Nicola Sturgeon will be told to provide evidence to the inquiry looking into the response to the coronavirus pandemic which claimed the lives of thousands of people across the UK.
The UK Covid-19 Inquiry is to hold hearings in Scotland early next year as part of Baroness Heather Hallett’s investigation into parts of the virus response by Westminster, with Module 2a looking at the Scottish element.
On Tuesday, Jamie Dawson KC, the Scottish senior counsel to the inquiry, said the First Minister will be among politicians and officials to be issued with a Rule Nine request – a demand for a written statement which can even request other documentation and for the recipient to provide oral evidence.
Mr Dawson told the virtual hearing: “It is intended that individual rule nine requests will be issued in Module 2a to the First Minister of Scotland, the deputy first minister, and to the secretary of state to Scotland, and to multiple Cabinet secretaries of the Scottish Government who played roles in high level political and administrative decisions with which this module is concerned.”
Speaking from Edinburgh, the KC told Baroness Hallett requests had already been served to Scottish Government directorates and core participants in the inquiry would be kept informed of its progress in monthly updates.
“In addition, a proposed list of witnesses for the oral hearings will be issued to core participants in due course,” he said.
The Scottish hearings in the UK-wide inquiry will be heard from January 15 next year.
“All of those who are involved in this module are working on familiarising themselves with the issues which faced Scotland in the pandemic and the investigation of the Scottish decisions which this module involves, all within the framework of a larger UK inquiry,” he said.
“Those listening should be in no doubt this inquiry operates in Scotland, with Scotland and for Scotland.”
Two inquiries are running in parallel, with Lord Brailsford’s Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry looking into Holyrood’s response to the pandemic north of the border.
Geoffrey Mitchell KC, who is representing Scottish Ministers, told the preliminary hearing that it was only “right and proper that both the UK inquiry and the Scottish inquiry examined those issues from their own stand points”, but added it made sense to not duplicate investigative and preparatory work where possible and “where appropriate for there to be a single set of conclusions on a particular issue”.
And he added the process of collecting the documents requested for the inquiry had been “proceeding at pace now for several months”. He said: “It is going well and ministers are committed to that process.”
Claire Mitchell KC, representing the group Scottish Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, told the inquiry of the impact of Matt Hancock’s messages, which have been leaked, from the time he was running the UK’s Department for Health.
“Bereaved families across the United Kingdom have over the past few weeks watched the corrosive and unseemly drip feed of Mr Hancock’s and others WhatsApp messages played out for comment in the public arena,” she said.
“Some of the allegations contained in The Daily Telegraph are deeply unsettling to the families we represent.
She said the group was “aware of several critical press articles and unhelpful interventions by politicians in the last few weeks in relation to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry”, and added it thought the Scottish and UK inquiries were the only place for the deaths to be “robustly and transparently investigated”.
“The bereaved families believe no individual, no matter how powerful, can be allowed to interfere with the pursuit of the truth of this inquiry,” she said.
“It is only this inquiry that can deliver a legacy and uncover the full scale of what happened in every part of the United Kingdom.”
Baroness Hallett said she could not control the publication of the messages, but said the inquiry was “in the process of obtaining all relevant WhatsApp messages from all relevant groups”.
Module 2 of the inquiry will include the initial response, central government decision making, political and civil service performance as well as the effectiveness of relationships with governments in the devolved administrations and local and voluntary sectors.
It will have three strands for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with hearings held in the nations they concern.