment backlog as the party launches its manifesto on Monday.

The Tories are promising a one-off boost of £600m, managed by an independent task force rather than government, to deal with the backlog exacerbated by the pandemic.

They say this is on top of the extra £2bn they have already pledged for the NHS over the course of the next parliament.

The Tories say the task force should be led by clinicians and focus on making sure those with the greatest need are treated first.

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Ross is due to launch the manifesto in Glasgow on Monday, setting out plans for 15 Bills during the next session of the Scottish Parliament.

Speaking ahead of the launch, he said: “Unlike the SNP, we are not setting out a fantasy wish list. Their manifesto could easily cost in excess of £100bn in a single year.

“The Scottish Conservatives fully-costed manifesto will focus on what matters most – rebuilding our economy and our NHS after the Covid pandemic.

“Treatment times were already too long under the SNP and Covid has turned a problem into a crisis.”

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He continued: “It may require difficult choices and sacrifices in some other portfolios but we will be advocating for £600m of targeted support to tackle the treatment logjam.

“This one-off cash injection, over and above our plans to increase the health budget by at least £2bn, would give a task force of clinicians the resources they need to get treatment times under control.

“While the SNP spend the next 12 months focussing on how to get another independence referendum, the Scottish Conservatives would fixate on substantially reducing treatment wait times by the end of next year.”

Commenting ahead of the Conservatives’ manifesto launch, SNP depute leader Keith Brown said the Tories’ opposition to a second independence referendum showed the “weakness of their position”.

He said: “The Tory strategy for trying to block a referendum on independence is utterly undemocratic.

“It’s clear that Douglas Ross and his party have no route through the pandemic, no vision for recovery, no ambition, no intention of setting out a detailed plan on how they would run Scotland and offer no leadership.

“That is irresponsible and disrespectful to voters, who deserve better from the Tories than a long list of things they are against and virtually nothing about what they are for.

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“That lack of clarity betrays the weakness of their position, and their panicked obsession with the SNP shows they are running scared of the verdict of the people of Scotland in this election.”


PM cancels India trip amid concerns over new Covid variant

Boris Johnson cancelled the trip to Delhi on Monday as the pandemic worsens in the country.

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India: Trip to Delhi cancelled over coronavirus concerns.

Boris Johnson has cancelled his visit to Delhi next week, as the coronavirus crisis worsens in India and concerns grow over a new variant there.

The Prime Minister’s already-curtailed trip was scrapped altogether on Monday, with plans for him to instead speak to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi later in the month.

Downing Street issued a joint statement from the British and Indian governments.

“In the light of the current coronavirus situation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not be able to travel to India next week,” the statement said.

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“Instead, Prime Ministers Modi and Johnson will speak later this month to agree and launch their ambitious plans for the future partnership between the UK and India.

“They will remain in regular contact beyond this, and look forward to meeting in person later this year.”

It came as New Delhi entered a week-long lockdown to tackle a surge in cases to prevent a collapse of the capital’s health system.

Johnson’s visit – to foster close ties as part of Britain’s foreign policy “tilt” towards the Indo-Pacific – was first scheduled for January, but was delayed due to the UK’s winter wave of infections.

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A four-day trip was then scheduled to begin on Monday before being cut back last week to just one day in Delhi.

But Labour’s shadow communities secretary Steve Reed had been among those saying it should be cancelled altogether.

“There are new variants emerging all around the world, the Government is telling people don’t travel if you don’t have to absolutely travel and I can’t see why the Prime Minister can’t conduct his business with the Indian government by Zoom,” the MP told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday.


Coronavirus: No further deaths as 211 new cases recorded

The Scottish Government also confirmed that 2,744,231 Scots have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

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Covid-19: The fight to stop the spread of the deadly virus goes on.

There have been 211 new cases of Covid-19 recorded in the last 24 hours, the Scottish Government has confirmed.

However, there have been no new deaths from people who have tested positive for the virus.

