Jason Leitch told Humza Yousaf to “have a drink in your hands at all times” to avoid wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, the UK Covid Inquiry has heard.
The national clinical director told the then-health secretary that “literally no one” wore a mask while standing in an indoor setting – despite it being official guidance.
The WhatsApp exchange was shown to the Inquiry, which is currently holding hearings in Edinburgh.
In the messages, Yousaf asked for clarity on face coverings in social settings.
On November 19, 2021, the now-First Minister said: “I know sitting at the table, I don’t need my mask. If I’m standing talking to folk, need my mask on? [sic]”
Leitch responded: “Officially yes. But literally no one does. Have a drink in your hands at ALL times. Then you’re exempt. So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”
Questioning Prof Leitch, the counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC said he gave Yousaf a “work around to enable him to attend the function, not wear a mask and get out of complying with the rules”.
Responding, the national clinical director said: “No, that follows the rules.
“If he has a drink and it’s a drinks reception-type environment, then that follows the rules.
“I gave him advice to show him how to comply.”
When Mr Dawson pointed to the professor telling Yousaf to “have a drink in your hands at ALL times”, he replied: “Having a drink in your hands means you don’t have to wear a mask.”
He added: “The nuance here is somebody approaches you because you’re the cabinet secretary for health, or the national clinical director, talks to you at the table and you stand to speak to them.”
In July of 2021, the then first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced most coronavirus restrictions would be lifted, with masking indoors continuing, including in nightclubs – which would be reopening following a period of closure.
But after outcry from the hospitality industry, the final guidance was amended, removing the need to wear a mask in clubs and people were allowed to drink in pubs while standing.
Prof Leitch went on to say there was “nuance” in the rules as lockdown was easing during that period, with this being one such situation.
Asked, if Yousaf could not understand the rules – how was the public supposed to?; the adviser admitted regulations around the specific situation the then-health secretary was asking about were “tricky” during that period.
The Inquiry also heard that previous comments made by Leitch that he deleted WhatsApp messages during the pandemic as a “pre-bed ritual” was a “flippant exaggeration”.
He told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry: “I didn’t daily delete my WhatsApp. My position is… that I tried to do today’s work today and if I could assure myself that work had been managed and dealt with, then I would delete the informal messaging that had led to that moment.
“But this was a flippant exaggeration in an informal messaging group and it wasn’t done every day before I went to bed.”
Jason Leitch told Humza Yousaf ‘always hold a drink to avoid coronavirus mask rule’
Leith maintained he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish Government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.
He said: “As you’ve heard, the record retention policy was that you could use informal messaging systems for Scottish Government business.
“If you did, you should ensure that any advice or any decisions or anything that should be in the corporate record was then placed in that corporate record by email, briefing, etc, and then you should delete the informal messaging, and that’s the guidance I followed.”
Chair of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Lady Hallett asked Leitch: “There might be a suggestion that some of the messages – some of the people wanted to delete messages to avoid the messages being the subject of a freedom of information request. That would be wrong, wouldn’t it?”
Leitch said: “Yes.”
Lady Hallett said: “When the Scottish Covid Inquiry was announced, did you seek any advice about deleting messages, or did you continue to delete messages in accordance with the policy as you saw it?”
Leitch said: “I continued to follow the guidance as I saw it.”
Lady Hallett asked: “You didn’t seek any help as to whether you should, given that there would be a judge who had the right to demand production of documents and information?”
Leitch replied: “I received advice from the Scottish Government, every time new advice came, which I think the inquiry has emails from the director general for corporate, as time passed, from both this inquiry and the Scottish inquiry, and I continued to follow that guidance.”
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