Nicola Sturgeon has responded to claims that she made “unhelpful and confusing” public statements during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Hancock claimed that Ms Sturgeon was prone to going public “sooner than agreed” with decisions that had been made in private. He also said that the former SNP leader put a “spin” on announcements that caused him “frustration”.
A spokesman for Ms Sturgeon, who was first minister and SNP leader from 2014 until earlier this year, suggested that Mr Hancock’s claims were baseless and issued a rebuke to the former Conservative minister.
They said: “There is not a scrap of evidence for Matt Hancock’s claims. He should be taking responsibility for his own decisions – as Nicola will do when she gives evidence to the inquiry early next year – rather than seeking to blame others.
“Nicola communicated openly and frankly with the people of Scotland on a daily basis. It was her duty in the grave situation we faced to take and communicate clearly the decisions necessary to protect the country as far as possible. She was accountable to the Scottish people in discharging that duty, not to Matt Hancock.”
The inquiry was shown WhatsApp messages sent by Mr Hancock in July 2020.
They concerned measures imposed by the UK Government, which ordered people returning from Spain to isolate for 14 days afterwards to help slow the spread of the virus.
Prior to the announcement, Mr Hancock was told No 10 wanted to communicate the matter “asap”, and the former health secretary replied: “Me too. It will leak anyway – and the Scots will try to get their announcement out first.”
‘Difficult when decisions went to first minister level’
He was asked by Claire Mitchell, representing Scottish Covid Bereaved at the inquiry: “What is the issue with the first minister communicating that to the people of Scotland first?”
Mr Hancock said: “There were a number of moments when the first minister of Scotland would communicate in a way that was unhelpful and confusing to the public. Sometimes, [she] would leave a meeting and begin communication of a decision, for instance, sooner than agreed.”
Mr Hancock added: “We found it much more difficult when decisions went up to first minister level, particularly with Nicola Sturgeon. Because we would find that sometimes some kind of spin was put on what was essentially substantively the same decision. So it was a frustration, I’ve got to be honest about that.”
Mr Hancock told the Covid Inquiry he had a “constructive relationship” with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that their weekly briefings felt like “therapy sessions”.