The death toll of those who tested positive stands at 7642, however weekly figures on suspected Covid-19 deaths recorded by National Records of Scotland suggest the most up-to-date total is now more than 10,000.

The daily test positivity rate is 1.6%, up from the 1.2% reported on Saturday.

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The Scottish Government also confirmed that 2,744,231 Scots have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

A total of 738,420 people have received their second dose.


UK scientists ‘must learn’ about Indian Covid variant

Seventy-seven cases have been detected in the UK, including four in Scotland and 73 in England.

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Scientists urged to speed up Indian variant analysis.

UK scientists must urgently learn as much as possible about the Indian Covid-19 variant, a leading epidemiologist has warned.

Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said as much information about the new variant must be gathered “as quickly as possible”.

He said: “What’s concerning about the Indian variant is there appear to be two mutations which… may make the vaccines less effective, and may make the virus more transmissible.”

According to the latest update, 77 confirmed cases of the B.1.617 variant, which was first discovered in India, have been detected in the UK, including four in Scotland and 73 in England.

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However, UK environment secretary George Eustice said there is no evidence that the Indian variant of coronavirus is able to “get around” the vaccine.

He said: “The last I think I saw… there were around 70 cases. But I think I’ve seen lots of different numbers on different variants – you’ll appreciate, there is quite a few – so it is a fairly small number at the moment. But it is something that we are watching.

“I’m told that there is no evidence at the moment that this particular variant is able to get around the vaccine, for instance, or indeed that it is necessarily more contagious than the others,” he told Sky News On Sunday.

Dr Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace added: “We have seen a couple of cases [of the Indian variant] that haven’t arisen from travel but we’re still trying to undergo the investigations to look in great detail at where they might have acquired it from.

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“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it is increased transmissibility, increased severity or vaccine evading, and we just don’t have that yet.”


‘Life is on hold’: Mum’s plea two years on from son’s murder

Tony Ferns died after being assaulted in his Audi A3 in Thornliebank during 2019.

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Appeal: Tony Ferns died with his mother Phyllis watching on.

A mother has said her “life is on hold” as she made an appeal for information two years on from her son’s murder in Glasgow.

Tony Ferns was in his Audi A3 in Crebar Street, Thornliebank, on Thursday April 18, 2019, when a man approached and assaulted him.

The 33-year-old managed to make it home with serious injuries to Roukenburn Street, where paramedics fought to save his life.

However Mr Ferns died with his mother Phyllis watching on.

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A murder inquiry was launched and more than 600 people have been spoken to as officers examined thousands of hours of CCTV footage.

Two years on, his mother has appealed to members of the public for help, saying: “I cannot believe it is now two years since my son Tony was brutally murdered and taken away from me forever.

“My life is on hold. I have not been able to move on or accept the fact I won’t see my boy again.

“I need closure. I need the person or persons responsible to be prosecuted.

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“I appeal and plead with anyone who has any information to contact police or Crimestoppers.”

Crimestoppers is also offering a reward of up to £10,000 for information which assists the investigation into Mr Ferns’ murder.

Detective Chief Inspector Gillian Grant, who is now leading the inquiry, said: “I am determined to find whoever is responsible for Tony’s murder. It’s clear he was a much-loved son and partner and is deeply missed by his family.

“I am convinced there are people out there who have information, vital to this investigation, who have failed to come forward.

“This may be down to fear or some misplaced loyalty to those responsible for this horrific crime, but please do the right thing and contact us, you can be assured your information will be treated in the utmost confidence.

“Phyllis had to watch her son, Tony, suffer and die, something no mother should have to go through.

“Put yourself in her shoes and think how she must feel, does she not deserve to know why her son was murdered and taken from her? Please help us find answers for a mother who deserves to know the truth.”

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Anyone with information is asked to call Police Scotland via 101, quoting incident number 4732 of 18 April 2019, or call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 where you can give your information anonymously.


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