John Swinney has been warned against the “usual SNP secrecy and cover-up” after refusing to explain why the chairman and four senior lawyers resigned en masse from Scotland’s Covid public inquiry.
The Deputy First Minister said he wanted the inquiry to be “delivered at speed” but gave MSPs no indication about when replacements would be appointed or when it would finally start.
Answering an urgent question at Holyrood, he disclosed that Lady Poole resigned as chairman the day after three junior counsel and Douglas Ross KC, the lead counsel.
But he refused to provide any further details of the reasons for their sudden departure, even claiming that by doing so he would breach the laws that govern independent public inquiries.
Mr Swinney angrily insisted there had been “absolutely no political interference” in the inquiry, which will examine SNP ministers’ decisions during the pandemic, and rejected suggestions of a “pattern of secrecy”.
However, bereaved families of Covid victims reacted with dismay, saying they already feel “failed” by the inquiry. The UK version is up and running and started to take evidence this week.
‘A blow to all the families waiting for justice’
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, said: “These worrying resignations will come as a blow to all the families waiting for justice, but the Deputy First Minister failed to answer key questions about the likely delay, when families affected will be seen in person, what the costs are likely to be and why the lack of transparency.
“His arrogant and dismissive attitude is an insult to those worrying about the progress of this vital inquiry. We cannot afford delays when we need to learn the lessons of the pandemic and find out what went so tragically wrong.”
She added: “We need the highest standards of transparency and honesty throughout this inquiry – not the usual SNP secrecy and cover-up.”
The inquiry has 12 strands, each covering a strategic element of the handling of the pandemic “to identify lessons to be learned and recommendations as soon as practicable”.
They include the controversial decision by SNP ministers at the start of the pandemic to move elderly hospital patients into care homes without them recording a negative test.
It was supposed to run alongside the UK-wide public inquiry and cover the period from Jan 1 2020 to Dec 31 last year. However, it is yet to hold an evidence session or set out the parameter of its investigation.
Chair resigned ‘for personal reasons’
Lady Poole, a Senator of the College of Justice of Scotland, was named as the chair last December. She handed in her resignation “for personal reasons” last Friday and offered to assist with the transition to her successor for up to three months.
Mr Swinney has approached Lord Carloway, Scotland’s most senior judge and the Lord President of the Court of Session, about a replacement.
Ms Baillie used her urgent question to express concern that Mr Swinney “never mentioned the resignation of four senior and junior counsel when he hosted the cross-party briefing meeting on Monday”, adding that “not a word passed his lips”.
The Deputy First Minister replied: “At no stage have I tried to conceal information, I’ve simply respected the legal framework under which I must operate.”
But Alan Wightman, whose 88-year-old mother Helen died in May 2020 during a Covid outbreak at her Fife care home, expressed his disappointment.
Mr Wightman, who leads the Scottish chapter of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, told the BBC bereaved families had met Lady Poole in January but “we were left with the distinct impression it was a tick-box exercise”.
He added: “There’s been absolutely nothing - zero - ever since from Lady Poole and that doesn’t fit with the promise that was made to us to be front and centre of the process.”
Lawyer Aamer Anwar, acting for the group, said there was “dismay and anger” and called the inquiry a “sinking ship”.