Covid bereaved families pile pressure on Jason Leitch to quit

Scotland's national clinical director is facing calls to be sacked after it emerged he deleted WhatsApp messages during the pandemic.

Scotland’s national clinical director is facing pressure to quit his role after it emerged he deleted WhatsApp messages and gave Humza Yousaf advice on how to remain exempt from mask-wearing rules.

A woman who lost her brother to Covid-19 has questioned why Jason Leitch is “still in a job” after the comments became public.

On Tuesday, Leitch told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish Government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging.

The inquiry also heard that, in November 2021, Leitch gave current FM Yousaf, who was health secretary at the time, advice on how to remain exempt from wearing a mask at a function by holding a drink.

Speaking at a press conference outside the inquiry venue at Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Caroleanne Stewart, of Scottish Covid Bereaved, asked why Leitch was “still in a job”.

Stewart, whose brother died from Covid-19 in 2020, told journalists: “I would just like to say he (Leitch) was a very confident man, but when he left, he wasn’t so confident because he was caught out, not only by King’s Counsel and the judge, and we are very grateful for that.

“I would like him to be answering: why are people still dying from Covid in hospitals (and) in care settings?

“If he’s still in that job, let him answer that question: what is he doing now to stop the death from Covid-19?”

Jason Leitch has been giving evidence at the UK Covid Inquiry, which is currently sitting in Edinburgh.

Stewart said it was “heartbreaking” to hear the revelations in Tuesday’s evidence.

She added: “I was once one of the ones sat at home, listening to the podium every morning and saying: ‘Oh my god, thank god we’re not in England’.

“I trusted them, I felt him and Nicola Sturgeon were honest and trying to be open with us and to find out that was all just a facade, I don’t understand how they can hold their head up high.

“I don’t understand how they are still in a job. That’s our money. We voted (for) these people and they shouldn’t be there, none of them should be there.”

The Scottish Covid Bereaved group is represented by solicitor Aamer Anwar, who said “fundamental questions remain” over when and why WhatsApps were destroyed by officials.

He said: “We appreciate in recent days there are those who have developed selective amnesia on the promises made by the Scottish Government, but there is no conspiracy, no smear, it is by her own words that the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon is being judged.

“Let me make it clear, we act without fear or favour, the bereaved fight to give the many thousands who lost their lives to Covid a voice, and to ensure that there is a legacy, that can only happen if they have the truth.”

Aamer Anwar said he has been asked to consider filing a criminal complaint over the deletion of WhatsApps by Scottish Government officials.

He added: “The Scottish Covid Bereaved are entitled to know why our politicians have not been forthcoming about what materials they hold, and so much has been destroyed.

“Our clients have asked for the consideration of a criminal complaint and a formal complaint to the Information Commissioner Officer who already has serious concerns. We will take all necessary steps once the evidence is completed.”

As the UK Covid Inquiry was hearing from officials in Edinburgh, the deputy first minister was taking questions at Holyrood over the Scottish Government’s WhatsApp deletion policy.

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie called for Leitch to be sacked.

She said: “The national clinical director, Jason Leitch, who helped to shape the Covid regulations, was advising the current First Minister how to avoid the rules.

“And Nicola Sturgeon, who promised transparency, has alongside John Swinney and senior civil servants deleted WhatsApp messages on an industrial scale.

“Whether messages were deleted nightly or weekly, it is clear that Jason Leitch wiped his messages completely and seemed to find the period during the pandemic all quite funny judging from the messages we have seen.

“If the Scottish Government agrees that his behaviour was inappropriate then it is time Leitch was sacked.”

Jackie Baillie
Jackie Baillie said Jason Leitch must be sacked.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton described the WhatsApp row as “perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of devolution”.

He told MSPs: “The deputy first minister talks about lessons being learned by this inquiry. Right now tens of thousands of Covid bereaved families are looking to this inquiry for answers and those lessons.

“But these are answers and lessons that may be forever denied because, despite assurance made to this parliament and to the national media, it seems Nicola Sturgeon never had any intention of passing her WhatsApp messages – messages that would have shown the culture and the calculation behind her pandemic response – to the inquiry she knew was sure to follow.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is committed to responding to both the UK and Scottish Covid-19 inquiries, as learning lessons from the pandemic is vital to prepare for the future.

“It would be inappropriate to comment on the detail of evidence being considered by the UK Covid Inquiry while hearings are ongoing.”

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