The Scottish Government’s legacy in handling the Covid pandemic was built around public trust.

Nicola Sturgeon, pretty much daily, stood up and briefed the public on how her government was responding to the crisis.

The former first minister was widely praised for her communication with the public, playing to her strengths, very obvious in contrast to Boris Johnson’s UK Government.

Whatever opponents made of her appearing on television every day to put across her government’s message, or whatever mistakes were made in tackling the unprecedented crisis, compliance from the public was centred on trust.

The row that emerged surrounding evidence wanted by the UK Covid Inquiry that engulfed the Scottish Government last week very much risks undermining that public trust – both over the pandemic and other crucial matters being handled by ministers.

A row over WhatsApp messages sounds pretty daft at first glance.

It will come as very little surprise that people in government in every country will use unofficial channels to communicate, during the pandemic or anytime.

WhatsApp exchanges in the Scottish Government are subject to Freedom of Information laws unless exemptions apply, and they often do.

There doesn’t appear to be much evidence to suggest that ministers and officials have deleted messages to avoid the scrutiny of the UK and Scottish Covid inquiries. Saying that, if they have, we will never know.

But the biggest problem with transparency in this case is the Scottish Government instead of the inquiry deeming what evidence is relevant.

Although much of the UK Covid Inquiry is of little consequence to the pandemic in Scotland, given public health was devolved to SNP ministers, colourful WhatsApp exchanges from unelected have-a-go prime minister Dominic Cummings have shown that the narrative of the relationships in government can paint an important picture of a very unique point in time.

The Herald:
Ms Sturgeon has appeared to tie herself in knots over her WhatsApp messages amid reports she has deleted evidence.

She has insisted that she has “nothing to hide” and has done nothing wrong.

But her replacement in Bute House has done her no favours by plainly stating that he has not deleted messages and has handed them over unredacted to the inquiry.

After the reports emerged that Ms Sturgeon may have deleted evidence, the former first minister held a pre-arranged huddle with journalists at Holyrood.

But asked repeatedly whether she deleted messages, Ms Sturgeon was unable to state she had not.

She insisted that the rules of the inquiry forbade her from doing so, although the inquiry later said this was not quite the case.

When Ms Sturgeon was arrested and released without charge amid the SNP finances probe by police earlier this year, with the backdrop of a criminal investigation, the former first minister bluntly stated that she was “certain I have committed no offence” and was “innocent of any wrongdoing”. That same confidence isn’t exactly oozing from her this time.

Read more:

UnspunAnalysis: Finance committee report should be wake up call to Scottish Government

The whole episode has been jumped on by opponents who claim the Scottish Government under Ms Sturgeon and now under Mr Yousaf have something to hide.

The optics are not great. And it’s the last thing the Scottish Government needs right now.

To be clear, despite Labour climbing in the polls to be pretty much neck and neck with the SNP, the current administration is far from done.

Unlike the UK Government, the Scottish Government is not on its way out.

The Holyrood election is some way off – Labour will likely go into the 2026 election having been in government in Westminster – which could throw all sorts of shade on top of the progress Anas Sarwar has overseen.

But transparency in government matters to the public.

The Scottish Government rightly expects it of the UK Government.

In many of the public’s eyes, looking like you are hiding something gives the impression you actually are hiding something.

That is an unfair conclusion to come to, but mud sticks.

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After 16 years in government, SNP ministers have unsurprisingly upset some people for their domestic policies – be it Highland and island communities who have seen promises over ferries and dualling the A9 not followed through, whether it’s cuts to local council budgets or businesses recovering from Covid staring down extra costs and red tape.

That is not a criticism of the specific policies of the party of government, but just a fact of any government in power for a prolonged period of time.

What is clear is that if the public thinks you are hiding something and that trust is not restored, you cannot expect the public to afford you goodwill and give you the benefit of the doubt, just like the Scottish Government relied on during the pandemic.

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