John Swinney has denied accusations that “political interference” played a role in the resignations of four lawyers and the chair of the Scottish Covid inquiry.
The deputy first minister also told MSPs at Holyrood on Wednesday that he could not offer a date on when the probe would begin hearing evidence from bereaved families.
Lady Poole KC, the chair of the Scottish inquiry, informed Swinney on Friday that she was stepping down from her role for personal reasons.
It was then revealed on Tuesday that four further members of the inquiry, which was established in February and is independent of the Scottish Government, had also quit.
Swinney said: “I considered carefully what I should share with members of parliament when I telephoned them on Monday evening to share the information because I was mindful of my legal obligation to respect the independence of the inquiry and the staffing matters of the inquiry are exclusively a matter for the chair of the inquiry.
“At no stage have I tried to conceal information, I have simply respected the legal framework under which I must operate.
“In relation to the sequence of events, Lady Poole e-mailed my office on Friday morning. I spoke to her within minutes of the e-mail being received and Lady Poole intimated to me her decision to step down for personal reasons.
“In the course of that call, she indicated to me that four members of counsel had resigned the previous day from the inquiry – that was news to me, as were the circumstances that led to Lady Poole’s resignation when I heard that on Friday morning.”
Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said she was concerned about a “lack of transparency” from the Scottish Government and queried what prompted the flurry of resignations.
“Some more cynical than I might say there is a pattern of secrecy here with the Government and I hope this doesn’t spill over into the inquiry itself,” she said in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.
“I am sure the DFM (deputy first minister) will agree with me that there will be huge disappointment for the families who are grieving the loss of a loved one to Covid. They deserve answers and they have been patient in waiting for the inquiry to start.”
Meanwhile, Murdo Fraser, the Covid recovery spokesperson for the Scottish Conservatives, said he had been contacted by a constituent who lost his wife to Covid and has concerns about potential delays to the Scottish inquiry.
He asked Swinney if the resignation of Lady Poole was prompted by the resignation of the four counsel members, as well as questioning whether any of the resignations had come about because of any political interference.
Swinney said he took the “greatest of exception” to Murdo’s questioning.
He said: “I have judiciously followed the contents of the Inquiries Act and particularly Section 17, which guarantees the independence of the inquiry and just for the record there has been absolutely no political interference.”
Are there two separate inquiries?
Yes, the UK-wide public inquiry, which is looking at how prepared the UK was for the coronavirus pandemic, got under way in London on Tuesday.
The UK inquiry was announced after the separate Scottish equivalent had been confirmed last December.
However, the Scottish inquiry is yet to begin and bereaved relatives say the lack of progress is “deeply worrying” and fear the last ten months may have been wasted.
Swinney will meet with families next week to discuss where the seemingly stalled Scottish inquiry goes from here.
Lawyer Aamer Anwar, representing the Scottish Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said that the inquiry had so far “failed to deliver” and “wasted” time.
Anwar issued the statement on behalf of the families, who appeared at the UK Public Inquiry’s first preliminary hearing in London.
“It is ironic and deeply worrying that the UK inquiry set up after Scotland is now under way while Scotland’s inquiry has stalled,” said Anwar.
“The first reaction of the families was dismay and anger at the delay that the Scottish chair’s resignation will cause to Scotland’s Covid-19 inquiry.
“So far it has failed to deliver on the promises made to them and it has wasted too much time.”
Anwar insisted that no institution or government ministers across the UK should be allowed to “escape” robust scrutiny.
‘I’m hoping we’ll all get the answers that we’re looking for’
The start of the UK Covid inquiry is hugely significant for Peter McMahon from Hamilton.
He travelled to London for the first preliminary hearing on Tuesday – almost two years since his wife Debbie died with Covid-19 at the age of 53.
Mr McMahon said: “(I’m feeling) emotional because it’s coming up to Debbie’s anniversary but I’m also proud to be standing here, representing her and representing all the Scottish members of our group.
“I’m just immensely proud. We’ve worked hard for this over the past two years so I’m hoping we’ll all get the answers that we’re looking for and we all fully deserve.”
What is the Scottish Government saying about the delay to the Scottish inquiry?
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “A public inquiry operates independently of ministers. As a result, the procedure, conduct and operation of the inquiry, including staffing and counsel appointments, are matters for the chair.
“The Scottish Government is keen to help ensure the excellent progress made so far by the inquiry is continued. Consequently, work to appoint a new chair is being progressed at pace.
“The Deputy First Minister has already spoken with the Lord President about arrangements for appointing a new judicial chair.
“Having advised MSPs on Monday he undertook to provide a further update to Parliament about a replacement chair at the earliest opportunity.”
How many people died with Covid-19 in Scotland?
As of September 18, 2022; 15,702 deaths had been registered in Scotland where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, according to the National Records of Scotland (NRS).
NRS figures include deaths where “suspected” or “probable” Covid-19 appears on the death certificate.