Senior health official ‘advised Humza Yousaf on how to avoid wearing mask’ during Covid crisis

A senior health official allegedly advised Humza Yousaf on how to avoid wearing a mask during the pandemic, the Covid inquiry has heard.

Scotland’s national clinical director, Professor Jason Leitch, apparently told Mr Yousaf, now first minister but then health secretary, that "literally no-one" wears a mask under official guidance as he advised him to keep a drink in his hands to get round the rules.

Messages shown to the inquiry on Tuesday reveal Mr Yousaf whatsapped Professor Leitch to ask advice on attending an event in November 2021. He wrote: “I know sitting at the table, I don’t need my mask. If I’m standing talking to folk, need my mask on? [sic]”

Professor Leitch responded: "Officially yes. But literally no-one does. Have a drink in your hands at ALL times. Then you’re exempt. So if someone comes over and you stand, lift your drink.”

At the time, Covid rules in Scotland meant someone would not have to wear a mask while they were sitting down to eat or drink, but would if they were moving around a bar or restaurant while not drinking.

First Minister Humza Yousaf (Andy Buchanan/PA) (PA Wire)
First Minister Humza Yousaf (Andy Buchanan/PA) (PA Wire)

Questioning Professor Leitch, the counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC said he gave Mr Yousaf a “work around to enable him to attend the function, not wear a mask and get out of complying with the rules”.

Responding, the national clinical director said: “No, that follows the rules. If he has a drink and it’s a drinks reception-type environment, then that follows the rules.

“I gave him advice to show him how to comply.”

When Mr Dawson pointed to the professor telling Mr Yousaf to “have a drink in your hands at ALL times”, he replied: “Having a drink in your hands means you don’t have to wear a mask.”

He added: “The nuance here is somebody approaches you because you’re the Cabinet Secretary for Health, or the national clinical director, talks to you at the table and you stand to speak to them.”

The national clinical director has also maintained that he deleted WhatsApp messages in line with the Scottish government’s policy on the use and retention of informal messaging, despite telling the inquiry last week that his WhatsApp deletion was a “pre-bed ritual”.

Jason Leitch played a key role in public health communication and awareness in Scotland during the pandemic (PA)
Jason Leitch played a key role in public health communication and awareness in Scotland during the pandemic (PA)

Asked about it on Tuesday, Professor Leitch said the comment was "slightly flippant” and "an exaggeration”.

“I didn’t daily delete my WhatsApps.

"My position is - as I have just described to you - that I tried to do today’s work today, and if I could assure myself that that work had been managed and dealt with, then I deleted the informal messaging that had led to that moment.

"But this was a flippant exaggeration in an informal messaging group, and it wasn’t done every day before I went to bed."

He then assured the inquiry that his actions were in line with Scottish government policy.

Screengrab from the inquiry showing messages between Professor Leitch and Mr Yousaf (PA)
Screengrab from the inquiry showing messages between Professor Leitch and Mr Yousaf (PA)

“As you’ve heard, the record retention policy was that you could use informal messaging systems for Scottish government business.

“If you did, you should ensure that any advice or any decisions or anything that should be in the corporate record was then placed in that corporate record by email, briefing, etc, and then you should delete the informal messaging, and that’s the guidance I followed,” he explained.

A woman who lost her brother to Covid-19 has now questioned why the national clinical director Jason Leitch is “still in a job” following these revelations.

Ms Stewart told journalists: “I would just like to say he (Prof 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?”

Ms Stewart said it was “heart-breaking” to hear the revelations in Tuesday’s evidence.

Mr Leitch is the national clinical director in the Health and Social Care Directorate, meaning he played a key role in public health communication and engagement. As such, he held some responsibility for communicating the rules and guidance to the Scottish public.

Last week, former Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon also came under fire after the inquiry heard that she had erased all messages sent and recieved during the pandemic.

The former leader of the SNP claimed previously she had never used informal messages to make decisions during the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon has since announced on twitter that she did not conduct any actions during the Covid response through Whatsapp. Posting on X, she said:

“To be clear, I conducted the COVID response through formal processes from my office in St Andrews House, not through WhatsApp or any other informal messaging platform. I was not a member of any Whatsapp groups.

“The number of people I communicated with through informal messaging at all was limited.

“Also, any handwritten notes made by me were passed to my private office to be dealt with and recorded as appropriate. Throughout the entire process, I acted in line with Scottish government policy.”